The following story takes place a little over halfway through the first season of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCES, shortly after the episode “A Fistful of Dinars.”.
Pressing himself against the inn, far enough in the shadows to see without being seen, he honed in on the tall warrior lounging against a hitching post outside the dry-goods shop across the village square. Occasionally she stroked the head of a magnificent Palomino shifting impatiently beside her or laughingly whispered into the mare’s ear. Her free hand rested on a gleaming disk at her waist. The man ground his teeth. He knew of only one person who used such a weapon.
“It’s her, all right,” he muttered to himself. “My lucky day.”
A young redhead came out of the shop and spoke to the warrior. The warrior nodded, untied her horse and strolled further down the road to the stables, while the redhead skipped back inside the shop. The man watched the warrior casually scan the square. He hunkered down further when she seemed to look right at him before disappearing into the stables. He blew out a shaky breath.
“Still got it,” he murmured with grudging admiration. “Good thing I’m probably a dead man anyway.”
“Um, I’ll take this one … and … that one.” The redhead grinned. “And I might as well throw in an extra one in case she makes me barter away the first two.”
The shopkeep peered up at his young customer. “You sure? Pack `em all?”
She nodded. “Yep. I’ll be over there, seeing if there’s anything else I can add to the pile.” She wandered over to a bin she hadn’t searched through yet.
“Miss? Could you spare a little something for the poor?”
The redhead glanced up to see a man dressed in rags, hunched over, clutching his midsection. “I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?”
The man pointed to a couple of bulging sacks the shopkeep had set to the side. “I was thinking you might have a little something extra,” he murmured. “For the poor.”
She looked him over, noting his well-trimmed beard and stocky frame, the healthy color in his ruddy face.
“You seemed like a caring sort,” the man said, sensing she wasn’t quite the innocent he’d thought. But, then, she did seem acquainted with the deadliest warrior around. He turned as if to leave. “Sorry. Don’t want to be a bother.”
“Wait.” Tentatively she reached out to stop him. “I didn’t mean to …. It’s just, you don’t look like a … um ….”
She nodded, blushing a little. “Is it for you?”
“For my family,” the man responded, standing taller. “I need to look strong to get work. But what I earn isn’t enough to feed my wife and four children.”
“I’m sorry,” she said sympathetically. She stuck her fingers in a pouch at her waist. “I’ve spent most of what I had.” She handed him two dinars. “I’m afraid this is all we can spare.”
He nodded, taking the money. “I didn’t need to do this before …. Our village used to be prosperous. We had good farmland. Now we own little but the rags on our back.”
“What happened?” She grasped the man’s arm. “Were you run off your land? Is someone stealing from you, threatening you? If so, I may know just the person to help.”
“Gabrielle?! Gabrielle, aren’t you through yet?!”
The man’s head whipped toward the voice outside. Blanching, he scurried toward the rear of the shop.
“Wait!” The redhead tried in vain to catch him. “I’ll be out in a minute!” she yelled through the door, then jogged to the man cowering behind a dressing curtain. “Don’t be afraid. That’s the friend I was talking about.”
“Friend?” The man shrunk back.
“Her name’s Xena. Let me get her and – .”
“No! I don’t want your help!” He threw the coins at her. “Go away!”
“What …?” She stared at him in consternation. “I thought you needed – .”
“No! She did this to us! Please, if you have any mercy, don’t let her see –.” The man crouched down behind the curtain as suddenly the door swung in.
“Gabrielle?” The warrior squinted, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the shop. She located the redhead standing stock still as though she’d seen a ghost. “Gabrielle, what are you doing?” The dark-haired woman frowned. “Is everything all right?”
“I … I … uh ….” Gabrielle glanced sideways at the curtain. “Sorry I took so long.” She gave the warrior a nervous grin. “I know it’s silly, but I wanted to try on a couple of … things,” she explained, walking quickly toward the shopkeep.
The warrior stared at Gabrielle, then at the proprietor shifting open-mouthed behind his counter. “You sure you’re all –?”
“Right as rain,” Gabrielle assured her brightly. “See?” She pointed at the bags of supplies. “All done. Why don’t you take these out, while I pay this kind gentleman?” She smiled conspiratorially at the silent shopkeep. “He’s been so patient. You know how I am when I’m shopping.”
The tall woman leaned against the doorway, not looking particularly reassured. She eyed the bulging bags, Gabrielle’s flushed face and the curiously uncomfortable proprietor. Shaking her head, she pushed off and strolled to the bags. “You know, if you got something you shouldn’t have, I’ll find out sooner or later,” she warned, grabbing the bags and throwing one over each shoulder.
“What? Little ol’ practical me?” Gabrielle said lightly, ducking her head. “Cheesh! You don’t have to be so suspicious all the time.”
The warrior paused at the door and turned. She cocked her head. “I was beginning to think that myself. At least,” she added pointedly, “not all the time.”
Gabrielle watched the dark-haired woman exit. “Gods,” she said under her breath. “What am I doing?” What she did was return to the curtain. She bent down to the still crouching man.
“Xena’s not like that any more,” she whispered. “I’ll prove it to you. Meet me here tomorrow at the same time.” She straightened and ran over to pay the shopkeep.
“So, did you get a new shoe for Argo?”
Xena rolled her eyes. “We had time for four new shoes.” She finished tying the supply bags behind Argo’s saddle. “Lucky for you,” she whispered loudly to the Palomino, patting the horse’s flank. She flashed a look at Gabrielle out the corner of her eye. “Seeing as how your friend here stocked up for a siege.”
Gabrielle swatted the warrior on the arm. “Hey, we’ve been living like vagabonds for who knows how long. What’s the good of some extra dinars, if we can’t treat ourselves every now and then?”
Xena shrugged. “Suppose I can’t rightly complain, since you earned them. Guess that time you spent at the Bards Academy paid off.” She smiled with some pride. “Thought those folks would never stop throwing coins at you.” She took Argo’s reins and steered the Palomino toward the road out.
“Xena?” Gabrielle grabbed her friend’s arm. “Can we stay awhile? I … um … I’d like to see if I can work my bardic magic here too.”
Xena reviewed the small, dusty town, doubting there were enough inhabitants to fill the bar, let alone an audience to hear stories. She tried to silence the alarms going off in her head about this place. About Gabrielle.
“Gabrielle, is there something else?” The warrior studied her young companion. “Something you think I won’t like?”
“Oh, Xena,” Gabrielle chuckled, focusing just below the warrior’s eyes. “I told you about being so suspicious.” She pivoted to sweep her arm around the town square. “You’ve got a nice place for Argo to rest. That lovely garden over there where we can stop to smell the flowers. A perfectly fine inn that probably has comfy beds and plenty of folks who’d love to hear about gods and warlords. Not to mention a little market with fresh sweets. When was the last time we had all that?”
“Yeah,” Xena agreed, her brow still furrowed. “Guess we have been roughing it a lot more than you’re used to. I forget that sometimes.” She put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, turning the bard to face her. “You’d tell me if something was wrong, right?”
“Wrong?” Gabrielle swallowed. “What do you mean?”
“Wrong, Gabrielle. As in something bothering you or … being tired of roaming around like this.”
“Xena, I love our life. Sleeping under the stars. Helping people.” Gabrielle smiled, finally meeting her friend’s eyes. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“Just need a little break once in awhile?”
Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief. “Exactly. You okay with that?”
“Sure,” Xena answered, squeezing Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I get these feelings sometimes and ….” She snorted softly. “Don’t mind me. Too many years dodging the dregs of society. Come on,” she directed, leading Argo toward the inn. “Couple days taking it easy can’t hurt.”
“You won’t be bored?”
“I might double back to that forest we passed through. Should have some good hunting.” She grinned. “Maybe I can catch something worth a few dinars. Keep you from tossing me out as a slacker.”
“You? A slacker? That’ll be the day.”
“Mm.” Xena glanced over her shoulder at the dry-goods shop. “You might have a point there.”
Xena kicked the door open and sauntered in with a breakfast tray.
“Oooo, Xena!” Gabrielle exclaimed, throwing off her covers, sprinting towards the warrior. “If this is your idea of not slacking, I like!”
“Figured you wouldn’t be springing up with sunrise.” Xena sat the tray on a small table by the door. “The way you tossed and turned last night.”
“I did?” Gabrielle’s hand paused in its descent toward a sweet roll. “Um, maybe `cause my stories aren’t flowing like I wanted.”
Xena sat down on her bed and began strapping on her armor. “Yeah, you seemed a little … distracted yesterday.”
“I … uh … wanted to try out some new ideas. Lucky the masses didn’t show up like I expected, huh?”
Xena chuckled. “I’m sure word of mouth will draw more of `em in tonight. So,” she continued, adjusting her sword, “what’s on your agenda for the day?”
Gabrielle stared at the warrior. “It’s obviously not as active as yours. You expecting the deer’ll be armed?”
“Always good to be prepared,” Xena answered, slipping her breast dagger into place. “I’m picking up a bow and some arrows from the innkeeper on my way out.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle focused on the breakfast tray. “Thought I’d do some more shopping. Not necessarily buying,” she added quickly.
“I should hope not.” Xena went over to stoop next to their shopping bags. She retrieved a small leather pouch. “One of these would’ve been sufficient for whatever you had in mind. I’m thinking Argo could wear the other two to cover her ears.”
Gabrielle gave Xena a mock glare. “From the cold, right?”
“Riiiight.” Xena pulled out some dangly earrings. “ I suppose we could put some bad guys’ eyes out with one of these. Kinda expensive, but good weapons don’t come cheap.”
“Guess I was thinking about that wedding bracelet we buried with Petracles, how he’d kept it to remind himself of you. You never get to wear jewelry, unless you’re pretending to be somebody else. It looks so good on you.”
Xena’s eyebrow arched. “I’m sure some idiot would love to have a bobble like that to latch onto in the middle of a fight. Would you rather I look cute, or keep my earlobes?”
“Oh,” Gabrielle said, grinning sheepishly. “Hadn’t thought of that.”
“I appreciate the thought. Try to keep in mind I travel light, okay? Everything has its purpose.” Xena headed for the door. “Whatever you do, stay out of trouble, will you?”
“Ha! I’m not the one we need to worry about.”
Xena opened the door. “I’m used to trouble.” She snorted. “I am trouble. That’s not something I’m always happy about, when it comes to you,” she said quietly. “Promise me you’ll be careful.”
“Xena, shopping isn’t that dangerous. You don’t have to worry….” Gabrielle’s voice trailed off at the seriousness in Xena’s eyes. “I will. You too.”
Xena nodded and left.
Gabrielle lingered at the table, her usual appetite now gone. She hated deceiving her newest and now best friend. The warrior trusted her, even though Gabrielle suspected that Xena suspected something wasn’t quite right. Gabrielle sighed. It was hard sometimes, balancing her acceptance of what Xena had been with her hopes for who Xena wanted to be. Was she going behind the warrior’s back to protect her? Was it because of her own fears or curiosity?
“Guess I know how to find out,” she said, admitting to herself that there was no way she wouldn’t keep her appointment with the mystery man.
The crowd at the inn that evening did swell from the 10 people of the previous night to about 20. Xena was relieved to see that Gabrielle hadn’t started her performance yet. The warrior hastened to the storeroom to deposit the game she’d snared, then to the well out back to wash up. She returned just in time to see Gabrielle hop atop the bar, to give everyone a good view of her. Xena found a seat in the rear and waved at the bard. Gabrielle smiled at the warrior and launched into her first story.
Xena ordered ale and propped her feet up. She settled in for a long night, even though Gabrielle once again didn’t seem “on.” Just as Xena started to relax, she heard the bard utter some surprising words.
“All right, folks, that’s it for the evening. Thanks for coming.”
“Hey! One story?! That’s it?” someone yelled as Gabrielle hopped down.
“We want more!”
“Yeah, we put off our late chores to hear you!”
“Sorry,” Gabrielle apologized, putting up her hands. “I’m not feeling my best tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“No! Not tomorrow! Now!”
“She said ‘tomorrow.’” Xena wove her way through the tables to stand beside Gabrielle. “The day after today. The next sunset, to be exact. Anybody still having problems understanding what ‘tomorrow’ means?”
The more raucous audience members paused to examine the imposing warrior who’d deigned to educate them about different days of the week. Though they continued to grumble, most folks either got up to leave or decided to spend their entertainment time getting drunk. Apparently no one deemed it wise to ignore the lesson they’d been taught about harassing a certain redheaded bard.
Xena sat by the window polishing her armor. She glanced frequently at the young woman seated at the table with her quill poised above a scroll. They’d gone immediately to their room after Gabrielle’s performance. The bard had thanked Xena for rescuing her, but said little since.
“One of those deer put up quite a fight. Had to chase it up a tree and wrestle around on some branches before subduing it enough to shimmy down.” Xena checked to see what response this had gotten. None. “Carrying it in my teeth.”
“Mmm. That’s nice,” Gabrielle responded, continuing to stare at her scroll.
“But the rabbit was even worse. Knocked me to the ground a couple times. Butted me hard enough to put a dent in my chestpiece.”
“Uh huh. Glad it worked out okay.”
“Care to tell me where you are?”
“Maybe tomorrow you’ll find a ….” Gabrielle’s head jerked up. “What?”
“I get the feeling whatever you’re thinking about isn’t going on that scroll.”
Gabrielle blinked. She looked down at the blank parchment in front of her. “Oh. That.” She let out a long breath. “Yeah, it’s not coming along like I pictured.”
Xena set her armor on the floor. “You seem a million miles away. Mind telling me where?”
The bard fiddled with her quill, apparently lost in thought again. Finally she took a deep breath and turned her chair toward Xena.
“You know how you almost let those people execute you for something you didn’t do?”
A beat passed before Xena answered. “Yesss?”
“How far would you go to fix something? I mean, something you really had done wrong?”
“Wrong? What kind of ‘wrong?’”
“Wrong. You know, like … like maybe hurting some innocent villagers.”
Xena leaned back in her chair. “Gabrielle, what’s this about?”
“Nothing, really. I’m just trying to understand some things.” Gabrielle lowered her head. “Not so much for a story. For … myself.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I know you want to make up for some of the bad things you did. I just wondered …. If you had the chance to do that, would you? I mean, if the victims were right in front of you, asking for justice?”
“How about you be more specific.”
“More specific?” Gabrielle squirmed a bit in her chair. “I … um … I meant generally. Would you feel it’s too late? That it wouldn’t help you or them? Or that it would be worth the try?”
Xena sighed, then got up and leaned against the window, gazing out. “I’ve done a lot of ‘wrong’ things. Most can’t be fixed. Some of it, maybe people have already gotten past.” She regarded Gabrielle solemnly. “I can’t change any of it. I’m not even sure sometimes whether the greater justice is paying with my death or my life.”
“Would you leave it up to the victims? If they told you what would satisfy them?”
“Gabrielle, I react to the moment. I can’t let what I could do be weighed down by what I’ve done. I can’t escape my responsibilities by hoping what I do in the future will free me from the past. I can’t say exactly what I’d do until I’m there. Only that I’ll try to do what seems best.”
Gabrielle pondered this. “I think I understand,” she decided. “That seems fair.”
“And what about you? What would you do?”
“M-m-me?” Gabrielle searched her friend’s face, seeking in vain for clues to this surprising question. “What do you mean?”
The warrior picked up her armor and carried it to the pile of belongings beside her bed. “You’ve traveled with me a few months now. You’ve seen how people react.” She stated this casually, though Gabrielle could feel the tension beneath the studied calm. “How would you decide what’s right?” Xena got on the bed and propped herself against the wall, gazing at Gabrielle with an unreadable expression.
“M-m-me?” Gabrielle stammered again. “How would I know? I’d have to ask ….” Her eyes widened as she seemed to come to some realization. She swallowed. “I’d have to ask … you,” she finished softly.
“Mmm. You’d trust me? To be my own judge and jury?”
Suddenly Gabrielle covered her face. “Oh, Xena,” she said between her fingers. “I’m such a dunce.”
“Why? We’re speaking hypothetically, right? Helping you understand?”
Gabrielle lowered her hands. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Still, I shouldn’t have doubted …. I should’ve known the answer.”
Xena snorted softly. “Not necessarily. I don’t always know the answer upfront myself. So. Anything else you want to understand?”
The bard drummed her fingers on the desk, before clenching them into a fist. She straightened in her chair. “No,” she answered resolutely. “Like you said, we have to trust ourselves to fix things the best we can.” She rose and started undressing for bed.
“Gabrielle?” Xena waited for her friend’s attention. “I may not be the best person around, but I’ll be here for you as long as you want. Don’t ever be afraid to ask.”
Gabrielle nodded. She stacked her clothes and slid under the covers of her bed. “I’d like to check out the town a little more tomorrow. Will you be okay on your own again?”
“Of course,” Xena said, slipping off her bed. She went around the room blowing out the candles. “There’s always something to hunt.” She sat on her bed to take off her boots, then lay down and pulled her blanket up, still in her battledress.
Gabrielle awoke the next day to find Xena gone. After dressing, she went to the main room for some fruit and cheese. She waited until she thought enough time had passed, then left the inn and walked a path that led to a small grove about a mile away.
“Are you here?” she whispered loudly.
“Yes.” The man, Malchius, appeared from behind some trees. “You got the information for me?”
“No. Something … something else came up. We’re gonna have to do this another way.”
“What?!” Malchius sputtered. “Another way?!” Catching himself, he lowered his head. “Our children are so hungry,” he said plaintively. “We finally had hope, and now ….”
“There’s still hope,” Gabrielle reassured him. “It’s just that …. We can’t do it without telling Xena.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Gabrielle squared her shoulders. “Both.”
“That’s not what we agreed!” he shouted, pacing in agitation. “You promised to protect me!”
“She won’t hurt you. Besides, she already suspects something. I can’t keep asking her questions without her wanting to know why.”
“I don’t get it!” he said, throwing up his hands. “I thought all you had to do was tell her it was for a story you were writing.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I started to, but it got … complicated.” She frowned in concentration. “Look, I’ll say I overheard something. That your kin came into the inn talking about it. I’ll leave you out of it completely.”
“And then what?”
“If you’re right, she and I will take care of it ourselves. In the meantime, let your folks know we’re on the way.”
“Why wouldn’t she finish us off this time, so there’s nobody left to tell tales? Why can’t you leave it somewhere and send word to us where it is?”
Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. “If Xena wanted it for herself, she’d ambush you anyway. I trust her. You’ll have to trust me.” She crossed her arms. “It’s either that or go back to begging.”
Malchius silently weighed his options. “You’ll let me know first? If she says it’s still there?”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“All right. Can you talk to her when you go back? Meet me behind the inn at sundown?”
“You may have to wait awhile. She’s out hunting. I’ll talk to her as soon as she returns.”
Malchius finally smiled. “This just might work. I’ll be there.”
“Hi,” Gabrielle greeted the innkeeper. “Nice day, huh?”
“I suppose,” he said, continuing to wipe down the bar. “Don’t get to spend much time outdoors, since the kids left and my wife took sick.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be.” He paused to smile at Gabrielle. “You made more work for me, but you also brought in more money. I took in enough extra the past two nights to hire a girl to clean for me, at least to where I can keep it up without much trouble for awhile.”
“Really?” Gabrielle grinned, rather pleased with herself. “I’ll try to hold the customers longer tonight. But I might have to start later, if that’s okay. I need to take care of some business with Xena first, when she gets back from hunting.”
“Hunting?” The innkeeper looked puzzled. “I told her she could borrow my gear again.”
“Nope. Haven’t seen her today.”
“Oh. Thanks. See you later then.”
Gabrielle tried to quell the queasy feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. She went to their room. No Xena. She poked her head in the handful of establishments and the stables. She found Argo, but not the mare’s mistress. What was it Xena had said last night? Gabrielle vaguely recalled something about the warrior stalking prey barehanded.
“Sure, that’s it. She’s challenging herself today, by going on foot, hunting close range.” Gabrielle forced herself to be satisfied with that explanation for Xena’s disappearance. Determined to keep her mind occupied with something else, she spent the next few hours smelling flowers, sampling sweets and browsing once more in the dry-goods shop.
Gabrielle stopped writing, fairly certain she’d heard familiar footsteps, more relieved than she cared to admit when the door finally opened.
“Hey.” Xena walked to the bed, dropped down on it and began removing her weapons.
“Finished with those for the day, huh?”
The warrior pulled out her boot knife and put it with her scabbard and chakram, her hands seemingly moving by rote. “What?”
“You didn’t use the bow or Argo today.” Gabrielle gestured toward the pile of weapons. “You hunted okay the minimalist route?”
“Yeah,” Xena answered, smiling thinly. “You could say that. I’m assuming I won’t need them for your performance tonight. Unless you’re planning on ‘show and tell’ or another quickie story time?”
Gabrielle giggled. “Um, no, I wasn’t planning on anything like that.”
“Just checking.” Xena looked up from unfastening her armor. “You’re full of surprises lately.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle’s heartbeat quickened.
“Rushing through stories. Getting philosophical just before bed.”
“Oh. Yeah. About that ….” Gabrielle fortified herself and took a deep breath. “Um, I need to talk to you about something.”
Xena set the armor down. “What a surprise,” she said sardonically, scooting back against the wall.
“Boy, where to begin ….”
“The beginning’s usually a good place.”
“True,” Gabrielle agreed, grinning wryly. “I … um … heard a rumor the other day. About a village that was attacked some months ago. Supposedly by … you.”
“I see. And?”
“They claim they’d acquired quite a bit from several good seasons of trade – gold, dinars. That your army destroyed the village and must’ve taken the booty.”
“Really. They don’t know for sure?”
“It’s a bit confusing, but apparently this was when your men revolted and put you through the gauntlet. Afterwards, some deserters went back looking for the booty, saying you hid it somewhere, but left it behind when you joined Hercules.” Gabrielle chuckled. “They figured you wouldn’t be schlepping around like a vagabond otherwise. Anyway, the villagers are hoping it’s still there, that you do know where it is and will give it back to help them get on their feet again.”
Xena folded her arms against her chest. “What makes them think I’d do that? Assuming I could.”
Gabrielle smiled. “They heard you’d changed.”
“Mm. These villagers – I take it some of `em are here?”
“And they know I’m here?”
“Why didn’t they come to me?” Xena raised an eyebrow. “Since they believe I’ve changed.”
“Um, that’s kind of complicated,” Gabrielle said, looking down. “I guess they’re still a little … mixed up … about the best way to handle it.”
“But you – you have a solution?”
“I think so. If you know where the gold is, you and I can retrieve it and make sure it gets in the right hands.”
Xena rubbed her chin. “Let’s say I do know what happened to it. What’s our next move?”
Gabrielle leaned forward excitedly. “I give my last performance tonight, and we set out in the morning.”
“Well, then,” Xena said coolly, “I suggest you get on with it, if you want to start early tomorrow.”
“Oh, Xena,” Gabrielle exclaimed, clapping her hands together, “thank you so much! I’ll let the innkeeper know. You join me in the main room when you’re through cleaning up, okay?”
“No problem,” Xena replied, continuing to lounge on the bed. “See you later.”
“Pssst! Malchius!” Gabrielle waited in front of a collection of large kegs behind the inn. “Malchius,” she hissed again. “You there?”
The lid on one of the front kegs shifted slightly. “You alone?” came the muffled response from within.
Malchius slid the lid open. “Well?”
“It’s all set,” Gabrielle said softly. “Xena and I leave in the morning. You know how long it should take us. Go ahead and tell your folks to watch for us.”
“Good work, Gabrielle.” Malchius climbed out of the keg. “You have no idea how much I …. How much our village appreciates this.”
Gabrielle started to leave, then hesitated. “Malchius? They don’t want to hurt Xena?”
Malchius snickered. “They’re simple people, Gabrielle. They wouldn’t harm a flea.”
“You’d better be right. You’ve seen what Xena can do.”
“Oh, yes,” he answered with a trace of bitterness. “People are counting on me to pull this off as peacefully as we can.”
“Good. Then I’ll see you when I see you.”
A few minutes later, Gabrielle emerged from the kitchen to see Xena seating herself near the front door of the inn. She smiled and waved. The warrior nodded back. The bard perched on the bar, pleased to see at least 30 faces clustered near her performance spot. She waited for the noise to die down, eager to begin, confident that this time no one would leave disappointed.
Early the next day, the two companions did indeed set out to fulfill Gabrielle’s promise to Malchius. According to Xena, the trip would take about four days. Each day seemed longer to Gabrielle, as the already somber warrior steadily became more tense and silent. At first the older woman would disappear into the trees for long periods – scouting, she said. But as they neared their destination, she hovered close, never letting Gabrielle out of her sight.
On the third night, Gabrielle nearly lost her temper. She found Xena’s watchfulness eerily too similar to her recent behavior when they’d had to team up with the warrior’s former fiancé, Petracles. The charming warlord had wooed, then dumped Xena when both were younger. Xena saw him using the same tactics on Gabrielle and warned them to stay away from each other. Gabrielle had testily informed Xena that she wasn’t a child anymore – a point of contention between the two as the younger woman became more skilled physically and astute about life in Xena’s complex, often violent world.
“Xena, I don’t see the harm in rooting around for a few fresh herbs to spice up our meal. You afraid I’ll get lost or fall in a deep pit?” Gabrielle glowered at the maddeningly protective woman across the campfire. “Sometimes I think you think I have the sense of a baby chick.”
Xena swiped the whetstone along her sword a couple more times before glancing up. “It’s been awhile since I made this journey. I need to concentrate on details that might be familiar, as signs of safety or danger. Did it occur to you that I’m not wandering around in the dark either? That maybe I want us to stay together because I’m not exactly sure what’s out there myself?”
Gabrielle pursed her lips, but nodded and held her tongue. She had to admit that Xena usually had good reasons for what she did, even if Gabrielle didn’t always understand or agree.
“I’ll use seasoning from our supply bag,” Gabrielle said with a concessionary smile. “I keep forgetting we have luxuries to fall back on now.”
Xena bowed her head in acknowledgement. “Yes, your many tortuous hours spent in that store were not in vain.”
Gabrielle grinned. She continued with her meal preparations and left Xena to sharpen her sword in contemplative peace. In truth, the bard wasn’t all that anxious to push her righteousness. She had her own secrets, like when she’d wandered off to talk to Petracles despite Xena’s suspicions. He’d seduced her all right, to the point of extracting a brief kiss. But she’d detected in him the capacity for genuine caring, proven accurate when he’d stunned Xena by saving Gabrielle’s life. It was while he lay mortally wounded that he’d pulled out his wedding bracelet, the duplicate of which Xena confessed she’d long ago tossed away as “garbage.”
The bard sat back on her heels staring sightlessly at the rabbit roasting over their fire. She had the same bittersweet taste in her mouth as when she’d been right about Petracles. She hadn’t told Xena about her encounter with him in the woods, just as she now concealed her talks with Malchius. She shook her head, remembering several other occasions when surreptitiously relying on her own judgment had produced mixed results – most notably involving the Titans, Amazons and Sisyphus. It occurred to her that her balancing act wasn’t just with Xena. It also involved juggling her respect for the warrior and own her need for independence, to be respected for having personal thoughts and instincts, even if Xena didn’t always understand or agree.
Gabrielle suddenly became aware of being watched. She glanced up to catch the enigmatic blue eyes before they quickly returned to their inspection of the now gleaming sword. Xena had done that when they’d been with Petracles – wordlessly observed her young friend, reluctantly giving her space, even when she suspected Gabrielle hadn’t heeded the warrior’s words. Gabrielle now studied the older woman a moment, wondering what kind of balancing act she herself posed for Xena. It had worked out okay before. She prayed the same would be true this time.
“That’s it.” Xena pointed to a cavern not far ahead. “Go inside and wait for me. Don’t come out unless I call you. I want to look around, just in case.”
“Um, okay.” Gabrielle was puzzled by Xena’s precautions, since the dark entrance opened into a rock wall with plenty of open space in front. Still, she did as instructed, waving to the watching warrior before ducking inside. She lit the torch she’d brought with her and moved further in.
The space wasn’t quite as large as she’d envisioned. Old kindling, dark circles on the stone floor, scattered pieces of cloth and metal suggested this was a frequent haven for travelers. She didn’t see any surfaces soft enough to bury anything, so began inspecting the numerous crevices. “As if Xena would leave a red flag,” she mumbled dryly.
She decided she might as well make herself comfortable until the warrior showed up. Seating herself on a large boulder, she took out a scroll, positioning the torch to better see what she’d last written. She’d become so engrossed in her thoughts that she was startled to hear a noise inside the entrance. She lifted her head, expecting to see Xena.
“Xena sent me to help you,” Malchius said.
Gabrielle stared at him in disbelief, her mind churning. She didn’t need Xena there to tell her to be careful. The hairs standing on her arm already confirmed that.
“That’s funny, seeing as how she forgot to tell me where to look.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You saying you don’t know?”
“If I did, you really think I’d be sitting here reading stories to myself?”
Malchius cursed. He started pacing, mumbling to himself.
“What’s to worry? Xena’ll be here soon. The two of you must’ve made up, since you talked with her and lived to relay her words to me.”
Malchius stopped pacing. “You don’t seem that surprised to see me here.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Look who I travel with. I’m used to surprises.”
“Yeah, well, let’s hope we’re both surprised when Xena shows up.”
Gabrielle didn’t like his tone at all. “What are you saying?”
“She should’ve found a welcoming party by now. With any luck, they’ll manage to subdue her so she’s in good enough shape to make things easy.” Malchius began walking toward Gabrielle. “And you’ll do your part to convince her to cooperate.”
Gabrielle rose, whacking her leg when she realized she’d left her staff on Argo. She glanced around her. “Great,” she muttered. “Between a rock and a hard place.”
Malchius was now a sword’s length away. Gabrielle had a pretty good idea about the distance, since he’d drawn a sword and pointed it at her.
“I don’t wanna hurt you,” he said. “Stay calm and we might all get out of here with what we want. Alive.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” a velvety voice drawled at the entrance.
Gabrielle and Malchius whirled around to see a tall, dark figure outlined against the sunlight outside.
“I just left about a dozen guys who might dispute you on that.” Xena let the sack she carried drop to the floor. It clattered open, spilling out a collection of swords. She sauntered casually toward them, but stopped when Malchius edged closer to Gabrielle.
“You never were very bright – Malchius, is it? But then neither was Darphus. I sometimes wondered where he dug up recruits like you.”
“Yeah? Well, I was bright enough to pull this off.” He let his sword fall lightly on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “The others blamed me. Said I should’ve known where you buried the stuff, me being a lead scout and all.” He snorted. “Like anybody knew where you disappeared to sometimes or where you’d hide anything. But I found you this time. I set this up good enough to ….” Malchius’ brow furrowed. “Who told you about the others?”
Xena strolled over to a ledge jutting out of the rock wall. She dusted it off, sat, crossed her legs and leaned back with her arms folded across her chest. “You did. That day you met Gabrielle in the grove. And later, skulking inside that keg.”
Malchius and Gabrielle exchanged stunned glances.
“If I’d been a snake – oh, that’s right, I am! – I could’ve bit you.” Smirking ferally, Xena bared her teeth and snapped them together. “I figured you didn’t have the guts to do this alone, that you’d have some muscle attack me once you knew my destination.”
“Enough!” Malchius growled. He placed the sword’s tip at Gabrielle’s neck. “So you’re the same smart snake you’ve always been. Well, not smart enough. Start digging or I slit your little girlfriend’s throat!”
Xena uncrossed her arms and, never taking her gaze off Malchius, slowly unloosened her chakram. She dangled it from the tip of her finger.
“First, there’s nothing to dig up. Never was. I haven’t the foggiest idea where you got that.”
“You lie!” Malchius rested the sword on Gabrielle’s shoulder again. “Darphus told us, before we set fire to the place, while you were gone. He said you’d found a large booty in town that you meant to keep for yourself.”
Xena shrugged. “Maybe he thought it’d be incentive for you to follow him in countermanding my orders and turning against me. It’s not like he expected me to survive the gauntlet and say different.”
“Malchius, I’d’ve dug the stuff up long ago, if that’s what I wanted.”
“B-b-but we’d heard you’d given up warlording and looting, that you didn’t care about gold anymore. There were stories – ”
“Ah, yes. Stories.” Xena leered at Malchius. “Why do you think I keep her around?” She pointed her chin at his silently perturbed hostage. “Which brings me to my second point.”
The Warrior Princess stood, though made no move toward Malchius.
“The little redhead has provided the perfect cover for me. Now that folks think I might’ve turned hero, they’re perfectly willing to hand over to me anything I ask, sit by while I break into forts, figuring it’s for a noble cause. I don’t need a lot of manpower anymore. Much less effort and expense. She’s done such a good job – I do have an eye for talent, if I must say so myself, except for Darphus, of course – that I really don’t need her any more.”
Xena fixed Malchius with an icy stare. “But you know me – I get cranky when folks try depriving me of what’s mine. Nick her even a little, ya got zero chance of leaving here alive. Step away, and I give you 50-50. Better odds than you deserve.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Xena has no need to lie, Malchius,” she said softly out the corner of her mouth. “You know she means what she says. She could’ve killed you in town.”
Malchius glared at Xena. “So why didn’t you?” he asked with unconvincing belligerence.
“Like I said, I figured you weren’t alone. I wanted to tie up all the loose ends, so to speak.” Her smile made Malchius’ blood freeze. “Now, I’m getting tired of this. My little bard is definitely getting tired. Choose.”
“You won’t let her kill me?” Malchius whispered to Gabrielle.
“I’ll do my best,” she promised.
Malchius lowered his sword. He moved away from Gabrielle.
Xena stalked up to him and grasped his throat. “Those bodies lying out there? They belong to soldiers from my old army. All of `em lined that gauntlet.” She squeezed. “So did you.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle came up beside the warrior.
“Stay out of this, Gabrielle.” Xena closed her hand tighter, until tears came out of Malchius’ eyes. “Never, ever forget the snake lives in me, no matter what the bard’s stories say. Cross my path again and you’ll wish I’d killed you now. Got that?”
Malchius coughed and nodded.
Xena slowly released him. “Get out, before I change my mind.”
Malchius ran for the entrance, leaping over the swords of his fallen comrades. His footsteps faded into nothing before Xena could blink twice.
“Xena? We don’t need to worry about the others?”
“Are they all really …?”
The women decided to spend the night in the cavern. Neither said much as she went about their evening preparations. They sat side by side in front of their fire, lost in separate thoughts. Finally, Gabrielle couldn’t stand the silence any longer.
“Xena, I’m so sorry. His story was so close to what you said happened.” She sighed. “I thought he was telling the truth about the villagers.”
“He was,” Xena said tightly. “Despite my orders, those men I killed today torched or murdered nearly everything in sight.”
Gabrielle nodded slowly. “I guess that’s why I wanted to believe the part about the gold, so maybe there was a chance you could set that right.”
“That was true too.”
“I had hidden some loot, but not from that village. We’d taken from a warlord who tried to cross me. I meant to use it for more weapons.”
“What happened to it?”
Xena stared off into the distance. “That woman who risked her life to take care of the baby I saved? Before I left, I told her where to find the loot, that the people should use it to rebuild. I made her swear not to reveal how she knew about it.” The warrior smiled wearily at Gabrielle. “Ironic, huh? Turns out that’s one of the few debts I’ve already made a payment on.”
Gabrielle scooted closer. She lay her hand on the warrior’s arm. “Xena, why didn’t you say something?! When you found out I –”
“You never asked.”
Gabrielle’s hand slowly lifted to her mouth. She hung her head. “No, I didn’t,” she acknowledged softly.
“Gabrielle? You tried to honor what you believed to be Malchius’ rights and my wrongs at the same time. Don’t blame yourself. I don’t.” Xena reached over to give the bard’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Say what you will, neither of us can be sure what I’ll do at any given moment.”
Xena shifted to bring her knees up. She wrapped her arms around her legs and gazed into the fire.
“I didn’t know who was working with Malchius. I certainly didn’t plan on killing `em all. But when I recognized those faces, it was like I was their commander again. They knew my rules and the price for breaking them.” She glanced over to Gabrielle with no remorse. She smiled grimly. “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Malchius, for sucking you into that plot of his. Yet when I finally had my fingers around his throat, all I saw was a pathetic piece of crap, not worth the effort.”
“I still should’ve told you.” Gabrielle looked down at her hands. “I keep saying I’m not a child. I’m so sure I’m right, like I was about Petracles. I think I’ve gotten smart enough to handle things by myself, even fool you.” Gabrielle laughed without humor. “You know what my original plan was? To say I wanted to know where the gold was for a story I was doing.”
Xena grinned ruefully. “Well, at least then I might’ve had a clue about what you were really after. All that heavy stuff about paying for my crimes? Made me wonder if maybe you considered turning me over to a lynch mob or something.”
“Xena?! You didn’t!”
“You were acting mighty strange.” Xena chuckled. “I decided I’d better see what you were up to, in case I needed to get my affairs in order.”
Gabrielle shook her head, still a little hurt. “After you followed me the first time, why didn’t you just ask?”
Xena patted her friend’s arm. “Ya got me there,” she admitted. “Guess we could both improve in the ‘come clean’ department.”
The two sat silently, considering how easily Xena’s past could creep between them, like a stray cat that insinuates its way into the household, slumbering in contented concealment one moment, demanding its due attention the next. How to pretend it wasn’t there, pawing at your lap, when you’d rather it left you alone?
“It’s hard sometimes,” Gabrielle acknowledged softly, “finding out about you in bits and pieces, usually from third parties who have such different parts of the puzzle. If I’m afraid to ask, it’s only because I never know if my questions might cause you pain, maybe take you someplace you don’t want to go. ”
“I’m a big girl too, Gabrielle. I don’t have a problem saying ‘no.’”
“I know. It’s just that you try so hard to be patient with me.” Gabrielle shook her head at Xena’s snort. “No, really, I couldn’t ask for a better teacher.” The bard grinned. “Even if her methods are a little unorthodox sometimes.”
“You’re not always easy to figure out yourself, my friend.” Xena smirked. “`Course, I do have a nasty habit of telling, not asking.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Also true.” She noted Xena’s scowl. “But you’re really good at giving me space, once you’ve said how I should use it.” Her face scrunched. “Um, that didn’t come out quite –”
“I get the point. I’ll work on that.”
“And I’ll work on giving you less space.”
“You know, being afraid to ask stuff.”
“So … um .…” Gabrielle cleared her throat. “This mean you’ll be keeping me around awhile after all?”
Xena laughed. “You’re not that ….” It dawned on her what Gabrielle was referring to. The warrior’s eyes softened. “Malchius might’ve done something stupid, if he’d known how much you really mean to me. Or that I actually do want to be more like that warrior woman in your stories.”
Gabrielle grinned shyly. “I knew that. Just practicing. You know – asking.”
“Uh huh. Right. No time like the present, I always say.”
“Well,” Gabrielle concluded, stretching, “this was a really good chat. I’m glad we had it.”
Xena stretched too. “I don’t know, we might not’ve needed it, if I’d barged into the shop and snatched that curtain down like I wanted to from the get-go.”
Gabrielle gasped. “You knew he was there all along?”
“Not Malchius exactly, but something giving off bad vibes.”
“You trusted me anyway?”
“Um, let’s say I pictured a worse case scenario if I didn’t.”
“Okaaaay,” Gabrielle responded uncertainly. “I suppose that’s almost as good.”
“Sure it is. We warriors are suspicious by nature. Reining that in takes lots of work.” Xena smiled fondly at her young companion. “And motivation.”
“I’m not sure ‘suspicious’ is the right word, but we bards have to know what’s behind the curtain too.”
“That’s why we make such a great team.”
Gabrielle beamed. “Yeah?”
“Absolutely. We just have to watch being suspicious of each other.”
“Keep cutting away at the curtain, so we worry less and less about what’s there?”
“Uh huh. Sorta like that skirt and top of yours. I swear, they get shorter every time I turn around.”
“Me? Nuh uh. No way. The more I see, the better you get.” The corners of Xena’s mouth twitched before she turned to reach behind her for their bedrolls. “Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about?” she asked huskily over her shoulder.
“Hmmm. That remains to be seen.” Gabrielle propped her chin on a fist, regarding her multi-layered companion with suspiciously glinting eyes. “But I certainly hope so.”
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