by Eva Allen



They broke camp in the gray light of dawn, Xena packing their gear
while Gabrielle practiced with her staff. Then they set off, riding
double on Argo, trying to make as much time as possible. Xena was
afraid to push the mare too hard, though, especially as the road began
to wind upwards, into the foothills of the Mystic Mountains. So after a
while, they took turns riding, and part of the time both women walked.
When they took a break for lunch, Xena wandered off into a nearby
meadow with her chakram in hand and returned a short time later with
three headless partridges. "I thought we should take Elkton a little
something for supper," she told Gabrielle with a grin. "I just hope
he's a better cook than either of us!"
"I hope so, too," Gabrielle said. "Do I have time to practice with
my staff before we get started again?"
"Just for a couple of minutes," Xena said, and sat down to eat a
wedge of cheese.
"Do you think we'll run into some more bad guys?"
"I sincerely hope not."
"But I want to fight them! Do you think I'm good enough yet?"
"I think you could probably do a little damage." She crammed the
rest of the cheese into her mouth and stood up. "Here. Let me show you
how to block a blow from a sword." Then drawing her blade, she let the
bard practice parrying different types of thrusts.
"Okay, that's enough," she said after a few minutes. "We've got to
get going again. Do you want to ride or walk?"
"I'll walk, and that way I can go on practicing while I walk."
"All right, but you have to keep up. I don't want you lagging
behind." Xena tied the partridges to the saddle, swung herself up, and
headed Argo out onto the road.
Much to Xena's relief and Gabrielle's disappointment, there were no
ruffians to battle that afternoon, and they reached Elkton's mountain
village just before sundown.
"None of this looks familiar to you?" Xena asked, as they led Argo
past the few shops in the center of town.
"See that shop over there?" Xena said, pointing. "That's where you
bought my breast dagger." She pulled the weapon out and handed it to
her companion.
"I bought you this? As a gift?" Gabrielle said, turning the knife
over in her hands and testing the blade's sharpness with her thumb.
"Well, no, not exactly. You actually bought it for yourself because
you thought you needed some kind of weapon for self defense." Xena
reached over and took the dagger back. "Let's just say that I
confiscated it from you," she added, tucking the blade back into her
leathers. "And I have to admit that it's been a nice addition to my
arsenal. It's definitely come in handy more than once."
"So you didn't want me to be able to defend myself?"
"At that time, I guess I thought you would be better off without a
weapon--less likely to be attacked if you didn't look threatening. But
when we met up with the Amazons, you chose to learn to use the staff.
They're the ones who first taught you. And it's proved to be a very
good weapon for you."
"The Amazons? Who are they?"
"They're a tribe of women warriors."
"Women warriors? Like you?"
"Sort of like me, yes."
"And they taught me to fight?"
"Why? Did they think I would make a good warrior?"
"It's kind of a long story, and I don't have time to tell it right now
because we're almost to Elkton's house," Xena said, realizing that she
had probably made a mistake in bringing up the topic.
"Will you tell me later?"
"Maybe. We'll see."
They soon came to the Mystic's farm on the outskirts of the village.
The tiny thatched-roof house, the barn, the garden, and a couple of
small fields of grain--everything looked just as Xena remembered it.
"Will Elkton notice that I'm different?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, he never actually met you when we were here before," Xena
responded "But he knows you made it through Morpheus' tests without
shedding blood, so if you start talking about wanting to kill someone,
he's definitely going to be surprised." She handed Argo's reins to
Gabrielle. "The best thing would be if you could just try to be
pleasant and not say too much until I get a chance to explain the
situation. Can you do that?"
She didn't wait for an answer, but went to the door and rapped
"Who is there?" called Elkton.
Xena heard movements inside and then footsteps approaching. "It's a
friend," she called back.
Opening the door, the Mystic lifted his candle so that its light fell
on the warrior's face. "Xena!" he exclaimed with a warm smile. "I was
hoping you'd come back someday to visit this lonely old man!"
"Yes, I should have been back long before this," Xena said, returning
his smile.
"And is this Gabrielle?" Elkton asked, moving out into the yard and
offering his hand to the younger woman. "It's a pleasure to meet you at
"Uh, yeah," said Gabrielle uncertainly. "It's nice to meet you,
"Now, Elkton," Xena said quickly. "Your house is small and if you
don't have room to put us up, we can just sleep in the barn or out here
someplace. We've got all our gear--"
"No, no, no!" exclaimed the Mystic. "I won't hear of your sleeping
outside! You must sleep in my bed--I insist! And stay for as long as
you like." Then he grinned and added, "I'm afraid your horse will have
to sleep in the barn, though."
Xena laughed. "That's fine. It's still better accomodations than
she's used to." Then, moving to the saddle, she untied the partridges.
"We brought you a little supper," she said.
Elkton's face lit up. "Partridges! What a special meal this is
going to be, with such wonderful company to share it! I'll go clean
these and get them on the spit while you put the mare in the barn."
"Thanks, Elkton," Xena said. "We'll be in shortly."

* * *

A delicious aroma greeted them when they entered the house, and Xena
smiled at the thought of a hot, home-cooked meal.
"You can just put your things in the bedroom there," said Elkton,
gesturing to a low doorway.
They had left most of their gear in the barn, but Xena carried the
saddlebags to the doorway and pushed aside the curtain to reveal an
alcove barely big enough for one bed.
"It's so little!" Gabrielle whispered, peering past the warrior.
"How can both of us possibly sleep there? We'd be better off in the
"Shh!" Xena said, pulling Gabrielle into the alcove and dropping the
curtain behind them. "We'll manage just fine. Elkton is offering the
best hospitality he can, and we would be rude to refuse it." She laid
the saddlebags on the floor, along with her weapons, and began
unbuckling her armor. "Leave your staff in here, Gabrielle," she said.
"But what if we're attacked?"
"I think the chances of that are pretty slim at the moment," Xena
said, laying her armor on the floor next to the other items. "But if it
happens, I suppose you can always run in here and get the staff." Then
she ducked through the doorway and back into the main room.
"Is there something we can do to help?" she asked.
"No, no. Just sit down and relax," Elkton said. "You must be
tired. How long have you been travelling?"
"Two days from the last town," Xena said, seating herself at the
table and motioning to Gabrielle to do the same.
"You must be thirsty, too," Elkton said, placing mugs on the table
and filling them with dark red wine from a jug.
"Yes, thanks," said Xena, smiling. "Some wine would taste pretty
good right about now."
"Thank you," Gabrielle echoed and lifted the mug to take a long
"So what have you Mystics been up to lately?" Xena asked.
"Things have gone very well since you were here last," Elkton said
and moved to the fireplace to turn the spit. He went on to talk about
the festivals held each year in honor of Morpheus and his brothers, and
his own role in organizing those festivals. After that, he spoke about
the general prosperity of the town and its people.
Xena listened, nodding, sipping wine, and keeping a close eye on
Gabrielle, who seemed bored with Elkton's narrative. Uncertain what her
friend might say or do under these circumstances, Xena hoped she could
keep the focus of the conversation on Elkton until after dinner. Then
maybe she could talk to him about what had happened and ask for his
Soon the roasted meat was served up, along with a steaming dish of
boiled cabbage, carrots, and leeks. There was bread, too, cut in thick
slices, fragrant and dark, with plenty of fresh butter to spread on
"This is incredible!" Xena said with her mouth full. "Especially
compared with what we had last night," she added, with a wink at
"Yeah, Xena burned our supper. She might be a good warrior, but
she's a terrible cook!"
Elkton laughed. "Well, it's a pleasure to have someone besides
myself to cook for," he said, "and luckily, I baked bread this morning."
"Don't you have to be away sometimes, at Morpheus' fortress?" Xena
asked. "Who takes care of your farm while you're gone?"
"My brother and his two sons live nearby. They've been very good
about helping out," he said, taking a sip of wine. "But I've been doing
all the talking. You two must have had some interesting adventures
since you were here before."
"Oh, yes," said Xena quickly, before Gabrielle had a chance to say
anything. "We've done quite a bit. Let's see . . . we averted a war
between the Amazons and the Centaurs, freed Prometheus, killed a couple
of giants, got bitten by Bacchae, did away with several nasty warlords,
helped Cecrops break Poseidon's curse, and probably a few other things
I've forgotten about."
"Well, you do lead a busy life!" Elkton said with a grin.
"Oh, definitely," Xena agreed. "And that's just what we did in our
spare time!"
"Do you know what happened to us yesterday?" Gabrielle interjected
eagerly. "We were on our way here, just riding along the road, and we
met these four men--they were horse thieves--and they wanted to steal
Argo, so Xena fought them and they all got scared and ran away! You
should see her fight! She's really good! She could have killed those
guys easily, but she didn't. She let them get away. I think she should
have killed them, though, because right after that we found this man--"
"Gabrielle," said Xena, stepping on her friend's foot under the
table, "Why don't you eat your cabbage before it gets cold."
"I'm telling a story!"
"Yes, but it's not a story I want you to tell right now."
"Oh," said Gabrielle. Then she stared sullenly at her plate and
began to poke at her food with a fork.
Xena glanced at Elkton in time to see a puzzled look on his face, but
he quickly smiled and picked up one of the platters. "More bread?" he
"Uh, yeah. Thanks," said Xena.
"Gabrielle?" said Elkton, holding out the platter.
But the younger woman just shook her head without looking up.
There were several moments of strained silence, and then Elkton said,
"Well, I'd like to hear about Prometheus, if one of you wants to tell
the story."
"Sure, I'll be glad to tell you," Xena said, with a quick glance at
the still-sulking Gabrielle.
She told the tale as simply as she could, emphasizing Hercules' role
and minimizing her own. "It's a good thing Hercules thought to deflect
that sword with a rock," she concluded. "He saved his own life and
mine, too, by breaking my fall."
"How wonderful, though, that you were both willing to sacrifice your
lives for the good of the human race," said Elkton.
"Well, Prometheus had to be freed, and there was no other way to do
it," Xena said quietly.
"I wish I had been there to help you fight those guys in the green
eggs," Gabrielle said.
"You stayed with Iolaus, and probably kept him from dying," Xena
said. "That was more important than helping me."
"Yeah, but--"
"Gabrielle," said Xena, laying a hand on her friend's arm, "we've
been travelling all day and I know you must be tired. Why don't you go
on to bed? I'll join you in a few minutes."
"I'm not tired," Gabrielle responded brightly.
"Yes, you are. Now please go to bed," Xena said firmly and gave her
a meaningful look.
"I'm not tired," the bard repeated. "Why should I go to bed if I'm
not tired?"
Xena sighed, noting that Elkton was watching their exchange with a
certain amount of curiosity. "All right," she said. "If you don't want
to go to bed, then go out and take a walk or something. I need to talk
to Elkton."
"You're going to talk about me, aren't you?"
"Then why can't I stay?"
"Because I would feel better if you didn't. I promise to tell you
what Elkton says. Now please, Gabrielle, give me some space here."
The younger woman sighed deeply and regarded the warrior for a few
moments in silence. "Are you always so bossy and mean?" she asked.
"I suppose some people would think so," Xena said mildly.
"Well, I guess I'll go to bed now," Gabrielle announced. She shoved
back her chair and stood up, then added "Good night" as something of an
"Good night, Gabrielle," said Elkton. "If you need anything--extra
blankets or pillows or whatever--just let me know."
"Okay," Gabrielle mumbled, and then disappeared into the alcove.

* * *

Xena leaned her head on her hand and stared at her plate for several
moments. Finally, she looked up to meet the Mystic's gaze. "I'm sorry
about that," she said. Then, reaching for Gabrielle's plate, she added,
"Here, let me help you clean up these dishes."
Elkton took the plate from her and set it down. "No, Xena. I can do
that later. I've known all along that this wasn't purely a social
visit. Now tell me what's wrong. I'd like to help, if I can."
"I sincerely hope you can help me, because I don't know where else to
"Tell me," he said gently. "It's about Gabrielle, isn't it?"
Xena nodded, then glanced at the curtained doorway.
"Would you rather go outside to talk?" Elkton asked.
"No, I think this will be fine if we keep our voices down." She
paused for a moment, then took a deep breath and let it out again. "Two
nights ago, we stayed at an inn," she began. "We met a young bard
there, and Gabrielle was very happy to talk to him, since she is a bard,
too. Did you know that?"
"No, I didn't."
"Anyway, I left the two of them together in the tavern and went to
bed. Later, when I came back to check on Gabrielle, I found out that
she had been drugged."
"Drugged?" Elkton asked, surprised. "By the bard?"
"Yes. He put something in her wine, but I couldn't figure out what
kind of drug it was. When I caught up with him the next day, it turned
out he wasn't a bard at all. He was Ares in disguise."
"Ares! Why in the world would he drug Gabrielle?"
"He did it to get to me," Xena said grimly, then took a sip from her
mug. "I don't know how much you know about my past," she went on, "but
I've done a lot of bad things--killed people, plundered their villages,
burned their homes. I set out to kill Hercules at one point, but in the
end, he helped me see that I could lead a different kind of life. Ever
since I changed, though, Ares has been trying to lure me back. This is
his worst scheme yet."
"I don't understand. How will drugging Gabrielle make you come back
to him?"
"Because what the drug did," Xena said in a low, urgent voice, "was
to wipe out all her memories and change her personality. Instead of
being loving and gentle, like she was before, she's now aggressive and
warlike. All she talks about is wanting to kill people." Xena stopped
and picked up her mug again, swirled the remaining wine for a moment,
and then quickly downed it. "Ares says that if I return to him, he will
change Gabrielle back to the way she was before. But I don't want to be
his warrior again. I just can't do that. I gave up that way of life.
But I can't let Gabrielle lose her soul, either." She stared at Elkton
in despair. "I don't know what to do. I'm just hoping there's some
other way to break this spell, and I'm hoping you'll know what it is."
Elkton smiled and reached out to put a hand over hers. "I think
there is a way," he said, "but it involves a lot of risk."
"I don't care about that," Xena said. "You know I would gladly risk
my life to save Gabrielle."
"Yes, I know," he said. "Do you want some more wine?"
She nodded and he refilled their mugs.
"For the last two nights," he said then, "I've had a dream vision. I
don't know which god gave it to me, and at first I didn't know why. But
I felt that someone needed the information I'd been given, and would
come to me to get it. I didn't know who it would be, but when you
knocked on my door this evening, I knew you were the one."
Xena stared at him in amazement. "I came because I had a strong
feeling that you could somehow help me," she said softly, "even though
it made no sense that a priest of Morpheus would know how to deal with
Ares. I wonder who is at work here."
"I don't know, but someone is watching out for you, Xena, and you can
be grateful for that."
She nodded. "Tell me about the vision."
"It has to do with a plant which grows near the top of the closest
mountain here. It's called the kaya plant. It was put there by Hera,
and it grows in a sheltered niche among the rocks, up above the tree
line. Its leaves, when eaten, have the power to break the spell of any
god, even that of Hera herself."
"Why would Hera create a plant that can break her own spells?"
"I think she wanted to have it to use against other gods--the ones
she doesn't like. But since it can also be used against her own spells,
she has to guard it well."
"And being Ares' mother, Hera won't be too happy about my trying to
outsmart her son," Xena commented.
"But this plant--you know how to find it?"
"Yes, the vision showed the path very clearly, and I've even drawn a
map. I think that if you leave at first light tomorrow, you can reach
the plant by mid-afternoon--assuming you don't run into too many of
Hera's warriors along the way."
"I've fought her goons before. I don't think they'll be much of a
Elkton nodded. "You can take your horse up part of the way, but
you'll probably have to leave her somewhere below the tree line. The
trail gets quite rough after that, and there may be snow. You'll have
to spend at least one night on the mountain, but I have some extra furs
and blankets you can take, and some extra food, too."
"Okay," Xena said. "So far this doesn't sound too hard. Is there
The Mystic smiled a tight-lipped smile. "Unfortunately, yes," he
said. "The kaya bush is guarded by a serpent--a rather large one. You
must kill the serpent in order to get to the leaves."
"Kill the serpent. All right, I can do that."
"Yes, but here's the tricky part. You must kill it without shedding
any of its blood."
Xena's eyebrows went up, but she said nothing.
"For each drop of the serpent's blood that is shed," Elkton went on,
"ten more serpents will spring up, and you could never fight them all."
"How should I kill it, then?"
"You must strangle it--but without shedding any blood, remember. The
best way would probably be to use your bare hands."
Xena was silent for a moment. "And if it bites me?" she said.
"The venom has a paralyzing effect, so if the serpent bites you on an
arm or a leg, you will lose the use of that limb. I assume that if you
are bitten elsewhere on your body--"
"I will die."
"Yes." He picked up his wine mug, peered into it for a moment, and
drank deeply. Then, looking directly at her, he said, "Xena, I wouldn't
let a lesser warrior go on a quest like this, if there was any way I
could prevent it. Your task will not only be difficult, but also
extremely dangerous. In fact, if you want to reconsider--"
"No. I have to go. I have to do this to save Gabrielle. I'm just
relieved to know that there's a way to break the spell without going
back to Ares."
They sat without speaking for a few minutes, then Xena said, "Elkton,
I hate to ask another favor when you've done so much already, but I'm
wondering if Gabrielle can stay here with you while I go up the
mountain. I'd rather not risk her getting hurt."
"Oh. Well, I guess there's something I forgot to tell you," Elkton
said. "As soon as the serpent dies, the kaya leaves begin to wilt.
They must be used immediately or they'll lose their potency."
"So Gabrielle will have to be there when I kill the serpent," Xena
said. "All right, then. I'll take her with me. She probably wouldn't
have agreed to stay here anyway," she added with a grin, and then stood
up. "Now let me help you clean up this mess."
"No, I can do it," Elkton said. "You go to bed and get some rest.
You'll need all your strength tomorrow. I'll gather up those furs and
pack some food for you to take." He smiled. "Sleep well, Xena. I'll
call you in the morning."
"Thank you, Elkton," Xena said. "You don't know how much this means
to me."
"The best way for you to thank me is by coming back safe and
well--both of you," he said.
"I'll do my best," she responded, then turned and walked quickly to
the bedroom.
It took her eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light that
filtered through the curtain. Gabrielle lay sprawled across the narrow
bed, asleep. Her clothes lay in a heap on the floor, and Xena realized
with surprise that the bard must be naked under the blankets. Unlacing
her leathers, Xena stepped out of them and sat down on the edge of the
"Gabrielle," she said softly, "move over, so I can get in."
The younger woman gave a sleepy moan as Xena slid in under the covers
and put an arm around her. "What did he say?" she mumbled, snuggling
closer to the warrior.
"He said there is a plant that grows on the mountain near here. It
has the power to break Ares' spell. We leave first thing in the morning
to go find it."
"More travelling?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
"Will it be dangerous?"
"A little."
"Will we have to fight?"
"Yes, I'd say you can count on it."
"Really?" said Gabrielle, raising up to look at Xena. "Will you let
me fight?"
"Do I have any choice?" Xena asked with a small grin.
"Mmm, I can't wait!" said Gabrielle. With a happy sigh, she snuggled
back down, but after a moment, she popped up again. "I forgot to
practice with my staff tonight!" she exclaimed.
"It's all right," Xena said, touching the bard's face gently. "You
still remember how to do it, and maybe you can practice a little in the
morning. Now let's go to sleep; we need to be rested for our trip."
Gabrielle sank back down and was quiet. Xena lay holding her,
thinking how good it was to feel her lover's bare skin against her own.
This time tomorrow night they would be huddled together under furs and
blankets up on the mountain. But if everything went as planned, the
spell would be broken, and she would have her own sweet Gabrielle back
in her arms once more.
From the other room came the quiet sounds of Elkton moving around,
cleaning up the dishes and getting everything ready for their departure
in the morning. What a good man he was, Xena thought, as she silently
blessed him for all his kindness and help. In a short time, Gabrielle's
breathing deepened and, attempting to follow her lover's example, the
warrior closed her eyes and willed herself to relax. But thoughts of
the next day's quest would not leave her mind. Could they really get
all the way up the mountain by mid-afternoon? How many warriors would
Hera send out against them? And most worrisome of all was the puzzle of
how to strangle a serpent without shedding blood and without being
bitten. It was a battle she dared not lose, for if she got killed
before she could free Gabrielle, she would doom her friend to a life of
murder and mayhem, and her soul to Tartarus.
A shiver ran through her and her arms tightened around the sleeping
bard. Giving up the effort to sleep, she let her mind run free to
wrestle with the problem of how to kill the serpent. After a while, she
heard Elkton blow out the candles in the other room and settle down to
sleep on a pallet in front of the fire. Then exhaustion overcame her at
last and she slept.

[end of Part 3]


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