The woman quickly nodded and moved to wake the woman lying next to her.
While the village women were being woken and the situation explained to them, Gabrielle popped her head back out of the slit she had cut. Looking for the patrolling guard, she thought about how to do this without getting caught. The only way was to take each one through the grass herself and leave them outside the camp area completely. She had spotted a tiny cave in an outcropping of rocks well back from the camp. They should be safe there if they stayed quiet.
"Okay ladies, here is what we are going to do." Gabrielle explained her plan to them and though many were scared, they were more frightened of the what the raiders may have organised for them. As it was, there had already been several rapes and none wanted to be around for more.
Taking the first woman by the hand, Gabrielle led her out of the slit in the tent and back through the grasses to safety.
The Bard sat at the entrance of the tiny cave where she had taken the women. Bringing the last one out, the first woman she had woken, had been the most dangerous as the darkness had greyed and the first light of dawn was not too far away. They had moved as quickly as they had dared through the grass, stopping at times due to the guards patrols. Gabrielle had picked up her staff on the last trip and brought it with her to the cave and the other women. All looked battered on one way or another, some almost catatonic with shock. She had brought them out first because it was so hard to get them moving. There had been black eyes, split lips and swollen cheeks on all of the women, a testament to the brutality they had endured. For one brief moment, Gabrielle wondered if it had been worth bringing them out at all but quickly realised that the wounds of their bodies and souls would heal, eventually, and whatever it took to get them back to their families was worth it in the end. In a way, the young woman understood the responsibility Xena felt when she had someone in her care. She could also understand, a little, the anger and rage the tall warrior felt once the Bard had seen the damage done to the minds and hearts of these young women.
The woman she had first woken in the tent crawled over to her. "I can stand watch if you like, Brave One. You need to rest as much as we do and something tells me that your mission is still incomplete."
Gabrielle smiled at the woman. If anyone was brave it had to be her. Though beaten and tired, she had been of great assistance getting the others to the cave and now she was offering to stand watch so Gabrielle could get some rest. "Perhaps I will just close my eyes for a moment. It was a long night. Wake me if you hear anything." She said. The Bard didnt think she would sleep, still worried about Xena and what may be happening at the camp but if she was going to return to the camp again that night, she should take any chance of rest she could get. She watched as the woman took her place at the entrance of the cave and then slowly closed her eyes. Within heartbeats she was sound asleep.
Xena woke to the thumping sound of her own head. Remembering what had happened before she lost consciousness, she kept her eyes shut and her breathing slow until shed had a chance to listen to her surroundings to try to make some sense of what was going around her. She could feel her arms behind her back and ropes biting into her wrists. Heat on one side of her body told her she was lying on the sun-lit side of something, quite probably a tent. Underneath, she could feel furs laid over the ground. Her ears focused on the sounds around her. Something was going on because there seemed to be a lot of yelling and noise but it was too indistinct for her to make out. Re-focusing her ears to hear the sounds closer to her, she could hear very little. The soft splutter of a lamp and the faint rustle of parchment as it was blown in a light breeze. The shivering sound of flowing silk also filled the silence. Cracking her eyes a fraction, she could see she was lying in a tent, curtains of silk blowing gently in the soft wind entering from the front flap. Through the light silken curtains she could see a camp desk with parchments spread over them, lit from above by a lamp filled with fat. There were several chests nearby but their lids were shut and she wasnt exactly in a position to open them. Xena could hear the guards at the door and others moving around behind the tent. This would not be a good time to simply walk out, hands still tied and try to run or fight. First she had to get her hands free and maybe find a weapon or two.
Wriggling slightly, she felt that her sword and chakram had been either removed or lost in the fight, though the sheath was still strapped to her back. She was fully dressed in her leathers and armour and a quick twitch of her legs told her that her underclothing was still all in one place. She wouldnt have put it passed this group of animals to have tried something while she was unconscious. It might be that pregnant women were okay to abuse but senseless ones were not. Having placed herself and her surroundings, she began to patiently work away at the ropes binding her wrists together.
As she worked on the ropes, she tried not to think about Gabrielle. There was no sign of the woman in the tent with her and she hoped that the other woman had had the sense not to move when the fight had started. She was very, very good with that staff she used but the sheer number of armed men in the camp would have overwhelmed the Bard as easily as they had taken her. Between working on the ropes and worrying about her lover, Xenas mind was more than occupied.
After a candlemark of gentle tensing and easing of the ropes, she felt that there might be a little play in them. Xena twisted her arms slightly and was rewarded with a small amount of movement. Continuing the twisting, a fraction at a time, she tried to bring the knot around so she could try untying it with her fingers. Whoever had tied her knew what they were doing. The ropes were tight enough to hold but not enough to cut off the circulation to her hands. A little fact that was to her advantage now. If her fingers had been numb there would be little chance of her untying the knot, no matter how loosely it may have been done.
From outside the tent, Xena heard the sound of footsteps rustling though the dry grass. Two people were speaking but so softly, the words were merely a buzz in her ears. The flap in the other half of the tent was tossed aside and the two people entered.
"Ive made sure both guards have been staked for the others to see, Mlord. The searchers should find the women shortly. None were in much condition to get too far away." A mans voice said.
Xena could see the other man simply nodding, his helmet still in his head. If they had sent soldiers to search for the women, it meant that Gabrielle had somehow gotten them out and were now well on their way to safety. She felt herself relax a little. Her lover was safe. Now she just had to get herself out of this mess and away as well.
The tall warrior took a moment to have a closer look at the man in the helmet. He was yet to speak but his bearing was of someone who knew what they were doing. The way he held himself looked very familiar to her but for the moment she couldnt place what that familiarity was. She didnt think it was someone she knew, of that much she was sure. From behind, the man was of a slight build, perhaps a young man not yet having reached his full height. Xena was pleased that her assumption about this warlord was correct. He may be a smart, young warlord but Xena had used her body as a weapon in the past and she would again if she needed to in this situation. No matter how smart this pup thought he was, his own body would betray him if she played her cards right. That much of a lesson she had learned early on. Separate someones emotions from their sensibilities and they became easy prey for whatever you had planned. Beyond seeing he still had some growing to do, there was little she could tell about him physically. He was wearing heavy clothing and armour which confused the eye to his actual size and shape.
The other man, the one who had spoken, suddenly stepped through the silken doorway to check on her. Seeing her eyes open, he spoke.
"Awake, I see. The Lord will want to speak with you now." He said, as he grabbed Xena and pulled her roughly to her feet.
The warrior woman could feel muscles all over her body telling her how unprepared they had been for the abrupt movement. Her legs cramped a little but she managed to stay on her feet without too much effort. Now that she was moving, she could also feel every place she had been hit during the fight. The place that hurt the most was her head and she found herself squinting a little in the brighter light on the other side of the tent. Xena quickly wiped the pain from her face and set it into her more usual look of near-distain.
The man stopped her several paces from the young warlord. He was leaning over the table moving the parchments from one pile to another. Standing where she was, the tall warrior could also see a map on the table with markings along the roads showing something. The young warlord stood up again and pulled his helmet from his head. A cascade of long red hair fell from underneath.
Turning to face Xena, the dark-haired warrior found herself looking in the ice-cold green eyes of another woman. It was a look that almost froze the breath in her throat.
Gabrielle watched from her roost high in the trees as yet another search party followed the false trails she had laid out for them. The thick, leafy branches kept her well hidden from even the most scrutinising eye. It had been sheer luck the first group of soldiers had walked passed the cave where the women were hiding and the Bard soon realised she would have to get the men off their trail somehow. Leaving the brave woman in charge, she had carefully covered any signs of their passing, just as she had seen Xena do many times before and then laid a series of false trails for the men to follow. It had been surprisingly easy. A footprint here, a drag of her staff there and the men simply followed along behind, like obedient little puppies. She ended one trail at a stream and walked for several hundred paces along the sandy bottom, knowing the flowing water would soon wash away any signs of her having been there. Jumping out of the shallow water and grabbing a tree branch overhead, she was soon well away and headed back to where she was going to make her watching post. The young Bard didnt want to risk returning to the cave and possibly leading the soldiers to the women there.
On her way back to the tree, she had detoured slightly and moved Argo deeper into the forest, She doubted the men would have found the honey-coated mare but Gabrielle wanted to be sure. It also gave her a chance to pick up Xenas waterbag, having left hers, and the little food she carried with the women. The young Bards woodcraft skills may not have been up to Xenas but even she could see that this band of raiders had no real idea how to move around the forest. Any one on their own was making more noise than Xena, herself and the mare put together. The search parties were so noisy, she could hear them coming from quite a distance. More than enough time to hide herself. She watched, delighted, as yet one more party of men followed her false trail. This one split a little further down and ended on rocky ground. There would be no following of any trail over that.
There was little else Gabrielle could do at the moment. The women were safe in the tiny cave and until the sun set, she couldnt get anywhere near the camp. Making herself as comfortable as possible in the tree, she watched as men wandered around trying to find her and the women. She prayed to whatever gods may have been listening to keep Xena safe. Wiping a tear from her face, she bundled her courage around her like a cloak and prepared to wait out the daylight hours. Gabrielle was rapidly getting to hate this kind of waiting.
Xena stared into the sea-green eyes of the warlord standing in front of her. For one brief moment, she felt as though the woman was peering into her very soul. She hardened her own expression to match that of the warlords. If it was going to come down to which of the pair had the stronger will then Xena already knew she had the younger woman beaten.
The flame-haired woman walked casually around her captive, thoughtfully taking in the well-worn but cared for armour, her long strong muscles, her straight and unflinching stance. "So, who might you be?" She asked from behind.
"My name is Xena." The warrior replied. She could sense the movement as the warlord brushed passed her arm to finally end up in front of her again.
"Xena? The Warrior Princess Xena?" She queried.
"Yes. That one." The dark-haired woman answered simply. She had worn the title with some pride when she had been a warlord herself, feeling she had earned it back then but she was really starting to hate it now. However, it was serving a purpose for the moment, so she let it go. If it gave her some advantage over the other woman then she was going to take any edge she could get.
"Oh. I should feel honoured to have you in my tent." For a second, the other womans face was lit with a smile. It never reached her eyes. "But I dont." Her face settled again into the same hard lines as before. "Where are the women?" She snapped.
"Perhaps you could tell me your name first." Xena asked politely.
"Stavroula. Now where are those women?" The warlord almost yelled.
"I have no idea." She replied. This was true. She honestly didnt know where Gabrielle would have taken them or even if they were still in the area. If the Bard was smart, they were well down the road somewhere, heading for safety. The tall woman didnt even bother with lying because she truly didnt know the answer to the warlords question and she wanted the woman to wear herself out trying to get an answer. The longer she kept the warlord here and occupied, the more distance the younger woman could put between them and the camp. There was also the fact that this woman, in some familiar way, was quite intriguing and Xena wanted to understand her.
The redheaded warlord didnt like the way the warrior simply stood there as though she had all the time in the world. She wanted those women back. Her quick temper took hold and she tossed her arm back to hit the taller woman. Xena saw the fist coming and was able to roll with the punch a little. But it was still a punishing blow to take and the warrior could feel the blood as it dripped slowly from her nose and down her chin. She had rocked back a little and felt the hands of the man stopping her from falling any further. The woman filed this small fact away should it become useful later. Knowing where he was might make an escape easier or harder.
Stavroula looked surprised the other woman had taken the blow so easily. It showed in her slightly raised eyebrows, though the expression never crossed her face. The redheaded warlord was more used to women collapsing into snivelling heaps at the least glance from her. It was not often she came across a woman with any courage at all. She stopped herself for a moment to remember exactly who this tall, beautiful warrior was and to remember the legends she had heard as a small child. Perhaps she could sway this one to her side? She would make a very valuable addition to her troops. The men were content enough to follow her orders when the raiding was good but every time there was a setback of any kind, Stavroula found herself having to kill one or two of the most vocal simply to reinforce her authority. Having a warrior woman like Xena around might make things a lot easier on herself. And if she wouldnt join, well Stavroula could always make an example of her. The great Warrior Princess, killed by Stavroula. How fitting that one great warrior should destroy another. Forgetting about the women for now, she decided to try and recruit the warrior for herself.
Flicking her hand, she sent the man from the tent. "Why dont you sit down, Xena?" Stavroula said, pointing to a chair by the side of the table.
"Id much rather stand, if you dont mind." The tall warrior replied. She knew the woman was thinking something and Xena wanted to be prepared for whatever it might be. Stavroula had already shown she had little patience and the blue-eyed woman wondered what other weaknesses she might have that could be exploited. The more she watched the young warlord, the more that sense of familiarity nibbled at the back of her mind.
"Whatever suits you then." Stavroula said irritably, realising she had just lost the first small skirmish in bending the tall womans will to her own.
As the warlord moved to sit behind the desk, Xena made careful note of how she moved. Stavroula had the fluid motions of someone used to fighting with a sword or body, economical and with no wasted movement. She appeared to be ready at any second to grab the sword hanging from her side and start swinging. The tall warrior was still silently working the ropes behind her back, hoping to get the knot untied so she could defend herself and possibly escape. But the dark-haired woman wanted to understand this warlord and to do that, she had to get her talking. Thinking for a moment, she decided that Gabrielles quietly chatty approach may work. The redhead might be the type that liked to boast. Another possible weakness to be exploited. Xena may not have been able to lie particularly well but she could act a great deal better than some Bards she had seen.
"So what puts a woman in charge of such a large army?" She asked. To the other woman, Xena was showing all the signs of genuine interest. Stavroula wasnt to know that the tall warrior had commanded a much larger army of men and was far better organised as well. The young warlords knowledge of the old stories only went so far before she had been given too many other tasks to take the time to listen anymore.
"Necessity, Xena. Necessity." The other woman replied quietly. She was privately gratified with the implied compliment the tall warrior was giving her and she felt herself relax a little. Stavroula still didnt trust the other woman but she was willing to talk a bit. It was hard being a woman in charge of all those men and having another woman around was something of a novelty for the moment.
"Necessity? Im afraid I don't understand." Xena said, still in her chatty, friendly Gabrielle mode.
Stavroula leaned back in her chair a little and scrutinised Xena carefully. "Look at me. I was once the daughter of a slaver. Sold into slavery almost as soon as I could care for myself properly. Maybe I was lucky but my then owners decided to train me to fight in the ring for money. A little something they picked up from the Romans, apparently. They thought it would be interesting to see how a woman fighter would stand against the men. The look of surprise on the male fighters faces as I killed them was actually quite satisfying in its own way." The redhead sat back and remembered. Focusing her attention back on the tall warrior in front of her, she continued. "Then I got sick of being sent out to fight for someone else. Even the best ring fighters dont last more than five or six years and I was rapidly coming up on that. So I escaped. I ran and I kept running, finally stopping to the north of here. It wasnt hard to put an army together but you already know that. It was time for me to get some of the riches my previous owners had been making off my skill as a fighter. It was time to exact a little revenge for all that I had been put through over the years."
The bitterness that filled the warlords voice was so brittle Xena felt she could have snapped it between her bare hands. But revenge was something she could understand. When Xena had made her choice to follow the darkest path of all, she was having her revenge on all those who had betrayed her, all those who had killed people she thought of as friends, all those who had denied what she felt in her heart. When Caesar had ordered the breaking of her legs as she hung helpless from that cross, he had broken more than her heart. He had shattered her soul. And it was only the gentle, patient love of her young Bard that was slowly healing that torn and shattered part of her life.
Was it possible to turn around the shattered soul in front of her or was Stavroula simply in too many pieces? Xena had once thought there was no way back for her either but something had turned her around. Perhaps that something was in the warlord too. But first, the tall warrior had to truly believe she was healing, something she had not really accepted or why would she have continued to shut Gabrielle out whenever her emotions darkened. Turning from the path of destruction was one thing but allowing yourself to heal from it was another matter entirely. "There is another way of life, you know." The tall woman said quietly.
Stavroula gave Xena a surprised look and for an instant the tall warrior was able to see that broken soul inside before the redheaded warlord shut her out as she, herself, had shut Gabrielle out so many times before. "Not for me, there isnt" She answered sadly.
The warlord turned away for a moment but not before Xena had seen the suspicious gathering of tears in the other womens eyes. Shaking her head, she glanced back at Xena. "Enough of this womens talk. My offer is simple. Join my army or die. You have until tomorrow morning to make up you mind."
Stavroula yelled to the man who had accompanied her into the tent. He quickly entered. "Take this one over to the stores tent for safe keeping and make sure the guard knows what will happen if she escapes." The woman snarled.
Nodding, he grabbed Xena by the arm and marched her out of the warlords tent and across the camp. Once he had her in the stores area, he tied another rope around her ankles and then checked the ropes binding her wrists. "Oh ho!! Been a clever girl, have we?" He had found the ropes twisted around and quite loose. "Cant have you getting away on us. The Lord would have my head for that." He rapidly re-tied the ropes, making them tight enough that Xena could already feel the thumping in her hands as the circulation was cut off. "Now you just stay here like a good little thing and nothing bad will happen to you, understand?"
Xena looked up impassively.
"Understand?" He asked again, this time raising his hand as though to strike her.
"Yes. I understand." She answered.
Satisfied he had intimidated the tall warrior, he left the tent. Xena heard him give the orders to the guard outside, especially the part about being staked if she got away. The blue-eyed woman was already looking around for something to rub the ropes against to start the process of cutting through them. She had no intention of joining this or any other army and Stavroula was about to find that out.
Gabrielle watched excitedly from her hiding place on the other side of the camp. She had left the men wandering hopelessly along her false trails and taken up a position near to where the two women had watched the camp the day before. The Bard felt reasonably safe here as she had the entire camp between her and the search parties, most of which seemed to be returning now anyway. She had seen the young warlord walk into his tent and then Xena being dragged out a little while later. As far as she could see, the warrior was all right, though the ropes tying her lover did annoy her somewhat. Well, that could be fixed once she managed to get into the camp herself. The tent where the man had taken Xena was very close to the privies and looked surprisingly easy to get to but Gabrielle wasnt going to take any chances. Sometimes the easiest things were the hardest to do.
While there was still plenty of light to see by, the Bard carefully mapped out a way into the camp. She also made sure she could see alternative routes should she have to detour around guards or open ground. The best way in still seemed to be through the same gap in the guard pattern they had used the night before. Why it hadnt been closed, Gabrielle couldnt think except perhaps, this warlord really was as young as Xena had thought and didnt know all that much about camp management. A likely theory but she was going to be very careful when she came to move through that part of the camp perimeter.
The route in looked okay from up here where she could see everything and everyone but she knew once on the ground, things might look a whole lot different. So using the same skills she had as a bard to memorise long sagas, she carefully committed to memory as much of the camp as she could, roughly estimating distances where she was able. The way to the tent where Xena was being kept took her behind the same shelter where the women had been trapped the night before. That much looked okay to her. From that point on it would get a little risky. She had to crawl right beside the privies and anyone could be in there as she tried to get passed. There was an open stretch of ground to cover but it was high with dry grasses and so long as she didnt make too much noise she should get across that without too many problems. From there, it was behind what looked like the kitchen tent and she would be against the one where Xena was. Gabrielle thought it might be a storage area of some kind because she had seen a couple of men from the kitchen tent going in and out several times, carrying large sacks of something on their shoulders each time they returned.
Even thinking about eating made her stomach growl. She had left all the food she carried with the women still safe in the tiny cave and hadnt thought to take anything from Argos saddle-bags when she was there. Taking a long drink of water, she promised herself a big meal just as soon as she could get one. In the meantime she had more important things to think about.
She kept watching the guards as they moved around and generally took in the overall run of the camp. By dinner time, she was almost ready to eat Xenas waterbag, especially after the smell of the mens evemeal drifted up to her on the breeze. Personally, she didnt care what they had, she was hungry enough to eat one of their nags tied to the picket line on the other side of the camp. All of the search parties had returned and Gabrielle had heard, very faintly, some yelling coming from the warlords tent. He was probably expressing his displeasure that the village women had not been found. The Bard had almost laughed out loud at that thought.
By sunset, the fires had been lit and the men were sitting around them, talking and drinking. Gabrielle nestled down in her little hollow, dozing, until the camp had settled and she was ready to try getting in again.
The young Bard roused herself around midnight. She had been fighting to stay awake for hours and ended up quietly reciting as many long sagas as she could remember, finding herself as tied up with the story as much as the story-telling. She crawled back up to her vantage point to have one last look at the camp before moving over to the other side. The guards didnt appear to be any more attentive than they had been the night before and there certainly wasnt a lot of movement going on. Gabrielle carefully noted the number of people using the privy because this was the one place she felt the most nervous about. All it would take is someone coming along at the wrong moment and she would be caught. Throwing one last prayer to the gods, she picked up her staff and began the slow circuit of the camp to get to the open place she knew was there.
It had taken longer to get to the other side than she had thought. The night before, she had simply followed Xena as she led the way. This time she was having to do it on her own and she had gotten herself lost twice in the darkness. She knew she was in the right place this time though because she was now crouched in the same leafy bush as she had the night before. Even in the darkness, she could clearly see for several paces, the flattened line in the grass that both Xena and herself had moved along. All she had to do was follow it again and she would find herself at the back of the tent where the women had been. From that point on, she was relying on her memory. Gabrielle carefully tied a length of thong to her belt and made sure of the knot holding her staff. She didnt intend going into the camp without her chosen weapon close by. Even if she didnt use it herself, if she could get it into Xenas hands, she knew the tall warrior could be equally devastating with it as she was with her sword. Taking one last look around, Gabrielle began to crawl along the line of flattened grasses towards the first point in her journey.
Lying in the grass at the back of the first tent, she could see that no one had even bothered to sew up the slit she had cut to get in. Gabrielle found herself wondering what it was about this warlord when they didnt know enough to even have a decent second in charge to take care of little details like that. Giving herself a shake, she realised she was just trying to put off the next leg of the trip into the encampment. Borrowing a little on Xenas courage, she started to crawl forward again, relying on her memory of the camp. Just as she reached the corner of the tent, her hand touched something very familiar to her. Xenas chakram. It must have fallen from the hook on her belt during the fight and been left behind in the confusion. Smiling, she knew the tall warrior would be more than happy to get this back. If Xenas favourite weapon had been left here, maybe her sword was close by in the long grass too. Gabrielle spent the best part of half a candlemark carefully feeling around her to see if she could find the sword as well and finally was rewarded with the touch of cold metal against her skin. The chakram she tucked inside her top but she had to carry the sword in one hand, otherwise it might make some sound to give her away.
The Bard started to move forward again but quickly realised in her search for the sword, she had managed to get right off her path and now was confused as to which way she was supposed to be going. Stopping where she was, she took a few moments to untie her staff and tie the sword to the end of the thong instead. On its own, it shouldnt make any noise. At least, with the staff in her hands, if she stumbled upon anyone she had a chance of disabling them before they could raise the alarm. Moving off again in what she hoped was the right direction, she headed for the privy.
Xena carefully scrapped her wrists along the edge of a box once more time, clenching her teeth against the pain she felt as the rough edges dragged across her raw skin. She had been doing this for hours, slowly wearing away at the rope binding her hands together. Considering the general state of the camp, she did have to give them some credit for using new rope on her but it was making it just that much more difficult for her to rub through them. It hadnt taken her long to find the box but she couldnt move until the last of the kitchen staff had been and long gone. Not being able to see where her hands were in relation to the box was not helping matters either.
She could hear footsteps moving along the back of the tent again and she quickly moved over to where she had originally been placed. The footsteps faded as their owner continued walking. The tall warrior snorted to herself. Seemed every man in the camp walked passed the back of this tent on the way to the privy. But she didnt want to risk being caught and having even more rope tied to her, so everytime she heard the footfalls of one of the men, she moved back until she was sure they were passed. Once they were gone, she wriggled back to the box and started the process of wearing through the rope all over again. It was tedious, to say the least, but she had no intention of joining Stavroulas army or of even being there in the morning.
Her ears pricked up for a second. She had heard something but the noise of the rope on the rough-edged box had covered whatever it was. Xena tensed up for a moment. She still had serious concerns about one or more of the men trying to attack her while she was tied. The noise did not repeat itself. Listening closely, all she could hear was the approaching sound of yet another man headed for the privy. She had been catching whiffs of it all day and knew a new one should have been dug long ago. Thankfully, no one had offered her food or water. For all she knew, the stuff could have made her quite ill.
The sound of the man came closer. As he passed the back of the tent, there was a thwack and the frump of a falling body. Was someone taking a little private revenge?? Not unusual in a camp this size. Men occasionally had personal disagreements to sort out and would do it in just this kind of way. Xena waited to hear the other man walk off. Instead she heard the sound of a knife cutting slowly through the canvas behind her. This was not quite what the tall woman had expected by way of an attack. She was prepared for something a little more frontal. Trying to twist around to see her attacker, she was surprised almost speechless when Gabrielles head popped up from behind the back of a box.
"Hi, Lover. Thought you might like a knife." She whispered, holding her own up in the air.
The crawl back out through the camp had been every bit as terrifying to Gabrielle as originally getting in. Her own belief in the law of averages told her that they just had to be discovered. But for some reason they werent. Once well passed the edge of the camp and headed in the direction of the tiny cave, Xena had stopped and taken several long minutes to simply hold the Bard against her body. Whatever the tall warrior was trying to say with that bone-crushing hug, Gabrielle couldnt quite figure out but when the situation wasnt so dangerous, she would make sure she took the time to ask.
Xena and Gabrielle sat quietly around the campfire. It had been a full ten days since they escaped Stavroulas camp and taken the women they had rescued back to the town where their families and relatives had now taken up residence and were slowly rebuilding their shattered lives. Taking only enough time to replenish their supplies, the two women had turned around and headed back over the same trail theyd just ridden. The tall warrior was determined to complete the task she had set herself but was unsure of quite how to go about it. Stavroula was so like her at the same age it was making her a little uneasy, though the reasons were very different. That had been the familiarity Xena had felt while they had been talking. Turning it over in her mind, Xena was not coming up with many answers.
"Gabrielle?" The dark-haired woman said quietly. "What would you have done if you had met me before I changed my ways? Would you have tried to save me from well, from myself?"
"Big question." The Bard replied, looking up into the intense blue eyes of her lover.
"I need a big answer." Said Xena.
The warrior watched for several minutes as Gabrielle pondered the question. Ordinarily, the Bards first response would have been to say yes, but knowing Xena as she did now, well...it was no longer her first response.
"And you say this Stavroula is driven by revenge? Only revenge or is there anything else?" The blonde queried.
"As far as I could tell, she is driven by revenge and greed. She did put greed ahead of the revenge. I think it was the other way around myself." The other woman answered after thinking for a moment about the things the redheaded warlord had told her that afternoon.
Gabrielle spent some time staring into the fire, thinking through the question and trying to come up with an answer that was both honest and understandable. "To be honest with you, Xena. If I had met you while you were still a warlord, especially after what Caesar did to you, I probably would be have been as afraid of you as everyone else.
"So you wouldnt have tried to reach my soul?" Xena asked. She was looking for a way to reach Stavroula and maybe turning her from the same path the tall woman had travelled herself.
"I didnt know you then and I doubt I alone could have reached you. It took the son of a god to make you see what was really in your heart and I just dont have that kind of power." Gabrielle replied.
Xena leaned over to kiss the love of her life. "You do have that power, just in a different kind of way."
The Bard wrapped her arms around the dark-haired woman and began to run her hands up and down her back, feeling the tall warrior arching in pleasure. "Well, dont think I am going to make lovers of just any old warlord that comes along." She grinned at Xena, starting to kiss her neck.
Looking down on the camp once more, both women could see that nothing had changed in the ten days they had been away. There was still refuse lying everywhere and the men still seemed to find their wineskins more satisfying than working out with their weapons. There were some new boxes and chests outside the tent where the women had been kept and Xena cringed a little thinking there had been another raid on some unsuspecting village. Even the privy, so noisome before was enough to make their eyes water regardless of the distance between it and them. Both were thankful when the wind finally shifted and blew the stench in another direction.
Xena had been thinking about how to deal with the young redheaded warlord almost from the moment they had left the town after delivering their charges. Stavroula was motivated by revenge, a revenge she sought for the acts committed against her body and mind over the years she had spent as a slave. She kept it well covered with a very brittle pride but Xena could understand her. The tall warrior had finally reached the conclusion that the only way to stop the woman was to call her out and take her in combat. But would the men under her command allow the dark-haired woman do that? Or would she have to fight all of them as well.
She had also been turning over in her mind the thought of whether she would have to actually kill Stavroula or would it simply be enough to win the fight and thus the leadership of the army the woman commanded. Something deep inside the warrior said winning the fight would not stop the red-headed warlord. She would just go out and gather another army to continue her revenge. It was exactly what Xena herself would have done. No, whether she liked it or not, killing the woman may be the only answer. In some situations there just wasnt any other way. Yet, this woman was so like herself, in so many ways that she felt a little like she was contemplating killing herself. It was an unsettling thought.
"So what do we do now, Xena?" Gabrielle asked. She had been observing the camp as intently as the warrior woman by her side but she couldnt see any way of dealing with the situation that didnt mean getting the entire army involved.
"We, do nothing. Its what I have to do." The tall woman replied. A stubborn look crossed the Bards face. "Gabrielle, Im going to call that warlord out and beat her in a fair fight. Its the only way I can see of breaking up the army she has gathered." Xena explained.
The blonde sighed deeply. "I know. I know. You never start things, you finish them." Gabrielle reached over and gently caressed her lovers face with one finger.
"Ordinarily, Id tell you to take Argo and get out of here if anything should happen to me but you, my clever, stubborn little Bard would probably do the exact opposite." Xena said.
Gabrielle grinned back at her. That is precisely what she would do. And Xena well knew it.
"So please stay here. At least that way, I know you are safe but if she does kill me, get out of here as fast as you can." The warrior said seriously. Xena took one, all to brief moment to kiss her love before she quickly moved back down the rise and headed in the general direction of the camp.
The Bard watched her leave. She already knew if the red-headed warlord managed to kill Xena, she would come tearing down the rise herself to exact her own revenge. Xena probably knew that too.
Gabrielle watched as a clearly terrified guard came running into camp and headed straight for the tent of the warlord. The door guard stopped him for a moment as he babbled out his message and then quickly opened the flap allowing him to enter. A few minutes later, the red-headed woman was standing at the door herself, looking about the perimeter of the camp as though she could somehow see Xena already there. The Bard knew Xena would not show herself until the time was right but the warlord wasnt aware of that.
Stavroula called back to someone in the tent and her weapons were handed out to her. Strapping them on carefully, she walked to the center of the camp, kicking her soldiers from her path as she moved. From what Gabrielle could see, the woman was not in a good mood. Word of what was about to happen spread like wildfire through the camp and it wasnt long before a semi-circle of men, several deep, were standing behind her, muttering to themselves. Gabrielle could hear them from where she was hiding at the top of the rise. It sounded for all the world like a fast running stream pouring over a rocky bed.
"So you think you can take me, Warrior Princess?" Stavroula yelled to the surrounding forest. "Then come and try it. This army is mine and I intend keeping it."
The angry warlord spotted a quick movement in the trees. Xena spun out of the forest in a high arching leap, landing well inside the perimeter of the camp, her boots thudding solidly as she hit the ground.
Stavroula couldnt believe the arrogance of the woman as she casually strolled over to the warlord. Did this woman know any kind of fear? The red-head herself would never have tried to do anything like this. It was just too risky. She managed to wipe the look of surprise from her face before Xena was close enough to see it. But the tall warrior knew it was there anyway.
Once Xena had walked within easy speaking distance, she stood, relaxed and ready. Stavroula was fuming. This woman was making her look more and more like a fool in front of her own men. First Xena manages to rescue the women from the village then she escapes from the storage tent. Now she wanders into the camp like she owns it. It was rubbing against Stavroulas pride until she was almost livid with temper everytime she thought of the Warrior Princess. She knew the dark-haired beauty was forcing the issue and tried to put a hold on her tongue. It didnt last long.
"The great Warrior Princess returns." Stavroula snarled at Xena.
The tall womans face was rapidly sliding into a look of utter boredom.
"And now she thinks she is so good she can take me out and steal my army from me." Stavroula was desperately looking for something to score a verbal hit but Xena didnt seem to care what the warlord said. "Do you think you are courageous enough to take me?" She drew her sword from its sheath and stood waiting for Xenas reply, expecting a lunge or strike.
Stavroulas eyes almost bugged from her head. The Warrior Princess was yawning! Her eyes were half closed and Xena looked as though she was about to fall asleep at any moment. The warlords temper rose a few notches. Didnt this woman know *she*, Stavroula, daughter of a slaver, was the greatest warlord since..since, well since Xena herself.
Xena was anything but bored and she certainly wasnt the least bit sleepy. The warlords reactions to her feigned lack of interest were exactly what she wanted. Xena was deliberately pushing at the other womans brittle pride, pushing her into anger .pushing until one broke or the other overwhelmed her caution.
Xena opened her eyes a fraction wider. "Excuse me. Did you say something?" She asked, appearing to be completely uninterested in any answer the warlord might give.
The tone of Xenas voice was the final straw for Stavroula. Screaming in anger, she swung her blade over her head intending to split the contemptuous woman from skull to ankle. The sword was still several inches from the top of Xenas head when it was met with the clashing steel of the warriors own blade. Stavroula felt the contact singing up her arms.
Xena looked anything but bored and sleepy now. In fact she had a smile on her face that chilled the angry red-head. In an act of complete insolence, the dark-hired woman reached out with her other hand and tweaked the warlords nose. Twisting away from under the two upraised swords, the warrior bounced back a few feet and beckoned the other woman to try again.
Stavroula just couldnt understand it. The other woman was so sure of herself that she was treating the whole thing like some kind of a game. The warlord felt like she was being toyed with. Well, she would soon show this warrior princess who was the toy and who was the toy-master. Calming herself as best she could, Stavroula stepped back a bit and drew on every ounce of training she had ever received.
Balanced over her own feet, Xena waited to see what the warlord would do next. She could see Stavroula trying to calm herself but the anger was simply too close to the surface. Emotions were running openly across the red-heads face. Xena could see them as easily as if she was reading one of Gabrielles scrolls. The warrior woman knew how to fight this warlord. It was like fighting a younger, angrier self. A battle the tall woman had already fought and won.
The warlord came at Xena again. The crash of steel against steel resounding loudly across the camp and up to the rise where Gabrielle watched apprehensively. The red-head was good and she had the advantage of youth on her side. Xena was better, however. She had years of experience, something the other woman just couldnt match. The dance of lightning fast steel and even faster twists and turns wove its way around the circle of watching men. Stavroula ducked a blow and while still on one knee, drove her blade forward, burying it deeply into Xenas unprotected thigh, missing the bone by a fraction of an inch. Xena grunted with the pain and stepped back quickly on her good leg.
The tall warrior could feel the pain as it ballooned up her body in a wave of sweating chills. Blood was pouring from the wound and covering her greaves and boot. It was running so heavily that Xena could already hear the ground starting to squelch a little under her foot. She stood waiting for the next move from the warlord. Gritting her teeth, she ignored the pain, balancing herself on one leg, keeping the toes of the other foot barely touching the ground. She was swaying slightly and looked about to fall in the first strong breeze.
Stavroula let a triumphant smirk cross her face. She was going to kill the mighty Warrior Princess after all. Letting the thought of her impending victory puff up her faltering pride, she swung wide wanting to remove that smiling head from Xenas shoulders. The red-head knew she was the greater warlord and now she was about to prove it .both to others and more importantly, to herself.
The blade never got near the tall woman. In the fraction of a second that the warlord had left herself open, Xena had unexpectedly stepped in on that same wounded leg and thrust her own sword through the body of the warlord.
Stavroula looked down stupidly, not quite believing she had been beaten by someone who could hardly stand up. She looked back up again at Xena. The smile was gone and had been replaced by the saddest expression the red-head had ever seen. It was the image of that expression she would carry with her to Hades.
As the dead body of the warlord slid from Xenas blade, the tall woman allowed herself to drop to one knee. Supporting herself with her sword, Xena declared herself the new leader of the army. No man was willing to argue with her. Even though she was wounded, she would still be more than a match for most of the men.
Xena watched the last of the weaponless men as they started off down the road. She kept one hand resting lightly on Gabrielles shoulder to balance herself. The wound in her thigh was slow in healing but that was most likely due to the fact she wouldnt rest it properly. The Bard was being a bit of a mother hen about it but Xena was doing her best to ignore the younger woman.
"Do you think we found all of them?" Gabrielle asked.
"No. I doubt we ever will but at least we found the worst offenders and dealt with them." Xena replied, trying to ignore the ache deep in her leg. She really should be resting it more but she had her image to uphold and it just didnt look right if she was sitting around all the time. Besides, she knew how it bedevilled Gabrielle and Xena did have a wicked sense of humour sometimes.
They had spent most of the past two weeks sorting out who had done what at the little village and had sent the worst of those men, guarded by others more trustworthy, to the town where the survivors had taken up residence. The court system there would take care of them. The villagers would see justice.
Xena glanced over to the small grave where they had buried Stavroula. The carved wooden grave marker still looked too new and raw for her liking but there was nothing she could do about it. In a way, if reflected the rawness she felt inside. The dead warlord might have been able to change her ways but she hadnt wanted to change. Maybe that answered why Xena herself had when Hercules made her look into her own heart. She was ready for the change. And Gabrielles love was helping her heal. Xena was starting to think that maybe one day far in the future .her healing would be complete. In a strange kind of way, killing the young warlord had been like killing a part of herself, a part she still had within her. She felt as though, perhaps, it had been tamed a little and maybe her nightmares would be a little easier to deal with. Maybe Gabrielle was right about love and forgiveness, after all.
The tall woman leaned down and kissed the top of those strawberry blonde locks.
"What was that for?" Gabrielle asked. The kiss had taken her by surprise.
"For loving someone before they knew how to love themselves." Xena replied.
Turning the tall woman, Gabrielle helped her limp back to the campfire. There were some things they were really going to have to talk about and now seemed as good a time as any.
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