In the Company of Tigers
by Cath, Bard
The characters of Xena and Gabrielle and others belong in their entirety to Universal/MCA , Renaissance Pictures, and all the other powers that be. No copyright infringement is intended. I wrote this story at the urging of my muse; it should never be used for profit. Please do not copy or cite elsewhere without express permission of the author.
This story contains scenes of violence and/or its aftermath.
This story depicts a loving friendship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This story takes place in India after "Between the Lines," but before "The Way."In the Company of Tigers was originally written for my compatriots at LaLa and Netgyrls "Tavern Wall." (Thanks for your feedback, fellow Wallers.)
Xena heard her companions choked sobs, but a quick look around the campsite revealed no short-haired, blonde Bard. That morning, she awoke after Gabrielle, only to find herself alone in their bedroll.
She rose quickly and grabbed her sword, moving quietly into the bushes toward the sound of the younger womans voice. Something was wrong, very wrong.
She saw Gabrielle huddled in the dirt, beside the stream. Her Bard looked for all the world like a small, lost child. The Warrior Princess covered the distance to her friend in three swift steps.
Gabrielle opened her tear-filled eyes to gaze down at a large foot, emblazoned with a mendhi chakram and a drawn cross. Xena called it a symbol of the women they were.
But the Bard felt less like a woman than ever as the tall Warrior stood over her. She sat, huddled in the dust of India, confused and hurting.
Xena knelt in the dirt beside Gabrielle and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"What is it?"
"I . I dont know ," gasped the smaller woman between sobs. She shuddered and the tears fell anew.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered in her most soothing tone, "I cant help you if you wont tell me whats wrong."
After a long pause, Gabrielle raised her head and looked directly into the sparkling ice-blue eyes of her soulmate. She reached up and grabbed a fistful of her own hair.
"I guess its this, Xena. I thought I could handle it, but I feel ashamed and, well .naked!!!"
Xena was aware that shorn hair served as a mark of degradation for women in some villages. Gabrielle knew it too.
"Hey, youre beautiful when youre naked." Xenas attempt at humor brought a sad smile to Gabrielles face. But it was enough to light up the blue emeralds that almost stopped Xenas heart every time she gazed into her lovers eyes.
The Warrior wrapped her arms around the Bard, pulled her to her feet, and guided her to a large rock where they both sat. Neither woman broke the silence for what seemed like an eternity.
"Its not so much the hair, you know. I mean, itll be easier to take care of now, and itll grow back ."
Another long silence followed.
"Does it make me ugly?"
"My short hair . does it repulse you?"
"Gods, Gabrielle, why would you say that?" Xena reached out and gently tousled the other womans hair. She noted its softness and how clean it felt, even after a day of dusty travel.
"No. Its different, but I think it will grow on me . Or maybe on you." She tried her broadest smile. Finally, Gabrielle grinned back and laughed softly.
The Bard leaned against the big womans shoulder.
"Im sorry," Xena said at last.
"For doing that." She motioned toward Gabrielles shorn, golden locks.
"Xena, you had no choice. Alti was torturing me, maybe even going to kill me. I dont blame you."
Gabrielle relived the events of four days ago. Again, she felt the evil Shamaness grabbing her by her long, blonde mane, lifting her off the ground and forcing her to envision her own death by crucifixion. She recalled the pain in her hands and feet as large, dull nails pierced them -- so much pain and blood. Then, she remembered Xena on another cross beside her and the pain intensified. Wounded, her own strength ebbing, Xena hurled her chakram, severing the hair by which Alti grasped the tormented Bard.
Gabrielle shook her head to free herself from that vision. She had to get past this. Humor always helped.
"I just hope you didnt dull your chakram." Now, it was the Bards turn to tease. She wiped the tears from her eyes and cocked her head at Xena. Her friend returned the smile.
"Wed best break camp and move on. Places to go and people to see." The Warrior Princess gave her companion a gentle pat on the back and stood. Gabrielle looked up.
"Thank you for saving my life, again."
Warrior and Bard broke camp in companionable silence.
They had just shouldered their belongings and started up the road when a young man came running from the opposite direction. His face was a mask of fear and he bled from several wounds on his bare arms and chest.
Xena drew her sword. Gabrielle readied her staff. It wasnt long before they saw the reason for the young mans terror .
The boy hurtled down the road toward Xena and Gabrielle. He was maybe 16, barefoot, bare-chested, and running for his life. Just behind him charged three burly men, wearing loincloths and tiger skins. Two of the thugs wielded swords; the third carried a vicious-looking tigers paw attached to short pole, and a long, curved blade. Xena noticed brutal scratches on the boys chest, probably from the paw.
Xena caught the boy as he ran past, spinning him around. He dropped to the ground and curled into a ball.
Warrior Princess and Amazon Queen stepped between the boy and his pursuers. The thugs paused for an instant, surprised at the womens resistance. Then they attacked -- two on Xena and one on Gabrielle.
Xena smiled fiercely as she deflected blow after blow. Her assailants were good swordsmen, but they fought as fanatics, not warriors. The Warrior Princess quickly disarmed one and took him out with the flat of her sword. She toyed with the other man, then ran him through as he charged her.
Gabrielle ducked the first sword stroke, sidestepped a thrust, and twirled low behind her attacker, catching him at the back of his legs with a vicious blow that knocked him to the dirt. She finished him with a measured strike to the head. He was down, but not dead.
During the fight, the boy remained huddled on the ground. Now, Xena pulled him to his feet. She noticed that he was trembling. Gabrielle brought a blanket from their bedroll and helped the frightened youngster to sit against a rock. She tended his wounds while Xena tied up the two surviving thugs.
As soon as he was able to talk, Nadji (for this was his name) told a chilling tale. As the boy rambled on, Gabrielle watched a dark storm brewing in her soulmates eyes.
In a shaky voice, Nadji told of the Tiger People, a local cult specializing in the sacrifice of boys and young men . sometimes of children. One season every year, they raided local villages, capturing young men to serve the cult, one of whom would be slaughtered in honor of the fanatics tiger god. The remaining captives became vicious, mindless killers who followed the cults high priest without question, or died horribly. Although captured only five days ago, Nadji had already witnessed brutal beatings and torture. The young age of its victims meant nothing to the tiger cult. Gabrielle felt her anger growing.
Xena asked Nadji how he escaped. She wanted to get as much out of him as she could, before he succumbed to the trauma of his experience. The boy described the secret exit he had found by accident in the fortified cave that served as the cults temple.
Nadji had gone to the lower level of the cave to fetch supplies and there discovered an unguarded passageway with a large door secured from the inside. He had tried to convince several of the other boys to flee with him, but they had already gone over to the cult and betrayed him to the guards. Before they could catch him, he managed to get through the passage and ran for his life. Tears filled his eyes as he told of friends still in the cave, and of preparations for the sacrifice to come.
Gabrielle and Xena took Nadji back to his village. The boys family welcomed his return with a mixture of joy and fear. They knew the cult would hunt down their son and punish him. Nadjis father, Assam, offered a reward to the two women, and place to stay for as long as they were in the area. They accepted the latter and enjoyed a sumptuous feast prepared by Nadjis mother, Unita.
After dinner, Xena followed Gabrielle into the small courtyard of their lodging. The Amazon Queen had been unusually silent throughout their meal. Xena suspected Gabrielle was up to something.
"We have to stop this," the Bard began.
"I know Gabrielle, but you heard Assam. The villagers fear this cult and that cave is well fortified, maybe impregnable. Even if we could help these people, theyre not warriors. Theyd be up against fanatics -- crazy people willing to die "
"Maybe we could just rescue the children . take away their recruits?"
"Yes, but that wouldnt stop them. Ive seen their kind before. You have to kill them or let them be ."
Xenas remark stunned Gabrielle. She wondered why the Warrior Princess seemed so reluctant to fight these monsters.
"What is it, Xena? Its not like you to avoid doing something about this kind of evil."
Xena flashed on memories of Gabrielle spread-eagled above Dahaks sacrificial altar, and falling into a fiery pit with Hope. She thought of Najara, the insane crusader who had almost stolen her companion.
"We havent had much success with religious fanatics, and I dont want to put you in any more danger."
Instantly, Gabrielle recognized the cause of Xenas hesitation. Even the bravest warriors had their limits.
"Xena, I cant run from this and you wont leave me to face it alone, so lets just do what we have to."
"Besides " the Bard smiled and looked directly at her lover, " were not destined to die here. Alti said so."
"Thats not funny, Gabrielle. I could order you not to do whatever youre planning "
Gabrielles smile changed to a determined, challenging gaze. Xena continued.
" but youd just disobey me and Id have to rescue you. Again."
Xena patted her companion on the head and Gabrielle feigned indignation.
"I do have a plan," said the Amazon.
"Why do I get the feeling Im not gonna like this?" the Warrior Princess responded.
That night, sleep eluded Xena. She knew the Tiger Cult would return for Nadji. Fanatics were sore losers.
The people of Nadjis village had immediately executed the two villains that Xena and Gabrielle captured while rescuing the boy. Nadji and his family were avenged, for now.
As the sun rose, Xena lay in bed, thinking and planning.
From what Assam told her, past attacks on the cults stronghold ended in futile slaughter of his villagers. It was too well-guarded for a frontal assault. Xena realized the key was Nadjis secret entrance, if the cult hadnt sealed it after his escape. They needed someone inside the cave to open the door.
"Xena, we need someone on the inside who can open that door ," Gabrielle strode into the room they shared in Assams home, " and I know just the man for the job .me."
The Bard maintained a matter-of-fact tone as she spoke these words. She had experienced enough of war and death to know this was serious business. Still, Xena sensed her beautiful companions excitement, and a hint of reckless abandon. Perhaps Gabrielle had taken Altis vision too much to heart.
The Warrior Princess eyes widened in surprise as Gabrielle removed the shawl covering her head. The young womans hair was cropped even shorter, and no longer blonde. Gabrielle saw Xenas shocked expression and explained quickly.
Early that morning, Gabrielle convinced Unita to trim her hair and then darken it with a special henna dye. The pale, creamy skin of her face also appeared dusky, thanks to Unitas skills.
The Amazon Queen carried several long strips of cloth over one arm. She placed them on the table, closed the door, and pulled off her top.
"Are you planning something, er special before we take on these nuts, Gabrielle?" Xena asked as she raised both eyebrows. She relaxed back on the bed, folded her arms behind her head, and grinned broadly.
"There will be plenty of time for that after we free those kids," Gabrielle replied. She emphasized the word "that" as she returned her companions smile.
The tall warrior rose swiftly and enveloped her lover in her arms before the Bard had time to react. Xena felt the warmth as her hands explored the toned muscles and soft skin of Gabrielles bare back.
She kissed the smaller woman with breathtaking fierceness.
The Amazon Queen almost surrendered to her Warrior Princess, but pulled away before it was too late.
"After, my love, after " whispered Gabrielle.
Xena sighed and released her companion. Gabrielle was right. They needed to focus.
Gabrielle handed the cloth strips to Xena and raised her arms.
"Lets flatten these," she said, indicating her full, well-formed breasts.
"It will take a lot of binding to make you look like a boy, my Queen"
"Just get on with the job, my Warrior," teased Gabrielle as she turned to let Xena wrap her chest.
The tall woman grew somber.
"From what Nadji described, they strip their prisoners at the start," warned Xena. She sensed that Gabrielles plan had some dangerous flaws as she remembered the brutal scratches that now scarred Nadjis chest and back.
"Ill avoid them or talk them out of it, Xena. All we need is enough time for me to unlock that door. The rest is up to you."
"There must be another way," Xena said, trying to discourage her companion.
"Maybe there is, but we dont know how long we have before the sacrifice begins. This is the fastest way and you know it."
Thoughts of what might happen to her young lover chilled Xena. She wanted to argue, but she realized that the Bard would not give in on this one. Gabrielle seemed to be on a personal mission.
Xena finished wrapping, then watched as Gabrielle donned Nadjis loose white pants and tunic. The smaller woman stepped back and presented herself for Xenas inspection.
"Well, you dont look exactly like Nadji, but youll pass." The Warrior nodded grudgingly.
"Now all we have to do is wait for them to come." Gabrielle spoke bravely, but she knew her plan was a gamble. Xena knew it too. She hugged Gabrielle to her as the Bard reached up and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.
"For luck, Xena."
"For luck, Gabrielle."
Nadji had offered to accompany Gabrielle back to the cave when and if the cult "captured" her. Xena convinced him to hide outside the village. Hed been through enough.
Before he and his mother fled, Xena had Nadji draw her a map showing how to find the secret entrance from outside the cave. He described in detail how to locate the door on the inside, so that Gabrielle could reach it quickly and open it for the attackers.
The Warrior Princess believed in preparation. She had already scouted the area that Nadji portrayed in his map. There was plenty of cover where Xenas troops could hide until the right moment. Timing would be critical. Xena planned to lead a small party of handpicked fighters through the secret entrance to disarm the temples defenders from within. Gabrielle would evacuate as many of the children as she could, leading them away from the fight. Then, Assam, Nadjis father, would attack the main entrance.
Everything was ready .
The Tiger Cult raiders returned as Xena expected. They marched into the town and ordered the villagers to turn over Nadji and any other boys not taken during earlier raids. A village elder explained that Nadji had fled in the night. The old man forfeited his tongue for speaking out.
Disguised as a villager, Xena observed from the back of the crowd. Assam watched as well.
Only one boy remained a short, but powerful youth who dashed from the rear of Assams home. Two thugs took off in pursuit. The raiders trapped the boy in an alley and roughly dragged him back to the village square. Xena clenched her jaw in anger. She had everything she could do to keep from slaughtering the raiders then and there.
"No one else?" barked the leader of the raiding party as the villagers stood in silence. "Youll have to do," he said, looking down at the new captive.
With that, the cults thugs led Gabrielle away.
Xena wasted no time assembling her war party; Gabrielle's life depended on their speed. The Warrior Princess headed for the area near the cave's secret entrance.
Assam planned to follow a short time later, with a larger group. His men would attack the cave's main entrance upon a signal from Xena - a single, flaming arrow. Two scouts tailed the raiders to ascertain Gabrielle's arrival at the cult temple.
En route to the cave, the cult members ignored their captive as she walked between two of the thugs. For them, this "boy" was just another candidate to beat or drug into joining - or perhaps this season's sacrifice.
"Don't do anything besides what we planned, Gabrielle," Xena pleaded in her mind as she approached the area near the entrance. She knew the Bard's propensity for taking risks, but the stakes were too high here.
To Xena's delight and dismay, four warriors guarded what appeared to be a hole in the side of the mountain - Nadji's passageway. Delight because Xena wanted to take out as many of these madmen as possible; dismay because this meant Gabrielle might encounter guards on the inside as well.
Xena motioned her soldiers to stay back as she moved with deadly stealth toward the cultists. Her men watched in awe as the Warrior stalked her prey like a tiger. Xena killed all four guards with stunning efficiency. She used her "pinch" on two, and the others felt her knife on their throats.
Assam sent a runner to Xena to let her know when he was in position. Xena watched the passage for signs of Gabrielle or the boys she would rescue.
As the thugs dragged Gabrielle into the cave, she noticed the heavy smell of incense and pall of smoke. Fires burned throughout the cave's chambers. She counted 40 to 50 cult members busily preparing for something.
This rushed preparation proved fortunate for Gabrielle. Her captors placed her with a small group of boys who were sitting around a fire drinking hot tea. She remained unbound.
One vicious-looking thug described the punishment for any attempt at escape. She looked at him with her most fearful expression and he left her, laughing loudly. Being a bard required a certain acting skill; Gabrielle was giving the performance of her life.
A cult member brought her a cup of steaming liquid. The Bard took it in silence and sniffed. The strong odor of herbs assaulted her senses.
"Drink," ordered the man standing over her. Gabrielle could not assess the brew's potency and she didn't want to draw attention by refusing. She drank a small amount, then realized that the tea contained a powerful herbal sedative.
"No wonder the cult doesn't tie up its prisoners," the Bard thought. "One sip of that and you don't want to move for a week." She noted the lethargy of the boys sitting near her and wondered how much tea they had consumed.
She looked up at the man and took another small sip. Her only hope was to act as drugged as possible after drinking as little as possible.
Gabrielle felt herself beginning to relax...
Near the caves rear entrance, Xena waited impatiently. She fought the urge to rescue her soulmate now; villagers be damned. She silently pleaded for Gabrielle to appear.
Back in the cave, "Nadji" didnt feel like moving. Forced to drink a sedating herbal brew, she now struggled to stay awake. Gabrielle drifted into pleasant thoughts of a certain Warrior Princess.
Then something happened that jolted her back to reality.
One of the newer prisoners reacted violently to the drugged tea. As Gabrielle watched, the young man fell from his sitting position to his side and began to convulse wildly. His eyes rolled back in his head and he gasped for breath. The Bard had seen this condition before; it usually led to unconsciousness, then death.
Gabrielle struggled to her feet and moved to assist the boy. A large thug blocked her path. Two other cult members grabbed the young man and dragged him away. She resisted the urge to clobber the man standing before her and waited helplessly as the cult claimed another victim. She saw no violence and heard no screams, yet she knew in her heart that they took the boy to his doom. She wondered whether a similar fate awaited her.
Hiding her sadness and anger, Gabrielle sat down and focused on suppressing the effects of the drug.
Two other boys had witnessed Gabrielles silent challenge to the cult in an attempt to rescue their friend. To avoid alerting the guards, the boys carefully edged closer to Gabrielle and whispered their introductions. Raj and Kamal thanked her for trying to help. Gabrielle introduced herself as "Nadji;" she had no time to explain otherwise.
Like Gabrielle, Raj and Kamal knew their friend was gone for good.
The Bard asked how they had avoided the drugged tea and Kamal explained that his father was a village herbalist; Kamal knew enough about these drugs to spit out as much tea as he could. Raj followed his friends example.
Gabrielle needed a diversion that would allow her to reach the lower chamber and open the door to the secret passage. She hesitated to involve these young men, but time was growing short. She explained her plan and described the location of the secret passage to the two boys, then made them promise to save themselves if anything happened to her. The boys nodded solemnly.
A few minutes later, Kamal and Raj began a mock fight that distracted the guards. Gabrielle slipped away.
Gabrielle found the passageway just as Nadji had described it. She succeeded in unlatching the secret entrance that would allow Xena to penetrate the stronghold and destroy this evil. She closed the door so that it appeared untouched, but wedged a small stone between the door and the doorjamb to ensure it would remain open.
Then, she turned back to rescue Kamal and Raj, and convince a few more boys to leave with her now. This decision proved disastrous.
Gabrielle walked up the stairs to the main chamber and looked about. Most of the prisoners were sprawled on the ground in a helpless, hazy state. She only hoped they would stay "out" until after Xena secured the cave. Kamal and Raj saw her. She gave them a slight smile that indicated success. They signaled back. The boys had gone quiet after providing the diversion that allowed Gabrielle to slip away and the guards had left them alone.
Trying to remain unobtrusive, the Bard kept her head bowed. As she rounded a corner, Gabrielle ran head-on into a cult member carrying a pot of steaming tea. The surprised man lost his grip on the pot and it crashed to the ground, splashing scalding liquid on the Bards leg and foot. She screamed in pain. A nearby guard heard her scream and rushed to investigate. Gabrielle backed away, trying to appear as if she was still drugged. She kept moving in the direction of the main hall. Under no circumstances would she give them reason to suspect shed found the door in the lower chamber.
She looked down. To her horror, some of the dye was beginning to run off her bare foot. The guard noticed too and the chase was on. Gabrielle grabbed a pot from a table and struck one guard hard enough to knock him senseless. She crawled under the table, eluding a second pursuer. If only she could find a staff! Nothing materialized.
Gabrielle scrambled out from beneath the table into the arms of a cult member, who received an elbow in the gut followed by a fist to the head for his effort. By now, five thugs closed in. They surrounded her. She landed several solid blows, but two of them finally succeeded in grabbing her and pinning her arms.
The guards escorted the Bard to the high priest. She tried to appear unafraid as he stared down at her, eyes blazing. He could see the dye running off her burnt foot. He ordered a cult member to bring him some tea and a rag. The priest swabbed Gabrielles face with the tea-soaked rag, removing the dye in streaks. He knew she had deceived the cult. Their leader sounded very angry as he spoke.
"You have violated the sacred temple of the Tiger," he hissed at Gabrielle in a menacing tone. Then he looked out at the cult members attracted by the commotion, and spoke words that chilled Gabrielle to the bone.
"The Tiger God has given us our sacrifice. This boy dies for the glory of our master. Tonight! Take him."
"Xena, hurry, please," Gabrielle prayed to her Warrior Princess for rescue.
The guards holding the "boy" dragged Gabrielle between two posts and tied her wrists above her head one wrist to each pillar. She fought all the way, but they were stronger, and much bigger.
Kamal and Raj remembered Gabrielles command that they escape if she was discovered. With regretful glances at the doomed "boy," they slipped out to find the passage from the cave.
The Bard continued to pull at her bonds as the head priest moved in front of her. Then, she stopped struggling and stood before him bravely, rising to her full height. Gabrielle only came up to his chest, but she displayed the dignity and commanding presence that made her Queen of the Amazons.
Another priest brought the tigers paw. The cult leader grabbed the front of Gabrielles tunic and ripped it open from neck to waist. She remembered the brutal scratches on Nadjis chest. The young queen took a deep breath, and awaited the pain.
The towering man stared at Gabrielles torn shirt. To the priests surprise and shame, his violent gesture revealed not a bare-chested boy, but the tightly bound breasts of a strong, shapely young woman. Gabrielle lifted her chin in defiance and tried to scorch the man with fiery green eyes.
"Bah!" exclaimed the priest in disgust. "We cannot sacrifice an unworthy female to the Tiger "
"Thank the gods," thought Gabrielle with relief. She didnt mind being deemed unworthy in this situation. Her relief was short-lived.
"Cut her down and kill her," commanded the cult leader.
"What?!" Gabrielle choked out.
Kamal and Raj found the door to the secret passageway and sneaked through. Before doing so, they loosened the hinges on the door to ensure that someone could get back in to rescue "Nadji" if there was a chance.
No longer willing to wait, Xena had started to lead her men into the passage. Small torches lit their way. She paused as she heard the sound of heavy breathing coming down the tunnel toward her. She smelled fear.
Raj and Kamal nearly ran right into Xena. In the dim light, she saw two frightened, exhausted boys. She soothed them with assurances that they would not be harmed.
Raj told her that the cult was about to sacrifice the boy called Nadji. Xena felt her heart stop for an instant. She knew Gabrielle didnt have much time. She ordered the boys to keep running down the tunnel and then to wait in hiding outside the entrance. Kamal and Raj did as they were told.
The Warrior Princess moved up the passageway with a speed and anger born of the fear that she might be too late to save her precious Bard. No door would hold back her darkness if they had harmed Gabrielle.
At the priests command, one of the cult guards pulled a long dagger and cut the ropes holding Gabrielle to the posts. She staggered and would have fallen, but two men caught her. They bound her hands behind her back and forced her to kneel. Silently, the guard drew a long, curved saber. The swiftness of events left Gabrielle speechless for one of the few times in her life. Her only thought was that she had no chance to say goodbye to her Warrior Princess.
The Bard almost laughed as she recalled Altis prediction of their demise by crucifixion. "Well, at least thats not gonna happen," Gabrielle said aloud. "Xena will live "
The guard raised his sword. Gabrielle closed her eyes and awaited death.
Xena didnt bother to knock. Fearing for Gabrielle, she threw her powerful body against the now not-so-secret door. With the echo of cracking timber, it caved to the Warrior Princess.
The few guards in the lower chamber died quickly under Xenas blade as she rushed the stairs to the upper chamber. At the top step, she stopped cold and felt a surge of sheer terror mixed with blinding rage. From an impossible distance, she saw the heavy sword descend upon her companion. There was no time to aim the chakram. Even a speedy flip would not get her there before the blade severed Gabrielles head from her body.
She did the only thing she could, and hoped the Amazon Queen was in a responsive mood.
"Gabrielle, down!" the Warrior Princess commanded at the top of her lungs.
Gabrielle proved very responsive. She went from knees to belly just as the sword sliced the thin air where her neck had been an instant before. Instinctively, she twisted to her right, seeking escape. Pain shot through her bound wrists as she rolled away from her executioner.
The shocked guard brought his blade up again to slash the woman on the ground as she tried to elude him. Xenas chakram cut his sword in half, then flew back to the Dark Warrior, cutting down two other thugs before she caught it.
Xena charged into the cult members and the rest of her men surged up the stairs into the chamber. She crossed weapons with the guard assigned to kill Gabrielle. Xena took his arm off with a single stroke, then ran him through. He died before hitting the ground.
The Warrior Princess hacked, parried, and punched her way through the thugs, blocking their thrusts, twirling to avoid swords and spears, taking them down with her blade and vicious, leaping kicks. A fierce grin lit her face.
Xena reached Gabrielle, bent, and cut her bonds with a single swipe of her chakram.
"Get the boys and yourself out of here, and stay out!" she ordered.
Gabrielle looked into the Dark Warriors eyes, prepared to argue, but saw no allowance there. She nodded and tried to stand. Her legs felt watery. Then she understood just how close death had come. Xena steadied the Bard with a strong grip on her forearm and looked at her with relief, and love.
"Thanks," was all Gabrielle could gasp as she set off on her task. She roused the lethargic captives and herded them to the lower chambers escape tunnel. At Xenas signal, two villagers followed her to ensure safe passage.
Xena moved through the ranks of the cult members, leaving the dead and dying in her wake. The villagers fought savagely, unleashing their anger on the evil men who had kidnapped and killed their children. The battle took on unearthly qualities as echoes and smoke filled the chamber. Everywhere Xena turned, men engaged in life and death struggle. The cult members were zealots, willing to sacrifice their lives; the villagers reacted as angry parents.
The Warrior ordered a village archer to signal Assam and his men from the front of the cave. The second wave had to attack now. The cult was winning. The archer reached the mouth of the cave and let fly his arrow. He died moments later, stabbed in the back by one of the priests, but Assam saw the signal and grimly led his men at full run up the hill to the temple.
In the lower chamber, Gabrielle urged, pushed, and pulled the boys into the passageway. Without her staff, the Bard felt defenseless. She had a choice: Locate some version her favorite weapon and join the fight, or get out as soon as she helped the last captive into the tunnel.
Gabrielle followed Xenas directive. She scanned the cave for any remaining children, found none, and started her escape. Something made her turn back and climb part way up the stairs. From there she caught a last glimpse of Xena in full battle mode, sword and chakram felling evil men with deadly precision. The Warrior Princess was smiling. The Amazon felt proud of her soulmate, yet frightened for her as well.
The young woman turned and headed down the tunnel to safety. The two villagers guarding the door charged up the stairs to help the their companions.
The cults high priest watched as his men fell before Xena and her village troops. He and two of his assistants made their way through the battle toward the lower chamber. The high priest still carried the tigers paw.
Within moments, the three cult members followed Gabrielle into the tunnel.
In her peripheral vision, Xena glimpsed three men slinking toward the lower chamber. One of them carried a scepter topped with a large, vicious-looking tigers paw. Without knowing why she knew, Xena sensed that the largest of the three men was the cults high priest. They were heading for the same tunnel as Gabrielle and the boys!
This momentary distraction cost the Warrior Princess dearly. A vicious slice from a thugs blade caught Xena just above her right elbow, cutting a huge gash. She felt a twinge in her muscle there and her forearm and hand went numb. She dropped her sword and barely sidestepped his next thrust. She gripped her chakram in her left hand, and swept it upward, severing a main blood vessel in her attackers throat. He gurgled, then collapsed, spraying blood.
Xena looked down at the crimson fluid pouring from her own wound. She needed to stop the bleeding, but could not afford the time. If the priest and his henchmen caught Gabrielle in the tunnel
"Assam, take over!" shouted the Dark Warrior to the village leader. She motioned toward the lower chamber. "Im going after the leader."
Assam nodded and continued the battle.
Xena retrieved her sword left-handed and sheathed it. She gripped the wounded area, applying pressure to stop the bleeding as she ran across the chamber, leapt down the stairs, and hurled herself into the tunnel.
At the other end of the passage, Gabrielle staggered into the cool air of early evening. She had lost all track of time during her captivity. There was still enough light to see, but darkness approached. Here and there, a few boys lay crumpled on the road. Otherwise, none were visible. Gabrielle assumed they had headed for their villages or were hiding nearby.
Only now did she feel her left foot and lower leg throbbing painfully from the scalding tea that had betrayed her to the cult. She limped forward a few steps, then collapsed to one knee, trying to catch her breath. For some reason, she wanted to cry.
Kamal and Raj rushed from their hiding place in the bushes to help "Nadji" as they saw their rescuer emerge from the tunnel. They stopped short and stared at the strange "boy" kneeling in the dirt. "His" face showed light patches of skin, streaked with darker tones. The boys tunic was torn open; they saw strange bindings around his torso.
Gabrielle looked up and managed a weak smile.
"Its all right a long story. Im not Nadji," she said trying to control her emotions.
She pulled the tunic closed as she noticed the boys focusing on her chest. Raj and Kamal had already been through enough, no use confusing them any more.
"My name is Gabrielle, and Im a friend."
Kamal and Raj had just assisted Gabrielle to her feet when Raj glanced into the tunnel. His eyes widened in terror.
"Theyre coming" he whispered in panic.
"Hide," Gabrielle commanded as the three dashed toward the bushes.
Gabrielle, Kamal, and Raj watched from concealment. The cults high priest and two thugs stepped from the tunnel and looked about warily in the waning light.
The Bards heart threatened to pound through her chest. They had no weapons. If the thugs came their way, how could she defend the boys? She reached to the dirt and felt about for rocks or anything else she could use. Her fingers curled around a large, smooth stone.
The high priest gazed in their direction. She heard Raj and Kamal stop breathing and sensed their terror as the priest ordered one of his henchman to search the area. The priest commanded the other assistant to kill the drugged boys who had collapsed in the road. The assistant moved toward the closest captive.
Gabrielle would not allow the slaughter of helpless children, even if it meant giving herself away. She motioned for Kamal and Raj to run through the bushes behind them and whispered that she was going to draw the thugs attention. The boys shook their heads no, but the Amazon Queen pushed them and they took off.
As the priests assistant approached his intended victim, Gabrielle rose from her hiding place and hurled the rock. It struck the man in the thigh and he turned toward her. She grabbed a second rock and threw it at the other assistant as he charged her. It missed, but when he slowed down to avoid the projectile, Gabrielle noticed the spear he carried.
Both men now dashed for the Bard. She leapt out of the bushes and ran directly at the man carrying the spear. Her only chance was to wrest that weapon from him and turn it into a staff.
Almost as he reached her, she hurled another stone, catching him on the bridge of his nose. He actually dropped the spear in surprise. Without pausing, the Bard scooped the weapon into her hands, broke the point by angling it into the ground, and whirled to face her attacker. He backed away and drew his sword.
Before either man had a chance to engage with Gabrielle, a piercing war cry filled the night air and Xena burst from the tunnel. The high priest spun around, catching her left hook with his jaw. He went down. Gabrielle noticed that Xenas right arm hung limply at her side.
One of the thugs wheeled about and ran toward the Warrior Princess. Gabrielle began a deadly dance with the second cult guard, blocking his sword thrusts with her makeshift staff.
The man who charged Xena never reached his target. Her left-handed chakram throw took off part of his skull and he fell dead in the road. Unfortunately, Xena missed the catch with her left hand and the chakram embedded in a tree trunk.
Having recovered from Xenas punch, the high priest attacked the Warrior who had ruined his plans. The big man wielded the tigers paw and a long, curved sword with deadly skill, and fought with a fanatics strength. In her wounded condition, Xena was on the defensive from the start.
The Amazon Queen coolly faced the villain who now circled her, looking for an opening. She blocked one thrust and spun to avoid another. His sword caught her tunic and ripped it some more, narrowly missing the Bards abdomen. Gabrielle saw her chance and brought the spear shaft down hard on the henchmans wrist. He bellowed in pain and dropped his weapon. She followed with a swift uppercut from the makeshift staff that knocked him to the ground, unconscious.
Gabrielle turned toward Xena.
She witnessed her soulmate and the priest locked in desperate combat. Blood flowed from Xenas right arm and her strength was waning. The Warrior Princess used her sword masterfully with her left hand, but the priest attacked her ferociously, using both his blade and the tigers paw.
Xena felt her body giving out as she fought the cult leader. Her breath came in sharp gasps, her chest ached, and her arm throbbed. She blocked a stroke, but the priest caught her off balance and hooked the tigers paw into the shoulder strap of her leathers, throwing her to the ground. She parried his next stroke from her kneeling position, but knew she would not be able the stop the one after that.
Too late! Gabrielle yelled and ran at the man attacking her soulmate. The priest drew back for the final blow. Then, something extraordinary happened.
As Xena prepared to take the mortal strike, a large form flew at her from the bushes. In the darkness, she guessed a tiger by size and speed. Gabrielle skidded to a stop, staff at the ready.
The big cat ignored the woman and leapt for the priest. He screamed in terror. The tiger mauled him to death in seconds.
The cat turned, circling the downed Warrior Princess.
"Xena " Gabrielle began, but her friend did not hear, so focused was she on the deadly animal.
Without warning, the beast stopped and stared at Xena. She stared back. For a moment, none of them moved -- Xena frozen on one knee facing a tiger, Gabrielle standing just yards away, watching helplessly, and a very large cat studying the Warrior Princess with yellow eyes that burned in the night.
In the next instant, the tiger whirled about and loped off.
Gabrielle hurried to her companion and caught Xena as she collapsed in the dirt.
While carefully stitching Xenas upper arm, Gabrielle recalled another, recent "sewing session" when she had to close a large cut on Xenas thigh. The Bard ignored the pain in her scalded foot as she helped her friend. She sighed.
The Warrior heard her soulmate. She touched the dark streaks of dye on Gabrielles face, then let her hand travel down the side of the Bards neck to the top of the torn tunic. She started to remove the shirt, pushing it from Gabrielles shoulder.
"Xena, Im trying to concentrate here," said the younger woman quietly. "You arent helping."
"Sorry, Gabrielle. Guess Im just suffering from battle fatigue need a little release."
"Youve lost a lot of blood," Gabrielle continued.
"Know what? I kinda like it this way." Xena gently tousled Gabrielles short, black tresses. "Only I prefer your irritating blonde color."
"Hold still, Xena, or this will really hurt." The Amazon Queen meant it as a threat.
The Warrior Princess complied for the final stitches and application of a clean bandage, then drew the Bard to her with her uninjured arm. She hugged Gabrielle tightly.
"What was that for?" asked the smaller woman.
"I thought Id lost you," Xena whispered in a low, husky tone. Gabrielle knew her friend was on the edge of rare tears.
"We did it, Xena. We rescued those boys. Its over. Let it go." The Bard tried to convince herself as well.
After a moment, Gabrielle spoke again. "Do you think that tiger was a god? The villagers say so."
"Gabrielle, how can you believe that stuff?"
"Im a Bard, remember? Its my calling to believe the unusual."
Rather than reply, Xena found Gabrielles lips and kissed her deeply.
When they parted, Xena gazed at the Amazon Queens still tightly bound breasts.
"These have to go," said the Warrior Princess as she tugged the bindings, grinning wickedly.
"After this," Gabrielle responded, pointing to her darkened hair and the dye on her skin.
"I guess we could both use a bath," the Bard added.
Xena just smiled, and let Gabrielle lead her from the room.
Comments? Questions? Constructive feedback gladly accepted at: MsCL@ix.netcom.com
alt fic index <> homepage