Change Of Heart - Part Three
Standing behind the pilot and captain, Omrond watched the sea go by. Looking out over the water, she stared at a point far beyond the bow. A point as yet unseen. A point that would put her on solid ground once more and leave her to judge her own destiny, something she had not had to do in a very long time.
Below Omrond's line of sight, leaning against the side a paler than normal with a distinct greenish hue Gabrielle jabbed her wrist as lunch tried to make an encore appearance. Around her, the crew went about their business of keeping the ship asail and didn't seem to be paying much attention to the queasy blonde, which was fine with her. Misery may have loved company, but a bard on the verge of barfing did not. The only reason she'd come on deck was to keep from having to smell the crew's dinner being cooked and the general stench that went with transporting horses on a boat. This left the warrior to take care of the horses, but Argo and the gelding didn't seem to mind. After their weeks in the desert, the strange and unusual had become the norm and it was only with mild interest that they watched bundles of hay and buckets of water float through the air.
Xena walked through the closed hatchway from below and hummed to herself as she took the short steps to come on deck. Fresh air and sunlight abounding, she paused to let them shake off their danker, darker counterparts as she searched the clear sky above. The two days since leaving Icosium had been uneventful, just the way she liked it and with the winds out of Africa to keep the sails full, they'd reach Gaul in another three or four if the weather held out, and barring tidal waves, of course. Chuckling with the memory, the warrior then shook her head when she spied Gabrielle in her usual spot clinging to the side for all she was worth and looking very much the color of the sea thaw was turning her stomach inside out. "I can fix that." She said with a smile, but didn't move to join the bard. Rather, she turned and went up the other set of steps to the quarterdeck where she knew she'd find Omrond. Just as Gabrielle had her preferred spot, the Denantu did also and she was more dependable than the bard because Gabrielle actually moved from hers every once in a while. Omrond, on the other hand, had been standing on the quarterdeck day and night since coming aboard, which Xena thought was a little odd. Staring the way she did, the warrior would have expected her to choose the bow instead of the aft for an unobstructed view of where they were going, but she didn't and there she stood as straight and solid as the mast. "Do you think the weather will hold out?"
"I do not know the sea, but I hope so." Omrond smiled and lowered her gaze to the bard. "I do not believe Gabrielle would be happy if it did not."
The warrior let out a half chuckle/half sigh and leaned against the back railing. "Yep, boats and water don't mix well with Gabrielle's stomach. I think it has something to do with the fact that they're all three moving at the same time that bothers her." She said with a smirk and an ocean motion with her hand.
"You do not seem to be very concerned for her distress." The Denantu chided through her smile.
"Distress? Nah." She waved off the notion and pushed off the rail. "She'll be fine. She just needs to get her mind off the problem and get some shut eye. All that hurling wears her out." Adding a confident nod to her assurance, Xena patted Omrond on the shoulder. "I'll take care of this. She'll be as good as new in the morning."
Omrond looked doubtful as the warrior walked away.
Bouncing down the steps, the warrior strolled over to her seasick partner. "Everything come out alright?" She asked, looking over the side. "Guess so."
Gabrielle wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "I hate boats." Leaning heavily on the railing, she hung her head.
"Well, by the looks of it," Xena replied with another glance over the side, "I'd say the feeling's mutual."
"I hate you." Casting a glare the warrior's way, Gabrielle saw one of the crew give her a strange look and she glared at him. "What are you staring at? Haven't you ever seen anybody throw up before?"
"Temper, temper, Gabrielle." Shaking her head, she waggled a no-no' finger. "It's not their fault and you'll be happy to know I have a cure for your seasickness."
"I've heard that before." The bard grumbled. "I've been jabbing my wrist all day. Look at it." Holding out her arm, she showed off the bruise she'd made.
Xena looked at the bruise and smiled. "Nasty." Lifting her eyes to Gabrielle's blood shot ones. "It's better than that."
Raising up a smidgen, Gabrielle eyed her partner speculatively. "What are you going to do? Drug me like you did the last time?"
"Nope." Another shake of the head and Xena straightened. Placing an it's for me to know and you to find out' look on her face, she clasped her hands behind her back. "Better."
The look was the bait and the bard knew it, but her curiosity was piqued and her stomach was doing acrobatics, so what did she have to lose? "What?" She asked hesitantly because with Xena, sometimes the cure was worse than the cause.
Emitting a soft wicked chuckle, the warrior leaned over to whisper in Gabrielle's ear as one hand came from behind her back.
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as she listened, then she spun around and slapped the hand that pinched her butt. "Xena!" Growling low, she looked around at the crew who were now paying attention to her. Smiling weakly, she gave them a nod and a little wave, then ducked her head to scratch the back of her neck as her eyes found the warrior again.
Backing up slowly, Xena flicked her eyebrows. "It's guaranteed."
Looking to either side, the bard slowly dropped her hand and began to edge her way forward with a secretive smile on her lips. "Hehehe. I uh . . . I think I'm going to go now." She told the crew as she turned around to walk backwards. "Too much fresh air. It's not good for the digestion." Swatting at the hand on her behind, she shrugged, smiled weakly, waved and swatted again. "I'll just be in my cabin . . . if anybody needs me. Xena, stop it. Hehehe." Scratching her head to hide her blush, Gabrielle turned and followed Xena down the stairs.
From her position on the quarterdeck, Omrond watched the proceedings with a curious smile at the apparent cure Xena proposed.
According to Xena, the cabin wasn't big enough for a rat to find its ass, but it
sufficed to hold their belongings, their discarded clothes and the hammock she laid
snuggled behind Gabrielle in. Rocking gently with the roll of the ship, she tenderly ran
her fingertips through soft blonde hair as she listened to Gabrielle breathe over the
murmuring creaks of the timbers. "What are you thinking?" She whispered.
Gabrielle smiled and turned her head to gaze up at the warrior. "I was thinking how much I could learn to like boats."
"Is that so?" The warrior asked with raised eyebrows and a knowing smile to reflect the bard's satisfied one.
"Umm." Closing her eyes, she snuggled into Xena's shoulder. "I could get used to this."
"Hmmm." Xena mused and placed a kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. "I think after this mission, we should take a break for awhile. Find someplace where we don't have to watch our backs all the time."
The bard opened her eyes. "Where's that?"
The warrior's chin came to rest on the bard's bare shoulder as she thought aloud. "I don't know. Home, maybe."
"Home." Gabrielle said as a sigh. "That'd be a nice change."
Lifting her head, Xena studied Gabrielle's expression. "You're tired of the road, aren't you?" She asked quietly.
Shrugging with another sigh, the bard turned her head to stare at the wall. "It's not that.."
Knowing there was something more, the warrior leaned over to see the bard's face better. "What is it, Gabrielle? Do you want to quit?"
"No, I like what we do and you know me, Xena." Shaking her head. "I don't mind the traveling around, I just . . ."
"You just want something besides a set of saddle bags and bedroll as a place to call home." Xena finished for her.
Turning her head again, Gabrielle shook it again as she stared into blue eyes. "You're my home, Xena." Whispering, she brought her hand from beneath the cover to caress the warrior's cheek. "As long as I'm with you, I'll always be home."
Xena frowned in her confusion. "Then what is it, Gabrielle?"
"I think it's this mission." She said honestly. "Looking at Omrond . . . the way she stands there and stares . . . I think she's making me homesick."
The confusion lifted and the warrior smiled. "She got to you, too, huh?"
"Yes." The bard conceded. "I know it isn't any better than most of the places we've been, but I want to go home so bad it hurts."
"Then it's settled." Xena nodded. "Once we get the sword back where it belongs, we'll go home and see what we can do to ruin Ares' day. I'm sure he's been up to something while we've been gone." Sneering at the idea of what the God of War could come up with when left unchecked for too long. "I shudder to think." She shuddered.
"Ares comes after we take a break." Gabrielle threw in a stipulation. "Unless he's got the Athenians fighting the Spartans again. Then we'll take a break after, but only if he's started a major war."
Rolling her eyes downward, the warrior saw a determined glint in Gabrielle's green eyes. "You're the one with the chakram. I'm just going along for moral support."
"Sure you are, Xena." Sending her eyes for a spin with a disbelieving tone. "You're just going to stand there and watch me fight, right?"
Nodding fervently, Xena tried to hide her smile.
"You're not going to get in there and kick butt, now that Omrond's showed you how to make yourself solid?" She asked, completely unconvinced.
Shaking her head fervently, she was losing the battle with her smile.
"So, no mysterious punches coming out of nowhere? No mysterious floating swords? No bad guys mysteriously flying though the air?" Turning to lay more on her back as she asked, Gabrielle stared at Xena the way she'd stared at the ships captain. "No arrows mysteriously stopping in mid air an inch from my face?"
Xena slapped her hand over her mouth and shook her head. "Nope." She lied through her teeth and between her fingers.
"You're so full of it, Xena." The bard chuckled and shoved the warrior's shoulder. "You can't wait to get in there and bust heads."
"Awwe, come on, Gabrielle." Dropping her hand, the warrior revealed her grin. "I won't hog them all and can't you just see their faces when I throw a couple of punches in here and there. They really won't know what hit em." Peppering the air with her fist. "Ha!"
Gabrielle groaned. "I can see it alright. They're going to start calling me the Battling Witch of Potidea when you start tossing thugs around."
Sucking in her bottom lip, Xena looked down at Gabrielle and let her lip slip out slowly into a pout. "I'll make it up to you."
Back to the land of disbelief, the bard sighed. "How?"
The pout spread into a smile. "I'll give you one of these for every thug I toss." She said as she lowered her head so that her lips were barely touching the base of Gabrielle's neck and moving them upward, brushed them lightly up and over the curve of her chin to place a meaningful kiss on doubting lips. "How's that?"
"Not bad . . . for a start." She licked her bottom lip and flicked her eyebrows. "That's worth a punch."
"A punch?" Xena's eyebrows went together and up. "Is that all? A measly punch?"
"It's my reputation we're talking about." Her voice a tad husky, Gabrielle snaked her hand behind Xena's neck for her fingers to get lost in long dark hair. "I think I deserve to be compensated accordingly, don't you?"
"Compensated accordingly, huh?" The warrior eyed her partner warily as a sultry sly smile began to form. "Alright, then. Tell me what's this worth?" Rubbing her leg against the bard's, her lips descended again to pick up where they left off as her hand slipped beneath the covers. Letting her fingers dally over soft supple skin, she deepened the kiss until she elicited a low moan from Gabrielle, then she raised her head, slowly breaking the kiss.
The bard had to take a moment to collect her thoughts from the reaches Xena had scattered them. "A kick." A tad more husky than before.
"Now we're getting somewhere." Still with the slyness in her smile, then she arched an eyebrow with a thought. "You know, Gabrielle. I just thought of something. If I have to compensate you for every skill I have . . . this could take all night."
"I know." She whispered as she gently pulled the warrior down into a passionate kiss.
Gabrielle made a miraculous recovery from her seasickness, although she did seem to be spending a lot of time in the cabin with Dr. Xena on the case, as the case may be, but every once in awhile they would emerge to take care of the horses, to check on the ship's progress, for Gabrielle to eat and for Xena to talk to Omrond.
In amongst casual conversation, the warrior made several attempts to feel Omrond out for what her attitude was on going home and, at length, told of the details which had led to making that decision for herself. She spoke of what she'd done to Hercules and Iolaus, and of how the plan had gone awry, and how by doing so, her life had been changed forever. Then, with a mixture of emotions, Xena retold the story of her journey home to Amphipolis, of coming across Draco's army as it attacked Potidea and how a naive, gutsy, chatterbox of a girl named Gabrielle had followed her, saved her from being stoned by her own towns people, and when she had gone to visit her brother's tomb in despair afterwards, had set their fate in motion with three little words. "You're not alone." From then on, even when Xena knew in her heart that Gabrielle would be better off without her, she could never leave her. She always came back to the smile, the faith, the friendship and the love that by a seemingly single coincidental stroke of fate had brought their lives to where they were supposed to be, and would remain forever. Together.
"Well?" Gabrielle asked when the warrior approached her.
"We'll make Gaul tomorrow morning." Xena told her partner.
The bard rolled her eyes. "Not that. Omrond? Is she coming with us?"
Glancing over her shoulder at the Denantu, the warrior sighed. "No. I've tried, Gabrielle, but she's not ready to go home yet." Bringing her gaze back around, she shrugged. "It's gonna take time. She did say we could burn her remains and take the ashes to the forest, but we're not supposed to give them to the Denantu. We just leave the urn somewhere and give them the sword without mentioning her having anything to do with getting it back to them."
This time Gabrielle closed her eyes. "That isn't right, Xena." She said with quiet conviction.
"I know, but it's what she wants, Gabrielle." Xena smiled sadly. "If you tell them about Omrond, you're going to have to tell them the whole story. Listen, she can't change what she did and she's not trying to hide it, either. All she's trying to do is get the sword back where it belongs and she thinks she's doing them a favor by not spoiling the memories they have of their ancestors. As far as she's concerned, she's the only one who should have to live with the truth."
Nodding despite her disagreement, the bard opened her eyes to look past Xena to where Omrond stood watching the horizon and it reminded her of the last time she'd seen that far away look in sad dark eyes. "The forgotten truth."
By the time the ship sailed into the small harbor with the morning tide and tied off dockside, Gabrielle and Xena had Argo saddled, and loaded with their gear. Going off as easily as she'd gone on, the mare was led down the gang plank to be followed by the gelding carrying Omrond's skeleton and what was left of the supplies. As her remains went, so did the Denantu and she hesitated for only a moment at the bottom of the gang plank before stepping onto the dock. From there she trailed the pair as they walked out of the village and mounted the gelding when it came time to ride.
All the while Omrond stayed with them, Xena and Gabrielle hoped she would change her mind, but as the day wore on with the Denantu quieter than usual, they knew she wouldn't. It was too much too soon. They had brought her this far and she had given them a map showing the way to the forest of Dena, but it was up to Omrond to find her own way home. And as she believed it was better to be forgotten, as the flames turned her bones to ashes, Omrond bowed her head and silently faded out of sight.
"Is she . . .?"
"She's gone, Gabrielle." I guess she didn't show me every trick in the book after all.
The map Omrond had made on the journey to Icosium was eleven hundred years out of date before the ink had dried on the parchment, but as the centuries had changed the small details she had labored to remember by erasing villages, relocating others, destroying landmarks and shifting borders, the overall picture she had drawn was still the same and easy for Xena to recognize.
From the lay of the land as it was mapped out, her own infamous past and the descriptions Omrond had given her, the warrior shook her head as she tapped the thick line meandering through the map. "The good news is I don't need the map to get us this far. That's the Rhine."
Gabrielle looked up from the parchment. "What's the bad news?"
Moving her finger to the right, the warrior tapped a small dot. "This is the forest of Dena and this," she said, moving her finger away from the dot to make a large circle around it, "is hundreds of square miles of forest that looks just like the forest we'll be looking for. It'll be a needle in a haystack or we can't see the forest of Dena for the trees. Take your pick."
Lowering her eyes, the bard followed Xena's finger as it made another circle. "We could be searching for months."
"Maybe not." Xena traced her finger back to the river, then back to their destination and sat back. "I'll have to check the map as we go to see how close to scale Omrond got it, but everything looks like it's in the right place and if it is . . . . I think I might know where the forest of Dena is."
The bard chuckled to herself as she glanced at her partner. "Let me guess. You hid an army there once? Or you were taken in by the Denantu when you were hurt and they nursed you back to health? Or is this another Rhine maiden story?"
The warrior's expression went blank for a moment, then her upper lip started to curl into a sneer. "When I was on my way back from Chin alone and unhurt, before I came across Odin or knew what a Rhine maiden was, I saw a hunting party in the forest. I only caught a glimpse of them before they disappeared, but they were wearing the same kind of cloak Omrond had."
The three fingers Gabrielle put over her lips to hide her smile did a very poor job. "I was just checking."
As they made their way northward out of Gaul, summer was all but gone and the blistering heat that had motivated them to travel at night in Africa was welcomed warmth during the day as autumn began to make its presence known early when the rolling hills of the coast gave way to mountainous terrain. They kept to the lower elevations so the ride was steady going, but slower than the pace needed to be. By her estimations, Xena thought they should reach the Rhine in less than a month if they could pick up the pace. That would put them well ahead of the snow when they started into the forest, but the problem was two-fold. One, time wasn't on their side. The summer was slipping away and the days were going to start to get shorter, which would cut down how long they could travel each day and two, towing the gelding was slowing them down. They couldn't do anything about the first problem, but the second one they could.
Born and bred to fly across the desert sands like the wind, the gelding was going to be on unfamiliar footing where they were headed. Nevertheless his quiet presence had become almost habit forming, like Omrond's had, and rather than sell him when the extra supplies ran out, Gabrielle used the last of the money they had to buy another set of tack under the premise they could make better time if they each had their own horse, instead of facing the fact they couldn't bring themselves to part with him. Then came the question of who was going to ride which horse and without putting up a fuss, Gabrielle handed Argo's reins to Xena. "I'll take him."
"Gabrielle, you don't have to do that." Xena shook her head. "He's a quick learner. Give me a day and I'll have him trained to take my commands even though he can't feel he has somebody in the saddle."
The bard shook her head in return. "Xena, you said it yourself. We don't have time to spare and Argo knows you already. You won't have to train her, so take her." Pushing the reins in the warrior's direction.
"Gabrielle." The warrior made one last pitch.
"Take her. Argo is your horse, Xena." She said with a warm smile and a wink. "She always has been and she always will be."
Xena looked down at the pair of reins in each hand and sighed. "If I find out you're doing this because you feel sorry for me . . ."
"Xena, I have never felt sorry for you and besides," Gabrielle flicked her eyebrows as she took the gelding's reins, "I think he's faster than Argo."
Blinking at the absurdity of the idea, the warrior straightened to her full height. "Is that so?"
"Yep." The bard smiled as she tossed the reins over the gelding's neck. "And he's cuter, too." The gelding nickered as Gabrielle swung into the saddle and tossed his head. "We're ready."
Without another word, Xena turned around and slung the reins over Argo's neck as she climbed into the saddle. Adjusting her seat, she took a firm grasp on the reins. "See if you and Cutie-pie there can keep up."
"Right behind ya." She smiled smugly.
"We'll see about that. Sheeya!" Digging in her heels, the warrior spun Argo around and shot away at a full gallop.
"Sometimes it's just too easy." Gabrielle chuckled as she gave the gelding two short kicks to the ribs.
The gelding reared, then lunged forward into an all out gallop.
"Yea! Let's go get her."
And so the race was on against each other and the elements. Built for stamina as well as speed, the time they lost towing the gelding as a pack horse was soon made up as they pushed both horses and began to put Gaul behind them with each passing day. They continued to skirt the mountains, using the lower slopes of the valleys to maintain a fast pace as they wound their way around and through the ranges separating Gaul from the Rhine valley. Above them, the white caps on the distant peaks began to descend ever so slowly and were watched carefully to judge their timetable for reaching the river before the snow reached them.
As Gaul became a memory, the Rhine followed suit and eight days after crossing the bridge Julius Caesar had built, Xena and Gabrielle were drawing closer to the area the warrior had seen the hunting party. Surrounded by dense forest, they kept alert for the Denantu village amongst the trees, but though there was no sign of human inhabitancy to be seen or heard, it was felt.
Hair bristling on her arms and neck, Xena sensed they were being watched. Listening intently in the quiet of the forest, she subtly scanned from the ground to the lower branches of the towering trees for the unseen eyes following their progress. It was the same scenario as the marketplace. She didn't know if the eyes belonged to friend or foe, but she got the impression whoever was watching was watching them both. So, doing as she did in the market, she came up with a plan.
Releasing the reins gradually, the warrior put one hand in front of the saddle, on Argo's neck to let the mare know she was still there and guided her with her legs. The timing was crucial. In the split second it would take for the person to watch Gabrielle, then look back to her, Xena had to become less than nothing in the hope that if the person could see her now, they couldn't when she dropped down to her lowest level of visibility and then they would give themselves away in a moment of confusion, or possibly think she had disappeared to come after them.
Xena glanced sideways at Gabrielle and could tell by the way she was moving her eyes, the bard was looking for the same pair of eyes she was. Alright. Here goes nothing. "Gabrielle," she whispered, "when I stop Argo, you keep going."
With an imperceptible nod, Gabrielle paid no attention when Argo stopped beside her and she lightly rubbed her heel against the gelding's side to keep him moving forward at a slow walk.
Sitting perfectly still the instant the nod came, the warrior bottomed out her visibility and sent her senses outward to detect the slightest movement out of place.
Chakram, Sias, dagger and sword at her disposal, the bard's fingertips tingled as she guided the gelding through the trees. The vision of calm on the outside, inside she was coiled, ready to strike as she watched and waited for the signal to be given.
Nothing. Dammit. Xena cursed and scratched her pinky into Argo's shoulder to get the mare to turn her head. When Argo did what she was supposed to, the warrior raised her eyes as a single pine needle fell silently toward the ground. Further and further her gaze rose to follow the path the needle had traveled, until she had to tilt her head back to find the pair of eyes she was looking for. Dark and somewhat slanted, the eyes returned to watch Gabrielle and even though Xena was looking straight at them, the body the eyes were in was near to impossible to distinguish from the tree. I hate trial and error. She thought as she lifted her arm and waved it around. The eyes didn't turn in her direction. Okay, how about now? The warrior asked herself as she kept her arm moving while increasing her visibility. No? Okay, how about this? Signaling Gabrielle to come back with a soft whistle, she brought her arm down and when she didn't get any attention, she let her gaze fall on the bard. "Don't look up. Just keep coming like you're coming back to get Argo. They're in the tree to your right." She said with a quick glance upward to check on the observer. "They can't see . . . damn." She growled.
Swiveling her head and body, the warrior searched high and low for the person she'd seen in the tree. Falling for the now you see me, now you don't' herself, the person had vanished into thin air when she wasn't looking. "Son of a bitch." Cursing herself and the person, she pounded her fist into her thigh and sighed as she shook her head. "Relax, Gabrielle. They're gone."
The bard released the breath she'd been holding and gave the gelding a nudge. "Did you get a good look at them?" Whispering the question as she got close to the warrior.
"Good enough." Xena nodded and looked around. "It was a Denantu, alright. I'm sure of it. Their eyes were shaped like Omrond's."
"A lookout?" Gabrielle thought aloud.
"Or a scout, or," remembering what Omrond had said about there being no horses in the forest, the warrior patted Argo's neck, "maybe they were curious about these two."
"They've never seen horses before." Nodding in comprehension, she smiled and arched an eyebrow. "Do you think they'll come back to get a closer look?"
Xena returned the smile. "They're hard to miss and if we're lucky, they might bring a few friends."
"Use the horses to bring the Denantu to us." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Why didn't I think of that before?"
"Now all we have to do is find a place to make camp and wait for the needle in the haystack to show up."
The clearing they chose to set up camp was really just a break in the dense forest where a patch of grass had grown up, but it was suitable, as Omrond would have said and the bait seemed to like it. Tied to their saddles by lead lines, Argo and the gelding grazed quietly in the clearing while Gabrielle set up camp a short distance inside the tree line. The purpose of the distance was to force the Denantu out into the open if they wanted to get a closer look at the horses and give them a believable sized buffer away from Gabrielle as comfortable incentive to follow their curiosity so Xena could observe which direction they came from and, if possible, find a way of making contact without scaring them off. A fairly simple plan, Xena and Gabrielle knew their parts by heart.
At her lowest visibility and with just enough solidity to stay on the low branch, Xena was stationed in a tree close to Gabrielle. In the perfect position, she had a full view of the area around the clearing and could make sure nobody got too close to the bard for her liking.
Gabrielle made camp, spread out only her bedroll by the fire to sustain the charade of traveling alone, since Xena explained the Denantu in the tree hadn't seen or heard her. After finishing the rabbit she'd caught that morning, it was time to settle down for the long wait and she sat on her bedroll chewing the tip of her quill as she worked on a scroll. Lying beside her was the sword of Omrond's father, unsheathed for ready use and easy to see should the Denantu's curiosity stray Gabrielle's way.
In complex layers of shadows during the day, the dense forest at night was a darker version of its daytime essence. Moonlight mingled among the branches with very little of it reaching the ground and the warrior listened as she kept watch for their approach above, and below. She didn't know which way they would come from, or at what height. When she'd seen the hunting party, the two of them had been on foot on the ground, but with the ease the Denantu showed in being camouflaged in the tree, she thought it was a fifty-fifty call on which venue they would use.
One day, Xena thought when she caught the first glimpse of the Denantu, she would take the time to consider why midnight was so alluring a time to go skulking around in the dark, but that day wasn't today and she sat very still as she watched the four of them make their cautious approach. They were in the trees to her right about two hundred meters away. No more than shadows in the night, their cloaks made no sound as they leapt from branch to branch with ease. Stopping with every leap forward, they would stay in the darkest shadow to peer around the tree before moving on.
The same part of her mind that had had the midnight thought, thought again and Xena smiled. There are no horses in the forest. She heard Omrond say and with the voice came a sadness. To be trapped in an arid, parched land where trees were scarce was the worst punishment possible for someone from a place like this. Damp and dense, the forest was as different from the desert as night was from day. Shaking her head, the warrior put the thought out of her mind to concentrate on the four coming through the trees.
They were still moving, taking their time and as she focused in on them again, Xena could see them signaling to each other. Oh, heavens to Dena. Would you look what she did. She found the one and only sunny spot in this whole forest and put those funny looking animals right out in the open. Now what are we going to do? I dunno. What do you want to do? I dunno. Sorry, Omrond. I couldn't help myself. Alright. That's it. Nobody's gonna hurt you. Just keep coming. And so they did. Bit by bit, branch by branch, the signaling continued as the four cloaked figures moved in the darkness. Although Xena feared taking her eyes off them would make them disappear, she stole a quick glance at Gabrielle, who was doing such a good job pretending to be asleep, it made the warrior wonder if she hadn't really drifted off. Good girl . . . I hope.
As true hunters would do, the Denantu made a wide circle of the clearing to put themselves down wind of the horses. There wasn't much wind to speak of, but Xena appreciated the maneuver anyway, though it put them further away from where she was. Alright. Who's going to draw the short straw and be the first to take the plunge? She thought as there seemed to be some serious signaling going on. They were at the very edge of the clearing now and she guessed they were either trying to figure out what the horses were or who was going to go get a closer look first. It was the latter. Steady Argo, steady. She sent out to the mare as one of them began to come down from the tree. Seeing their concentration focused on the horses, the warrior rose slowly to do as the Denantu had done. Leaping from branch to branch, she made her way slowly around the clearing to where they were for a closer look herself, then made an abrupt u-turn when another left the group to head for Gabrielle. Hey, hey, hey. Where do you think you're going? You're supposed to make sure she's asleep first. Be good Argo. Retracing her steps rapidly, the warrior beat the Denantu back to the bard and was on the ground waiting when a pair of dark eyes peeked around the trunk of a tree. Even though the Denantu was too close for comfort, Xena had to smile. Dark and sparking with the fire's glow, the eyes were full of innocent wonder and she thought of Omrond again, to the days over a thousand years ago when the aged eyes so full of sorrow had been filled with innocence, and to the not so distant past when her eyes had held the same. "Don't worry. She won't hurt you. She's the nice one." She said aloud without thinking. Then, as she winced when she realized what she'd done, it was as if the Denantu had heard her. Edging their way around the tree, they came more into the light and Xena got the closer look she'd been wanting.
Dressed from head to toe in the same type garb as Omrond wore, this one wasn't as tall as Omrond, but they had the same general build, as far as Xena could tell with the cloak hiding almost everything except the eyes. Squatting down by the bard's head, the warrior watched the Denantu carefully as they stepped from behind the tree to walk slowly and silently toward Gabrielle. Easy, now. I don't want to hurt you. She thought the closer the Denantu moved toward to her partner and she raised her solidity to its normal level in case they made the wrong move.
The Denantu came as close as they dared, then crouched down beside the bedroll. Their head tilting slowly from side to side, they studied Gabrielle with the same innocent wonder and Xena had to hold her reflexes in check when they reached out to barely finger a few strands of Gabrielle's hair. This made the warrior frown, because she didn't understand the fascination, then it hit her. Glancing over her shoulder to check, sure enough the Denantu in the clearing was doing the same thing to Argo's mane. It's not the horses. It's the blonde hair. Dark eyes, dark complexion . . . dark hair. They've all got dark hair. Though it was hard to believe, it made sense. They've never seen a blonde before. Chuckling silently and shaking her own brunette head, Xena rocked back on her heels, and sat down. This is crazy. I've heard of people not getting out much before, but this is just crazy.
To stay in the shadow, when the Denantu's curiosity wandered to Gabrielle's face, they went the long way around the fire and crouched down again.
"Gabrielle, just in case you're wondering what's going on and don't take this the wrong way," Xena chuckled again, "but we have a little friend here who thinks you're the next best thing to a two headed cow."
Gabrielle flinched ever so slightly.
"Now, see." Drawing up her knees, she slapped one with her hand. "There you go. I told you not to take it the wrong way." Planting an elbow on the knee she slapped, the warrior propped her chin in her palm and stuck her pinky in her mouth. "I wouldn't touch the freckles, if I were you. She's nice, but she bites." She said when the Denantu pointed to Gabrielle's nose.
I'm gonna kill her. The bard thought and continued the monumental effort of staying completely still.
"I know this won't mean anything to you, whatever your name is," Xena said offhandedly, "but I can give it to you on my personal authority that she's a natural blonde. Just thought I'd mention it."
Slowly and painfully.
Drumming her fingers on her cheek, the warrior shifted from side to side to sit cross-legged as the Denantu went on with the inspection until the bard's popularity waned in the curiosity department. "You're off the hook, Gabrielle." She said with a smile. "You don't have to show our friend here your tattoo. He . . . she noticed the sword."
He . . . she?
Xena sat forward to study the Denantu as they examined the sword. "Look familiar, by any chance? Yes?" Nodding her head. "No?" Shaking her head. "Maybe?" Holding her hands palms up.
The Denantu ran a finger lightly over the etchings on the blade with one hand and pulled back the hood of the cloak with the other.
"It's a she and a maybe." Giving the play by play. "Or maybe a yes." The warrior whispered when the Denantu tilted her head and retraced her finger to the top to start it downward again, as if reading something written on the sword. As her curious frown came back, Xena got to her knees to scoot around behind the Denantu to have a look at the sword. "Gabrielle, don't try to answer outloud, but did Omrond ever mention anything to you about the etchings meaning anything?" Glancing up as she asked, she saw the bard roll her eyes inside the lids before she slowly opened them. There was a minute shake of the head. "No. That's what I thought. Hmmm." Gazing at the sword again, the intricate gold pattern had no meaning to her, but she would have bet Argo that it meant something to the Denantu.
Closing her eyes as slowly as she'd opened them, Gabrielle had the same thought as the warrior.
Xena moved back when the Denantu's head snapped up in the direction of the clearing. "I think they're leaving." She said when the girl stood and replaced her hood. "Gabrielle, stay here. Get some sleep. I'm going to follow them for a bit." Rising to her feet as she spoke, the warrior back-flipped into a tree and headed in the direction they had come to get a head start.
Forget it, Xena. I'm not going to sleep until you explain what you meant by a two-headed cow.
Xena ran parallel to the quartet through the trees for some distance until she had a good idea of where they were going, then she circled back to camp. By the time she arrived, the bard was sound asleep for real this time and the warrior checked on the horses before she crawled in behind Gabrielle to let her thoughts wander to Omrond once more. She wasn't upset that Omrond hadn't mentioned the writing, if that was really what it was, when she asked her to tell her everything there was to know about the sword, because it wasn't pertinent to getting the sword out of Bou Saada. The warrior was simply curious as to what the etchings meant.
After the two-headed cow comment was explained to the nth degree over breakfast, it took another half day of unhurried riding to get to the Denantu village. In the interim, before they were spotted and followed, Xena and Gabrielle discussed possibilities of what the etchings meant and whether the girl would have told anyone about the sword. Bantering around several theories, they came to the conclusion that the girl probably would not have told an authority figure, because she probably wasn't supposed to be wandering around the forest with her friends in the middle of the night. The other conclusion they came to was if the etching had been something extremely significant to the Denantu, the girl would have told anyway and they probably would have been surrounded by dawn. So, no guests for breakfast meant the etchings weren't going to play a role in returning the sword.
Once they picked up several extra pairs of eyes among the higher branches, Gabrielle tried to appear as non-threatening as possible as she rode toward the village. The sword hung in its sheath on her back over the long dark green coat Xena had insisted she purchase in the marketplace. The other weapons were where they were supposed to be and she made no attempt to reach for them when a party of seven men came out to meet her before she got to the large grouping of log buildings.
"Remember, just keep it smooth and easy." Xena told her partner as they both dismounted. "They've had plenty of time to get ready for you."
"Xena," the bard whispered very quietly, "is it me or do those men have pointed ears?"
"It's not you." The warrior answered back. "I think they all have pointed ears."
Okaaaaay. Gabrielle squared her shoulders as she walked forward to meet them half way. A warm smile on her lips, she bowed her head to the tall man standing in front of the others.
Pure white hair in short disorderly wisps around his head, the man returned the bow.
So far, so good. She thought. Raising her hands slowly, she turned them around to show she didn't have anything in them, then she carefully reached over her shoulder to remove the sword from the sheath.
Xena let her eyes roam over the trees and the village. The Denantu were out of sight and everywhere. In the trees, behind trees, peeking out of windows, their dark eyes watched the proceedings with great interest, but nobody made a move to do anything more.
The sword appeared slowly and the bard had to put her fingers on the blade side of the hilt to stretch her arm far enough for the tip to slide clear. Bringing it down and around just as carefully, she turned it in her grasp to present the handle to the man with another bow of her head.
His eyes were nearly as white with age as his hair, but Orlearno could see clearly enough to recognize the sword his great grand father had described. "Omrond." He said softly as he brought his hand up to take the sword in an unsteady grasp.
The glance at Xena was a reflex move and then Gabrielle's head turned back when the girl they had seen the night before came out from behind a tree. Now without her cloak, the bard could see a slight family resemblance and with her hair pulled back into a pony tail, a pair of pointed ears.
The warrior shook her head at the irony of a girl named Omrond being the first to see the sword and that Omrond hadn't been forgotten.
"Yes, Grandfather?" Omrond bowed her head.
"My eyes are too old to see the inscription." Orlearno said, handing the sword to the girl. "Read it for me, please."
Taking a step closer to the bard, Xena put a hand on her partner's shoulder.
The girl took the sword to do as she was told. With it laying across her palms, she looked down at the etchings, then turned it over to begin. "To receive the blessing you seek, you must first stand before me, so your truth will be known of me," turning the sword over again, "for I am the strength and wisdom of Dena, Giver of Life and none shall posses Her blessing who are corrupt in their purpose."
"That's why she didn't tell anybody." The warrior commented. "She couldn't be sure without reading both sides."
Gabrielle nodded at the assumption, then at the Denantu as they started to come out of their hiding places. "Look." She whispered.
Orlearno turned his aged eyes to the blonde. "Your journey has returned a most precious gift of Dena to us. We are forever in your debt." Bowing his head. "Ask what you will and it will be given."
"You don't owe us . . . me anything." The bard smiled and shook her head. "I'm just happy to be of service."
Lifting his head, he smiled. "If you will take nothing for your service, then may I ask your name, so I may raise it to Dena in great thanks for the return of Her blessing on our people."
She knew it was going to draw some strange looks, but Gabrielle glanced up at Xena anyway.
Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle, no. She asked you not to."
The bard closed her eyes and swung her head back to the man as she opened them again. Staring at his clouded expectant eyes, she felt the hand on her shoulder slide off. Sighing at the whole utter unfairness of it all, she dropped her eyes.
"Gabrielle." The warrior whispered, putting her hand back on the bard's shoulder.
"I know. I know." She sighed under her breath.
"No, look." Xena said, pointing up to the white light floating down through the trees.
In the next moment the Denantu started to see it also and a hushed murmur began.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked over her shoulder.
Then the murmurs grew loud enough to answer the question as the light descended and the Denantu all bowed their heads, backing away to clear a space for the goddess to come through.
"Dena." Orlearno whispered and did as his people did.
Omrond joined her grandfather.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a surprised, slightly confounded look, then they both turned back as Dena began to take shape.
Dena's long dark hair sparkled with shimmers of gold dust as it sailed out behind her as she completed her descent. Draped in a flowing dress the shades of the forest, she walked barefoot across the ground, a warm smile on her lips.
Although their reverence for gods had been lost long ago for good reasons, the pair bobbed their heads in recognition as Dena's smile broadened.
Taking the sword from Omrond, Orlearno went down on one knee to present it with a bowed head. "Our gracious Giver of Life. Your blessing has returned."
With a voice as soft as a gentle breeze through the trees, Dena spoke. "Arise, Orlearno and keep my blessing upon you." Turning, she nodded at Xena, then Gabrielle. "Your journey has brought you far and you have done great service for my people, yet you still bear a burden of my blessing upon your hearts, but for nought." Taking two steps forward, she stood in front of the them. "The soul of compassion who left my domain corrupted by vengeance has been cleansed for many centuries and the name you have been requested to withhold has not been forgotten of me. You have returned compassion to our land and now it is time I return it to my people." When she finished, Dena held out her hand to Gabrielle. "May I have the urn?"
There was a brief duh' moment exchanged, then half of Xena's mouth crept up into a smile, soon followed by the other half. Shining her smile on her partner, she nodded back toward Argo. "Dena, Giver of Life would like Omrond's ashes, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's eyes went very wide as the duh' slipped away. "I'll get them." Smiling herself, she spun on her heels to hot foot it back to Argo.
"She'll just be a sec." The warrior informed Dena with a hurry up' glance over her shoulder.
Dena bowed her head.
Digging around in her saddle bag furiously, the bard pulled out the urn with Omrond's ashes in it. "Got it." She announced and rushed back. "Here."
Bowing her head again, the goddess took the urn in both hands, then turned to face her people. "In this place, in a time long ago, the soul of compassion was born as my blessing to you. Her name was Omrond and upon her birth I bestowed a gift and a purpose. The gift was the light of compassion, the purpose was to be a beacon in the darkness. She failed in both. For when the darkness came, the light of compassion became a prisoner to the darkness of vengeance and in her corruption, Omrond took with her the sword of strength and wisdom and the souls of those who followed her with justice in their purpose. While in her prison, Omrond ceased to be in a land across the sea where she remained, as did the sword and her prison became despair for the vengeance she had known, but all was not lost. In her prison, Omrond found a purpose, to undo what she had done by returning my blessing to the people she had betrayed, but she could not. She was less than she had been and she walked the land for many centuries searching for someone who could do what she could not. In this also, she found a purpose. During her search, the aid she sought from others was given in return without gaining what she sought as service. To the lost souls bound by unfulfilled purposes, she freely gave her strength and wisdom to secure their passage to the other side."
Xena moved behind Gabrielle to wrap her arms around the bard's shoulders. "Here comes the good part."
"Shhhh." Gabrielle hushed and smiled as she leaned into Xena's embrace.
"Many fulfilled their purposes and made their passage, yet Omrond remained imprisoned by her unfulfilled purpose and her eternal sorrow, but in that sorrow she never once called of me for forgiveness. Her only plea was for those who were lost and for the return of my blessing to you. In this, the prison where she remained, her despair, sorrow and loneliness, Omrond once again became the soul of compassion. Seeking no redemption for herself, she set herself free, but until my blessing was returned, she would not allow the forgiveness to enter into her soul. Then the day came for Omrond's purpose to be fulfilled." Turning again, Dena faced Xena and Gabrielle. "She found the aid she sought and from that distant land my blessing was returned to you with the same selflessness that was Omrond's redemption, and from the compassion in their own hearts, they have returned both blessings lost so long ago." Bowing her head over the urn first, she then bowed from the waist.
At that moment, Xena shimmered into view in front of the Denantu and they bowed as the goddess bowed to the ones who had returned their blessings.
They'd never been bowed to by a goddess before and it caught them off guard for a couple of seconds, then they looked at each other, shrugged and returned the bows.
"And as the gift of compassion was given," Dena said as she straightened, "so shall it be returned." Shifting the urn to one hand, she wiggled the lid loose with her fingers.
"Halt." Omrond spoke as she materialized behind the warrior and bard.
Spinning around together, Xena and Gabrielle blinked at the ghost. "Omrond?"
"What are you doing here?" Gabrielle asked.
"How did you get here?" Xena asked. "And what do you think you're doing?" Pointing at Dena. "She's going to bring you back to life."
"Yes, Omrond. You'll get your life back." The bard added quickly.
"Omrond, come forth." Dena said quietly.
Obeying the goddess with a bow of her head, the Denantu stepped between the pair. "Dena, Giver of Life, I beg your gracious pardon for the interruption." She said as she lifted her head.
The murmurs started as soon as Omrond appeared, then you could have heard a needle drop in the haystack when she was called over.
The goddess looked into Omrond's eyes. "You know of my purpose?"
"Yes, Dena." Omrond nodded.
"This is not as you wish?" She asked with a knowing smile.
The Denantu shook her head. "No, Dena."
Gabrielle hung her head and Xena laid hers back, and groaned.
Dena nodded and handed Omrond the urn containing her ashes. "The gift is yours. Do with it as your soul desires."
Omrond took the urn with a smile and bowed her head as she turned around. Walking to the pair, she stopped in front of the warrior. "Xena."
The warrior lolled her head in a full frustrated circle before she let it sag forward. "Before you say whatever you have to say, answer me a question first."
"Of course." The Denantu nodded.
"Ares sent you to drive me insane, didn't he? Now the Furies are gone, he sent you to do his dirty work." She asked and accused through narrowed eyes.
Chuckling softly, Omrond shook her head. "I know of the Olympian God of War, but I do not do his bidding. The choice was mine alone."
"Omrond, why?" Gabrielle sighed.
Sobering, she smiled at the bard. "Because this world is not mine to walk as a mortal anymore, Gabrielle. My time for living has long since ceased to be."
"Are you kidding?" Xena broke in with a point at the crowd. "Those people haven't changed a bit since you left. Look at em."
"Xena," the Denantu said quietly, "my time for living ended when my children ceased to be. They are my people and in time I will know them as well as the ones I left behind, but I do not wish to gain only to lose."
"But Omrond, what happens now?" The bard asked, placing her hand on Omrond's arm. "Are you going to cross over . . . to see your family?"
"No." She smiled warmly. "You have brought me home and here I have chosen stay as I am to serve my purpose for my people as it was meant to be."
The warrior tossed a hand in the air. "So, that's it? Thanks, Dena, but no thanks. I'm used to being a ghost, so I think I'll just hang around here for eternity."
"Xena." Gabrielle shook her head at the warrior.
"It is alright, Gabrielle." Omrond bowed her head to the bard, then met the warrior's gaze. "And the answer to your question is no. I am not refusing Dena's gift of life. I am exchanging my life for yours, Xena."
Doing a quick double take, Xena stared at the Denantu. "What?"
"I have chosen to remain as I am, so you will be as you were. I am exchanging my life," handing her urn to Xena, "for yours."
Shaking her head slowly, the warrior stared down at the urn in her hands. "No, you . . . I can't let you do this . . . you can't do this." Looking up, she continued to shake her head. "I can't live again, Omrond, even if I wanted to. I have to stay dead to keep the souls from being lost. They have to be avenged to stay free. I can't."
"Yes, you can." Omrond said softly. "The souls you set free will remain avenged. I will bear the burden of their freedom."
"No. It has to be me. I'm the one who killed them. I'm the one who has to stay dead." Xena explained and tried to give the urn back.
Omrond refused to take it by clasping her hands behind her back. "And what is to avenge, but to exchange of one life for another, and you, who have tasted of the bittersweet nectar, should know better than most that vengeance is blind, Xena. It does not care what life is forfeited, only that a life has been given to avenge one taken."
"Omrond speaks the truth, Xena." Dena said as she came forward to join them. "Vengeance is blinded by its own corruption. Omrond has given her life for yours. Vengeance will be satisfied and the souls will remain in a state of grace."
"Xena, my story has been told and it will continue on as it was, but my time outside my home is finished." The Denantu continued. "Your story goes on. Your name rides the wind still and there are those who need you as you were."
There was a pleading edge to her voice as the warrior spoke. "But I don't have to be alive to fight. Omrond, you showed me yourself."
"I was not speaking of your hands." She corrected. "Your hands can protect the living, but they cannot touch their lives as your heart does. That is your greatest weapon against evil, Xena. You change people's lives by changing their hearts with your own, but if this is truly what you do not wish . . ." Bringing her hands from behind her back, Omrond held then out.
Xena looked at Omrond's hands, then the urn, then her gaze rose slowly to see tears in Gabrielle's eyes. "Gabrielle?"
The bard shook her head. "I love you, Xena. That's never going to change, but I can't help you with this. This has to be what you want."
The warrior's eyes lowered to the urn once more.
Nodding to Gabrielle, then to Dena, Omrond lowered her hands and gained a little privacy when they stepped back several paces. "Xena, there is no shame in wanting to live when your life holds a purpose. My purpose has always been to remain with my people, to share my gift with them, but as I walked the land where I ceased to be, I saw that my people were not the only ones in need of compassion. There are many who suffer greatly for the lack of it and with this life I offer you, I offer it to them as well, to the world, for what you will do with it and you cannot fail me in this purpose because your heart will not allow it . . . and neither will Gabrielle." When Xena looked up, the Denantu smiled. "If not for the world, for the greater good or for yourself, than let my life be yours for Gabrielle because she was correct. Death cannot hide the truth, Xena and the truth is she is your destiny. Your hearts, your souls, your purposes are joined by your love for each other and it is only your existences that have been separated." Omrond paused to glance at the bard and when she spoke again, her voice was a whisper. "You walk by her side, but her heart beats alone." Returning her gaze to the warrior, she put her hand on top of the urn. "Let my life remove the shroud of death separating your existences. Let your heart beat again, Xena. Let its rhythm rejoin Gabrielle's in life, beating together as one . . . as it was meant to be."
The world around her was quiet as all stood silently by. There were no sounds of the forest, no rustle of the wind through the trees that met Xena's ears. Only the faint sound of a gentle heart beating alone. Staring into the eyes of compassion, a tear fell from her own as the warrior wrapped her hands around the urn. "What about you?"
Omrond smiled. "As you have discovered yourself. Death holds no sting when you are with the ones you love. I will share my heart with my people." She said and bowed her head as she removed her hand from the urn. "My life is yours."
Her head turned slowly as Xena looked at Gabrielle. The tears that had threatened to fall from the bard's eyes now flowed down her cheeks and the warrior cocked her head to the side as a sad smile spread across her quivering lips. "Tell me what I have to do."
Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand as fresh tears fell.
"Take my urn to the man with the sword, then return to Gabrielle." Raising her head, the Denantu pointed to Orlearno.
Nodding, the warrior stepped past Omrond to do it, then changed her mind and held the urn out to the girl with a smile. "You've got very big boots to fill and you can start by keeping this in a safe place."
The girl looked to her grandfather in confusion. "I do not understand."
Orlearno smiled and nodded. "Give me the sword and take the urn."
Doing as she was told, Omrond handed the sword over, then bowed her head as she took the urn. "It will be as you wish."
Xena returned the bow and lifted her head to walk back to the bard.
With her ashes in safe hands, Omrond retrieved Xena's urn from the saddlebags and came back to stand in front of the pair. "Face one another and place your hand over the other's heart."
Their eyes met first, then their bodies followed and Xena smiled as she placed her hand over the bard's heart.
Gabrielle's hand came up slowly to hesitate before she laid it over Xena's heart.
The Denantu nodded. "This will not hurt, I promise." She snickered.
The warrior stared harder at the bard. "As soon as I have a pulse, we're leaving."
Giving her partner a gentle shove, the bard smiled. "She's ready."
Nodding again, Omrond took Xena's urn to place it in Dena's waiting hands with a bow of her head. "Dena, Giver of Life, let this life be my own."
Dena nodded. Holding the urn in one hand, she removed the lid and raised the urn to eye level. "As you wish, so it will be."
Omrond backed up as the ashes began to swirl out of the urn in a vortex.
Xena stepped closer as her ashes spun higher and higher, and staring deep into the bard's eyes, she felt a warmth begin to spread from where Gabrielle's hand touched her chest.
It started gradually and she wasn't sure at first, then Gabrielle smiled through her tears as she felt Xena's heart begin to beat stronger. "Does it make me a bad person if I say how much I really missed this?"
"Only if it makes me a bad person for wanting you to have it back." The warrior smiled and shook her head, then, feeling her lungs burn, she took her first breath to release it as a whisper. "I love you, Gabrielle."
The bard's smile grew as the warm breath caressed her face. "I love you, Xena."
Dena lowered the urn, replacing the lid before she waved her hand over it and it vanished. "It is done."
Bowing to the goddess, Omrond turned to the couple. "It is as it should be."
"How do you feel?" Gabrielle asked, her smile a little curious.
Xena's brow knitted as she stepped back to take inventory. Counting fingers, bending, stretching, bouncing on her toes and cracking joints, she eventually straightened give her diagnosis. "Blah." Sticking out her tongue, she rubbed her stomach. "I'm starving. I feel like I haven't eaten in six months."
The bard's head went back as laughter broke from her lips and she bent forward to wrap her arm around the warrior's waist. "I wonder why?" Shaking her head.
"Any of you people have a grill I can throw that gelding on?" The warrior queried the crowd.
"Hey!" Gabrielle slapped the empty tummy. "Eat your own horse."
It was Omrond's turn to shake her head and she held up her hand before things got carried away. "Perhaps, if Gabrielle could be persuaded, my people would be willing to exchange a more suitable meal for you both for the services of the Battling Bard of Potidea?"
Cocking a sideways glance in the bard's direction, Xena smiled. "Your stories or your horse?"
The bard rolled her eyes. "Alright, if they agree, I'll do it, but I'm not making any promises." She stipulated with a pointed finger. "It's been a long time since I've had an audience."
"They will agree." Omrond smiled and leaned forward. "And if your stories are not a fair exchange, I am sure they would be willing to take the mare instead."
"My stories or her horse. I can live with that. Let's go."
"Hey! Hey! I said your horse, not Argo! Gabrielle! Come back here!"
"That's far enough boys." Gabrielle growled as dashed out from behind a tree.
The band of thugs halted their march toward the village to stare at the blonde for a second, then they broke out into laughter. "Look." The lead thug pointed. "I think blondie here is going to try to stop us."
This earned another round of laughter, but the blonde bard ignored it and stayed her ground, whipping the chakram from her hip to hold at the ready when they started forward. "I said that's far enough."
"Oh, I get it." The leader chortled. "Look at her. She thinks she's the Warrior Princess. Hahahahaha. She think she's Xena."
"No, I'm Gabrielle." The bard smiled wickedly and let loose the chakram at a tree.
The thugs ducked and bobbed as the weapon bounced from tree to tree. Keeping as good an eye on where it was going as possible, they turned as one to see it get caught in a sweeping arc by a tall brunette whose blue eyes stared at them over the razor sharp edge.
"That's Xena." Gabrielle chuckled as she drew her sias.
"Hi, boys." Xena smiled and hung the chakram on her hip.
"Xena?" The leader gulped, then began to stutter. "But, but, but, but . . . "
"Wait. Wait. Don't tell me. Let me guess?" Waggling a finger at them. "Ummm. You heard I was dead, didn't you?"
Speechless, the band nodded.
"Well, you heard right, boys. I was dead." The warrior smiled and she reached behind her to pull her sword from from its sheath. "Then I decided I had better things to do with my life."
Thanks for reading.
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