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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Four

Kaelin strode out of the tavern, irritated at her predicament. Stubborn as mules and blind as bachae, the both of them! she thought. She wound her way through the streets of Cularis as she thought over her problem. They’re both scared, but do they know what the other is feeling? Should I tell Xena? Should I tell Gabrielle? NO. They must come together on their own. Kaelin wondered briefly where that particular thought came from, but it quickly slipped her mind when she caught sight of Xena in the Agora. Kaelin raised an eyebrow at the scene, remembering that Xena used to hate market places. She waited in the shadows of a building until Xena had finished purchasing something from a vendor and had the small package safely tucked away in the space between her breasts. Kaelin smiled to herself, before noticing that Xena had started jogging away from her. She began sprint after her prey, and quickly caught up to the leather-clad warrior. Xena turned her head slightly, and nodded to Kaelin.

“Just like old times, eh?” commented Xena.

“Yep and like old times, I can still beat you!” laughed Kaelin, feeling the past spirit of competition flare between them.

“Beat me? You could never do that!”

They jogged in companionable silence for most of the way, easily falling into rhythm with each other, their pace eating up the ground. After some time, they spotted a well at the end of the street they were running on, about twenty metres away. They turned their heads to look at one another at the same time, each one grinning mischievously.

Without warning, they shot off towards the agreed finish point, people scrambling to get out of their way as they rushed past. They tore down the street, shoulder-to-shoulder, matching each other stride for stride. Just when it seemed that they would finish equal, Xena put an extra burst of speed at the end, slamming her hand down on the top of the well-rim, a second before Kaelin.

Xena stood, leaning her hands on the rim, breathing hard. Kaelin had slid down the side and was sitting with her back to the well silently, taking in gulps of fresh air. Xena looked down at her childhood friend, causing Kaelin to look up at her. Their eyes met for a second, before laughter exploded from the both of them and it was a while before either of them could speak. It was a welcome release for them both.

“I let you win,” chuckled Kaelin.

“Oh really, well, I let you lose,” Xena responded, grinning.

When the giggles had subsided, Xena pulled the bucket up from the well, and gave some to Kaelin, then drinking some herself. She sat down next to Kaelin, bringing her legs up and resting her forearms on her knees, as Kaelin was doing. They sat like that for some time, each thinking their own thoughts. Xena smiled wistfully, remembering that this was how it always was between her and Kaelin. No talk, but they understood each other perfectly. But now, she had to break the silence. 

“Do you remember the White Tree Incident, Kae?”

“Yes, very clearly.” Kaelin looked up at the sun, “It was on a day like today that it happened, I seem to remember. I can’t believe we were that childish.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

The Incident has started because Lyceus had found a tree like no other in the forest surrounding Amphipolis. It was a white one, a pure tree in the midst of many brown ones, standing taller than all the others with many branches extending outwards. He had brought both of them to see it and had proclaimed that it was his tree. Xena and Kaelin on the other hand had different ideas.

“It should be mine. I’m older than you both. I have the right,” a 12-year-old Xena had stated.

“Rubbish. I’m the smartest one here. Obviously the tree is mine,” Kaelin had argued, bringing herself up to Xena’s height, which she was nearly, despite being two years younger and looking Xena in the eye.

“Hey! I’m the one who found the tree! Of course it belongs to me!” Lyceus had shouted, crossing his arms.

Then Xena made the mistake of saying she was the strongest and a massive three-way ruckus ensued as each one of them claimed to be the toughest. Neither one of them ever got the upper hand because as soon as one had another in a hold down, the third party began attacking that person. Eventually Kaelin had shouted for them to stop, because they were not getting anywhere.

Kaelin then had suggested that whoever could climb the highest in the tree would have the privilege of owning it.

“Its only fair, that whoever can top the tree, owns it,” Kaelin had said, glaring at her two friends.

So they had climbed. Higher and higher they went, as each one had pushed the others further, until they went past the cover of the trees. Xena had been in the lead, with Kaelin close behind and Lyceus last, because he was less proficient in his climbing skills. Soon they had neared the top, using the thin branches to reach up higher.

“Wow,” breathed Xena, looking around at the view.

“Its amazing,” agreed Kaelin.

“You can see Amphipolis from here,” commented Lyceus.

All three of them had stopped moving, but suddenly, as Xena had shifted her weight on her branch, she had slipped and fell. Kaelin had caught her, her arm snaking out to catch Xena’s in a warrior grip. But the branch that Kaelin was standing on gave way under the extra weight and both of them tumbled downwards, Kaelin’s leg catching on the small branch Lyceus was on, sending him plummeting towards the ground as well. As they fell, they had crashed through the prickly cover of the trees, thin branches scratching and tearing at their skin.

Kaelin remembered thinking that they were all going to die. But then she and Xena had landed with a thud on one of the thicker lower branches. Kaelin had felt one of her ribs snap and she had rolled over in pain, almost falling again. She had looked over at Xena, who had caught the branch as she fell vertically. Xena had caught her brother as he plunged from the sky and they were both now dangling from the branch, Xena with one arm gripping the bough and her other holding on to Lyceus.

“Swing him,” Kaelin had grunted, as the pain of her broken rib shot through her body.

She had twisted to lie on the tree branch on her stomach, her hand ready to haul him up to the bough. With great effort, Xena had started to swing him and he picked up momentum, until he could just touch the branch with his hand. One more swing and he had grabbed it, Kaelin shoving him up with her hand on his back. Xena had hauled herself up, her arm muscles quivering from exertion, breathing hard. They sat there for several long moments, getting over the shock of their experience. Kaelin lifted herself from her lying position and sat back against the tree trunk, holding her injured torso while Xena sat astride the bough and Lyceus lay face down on the branch. Kaelin had looked down below and saw that they were still some way from the ground. They made their way, slowly and carefully down the tree, finally reaching the bottom as the sun was setting.

“It was an experience I’d rather forget about, Xena,” Kaelin remarked as she came back to reality.

“I know. But, do you remember what we said when we got down from that tree?”

“We said we would never compete for ownership of anything again,” Kaelin replied, slowly.

“Yeah.”

Kaelin was feeling very confused. She can’t think that… “Xena, are we talking about Gabrielle here?” Xena didn’t answer. “Do you… Do you think that I’d try to take her away from you? Is that it?”

“You’re right, I’m sorry Kae. I’m just being a Bachae. Ignore me.” Xena sighed and made to stand up, but Kaelin put a hand out to stop her.

“Wait. Xena you have to know that I have no intention of seducing Gabrielle. I know when not to cross the line. Don’t get me wrong, she’s damn beautiful, but I know when it’s useless to try.”

Kaelin looked straight at Xena, her words sinking in. Kaelin got up quickly, and started walking away before Xena could respond. After a while, she felt the presence of Xena walking beside her.

“I’m scared, Kae.”

“It's part of being human, Xe.” They walked on for a while, neither of them saying anything until Kaelin broke the silence. “I know, I’m probably not the best person to talk about this stuff. But from what I can see, you have a great chance to be happy for the rest of your life." A look of sadness passed over her beautiful face. "If only you’d trust in yourself and trust in her.”

“I don’t know if I can do it. I mean, if it doesn’t work out, there’s no way we could ever still be friends. Things would be too different. I know it would kill me if that ever happened.”

“But if it does work, and I’m sure it will, then surely that will outweigh anything you can think of. I’ve seen the bond between you and her. It's surely unbreakable.” Kaelin sighed. “Don’t throw away what you’ve been given. Don’t question it. Just enjoy it. Sometimes things just happen and you have no control over it, not even the Gods do. But in the end, you’ll see why it happened. Everything will be explained because there’s always a reason for something happening. It’s the way of the world.”

Xena smiled gently at her friend. “Since when did you become so wise, hm?”

“Since I grew up, my friend.”

Xena slapped her on the back and laughed. “You? You grew up?”

“Yep. Hard to believe isn’t it.”

Xena sobered and her expression turned serious. “No, not really. I know you were the wild one of our group and maybe I couldn’t have predicted what would happen to us, but you taught me and Ly a lot. You know, I hate to admit it, but you explained stuff to us on a equal level, not like how my mother did. Hey, we listened to you!" Xena laughed.

“Ah… now you’re embarrassing me.”

“And you were my first weapons master. I remember you were so much smaller than me, but somehow you knew so much about combat. How could I not respect someone who could kick my butt from one end of the village to the other?” Xena chuckled.

Kaelin couldn’t help but smile with her friend. “Well, since you brought all this up, I guess it’s my turn,” joked Kaelin. “I never really got the chance to thank you for everything. You took me into your home. I’ll never forget that. You taught me that I could be loved and wanted by people. Before then… well before then… I didn’t know that.” Kaelin finished awkwardly.

Xena saw that Kaelin was becoming depressed with her train of thought. She reached over and put her arm across Kaelin’s shoulder and squeezed. “Hey, we’re a right couple of mushballs, eh,” she smiled.

That earned her a smile from her friend and they continued back to the Tavern, chatting amiably about old times and things that they never got the chance to talk about because of Cortese. When they reached the inn, they saw Gabrielle outside, Argo standing patiently with her, their belongings packed and slung over the horse.

“You took your time,” said Gabrielle as they approached.

The two warriors looked at each other, knowing they were about to get bollocked by a seriously pissed off bard.

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“Yeah, I know. We’re sorry. I think we ran through every street there is in Cularis,” apologised Xena.

“Yeah, um, I should go and get my things and saddle my horse. Start going, I’ll catch up,” Kaelin excused herself, glancing at Xena meaningfully as she walked into the tavern.

Xena walked over to her horse, checking the saddlebags. Then she reached up and vaulted onto Argo’s back. “Do you wanna ride?” she asked.

Gabrielle seemed to hesitate before she shook her head. Xena could tell by the way that she was standing that she was still slightly irritated that she had been gone for so long. She looked up at the sun, which was close to setting

“Thanks for getting Argo for me. To be honest, I’d totally forgotten about her.” Argo snorted at the comment, seeming to understand. "No offence, old friend and I hope you're better now."

“Its alright,” Gabrielle replied, curtly as they started walking.

She actually had only just gone to get the horse. For the past candlemark, she had been sitting in the room, thinking. She had no idea why she had suddenly got annoyed when she saw the two of them walking towards her. Surely she couldn’t be jealous of Kaelin. Well, maybe a little.  She was jealous of the attention that Xena was showing Kaelin. She was jealous of the fact that Kaelin had known Xena before she had become the Warrior Princess and she was jealous of their close relationship. But I shouldn’t be. How can I be, when I don’t own her.

Xena couldn’t help thinking that her offer last night of sleeping on the floor had something to do with it. She had only said that because she didn’t trust herself enough to sleep in the same bed, so close to Gabrielle. But she guessed now that Gabrielle had taken it offensively. She sighed. It was like a constant pendulum swinging between total ease and total friction between her and Gabrielle. And Xena had to admit, it was making her very insecure.

Suddenly, there was a commotion behind them, and they turned to see what was happening. From the doorway of the tavern they had just left, they saw Kaelin being hurled out, flying through the air to hit the wall of the building opposite. She slid down the building, falling flat on her back, her face to the sky. A second later, the two travellers saw the cause of Kaelin’s air travel, a giant of a man, emerge out of the door from the tavern. He was carrying a curved sword and advanced towards the prone figure of the warrior lying on the floor.

Gabrielle stood open-mouthed as she watched the scene unfold. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she realised that the man was about to murder the defenceless Kaelin for some reason and she started to rush back up the street to stop him. Unexpectedly, she felt a strong hand on her shoulder, preventing her from running and she turned her head to stare at Xena. Is she just going to let him kill her?! she thought, stunned. Xena’s face was impassive as she looked on at the incident intently. She felt Gabrielle’s gaze on her and she looked down at the bard and raised an eyebrow.

“Wait and watch,” she said.

Gabrielle’s face screwed up in confusion and she shook her head violently, not knowing what was happening. She wrenched herself out of Xena’s grip and tore down the street to help Kaelin. The man was standing over the woman’s still body, the sword pointing downwards in his hand, ready to strike her heart. Gabrielle could see his face was bright red and the muscles in his arm were quivering with anger.

“STOP!” cried Gabrielle as she saw the blade flash downwards in the sunlight. NO, I’m too late, she thought, wildly.

Even as she thought, she saw Kaelin suddenly come to life, and twist her body up, her right leg shooting out and connecting with the man’s knee-cap savagely. The man howled with pain, but dropped the sword harmlessly to the ground and fell to the floor, clutching his broken knee.

Gabrielle skidded to a halt by the man and stared at Kaelin, who had stood up and was brushing some dirt off her shoulder in disgust, totally unhurt. The warrior stepped over to the fallen man, and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him close. She spoke something into his ear that Gabrielle couldn’t hear, before drawing her fist back and slamming it into the man’s jaw. Gabrielle flinched as she heard the crack that indicated that Kaelin had broken it. The man toppled over, face down in the dirt, out cold from the brutal blow. Kaelin sighed and stooped to pick up her satchels that she had been carrying before she had been attacked. She looked sideways at Gabrielle and raised an eyebrow.

“Can’t go anywhere in this world without being recognised, eh,” she joked, carelessly.

Before Gabrielle could ask what she meant, she heard a voice from behind her.

“What in Tartarus did you think you were doing!?”

She turned to see Xena with an annoyed expression on her face, looking at her. “What was I doing? What in Artemis’ name were you doing? Why didn’t you tell me she was going to do that?” Gabrielle scowled.

Kaelin glanced worriedly between the two and shook her head. “I’ll just be over there,” she said no one in particular, pointing in the direction of the stable.

“Well, if you hadn’t rushed off so quick, I would have told you,” Xena replied to Gabrielle, seemingly oblivious of Kaelin’s statement.

“I was ‘rushing off’ to help someone who I thought was unconscious and was about to be skewered!”

“She wasn’t about to be skewered. I knew. That’s why I told you to wait!”

“How was I meant to know that? I didn’t know what was happening, did I? You could have explained it to me, instead of standing there silently.”

“Why? A few more seconds and you would have seen that everything was perfectly fine.”

"Well, I didn’t know what her plan was. For all I knew, she could have been dead in a few more seconds!”

“And so could you, if he had been a real threat.”

“If you’re telling me that going to help someone if I think that their life is in danger is wrong…”

“I’m not saying it was wrong,” Xena commented, “I’m just saying that maybe you should trust me a little more if I make a decision and don’t want you getting involved.”

“Oh really! That’s so rich, coming from you. Do you ever follow me if I make a decision?” Xena looked away, exasperated. “No, that’s right. How do you expect me to trust you, if you don’t trust me?” Gabrielle carried on.

Xena opened her mouth to reply, but was cut off by Kaelin. “Enough!” Both of them turned to stare at the black-garbed warrior, whose eyes were glinting in concealed irritation. “Can you two please finish this later?” Kaelin looked, poignantly at Xena. “It's not helping matters that you’re both angry, is it?” Kaelin looked around them. “Besides, you’re pulling a crowd, and the last thing we need is attention from the guards. You don’t know how much they would love to bring in three female troublemakers, especially since I humiliated the Captain of the Guard last night.” Kaelin glanced at Gabrielle. “I really don’t want to shed any more blood in this town.” Kaelin added in a low voice. “Lets go.”

She turned and whistled three times, causing a jet black stallion to come trotting out of the stable. She attached her satchels to the animal and leapt into the saddle, fastening her twin blades to her torso. “Are you coming or not?” she said, coldly as she saw Xena and Gabrielle still throwing daggers at each other with their eyes. “We need to get out of here before they send in the sentries.”

“Yes, I am,” Gabrielle replied, shoving past Xena and coming to stand beside Kaelin’s mount. “Mind if I ride with you? I don’t think there’s enough space on Argo.”

Xena turned to stare at Gabrielle and then at Kaelin. Kaelin darted her gaze between her two companions, and opened her mouth to suggest that Gabrielle ride with Xena but Xena intercepted her.

“Yeah, I think she might be right. Argo always gets the jitters whenever she has two people riding on her.” Xena responded, curtly, before whistling Argo to her.

Kaelin blew out a frustrated breath and snapped her mouth shut. She reached out her arm for Gabrielle to grab to mount the horse, praying for the patience to deal with them. She watched Xena vault into her own saddle and then felt Gabrielle settle behind her and wrap her arms around her middle. Oh, why me? she thought to herself.

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Continued... Chapter Five

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