Copyright © 1998 by Barbara Davies.
Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles, and backstory, are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea, and the story itself, are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
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Argo snorted. A beast of burden with no life of her own, that’s what she was. Even her name wasn’t her own - Jason had used it when he went after that smelly golden fleece. She tossed her head skittishly.
"Behave yourself," said her mistress, who at that moment was grooming her. "The sooner I finish this, the sooner we all eat. Gabrielle will be wondering what’s keeping me."
Argo pawed the ground. It was all right for Xena. She hadn’t been named after a pesky ship, for Olympus’s sake!
"I said behave!"
Argo knew better than to disobey that tone. She dropped her head and stared listlessly at the stable floor, letting Xena’s firm, rhythmic strokes soothe her. After a while, the aches and tiredness of the day receded, and she began to feel better, more like her old self.
Xena hadn’t really named her after a ship, she conceded. Argo meant ‘swift’, and swift she was. But she wanted to be famous too ... like Pegasus. Well, perhaps not exactly like him; the wings would be great, of course - she need never fear being trapped by fire again - but look where he’d ended up: carrying thunderbolts for Zeus!
Still, while Argo might not be famous herself ... yet... she had one advantage over other horses - her mistress was. Xena: Warrior Princess. Now there was a name!
Xena put down the brush and stretched the stiffness from her muscles. "All done." She smiled at Argo. "Feeling better?"
Argo snorted her agreement.
She allowed herself to be led to a vacant stall. Fresh water in the trough, she noted approvingly. And plenty of oats and hay. Give Xena her due, she rode hard and expected a lot, but she always took care of her mount’s needs before her own.
Xena stowed Argo’s saddle in a corner of the stall then patted her on the shoulder. "Get a good night’s rest," she ordered. "We’ve got a tough day tomorrow."
So what else is new? wondered Argo, nosing Xena’s arm affectionately.
When the birds in the rafters began to sing a dawn chorus, Argo shook herself vigorously, rubbed her itchy rump against a wall, and finished off the hay and drank more water. Appetite slaked, she waited expectantly.
Xena came into the stable soon after. Hard on her heels was the blond woman known as Gabrielle. Argo nickered a greeting at Xena.
"Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"You heard the villagers." Xena began to saddle Argo. "He’s taken six women and children ... and all because he wants me to fight him." She cursed under her breath, something about fame being a mixed blessing.
Gabrielle frowned. "D’you think he’ll keep his word and release the hostages ... Pirro, I mean?"
Xena shrugged. "If I win." She started to cinch the saddle strap then paused. "Stop that," she told Argo. Obediently, Argo let out the breath she had been holding, and Xena pulled the strap tight then stood back.
"Of course you’ll win," said Gabrielle dismissively. "There must be a catch," she continued frowning. "You and Pirro, one on one, it seems too easy."
Xena’s blue eyes gleamed. "You call a fight to the death easy?"
"You know what I mean!"
"It might not be as easy as you think. Pirro has a reputation for cheating."
Xena led Argo towards the stable exit. Gabrielle trailed along behind. "You forgot to mention that," she complained.
"It makes no difference."
Outside, in the bright morning light, Xena pulled Argo to a halt and put a booted foot in one stirrup. Argo braced herself; at least Xena wasn’t leaping into the saddle for once. Familiar weight pressed on her back, familiar thighs and knees squeezed her ribs. Then she felt a tug on the right rein, and gentle pressure from Xena’s right heel. Obediently Argo began to trot.
"Coming, Gabrielle?" called Xena.
Dusk was falling by the time they neared the place specified by Pirro - an abandoned hamlet on the edge of the great Thracian forest. Before they emerged into the open, a tug on her reins pulled Argo to a halt. Xena dismounted and waited for Gabrielle to join them.
The blond woman arrived flushed and out of breath. "How come you always ride and I always walk?" she panted.
Xena was peering through the thinning trees at the dilapidated wooden buildings and glimmer of lights. "It’s my horse," she said absently.
Argo glowed; she loved it when Xena got all possessive.
"Can you see anything?" asked Gabrielle.
"Torches. Must be Pirro. Wait here."
Xena handed the reins to Gabrielle and, using the trees for cover, vanished like a ghost. Five minutes later, she reappeared as silently as she had disappeared.
"Pirro’s there," she murmured to Gabrielle. "Alone. He’s kept his word on that at least."
"No sign of the hostages?"
"The place is a wreck. There’s only one building sturdy enough to hold anyone prisoner. A barn on the far side of the hamlet - they must be in there." Xena’s voice was thoughtful, and Gabrielle looked at her in concern.
"You think it’s a trap?"
Xena shrugged. "It’s possible. Only one way to find out!" For a moment she was silent, then she began to outline a plan to Gabrielle who pursed her lip and nodded from time to time.
"Clear?" finished Xena.
"Clear," said Gabrielle. "But you said yourself, he’s a cheat, Xena. So for the gods’ sake, be careful!"
Xena swung herself up into Argo’s saddle. "When am I ever not?"
Torches flickered in the abandoned hamlet’s main street, making it a place of dancing shadows. Argo halted obediently, trying to keep her mind on Xena’s instructions and off the black stallion facing her. What a looker! And he was as interested in her too, she could tell.
The stallion’s rider was a bear of a man, with long flame-red hair pulled back into a pony tail. He was armed with both a sword and a fierce looking axe.
"Xena!" said the warrior, smiling. "I’ve heard a lot about you."
"Nothing bad, I hope." Xena’s voice sounded relaxed, but Argo could feel the tension in her mistress’s body.
"Magnificent!" Pirro’s gaze seemed almost to devour Xena. "I shall enjoy being known as the one who killed the Warrior Princess." His smile widened.
"First things first," said Xena. "Where are the hostages?"
Pirro’s smile became bared teeth. "Safe," he said. "For now, at least."
"Let them go. If you want to fight me, I’ll fight. But leave them out of it."
"I don’t think so." Pirro’s lip curled. "What’s the matter, Xena? Remind you too much of the bad old days?"
"I never kidnapped or killed women or children." Xena’s tone was cold enough to freeze running water.
From the corner of her eye, Argo detected movement. It was Gabrielle, working her way from shadow to shadow, edging steadily closer to the barn as she and Xena had agreed. The stallion, also alerted by the movement, nickered a warning to his master.
Far from using the information, though, Pirro kicked his stallion viciously in the side. "Quiet!"
Argo rolled her eyes in sympathy. Xena would never do such a thing! "Why do you stay with such a brute?" she asked the stallion.
"He feeds me," came the reply.
Argo’s interest in the stallion waned abruptly. Handsome he might be, she thought, but he was as simple as a foal.
Pirro drew his sword. "Shall we get started, Warrior Princess?" Without waiting for an answer, he dug in his heels and urged the stallion straight at Argo.
As the stallion thundered down the street towards her, Argo’s heart began to race. This was always the difficult bit, suppressing her natural instinct to bolt and instead obeying the bit in her mouth, the knees and feet in her ribs. Then her mistress’s YiYiYi was loud in her ears, and as instructed Argo was wheeling sharply to the right, avoiding the stallion by inches. A shock traveled through Xena’s body to hers, and the clash of steel on steel sent up sparks.
Argo blinked. For some reason, Xena’s instructions were more complicated than usual, as though she were trying to avoid either of them receiving even the slightest nick from Pirro’s sword. For a moment, Argo wondered why, then she noticed that the tip and edge of the blade had been smeared with something blue-black. Poison?
Another instruction came, and obediently she kicked out her hindlegs. Her hooves caught Pirro’s sword arm and his blade flew from suddenly nerveless fingers. Argo whinnied in satisfaction, and felt Xena’s hand pat her neck in approval.
There was breathing space enough for Argo to notice that Gabrielle had reached the barn and was pounding on its door - so far without success - and then the fight began again in earnest. This time, Pirro was using his axe. Xena freed her feet from the stirrups and slid from the saddle. Pirro laughed and did likewise.
The battle continued on foot, Pirro’s axe missing Xena’s calf by inches and gouging lumps of earth from the ground. Like the sword, Argo noticed anxiously as she and the stallion circled the pair of fighters, the axe blade had had something smeared on its edge. She whinnied a warning, saw Xena’s eyes flicker in acknowledgment.
Xena lashed out with one booted foot, catching Pirro in the midriff and sending him staggering backwards. He recovered his balance quickly, however, and surged forward again, swinging his axe as though bringing down a tree. Xena leaped into the air, clearing the axe with room to spare, and as she landed glanced anxiously at the barn where Gabrielle had made little progress. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled: "Help Gabrielle."
The signal was clear but for a moment Argo hesitated. Then Xena performed a backflip that brought her behind the charging Pirro, and, reassured that her mistress could take care of herself, Argo turned and galloped over to the barn.
The sound of hoofbeats made Gabrielle look round. Her fists and arms were scratched and bruised, noticed Argo in concern, and her expression frantic. From inside the barn came the sound of children screaming and women crying.
With a wild look at Argo, Gabrielle put two fingers in her mouth and gave the whistle that meant: "Kneel down."
The blond woman couldn’t be serious, surely? Mind you, Gabrielle had always been terrible at using the correct signals, thought Argo. There was that time with Talmadeus, for example ... Argo became abruptly aware that Gabrielle was looking expectantly at her. She snorted, reversed, then backed towards the door.
Argo was just getting herself into position when a YiYiYi from Xena made her look up. One of the torches Pirro had used to line the street shot past, narrowly missing both her and Gabrielle, and hit the barn door.
Whoosh! The door burst into flames.
Gabrielle raised a hand to shield her face from the sudden heat. "Oh no," she said. "He must have coated it with something flammable earlier. Quick, Argo. Kick it down!"
But Argo was no longer listening. Fire! The thing she hated most in all the world. Everything in her was urging her to run and a fierce trembling had overtaken her. She whinnied her terror, and heard an answering whinny from the black stallion. Behind her a man laughed, and Xena spat out a curse.
"Argo," yelled Gabrielle. "Hurry. There are people trapped inside." When Argo didn’t respond, she put her fingers to her mouth and whistled once more.
"Gallop faster?" wondered Argo, looking round desperately for Xena. Xena would know how to calm her and help her regain control ... But far from reassuring her, the glance revealed that Pirro had disarmed Xena of her sword and chakram and was now wearing down her formidable reserves of energy. As Argo watched, the poisoned axe blade narrowly missed Xena’s thigh. Her trembling grew worse, and the crackling of the flames, the flickering oranges and yellows, seemed to intensify. She found it almost impossible to think -
A hand tugged on her reins attracting her attention. "Do something!" shouted Gabrielle, her mouth pressed to Argo’s ear.
Abruptly, Argo remembered her mistress’s instructions. "Help Gabrielle." Short and to the point, and none of that "if you’re not having a panic attack and the weather’s nice" malarkey. Well then … To her profound relief, she found that her newfound determination not to let Xena down seemed to lessen the trembling slightly. She took a deep breath, nosed a startled Gabrielle aside, and reversed once more towards the barn door. The heat on her hind quarters was fierce, and thick black smoke was beginning to billow from the barn door, but Argo refused to think about that.
Gabrielle, overcome by a fit of coughing, pointed at the door hinges. It seemed as good a place as any to start, thought Argo.
She put her head down, braced herself, and kicked out hard with her back legs. The shock of the impact made her hooves and hocks ache, but when she glanced back to assess the damage, she saw that the door, though now marked with hoofprints, was still intact.
The shrieks from inside the barn were louder now.
"Gallop faster!" whistled Gabrielle, before doubling up in a fit of coughing.
Argo braced herself and kicked out again. This time, she could have sworn the door moved slightly.
"That’s it, Argo." gasped Gabrielle. "It’s working."
The smoke was making Argo feel sick. She shook her head to clear it, then kicked again using all her strength.
With a resounding crash, the door went down, and immediately a woman with a screaming, red-eyed child emerged. To Argo’s horror, Gabrielle darted into the furiously burning barn.
Argo had just screwed up enough courage to follow Gabrielle inside the barn - she had Xena’s instructions, after all - when the now soot-stained blond emerged supporting an old woman. Behind her trailed a younger woman and two small children.
Gabrielle seemed happy to let them collapse in a heap outside the barn, but the fire was burning more and more fiercely, and Argo had a bad feeling about it. She started nosing Gabrielle, until the human’s irritation turned to puzzlement and then to concern.
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and urged the others to rest further away. They had just reached safety when something inside the barn - a barrel of the flammable liquid Pirro had used, perhaps? - exploded. The blast blew the burning barn to smithereens and knocked Gabrielle and her companions to their knees. Argo remained grimly upright, though the ground beneath her was shaking as if an earthquake had struck.
For a moment Argo feared she had gone deaf, then the ringing in her ears died away, and she could hear Gabrielle soothing the terrified women and children and telling them everything would be all right. Then from behind Argo came the sound of a man crying out in agony and a horse whinnying in distress. She turned, anxiously seeking Xena.
In the dimly lit street, Xena stood over Pirro, who lay on the ground his hands clutching his belly, a grimace on his face. His red hair had worked loose during the fight and now fanned his head like a bloody halo. As Argo watched, Pirro gave his death rattle and lay still.
Xena, who looked as exhausted as Argo felt, regarded Pirro’s body for a long moment, then threw down the sword she had used in disgust. She turned to gaze at Argo, swept several strands of long black hair from her sweaty face, then strode towards her.
Argo waited patiently for her mistress to reach her, nosed her affectionately, and leaned against the hand patting her neck.
"Well done," murmured Xena, smiling. "I know what courage it took to face the fire."
Argo whinnied her love and relief softly, then she became aware of footsteps and the blonde woman was hurrying to join them.
"Well done, Gabrielle," said Xena, giving her young companion a hug then releasing her.
Gabrielle flushed with pleasure, and self-consciously wiped some soot from her nose, in the process depositing more. "Is Pirro dead?"
Xena nodded. "I nicked him with his own sword." She shrugged. "It was poisoned." She turned to look at the women and children Gabrielle had left temporarily. "Are they all right?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Exhausted but okay ... thanks to Argo," she said. "She followed my instructions to the letter."
Argo whickered indignantly. Gabrielle’s instructions? If she had followed them she’d be on her way to Athens by now!
Gabrielle frowned. "What’s up with her?"
"She just wants a little praise for a job well done," said Xena.
"Oh." Gabrielle smiled warmly at Argo. "Good horsey, Argo. Nice horsey!"
"Not like that," said Xena. "Tell her she’s a great hero ... just like Pegasus."
Argo gave a start of surprise.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at Xena. "Pegasus? That’s a bit strong, isn’t it?"
"Not at all," continued Xena, rubbing Argo’s nose gently and holding her gaze. "One day everyone will sing brave Argo’s praises while I," she looked unconvincingly sorrowful, "will have been completely forgotten."
Gabrielle grimaced. "Oh, I get it. This is an in joke, right?"
Xena grinned. "Something like that." Then, the laughter fading from her face, she turned to look first at the released hostages then, appraisingly, at the night sky. "We’ll set up camp here for the night, Gabrielle. It’s too dark to travel and everyone’s tired."
"I’ll get the cookpot," said Gabrielle.
None of the hamlet’s roofs was intact, so that night they camped in the street under the stars. Later, when the horses had had their fill of grass and oats, and the humans had eaten as much of Gabrielle’s stew as they could stand, Argo was listening contentedly to the snores when the stallion tethered next to her began to chat her up.
"Nothing doing," she told him brusquely. "I like my stallions bright, so give it up now."
He looked disappointed but her refusal couldn’t have bothered him too much, she noticed wryly, because moments later he was dozing happily.
She, however, had a much more unsettled night ahead. Today had been a day of revelations. She had faced and fortunately overcome her fear - though the thought of those flames still made her tremble and sweat - but by far the most disconcerting revelation of all, she thought, unsure whether to be pleased or dismayed, was of just how well Xena understood her!
It was all very well having an understanding mistress, but how was she going to play jokes on Xena in the future? As Argo at last began to doze, she wondered dreamily if Pegasus had ever had such problems.