The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and Hercules are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story. This story contains descriptions of violence along with some profanity and depicts the two main characters as budding lovers.
Note: Some characters and events mentioned in the following originated in my first story, "The Cage of Elysis". While it is not necessary to read that narrative to gain a comprehension of the following, the reader should be aware that some of those events are referred to in this tale without much clarification. I had originally intended to entitle this "Blind Faith" but I see an upcoming episode of X:WP is going to have this title--thus the change.
This humble effort is dedicated to Renee O' Connor.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Gabrielle had not spoken a word for at least a half hour and for her that was an eternity.
"I'm fine," answered Gabrielle. "Why?"
"Just checking," said Xena.
"Xena, do you ever think about what the future holds for us? I mean, don't you wonder what your life will be like in, say, twenty or twenty-five years from now?"
"No, not really," said Xena. "After all, I'll probably be dead long before then."
"Don't say that," said Gabrielle softly.
"Sorry, Gabrielle, it's just a joke," smiled Xena. But it was not amusement Xena saw in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Well it's not a very funny one," said Gabrielle.
"I guess I have thought about it. We all have to face growing older," mused Xena. "What got you to thinking about this anyway?"
"I don't know...well...I guess it was that old woman we bought the bread from back in that village. It just hit me. Will I someday end up having to sell bread, or worse, to keep a roof over my head?"
"Somehow I don't think so," smiled Xena. "First of all, you're too smart to let that happen. Aaand you do have a lot of very good friends that you will always be able to call on if you need help."
"I know, but-"
"Gabrielle, you are an Amazon princess. They always take care of their own," said Xena. "Or what about Hercules? You know if you were in trouble he would do anything he could to help you. I haven't even mentioned Lila yet or Darinius. I don't believe he would tolerate you starving to death."
"And then there's me." For a brief, wonderful moment Xena gazed into Gabrielle's enchanting green eyes and her silent, but very real, passion once again almost escaped from the depths of soul. Almost but not quite.
"I know that," said Gabrielle softly. "But I want to make my own mark on the world, not just ride someone else's horse."
"But Gabrielle, you are," said Xena. "The experiences you have and the friends you make today cannot but help prepare you for your life ahead."
"Well friends are great, of course, but I would not want to be dependent on any of them. It just wouldn't be fair to them," said Gabrielle.
"You think so, huh? Let me put it to you this way. Suppose it was Iolaus, or Hercules, or Darinius that needed help."
"That's different," said Gabrielle.
"No it's not," smiled Xena. "Take me for instance. All it would take is someone getting lucky with an arrow or a sword and I could be crippled or...worse."
"Xena, you know I would do anything for you."
"See you just proved my point," said Xena. We all feel the same way about you. Now, enough of this talk. It's too depressing. Say, are there any apples left? I think Argo and I could both use one."
As the two of them ambled down the narrow road they did not realize they were being observed by a dark form in the nearby woods.
"Oh, those are such noble sentiments." Ares, of course, had heard every word of their conversation. "I wonder what would happen if... Of course. I have been going at this all wrong. I have been underestimating the little brat. She is what's really keeping Xena from returning me."
Ares' mind returned to the time he had impersonated Xena's father. Xena was almost mine that day, he thought, and then that little brat stuck her nose in and ruined everything. What does Xena see in that little weakling anyway? Well no matter. I am going to get rid of the little pest for good this time. But how? I can't kill her. That would only make a martyr out of her. I have to split them up somehow.
Then it came to him.
Soo, he mused, if something happened to Xena the little wench would stand by her, eh? But for how long I wonder? How long would it really be before she abandoned Xena or Xena got fed up and drove her away? Let's find out why don't we?
The woods echoed with laughter as the dark form vanished.
"Huh, oh yeah, I'm good," said Gabrielle. "Stuff like that just comes to me sometimes and it takes awhile to sort it out."
"Well just remember what I said," said Xena.
"I will. You know, Xena, it's been some time since we didn't actually have to be some where."
"We have been pretty busy lately," agreed Xena.
"Maybe we could take advantage of this," said Gabrielle.
"What do you have in mind?" asked Xena.
"I don't know. Maybe we could kind of, ahh, take a holiday. You know, just loaf for a day or two. What do you think?"
The idea of just lying around doing nothing really didn't appeal to Xena all that much but she could see it was something Gabrielle really wanted. They had been busy lately and although she would never admit it, Gabrielle was probably tired. Gabrielle was tough for her size but Xena knew she sometimes pushed the girl too hard. She never complained, however. She would just dig that staff a little deeper in the ground and push on.
Finally Xena spoke, "Tell you what. The Hestian springs are not far from here. We might spend a day or two there if you'd like. We could soak up the waters and maybe partake of some of that terrific wine they make there."
"Do you mean it?" beamed Gabrielle. "That would be great. Thanks, Xena."
"No problem. C'mon."
It's hard to deny her anything, thought Xena. She deserves so much more than the life she has with me.
It was almost dark before Gabrielle had the fire big enough to cook the two rabbits Xena had killed. They had decided to make camp early so they could get an early start the next morning. After they had eaten Xena made sure Argo was okay and soon she and Gabrielle were settled in for the night. It would be like most other nights, of course. Hypnos would not soon bring sleep to Xena. She envied Gabrielle for the easy way sleep seemed to come to her. Those with pure hearts and pure souls can do that, thought Xena. And her gentle snoring always brought a smile.
Gabrielle, however, did not always sleep as well as Xena believed. She had awakened many nights only to find Xena tending the fire, silently pacing, or just sitting there staring at her. Many times she wanted to say something but Xena's eyes always managed to discourage her. Xena always looked so different then. To Gabrielle the Xena that paced by the fire in the middle of the night was not the same one that strode so confidently in the light of day. But tonight Gabrielle did sleep soundly, leaving Xena and her demons alone to battle it out once again. She lay silently on her blanket and listened to Gabrielle's deep, measured breathing and watched the Great Bear as it slowly turned in the northern sky. As she lay there thinking of distant battlefields and those long dead Xena was not aware of the dark apparition standing a few feet behind her bedroll.
"Enjoy it while you can, Xena," said Ares, waving his arm over her. "The Great Bear will be the last thing you see for a long time."
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle wake up."
"Uhh, is it morning already?" But Gabrielle saw it was not morning. The eastern sky displayed only a faint hint of red. Gabrielle turned to Xena for an explanation and saw the odd look on her face. "Xena, what is it?"
"I can't see, Gabrielle."
"I mean it. I woke up and realized I was blind," said Xena.
"But... how could this happen?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't know. Maybe some old head injury. It could be anything."
Gabrielle was already beginning to feel panic build up inside her. Got to stay calm, she told herself, It won't help matters if you turn into some kind of babbling idiot.
"I'm sure it's just temporary," offered Gabrielle. "Your vision will soon come back."
"I don't know," said Xena. "I can't see any light at all. Not the fire...anything. It's just total darkness."
In spite of herself, Gabrielle felt her voice crack. "What do we do?"
"First, stay calm. Let's just remain here today and if there is no change we will move out in the morning," said Xena. "Okay?"
"Okay. Here, lie back down, Xena. Maybe the rest will do you some good."
Xena lay down and allowed Gabrielle to place her blanket over her all the way up to her neck. I've got to decide what to do here, thought Xena. I can't burden her with the decision making. This is going to be hard enough on her.
All that day the two of them kept their places by the now dead camp fire. Except for Gabrielle seeing to Argo and retrieving what little food they had in Xena's saddlebag, they rarely stirred. Each was buried in her own thoughts and spoke little. Xena could feel the warm rays of the sun on her face but she could not even tell the sun's position in the sky. No light came to her eyes at all.
That night it was Gabrielle's turn to be the sleepless sentinel. As it became more and more apparent the situation was not going to change she began to ponder their next move. Already she felt the mounting sense of responsibility pressing down on her. Xena, for her part, had hardly said anything all day. If she had a plan she did not reveal it.
By dawn Gabrielle had hit upon what she thought they should do. "Xena, are you any better?
"Then I think we should get started."
It's now or never, thought Gabrielle. "Xena, I think...I think we should go see Hippocrates about this. If anybody can help you, he can."
"You read my mind, " said Xena. "I figure it will take us three or four days to get there so the sooner we start..."
"Well, I've got everything loaded up," said Gabrielle. "We are ready to go."
Gabrielle untied Argo and led her to where Xena was standing. "Here, let me help you."
"I can do it, Gabrielle." Xena ran her hand along her horse and, upon feeling the saddle, quickly found the stirrup. She placed her hand on the saddle horn and easily swung herself up. Without thinking, Gabrielle took hold of the reins in order to lead the horse.
"You had better give me the reins," said Xena.
"Gabrielle, I don't want to alarm you but we are going to have to be careful. It would not be smart to let anyone see you leading my horse. Any idiot would be able to see something was not right. We can't let anyone know about this. Zeus only knows whom we might meet on the way and we don't want them getting any ideas. Walk beside Argo and put hand through the bridle like you are supporting yourself. Argo will let you lead her, won't you girl?"
Gabrielle leaned close to the horse's ear and murmured, "Hear that? Xena is depending on the both of us so, no trouble, okay?"
The beautiful horse nudged Gabrielle with her nose and the girl knew the she understood. They had proved in the past when it came to helping Xena they were perfectly capable of cooperating with each other.
The noon day sun found them having made good progress. The road had been lightly traveled and what few people they had met were mostly farmers. For the first time Gabrielle felt the hunger pangs that would soon become so familiar to her. Early in the evening they reached the village of Garthos and Gabrielle used what little money they had left to buy some bread and cheese. The man whom she had bought the cheese from had seemed friendly enough but Gabrielle had not failed to notice how his eyes kept wandering to the beautiful dark haired woman on the horse. Her mind kept replaying their conversation:
"Why doesn't your friend get down?" he had asked.
"Well, we are in kind of a hurry. We just came here to purchase some food and then be on our way."
"That's too bad. Say, she looks like some kind of warrior. That would not by any chance be Xena, would it?"
Gabrielle hoped she had not tipped the man off as to how surprised she was at his question. "Uh, no. Her name is Portia. She is a warrior but just between you and me she is not a very good one." She leaned over close to him and whispered, "I only travel with her for the food."
"I can understand that," said the merchant. "That blasted drought has made for a very bad harvest this year. Food will be plenty scarce in the coming months. Funny though. I thought sure that was Xena. I've never seen her, you understand, but there can't be many women around who dress like that."
"Well, I gotta go," said Gabrielle. She walked as leisurely as she could manage back to where she had left Xena. "Are you ready, Portia?" asked Gabrielle in a loud voice. She wanted the merchant to hear her.
Immediately Xena understood what was happening and answered, "Yes, let's go."
Gabrielle walked around to the other side of Argo and whispered in her ear, "Argo, you'll have to follow me. I can't hold the bridle and lead you. That guy is watching us too closely."
Fighting the urge to look back, Gabrielle started down the street and prayed Argo would follow. To her immense relief she felt the horse's breath on the back of her neck. This horse is amazing, she thought.
When the two of them had put about a league between the village and themselves, Xena asked, "What was that all about?"
"That guy was asking a lot of questions about you," said Gabrielle. "I think he knows who you are."
Later, after their camp had been made, Gabrielle finally managed to work up enough courage to tell Xena what she thought. "Don't be angry with me but I think it would be best if you wore something besides that leather dress and the armor. It's only going to attract attention to you."
She half expected Xena to bite her head off but she merely replied, "Gabrielle, you know I don't have anything else to wear."
"I'll try to pick up something in the next village," said Gabrielle. "But it might be difficult to find something that will fit you. Now, here, eat your food."
"I'm not hungry," said Xena.
"C'mon, Xena, eat...please?"
As always the "please" enabled Gabrielle to have her way. She was careful to use the word about as sparingly as a peasant spent gold coins and it never failed to have the desired effect.
"All right," said Xena. "But sit over here next to me so I'll know you are eating too."
"So, you don't trust me?" Gabrielle tried to sound light hearted but Xena was not amused.
"You know the answer to that, Gabrielle. I just don't want you to try to be noble about this and not eat. Remember, I have had a lot more experience going without food than you have."
"Yeah , yeah."
Gabrielle divided the bread and cheese between them and placed Xena's portion in her lap. "Here you go." It was heart breaking to see this great woman have to grope to find her meager supper. Gabrielle made a great show of wolfing down her food; smacking her lips and chewing loudly but, in fact, she ate but a little of her share and carefully put the rest away. That night she tried to stay awake but the previous night's vigil and the day's long walk were too much for her and sleep soon came.
The next morning found them on their way once again. By now Gabrielle did not have to lead Argo at all. The horse merely followed her on its own. After a while Xena decided to walk a bit and she put her hand through Argo's bridle to steady herself.
It was almost noon when Xena began to sense the still far away pounding of hoof beats on the road.
"Gabrielle, someone is coming this way very fast. Be sure to give them plenty of room to pass.
Soon Gabrielle could see the men on horseback thundering up the road behind her. After a few moments she could make out four, no five, riders. Something about one of them looked familiar.
"Xena, I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Stay calm, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle reached into the saddlebag, pulled out the two sections of her staff, and quickly fitted them together.
"Stay close to me," said Xena. "If there's trouble don't let yourself get separated. I'll need to know where you are."
"Right, but how..."
"Just stay close, okay?"
By now the riders were slowing down and Gabrielle knew they were not going to pass on by. As the first two men came near she saw that one of them was the merchant from the village.
"Well, what do you say now, Darvax?" sneered the merchant. "Is this not Xena?"
"You're right, Fabor. It is the great Xena. You shall be well rewarded for this," said Darvax.
"Darvax? Darvax of Kea? asked Xena.
"Why, yes, Xena. I am pleased to know that the great Warrior Princess has heard of such a humble one as myself."
"Oh yes," purred Xena. " I have heard of Darvax, the baby killer. Darvax, who attacks only those incapable of defending themselves."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with a man having a little fun while he's earning a living, I always say."
"What do you want?" growled Xena.
"Want? Why, I want you, Xena. Or to be more specific, your head. You remember Asterion, don't you?"
"Who is Asterion?" whispered Gabrielle.
"His brother," said Xena. "I killed him." She figured Gabrielle did not need to know that after Asterion had been caught trying to steal a wagon load of spoils from her army, she had personally hung him. There's no use beating around the bush here, she thought. There is going to be a fight at any rate.
"Oh, you mean the sniveling coward who tried to steal one of my wagons? He was not only a coward but an idiot as well," scowled Xena. She was doing her best to give the appearance of keeping eye contact with the man.
Darvax brought his arm forward and down and the three horsemen behind him began to charge. Suddenly, Gabrielle rushed forward to meet them. As they neared her she veered to the extreme right side of the road and coiled herself. She knew the horseman was going to try to run her down so she stopped and held her ground. Remembering the lessons Ephiny had taught her about fighting centaurs, she waited until the last possible second before she ducked to her right. As the horse passed she lashed out with her staff and struck the animal hard behind the left front knee, bringing it down. Its rider did not even have time to rise to his knees before two solid blows to the head took him out of the fight.
Xena, meanwhile, could hear and feel the other two bearing down on her. Like Gabrielle, she waited till the last possible moment before acting. Now sure of her bearings, she vaulted herself upon the lead rider's horse. One crushing blow between his shoulders was enough to make him too weak to resist further and, locking her legs around the horse to brace herself, she wrenched him off the horse. Xena eased into the saddle and turned the horse back up the road toward Gabrielle.
The third rider, after seeing the result of his comrade's charge at Xena, suddenly lost some of his nerve and also turned his horse back the way they had came. Darvax will have our heads for this failure, he thought. Maybe if I kill the little one it will redeem me. He drew his sword and spurred his horse into a full gallop.
Gabrielle saw him coming and stepped into the middle of the road to face him. Xena was a full fifty paces behind him and could easily hear the pounding of his horse on the road. She could also tell she was not going to be able to catch him.
The rider saw Gabrielle ready her staff as he bore down upon her. Oh no, little girl, he thought. I'm on to your tricks. You are not going to trip up my horse. Fully expecting her to use the same maneuver as before, he switched his sword to his left hand to slash at her as she dodged. But Gabrielle did not move. The horse was no more than twenty paces away when she suddenly raised the staff above her shoulder and threw it like a spear directly at the onrushing horseman.
Surprised by her daring action, the rider reacted too late. The staff struck him squarely in the chest and caused him to lose his balance on the horse. He felt himself falling and in vain he clawed wildly at the saddle. As he fell his foot caught in the stirrup and the still charging horse dragged him past Gabrielle and on up the road. Darvax did nothing to stop the horse as it barreled past him. The fool deserves to lose his skin if he can't even kill a simple girl, he thought.
"Xena! Xena! I'm here! " Gabrielle turned in the direction of her friend and decided it would be prudent to let her know her position.
Xena reined in the horse as Gabrielle ran up to her. "Gabrielle, what's happening?'
"Three men down," she panted. "The other two are just sitting there on their horses."
"What's the matter, Darvax? Afraid to join in the fun?" yelled Xena, dismounting the horse.
"I merely wanted to see for myself if you are as good as they say you are," sneered Darvax.
"From what I can see it is the girl who should be famous."
"Hah! Xena could take a rat like you with one finger," said Gabrielle, gritting her teeth. That felt good, she thought. Rare was the chance when she got to stand up for her friend.
"Shhhh, Gabrielle. Stay out of this," whispered Xena.
"Maybe so," replied Darvax. "But next time I'll bring more men."
"Hear me, Darvax," said Xena. "I'm going to let you live this time but if you cross my path again it will just be too bad."
Darvax kicked his horse and galloped up the road with Fabor trailing after him.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"Me-- yeah, I'm good."
"What were you doing running towards those guys like that?" demanded Xena. "I told you to stay close to me, remember?" But Xena already knew the answer.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle. "It's just that I...I--"
"You wanted to protect me, right?"
"Yeah," said Gabrielle softly. Only now did she realize how scared she had been.
"Oh, Gabrielle. What am I going to do with you?" Xena stretched out and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. "I don't want you taking any more chances like that, okay? You have to see for both of us. I am depending on you. Now, promise me."
Xena slipped her powerful arm around the girl's shoulders and gently drew her near.
"Xena, who was that man?"
"Just another in a long line of bandits who call themselves warriors," said Xena. "We caught one of his men trying to steal a wagon load of tribute a village was delivering to me. It turned out the man was Darvax's brother."
Gabrielle knew well enough how ruthless Xena had been and could only imagine what she had done to him.
"And now he wants to collect on the debt," said Xena.
"Well it's not going to happen," allowed Gabrielle.
"I think it would be best if we traveled by night from now on," said Xena.
"Then why don't we find a place to camp and I'll see about finding some food," suggested Gabrielle.
She really didn't have much hope of finding anything. As with everything else, Xena as a hunter was incredible. Food was something that had never really been a problem before.
The weight of the situation was beginning to press heavily on Gabrielle's shoulders. Potential enemies everywhere...no food...no money, and Zeus only if Xena would ultimately be okay. What if she doesn't get well?, she wondered. What if this is permanent?
"You'll just have to take care of her, Gabrielle," she said under her breath.
But how? Xena had always been the provider. It was funny in a way. Xena had turned down literally tens of thousands of dinars from grateful rich and poor alike since Gabrielle had known her.
Just last week a man had offered her five thousand dinars after Xena had solved a little "problem" for him. No one had been hurt but a certain individual had gotten the message. "Hmph, we sure could use some of those dinars now," Gabrielle thought out loud. Oh well, she thought, it doesn't matter. I'll do whatever I have to do to take care of her.
On this evening Gabrielle got lucky. After making camp in a secluded area, she settled Xena into a comfortable spot and set out to look for something to eat. She had not gone far when she heard the gurgling of water. She filled the water bag she had brought and then noticed the stream was very shallow in some places. The recent drought had taken its toll here as well. She walked along the stream bank for a little while and came upon an isolated shallow pool.
Gabrielle could not believe her luck! Trapped in the pool were four big perch. A quick search yielded the small tree limb she was looking for and, using the knife she had brought, cut the limb at its fork. She cut off most of one side of the fork and left the other side intact. After pulling off her boots and her top it was merely a matter of wading into the pool and, using her top as a kind of seine, catching the fish. Soon she had all four of them flopping around on the bank. She then ran the long end of the limb through each of the fish's gills and thus had a convenient way to carry them.
"Xena, I'm back." Gabrielle was relieved to see Xena in the same place she had left her. The perch had easily been big enough to fillet and soon Gabrielle had them ready to eat.
"They look about done," said Gabrielle, poking a hole in a fillet with a small stick.
Xena had only said a word or two since Gabrielle's return and the girl was becoming worried. What's going on in her head?, she wondered.
"Here you are," said Gabrielle, trying to sound cheerful. "Better let it cool a little first, I guess. Would you like some water?"
"Umm, guess what. I still have some bread left."
Xena merely continued to stare into space.
After a half hour of this Gabrielle could stand it no longer. "Xena, what are you thinking about?"
Xena did not answer.
"Hey, this is me Gabrielle, remember?"
"Gabrielle, it's too dangerous for you to be with me. If it turns out Hippocrates cannot help me I want you to leave me there. Maybe I can be of some use to him there."
"Gabrielle, if something were to happen to you because I wasn't able to help I could not bear it. There's no telling how many more like Darvax are running around out there. The risk is too great."
"Risk? My, but you must be having a memory lapse as well," said Gabrielle. "Remember all those times you risked your life for me? Were you thinking about the 'risk' involved then?'
"Of course not," said Xena.
"'Of course not'," repeated Gabrielle, imitating Xena's much deeper voice. This was beginning to make her very angry. "All those times I needed you; you didn't think about the 'risk' but now that the sandal is on the other foot...'It's too dangerous to be with me, Gabrielle. Leave me with Hippocrates, Gabrielle'. Well nuts to that. You are not getting rid of me that easily."
Gabrielle paused for a moment to compose herself and added, "You know, Warrior Princess, if you were well I think I would have to slug you." She then realized the improbability of her last remark and continued, "Well, maybe I would try to slug you. So-- are you going to just sit there? Aren't you going to say anything?"
Xena's lips slowly displayed that wonderful half smile of pride and amusement she always felt when Gabrielle stood up to her. "Yes. Eat your fish before it gets too cold. And Gabrielle?"
"If I do get well you can slug me, okay? I deserve it."
"Ohh, stop it."
Xena, of course, was unable to see Gabrielle's face was turning a very nice shade of crimson.
The next two days were uneventful as they continued their journey. Traveling at night was not difficult; they kept to the road and the moon was now nearly full. There had been no sign of Darvax or anyone else who might have been a threat. Early in the morning of the next day Gabrielle again managed to save them from hunger. They were preparing to stop when, in the pale light, she happened to see a large orchard some distance off the road. Gabrielle made sure no one was around and crept to the orchard. Luckily some of the apples were fit to eat and she gathered up what she could and took them back with her.
Just about midday Gabrielle was awakened by angry voices coming from the road.
"They cannot have just disappeared. I tell you they are on this road somewhere."
"But Darvax, we have searched every inch of it. They must have taken the other fork back there."
Then take these putrid slugs and search that road!" screamed Darvax. "All except you two. Stay on this road in case they try to double back on us. I want that harlot and her little friend found TODAY, understand?"
Gabrielle crept to where Xena already lay on the ground, listening. "How many are there?" asked Xena.
"About twenty as best as I can tell."
By now Darvax and his men were already almost out of sight. It looked to Gabrielle that the two remaining men were not happy about being left behind. It was obvious they were afraid they would run into the mighty Xena.
"Okay, the best I can figure it we are about a half day's ride from Hippocrates' academy," said Xena. We've got two choices. We can take out those guys and make a run for it or we can try to move overland off the road."
The idea of making a break for it did not appeal to Gabrielle at all. That meant she would have to ride a horse and that was not a pleasant thought. Sure, she had ridden Argo before but that was different. For a long time the two of them had merely tolerated each other but after Gabrielle's little masquerade as Xena they had truly developed a mutual trust.
"What do you want to do?" asked Gabrielle.
"We put those two guys away and take our chances," said Xena.
It figures, thought Gabrielle.
Five minutes later they were ready. "Yoo hoo. Hey boooys! Can you help a girl out?"
The two men just sat there on their horses and stared at Gabrielle until she slowly began to pull up her skirt. They quickly covered the short distance to the girl. "Hi, boys."
"What's a cute little thing like you doing out here all alone?"
"Aww my father drove me out of our home. He said I was a...now what was that word he used? Oh yeah. He said I was a nymphomaniac. That's it."
"And what is a nymph....that word you said?" leered the soldier.
"Oh it's someone who can't get enough, well..." Gabrielle made a circle with her left index finger and thumb and stuck her right index finger through it. .."you know."
"Yeah I know," grinned the bandit. "Maybe we can be of some service."
The exciting prospect of taking the very pretty and seemingly very willing young woman now before them served to lower the men's sense of awareness considerably. Consequently, they did not notice the large figure now looming behind them.
"You can be of service, boys. We need a horse," purred Xena.
The men turned to face the voice and were gripped by terror. "It's Xena!"
Terror or no, the two of them drew their swords and rushed toward Xena. "Xena, look out!" yelled Gabrielle.
As her two assailants neared, Xena leaped into the air and simultaneously slammed a foot into each man's chest. Despite the bone crunching kick he had received, one of the men was almost able to regain his feet before a crack on the head from Gabrielle's staff changed his mind.
"Let's load up and get out of here, "said Xena.
"Xena, how did you do that? I mean, how did you know when to jump?"
"If someone gets close enough I can sense them," said Xena. "By the way, what was that all about being a...what was it? A nymphomaniac? I never heard that word before."
"Of course not," said Gabrielle. "I just made it up."
Within a few minutes Gabrielle had everything packed up. Now it dawned on her just how huge these men's horses were. Even the smaller of the two stood at least eighteen hands high.
"Umm, Xena, I don't think I can get up there," said Gabrielle.
"Here, put your foot in the stirrup and I'll give you a boost." With the aid of Xena's strong arm Gabrielle easily mounted the horse. "There now, that's not so bad, is it?"
"It only feels like I am on top of Mount Olympus, that's all," moaned Gabrielle. She did have a thing about heights.
"Just remember what I taught you and you'll be fine," assured Xena. She whistled for Argo to come and the horse promptly obeyed. Sensing something was not right the horse gently nudged her mistress. "It's all right girl," crooned Xena, patting Argo's neck. "Just follow Gabrielle, okay?"
To Gabrielle it almost seemed like the horse's gentle nicker was a definite signal of assent. It was a constant source of amazement to her to see how Xena and Argo communicated with each other. She often wondered if Xena had trained Argo herself or if the horse was somehow just unusually intelligent. Now didn't seem like the time to ask.
"We should make our destination by nightfall," said Xena.
Gabrielle was concentrating on the horse too much to respond. After a couple of leagues her fears began to ease somewhat. In spite of its size her horse behaved well. It was obviously well trained. She knew the academy was straight down this road. The afternoon melted into evening and there was still no sign of Darvax. About an hour after sundown Xena and Gabrielle rode through the archway marking the courtyard of the Great Healer's academy.
Darvax, meanwhile, had by now learned of the failure of the two unfortunate men he had left to guard the road. Late that night they were beheaded for their deficiencies.
Hippocrates was glad to see his friends again and, of course, was stunned to learn of Xena's condition. He had considered her indestructible somehow. After treating the pair to their first good meal in days, Hippocrates insisted they wait until the next morning before examining Xena to allow her to have sufficient rest. The room he provided for them was bare save for a small table and two large cots. Two candles on the table were the only source of light because the door to the room had been covered by a blanket. Neither spoke as Gabrielle helped Xena remove her breastplate and her boots. She had, on occasion, done this before and it always sent her heart racing. But Gabrielle had never felt so close to Xena as she did now. All those other times had been merely gestures of friendship and caring but this time Xena really needed her. I won't let you down, thought Gabrielle.
For a long time the two of them lay on their cots; each alone with their thoughts. What is she thinking?, wondered Gabrielle. Only in rare moments had Xena truly opened up to Gabrielle.
Why does she have to be so stubborn?
Gabrielle had felt for some time that Xena loved her but what did that mean? After all, even love had different connotations. What kind of love? Friend to friend? Sister to sister? To Gabrielle it was more than that but what about her? How did she feel? Xena once told her she meant more to her than her own family but, again, what did that really mean?
Darinius, with that marvelous insight of his, had given Gabrielle a hint of Xena's feelings on the voyage to Kathos. Gabrielle had the impression he knew not only Xena's true feelings but hers as well. Why had he not said more? Was is because he thought the mission to rescue Hercules did not need any more distractions? She decided it was probably because he just felt it was none of his business. Gabrielle was transported back to reality by a slight cough from Xena.
"Are you okay?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah, I'm all right." Xena paused before continuing. "Gabrielle?"
"I want to thank you for bringing me here. I know this has been hard on you. I promise when I get better I'll make it up to you."
Gabrielle arose and sat on the side of Xena's cot. "Just hush, will you? You don't owe me anything," she said.
"Well, just the same..."
"Just the same you need to rest. Now go to sleep and that's an order," retorted Gabrielle.
She stood up to return to her own bed when she heard Xena gently call her name.
"Would you...lie with me for awhile?"
"Of course," she answered softly. She carefully climbed into the cot and curled up on her side with her head resting on Xena's muscular shoulder. The last thing Gabrielle was aware of was before falling asleep was feeling Xena's soft hair on her face and watching the measured rise and fall of her breasts as Xena's breathing became more and more rhythmic.
The next morning Gabrielle awoke to find herself alone.
It took a few moments for her to remember where she was. She lifted the blanket that covered the door and walked straight into Xena and Hippocrates. She immediately noticed Xena was now wearing a plain woven dress. She started to ask Hippocrates what he had found but the look on his face told her all she needed to know.
"There's nothing you can do, is there?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," said Hippocrates.
"He says there is nothing physically wrong with my eyes as far as he can tell," said Xena. "So it must be something else."
"So what do we do now," asked Gabrielle.
"I have asked Xena to stay here," said Hippocrates. "I learned so much from her and I know she could teach me more. Of course you are welcome to stay too, Gabrielle. And who knows? Maybe in time we can find some way to help her."
"Like I said I appreciate the offer, Hippocrates, but I can't stay," said Xena. "I must say I considered doing just that a few days ago but I now realize I have too many enemies. If I stay here no one will be safe."
"But--we will protect you," protested Hippocrates.
"No. I won't put others in danger for my sake," declared Xena.
"But what about Gabrielle? Won't you be placing her in danger also?"
"I can't argue with you there," said Xena.
"Hey! I'm a big girl, remember?" huffed Gabrielle. "I go where Xena goes. End of discussion."
"Very well, but I wish you would reconsider," said Hippocrates.
"Thanks for the offer," said Xena. "But we must go."
By noon Xena and Gabrielle were prepared to depart. Hippocrates waited until Xena had mounted her horse before he touched her arm and said, "Xena, promise me you will come back and see us."
"I promise," she said.
He then walked over to where Gabrielle was mounting her horse. Once she had made it up he handed her a cloth bag. "Here, Gabrielle."
"What's this?" she asked.
"Food. If I can't heal her at least I can help you keep the wolf away. And here's something else."
He took her hand and thrust twenty dinars into it. "I know it's not much but it's all I have."
"Hippocrates, I can't take this," protested Gabrielle.
"Yes, you can."
"Gabrielle, you are not her only friend, you know," whispered Hippocrates.
"I know...I...I'm sorry," said Gabrielle.
"Take care of her," said Hippocrates. "She means a lot to me. He left Gabrielle and returned to Xena's side. "So, any idea where you are going?"
"Mymalar," said Xena.
"Mymalar," echoed Gabrielle, "you mean we are going to see Darinius?"
"Yeah, I'll have a chance to figure something out there and I won't have to worry about your safety," said Xena. "Darinius has made that valley the most secure place in Greece. I ought to know. If the army I had couldn't crack that nut, I don't think Darvax and his thieves will dare to get within three days ride of it."
"Hippocrates, I need a favor from you," she continued.
"When Darvax comes here looking for us, and he will, tell him we were spotted heading north. Don't let him know we stopped here, okay?"
"Well, lead on Gabrielle. Good bye, Hippocrates, and thanks."
"For what? I was of no help to you."
"You cared. I won't forget that," replied Xena.
Gabrielle nudged her horse through the archway and out onto the road with Argo close behind. Hippocrates followed them out into the road and stood there watching until they had disappeared from sight. He was certain he would never see his mentor again.
"Good bye, Teacher," he whispered, and strode back into the courtyard.
It took them almost four night's travel to reach Mymalar. It was a source of amazement to Gabrielle the way Xena knew exactly which road to take, or where the rivers were, or what village was next. She knew that in the ten years or so Xena had walked the path of evil she had led her armies all over Greece several times. For her be able to recall places, names, facts, directions, or anything the way she could was more than the result of keen observation, however. This was one thing almost no one considered when discussing Xena, how intelligent she was.
It was always her courage, or her beauty, or even her ruthlessness. But never her intellect. Gabrielle had seen her decipher complex riddles, conceive very intricate plans, and outfox some of the supposedly smartest men in the world. She could just soak up all the pertinent data about a specific problem, let it spin around in her brain for a seconds, and then come up with the correct solution to the problem. To Gabrielle it was uncanny. She seemed to know everything.
When Gabrielle compared her to the other great heroes she knew Xena did not come up short to any of them. Of course the fact that Darinius had beaten her not once but twice in battle had to be taken into account when comparing Xena to him but when Gabrielle had once asked him about it he himself had said it was not because he had been smarter; just better prepared.
Gabrielle thought it odd in a way. Xena's personality tended to overwhelm people. Her temper was legendary and she was perceived as cold hearted. But she was not really that way at all. Xena did just not let many people get close to her. And that's why Darinius puzzled Gabrielle so. Why had Xena allowed him to get so close to her so quickly? Of course, Gabrielle had liked him from that first day in that dusty inn but considering their past it was astonishing. After that first day of their mission to rescue Hercules it was like they had been friends forever. Darinius had mimicked her stern countenance (he was very funny, thought Gabrielle) and Xena had just rolled her eyes in mock disgust. Maybe it was because they were so much alike, she decided. As for her own self, Gabrielle had never really felt dominated by Xena.
Oh, she might scold her once in a while but always with a tone of voice that let Gabrielle know the warrior was not all that angry with her. She knew Xena was very forgiving with her. And the gods only knew, Gabrielle had made her share of mistakes but only once had Xena really hurt her feelings. In the early stages of their friendship Xena had been pre- occupied with a very nasty Titan named Hyperion and had angrily told Gabrielle to forget her plan to defeat the him. To this day that confrontation was painful for Gabrielle to remember. Looking back on it now, she felt a little guilty remembering the satisfaction she had gotten from the look of disappointment on Xena's face when she had found her in bed with the young priest.
Out of that unpleasant incident, however, had came what Gabrielle believed was the real turning point in their relationship. Xena had told her that they should let not such incidents come between them. And up to now they never had. These were only a few of the multitude of thoughts that ran thought the head of Gabrielle on those long nights as they made their way to Mymalar.
The images Xena conjured up were of a very different nature than Gabrielle's. What am I going to do if this is permanent? she wondered. To her this disability was worse than death. She had long since been able to make her body just about anything she wanted and now a part of it wouldn't obey her. She began to think of those in her life that mattered the most. Mother? I can't go home, she thought. Can't let her see me this way.
Toris? Her brother was just getting his own life back together and he certainly didn't need her to around to remind him of his own past. Hercules? A real chance here. If anyone could sway the gods on her behalf it was him. But he was in Macedonia and it was anyone's guess when he would return.
Darinius? Yes. He was the only logical choice right now. He would not patronize or pity her. And then it was on to the most precious of all. Oh, Gabrielle! What's going to happen to us? Only for very brief periods of time had they been apart over the last two years and to Xena each of them had seemed like a eon.
When Gabrielle married Perdicas Xena thought she was lost for good. Callisto, however, had changed all that. Xena hated herself for it but down deep inside a small part of her was grateful to Callisto for her malicious deed. Xena's mind drifted back to when she and Gabrielle first met. It had been the absolute nadir of her life. She was ready to give up; in fact, Xena had wanted to die. Then along came this...girl. How bravely she had stood up to Draco's men. And now she had evolved from a naive young girl with no clue to the outside world to a poised, confident young woman.
It bothered Xena that people were always underestimating Gabrielle. Those meeting her for the first time usually found her somewhat annoying. She made them uncomfortable with her forthrightness. She would just strike up a conversation with someone like she had known them all their life. And she would talk...and talk...and talk. By the gods the girl did love to talk!
But once past that it was hard for people to resist her. Even the grim and cynical Warrior Princess fell victim to her spell.
These images were being mulled over by Xena when Gabrielle stopped the horses. A broad, sweeping valley was unfolding before them about a league away. "Xena, we're here."
"Yes, we just passed a sign back up the road. Look, it's almost daylight, what do you say we stop here and rest for a while? You know, until people start stirring about. We will need to ask someone for directions if we are going to find Darinius."
"Very well," said Xena.
Gabrielle led her to a spot that the morning dew had mostly missed and they ate a light breakfast. Soon travelers began appearing on the road and once more the two women mounted their horses.
"Keep your eyes open," said Xena. "We will be hitting an outpost soon."
"You mean, like a sentry?"
"Yes. They have checkpoints on every road leading into the valley. We will probably be stopped and asked what our business is here," said Xena.
Gabrielle looked up the road that was now becoming more heavily populated. "But these people seem to be moving freely enough," she said.
"They are not strangers here," said Xena. "We are. They are very wary of strangers here."
"Oh, you mean because..."
"Yes, Gabrielle, this valley was attacked often in the past. I myself was here twice."
Gabrielle knew of the two epic battles Xena and Darinius had fought here. With her bard's eye she could see the two great warriors clashing on those long ago battlefields. How terrifying it must have been! Xena's fierce aggressiveness and courage pitted against Darinius's cool resolve and tactical skill. Gabrielle still shuddered every time she remembered Xena's graphic narration of the horrendous second battle. And now they were both her friends. The delicate threads of life weaved by the Fates were wondrous indeed.
"Halt! Who are you?" The sentry's challenge whisked Gabrielle away from those bloody battlefields.
"Oh, ahh my name is Gabrielle. My friend and I have come to see Darinius. Can you tell us where he lives?"
"Darinius, huh?" grunted the sentry. "Now how would a grubby little runt like you know Darinius? I've never seen you here before."
"What did you say?" demanded Xena. She slid off Argo and began striding in the direction of the man's voice, her temper already at the boiling point. Blind or not, she was not going to let this bastard be disrespectful to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle immediately sensed what was about to happen and quickly dismounted to intervene. "Uh, I can handle this, okay?"
The gentle tug at her elbow and the urgency in Gabrielle's voice managed to calm Xena down--a little.
But she could not let this pass completely without comment. "You've got a big mouth, friend. Maybe if I fattened those lips up some they wouldn't flap so much."
"Xena, really, it's okay," pleaded Gabrielle.
"XENA!" I didn't think you were just some peasant woman," spat the sentry. "You have your nerve coming back here. I lost two brothers to you and your stinking marauders."
How many times has this been repeated to me? thought Xena. Only the subjects changed: son, brother, father, friend. Will there ever be an end to it?
"I am truly sorry about what happened here," said Xena. "Things were...different then."
"Different? Nothings different. My brothers are as dead as they ever were. And I am not alone. Almost everyone in this valley has lost someone to all those damn warlords and especially to you, Xena."
To Gabrielle it was evident the situation was about to explode. She had to do something to diffuse it.
"Please. We are only here to see Darinius. He is a friend of ours."
"And who are you, her slave? growled the sentry.
"No. No I am not her slave. I am her best friend," said Gabrielle.
"Well, the Xena I remember would not be letting some wench like you hang around unless there was some profit in it." The sentry broke into a sly grin. "Maybe I see what your profit is, after all. I'll bet you're her little-- arrrgggh!"
The hand with the crushing grip now on his neck had moved so swiftly the sentry had not even seen it coming. Xena braced her legs and lifted the man up off the ground by his neck.
"I told you once you have a big mouth," Xena literally spat the words out.
Gabrielle had never seen Xena this angry before and she was both fascinated and a little frightened by her display of raw power. She's going to kill him, she thought.
"No! Xena! Gabrielle turned to the sentry, "Here look. I can prove we know him."
Gabrielle ran to Argo and removed a small pouch from the saddlebag.
"Xena! Please put him down. Xeeena!"
Xena gave the gasping man's neck one last hard squeeze and dropped him. The sentry fell like a stone and began gasping for air. Gabrielle removed the contents of her bag and dropped to her knees beside the man.
"Here, see? Darinius gave this to me."
The sentry took the necklace from her and looked it over.
"See?" continued Gabrielle. "The scales. The symbol of Mymalar. And there. The crest of your army."
"It's...it's his all right," coughed the guard. "I guess you do know him. You could have saved us both a lot of trouble it you had shown me this in the first place."
"I'm sorry, I..."
"Gabrielle, don't apologize to this bag of dung," Xena cut her off.
"Let's be on our way." She leaned over at the waist near the sound of the coughing. "If that's all right with you, sir," smirked Xena.
The sentry only nodded in assent.
After they rode a short way Gabrielle dropped back beside Xena. The memory of Xena's startling reaction to a seemingly minor insult still clung to her. "Xena?"
"Why did you get so mad at that guy?"
"I don't know. I guess it was frustration more than anything. Aaand I didn't like his insolent manner toward you."
"I, I thought you were going to kill him there for a moment," said Gabrielle.
"I'm sorry if I frightened you," said Xena. She paused and cocked her ear. "I hear a horse coming. Let's ask for some directions"
Soon the sweeping vista of the famed general's estate lay before them.
"Oh, Xena, it's beautiful," gushed Gabrielle.
As they rode up the long lane that let to the house Gabrielle described the fields, the vineyards, and the massive orchards to her friend.
"I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to leave this place," said Gabrielle. "It has everything. And to think Darinius was away from here for years!"
"Material wealth does not guarantee peace, Gabrielle. Believe me." This was one thing Xena was certain of. Over her years of raiding and looting she had held in her possession literally millions of dinars worth of booty but it had only been a means to an end to her. She could have taken whatever cut she wanted and no one would have dared oppose her but she never did. At last they reached the end of the lane. There the main house stretched out before them.
"I've never seen anything like it," gasped Gabrielle. She had never seen a house with so many rooms in it. And two floors too!
Planted on each side of the house were many different varieties of flowers and in the front was a large circular lawn with a fountain in the middle. The house itself was covered with a type of stone Gabrielle had never seen before "This place must have cost a fortune," she continued.
As they rode up to the front of the house a man stepped out the door and slowly made his way toward them. Gabrielle wondered what unfortunate fate had crippled the man this way. He was one of those individuals whose age is hard to guess. With the balding head and the specks of white in his beard he obviously was no longer a young man but he somehow still had a youthful appearance about him.
He was short, not much taller than Gabrielle, and he had muscular arms and a barrel chest. His face was tanned and Gabrielle wondered what events those brown eyes of his had witnessed during his life.
"Xena, let me do the talking, okay?" whispered Gabrielle.
"Can I help you, ladies?" asked the man.
"Uh, yes. We are looking for Darinius. We were told he lives here," said Gabrielle.
"That is correct, young lady, he does."
"Can we speak with him, please? He knows us."
"Well, you see, he's not here. He has gone to Thessaly to look at some cattle. At least that's where he said he was going. Personally, I think he is getting itchy feet again," grinned the man.
"Did he say when he might return?" asked Gabrielle.
"No. Hard to say with him. The last time he was gone for over three years. Here he has been back only about four months and already lately he's been getting that look in his eye again. I think this place reminds him of Lycidia too much. A sad story there if there ever was one."
"Lycidia, the girl he was to marry?"
"Yeah. She was killed by a raiding party while he was in Sparta. It took something out of him. I think he blames himself; like he should have been here to protect her or something. Did you know he didn't want to be a soldier? With all he's done, I think he would trade it all for Lycidia and a hovel somewhere."
Gabrielle turned her head toward the great orchards lining the back lane.
"How did he amass all this?"
"The people of the valley gave it to him in appreciation. You would not believe the money this place makes each year. Our valley has some of the best farm land in Greece and this is the best of the best. To tell you the truth, he is embarrassed by all this. That's why he hired all us old veterans to work the place for him. He feels part of it is ours, too. Most of us are impaired in some way but we work hard and he pays us a lot more than he should. I don't mind saying, young lady, everybody around here considers this place well earned by him. All they have to do is think about what might have been. That devil Xena or one of those other bastards would have destroyed the whole valley were it not for Darinius." The old soldier grinned and shook his head, "You must forgive me, miss. Once I get to jabberin' I just go on and on."
"I have heard of the great battles fought here," said Xena. "Especially the ones against Xena. They say they were terrible."
"Well, you heard right. Particularly the second one. That's where I got this." The old soldier pivoted to reveal the huge scar traversing the calf of his leg. "Got most of the leg tendons severed in that one. That Xena was mighty tough. They said she had never lost a battle but we got her--twice. I'll say this, though, they were both awful close. If it hadn't been for Darinius..." The mere thought of it made the old veteran unable to finish the sentence.
The man gathered himself and continued, "Like I said, I talk too much. So, uh, you know him, huh? From where?"
"I've known him for some time," said Xena. "Just a few months ago we were able to be of some help to him."
"Well he's the type who never forgets a friend, that's for sure. Like I said before, though, I don't know when he will return."
"We will be on our way, then," said Xena.
Xena cut her off. "No. We must be going."
As they began to turn the horses back up the lane the old veteran put his hand on Xena's horse. "You didn't tell me your names. If Darinius gets back any time soon I'll tell him you stopped by.
"Our names aren't important," said Xena. "Just tell him a couple of his old ship mates were here."
"Ship mates?" chuckled the old soldier. "He does get around."
Xena stared in the direction of the voice. "By the way, I am sorry about your leg."
"Ahh don't feel bad," replied the man. "A fellow gets used to it after a while. Besides it wasn't your fault, now was it?"
Gabrielle waited until they were some distance up the lane before bringing her horse up along side Xena.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Did you hear him, Gabrielle? It wasn't my fault,"
"Xena you mustn't blame yourself."
"You know," said Xena, "I am beginning to think someone is punishing me for my past. And I think I deserve it."
"You're wrong, Xena. You don't deserve this. Look, we will beat this if we have to climb Mount Olympus to do it."
"Gabrielle, there comes a time when one has to face facts. For me that time is now. I'm blind. It looks like I am going to stay that way. I have to determine what I am going to do with the rest of my life."
"What you are going to do? You mean we don't you?" Gabrielle did not at all like the direction this was going.
"No, Gabrielle, I mean me. I am not going to allow you to spend the rest of your life chained to a cripple."
Ares listened to this conversation with sweet anticipation from his hiding place in the orchard. This is it, he thought. This is where Xena dumps the little brat. It's going to work. Oh, she will pine for her little friend for a while but soon enough Xena will turn frustrated and bitter. Later that bitterness will turn to anger and it will then be just a matter of me using the right approach and the old Xena will rise once again.
"What do you mean 'chained'?" demanded Gabrielle. "Xena I could never feel that way toward you. I want to be with you."
"You feel that way now, Gabrielle, but in time you will begin to feel like you are trapped. It's only natural. I want us to remember our friendship as it was and not have it eaten away bit by bit."
"Oh, that was very good, Xena," said Ares to himself. "Keep up the pressure on the brat."
"My feelings for you will never change, Xena. Tell me, if I was the disabled one would you abandon me?"
"Yes, I would," lied Xena. "The road is no place for a handicapped person."
"I don't believe you," said Gabrielle. Two people who have had the experiences together that we have don't just kiss off each other when the going gets tough for one of them."
"Gabrielle, you are only making this harder. Now listen, I want you to take me to the oracle at Delphi and leave me there. I might be able to find out what is in store for me."
"I'll take you there, if you want, but I am not going to leave you."
Xena decided it was time to play her last card. "Gabrielle, are you really that stupid?" shouted Xena. "Can't you get it through your head I don't want you around any more? I am sick of your nagging! I don't need you!"
Excellent!, thought Ares.
To Xena it felt like her heart was going to crack wide open. Oh, Gabrielle, forgive me, she thought. Xena waited for the expected protest but there was only silence. She strained her senses to their limits to pick up any indication of a reaction. At last she heard very soft intermittent sniffling. She's crying and she doesn't want me to know.
DAMN YOU! Xena cursed herself. All I have ever done is cause pain. Even to those I love. And taking into account all the deeds of her evil past, Xena never hated herself as much as she did now. I am only doing what's best for her, she tried to convince herself.
"Well, aren't you going to say anything? demanded Xena. Be strong, she urged herself.
Gabrielle's voice revealed only the slightest hint of a crack as she softly spoke, "I know what you are trying to do. It's not going to work. And we are not going to Delphi, either. We are going to the Amazon nation and we are going to stay there for as long as necessary."
Xena angrily dismounted Argo, walked over to Gabrielle and roughly pulled her off her horse.
"Gabrielle, don't disobey me," she warned in her best warlord tones. "You're lucky. There was a time when I killed those who were disobedient."
"THEN KILL ME!"
Instantly Xena sensed Gabrielle's hand rushing toward her. The handle of a knife was being thrust into the palm of her hand. Using all her strength Gabrielle placed one hand over the fist Xena held the knife in and placed her other hand around Xena's wrist and pulled the knife point up to her own throat.
"Kill me, Xena!" she repeated. "I'd rather be dead than see you this way. DO IT! You'll be doing me a favor. I mean it."
Xena realized her plan had failed. She stood there for what seemed like an eternity just blinking and trying to form the words. Finally she managed to speak, "Gabrielle, I'm...I'm so sorry. I didn't mean any of it, you know that. I was only thinking of you."
No longer able to hold back the tears Xena wrenched her hand free from Gabrielle and threw down the knife. She pulled Gabrielle close to her and hugged her so tightly she could hear the air being forced from the girl's lungs.
"I know you were," whispered Gabrielle as she lay her head on Xena's chest. "But we will get through this together. Xena, I don't care what happens to you I will always love you."
Gabrielle's warm tears were falling on Xena's breast and tracking down inside her dress. Xena placed two fingers on Gabrielle's face and, upon finding her lips, gently kissed them.
"Gabrielle, every night I thank the gods for sending you to me. You're my life, you know that? Before I would hurt you I would cut off my own hand."
"No. NO! It's not supposed to be this way!" Ares could not figure out what had gone wrong. "Xena get rid of the little pest. She's weak. She's keeping you from your destiny. Xeeena!"
"I love you. I always have. "You know," Xena broke into sheepish grin, "I, I have been more afraid of you than any king or warlord."
"Afraid? Of meee? C'mon Xena."
"I mean it. I've wanted to tell you how I feel for a long time but I was scared. Do you believe it? Me, the "Warrior Princess". I was terrified of losing you if I told you how I truly felt."
"Remember that night on Kathos, you know, when we were waiting for Iolaus and Darinius to return? I almost told you then. If Autolycus had not been there I would have, I guess. After that things sort of got in the way and well..."
Gabrielle looked up and touched the warrior on the cheek. "Xena, I have known all the time. I feel your love like a warm blanket wrapped around me. You make me feel so safe. And like for the first time in my life I matter."
"Gabrielle, there's never been anybody like you." Xena kissed the girl on the top of the head and finally released her powerful embrace. "Okay, we will do it your way, but only after one more suggestion from me."
"That on the way we stop in Templaris. There is a place there where we can sell my stuff. It looks like I am not going to need it anymore and we are going to need the money. It's a long way to the Amazon territory."
"Xena, you don't..."
"Gabrieeellle," smiled Xena.
"Okay, okay, no more arguments."
Ares was beside himself. What kind of power does that little wench have on Xena? he wondered. How can that nobody turn such a great warrior into so much mush? Well--I won't give up. I can't. I have got to have her.
"Did you get what we decided on?" asked Xena.
"Yes." But Gabrielle had not. The fat merchant had only offered half of what Xena had told Gabrielle to settle for and when she had tried to leave with Xena's things he set a couple of his goons on her to scare her.
Caught in closed quarters and without her staff, Gabrielle was no match for them. They took the beautiful sword Darinius had given Xena, Xena's clothes, Gabrielle's chain, everything. All for half the price Xena wanted. The merchant told her she was lucky he didn't just take it all instead of paying her his pitiful price.
Gabrielle was ashamed for lying to Xena but she not dare tell her what really happened. She knew if she did Xena would try to do something about it. It's not worth risking her being hurt, thought Gabrielle. I'll make it up to her. I just won't eat so much.
The only thing of value she had left was Xena's wedding bracelet. Gabrielle had substituted her chain for it. They had even taken Gabrielle's horse and she had told Xena she had to throw it in to seal the deal.
"You should not have sold the horse, Gabrielle. It will take us longer now to reach our destination.
"I told you, Xena, he would not take anything unless the horse went also. Besides it's extra money for us."
"Uh huuuh. You forget one little thing. Remember Darvax?"
Gabrielle had indeed forgotten Darvax. He had not been heard from since that day almost three weeks ago.
"Maybe he's given up trying to find us," said Gabrielle. "Maybe he went home."
Xena was right, of course. She always was. Gabrielle's lack of a horse was slowing them down. They were still traveling in spite of the fact there had been no sign of Darvax or anyone else following them. Xena, however, was taking no chances.
Ten days later found them nearing the Amazon territory. To Xena it seemed Gabrielle was becoming more and more reserved. In fact, the last few days she had hardly spoken at all. Xena knew there was something wrong but she couldn't put her finger on it.
Xena could not know that in the last weeks Gabrielle had barely eaten enough to keep her alive. She was giving most of her share to Xena. Normally finding food was not that difficult but the drought had really wrecked havoc on the land. Game was scarce, crops were poor, the orchards had not produced much, and the rivers and streams were well below their normal levels.
Gabrielle was glad they were only a couple of days away from their goal now. She could feel herself weakening noticeably but she felt she could hold out that long. It will be good to see Ephiny again, she thought.
Later that afternoon Xena was awakened by Argo's whinnying. "Gabrielle?
Gabrielle? Something was wrong, Xena could feel it. "Gabrielle, where are you? Are you all right?" Then she heard it.
Someone's here, she thought.
A myriad of colors exploded in Xena's brain as the club found its mark on her head.
"We got her, Darvax."
"Good. Now make sure she is properly secured. I don't want any surprises," said Darvax. He walked over to where two of his men were holding Gabrielle. "Well, you're not so tough now are you, little girl?"
Darvax backhanded her across the mouth twice and, seizing her by the hair, pulled her face close to his. "Now, harlot, I'm going to show you what happens to those who give me so much trouble. First, though, you will provide me with some fun before you die. And big, bad Xena won't be able to help you this time."
Gabrielle just managed to pucker her cheeks up to spit on him but a big fist caught her on the chin and her senses, too, were engulfed in blackness.
Gabrielle did not know how long she had been unconscious. She was still too groggy to really think straight and all was aware of for certain was the awful ringing in her ears. It wasn't bad as the last time but is was bad enough. And this time Xena was not there to relieve her pain. XENA! The fog began to clear from Gabrielle's brain.
As her eyes began to focus she could make out several dark forms moving around her. She was suspended in the air with her arms tied over her head at the wrists by a rope slung over a tree limb. and her arms were almost numb.
"Well well, so you are not dead after all, huh? That's good. I would have been sorry to lose the chance to kill you myself," sneered Darvax.
"Let her go, Darvax," said Xena, "I'm the one you want."
Gabrielle was shocked by the pleading tone in Xena's voice. "Xena, are you all right?"
"Quiet!" roared Darvax. Again he backhanded Gabrielle across the face, this time splitting open her lip. All the activity in the camp now ceased and the only thing to be heard was the soft moan from Gabrielle.
Xena broke the silence. "Darvax, when you and I meet in Tartarus I am going to rip your guts out a hundred times a day till the end of time." The rage within her almost caused her to choke on the words.
"Maybe so, Xena. But one thing is for sure. You will have to wait for me because it looks like you will be there first. And your little friend her will cross over before either of us. You see, I know what she means to you and I want to see your face as she slowly dies before you. I know you are blind, Xena. Yes, I know. These clods would never have taken you otherwise. But you are not deaf. And the girl's screams will serve me just as well."
Darvax cast his eye to the sun sinking behind the hills. "I really should kill the both of you tonight but I want you to have all night to ponder the fun we're going to have here tomorrow. He ran a finger across Gabrielle's cheek. "She is a pretty thing. And some of these men have not had a woman for sometime. Sooo..."
"Darvax, you son of a bitch," hissed Xena.
"Pleasant dreams, Warrior Princess," grinned Darvax.
Soon the camp was quiet. Xena's hearing had grown so acute she could pick up almost imperceptible sounds. She listened for any indication of movement in the camp but there seemed to be none. No sound at all could be heard from Gabrielle's direction, either. This and the cooling breeze on her face told her that it was now night. Xena racked her brain for some way to get Gabrielle out of there. I've got to get loose, she thought.
Darvax's men were so afraid of Xena they had not dared to use the same method to bind her up that they had used on Gabrielle. They not only wrapped her arms around a tree and tied her wrists together but then they coiled an entire rope around her torso and tied it off. Xena began to shake her body to try to ascertain how tight the ropes were. For hours she struggled against the ropes. By continuously applying and releasing pressure to the ropes she hoped to eventually stretch them just enough to free herself. Meanwhile, her efforts were not unobserved.
To say Ares was not happy with the current state of affairs was an understatement. He did not take pleasure in seeing Xena this way. What had gone wrong? These mortals had the maddening habit of not doing what was expected of them. He had not counted on that idiot Darvax becoming mixed up in his scheme. And Xena. Why had he not been able to bust up her relationship with the girl?
"What is it that binds them together so tightly?"
"It's called love, Ares."
Ares was so engrossed in his own thoughts he had not sensed her presence. "Artemis, what are you doing here?"
"I've come to admire the mighty God of War's handiwork. Tell me, Ares, is this what you wanted? The great Xena and her young friend doomed to die a death not fit for swine?"
"I did not count on that fool Darvax interfering," said Ares. "But Xena had her chance. She should have gotten rid of the girl like I wanted." Ares turned to the goddess and clinched his fists. "Why does she cling to that nothing so fiercely?"
"I told you, Ares. Love." Artemis swept her arm toward Xena. "Look at her. See how she struggles against her bindings. She will fight to her last breath for Gabrielle."
"All right. All right. Xena loves her. But why? She is so unworthy of Xena."
"Not to Xena she isn't," replied Artemis. "And not to anyone who knows her."
"That brat is just a snotty nosed kid who forced herself on Xena," scowled Ares.
"Ares, I never realized how dense you really are. Don't you see they are of one soul now? Tell me, are you proud of what you have done? Is this what the great God of War has been reduced to? Petty vendettas against individual mortals?" Does he not have more important ways to pass time?"
Xena was one of my greatest disciples. I only wanted her to return to me."
"She will never return to you. She has found another path. Now is she going to have to die before her true time because of your meddling?
"What do you care?" asked Ares. "What is your interest in all this?"
"You are not the only one interested in Xena," said Artemis. "Besides, Gabrielle is an Amazon princess and as you know the Amazons are special to me."
"I won't save her," protested Ares weakly.
"You don't have to 'save' her. Just give Xena back her sight. She can take care of the rest. Well...Ares?"
Eos had done her work particularly well that morning. The sun was beginning its slow ascent in the cloudless sky and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful autumn day.
"Well, Xena, it's going to be a beautiful day to die," said Darvax.
"Go right ahead, Darvax. Don't let me stop you."
"Ahh, I didn't know the Warrior Princess had such a sense of humor. Let's see how funny you are after we tear your little friend apart."
"Darvax, let her go. She's has done nothing do deserve this."
"Oh, how touching," smirked Darvax. "The mighty Xena pleading for a stupid peasant girl. Well, it's time." Darvax pointed to Gabrielle. "Cut her down."
The soldier nearest Gabrielle quickly cut her ropes. No longer supported and too weak to stand on her own she dropped in a motionless lump on the ground.
"Looks like this one is about dead already," remarked the soldier.
"I don't care," said Darvax. With his foot he pushed Gabrielle on her back and spread her legs. "Just as long as she doesn't die before I have her."
One of the soldiers drew nearer to see what was happening and stopped beside Xena's tree. She knew it was now or never. The soldier never new what hit him. Xena's right hand lashed out, caught the man around the neck, and smashed his skull against the tree. As he sagged to the ground Xena managed to grab his sword by the hilt, allowing his downward momentum to pull the sword free.
Three swift chops and she was free. In their lustful excitement the others now surrounding Darvax and Gabrielle were not aware their own personal Nemesis was loose. They were shaken from their erotic reverie by the most terrifying sound most of them had ever heard. These were men who, for the most part, had seen plenty of fighting and heard all sorts of yells and war cries. But the resounding cry originating from behind them was one like none other. It was primitive, primordial, even beastlike; rage in its purest form.
"It's XENA. She's free!"
"Don't worry, you jellyfish," said Darvax. "She's blind, remember? She can't do us much harm."
"I've got a surprise for you, Darvax. You son of a bitch!" said Xena, gritting her teeth. To prove her point she snatched up the dagger from the fallen soldier's belt and, hurling it from a good twenty-five paces away, neatly cut the rope tethering Argo.
"She's not blind!" shouted one of the men.
"You got that right, genius," sneered Xena. "I hope you dung heaps have made your peace because this is your last day on earth." Xena's face was now livid with blood lust. Already she had determined not one of these bastards would be allowed to live.
"Get her, she's only one woman!" screamed Darvax.
Xena gave a short two note whistle and Argo came charging through the crowd toward her and trampled three or four men in the process
"Kill them!" pleaded Darvax.
His men moved forward but it was plain most of them did not have their heart in it. As Argo drew along side Xena she reached into the saddlebag and retrieved her chakram. At once the beautiful but deadly weapon was launched to do its grim work. No fewer than five men were killed in its first pass.
By now three men had reached Xena and they managed to hold her up for all of ten seconds before, they too, were dead. Now Xena began her irresistible march to Gabrielle's side. She somersaulted up on Argo's back and charged those men still standing beside her friend. Her work was soon over. Some were crushed under Argo's hooves, or had their heads caved in by her powerful kicks. More were killed by Xena's second throw of the chakram and still more perished by her relentless sword.
By the time she reached Gabrielle there were only four men standing. In terror they fled the woods and ran out into the open field toward the road. Xena vaulted off Argo and calmly picked up a bow and a quiver of arrows one of her victims had no more use for. She took her time and aimed carefully knowing they could not outrun the range. One by one the terrified soldiers' backs were bisected by an arrow sent screaming at them by Xena's bow.
"What a pity," sighed Ares. "She is one of a kind."
"Ares, you did the right thing," said Artemis softly.
"Well don't think I am going to make a habit of it," he reminded her.
Only an occasional groan from one of the fallen men served to break the silence in the still morning air. For Xena, however, it was not over yet. Slowly, methodically, she checked out each of them. Each one who was, indeed, still alive received a sword thrust thought the heart.
To Xena it was not the idea she might have been slain by these vermin that enraged her so. It was the knowledge of what they would have done to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle." she whispered. That sweet word snapped Xena out of her visions of hate and death. "Gabrielle!" Xena rushed to the young woman's side and for the first time saw the condition she was really in. Gabrielle was never very big and now, to Xena's horror, she discovered the girl was practically nothing but bones. The full meaning of it was like a burning sword through Xena's heart. Gabrielle had literally been starving herself for her love. That's why she had been so quiet. That's why she had been so vague about the food! The poor girl was trying to conserve her strength.
"Oh, Gabrielle!" Xena gathered Gabrielle up in her arms and sat there all morning, rocking her and washing her face with tears that would not stop. Late that evening Gabrielle awoke and Xena managed to get a little food in her. She was careful not to try to make her eat too much. That night, as Gabrielle slept, Xena sat staring into the fire wondering what she had ever done to deserve someone like her. The little bard's courage, loyalty, and love seemed to have no bounds.
"Xena!!" Gabrielle awoke and bolted upright, staring into the darkness.
Xena was beside her in an instant. Her strong arm cradled Gabrielle's head on her shoulders. "It's all right, Gabrielle."
"I...I dreamed you were--dead. I..."
"I'm right here," whispered Xena. "I'm here. I'll always be here." Xena kissed her on the top of the head.
Soon Gabrielle laid her head in Xena's lap and went back to sleep. Only at the first rays of dawn did Xena gently lay the saddle bag under Gabrielle's head and rise to make preparations for the coming day.
"Ummm this is good. What is it again?" Gabrielle was sitting by the smoldering fire with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and having a marvelous time with dried beef and bread Xena had liberated from the soldiers.
"It's called food," said Xena wryly. "Food. You remember. That stuff I'm always reminding you to put in your mouth."
"Oh, yeah, it's all coming back to me now." And there it was. For the first time in what seemed like an eon Xena saw Gabrielle smile. It had been worth the wait, she decided. "Hey, go slow with that or you will get sick," reminded Xena.
"What do you suppose you made your sight come back like that?"
"I don't know. It just returned to me as I stood there tied to that tree."
"How did you get free?" asked Gabrielle.
"I worked all night exerting pressure on the ropes. By morning I was able to get a hand free."
Gabrielle looked at Xena's wrists and saw the ugly raw spots on them created by her battle with the rope. "Oh, Xena, you're hurt." It was pure instinct on her part to rise to help Xena but her still rubbery legs would not obey her and she plopped back to the ground.
"I'm all right," assured Xena. "Now don't try that again, okay?"
"Aren't you going to ask me what happened here?"
Gabrielle, of course, had counted the twenty-six bodies strewn all around her but she didn't know if she wanted to know what occurred here or not. She lowered her head and poked at the ashes of the fire with a stick. "I figured you would tell me if you wanted me to know."
But Xena did not reply. Something began nagging at Gabrielle and she decided that she had to know after all. "Xena?"
"Do you remember your promise?" Gabrielle was referring to Xena's long ago promise not to return to her old ways should something happen to Gabrielle.
"Yes, I remember," replied Xena softly.
"Is--is that what happened here? Did you think I was dead and..." The rest of it hurt too much for Gabrielle to finish.
Xena knew she had to explain this to her once and for all. "No, I knew you weren't dead. But I want you to understand something. I am not going to allow anyone to harm you. Now whether that means pinching some drunk's nose or killing twenty-six men it makes no difference to me. I'll do as much as I have to do to keep you safe. These bastards hurt you. They were going to kill you. I could not allow that to happen. Not as long as I have a breath in me."
Xena decided to omit the part about Darvax's lust. Darvax!
Xena quickly scanned the dead men and realized he was not among them. No matter. She would attend to him in her own good time.
Gabrielle wrapped a small hand around Xena's big bicep and gently squeezed. "I'm sorry, I should know by now you always do what you think is right."
Xena placed the palm of her hand on Gabrielle's cheek and looked her straight in the eye. "Gabrielle, don't ever be sorry for saying what you think." She then flashed that little half smile Gabrielle knew so well and added, "It keeps me on my toes. Now get some rest and, if you feel up to it, we'll get out of here this evening."
A couple of hours before sunset Xena hoisted Gabrielle up on Argo's back and they departed that scene of so much death. As they made for the road Gabrielle saw the four men lying in the field each with an arrow protruding from his back. Obviously this was Xena's work but to Gabrielle's surprise it did not bother her. Xena had decided it was necessary and that was good enough for her.
With the slow pace Xena set they did not travel very far before dark but her main goal was to remove Gabrielle from the site of all that death. That night Gabrielle slept much more peacefully and even Xena managed to get some much needed rest in the quiet hours before dawn.
The next morning found the two of them moving along at a leisurely pace. Toward noon Xena's senses began to warn her of someone approaching. Before long she saw two men coming toward them on horseback with another horse trailing behind.
"Do you think it's trouble?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't know." Xena pulled out the sword she had brought with her, walked out in front of Argo, and waited. Soon the forms of the horses began to take shape.
"Is that...no. It can't be." Xena felt her eyes must be playing tricks on her again. Gabrielle, however, quickly confirmed her observations.
"Xena! It's Hercules!"
And so it was. Xena naturally assumed the other rider was Iolaus but she soon saw it was Darinius. Hercules and Darinius likewise had to blink for a moment to make certain the two women on the road were really who they appeared to be.
"Xena!" shouted Hercules.
Xena answered by raising her fist high in the air. Gabrielle began waving like a madman and almost lost her balance on the horse. Soon the four friends were embracing in the middle of the dusty road. After seeing his friends were really all right Darinius finally allowed himself to be upset with them.
"Where in Tartarus have you guys been? Do you realize I have spent the last five weeks looking for you?"
Hercules cocked his head toward him and smiled, "I have had to listen to that ever since we joined up."
"Well it's true," shouted Darinius.
Xena saw this was not another one of his jokes. He was mad at them." You guys left two days before I got back," said Darinius. "I knew you were in trouble when Mageron described you. Why didn't you stay there and wait for me?
"We kind of got the feeling we were not welcome," said Gabrielle.
"Well, I straightened that out," said Darinius. "I made it known that Xena was no longer an enemy and, whatever their feelings toward her, she would always be welcome in my home."
"Xena," said Hercules, "Hippocrates said you were blind. What happened?"
"Hercules, I still don't know. One night my sight was gone and, just like that, it returned. Why? How? I don't know."
"Are you feeling okay now?" asked Hercules.
"Yeah, I'm fine," said Xena. "Gabrielle is the one who needs help."
Darinius had been eyeing Gabrielle keenly and he did not like what he saw. He cupped his hand and passed it up and down the length of her arm. "Gabrielle, you are nothing but bones. What happened?"
"It's a long story," she answered. "I'll tell it to you when I'm up to it."
But Darinius was still not satisfied. He noticed her bruised face and split lips and his eyes narrowed. He pointed to her face. "How did you get that?" he asked quietly. "Somebody do that do you?"
"Darvax," said Xena.
"Darvax, huh?" Darinius' demeanor at once altered from extreme agitation to something almost serene. He turned to Hercules and grinned like a cat who had just swallowed a bird.
"Well, well, isn't that a coincidence?" asked Hercules. He too, seemed to be amused by Xena's mention of Darvax.
"What is it with you two anyway?" she demanded.
Without a word Hercules walked back to the horse they had been leading and removed the blanket covering the lump on the horse's back.
"Yep." Darinius still had that odd grin on his face. "We caught him trying to steal one of our horses last night."
"It seems he had just about ridden his into the ground," added Hercules.
Darinius bent over at the waist and looked up at the prisoner. "So, you hurt Gabrielle, eh? A real big man."
"No wonder he was in such a hurry," said Hercules. "I'm surprised he is still alive."
"She killed my men!", screamed Darvax. His mind would never be the same after witnessing first hand the full, horrific fury of the Warrior Princess.
Darinius, however, was not sympathetic. "So you ran on them, huh?
"Twenty-six men....dead!" It was the last rational thing Darvax would ever say.
Darinius pulled the corners of his mouth down and cocked his head. Xena had never seen him this way. He was livid at the idea Gabrielle had been beaten by this man. Well, she thought, he's not the only one.
"We were going to turn this slug into the authorities in the next town," said Darinius, "but maybe that's all changed. Gabrielle, just say the word and this rat will never see another sunset."
"Darinius," warned Hercules.
Gabrielle ran the back of her hand across her forehead and sighed, "No, just turn him in. That's all I ask. There's been enough death."
Xena felt the same way Darinius did but she knew Gabrielle was right. "Okay, if that's what you want," said Darinius brightly. And just like that his demeanor changed. "Say, Gabrielle, I'll bet you are hungry. You should see the stuff we have. We even have some of your favorite, you know, nut bread. Or maybe you'd like an apple, or a pear. How about some dried beef. I know, how about some pig's feet!"
"I'll take all of them," giggled Gabrielle. "Except for the pig's feet. Ugh!"
"Well, that's good because we don't have pig's feet anyway," grinned Darinius.
He took her by the hand and led her back to the bulging saddlebags on his horse as Xena and Hercules stood watching them. Darinius was on a roll now and Gabrielle's laughter was absolute music to her Xena's ears. He always could make her laugh, she thought.
"I guess it was pretty bad," said Hercules, finally. "I mean, you being blind and all."
"Yeah. I hated feeling helpless like that." Xena turned to see Darinius piling food up in Gabrielle's arms. "You know, ah...Gabrielle, she ah..." Xena was struggling mightily to hold back her tears. She did not want Hercules to see her this way.
"I know." Hercules saw how uncomfortable she was. "Wondrous, isn't it, the things friends will do for one another?"
Nothing more was said between the two great warriors. They merely stood staring into each others eyes.
"Here, Gabrielle, you take this stuff and let's go sit under that tree over there and eat ourselves silly," said Darinius. "You go on ahead and I'll get a blanket for us to sit on."
As Gabrielle made her way to the tree Darinius quickly walked around to where he could see Darvax's face. He made sure Xena and Hercules were not looking and he bent over. "Darvax, you are a dead man," he whispered. "It won't be today but in my mind you are already dead. I'll kill you for what you did to her. I don't care what Hercules said."
As he turned away he could not resist delivering one solid fist to the back of the prisoner's head. "Just consider that a down payment, friend." He looked up, saw Gabrielle had made it to the tree, and yelled, "Hey, Gabrielle, do you like figs?"
That evening the four friends made camp under some birch trees lining the road. Hercules tied Darvax to one of the trees in the same manner that had been used on Xena. Most of the afternoon had been spent resting and catching up on what each of them had been doing since their last adventure together.
By late evening it was plain to see that Gabrielle was the one reaping the most benefits from their crisp autumn day together. The combination of good friends and the fresh, clean food had worked wonders on her. By nightfall she was even relating to the others the new story she was working on that told of their trip to Kathos.
"There they were, the gallant little band blindly groping their way through that dark, stinking temple; desperately searching for the mighty Hercules. When, suddenly, they were attacked by twenty blood thirsty minotaurs."
"Oh," interrupted Darinius, "so it's twenty now, is it? Gabrielle, aren't you laying it on a little thick?"
"No," replied Gabrielle sweetly. "Twenty is a nice round number. It will be easier for people to remember. Don't you know anything about story telling?"
"My apologies, oh great bard. It is true I am ignorant in such matters," laughed Darinius.
"Apology accepted, ignorant one," said Gabrielle with mock smugness.
"If you don't let her finish," sighed Xena, "we will be up all night."
"Go on," urged Hercules.
She skillfully brought the tale to its dramatic climax and finished the story with a powerful account of their good byes in Cataria. "And so, all the warriors from the mighty Xena to the lowly Joxer, having successfully completed their heroic mission, once again returned to the fabric of their daily lives and waited for the next call to help their fellow man." Gabrielle paused to let her final words sink in before asking, "So, what do you think?"
"It's marvelous," allowed Hercules.
"I especially liked the part about old Autolycus getting zapped by the cage," said Darinius. "I wish I had seen that."
"Stupid cage," mumbled Xena.
"What was that?" asked Hercules.
"That stupid cage destroyed my sword," said Xena.
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that," said Gabrielle, snapping her finger. "I'll have to put that part in my next version."
"Oh, so you didn't like it's replacement?" teased Darinius.
"I didn't say that," said Xena. "It just takes time to get used to the balance and feel of a new one."
Hercules could see Xena's mind was on other things; things that were best forgotten. He decided to try to put a little fire back into those enchanting blue eyes of hers.
"Uh, Xena, I was wondering."
Hercules pointed at her peasant's dress and grinned, "Is this a new look for you, I mean is the rustic look in this year?"
Darinius never missed a beat and chirped in, "I like the bare feet, Hercules. Kind of does something to a man, don't you think?"
"You guys are just a barrel of laughs, aren't you?" retorted Xena in that dry tone she used so well. "Well that's just like men; heroes one minute, fools the next."
At this little exchange Gabrielle put her hand over her mouth. Hercules was the first to notice her discomfort.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?" he asked.
"It's not Xena's fault. I--I had to...to sell her things. We were hungry and...I--"
Gabrielle's green eyes began to well up and the tears began streaming down her face. Hercules put his massive arm around her shoulder and gently squeezed.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. It was a bad joke."
"It's all right," said Xena. "Those were just possessions. They aren't important. What is important is that you are here. We are here."
"But Xena I betrayed you," said Gabrielle.
"What kind of a crack is that?" demanded Xena.
"I let that guy cheat me. You were depending on me and I let you down. I'm so sorry."
Xena knelt down in front of the bard and lifted up her chin with her finger. "Don't you ever say that again. Do you hear? When I needed you you were there--in spite of my being a blockhead. I will always be grateful. And Gabrielle?"
"Yes?" she sniffed.
"If you ever call yourself a traitor again, I'll really give you something to cry about, got it?"
"Got it," answered Gabrielle, laughing and crying at the same time.
They sat there in silence for some time watching the fire burn, each in his own way thanking the gods things had turned out all right. Finally Gabrielle broke the silence.
'Umm Hercules, where is Iolaus?"
"Ahh," replied Hercules, with a dismissive wave of his hand, "after we finished our business in Macedonia he decided to stick around and check out the fishing. The drought was not nearly so bad up there and the locals said the fish were really biting so that's all he needed to hear.
"How did you find out about...us?" asked Xena.
"Hippocrates." answered Hercules. "He learned I was in the area and he sent word for me to come and see him. He told me all about your misfortune and that you were being hunted so I knew I had to find you." He jerked his thumb toward Darinius. "That's when I ran into this guy."
"And it's a good thing, too," said Darinius. "My negotiations with that fat ass merchant were starting to break down. Oh well, Templaris never was one of my favorite places anyway."
"What are you talking about?" asked Xena.
But Gabrielle knew. "You don't mean--?" she gasped.
"Gabrielle, you are too smart for me," smiled Darinius.
He got up, walked to his horse, and untied a bundle attached to the front of his saddle. He carried the bundle to Xena, held it up in front of her, and softly said, "I believe this is yours, Warrior Princess."
Xena opened the bundle to reveal her boots, armor, dress, gauntlets, and sword.
"I don't know what to say," she said finally.
"Friends don't have to say anything," said Hercules.
"Besides," added Darinius, "that feed sack you're wearing does nothing for you. But the credit should go to Hercules. He was the one that took care of the merchant's two goons. Seems the guy didn't like the price I offered him."
Xena nodded to Hercules and he responded by folding his arms and dropping his head the way he always did when someone praised him.
"So, what are you going to do now?" asked Hercules.
"I'm going to take Gabrielle to Hippocrates and have him check her out. Make sure she's okay."
"After she is well enough, I am going to take her to the Hestian Springs." Xena lifted Gabrielle's chin up with the crook of her finger. "The springs. I promised, remember?"
"I remember," said Gabrielle.
"Now let me see," continued Darinius. "I keep thinking I'm forgetting something." He snapped his finger and reached inside his tunic. "Oh, yeah, now I remember, " he grinned and pulled out the chain bracelet he had given to Gabrielle in Cataria. He placed the chain in the palm of Gabrielle's hand and closed both his hands on top of hers. For a moment he alternated looking between Xena and Gabrielle.
After a moment he stood and smiled sheepishly, "Well, I gotta go. Nature is calling, you know."
Xena watched him disappear into the darkness of the trees and shook her head. " And to think I used to want to kill him." She then fixed her gaze on Hercules. "So, what are you going to do now?"
"Go to Thebes and wait for Iolaus. We are to meet there in about a week." Hercules' smile left his face and he went on, "Xena this must have been terrible for you. I mean, for someone like you not to able to--"
"It was bad," Xena cut him off. "After a while I didn't want to go on. But something good did come out of all this."
"What good could have possible come out of it?" asked Hercules.
"I finally learned I have friends I can truly count on if I ever need them," she answered.
"You, Darinius, Hippocrates....Gabrielle."
Suddenly Gabrielle lifted her head off its resting place on Xena's shoulder. "Oh, Xena, remember the day before all this started? You and I were talking about that very subject, remember?"
"Yes, I do," said Xena.
The still night was interrupted by Darinius crashing through the underbrush. "Whoa! I thought some monster had hold of me there for a minute."
Hercules broke into a broad grin, Gabrielle began to giggle, and Xena could only shake her head.
"Go to sleep, Darinius, before you break your neck," she smiled.
The next morning found them preparing to go their separate ways once again. Hercules still did not trust Darinius to be alone with Darvax so he offered to take him up the road to the magistrate in the next town. Darinius had not protested and serenely given his assent.
Hercules shook hands with Gabrielle and Darinius and when Xena offered hers, he neatly sidestepped it and kissed her lips. In the blink of an eye he was mounted on his horse and, with Darvax trailing behind, was gone.
"So what are you going to do now," Xena asked Darinius.
"Me? I'm going home. I've got some company coming"
"Company?" asked Gabrielle. "Anyone we know?"
"Autolycus," he answered.
"Yeah, I've offered him a job. Trying to make an honest man out of him, you know. He won't take it though. He likes the adventurous life too much. As for me.." Darinius put his hand on his stomach and grimaced, "adventure gives me heartburn."
"Yeaaah, riiight," smirked Xena.
"I forgot to ask," said Gabrielle. "How did Joxer do with his sword lessons?"
Darinius shook his head and laughed, "Well, he will never be another Xena but I think he learned enough not to cut his own foot off, either."
Again, Gabrielle laughed. He can do it to her every time, thought Xena.
But the cheerful look departed Darinius' face and was replaced by a very somber one as he touched Gabrielle on the arm. " Promise me the next time I see you there won't be any bones sticking out of you, okay?" Gabrielle, I almost died when I first saw you like this."
"Okay," smiled Gabrielle. "I promise."
"You guys mean the world to me and I want to do something for you," he continued.
"Xena, last night you mentioned something about going to the Hestian Springs?"
"Not far from Hippocrates' temple lie the Eulsian Springs. They make the ones at Hestia look like cess pools."
"But I thought only royalty could go there," protested Gabrielle.
"You just show them your necklace and tell them I sent you. They will take care of the rest. Stay as long as you want. My treat."
"Ohhh, Xena, can we?"
"Sure, why not?" replied Xena. "After we see Hippocrates first."
"Oh, all right," said Gabrielle, impatiently.
"And, uh, one more thing, Xena," said Darinius.
"Weeell, times being what they are, it doesn't hurt for one to have a, ahem, nest egg."
"You're not going to--"
Before Xena could finish Darinius pulled a fair sized leather pouch from his saddle bag and tossed it to her.
"There's about ten thousand dinars in there," he said. See that the bard gets fattened up a little, okay? And from the looks of it you could stand to gain a few pounds yourself."
Darinius mounted his horse and turned it in the direction Hercules had taken.
"Take care of yourself," said Xena.
"Darinius, you're the best," said Gabrielle.
"If you gals are ever in my neck of the woods again come on up and see me sometime. And if I'm not there just throw down your stuff in any room you like and make yourselves at home. Mageron will take care of you."
He touched his hand to his forehead, said a final good bye and he was gone. The two of them watched until he had disappeared around the bend.
"Good bye," whispered Gabrielle.
"So do you want to ride?" asked Xena.
"Not right now, I feel pretty good."
They walked in silence for about a league before Xena turned to her. "Gabrielle, do you remember what I said?"
"Remember that night you were so mad at me you said you wanted to slug me?" asked Xena. "And I said if I recovered you could?"
"Well, here's your chance."
"Oh, Xena, I was just blowing off--"
"No, c'mon. A promise is a promise," said Xena. "I deserve it."
"Okay, if you say so."
Xena spread her legs wide and braced herself for the expected blow. "Okay," she nodded. "I'm ready."
Gabrielle spit into both hands and gleefully rubbed them together. She balled up her hand into a fist. "Okay Xena, close your eyes now."
Xena closed her eyes and waited.
With a glow that only love can bring Gabrielle smiled and tiptoed to bring her lips up to Xena's. The girl kissed the Warrior Princess tenderly and found herself enfolded in Xena's strong arms. Xena looked down at the emaciated woman-child with the bruised face and the split lips and decided Gabrielle had never looked more beautiful to her.
Gabrielle again smiled, laid her head on Xena's breast, and whispered loudly, "Gotcha!"
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