The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo as well as the whole notion of the Great Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, but this story is original and mine. This story was my first attempt at writing Xena fanfic from sometime in late second season. I'd like to think I got better. <G>Beware. It's got problems.
"Xena?" The closeness of Gabrielle's tired voice startled the warrior for a moment. "It's starting to rain."
Xena responded by digging in and pressing Argo harder. Gabrielle wrapped both arms around Xena's waist and held on as best she could. For three days she had been subjected to Xena's frantic desire to reach Tisiphone. Three days since word reached them that Tisiphone was being threatened by a warlord intent on destroying the entire village. Three long days on Argo at Xena's back silently willing her to allow them a much needed rest.
Gabrielle, who had insisted on coming along against Xena's wishes, was cursing her decision but she knew better than to complain at all. Still, she craved an extended break and would have nodded off between each of Argo's long strides if she had been any less miserable.
And now on the third day of their torturous ride the skies were darkened by a powerful storm that the two riders were heading directly into. Water running off from the flooded north had already swollen the normally complacent creek well beyond its banks. Twice Xena had to re-route them to avoid fording what should have been a calm stream but had now grown into an angry river.
The bard's voice at her right ear broke through Xena's obsessive concentration. "Xena, I'm getting all wet. Can't we stop?" Silence again. Gabrielle sighed deeply and changed sides resting her head on the warrior's left shoulder.
Within a few minutes, Xena noticed Gabrielle's breathing had become deep and regular, that she had finally fallen asleep. Xena relaxed a bit knowing that Gabrielle was getting some rest. She was already soaked through to the skin and just as uncomfortable as her friend, but she had an old passion pushing her on. And an old transgression to right.
A crack of thunder jolted through Xena. Branches, twigs and leaves pummeled her and instinctively she threw an arm over her head. An enormous tree had exploded directly in their path. Argo reared to avoid it and Xena hung on, lurching forward to keep her balance on the terrified horse. She felt Gabrielle's hands slip from her waist, grabbing for them too late, and heard the deep thud of a body landing on the ground. Argo continued to buck and rear, frightened to her core by the bolt of lightning striking so near and she ran wildly into a meadow just off the path. Struggling to keep her seat, Xena's only consolation was that Argo was now far enough from Gabrielle not to trample her. Calming Argo with her voice and hands, Xena coaxed the spooked animal to slow to a trot and steered her back toward the path.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called. The driving rain had turned the path to mud, so Gabrielle's fall had been relatively soft, but she didn't stir when Xena spoke her name. "Gabrielle, answer me!" Xena dismounted and knelt by Gabrielle's side quickly checking for broken bones.
Xena picked up the wet muddy bard and looked about for shelter from the pelting wind and rain. Though it was still mid-afternoon the storm's fury made it difficult to see much in the distance, however Xena soon spotted the outcropping of rocks on the other side of the meadow. Cradling Gabrielle in her arms, she slogged through the tall grass and found a shallow alcove that was just deep enough to give provide dry ground at the base of the rocks.
She lay down her burden gently, and brushed back the hair and mud caked to Gabrielle's face. More thoroughly now she examined her for injuries but still found none. She reached for the saddle bags Argo carried and found clean rags to help wash away the mud from both Gabrielle and her own face and hands. That done, Xena considered her options. Stay and try to build a fire to get them through the night, but with wet wood and a howling wind it seemed impossible, even for one of Xena's skills. The only other option was to try to get to the village, but they were at least two hours away and it only seemed to be raining harder. And what Xena dreaded most was crossing the river.
Strength sapped, she couldn't come to a clear decision. She sat down by Gabrielle, putting the blonde head on her lap, stroking her cheek. Though she knew Gabrielle couldn't hear her she leaned over and said quietly "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I really should have stopped long ago. I should have answered you as well. You put up with so much from me." She smiled, "And I am grateful for that. Okay, we'll rest awhile and maybe you'll be able to ride soon.
Xena leaned back against the rock wall and fell asleep for a brief time. When she woke, Gabrielle was shivering against the cold. Xena took her up into her arms and tried to warm her, but realized that they were both soaked through and there was no escaping the frigid northerly wind. She whistled for Argo, re-packed their belongings and carefully picked up Gabrielle.
She stood for a few moments chewing her lower lip, pondering just how to get the wet, unconscious bard on the horse. Xena shrugged her shoulders and unceremoniously hurled Gabby over Argo's back. But as Xena herself tried to mount, Gabrielle's body began sliding off the far side. She grabbed the soggy skirt, pulled her back and re-balanced her, then wrapped her limp arm over the saddle horn. "Top heavy..." she mused.
Placing her palm on the soaked back to pin it down, Xena scooted up on the saddle, bringing her knees under Gabrielle. She started to pull the bard upright in front of her, but again the dead weight slipped toward the ground. By now the horse was fidgeting, Xena herself was shivering, and a few choice curses accompanied distant thunder. Xena hoisted the tiny frame up over her shoulder, and while grabbing one thigh and tossing it over the saddle, she twisted Gabrielle's torso and plopped her down in front, facing forward. Xena reached for the reins with one hand and held the slumping bard with the other.
"Okay, Argo. Let's go. And no bucking her off, I don't want to have to do that maneuver again!" She let the horse pick her own path down the muddy trail, carefully stepping over fallen branches.
Her arm tightened around Gabrielle. Budding frustration was churning her stomach; she was worried, cold, and tired. "Gabrielle," Xena called her name softly. "I know you can't hear me but I am sorry. I'm sorry I've been ignoring you. Sometimes I get too caught up in things, too obsessed with my past. I know you asked me to tell you about Tisiphone more than once but I... well, I just couldn't tell you. I couldn't admit to you what I did there." Xena swallowed hard and continued. "I couldn't take the risk that you would realize just how monstrous my behavior was... how cold my blood ran."
"Tisiphone was my first victory. I was drunk on adrenaline, and my young army shared the blood lust with me. We were all so brash and cocky. We were invincible!" Xena shuddered at the memory. "At the end, after the villagers were thoroughly beaten, I still couldn't stop. Six men were left alive, all others had run away or lay dead at our feet. I had the six lined up and one by one I slit their throats. I dragged the blade through their necks. I made them scream while my men cheered me on. I savored the feel of my sword against their freshly wrought skin, the smell of their blood in the air." She caught herself thinking for a moment that the craving for such power over life had returned. There was a fragment in her still that relished bloodletting. But then she remembered a promise given: 'I will not become a monster.' And she knew that it was true.
Xena continued telling her story to Gabrielle. "One by one I took their lives--men on their knees begging for mercy. Until I got to the last one. He did not beg. He looked me straight in the eye, words left unspoken, and I saw the strength in him. It was a hate-filled strength, but it was something I recognized in me as well. He had the strength not to goad me, not to plead for his life, not to react to the horror around him. I started to glide my blade across his tender flesh, but it had lost its appeal. Instead I let him go, telling him to warn everyone he met of Xena and her army. He answered me with an icy voice saying, 'I will do just that, Warlord.' Without even uttering a curse under his breath, he stood and walked away. I watched his back as he sauntered away into the woods. He kept it straight, shoulders held high...I found out later that he had become a warlord himself. Tiberius was his name." Xena nuzzled Gabrielle and let the memory slip out of her thoughts, back i! nto the far reaches of distant memories.
"Then, three days ago the summons from Guido came. I'll always remember the first time we stayed in one of Guido's Inns. You had the attention of everyone in the tavern and you were telling the story of Theseus and the Minotaur when three drunk villagers started that food fight just at your story's climax. I can still see your face--full of fury but unsure whether to be more incensed at the interruption or that your dinner was being used as ammunition in the battle." Xena laughed, "I never did tell you how much I enjoyed that, did I? Well, now we will see Guido again because he bought the Inn in Tisiphone. He never pulls a punch, and he knew that in Tisiphone the mention of my name--unlike any other name--would open old wounds...still, he knew I'd come."
Argo slowed and Xena's attention riveted to the path. She realized where they were--at the last possible river crossing before Tisiphone. The sound of fast-flowing water roared past her ears as Argo rounded the bend. The riparian banks were drowned under a torrent of icy water. It would be difficult enough to coax Argo to swim it, but to negotiate the turbulence with an unconscious Gabrielle would be, well, it would just have to be done. There was no other way.
Clucking softly, she urged Argo to step into the water. The horse refused to budge. "Please, Argo," implored Xena, "We must do this. Trust me. We can do this." The horse whinnied, took a small step and another and was soon up to her flanks powerfully digging her hooves into the river bottom.
They were less than one quarter of the way across when the steed lost her footing, pitching Xena and her companion into the bitter water. Xena yelped, clutching Gabrielle with one hand, while the other held her lifeline to Argo. She fought to keep Gabrielle's chin above water but the cold stung her body like piercing daggers and stole the warmth from her hands. The sheer speed of the current made her tenuous grip almost impossible to hold. Willing her long, powerful legs to kick toward the far bank, they began to make headway. At last, the mighty horse regained her footing and dragged Xena with her. She crawled up the muddy bank and collapsed in a heap with Gabrielle. Her heart was hammering in her throat, she couldn't remember ever being so cold, and she knew they would freeze to death if they didn't get help soon, but for a brief moment, Xena's emotions got the best of her and she let herself think what could have just happened. While she rocked Gabrielle in her arms, tears ! welled and tumbled down her cheeks stinging her skin as much as the icy torrents had.
The light of day was fading, so she steeled her resolve and stood. The village was still several minutes walk, but Xena didn't have the strength to hoist Gabrielle up onto her horse. Instead, she bent down and gathered the bard in her arms, then trudged off to the Inn with Argo in tow.
Guido stood in the doorway of the Inn. When he was sure it was the warrior princess approaching, he ran out to meet them. "Xena, you've made it. We've been so worried. Here, I'll take Gabrielle."
He held out his arms to relieve Xena of her charge, but she merely said "Take Argo."
Guido shot her a surprised look. He knew no one stabled Argo but Xena herself, and particularly with the horse so obviously exhausted. "Okay, Xena. Take your friend upstairs--second door on the left."
Xena handed the reins to Guido and walked right past him. "Send the healer," she said without emotion.
Guido replied to Xena's back, now bent by weight and exertion, "We have no healer. She left with two pregnant women when the threats first started. Took them and the children to safety."
Xena stopped but did not turn around to speak to Guido. "Send up food and hot water," she said.
Five minutes later Guido knocked at their door. Buckets of hot water were placed by the large bath, steaming soup and warm bread laid on the table, and Argo's saddlebags propped up in the corner. Xena managed a weak smile.
Guido said "I must finish with Argo now. If you need anything, call for Phimpos, my nephew."
Xena drew a hot bath and stoked the fire, her own numb fingers fumbling as they stripped the drenched and mud-caked clothes from Gabrielle. The numbness was replaced by annoying prickling as she gently lowered her friend into the hot water. She tried to prop her up against the side of the tub, but every time she let go, Gabrielle started to slide down. She hooked both of Gabby's arms over the tub and brought her head back as far as it would go. With one hand ready to catch the bard if she slipped, Xena worked her own wet leather off and slowly dropped her unhappy body into the comforting water. Gabrielle was uncooperative, slumping under water again and again, and Xena really didn't have the fortitude for the struggle, so she stretched herself out along the length of the tub and lay Gabrielle on top of her.
Meticulously, Xena scrubbed the mud from Gabrielle's hair, hands, face, and legs. She could feel the warmth finally flowing through her young friend's veins. Then she scoured the road from her own body before relaxing and just letting them soak. "Gabrielle, what am I going to do with you? When are you going to wake up?" Xena pleaded, "Please wake up. We're safe and warm now. There is food here." She heard only soft and regular breathing. "This scares me, Gabrielle. I need you to wake up."
The loss of hope was momentary and Xena shook it off. She got them out of the tub, dried and dressed Gabrielle, then pushed the bed by the fire, wrapping the bard in its blankets. Finally, she sat down to the bread and soup Guido had left for her almost an hour earlier. Though it was now cold, it tasted good and eased her unknown hunger.
A knock at the door roused Xena from blankly staring into the fire. Guido brought in two pints of mead and sat with Xena as she briefly recounted her day.
Guido nodded when she finished, "I doubt a healer could help much."
"Why do you say that?"
"Looks like a spell to me."
"Guido, she fell off a horse!"
"Yeah, and I wonder why. Has Argo ever thrown anyone?
"He's not the best of friends with Gabrielle."
"But you are, Xena." She stared at him not sure where that came from. "It wasn't I who convinced the villagers you were on their side now, it was your bard friend here. Or rather her tales. Our own storyteller, my nephew Phimpos, has talked of her for months. Seems he had the opportunity to hear her weave a yarn or two, mostly about your grand deeds, Xena. He's the one who really got all the folks here to believe in you. He and your Gabrielle."
Xena stole a glance at the bed over her shoulder. "I wish there was something I could do for her."
"One thing you could do is go downstairs and meet with the townsfolk. They started gathering as soon as word got 'round that you were here." Xena started to decline, but Guido hushed her with a waive of his hand. "Don't you go worrying now, my proud warrior. I will stay with Gabrielle. If there is any change, if she rolls her eyes or coughs or even looks like she's going to cough, I'll send for you immediately."
"Thank you, Guido." Xena's voice betrayed the frustration of hopelessness. "Yes, I should go. It is why we made this journey after all." She stood and turned to focus her attention on the motionless figure in the bed. A peaceful face, lit by the warm light of the fire. But dark thoughts tugged at Xena whenever she tried to sort out why her companion remained in such a deep slumber.
Guido waited patiently, eyes fixed on the floor, giving Xena the frozen moment of time she sought. He heard her say "Thank you" to him softly before she slipped out.
Downstairs, the tavern was crowded. A young man, not much more than a lad, shyly approached Xena and offered her a mug. "I'm Phimpos."
Xena smiled at him, noticing his adoring eyes just under a furrowed brow. She took the drink. "Thanks, Phimpos. Guido told me of you. Gabrielle will be pleased to know she has such a loyal fan."
With an enormous grin, he showed her to a large table of men deep in conversation. As he left, Phimpos whispered "Let me know if you need anything. Anything at all."
One of the seated men looked up and ran his eyes from Xena's face to the chakram at her waist, and then to her leggings--lingering on the bare thighs a bit too long for Xena's taste. "Are you the Warrior Princess?" he asked. The other men whipped their heads toward her, horror and fear in their eyes.
Hands on her hips she replied coolly, "I am Xena. I have come to offer my assistance in any way I can."
No one answered her. Instead they looked to one another hoping one of them had the courage to talk to this anomaly from their past. Finally, one from the far side of the table rose before her. "Please, sit down. My friends are less than gracious at times, particularly when their village is being threatened."
Xena hunted for the implied reference to her own warlord days in Tisiphone but found none in the man's voice. She smiled in an uncomfortable greeting and eased her tall frame down among the group of men.
"My name is Manguar." She took his warm hand and those of the men around her as they were introduced. "How is your friend?"
"I'm not sure," Xena spoke truthfully. "She is either asleep or unconscious. I cannot seem to roust her no matter what I do."
Manguar said, "I am sorry our healer is not with us. But perhaps this will all be ended soon, and our lives can return to normal."
Xena sipped slowly at her drink while Manguar and his friends told her of the threats. A large army was camped two hours to the north, and if hadn't been for the fierceness of the storm, they surely would have already attacked. After listening intently for over an hour to some information that was important and much that was not, Xena sat back and stretched her legs. She was weary and it was becoming difficult to devote her full attention to the problem.
She noticed it had grown quiet. The men waited to hear her plan, but she had no plan to tell them. Finally she said "I must see their camp. It would help to see their numbers, their strengths, and perhaps I could figure out their strategy. I would prefer to go alone, but I need a guide."
Again, she was met with an uncomfortable silence. No one volunteered to ride into an enemy's camp with the untested protection of a former warlord.
A small voice spoke up behind her. "I'll go." It was Phimpos. "I've been there and I'm very quiet."
"Quiet enough to sneak up on us and eavesdrop!" one of the men angrily retorted.
"It is a skill to be admired." Xena's words to Phimpos were hushed but for all to hear.
Manguar broke in, "Then it's all settled. Xena and Phimpos will leave tomorrow morning."
Xena, thankful for the meeting to be over, said her good-byes. She could feel the tension trail off as she left the table and walked away. There was a time, not long ago, when that would have pleased her, but now it made her gait even heavier, her frustration palpable.
Phimpos stood at the bottom of the stairs and intercepted her. Without looking at her he simply stated, "Warrior Princess, I will follow every instruction you give. I will not question you. I will not fail you."
She reached down and pulled his face up, meeting his eyes with a smile. "Phimpos, I have no doubt that you will be brave. Meet me at the stable an hour before dawn." He nodded. As she began to climb the stairs she called back to him, "And call me Xena."
Shaking her head, she strode up the stairs. She was about to sneak up on a warlord's army with only the company of a boy, for a town that feared her. And there was Gabrielle. She sighed deeply then reached for the doorknob and the darkness within.
Arrangements for the next day complete, Xena plopped down into a chair and cringed. 'Argo,' she thought. 'I didn't even check on you. I'm sorry.' She held her head in her hands in front of the crackling fire . The wood burned to embers, and her mind kept churning, hours past, sleep eluding her. Through her exhaustion she realized what she craved was the companionship of Gabrielle. Xena stretched out beside her, wrapped a protective arm around the bard, and for a short while slept soundly, comfortably connected.
Phimpos had indeed been to the warlord's encampment, riding straight and true to trees ringing a clearing. As soon as the camp was in sight, he dropped back and let Xena take the lead. Whenever she put out an arm, he stopped immediately, never speaking a word. Xena thought about having him talk to Gabrielle, perhaps he could teach her the same courtesy.
They waited until the first rays of sunlight bathed the meadow, while a knot grew and tightened in Xena's stomach. Almost one hundred men, several horses. Weapons, food caches. This was a serious army with serious business at hand. She and Phimpos kept to the shadows and watched small groups report to a central tent, no doubt the one containing the warlord.
As the sun rose over the mountains and the safety of the shadows receded, Xena and Phimpos retreated farther back into the forest. Xena whispered to Phimpos, ordered him to take the horses and meet her over the ridge. Phimpos almost begged her to let him stay, but he grit his teeth and turned to guide the horses back toward the village.
Xena crept around the perimeter of the clearing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the warlord. If she knew who it was, she might be better able to guess his moves. It was a short wait before a stocky man exited the tent. She could hear him call to a man nearby. That back, that voice--she knew them and it made her blood run cold. She knew his face before he turned her direction: Tiberius. She listened for several more minutes, barely letting herself breathe. Men were arguing about when to begin the assault on Tisiphone. Some wanted to leave immediately, others pleaded for full day of sun to dry out the worst of the mud. Tiberius quelled the argument simply by raising his hand. "Tomorrow," he said. "Tomorrow that which was taken from me will be mine again."
Xena found Phimpos easily and bolted onto Argo's back without speaking. It was all the boy could do to keep her in his sights as she furiously rode back to the village. The whole damned thing, all of it, Gabrielle, the village, Tiberius, it was all her fault.
Nearing the village, she slowed her pace, gauging where Tiberius would strike. She remembered too well that the town was vulnerable. There would be little vantage in a defense, what they needed was offense. They would have to ambush the marching army.
At the stables, she quickly began to feed and brush Argo, trying to make up for the night before. Phimpos all but crept in, quietly stabling his horse away from the warrior, but Xena listened for him and when he had finished his chores and headed toward the door, Xena caught him with a glance. "Phimpos, you did well today." Though he did not smile, his eyes gleamed with pride, and as soon as Xena dropped her gaze he ran from the stable.
Xena spent the afternoon planning the battle. The townspeople were glad for some course of action. It was the waiting that ground down the soul, something Xena understood all too well. By supper, it was determined that the ambush would take place at the ridge of the mountain , the men were chosen, instructed and armed, sentries posted, and a chain of command in place. Two garrisons would line either side of the path down from the ridge while a third waited below. It would be up to Xena to signal the onslaught.
Xena found herself reluctant to return to the room. She slipped into the back of the tavern, hiding in the darkness of a corner. Phimpos was being pushed up on a small stage, the customers insisting on a story. Xena thought about how many times that had happened to Gabrielle. There was much about Phimpos that reminded her Gabrielle.
Onstage, the boy glanced around the room as if looking for someone then laughed. "Okay, okay," cried Phimpos. "I'll tell a special tale tonight. I will tell of a great battle fought by the Warrior Princess!" Xena groaned to herself. This was something she certainly didn't want to hear and she beat a hasty retreat.
The weariness in her muscles reminded her that spending what was left of the night resting was the best strategy anyway. It had been days since she slept well and the rage in her heart against Tiberius was equaled by the guilt she harbored for once again putting Gabrielle's life in danger.
She entered the room quietly and found Guido asleep in a chair by the bed, a drawn sword across his lap. She considered sneaking up on him to teach him a lesson but thought better of it. She called to him softly, "Guido."
His eyes snapped open. "Oh, Xena, it's you."
"How is Gabrielle?"
"No change, really. I turn her every few hours, just like you said and I even talk to her like you said, but other than snoring there was nothing to be had from her."
"Only a little, but I put her on her side and she stopped."
"She only snores when she's sound asleep."
"Then I reckon she's sound asleep."
"But it's been two days..." Xena's voice, disconsolate, went unanswered. "Thank you, Guido."
Guido put his hand on her shoulder, passing her on his way to the door, but left it there for only a few seconds. He knew better than to expect--or desire--a response.
Xena stared into the fire. It was very quiet and she could hear Gabrielle's soft breathing. She found that with every exhale, she tensed waiting for the next inhale. No battle could terrify her, no loss immobilize her like this. Straying into her thoughts was a faint snore. Xena whipped her head around and caught a glimpse of movement on the bed. In an instant she was at her side. "Gabrielle?" She shook the bard's shoulders. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?"
Gabrielle's once peaceful face was now shadowed by doubt, or perhaps it was fear. Xena took Gabby in her arms, feeling twitches and shakes and the sharp breaths common to a nightmare. Xena quieted Gabrielle in the warmth and comfort of her breast and soon the steady, even breathing resumed. Xena finally curled around the slumbering back and stumbled into a long night's sleep.
Xena was ready before the summons was knocked on the door. A cold wind whipped at the small but determined army of villagers. Xena took in the sight of rag-tag men, boys, and a few sturdy women, most of whom had never even imagined what they were about to witness. Still, they followed the tall warrior with an eagerness that invigorated her.
Just before the ridge, the three garrisons split off and hid themselves. Xena knew that this was the most difficult part: waiting. It wore down the nerves, stilled the heart, and weakened the resolve of the experienced and inexperienced alike.
Before the full light of day graced the back of the ridge, Xena heard them. Tiberius' army was not quiet: the cocky march of an unconcerned army. She hoped it would be enough to give her comrades the advantage. Men spilled over the ridge and into their trap, but Xena waited as long as she could before sounding the battle cry. She desperately wanted to see Tiberius himself--to launch herself at him, to ensure he could not escape--before alerting the advancing troops to their presence.
But the army traveled single file through the wedge at the base of the ridge, and the first men through were already nearing the third garrison below. There was no choice but to initiate the ambush. Letting loose a long cry, Xena flung herself into the fray and the battle was begun.
Landing at the feet of a very surprised soldier, Xena had him down before he could draw a weapon. Three others approached her quickly but after leaving a boot print on his throat she flipped over the other two and took their consciousness before they could turn to face her. With battle lust raging, Xena surveyed the whole field quickly. Small contingents of Tiberius' men were breaking past the two-sided attack, but they were nothing the third garrison couldn't handle. Grim determination set in as she searched the faces for Tiberius. Without thinking, she raised her blade, parried a thrust, and returned the favor. Another one down.
"Xena!" A plea for help came from above on the ridge. She vaulted up the slope taking several men out on her way. Manguar's small group was backed up against an outcropping of rocks. Approaching them were a dozen men, taking their time, savoring the impending kill. Xena's sword locked with three of them, her brawny adrenaline pushing them back.
Then Manguar was at her side dueling a fourth man. He shouted over his shoulder, "What took you so long?" Xena smiled enjoying Manguar's unabashed enthusiasm for the struggle. More marauders came at them and more were felled by the two fevered warriors.
As Xena's strength was peaking, many of the villagers' wore thin. Manguar misjudged a thrust and cried out in pain. Xena's attention followed the scream and the distraction kept her from hearing the attacker approach from behind. She felt the sting of a blade biting into her arm and her knees gave way. Cackling filled the air above her as she fought to focus and regain her feet. Swiftly rolling to one side, she slid out of the way of a fatal blow, the attacker's blade buried in the mud. Then she found her assailant's face and narrowed her gaze, "Tiberius."
"So, Xena, we meet again." Tiberius withdrew his blade from the mud and wiped it on a dead man's back. Xena took the opportunity to stand and ready her sword. The mud sticking to the wound Tiberius delivered lessened the bleeding.
The two studied each other. Though the fight continued around them, their troops instinctively cleared space for the leaders to face off. "It's been a long time, Xena." They circled each other like cats waiting for the right moment to pounce. "I hear you've gone soft. Been traveling with a bard."
At the mention of Gabrielle, Xena tensed. She dove toward him but he dodged her, the thick mud making speed impossible.
"Losing your touch, Warrior Princess?" Tiberius lunged toward her, but she easily deflected his sword.
"Tiberius, why are you attacking your own village?"
"It's not my village anymore. You took it away from me. I was so pleased to see you here today, I've been waiting for this for a long time." Tiberius inched forward, driving Xena back. The gummy mud was thick and sticky from the weight of men in battle. "I am going to have your throat, Xena. I am going to kill you just as you did my family."
"Tiberius, you know this is wrong. There are innocent people here getting hurt." Taking another step back in the mud she tried to reason with him, "If this is between the two of us, they why don't we settle it ourselves."
"It is bigger than that, Xena. Just killing you won't be enough. I need more."
Xena tired to take another step but her boot stuck in the mud and she lost her balance, toppling back into the muck, sword flying. Tiberius was on her. She felt his breath in her face and his dagger at her breast. And then she felt him go limp in her arms.
"Give me your hand." Phimpos was blood-stained and smiling from ear to ear as he helped her up. He gave Tiberius' body a kick and it rolled out of the way.
"I'm impressed," said Xena taking her sword from Phimpos' other hand. "Thank you."
He threw back his head and laughed at her. "Just be sure to tell Gabrielle, okay?"
The two worked their way back into the melee, Xena steering her troops away from the mud. While she led a group down the ridge, the third garrison attacked its way up effectively squeezing the life from Tiberius' men. Occasionally a flare-up would shift the balance and send the villagers retreating, but over the course of the day their progress was inexorable. Finally beaten and bloodied, Tiberius' army scattered leaving only the dying and wounded behind.
Xena's guidance turned toward the task of healing. Those who were able to go were sent back to the village. The more grievously injured were tended to on the battle site, Xena weaving among them offering comfort and support.
Though there was joy in the hearts of the villagers, Xena's was empty knowing her fight wasn't over. No one had seen the warlord since Phimpos knocked him out and Xena realized he would re-group and make this fight private.
It was past nightfall when she returned to the village. A meal and hot bath were waiting for her in the room as was Guido, patiently guarding Xena's precious property. Xena soaked in the tub, painstakingly scrubbing the grit and mud from her tired body. The cut from Tiberius' blade burned in the water as she cleaned it. It was deeper than she had thought, and the water turned pink around her.
She tied a rag around it and stopped the bleeding. Knowing it was useless to try to sleep elsewhere, she went right to the bed and wrapped around Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle..." though she had called her name countless times over the last few days to no avail, still the warrior tried to wake her sleeping friend. She whispered to her, telling her of the events and admitting the fear that there was more yet to come. She decided to meet Tiberius away from the Tisiphone. The villagers' fight was over, and they needn't be subjected to any more danger on her account. It was to be just Xena versus Tiberius.
The next morning, she was awakened by Guido wrapping on the door. Cursing herself for sleeping late, but grateful for the rest, she answered his call.
"Good morning. I've brought breakfast and news."
Xena took the bread and cider then delighted at the apple Guido pulled from his pocket. "I gave three to Argo and saved one for you."
"Thank you for taking care of Argo, Guido. Now, tell me the news."
"The people gathered late last night and decided they needed to find Tiberius. They want to send out scouting parties and await your input on their plan."
Xena groaned. "No, this is my fight now. They have earned their peace."
"Xena, they want to do this. They want to repay you in some way for saving Tisiphone. They know you won't take payment, and they really want to do something for you."
"I'll talk to them," she relented. "See what I can do."
"And I'll spend another hard day guarding."
"And sleeping, no doubt," Xena threw him a smirk.
"No Xena, I promise. No sleeping. There is enough of that already." Abruptly, Guido saluted her. "I'll gather the troops and tell them you've agreed. Then I'll be back to take up my post in fifteen minutes." He bowed deeply and strode out the door, leaving a shocked Xena shaking her head.
When she stepped out of the Inn, ten men greeted her. They were all on horseback, some mounts culled from Tiberius' army, others nothing more than aged farm animals. She desperately wanted to tell them not to bother with their foolish plan but she knew it would only strengthen their resolve. She hoped her own scheme would keep them away from danger.
Once again, she split them into three parties and sent them off to search for signs of tracks. The pretense that Xena would catch up with each of them and keep them all informed of the progress made by the others kept them from insisting she travel with one of their groups. She sent them off in the directions Tiberius would have been least likely to take before saddling Argo and riding alone toward the warlord's former encampment.
She was hoping Tiberius would retreat to his supply cache and hoping his cache wouldn't afford him anything other than the re-stocking of weapons and food. It was mid-day before Xena reached the ring of trees around the clearing Phimpos had lead her to just two days ago. She watched and listened carefully before deciding the camp truly was abandoned. Her heart sank as she thought she might have sent one of the search parties into danger. Mounting Argo, she rode slowly into the camp, listening for arrows, whispers, clues. She studied the prints in the mud and found some fresh tracks. Tiberius had been back here! At the far side of the camp, she picked up fresh horse trails leading away to the east.
Glad for an obvious course, Xena followed the meager crumbs. Tiberius was clever, taking the horses off the trail, traveling single-file, moving downstream to hide his path. Like a predator stocking her prey, Xena tracked them. Then she came upon a sight that filled her with horror: three horses grazing in a meadow. No one in sight. The trail had been a trick and she had fallen for it.
She thought back to Tiberius' words on the battle field, "I hear you've gone soft, traveling with a bard. Just killing you won't be enough, I need more."
She raced back to Tisiphone, taking a short-cut through an adjacent valley. Still, the journey took over an hour. Kicking herself for being stupid, for letting warrior lust best her, for leaving Gabrielle with a kind-hearted but hapless Guido as a guard. The urgency she felt spurred Argo to make the entire trip at a full gallop.
When she reached the Inn, Phimpos stood at the threshold, his eyes betraying the anguish he felt. Xena cupped his elbow and asked, "Guido?"
"Upstairs." A hushed response. "We sent for the healer."
Xena fought back the lump in her throat. Hoarsely she asked, "Gabrielle?"
Phimpos shook his head, "Taken." He looked at her and was shocked by the fortitude Xena could carry in her eyes alone. He began to understand just what it took to be someone like Xena and a chill burrowed its way into the core of his soul.
Xena learned that Tiberius rode into town with but one action in mind. Since most able bodies were out scouting for the warlord or tending to the wounded in a makeshift hospital, there was little resistance. Guido barred the door to the room, pushing furniture in front of it as best he could, but Tiberius broke through. Though Guido stood steadfast over Gabrielle, the struggle was short. When they found him, he was slipping from consciousness. Phimpos sent for the healer right away, but it would be well past nightfall before she could be given the word. Phimpos ministered to Guido as best he could, then waited for the Warrior Princess' return.
Xena inspected Guido's wounds, cleaned and re-bandaged them, Phimpos silently at her side. Xena covered Guido with a soft blanket and lay a hand on his forehead. Turning to Phimpos she inquired, "Did you tend his injuries by yourself?"
Phimpos couldn't muster words, but nodded at her.
"You did well. You have been very brave and helpful."
Phimpos managed to croak, "But Gabrielle..."
"There was nothing you could have done. I should have been here. This is personal now, Phimpos. Do you understand?"
"He took Gabrielle just to punish me. To punish me for something I did to him years ago."
"I know. But that doesn't make it right."
"No, it doesn't. Now I must find him and meet him on his terms. No one can come with me. You must make sure everyone stays here."
Xena smiled at the young bard. "Phimpos, you're going to have your own great story to tell: How you helped the Warrior Princess rescue Gabrielle. How you saved Guido's life by taking care of his injuries and sending for the healer."
"I want to help."
"And you have, young friend. And you will again tomorrow by making certain no one follows me. Tiberius may strike again and you'll need everyone here to defend the village." She saw frustration welling in the boy and felt it in herself. "Stay with your uncle tonight, at least until the healer arrives. If you need me just knock and I'll come right away."
Xena left him at Guido's side, stopped in the kitchen for a cold and unsatisfying meal, then made her way to an empty room. While once it seemed lonely to have a sleeping Gabrielle with her, her absence was almost too much to bear. Xena curled in front of the fire and buried her head in her hands. She didn't move again until morning.
Without thinking, she headed Argo back toward Tiberius' original camp. He wanted her to find him now, and it was the only logical place he would be. Keeping to the trees, she circled the clearing surveying every man, weapon, tent, and rock. A lean-to had been hastily erected near the east end of the clearing. Behind it, Xena spied the stashes of weapons, food, and one missing bard.
Gabrielle had been unceremoniously dumped in a heap with no attempt to treat her any differently than the wood stacked nearby. The sight of her crumpled friend spiked her will and it was all she could do to keep from letting loose a war cry and charging in immediately.
Xena heard a horse approaching from a distance. The few men with Tiberius heard it too, and were battle-ready within seconds. A rider, now recognized, dismounted and ran to Tiberius. Xena heard him say "She left the village this morning. No one has seen her since."
Tiberius muttered, "So she must be here." He searched the trees, his glare passing Xena by as he tried to spy the warrior. "Xena!" he cried. "I know you're out there. Show yourself and I might let the little one live."
Xena lay quietly not responding to his chum.
"Xena, don't toy with me. I have the upper hand this time." Still she made no sound or movement.
Tiberius paced nervously then shouted, "All right. Have it your way." To his men he commanded, "Bring the girl here."
Two soldiers roughly picked up Gabrielle by the arms and dragged her between them, her legs scraping on the rocks as they scratched and bit into bare skin. Xena drew her chakram, ready to strike.
They threw Gabrielle down, face in the dirt, at Tiberius' feet. Tiberius reached for her hair and pulled her into a kneel. "Xena, does this look familiar?" Slowly, he drew his sword and placed its cold blade across Gabrielle's neck. "Come out now, Xena, or you'll have to watch this from a distance."
Xena rose and walked toward Tiberius and his prize.
"Put your weapons down, warrior."
Xena kept marching, chakram in hand.
"Put them down now!" Tiberius' voice betrayed his nervousness. A small smile crept onto Xena's lips, sensing a chink in her foe's armor.
>From behind them came a rock. It landed off its mark, several feet away from Tiberius, but it was enough to distract him. Xena flung her chakram willing it along its course. A shade to the left or right and Gabrielle's life would be ended, but Xena threw with a purposefulness that guided her lethal weapon accurately. It sliced into the unsuspecting warlord's grip forcing him to relinquish the hold on the sword at Gabrielle's neck. Tiberius grabbed his bloodied wrist, letting the bard fall to the ground.
Xena leapt and flipped through the air taking on the remnants of Tiberius' army. She planted herself by Gabrielle, defending her against any would-be attackers. Before she had hewn down half of the remaining men, Phimpos galloped into the clearing, sword raised high above his head. Phimpos from horseback and Xena from the ground made short work of the fight. At last all that remained was to flush Tiberius from his refuge in the woods. Phimpos brought him to Xena, the point of his sword in the warlord's back.
Tiberius slumped before the victorious warrior. "Once again, I am at your feet." Tiberius hissed at her. "You should kill me this time."
"Perhaps I should, Tiberius." She looked at Gabrielle laying near her. Her sweet face unaware of the horrors about her, unaware that once again she almost lost her life at the hands of someone out to get Xena. "But not today." Phimpos stared at her incredulously. "No, Phimpos. Gabrielle would prefer it this way." Sheathing her sword, she reached down and lifted Gabrielle out of the dirt. "Go away, Tiberius, and don't let me catch you again. Next time I may let my own desires win."
Tiberius scampered away past Phimpos who watched him go, mouth agape.
Xena whistled for Argo and then called up to Phimpos. "Here, help me get her on my horse." Phimpos climbed down and accepted the precious bundle. Xena mounted Argo and stretched down for Gabrielle. Getting her into the saddle was a much more elegant maneuver with Phimpos' assistance. Xena took a moment to close her eyes, wrapping her strong arms around Gabrielle. She whispered "I've got you. Again." Then she looked to her new friend, "Come on Phimpos, let's go."
He mounted and rode to Xena's side. "I'm sorry I disobeyed you."
"I know, you couldn't help it," she laughed. "You remind me of someone, you know. She'd have come, too."
Phimpos beamed at the compliment.
"And thank you, again," Xena said seriously.
"You're welcome. Now this story will have the proper ending!"
"Soon, I hope," muttered Xena hugging her companion. They took off, riding not quickly toward the village. Phimpos stayed several lengths behind Xena, respecting the warrior's need for privacy. He could see her head dipping, whispering to the sleeping bard in her arms.
The healer hurried to Gabrielle as soon as they arrived back in Tisiphone. Phimpos came in to the room with a much improved Guido in tow, though he needed his nephew to support most of his weight. The healer looked about at the crowd and bellowed for them all to leave. Phimpos and Guido complied, but Xena stood her ground.
"Well, warrior, I guess you won't be leaving her side no matter what I say. Fine, but keep to yourself while I do my trade." Xena stood by the fire, her eyes riveted on Gabrielle's face while the healer worked. Many minutes passed while Xena feigned patience.
At last the healer turned toward her and said, "They say this happened six days ago 'cross the creek."
"Yes. She fell off a horse."
"This weren't no horse fall. It's beyond that and it's beyond me."
Xena charged the healer and fastened an unrelenting grip on her arm. "What do you mean 'beyond you'?"
"Worry not, Warrior Princess." The healer disengaged the fierce hold on her arm. "All you need do is take her back. Then she'll be fine."
"Take her back? Back where?"
"To where it happened." The healer spoke firmly, "Take her back to the place you lay her after the fall, where you got out of the storm. I reckon it'll fix itself there."
"That's all? Just take her there and wait?"
"There is nothing else to be done. But she'll be fine, warrior. You've done all you can."
With that, the healer left them. Xena knelt by the bed and took Gabrielle's small hand in hers. "Gabrielle, I need you. Please come back to me." The difficult task of waiting was hers once again, but she managed to sleep peacefully with an arm encircling Gabrielle's waist.
The next day, Xena packed their belongings and paid a last visit to Guido. He was in the kitchen overseeing the preparation of the day's food.
"Why are you out of bed?"
"Ah, Xena. I see you're ready to go."
Xena smiled warmly. "I never properly thanked you, Guido."
"What, for letting those thugs get past me? More like I never apologized."
"Nonsense. You did more for me than I can possibly repay. You put your life on the line for Gabrielle."
"Now whose full of nonsense? You saved the town, saved Gabrielle, and turned the local opinion polls on their ears. You're the hero, Xena."
"No," she said quietly. "Some things can never fully be repaid."
"Xena, if you spend your life worryin' 'bout what you once did, you'll miss all that goes on around you. That friend of yours, she understands. There's a wise woman. I only wish my Phimpos could have spent some quality time with her. Still, he's lined up to recite the tale of 'Xena: Warrior Princess and the Fall of Tiberius' tonight." Guido chuckled, "And, I'll bet that just like your Gabrielle, my Phimpos will forget to mention the parts of the story which require he recount his own fearless deeds."
"No doubt." She bent down and kissed him on the cheek. "You're a good friend, Guido. Take care of yourself and that nephew of yours. He's a special one."
"Aye that he is. But don't think you've seen the last of him. If you ever let Gabrielle near another bardly contest, I'm sure she'll find stiff competition from the young lad."
Even among friends, Xena couldn't allow anyone to think Gabrielle could be defeated. "May the best bard win," she said sarcastically.
Turning to leave she heard Guido reply, "She already has..."
When Xena reached the creek, she was surprised that in just a few days the swollen waters had receded to their usual complacent demeanor. They only signs of the fierce torrent were a few misaligned tree roots protruding from the upper banks. Argo stepped lightly across the creek and started back to the alcove where Gabrielle lay six days before.
It was past noon when they rode over the meadow. They had passed the spot where lightning felled the tree. The path had since been cleared, the trunk no doubt hoarded away as someone's firewood. Xena made camp at the mouth of the alcove where the sun had warmed the ground and made sweet perfume in the meadow's flowers. She gently placed Gabrielle on her bedroll at the edge of the fragrant grasses. Xena brushed down Argo and collected wood for the evening's fire, checking Gabrielle every few minutes. That done she had nothing to do but wait. Eventually she succumbed to the intoxicating warmth of the sun and fell asleep.
"Hey, wake up." Xena felt herself being shaken. "What a sleepyhead. Come on, wake up." Laughter coaxed her from a deep sleep. "Xena, wake up! It stopped raining."
"Gabrielle?" Xena scooped her into her arms and rolled over pulling the bard on top of her, hooting with glee.
"Hey, what's going on?" Trapped in a bear hug from her powerful friend, Gabrielle squirmed but then relented and accepted it with pleasure. Gabrielle felt a wetness on her cheek--Xena's tears--and drew back to look at the warrior's face. "Why are you crying?" asked Gabrielle. But Xena just beamed at her.
Gabrielle sat up, was pulled back down, and defiantly sat up again. "What's the matter?"
"I'm back? What's that supposed to mean? We have a little nap, *finally,* and then you get all funny." Gabrielle turned her face up to the sun. "Mmmm, that feels good after all that rain. Hey, I'm hungry."
Xena tackled her, Gabby fighting back this time. They wrestled, Gabrielle surprised that Xena would let her come remotely close to equaling her, until they both lay on the ground laughing. Gabrielle patted the dirt, "Weird. The ground is dry. How long did we sleep?"
"I had a short nap." Xena winked at her. "You, my dear, slept for a week."
"Funny, Xena. No really, how long did we sleep?"
"Okay, you're right. I exaggerated. You slept for six days."
"Come on, stop kidding." Gabrielle noticed the bandage on Xena's arm. "What happened to you?"
"It's a long story."
"Great. A long story from you means all the good stuff gets left out."
"I'll tell all, I promise. But first let's eat." Xena stood and headed over to her horse.
"Good, 'cause I'm really hungry."
"Well, you haven't eaten in six days," Xena called back to her as she dipped into the saddlebags.
"You're telling the truth, aren't you?" Gabrielle realized, taken aback.
"Yes." Xena sighed. "Six days ago lightning hit a tree in our path. Argo bucked and you fell off her."
"I remember that," murmured Gabrielle.
"Since then, I've saved a village, rescued you from the Warlord Tiberius, and restored my good name."
Gabrielle sat, silent in her shock. Xena brought her fruit and cheese as well as a small loaf of bread baked that morning in Guido's kitchen. She handed Gabrielle the water flask and watched as it was nearly drained by the thirsty bard.
"Suddenly I don't feel so well."
"Eat up, silly. You're fine now."
Gabrielle absentmindedly chewed a piece of bread. "Xena?"
"I dreamt a lot."
"Did you, now?" said Xena remembering the nightmares.
"Yes. I can't quite remember the details, but I know I've dreamt." Gabrielle looked at Xena and demanded, "Tell me what happened and I mean everything. I want to know about every stick you stepped on, every word you heard."
"That's going to take some time, Gabrielle," Xena smiled, "And I'm not very good with stories."
"Just the truth, Xena. Tell me the truth."
Xena began to recount everything as best she could. Gabrielle stopped her often to ask questions and have her clarify particular points. As the afternoon wore on, the two walked and talked about swimming across the frigid river, scouting Tiberius' camp with Phimpos, and leading the villagers in ambush. Xena prepared dinner and told her about meeting Tiberius in battle, her injury, and Phimpos' heroics. They sat together in firelight and Gabrielle heard about Tiberius' trickery, her abduction, and Guido's valiant though hapless stance.
As Xena told her about her rescue, Gabrielle stopped her. "No, wait. I know this. I've dreamt this. In fact, everything you've said today has been, I don't know, somehow familiar. But I remember it a bit differently. I was a participant in everything, not asleep like you said." Xena let her friend think a moment without interrupting. "But now this part isn't right. It's not how I remember it."
Gabrielle continued softly but with authority. "I was on my knees before Tiberius. He held my head back and placed his sword across my throat. I could feel his hands trembling, feel him increase the pressure of the blade against me. You came out of the trees toward us and, for a moment, I believed everything would be okay." Gabrielle squeezed her eyes tightly shut. "But you put down your weapons, even your chakram, and suddenly I knew he would kill you. I cried out, but..." her voice drifted off.
Xena snuggled up to her drawing her in close. "What happened, Gabrielle?"
Coldly she said, "I felt him slit my throat." Gabrielle broke down and sobbed. Xena wrapped her in the familiar protective hold that had soothed her so many times before. When Gabrielle was able to stop crying Xena still did not loosen her grip.
The bard's small voice broke the silence. "Is that what could have happened--what would have happened if I hadn't been asleep?"
"I don't know...I don't know," replied Xena. "But it didn't happen. Phimpos distracted Tiberius enough for me to rid him of his sword. It wasn't long before the last vestiges of his army were defeated."
Gabby sat up and looked at Xena in the firelight. Shadows played on her features making it difficult to gauge the warrior's expression. "Then what happened, Xena?"
"You mean to Tiberius?" Gabrielle nodded. "I wanted to kill him. Every part of me screamed for revenge. But I looked into your face on the ground beside me. It was as if you'd already forgiven every hideous deed that had happened." Xena was suddenly uncomfortable admitting this to her friend, but she continued nonetheless. "So, I let him go."
Xena felt Gabrielle take her by both shoulders and meet her gaze head on. Green eyes shined at her with the brilliance and innocence Xena loved. "I'm proud of you, Xena." Gabrielle stole a kiss from her friend's cheek, then turned to lie down on her bedroll. She knew it was hard for Xena to accept such displays of affection, so she gave the warrior the chance to distance herself gracefully.
"Goodnight, Xena," whispered Gabrielle.
To her surprise, Xena curled up next to her and threw an arm over her. Then Xena's voice was at her ear, "It's the only way I've been able to sleep. Just kick me if I snore."
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