Don Q and Sancho had traveled in the dark for over an hour. The Squire was cold, tired and starting to complain when he saw the light of a campfire in the distance. He was hoping the camp would be friendly, so that he could rest and possibly get something to eat. "Your Grace, I think someone's up ahead."
"I see it, Sancho, hmmm, could be Amphipolis!" Don Q was perplexed. He then quieted his voice, "Silence, we'll approach cautiously!"
"Yes, your Grace." Sancho rolled his eyes and replied in his usual formal voice.
"Shhh!" Don Q gave Sancho a stern look, and started forward toward the campfire.
"Yes, Sire!" Sancho still hadn't quieted his voice and Don Q turned to reproach him again.
"Shhhhhhh, Don't talk!" Don Q was facing his squire with a finger to his lips for silence, his brow deeply furrowed.
"Not a word, your Grace." Sancho was now eagerly nodding his head in understanding, but still was speaking in his loud, whiny voice.
"Shhhhhhhhhhhh! Sancho, Quiet!" Don Q was shouting out, but he tried to mask his volume with a fierce, raspy whisper.
"Right, Your Gra-" Sancho was finally stopped. Don Q lunged toward his servant and grasped the back of his neck with one hand, while covering the flapping mouth with the other; finally, there was silence.
"Do not speak. Follow me!" Don Q whispered his last command and uncovered Sancho's mouth.
"Yes, Yourrrmmmnnn-." Sancho spoke again, but was cut off by Don Q's fingers pinching his lips together.
Sancho's eyes grew wide. Don Q narrowed his eyes with a stare that could do damage. The old man started to address his servant again, but quickly reconsidered and only nodded his head instead, to get Sancho's attention. He completed the communication with a head gesture indicating that it was time to move forward. Then he let go of Sancho's lips, held both palms up toward his squire, patting vacant space between the two of them, hoping to stem the obedient responses. He waited. There was only silence as Sancho stared wide-eyed just past him. Don Q let his arms drop to his sides, turned and began a cautious pace toward the campfire. It took only two steps before he slammed right into a tall, burly torso blocking his progress. "Whaa...What goes here? Who- out of my way, Man!" Don Q was indignant until he saw the knife slowly rising toward his chin.
"I gives the orders! Okay, boys!" The burly man shouted for the rest of his band of thugs to come out of hiding and then he turned his attention back to Don Q and Sancho. "Jus' where ya think you're going?
Don Q froze, then stuttered his answer. "AmaAmaAma...Amphipolis...to fight the dragon!" He felt the knifepoint poking his chin with every syllable.
"Dragon? Yeah, sure Hear that fellas, we's got a hero of some sorts!" The highwaymen all laughed.
The second in command spoke up, "Lantras, should we kill 'em?"
"Nah, tie 'em up, Grekar, we'll search 'em later. I wanna find out why this foreigner is goin' to Amphipolis." Lantras slid the flat of his knife-blade along Don Q's neck, then the blade caught the knot of Gabrielle's blanket and with a flick of the wrist, the 'honorable robe' covering Don Q's shoulders lay in a pile behind him. Lantras chuckled when it made the old man shudder. Don Q and Sancho were then tied up and dragged back to the thug's camp.
Back at his camp, Lantras continued his interrogation, while the other men ransacked the foreigner's gear.
"Now, what's at Amphipolis...besides dragons?" Lantras had a mocking tone.
"My Good Man, I speak only truth. We're to join a warrior named Xena, to fight the dragon of Amphipolis. It is our Quest." Don Q was shaking, but steadfast with his words.
"Xena? When?" Lantras was now more interested than ever at the mention of the Warrior Princess.
Don Q was sitting on the ground near the campfire, while Sancho had been tied up to a nearby tree. They were purposely split up so that Lantras could question Don Q and Grekar could intimidate Sancho. Then the two thugs would share information. It had always worked to sort out the plans and lies of their victims, until now. Don Q was sticking to his story of the dragon. And Sancho insisted that he was but a mere a squire taking care of his master.
"My good man, please believe me I am to meet Xena at the tavern in Amphipolis. Perhaps you would join us in fighting the dragon?"
"Oh, I'll join ya alright . When I find out what you're doin' with Xena." Lantras was tiring of the repeated insistence of 'the quest' from Don Q. He pushed the old man's face down in the dirt, and was walking toward Grekar, when one of the other men called him over to the foreigner's gear.
"Hey, Lantras look here. Whacha make of it? It's gotta be a weapon, maybe?" Lantras sauntered over to the pile of gear and grabbed the metal object from the other man's hand. He gave his man a look of doubt, then turned his back to the firelight and held the object up over his head, to get a better look. It glistened, seemingly gold, in the firelight. He turned it, flipped it over, and felt it's dull edges all around. It was about 12 inches in diameter, round and disk-like, with a shallow depression in the center. It also had a wide rim all around except for one strange half-circle cutout, as though someone had taken a wide bite out of the brim of a hat. He was silent for a minute, then looked over at Sancho, then squinted back over to Don Q.
"I'll ask the fat one first." Lantras walked over to where Sancho was restrained. The fat little man was sweating profusely and seemed an easy mark for Lantras' questions. "What's this? Tell me or I'll slit your throat!" The leader held the object up in front of the squire's nervous, twitching body. The sweat from Sancho's brow was stinging his eyes, so much so, that he could hardly see what Lantras was holding before him.
Don Q squirmed around and found where Sancho was tied up, in the distance. He could see the object being held up in front of Sancho's face. He screamed out his words before Sancho could answer, "No Sancho, do not speak of it!"
Lantras turned and threatened Don Q, "Shut-up, or he gets it!" Then Lantras focused again on the servant. "What is it?"
"It, it looks ...like a sha-...sha-...shaving basin, Sire. Sancho's words were faltering and unsure. It sounded to Lantras like a lie.
"What d' ya say?" Lantras wanted to hear it again, just for a second read on what the squire said.
Sancho spoke again, with only a little more strength in his voice, "Sha-... shaving basin, Sire."
Lantras quickly turned to catch Don Q's reaction to the little man's answer. Don Q had stared at Sancho with his own look of disbelief, then his eyes shifted to the ground. Lantras was more suspicious than ever. He lowered the object to his side and walked toward Don Q. Sancho let out a sigh of relief and slumped into the restraint of his bindings.
Don Q could feel the vibration of heavy boot-steps as Lantras headed toward him. He didn't look up, though it was obvious that the highwayman was now in front of him. Lantras waited for a moment, then spoke "Ya speak truth, eh? Then what is it?" Lantras squatted down in front of the foreigner and shoved the object into Don Q's chest.
"Oh, leave us be, kind sir...we mean you no harm...we will be gone, never to trouble you again." Don Q let out his plea with finality, his last effort to regain their freedom.
Lantras just laughed and then forced Don Q down on his back, using the cutout of the metal rim to pin the foreigner's neck to the ground. The bowl-like depression was upside down and in the way of Don Q's lips and chin. Lantras didn't pay any attention to the object. His concentration was on the foreigner's answer to his question. "Tell me! What is it?"
Grekar, who had been watching the action from a short distance, interrupted him. He had seen how easily the strange, upside-down bowl-like object fit under Don Q's chin and envisioned it flip-flopped right side up. "Uh, Boss? Maybe the fat guy's righ-" Grekar stopped. Lantras gave him a sharp look that told him to immediately back off. The other men took quiet note of the exchange. Grekar had seen the look before from the past and wasn't interested in being the next victim. "Nuthin', boss." He turned and walked back over to Sancho.
Lantras was on a roll and he didn't want to be bothered while he had his quarry shaking. He focused his attention back to Don Q, "Tell me! Now!" His words were grinding out between clenched teeth.
"It...It is the Golden Helmet! But, please let it be. It belongs to me." Don Q blurted out his confession.
"I knew it!" Lantras' eyes grew wide with delight and then he shouted his orders, "Grekar break camp. We're headin' for Amphipolis." He turned back to Don Q; "You're after Xena's loot! It's hidden near the tavern, isn't it! All those years her army pillaged the countryside, she must have tunnels full of hidden treasure." Lantras pinned his captive more firmly to the ground with a knee to the shoulder. He pulled the "helmet" up from Don Q's neck to give it a closer look and waited for the answer. As he waited he lifted the treasure to his head, to see how it fit.
"I'm afraid I don't understand." Don Q was truly puzzled. His fear now turned to a concealed envy as he watched Lantras try the helmet on.
"Ya stole this from Xena. I don't know how, but you did it, and now you're after the rest of her stuff." Lantras stood up and placed his boot where his knee used to be.
Don Q felt the lighter weight from the thug's boot, but still did not try to move. "My good man... please, I don't know wha-" He felt a hard shove to his shoulder that made him suck in his breath mid-sentence.
"Shut up! Lantras adjusted the helmet with uncertainty as he spat out his order. He turned to face his men, now busy packing up their camp. "What ya think, Boys? Not bad, eh?"
"Uh, er, yeh!" The men were quick to agree with mumbling and nodding heads. Fearful of their leader's reaction, knowing just how ridiculous the headgear looked, they were unsure of just how to praise him with words.
Grekar was the only one to speak out, " Nice Boss." He lied with conviction and, by speaking openly, he hid the growing smirk on his lips. He was still angry at the dressing-down that he received earlier in front of the other men.
"Let's go. Keep a close eye on our prisoners. We'll need 'em later." Lantras removed the helmet and handed it to one of his men, "Keep it safe. It should fetch a pretty price on the black market."
It was just before dawn, and the night sky was still littered with stars. It had taken almost the full night of anxious exhaustion before Xena could finally drop off to sleep. She convinced herself that she would only need an hour or two of sleep anyway.
Soon after, Gabrielle woke with a start. She was groggy and disoriented. It took her a few seconds to realize that she had a blanket over her. She blinked and tried to focus on what was laying next to her. She could still feel the log to her back, but she now could see the dark silky tresses of the sleeping, leather-clad warrior in front of her. She realized that her arm was draped over her warrior's side and her hand was lovingly being held. It brought a warm smile to her lips and she gently snuggled in just a little closer. She dared not to move another muscle, but contentedly breathed in the scent of warm leather, horses and herbs that made up the essence of Xena. I wish it could always be like this. Far too restless to sleep any longer, she checked to see if Xena was really asleep as she whispered softly, "Mornin' sleepyhead."
"Mornin' to you, too." Out came a more sultry voice than the bard was expecting. Aldonza leaned up on her elbow and peaked over the slumbering warrior and gave the bard a grin. "I slept great! How about you?" Aldonza then gave Gabrielle's hand a squeeze.
Gabrielle's eyes grew immense at the site of Aldonza snuggled next to her friend. And once she realized that it was Aldonza that had been holding her hand, her voice was suddenly caught in her throat as she tried to speak out in protest. All she could do was to yank her hand away and let out a gasp. Then she too raised herself up on her elbow and the two women were face to face. Gabrielle was still in shock as she glanced, wide-eyed, back and forth between the sleeping warrior and the smiling foreigner.
The sudden movements jarred Xena into consciousness. "Hey! Whaa-?" Xena had rolled on to her back and quickly assessed the trouble brewing. She sat up to block Gabrielle's view of the foreigner and turned to her friend, "Listen Gabrielle, it's not what you think."
"Oh, I've heard that one before," Aldonza peeked out around Xena's back and winked at the bard. She loved every minute of Xena's new dilemma.
Gabrielle sat up and gave Aldonza an ugly scowl in return, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Xena gave the foreigner a death glance, "Go and get the men up, Aldonza and stay out of this!" Xena almost shouted out her words. She turned her attention back to the bard. Aldonza merely sat up on her hip tucking her legs under, in order to get a better view of the two women exchanging comments.
"Seems to me that she's been in this for a while, Xena. Would you care to explain it to me now?" Gabrielle was more than upset. She was hurt and angry at all the things she felt and of all the things she was afraid Xena would tell her about this new woman. It finally dawned on her that she would never be willing to share her warrior with anyone else, ever. But, in her heart, her fear was that it might be too late.
"It's nothing I didn't-" Xena was trying to remain patient.
Gabrielle interrupted, "Xena, I see how close she gets to you, always touching you like she's known you for years." Gabrielle couldn't stop herself from pouring out her frustration and fear, "I certainly wasn't allowed to touch you so soon. Not to mention the kiss she almost got. I suppose I should be grateful to Argo for once."
It was Xena's turn to interrupt, "Stop it Gabrielle! It was just Aldonza's game Look, I felt bad about you not having a blanket. When I shared mine with you, she just wanted to tease me."
Now the bard was even more furious. Her words all came tumbling out in a confessional mess. "Oh, and that's supposed to make me feel better? What, I get guilt and she gets affection? What about me? Do you think I don't care? Do you think I don't want-" Gabrielle stopped. She couldn't believe what was coming out of her mouth. Where did it all come from? She was sure that she had said too much and looked away from Xena in a panic.
"Gabrielle? What do you want?" Xena was quickly replaying the bard's words to herself. She held her breath, waiting for Gabrielle to respond.
"I don't know! Leave me alone, Xena. That should be easy for you." Gabrielle felt defeated and embarrassed. All she wanted to do was hide. She got up, scrambled to get her saddle-pouch and rushed to the seclusion of the stream.
"Un-be-lieve-a-ble!" Xena grunted out each syllable, but didn't look up when Gabrielle left. Instead, she had unconsciously picked up a rock that she had focused on and flung it into a nearby bush. She took small comfort in the angry sound it made as it stripped through the leaves and clacked to the ground.
"That didn't go quite like I thought it would." Aldonza dusted herself off as she stood. She had replaced her usual sarcasm with a sympathetic understanding, "What now, Warrior?"
Xena barely heard her at first while she, too, stood up, shaking out her blanket. Now the words echoed in her head. She stared stoically at Aldonza, then looked toward the stream, "We break camp."
Leading the way on Argo, Xena stayed well in front of the group as they traveled toward Amphipolis. Gabrielle kept in step, but carefully slowed herself every once and a while, to remain about ten paces back, so she wouldn't reveal the embarrassment she felt.
Aldonza stayed a few steps behind Gabrielle, just a little bit in front of the men, keeping a secret vigil over the two women. The foreign woman watched their dynamics and could see the avoidance-dance between the two ahead of her. She noticed the subtlety of Xena's horse being slowed, quickly resulting in the bard taking shorter steps to be sure to lengthen the distance between them again. Aldonza just shook her head.
Now, the men were grumbling, once again. Xena had only allowed each of them a small strip of dried meat for their breakfast. Everyone was hungry and she knew it could cause more tension than she would want to deal with, but it was worth the risk, if it meant she could end their journey with the crazies more quickly. It was late afternoon, and they were not quite an hour away from Amphipolis.
Xena slowed Argo to a halt. Gabrielle again countered by shuffling to a stop about ten paces back. Noticing what was happening, Aldonza continued her pace until she caught up with Gabrielle. The men almost bumped into Aldonza and started grousing out loud.
"Quiet! There's a creek to the left, I want everyone to get a drink and rest for a few minutes." Xena announced her orders as she walked Argo back to where everyone was waiting. Gabrielle quickly headed in the direction of the creek, but was stopped by Xena as she instructed Argo with a squeeze of her legs, to impede the bard's path.
Gabrielle almost walked right into the horse. "Why are you doing this? I'm thirsty." She couldn't look up at the rider.
"I was hoping we could talk a minute." It was Xena's first attempt all day to get the bard's attention. She started to hand her friend a water-skin, but Gabrielle just continued to stare at her own feet. Then, without a word, the bard quickly stepped around the horse and slipped through the bushes toward the creek before Xena could react.
"Fine!" Xena's exclamation was loud and testy. She reined her horse around and almost bumped into Aldonza. "Look, tell everyone to continue on to Amphipolis, I'll meet them at the tavern."
"What are you doing?" Aldonza could see that the warrior was upset.
"I'm going on ahead. You'll be all right without me." Xena started to ride out, when Aldonza grabbed Argo's reins.
"I'll ride with you, you might need me." The foreigner's intention was a serious one this time, but Xena took it the wrong way.
"No thanks, Aldonza, I don't need your kind of help." Xena gave her the water-skin along with an emphatic nod and signaled Argo to strike forward into a canter.
Gabrielle came out of the bushes and joined Aldonza on the road. They watched Xena ride off. The men were still lounging by the side of the creek. The two women eyed each other for a minute.
Aldonza spoke first. "Are you two always so stubborn?" She watched Gabrielle's expression change to disbelief.
"Not before you." Gabrielle gave her a sour look along with her sarcastic tone.
"Oh." The comment made Aldonza chuckle softly. "Just because I act on what I want On what you won't admit you feel. I'm not the enemy." Aldonza was slightly amused as she witnessed Gabrielle raise an eyebrow on her last statement.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle spoke as if to challenge instead of merely asking a question.
"You still don't see it, do you?" Aldonza crinkled her brow in contemplation, then smiled. "Hmmm, I'm going to get the men." She turned away and walked off the road to the stream.
Gabrielle wanted to snarl words at Aldonza, but just shook her head and started toward Amphipolis, knowing the others would easily catch up. She needed time to think.
Once at Amphipolis, Lantras had his men inconspicuously watch the tavern and wait for his instructions. Grekar was in charge of watching the front entryway while his boss sauntered inside to check out the patrons. The other men were to keep vigil over the prisoners. Lantras knew that Xena wouldn't recognize him and he wanted to have the first look inside to get the layout of the room, before he finished his plan of attack.
He squinted through the darkness as he scanned the tables. There was no one at the tables to the left and no one at the back table. Only two men sat at the table to the right against the wall. He saw no sign of the Warrior Princess as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkened room.
He spotted Tula as she motioned him toward an empty table. Lantras nodded and took a place to the left, where she indicated. Cyrene was behind the bar pouring two mugs of ale. Two farmers were talking to each other at the table across the room from him. It was obvious that the ale being poured was for them and Lantras knew that they would be staying a while. The leader continued his scan. He checked the back table again. It was perfect. No one entering the front of the tavern would be able to see him there. The staircase hid most of the table, and what could be seen of it was enveloped in shadow. The beams over the table had clear, easy access to suspend a rope. It is where he decided to sit when he took over the tavern. As for security, there was only the front door and a doorway to the kitchen. He was ready. He paused to take a deep breath and rub his tired eyes. Lantras scooted back the bench as he stood up and was startled by Tula standing in front of him. She had just finished serving the two farmers and had made her way to his table.
"Did you want something?" Tula said, unsure if the stranger was staying.
"Yeah, ale." He pulled out a coin from his waist pocket and flipped it onto the table. "I'll be right wid ya."
"Well...drink'll be waitin' for you." Tula gave him an impatient look, slightly offended by his curt attitude. She picked up the coin and headed for the bar to give Cyrene the order.
"What's with the stranger?" Cyrene had been watching him out of the corner of her eye.
"A bit tense, I'd say. Ale will calm him down." Tula pushed the coin across the bar then took the freshly poured mug from Cyrene, to be deposited on the stranger's table.
Before Tula could turn around, Lantras and his men swarmed through the entryway and made their way, with swords in hand, to their surprised victims. Grinning, he watched the ale from the mug in Tulas hand spray everywhere when she tried to twist her wrists away from the thug assigned to her. He could see Grekar quickly shuffle Don Q and Sancho through the front doorway, pushing them to their knees to the right of the entry.
"Don't any of ya move!" Lantras circled the room just to be sure everyone was accounted for. "Ok, here's how it's gonna go from now on!" Lantras loved the control he felt. He had surprised everyone with his take-over. He moved over to where Cyrene and Tula were each being detained by one of his men. He looked directly at the woman behind the bar. "You the owner?"
"Yes." Cyrene struggled slightly in defiance, to gain release from the thug's grip. She was more angry than afraid, "It's been a slow day, if it's money you want." The thug clamped down on her wrists more firmly and waited to see if Lantras was going to give him further orders. Lantras merely watched while his man took control again.
"It's not yer coin I'm after. When's Xena gonna be here? Lantras scanned the room while he waited for the answer. The two farmers were being gagged and bound, then dragged to a far corner, out of site. He smiled, thoroughly pleased with himself. He turned back to glare at the tavern owner.
"Xena? Why would you think she'd be here any time soon?" Cyrene was truly curious. She again tried to wrench away from her captor without luck.
"Shut up 'n answer!" Lantras turned his back to the woman and swaggered away from the bar. He grinned and sought the attention of each of his men. They nodded and shifted to their next planned position around the room. One man leaned against the wall in the shadows near the doorway. He was ready, laden with heavy ropes. Next to him, another waited, wielding a heavy club.
"Haven't seen her and don't expect to." Cyrene willingly lied with the old truth. "We parted badly long ago." Her only thought was to stall for time. She hoped Xena could take them by surprise, if she got back in time.
With hands on his hips, Lantras stopped in front of a kneeling Don Q. The leader slowly lifted his boot, catching the toe of it under Don Q's chin. He continued to pull upward, directing the old man's attention squarely up to meet his stare. "Clever, eh? Tell me, wha'd she look like?" Lantras lowered his foot and rested it on Don Q's thigh as he leaned down closer to hear the response. He had heard tales of the Warrior Princess and what she looked like. If Don Q really did see her, the leader would know soon enough and he was ready for any lies.
"Sss... Sir, it was dark...an...an...I couldn't see her face...but she has a piercing war cry and was all in leather armor. She was very large." Don Q was thinking rotund rather than tall, but descriptions were not coming to him easily under the pressure. "She should be here by now."
Lantras seemed satisfied. "That's her from what's been tol'." He gave the orders to have Don Q and Sancho gagged and blindfolded, then he turned back to Cyrene. "Bad to lie to me, woman Guess ya won't live long for yer trouble. He looked over to Tula. "Where's that ale, wench!" Lantras signaled his man to let the barmaid get him the drink.
Tula fetched the drink and glanced at Cyrene, hoping for a signal of some kind. Cyrene gave a passive expression and a half-shake of her head, indicating that she should just do as she was told. The barmaid walked the mug over to the leader and handed it to him.
Lantras took a huge swallow of ale, let out a rumbling belch, then wandered over to the table in the back and sat down. "Now, we wait."
Xena rode Argo hard and fast, keeping up with the rush of frustration she was feeling. She slowed her horse at the edge of town, trying to sort through her thoughts. She found herself dismounting and entering the darkness of the tavern before she really knew what she was doing. It was too late.
The thug raised his club at the signal, knowing he'd have to act swiftly if he were to be successful. He also was keenly aware that his life depended on rendering the Warrior Princess unconscious. Neither Lantras nor Xena would show clemency if he were to miss his mark.
With the cracking sound of wood against skull, Xena slumped to the floor. The highwayman with ropes swooped in to complete the capture. He stretched her out on her back and bound her wrists together. Nervously, he continued to tie her feet together, hoping she would not wake up before he was done. He removed her sword and scabbard, along with her chakram and metal breast armor. When he was done, he signaled another man to help lift her to the table in the back where Lantras was waiting. A third man bolted the front door closed so no one could wander in unannounced.
Lantras grinned and lifted his mug out of the way to make room for the lifeless body. He leaned down to see if she was still breathing. Pleased with his findings, he muttered to the unconscious prisoner, "You're gonna have a killer-headache, Warrior." He continued his instructions. "String her up!"
Cyrene watched on with horror. "Leave her alone. What do you want from her?" She did not get an answer, but felt her body being muscled against the planks of the bar by her captor and words were coarsely whispered into her ear. "Shuddup, if ya wanna live." She nodded and silently watched as Xena was hoisted upward by her bound wrists. The men slowly pulled her up using another rope that they tossed over the crossbeam. She was left hanging, suspended under the rafters; her toes barely scraped the surface of the table.
Lantras chuckled and spoke to no one in particular, "That otta hold her." He grabbed his ale and walked over to Don Q and Sancho. "Grekar, bring me the helmet."
Aldonza and the men quickly caught up with Gabrielle. The two women walked in silence until they were at the edge of town. The foreign woman finally asked the bard a question. "How long have you traveled with the Warrior?"
It was an innocent enough question for the bard to politely respond with the blandness of an unacceptable truce. "A little more than two winters."
"I can tell that youre very fond of her." Aldonza was already thinking of her next question as she waited for Gabrielle to respond.
"Shes my best friend. I cant imagine being without her." Gabrielle spoke with confidence and added a little extra emphasis to her last statement to be sure the foreign woman understood the strength of the relationship.
"Oh, then surely theres more between you?" Aldonza was purposely brazen.
"What are you getting at? More?" Again, Gabrielle was becoming uncomfortable with the womans questions.
"You've never kissed her?" Aldonza watched the bard stumble slightly and could see her expression change from surprise to one of irritation. Aldonza chuckled softly to herself, and added, "I can tell you want to."
"You cannot! I didn't even know I could kiss her like that, until I saw you and Xena almost-" Gabrielle stopped walking and grabbed Aldonza's arm so she could face the irritating brunette. She realized she was being incited by Aldonza to bare her feelings, but caught on, and ended her words just in time. "Why are you doing this?"
"Oh, I guess I just hate to see love wasted." Aldonza gave a wry smile and wiggled her eyebrows in a "know-it-all" gesture.
Gabrielle spoke with a skeptical tone to her voice. Her eyes narrowed as she challenged the knowledge of the supposed expert. "And just what kind of love are you talking about?"
"The best kind, Gabrielle. The kind that lasts for a lifetime rather than a night." Aldonza's face softened as she spoke her words. For the first time, an expression of weariness flashed across the foreigner's face and she sounded a bit tired. "We'd better keep moving." The foreigner turned and signaled the men to move forward, then quickly set a long stride that purposely left the bard behind with the others.
Gabrielle was surprised by the sincerity of the woman walking away from her. She closed her eyes in contemplation for a moment, trying to imagine what Aldonza's life must be like. A soft sympathy overwhelmed her heart at the thought. "Hey, wait up!" Gabrielle called out, but Aldonza did not respond.
Gabrielle didn't try to catch up with Aldonza until they were mid-village. She found the foreign woman waiting two doors down from the tavern. "Why are you waiting?" The bard was curious at the foreigner's sudden reticence to meet up with the Warrior Princess.
"Thought it best to have a friendly face walk in ahead of me." Aldonza's cockiness had returned, along with her teasing grin "Most places don't take well to my kind. Can't stand the competition, I guess. I'm sure you understand."
Gabrielle ignored the last comment, as she looked down the village doorways and quizzically stared at the tavern entrance. Her face reflected worry. "That's odd."
"What?" The foreigner glanced around the street, not quite sure of what the bard was thinking. She couldn't see anything troublesome.
"The door's closed. The tavern door is never closed, except for bad weather Aldonza, something is wrong." Gabrielle started toward the tavern, but was stopped.
"Gabrielle, wait! Let's not be hasty." The foreigner grabbed the bard's arm to bring her to a halt. "Look, let me work my way through the front. Is there a way in the back?"
The bard nodded. "Through the kitchen."
"Give me some time, then come through the back. Aldonza placed her hand on the bard's shoulder as a gesture of comfort. "It's probably nothing. Just tell the man named Goody to wait outside the back door with the others and to listen for a signal, he'll know what I mean."
Gabrielle nodded again, this time in compliance, but asked due to curiosity, "Shouldn't I know the signal, too?"
"Not necessary." Aldonza spoke over her shoulder as she walked away. She raised her hand in the air to emphasize the finality of her answer and headed for the tavern door.
Gabrielle watched her go. She waited long enough to witness Aldonza pounding on the tavern door, screaming wild and robust cuss words, demanding immediate access to men and drink. A familiar feeling of amazement filled the bard as she watched the woman's boldness. The bard took a deep breath, then left, gathering the men and moving them to the back of the building. She told the men to wait outside as she nervously slipped through the back door and listened to the muffled voices of those further inside.
The thug leaning against the tavern door jumped to a vigilant stance when he felt the vibration of someone pounding on the other side. The first words that he heard coming from outside were muffled and unclear, but the adrenaline rushing through him brought his hearing to full focus. Soon, everyone was aware that someone wanted in and that she wanted service now.
Lantras drew his attention away from Don Q and his servant. "Tell her we're closed for business, any kind of business." Only he laughed at his own lame joke. He turned toward Grekar, who was now handing him the Golden Helmet. "Get back to yer post. As soon as Xena wakes up, it's gonna get busy in here."
The leader shoved his empty mug of ale into Grekar's hand, then lifted the helmet up with grand flare and slowly lowered it onto his head. He took mental note of all that watched him. His smile widened, but his egotistical thoughts were interrupted by the persistence of the woman outside. His grin quickly dropped to a frown. "What the get her in here. Now!" He returned to his place at the rear table and waited for the intruder to be brought to him. He perched himself on the end of the table and using his foot, he dragged the bench over to where he could rest both feet together. Xena was still unconscious, dangling behind him.
Even with her incessant hammering, Aldonza heard the dead-bolt clank against a part of itself. She drew in a deep breath, as the only preparation for whatever she would encounter on the inside. The door opened just wide enough to allow her entry and she took advantage of it before someone changed their mind.
"Hello, fellas. Who do I talk to 'bout getting a drink?" Aldonza moved in quickly before anyone could approach her. She could see a consortium of bandits that didn't look all that successful or smart. She gathered as much information as possible in the confusion, while she purposefully took a turn around the room, using subtle, but seductive dance movements with her arms and body, diffusing any attention from her scanning eyes. "Is it you, or you? Oh, and you...hmmm, no, it might be you! Oh, and you too! So many to choose from!" Her voice was deep and sultry as she verbally ticked her list out loud. As she passed by members of the gang, she kept the count to memory, and included their exact location. She held her composure, as her eyes glanced across the two farmers in the corner. She had almost gasped out loud at the site of Don Q and Sancho tied up near the front wall.
Aldonza twirled toward Cyrene and Tula. She could see confusion on their faces. As for the thugs holding on to them, Aldonza served up a longer look of appreciation. "Umm, Nice catch, boys." She smiled and gave a wink, but it was subtly aimed at the two women. She watched the guards break their concentration slightly at the supposed compliment as they grinned to each other over the distraction. Adding another twirl in front of the women, Aldonza winked again, making one last attempt to signal Tula and Cyrene that help is near.
She then turned toward the back table and raised her eyebrows at the man wearing a very familiar head adornment. She recognized Don Q's helmet and immediately started sizing up the ridiculous fool sitting before her. "Well now, it seems obvious that I should start with you. You definitely have the look of a man on a mission." It was hard for her to stifle a laugh, until she saw what was hanging behind him. Aldonza had to look away to hide her shock. She focused on her skirt and made a pretense to iron out the worst wrinkles with her palm of her hand. In an instant, she quickly reassessed the caliber of danger she was in.
Lantras knew what she had seen. "What do ya think? Know who she is?" He grinned with pride.
"Bagged a big one, I'd say." Aldonza held her disgust, and played it light. "Obviously special. Might I have a look?" She appealed to his vanity and won.
"Go ahead. Takes a big man to out-smart the Warrior Princess." Lantras was shamelessly gloating.
"Oooo, and I can't wait 'til I really learn just how big you are." Aldonza gave him a seductive smile and playfully reached over to pinch his cheek.
"Huh?" Lantras wasn't sure how to respond. He didn't quite catch the woman's sarcasm, and he flinched at her pinch, causing his helmet to slip to the side of his head, the edge resting against the top of his ear. He grunted a quick laugh and self-consciously shifted the helmet back into place, still pondering her comment.
Given his permission, Aldonza climbed up on the table and stood in front of Xena. She could see the bloody swelling on the side of her skull. She reached up to feel the wound. There was a generous split to the scalp which was the reason for all of the blood, but it appeared that the blow did no more damage to the head than that. She was very relieved and figured that Xena would view her situation merely as an inconvenience once she was awake. "How long has she been out?"
"Not long. She'll be awake any minute." Lantras watched Aldonza climb down from the table.
Aldonza grinned inwardly at the thought of Xena's reaction once she woke up. It was clear that the ropes holding her could easily be wiggled out of. And knowing Xena's strength, all of these fools would be prison-fodder in no time. The foreign woman grinned devilishly; it was then, that she decided to work a little magic of her own in the meantime. She sashayed over to the leader and leaned her body against his knees, ducking her head under the metal helmet. With her lips near his earlobe, she whispered, "Get me a drink and I'll tell you something you want to hear." She straightened up again and purred out seductively, "Umm, hope you're the curious type I'm thirsty."
Lantras swallowed hard, then recovered and signaled Tula to fetch him two mugs of ale this time. He glanced back at Aldonza. "This better be good, woman."
As Tula approached them, Aldonza stepped forward to meet her as far out in front of Lantras as she could. She reached for the two mugs and let one of them slip to the floor. It landed with a crash. Both Tula and Aldonza scrambled to pick up the pieces. The foreign woman grabbed for the same piece of broken pottery and she and the barmaid locked eyes for an instant, but it was long enough for Tula to hear the foreigner's quiet words, "Xena's fine, just wait." The barmaid nodded once in understanding. Aldonza stood up and returned to Lantras with one drink in hand.
"Ha! Seems ya spoilt yer chance for a drink, but ya still owes me." Lantras took the mug from Aldonza and chugged down half of it. He smacked his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Now, tell me, wench!"
The foreign woman leaned in and spoke softly to keep the others from hearing. She knew she had pleased him when he laughed out loud.
The leader ordered two men to be ready at the back doorway of the kitchen. "They hate each other, eh?" Lantras' delight was apparent as he confirmed the information again. "Go 'n get that drink. Ya earned it. Ha! 'Love a good catfight."
Aldonza moved to the bar with the other women. Cyrene was freed long enough to pour her a drink, but the foreigner waved her off and smirked. "Changed my mind, thanks. Got to keep a clear head during working hours." Aldonza nodded, but saw Cyrene give her another look of puzzlement.
Suddenly, the room was filled with Gabrielle's screaming protests as the two men who caught her in the kitchen, carried her into the tavern. "Let me go! Stop it! What do you think you're doing? Let go!" She was twisting and squirming like an eel out of water, trying to free herself from the men carrying her. The men held their iron grip until she was face to face with Lantras. She didn't recognize him. "Who are you?" Gabrielle started to look around the room, but didn't get a chance. She was stunned to see Xena hanging from the rafters. She cried out, "Xena!" There was no response.
Gabrielle watched the leader stare at her. She turned to see Aldonza casually walking over from the bar and sidle up to him. "Whats going on? Aldonza?"
"Youll see." Aldonza raised her eyebrows, adding an innocent inflection to her voice. The foreign woman shifted her weight against Lantras hip and shoulder. She knew instinctively that he would be pleased with the attention, though her behavior would completely confuse the young bard.
Lantras gave Gabrielle another speculative check from head to toe. Addressing his attention to the woman leaning into him, he asked, "Ya sure about this?"
"Oh, quite sure, love." She threw her arm around his neck and shoulder to lean in closer and watched Gabrielle's expression of shock turn to one of disbelief. "Bitter enemies, I'd say." Aldonza flashed a playful grin.
"Aldonza, what are you doing? We're not enemies, remember?" Gabrielle said, baffled and hurt. "Why? Is this all you're made of? Can't you ever care longer than a day?"
Aldonza blinked at the inference. The bard's anger burned into the heart of her, but she did not allow the sting to show. She merely whispered again into the leader's ear and he nodded, then they both let out a laugh.
"String her up too, boys." Lantras watched as Gabrielle was tied in the same manner as Xena. Two men lifted her onto the tabletop and started to rig another rope over the crossbeam.
"Wait!" Aldonza caught the attention of one of the thugs holding onto the bard. He knelt down to hear what she wanted to say to him. He chuckled a bit and looked to Lantras for confirmation. Aldonza just smiled when the leader signaled to go ahead. She watched the men pull the rope down from the crossbeam but continue to lift Gabrielle's arms over her head anyway.
Gabrielle squirmed and jerked with all her energy. "Stop! Let go of me!"
Aldonza watched the men grab the bard around the waist, lifting her up, facing Xena, then looping her bound wrists up and over the warrior's head. They let go. Gabrielle's legs were too short to touch the tabletop, so she just hung there like a side of beef, pressed intimately against the warrior's torso and bosom. Her chin rested neatly on the leather hem of the warrior's bodice. Her nose was rooted in cleavage.
"Aldonza! You've got to be joking!" The bard's words were muffled by the fullness of Xena's breasts. She was able twist her head to the side to gain enough air to spout her protests, but she couldn't turn her head far enough to see much beyond Xena's armpit. "Let me down!"
Aldonza chuckled at the site. "Just wait until Xena wakes up, Little One. She'll take you down." Lantras was laughing too, thinking that the woman's comments meant that Xena would kill the unlikely albatross, but Aldonza had a much more romantic scenario in mind. She continued chuckling until she turned her comments to Lantras. "So, who are these men and where did you find that remarkable head gear?" She was now ready to deal with the leader and his gang.
Lantras was eager to brag and pulled the helmet from his head to show his new woman. "I snagged it from him." The leader indicated direction by thrusting the helmet in hand toward the front of the room.
"Oh, you're good! So, introduce me." Aldonza purred into Lantras' ear. She wanted to get the leader away from where Xena and Gabrielle were strung up. She knew that Xena would need time to break free from her ropes and it had to be done before Lantras and his men were aware that Xena was awake.
Lantras turned and leaned in for a kiss, but Aldonza tucked her head down and avoided him, pretending to notice his hands for the first time. "Oh my! Such strong looking hands." He couldn't see her roll her eyes with her boredom of the game. Then she took one of his hands in hers and pulled him away from the table and toward Don Q. "Come on...show me your other prize."
"Huh?" Confused, Lantras studied his free hand for an instant while flexing his fingers, then automatically glanced down at his crotch.
Aldonza stopped pulling him and gave him a wistful smile and winked. "I mean your other prisoner."
"Uh, yeah." He chuckled as the wench continued to playfully drag him to the front of the tavern. He turned to the men holding the other women at the bar, "Tie 'em up and guard the kitchen." He signaled for more rope to be brought to the thugs holding Cyrene and Tula.
Aldonza and the leader made their way over to Don Q and Sancho.
Xena's head was pounding. Just the thought of opening her eyes caused her to wince at the expected increase of pain. She felt a little queasy from dizziness but knew that until she opened her eyes, she wouldn't be sure of just how much trouble she was in. There were muffled voices, and people moving around the tavern floor. Her head was slumped forward and her neck and back were killing her. The warrior couldn't believe how heavy she felt against her restraints. She opened one eye, just a little, to look around the room without letting anyone know she was awake. Her first view was the top of Gabrielle's head.
"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered softly, her eyes were wide open with surprise, but she instinctively knew not to move her head.
"Xena! You okay?" Gabrielle whispered softly in return. She lifted her head to see the warrior's face. Their lips were inches apart.
"I'll be better later. I see you want to talk to me now." Xena grinned.
"Very funny! You can thank Aldonza." Gabrielle was not amused.
"Figured as much." Xena closed her eyes a second and smiled at her thoughts of the foreigner. When she opened her eyes again she glanced up at the ropes. She smiled again, taking in a deep breath, relaxing a bit, finding that she could arch her toes and push her feet against the table, to take some of the weight off her arms and wrists. She watched Gabrielle shift her chin away from her cleavage as she let out a full sigh. Xena was concerned and continued to whisper, "Hey, you okay?"
"I don't know. Xena, are you in love with her? Is this her way of rubbing my nose in it...uh, you know what I mean." The bard blushed at the irony of her words, then shifted with embarrassment.
Xena smiled before she answered with a statement. She had stilled her pain-wracked body long enough to feel the warmth of Gabrielle's breath against her skin as the bard whispered her words. She took in a deep breath to savor the fragrance of the woman she loved. Everything about Gabrielle felt right, even being trussed together. Xena just needed to be sure that the bard shared the same desires.
"Back at camp, you said you wanted something. Let's finish that first." Xena glanced around the room waiting for a response. She could see that her mother and Tula were safe, but tied up and left to sit and wait, their backs braced against the wall behind the bar. Xena caught Cyrene looking at her and nodded to her mother that she was all right. Everyone else was gathered near the front doorway, paying attention to Lantras and Aldonza. She couldn't see what they were doing, but could hear laughter and then a strange raspy voice singing. The warrior knew that it had to be Aldonza creatively keeping the thugs busy. She looked back down at the bard and whispered in the gentlest way, "Gabrielle...you need to tell me."
"I don't think it matters now." Gabrielle whispered her defeat.
"You're wrong. Everything about you matters. Please." Xena was softly insistent.
"I was so confused, Xena." Hesitating slightly, Gabrielle quickly whispered her feelings, as if all that she confessed would end a horrible burden to her friend, to free her, to choose the foreigner. "You're my best friend and I have feelings that didn't make sense. Xena, I want to be with you every minute and when you're away, it's like I hold my breath until I see you again." The bard paused for a moment before she dared to continue. "I always imagine that you feel that I'm a tiny part of you, that wed always be together but, I had no idea of what I was truly feeling...until I watched you almost kiss Aldonza. I never knew that loving you in that way was even a possibility."
"Gabrielle, I-" Xena wasn't allowed to finish her thought.
The bard interrupted, needing to confess all before her tears took over. "Finally, I understand what's in my heart. And now, instead of pledging my love, I'm losing you. It's all so stupid!" Gabrielle turned her face away and swallowed hard. Her tears were flowing freely, but she kept her words soft and low, "How I feel about you would have been so simple and clear; I would have known what to do, had you been a man." Now embarrassed, she turned her head to look away.
Xena's voice was so tender. "Gabrielle look at me."
The bard barely heard her name, but there was such love spoken within it, that she was compelled to look up again. She felt her soul floating into the depths of Xenas eyes as her own eyes searched for reason. Motionless and entranced, she watched as the warrior's lips inched closer to hers. Her flesh prickled with anticipation.
"Gabrielle, why would I have to be a man?" Xenas lips brushed against Gabrielle's as she spoke the last few syllables.
Gabrielle closed her eyes to better feel the form and sensations of Xena's words playing against her lips. The sensuous vibrations tickled and teased until she felt the warm, velvety undulations of Xenas mouth grow more firm with desire. The softness of Xena's lips startled the bard for an instant, her eyes blinked open, but she didn't pull away. She uttered an imperceptible whimper as she witnessed Xena lost in pleasure. Her eyes closed again and her lips eagerly explored in return. She wanted the kiss to go on forever.
Xena felt the bard's reaction and started to smile mid-kiss. She knew that if Gabrielle didn't like it, she could easily pull away, but it was very clear that Gabrielle was enjoying herself. The thought of Gabrielle wanting her caused Xena to purr with pleasure and she was quickly lost again in the sweet tenderness of Gabrielle's lips. It was only due to their basic need for more air that the two women parted.
Gabrielle gasped for air as though she had been under water. It was hard for her to keep her voice to a soft murmur. "Oh, Xena!"
Xena gazed down at her bard, and whispered, "Me too, Gabrielle!" The warrior smiled. "Hey, you'd better learn to pace yourself. I'd hate to have you pass out on me every time we kiss."
"I'm not sure it can be helped," Gabrielle breathed in deep, trying to catch her breath. Hesitating only a second, the bard flashed an impish grin. Pressing against the warrior's shoulders with her forearms, she pulled herself up close to the warrior's lips. "More!" She playfully pursed her lips, begging for another kiss.
Xena grinned, more than happy to respond, though she made it short and sweet. "Hey, we're going to have to save it for now...we have work to do." The warrior raised an eyebrow with mock authority.
Gabrielle beamed and asked, "What's the plan?"
Xena glanced up at the ropes binding her wrists. She pushed up with her toes and started to wriggle free. As she worked her hands, she scanned the room. Her eyes shifted to her mother. Cyrene was looking at her with a smug smile, her right eyebrow raised, acknowledging a revelation come to full fruition. Xena felt her cheeks growing warm. She rolled her eyes and gave a sheepish smile back, before her attention was diverted to Gabrielle.
"The plan...Xena?" Gabrielle whispered impatiently.
"I just need to get free and." Xena interrupted her own sentence and twisted her hands, trying to loosen the ropes.
"Xena, I think I can help," Gabrielle said, a little hesitant. "Your breast dagger...I think I can get to it."
Xena wasn't sure at first what Gabrielle had in mind. Then it came to her. "Gabrielle, you don't need to-" Again she was interrupted.
"You need a weapon, don't you?" Gabrielle was quietly emphatic and wasn't about to let Xena brush her aside again. "Please Xena, let me help."
Xena knew that Gabrielle hadn't quite thought it through, but wasn't eager for the wrath that she would endure if she slighted the bard's participation in their rescue. Xena let out a deep breath while continuing her work at the bindings over her head. "Well, if you think you can get it ...okay."
Gabrielle gave her warrior a smile. She arched her back and tilted her head to get a better perspective on the location of just where the dagger was buried. "Umm...Xena, you don't mind...you're sure?"
Xena looked down and could see her bard self-conscientiously contemplating just where her lips were about to delve. She closed her eyes and smiled at the thought. "Go ahead...just hurry!"
The bard closed her eyes and leaned in, catching the inside of Xena's bodice with her chin. She pulled back as she tilted her head down. The movement opened a pocket between warm skin and leather armor, revealing the "mother lode" of cleavage. Gabrielle took in a deep breath before she started bobbing for the dagger. She felt the heat of Xena's body and it brought a rosy flush to her face. Her nose nested perfectly between the warrior's breasts and the warm, pillows of softness against her cheeks swept the bard away to an instantaneous journey into the erotic awakenings within her own body. She pulled her face up and gulped for air. With eyes still closed, she took a deep breath and savored the feel and fragrance of her warrior. Her heart was pounding. Hearing Xena's voice, she opened her eyes.
"Gabrielle? What are-?" Xena could feel the bard's heart beating against her ribs. She softly chuckled to herself and half-heartedly tried to get Gabrielle to stop. The warrior was now all too sensitized to the bard's touch and not that eager to halt the exploration. "If you can't get to it, it's okay. You don't need to."
"No, I can do it! I just need to go deeper." The bard gave Xena a determined look. Gabrielle started to take another breath.
"Maybe you should try that 'gift of tongue' I heard about." Xena raised an eyebrow; her eyes were twinkling.
"Just you wait, Warrior!" Gabrielle quipped back, and was suddenly embarrassed at the reminder of Aldonza's teasing, but was particularly so at her own bravado. She again took a gulp of air and descended back into the fleshy depths to hide her blush. She tipped her chin forward and down, stretching the leather armor fully. Her chin finally touched the top of the dagger hilt. She knew she couldn't reach it with her lips. Turning her face to the side, she dug in deeper and found the smoothness of Xena's skin distracting. The bard wanted more, but held her focus on the dagger.
She wiggled in closer, but quickly slowed her movements when she began to feel Xena's nipple harden against her cheek. She froze for an instant. By the Gods! Gabrielle lost all her air in a silent gasp. She shifted slightly and found a small space between leather and skin, enough to breathe in again. The air was rich with the essence of leather and body heat. She wasn't sure she'd survive the sensations pulsing through her body, but then, she wasn't sure she needed to. The bard couldn't help herself. She tilted her head up and twisted a little toward Xena's body. Her blushed cheek was her guide and soon the corner of her mouth felt the sensitized flesh protruding obediently toward her lips. Gabrielle's lips parted and she instinctively allowed her tongue to reach out and taste. She slid her tongue gently across the tip of Xena's nipple. She felt Xena shudder and a thrill shot through her.
Gabrielle " Xena closed her eyes to the sensations her bard was offering her. It was hard for her to concentrate on the ropes. " just get the dagger!"
Gabrielle returned to where she last found the hilt of the dagger and reached down further with her tongue. She jiggled the dagger to loosen it from its sheath. She could taste the saltiness of Xena's skin as her tongue worked back and forth. She thought she heard a slight gasp echo from within Xena's lungs. Finally, the dagger loosened. In her enthusiasm, the bard had caused the leather to stretch a little more and now there was just enough room to reach the weapon with her lips. She gently pulled straight up, at the same time sucking it into the firm grasp of her teeth. She mumbled her words as she presented the knife to the warrior. She was smiling at the same time. "Godd it!"
"You're wonderful." Xena spoke with soft sincerity, then smiled and placed a quick kiss on the bard's forehead, as she gently took the dagger out of Gabrielle's mouth with her hand.
The bard grinned with success, but her expression soon changed to confusion when she saw that ropes no longer bound Xena. "Xena? How'd you..." Gabrielle was flustered. "You never needed me to...?"
"I tried to tell you. Hurry, just lift your arms now." Xena put the dagger in between her teeth and placed her hands around the bard's waist. She quickly lifted Gabrielle up to free her. Xena relished the feeling of the bard slowly sliding down her body as she quietly set her down on the table. Then she proceeded to cut away their bindings. "You can be angry with me later, ok?"
"I'll try and remember." Gabrielle whispered, mildly sarcastic, but couldn't help smiling up into her warrior's loving eyes. She looked at the warriors head wound. "Xena your wound it needs tending."
"Im fine. Ill take care of it later." Xena smiled and eased the dagger back down between her breasts. She stretched her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her in for a quick hug. She planted a kiss on the top of her bard's head, leaned down and whispered in Gabrielle's ear, " I imagine Goody and the boys are waiting outside, so heres what you need to do when Im ready for a diversion "
Aldonza sauntered over to the front of the tavern, as she continued to cajole Lantras into following behind. It wasn't a difficult task. She stopped just in front of where Don Q and Sancho were kneeling and turned toward the leader. She spoke with her most innocent inflection. "Are they important, too?" She pointed her finger toward her two friends.
"Maybe." Lantras stepped around the woman and poked Don Q with his boot. "They're gonna be dead if they ain't."
Don Q reacted to the boot-prod with a start, causing him to lose his balance and fall onto his side. He was completely disoriented due to the blindfold, and with his hands tied behind his back, he couldn't steady himself enough to find his way upright again. He just kept rocking to either side, trying to get up on his knees. Just when he was almost upright he would fall over again.
Lantras and his men started to laugh at the uncoordinated antics. Aldonza made the pretense to join in and fought the urge to help him. She decided it would be necessary to wait, for it was more important to think of a way to keep the men occupied, away from Xena.
Aldonza whispered softly to Lantras, "Make them sing. That should be amusing. I If they stop, you can threaten to kill them." She knew from experience that Don Q would sing forever at the slightest invitation, but would be ever fervent in sharing his entire repertoire repeatedly, if it meant saving himself from possible death. Aldonza smiled to herself. She could imagine the frustration the leader was going to experience when he grew tired of the entertainment; it would most likely be enough time for Xena to come to their rescue.
Lantras liked the idea. He grinned, leaned over and grabbed Don Q by the collar and pulled him back up on to his knees. Then he yanked at the gag until it was pulled down under the prisoner's chin. The leader ordered, "Sing for the lady. And don't stop or you're dead!"
Don Q hesitated for a second, only to clear his throat and think of a tune. "I...I have a lovely song for a lady." He soon launched into one of his favorite melodies, "Dul-cinnnnn-eeeeyaaaaaa, Dul-cinnnn-eeeeyaaaaa." He gestured his interpretation of the lyrics by bobbing his head at vocally significant moments. He could hear the thugs chuckling in the background, but he was so engrossed in his own dynamics, he didn't care. He was too busy visualizing his Dulcinea as he sang the words.
The leader was amused. So much so, that he stepped over to the squire and threatened him with injury and death if he didn't sing also. Lantras looked back at Aldonza and grinned. She gave him a wink.
Sancho could never remember many songs, but with quivering voice, he started one that he thought would do for a while. "I like him, la-de-daaa-deeee-dummmmm...pluck me naked as a scalded chicken, I like him..." When he couldn't remember any more words, he began to whistle the tune, off key.
Lantras and his gang were laughing hard. They periodically poked and bumped at the unsuspecting singers only to roar louder at the flinches of surprise. They didn't notice Aldonza slip quietly backwards, behind them, to check on Xena and Gabrielle.
She moved toward the staircase and peeked around to where Xena and Gabrielle were hanging. Xena had undone her ropes and was in the process of untying Gabrielle's bindings. Then the foreign women witnessed Xena wrapping her arms around the bard, kiss her lightly on the head, and whisper something in her ear. Aldonza whispered, "pssst its about time!"
Xena turned toward the soft voice, recognizing it as Aldonzas, and whispered back, "We were just coming."
"Are we talking about the same thing?" The foreign womans teasing tone was unmistakable. Aldonza quickly turned to check on Lantras and the men. She could see that they were getting tired of the caterwauling and that Lantras was ordering his men to replace the gags of both prisoners. She turned back to Xena and whispered with urgency, "Hurry up!" She swiftly returned to where she was standing, behind the leader, just as he turned to say something to her.
"I should kill 'em for not stopping," Lantras gave Aldonza a wry smile.
"But they did make you laugh." She stepped closer and cuddled up to his arm, purposely keeping him turned with his back to the stairs. "It was worth it for that." She leaned her head on his shoulder as she watched Sancho and Don Q being gagged again.
Xena smirked to her self at Aldonza's teasing innuendo, then nodded to a red-faced Gabrielle to go ahead with her part of the plan. The warrior jumped up to grab the ceiling beam and swung herself up. Once she was balanced, she used it as a catwalk to where Lantras and his men were gathered. She slowly proceeded across the beam to be ready to pounce as soon as Gabrielle gave the signal.
Gabrielle slipped silently down from the table and made herself as small as possible, as she tiptoed to the far end of the bar. When she cleared the shadows of the stairs, she crouched down on her hands and knees and crept around behind the bar where Cyrene and Tula were waiting. She held a finger to her lips to be sure of their silence when they saw her. She reached Xenas mother first and began to untie her. The bard then signaled with her eyes for Cyrene to untie Tula. The bard puffed her cheeks and silently blew out a silent breath of air to relieve her tension. She leaned back against the wall, looked around and could see the unobstructed view of the area where she and Xena had just been. She closed her eyes, and with an internal groan to herself, she speculated about what Xena's mother must have witnessed between the two of them tied together. Oh, no! She felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. She looked over to Cyrene and back to the beam above the table, then quickly back to Cyrene, wishing that she could somehow make herself invisible.
Cyrene had finished untying the barmaid and waited for the next instruction. She watched Gabrielle for a moment, then looked up to where the bard's eyes were focused. Cyrene looked down again and caught the bards glance, giving her a whimsical smile. Recognizing the bard's humiliation, she cocked her head and whispered, "What now daughter?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a second, let out a deep breath in relief and smiled at Cyrene. The bard then held her hand up to tell the two women to wait. She looked up into the rafters and spotted Xena wending her way toward Lantras. The bard waited for Xena to get ready.
The warrior crouched down on the beam just above Lantras and Grekar. She turned her head toward the bar to check with Gabrielle. Everyone was ready. At Xena's nod, the bard let out her loudest scream toward the kitchen. "FIGHT! FIGHT! GOODY, FIGHT, FIGHT!"
On hearing the shouting, everyone turned toward the end of the bar and kitchen doorway. Xena let out a battle-cry as she landed in front of Grekar, surprising him with a double hit to his collarbones. The blow knocked him to the ground and rendered his arms useless. He rolled on the floor groaning in pain. Lantras grabbed Xena from behind, but before he could get his arm around her throat, she gripped his wrist, twisted it and flipped the leader over her shoulder. He hit the floorboards hard, his helmet landing near the warriors feet. She looked up to see two thugs heading straight toward her.
Xena pinned Lantras to the floor, as she thought of her next move. The first man continued toward her while the second man hesitated. She saw Gabrielle jump out from behind the bar and smash a beer mug over the second mans skull. Xena shouted, "Gabrielle, behind you!"
The bard had started toward Xena, but before she heard the warriors warning, Goody and his gang overran her. They were madly pushing through the kitchen doorway. Gabrielle was knocked to her knees, but stayed there curled in a ball as Goody and the other men sprinted all around her.
Xena saw Goody running in her direction, pushing the first thug down and out of the way. She was relieved that she could now finish with Lantras without interruption. The warrior gave the leader a quick punch to his jaw, leaving him unconscious. She was just beginning to straighten up when Goody jumped onto her back yelling, "Fight, Fight...oh, goodie, Fight!" Xena felt him wrap his arms around her neck as his legs gripped around her waist. Her neck was being squeezed more tightly as Goody added an upward pull, fully determined to choke her.
"Goody, Get off me! Xena's voice sounded strained under the chokehold. For an instant, she was surprised at what was happening. Then in exasperation she grabbed his wrists and pulled downward while bending at the waist. Goody went headfirst over Xena's back and landed on his heels and butt at the same time. Xena knelt down behind him as he landed and with her own chokehold to his throat, she spoke quickly and firmly, "Damn you, Goody, you come after me one more time, you're stew meat! Now, see those guys comin' for us? Go and get them!" Xena grabbed him under his arms and lifted him to his feet. She gave him a shove toward the next two men coming at them.
Goody yelled out, "Get 'em...Get 'em!" He set a lumbering pace, heading straight toward the men. When he got close enough to them, he jumped up. His arms were out wide at his sides. He purposely rammed his arms and shoulders into the thugs chests, knocking them on their backs. Goody landed in between the two. He quickly shifted his body a quarter turn to his left, lying perpendicular, over the top of them, pinning the thugs to the floor. Goody continued his rant, "Fight! Get 'em!" He was kicking and slapping at the thugs hands and arms as they tried to grab him to throw him off to the side. Lantras' men continued to struggle to get up. They would have succeeded, but the rest of the Loco's were eager to heed Goody's command. And they piled on top of the three men on the floor, to join in the fun.
Xena had finished her last words to Goody and watched him leap, spread-eagle, at the thugs. It was then that Lantras attacked her again from behind. She felt him behind her and was able to spin around and away. She kicked upward and thrust her boot into the leader's mid-section, knocking the air out of his lungs. He dropped to the ground, trying to re-capture his breath. When he looked up at her, she punched her fist into his jaw, and he slumped, unconscious, to the floor.
Xena paused only for a second to be sure Lantras wasn't going to get up any time soon. She wheeled around to find Gabrielle. The bard was pinned against the bar struggling with one of the other thugs. He had her by the throat and was starting to threaten her with his knife. Xena absent-mindedly reached for her chakram, but instantly remembered that it was missing. She spotted the strange looking helmet resting on the floor near her feet. She picked it up. She considered it's size and shape, and taking a chance in the spilt-second that she had available to help, she threw it at Gabrielle's attacker. She tried to watch the helmet's progress, hoping that it would respond enough like her chakram to do the job, but another thug wielding a sword distracted her. He was racing toward her. She was ready when he lunged at her and was able to spin around while swinging her leg up and across, in front of him. It knocked the sword out of his hand. She gave him a double-punch to his face with her fists and knocked him out.
The warrior looked up at the bards attacker in time to see the would-be chakram slam into the back of his head. Stunned, the thug dropped his knife. He stepped back from the bard, and turned in the direction of where the blow came from. He glanced down at the object that hit him. It was rocking back and forth on the floor. He started rubbing the erupting goose egg, and raised his eyes, staring at Xena with a look of disbelief. She winked at him as she watched Gabrielle grab another beer mug from the bar and slam it to his head. He seemed to successfully endure the second stinging blow and contemplated the pain for a second. Just as Gabrielle was about to hit him with another mug, his eyes rolled back into their sockets and his knees buckled. The warrior watched him slowly crumpled to the floor.
Checking in with each other, the two women held each other's gaze for a split second. Xena gave her bard a prideful grin of approval. She watched Gabrielle playfully pucker her lips in reply, sending an imaginary kiss of thanks back to her. Stirred by the bard's unusually bold response, the Warrior Princess raised a flirtatious eyebrow and gave the suggestion of a bow using a slight nod of her head. Xena's attention soon returned to business when Gabrielle started signaling her to turn around. The warrior spun around to see that Aldonza was in trouble at the far end of the room.
Aldonza had been able to avoid the fighting. She used what little time she had to untie Don Q and the farmers, trying to keep them calm.
"Dear Lady, how kind you are." He spoke with hesitation as he blinked away the blurring when Aldonza removed his blindfold. Then he gasped, "Dulcinea? I left you at the castle?" He got up off his knees and looked around the room at the assembly of people involved in fisticuffs. The farmers stayed huddled in the corner. "Stand back, Milady." Don Q scooped his arm around the front of her to guide her behind his protective stance. He had no idea that the movement shuffled Aldonza right into an approaching thug.
The highwayman grabbed Aldonza's arms and began to pull her to the front doorway using her as a shield. She struggled just long enough to cause him to stop for a minute. It was all the time she needed to set him up. She raised her foot and slammed it down as hard as she could, right on his instep. He recoiled in pain, lifting his injured foot in agony. Aldonza wheeled around and jammed her elbow smack under his jaw. The thug lost his balance and fell onto his side, rocking on the floor in pain. She leaned over him and chided, "No one grabs me without my permission, got it?" The thug nodded with a respectful understanding.
Xena walked over to where the man was coiled on the floor. She looked at Aldonza and grinned. "Nice work."
Aldonza winked in return. "All in a nights work."
Xena grabbed the thug by the shirt and started to drag him over to the others. She glanced at Aldonza. "Want to give me a hand?"
Aldonza understood Xenas question as a simple peace offering. "Anytime." She smiled and took hold of another part of the thug's shirt and helped drag him to the middle of the tavern floor with the others.
Xena scanned the room for Gabrielle. She found her wrapping rope around the two thugs near the bar.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and nodded that she was okay and explained, "I'm almost finished."
"Where's Mother and Tula?" Xena's voice was full of concern.
"They went with the farmers to get help." She watched Xena's expression change to one of relief "Ill get more rope."
Xena finally noticed Don Q. He was circling everyone, talking to himself. Xena tried to get his attention. "Hey, Don Q, how about some help here?"
He looked over to the warrior. "Oh, things are well in hand now. I don't know what the fuss was about. I don't believe there is a treasure."
"Treasure?" Xena was surprised. She stepped over to Lantras and knelt next to him. She gave him a shake, stirring him to consciousness. "What treasure? Tell me." Her voice was full of irritation.
Lantras was too groggy to play games. "The Golden Helmet, over there and the rest of your loot; I know it's here somewhere."
"The Golden what-? You attacked us for a shaving basin?" Xena looked toward the bar where the basin was lying on the floor. She spotted Don Q bending over it and picking it up to put on his head. She looked back at Lantras and chuckled. "You're a bigger fool than he is."
Lantras turned toward Don Q and took a long look at the foreigner wearing the helmet. He then glanced over to Grekar and saw that he was laughing at him. Lantras sneered at his next in command and yelled, "Shut up!"
Xena gave the leaders shoulder a smack with her hand as she stood up again. "Both of you keep quiet."
Adjusting his helmet squarely on his head, Don Q wandered over to Sancho and noticed that he was still tied up. "My good man, what is this?" He knelt down and untied his friend.
"Thank you, your Grace." Sancho rubbed eyes and then his wrists to get the circulation flowing again. He stood up and walked with Don Q over to where everyone was gathered.
All of the thugs were tied and sitting in a cluster in the middle of the tavern. Goody and the Loco La Mancha's were circling the thugs, making sure they didn't escape. Everyone was waiting for the magistrate to arrive when Cyrene and Tula returned.
Gabrielle moved next to Xena as the warrior collected her armor and started putting it back on. She gave the warrior a pat on the arm, silently letting her know that she was all right. Instinctively, the bard reached up to tend to the warriors head wound. "Can I help?"
Xena smiled back at her in acknowledgment, reaching up to bring the bards hand back down and holding it in both of her palms. "Its okay, but maybe I could clean off some of the blood." Gabrielle nodded and went to get the water and clean cloth. Xena looked over to Aldonza. "I guess you'll all be returning home now."
Aldonza was smiling at the cautious display of affection between the two women and was tempted to make a comment, but held back. She considered Xenas question and finally answered, "I suppose so." Aldonza's voice lacked enthusiasm. She gave Xena a wistful look, but her attention was suddenly drawn to Don Q.
Don Q stood near Xena and was looking her up and down. He pulled the helmet from his head and was scratching his forehead. He was clearly confused by something regarding the warrior.
Xena turned toward him and stared back, giving him a look of annoyance. "Yeees? What?"
"Forgive me, but you seemed much shorter back at your camp." Don Q looked her over one more time.
"Yeah, well, it must have been the firelight. It can trick the eye." Xena looked over to Sancho and grimaced at the thought of what he must have looked like in her leathers. She glanced to the bard as she tended Xenas wound and gave her a disapproving look. Gabrielle returned a sheepish smile. Rolling her eyes, the warrior changed the subject. "Aldonza, when will you be leaving?"
Aldonza started to answer but was interrupted by Don Q. "Leave? We can't leave now, what about the dragon?"
Xena growled in frustration. She looked at Aldonza for help.
Aldonza took in a deep breath. Her words were spoken almost as an apology, "Im afraid he won't leave in the morning until he completes his quest to kill the Amphipolis Dragon."
Xena leaned closer to Aldonza and whispered her irratation. "There is no dragon!"
"I know, but it will be impossible to convince him otherwise." Aldonza whispered back.
Gabrielle finally spoke up, " Xena, youve given me an idea. I think I have a plan." The bard moved away from Don Q, and signaling a huddle with Xena and Aldonza.
Cyrene and Tula arrived with the town magistrate and his men, having explained what had happened. The magistrate instructed his men to drag the prisoners away to the town jail. Cyrene walked over to where the women were conversing. "Is everyone all right?"
"Yeah, we're fine. You and Tula all right?" Xena gave a look of concern.
Cyrene nodded in the affirmative for both her and her barmaid. She took a slow look around and heaved a sigh. "Such a mess!" Tula also looked around the tavern, sighed and immediately went to work cleaning up.
The warrior put a comforting hand on her mother's shoulder. "Aldonza will get the men to give Tula a hand in a minute, but we need to finish our plan to get Don Q out of Amphipolis."
Cyrene peeked over at Don Q and offered her help. "I'll keep him and the others busy while you ladies continue." She turned to Aldonza. "And thank you, Aldonza. Youre always welcome here as my guest, I mean."
Aldonza chuckled slightly at Cyrenes correction and answered, "Understood. Thank you."
Cyrene wandered over to Don Q and the men and said something that made them all very agreeable. She caught Tulas attention and motioned for her to follow her to the kitchen. On her way, she directed the men to the tables to sit.
All of the men moved over to the tables nearest the kitchen and sat with Don Q and Sancho, waiting for Cyrene to return from the kitchen. She had agreed to bring out some food to the lot of them.
Xena trusted in the bards scheme. It seemed crazy enough to make sense. "Aldonza, bring Don Q to the cave above the town just before sunrise. Mother will tell you how to find us. Gabrielle and I will head there now and set up camp. I suggest you get some food and rest before you leave." Xena finished her instructions to Aldonza and then turned to the bard and nodded her readiness to leave. "Lets get going. It'll take us a while to set up once we get there."
"Just a minute." Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's arm. The bard walked over to Sancho. "Sancho, we need you to go with us." Her words were said with a sympathetic tone, since she realized that Sancho's food had just been delivered to the table and he hadn't had a chance to take a bite of it yet.
Sancho glanced at the food on the plate in front of him and then looked up at Gabrielle. He began to whine to himself, Aw, why me?
Don Q took a longer look at Gabrielle and spoke up, "Dear Lady, didn't we meet at my cousin's house last season? You look so familiar."
Gabrielle looked back at Xena and rolled her eyes. She turned to answer Don Q. "Um, yes, your Grace, I believe it was at your cousin's." She turned her head and caught the warriors smirk. With knitted brows, she shot back a look of irritation
Don Q noticed that his squire was motionless and quickly volunteered, "Off with you, Sancho! Must not disappoint a lady in need!"
"Yes, your Grace." The squire tried to sound enthusiastic, but his words voiced only disappointment. He stood up to follow.
Gabrielle reached over to the basket of bread on the table and pulled the cloth from under the bread. She grabbed a big chunk of cheese from a serving platter next to the basket, then wrapped the cheese and a piece of bread in the cloth and handed it to Sancho. "Maybe this will help?" The bard then gave a nod toward the door to let him know that it was time to leave. She watched him dig into the bundle as he headed for the door. Gabrielle walked over to Xena and with a subtle expression, she indicated that she was ready to leave.
The warrior nodded in response and looked over to Aldonza. "We'll meet up with you later."
Xena rode Argo on ahead to the cave while Gabrielle lead Sancho on a little side trip to the local pond to get a much needed item for their plan to be more convincing. At the cave, Gabrielle instructed Sancho to help her dig a pit for a large campfire right outside of the mouth of the cave. Xena was already busy building a small rock wall near the campfire, in front of the cave entrance. Once the fire was ready for lighting, the bard and the squire helped carry various sized rocks to the makeshift wall that the warrior was building. With the group effort, the wall was finished in time and stood almost four feet high and about five feet long. The three of them admired it for a moment. Gabrielle and Xena gave each other a knowing smile.
Sancho moved over to the campfire and sat on one of the boulders surrounding the pit. The late night was getting chilly and Sancho was wondering why the fire wasn't lit. "I can light this for you." Sancho's words connected with Gabrielle first. He already had some burning straw in his hand and was leaning in near the kindling.
"Noooo!" Gabrielle's voice sounded shrill and desperate. She quickly stepped over to where Sancho sat and grabbed at his arm to pull it back from the wood. Sancho was startled by her command and dropped the burning straw into the fire pit and the two of them watched as the burning kindling quickly spread underneath the branches of wood.
Just as Gabrielle started to run for the water-skin next to Argo's saddle she saw Xena pass her with a saddle blanket full of dirt. The warrior stopped at the rim of the fire-pit and flung the dirt as hard as she could into the bottom, under the wood and all around the kindling. A cloud of dust and smoke wafted upward and as it cleared, they could see that the fire was out.
"Good reflexes Gabrielle, but if you had used the water, we never would have been able to start this fire." Xena's compliment to the bard was sincere, but also clearly instructive. She brushed her palms together to shake off the residual dirt, looked over to Sancho, and sidled up to the bard. Gabrielle's eyes met the warrior's and then she looked to the ground, knowing that her near rescue of the bonfire would have been a useless effort. Xena faced the bard and placed one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and with the other, she eased the bard's chin back up so that they were looking into each other's eyes. "Hey, it's all right. You did good."
Gabrielle smiled back at her warrior and felt vindicated by Xena's words. She turned her head back toward the fire pit to survey the buried sticks and brush, finally answering back, "I guess I'd better clear away the dirt from the kindling or we still may not get the fire going." The bard gave a sly wink. She received a raised eyebrow and an undefined mumble in response.
In silence, knowing the bard was feeling better, Xena gave Gabrielle's nose a gentle tweak, then turned and walked toward Argo and the supplies. The bard grinned at Xena's sudden playfulness.
Xena spoke as she stepped away, "I'll go get our camp ready."
The bard watched the graceful movements of Xena as she strolled toward her horse. She couldn't help but smile. Hidden from the Gabrielle was the warrior's happy grin. The warrior reached the spot where Argo was tethered. She leaned down to her saddle on the ground and pulled at the ties that held the blanket securely to the saddle. The folded wool fell away with ease into the warrior's hands. She stared at the bundle of material for a minute, contemplating the last time that she and Gabrielle shared it, then shook her head, laughing to herself at the absurdity of the experience. Flipping the folded blanket over a small branch next to Argo, Xena curried her horse and began the nightly routine of settling in. As she groomed Argo, Xena periodically turned to watch her bard taking care of the subtleties of Don Qs impending fight with the dragon.
Gabrielle had re-prepared the fire pit and was sitting against the makeshift wall, working on Sancho's only good leather boot. She had finished cutting the hole into the scuffed toe and was testing her work by poking her hand down into the bottom of the boot. She grinned at her emerging finger as it wiggled through at the tip. She glanced over to Sancho and was relieved to see that he had nodded off, slumped against his rock. The bard furrowed her brow at the necessary modifications, but it was the only remaining vestige of guilt she expressed toward the sleeping squire. She knew that the preparations had to look perfect.
Xena had finished with Argo, grabbed the blanket and walked over to the rock wall to join Gabrielle. "Nice work." Xena leaned down and pulled the boot from Gabrielle's hand to get a closer look. She slid her hand down into the boot and raised it upside-down. She studied it as she slowly gave it a half turn. "This should do it." She looked back at the bard and lowered the boot so Gabrielle could take it back again.
Gabrielle fidgeted with the boot for a second and gave Xena a silly grin. "Xena, I need to get your breast dagger again." She wiggled her eyebrows up and down and grinned, not really expecting the warrior to let her have her way.
Xena gave a little chuckle, raised an eyebrow, then merely reached down into her cleavage and pulled the dagger out and handed it to Gabrielle.
The bard looked at the dagger in front of her and then gave the warrior a teasing look of disappointment but couldn't hold it for long, before her pout broke into a smile. Gabrielle chuckled and said with resolve, "Yeah, I know, I know...maybe next time."
Xena smiled in return, then asked, "What are you up to?"
Gabrielle grabbed at the tongue of the good boot, stretched it out flat, poking the dagger through its leathery center. She made a slit about four inches in length all the way to the tip, slicing right through the end, so that the tongue was split up the middle into two separate halves. She put her hand back into the boot and said, "How about this?" Xena watched the bard push the tongue of the footwear deep into the bottom of the toe. Then she eased her hand back out and reached around to the front of the boot and poked her finger through the toe hole. Her finger caught the bunched up tongue on the inside and gently worked it through and out, so that it now flapped loosely from side to side as she twisted the booted wrist in the air left, right and back again. She couldn't help but laugh out loud at the sight.
Xena was amused, but tried not to show it. "Nice effect, Gabrielle," Her words were playfully sarcastic. The bard just scrunched her face at the warrior, letting her know that the sarcasm was all but ignored. Xena ignored the look and changed the subject. "Not much more we can do now. We'd better get some rest while we can." Gabrielle nodded in agreement and patted a spot on the ground next to her, indicating that Xena should sit there. Xena glanced over to the sleeping squire, then back to the bard. The warrior held out her hand in front of Gabrielle, indicating that she had somewhere else in mind and the bard should follow.
The bard laid the boot down next to her, along with the other implements she had prepared and instinctively took the offered hand to pull herself up away from the wall. Gabrielle gave Xena a puzzled look and asked, "Where are we going?"
"Not far," Xena replied and gave the bard a smile. The warrior turned and headed around to the other side of the wall. Gabrielle followed. The warrior grabbed a corner of the blanket she was holding and snapped it into the air and watched the material unfold as it cascaded down through the air. Then grabbing with both hands, she guided the blanket to the ground, the far edge of it resting against the foot of the wall.
Gabrielle watched the blanket snap open and waft down. She looked up at Xena and smiled.
"Cozy enough for now." Xena hesitated after speaking and looked to Gabrielle, waiting for the bard's reaction.
"Wonderfully cozy...for now." Gabrielle answered with a teasing tone, fully implying that she was looking forward to the time when they could finally be alone together. She stepped over to Xena and wrapped her arms around the warrior's waist. She gave a squeeze and looked up into the softest expression she had ever seen on Xena's face. Love, it was pure love.
Xena's attention to the bard was interrupted for a split second, as she glanced over the wall and checked on Sancho. The squire was still soundly asleep, his low, rattling snore confirming what she saw. Xena turned back to the bard and suddenly leaned down to capture Gabrielle's soft lips in a tender kiss.
Gabrielle was mesmerized as she waited for what seemed an eternity for the few inches of space between them to vanish into exquisite pleasure. She was not disappointed; every nerve seemed to explode into awareness, as Xena's lips caressed hers.
Xena's hands gently brushed against the bard's hips and continued up, caressing the bards waist as she leaned in. The warrior tenderly encircled Gabrielle in her arms and pulled her close as they kissed.
The taste and touch of her warrior's lips against hers caused Gabrielle to embrace Xena as tightly against her own body as possible, to feel the strength and warmth of the arms claiming her. She could feel their bodies vibrating and her own rapid pulse sending waves of sensation throughout her body. She suddenly pulled away. After a deep breath, the bard looked up at Xena, and her words tumbled out, "Could we sit? I'm afraid my knees are a bit wobbly." Gabrielle felt a little sheepish but smiled when she noticed that Xena was also a bit dazed.
Xena blinked and seemed to hesitate before she answered. "Um, sure. Wait a second." The warrior unfastened her scabbard and breast armor and dropped them to the blanket.
Both the warrior and bard knelt down on the blanket. Xena moved toward the wall and leaned with her back against the stones, her legs extended out in front of her.
Gabrielle sat to the side and waited for the warrior to get settled, before she moved in close to her. She grinned when she saw Xena raise an inviting arm, showing the bard just where she was to sit. Gabrielle wasted no time in curling up against her warrior's side. Nestling her head against Xena's shoulder, she closed her eyes to pause for a second and take in the warmth and affection offered to her by the love of her life.
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and gave a squeeze. Watching the bard relax, she released her hug and reached up with gentle fingers to trace the soft features of Gabrielle's face.
The bard sighed at the touch and looked up into loving eyes.
The two looked at each other with the awareness of newfound discoveries into the reason of their existence. Neither could help the grin that bloomed on each of their faces as their eyes silently acknowledged the deep love that they felt for each other, but had yet to consummate. At the same time, both Xena and Gabrielle blinked a break in the building passion and took a deep breath. It was clear to each of them that they were a bit nervous and shy with the unspoken, new permissiveness they have granted each other.
Xena broke the tension; "Maybe we should just close our eyes and rest a while."
Gabrielle hummed her agreement, "umm-hmm." Her eyes were already closed. She felt Xena relax again and settle her shoulders more comfortably against the stones. The bard knew her warrior wasnt exactly comfortable supporting both of them, so she suggested a better idea, "Why dont we just lie down a bit more, then we both can be comfortable."
Xena opened her eyes as she felt Gabrielle shifting away from her. "Hey, where you going?"
"Not far." Gabrielle teased, using the warriors previous answer. "Come here." The bard shifted her body closer to the middle of the blanket and leaned back on her elbow. She looked at Xena and patted the ground between herself and the warrior.
Xena smiled and sat up so she could scoot down next to her bard. She reached the same stretch of blanket next to Gabrielle and laid back down, her arms folded behind her head. "Excellent idea." Xena then stretched her arm out from under her head and reached for Gabrielle as the bard turned on her side and cradled her head on Xena's shoulder again. Gabrielle wrapped her arm across the warriors waist and Xena instinctively draped her other arm on top of the bards, caressing the soft skin with her fingertips. Gabrielle absentmindedly stroked the leather armor with her fingertips. They both took in a breath at the same time and exhaled, trying to relax. Soon, they closed their eyes and let their bodies sink into the blanket.
Gabrielle opened one eye to peek up at her warrior. She smiled when she saw Xena, eyes closed and fully relaxed, holding her quite contentedly. The bard closed both eyes again and gently snuggled in as close to the warrior as possible. She didnt see Xena grin.
Xena felt Gabrielle wiggle in tight and loved the feeling that it gave her, knowing that her bard wanted to be as close as possible. The warrior grinned and opened one eye, to also sneak a peek at the woman lying in her arms. "I cant believe this is real." The site of Gabrielle in her arms sent a flood of emotion through Xena and she shook her head in response, trying to absorb the overwhelming rush.
Gabrielle felt the warriors movement and lifted her head, thinking that Xena was still uncomfortable. The bard was suddenly a little insecure and asked, "Is your arm asleep? Am I too heavy?" She lifted herself up on one elbow and looked at the warrior with concern.
Xena propped herself up on both her elbows and gave the bard a smile, then said reassuringly, "Gabrielle, Im fine and no, youre not too heavy. In fact youre perfect."
The bard hesitated for an instant and then broke out into a grin. She spoke with a new confidence, "So, you think Im perfect, eh?" She pushed her body up from the blanket and leaned over Xena. "I hope you remember those words, warrior!"
Xena raised her eyebrows in wonder, as the bard lowered herself to steal a kiss. Gabrielles soft lips gently nibbled at Xenas lower lip in a playful tease that was driving the warrior wild. Xena was anticipating a sweet simple kiss, but was delightfully shocked to find this unexpected seduction flowing freely from her bard. Xena did not move. She didnt want anything to interfere with experiencing the taste and feel of Gabrielles lips exploring hers. She let the bard nip and suck and kiss, as she responded in kind to each caress.
Gabrielle stopped every few kisses to observe Xenas reaction. The bard would catch the warrior with her eyes closed; her lips still puckered from their last kiss. Xena waited, motionless, silent, until a spontaneous smile reshaped her mouth. The suspense caused her to open her eyes and give a throaty chuckle. They both gazed into each others eyes and the look of love that they each witnessed caused them both to break out in a unfettered grins. Once again, Gabrielle leaned down and playfully consumed her warriors lips.
Xena was lost in the caresses, enjoying the bards playful teasing, until she felt the tip of Gabrielles tongue exploring the shape and surface of her mouth. The bard kissed her passionately as Xena parted her lips in response. It was then that she realized that Gabrielle had gone beyond the teasing to a heightened passion.
The bard lowered her weight onto the warrior, freeing her hands to feel the soft skin and features of Xenas face.
Xena took the bards lips with her own. With an erupting urgency, Xena wrapped her arms around her love and held her tightly against her own body. She rolled the two of them on to their sides.
Gabrielle moved both her arms around the warriors neck and combed and squeezed her fingers in Xenas dark, silky tresses.
Xena lightly caressed Gabrielles face with her fingertips as they continued their passionate kisses. The warrior couldnt stand the intensity any longer and with a slight movement toward Gabrielle, she raised her body up, while guiding the bard on to her back. Xena shifted her body so that she was over Gabrielle, her hip and elbow firmly supported by the ground. Xena continued to pursue the bards mouth with her lips and tongue. She felt Gabrielles arms encircle her back, pulling her closer still. Xena shifted again, covering more of the bards body with her own.
Gabrielles kisses intensified and she lowered her hands to Xenas hips, pulling them down to meet her own hips as she arched her back.
Xena was caught up in a new kind of hot, mindless, loving lust. She wanted Gabrielle, every inch of Gabrielle. The warrior continued her feverish exploration, trailing kisses from mouth, to cheek, to forehead, to eyelids, to cheek, back to lips again.
Gabrielles kisses devoured the warriors returning mouth with an insatiable hunger. Suddenly, the warrior broke away from the hot caresses, as the bard whimpered in protest. Gabrielle raised her head and captured the warriors lips again.
Xena returned the kiss with full passion for only a moment, then broke away.
Frustrated, the bard lay back down and stared at the warrior. She watched the warrior hold her eyes closed and remained silent and motionless. Gabrielle was about to say something, but was stopped.
Xena quietly exclaimed, "Something isnt right."
The bard panicked and became apologetic, "Xena, what is it me? Am I doing something wrong?"
"Looks like shes doing everything right to me!" Aldonza spoke while leaning over the wall and looking down on the two lovers. "Arent you two supposed to be getting some rest?"
Gabrielle tilted her head upward, toward the voice, and saw the foreign woman smile down on her and then give her a wink. The bard just closed her eyes and groaned, then muttered softly, "This cant be happening!"
Xena let out her breath and shook her head in disbelief. "As usual Aldonza, your timing is unbelievable!" Xena pulled herself up from Gabrielle and stood facing the meddlesome foreigner. She reached down, grabbing her armor and scabbard and began putting them on.
The bard reached up and took Xenas hand in hers, interrupting the warrior, and pulled herself up from the blanket. She began helping Xena refasten the armor. Then she wrapped her arm around the warriors waist, as if to show Aldonza that Xena was definitely unavailable.
Aldonza smiled at the bards gesture and then said, "If you two remember, we have work to do that is of course, if you ever want to get rid of me." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other knowing what the answer to that question would be. Impulsively, the bard stood on her tiptoes and gave Xena a kiss on the cheek. Then she eased back down on her heels and said, "Shes right, Xena."
Xena touched the part of her cheek that Gabrielle just kissed. She raised an eyebrow and looked at the bard, then turned toward the foreigner with a smirk on her face and asked in an innocent tone, "You mean, that we cant wait to get rid of her?" Xena gave Aldonza a smug grin and turned back to the bard.
Gabrielle gave Xena a playful jab to her abdomen and replied, "Gods, youre as bad as she is! No, we have work to do." Gabrielle stretched both her arms out in front of her, placing her palms against the warriors mid-section and pushed Xena backwards, making her step off the blanket. Then the bard bent down and grabbed a corner of the blanket and flipped it upwards, then down, causing it to snake in the air for a few seconds. The dust and dirt separated from the material and wafted back to earth. Before the blanket could touch the ground again, Gabrielle reeled it in, rolling it up in her arms.
Xena was surprised to feel an end of the blanket being shoved into her hands, as Gabrielle indicated to her that she was to stretch it out wide so it could be folded more easily. The warrior was a willing subject and stood there, holding her end of the blanket steady, to help her bard.
Aldonza leaned her elbows up on the top of the wall and rested her chin in her hands, as she continued to watch. She caught Xenas attention and quickly glanced to the bard and back again, then commented, "I think youve got your hands full with that one, Warrior and I dont mean the blanket." Xena tried to ignore her.
The foreign woman looked over to Gabrielle, curious as to what the bard thought of her comment. She was surprised to see Gabrielle give her a wink to confirm the truth of it. The bard and the foreigner gave each other a warm grin. Aldonza turned to the warrior, who was only slightly annoyed by the conversation, and teased, "I dont know Xena, maybe Ive been chasing after the wrong woman here." Both Aldonza and Gabrielle started to chuckle.
Xena finally cracked a smile, as she held the blanket steady for the last fold. Giving Aldonza an all knowing look, she replied, "Well, I guess Id better not be fool enough to let Gabrielle out of my sight as long as youre still in Greece."
The bard looked up at Xena and smiled. She felt Xenas arm pull her close, wrapping her sup in a hug, absolutely thrilled by the playful kind of protection that her warrior was giving her. She melted into the protective embrace, wrapped her arm around Xenas waist and gave a squeeze to let her know.
The warrior looked back down to the bard and placed a kiss on the top of Gabrielles head. All three women couldnt help but smile.
Xena slowly eased her arms from around the bard and changed the subject, "Come on, wed better get busy. "Aldonza, where did you leave Don Q and the others?"
"Theyre all waiting at the last switchback. I can have them here in a few minutes." Aldonza started to turn and leave.
"No, wait! Just bring Don Q; the others can stay where they are." Xena knew that she didnt want Goody and his boys getting in the way of Gabrielles plan.
"Right." Aldonza grinned. "Guess we dont need you and Goody on your knees, butting heads again, do we?" She gave Xena a teasing smile and raised her eyebrows, indicating that she was expecting an answer.
Xena gave her a frown and tried to ignore her. She glanced at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was already staring at Xena with a wry smile. The bard asked, "You were head butting Goody?"
The warrior gave Aldonza a look of exasperation and in answer to the bard, pointedly dismissed the subject. "Later, Gabrielle. Lets get to work."
Xena watched Aldonza leave to get Don Q. She shook her head in amusement at the thought of the cheeky woman, then turned to her bard and said, "You go ahead and get ready at the wall. Ill wake Sancho up so he can tend the fire." She reached for Gabrielles hand and took it in hers to give it a loving squeeze before she turned to go and wake the squire. She smiled when she felt her bard return the same affection.
Xena walked over to where Sancho was still sleeping. She took a second to glance back at Gabrielle, watching her kneel down to attend to the preparations at the wall. In another second, the bard was turning around and smiling back at her, as though Gabrielle could read her mind and feel the depth of the love waiting too be shared. Xena gave her bard a smile and a quiet nod. She could see the bards cheeks flush as Gabrielle quickly turned back to her work.
The warrior let out a deep breath and knelt down next to the squire. She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and gave it a shake. "Sancho, wake up."
A snore caught in Sanchos throat as he flinched into consciousness. He woke up sputtering. "Oh, dear me Im coming, Your Grace." He opened his eyes to see Xena staring at him.
"Sancho, wake up. I need you to start the fire now. And dont let it die down. You got it?" Xenas words were firm and commanding. She gave him a healthy smack on his shoulder as a show of camaraderie, but also to give him a little extra stimulation to be sure he was listening.
He blinked his eyes, while answering, "Yes, Milord uh, Xena right away!" He got up and rubbed his face with his hands to clear his focus. He immediately went about lighting the fire.
Xena walked back to Gabrielle at the wall. "Everything okay? Aldonza will be here in a moment to help you.
"All ready. I hope this works." Gabrielle had her doubts.
"It will. Its a great plan," Xena reassured the bard. She heard voices in the distance and turned to see the distant figures of Aldonza and Don Q walking over the rise, heading toward them. She looked back at Gabrielle and said, "Nows the time."
Gabrielle took a quick mental inventory of the items she had in front of her and suddenly said in a panic, "The flask. Xena, I dont have your flask!" She looked up at Xena wide-eyed.
"Ill get it, stay here." Xena turned and ran to her saddlebags near Argo. She rifled through one of the bags and pulled out a cloth that surrounded the miniature wineskin. She ran back toward the wall and when in comfortable distance, she tossed the flask to the bard, then quickly turned again to intercept Aldonza and Don Q.
Heading toward them, she noticed Don Q proudly wearing his shaving basin, fastened with a string tied under his chin. He carried a piece of wood that looked like a spoke to a wagon wheel. She stopped and waited, closing her eyes, sighing to herself, Unbelievable. When she opened her eyes again, they were standing in front of her.
Don Q adjusted his helmet, feeling the cord scrape under his chin and stood at attention. "Xena. The beast, where is it?"
"In the cave." Xena tried to play the charade with enthusiasm, but was never comfortable with this kind of theatrics. She pointed in a roundabout direction to where the cave was. "Over that way. Ill be right behind you." She misdirected him around a small grove of trees so that he wouldnt see their camp or Gabrielles side of the wall. Then she caught Aldonzas attention and signaled with a nod that she should head over to help the bard.
Aldonza understood, but had to take a moment for just one more chance to tease Xena "Oh, you both are so brave remind me to give you my best reward when its over." She gave Xena a wink and turned to go help Gabrielle.
Don Q answered innocently, bowing as she walked away. "No need, Milady!" He straightened up and headed the long way around to the cave. "This way, Xena."
"Yeah, right, Don." Xena just shook her head and quickly started after him.
Aldonza saw the bard kneeling at the wall placing Sanchos boot on a small tree branch. By the time she reached the wall, Gabrielle had leaned the booted branch against the wall and was watching Sancho and the fire, waiting. She smiled at the bard and asked, "What do you want me to do?"
Gabrielle answered, "Ill need you to help me with the reed and flask. Youll have to put the reed through the boot and then use it to blow out some of the port when I tell you. This dragon is going to breathe fire." She motioned Aldonza to sit on the ground next to her. "Right now, we wait."
Sancho lit the fire and stoked it perfectly. It was becoming an enormous bonfire. He began to sweat with the heat, but dutifully continued to place wood into the flames.
Gabrielle and Aldonza began to feel the heat too. Gabrielle tapped the woman next to her on the arm, indicating that it was time to start. She and Aldonza raised up on their knees and pulled themselves up enough to peek over the wall toward the cave. Because of the light from the bonfire both women could easily see Don Q and Xena at the entrance. They watched Xena say something to Don Q, then turn to them, waving her hand in a circle, signaling them to hurry up.
Gabrielle bent down, grabbed the branch with the boot and lifted it up in the air, clearing the top of the wall. She moved it slowly back and forth, but the movement caused the boot to spin out of control on the stick. Gabrielle looked at the woman next to her. "Aldonza, help with this. Get the reed ready and open the flask. Well need it soon."
Aldonza was still peeking over the top of the wall, watching the full effect. The bonfire caused the boot cast a giant shadow inside the cave. It had the shape of an animal of some sort, but wasnt sure if it reminded her of a dog-horse or a horse-snake. She was surprised to see the shadowy monster head spinning around in a slow circle, its forked-tongue flapping about uncontrollably, as though it was possessed. She started to laugh. The plan, so far, was working.
Don Q hesitated for a second after Xena told him to go ahead. She didnt want to interfere, since he was so experienced with dragons. He nodded in agreement, adjusted his helmet and started forward into the cave. He couldnt see a thing, except the movement of his own short shadow against the wall of the cave. He suddenly panicked and retreated to where Xena was standing. He whispered to Xena, "It is so dark how far in does the cave go?" He was shaking.
"Oh, I dont think youll have to go in very far, Don." Xena was amused, and slightly irreverent, but truly admired his willingness to save them all. "Im right here if you need me." She patted him on the back and gave him a little shove into the cave.
Suddenly, Don Q saw a huge dark shadowy head rise up, seemingly from the floor of the cave. It was gigantic, with a large forked tongue darting wickedly up and down. The shadowy head started spinning. He was petrified at the sight. "Do do you see it?" He turned to see if Xena was still there. "Ive never seen a dragon do that before."
"Oh yeah, weve got um special, here in Amphipolis. Ive heard about this one for years." The warrior hid a smirk. "So, what are you going to-" Xena couldnt finish her sentence. Don Q retreated behind her and before she could turn, he had dropped his stick and grabbed her sword out of her scabbard. "Don Q, what are you doing?" Xena could not stop him in time.
"This sword is bigger!" Don Q raced deeper into the cave, both hands holding the heavy sword above his head. "I will get you, you cursed scourge." He ran into the cave aiming the sword directly at the horrific shadow covering the rock in front of him. He halted in front of the image and tried to get a clear shot at what he thought was the soft jowl and throat of the beast. His eyes were fixed on the moving shadow, which made his head move in circles. He was getting very dizzy.
Xena moved in near him, yelling, "Hand me my sword!You need to use this!" She had picked up Don Qs would-be sword and carried it into the cave. The warrior tried waving it in front of his eyes, without blocking his view of the beast. It wouldnt do to break the illusion, but she couldnt get his attention and backed away.
Don Q didnt see the stick Xena had in her hand. He was too busy focusing on the movements of the dragon. He raised his arms up higher and took a few swipes at the dragon. The sword clanged loudly with each impact of the metal against stone wall of the cave. He could feel the vibration of the blows throughout his forearms. He was horrified, calling out to Xena. "This beast is strong. Stay back!"
"Don Q, wait!" Xena winced at the sound knowing her sword would need a smithy after this battle. She tried to approach him again, but he suddenly turned in her direction, following the erratic movement of the shadowy beast. He started taking stabs at the air right in front of her. She jumped out of the way. "Stop! Its me, you fool!" She was getting angry. Xena turned to the wall of the cave where the shadow was to be and saw that it was gone. Looking back outside where Gabrielle and Aldonza were supposed to be working, she could see the booted stick was resting against the edge of the wall. There was no sign of the two women. She looked back to Don Q and saw that his eyes were wide with amazement.
The dragon was motionless behind a strange wall outside the cave. Don Q shifted his free hand above his eyes cutting out much of the glaring firelight to better observe the beast as it rested. How could this beast escape so quickly? "Stay clear, warrior! This dragon is possessed!" He watched the dragon suddenly raise up and spit fire and he quickly skirted around Xena and headed out of the cave, loudly threatening, "Ill get you you merciless Bag of Fire!"
"What?" Xena looked from Don Q to the wall outside the cave, wondering what he was referring to. She saw the upside down boot rise, along with the top Aldonzas head and Gabrielles hand holding a burning punk to the toe. Once again, a liquid substance quickly spewed from the end of the pond reed sticking out of the boot tip, the burning punk igniting the spray into a sheet of flames. Xena shouted to the women, "Get down! He has my sword!" She threw down the stick she held and ran to catch up with him.
Don Q reached the wall first and without hesitation he swung the sword sideways, like a club, at the beast, shouting, "You are mine!" He hit his mark. The beastly head was severed at the throat.
Gabrielle heard Xenas warning and instinctively reacted, letting the boot and branch lean by itself against the wall. She dropped her arm and let the punk fall to the ground while at the same time hurling her body at Aldonza. The bard shoved the foreign woman down, both rolling onto their backs, Gabrielle landing in Aldonzas arms. They stared upward as the deadly end of a sweeping sword grazed along the top of the makeshift wall, slicing easily through the leather and wood of the boot and branch. The bard took a deep breath and muttered, "A little too close for me." She relaxed for a second against the soft form beneath her, then got up.
"Im not complaining!" Aldonza smiled and shifted enough to raise the flask to her lips for a calming swig. "Care for a sip?"
Gabrielle shook her head, amused at how fast the ever-seductive woman recovered from near calamity.
The foot of the boot, along with a section of the branch, went flying in the air and landed several feet from the wall. Don Qs helmet slipped off his head and dropped to the ground. He bent over in exhaustion to pick it up, using the sword to steady himself. He mumbled, "The deed is done!"
Xena stopped next to Don Q and took her sword from him as he straightened up. She carefully examined the damaged edges of her weapon. She shook her head in disgust. "Nice work."
"My dear Xena, no need to thank me. And do not feel less a warrior, that you could not save your village without me." Don Q gave her a slight bow. "It has been an honor."
"Yeah, right Don, couldnt have done it without you." Xena was resigned to drop the subject.
"Xena, is it over?" Looking a bit disheveled, Gabrielle appeared from behind the wall. She looked down at Aldonza and signaled to her that it was safe.
Aldonza stood and dusted herself off. She looked at Xena and said, "Well, that was fun. By the way, you have excellent taste ." Aldonza licked her lips to savor the remainder of the port still on her mouth. She smiled at the warrior and handed the flask to Gabrielle. " in port, I mean."
The warrior raised a curious eyebrow, glancing back and forth between the two women.
Don Q wrinkled his eyebrows in puzzlement then suddenly seemed to recognized Aldonza. "Milady, again I find you near danger? It is fate that I was here to protect you."
Aldonza leaned an elbow on top of the wall and answered as she bowed her head to him. "As always, Milord. " She looked at Xena and gave her a wink.
Don Q paused to look around for a second, trying to remember something. "Then you know these people?"
"Yes, of course. Ive had a lovely visit with them, but it is time for me to return home. You are here to escort me, arent you?" Aldonza glanced at the warrior and bard and nodded, sure that he will willingly escort her home now.
"Oh, why yes, Milady, it honors me to be the one entrusted with your safety. We shall leave immediately!" Don Q called for his squire, "Sancho, where are you! Were off!"
"Indeed!" Xena sarcastically confirmed the truth of his words.
Gabrielle gave Xena a look of, 'be nice', then faced Don Q, and changed the subject back to Sancho, "Hes tending the campfire."
Don Q looked over the wall behind the women, focusing on the fire and saw Sancho start to throw another log on the fire. He called out again, "Sancho?"
The squire was tired and sweaty from the heat. He feebly called back to his master. "Im here, your Grace."
Don Q commanded, "Sancho, my good Man, youll burn the country down. Stop immediately! We must take our leave." He headed toward his squire.
Sancho stopped, throwing down the piece of wood he held in his hands. He was relieved to be free of the heat once and for all. He stepped away from the fire, curious to hear his new orders regarding their departure. "Where are we going now, Milord?"
"To Spain!" Don Q grinned.
As soon as Don Q headed toward his squire, Xena stepped around to the same side of the wall as Gabrielle and Aldonza. "Your plan worked, Gabrielle, nice job."
Gabrielle beamed with pride. "It was just about perfect, wasnt it?" The bard looked at both women standing in front of her. The smile on her face disappeared and was replaced by a look of regret. The three women stood together in silence, avoiding each others eyes, not wanting to start with their good-byes.
Aldonza spoke up first, "Well, Id better get Don Q moving or hell forget that hes to escort me home." She paused for a moment expecting another quip from Xena.
Gabrielle was the one to answer. "Aldonza, the part about visiting friends, its true. You are a friend. You are welcome here, always." She stepped over to the foreigner and gave her a hug.
"Thank you." Aldonza straightened up from the hug and looked at Xena, then back to Gabrielle. "Youve landed quite a woman, Little One, take good care of her."
Gabrielle nodded and gave Aldonza a gentle poke and answered, "You know I will."
Xena gave Aldonza a devilish grin and said, "The days will be rather dull with you gone."
Aldonza laughed. "Just as long as your nights arent but, I dont see that as a problem." She turned to witness the bard blush. She smiled back to the warrior.
The warrior gave a smirk in response, then raised a warning eyebrow. "Try and stay out of trouble."
Aldonza winked and watched the warrior extend her arm in friendship. Aldonza started to do the same, but grabbed Xenas hand, using it to pull herself in close, wrapping her arms around the warriors waist for a hug, teasing, "Youre the only trouble Ive had." The exotic woman raised up on her toes, planting a quick friendly kiss on the warriors lips. Then backing away from the embrace, she turned to Gabrielle again and leaned in to give her a quick peck on the lips. She saw Gabrielles glow red with embarrassment. "Just a little memento from both of you, right?"
"Right." The warrior raised a speculative eyebrow and stepped closer to Gabrielle, wrapping her arm around her bards shoulder and pulling her in close. Xena looked at Gabrielle and then to Aldonza. She grinned and added, "You will be missed, Aldonza."
"Glad I could help." The foreign woman smiled and looked in the distance to where Don Q and Sancho waited. She cleared her throat and started to say something, but turned and quickly walked toward the two waiting men.
Both Xena and Gabrielle responded at the same time, "Good bye Safe journey!" They glanced at each other and when they looked up again, Aldonza was walking away, casually waving her hand in the air as her final good bye.
Xena and Gabrielle watched in silence as Aldonza, Sancho and Don Q disappeared down the rise of the hill.
Xena finally turned to Gabrielle and took in a deep breath. "Remember when you asked me if Id ever run into trouble, where my sword and fighting skills would be useless?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I remember."
"Well, that trouble is heading back to Spain." Xena glanced toward the foreigners, then smiled. "Guess wed better get back to the village suns almost up." She gave the bards shoulder another little squeeze. "Ill put out the fire."
Gabrielle felt Xena pulling away. She eased her arm around the warriors waist. "Wait." The bard turned to face the warrior, encircling her with a full hug.
"Yes?" Xena smiled down on the bard and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Do we have to leave? I mean the tavern is so crowded and there is a nice fire going here and a cave that is private and were too tired to travel and-" Gabrielle was quickly interrupted.
Xena tenderly placed her finger against Gabrielles lips, to quiet her for a moment. She continued the bards train of thought with a soft seductive tone, "And I have a blanket we can share."
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