She had seen Xena perform miracles many times, and although by now
she could refrain from voicing the emotions that surged through her
while watching the warrior in action, Gabrielle couldn't help but nod
her agreement with the other woman's assessment.
"Those men were savages," the priestess declared sadly, and
the women behind her all nodded. "The beast who rode down here
yesterday" -- she placed a hand across her heart with a sigh --
"uttered an obscenity to Sister Messla. She has been bedridden ever
"Really?" The bard's eyebrows went up. "What'd he
say?" The priestess paled, and Gabrielle held out a hand. "I
mean, how awful. I hope they didn't use foul language to Xena." She
returned her gaze to the mountain top.
The bard and two dozen Hestian priestesses had witnessed a
free-for-all break out not long after the Warrior Princess's arrival at
the campsite. They were too far away to make out the words, but Xena
undoubtedly had followed the strategy the bard had concocted: 1)
Politely ask the warlord and his associates to leave this glorious
valley and its peace-loving virgins alone; 2) Demand that the warlord
and his minions hit the road, or else; 3) The 'else'. The morons had
apparently elected the third option.
Off in the distance, atop the high slope, the silhouette of a form
turned toward them and held up her sword, sending reassurance to the
concerned audience watching from the valley floor. I'm fine,
The bard closed her eyes in relief. Of course, there had never been
any doubt, but from her limited vantage point, there had seemed to be
some close calls. Xena had fought like a demon, surrounded and charged
all at once by the small army of blood-thirsty mercenaries seeking a
Hestian treat between raids.
Although much of the battle had been obscured by the tall firs
gracing the hillside, Gabrielle could easily envision it, the warrior's
muscles straining, blood pumping, eyes flashing, blade slashing . . .
thrusting . . . . Fanning herself, she glanced up at the slope again,
and wondered how long it would take Xena to rejoin her.
"Xena has saved us from the rapacious curs!" the high
priestess declared. "A celebration must be held in her honor!"
A squeal of excitement rose from the grateful virgins who had been
spared a fate worse than death, and Gabrielle cringed, fighting for
breath an instant later when she was abruptly enveloped in a mass hug.
"A celebration in her honor," she repeated. "Great. Xena
"Telletha, Marta, begin the preparations with utmost
haste," the robed figure directed. "We must be ready at the
moment of her return."
"Um . . . ." Gabrielle cocked her head thoughtfully.
"''The moment of her return' probably isn't necessary." She
smiled. "I think she'll want to lie down for a while first."
"Of course. She will be tired from her excursion," the
priestess replied. "Excellent! That will give us more time to work
with you before the ceremony. What--"
"Actually . . .," Gabrielle interrupted, "she'll
probably want me with her." She held up a hand. "I mean,
she'll want to debrief me." The bard glanced toward the distant
ground where her partner had recently done battle.
"Debrief you? But you have been here with us."
"Well, yes," the bard agreed. "But she's been away
almost three hours. I'm pretty sure she'll want to, um, discuss things
with me right away in our room." She produced her best bardly
smile. "To see for herself that I'm all right." She pointed
down at her wrapped ankle. "She's very protective."
"Nonsense!" The priestess patted her on the back. "She
will be assured immediately that you've been in good care. After such a
raging battle, I'm sure she would like to see nothing more than a
Gabrielle pressed her lips together. "OK, listen." A little
directness was apparently called for here, and she lowered her voice.
"Xena gets kind of wired in these fights. She's probably going to
want a little stress relief when she gets here, if you know what I
"Perfect!" Allara clapped her hands. "Nothing better
than a celebration!"
"Actually, I think she might have something . . . specific . . .
in mind." The priestesses waited patiently, and Gabrielle grimaced.
A quick breath bolstered her determination, and she blurted it out.
"I think Xena's going to want to find me and have a long, hot
f--" Cherubic faces stared blankly at her, and Gabrielle pictured
all of them fainting dead at her feet.
"--feast!" Allara finished happily. "We have
anticipated that. Our cooks are already at work on their prize-winning
stew. Onward to the Clearing of Honor, Hestians!"
The bodies surrounding Gabrielle began to move, and she found herself
drawn along by the flow, limping at a fast pace to keep up with them.
"Hey!" she announced loudly as they arrived at the
designated site, "I'm not kidding! Xena's gonna be pretty insistent
about getting my private input when she gets back."
No use. Eager Hestians fluttered everywhere, hanging shiny strips
from trees, piecing wooden planks into a platform, stirring something
that smelled pretty good, actually, in a large metal vat over in the
Gabrielle chewed on her lip. If she left now, maybe she could meet
Xena at the foot of the mountain, divert the warrior behind a building
or a tree for a few minutes . . . .
"Maria!" Allara's voice rose above the general din.
"Go wait at the foot of the mountain -- let us know as soon as you
catch sight of her."
Argh! Gabrielle raised her foot to stamp it in frustration, then
remembered why it was she hadn't accompanied Xena to the warlord's camp
in the first place. Stupid ankle. If she'd been up there, they would
have crossed through that wooded area between the village and the
campsite on the way back, and there wouldn't be a problem. She cursed
again the drunken lout who happened to be storing his flask right where
the bard had aimed a well-deserved kick a few days earlier.
Something feathery flickered in her hair, and she reached up a hand
to dislodge a streamer that had come loose and now dangled across her
blonde locks. Maybe she was worrying too much; maybe Xena wouldn't be--
"She is approaching, Allara!" a young priestess shouted.
Gabrielle peered out into the distance, and her eyes widened. Most
definitely Xena was approaching. The bard steadied herself against the
tree trunk, having read enough in that take-no-prisoners stride to
resolve the question. Hestians or not, bodies would soon be flying.
Gods . . . . The warrior's determined gait flashed into her
brain, and Gabrielle felt her temperature begin to rise. Unconsciously,
the bard paused for a moment, searching for words. My blood becomes
like the-- Like the what? The steady flames licking at the metal pot
in the corner caught her wandering eye, and she tried it out. --like
the red-hot blaze that burns beneath the-- No, wait. She shook her
head. Her blood wouldn't be like the fire, it would be like the--
Gabrielle swung her head around to the corner again, and took a deep
breath. She could smell the aroma of simmering ragout from across the
"Hi." The guest of honor's companion returned the
enthusiastic greetings of the two priestesses in charge of the evening's
repast, and peered over the edge of the vat. "Looks great,"
she said. Limping unsteadily behind one of the women, she ran her gaze
across the well-stocked woodpile, beside which rested a table crammed
with spices and an impressive assortment
of vegetables. Stumbling slightly, she reached out to the table to
steady herself. "Darned ankle," she muttered, politely waving
off unneeded assistance. "So, how is it?"
"We are just about to have a taste. Would you care for the
honor?" The two cooks inhaled in rapturous anticipation.
"Hmm." Gabrielle considered it, then shook her head.
"No, I can wait." She glanced casually toward the edge of the
village, and gasped. "Ohmigosh, there she is!" she pointed.
The women's heads turned in unison to follow the line of her finger,
then turned back a moment later. Gabrielle laughed self-consciously.
"Sorry," she said. "I guess that was Allara. It kinda
like Xena from here."
The cooks looked over again at the short, rotund blonde priestess who
had served Hestia longer than any of them.
"Well, anyway, I'm sure everything will be great." With a
little wave and a smile, the bard limped off. Wedging her way between
two tall priestesses for a better view, she leaned against a ribboned
tree, playing absently with the curled strips as she joined the others
in watching for the Warrior Princess's triumphant return.
A panicked cry suddenly rose from the corner -- "Allara!"
-- and a moment later the head priestess hurried up beside her.
"Gabrielle, there you are." The priestess's face was as red
as the broth she had just been inspecting. "There's a slight
problem with the stew."
"You mean there's nothing to eat?" Gabrielle sucked air
through her teeth. "Boy, I don't know about that. She's going to be
reeeeally hungry when she gets here."
"Ah," the priestess wrung her hands together, "well,
we wondered - do you think you could . . . . ."
The priestess nodded. "Just until we are able to prepare a new
vat, perhaps an hour. We can provide you with some fruit to dull her
hunger," she offered, but Gabrielle shook her head.
"I'll find something to distract her in the room," she
said. "She'll be in good hands."
Rubbing her palms together, she limped toward the guest house. As she
passed beside the refuse pit, she reached into the waistband of her
skirt and drew out an empty bag of cayenne pepper. Pitching it over her
shoulder, she stepped onto the porch to wait for her partner's arrival.
A celebration in Xena's honor awaited them upstairs.
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