The afternoon sun was far advanced in the sky and Amphipolis still lay a few leagues ahead.
The parting from her family the previous day had been very difficult for Gabrielle and even tougher on her father. He flashed from sorrow to fury in an emotional blender. Finally, he shook his head in disappointment and proclaimed that his oldest daughter was lost for good. Gabrielles mother and sister bid her a tearful farewell sending her off with hugs and supplies. Herodotus simply stood in stony silence refusing to wave at the disappearing cart.
Gabrielle sighed as she put her parents and their disapproval behind her. Time to worry about that later once she had found Xena. The bard frowned as her gut churned with nervousness.
This was taking way too long and time was running out for the distraught warrior. Gabrielles fidgeting was becoming more pronounced clearly telling the peddler that the speed of his ancient animal and rickety cart was way too slow. "I told you Gabrielle that this was a bad idea. We should be heading in the opposite direction, to Cretia not Amphipolis. Xena is not going to last much longer. If were going to save her, we dont have time for this side trip."
"It wont matter if I cant piece together what happened. Xena is not going to allow herself to be rescued in her current state."
"Then its hopeless." The desolation in Salmoneuss voice touched the bard deeply.
"No, its not hopeless. You cant believe that. She is strong, stronger than you know. Ill get to her in time but then comes the hard part. I believe in her but she has to believe in herself. Otherwise all is lost." Gabrielle stared at the road ahead not seeing it. She silently begged the warrior to hold on until she got there mentally sending her love and hope.
In Cretia, Xena was holding on or more accurately being held up by the chains that bound her slack body to the bars of her cage. Her most recent fight had been the worse yet, an ugly battle that left pools of blood on the packed dirt floor of the arena, a brutally beaten warrior and one dead thug. The villagers had started to cheer her as they had come to realize that she was single handedly removing an increasing number of undesirable scum, cut throats, bullies, and murders from not only their town but all the surrounding villages as well. The entire amphitheater had fallen silent when the horrible fight was over and Xena lay crumpled on the ground for a long moment. She finally dragged herself to her feet to stand over her dead opponent as a relieved cheer came from the audience. The warrior turned and took a shaky step before collapsing to the ground in a heap. The careless dragging by the neck of the still bloody form into the small cage by the guards rose boos and catcalls from the throats of the spectators. Now she hung limply in her confinement, unconscious for hours, her breath coming in short gasps timed with a fine trickle of blood flowing from her noise and mouth.
Danias, her young attendant, was frightened. He had used this opportunity well and by reaching through the bars, cleaned the numerous wounds on the warrior thoroughly while she was oblivious. This was the first time she could not order or scare him away. He had used a healing paste obtained from a local herb dealer who had offered it to him freely to save the warrior. Now, he could do no more but continue to wipe the trickle of blood that seemed to flow endlessly from the warriors lips as her ebony haired head lolled to one side. She was so pale and gaunt, he knew her end was close. His eyes misted and once more he blamed himself for her capture. He knew her freedom was lost when she hesitated upon seeing him thrust in her path.
Running his fingers through his unruly curly brown locks, Danias searched the tent for a water skin. Upon finding one lying on the ground, he picked it up and moved back to the side of the cage. He wetted a cloth and wiped the bruised face of the warrior as he noted she was freely perspiring again. The youth knew this was the return of fever caused by the warriors infected wounds.
"Xena," he called gently and then more forcefully, "Xena. Please wake up." When she remained still, he took the water skin and tried to trickle a little into her mouth. He got some liquid past her parched lips and was gratified to see a reflexive swallow. "Good, how about some more?"
After what seemed like an eternity, two pale unfocused blue eyes opened slowly and then screwed down quickly as Xena gasped. A spasm coursed through her like a bolt of white-hot lightening. She almost lost consciousness again. With an iron will, she fought back the nausea and the darkness as she looked for mental places to compartmentalize the pain. It took her a few minutes to flow with the agony and pull up enough control from her dwindling reserves to open her eyes to the light again.
Danias once more dribbled some water between her swollen lips. Xena swallowed and then greedily pulled the skin into her mouth with her teeth drinking deeply. She coughed choking on the excess liquid and moved her face away. She coughed again. The sharp pain the chest movement cost her dragged a moan from her lips. When Danias offered more she just shook her head and closed her eyes again.
"Xena, I have bread and some gruel. Can you eat a little?"
The warrior turned her head wearily to stare at the boy as she tried to make sense of his words. As her startling blue eyes focused on him, she vaguely remembered that he seemed to be around a lot. She licked her lips tasting the blood there and in her mouth. Immediately, she knew it meant internal bleeding. Her time was short, now. The thought caused her to grin slightly as she closed her eyes; too exhausted to keep them open any longer.
"Xena, please Xena you must eat." The boy begged quietly although he knew the warrior did not have the strength to answer much less to chew. Her slack form told him she had fallen asleep or its equivalent. He left the tent with dragging feet.
The sun had long set in the west yet a full harvest moon gave the evening a glowing light. Gabrielle looked longingly through Cyrenes tavern window at the shadows caused by the bright moon outside and then turned her attention back to the villager who sat across from her. "Thank you, Salias for your description." The bard turned to Xenas mother who sat next to her as she gently took her hand. "Cyrene, tell me what you saw."
"Oh, Gabrielle. It was no different than what Salias, Thomias or Barias all told you. Little Sara ran towards the battlefield. Next thing I knew, she lay dead at Xenas feet. Xena threw her sword down and knelt next to the little girl, but there was nothing she could do. It was horrible, so horrible. Xena loved that little girl, we all did. How could the gods allow such a terrible thing to happen?"
Gabrielle choked back a snort of derision over the notion that the gods could care. Her thoughts voiced an irreverence for immortal forms she had learned from the warrior princess. "So none of you actually saw Xena strike the mortal blow that killed Sara? Is that correct?
Cyrene exchanged glances with the men of the militia who sat around her and then nodded. "Youre right. In all the confusion, none of us saw the actual thrust, just the result."
Salmoneus, who sat on the other side of the bard, shook his head and put a strong hand on the bards arm. "Gabrielle, there is no time for this. What are you doing?"
The young woman patted his hand and abruptly stood up. "Salmoneus is right. Ive learned what I need to know. Ive got to go saddle Argo and be off." She smiled at Cyrene, hugged her shoulder as she whispered in her ear. "Dont worry. Ill bring her back, I promise."
The older woman lifter her head and glanced up at the youthful fire before her, daring to hope for the first time. As Salmoneus started to rise, Gabrielle placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "Old friend, please stay here with Cyrene. Ill be back as soon as I can." She leaned down and softly said under her breath, "Help Cyrene to be strong while Im gone." Salmoneus started to protest, stared into the determined green eyes of the bard and nodded slowly in understanding. Gabrielle would bring back Xena or not return at all. It was what their friendship; their connection was all about.
"Wait for morning, Gabrielle. Well go with you." Salis stood and nodded to his comrades.
"Thanks you for your offer but I must go now. Xena needs me. You cant rescue her. She wont allow it. Ive got to try to talk to her. The only one who can save Xena is Xena. She has to want to go on. Dont you see?"
The villagers exchanged glances of confusion. Cyrene rose as well and nodded. "Gabrielles right. She knows whats best."
Gabrielle left the warm tavern and walked to the stable nearby. As she entered, Argo gave her a welcoming nicker, stamping her hooves in anticipation. The bard walked up to the warhorse, scratching her nose and stroking her face. "Hi girl," she cooed softly. She made short work of saddling the horse and led the tall animal to the front of the tavern. Cyrene met her there with Xenas sword, chakram, and pack in hand. She handed the items over to Gabrielle with a silent plea in her eyes. Once Gabrielle had packed the familiar weapons on the horse plus a large pack full of supplies she turned back to Cyrene and hugged her. "Try not to worry, okay?"
Cyrene held the bard tightly. "Please Gabrielle, come back. Be careful. I couldnt bare to have anything happen to you too."
The love and warmth Gabrielle sensed in Cyrenes voice gave her a pang. Xenas mother accepted and loved her for who she was not who she wished her to be, a sharp contrast to her own parents. Gabrielle hugged the older woman tightly and then stepped back grabbing her hands. "Cyrene, tell me one more thing. What did Xena do or say when she got my letters? Id like to know; not that it makes a difference. Still, .I was just ." Gabrielles voice trailed off into the night air.
Cyrene gazed at the bard, searching her face. "Gabrielle, she never received any word from you. I know this to be true, for she told me herself. As the weeks went by, I saw her change. Grow quieter, sad, her jaunty step slowed somehow. She thought you were happy in Potadeia and when I suggested she go there to be sure, she refused. She said you had made your decision and she would not cause you more pain. Do you know what she meant?"
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "So no traders from Potadeia ever talked to her or gave her my notes?"
Cyrene shook her head. "We saw travelers from Potadeia from time to time but Im pretty sure none talked to Xena and as I said, she received no word from you."
Gabrielle dropped her head, "father." A silent tear ran down her cheek. "How foolish we both are. So full of pride, so afraid of causing pain for each other. Oh, Cyrene, please believe me. I begged Xena to come to Potadeia for me. I sent messages to her and when she did not come, I believed she did not want me around." Gabrielle lifted her head and straighten her determined shoulders as her eyes flashed. "Something is rotten in all of this but by the gods I wont let it destroy us. Im going to get Xena back and were going to have a life together. Cyrene, I love her and I wont give her up, not for my father, not to the gods, not to her past, not to bloody warlords and not to herself." The bard tilted her head to the side waiting for Cyrene to speak but the older woman just caught her breath and collected the bard in another strong embrace.
Gabrielle returned the hug, pulled back and climbed on the back of Argo. The impatient warhorse was off in an immediate gallop as Gabrielle hung onto the saddle horn. Once more she was reminded of why Xena rode and she walked. And why did the animal have to be so gods be damned high?
Darkness had dimmed the tents interior when the warrior awoke again stronger. The healing paste was cool against her raw open wounds as the fogginess caused by the severe blows to her head began to clear. She slowly moved her eyes from side to side taking stock of her surroundings and naturally assessing her situation. Old habits die hard.
She let out a deep breath as she carefully tested her arms and legs and found them basically sound. Ribs, shoulders and head were something else again. Bad stuff was going on in her gut and insides so she chose to ignore that, go with the flow and settle back. She stiffened as the hairs on the back of her neck rose and her skin raised goose bumps.
"All right, Ares. Show yourself. I know your lurking around so might as well come out and play."
A flash of light and Ares was by her side, grinning arrogantly. "My dear Xena. Attuned to my presence as always. Did you miss me?"
"Humpf, about like I missed a headache or make that a toothache."
"Tch, tch, such a temper and look at you now." He reached through the bars to stroke her cheek gently. Xena tried to pull away from his touch but the collar kept her head firmly locked against the bars unable to escape his caresses.
"Get lost," she growled but she knew it was all bluff and he did too.
"Xena, what are you doing? Youre a mess. What is this caged up stuff? Are you really having fun fighting these thugs and fools that Krocis throws at you? I must say, you have been quite entertaining though. Lovely bloody little affairs these afternoon spectacles but really, Xena what is this compared to a real battle with an army? Is this a small vacation or what?"
Xena gave the god an icy stare. After a moment, it was Ares that dropped his gaze before the pure fire of the warrior. "Go to Hades, Ares."
Ares turned and slowly walked around the cage, letting his hand run gently past the bars. "Nice metal work."
"So I noticed," Xena spat. "Just
how is it, I wonder that a low life cretin like Krocis could have in his procession a cage
and chains made of the finest metal by the god Hephaestus." She pulled her wrist
against the bar giving off a musical ring as the chain links rattled.
"Search me." The god continued his slow walk. "Even I cant break these chains. Xena, looks like you have yourself in quite a fix. Someone is going to have to talk Krocis out of the key if youre going to get out of this one."
Xena close her eyes as a terrible weariness overtook her. She suddenly didnt care what Ares did or thought. It really didnt matter. "I have no attention of getting out of anything, Ares. Im fine where I am."
In an instant, the god was next to her, his hand white hot fire on her arm. "Xena, youve got one last chance. Let me help you now and you will live. Tomorrow, Krocis has a worthy opponent for you, one you can not beat. He is big, fast and very skillful. In the past, Ive warned some of my protégées about you. This is the first time Im warning you. Hes good Xena, as good as you at your best, which you are not even close to now."
The warrior read the truth in the brown fire of Ares eyes. She would have shrugged but her shoulders were just too sore so instead she arched an eyebrow. "Ask me if I care."
"This is no game, Xena. This man is a real warrior with a vile streak that runs through him. He enjoys killing just as you do but he loves to make it slow, really gets into dishing out the pain. Know what I mean?"
"Ares, if all of this is just to get me back, forget it. Im fine where I am. Leave me alone. Youve had your fun. I know your hand has been in all of this. I could smell it from the start. I just dont care anymore. I dont know what your plan is, what youre latest scheme is all about and I just dont care. As far as Im concerned, you can have your little drama without me. This travesty that has passed as my life will soon be over, not too soon for me. Crossing over tomorrow will be just fine. Hades can judge me to Tartarus and you all can continue to have your fun tormenting me. Frankly, I just dont give a rats ass what you do. Im not playing."
The warriors shadowed blue eyes met the gods brown for a moment and then she wearily closed them, dismissing him from her presence. She was through fighting, through trying, and most of all through striving to make a difference. The loss of too many loved ones and the torment of memories had brought the proud warrior never defeated in battle to her knees.
Ares turned and grinned evilly. "With me Xena, it is always win win. Till then." He was gone in a blaze but Xena didnt notice, as her eyes remained closed. Her thoughts drifted towards a gentle face with sea green eyes.
As the evening grew late and the full moon sank lower in the sky, Gabrielle slipped off the sweaty warhorse. With a gentle pat, she tied up Argo and moved past the dim outlines of the village huts towards a large group of tents next to the amphitheater of Cretia. She crept past sleeping guards towards the structures in the back. There she slipped past a young man who suddenly awoke with a start. He stared at her a moment and broke into a huge grin. "Gabrielle."
"Shhhh do I know you?" She whispered. The lad nodded, took the bards arm and pulled her to the backside of the tent. "Im Danias from Thebes. You and Xena helped out my village a year or so back when raiders tried to take our crops."
Gabrielle searched the brown haired youth before her and then grinned as she remembered. "Youre one of the elders sons, right?" Again the boy nodded.
"What are you doing here?"
Danias dropped his eyes as his lips quivered. "Oh, Gabrielle. Its all my fault. She would have never been captured if it werent for me. And now .shes so .I mean shes really hurt and all and I cant get her to eat or anything." The boy stopped and looked at the bard with a sudden dawning smile. "Youve come for her, havent you?"
Now it was Gabrielles turn to drop her eyes as she caught her breath. "Yes. Danias, where is she?"
He pointed to the last tent on the end next to the stadiums wall.
Gabrielle started moving silently towards it. She paused, turned back to the youth who was following on her heels and grabbed his arm. "Stay here and keep watch for me. Let me know if any of the guards come towards the tent. Okay?"
Danias nodded and positioned himself in the shadows. Gabrielle moved forward again and soon reached the tent wall. She slipped underneath it into the interior. Burning torches gave some light as Gabrielle glanced around. She saw the cage on wheels in the center of the structure but the shadows were too deep to see clearly the form inside.
She crept closer, her breath labored. Gabrielle had long prepared herself for her first sight of Xena. Salmoneuss description had been very harsh. She knew this would be painful yet now she faltered, afraid to give reality to her nightmares visions. The bard could see a shadowed form limply attached to the bars. Finally, she drew a haggard breath and slipped closer to the cage.
"Xena?" she whispered. Then more loudly, "Xena. Please. Its me."
The musical clang of chains rattled as the warrior shifted in the shadows. Still she was silent.
Gabrielle reached up, pulled one of the torches from its stand and moved close to the cage peering inside with the help of the light. A face so familiar and yet so strange turned towards her, confused and groggy from sleep. One dark eyebrow arched upward as shuttered blue eyes stared back at her, no recognition or intelligence in them.
Gabrielle moved the torch back and forth as she scanned the battered, bloody form before her.
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle couldnt help the silent tear that streaked down her cheek as she gently reached through the bars to touch the bruised face of the warrior. The movement startled the older woman and she tried to draw back although the collar allowed little distance.
Still the warrior did not speak, staring at the vision before her.
"Xena, are you all right?" Gabrielle continued to stroke the cheek of the warrior, softly speaking to her, just letting her voice reach through the fog and shadows which seemed to hold the warrior.
Finally, after long moments of silence, Xena turned an icy gaze on the bard. "What are you doing here?"
"Ive come for you. Xena, I have Argo and your things. Lets get out of here. Wheres the key to this cage?"
"No. No, go away. Go back to Potadeia, Hades or where ever you came from but get away from me." After a pause, the cold stare seemed to fade inward. "Why are you here? Is this another game the gods are playing?" The warrior shut her eyes hoping the vision would be just another dream and evaporate when she looked again.
No such luck, as the bard refused to budge. "Xena, come on now. Its me. Ive come to get you out of this. Whats going on here?"
At last, Xena realized fully that the bard was real and was not leaving. "Gabrielle. I dont need your help. I dont want anything. Just leave!"
"Xena, in case you havent notice, youre locked up in a cage, getting the crap beaten out of you and for what?" Gabrielles voice lost its impatient tone and instead turned to coaxing. "This is no good. Let me help you."
As the warrior tried to turn her head away, the bard captured the angular jaw and forced crystal blue eyes to meet green. "Xena, I asked you to come for me. I sent letters to you. Your mother said you never got them. Please, Xena. Dont shut me out now. I need you. I cant go on without you." The bards voice trailed away as she saw the warrior mask firmly in place on her partners face. Okay, on to plan B.
"Xena. Listen to me. I think I know what this is all about. After Saras death, you think you cant be trusted. Youre afraid to be with anyone, afraid they will die because of you. This isnt the answer. If you cage yourself, you also prevent yourself from helping people, giving them hope. You cant help anyone locked away."
"Im doing just fine," growled the warrior. "Im removing vermin from the villages one a day, and no one else gets hurt. It even provides some great entertainment for the locals. This is working, leave it be."
"For how long? Youre hurt. I can see it in your eyes. How much longer do you think you can last under this brutal torture?"
"Doesnt matter. Go away, Gabrielle. Ive found my destiny. Leave me to it. Its perfect. Im being useful and no one is getting hurt except the undesirables."
Gabrielle searched the angular face before her. She noticed the pale, clammy forehead, the hallowed cheekbones and weary eyes. She reached down to the water skin and offered the warrior a drink. At first she refused but then gave into Gabrielles insistence and drank fully. She finished with a cough as the bard took the skin away. Although, the warrior made not a sound, Gabrielle knew the stiffened muscles and clenched jaw was an indication of severe pain. She abruptly changed tactics again.
"Xena, tell me how you killed Sara. You are such a terrible person to have killed a child. Tell me about the blow that did it." Gabrielles sea green eyes drove daggers into the warrior, never flinching, demanding the truth. She relentlessly kept up her demands, steeling herself to the warriors trembling hands which grabbed the bars with white knuckled intensity and tortured working face. "Tell me, Xena. Describe the blow."
Xena licked her lips. "I I finished the warlord with a cross cut and then a direct stab through his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground."
"Okay and then what?" demanded the bard.
"Then then Sara was dead." The warriors stricken look broke the heart of the bard but she kept on relentlessly.
"So how did you kill her? Was it a cross cut or a thrust or what? What sword technique did you use to kill that child? Tell me Xena. I want to know."
Xena searched the eyes of the bard in dismay and finally shook her head. "I dont .know."
Gabrielle grabbed the arm of the warrior in a vice grip. "Thats because you didnt kill her. Xena, no one saw you strike a blow at that child. You who remember every cut, every fake, every flip, every move you make in every battle can not remember the one thrust that killed Sara. I dont think you harmed her at all."
Xena shook her head angrily, jingling the chains that bound her. "She didnt die of natural causes, Gabrielle. She was dead at my feet; its my fault shes gone. I tried to defend my home and cost another precious life. Im through. I cant do this anymore."
"So just give up. Did it get hard, Xena? What did you expect? That it would somehow get easier? When did you start becoming a coward?" The bards voice had risen in anger and desperation. She was losing the battle for Xenas soul and she knew it.
The bards fears heightened when the response from Xena was silence. The warrior closed her eyes, slumped back and in a soft voice said, "Go away, leave me to my end. The tale is over, Gabrielle. Write it as you will."
"All right, Xena. You win. Its your choice. Just remember when you destroy your own life, you take others with you." The bard turned and rapidly left the tent by the front entrance.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior called after the bard in a worried tone but the younger woman was gone. Xena pulled at her chains in frustration feeling the strength of the mental. Not even her chakram could break these links. And Gabrielle was on the loose sure to get into trouble. The warrior pulled again at her chains in a combination of frustration, anger and nagging worry. The bard was up to something, she was sure of it. For the first time, being imprisoned didnt seem like such a good idea.
As the early morning light came through the opening in the tent, Xena woke with a start from a light doze. She had slept little after the bard left, her warning still ringing in the warriors ears. She pulled again at the chains that bound her in frustration clanking them against the bars. The musical ring woke Danias and brought him to the warriors side.
"Xena, can I get you something? I have a little gruel from last night." His hesitant voice got the warriors attention.
"Yes, bring me something and more water." The warrior tested her arms and legs gauging their strength. She nodded and did an inventory of the rest of her wounds. Not bad overall, really. Lots of bruises and some cuts not festering much this morning. Few broken ribs, probably nicked a part of a lung which caused the bleeding last night, she thought as she completed her survey. Shoulder was dislocated, collarbone probably broken. That was going to be the toughest problem since she could not compensate with flips or jumps. The chain attached to the collar around her neck kept her very effectively grounded.
Danias came running back into the tent, a delighted grin on his face. He had a bowl in one hand, water skin over his shoulder and a package that contained bread and cheese in the other hand. "Here you go. Let me help you." The boy knew that the warrior could not feed herself with her wrists imprisoned but getting her to accept his help had been difficult at best and most of the time impossible.
The warrior gave the lad a long look, with one eyebrow arched. Finally, she allowed a half grin and nodded.
Danias pulled off pieces of bread and put one in the warriors mouth, watching for signs of her chewing and swallowing. He kept a steady stream of food and water flowing into the warrior while he chattered away.
"Im so glad you are better today, Xena. They say you are to fight Gladias. He is terrible. All the villagers are afraid of him." Danias lowered his voice as he placed a spoonful of gruel into the warriors mouth. "I hear he has done terrible things. Not just killed people, but the way he kills them. Slowly, they say. Very slowly and painfully. The bread merchant told me he cut up a farmer who owed him money, a piece at a time starting with his fingers. Yuk!"
Xena stopped chewing and stared at the boy a moment. "Water."
He nodded and reached for the skin, placing it in the warriors mouth. She took a long pull then turned her head away.
"Xena, they also say he does horrible things to women. He takes any girl he wants and no one seems to be able to stop him. When hes done, if the girl is still alive, she is brutally disfigured. Often driven crazy."
The warrior turned pale blue eyes back to the boy, truly seeing him for the first time. Gabrielle was all ready having an effect on her, the warrior acknowledged. "I know you, from Thebes, right?"
The lad nodded glumly. "Im sorry, Xena. Its my fault you got taken. I didnt mean to get in your way but he pushed me."
"Why are you here with Krocis?"
The boy stared down at his feet, shame marring his youthful face. "I ran away from home, looking for adventure. Krocis was recruiting and I fell in with his army as a helper. I I thought it would be good experience."
"For what?" Xena softened her glare at the boy as he fidgeted under her stern gaze.
"I wanted to be a warrior, like you."
"Terrific. Look what being a warrior like me gets you." Xena pulled on the chains that held her wrists. "Chained, caged and beaten. Thats no life to lead. Whats your name?"
"Danias, go home. Your parents will be worried about you. Forget all of this, leave now!"
The boy shook his head slowly and raised his eyes to meet the warriors glare. "No, not until you and Gabrielle are safe. Im going to help."
"Great, just great," muttered the warrior. First Gabrielle now Danias all trying to help her when its the last thing she needed. Xena let her eyes survey herself again. Who was she trying to kid? She was the one who was a bloody mess. Maybe she did need help after all.
"Danias, you can help me by not getting hurt and going home. Please promise me youll do that."
Before Danias could answer, the tent flap was swept back as Krocis made an exaggerated entrance. "Good morning, Xena. How is my very favorite gladiator and over all meal ticket doing this morning?" He grinned broadly as he strolled slowly around the small cage, gently fingering the bars.
Xena glared at the smug warlord.
"What, nothing to say? Xena, you have done so well. So much better than I expected. Why, Ive made a killing betting on you. No pun intended," he smirked.
The warrior followed his movement with her icy stare as he stopped next to her. "What do you want, Krocis? We had a deal and Im doing my part. As long as you keep the scum coming, Ill kill em. Put anything but a low life into that arena and he wins. Youre rid of me once and for all plus you have my head to collect the bounty."
Krocis pulled out a sparkling silver key hanging from a chain around his neck and dangled it in front of the warrior. "Yes, you are keeping our bargain. It is so nice to know that something as small as this key keeps such a wild beast tame and the dinars flowing." He grinned delightedly. "Oh, Xena, Xena. It is so good to see you in there. But, I must say you had me worried yesterday. You looked pretty messy out there, all bloody and broken. I was very worried about my investment, short term cash flow, you know."
The warrior turned her head away from Krociss gleaming eyes. It had been a fools bargain from the start but she had not regretted it until now. "Im fine." Her low voice became a deep growl.
The warlord clasped his hands, happily. "That is so good to hear because I have a special treat for you. You are fighting Gladias, one of the very best and most disgusting warriors in all of Greece."
"So I hear. Good for him." Xena closed her eyes and dismissed the pompous lout with her silence.
"But wait Xena. I just wanted to be sure that you would give us a real good fight today. After yesterday, I wanted to motivate you to give it your all." Krocis strutted slowly towards the tent entrance, turned and motioned to the guard outside.
Xenas pale eyes narrowed as her jaw clenched. She had a real bad feeling about all of this. Krocis was just too cocky.
After some scuffling from outside, the tent flap was thrust aside and a brawny guard threw Gabrielle inside to the ground. "Spitfire, she hit me!"
Krocis motioned the guard out with his head and place an ungentle hand on the back of Gabrielles short green top jerking her to her feet. With firm hand, he dragged the bard close to the cage in front of Xenas startled eyes.
"Caught this one trying to steal my key early this morning. She actually busted a couple of my guards and made it all the way into my tent before I grabbed her. She belong to you, Xena?"
The warrior averted her face, an emotionless mask in place. She clenched her jaw tightly and said nothing.
"So, you two not friends anymore? I heard the blond goes everywhere you go, Xena. Perhaps, a little parting of the ways? No matter. Heres the deal. Just in case you do care, this one here goes to the winner today." The warlord shook the bard lightly, then swung her sharply into the bars. The sudden blow brought a gasp from Gabrielle and a sudden jerk from Xena that rattled the chains that held her.
"Let her go, Krocis. She is no threat to you. Ill give you the entertainment you want. Ill do my part." Xenas low voice held a hint of warning as blue fire shown from her narrowed eyes.
Gabrielle stole a quick glance at the warrior, gave her head a slight shake and then dropped her eyes.
"But Xena. This is soooo much better. Gladias is a real ladies man. Im sure youve heard. This will be a great incentive for him. As for you, well kill him and you can have the little girl in that cage with you. That should be real entertaining."
Krocis grabbed the bards arm and pulled her towards the entrance. Gabrielle tried to jerk away from his grasp and was greeted with a resounding slap that cracked across her face bringing her to her knees. Xenas rage broke her control with a roar as she fought the chains that held her tightly.
"Now, now. Save that for Gladias, warrior princess." Krocis mocking tone echoed in the enraged warriors ears as he left the tent with Gabrielle firmly in his grasp.
Xena watched them leave giving her chains several mighty pulls which only caused her wrists to bleed and her frustration to grow. "Shit, shit, shit!" She couldnt decide if she was angrier with Krocis, Gabrielle or herself.
She abruptly stilled starring into space as she focused on the problem at hand. The first step was to assess the situation. She was no better than half strength at best and this time fighting a real threat. They would chain her by the neck to the post in the center of the arena that would limit her mobility further. Gladias would be armed to the teeth, and she bare handed. She turned and watched as Danias moved cautiously towards her. So much for analysis. She didnt like her odds at all. Well, Gabrielle needed her so how to tip the odds a bit?
Danias watched her closely waiting for her to tell him what to do. For the life of her, Xena just couldnt come up with anything at all except to have him take care of Argo and have her ready at the arena the next day. Maybe this time, Ares would be the only solution. Funny about that.
The sound of trumpets echoed off the stadium walls as the pack house stilled in anticipation. The afternoon spectacles had been drawing larger and larger crowds as the warrior princess deteriorated before their eyes. The fights were more even now, more bloody, lasting much longer. The betting was frenzied and the viewing thrilling to the spectators with the winner in doubt.
As the last of the notes died away, a rumble was heard at the coliseum entrance. Flying though the gateway and into the area a chariot drawn by two huge plunging black horses appeared. Gabrielle watched the fiery beasts draw up to the wall directly in front of her and then stop dead in a swirl of dust. She was seated next to Krocis in his special box surrounded by his guards. They had not seen fit to restrain her, their bulky nearby presence enough of a deterrent to her escape. They could not know that Gabrielle had no intention of leaving the arena without her soulmate.
The bard watched with an increasingly churning stomach as the driver of the chariot pulled off his helmet and acknowledged Krocis with a mocking bow. He was a huge brawny warrior with massive biceps, broad shoulders, and a small head that seemed to perch on them with no neck in sight. A shock of black hair, which tumbled around his face, met a long bushy black beard and effectively covered any facial expression. Two gleaming coal black eyes met the bards searching glance with a sneer. Gabrielle felt the cold slender fingers of dread grab at her heart as she sized up Xenas opponent. Everything about the man spoke of brute strength, aggressive arrogance and an evil will that had never know defeat.
The crowd responded to the gladiators entrance with sporadic cheers and general mummers. Gabrielle could hear the bets being taken and given, mostly against Xena. It was clear that the majority thought the warrior stood little chance against the huge brute who turned to wave to the crowd. For the first time since they had started traveling together, Gabrielle was frightened for her friend and doubted the outcome. She knew Xena would never quit or run. She would die trying to defeat this monster. Gabrielle buried her head in her hands. As the trumpets bleared again, Gladias drove the restless horses to the edge of arena. From a side gate, a single horse drew Xenas small cage on wheels into the amphitheater. A guard stopped the animal in the center next to a large metal stake driven into the ground. He turned and marched solemnly over to the box where Gladias stood. Several other guards stood at attention around the cage waiting.
Gabrielle raised her head and starred into the cage searching for her friend, her shoulders back, her expression determined. Xena would never see fear on her face. By the gods, as long as Xena would fight, so would the bard.
The guard stopped directly in front of Krocis and saluted. The warlord stood, acknowledged the tribute and in turn faced the crowd. As the thong grew silent, a broad grin broke out on his face. "Good people of Cretia, I give you the battle of the century. The mighty gladiator Gladias will fight Xena, the destroyer of nations to the death. Should Gladias be victorious not only does he win the five thousand dinar prize, he also wins this lovely lass as his own personal slave." With these shouted words, Krocis reached down and roughly pulled Gabrielle to her feet. The response of the crowd was a surprising silence.
"Well, then. Lets get on with it, shall we?" Krocis shoved Gabrielle back into her seat and turned back to the waiting guard. He pulled the small chain necklace, which had the silver key dangling from it over his head, and deposited into the outstretched hand of the guard.
As the guard grabbed the key, Krocis motioned him closer. "You there. Listen to me real good. You dont release that bitch from the cage until she is chained to that stake. You got it? And when you do release her you stay away and get that key back to me. Always keep the other guards between her and you till I have that key back."
The guard nodded slowly. "As you wish. But Krocis, why all the worry. Shes never even made a move out of that cage till we pull it away. Weve never had a problem handling her. I think shes afraid well stick her before the fight even starts."
Krocis shook his finger at the guard, his anger growing. "You fool. Just do as I say. She gets a hand on you; shell break you in two to get at that key. Ive got her precious little friend here. Isnt that right sweetie?" Krocis turned to Gabrielle with a sinister grin as the guard marched back to the cage in the center of the arena.
Gabrielle ignored the warlord, her focus on the cage and the imprisoned figure in it. Xena had not moved the whole time, her dark hair cascading over her face, hiding her features. Her body limply held in place by the metal bindings had not twitched.
As the guard approached the cage, two blue chips of flame glared out beneath the dark canopy but he remained oblivious. He unlocked the chain that held the warriors neck in place, walked to the front of the cage and unlocked the door. Still the warrior was deadly still. One of the other guards took the long chain now free and threw the length out to the waiting guard in the front. This long leash was then locked in place to the metal stake. The warriors head drooped forward limply as the rest of her body remained still.
The guard moved to the side of the cage and unlocked first Xenas right ankle and then her right wrist. The warrior let both limbs drop soddenly to the cage floor. The guard then moved to the left side and released the leg and wrist of the warrior with the same effect. Grinning, he turned to march back to Krocis. Suddenly, a black blur flew out of cage plunging on the back of the unsuspecting guard, driving him to the ground. He screamed in terror as Krociss warning came back to him in a flash.
He tried to roll Xena off his back as she grabbed for his arm. The other guards were on her at once, two grabbing the chain, which locked her to the stake. They frantically began to pull with all their might. Gabrielle could only hiss in disappointment as the guards successfully dragged the flaying, desperate warrior back from the guard and the key. He scrambled away holding his neck, stumbling to Krociss box. The guard quickly handed the warlord back the precious prize and watched as he placed the silver necklace back around his neck with a sneer. "I warned you, imbecile."
Meanwhile, the rest of the guards were raining blows down on the chained warrior with both clubs and battle-axes. As the beaten woman crumbled under the onslaught, Krocis jumped to his feet screaming. "Enough, enough. Stop it, I say. Get out of here, you fools. Now!"
The guards slowly backed up getting in as many last minute blows as they could before leaving the arena. Xena slowly climbed wobbly to her feet, shook the stars out of her eyes and watched as the retreating guards pulled the cage out of a side entrance. She kicked the ground in disgust, knowing she had missed her best chance to save Gabrielle. She raised her head to search for the bard and once she found her in the crowd, gave a hapless shrug. If Gabrielle had not been consumed with paralyzing worry for her friend, she would have burst out laughing at Xenas sheepish grin.
Suddenly, a roar from the crowd and an enormous rumbling alerted Xena to sudden disaster. She turned and was just able at the last possible second to fling herself to the left to avoid Gladiass chariot as he tried to run her over. As the wheels drove by the prone warrior, they came in contact with her side tearing leather and skin. Gabrielles scream was lost in the yells of the spectators as Xena slowly climbed back to her feet watching the circling chariot as Gladias prepared for another run at her. Again he came directly at her, urging the giant warhorses to even greater speed.
Once more at the last second, Xena flung her body to the side barely avoiding the plunging horses but taking a deep sword wound across her arm and chest below her armor from Gladiass flashing blade as he roared by. Again Gladias circled the chariot in an even tighter arc as he brought the horses around to crush the struggling warrior who had once more regained her feet on shaky legs, red blood flowing freely down her side. This time there was no room to dodge so she dropped flat at the last possible moment. This allowed the two horses to run past her on either side of her prone body as the chariot ran over the top of her the wheels missing her body by scant inches. However, her ribs paid the price as one of the horses hooves hit her square. Gasping, torn and bleeding she lay in the arena dirt as Gladias brought his team back around for the killing pass. The dazed warrior was helpless as she lay in the path of destruction.
Gabrielle was on her feet, screaming at the top of her lungs, "Get up, Xena get up." Still the warrior did not move as the chariot bore down ever closer on her. Tears came to the bards eyes as she pleaded silently to the warrior, "Please, Xena. Dont leave me."
Suddenly, the bard launched herself foreword trying to leap over the stadium wall and into the arena. Her progress was stopped abruptly by strong arms that jerked her back and stuffed her onto the hard bench. "Stay put, woman," Krocis admonished her as the guards kept harsh hands on her arms and shoulders. Gabrielle raised her hand in defeat and nodded as she tuned back to the arena to witness the end of her soulmate. With gritted teeth and clenched jaws she prayed to whatever god was listening to make Xenas end quick and not too painful.
Xena felt the bards anguish in her gut. She knew she had one last chance, a small one at best. As she lay in a rapidly spreading pool of her own blood, suddenly time froze as Ares appeared before her.
"This is it, Xena. No more chances. Join me now and you can live, go free, even help the irritating blond. What do you say? Now or never."
Xena glared up at the dark god, unable to move, racked with pain and facing an oncoming chariot that was within inches of crushing her to death. She grinned widely, white teeth flashing and crystal blue eyes smoldering. "Bite me, you prick. See ya in Tartarus." She rolled to face the chariot directly and with her last breath said goodbye to Gabrielle. "Im sorry I failed you my bard. Did the best I could. Hope you know I tried." Somehow, a strange peace came over her as she felt Gabrielles love with her.
The warrior laid still until the horses were directly over her. Suddenly, she leaped up and grabbed the bridle of the horse on the left and allowed his momentum to drag her forward. Just as the end of the chain that held her was reached she dropped straight down pulling the animal with all her might directly on top of her. The result was an instantaneous melee of squealing horses and dust as the large brute fell to his knees taking his harness mate with him. As both horses went down, the chariot flipped over the prone animals crashing to the ground in front. Gladias was thrown into the milling mess crashing into the ground as one of the animal rolled on top of him. As the thrashing animals continued to stir up the dust, what was left of the splintered chariot was flipped around like a flag attached to a pole in the harsh wind, pulverized. Finally the animals fell quiet as the dust settled.
The crowd remained still, each person holding his breath waiting to see if anyone could have survived the terrible destruction. Gabrielle watched in gathering horror as a strange stillness blanketed the arena. Finally, after what seemed like agonizing hours but was in fact only moments, an arm clawed its way out from under the mass of horses and broken wood. The arm soon appeared attached to a body as Gladias rose shakily to his feet, clearly favoring his left leg that was bent at a grotesque angle. He yelled in anger and reached down to pick up the chain link that held the woman warrior. Slowly, Gladias pulled the chain hand over hand until finally from underneath the horses and dabree a limp body appeared dragged forward by the neck. Still he kept pulling the dead weight until the broken warrior lay before him, still and bloody. He grinned and turned to the crowd with his arms raised in victory.
Gabrielle could not tear her eyes away from the horrible scene before her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she felt her soul die deep within her. "Goodbye, Xena. See you on the other side," she vowed as she watched Gladiass triumphant display.
Gladias laughed his head thrown back, his arms pumping the air. He reached down and with a jerk lifted the limp body of the woman warrior over his head. He turned slowly in a circle, dragging his bad leg showing off his prize to the crowd.
Krocis leaned over to the bard with a smirk. "This is his finishing touch. You dont want to miss this. Hell break her in two over his knee. Just watch this. Its unbelievable how he does it, and oh the sounds of the bones breaking, its really something." The warlord rubbed his hands together in glee.
Gabrielle gave him a glance of disbelief and then returned her gaze to the arena. Would this nightmare never end?
The gladiator had finished his circle and stopped frozen for a second. Suddenly, with a harsh yell he brought the limp body crashing downwards as he dropped to one knee the other leg extended level.
Xena felt the wind rushing by her ears and knew the impact on her body was imminent. At the last possible second she twisted in midair, wrenching herself free from Gladiass hold. As she rushed by his body she thrust her hands delivering a killing blow to his neck, striking the nerves thus cutting off the flow of blood to his brain. He froze instantaneously and lost control of his muscles, collapsing to the ground in a heap. Xena hit the ground hard and lay still as her whole body went numb. For a terrifying moment she lost all feeling in her arms and legs. Then a merciful darkness descended upon her and she knew no more.
The stunned crowd was silent as everyone could only stare at the horrible spectacle before them. This was Gabrielles chance and she took it. She leaped up, grabbed the key chain from around Krociss neck and gave a mighty yank. It snapped falling into her hand. As the warlord yelled, Gabrielle turned and jumped forward leaping over the wall into the arena before the startled guards could react.
Young Danias watching Gabrielle made an instant decision and released Xenas plunging warhorse into the coliseum. By this time Gabrielle had reached the side of the bloody warrior and using the key, quickly removed the collar from around her neck.
"Come on, Xena. We gotta get out of here, now!"
The bard glanced down at the still warrior and suddenly knew she was too late. At that moment, Argo thundered up to the bard, slid to a stop on her haunches and blew a welcome through her dilated nostrils.
"Down girl," Gabrielle commanded. For once, the great horse dropped instantaneously to her front knees without coaxing sensing the danger quickly surrounding her beloved mistress. Gabrielle dragged the lifeless form over the saddle and then climbed up behind the warrior. "Go, Argo, " she screamed. The warhorse leaped to her feet and was off like a shot as the guards closed on them from all directions. The plunging animal was not to be denied as she bowled through the soldiers and out the coliseum gates. Within minutes, the village had flashed by and the thundering animal was carrying her precious cargo out into the forested countryside at a mile-eating gallop.
A bright glowing seashore with gentle waves lapped at her bare feet. Xena could feel the sand sinking beneath her slowly pulling her down. The distant blue seemed to coax her to remain and allow the depths to pull her under into a welcome and safe darkness that was oblivion. No more pain, no more struggle, no more; the soft waves seemed to chant over and over again. There was just this one small problem. A golden bond held her in place, refusing to let her drift away reminding her of a promise she had made to one who would not be denied.
The afternoon sun streamed through the dense trees, bathing two forms in alternating slanted light and shadow. The gentle call of a thrush played a melodious background to the quiet calls of the young woman who was sitting next to a limp lifeless figure stretched out on the ground before her.
"Come on, now. Xena, let me see those baby blues. Please?" Gabrielle gently wiped the pale, feverish face of her friend with a damp cloth, talking softly all the while. She had as much faith in the power of her voice to bring Xena back as she did in her administrations to the wounded warrior. Yet, the bards soul ached with dread as the third day since the battle dragged on without any movement or sign of life from the limp form before her. Even with the high fever the warrior was running, Xena had remained deathly still. It was the faint life beat that Gabrielle could feel in the neck of the warrior that kept her hopes alive. However, as time passed without any response from the badly beaten woman, Gabrielles fears rose.
"Xena, come on. I know youre in there. Come back to me." As Gabrielle continued to gently soothe the clammy forehead of her friend, tears ran down her cheeks, as she was unable to choke back the pain any longer. The tiny drops fell from the face of the bard wetting the angular cheek of the warrior. Gabrielle could not tell if it was her tears or her voice but somehow the warrior seemed to pull herself back from the dark void into the world of the living. Slowly, she blinked open tired dazed eyes and found she was bathed in a warm sea green gaze.
"Hey yourself. How you doing?"
The warrior blinked again, trying to clear the fog that clouded her thinking. "We dead?"
"Nah, not so youd notice anyway."
"Then howd we get here? Wait a minute. Where is here?" The confused warrior shook her head slightly and was immediately sorry as a shooting pain traveled up her back, through her neck and into her head jolting her like a lightening bolt.
Gabrielle, noticing the flinch, encircled the warrior with a strong arm and gave her a gentle hug. "Easy does it, champ. Were safe, in the woods near a stream. Youve been out quite awhile. Xena, youve been badly hurt. Ive tended the wounds I can see. What should I do for you?"
Xena searched the worried face of her friend and then turned her penetrating blue eyes inward, taking stock. After a moment, she slowly clenched and then relaxed first her right and then left hand. Next she tested her arms, moving each slowly up and down. Finally, with a wince she lifted one leg then the other. Nodding slowly she returned Gabrielles worried frown with a bright smile of her own.
"Its okay. Everything seems to be working."
"And it didnt before?"
"Not really," the warrior admitted. "Last thing I remember, everything seemed to go numb and freeze."
"Yikes! Xena, are you okay now?" Gabrielle asked, her voice rising in alarm.
"Yeah, just real sore. Back seems to be in one piece, just banged up. Think it will be a few days before Im back to hand springs though."
Gabrielle grinned, relief flooding her face. "Good thought, give it a little time. Now, what can I do? You hungry?"
Xena nodded slowly. "Help me sit up."
"You sure you should just yet?"
"Yeah, prop me up against this tree."
Gabrielle grabbed the warriors shoulders and gently lifted her pulling her till her back rested against the trunk of a wide oak tree. "Hows that?"
Xena nodded. "Better."
"Here." Gabrielle handed the warrior the water skin and watched with approval as Xena drank her fill. She then turned to the fire bringing it back to life with added twigs and stoking. "I made a soup. Ill heat it up for you."
Xena smiled her reply, too tired suddenly to voice an answer. In a flash, Gabrielle was at her side gently lowering her back down onto the sleeping fur. "You got very pale, Xena. Just rest until its ready, okay?"
Xena didnt argue but smiled reassuringly at the bard as she closed her eyes. Next thing she knew, Gabrielle was gently awaking her. "Come on sleepyhead. Time to eat a little."
All ready she could feel the sharp shooting pains had given way to a dull ache. In keeping with her promise not to hide this sort of thing, she shared the good news with Gabrielle. The relieved bard smiled brilliantly and could not wipe the grin off her face as the warrior ate all the soup.
By the next day, Xena was up and limping around the camp. No amount of arguing by the bard kept the warrior from testing her battered body. "Ive got to know what I can do, Gabrielle if we are attacked."
"Who do you think is going to come after us?" the bard asked impatiently.
"Well, we did leave a few folks behind who might think on it. By the way, how did we get out of that arena?" Xena watched her friend closely and noted the blush that was creeping up her neck.
"Argo sort of got us out."
"Argo did this all by herself?"
"She had help."
"Okay, okay. I grabbed the key, unlocked the chain and Argo did the rest."
Xena searched her friends face for a long minute with soft blue eyes, so clear yet so warm. "Thank you for saving me."
Gabrielle grinned. "It wasnt anything. Argo carried us both out of there and decked some of the guards in the process."
"No, I dont mean from the arena. Thank you for saving my soul, my being. I was truly lost this time until you came for me. I owe you more than my life."
Gabrielle turned misty eyes onto her soul mate. "Thats what best friends do for best friends, Xena. I couldnt lose you again. Not even to yourself."
Xena grabbed the hand of the bard and brought it to her lips to gently kiss it. She gave her a squeeze, too overcome with emotion to speak, letting her actions communicate for her.
The bard searched her friends face and suddenly dropped her eyes. She gently withdrew her hand and folded it with the other in her lap. "Xena, I dont deserve this. It was my fault you were in this mess in the first place."
The warrior tensed, worry tying her gut in knots. "I dont understand."
The bard raised her eyes laced with pain and faced her soulmate directly. "You said you would come if I sent for you. When you didnt, I lost faith in you, in your promise, in us." The bards tortured words ripped the soul of the warrior.
Xena withdrew her eyes from the bards, starred a long moment into the forest, and then shook her head. She gently reclaimed a tense hand from Gabrielles lap. Surrounding it with callused long fingers she brought it to her face and clasped it against her cheek. "We both lost faith; in each other, in ourselves and in us. But you still came. In the end, thats all that matters. Somehow you were there. That binds us even closer."
The warrior brought her other hand up and gently traced the strong jaw line of the bard. "My friend," she whispered with a quiet awe. "My friend," she repeated determinedly daring the bard to deny it. "My soulmate."
Gabrielle bowed her head and with a shaken voice affirmed, "My friend .My soulmate."
After a moment, still holding the bards hand she turned to her. "Do you still have the key?"
Gabrielle pulled the silver chain out from around her neck, showing the small dangling key at its end.
"I was afraid to throw it away. Not sure what we should do with the thing."
Xena searched the eyes of her best friend for a moment, letting a small grin come across her lips. She reached out and grasped the key for a moment and then gently returned it to its resting-place underneath Gabrielles top over her heart.
"Its a good place for it." Suddenly, Xenas voice dropped in timber and grew serious. "That key and the chains it locks is the only thing that can truly control me, Gabrielle." Cold glittering blue eyes glazed hard into the bards face. "The chains and cage made by a god can never be broken only unlocked by a key. You keep that. If the day comes when my control breaks, you still have the means to save others from me." Xena brought the bards hand to her lips again. "I know you will always do what is right."
Gabrielle shook her head. A gentle finger laid across her lips stilled the protest that rose there. "Please. Its the only way I will feel safe enough to go on. Dont you see?"
The bard searched her friends face a moment and finally nodded slowly. "All right, Xena. Here it stays."
Xena smiled and reached for the bard, hugging her closely. Then she settled back, on the sleeping furs and stretched out. "Now we have some loose ends to tie up."
"You got me to thinking about this whole mess I got myself into. Some how some of this just doesnt add up."
Gabrielle sat down cross-legged next to her friend and nodded vigorously. "No kidding."
"Gabrielle, I think Ares holds the key to a lot of this. He came to me before I was captured and after as well. He seemed quite please that I was caged. Also, who else but Ares or another god could supply Krocis with such a cage and chains. Certainly, he is not smart enough to get them on his own."
The fair-haired woman nodded again in agreement. "You think he had something to do with the killing of Sara as well?"
Xena dropped her eyes as a pain sharper than any battle wound tore at her heart. She whispered faintly, "I hope so."
"Xena," Gabrielle said grabbing her friends hand in a tight grip. "I know so."
The warrior raised her crystal gaze from the ground and searched her friends face. With a deep sigh, she nodded slowly. "Okay, then lets go find out just what the Hades is going on here." Xena struggled to her feet, drew her tall lanky frame to its full height and limped away from the camp a short distance. She turned with closed eyes and rigid features away from Gabrielle and called softly, "Ares."
She didnt have to call again as the hot sensation of the god of war against her skin announced his presence.
"So, you seem to be out and about. Change your mind about becoming a permanent zoo animal?"
"Cute, Ares. Very cute. Now whats this all about? It has occurred to me that everything that has happened to me and Gabrielle recently smells of your foul play."
The darkly handsome god turned calculating brown eyes upon the injured warrior. "I dont know what you are talking about, Xena. You were the one who went along with Krocis and his plans for the gladiator battles."
"But you gave him the cage and chains to hold me in the first place, didnt you, you bastard." Xenas eyes flashed cold fury as she raised her head proudly.
"What would make you think that?"
"Who else. Stop playing with me Ares. What is going on here? Why do you want me out of the way?" Xena fell silent as a cool cunning sneer came to her lips.
"Thats it, isnt it? Something about me and maybe my chakram make you nervous? Is that why you kept asking me where it was?"
The god of war stared silently at the angry warrior, weighting his chances.
"All right, Ares." Xena finally broke the speculative silence between them. "I dont know what game you are playing but Im not going to let it go any further. I wont come back to you ever and whatever it is you are up to wont work either. Now, lets talk about Sara."
"What about her?" the god of war asked grumpily.
"You did something with her, didnt you? I cant believe the Faiths owed you more favors. I think you used up all the other gods good graces with the deal you pulled with Gabrielle and Dahok. In fact, Ill bet you are on the A-number one shit list of Mt. Olympus right now. What do you say, Ares? Am I right?"
The god of war turned a cold hard gaze on his former favorite but Xena saw all she needed to in the slight flair of his nostrils and sudden flash of his cruel brown eyes.
She returned his glare with one of her own. Hands on her hips, she cocked an eyebrow at him. "Well?"
"So what if the brat is still around. Whats in it for me?"
Xena jerked her head towards the god as cold fury coursed through her. She reached out both her hands, grabbed his leather vest and jerk Ares towards her till their noses were almost touching. "Whats in it for you, you pile of dung? I just might keep quiet about this last piece of shit you pulled. You cant mess around with the lifelines of mortals, only the Faiths can. You are all ready in a world of hurt with the other gods. You want more?"
Xena shoved the god back. "Tell me where Sara is and Ill consider us even."
Ares started to speak and suddenly clamped his mouth shut as a cold calculating sneer turned the corner of his mouth. "All right, Xena. The kid is driving me crazy anyway. You can have her back but not a word to anyone about this."
"So what fell dead at my feet?"
"Well, lets just say we had a goat sacrifice."
Xena gritted her teeth in anger. "You mean Saras parents buried a goat?"
The god of war grinned. "Yeah, and a nice send off it was. Godly powers do come in handy like making a goat look like a kid."
Xena closed her eyes and took a strong rein on her anger. Time for that later. "All right, Ares. We have a deal. Where is she?"
The god of war grinned evilly. "Close by in the Alcon temple. See ya around."
He paused a moment as a cold flash of hatred crossed his handsome face chilling Xena to the core. "Hey, Xena. Maybe next time. Of course your time is running out. You and the bard have a date with your vision, right?" With his final comments, the god of war disappeared in a flash.
The warrior stood a long moment staring at the spot that once held the evil god. Cold fear twisted her gut as a snowy vision that held two crosses returned to her minds eye.
Gabrielle ran up to her friend and placed a gentle hand on her arm. "Xena, do you know where to find Sara?"
The warrior broke her focus from the horrible picture and turned blue piercing eyes on the bard that began to swim. "Yes," she whispered. "Oh Gabrielle, you were right. Shes alive." "But at what cost?" she added to herself silently.
Gabrielle simply smiled and threw her arms around the warrior hugging her closely. The warrior returned the embrace and it was the bard that finally broke away.
It took all the bards best arguments and gentle persuasion to get the warrior to agree begrudgingly to rest the remainder of the day and hold off finding Sara till the next morning. Xena limped slowly back to the sleeping furs and allowed a groan to escape her clenched lips as she stretched her battered frame out on top of them. When Gabrielle turned back to the reclining warrior after stirring honey into a cup of willow bark tea, Xena was all ready deep in sleep. The bard gently pulled another fur over the exhausted warrior noting the gentle rise and fall of her friends chest. "Rest Xena. Give yourself a little peace." The bards softly spoken gentle words filled with love brought a slight twitch upward to Xenas lips as she slumbered on.
The morning dawned clear and bright as Gabrielle packed up their gear and remains of a hurried breakfast. The grumbling warrior sat on a log watching her soulmate bend, pack their bedrolls and pouches and sling them on Argos back. The worst of patients, she glowered slightly as Gabrielle doused the fire. The bard turned and with a hand raised motioned to the warrior.
"All right. Now you can get up!" With a concerned watchful glare, the bard noted the stiffly moving warrior as she rose and approached. The graceful glide that was so a part of her walk and all movement was absent.
"Dont you even began to tell me youre fine, Xena. By the gods, youll drive me over the edge yet."
The warrior returned the fiery emerald glare with an icy blue stare of her own. After a long moment, it was the warrior that broke off the stalemate. She was beaten once more by a love and friendship she knew she didnt deserve and would soon reward with a chilling death.
Gabrielles face softened as she saw the stubborn warrior give in to her desires. "Can you mount?" she asked softly.
Xena raised her eyes to the bard and shook her head. She knew the bards assessment of her situation was near perfect. Gabrielle nodded and coaxed the palomino warhorse down into a kneeling position. The warrior threw her leg over the saddle with a hiss not lost on the bard. Gabrielle climbed on behind the warrior and gave Argo the sign to rise. The great horse easily scrambled to her feet and set off at a trot. Xenas face blanched as each jar of the animals movement sent another shooting pain through her spine and tender shoulders. Finally, she urged Argo into a canter in search of an easier gait.
Gabrielle held the warrior from the rear knowing that it would be just a matter of time before the injured woman gave out. The bard also knew her friend would never permit further delay of this mission and rest stops were unthinkable. She sighed contenting herself with her knowledge of the warriors legionary strength and courage. They would make it to the temple even if Xena were in multiple pieces by the time they arrived.
It was mid-afternoon when the dazed warrior pulled the reins from Gabrielles hands and halted Argo. Gabrielle had been holding Xena in the saddle as the pale warrior had fought through the red haze of pain to remain conscious enough to guide Gabrielle to their destination.
"There it is through those trees." Xenas voice was hoarse and weak from the ride. Gabrielle slid from the warhorse searching for a stone temple. All she could see was a granite rock face, tall and impenetrable.
"Where?" She turned questioning eyes to her friend wondering if she was dazed.
Xena seemed to gather her strength and raised her head. She turned to the bard as she pointed to what appeared to be a small crack in the shear gray stone. "Through there. Ares never makes it easy."
"Hum, so Ive notice."
Before the bard could object, the warrior threw her leg over the saddle horn and slid to the ground. The jarring landing was more than the warrior could withstand and she collapsed to the ground in a heap.
"Xena." The bard rushed to her side jerking the water skin from Argo. The warrior took a long pull and smiled her thanks as she struggled to rise. "Hold it champ. Give yourself a breather." The bard searched the pale clammy face before her, noting the shadowed eyes almost gray with pain. The ride had cost her partner terribly. As she knelt next to the warrior, Gabrielle thought of all the folks they had helped and how often they never knew the toll taken from the warrior. How long could the weary woman continue? The bard pulled the warriors head into her lap, stroking the matted raven hair. How long could either of them endure the terrible price they kept paying? If Xenas vision was true, then perhaps not much longer. She lowered her lips to kiss the moist brow of her soulmate. "Whatever."
"Nothing. How are you feeling?"
Xena again struggled to rise, getting to her knees and finally to her feet. "Better. Lets get Sara."
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet, pulled her staff from Argos saddle and followed the limping warrior towards the temple. The crack turned out to be a narrow opening into a dark cave lit with flickering torchlight. The rasp of Xenas drawing blade was the only sound in the dark tomb.
Finally as they rounded a curve in the passageway, the cave opened out into a large room with a gigantic stone statue of Ares on one wall with a flat alter in front of it. "Nice," muttered the bard. "Not too pretentious or anything."
There to one side of alter, sprawled on a padded mat lay a child with dark unruly hair and closed eyes. As Xena leaped forward towards the child a bright flash appeared from across the room.
Xena whirled crouching in a defensive position with her sword ready. Her eyes narrowed as the bright light formed into a spiked blond haired woman wearing nothing but a few red ribbons in strategically located anatomical positions.
"Alecto." Xena hissed the name of one of the Furies through clenched teeth. "Still doing Ares bidding, I see."
"Xena, so nice to see you again. Hows your sanity these days? Judging by what Ive heard, not so good."
"No thanks to you." The warrior straightened ignoring her throbbing back. "What are you doing here?"
"Babysitting." The goddess waved towards the sleeping child. "What a drag, I might add. This mortal kid is a real pain in the ass. Shes always trying to get away, demanding to go home and in fact kicked me in the shins twice."
Xena couldnt help the smile that claimed her face for the moment. She steeled her eyes and glared at the Fury.
"Serves you right. You know better than to interfere with the Faiths. Ares will pay for his latest plots, the gods wont stand for it." Now Xenas voice almost oozed sarcasm. "You dont want to be in the middle of all that now do you? He tricked you once."
Alecto tilled her head watching the warrior for a moment. Finally, she laughed a chilling cackle. "Oh Xena. You and Ares are soooo much alike. Takes one manipulative son of a bitch to know one. You are daddys little girl. Ares told me you were coming. Ciao." With a flash of light, she disappeared.
Xena turned to Gabrielle with growl. "I hate it when they do that."
"Get the last word in by disappearing in flash." She rolled her eyes upward and muttered, "Gods."
A stirring brought Xenas attention back to the corner of the altar and in a moment she was kneeling besides the little form.
"Hey. How you doing little one?" She gently stroked the raven hair hanging over the small face as two blue eyes flew open wide and stared up with wonder. "Xena," the child squealed and leaped into the warrior nearly knocking her over. With a flinch, the warrior held on to the child, folding her into warm protective arms.
"Hey, hey. Its okay now, Ive got you." Xena kept up the soft muttering as the little girl sobbed relief and joy.
Finally, a warm presence behind her brought another smile to Xenas lips. "Sara. I want you to meet my friend, Gabrielle. Gabrielle, this is Sara."
The dark haired child brought her head up and stared straight into the bards face so much as Xena would have done, the bard laughed outright. "Sara, Im delighted to meet you."
The child nodded, "Likewise."
Again the bard laughed, and threw her arms around both the warrior and her protegee. After a moment Xena struggled to her feet with Sara still in her arms. "Lets get outta here. We can set up camp down the road. I dont think Sara wants to spend any more time in this dark ole cave."
Xena was rewarding with a dazzling smile from the child. "Xena, will you take me home? I miss mommy and daddy." With this statement, the childs bottom lip quivered.
The warrior hugged the little one tighter and drew back to solemnly face the child. "I promise to get you home as fast as we can. Okay?" The child nodded and cuddled up tighter against the warriors chest.
As they started toward the cave entrance the weight of the child and the days activities crushed against the warriors steely resolve and she stumbled. Gabrielle wrapped a supporting arm around the waist of the straining warrior.
"Here, lean on me."
They rounded the last turn of the dusty road and stopped as the white thatched houses of Amphipolis came into view. Xena pulled Argo up and pointed out their home village to the dark haired child that rode in front of her. Gabrielle stopped at Argos shoulder and rested a moment on her staff. She glanced up and was met with a blue gaze of pain and sorrow.
Before she could say anything, the birdcall of the Amphipolis militia warbled over the warm breeze. Xena answered it with one of her own and sighed. She urged Argo ahead, finally stopping again at the entrance to the village. Suddenly, the militia appeared in front of them and to the rear with cross bows and swords drawn.
Carefully and slowly, Xena turned and handed the child down to the waiting arms of the bard. She straightened in her saddle silently waiting for the militia to decide what to do. If they chose to fire at her, she would not stop the arrows. She had made that decision long before they reached her village. It was their right.
Suddenly, a piercing scream of "mommy" was heard in the tense silence. A whirlwind of dark flying hair and rapidly moving arms and legs squirmed out of Gabrielles arms and flew into the body of a woman standing behind the guards. In a moment, sobs and yells filled the air as Sara was gathered up in the arms of her mother. Her father dropped the sword he was holding and leaped to the side of his wife, tears streaming down his face. He gathered his family up in a tight embrace.
As the villagers crowded around the reunited family, Xena pulled Argos head around with the intent of putting as may miles as she could between her and the village where she had caused so much pain. Her motion was stopped by Gabrielle who grabbed the bridle strap of the horse, halting her in place.
Before Xena could protest she heard another voice. "Daughter."
She turned back to see her mother, Cyrene running towards her. In a moment, she slipped off Argo and was gathered into a warm hug that only a mother could give. She raised her head from the embrace, tears stinging the corners of her eyes as the rest of the town descended upon them. Fearful at first, Xena snatched her mother behind her and turned to face whatever the villagers intended. However, the hands that were extended to her were in handshakes and pats on the back, not blows of hatred.
Soon the two travelers were whisked towards the village center and Saras waiting family. Suddenly, Xena was face to face with Chasia, her childhood friend. Almost flinching as if anticipating a blow, the warrior stopped and then straightened. She faced Saras mother sternly awaiting the acrimony she deserved.
Instead, the shorter woman threw her arms around the warrior pulling her close, tears freely flowing from her joyful eyes.
"Thank you, Xena. Thank you. Please forgive me for what I said to you, for what I thought. You brought my baby home."
The warrior pulled away and shook her head. "No, no .you were right. It was all my fault."
The woman would not hear another word and silenced the warrior with a firm hand on her arm. "Shhh, no more Xena. You brought her back, thats all that matters. Thank you."
Little Sara turned and suddenly leaped into Xenas arms startling everyone except the warrior princess who was always prepared. She hugged the warrior tightly and then kissed her. "Xena, will you come by later so we can play?"
Gabrielle choked back a giggle as the proud warrior grinned at her little friend. "Later, I promise."
The little fireball squirted out of Xenas arms and once on the ground grabbed her daddys hand, quite content the world was as it should be.
The villagers returned to their homes laughing and wondering how Xena had managed to return a little girl back from the dead. Bringing up the rear of the crowd, Cyrene walked between Xena and Gabrielle.
"How did you get Sara back?" Cyrene couldnt help but ask. Xena remained silent lost in the wonder of her acceptance back into the warm regard of her home village. It was Gabrielle, never quiet for long, who answered.
"Cyrene, its quite a tale and for a bowl of your superb stew, you can hear it tonight." The older woman laughed, "Youre on!" as Xena groaned. Some things never change.
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