Xena and Gabrielle lay down on the bed in the Inn....grateful that they had a few dinars to splurge on lodging. After the experiences in the cave under Olympus and the uneasy truce that had been made with Ares over the existence of his son, the two women were worn out.
Hercules and Iolaus had went on about their own business and their own adventures, promising to meet up with them in a later season. So the two lifemates were alone....and they were too tired to do anything except stare at the thatched roof.
"I can't move."
Xena grunted in response, too tired to talk.
Gabby rolled over and snuggled on the warrior's shoulder, a move that alway made Xena's heart turn to mush.....and Gabby knew it. "Xe?" a coquettish voice asked.
"I forgot my pack over there on the chair and...well....." she snuggled harder.
Xena opened her eyes and shot her partner a look that was half "I really want to help you but I'm dead tired myself" and half "are you NUTS!?" but she stifled a sigh and rolled out of bed, retrieving the bard's satchel and tossing it onto the bed. Gabrielle sat up and rummaged through it as Xena lay back down and closed her eyes. Ahhhh.....rest at last.
"YOU SORRY EXCUSE FOR A DRIVER! WHO TAUGHT YOU HOW TO DRIVE A CART?"
Xena startled and practically fell off the bed as the shouting came in loud and clear from the street below. This time she didn't bother to hide her annoyance and strode to the window, looking for the cause of the commotion.
Below in the street was a big cart which had somehow gone off course and....oh my gods, Xena thought. Half the stable had crumbled and the equine inhabitants were roaming free! That cretin had crashed through the livery stable!
The dark haired warrior scanned the horizon and then smiled as she saw the object of her worry....Argo was meandering almost nonchalantly through the market place, more than likely in search of apples or carrots or anything edible. Xena whistled for her. Nothing.
She whistled again. Still nothing. "Why that sorry four footed daughter of a mare." Xena swore under her breath, then turned to rouse Gabrielle....who was snoring softly, all ready in Morpheus' Realm. The warrior was on her own on this one...she bolted for the door, bent on getting her horse back before the mare ate herself into a huge grocery bill.
As Xena burst out into the fading sunlight another familiar voice reached her ears.
"Argo! C'mere, girl! Niiiiice girl."
It was Joxer. At least Argo knew him, Xena thought as she sprinted for the pair....knowing the man meant that the palomino wouldn't trample anyone who tried to grab her. That was a good thing.
By the time she reached Joxer and Argo, a small crowd had gathered around them, arousing the warrior's curiosity...and suspicions. What in Tartarus was going on?
A man in rich robes was appraising Argo as if she were a statue of Aphrodite. He was also arguing with Joxer and to his credit her friend was holding his ground quite admirably.
"She BELONGS to a friend of mine!" Joxer was yelling in the nobleman's face. "So back off, buddy! I'm Joxer the Mighty, yanno....oh hi Xena." He crooked his thumb at the now red faced man. "This bozo says Argo isn't Argo...I mean, he says she belongs to him."
Xena met the man's gaze and said evenly..."You want her? You lead her. If she goes quietly, she's yours." With a smirk she stepped back.
"Stand back, Joxer." she whispered.
True to her nature the mare exploded as soon as the stranger tried to take her lead. The palomino stood on her hind legs and pawed the sky, deadly hooves inches from the bald plate of the would be owner. When she finally settled, Xena went to her and soothed her with soft words and gentle pats.....then she glowered at the nobleman. "Just what do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
"That mare is mine no matter what you say or how you've trained her. She's marked if you don't believe me....look under her belly at the girth line. There will be a dark spot...the only dark spot on her body. It's a birth mark, her sire always throws those marks on his offspring. She was stolen from my stable by a rival when she was three years old and I was told she had been driven off a cliff; evidently he couldn't control her any better than the stable hands could." He sniffed and looked imperiously at them. "I'll send for her in the morning....WITH an accompanying Magistrate and proof of my ownership. Good day."
Joxer watched him walk off through the stunned crowd and snorted derisively. "Yeah right....dark spot. What's he smoking? He's full of it right, Xena?"
Xena's blood was ice cold and her heart was threatening to fail her.
"He's right, Joxer....I've always wondered about that spot, and I found her running free in the wild.....somehow I always dreaded this moment. I somehow knew it would happen one day...." Xena's voice caught in her throat. "I'm going to lose Argo....."
Joxer sat with Xena all through the night while Gabrielle slept.
"She's mine...". Xena would muter as she grappled with a slip of leather. Eventually, Xena had twisted the leather until it was one ball of knots. Sighing, Xena finally handed the bundle to Joxer. "Here, that friend of yours Gideon will find this amusing." the Warrioress sighed. (wink)
Yawning, Joxer tried to reassure Xena. "If you found Argo, then she must be yours right?" "But what if they take her?"
"We don't know that." Joxer replied and was startled when Xena shot the mighty Joxer a glance that left him shivering with fear.
"I've trained that animal." Xena snapped, thinking for a moment, she continued, "Argo's more than an animal... we have a trust." Joxer agreed and offered some words of comfort, never letting go of Argos reigns. Xena wondered why Argo had all of a sudden found Joxers soothing words more reassuring than her own.
The stable remained damaged as the stable master blamed Xena for bringing the wrath of some un-named God of disputes down upon his humble stalls.
Argo would not stop fretting and could not be hitched no matter how much calming Xena tried. Joxer continued to hold the horses reigns as the pair continued to talk.
At first light, Gabrielle rolled over and wrapt her leg over the pillow she had been snuggling all night.
"Know what I wanna do today?" Gabrielle murmed to the pillow... Smiling, Gabrielle closed her eyes again. "Me neither." She said to the silence.
From out side in the court yard a man bellowed "XENA! I have come for my horse!" Gabrielle snapped awake startled to find her love not by her side.
"Xe?" the bard called out softly.... surveying the room. Leathers, sack, sword.... "where is she?" Gabrielle wondered as she quickly dressed.
The nobleman stood outside the Inn, the local Magistrate by his side....papers in his hand....and an expression of triumph on his face. An expression that changed rather quickly as the Warrior Princess stepped out into the sunlight to meet him.
She hadn't slept at all, her hair was not combed, and there was a wild gleam in her eye. She was in protector mode, and even Joxer was wary of her. Slowly she stepped toward the two men in the street and the nobleman backed up involuntarily.
"I brought the Law with me!" he said a bit too loudly, a bit too quickly. Xena smiled grimly, knowing the tone. The man was scared witless, regardless of who was standing with him. She allowed herself just for a moment to taste that fear....and then she pushed her temper down in favour of a more diplomatic approach. For her.
"There's obviously a dispute here," she almost purred. "I suggest we settle it sportingly. Your best man against me in a fair fight with no weapons. Winner takes the mare. You political types are usually gamblers of unusual skill and I've never met a man in your position yet who didn't like a good game now and again. So what do you say?"
The Magistrate stepped forward. "I've seen the papers and heard his side, but I have yet to hear yours. I am a fair man, and if Averus agrees I see no reason why it cannot be settled in the manner you suggest. However, until I hear your story I'm afraid I have to side with him on the ownership matter. He did breed that mare, and raise her till the age of three years when she was stolen from his stable. Unless you can prove otherwise, he has no reason to take you up on your sporting offer...the mare is legally his."
Xena rolled her shoulders, trying to loosen the tension in her neck and back...the strain of controling her primal instinct to just knock these fools out of the way and ride off was wearing on her psyche. It would be so easy to just....just.... she blinked and forced her emotions down yet again.
"All right, this is my side of things, Your Honour. I found that mare three years ago running wild with no visible brands on her and obviously untamed. I bonded with her, trained her, and turned her into a reliable and loyal mount. She's saved my life, the life of my partner, and helped me numerous times in ways you cannot imagine. She has laid down on cold nights next to us so that we can use her body heat to stay warm....she has stood between us and danger more times than I can count, and I know she would put her life in jeapardy for me any time I asked her too. She's more than a horse, more than just a possession....she's part of who I am, and I would not be the same if she's taken from me." Xena's voice broke, her tough demeanor broken for the moment.
Joxer couldn't believe it, but at that moment the fierce Warrior Princess....the woman who had been known as the Destroyer of Nations...looked like a little girl, frightened and vulnerable. He blinked and then he once again saw the Xena he knew...determined and earnest. The little girl was gone, pushed far down where she was usually kept.
"She may be his on papyrus, but she's mine in her soul." Xena sighed, the only outward sign that the stress was getting to her.
The Magistrate looked to Averus. "She has a point, Sir. Possession is a good part of the Law. It's up to you to respond now."
Averus pondered the facts and then said, "I'm no fool, I know how she fights and how well she fights. I doubt if even my best man could win in a fair fight."
Inspiration hit Xena, and she blurted out "Then an unfair fight! Give him weapons, I'll fight empty handed."
"TWO armed men......to the death." Averus countered.
"Done!" Xena answered and grasped his arm in a sealing of the agreement before he could change his mind.
Gabrielle chose that moment to come running onto the scene. She looked to Joxer, who was suddenly looking a bit more pale than usual.
"What's going on?" the bard asked urgently.
Joxer gulped. "Xena's going to fight two armed men. For Argo. To the death."
Gabrielle looked over at her lifemate, who was arranging the details with the Magistrate and the nobleman.
"Oh Xena....." she breathed softly, and knew there was no way she was going to talk her partner out of the fight; only help her prepare.
Because the owner ship was in despute and because it was acknowledged that Xena had cared for the Mare, the magistrate allowed Joxer to return the horse to the stables. Averus was enraged at this notion, but was forced to agree when the Magistrate simply asked how "Monicus" was.
Gabrielle followed Xena to a food stall when a candle mark preperation time was allowed. Xena all but collapsed from the stress of worry...
Xena chewed her spice roll with long slow grinding never taking her eyes from Averus.
"Who is he?" Gabrielle asked...
"I'm not sure." Came the reply. "I think.." Xena began, but was interupted when the Inn keeper bellowed to the pair
"I want you out of my Inn, NOW!"
Xena put her palm to her head as Gabrielle pleaded to allow them to stay in his Inn. The Inn keeper would have no part of Gabrielle's pleading. The inn keeper demanded that Gabrielle clear their belongings out of their room _and_ the stables. Xena continued to rub her forehead as Gabrielle departed towards the stables.
A crow was gathering, mostly courious who wanted to see the fabled Xena trounce some of Averus' goons.
"Joxer! JOXER!" Gabrielle called out, they want us to pack our belongings now."
"NOW?" Joxer responded in dismay. "I know this isn't a holiday inn, but NOW?"
Gabrielle sighed and replied "I'm afraid so." Joxer instructed Gabrielle to clear the rooms while he readied the horse. Gabrielle ran to the doors of the inn.
Joxer watched as Averus aproached Xena and had stern words with the warrior. The magistrate broke up the arguement before Xena could grapple the man to the ground.
When Joxer had finished readying Argo, he turned to look over at Xena, only to discover that the Warrior was already in the early stages of battle with the two men.
As the battle progressed, Joxer looked into the eyes of the center of this lastest bout of trouble.
"This isn't fair, it's all my fault. I'm supposed to be "Joxer the mighty", "Singer of battles won, not lost."." Joxer closed his eyes as he hear thud after thud, chear and boo alike.
Joxer lead Argo out of the stables, fully laden with their supplies.
He mounted Argo and took hold of the reigns.
Ashamed, he couldn't face the truth of what he had done. With one last glance over his shoulder, he began to ride out of the small town.
Argo was confused. She knew Joxer was a friend, and therefore not to be hurt....but she also never let anyone on her back unless Xena gave her the go ahead. And Xena had not done that. Yet here was Joxer, climbing into her saddle and telling her to go foreward....which she did.
For about two steps.
Then Argo decided it just didn't feel right. Now usually she would just rear up or buck and unceremoniously dump the strange rider onto the ground. Maybe step on him for emphasis....but this was a friend, and the mare knew enough not to hurt him.
So she did the only other thing she could think of....she sat down. Like a big yellow dog she tucked her back legs under her and just...sat.
Joxer wasn't ready for the sudden change of movement and slid off the mare's back. He just laid there for a moment looking up at the sky and wondering why on earth he had tried that....he knew only Xena rode Argo except for special do or die circumstances. Gabrielle herself had only ridden the mare a handful of times. He sighed, then noticed a familiar face staring down at him, golden hair billowing gently in the breeze.
"Oh hi Gabrielle." he said as he got to his feet. "I was just...uh..."
Gabrielle patted Joxer's shoulder affectionately. "You were 'just' getting Argo out of town should Xena lose....and you were 'just' being a friend. Thank you, Joxer, but you should know by now that running away isn't going to solve anything. We have to stay and support Xena. Besides..." she added as she clucked to Argo and got the mare back on all fours again, "have you ever known Xena to lose a fight when she's fighting for something or someone she loves?"
Joxer shook his head no.
"Then we shouldn't even be worrying...c'mon, let's get back there before we're charged with horse napping."
Xena was oblivious to the happenings outside the makeshift ring. She hadn't even looked to see if Gabrielle was watching...she couldn't afford to. It looked like Averus had hired two mountains to fight her....two mountains armed with swords and a net.
"Oh goody." she muttered under her breath as she finished her warm up.
The magistrate signaled the fight to begin and the participants all began the familiar deadly circling dance.....looking for an opening and judging the others.
It didn't take long for someone to make the first move. The man with the net as well as the sword swooped the missile over his head and Xena instinctively rolled out of the way, the net drifting to the ground just inches from where she had been a fraction of a moment before.
She barely had time to stand before a sword was raised above her head and crashing down upon her. Only her reflexive move of a palm strike to the solar plexus of the attacker saved her head from being severed; the man dropped his sword when it was found that the wind was knocked out of him. Xena knocked him out with the hilt of his own sword, then turned to face the remaining combatant....at least now she was armed.
The warrior she faced was a good half a head taller than she was, and built like a stone wall. A blow from him would kill her immediately, she had no doubt. She grinned in feral anticipation of a good fight.
She was not disappointed.
The net had been retrieved from the ground and he now held it at the ready....then he tossed it aside.
"I won't need that." he sneered. "to beat a woman."
"Ya think?" Xena countered, and brought her sword up to counter his attack, suprised at his strength, but not bowed by it. His skill was excellent, but like all huge men his manueverability was limited as was his stamina.
Xena seemed to dance all around the makeshift ring....always just out of reach of a killing blow, always making her opponent swing and miss. In minutes he was sweating profusely and moving slower.
"What's the matter?" Xena couldn't help but gloat. "A mere woman giving you a problem?"
He swung and missed...then stumbled. In a rage he lunged back at her, roaring his frustration. His sword raised high and his neck was exposed....it only took a moment for Xena to put the pinch on him and watch as he hit the ground. Hard. She released him from the potentially lethal pressure point, and then also neatly knocked him out with the hilt of the sword she was carrying.
Realising that she, too, was tired beyond normal she slowly stood and faced the magistrate.
"Well?" she said. "I think I've won this little game....now give me my horse."
"I think not!" Averus yelled from the sidelines..."it was to be to the death!"
Xena had had enough of his prattle. In one smooth practised move she leaped up and over the small barrier and was at his back in an instant....the sword at his neck.
"Good point." she purred low. "You never said WHO had to die though...what say we make that you?"
"She wins! She wins!" Averus croaked as urine began to seep down his leg. "Give her the horse, it's too much trouble anyway. Here...take the papers!" He fell to his knees in supplication. "Please....spare me...don't hurt me!"
Xena rolled her eyes and dropped the sword. "I don't hurt people who are no threat." she eyed the wet spot near his feet. "And you are no threat." With disdain she stepped over his prone form and went to seek out Gabrielle and Joxer...and to give Argo a much wanted hug.
She had almost reached the far side of the ring on her way to where Gabrielle said they would be waiting for her when a cry arose from the crowd...and then the world went black.
The first man she had defeated had awoken and creapt up behind her, dealing a knock out blow of his own....as the crowd booed he raised his weapon to deliver the killing blow to revenge the humiliation he, his comerade, and his boss had suffered at the hands of this barbarian woman warrior. This would make him a legend.....
A high pitched squeal filled the air and a large golden form appeared as if from nowhere. Still laden with their supplies, Argo had sensed danger...and responded. She easily crashed through the makeshift barrier and headed straight for the assailant. The man barely had time to realise that a horse was attacking him before his skull was crushed under a heavy hoof. The last sound he heard was the cheers of the crowd...but they were not for him.
Xena slowly became aware of something soft brushing against her cheek. "Gabrielle...." she murmered and opened her eyes to see....Argo's muzzle snuffling at her face. The throbbing in her head told her all she needed to know....that and the overwhelming scent of blood near by as well as the crimson that coloured her horse's hoof.
"You did it again girl. You saved my life." The warrior struggled to her feet and threw her arms around the neck of the golden mare. "Thank you." she whispered softly.
"WOW!" Joxer was exclaiming as he and Gabrielle made their way to Xena. "Did you see that? POW.....Argo just....just cracked that guy's skull open like a watermelon! There was so much blood it....it....oh boy." he fainted.
Gabrielle reached her lifemate and immediately checked her for bruises (there were a few) and cuts (one minor one).Once she was satisfied her warrior was relatively unscathed, save for that lump on the base of her head, she hugged her close. Just another average day......
Disclaimer: No burly mountain men intent on making a name for themselves by offing the Warrior Princess were harmed during the production of this tale (although Argo is up for a role in the next Steven Segal movie...."Hooves of Steel").