Disclaimers: Xena: Warrior Princess is owned by the lucky folks at MCA / Universal and Renaissance Pictures, however they choose to divide it up. I have not intended to infringe on their rights (even though I know a court of law may disagree). Rather, I've borrowed their characters for a story that will reap me no monetary benefits but might, just might, add a fan or two to the Xenaphile ranks which will perhaps, in turn, reap a few more dinars for those who rightfully stand to profit from the show.
This story depicts the main characters in a loving relationship though there is nothing in here illegal for the younger folks. If you would prefer not to read this fiction for these reasons, please do not continue. It's your decision.
There's a bit of violence. I'd rate it at about the level of a typical Xena episode.
"Look, I'm not going back for it, okay?" Xena let her eyes roll at the bard trailing behind her, before turning back to stare hard down the path ahead.
Gabrielle growled under her breath. "Fine. Obviously it doesn't mean as much to you as it does to me." Gabrielle wondered why she did impart so much meaning to a small piece of silk. She knew she would have no difficulties taking first place, and it was Xena's idea after all. Well her idea and her unmatched abilities to be so persuasive in making the judges agree to let the bard perform. They just happened onto that stupid village, they just happened to hear the first round of awful storytellers, they just happened to hear some bumbling idiot try to tell about the Athenian Army beating back the Horde. She really hadn't intended to compete, but Xena wouldn't hear of it. The judges really didn't want anyone to join the competition late, but Xena wouldn't hear of that either. So the thin silken ribbon Gabrielle won should have meant something to Xena. But apparently it didn't.
The night before, they had camped in a small clearing in an unremarkable valley. Xena had pushed the bard all day to put as much distance between them and that village as they could, and didn't let them stop traveling until it was dark. Gabrielle did her best to stay out of the warrior's hair as they set up camp, but until the fire was roaring, there was little light and they managed to get into each other's way more than once. Each time Gabrielle bumped into her, Xena let fly an exasperated sigh.
Xena didn't offer to hunt for dinner, so they made a meager meal of odds and ends which left Gabrielle hungry and even crankier. Still, the bard tried to repair the mood after all their work was done by launching into a story.
"One summer's eve, a young man fought for the love of a... Hey, it's not that bad!" Gabrielle called after Xena who had tromped off into the woods before Gabrielle could finish her first sentence. The bard leapt to her feet and yelled after Xena, "What's eating you, anyway? Ow!" she stomped her foot not quite missing a rock. Frustration got the better of her: she snatched up the rock and heaved it into the woods. Without waiting to hear it land, she turned back and took one step toward the fire. Then a hand was on her shoulder.
"Don't throw things at me." Xena's venomous voice was low, sending shivers down Gabrielle's neck.
"Like I could ever hit you." Gabrielle shrugged Xena's hand from her shoulder.
"I don't like it when you try."
"I wasn't trying to hit you, Xena. I had no idea where you were." Gabrielle forced herself to calm down in the hopes that Xena would follow suit. "Let's just go to bed." Xena didn't say anything as Gabriellelay down on her bedroll. She tucked her pouch under her head as a makeshift pillow. Just as she closed her eyes, she heard a thunk by her head and a waft of dust made her sneeze. "Hey, cut that out!"
Xena's face was twisted into an angry yet self-satisfied scowl. The rock she tossed at Gabrielle had landed in the perfect spot. She lobbed another one toward her, this one intended to make contact, but Gabrielle rolled out of the way. The bard grabbed the closest thing she could get her hands on, her pouch, and flung it at Xena. Xena caught it by the strap, letting it swing in ever slowing circles around her wrist. Gabrielle stood and stuck her hands on her hips, hoping to register dissatisfaction enough to call a truce. Xena looked in the pouch, withdrew the winning ribbon, then flipped the bag back to Gabrielle aiming just far enough from her so the bard would know it wasn't meant to hit her. Xena tied the ribbon around a palm-sized rock.
Gabrielle didn't pick up her bag, instead her eyes were riveted to the ribbon and the rock. Xena would not dare to throw the rock, and her ribbon with it, into the woods. Their eyes met, the challenge evident. Xena tossed the rock lightly in her hands, the ribbon looking like a verdant tail. Gabrielle knew she should give in, she knew that whatever this fight was about it wasn't worth the consequences of winning. But something didn't let her give in this time. Perhaps it was because she didn't even know why they were fighting. Xena was the one who was mad about something and Gabrielle didn't want to apologize for the unknown.
The longer they stared at each other, the higher Xena tossed the rock before deftly catching it. The tension was palpable and each toss of the rock, each crack of the fire threatened to escalate their tiny battle into a war.
"All right, I give up," Gabrielle sighed. "What's the matter?"
"Nobody throws anything at me." They were cold, slow words.
"Xena, it started before that. Why did you get up and leave when I started to tell you a story? Why haven't you talked to me all day?"
"Just drop it, Gabrielle."
"No. You're mad at me and I want to know why."
"I don't want to talk about it."
The warrior cocked her arm and hurled the rock, ribbon trailing along, up into a tree. "I said I don't want to talk about it. Now go to bed." The ribbon wrapped neatly around a limb high up the trunk. Xena took off into the woods again leaving an incredulous, open-mouthed Gabrielle staring off after her.
* * * * *
Neither woman slept. Gabrielle stewed and fretted for most of the night until she heard Xena come back. Then they both pretended to sleep. The next morning, Xena had Argo ready to go when Gabrielle rolled out of bed, and they set off on another hard day of traveling to who knows where.
All they managed to talk about, and it was only briefly, was the ribbon. Xena made it clear she was not going back for it. It would live out the remainder of its days stuck up in a tree. Those few sentences were all that filled the silent void between them until late afternoon when them came upon another village.
Xena walked them into the town without discussing it with Gabrielle. She headed directly for a tavern and strode in without checking to see if Gabrielle was following her. She sat down at the only table that would afford a view of everyone entering the tavern although there was only one chair. Gabrielle pulled another chair over and sat across from Xena. Port and cider were served and still no words had been exchanged between them. Plates of food arrived and were cleaned without conversation. Then Xena stood and said, "Get a room. I'm going for a ride." Gabrielle didn't know if that meant a room for two or if Xena's ride might extend through the night. But Gabrielle acquiesced and made arrangements for the least expensive room available.
She took her pouch and staff up to the room, then went back to the tavern and lost herself in an internal dialoguewith Xena. Gabrielle made a decision. A direct confrontation would be necessary. The big brooding warrior's silent bluff was about to be called. When Xena got back she was going to pry the reasons for her unreasonable behavior out of her no matter what it took.
As the evening wore on and Xena was still out, Gabrielle found herself quite bored. Some local boy tried his hand at a bardic tale and was even less enticing than those idiots at the competition a few days earlier. Since there was nothing to lose, Gabrielle mustered the courage to ask the barkeep for permission to tell one of her own stories.
"Sure," replied the barkeep. "You can do what you like, but don't expect anything from me. I'm not paying for your services."
"Fine," said Gabrielle. She was just doing it for the diversion.
She jumped up onto the small stage and tried to get the attention of the customers in the tavern.
"I will tell a tale of mystery and murder, of justice's victory over treachery and deceit. A tale of Meleager the Mighty, the brave and gallant warrior who once saved my own home village and was later falsely accused of murder by Judge Arbus." Only a few people paid attention to her, but as the tale grew more intricate, more of the customers were drawn under her spell.
"At last, we came upon the murder weapon, a heavy sword of elaborate design, unique in its markings. The Warrior Princess held it in her hands and announced that she now knew of the innocence of Meleager the Mighty for she herself had been the cause of the man's demise." The audience let out a collective gasp with that unexpected twist.
Just then, several unruly brutes crashed through the door and demanded to be served. "Shut up, we're trying to hear the bard," someone in the back yelled.
"Oh yeah, well that's just too bad." A tall, leather-clad man stumbled into the center of the room. "Give me a drink now, then I'll see about..." when he turned toward the hearth where Gabrielle stood and glimpsed the bard he stopped in mid-sentence. "Hi there, cutie. Got a story for me?" He tilted his head slightly and smiled at her.
The barkeep put a gentle hand on the man's arm to lead him toward the door, but was abruptly shaken off. "I'll have that drink for me and my friends." The other three men joined him at a table just a few feet from where Gabrielle stood imparting her tale.
Gabrielle continued. "Xena spoke of a night from winter past when she came across a defenseless man..."
"Hah, a defenseless man! All men have a weapon." The four men roared in laughter and thunked each other on the back.
Gabrielle tried to go on with her story. "The man had been attacked by the owner of that very sword, the murder weapon..."
"Hey bardie, bardie. I'd like to attack you with my weapon." There came more riotous laughter from the table. The tall man rose from his seat and angled toward Gabrielle, trying to negotiate his muscled frame between two tables. A kindly customer tripped him and he fell flat on his face. Ripples of quiet laughter could be heard around the room.
"But alas, the attacker fell on his own weapon, and as the Warrior Princess knelt to render aid to the defenseless man, the attacker rode off on his horse, never to be seen again."
The brute regained his footing and walloped the customer who had tripped him, sending him across the table and into the wall where he landed in a bone-crunching heap, emitting one long groan before losing consciousness. Gabrielle started to worry about the lecherous man and looked around her for something she could use to defend herself, if necessary.
He drew himself up next to her, close enough so she could smell stale liquor on his breath. "So bardie, how 'bout you and me go look for a murder weapon together. It would sure be more fun with me than that warrior princess--I'm real. She's just make believe. And you're cute."
"No thanks, really." Gabrielle wished she had brought her staff downstairs with her.
"Look mister, why don't you leave her alone?" The barkeep tried once again to pull the brute away. Instead, he got a fist in his nose and blood on his shirt. The man tossed the barkeep aside and lunged for Gabrielle. She jumped back, but found herself up against the wall with a big hand grabbing her top. Proud of his catch, the man turned to the crowd and bellowed, "Now, nobody's going to come between me and this bard, understood?"
"I don't think so," a low lilting voice called from the door.
"And you think you can take me?" The man let go of Gabrielle and turned his attention to this new, imposing woman.
The four loud friends sauntered toward the door, Xena silently thanking them for their willingness to leave Gabrielle alone. Since the four hadn't drawn their swords, Xena refrained from reaching for hers. When the first two neared her, she opened the door and beckoned them outside. They passed by her to what they thought would be a good view of an one-sided tiff, but she jumped and kicked them both in the backs of their heads, sending them flailing into the dirt. She was certain that neither of them would be getting up any time soon. A third one dove for her, but Xena stepped aside and let him fly by her. He had the misfortune of connecting his head with a pole for tethering horses.
The tall one who had grabbed Gabrielle was all that was left, and Xena relished the opportunity to take out her aggressions on him.
"Who have we here?" the man taunted her as he stepped outside.
"The name's Xena."
He folded his arms and grinned. "Sure it is. If I hear one more crack about that stupid ghost, I'm gonna puke."
"Sorry to hear that." And with that she let loose her war cry, flipped over him and delivered a blow to the back of his head. He slumped to the ground. "If I were you, I'd stick close by a bucket."
Gabrielle popped her head out the door. "Bucket?" she asked.
"Never mind." The stoic manner returned. She brushed passed Gabrielle and re-entered the tavern. All seemed back to normal. The barkeep nodded her way as if to say thanks for having taken it outside.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.
"Can we talk?"
Xena gave her look that would have brought men to their knees.
"Xena, we need to talk." Gabrielle stood her ground. "Upstairs or downstairs. The choice is yours."
"Thanks. You go upstairs, I'll stay downstairs."
"No," Gabrielle said a bit too brusquely. Then she softened her tone, "Please, Xena."
Xena shook her head and traipsed up the stairs.
* * * * *
"Now, would you please tell me what's going on!" The bard let some of her anger and frustration seep through. Xena sat on the bed while the bard paced the short length of the room.
Xena tried to brush it off. "Well, when I walked in the tavern, it looked to me like you could use some help."
"That's not what I mean."
"You're welcome," Xena snapped.
Gabrielle stopped her pacing. "I'm sorry, Xena. Thank you. You bailed me out once again." Her tone was more clipped than she would have liked, but there was no way to avoid the anger. It was as much a defensive reaction as anything else.
"Are we done now?" Xena started to get up but Gabrielle pushed her back down onto the bed.
"No we're not done. Why have you stopped talking to me? Why did you toss my ribbon up into that tree last night? Why don't you want to talk to me now?" Gabrielle grew more furious with each question.
Her fury was matched by Xena's. "Don't you talk to me that way."
"Oh yeah, well don't you threaten me, Warrior Princess. You know I'm right. You're mad about something and you're too chicken to tell me what it is."
Xena's eyes narrowed and pulse pounded. "Chicken?"
"Why else won't you talk to me? I don't bite, you know." Gabrielle smiled at her own words, then continued more gently. "Well once, maybe, but that was only when you told me to bite you. Xena, please tell me. Have I done something to make you mad?" Gabrielle sat down by the warrior. "I can't stand this, Xena. Tell me, please."
Xena shifted uncomfortably, obviously wanting to say something but uncertain of how to say it. Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's, lightly at first, not sure if Xena would pull away. She didn't so Gabrielle let her fingers grasp the strong hand under hers. Almost whispering, she asked once again, "What is it?"
Somehow Xena found her voice. "Gabrielle, I would rather you didn't tell... certain stories."
Gabrielle pulled back. "Which stories?"
"Look, you know it's always a little weird to hear stories about yourself..."
"Xena, you want me to stop telling all my good stories?" She wasn't going to give up her best story fodder. The world needed to know about Xena.
"No, no. That's not it. I would never ask you to do that."
Gabrielle waited for Xena to tell her just what she meant. Finally, Xena continued, "It's just that some stories are... well, I don't want you to tell them."
"Which stories? Why?" Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes for a clue.
"The ones where I don't like myself very well, where I don't like who I was in them."
Gabrielle thought about that, frantically trying to put the pieces together. The competition, her winning oration! "The Horde? Oh, Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't even think. When that other bard told it so badly, I just had to set the record straight. I'm sorry, I won't tell it again."
Xena looked up. "It's not something I'm very proud of and..." a crooked smile lit her face. "And you always leave out what you did."
Gabrielle wrapped Xena in a bear hug. "Okay, I won't tell that one. You could have just told me, you know."
"Sorry, Gabrielle. I know I make things hard for you."
"More often than I mean to."
"Next time, just talk to me." Gabrielle smiled at her and planted a quick kiss on the warrior's lips.
"I will. I mean, ah...." Xena's brow furrowed and she turned toward the window. Gabrielle could tell she'd heard something. Xena went to the window, looked down, and groaned. "Not again."
"What is it?" Gabrielle looked out into the darkened street below.
"Your friends are back."
Gabrielle could hear a scuffle below but she couldn't see anything but shadows moving around. "They're not my friends."
Xena grabbed her sword and smiled, "I won't be long." Then she thought better of it, put down the sword, and wrapped the bard in a strong hug. "I feel much better, thanks."
"You're very hard to train," Gabrielle whispered in her ear. "Want some help?"
"Nah. They're drunk. I'll be right back."
* * * * *
Virbius, First Lieutenant of Eteocles' army and master tactician was beside himself. Humiliated by a woman and in front of three of his men! She would pay for it, and he'd get his hands on that bard. All over that bard, he fantasized. This time his head was clear and he vowed, once again, to drink less. This time he would not underestimate his foe. If she called herself Xena after the mythic figure of storytellers, then so be it. He'd treat her like the warrior she believed she was.
He brought a contingent from his private brigade with him. Not for a minute did he believe he would need all of them, he just felt he owed them a good show. Virbius instructed his men to hide quietly among the crates and haystacks in the old barn and designated the three friends he was with earlier as bait. They had been humiliated as well and they were eager for revenge.
Standing under the windows of the inn, they created a commotion to lure the woman down to them. Virbius was quite proud of himself when he spied her sneaking out of the tavern door. Quickly, the men moved to the stable and made it sound as if they were beating up a young woman.
Xena smelled a trap. She knew that the fight was faked, that no one was being harmed. Still, it intrigued her and she was determined to show them who was more clever. She spiedan open window in the hay loft. Climbing adroitly and quietly, she squeezed through the window frame and lay down on the loft to listen.
Soon, the men tired of their acting. Virbius hushed them, "Where is she?"
"I don't know. I thought she followed us. Didn't she come in?" one of his men answered.
"I don't understand, Nestor. She was so quick to fight earlier." Virbius tried to sort out the advantages in their positions.
Nestor suggested, "Why don't we just go get the bard for you. This ruse is making me nervous."
With the mention of Gabrielle, Xena had heard enough. She hurtled down, landed on a bale of hay, then flipped over, settling directly in front of Virbius, sword ready. "Your game plan isn't going to work, Virbius," she spat out his name to show she'd been listening.
It threw him for a minute that she had been spying on them, but he was confident she hadn't detected his hidden men. "I believe it worked perfectly. Now!" he bellowed.
Twenty-five armed men descended on her. She chopped with her sword first in front, then behind catching many soldiers surprised by her strength and agility. But Virbius' men were well-trained. They teamed together and came after her in small groups. While one man thrust his sword at Xena's right, another lunged at her left side. Unable to parry both attacks, she ducked and let them take each other out.
Virbius stood off to the side and watched. He was quite impressed by this woman. He learned from watching her and vowed to teach his men ways to combat such moves.
Again, a group came toward her: one at her left, one at her right. She sensed that this time there was one at her back as well. She would not be able to use the same trick again, so at just the right moment, she leaped backwards, sailing over the head of the third attacker and spun back to defend against their retaliation. Though she could hear the sword coming at her from behind, she was too focused on the three in front of her to move quickly enough. Virbius' own hand ended the battle.
"Take her back as my prize. Then perhaps I can lure the bard into my waiting arms, no?"
* * * * *
Gabrielle paced. It had been much too long since Xena left. Everything seemed quiet outside, but that was of no comfort. With each pass she stopped at the window, trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything, then pulled herself away and walked toward the bed. Eventually she tired herself out so that crawled on top of bed and fell into a fitful sleep.
At dawn, she woke. She reached out with her hand to see if Xena had dragged herself into bed, but no one was there. She sat bolt upright hoping to find her warrior asleep in the chair or on the floor. Xena had never made it back to the room. Hurriedly, Gabrielle dressed and went down to the tavern.
She found the barkeep on his cot behind the kitchen. "Wake up," she demanded shaking his shoulders.
"What? What is it?" He was drowsy, reminding Gabrielle of herself most mornings.
"Look, my friend went take care of those leeches who were here last night. She didn't come back. What can you tell me about them?"
"Virbius. He's Eteocles' right-hand man." The barkeep got up and poured himself some water.
"Well, young one, you surely are not from around here," the barkeep laughed. "Eteocles is the bastard who owns most of the land around here. Pillaged it several years ago. He's got a whole army and the worst of the lot is Virbius. If your friend made him mad, I doubt there's anything you can do for her."
More anxious now, Gabrielle asked, "Where does he live, this Eteocles?"
"He's got himself a fortress about an hour's ride east from here. But, hey now, don't you be thinking you can stroll in there uninvited. It's a dangerous place for young women and Virbius took quite a fancy to you last night. No, you'd best be on your way out of town. Don't come back."
Gabrielle returned to her room to pack, trying to formulate a plan but she really had no idea what to do. As she feared, Argo was still in the stable, adding more fuel to the knot growing in her stomach. Something had happened to Xena and it couldnt have been good. Gabrielle stowed their gear in Argo's saddlebags, swallowed a lump in her throat, and mounted the great mare. Riding east down a well-trodden road, Gabrielle was fairly certain she was heading in the right direction.
A plan. A plan. I need a plan, thought Gabrielle. I can't just ride up to this fortress and knock, can I?
But before Gabrielle could formulate any worthwhile strategy, Argo had brought her to the fortress. Well named, she mused. A massive wall surrounded several buildings. One large gate seemed to be the only entrance, and it was well-guarded at all times. Along the top flanks of the walls, guards busied themselves pretending to keep watch. With such an imposing edifice, only a fool would attack. A fool, or a bard from Poteidaia.
She dismounted back in the trees landing on the hard ground with a thud, crossed her arms, leaned her back up against Argo and considered her options. Chewing on her lower lip, she thought about waiting for the cover of darkness. But it wasn't even midday, and the waiting would drive her crazy. So it would have to be a daylight operation. No wall scaling, no vaulting...the front door seemed her best and only choice. Taking her staff and a few things stuffed into her bag, she left Argo to fend for herself in the woods and did her best not to look scared as she strode toward the fortress.
A small piece of wood slid to the left revealing a man with questioning eyes. "What do you want?"
"Me?" stammered Gabrielle. "Ah, I just wanted, um, to see if I could be of any service." She instantly regretted those words when the door flew open.
The guard didn't seem too imposing at first glance. He leaned against a lance at his side rubbing his hand up and down its shaft.
Gabrielle tried to make herself more clear. "I meant, I was wondering if there were any jobs."
"I'm sure I can find something for you to do." He stared at her, slowly running his glance from her head to her toes and back again. "Certainly we can..."
The man was interrupted by another guard, this one seemed to be his superior. "Who is it?"
"Just some little wench come to see if I can do anything for her."
The second guard stepped between Gabrielle and the first guard. He bowed his head graciously and offered her his hand. "I am Alecto. Whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?"
An embarrassed but relieved Gabrielle stuttered, "Ga... Gabrielle."
Alecto draped the bard's arm over his and lead her through a courtyard. "What brings you to our fine establishment, Gabrielle?"
"Ah, I was looking for a job."
"I see." He sized her up, looking from her head to her toes but without the lecherous glare of the first guard. "There are several possibilities." He asked carefully, "What did you have in mind?"
"Well, let me see, I can tell stories."
Alecto laughed, "I doubt you could tell the type we prefer, my dear."
"Probably not," Gabrielle began to relax a bit, taken my Alecto's charm. "I can cook."
"Cook? Now that's an idea. Perhaps something can be arranged after all. Come, Cook Gabrielle, I'll introduce you to Laius."
"He's a cook, too, but not a very good one if you ask me. In fact, I'd say he's quite bad. I'm sure he will welcome your help."
* * * * *
"Virbius, my friend, come in."
"Eteocles, my liege, I hope this morning finds you well." Virbius bowed in deference to his master and employer.
Eteocles motioned for his lieutenant to join him at the table for breakfast. "So, I understand you had some fun last night." Virbius bristled, hoping word about his first encounter with that woman in the bar hadn't reached Eteocles' ears. "I heard your prisoner gave your men more than they bargained for, put up a bit of a fight."
"A learning experience for them, no doubt." Virbius said a silent word of thanks that either Eteocles hadn't heard of his humiliation or had chosen not to bring it up.
"What do you plan to do with this woman?" asked Eteocles, stabbing a piece of cheese with a small knife.
"I was planning to offer her to you."
"Come now, Virbius, I know you better than that. Once you get your eyes on a woman there is no stopping you."
"Yes, quite true. But in this case, I was hoping to lure another..."
"Ah, I see. Don't you find this sort of game dangerous? The other one may not come." Eteocles pinched a bit of cheese onto an apple wedge.
"I believe they are traveling together. One is a bard." He winked at Eteocles.
"You always did prefer talkative ones. Who's the other one?"
"Now that's the funny part." Virbius tossed an apple into the air and impaled it with his dagger. "She thinks she's Xena. Can you believe someone pretending to be a legend!" He roared with laughter at thought.
Eteocles cast a cold stare at his lieutenant. "Xena is not a legend. Legendary, yes, but she is quite real."
With a mouthful of apple, Virbius retorted, "You, too? No one with her skills could really exist. Please, Eteocles, humor me no more."
Eteocles flung his dagger into the table, impaling it in the thick wood. "I have faced her in battle, Virbius. The stories are true. I bear a scar down my back from her viciousness. She is ruthless, though I've heard stories to suggest she's gone soft. It is said that she travels with a bard now. Virbius, my friend, what does this woman look like? Is she as tall as I am with raven black hair? Does she wear the leathers and armor of a true warrior? Did she carry a round device at her hip?"
Virbius nodded slowly, the realization setting in. "Xena?" Then he stood and slammed his fist down on the table sending plates and knives flying. "I got Xena!"
Leaning toward his Lieutenant, Eteocles motioned him to be seated. "Where is she now?" he asked with a barely controlled anger.
"She waits for you in the cells, my liege!"
* * * * *
Through a splitting headache, Xena fought to focus her eyes. She was in a cell, lying on her stomach on a cold, unforgiving floor. The only light trailed in through a small opening in the door. The opening was big enough for a cup to pass through and had grate over it, locked from the outside no doubt. At meal times, someone would deliver food that way, if she was ever to get any. One thin bench sat along a wall, hardly enough to lie down on. There was no window. A few scatterings of coarse straw lined the stone floor, tickling her face.
Waves of nausea demanded her attention but she concentrated only on finding a means of escape. Back in that barn, the leader had said something about going after Gabrielle, and that was more than enough reason to ignore her throbbing head and find a way out.
When she tried to move, she discovered her arms and legs were hog-tied. Normally, that wouldn't be too much trouble, but the fight had taken its toll on her body, and the last swipe of a sword, the one from the tall leader, had sliced through her leathers and bit into the flesh along her side. She felt the dried blood crack as she moved and wondered if it would be prudent to reopen the wound. She couldn't tell how bad it was, but the ache deep in her muscles worried her.
She heard men outside the door. Perhaps six or seven, maybe more. He said they were going to get Gabrielle... Six or seven wouldn't be too many.
The cell door opened. In strode someone familiar to her. An old friend? Old foe? She still couldn't think straight. That bastard must have walloped her on the head.
Ah, the voice she remembered. "Eteocles. Fancy meeting you here."
"Having a bad day?" He walked around her. "You don't look very comfortable."
"What do you want?" Xena remembered admiring Eteocles. He didn't look much like a warlord but in height. He was thin, almost scrawny, but he was quick and smart, good in battle. Of course, she'd won their little fight, but she appreciated the man's courage and bravado.
"It seems you're a gift to me from my second-in-command. I'm not quite sure what to do with you, but I'll think of something."
Xena watched his dirty, black boots shuffle near her face. "Is this how you treat your guests?"
He squatted down. "You're a gift, not a guest, Xena. Though to be sure, I'd rather you were joining me for dinner." He sighed. "All right." He turned to one of the guards. "Shackle her. She can get out of almost anything, so make certain they're secure. In fact, put her in double irons. Give her a little wriggle room but nothing else." He looked again into the crystal blue eyes. "That's as much hospitality as I can give."
She saw fright in those eyes. And respect. She'd have to use that to her advantage.
* * * * *
Laius wasn't in the kitchen when she arrived. Alecto said he would have waited with her but that he needed to get back to the gate since he was on duty. She thanked him, looked about a bit, and then seated herself on a stool, wondering what she'd gotten herself into and how Xena was... and if she was even there.
A man bustled in with a basket of fruit and wrestled it up on the counter. "You're a cook?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You're Laius?"
He grunted and then took her on a quick tour of the kitchen. He was an older man, nice enough, but that was hidden beneath a businesslike facade and a large, canvas apron. "You'll have to change into uniform." He bustled Gabrielle down a corridor and opened a set of double doors.
"Uniforms?" Gabrielle ogled a storeroom jammed with clothing. Officer's leather, drab brown overalls for stable hands, fancy dresses for who knew what, hats, scarves, cloaks, boots, shoes, and a neat row of over-sized aprons just like Laius wore. If she and Lila had had access to that closet as kids, they'd have been in dress-up Olympus. "What's all this for?"
"Our boss has strange tastes. He doesn't mind my food and I don't mind his dress code." Laius selected an apron from the rack and tossed it to her. "We don't have a smaller one."
Gabrielle put the loop over her head and settled the crisp garment over her usual attire. She looked down to see her toes barely poking out from under the hem. "It's a little long."
Laius wrapped the ties around her twice and knotted them in front. Then he pulled a hand-length of material up, making a wide pleat at her waist. "It'll do."
"I don't get it. Where did all this stuff come from?"
"Some is made to order. Other is... plundered." Laius said the word with some measure of distaste. Gabrielle started to like him a little better. "And once a troupe of actors came through. Eteocles was utterly fascinated by them. He, um, asked them to leave all their gear."
"You mean he let them go with just their lives and made them grateful for the favor he bestowed?"
The cook nodded and beckoned her over to a mirror.
Gabrielle thought she looked ridiculous. Of course, anything in there would make her look ridiculous. But, at least she wouldn't be stepping on the hem of the apron.
She followed Laius back into the kitchen and toward the larder. He methodically pointed out everything. "Here are all the staples: flour, salt, sugar, garlic. The pots are cleaned out back in a trough first, and then brought in to wash. The boss doesn't like his kitchen stinking."
Gabrielle crinkled her nose as they passed three large pots on the stove. Speaking of stinking... "What's that?"
"Tomorrow's breakfast. Porridge."
"More like gruel," muttered the bard. "Why are you cooking it now? It'll be awful in the morning."
"I know," Laius admitted. "But..." He looked about then stepped closer. "You don't look like you belong here."
Gabrielle straightened up. "I need the job."
"There are other, better jobs to be had." He stared at her.
She matched his hard stare with one of her own. "Then why are you here?"
Very slowly a thin, conspiratorial smile twisted his lips. "See that?" He waggled his thumb at the bubbling pots. "Ever try to go to war with that clinging to the insides of your belly?"
Gabrielle returned the smile and leaned toward him. "Actually, I'm looking for a friend."
He glowered slightly. "One of the soldiers?"
"No," she said forcefully. "A friend who isn't exactly on their good side. She broke up a barroom brawl on my behalf and I haven't seen her since. The barkeep said it was Virbius and told me how to get here."
Gabrielle pondered taking the risk. The name alone carried so much weight, but she was never sure which side it would come down on. "Xena."
Laius pulled away from her. "You're lying."
"You think I'd sneak into this place for some other reason?" She put her hands on her hips.
"You don't seem like the type to hang out with warlords willingly, much less go on a rescue mission after one. Especially her."
"I guess you haven't heard the stories of what she's being doing the last several years. She's different now, Laius. She helps people. And she's my best friend."
He crossed his arms and leaned back against the counter, keeping his eyes glued on Gabrielle. She didn't break the stare.
"I've heard that about Xena," he finally said. "And that she has a traveling companion."
"A bard. That would be me." Gabrielle believed she was gaining his trust. She'd have to have that if she were ever to make a move in this place.
And now Laius smiled broadly. "And that the bard's name was..."
They both worked hard on dinner. Laius kept after her to make sure she didn't improve the taste or texture of anything too much. If Eteocles thought they had a new cook who could manage good food for their table, she'd never be allowed to leave.
Finally, they dished up a couple of bland stews into silver tureens, clustered roasted rabbits left in the heat long enough to dry out slightly around mealy potatoes on large silver serving trays, and tossed a smattering of under-ripe fruits into a basket lined with woven strands of gold-flecked satin.
"You can learn a lot about the goings on around here while serving, Gabrielle. They talk freely over their meals." Laius took off his apron and donned a lovely rich green velvet coat and saw her questioning look. "Ah, the boss makes me wear this. He prefers to be served in luxury."
"Then I can't wear this and..." she thought about how much to trust Laius. He already knew she was there looking for someone. "I think Virbius will recognize me."
Laius smiled broadly. "That, we can take care of."
* * * * *
Virbius spat out the rabbit. "Cook!"
Laius walked slowly to the head table and stood two paces behind Virbius' chair. "Yes, sir."
"This is awful! It's your worst in a week." Virbius tilted his head back, inhaled deeply, and pursed his lips. Two long fingers closed around those lips.
"Don't ruin that coat." Eteocles said. "Velvet is so very difficult to clean and I would be... distressed if Laius could no longer wear it for our dinners." The great warlord smiled.
Gabrielle stood off to the side, waiting to make another pass by the head table. She was glad Laius had suggested she serve dinner. This once spacious room had been crammed with so many table, chairs, and unwashed, hungry soldiers it seemed almost claustrophobic. And it meant she could get very close to whispering men. She had indeed overheard many things, almost all of them confirming that Virbius was scum.
She grabbed a tray and bowed very slightly to Virbius. She concentrated on raising the pitch of her voice and speaking unnaturally. "May you serve potatoes?"
It was tricky in her get-up. She'd barely had time to grab something from the huge closet of clothes before some young boys burst in and demanded trays of food. Food service had begun.
She'd wrapped herself in colorful silky fabric from head to toe. It was a great disguise except that she couldn't see well and she couldn't walk but for teeny, tiny steps.
The boys took food to the soldiers. Laius always served the head table himself, and today, he'd brought a new assistant. And now the assistant was attempting to coax some of the rounded potatoes onto the large spoon so she could deposit them neatly on Virbius' plate. The recalcitrant potatoes rolled away from her. She tried to scoop the other way to no avail. She scooped again and rolled a potato off the tray to splat on the floor.
"Sorry so much," Gabrielle squeaked. It would be impossible for her to pick up the feisty vegetable. She'd wrapped the silk around her too tightly to bend that far. She kicked it under the table while she made a sweeping gesture with one arm and simultaneously jiggled the tray cradled in her other arm until a potato plopped onto Virbius' plate.
All he had to say was, "Bring more wine, wench."
She nodded to him and backed away several small steps before turning to grab the decanter. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Don't let potatoes blow your cover! Okay, just relax and pour some wine.
As she walked by Virbius, she heard him ask Eteocles, "So tell me, what do you think of my gift?"
"Most gifts I've received have been in better condition." Eteocles smiled at Gabrielle as she poured wine into his mug. "But I must admit I'm impressed, Virbius. No one's been able to bring her in before."
Then Xena was here! She jerked up and spilled wine onto the table cloth.
"Gods, no! You idiot. This is the cloth from Gaul. Those little women are the only ones who really know their tatting." Eteocles frantically dabbed his napkin on the wine stain. "Don't let it get on the lace!"
Gabrielle grabbed what she could to help, which meant she used her fine silken attire to blot up red wine. "Oh goodness and me!" She mumbled on in her high voice until she missed and tried to blot up his stew. Laius came to her rescue.
"Mia, that's enough. You're too tired to be working." Laius managed to calm Gabrielle. He jerked his head toward Virbius. "Serve him and then be done."
Gabrielle had heard enough. She had a warrior princess to find.
"Well, it just goes to show you what you've got in me, Eteocles. Nothing can stop me." Virbius snarled at Gabrielle as she poured much more carefully this time. "I can bring living legends to you for your amusement and disposition. You wretched harlot! Can't you pour a glass of wine without making an ass of yourself?"
"So sorry, fine gentleman." Gabrielle smiled safely under her veil and withdrew her booted foot from on top of Virbius's.
"A toast!" Eteocles shouted. Chewing soldiers turned to him and raised their glasses. "To Virbius, the best lieutenant in the land!"
"To Virbius" was echoed but most of the rest drifted off into slurping sounds. Gabrielle knew why. These men believed that Virbius' was trying to take over their fortress, to do away with Eteocles. She'd learned that almost everyone there was afraid of Virbius. And she was afraid that somehow Xena would be a part of Virbius' plan. Gabrielle didn't much like the possibilities that lay down that road.
* * * * *
Gleefully, Gabrielle peeled off the layers of silk. They were soft and luxurious but they restricted her movement. She'd have to come up with a better disguise for the next meal. Now happy for the apron, she walked outside to scrape the uneaten food off of a tall pile of dishes, and into a trough. There wasn't much left on the plates. That army would obviously eat anything served to them.
There were three boys in the kitchen helping with the clean-up so she didn't get a chance to ask Laius what he'd been able to learn after shed left the dinning hall. Now that she knew Xena was there for certain, she had to find out where Xena was being held.
Just as they were finishing the clean up, the boys mopping the floor and taking out the trash, an armored guard stomped into the kitchen. Laius sent one sideways glance to Gabrielle but she had already secreted herself behind the door to the larder, just in case the guard recognized her. Virbius had come into that tavern with three mates and she didn't know where or when they were to likely to show up, just that she would, no doubt, run into them.
"I needs a meal. Boss says we got one to feed. Gimmie the usual."
Laius dished up a cold bowl of porridge and handed it to the guard. He placed it on the counter, took a small bag from his pocket, and slipped his fingers inside. He drew out a pinch of something, tossed it in the porridge, and gave it a quick stir. Without saying anything further, he picked up the bowl and left.
Gabrielle ripped off her apron and started after him. Laius grabbed her arm and turned to the boys, "Go on home, now. You've done your part." He waited for them to scamper out. "Don't be a fool, Gabrielle. You can't just waltz down the corridor after him. How far do you think you'd get before someone saw you?"
"I can be careful." The bard tried to pull out of his grasp and was surprised when she couldn't.
"You need a plan, Gabrielle. A whole plan. Not just which guard to follow. First off, you've got to find out if she's okay. Then you've got to find a way to get her out of here without anyone catching either of you. Can you do that now?"
He was right. She closed her eyes and sighed. "No."
"All right, then. First things first." He released his grasp. "I've got some friends around. Let's see what news we can gather, eh?"
* * * * *
Gabrielle crammed into the small room Laius used as sleeping quarters along with Alecto, the guard she'd met at the gate, and three others who worked in the fortress. It seemed the five of them met somewhat regularly to discuss the state of affairs. She was now a part of their rebellion. This rescuing business could be fun.
"So you guys don't mind working here for Eteocles?" It was unusual for warlords not to draw legions of resentment from those he commanded.
"He's not so bad," Alecto explained. "For the most part, he just lives off of his accumulated wealth. We end up producing more than we can use here, especially with all the sheep and goats around. We trade for most of what we need in the villages."
"Then why did the barkeep I talked to hate him so much?" Gabrielle didn't have the impression that Eteocles was tolerated, much less valued as a trading partner.
Ariston, the youngest of the lot at perhaps sixteen summers, answered, "That's because of Virbius. He's soured everyone to us. He's got some thorn in his toe that keeps him raiding even after Eteocles says enough."
"Twice in the last month, Virbius has taken a garrison and ransacked a town. Then he's hidden the spoils outside the fortress," Alecto added.
"And he would only do that," Gabrielle surmised, "if he believed he could come back one day and bring all his treasures in."
Laius slapped his knee. "Exactly! And that's what's got everyone so worried."
"It sounds like most of the people in here don't like Virbius, so what's he got that could overthrow Eteocles?" She dug down to the meat of the matter.
"Well, that's the problem. He's bullied a few loyal men. They're damned good at what they do." Alecto rubbed his brow. "Mostly what they do is terrorize the rest of us. Virbius has everyone on a pretty tight rope. If we go against him and his takeover succeeds..."
"I get it." Gabrielle sighed. "Look, if we can spring Xena, she can help. I know she can come up with a way to make Eteocles see what Virbius is doing."
Alecto shook his head. "Eteocles knows."
That made no sense to the bard. "What? He's letting someone run over him? Why?"
"We're not really sure. Ariston looked to Laius to help him out.
"We think he's sort of gone loony. You know, what with all the clothes and phobia about dirt and everything." Laius reached into a pocket for a swatch of cloth and wiped his brow and upper lip. "He's nice enough but a bit difficult to control."
Great. I thought I was in enough of a bind just rescuing Xena. "Okay. Let me think about this tonight and see if I can come up with something." They all looked to her as a savior.
* * * * *
Gabrielle borrowed a cloak from the storeroom and walked outside to clear her head. She'd thought of the cloak so she could cover up from watchful eyes, but decided she was glad of it against the cold. A storm must be blowing in.
So now what do I do, Xena? I wish I had your help in this. Mostly, I just wish you were here with me. I'm worried about you. Things must be bad because I haven't heard a peep from your direction. That really scares me.
Gabrielle paced in the dark shadows.
First, I need to find Xena and see how she is. I need to plan our escape and at the same time, get Virbius out of the way.
Sure, that'll be easy.
If Xena's here, she must have lost to Virbius in that fight. And if that's the case, then he can't easily be taken by force. And, she realized with a rush of intensity, if that's what happened in that fight, then Xena must be hurt.
Gabrielle kicked at the ground sending a dusty boot full of dirt flying, and hugged the cloak around her more tightly.
That means I need to find a way to get her out of here that doesn't involve a chase. She might need help. Only Argo can do that and she's outside the gate roaming around somewhere. Oh gods, that guard who came for food. If that was for Xena, and I'd bet a dainty dinar that it was, then he pinched some drug in there. Hopefully, that means she's not too hurt. Or she is and Virbius is still scared of her. What to do... what to do...
Okay. Find Xena. Take the medical kit. Get Argo and then... Gods, how am I ever going to get Argo in here?
And I need to know what Virbius is planning. That means a different disguise for dinner because I'm not going to trip around in those silks again.
And I have to make sure that Xena's next meal is clean.
She stiffened at the sound of approaching steps.
"Gabrielle?" A soft whisper called to her.
"Laius? What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?"
"I've come after you. You need to sleep or you'll be no good to anyone tomorrow."
"I can't wait until dinner tomorrow, Laius. I need to find a way to get in there and hear Virbius' plans first thing in the morning."
* * * * *
She liked the idea of going in with a mop. She tested several of them for weight and balance and chose one not too unlike her staff, except, of course for the braided cotton strips at the end. But if that was wet, it could leave a good sting on naked skin.
Her own staff was disassembled and tucked away in her bag along with their medical kit and Xena's breast dagger. She'd found the dagger in Argo's saddlebag that morning. Xena took to carrying it there to keep Gabrielle from getting hurt. The bard once sliced her finger on it when she got a little aggressive. Xena normally removed the weapon before their evening play progressed that far but that night, Gabrielle surprised her a bit, not that Xena would have minded under other circumstances. After that incident, in which Gabrielle endured more coddling than she could usually tolerate from such an insignificant wound, Xena left it stowed in a saddlebag.
Gabrielle hunted around the storage room for the appropriate attire. She couldn't expect not to attract attention to herself, so she decided to take the opposite tack and make herself so noticeable; they'd shy away from her.
She donned a funny looking white dress with big, angular pockets. It was a tad on the large side, but that suited the image. Then she plowed through the hats until she found a white one to match the dress. It was sort of pointy and big enough to sit on top of a wig. She picked a one with black straw-like hair.
One look in the mirror showed her the problem with that. Laius had talked about various powders and gels the performers left. She rummaged around in them until she found a black, sticky substance which she painted on her eyebrows. That improved her look, making it a bit more realistic. But she was still recognizable. Gabrielle played around with the paints and powders until she had an orange cast to her lips, dark circles under her eyes, a crooked nose, and deathly white pallor.
* * * * *
She sloshed a bucket of soapy water along side and started in on a mumbling monologue. As soon as she rounded the corner, the guards stopped her.
"But he said that the floor should be clean. Clean, he said clean. I said yes. Yes, I know all about clean. I am white. I am floor. I am cleaning woman. Hear me roar."
"Go on, get out of here." One of the guards dismissed her.
"Hey you, buddy." She jabbed him with the stick end of the mop. "Eteocles, my man, wanted his floors cleaned, his floors cleaned, his..." She planted the mop, spun all the way around it and dipped down, extending one leg straight out in front of her. "Dirty floor this is. I abhor a dirty floor." She ran her finger along the stone, scrutinized it then darted her tongue out and tasted it. "Oh, ew, oh, ew, dirty floor. This is something I deplore."
"She's crazy," one guard said to the other.
He laughed. "She'll fit right in. I say let her go in and mop the floor."
"But Virbius will have our shorts!"
"Tell him we did it to entertain him."
Gabrielle sidled up to them and threw her head back and forth, right to left to right, following their every word. She smiled broadly. "Hah! I knew you was moon boys!"
"Moon boys?" the first guard asked. The other one rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, you know. Moon boy, moon pies, big lies, free spies." Gabrielle jumped up and clicked her heels. When she landed she panted at them.
"Go on, go in there and bother them for awhile."
Gabrielle hunched over, grabbed the pail, and settled the mop over her shoulder. She didn't bother to stand tall when she entered the room.
She peeked at the far end of the room where Virbius and two others sat in large, overstuffed chairs. A thick, sturdy table an arm's length from Virbius had been covered in scrolls and parchments. She recognized one of the men with him from the tavern. So there were two here who could potentially figure out who she was.
She plunked down the bucket, letting it rattle a bit, then splashed the mop into it so hard, water spilled over the edges.
"Wish, wash, twish, twash," she sang as she swept the mop head along the floor. She couldn't help noticing that the floor actually was dirty and that her work did improve things. All the better.
"Hey, you!" The one from the tavern called to her. "Get out."
She took a deep breath and steadied herself. Then she turned and ran across the floor, mop ahead of her, until she went into a neat slide along the wet streak she created. She ran right into the table and flopped onto her behind. "Clean I do. Clean for you!" She sprang up and hopped on one foot. I hope this works, she thought. Or I'm really in trouble here.
"Go away, you slut." Virbius curled his lip.
"But the man wants his floors wiped. My mop must swipe!" Gabrielle held onto the mop for dear life. Her knees had started shaking. What's Xena going to say when they throw me in the dungeon for mopping? "I don't mop, but I'm mopping!" She found it slightly disconcerting that being crazy came so naturally to her.
Virbius stood and towered over her. "Get out."
"But you'll be seeing a cleaner floor that Eteocles will adore." She mopped right in front of his feet. "No more yellow buildup from your swill cup. See that spot is brighter. If dirty then Eteocles uptighter." She smiled and crossed her eyes for him.
"Oh let her be, Virbius. She's just a stupid old woman." The tavern man popped a grape into his mouth. "Besides, you know how the boss gets weird about things being clean."
Virbius whirled, "Don't call him the boss anymore!"
Gabrielle prattled, "The boss anymore, the candle store, I went to bed and ate the head." Hmmm, wonder where that one came from? She waddled back to the bucket and pretended to ignore them as she worked.
The man she didn't know told Virbius he'd just come off duty. "Eteocles is worried about you. He knows you're up to something."
"Eteocles is smart. I'm not surprised." Virbius said. "But he's batty, and that makes him dangerous. I don't like dealing with unpredictable men."
"Then you'd better act fast," said the man from the tavern.
"Perhaps. But I have some ideas. Eteocles doesn't like having that woman in his dungeon. He's scared of her."
Ah ha, so she's in the dungeon. Why didn't I just guess that in the first place? Wow, that brown spot's really hard to get up. She used some elbow grease to work it out.
Virbius continued. "But your advice is well taken. Do we have enough men?" Both of his cohorts nodded. "Extra drills today, make sure they understand the need for discipline. And then we'll aim to take care of all of this tomorrow."
Tomorrow! Gabrielle picked up the bucket and headed out.
"Hey--you missed a spot over here."
"Can't be mopping with dirty water. Makes floors... all the more... rotter." Rotter? She scampered out, plowed into the guards, spilled most of the mop water, and took off running down the hall. Then both took one step and slipped in the soapy spill, cursing each other.
* * * * *
She tucked the med kit into a deep pocket and slipped the breast dagger down her boot. It was cold and sharp and uncomfortable. She wondered how Xena could stand to wear one all the time. It must be really annoying in a heavy rain. I wonder if it ever pokes her when she's galloping?
Once again, Gabrielle gauged the success of her disguise in the mirror. This time, the clothes fit pretty well. Laius explained that there were lots of smaller soldier uniforms made for the boys who joined up. Her body shape didn't exactly match the straight cut of the pants and shirt, but it worked well enough.
The hair was a real problem. Gabrielle couldnt find a decent wig. They worked fine for the crazy lady look but didn't suit a soldier. Finally, against her better judgment, she dipped her hand in an oily brown substance and trailed it through her hair. It felt wretched to have it sticking to her head, but she admitted she looked more like the typical unkempt soldier. All she had to do was keep from scratching.
Laius met her in the kitchen. "You look terrible."
Gabrielle patted her crinkly hair, "You think it's too much?"
"Oh, no." He laughed. "You'll fit right in." Then he stepped up to her and rested his hands on her shoulders. "Are you certain you're up for this? I'm not sure that intentionally walking into the dungeon is such a good idea."
"Good idea or not, I have to, Laius. Xena is there. I need to see her."
He regarded her closely. "I wish I had someone who was willing to do that for me."
Gabrielle dropped her eyes. "I wish you did, too."
"Well, go on, then. And be careful."
"I'll be back before you know it."
Which wasn't true.
She walked out of the kitchen, turned down a long hallway leading toward the front of the fortress and found herself smack in the middle of a long line of troops, jogging and breathing heavily.
Gabrielle pointed to herself. "Me?"
"Get going or I'll have your ground into sausage!"
They circled the main floor eight times, feet pounding in unison. She glanced at some of the others in her company who sweated profusely. She fared better than they did for traveling with Xena kept her in great shape, but she was beginning to feel the heat from all the bodies, and beads of perspiration collected under her mat of greasy hair. It was starting to itch like crazy.
"All right you asses, hold up!" a guard screeched at them.
Some stopped more quickly than others and one burly type ran right into Gabrielle's back. She slid along the floor, belly down, as he sprawled out on top of her. Oh gods... I hate this!
"Get up you two, come on."
She was hauled to her feet alongside the clumsy oaf.
"Where's your sword?" an angry sergeant asked her.
She tried to lower her voice, but instead it squeaked. "My sword?"
Everyone laughed at her and the sergeant cuffed her ears. "Finally learning what it's like to be a man, huh? Maybe you'll grow a little taller, too."
One of the men nearby who was heaving from the exertion, teased her. "Hey, pubbie, wanna borrow my razor? I see a hair growing."
Instinctively, she reached for her chin. "Hair?" They laughed more.
I can't believe I'm standing in the middle of a warlord's smelly army, being teased as a boy going through puberty. I can't believe this... "No thanks, fatso, I shaved this morning." She cringed, hoping she hadn't gone too far.
"No pip-squeaky little runt calls me fatso!" He started to move toward her.
"Come on, Pisander, let's settle down here. Everybody! Up the stairs." The sergeant stuck two fingers in his mouth and produced an ear-piercing whistle.
The ranks started up, spiraling ever higher, to the top floor of the fortress.
"And as for you," the sergeant grabbed Gabrielle. "Put this on!"
He smashed a sword and scabbard into her belly. She held it for a moment.
"What'cha waiting for? Put it on and get with it. Now!" He bellowed.
Gabrielle wrapped the belt it around her waist twice and the managed to get it secured. The sergeant waited, tapping his foot impatiently. She grasped the hilt of the sword which was much too big for her hand and looked to the sergeant.
The last man in the company had just disappeared up the stairs as she started in on the first step. She sprinted as fast as she could but with the sword weighing her down, she discovered to her dismay that she was actually beginning to tire. As she finally caught up to the last huffing and puffing soldier, she heard the next order.
"About face! Down!"
A thumping army of men bounded down the steps, all now on Gabrielle's back. She didn't dare take two steps at a time so she forced herself to run down little steps as fast as she could. But when she heard men swearing as they fell in the stampede, she changed her mind and let herself sail down, three at a time. Each landing was a jolt that she had to turn into a spring for the next flying leap.
Finally, she was on the flat floor, but she didn't dare stop there. She kept going, sprinting down the hall, the sergeant at her shoulder, egging her on. "Get those bastards up to speed! Run like your life depended on it."
Unfortunately, Gabrielle believed her life did depend on it, so she dug down and hauled up a store of energy normally saved for dire emergencies. And sprinted like she was racing against Xena.
The sergeant steered her out a door and into a recently used corral. Since she was the first one in, she personally got to be the first one to step in each and every sheep's gift to the land.
"All right, hold up!"
Gabrielle doubled over, hands on her knees, gasping for air, not a pleasurable activity, given the circumstances.
The sergeant unsheathed his sword. "Now that you're warmed up it's time for a few drills. Pair off."
That was met with groans and grumbling. The sergeant stopped that when he asked one of the louder complainers to come forward. "Got a problem with that?"
"You've been running us ragged, what do you expect?"
The sergeant flashed his blade toward the unsuspecting and exhausted soldier, slicing a long gash down the length of his arm. "That's just a warning. The next one who squawks gets it deeper. Any takers?" Miraculously, he was met with silence. "Good. Now pair off and run drills."
A rather young, thin soldier turned to Gabrielle. "Wanna?"
She swallowed hard and nodded. At least he wasn't too much taller than she was. The bard wrapped her right hand around the hilt of her sword, and withdrew it slowly. It didn't gleam as Xena's always did. It had nicks and scratches along its blade and looked like the perfect sword for a loser.
The hilt was too big, the sword too heavy. She'd never last long if the drills got... serious. At first, the sergeant ran them through simple maneuvers, lunge and parry, in high and mid zones. These were moves she'd watched Xena practice. Once Gabrielle asked her why she practiced such simple steps over and over every day. Xena told her that everything built from them. If there was ever a hitch in the fundamentals, everything else would be off balance.
Actually, this felt pretty good after the run. She felt her muscles stretch comfortably, and with each lunge, she could strike a bit farther, almost getting inside the guard of her opponent.
The sergeant came by and watched her. "Very good. Okay, everyone, watch these two."
Gabrielle looked at the sergeant, then her opponent, then at all the filthy, sweaty men waiting to make fun of her once again.
I'm up to my ankles in a sheep-dip with a pack of tired and angry soldiers having a sword fight. Oh yes, this is such fun.
Her opponent lunged and she almost missed her chance to parry. That sent a few giggles echoing around the men. It also embarrassed Gabrielle, for if Xena had seen her do such a foolish thing, she'd never have heard the end of it. Fine.
She lunged, he parried, and they traded leads in the dance. The boy she fought looked to be as scared as she herself felt. She saw him glance over her shoulder and make eye contact with someone. Without thinking, Gabrielle dropped her sword over her back shoulder and met the sergeant's stroke. She didn't have the strength to push his sword away, so she twisted around, holding him at bay, until they were face-to-face. He relaxed his guard and smiled. She lunged and pinned him with her blade against the base of his neck.
Anger flashed in his eyes, but only briefly. He stepped away and sheathed his sword. "Never let your guard down. Not with anyone. The spunky little ones can be the most dangerous."
While she was glad that her gambit paid off, she wasn't prepared for the reward of dueling with the best of them for the remainder of the afternoon. Between each bout, she caught her breath and thought about all the other things she should have been doing. Needing to be doing. It always gave her the determination and energy to out-trick the next one. Her size and dexterity were no match for winded big men who'd had Laius' porridge for breakfast.
* * * * *
They didn't finish until just before the dinner rush. Gabrielle swooped into the kitchen and ran past Laius to the clothes storeroom.
He followed her in. "Are you all right? What happened today?"
"I had a little workout with the boys. Never did get close to the dungeon. Damn, and now I need to find something to wear pronto so I can get in there for dinner." She slid dress after dress down the rod, stopping to look at one or two more closely. "There isn't anything here!"
"How about this?" Laius held up a peasant dress.
Gabrielle shucked off the filthy shirt and pants and pulled it over her head. "Uh, it's sort of cut low here in front."
Laius just smiled at her. "Don't be worrying about that. No one will kick you out of the dining hall, that's for sure."
She pulled on a long wig, disgusting herself as she stuffed the last of her horribly greasy hair in under the cap. "I have got to take a bath. But," she sighed, "not yet."
"What?" Gabrielle looked down at her offensive boots which were caked with mire and muck beyond recognition. "Oh." She sat down and lifted her skirts out of the way, dug through the muck enough to find the laces and took them off. The breast dagger dropped to the floor. Laius tossed a wet cloth her way. She used it to wipe off her hands and the dagger. Xena wouldn't stand for getting her weapons handed over in anything but tip-top condition. "Thanks." After putting on more acceptable footwear, she looked in the mirror and decided the dirt on her face was pretty good cover. She did take a moment to wash her hands. "That feels better." She grinned at Laius. "What's on the menu?"
* * * * *
She served lamb, which smelled pretty good and didn't taste half-bad, though it would have been much nicer with rosemary and garlic. Mostly, the men looked down her cleavage as she slapped hunks of lamb on their plates. Even Virbius let himself stare.
Eteocles, however, did not. He was deep in conversation with Virbius and even the bard's nearby distractions didn't break his concentration. "It's giving me nightmares. You've got to get rid of her. What if she gets loose? What if she comes after me? I'm not even safe in my very own fortress anymore."
"Don't worry, Eteocles. Your wish is my command." Virbius smiled, grimly.
Suddenly, Eteocles shot up from his seat and ripped open his shirt. Gabrielle cowered away from him, not at all sure what he had in mind. All he did, though, was scratch his belly, madly raking red marks across it with his nails. Then he walked over to a basin kept by the head table, washed his hands lathering up to his elbows, and dried off. He returned to his seat, sighed, and pulled his shirt together.
Virbius didn't look particularly surprised, but he was much more uncomfortable. Gabrielle's anxiety level bumped up a level. The more strangely Eteocles behaved, the more likely Virbius would take over soon. And now Eteocles was admitting he was scared of Xena.
She came by with the tray of lamb again. Eteocles, itch relieved, grew talkative. "Hi there, Lamb Lady. Do you mind if I call you that?"
"Ah, no, not at all." She pinched her voice. "You can call me whatever you like."
"Oooh, my, Virbius. It's a live one!"
Virbius laughed. "She's probably married."
"Six times!" Gabrielle cackled and hooted. "And I buried all six meself. I got room fer another if yer interested."
Virbius smacked Eteocles on the shoulder. "I think you should take her up on her offer."
Eteocles fanned himself with a lacy napkin. "Oh dear. Six, you say?"
"Yup. Six. My mama went through fourteen, so I still gots a ways to go. My little sis is only on three. I thinks she took a likin' to one of 'em." Gabrielle laughed, vocalizing on every inhale. "More lamb, sirs?"
Eteocles pressed his palms to the table, propping himself up. "Wine, good woman. You speak so... so... heatedly. My... Wine!"
Gabrielle tottered off, laughing as she went. When she returned with the carafe, she stopped laughing immediately.
"So I figure, if I kill her in front of everyone, we'll never have a discipline problem again."
"Oh, dear, Virbius. My, but you are brave." Eteocles gratefully accepted the refill of his goblet. "However will you defeat her?"
The yellow candlelight glinted off his yellowed teeth. "I don't think that's going to be a problem."
* * * * *
Laius caught up to Gabrielle as she bused a load of empty trays back to the kitchen. "Alecto says that the watch tonight will be good."
"Meaning?" She raised her brows while setting the trays down on a counter.
"Meaning that the guards scheduled to work night shift in the dungeon are all... favorably minded."
Now Gabrielle smiled. "So I can get in there, you mean."
"Yes, but..." He sat down on a stool. "Virbius will send one of his own to fetch Xena's dinner."
"Okay." She wiped her hands on a dish towel. "I'll just have to distract him. He needs to think he's drugged the porridge and then I'll switch it."
"And how are you going to manage that?"
"Just leave that to me."
* * * * *
Working in a spotless kitchen, Gabrielle lined up all sorts of ingredients in tiny bowls. She poured small amounts of all the spices she could find into tiny cups, mixing them mostly by color. In one landed cumin, paprika, and an assortment of hot peppers. She sniffed it and sneezed. "Oh wow, that's hot."
Then, she hung six pots and pans over the fire. In two of them, she set some water to boil. Others would sizzle and fry things. The idea was to put on a show. Distract him with smells and colors and sounds and... well, whatever she could manage.
She got things ready just in time. Laius let her know the guard was on his way, then he hid in the larder as Gabrielle had done the night before.
"Okay, so we're going to really fix this up now. We'll take some of this garnish, you know garnish..." She turned around, and acted surprised to see the guard. "What can I fix you? Some robust rabbit with plum butter and fish-cake croutons? How about sweet somethings for a little snack? Athenian hedgehog tarts? Crispy on the outside but, oh my, so wonderfully creamy on the inside."
The guard stared at her wide-eyed. He'd obviously never seen anything like her. Dressed in a white smock with two rows of buttons down the front, and a tall rounded white hat with frilly edges on top. In one hand she held an enormous wooden spoon, in the other a dead, plucked chicken.
"Ah, blub," he said.
Gabrielle tossed the chicken into a pot, dipped her fingers into several bowls and flicked herbs and spices in. "We're just going to kick this up a notch! Wham! Kablooey!" She reached for the deadly pepper mix. "And this is one my dear mother loves. Happy, Happy!" She threw it in from two feet away, getting most of the pepper in the pot, but also delivering its dangerous flakes to the flames below. They crackled and popped and filled the air with a fiery dust.
Gabrielle sneezed. The guard sneezed.
She waddled away from the pots and asked him, "Is there something that you wanted?" while dabbing her eyes with a towel she had neatly hung from her belt.
"What did you do?" He screamed, coughing and snorting. "Oh gods, just give me the gruel and let me out of here."
"Gruel? You want gruel when I can create gastronomic creations to dazzle the great tongues of Greece?" She jumped back to her pots and poured a hefty quantity of olive oil into a sizzling hot pan. Her senses graced her for a brief moment and she remembered not to toss in anything wet, so she reached her hand into a nearby grain sack and pulled out a palm full of dried corn kernels. Perfect. They won't cause any trouble. She tossed in a second handful and stirred with the big wooden spoon for a moment.
"Porridge. I just want some of the left over porridge and hurry it up. A guy could get killed in here."
Gabrielle put her palm to her chest and collapsed dramatically. "Porridge?" she managed to say through her grief. "But I can..."
The guard slammed his hand down on the table. "Porridge. Now, or I'll be serving your head."
"Oh, very well. I can't help it if you've never exposed your palette to the finer privileges of life." She scooped up a blob of cold porridge and dumped it into a bowl. "There. Eat that heathen food."
"It ain't for me." He fumbled in his pocket for the bag. Gabrielle watched him carefully, ready to cause some sort of scene, she just wasn't sure what it would be. Sure enough, he dumped a quantity of sleeping herbs in the porridge, from what Gabrielle could smell. There were others in there as well.
She was just about to launch into a mad cooking monologue when, Bam, she was interrupted. Something had gone horribly wrong over the fire and it was shooting projectiles out at her. "Duck," she yelled, mostly for him but a little for her own sake, as well. She reached under the counter, pulled out an identical bowl of porridge, and switched it for the one the guard had drugged, and got bonked on the head by something.
Then she went for a flying duck and cover, trying to get out of the line of fire of whatever it was thatwas pelting them. But, funny, it smelled pretty good. She looked out at a white fluffy thing that landed by her. She picked it up and sniffed it. Hmmm. Not bad. She popped it in her mouth and chewed. Hey, it was pretty darn good. It could use a little salt and perhaps a dash of oil.
Oh, no concentrate! She peeked out from under the cover of a chair to see the guard's hand reach up to the counter, clamp onto the bowl of un-drugged porridge, and take it away.
She tossed another of the fluffy white things into her mouth and chewed it until she smelled something burning. The corn! What was left in the pan had turned into little black pellets, but there was plenty of the white stuff around the kitchen. If she could figure out a way to keep it in the pan, she'd have a pretty tasty treat.
She folded her dish towel over a couple of times, wrapped it around the blazing hot handle, and lifted the pan away from the flames. Laius came in complaining about the smell and the frightening popping noise.
"It was just corn. Relax, Laius. And it did the trick, too. There's the drugged bowl." She pointed under the counter.
"Corn? That popping sound was corn? What did you do to it, dear?"
"Ah," she handed him one of the fluffy white bits of corn. "I put it in some hot oil. Try it, it's pretty good."
After the kitchen had been cleaned again and Gabrielle had plunged her head into one of the sinks to get the worst of the junk from her hair, she changed into another soldier's suit, scraped the first few layers of the muck and grime off her boots, and pulled her hair back. She put a ridiculous-looking helmet on, but at least no one would see her face.
At last, after munching on a few more white fluffy bits of corn and vacuuming out with her tongue some corn shells that had gotten stuck between her teeth, Alecto came to the kitchen to give her the all clear. Virbius' men had all left the dungeon for the night. She could go to see Xena.
* * * * *
Gabrielle pulled the thick cell door open by putting her entire body weight into it. The guards had only agreed not to stop her; they would have no active hand in the affair. That would be fine, she'd said. Then they'd left her to hunt around for the keys and look for the right cell.
She stepped in and pushed the door shut, then turned around and gasped.
Xena lay in a sad heap next to a wall, arms and legs shackled with chains just barely long enough to let her rest on the floor. Her entire left side was the dark red of old blood, as was most of the straw around her, and her leathers were torn at the point of entry.
"Aren't you a little short for a soldier?"
"What?" Gabrielle wondered what the problem was. "Oh, the helmet." She ripped it off and tossed it on the floor.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing here? Don't you know you you're in danger? This isn't the kind of place you can just walk into."
Gabrielle laughed and crossed over to Xena. How a half-dead woman could find the energy to ball her out was beyond her, but she didn't mind. "I'm glad to see you, too." She felt a surge of emotion in her chest but fought it down. "I'm fine, Xena, but you're not." The bard kneeled and pulled the leather aside, inspecting the wound closely.
"Sorry. It's bad, isn't it?"
Xena didn't respond, she just lifted her head and kissed the bard.
Gabrielle indulged in the pleasure for a moment until she thought about the strain it caused her partner. She gently pushed Xena back down. "Let me take care of this first." They both paused for a moment, their eyes locked together. For an instant nothing mattered, no one hurt, a light illuminated the room like the noon-day sun, and they could smell the security of a crackling campfire. All that from the friction between two pairs of lips. Gabrielle broke the kiss before her determination dissolved.
Xena regained her presence of mind as well. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask the same of you." Gabrielle winked at her. She dug into her pockets and pulled out the medical kit and an assortment of bandages. "I was pretty worried about you, Xena. Guess I had good reason to be, huh."
"Yeah, well, Virbius is a chicken. He brought about twenty five guys with him." The warrior tried to roll on her side to give Gabrielle better access but the chains didn't quite reach.
"Here, let's see if one of the keys won't unlock those." Tiny fingers fumbled with the keys. Seeing Xena weak like that made it difficult for Gabrielle to work. She found the key and unlocked the shackles with shaking hands. Gently, she helped Xena roll toward her.
"That's better all ready, thanks." Xena always managed to sound calm, even under such dire circumstances.
"Here's the plan. I can stay until just before the next shift of guards. This place is crawling with them, Xena. You can't walk out of a room without running into one or two. But the guys working down here are friends, so once I got here, the rest was easy." Gabrielle was glad for the distraction of telling Xena about what had been going on. The wound was ugly, having been left unattended for two days.
Xena stayed quiet under the attention. She slid her hand up over Gabrielle's thigh, squeezing gently.
"So tomorrow, Virbius is going to bring you out and try to fight you. I kept them from drugging your food tonight, so you'll have a better chance tomorrow, if things get that far. From the looks of this, though, they'd better not get that far."
"I'll be fine, Gabrielle. And thanks for taking care of me." Xena looked up into Gabrielle's green eyes, glistening slightly in the candlelight.
"These stitches aren't going to hold if you do anything strenuous, Xena."
"I'll count on you to sew me back up."
Gabrielle wiped the back of her hands across her eyes and sniffed. Finishing, she dabbed some salve on the wound and covered the area with a piece of linen.
"I'll find a way to bring in Argo tomorrow. That's the only way I can think of to get you out of here. We'll just have to figure out how to get outside from the dining hall, then we'll be home free. Oh, but..."
Xena reached up for her and tugged until Gabrielle relaxed along side. "Let me guess. You're worried about your friends here."
"Yeah." The bard sniffed again. "Eteocles is crazy and Virbius is planning to take over. The people here really don't mind Eteocles being in charge, even though he's a freak about things being clean, but not the men themselves being clean come to think of it, and everybody needs to wear a uniform and all, but even still, none of them wants Virbius in charge."
"That's my Gabrielle." Xena draped one arm over Gabrielle's hip and snuggled in on her shoulder. "You make so many friends so quickly and you always want to help them."
Gods but it felt good to hold her. Gabrielle curled her left arm around Xena's back and reached around with her right to grab the warrior's shoulder, and squeezed. She pressed her cheek against the top of Xena's head and held her breath just to concentrate on the feel. It had been too long. She'd been too scared. It wasn't over yet.
"I'm going to be fine, Gabrielle." Xena's voice rumbled against the bard's chest. "I'm not worried about a thing."
Once again, Gabrielle tussled for control of her emotions. She felt Xena's head turn and warm lips caress her cheek. "Why is it," Gabrielle asked with her eyes squeezed shut against the tears, "that I can hold together around a bunch of people that don't matter and yet with you, when I really need to be the strong one, I just fall apart?"
"Because you love me," Xena answered simply and with absolute truth. "And it's much easier to let go when you know someone's there to catch you."
"And you love me, too."
The pair let the sureness and presence of the other comfort them, tracing idle patterns across the others skin in warm fingertips. It wasn't long before they both fell asleep, soundly resting the night away as neither had for some time.
A clanking at the door rousted them both. Gabrielle groaned. "I have to go."
After giving her a quick squeeze, Xena rolled onto her back. "You'd better put me in my iron cuffs again, or they're going to be pretty suspicious."
The bard dropped her head down and nodded. "Wish I didn't have to."
"You don't know what it meant to me to have you here, Gabrielle." Xena held up each hand for Gabrielle to clamp and lock the manacle. "You're pretty remarkable."
The bard smiled shyly. "Better drink this before I go." She handed Xena a slim water bottle that had been tucked in her pants. "And here's your dagger."
Xena drained the bottle and beamed. "Where did you find that?"
"In Argo's saddlebag, of course. Right where you left it." She changed the bandage on Xena's side. "Not too bad there. I'll still be worried about you tonight."
"Uh huh, And why do I get the feeling that you'll be there making sure everything goes all right?" Xena grabbed her hand and held on tightly. "You be careful or I'll spend all my energy worrying about you."
"I will be. Besides, I've got lots of friends around here looking out for me."
A guard opened the door. "Better hurry it up in there."
"I love you," Gabrielle said as she bent to kiss Xena.
"I was already pretty certain about that, but I'm glad to have it reinforced." Xena smiled her reassuring smile. "Go on. Don't get caught now."
Gabrielle plunked her helmet on her head, gave Xena a quick wave, and left. Each step was heavier and more difficult than the last.
* * * * *
Ariston, the young lad from the conspiracy ring, as Gabrielle dubbed it, agreed to help her bring Argo in. He occasionally drove a cart into town with goods to trade, so he was pretty sure he could get out without causing too much worry.
Gabrielle dressed in leather pants and a long-sleeved shirt that had a frilly, V-shaped yoke. She picked out a large, stiff hat with a wide rim and rounded dome. Laius told her that lots of the farm-hands wore it to keep the sun out of their eyes when they were out working with the sheep and goats. To give the ensemble a splash of color, for her tendency to over-dress had been working just fine, she tied a square of red-checked material around her neck.
At sun-up, Gabrielle and Ariston loaded some empty barrels onto the cart planning to tell the guards they were going into town for olive oil in exchange for some feta cheese. They made a dummy box of cheese by slipping a slightly smaller box inside and spreading only a thin layer of cheese on top of the second box. Besides, they could eat it later. There was no sense in wasting any of it.
They hitched two horses to the cart, one an old nag who would do well put out to pasture, though the thought of abandoning the animal to the wilds beyond tore at Gabrielle's heart. Maybe they could think of something to do with the beast. It didn't deserve to die out there alone.
Yet another matter to worry about, mused Gabrielle. And I thought all I had to do was rescue Xena...
Ariston took the reins and let Gabrielle hide under her wide-brimmed goat-herd hat. They moseyed up to the gate where Ariston waved to the guards.
A guard sauntered over and looked at the rather empty cart. "What'cha out for, today?"
"Cooking stuff," Ariston answered. "Trading cheese and we'd best be on the road before it gets too hot, if you know what I mean."
The guard chuckled. "What's the pretty lady for?"
Gabrielle bat her eyes at the guard. "Out fer a ride with my beau."
"Isn't he a little young for that?" The guard walked over to her side of the cart and leaned in.
Gabrielle blushed slightly from embarrassment. Of course he's too young, idiot! But the blush served another purpose.
"I guess you don't like to talk about those things, do you?" The guard ran a finger down her leather-clad thigh.
She slapped him away. "Puh-leas! I'd be thankin' you to keep yer hands to yerself." She huffed and turned toward Ariston who was, by now, deeper than the darkest beet. "Oh, Ari, take me from this wretched beast." Gabrielle fanned herself with her hand.
Ari gladly smacked the reins across the horses' rumps. The old hag didn't let them gain much speed, so they were still within hearing range when the guard explained to his colleague, "That must be a girl who caint say no."
The cart slowly made its way around a bend and away from the fortress. Gabrielle apologized. "I'm sorry, Ariston. I guess I didn't quite think everything through before I started on this. I hope I didn't embarrass you too much."
Ariston laughed. "Actually, once I got to thinking about it, I figured it could only do me some good. You know what I mean, that I could catch someone like you." He blushed again.
"I think you'll find a very nice girl someday and settled down somewhere. I don't believe you'll have a thing to worry about there." Inwardly, she groaned as he blushed once again. "I'll just whistle for Argo and we can go back." There, changing the subject would help.
"We'll have to be gone longer than that. They'd expect us to go to the village and back, you know."
"Right, you're right, Ariston. Yet another thing I didn't think about. Well, let's have a picnic and eat some of the cheese. I'll use the time to sort out everything that has to be ready by dinner tonight."
* * * * *
Argo trotted up only a few minutes after Gabrielle whistleed for her. Ariston was impressed that a horse would respond like that, and even more amazed when he got a look at Argo.
"She's a beauty." He scratched her nose and she snorted in return. "Hey there, Argo. Want to help rescue Xena?" Argo stamped her front foot. He smirked at Gabrielle. "Does she really understand everything we say?"
"Sure seems that way sometimes." Gabrielle petted the war horse's flanks. "Argo, I'm going to have to hitch you to this cart so we can get back in with you. Will that be all right with you?"
Argo flipped her head toward the bard and nosed her away.
"Look, Argo," Gabrielle spoke more firmly. "Xena's in trouble and I don't know any other way to help her but get you to take her out of that place. Now that means you're going to have to behave yourself while we get you in."
Argo snorted again and then nibbled at Gabrielle's hair. "See, Ariston, I knew she'd listen to reason."
"Amazing." Ariston blinked a few times. "Simply amazing."
"And now we have to figure out how to get three horses in there." Gabrielle gazed at the hook-backed, aged old beast they'd planned to leave behind. "I think I have an idea..."
* * * * *
Gabrielle would have preferred Ariston ride Argo, but she knew not to trust that job to anyone but herself. Xena wouldn't stand for it. Hades, Gabrielle laughed to herself, who am I kidding? Argo wouldn't stand for it. She was worried that riding might dislodge her hat, so she tied string to either side of the brim and let it hang in a loop in front of her neck. That way, if the hat flew off, the string would catch on her neck and she'd be able to pull it back up on her head. Or so she hoped.
She stretched up to get her foot in the tall stirrup and then bounced twice before mounting the great steed. "You're a very big horse, you know that?" Argo shifted slightly and Gabrielle settled into the saddle. "Ready to put on a show?"
Ariston climbed into the cart, the hag still next to the other workhorse, going back home to die in the company of other friends and animals. "After you."
When they neared the fortress gates, Argo began to get restless, prancing a little. "Save that up, Argo. The only way they'll stay away from you is if you give a convincing performance."
The same guards were on duty. This time, however, their suspicious natures came to the fore. "What are you doing with that horse?" The guard who'd talked with them on their way out questioned them on their way in.
"Why this old thing?" Gabrielle waved him off. "She's a might bit daft around the edges, so Big Daddy gave her to me. You know, as a weddin' gift."
The guard scowled. "Some one gave you that horse?"
"Not someone," Gabrielle corrected him. "Big Daddy, you know... ah, Joxer Rocrates... we call him JR."
The guard reached toward Argo's bridle. Argo reared up and kicked with her hooves. "Hey!"
Gabrielle quickly leaned forward and grabbed hold of the saddlehorn for good measure. "I told you she was a bit unbalanced, and I'll kindly ask you not to be making any sudden movements around her."
"We can't let any horses like this in. She might lay waste to the whole stable." The guard wrapped his hand around the gate and started to pull it closed.
Gabrielle crammed her heels into Argo who took the action as a command to rip right through the security area, which she did, with the bard barely holding on. They plowed into the main courtyard with Argo kicking and bucking. Mostly out of sheer terror rather than as a nod to her practice of overplaying each scene, Gabrielle shouted, "Yippee!!"
A few of the soldiers tried to run in and help her, but Argo made certain they stayed away. "Do you need us to shoot the horse?" one of the men shouted to her.
"No! Yippee!... I... Oh... I... Hey!" Her hat flew off and choked her. Before she could get her hat back on, a runty little dog came tearing around a corner, barking fiercely. It startled Argo, which in turn startled Gabrielle. "Git, git away." She was torn between laughing at the absurdity of Argo being frightened by a scrawny puppy and her own alarm that the dog might actually succeed in calming Argo. "Git," she called again. "You little doggie, git along!" All the while she tried to get her hat back on, but finally just gave up and let it sit on her back where she just knew it looked incredibly stupid. What good is a hat if it ain't on your head?
So, she yanked on the reins, planted her heels in Argo's ribs, clamped down as powerfully as she could with her tiring leg muscles and leaned into another of Argo's impressive displays. "Come on, Argo. Head toward the stables."
Prancing high, Argo complied, and trotted toward the back of the fortress. "See, everything's fine. She's just a little skittish. Nobody touch her and she'll be so quiet, you'll hardly know she's there."
Ariston pulled the cart next to the barn and jumped off to help Gabrielle. "Put her in the end stall and I'll bet a week's dinars no one will go within twenty feet of her."
Gabrielle slid off, her knees shaking slightly. "I don't see how Xena can ride her into battle. I could barely stay on and I didn't have anyone lunging after me with a lance." She petted Argo's nose. "Thanks, girl. You're pretty special. But maybe we'd better not mention this to Xena, okay?"
* * * * *
Everything was as ready as it was going to get. Gabrielle had delegated several tasks. She hoped they would be carried out as carefully as she needed them to be, but since the adventure of bringing in Argo had taken most of the day, and the better part of that had been spent wasting the time it would have taken to get to the village and back, she didn't have time to check on all of the details, much less do the work herself.
Once again, she had to rush through getting dressed. Tonight, she needed to see and have room to move, so she chose to be a princess from Chin. A little of the face paint just like they'd done to her before did the trick quite nicely. Of course, she wished she'd had time to warn Xena about her mode of disguise. It wasn't the most thoughtful thing to be wearing to dinner, just the most practical on short notice.
She'd found a lovely long robe of Chin design, glossy silk embroidered with blue and red dragons, and everything was perfect but for one annoying detail. The robe was several inches too long. The material was so thick from some padding that shecouldn't easily cut it or roll it up. So instead, she wore shoes that had been built on many slats of wood, which effectively gave her several more inches in height and fortunately made the robe the right length on her.
Laius laughed when he saw her.
"What's wrong?" she asked, worried that something terrible was out of place.
"Nothing, Gabrielle. You look grand. But I don't think you'll be able to pass as a server tonight."
"Oh, I guess I hadn't thought about that." Her shoulders fell. "One more thing to add to that list."
"Hey, now. Don't worry. In that get-up you can be a guest for dinner. Let us serve you for a change."
"Oh right, and a princess from Chin comes to dinner every night."
"No," said Laius thoughtfully. "But perhaps an emissary on a trade mission looking for fine wool might pay Eteocles and his famous sheep a visit."
"Right." She kissed him on the check. "Thank you, Laius. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"You hush." He cleared his throat. "I'll have Alecto run you up to Eteocles' quarters. If you walk in with the boss, Virbius won't be able to complain."
And that was true. The princess sat on Eteocles' left, Virbius to his right, and the kindly old warlord turned his back on Virbius through the entire meal. He asked Gabrielle about everything imaginable from which way the water swirled down a funnel in Chin to how many courtesans the Emperor had.
For one of the very few moments in her life, Gabrielle was glad for having visited Chin. She told him about how they treated their prisoners, locking them into wooden boards and making them live in a watery muck. She talked about their meals of tiny edible birds. She told Eteocles about Chinese art, their precisely manicured gardens, and about the many types of tea.
And even though he was utterly fascinated by what the bard said, he was blown over by how she said it. Eteocles kept commenting on the very peculiar but endearing accent she had.
"My accthent? Oh ith nothing sthpethal."
"But, my dear lady, it is. It gives your chin the tiniest quiver and your breath mingles with the moisture of your mouth." He shivered as he spoke.
"Oh, Eteocleth, your justh thaying that." Gabrielle batted her eyes at him. "But could we talk about theep for a minute?"
"Theep. A cute little four-legged wool-making machine. I'm here for the theep after all. Well, for the wool really. The winter in Chin can be frigid. We really need that theep wool."
"My good sire," Virbius interrupted them loudly, "I believe it is time for the entertainment."
Eteocles reluctantly looked over his shoulder. "We have entertainment?"
"Yes, just as we discussed." He hardened his face. Gabrielle could see that he was frustrated. Good, it would make it more difficult to concentrate in the fight.
"Perhaps the Chin Princess would care to see a Warrior Princess?" Virbius angled his body up, over the table so he could look at her when he spoke.
"What ith a warrior princeth?" She reached for her napkin and coughed into it, partially hiding her face. Even though the face paint was convincing, she felt much too exposed to him.
"I'll show you." He smiled and sat back in his chair. He signaled a trio of guards near the back wall with one hand.
Laius came by with the serving tray. "More fricassee of goat?" He leaned down. "Bad news. They've got Xena in the hall and it looks like they drugged her again."
Gabrielle paled. Yet another thing she hadn't thought about. Her eyes instinctively went to the suit of armor by the kitchen door. Her staff was still standing in the corner behind it. But it was a long way from where she was, and she wasn't entirely sure that it would be a good idea to start wailing it around. There were a lot of men around to gang up on her. But hopefully that had been taken care of.
Before she could fret anymore, the two wide wooden doors were thrown open in an act of more pomp than ceremony. A very wobbly Xena was dragged in by a pair of burly guards. Two more followed them in.
They'd dressed her in her full armor. Well, in everything but her sword, which one of the accompanying guards carried across his upturned palms.
Virbius stood as they entered and waited at the table until they stopped before him. He inflated his chest and called out to the soldiers. "You know who this is!"
Some yelled "Xena," others mumbled.
"And you know who defeated her!"
A few more yelled "Virbius."
Gabrielle was not having fun. She kept her eyes riveted on Xena. If she was faking it to make fun of Virbius, then she was doing too good a job. She hadn't even tried to look for the bard. Oh this was bad. Very bad.
"And now I shall have the head of the great Xena: Warrior Princess. And Virbius will be known as the most fearsome warrior in all the land!"
A rhythmic chanting of Virbius started up among the soldiers but it didn't have the power of a two-syllable name.
Virbius raised both his hands to silence the chant. "I shall slay Xena with her own sword!" He lowered he hands, extending them across the table. The guard carrying the vaunted weapon stepped forward and bowed his head as his great and powerful leader took Xena's weapon into his own hands.
It gleamed in the candlelight. Far more highly polished than anything else in the room, in contrast to the dull and dirty men, Xena's sword looked to be a light source unto itself. Virbius turned the blade sending shoots of bright light out across the room. The flashes danced on the walls and on the eyes of the men who sat transfixed by the glorious weapon.
Gabrielle saw Alecto shuffle toward the suit of armor. It was his task to see that she got her staff if she called for it.
It was all Gabrielle could do to keep from putting herself between Xena and that madman. But that would never work. That blade could not be stopped by a staff. He would skewer them together.
Eteocles nearly had a heart attack when Virbius put his booted foot up on the precious table cloth. There would be no stopping this man now. Virbius took two steps across the table and jumped down to stand in front of Xena.
Very slowly, he reached out to her chin and jerked it up, forced her to look at him. "I am going to kill you, Xena." He passed the blade in front of her eyes. "And I am going to do it with your own sword." He motioned to the guards who let her go and backed away.
She struggled to hold herself up. When she'd found her sense of equilibrium, she swept the room with her eyes. When they got to Gabrielle's they stopped. And they narrowed. And they hardened. Xena fixed her glance back on Virbius. Gabrielle saw him falter slightly.
Even unarmed and drugged, she could scare a man.
But Virbius wasn't daunted for long. He shook it off, raised his arm, and aimed for a single stroke of death.
* * * * *
Xena stepped back out of the way and watched Virbius' momentum carry him to the ground. Some of the soldiers laughed until their lieutenant propelled himself up and whipped the sword around. His message was clear. The warrior princess was first and anyone who defied him got it next.
Gabrielle's heart raced and she couldn't keep still. She knew that princesses were trained not to fidget, it's not high on the list of things royalty do, but it was the only thing keeping her in her chair. And it barely did that.
She went over everything in her head. Alecto is by my staff. Ariston must have done his part or I would have heard by now. Oh, but why can't I think of everything ahead of time? They drugged Xena before the fight. Dumb! Of course they would do that.
Virbius stalked her, walking slowly around the dazed warrior. Xena kept her eye on him. Everyone in the room could tell that turning in a circle was difficult for her. He laughed, a barbaric and chilling battle call. With the glimmering blade pointed toward Xena's throat, he planted his feet and prepared for an attack from which she couldn't just step away.
"You're mine, Xena. I will defeat you. I will spill your blood in front of all these eyes and they will remember it was me, Virbius, who finally took your life."
The sword plunged in horizontally. Gabrielle leapt from her seat. Xena kicked at her attacker's arm.
Virbius missed again. Gabrielle backed away from the table and inched toward Alecto and her staff. Xena fell roughly to the floor.
When a trained fighter loses his temper, it usually means he has misjudged his opponent. Virbius had. He had wanted to take her with a single stroke. He wanted to be that good. He wanted that reputation spread about him.
Now he'd missed twice. But she was down and he wouldn't miss again. He lifted the hilt with both hands, aiming directly for her heart. She rolled as he thrust down. He came up screaming with a long gash down his arm, blood running down the once perfect blade of the sword.
"Bitch!" With blazing eyes he found her weapon. A tiny dagger she had concealed on her body somewhere. His guards would all die for that mistake.
But it had done its work, for he was out of control. His training forgotten, it was brute strength against dulled skill. Better odds for Xena.
In a rage, he began to kick her, blindly reacting to his own fury, not realizing that he was in fact inflicting great damage. He rammed his boot right into her stitches, reopening the wound, spilling her blood liberally.
Gabrielle had seen enough. She signaled Alecto, slithered past the large fireplace while tossing handfuls of dry corn into it, and got clear of the tables so Alecto could toss the staff to her. She caught her staff, kicked off her ridiculous shoes, and plunged into the fight, thinking only of what that man was doing to Xena. After almost tripping on her long skirt, she ripped it away, revealing her brown amazon attire.
He didn't see her coming. He was too busy kicking Xena, connecting with her head and again with her bleeding side. Gabrielle whapped Virbius hard across the shoulders, sending him stumbling back, searching for his balance.
He roared at the indignation. A tiny little princess had thrown him off his prey.
Gabrielle went on the offensive. She flashed the staff to the left and right, higher and lower, using the three-dimensional space Xena had drilled into her over and over again. Virbius didn't know where to block next. And he just grew angrier and angrier as his body became bruised from the woman and her stick.
Behind them, men were laughing or grumbling. Some were angry as well. For when they tried to render assistance, just planning to jump in and get the princess out of the way, they found that they couldn't get out of their chairs. Something sticky held them in place. They'd been glued.
Then the popping began. It sounded like the roar of a mighty army, cracking and banging and clapping and booming as the tiny edible projectiles burst in the great reverberant fireplace. Men tried to duck, went down with their chairs still attached to their bottoms, hopelessly tangled together.
Gabrielle continued her assault letting her hackles rise in defense of Xena. One vicious swipe sent Xena's sword sailing under the head table. With the next, she backed Virbius up to the wall. But when his back made contact with the stone, Gabrielle saw his face set into a grim, controlled, mask.
He realized the error of his ways and reigned in his temper. Heedless to the pain, he reached out and caught Gabrielle's staff in mid-stroke. He jerked it from her hands and turned it against her.
Gabrielle's only choices were to bolt or get pounded. But running meant leaving Xena there unguarded. She looked around for help and smiled, inching to her right.
"Going somewhere, Princess?"
She didn't answer the taunt, just kept moving around him until she was closer to the wall as well.
"It's not going to help, you know. You can't get away." He jabbed her with the end of the staff. She jumped back out of the way.
But with each step toward her, he got a little closer to the spot. She reached up and yanked on a rope loosing one of the large tapestries to tumble down on top of Virbius. She turned to find another weapon and saw the basin of water, left there for Eteocles to wash his precious hands before eating.
She grunted as she lifted it over her head, forgetting how heavy water can be, and as she turned to throw it on Virbius, he kicked off the tapestry, the heavy material flinging the basin from her hands and sloshing water everywhere.
Including all over Gabrielle.
Virbius stepped away from the tapestry, looked up at Gabrielle, and understood. The water had streaked the face paint down Gabrielle's face. "You're the bard."
Defenseless and exposed to him, Gabrielle knew she had just lost the most important fight in her life. He lunged, picked her up kicking and screaming and barked out his orders. "Take Xena back to the dungeon. Me and the bard are going upstairs."
* * * * *
The only guards who were mobile were Alecto's men. They carefully gathered the warrior into their arms and trotted out of the dining hall with her, making a sharp right turn toward the kitchen rather than descending to the dungeon.
Xena was vaguely aware that she was being moved. Everything in front of her eyes sparkled but only the very center seemed lit, like she was looking down a pipe at the noon-day sun reflecting off a wind-driven body of water. She knew that didn't make sense. A nagging memory of Gabrielle needing her kept Xena thinking but she couldn't piece together where she was or why she would be looking at a lake down a tube.
Then she looked up into the face of an old man. He smiled. She took that as a bad sign and sent all her energy down her arm, concentrating it in her fist.
"Hey, there, Xena. Just relax. We're on your side."
"My side of what?" Her mouth felt stringy and dry. She accepted the water flask and drank in down.
"My name is Laius. Your friend Gabrielle has been staying with us."
"Gabrielle..." Xena tried to sit up. Arms held her down too easily.
"We're patching you up. Virbius made mincemeat out of your side, there."
She turned and noticed a man bent to the task of sewing.
The older man talked more. "We guessed that you'd be wanting to help your friend. That water had something in it to counteract what they gave you eariler. Let it work some before you try to undo Alecto's handiwork."
The man next to her passed the needle through her skin, looked up, and said, "Hi, I'm Alecto. I'm almost done."
She decided that they were right, and let her head plop down on the pallet with a weak thud. "You're the friends she told me about."
Laius chuckled. "I guess that would be us and a few more. She seems to have made lots of friends in a couple of days."
"She's done more in two days than any of us have in a year," Alecto added.
"I can only imagine," Xena said under her breath.
"I'll bet you try to keep her away from everyone's clothes."
Xena looked right at Laius. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"What? Doesn't she usually... I mean..." Laius stammered. "She's been dressing up as all sorts of people and becoming whoever she needed to be, playing the part perfectly. I thought she did that as a bard all the time. It came so naturally."
"Dressing up? You'd better tell me everything." And as they did, Xena was once again amazed at the bard's inventiveness. This time, being a bard had really made the difference. The costumes helped, but what had made it work, made her disguises believable, was the fact that Gabrielle could throw herself completely into the character. She'd been practicing that very skill all these years of storytelling, and now it had saved Xena's life. I guess I won't be complaining about that anymore, she mused.
And now it was time for Xena to return the favor.
Alecto bandaged the wound after carefully applying a light coat of salve. "I hope that will hold together."
She smiled at him and sat up. "Perfect." She looked to Laius to thank him and saw her sword lying at the foot of the bed. She reached for it but couldn't stretch very far, so she rolled her body toward it and scooped it up in her hand. Slowly, she forced herself to stand. "Thank you both for everything. And now if..."
"Follow me," Alecto said hopping up. "I'll take you up to Virbius' room. There's a pack of angry men in the dinning hall and we have everyone we can spare keeping them there, otherwise we'd have tried to get into his room ourselves."
She forced him to run up the stairs even though the pace was foolish for her. Every pounding step burned and sent searing jolts of pain through her entire body. She easily shoved it to the back of her mind as she focussed on the only thing that truly mattered to her: Gabrielle.
Two guards were at the door. Two clean swipes with her blade and they became lifeless decorations. She bolted through the door, plowing in ready to take Virbius' head off as well if he had so much as touched Gabrielle.
Only to find Gabrielle up on the bed, standing over Virbius' unconscious form, curtain rod in hand.
Xena stopped. "Oh."
The fire of combat burned through Gabrielle. Seeing that reflected from the green of her partner's eyes stunned Xena. She'd never expected to witness such ferocity coming from the bard.
"Xena?" Gabrielle dropped the rod, leapt from the bed, and ran to her.
She tossed her sword aside and fell into the bard's arms. "You're amazing."
"You're alive!" Gabrielle helped the warrior over to the bed and sat her on the edge. Then Alecto helped her roll Virbius off the other side.
"I guess she didn't need your help, Xena." Alecto eyed Gabrielle with unbridled respect.
"Doesn't look that way, does it?"
"What are we going to do with him?" Gabrielle was all too happy to relinquish such decisions to someone else. She'd done enough thinking and forgetting important things for one day.
"I'd be happy to kill him," Xena suggested quite honestly.
"No, please don't kill him Xena. I couldn't..." She sighed. "But we've got to do something. We can't just leave him here." Gabrielle smiled at Alecto. "I couldn't do that to my friends." Softly, she stroked Xena's cheek. "You look terrible."
"I've felt better, thanks." But she smiled nonetheless.
Gabrielle sighed again and returned to the problem at hand. Her fingers drummed along her thigh. "We just have to find a way to run him out. Most people around here don't like him anyway."
"I don't like him, either," added Xena. "Why don't you just let him make a fool out of himself in front of everyone."
"Ridicule him! That's it! Thanks, Xena. You figured it out again."
Xena looked to Alecto and mouthed "me?" He laughed.
"Okay, let's get him back to the kitchen and stash him there while I cook up a few things."
Xena adored that twinkling Gabrielle got in her eyes when she was scheming.
* * * * *
Laius agreed to keep Virbius in his room. He said that he'd enjoy the task of guarding the scum, particularly since Xena tied the knots in the ropes that held him and he could think of nothing with a more loophole-proof guarantee. Laius did admit later, however, that he gagged the lieutenant after only a few minutes. He'd heard enough of his lip over the years and didn't care to hear anymore, even if it was to be Virbius' last night in the fortress.
That left Xena and Gabrielle alone in the small closet Gabrielle had used as a sleeping space for the short amount of time she'd allowed herself to lie down that first night. It was smaller than Xena's cell and also didn't have a pallet, but it was exactly what they needed.
Gabrielle filled a pail with warmed water out in the kitchen, collected a small meal for them to share and brought tea, a late dinner, and the needs for a quick bath to Xena, whom she'd ordered to stay put and relax. The stitches had held by Xena's definition, but not by Gabrielle's. They oozed so much that Gabrielle needed to change the bandage frequently. Xena said she didn't care.
After she stripped the crusty, dirty, bloody leathers off Xena, Gabrielle gave the warrior a bath accompanied by soft purring and murmuring from a very contented Xena. Then the bard helped Xena sit up and sip soothing tea, munching on some leftover lamb and crusty bread with feta and olives.
Gabrielle had to take the dirty dishes and pail out into the kitchen or there wouldn't be enough room for them both to stretch out, so Xena didn't complain, she just asked her to hurry. Gabrielle willingly complied.
And so they curled up, confident that by the next night, they'd be together out under the stars.
* * * * *
Gabrielle passed three men in the stables. They'd been mucking since dawn and were now leaning on their forks, taking a breather.
"Hey fellers," the wild horse-riding gal called to them. She fingered the tie holding her hat, bobbing it up and down her back. "I heard this morning that Virbius got beat up by a girl last night."
"Really?" one of them asked. Actually, all he cared about was untying the pretty little square of red-checked cloth that decorated her neck
"Yup. A little bit of a thing at that."
* * * * *
The peasant women brought in a tankard of cool cider to the guards at the gate. "I'm looking for husband number seven. Any takers?"
They laughed at her but gladly took the cider.
"You know, on my way over here I heard someone say that Virbius got that bard and just ran off with her. Apparently she was what he was after all this time." Gabrielle smiled at the man staring down her cleavage.
"Uh... really? Virbius just up and left? Well good riddance." The guard's eyes never left her chest.
* * * * *
The mop lady returned to Virbius' quarters. The two former guards had been cleared away and replaced by two new ones.
"I've come to clean the guillotine."
The guards looked at Gabrielle, then quickly looked away, trying to ignore her.
"A velveteen wolverine has left unclean. Now it must be made pristine!"
"Shh," one whispered to the other. "Maybe she'll go away."
"I've heard appraisal of your boss. Allergic to basil, makes problems nasal! Little girl did double-cross."
"Go on, git. Nobody's in there, anyway."
Gabrielle smiled and shook her mop at them.
* * * * *
Gabrielle walked over to the corral and climbed up on the fence, watching the soldiers run through their drills. The sergeant spotted his best student and jogged over to her.
"Hey Sarge," she whispered to him. "Guess what I heard?"
"No, you guess what I heard! Word is out that Virbius was kidnapped."
"Really?" the bard replied. She'd just rubbed some mud on her face and in her hair and it was beginning to itch like the dickens. At least she hadn't greased her hair to death like she had the last time she dressed as a soldier.
The sergeant eagerly spread gossip about his former leader. "Yeah, and I heard he was taken by a little girl!"
"You must have heard wrong, cause I came by to tell you that he'd run off with Eteocles' sister."
"I didn't even know he had a sister."
"Oh yeah. Very rich. Crazy too. I guess Virbius really loves those qualities in the boss."
* * * * *
On her way back to the kitchen, she overheard two men talking about how Virbius was allergic to basil and nutmeg, and that the dinner the night before had killed him, but not before he'd impregnated Eteocles little sister.
She smiled. A few more costume changes, a few more plants, and I think we'll have this problem well on its way out of here.
* * * * *
Xena stared at Virbius. She tried to convince herself she was holding down a necessary job as guard instead of believing that the bard had somehow convinced her not to do anything strenuous all day. But then again, Gabrielle had made a believer out of everyone in the fortress. Why not join the crowd?
She grew bored of the silence, so she walked over to Virbius and untied the gag. "Something to drink?"
He spat and dragged his tongue around his mouth, loosening it up. "Why don't you just kill me, Xena?"
"Oh, I don't do that sort of thing anymore." She reached for the flask and tipped it to his lips.
He sputtered then growled, "Hey, bring that back. I was expecting water, was all."
Xena smiled and squeezed a drizzle of port in his mouth. She didn't give him too much. They had all day.
"Now, tell me what you meant by that comment." He wiped his mouth by raising one shoulder and bending his head as far as he could to the side. It was awkward. Xena didn't move to help. "Are you as crazy as Eteocles?"
"I don't believe I'm crazy at all, Virbius."
"Then why in Ares' name did you give up killing? Did you give up sex, too?"
Xena chuckled. It was much more a taunting sound than something she'd produce if she'd been made to laugh. "I haven't given up sex." She leaned forward. "I haven't had to."
"What's that supposed to mean?" He grumbled because he knew exactly what she meant.
"Haven't had much success in wooing anyone to your bed, have you?"
"I get what I want."
"Yeah, that's what I thought." She hefted the wine flask. He opened his beak like an obedient chick. She gave him a long drink.
He smiled and licked his chops. "But why give up killing? Are you trying to tell me you don't commit carnage anymore? No more midnight massacres? No beautiful bloodbaths? Oh, Xena, you must remember how it feels."
She squeezed another serving of port into his mouth. "I found something better," was her reply. Short, ambiguous, and truthful, all rolled into four little words.
"Really?" He wriggled a bit to sit up straighter. "Tell me about it."
"I don't think I should."
"Damn you, Xena. I'm sitting here on my butt, tied up so I can't even scratch myself, and you won't tell stories?"
"That's not what I do."
"Oh," he said glumly. "That's what the bard is for."
She shook her head. "You'll never understand."
"Well, give me half a chance and I will." He drank another long stream of port. "Uh, I think I will. What will I?"
Xena leaned back against the wall, legs stretched across the bed in front of her. "I don't know, Virbius. You were about to tell me why you gave up killing."
"I never said!" He shook his head and almost fell off to his right. "I gave up killing?"
"Yup. That's just what you were explaining to me."
He laughed. "Xena, Xena, Xena. You are good. Now I understand your reputation a little better. The one on the street that everybody knows is only the half of it. The Brethren of Warlords keeps the whole truth only for themselves."
"Do they now?" She squeezed the port and aimed a little too high.
"Not the nose! Hey, if you're gonna be nice enough to get me drunk, at least you could let me drink."
"You think I'm getting you drunk?"
"Yes, and... hmmm... I don't feel exactly drunk. It's sorta different."
"It's called giving you a taste of your own medicine."
"Hey that's a funny line. I never knew you joked."
"Didn't the Brethren of Warlords tell you I did? I am quite funny." She crossed her ankles.
"No, they just talked about... you know."
Xena knew all too well where the conversation was headed. "About what?" she growled.
In a flash she was off the bed with her hands around his throat. "I do know, as a matter of fact. And this will be the last time you ever bring it up. To anyone. Is that clear?"
He lost the feeling in his feet, felt the numbness creeping up his legs. "Okay."
She dropped her grip. "And they'd have better said I was damned good." She returned to the bed, noticing that her side actually did hurt a lot more whe n she moved around. Gabrielle was right about that.
He opened his mouth to explain, then shut it for fear she'd kill him.
"Good. You learned that lesson quickly."
They stared at their boots for awhile, each in their own thoughts.
"Xena?" Virbius broke the silence.
She tilted a calm face his way.
"Tell me again why you gave it all up."
Just then came a gentle knock on the door. Gabrielle pushed it open and stuck her head in. "Everything okay in here?"
"Just fine," Xena answered, smiling.
"Good." The bard came in and sat on the bed. "Have you been taking it easy? I want you in one piece when we leave tonight. No bits of you staying behind on anybody's blade."
"I've been relaxing, talking with Virbius here."
Gabrielle looked over to the bound, formerly threatening presence on the floor. "He's ready?"
"Everything will be fine on this end." Xena reached out, latched onto the bard's elbow, and scooted her closer. "How are things with you?"
The bard laughed cheerfully, brightening the room. "Oh, I'd say things are going well. Yup. Just swimmingly."
"I can't wait to hear all about it." Xena gave Virbius a raised eyebrow and then planted a warm, wet kiss right on Gabrielle's lips. The bard melted slightly, sinking into the bed and closing her eyes. They both let the sensation wash over them, forgetting for a long moment that they had an audience and just thought about the taste and feel of the tongues and mouths they shared. When they broke apart, both were breathing more heavily than normal.
Gabrielle spotted Virbius there on the floor and felt a flush creep up her neck. "Ah, I'd better go check on everything one last time."
"Okay, I'll see you there."
Gabrielle got up and shook a finger at Xena. "Promise me you'll let people help you."
"G'wan. I'll be fine. And I promise."
Gabrielle paused at the door, memorizing Xena's face for the thousandth time.
When the door clicked shut, Virbius turned to Xena. "I think I get it."
"It's never too late to learn, Virbius. Now open wide and drink up."
* * * * *
Gabrielle felt more comfortable in her Amazon garb, even if it did involve all those extra buckles and places to fit over fingers and shoulders and wrists. Tonight, she would play the part of Amazon Princess, one which, now that she thought about it, felt only slightly more real than the others she'd played recently.
She stood outside the double wooden doors to the dining hall, Alecto helping her hold up Virbius. She didn't really know why she was so nervous. Xena was secreted away in there somewhere. Even though Gabrielle had told her she'd wanted the warrior to stay in bed, when Xena insisted she would be apart from her only if the Legions of Hades held her down, the bard relented quickly. She needed to know Xena would be there making certain that if Gabrielle had forgotten something again, it would be set right immediately.
"Okay, let's get this show on the road."
The doors opened and Gabrielle clanked in with Virbius. They moved slowly and took small steps. It was utter agony.
Eteocles stood and looked at her, then his eyes passed over the thing next to her.
"I am Gabrielle, Princess of the Amazons, and I wish to return something to you."
Eteocles gestured with his hand.
Gabrielle took that to mean she should proceed. "This," she pointed to Virbius, who had been stuffed into a suit of armor slightly too small for him, "could not perform. It is broken. I am returning it." She lifted the squeaky visor on the helmet to reveal the secret identity. When the soldiers saw Virbius' face, they hooted with laughter. By then, there had been so many stories and rumors spread about him, that he'd lost every ounce of respect he'd ever had with them.
Against her instincts, she reached out with one finger and tapped Virbius. He began to sway, creaking at every joint, until he swayed too far to catch himself, and fell over into a heap of twisted metal.
Eteocles took one look at his ruined suit of armor and screamed, "Get rid of him!"
Gabrielle stepped aside while five soldiers jumped to the command and carried Virbius out of the room, down the hall, out through the courtyard, past the gates, and dumped him unceremoniously in the dirt.
* * * * *
Several hours later, when Gabrielle and Xena rode out on Argo, they could plainly see the track made by a crawling tin man.
"Should we see if he's okay?" Gabrielle enjoyed asking questions while they rode together because she could tickle the warrior's ear with her breath.
"He'll be fine. And I don't want to make any detours tonight, all right?"
Gabrielle squeezed gently, being careful of the wound. "Fine."
Later that night, when they were settled under the stars, Xena asked Gabrielle to tell her everything that had happened.
The bard told her, lingering on all the things she hadn't considered or that she did plan for but hadn't needed, like bringing in Argo and risking the mares life like that.
Xena listened well and drew out the whole story from the bard, even the parts that Gabrielle was more reluctant to admit, about how she'd kept up with the soldier's drills and switched the drugged porridge for a good bowl.
And then Xena asked her to act out each character she'd been. At first, Gabrielle was tentative. She claimed it was strange to act for an audience of one, and that she really could only do it when she absolutely had to.
And before long, Xena laughed until it hurt then begged for more. They fell asleep with giddy hearts, grateful for the experience but more so for the outcome.
The next morning, Gabrielle awoke to find the ribbon she'd won in the contest days before and miles away, the one that Xena had tossed up in a tree in anger. Gabrielle picked it up, wondered for an instant, then sat up quickly.
Xena sat by a crackling fire. "I thought you deserved that. For everything."
Gabrielle got up and walked over to her. "You didn't have to do that. You had to ride all the way back to that other camp. Besides, you shouldn't have climbed a tree in your condition." She glanced down at the ribbon wrapped around her fingers. "But thank you anyway."
"Gabrielle, sometimes I forget to tell you how remarkable you are. Don't you realize how many amazing things you did? I never could have done all that."
"Xena, come on." She sat down by her. "I didn't do anything you couldn't have done. And I didn't do a lot you would have done."
"Hey, you listen to me. I've never claimed to have everything worked out, have I? It's how you adapt and react to a situation that makes you so special. You earned the trust of hardened, bitter men."
Xena raised one finger. "Before you walked into that fortress what do you think their lives were like?"
"I don't know." Gabrielle shuffled her shoulders.
Xena reached over and took the hand that held the ribbon. "This is just a symbol, Gabrielle. But you earned it. And more. I don't know that I or any of those people you left in a much better place can ever really thank you." Xena wrapped an arm around the bard.
"Well, I'll see what I can think of."
"Good, you do that."
Gabrielle smiled. "You'd better hurry up and heal."
"I promise," Xena said. And she meant it.
The whys and hows:
I'd thought of the dopey title months ago and kept it around in a document I entitled "idea palette." I just put snippets of ideas or quotes or character's names in there and come back fishing when I need something.
Then next aspect that came to mind was switching the usual roles of bard and warrior (not that I'd get Xena to tell stories.) There are so many Xena-saves-Gabrielle storiesout there, I thought the world could really use another Gabrielle-saves-Xena story, which are around in much smaller numbers.
Next, I wanted to start a story with some sort of personal conflict between bard and warrior that gets resolved *before* the real conflict and separation happens. Although it's a powerful dramatic device, it's often too predictable to have one of them swept away before they can say they're sorry to the other.
Then came the notion of all the characters played by Gabrielle. I have no idea where that came from.
The last thing I figured out was "popper." At first, I thought I could make it mean Gabrielle "pops" Xena from her prison, but I knew that wouldn't work. After Gabrielle's characters started multiplying and one of them became Emeril Lagasse (for those not in the cable-channel know, he's a chef on the food channel with "personality"--you either love him or hate him), the popcorn thing worked in there, and that last little problem was solved.
Oh, and I wanted to be sure that Xena never really got to save Gabrielle. Even in a lot of Gabrielle-saves-Xena stories, the warrior ends up doing a heroic deed at the end. So when Virbius made off with the bard and everybody was expecting Xena to finally save the day... well Gabrielle took care of herself.
I hope this makes up for the fact that in every other story I've written, Gabrielle gets bloodied to a pulp.
I would love to hear your comments. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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