A subtle breeze carried through the trees, bathing the woods in a protective armor that worked diligently to battle what was left of the summer heat. With the colder winds sweeping in the temperature was much tamer than Xena and Gabrielle had experienced in a long while, and the two friends took in the reprieve with an unspoken gratefulness.
It was near perfect weather for sitting around and writing a story, and one which Gabrielle was sure to take advantage. With the new journal Xena had given her as an early birthday present settled firmly in her hands Gabrielle was ready to recount their latest adventure together. She had no intention of letting the memory slip from her mind before she had it properly written out first.
“What are you writing about?” Xena asked after a while.
“Our trip to Sicily,” Gabrielle explained. “You know, I finally feel inspired. Like I might actually manage to write something that deserves more than to be tossed in the nearest fire and forgotten for all eternity.”
“You’ve written plenty this summer,” Xena said. “I’m sure it wasn’t all garbage.”
“True, but these past few days I've been feeling really off for some reason. Maybe it’s all the traveling we’ve been doing...or the weather. It’s been hotter than Hades out here, and that’s never good for keeping a clear head. Either way, I’m happy for the change," she said, suddenly cheerful. "And I have no intentions of wasting it.”
Xena offered another one of her infamous smirks and returned her attention to the chakram she was sharpening with a small stone. Gabrielle was constantly amazed at the depths of emotion her friend was able to convey through the use of a single facial expression. It seemed as if that was their primary mode of communication as of late, and Gabrielle was finally starting to master the art involved in understanding Xena and her wordless interactions, though she doubted she would ever master it completely.
Nonetheless Gabrielle wouldn’t have traded her summer with Xena for anything. There was something about spending time with the warrior that felt special, as if it was exactly where she was meant to be.
Oooh that’s perfect, Gabrielle thought suddenly. She returned to her spot on the page and began scribbling feverishly onto the parchment, her ink following a trail behind the careful movements of her fingers.
“Keep that up and there won’t be any parchment left,” Xena said.
“I have to write it down now. If I don’t I’ll never remember it in the sa - ow - what in Tartarus -” Gabrielle winced as she touched the spot where something hard had landed on her head. She glanced down as the culprit rolled into view, a small red apple with a particularly prominent bump jutting from the side. “It’s not funny Xena.”
“I wasn’t laughing.”
“But you had that look.”
Gabrielle returned to her journal and started scribbling some more. As she spoke her eyes didn’t leave the page, “you know, that look you get, the one that says you had it coming Gabrielle,” she said in her best Xena impression. “I don’t know what I did to deserve a bruise on my head this time, but I’m sure you’ll think of a reason.” She glanced back at Xena who’d returned to her activities without making so much as a sound of acknowledgement, though Gabrielle suspected her attention hadn’t actually wavered and she was merely trying to make a point.
“Let me see that apple,” Xena said after a moment.
“You mean the one that, only seconds ago, came dangerously close to giving me a concussion? That apple?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yeah,” Xena said flatly. “Let me see it.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and tossed it over. “Don’t tell me you’re planning on eating it…you know Xena there are plenty of apples on this tree. You could have just as easily asked for another one.”
“It’s just a piece of fruit, Gabrielle. I doubt the apple had a personal vendetta against you.” Xena held the strangely misshapen fruit into the air, just high enough for the brown stallion in the distance to hobble over and take a large bite. Within seconds the apple was gone and nothing but a few bits of saliva dangling from the horse’s mouth gave any impression it had ever existed in the first place.
Argo started flapping angrily in her cage and Gabrielle reached over to comfort her. “It’s alright girl,” she said softly, but quickly moved her hand away when Argo’s beak went sailing towards her. There was no question that Argo had been acting more touchy than usual lately and Gabrielle wondered if her new string of violent behaviors didn’t have something to do with their new traveling companion, though it wasn't exactly unusual for Argo to reject Gabrielle's attempts towards building a stronger relationship between the two of them.
Much like Argo’s relationship with their new horse, Gabrielle wasn’t sure how to feel about the current state of her friendship with Xena. She felt closer to Xena than ever, yet in other ways she felt a growing distance between them. It was as if Xena had closed off a part of herself the moment Gabrielle died in the caves and was now stuck in a permanent state of worry, constantly afraid the same thing would happen again. As much as she tried Gabrielle couldn’t figure out how to convince Xena to really let her in, if it was even possible to do so, she wasn't so sure.
“First you spend the summer forcing me on just about every boat you can find, now you make fun of me,” Gabrielle said, hoping to maintain the lighter mood. “You know Xena, sometimes I think you like watching me suffer.”
“We went on three boats, Gabrielle.”
“And each one was just as torturous as the last. Between vomiting and worrying about that vision -” Gabrielle stopped suddenly. She had yet to tell Xena about the vision she’d seen when Atli attacked her in the cave. Truth be told she hoped the topic would never come up again. It wasn’t something she planned on revealing to Xena anytime in the near future.
“What vision?” Xena asked. Her body had instantly tensed up.
“It’s nothing,” Gabrielle said.
“Gabrielle ,” Xena urged with the same warning tone she’d heard a hundred times by now.
At this point it would have been pointless for Gabrielle to attempt any sort of lie as Xena would have seen right through it. “When Alti grabbed me in the cave I - well I saw something, like a vision maybe? I don’t know what it was but I felt like I was suddenly submerged in water, and then I couldn’t breathe. The whole thing just felt so real. I thought I was really drowning until all the pain suddenly stopped and when I awoke again, well...I was in the cave with you.”
“Gabrielle why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” Xena asked in exasperation.
“I didn’t know if it was real. I still don’t,” Gabrielle said. “And those pirates, that poor minotaur...they needed our help. I mean let’s face it Xena, you would’ve never let me on those boats if I’d told you.”
Xena was silent, anger clearly written on her face. Gabrielle was once again forced to wonder what was going through her mind.
“I know I should have said something after it happened -” Gabrielle started, but when Xena gave her the signal they weren’t alone she quieted down immediately. There was a moment’s silence before Xena finally spoke.
“We were just talking about how much we’d love more company. Gets pretty lonely out here.”
The men and women hiding behind the trees revealed themselves. Gabrielle recognized them immediately as part of Alti’s army. Of all the times they’d been ordered to attack Xena and Gabrielle over the summer, their faces were impossible to mistake now. And each battle ended the same way, although it was clear Alti had kept them under a rigorous training regimen. Their skills were improving but they had a long way to go before ever coming close to Xena’s level.
“The trees behind us are empty,” Xena whispered to Gabrielle.
“Come on Xena, they look as harmless as before,” Gabrielle whispered back. “I could help.”
She hated being shoved away all the time as much as she understood the reasoning behind it. After all the trainings they’d gone through Gabrielle felt she was more than capable of helping Xena out with the fighting. Not to mention all the times she’d watched Xena’s moves over and over. By now she had just about all of Xena’s fighting techniques memorized down to the precise movement, at least the ones she’d been able to witness. She knew, if given the chance, she could prove her worth as a witch and a fighter.
But Xena didn’t appear to agree with that sentiment as she shot Gabrielle another warning look. “Don’t argue with me Gabrielle. Get behind the trees. Now.”
Hesitating slightly, Gabrielle found the closest tree with the most sizable distance between herself and their attackers and waited for the rest of the events to unfold.
Gabrielle was used to watching most of Xena’s confrontations from a distance but the control Xena had over her emotions never ceased to amaze her. It was like nothing could scare her, or at least that’s the message she conveyed to everyone else. Gabrielle knew that wasn’t entirely true, but Xena hid it better than anyone Gabrielle had ever seen before.
“Let me guess, Alti sends her regards?” Xena asked.
“She wants us to bring your heart on a platter,” one of the women said.
“Sorry to disappoint, but I like my heart where it is.” Without having to put in much effort, Xena was able to knock the front row of people back. The ones who were left standing raised their wands. A few were able to throw some spells towards Xena, but she cast Protego and easily shielded herself from their attacks. A flurry of lights swirled around the woods as spells were thrown from all directions, but Xena once again parried them all, only a few were close enough to be threatening, and those were quickly tossed away by Xena’s defenses.
With no other way to help, Gabrielle carefully surveyed the area for any signs of danger. It wasn’t long before she noticed a small group of people who’d been hiding farther into the woods slowly creeping towards the battleground, undoubtedly planning a secret attack against Xena.
Gabrielle a sudden sense of panic take over. Xena always seemed to have an extra sense that allowed her to detect anyone trying to sneak past her, but what if she somehow missed them this time. What if she was so preoccupied with everyone else that was coming after her that she wouldn't see the others?
Xena will kill me if I move from this spot, Gabrielle thought. Besides surely Xena could fend them off. There was still a decent amount of people fighting, but she’d rendered at least two thirds of them unconscious at this point. If anyone can handle this type of situation, it's Xena.
Then to Gabrielle’s surprise someone managed to cast just as Xena’s shield had dissipated, and the spell caught the side of her shoulder. It wasn’t strong enough to throw Xena to the ground but judging by the grimace on her face it had been painful, and Gabrielle couldn’t help but wonder if it would be just enough for the other people in the woods to sneak past her defenses.
Overtaken with the sudden fear, Gabrielle knew she never would have forgive herself if something happened to Xena when she could have done something to help, no matter how much Xena didn’t want her involved. She raced out from behind the trees and prepared to make her first move against them. Please, by all the Gods, don't let me screw this up.