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Gabrielle squinted so hard her forehead cramped. She still saw nothing but trees, then vague green shapes blending in the distance.
Your face might freeze like that, Xena warned. Stop scrunching your eyes, it doesnt help. Relax and focus.
Just give me a minute.
This side of the pass, Xena prompted.
I know where you said they are, Im looking where you said they are, they just arent there. Gabrielle sat back on her heels. Youre making this up, Xena. Unless youre half falcon, theres no way you could see two people through a dozen leagues of dense forest.
I see two people emerging from a dense forest, about to cross a mountain pass no more than five leagues north. Xena rose from her crouch, rolled the map, and returned it to the waterproof pouch on Argos pack. We can reach them by dusk, if we ride.
Gabrielle frowned at Argo. I assume you misspoke. You meant to say, if I ride, and Gabrielle walks very, very fast.
Never assume, Gabrielle. Thats more futile than squinting.
Id rather use my staff, and pole-vault all the way.
Youd leave interesting tracks. Xena swung aboard the towering gelding and reached down for her partner.
Gabrielle started to protest, and then saw the ice-blue of Xenas eyes cloud over. The warrior lowered her head, and rested an arm heavily on Argos neck. Gabrielle took a running step and sprang aboard Argos back like a rider born. She encased Xenas waist in her arms and hissed at her.
All right, breathe deeply. Again. Dont you dare pass out, Xena, I might let you drop on your head again, out of spite. I told you to move slowly for awhile, concussions dont heal overnight!
I am not - passing out. Xena straightened with effort. My head smarts a bit, is all. And something is squeezing the breath out of me. She tapped on Gabrielles hands, still clenched about her waist.
Too bad. Gabrielle eased her grip, but not much. Xena?
Im fine, Gabrielle. Xenas tone gentled. I did lunge up here, youre right. Point taken. She craned over her shoulder. Im steady again, if you are.
Never assume, Gabrielle grumbled. Im ready only if youll swear you didnt pull that faint to get me up here.
The corner of Xenas mouth lifted, and she clicked Argo into an easy lope.
As they entered the forest, Gabrielle rested her head against Xenas dark hair and closed her eyes. She tried to relax into the rhythm of Argos rocking stride, and searched for some distraction from the queasy speed of the ground passing beneath them.
Aha. Inspired, Gabrielle raised her head, and started forming the opening lines of this new quest, picturing them on a scroll. Treachery stalked the castle halls, she intoned, masked in the form of the crowns trusted servant. A palace gardener, lusting for the forbidden delights of King Gastons only daughter -
Lusting? Xena raised her voice over the pounding of Argos hooves. The man had the run of the palace grounds. He could have taken Princess Kyla by force, any time, and escaped alone. Hes after ransom, Gabrielle, not - delights. Duck.
They bent in tandem as Argo passed beneath a low branch.
A scoundrel bent on ill-gotten gold, Gabrielle revised, He spirited the winsome princess from her tower, tore her from the arms of her loving father -
Foaming father. Xena slowed Argo to a brisk walk as the trees thickened. Gaston was so enraged he was rabid. He seemed more concerned about a common servant making off with a prized possession than the fate of his only child. Still, he says this man is ruthless; he has no doubt hell kill Kyla, ransomed or not.
Gabrielle sighed. It would make a cleaner epic if the father were grieving, instead of foaming. Still, a raving king makes a splendid plot device -
Youll do the tale justice, Ive no doubt. Hang on, now.
- * -
This guy might be ruthless, but he has a rotten sense of geography. Xena peered over the crest of the next hill. If Gaston is right, and hes riding to meet some cronies, their rendezvous is dangerously close to the holdings of the Amazons.
Who wouldnt look kindly on the capture of a princess. Gabrielle sighed. If this has any hope of ending without bloodshed, Xena, wed best catch them first.
Xena nodded agreement, and lifted one leg over Argos neck.
Slowly, Gabrielle admonished.
Xena slid down Argos side to the ground, and Gabrielle jumped down after her. They stepped onto a rounded boulder embedded in the side of the hill, well concealed by scraggy underbrush. Gabrielle shook her legs out stiffly as Xena knelt to examine a narrow path several feet below them.
Theyll pass below. Remember the trail. Xena peered over her shoulder at Gabrielle. Who walks in front?
Gabrielle concentrated. One set of hoofprints. Deep ones, for such a smallish horse, so one of them rides. And one pair of sandal tracks, large.
So Kyla is mounted, and he leads the horse?
I assu - thats my theory. If the horse carries gear or weapons, there wouldnt be room for both astride.
Xena nodded. We can count on Kylas hands being tied. If I can jump him cleanly I will; you see to the princess.
Xena began to rise, but Gabrielles hand on her shoulder stopped her.
Hey. If you get hit by another one of those dizzy spells, Xena, leave the jumping to me. I mean it. She nodded toward the rocky drop before them. Pride might goeth before a fall pretty literally, in this case.
Xena considered, then rose with care and tapped Gabrielle gently under the chin. Youll be the first to know. Promise.
They took their positions and waited, ears straining for the first sign of their quarrys approach. Gabrielle stood slightly higher and saw them first.
The man leading the horse was tall, but unimpressive. He trod the rocky path carefully, eyes lowered for any errant root that might trip them. He was panting, unaccustomed to the rigors of hard travel. Gabrielle saw a long- handled dagger in the sash of his cloak, and probably another blade in one of his knee-high boots. His face wasnt visible, as the light shawl covering his head concealed his features.
Gabrielle craned gingerly upward and spotted Kyla, who rode with slumped shoulders on the small bay horse. She was a pale, petite young woman with blond hair. Her hands were indeed crossed on its pommel, but she looked unhurt. Her face was pale and seemed drawn, and she rode with her eyes closed in seeming defeat.
Gabrielle sensed Xenas gaze on her, and she turned to give her partner a quick nod. Xena crouched carefully on the lip of the rocky overhang -- and then dropped, silent as shadow.
Gabrielle heard a shout and the frantic whinnying of a horse, but she didnt wait to see the expected outcome of their ambush; she was scrambling down the craggy side of the hill before Xenas boot heels hit flesh.
She emerged onto the path with a last ragged leap, and ran immediately to the horse, who was shying dangerously close to the edge of the narrow trail. Gabrielle chanced a look at the fight, and saw Xenas opponent waging a surprisingly vigorous defense. Xena had his wrist locked in one hand, keeping the dagger he brandished well clear of her body, but she was off-balance; the mans cloak had snarled around them both, and they rolled in a violent embrace on the stony ground.
Gabrielle tore her eyes from Xena and snatched the reins of the skittish horse. Its rider was apparently stunned, her hands clawing for purchase on the horses neck, her mouth slack with astonishment.
Princess Kyla, were friends! Gabrielle shouted. Just sit still, Ill get you -
The foot that thudded into Gabrielles chest was dainty, but powerfully driven nonetheless. The blow was so unexpected Gabrielle reeled backwards, barely catching herself on a stunted bush. The woman darted her heels into the horses flanks and it surged forward in panic. Gabrielle watched in disbelief as she launched herself over the horses head and plummeted down onto the thrashing combatants.
Cursing a blue streak, Gabrielle lunged after her, and for a moment what was meant to be a simple combat became a thrashing mesh of four bodies. Limbs flew and blows rained, none of them clean enough to prove disabling. Finally, with a hoarse shout of exasperation, Xena executed a neat kick, flipping the cloaked man over her head and off the side of the trail.
He fell heavily onto the muddy slope that slanted sharply to a sheer drop-off a dozen feet below. Shouting breathlessly, he scrambled for a foothold and managed to stop himself before sliding down the steep embankment. Xena threw herself after him and grasped the sleeve of his cloak, then twined her ankles around a half-buried root to anchor them both.
Gabrielle realized the elbow that was pummeling her belonged to the princess. She tried to hold on to her ankle, but the woman dove toward Xena, clambering on her hands and knees to the trails edge. She dropped next to her, her white hand darting down to snarl in the cloth of the mans sleeve.
Let go and Ill cut your throat, the woman hissed at Xena. Ill tear out your liver, dont you dare let go -
Xena risked an incredulous stare at the furious woman beside her. Get back, Kyla, this slope is -
A little help, the man yelped below them.
Pull! the woman screamed.
Delicate or not, she might well have hoisted the man over the edge herself, she invested such adrenaline-charged energy in that single heave, but Xenas strength assured their success. With a concerted yank, they hauled the thrashing man up onto the trail, where he fell gasping into the womans lap.
Xena dropped back on her elbows, puffing the hair out of her eyes and throwing Gabrielle a wry glance as she knelt beside her. They both stared at the couple, as the woman murmured endearments and tenderly brushed the dirt from her kidnappers flushed face. He was catching his breath, now, and was able to nod assurance to his concerned captive.
Finally Xena cleared her throat. Well. I wouldnt want to risk becoming slit- throated and liverless, so Ill put off breaking you both over my knee. For now. Obviously this little kidnapping is not what we were led to expect -
We did not expect to be set-upon by two shrieking banshees, either, the blond woman snapped. She hugged the man to her and looked at them with snapping green eyes. Youre the kings minions, I take it? Mercenaries?
Gabrielle held out placating hands. We thought you were in danger, Princess Kyla. I am Gabrielle of Potadeia, and this is Xena, known throughout this land for -
Her sharp knees, the man groaned, cradling his belly. The woman helped him sit up, tenderly, and he adjusted the shawl over his head and sighed. I take it you were told the princess was - stolen by a cold-blooded villain, eh?
We had no reason to doubt it. Xena looked at the man through narrowed eyes. It appears we were mislead. Her Highness seems a willing-enough captive.
Ah, that she is. The man smiled up at the woman with such sweetness that Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself.
I considered it a rescue, not a kidnapping. The woman regarded Xena more calmly. And I really cant blame you both for assuming the worst.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged wincing glances at her choice of words.
The King would be likely to paint a murderous vision of our escape to avoid the ridicule of his soldiers, she continued. We should have foreseen this.
Gabrielle leaned forward, intrigued. Your father is so furious that his daughter loves a common man?
Furious may be a bit mild, the man sighed. He reached up and pulled off the shawl covering his head, revealing a tumbling fall of thick, dark curls. His daughter loving a common woman is what edged him toward mania.
Xenas eyebrows shot into her hairline, and Gabrielle sat back on her heels with a thump. The two women regarded them calmly, their hands entwined.
Were trying to reach the land of the Amazons, the blond woman explained. Where love such as ours might be met with less hatred.
If you feel you have to stop us, Ill be happy to fight you again. Her partner sighed. Youll win, but Ill fight you anyway. If you take us back, well never see each other again, and frankly -
I would rather die here, the smaller woman finished simply.
Gabrielle looked at Xena, who studied the pair silently. Finally she shook her head, a reluctant smile surfacing on her face.
Take off, both of you, and I wish you joy. Rescuing the kidnapped daughter of a king is one thing; tearing two lovers apart at the behest of a bully and a bigot is another.
The women slumped visibly with relief, and the larger one grinned. I would thank you, Xena, but groveling might damage my butch image. Whats left of it, after getting pitched on my keester into the mud.
No thanks necessary. Xena rose smoothly to her feet, and the rest followed suit. She offered the taller woman a dry smile. You leave me wiser. I assumed you were a man, and an evil one at that. Xena nodded at the blond woman. And you, Kyla, we took you for a mans helpless victim. Two assumptions has taught me enough humility for one day.
Uh, three, the dark-haired woman said softly. She put her arm around the fair womans shoulders. This is Dyan, a daughter of farmers, and the love of my life. I am Kyla, princess of - well, now, Im glad to amend - just Kyla.
There was a moment of numb silence before Xenas laughter, dark and rich, rolled over the hills. Gabrielle loved her fiercely in that moment.
When Xena quieted, Kyla turned to them with worried eyes. What will you tell my father? He wont take kindly to you siding with us.
Siding? Xenas brow furrowed. We fought you like harpies, Kyla, but you and Dyan were just too ferocious for us. Not far from the truth, she added.
They looked at Xena doubtfully, but Gabrielle nodded with serene confidence. Yes, and thats exactly how Ill write it. Ill send you a scroll to read around the Amazon campfire that you can dine out on for years.
- * -
That night, the moon rose on two pairs of women riding in opposite directions. They moved toward different destinies, but shared a common love.
Gabrielle smiled, her head resting between Xenas shoulders, the rocking lull of Argos gait soothing now. Those would be the opening lines of her new scroll, she decided. The tale would be among the truest and most tender the bard would write, for those with eyes to read it.
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