A/N: Hey readers! This chapter has been re-uploaded when I re-read through it and found some spelling errors.
"You're not going to make it." Xena crooned as Gabrielle passed her to line herself up for another jump.
"Thanks for the encouragement, Xena. The sun keeps flashing off your blade and it keeps putting me off." Gabrielle said as she went to stand on the patch of grass she'd worn until it was flat and shook herself to loosen up.
"Blaming the sword won't help you." Xena said but put her sword away anyway.
"Well I can see now" Gabrielle rolled her shoulders back and forth and then rubbed her hands together. "I'll get it. You'll see. I'll make it this time."
"But you-" Xena started but Gabrielle's hand stilled her protest.
Xena sighed and shrugged at her, giving up. There was no use trying to stop her from attempting the jump again for what would be her hundredth time today. Gabrielle was stubborn in her ways when she set her mind to something. Xena mused she was just like her in some ways.
She leaned against a nearby tree, crossing her arms as she watched Gabrielle take a running start before she leapt at Argo's back. But Argo knew what she was doing and moved, leaving Gabrielle to crash to the hard ground once again. Xena smothered her laugh with a cough as the young bard got up and dusted herself off.
"She doesn't like it." She remarked and Argo whickered in agreement. "And after flying at her from the sky I doubt she likes you anymore."
"Yeah, well, I'm not her biggest fan either. She's always had it in for me since day one." Gabrielle glared at Argo as she picked dry grass from her hair. "I nearly had her then too."
Xena pushed away from the tree. "Would you care to explain just what it is that you're doing to my horse anyway? What's with all the aerial attacks? I know you two don't get on but attacking her is just going a little overboard."
Gabrielle sighed and plucked her staff from where she'd left it lying against a tree. "I was practicing my getaway."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Getaway? Am I that unbearable that you can't wait to get away from me? And to add insult to injury you want to steal my horse too? That's low, Gabrielle." She teased.
Gabrielle leaned against her staff and made a face. "No, that was not what I was doing. I don't want to leave you. Why would you think that?"
Gabrielle smiled up at the raven haired woman fondly. No, she didn't want to leave, nor would she ever want to. Xena was her family. She was like an older sister to her; someone that was always there and could count on. She'd saved her life more than once and taught her more than she could've dreamed of. Gabrielle couldn't bear the thought of just up and leaving. Just thinking about it made her heart ache inexplicably. She flicked her long, golden hair back over her shoulder and shielded her eyes from the blazing sun as she looked up at her friend.
Xena smiled. "I was just teasing you. I thought that after becoming acquainted with the ground numerous times you might need cheering up." She stretched forward and ruffled Gabrielle's hair, much to her dismay. "So, about this getaway then?"
Gabrielle smiled wryly, reaching up to brush the kinks out of her hair with her fingers. "I just wanted to practise jumping onto a horse without the all the hassle of trying to climb. Remember last week when you fought that warlord Darius? Well while you were busy with him, his men decided to chase after me and I lost my staff. I had to find another way to get away."
"Didn't I end up having to break you out of a cage?" Xena asked, thinking back.
"Don't remind me," Gabrielle pursed her lips. "If I knew how to get on a horse, preferable one that doesn't want to trample me whenever I stand near her, then I would have been able to help you and kept myself from being captured. Hence the practice."
Xena saw the look on Gabrielle's face and thought that it would be better if she didn't make fun. She had taken it pretty hard when Xena had had to break her out of a cage and refused to talk about it for days. She had come away unscathed but Xena knew it was her pride that had been bruised. Instead of talking about it, they'd sat at camp in silence while Gabrielle scratched away on one of her scrolls with her quill. It had killed Xena knowing that there wasn't anything that she could do until Gabrielle was ready to talk about it.
Gabrielle sighed and started twirling her staff. "I obviously lack the skill and height to jump onto a horse. It looks like the next time we get ambushed and I'm disarmed again I'll be doomed to be captured again."
Xena bit her lip, thinking of a way that she could try and cheer the bard up. She watched as her friend continued to twirl her staff around in her hands; doing tricks to cheer herself up. Then suddenly she had an idea.
Xena unsheathed her sword. "Hey, Gabrielle? C'mere a minute."
Gabrielle stilled her staff. "What is it?" her eyes flicked to the sword and then up at Xena. She held her hand up in surrender. "Look, I wasn't going to hurt her. You know I wouldn't do that. I was only-"
"I'm not going to hurt you. Just come here."
Xena gestured for Gabrielle to approach her. Feeling suddenly uneasy, Gabrielle eyes darted around the trees surrounding them, looking for any sign of a possible ambush. But she couldn't see anyone or anything out of the ordinary. So what did she want?
"You've gotten pretty good with that staff over the years you know. Maybe you might want to give using a sword a go?"
Gabrielle frowned. She didn't know where Xena was going with this. It was true; she had become skilful using her staff. Instead of it being a weapon, it was more of an extension of her body and using it had become second nature. She liked to think of it as her version of Xena's chakram. It was always there for her when she needed it, like Xena.
"Erm, Xena, you know how I feel about using swords or anything with a pointy end." Gabrielle said, eying the sword.
"Come on, there was a time where you couldn't wait to jump at the chance of me teaching you how to use a sword." Xena smiled remembering the first time she'd caught Gabrielle threatening a tree with it.
Gabrielle smiled too. "Yes, but I was just a child back then. I didn't understand what consequences of using a sword could be. Besides I think I could call myself a master of the staff pretty soon so I won't need a sword." She said, grinning broadly.
"Oh really? Master of the staff, huh?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "Want to test that theory?"
Gabrielle watched as she sheathed her weapon and instead started rooting along the edge of the treeline. When Xena picked up a couple of sticks to examine them and then threw them back with a shake of her head Gabrielle realized what she was saying.
"Xena come on. I just meant that I was good enough to use a staff so I wouldn't have to resort to stabbing someone." When Xena found a thick, long stick Gabrielle swallowed. She felt her confidence decreasing when Xena started spinning the staff nimbly around her hands and body and then set her feet firmly on the ground, facing her with a grin.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Show me what you've got." She challenged.
Gabrielle started backing away. This was crazy. She was good but she doubted she could stand up to Xena for more than thirty seconds. "Ah, shouldn't we be meeting with Selena soon? She'll be waiting for us."
"She can wait a little. We've got a day left before she's expecting us." Xena took a step forward, flourishing the stick.
"Okay, I admit it. I'm not a master."
Xena shrugged, indifferent. "So? I still want to try you out. I'll tell you what; if you can knock me down I'll teach you how to vault a horse."
Gabrielle looked over Xena's shoulder and saw Argo watching them. She was pretty sure she was making fun when she heard her snort and shake her mane. Gabrielle frowned. This was embarrassing. Even the horse thought it was funny. That was it.
"Fine, but no tricks." Gabrielle warned.
Xena raised two fingers together. "I swear it. No tricks."
Gabrielle twirled her staff in her hands, letting determination drive her, pushing out the apprehension as she planted her feet on the ground and held her staff defensively. She kept her eyes on the woman in front of her, watching her body language for signs that would tell her when Xena was going to strike.
Xena smiled to herself, glad that Gabrielle had stepped up to the dare. She looked over her stance. "Keep your knees bent slightly to retain your balance but don't lean your body too far forward." Xena advised as they circled each other. "Your opponent could knock you down with one strike to the face."
Gabrielle followed her advice and slightly bent her knees, making sure to keep herself stood straight and her eyes on her. She noticed Xena's foot move slightly to the side and suddenly Xena rushed forward. Gabrielle reacted a second later swinging her staff up protectively to guard herself. When their staffs clashed together the force of the strike nearly knocked Gabrielle off her feet. But she was determined not to seem weak in front of Xena and pushed back against her until Xena stumbled back. They circled each other again, both watching for an opening.
"Very good, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's face lifted at the compliment but as she started to relax Xena rushed her again. It all happened too fast. She couldn't turn in time to stop herself from falling when Xena swiped her own staff behind Gabrielle's ankle and sent her falling backwards. Her back hit the ground hard. Gabrielle muttered a curse to under her breath.
"Never let your guard down, Gabrielle. That's one of the first things I taught you."
Gabrielle smacked the ground with her hand and jumped back up, ignoring the dull pain in her back. "Well I'm sorry. I didn't know you were going to charge at me like a Minotaur looking for his nose ring!" She spun her staff and lowered into an offensive position. "My turn."
Xena shrugged and switched to defence. She held her staff in front of her body, watching as Gabrielle's eyes worked out an attack. She knew what she was doing. Xena had taught her to read the signs of the body that unconsciously give away their intensions. Without having to move, a person could work out a way to beat their opponent just by reading the way they stand and breathe. She knew what Gabrielle would do even before she thought it herself. She recognised the look of hope in Gabrielle's eyes a second before she dashed forward brandishing her staff.
Xena lifted her own staff, effectively blocking Gabrielle's strike and rebounded it with one of her own, knocking her back. When Gabrielle charged forward again, Xena kept up to pace with her, deflecting multiple hits as Gabrielle started to become desperate. She could feel when Gabrielle was starting to tire because her hits became lighter and less forceful and there was no conscious thought into what she was doing.
Gabrielle didn't want to admit it but she was starting to get tired. Keeping up with Xena offensively was just as tiring as trying to defend herself against her. The muscles in her arms were hurting and her back was starting to throb. Not to mention she was starting to lose her breath. Xena on the other hand seemed perfectly fine and relaxed; not a hair out of place. She looked as though she was going for a stroll through a field rather than defending herself against an attack.
The thought frustrated Gabrielle. Why was she so weak? She practiced every day and yet, no matter how hard she tried, it seemed she would never be able to call herself a challenge for the warrior princess.
With one last shove, Xena pushed Gabrielle back, knocking her staff out of her hands. She twirled and clipped Gabrielle's feet again, sending her to the ground again.
"Ow." Gabrielle moaned.
Xena stood the staff up and bent down to offer her hand. "Are you okay?"
"My backside hurts." She said, rubbing said part when she rose to her feet with Xena's help. "I hope I'll be able to sit down later. If not then I'm holding you personally responsible."
Xena grinned. "For your backside?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and started looking around for her staff. "I'll get you eventually." She vowed. When she saw it laying a few metres from Argo she went over to get it.
Xena felt a prickling sensation and knew they were being watched. She felt it when Gabrielle had fallen to the floor the second time. Not wanting to panic Gabrielle, she let her go after her staff. Once she was at a safe distance, she unclipped her chakram and threw it towards the trees. As it sliced through the leaves she heard the sound of a branch breaking and seconds later a figure fell out of the tree with a shocked yell.
Xena flipped into the air to grab her chakram as it bounced off of a tree trunk and ran over to where the person had fallen. Realizing that he was trying to get up and rush away, she reached out and grabbed the man by the scruff of his neck.
Just when Gabrielle had picked up her staff she heard the unmistakable screech of Xena's chakram and turned around. She watched as a man fell out of a tree, landing face first into the shrubbery below. She joined Xena when she'd caught him before he could escape.
"Who's he? She asked Xena.
"That's what I'm going to find out."
At first glance anyone would have thought he was a warrior. He was dressed like one; his tunic was dark and tucked into is weaved brown material and leather trousers and his short sleeved jacket was baggy and hung over him like a cloak to obscure the short sword hanging from his leather belt. But Xena could tell he wasn't a warrior in any sense. In fact he wasn't even a full grown man. He looked as though he was still in his adolescent years.
He struggled under Xena's grip but didn't thrash out like any other warrior would have done when caught. "Let me go!"
"What's your name? Why were you spying on us?" Xena insisted.
The young man looked up at his capturer and frowned. "I won't tell you. You'll have to kill me."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, surprised by his words. When she looked back at him, Xena recognized the look of determination and stubbornness in his dark blue eyes that she usually saw in warrior-wannabes. She tried to suss him out, to make him yield and spill the reason behind his spying, but when he didn't she shrugged. "Okay."
"Xena! What are you doing?" Gabrielle exclaimed, raising her hand to still the warrior princess's sword. "He's just a boy!"
The 'boy' in question glared at her. "I'm not a boy!" he spat. He looked her up and down and snorted. "I'm probably more of a warrior than you are. You're just a girl. I saw you get knocked on your ass over and over. Go back to your farm little girl."
Gabrielle didn't know who this boy was but she wasn't willing to listen to anymore of his attitude or insults. She understood that he was just angry for being caught and was trying to look tough in front of them, but it annoyed her to know that he'd seen her get embarrassingly defeated by Xena. She felt silly for letting what he'd said get to her but it hurt her pride.
Gabrielle scowled and let go of Xena's hand. "I've changed my mind. Go ahead."
The young man's eyes darted back to Xena and when he saw her unsheathe her sword, Xena felt him squirm fearfully in her grasp. She raised her sword above her head.
"I'll give you one last chance to tell me why you were spying on us."
The young man swallowed dryly but never took his eyes off Xena's. "Never."
Xena sighed exasperatedly. "Fine."
In one swift moment she brought her sword down and bashed the hilt onto his head, effectively knocking him out. The young man went limp in her hands and fell back against the grass when she let him go. Xena and Gabrielle stood and looked down at the boy slumped across the ground.
"I wonder who he is?" Gabrielle pondered aloud.
Kneeling down, Xena rummaged through his jacket. There was nothing she could identify him with. No papers or anything that would reveal his identity. That was until she moved her hand and she felt something soft and warm brush against the back of her hand. She grabbed it and pulled out a silken strip of material. It felt light and soft to touch in her hands and she recognized it straight away.
"Is that a handkerchief?" Gabrielle asked, taking it to have a look at it for herself. "It's got a nice sturdy quality to it. It seems expensive too."
Xena shook her head. "It's a scarf. Notice anything about its colour?"
Gabrielle stretched it out to uncover its full length and looked at it properly. "It's green and silver." Something inside her memory clicked and she looked at Xena. "Isn't that Darius's colour?"
"Yes," Xena pressed her lips together. "It seems he's not finished with us yet."
~ X ~
When Leandros awoke the sky was dark and the moon hung high above his head. It hurt to for him to look up because when he moved his head a terrible throbbing pain emerged and it took everything he had not to cry out like a weak child.
He looked around him, taking in his surroundings. There was a camp fire not too far from where he was; a circle of stones encompassing the low fire caught inside. In the flickering light he could make out the back of the head of one of the women who'd caught him peeking out from underneath some furs. He sat up a little, stretching so he could see over her and saw another bedroll and furs beside her.
He had no idea where he was or how far he was from the basecamp but he didn't want to stay here. From what he could tell he was tied to a tree. He tried struggling against the rope but it was too tight and he ended up stretching his skin painfully against the rough material.
Patting around in the dirt under his hands, he felt a small cluster of stones. He touched each one of them, testing them by pressing them against his skin to feel how sharp they were. When he felt one cut into his skin with its serrated edge, he decided to use it and started rubbing it against the rope binding his hands.
Moving his hands and positioning himself without making too much noise was proving to be difficult, because the pain from having his arms stretched around a tree trunk and trying to get free without waking his capturers was a painful task to endure. Leandros panicked a couple of times when he dropped the stone and he had to feel around for it again.
He knew when the stone had nearly cut through the rope because he could feel it loosening around his wrists. When he felt that it was weak enough, he pulled his arms apart with as much strength as he could muster and snapped the bindings. Leaving the rope, he rose to his feet slowly and quietly. He didn't want to wake the women during their slumber. It would only make his mission harder to complete.
Tiptoeing toward them, he carefully unsheathed his sword. As he crept nearer he tried to think about how to carry out the mission he was given effectively. He was closer to the little blonde girl but after observing their little sparring session, he concluded that the other woman posed more of a threat and decided to kill her first. Moving around the blonde girl, he made for the other woman's bedroll.
He felt a strange sense of foreboding as he approached her. It was as though the imposing warrior seemed dangerous even in her sleep. As he reached down to slowly pull back her furs and uncovered the sleeping woman, he couldn't help but feel that something about this was wrong. The more he tried to convince himself to carry out his duty, the more his conscious began to get the better of him.
You're nothing but a weakling! Just a boy!
The words echoed in his mind over and over like a mantra, mocking him and prodding at his insecurity. He shook his head to rid his mind of the taunts and lifted his sword above the warrior woman, his blood rushing, and adrenaline pumping through his veins. He had his chance to do it. He could bring his sword down and strike her right there, running his sword through her heart, but he couldn't. Something was holding him back from fulfilling his job.
Xena waited, watching through her half closed eyes at the young man. She planned to jump up when she'd seen him lift his sword, waiting until the last second to overthrow him. But curiosity got the better of her when she saw the conflicted look on his face as he looked from her to his sword and back again. He had his chance to run her through with his sword while she was sleeping, but yet, he didn't take it.
Her gut feeling had been right. This young man was no warrior.
Leandros sighed and started to lower his sword and instead kneeled beside the warrior woman's prone form. He didn't know why he wanted her dead. He'd heard about the exploits of the warrior woman and her travelling bard companion and how they'd stopped him last week, but couldn't help but wonder if there was another reason that they had made them targets for Darius other than stopping him from stealing. It seemed ridiculous to him that Darius might want them killed because they had foiled his petty thievery.
Leaving the dark haired warrior, he turned silently on his knee to look at the younger one he'd insulted earlier. He gently pulled back her cover so that he could see her face and felt a jolt of surprise when he saw her face.
Leandros already thought that she looked young to him, but when she was asleep and her face was relaxed and peaceful instead of contorted in annoyance, she looked even younger and surprisingly innocent. He couldn't help but stare at her face as the flames from the campfire created shadows that danced gracefully over her beautiful, pale face. He chuckled to himself when she made a soft noise in her sleep.
Suddenly, the girl's eyes flew open and she sat up. Alerted, she yelled out and grabbed her staff. In mere seconds she flicked up her staff and hit him in the face, leaving him to fall back with a cry holding his temple and rolling around in pain.
"Xena! Xena wake up!" Gabrielle shouted, prodding her friend's bedroll. "He's trying to get away!"
Xena was up and out of her bed in a flash and had detained the young man before he'd recovered from Gabrielle's strike. Before he could react, Xena had taken him back to his tree and stretched his hands around the trunk again. He began to struggle against her once he'd got over the pain and felt the rope going around his wrists again. He yelled in protest as he heard her kick away the cluster of rocks beneath his hands. For good measure she even took his sword from him and dropped it near her bedroll.
Gabrielle rose to her feet, staff ready. "Do you want me to knock him out this time, Xena?" she asked, approaching the young man enthusiastically.
Xena reached out and grabbed her friend's hair, gently pulling her back. "No." she said simply.
"Xena, he was going to kill me. Let me at least have the satisfaction of knocking him out so I can get some sleep tonight." She started toward him again.
Gabrielle wanted very much to show this young, arrogant killer that she wasn't to be trifled with. She'd been irritated with him when he'd insulted her skill and called her a farm girl, and had become even more wary of him when she found out that he belonged to Darius's gang. But now that she'd just witnessed him hanging over her, unsheathed sword in hand. She didn't want to leave him conscious now that she knew he could escape being tied up and sneak up to her. It annoyed her that she hadn't woke up before he'd approached her. She could've died.
When Xena stepped in front of her with her arms crossed and blocked her path to him, she looked up at her questioningly. "What are you-?"
"Gabrielle, let it go and get some sleep." Xena pressed.
Gabrielle felt her mouth drop open and tried not to get angry at Xena. "Excuse me? You want me to just go to sleep while that murderer is still awake over there! He escaped once, Xena. Who's to say he won't get out again and try and kill you next time?"
"He's not going to kill anyone, Gabrielle."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because…he could've killed me but didn't." Xena looked over her shoulder and saw the young man scowling at her from where he was sat at the base of the tree.
"It would've been too easy for me. I like a challenge." The young man insisted.
Xena smiled. "Right, that must have been it."
Gabrielle looked at the man too and then widened her eyes when the truth behind Xena's words sank in. "Wait a minute. You were awake? You knew he'd escaped from the tree and did nothing?" Her eyebrows drew together into a frown. "Why didn't you stop him before he got to us?"
Xena looked back at Gabrielle. "I had a feeling."
Gabrielle knew straight away why she hadn't stopped him and thought it was ridiculous and could've ended really badly for them both if her plan had gone wrong. She'd tested the young man and from the look on her face, he must have passed.
Gabrielle sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "By the gods, Xena. One of these days the only feeling you're going to get for pulling another stunt like that will be when your face meets the end of my staff." Gabrielle threatened as they turned their backs on the man and headed back to their bedrolls.
As she settled under her furs, Xena put her hands behind her head and smiled. "That's if you become a master of the staff like you promised." She teased.