Another day was coming to an end. The sun was setting behind the trees lighting the camp in warm hues and long shadows. Xena came back after washing their bowls after dinner and sat down. She picked up one of her gauntlets and started mending a loose seam. Gabrielle pretended to reread some of her stories while waiting for the warrior to make herself comfortable. Finally, she set her scroll aside and spoke.
- You know, Xena… When you ripped my scroll, it made me think…
- Come on! Gabrielle, not again - Xena snapped. She couldn’t believe they were having this conversation again - I said I was sorry. I bought you a new one, I even helped you choose this rag!
- It’s a shawl! - the blonde pouted and pulled the colorful cloth tighter around her shoulders - But I digress. It’s not about the scroll… Well, it is. But not because I’m mad.
- What is it, then? - Xena went back to mending her gauntlet.
- When you ripped my scroll, you said it was a part that “didn’t have much writing on it”. But then I thought about it later, it sounded really weird. Until I realized… Xena, you can’t read, can you?
Gabrielle could see how much her friend’s muscles stiffened. The mending string snapped, pulled too hard. Xena cursed under her breath and threw the gauntlet away.
- Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I can read - she retorted after several deep breaths.
- Oh, really?
- Yes, really - it was a hiss through clenched teeth.
- Then read this piece to me - Gabrielle slipped a scroll toward her across the bedroll.
- And why would I do that? - the warrior squinted and added one of her evil smirks for good measure.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. After travelling so long with the Warrior Princess she became immune to her intimidation.
- Just to prove me a point.
- I don’t need to prove anything.
It only earned her a pointed look from her blonde companion. Xena sighed theatrically, grabbed the scroll and unrolled it, just to let it slip from her fingers and roll back up again.
- I just don’t want to do that. I’m not in the mood…
- Admit it, Xena. You just can’t read.
- Fine! I can’t read - brunette snapped and threw her arms up - Xena, the great Warrior Princess cannot read. Go on, I admitted it, you can laugh now. Or maybe you want me to spread the bedrolls more evenly so you could roll on the ground more comfortably?
Sometimes Gabrielle wondered why Xena never tried to be a bard. Her overreacting skills were certainly on point.
- I’m not laughing, Xena. Lots of people can’t read, heck, most people can’t read. If anything, it’s admirable that you managed to lead an army for 10 years without anyone noticing.
Xena crouched by the fire and poked the embers to make them burn more evenly. She studied Gabrielle’s face for some time and, when the honesty in her eyes finally convinced her it wasn’t a joke at her expense, she smirked with something akin to pride.
- Well, I do know how to write my name…
The warrior nodded and returned to her bedroll. At once Gabrielle was at her side, grinning, making puppy eyes and looking very interested overall. Xena’s stories about her childhood were sparse enough as it were and the bard was determined to coax this one out of her warrior. It worked, Xena made an “I can’t believe I’m doing this” grimace and started talking.
- One year, I think I couldn’t be older than 10 back then, a travelling merchant came to mother’s tavern. The kind who likes to play with kids he didn’t father and sleep with women he didn’t marry. He took a certain liking to me and mother encouraged me to spend some time with him - the warrior chuckled at Gabrielle’s uneasy expression - That’s what you do when you want them to leave more money for the estate. He didn’t do anything to me, if that’s what you’re afraid of. He only showed me some of his trinkets, some scrolls, and when he discovered I couldn’t read or write he showed me how to write my name. He got bored with me pretty quickly... And you?
- Me what?
- Who taught you how to read?
- Our village teacher. I never went to school, there was always too much to do at the farm, but I did sneak in a few times to listen to lectures. And I always made sure to learn everything I could from the wandering bards. One time I went to him, the teacher that is, and asked him to teach me how to read. He demanded 50 dinars. I didn’t have that much, so he refused, saying he doesn’t give private lessons to piss poor girls.
- What did you do? - Xena knew the girl well enough to know she would not give up after a single obstacle. She was too resourceful for that.
- I don’t remember how exactly I came to learn it, but I know the first 40 or so verses from “Oedipus Rex”. And because this teacher really, really hated Sophocles I decided to follow him around, reciting the play to him over and over again for as long as it took to convince him. Turns out, I needed less than 2 hours.
Xena howled with laughter.
- Of course, I got a beating when my father discovered what I did - added the bard as an afterthought.
- He beat you for learning? - Xena was outraged.
- For disrespecting the elders - Gabrielle smiled bitterly - But it was worth every blow.
Xena pulled the bard to her side and gave her a one-arm hug. Gabrielle snuggled closer, returning the hug. They both smiled a sad smile, it was no use wrangling over something that happened years ago.
- Anyway - Gabrielle cleared her throat - Despite what you may think, I didn’t start this talk just to confirm my suspicions and talk about childhood memories.
- You didn’t? - Xena gave her a puzzled look.
- No. I wanted to ask you… Maybe you’d like to learn? I mean, I could teach you how to read. If you want, of course. Would you, um… like that?
- Yes, Gabrielle - Xena’s gentle smile was the most beautiful thing Gabrielle ever seen - I’d like that very much.