The warrior positioned her blade just so. No more messing around. She squinted determinedly at her target and, with a small growl, made her final thrust. When it was done, she swiped at the sweat on her brow, flexed her cramping hands. She surveyed with grim satisfaction the pile surrounding her.
“Glad that’s over with,” she muttered, surprised at how long she’d been at it. She examined the product of her handiwork. “At least the day wasn’t a complete waste.”
The tall woman cleaned her knife, rose and stretched. Glanced around. Nodded to herself as she confirmed no need to linger longer.
“Hey, girl!” A golden mare soon cantered into the clearing. “You didn’t happen to see any marauders did you?” The Palomino snorted. “No, huh?”
The warrior stuffed a few things into her saddlebag and mounted, hands uncharacteristically tentative in pulling on the reigns.
“How `bout we try over that ridge?” Impatient pawing in response. “Okay,” she said, nudging the horse in the proposed direction. “We’ll scout around, find an evening camp site, then scrounge up some trouble, if it hasn’t found us already. Sound like a plan?” The mare’s head bucked up and down. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’”
Tiny feet scrabbling across fallen leaves, up trees, through branches. Crickets. Owls. Otherwise quiet, like when she’d been alone and alert to silence. Distrusting its innocence, anticipating its danger. Before the girl had come to fill it with chatter and humanity. Meaning. Even a surprising peace.
The warrior chuckled wryly, wondering what the forest creatures must be saying.
“Come on, let’s go home.”
“Wait! Maybe she’ll do something interesting.”
“Pffft! Besides throw twigs on the fire? Sharpen that blasted sword? Brush her horse? That deer over there scratching itself against a bush is more entertaining. At least maybe it’ll shed some bugs we can eat or knock a few berries loose.”
“She might hum again. Don’t get to hear that very often out here.”
“Fine. Stay. Don’t come crawling to me if she puts you to sleep, you fall in her lap and she cooks you for dinner.”
The warrior shook her head free of the imaginary conversation. “Gods,” she mumbled in disgust. “One day and already I’m getting loony.” She lay her sword down and tossed another twig in the fire. Started to get up to brush her horse. “Gods,” she said again, falling back instead, howling with laughter at herself and the night.
“This is getting ridiculous.”
The Palomino whinnied agreement. She’d been staying uncommonly close to her mistress, as though sensing the woman’s need for company.
“Two days.” The warrior glared at the point she’d been sharpening, acquired after an hour chasing her victim down. “Two whole days without anything to really get my juices going.” She wondered, not for the first time, if maybe the girl was a trouble-magnet after all.
She recalled the young redhead defiantly confronting slavers and rock-throwers the day they met, and a lynch mob shortly thereafter. Getting goo-goo eyed over some guy who turned out to be a warlord. Kidnapped by zealots, worshipped by Titans, assuming the mantle of an Amazon princess she’d tried to save. Talking herself into jail and out again. The warrior snorted. Even babies and lovers meant trouble with that girl around.
“Well, she’s free of trouble now.”
The girl had frozen a couple days ago in the middle of a fight. Feared she’d get the warrior killed. Decided that the older woman couldn’t help her this time, so had set out for her home village to figure things out with her … family.
The dark-haired woman gazed at her idle hands. It had been easier the first time the girl left, to pursue her dream of becoming a bard. The warrior had been happy for her, secretly relieved that she’d found a calling that didn’t involve traveling with a world-weary ex-warlord.
Back then, the warrior had said the only story she remembered was about two orphans who searched the world for their family, only to end up back where they’d started – with each other. “Thanks for being my family,” she’d told the girl, accepting that she might not see her again. But the young woman had returned, more certain than ever that she belonged with the warrior, even more dedicated to singing stories through which the warrior lived large and heroic and touching the hearts of others in ways the warrior herself had difficulty imagining.
Now, sitting alone, the warrior tried to weave her own scenario of the girl back home – chatting with her mother and sister about her journeys, spinning new tales as she walked to the market, settling down to a normal life now that she’d seen some of the world.
Still, the story the warrior couldn’t get out of her head was the one about the two orphans. She hadn’t realized how much she’d come to picture herself and the redhead as the protagonists. How hard it would be to revise, when once again she couldn’t seem to see beyond the fire, her sword and horse. When what she missed most in the silence was the girl’s voice. And something else she’d thought lost. Family.
The warrior closed her eyes, enjoying the sun on her face, the scent of wildflowers, the sounds of nature. Even the wind at her back seemed confirmation that she’d made the right choice.
“Nothing wrong with paying her a little visit,” she declared, tweaking the mare’s ear. The horse snorted. As though they needed an excuse to head toward whatever had put her rider in such a good mood.
“A dose of that incessant chatter, and we’ll remember how good we had it when it was just you and me.” The horse snorted again. “Hey! What’s she got that I haven’t, hmmm?” The Palomino bared her teeth in what appeared to be the equine version of a snicker. “Oh, yeah? We’ll see what you say the next time you need a stone pried outta your shoe.”
Suddenly the tall rider pulled up, frowning. “What’s that, girl?” She shaded her eyes toward a hill up ahead. “Is that a fight I hear?” Blood stirring, she kneed the Palomino into a run. “Whooeee! About time we had some fun!”
She dismounted at the base of the hill, climbed to the top and peered down. The scene unfolding below provoked a range of emotions in the warrior. Initially joy, when she recognized her friend’s voice and red-gold head. Then horror at seeing the girl once again trapped in front of the barreling bandits’ cart that had paralyzed her with fear a few days ago, but this time too far away for the warrior’s rescue. Finally admiring relief, as the girl’s eyes hardened and she used her staff to vault to safety.
Undeterred, the bandits prepared to rush their quarry.
“Ah,” the warrior said to herself, guiltily pleased. “Guess she could use my help after all.” She let her chakram fly, disarming the enemy. Shortly thereafter, the reunited friends stood watching the bandits hotfoot away.
“So, Xena, you say you were coming to check up on me?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“Missed me, huh?”
The warrior cut her eyes at the much too smug redhead striding beside her. “Don’t go off the deep end, Gabrielle. I missed a pain in my butt once, I’d had it so long.”
Gabrielle chuckled. They walked along in companionable silence, the warrior beginning to wonder what cat had gotten hold of the bard’s tongue.
“If I’m not mistaken, Poteidaia’s in the opposite direction from that pass where you were attacked.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle smiled sweetly at the much too smug brunette striding beside her. “Very observant, as always.”
Xena waited in vain for the usual spout of chatter. She scowled with raised brow, detecting a new confidence behind the young woman’s smugness.
“Headed anywhere in particular?” the warrior finally gritted out.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Like you don’t know.”
“Hey, you could’ve been going shopping or visiting relatives.”
“Also true. As it happens, I was searching for something I’d misplaced.” Gabrielle lightly swatted her companion across the midsection. “Family.” She sighed fondly as a slight swagger loosened the warrior’s gait.
“Nice day, huh?” Xena smirked. “First action I’ve seen since I lost my trouble-magnet.”
“Xena, nobody attracts trouble like you. What’d you get into while I was away?”
“Oh, the usual.”
“Robbers? Couple of armies? Warlord or two?”
“Whittling. Bird watching.”
Gabrielle bumped shoulders with the warrior. “Riiiight.”
“Oh, and making up stories. Mustn’t leave that out.”
“Stories, eh? About robbers, armies, a warlord or two?”
“Chatty insects. You – having a grand ol’ time relaxing, meditating, or whatever you might be doing to find what you needed.”
“Hmm, yes, your bardic talents definitely grew while I was gone,” Gabrielle agreed, laughing. “But I’ll have you know, my visit was far from relaxing. I had to organize the town against marauders, including convincing a drunken warrior to get his nerve back so he could help defend us. Required all my many skills, I tell you.”
“Heh, I see your warrioring talents grew.” Xena snorted. “Almost as much as your storytelling,” she muttered under her breath.
“I heard that. You don’t believe me?”
“Sure, as much as you believe me.”
“All right, Warrior Doubter, we’ll settle this tonight. I’m in too good a mood for cryptic conversations right now.”
“Fine with me. I’d rather save my energy anyhow. With you back, who knows what we’ll run into.”
That evening, the two friends laughed harder and glared at each other more than they had in a long time. Argo stayed close at first, before deciding things were sufficiently back to normal to wander off in search of some peace and quiet. Had the Palomino stuck around, she might’ve noticed each of the humans sneaking something out of her carry bag.
“Here,” Gabrielle said, handing Xena a scroll as they prepared to turn in. “Evidence of how I spent my time at home.”
Xena snorted. “What? I get to share the spotlight now with your sotted has-been warrior friend?” Xena’s playfulness faded as she read the bard’s words. When she’d finished, she looked up, clearly moved. “I wasn’t expecting …. Gabrielle, this is ….” She swallowed. “Thank you,” she added softly.
“You were with me the whole time, Xena. I couldn’t have done it without you. Even my sister could see that my place is out in the world, with you.”
“I was hoping you’d ….” Xena grinned shyly. “Um, I made a little something for you too.” She reached behind her and retrieved a narrow wooden box.
“You made …? This is what you were whittling?” Gabrielle asked in amazement, lightly brushing the “G” carved on top.
Xena nodded. “Open it.”
Gabrielle gently lifted the lid. She reached in and took out one of three finely honed quills.
“That proves the bird-watching part. Ornery old coot seemed to think I wanted to eat it.” Xena chuckled. “Maybe `cause there was some tackling involved too.”
“Oh, Xena, this is the best homecoming gift ever,” Gabrielle sniffed. She reached over to lay her hand on the warrior’s arm. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”
“Giving up?” Xena frowned, puzzled. “I told you, everybody can freeze at some point. I’ve never worried about –”
“I meant, coming back to see me. You could’ve gone on alone, made me catch up with you the best way I could.” Gabrielle tilted her head, smiling. “Or did you figure I’d be bored out of my skull after a few days back with the chickens?”
Xena shook her head. “I wasn’t sure what I’d find.” She glanced down at her scroll with a lopsided grin. “I just knew I wasn’t finding much worthwhile on my own in the opposite direction.” She looked up. “Guess I’m stuck with you, like that pain I had in my –”
”Xena?!” Gabrielle whacked the warrior with the quill. “You better watch it. I’ve got experience running my own army now.” She carefully sat her gifts down and began plumping her bedroll.
“Yeah?” Xena did likewise. “What ya gonna do? Run off and become Gabrielle: Destroyer Bard?”
Gabrielle lay back with a snort. “You won’t get off that easy. I’ll keep you around as my second in command. Bark orders at you.” She grinned devilishly. “Have you deal with any pains in my butt.”
“Heh. I’d be the biggest pain in your butt. Count on it.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes. “I do,” she murmured.
“I said, `You too.’”
Xena stared at the peacefully innocent face, having recently forgotten that sometimes Gabrielle made as much sense as the crickets. She shrugged and lay back.
The companions sighed contentedly. Each drifted off to the quiet breathing at her side without which life seemed little more than just another way to pass the time.
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