White Water Terror 3: The Hunt
By Blind Faith
Disclaimer: All the characters in the following story belong to Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright violations were intended. This story was written purely for entertainment purposes and not for profit of any kind.
Xenaverse Historical Note: This story is the third and final part to the "White Water Terror" series, which didnt start off to be a series at all. That just sort of happened (G). I would recommend that you read the other two stories first so the events here will make more sense. Also, you should note that these events occur a short time after the events of the fourth season episode "A Family Affair."
The area in which she was nestled was hardly large enough for a child, but she had squeezed into the crevice anyway. Xena had asked her to wait here while she scouted the area. There was at least one enemy army in the area, and the warrior didnt want to take any unnecessary chances with Gabrielles safety. The late afternoon sun had long ago lost its warmth, and the chill of the evening had settled over the land and had seeped into her bones from the cold rocks around her. If only Xena would hurry and return, maybe they could build a campfire to ward off the cold.
"What am I thinking?" Gabrielle chastised herself. They had been traveling for over two weeks now, tracking a mad woman named Kilaro, and during that time they had not lit a single campfire for fear that they would be spotted. If fact, Gabrielle was beginning to forget how good a campfire might feel or how good roasted rabbit or fresh fish would taste.
Just the thought made her mouth water, and she sighed heavily. Where was Xena, anyway? The warrior had been gone for nearly an hour, following the tracks left by Kilaros soldiers and some new tracks that indicated that there were others traveling in this area. The warrior had been on edge all day - even more on edge than she had been since escaping from Kilaro days ago.
Since the escape, they had been traveling rapidly across the country, using every ounce of daylight to track down the mysterious woman and her army. Xena had suspected that Kilaro would track them down after their escape, but it appeared that the woman had something else in mind because the tracks indicated that she and her men were angling away from them and heading north. Gabrielle didnt understand Kilaros strategy, but she knew that they were catching up with her and would probably have some of their questions answered soon.
Another draft of cold air gusted into the crevice, and she grimly clamped her teeth together to prevent them from chattering and wrapped her arms more snugly around her middle to conserve heat. She sighed heavily, worrying about the warriors safety now that it was nearly dark and resigning herself to the fact that she would have to wait here for a while longer.
About two miles away from Gabrielles hiding place, Xena was also crouched on the cold ground, but her focus was not on her own discomfort. Fifty feet in front of her there was a small camp, and eight soldiers were clustered around a large fire in the middle of the clearing. From the look of it, some tents had been hastily set up around the very edge of the clearing, but not much else had been done to establish the camp. That meant these men were not planning on staying here for any length of time. Xena could hear the murmur of their voices but couldnt understand any specific words, so she silently crawled forward, hiding behind the tent closest to the circle of men.
"Hey, pass me that rabbit," snapped the soldier closest to her.
"Hey, get it yourself! Unless you want me to throw your portion in the fire!" A young man holding a handful of cooked rabbit stood up, glaring at the snarling soldier across from him.
Before a full-fledged argument could erupt, another soldier stepped into the middle of the budding argument. "What are you two thinking?" The man shouted, knocking the younger man back down on the ground. "Queen Kilaro has sent us out to scout the area and to find out about the other army that is tracking us and to find Xena, who is probably following us right now! Those are direct orders from the queen herself. We dont have the time to spend sitting here and bickering among ourselves. Is that clear?" His voice had gotten deeper and louder with each shouted word.
He stared at each of the men sitting around him, daring them to interrupt or contradict him. When none of them said anything and refused to make direct eye contact with him, he grunted and sat back down in his own spot around the fire. "Good, then. Lets get finished with the food here and get some rest so we can get back on the trail first thing in the morning."
Xena carefully slid further back behind the tent and sat up. So ..Kilaro was close by and was worried about another army and about her. Xenas lips curved into a fierce smile, and she felt the fatigue of the past days drop away at the prospect of action.
Well, Kilaro was about to get a lot more than she was hoping for. Xena had seen evidence of another large army traveling in this same direction, and if her guess was accurate, then this other army belonged to one of the local warlords in this area, Almadeus. If this were true, then Kilaros soldiers would soon be occupied fighting off the other army, and it would be the best opportunity she would have to challenge Kilaro without having to fight her whole army in order to reach the queen.
Even now, she was curious how she had been able to get so close to these soldiers at this camp. Several days ago when she and Gabrielle had discovered the destroyed village, she had been unable to double back and get behind Kilaros soldiers. They had simply disappeared. Maybe Kilaro had actually been with that other group and her magic had been able to hide them from the warrior. Or, maybe now that Almadeuss army was close by, Kilaro was too distracted to notice Xenas presence at the moment.
Whatever the reason, Xena felt the first glimmer of hope shed had in days - felt that there might actually be a way to reach Kilaro and find out the truth behind the elusive declaration made as Xena had escaped the caverns. The warrior closed her eyes, and she could hear the words of the other woman as clearly as she had heard them days before and had heard in her nightmares ever since. "Enjoy your freedom, Xena. You wont have it for long. Well meet again soon. Very soon! You killed my mother, and now its my turn to kill you."
Xena opened her eyes and looked quickly around. "Not if I can help it, Kilaro," she thought fiercely. There was a little bit of daylight left, and she decided that she had enough time to check into the tents to see how well armed Kilaros soldiers were. She pulled out a belt knife and slid it down the canvas fabric of the tent, opening up a hole large enough to look through. Though the interior of the tent was dimly lit, she could still make out the shapes of several weapons lying out on the floor and stacked against some crates. She slid the knife the rest of the way down the canvas and slipped quietly inside the tent.
Most of the equipment seemed to be of average quality, though the weapons had been carefully sharpened and cleaned. She was slipping quietly from crate to crate, counting the approximate number of weapons, when she saw an ornate gold chest sitting in the corner. Curiously, she moved to the chest and opened the lid. She grinned in spite of herself and reached into the box, pulling out her sword with one hand and her chakram with the other.
Gods, it felt good to be holding her own weapons again. She hadnt been sure what had happened to them after Kilaro had captured her, but she had been pretty sure she would never see them again. However, here they were as surely as if The Fates had guided her to them. She reached back into the dark recesses of the chest, and her fingers curled around a familiar wooden shape. She pulled up a wooden staff with the markings of the Amazon queen etched onto one end. Gabrielles staff. Perfect. She smiled and glanced quickly around the tent one last time and then moved back towards the opening. She ducked through the canvas and disappeared into the thick underbrush, heading back to the spot she had left Argo. It was nearly dark, and she wanted to get back to Gabrielle as soon as possible.
With a powerful sense of relief, Gabrielle heard the familiar thundering approach of Argo and crawled out from the crevice to greet her partner. The path was dark, lit only by the light of the full moon, and she stepped to the side of the path as Xena pulled Argo to a skidding halt and slid off the saddle to land lightly beside her. The bard reached out and rested her hand on the warriors upper arm.
"Xena. Im glad youre back. I was getting worried. Did you find anything?" Gabrielle grabbed Xenas cloak from their supplies hidden in the bushes and placed it around her partners shoulders, noticing the lines of fatigue on the warriors face but also seeing the glint of satisfaction in her eyes.
"Yeah. I found out a few things. Lets find a warm spot to spend the night, and then Ill tell you all about it." Gabrielle saw a flash of white as the moon reflected off Xenas smile and felt a strong arm circle her shoulders as they retraced their path from earlier in the day. She smiled and hugged an arm around the warriors waist, finding that the warriors good mood was contagious.
"Oh, by the way, I thought you might want this back." Xena stopped and reached behind Argos saddle, pulling out the bards staff and handing it to her. Gabrielle clutched the staff to her chest in surprise, her eyes jerking up to meet the smiling blue ones above her.
"Where ?" Gabrielle couldnt find the words to complete the sentence, and Xena laughed gently.
"The same place that I found these." She turned to show Gabrielle her sword and chakram that were hanging from the saddle. "Come on. Lets find a good spot to camp, and Ill tell you all about that too."
Gabrielle smiled to herself, knowing now at least part of the reason that Xenas mood had improved this evening. She wrapped her arm back around the warriors middle and hugged her tight. "Lead on, my warrior."
Xena leaned over and dropped a quick kiss on the top of the bards head, and they both laughed softly, enjoying the shared closeness as they headed off into the darkness to find shelter for the night.
Gabrielle shivered and snuggled deeper into the blanket that was covering them, and she smiled gently as she felt the warriors arm tighten around her waist and draw her closer to the leathered warmth. They had found shelter in a cave, if it could actually be called a cave. It was really just a glorified niche in a clump of rocks, but at least it was providing some protection from the sharp bite of the north wind.
Xena was lying behind her, her longer body wrapped protectively around hers, and Gabrielle felt very safe as she nestled in her partners warm embrace. The forest around them was very quiet except for the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves and the occasional call of a night owl perched nearby.
She stared pensively out into the night, thinking about all that Xena had told her earlier. There were two armies out there somewhere, one chasing the other, and if the pursuing army did belong to Almadeus, then Kilaros men were going to have their hands full. Almadeus controlled this whole region, and in the past he had demonstrated that he was very territorial and very unforgiving to others who trespassed.
Gabrielle closed her eyes in an attempt to shut out the images of bloodshed that she knew would occur when the two armies met. However, she also was very aware of the fact that this was exactly what Xena was hoping for because it was the only way that they could get near Kilaro.
A warm hand, gently rubbing her hip and sliding up to wrap around her chest, hugging her close, interrupted her thoughts.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" The warriors deep voice rumbled in her ear, sending warm shivers along her skin. She hadnt even realized that Xena was still awake. "Do you want to talk about it?"
The blonde smiled and turned over to face her dark-haired partner. Xena was regarding her with a fond smile, but even in the weak light of the moon, the bard could see the concern showing clearly in the expressive eyes. How many times had that question been asked between them? The number of times didnt matter, Gabrielle thought warmly. The question itself was a reminder that another person cared.
She reached out and brushed her fingertips along the bridge of the finely sculptured nose in front of her. "You always know when I need to talk, dont you?" She allowed her fingers to continue their journey down to the warriors lips, tracing them with a reverent finger. Her eyes followed the slow pattern and then lifted to meet the blue eyes gone dark.
Xena remained quiet, waiting patiently and giving a quiet support in the circle of her arms. Gabrielles hand idly traced patterns along the smooth ridge of the warriors collarbone in front of her, her thoughts a million miles away from her actions. She sighed deeply and then refocused her gaze on her partner. "I guess that Im just worried about whats going to happen. Our last run-in with Kilaro wasnt exactly as simple as a stroll through the marketplace. We barely got out with our lives."
"I know, Gabrielle, but we basically walked right into Kilaros trap this last time. I made the mistake of underestimating her once, but that wont happen again. The key is the element of surprise and catching her without the support of her army, and I think that Almadeus and his men are going to provide exactly the distraction we need." She reached out and cupped her hand behind the bards neck and pulled her forward. Their lips gently slid together and moved with practiced ease, emphasizing the deep love and hinting at a deeper passion.
Finally, she pulled back, gently ruffling the bards hair. "I think that I know where Almadeus and his army will attack." She paused briefly and acknowledged Gabrielles surprised look. "There is a valley just north of here that is bordered by a line of hills on either side. Its perfect for an ambush, and it looks like Kilaro is heading right for it. Its the shortest route to take in order to get to the lands to the north."
Xena couldnt help but frown as she remembered her last trip through this same valley. It had been right after Gabrielles fall into Dahaks pit, and she had been on her way to the Land of the Amazon Dead.
A sudden premonition caused her to shiver. Was Kilaro somehow related to the things that had happened in that northern region? She was certainly heading in the right direction. What if Kilaro was heading back to her homeland, a place Xena had hoped never to see again?
The grip of a warm hand on her upper arm brought her attention back to the present.
"Xena, what is it? Whats wrong?"
She glanced at the bard and then looked out into the night. "I dont know for sure, Gabrielle. Its just that Kilaro claims that I killed her mother, right?" Xena caught the bards nod out of the corner of her eye. "Well, I think that I know why she is heading north." She felt the grip around her arm tighten. "Ive been through this area recently."
Now it was Gabrielles turn to frown. "We have?"
"No. Not we, Gabrielle. Me. I have been through here recently when when I was searching for your soul."
The last part of this was spoken in such a soft whisper that at first Gabrielle wasnt sure she had heard her correctly, but then she realized what Xena was saying. "Oh t thats when you were through this area." She leaned forward and rested her head against the strong shoulder in front of her.
After they had been reunited weeks earlier, Xena had finally confided in her one night, telling of her journey to find Gabrielles soul. She had described her journey across the badlands and how she had met up with a band of Amazons from the region. She had described the struggle to reunite the Amazon tribes, the struggle to give them back their identity and their traditions, to free the shades of the dead Amazons so they could cross over to the other side.
It was truly one of the most fantastic stories that Gabrielle had ever heard, and she still struggled to believe that all of that had happened. And even as fantastic as the story had been, she was pretty sure that there was a lot more that Xena had not told her. She could still sense a deep unease in the warrior from those events. "So, do you think that Kilaro has anything to do with the events that happened there?"
Xenas eyes tracked back to hers, and she could see a hint of something there. Fear? Anxiety? She wasnt sure.
"I dont know, Gabrielle. But there were a lot of bad things that happened there. Some of those things happened a long time ago when I first visited that area, but there were also some bad things that happened this time. I just dont know."
Xena struggled to block out the bloody images that would be forever etched on her brain and on her heart. She hadnt gone into a lot of detail with Gabrielle about those events, but she felt a sense of inevitability about this journey. Her instincts were telling her that Kilaros vengeance was directly associated with those events, and she had a very vivid memory of a woman whose powers had been similar to Kilaros. Alti. Even the thought of her name sent a wave of nausea through the warrior.
She closed her eyes as she remembered their final battle. She had applied the pressure points on her own neck and to the necks of the other Amazons so that Alti couldnt control them. As it had turned out, her spirit had left her physical body and had fought Altis spirit, and the battle had been to the death. Alti had used her magic to project parts of Xenas future into the warriors mind, hoping that visions of her death would distract the warrior long enough so that she could be defeated.
And it had almost worked. Almost. The image that had saved her was the image of her death by crucifixion with Gabrielle by her side and the realization that Gabrielle was still alive in the present time.
She opened her eyes again and looked sadly at Gabrielle. She hadnt been able to tell Gabrielle about this vision. She couldnt bring herself to tell her partner that she would die a horrible death at a young age. If Kilaro were somehow connected to those events, then she must not be allowed to reach her homeland. She would have too much of an advantage on familiar soil.
Xena pulled Gabrielle to her, tucking the bards head under her chin and lying back so that her partners smaller body was draped partially across her own. She felt Gabrielle shift until their bodies were comfortably molded together. "Gabrielle, I wish I had the answers to all the questions racing through my mind right now, but I think I know one thing. We have to get to Kilaro before she reaches her destination. Once we have confronted her, on our terms this time, then well know the truth of all this."
She hugged the bard to her a little tighter and felt an answering squeeze from the muscular arms wrapped around her waist. "Lets try to get some sleep. Theres nothing else we can do tonight, and were going to need our rest."
"I know," Gabrielle answered quietly. "Im trying not to worry." She gave the warrior a final hug. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Love." The warriors voice rumbled deeply against her ear, and she relaxed completely against her partner and was soon asleep.
Xena wasnt even close to falling asleep though. She stared grimly at the gray ceiling of rock above them, thinking long into the night about Alti, her visions, and about the many lives she had changed by her actions of the past. A gust of cold wind swirled around her, but its chill couldnt match the coldness that wrapped around her soul.
It took them two days of almost constant travel to reach the valley, and when they got there, the armies were already fully engaged in battle. Gabrielle watched from the shelter of a large boulder she was hidden behind as Xena worked her way stealthily down the hillside and closer to the battle. The warrior was determined to try to find Kilaro and to get some advantage over her.
The bard squinted until her eyes were nearly closed as wave after wave of dust rolled off the battlefield in the floor of the valley. The valley itself didnt have much greenery or trees. The whole area seemed to be covered with rocks and a dry reddish dust that clung to her body in a very irritating way. It seemed appropriate to her that all this carnage should be taking place in a location that was already so barren of life. She shuddered as she watched one particularly violent skirmish on the edge of the field closest to where she was hiding. She flinched as two of the soldiers swung swords at each other simultaneously - both connecting with deadly results.
She turned her attention back to her partner and noticed that Xena was working her way quickly back to her hidden location. "What did you see?" She asked the warrior as she got closer.
Xena knelt down beside her and pointed to the far end of the valley where there was a small plateau elevated above the rest of the hills. "See that area at the other end of the valley?" She waited for Gabrielle to nod before continuing. "Well, Im sure that is where Kilaro is waiting, watching the battle from a safe lookout. I saw a flash of the sun reflecting off of metal up there."
Gabrielle frowned and looked intently at the area in the distance. "How do you know that Kilaro is up there and not Almadeus?" She looked back at Xena in time to catch the amused glint in the warriors eye and was confused. "What?"
"Because, Gabrielle, Almadeus is right there." She pointed to a clump of fighters on the far side of the battlefield. She glanced wryly back to meet the bards look.
Gabrielle smiled slightly. "Oh. Well, you could have just said that in the first place." She looked back at the carnage and her smile faded. " Now what?"
Xenas voice was grim. "We need to get around to that other hillside without being seen and put our plan into action. Are you ready?"
Gabrielle nodded and followed the already retreating back of the warrior. Darn. It was probably too late to admit that she was scared to death at the whole prospect of confronting Kilaro again. She just hoped that the plan Xena had worked out would be successful. And there was also a pretty large part of her that hoped she could carry out her part in it. She shook aside her doubts and hurried down the hillside.
A candlemark later Gabrielle was seated on Argo wearing Xenas armor, which the warrior had insisted she wear for protection. She frowned, not for the first time, and readjusted the fit of the metal over the curves of her own body. "Xena, are you sure you dont want to wear this stuff? It just doesnt fit me right." She looked pleadingly down into Xenas smiling eyes.
"Gabrielle, " the warrior began, "Im sure. Now, you know what it is you are supposed to do, right?" She pulled a final time on Argos cinch to make sure it was tight, knowing that it was, but needing the gesture to calm her own nerves. She hated it that she was about to deliberately send the bard into danger, and this time was particularly bad because if something went wrong, she wouldnt be there to help. She placed her hand on the bards leg and looked intently up into the beautifully brave face of her partner.
Gabrielle returned the affectionate look. "Yep. I think that Im ready to go. Are you ready?" She let the concern she felt for the warrior show through her solemn eyes. She knew that after she created a distraction to draw away Kilaros personal guards that Xena was going to attack Kilaro face-to-face.
Xena smiled back reassuringly. "Almost ready. Cmere." She reached up and pulled Gabrielles lips down to meet her own in a tender farewell. "Good luck and be careful." She brushed her fingertips lightly over the bards lips and then stepped back out of Argos way. "Meet you back here when were finished." She then reached out and smacked Argo on the rump as Gabrielle headed off towards Kilaros patrols, thinking already that she had made a mistake in sending the bard out to be hunted by Kilaros best soldiers.
However, now was a time for action, not for thoughts of what might go wrong. She pulled her sword out of its scabbard, adjusted her grip on the handle, and then headed to the spot where she had seen the flash of metal, her mind still with the bard - hoping that the plan would work. If it didnt, she and Gabrielle would both be dead before morning.
Gabrielle pulled Argo to a stop as she neared the crest of the hill. She adjusted her position on the saddle, making sure that she was balanced and ready for a dash across the plateau. Unthinkingly, her hand tracked down to the side of the saddle where her staff was secured. As Xenas decoy, she had to make sure that she rode close enough to Kilaros guards so that they considered her a threat, but she had to stay far enough away that they couldnt catch her. She shook her head slightly and swallowed. O.K. This was it. Now or never. With one last deep breath, she tightened her knees against Argos sides and hung on to the saddlehorn tightly. Argo responded to the command and charged forward.
Xena, meanwhile, had positioned herself just to the left of Gabrielle, but closer to the enemy. She could see Kilaro near the far edge of the plateau, intently watching the battle on the valley floor below her. The other woman appeared to be fully absorbed in the battle, paying little heed to the skittish black stallion on which she was mounted. Six of her personal guards were also scattered along the rim watching the battle. Xena was close enough that she could hear the shouts of Kilaros guards as they encouraged their fellow soldiers to fight harder.
Kilaro was still wearing her hooded cloak, but the hood was down around her shoulders. Xena was able to finally get a clear look at her adversary. Kilaros hair was shoulder length, brown with red highlights, and the wind at this elevation was causing it to swirl wildly around her head, highlighting a certain degree of madness. Her face might have actually been pretty, but it was hard to tell. Her fine features were pulled tight into a fierce snarl as she watched her troops and turned to comment to the soldiers near her. Her ease in the saddle of the spirited horse was an indication of her athleticism and grace. She was one with her horse, her body an easy extension of its fiery nature.
So, this was Kilaro, the woman who had remained hidden by a cloak while her henchmen had tried to kill them. Xena nodded her head slightly. She felt her blood stir, and she knew that she was ready to meet this womans challenge. So far things looked pretty good. It was just as she had hoped. Kilaro and her guards were too busy watching the battle to notice their quiet approach. The key to success was catching the sorceress by surprise so that she wouldnt have a chance to use her magic. Xena tensed as she heard Argos approach and watched as Gabrielle came into view, riding Argo at a full run.
It was a sight that took Xenas breath away. The bard was leaning forward in the saddle, her muscular body moving in perfect rhythm with her horse. Her blonde hair was streaming out behind her like silk ribbons snapping in a brisk wind, but it was the look on the bards face that captured and held the warriors attention. Gabrielles lips were open and she was almost smiling, her chin tilted up in defiance. Her look was almost jubilant as she charged towards the men; it was the look of an Amazon queen leading her warriors into battle.
It was a spellbinding sight, and it momentarily froze Kilaros sentries. Before they could react, Gabrielle was past them and heading directly towards the other soldiers. Though their attention had been on the battle, it didnt take them long to spot the charging horse. They quickly turned their own horses and galloped after the bard, who had now turned Argo and was retreating. Xena fought the strong urge to follow her partner and protect her, and instead sprinted as fast as she could towards Kilaro, whose attention was now split between the battle below her and the intruder her guards were pursuing.
It was only luck that saved the sorceress from being dumped over the ledge by Xenas flying, leatherclad body. Kilaro turned her horse at the last moment, and instead of Xenas feet contacting in the middle of her back, the warriors feet caught her in the shoulder, allowing her to grab onto the saddle even as she was pushed off the horse. She landed awkwardly in the dirt beside her horse, and Xena landed a short distance away, between Kilaro and the drop off into the valley.
"Well, well, well," Kilaro hissed as she straightened up. "It didnt take you long to come back here looking for trouble. I knew you were close by. I just couldnt pinpoint exactly where." She smiled without humor. "Couldnt stay away could you, Xena?" As she was talking, Kilaro drew her sword and began walking slowly closer to the warrior.
"Kilaro, you know that I cant let you reach your homeland." Xena taunted her, watching closely for a reaction to the words. She wasnt disappointed.
"So, you think you know who I am and where Im going? Well, maybe youd like to kill me the same the way you killed my mother, by impaling me and leaving me to be eaten by wild animals without a proper burial."
Kilaros rage was building, and she stepped even closer to Xena, her rage making her more and more careless.
Xena saw her advantage and continued to press it. "So, you are actually going to claim that evil witch, Alti, as your mother?" She tightened her grip on her sword as Kilaro screamed and charged her. The other woman was very good with a sword, but Xena was easily able to block the attack, though a shower of sparks fell around them from the force of Kilaros swing. The sorceress let her momentum carry her past Xena, and she quickly regained her balance and began circling the warrior. With a slight flick of her wrist, Kilaro sent Xenas sword flying off to the side out of reach.
Kilaro smiled. "You almost had me, Xena. I dont need to fight you with this." She held up the sword with negligent ease in her left hand, and Xena knew that she had lost her advantage. She started to back slowly away as the other woman continued to taunt her.
"Whats wrong, Xena? Did I spoil your little plan?" With that, Kilaro pointed towards a large rock, and with her special powers levitated it into the air. "You see, my mother, Alti, depended on drugs, potions, and chants to help her with her spells and mind games, but I was taught my mind control powers by one of the local masters." She smiled gleefully, "Oh, I still can do the mysticism thing like my mother, but I am even stronger than she was." To emphasize her point, she hurled the rock towards Xena, screaming maniacally into the still air around them.
Xena anticipated the throw but not the speed of its approach, and she just barely managed to leap out of its way. She straightened and faced Kilaro again, pulling her chakram from her belt and gripping it firmly.
"Your mother died because she was trying to kill others and failed. It wasnt my choice." Xena enunciated each word clearly, looking squarely into the deep brown eyes across from her. "Her mistake was " Xena stopped as her chakram was ripped out of her hand by an invisible force, and her eyes widened as a second boulder headed her way. She jumped high into the air, somersaulted once, and then landed lightly, straightening her shoulders as she once again squared off against the sorceress.
So ..She wasnt going to be able to reason with Kilaro. Fine. That was no surprise. Her own blood was stirring with adrenaline, and she let her own anger rise to the surface.
Kilaro moved both arms this time, lifting two boulders half the size of Xena. "Lets see if you can dodge these, " she screamed.
Xena looked around frantically for shelter of some kind. The closest protection was a three-foot pile of rocks near the edge of the plateau. She pushed off with both feet and began somersaulting across the open area, hoping that her moves would distract Kilaros aim.
She felt and heard the first boulder as it rushed past to smash into the rocks behind her, and she laid out into a headfirst dive towards the sheltering rocks. She knew an instant before impact that she hadnt made it in time, and she tensed her muscles to help absorb some of the impact. However, she was stretched out and vulnerable when the boulder impacted her just below her right shoulder and slammed her backwards onto the rocks.
For a brief moment, all that registered was a blinding white pain and the fact that she couldnt breathe. It took her a moment to realize that she was lying partially under the boulder, pushed up against another rock, and that the air had been knocked out of her by the impact. Slowly her lungs began to take in a little air, and as she inhaled cautiously, she could feel some damage to her ribs and right shoulder.
She slowly tensed the muscles in her arms and legs to make sure they still worked, and then she pushed inconspicuously against the rock in an effort to free herself. However, it was useless. The rock weighed much more than she did, and with her injured ribs, she couldnt even rock it back off of her the tiniest bit. She gritted her teeth against the pain and against the knowledge that Kilaro had her just where she wanted her.
She closed her eyes as she heard footsteps approaching from behind the rock and pretended to be unconscious. She almost gave away her deception, however, when Kilaro lifted the rock away from her. Her lungs wanted desperately to drag in more air once the pressure was lifted, and she had to clamp down on that reflex because she knew that if she inhaled a big breath, her ribs would scream in protest and she wouldnt be able to hold still with that kind of pain. Grimly, she lay there without moving, knowing that Kilaro was only a short distance away watching her. She still might have a chance if she could only convince the sorceress that she was helpless.
She didnt hear anything for a few moments, but then she heard Kilaros harsh laugh. "Xena, darling, I think that you are bluffing. Lets just see."
Xena felt a pressure all around her body, lifting her up off the ground. She wasnt able to move her arms or legs, but she was able to lift her eyelids just a tiny bit so that she could see what was happening. Kilaro was standing about five feet away from her with her arms outstretched above her head, and the sorceress was using her power to slowly lift Xenas limp form high into the air. There was no way of fighting the power that lifted her, so Xena concentrated on keeping her bearings because she had a pretty good idea that she was going to be making a fast descent at any moment. Damn. Things were not going at all like she had planned.
Kilaro began to walk slowly towards the edge of the precipice, moving Xenas body through the air along with her. From her height advantage, Xena was just able to catch a glimpse of yellow moving towards them through the rocks. Gabrielle!
Yes. The bard was slowly climbing over and around the boulders, using her staff to help balance herself over the rough path. Xena needed to distract Kilaro until the bard could get just a little closer.
She opened her eyes a little wider and laughed down at Kilaro. "Is this how you are bravely going to dispose of me, Kilaro?" A nod of her head towards to the precipice accompanied the taunt.
Kilaros eyes jerked up to meet hers. "Xena, I knew you were just pretending, hoping that I would get close enough for an ambush." She laughed wildly at her own cunning. "But Im smarter than that, you see. Im not going to give you the chance to win today, Warrior Princess. Today is the day that Kilaros reign of terror begins." She paused dramatically and smiled up at the warrior. "However, first Im going to drop you to your death. Do you have any final words before you die?"
Kilaros hatred was so focused on the warrior that she never sensed nor heard Gabrielles approach. The bard gripped her staff tightly with both hands and brought it down solidly over the top of Kilaros head. Two things happened simultaneously: Kilaro crumpled to the ground, and Xena, no longer suspended in the air by the sorceresss power, fell awkwardly towards the rim of the plateau.
She knew that she was going to land near the edge, and she braced herself for the impact, searching desperately for something to grasp so that her momentum wouldnt carry her over the rim. The ground rushed at her, and she managed to see the top of a rock sticking up out of the dirt a little off to her left. At impact, she flung her left arm towards the rock and clutched with her fingers to gain a purchase. Her body connected with the rim of the precipice in such a way that her hips and legs were dangling over the edge with nothing but a long drop beneath them, and her upper body collided with the rocks and hard-packed soil of the plateau. Somehow, her hand managed to find purchase on that lone rock, and she just avoided flipping on over the edge.
Her ribs screamed in protest, as did the shoulder that had caught her weight, but she pulled herself back onto solid soil and staggered to her feet. She lifted her head up in time to see Gabrielle rushing forward to help her, but just beyond the bard she saw Kilaro crawling up to her hands and knees, preparing to get up.
Xena lunged past Gabrielle and grabbed Kilaro by her shoulders as she was still bent over, delivering a solid knee to the other womans chin. When Kilaro staggered back, Xena grabbed her again and flung her back towards Gabrielle and the edge of the precipice. Kilaro, realizing that Xena was pushing her towards the edge, leaped forward and over the warrior, placing Xena once again closest to the edge.
The sorceress snarled in her rage. "Xena, you will die now for what you did to my mother. May your body rot in Tartarus for all eternity." With that, she charged the warrior, attempting to use her momentum to push Xena over the edge and to her death.
However, the warrior was ready for that move, and as Kilaro flew at her, she grabbed the womans cloak and rolled backwards - at the same time, pushing Kilaro away from her with her feet. The sorceress flew over Xenas head and into the empty air beyond the rim of the precipice. She struggled to reach back to gain a handhold, but she was simply too far away to save herself. Her scream of rage echoed eerily into the sky for a long moment, and then there was a distant thud, then silence. Even the sound of the battle lower in the valley seemed to quiet at that moment.
Xena crawled over to the rim and looked down. Several hundred feet below, Kilaros body was lying at an awkward angle, her neck obviously broken - her reign of terror short-lived.
She felt Gabrielles soft touch on her shoulder and rolled over to look up at her partner. "Thanks for your help."
Gabrielle smiled and reached down to help her up. "Thats what friends are for. Are you O.K.?"
Xena winced as she sat up and grabbed Gabrielles hand. "Yeah. Its not too bad " The ground vibrated under her, and she quickly scrambled to her feet and pointed towards the rocks off to the right. "Grab my chakram; Ill get the sword. Hurry!" The urgency in her voice spurred Gabrielle into action.
The warrior whistled for Argo and then ran to the edge of the clearing and grabbed her sword. The palomino raced into the clearing and slid to a stop in front of the warrior. Gabrielle quickly joined her and reached over to attach the chakram to her partners belt. Xena handed her the sword. "Here. I need help with this."
She then bent down so the bard could slide it into the scabbard on her back, and then she placed her foot in Argos stirrup and swung up into the saddle. She held out her left hand and grabbed Gabrielles forearm swinging her up behind her. The pull on her injured ribs caused her to gasp slightly, but she gritted her teeth against the pain and tightened her knees against the horses side.
By this time the first of Kilaros soldiers had ridden into the clearing and spotted them. The others were right behind him, and they werent very happy about losing Gabrielle earlier. They were even less happy when they realized that Kilaro was no longer on the plateau with them. They shouted and began their furious pursuit. Xena turned Argo towards the path leading down the side of the hill and urged her into a full gallop. "Heeyah ."
The path was steep and littered with rocks, but Argo was well trained and able to negotiate the path with little difficulty. Soon they had placed several hundred yards between themselves and their pursuers.
Xena yelled back over her shoulder. "I was wondering how you got away from those soldiers back there."
Gabrielle smiled into Xenas back and tightened her hold. "I just practiced a little back-tracking trick someone taught me." She squeezed the warriors waist a little tighter. "Thanks for teaching me that."
Though the bard couldnt see Xenas smile, she could hear it in her voice. "My pleasure."
They remained silent for the next few miles of travel, weaving through different areas where the earth was too hard-packed to leave any trail. Finally, Xena slowed Argo to a stop and listened.
"I think that weve lost them. Lets travel for a while longer and find a safe place to camp for the night." She started to turn in the saddle to look at the bard, but her ribs and shoulder flared with a sharp pain. She slumped forward to ease the pressure. Gabrielles hands slid up her back and then around to grasp her shoulders.
"Xena? What is it?"
Xena took a shallow breath before answering. "Got pinned under a rock. I think I broke something, but its not too bad. Lets keep going." She felt Gabrielles hands tighten their grip.
"Xena are you sure?" The concern was evident in the bards voice.
"Yeah Im fine. Lets keep moving." She reached back and patted the top of Gabrielles thigh in reassurance, and they continued to ride for nearly three more candlemarks.
The countryside had changed during the ride. The area in which they were now traveling was very different from the barren valley they had left behind. Around them the lush forest was a vibrant green and was alive with all sorts of woodland creatures. Gabrielle watched two squirrels play tag along a branch they were riding under. One had a nut in his mouth and was desperately trying to keep it away from his playmate. Their rolling antics caused her to laugh out loud.
"Hey, whats going on back there," Xena joked, as she too enjoyed watching the scampering playmates. "Are you ready to stop? I see a good spot over here to the right." She angled Argo over to the clearing, ducking her head to pass under a low-hanging limb. She felt Gabrielle move to duck as well, grabbing onto her leathers to keep her balance.
"Hey. You pick the spot, and Im ready to stop," the bard quipped. "Gods! I think that my legs are totally numb from sitting for so long. I may never be able to walk again."
Xena raised one eyebrow and turned her head to the side as she pulled Argo to a stop at the edge of the clearing. "Gabrielle, a simple yes would have been enough."
That earned her a light slap on her hip as Gabrielle gingerly dismounted, then walked around to take the reigns from her hands.
Gabrielle could now clearly see the lines of pain around Xenas eyes and lips, and she looked up at her questioningly. "Do you need any help?"
Xena quirked an eyebrow slightly but didnt answer. Instead she carefully slid the scabbard and sword off her shoulder. "Yeah. Can you take this for me?"
As Gabrielle grabbed the sword, Xena unhooked the chakram and handed it down too. "And this?" Gabrielle grabbed the round weapon and then moved aside so that Xena would have plenty of room to dismount.
The process was a slow one for the warrior. The ride had been torturous for the injured ribs and shoulder, and they had tightened up so much that she could hardly move them now.
She grabbed the saddlehorn with her left hand and placed her foot solidly in the stirrup. Using her strong upper thigh muscles, she slowly lowered herself to the ground, taking a moment to lean weakly against Argo until some of the pain subsided.
She felt Gabrielles presence beside her and felt a warm hand on her back. She lifted her head to look tiredly at the bard.
Gabrielle reached out and offered a supporting hand. "Come on. Lets find you a place to rest, and Ill set up camp tonight." She gentle wrapped her arm around Xenas waist and helped her over to a large tree. "Xena, where are you hurt?"
The warrior tipped her head to look at her right shoulder. "One of the rocks hit me behind the right shoulder. I think there might be some damage to the shoulder and maybe to the ribs." She winced and grunted in pain as Gabrielle softly ran her hand over that area, feeling for damage.
"Xena, Im going to loosen the laces of your leathers and slide these off of you. Ill get a shift and a blanket in just a minute." She moved behind the warrior and began to gently loosen the leather strips, being careful to not bump the injured area. Xena was breathing shallowly, but didnt move except to push the leather strap down over her right shoulder.
After loosening the laces, Gabrielle slipped the left strap down and slid the leathers down to the ground. She grimaced at the bruises and dirt that marked her partners torso. "Xena, why dont you sit down, and Ill get some water to clean you up first and then well bandage those ribs."
Xena didnt even bother to answer. She just sank gratefully down to the ground and leaned back against the rough bark, wincing slightly as she jarred her shoulder. She closed her eyes and rested her head back against the bark, suddenly too weary to move. She felt a warm blanket drawn over her body and a cool hand on her forehead, and she opened her eyes to meet Gabrielles very concerned ones.
"Im O.K., Gabrielle. Just so very tired." She smiled slightly. "Go ahead and do what you need to do. Theres no hurry. Weve got all night." She closed her eyes again and allowed her tightened muscles to slowly relax. The quiet of the glade was such a wonderful change from the earlier battle, that she was asleep almost instantly.
Gabrielle watched the tension drain out of her partner, and she smiled sadly. It was always so hard to see Xena get hurt, and it seemed like that had been happening a lot lately. She sighed and looked down at herself. She smiled and shook her head. She was still wearing Xenas armor, and over the hours of travel, it had begun to sag a little on her torso. Well, actually it was sagging a lot. It had always been too big, but at the moment it definitely wasnt fitting like it should.
She grinned to herself at how silly she looked at the moment and hurriedly unhooked the heavy armor and placed it over beside Xenas leathers. All that stuff would have to be cleaned up, but not right now.
She rotated her stiff shoulders, relieved to be rid of the heavy armor, and walked over to Argo to get some clean cloths and some water. She set those down near Xena, and then collected some wood and started a fire.
In just a short while, she had the bedrolls laid out and all the medical supplies spread on them, ready for use. Now she just had to wake up the warrior and get her cleaned up and bandaged.
She walked quietly over to the tree and knelt down beside her partner. "Xena?" The warrior sleepily blinked her eyes into focus and then frowned up at Gabrielle.
"Whats wrong?" Even as she asked the question, her eyes were scanning the area for trouble.
Gabrielle reached out and placed loving fingers against the warriors jaw and pulled her face back around. She looked down at her partner and let the love she felt shine through her eyes. "Its just me, Xena. Im going to clean you up, Love, and I need you to help."
Xena relaxed back against the tree and offered up a small smile. "Sorry about that. I thought.." The light brush of Gabrielles lips against her own silenced her.
"Shhh . Relax and let me take care of you." Gabrielle smiled at the slightly impatient, but accepting look Xena gave her. She was well aware of the fact that Xena was not the best patient in the world, so she began to wash off the dirt and grime before her partner changed her mind.
It didnt take long to get the worst of the dust washed off, and with Xenas help she was able to wrap cloth bandages around the warriors chest to support the injured ribs. The shoulder blade was probably cracked, but there was not much to do for it except to put the right arm in a sling to immobilize it.
After all that was done, she sat back and admired her work. "How does that feel?" She looked up and directly into the intense blue eyes of her partner. The love she saw reflected there caused her to lose her train of thought, and there was a long moment of silence as they simply gazed into each others eyes.
"That feels great," Xenas voice finally broke the spell that seemed to have fallen over them. Gabrielle smiled and moved to get some fresh water and food, but a warm hand on her arm stopped her. She turned back to look at her partner questioningly.
Xenas voice dropped to an even lower octave as she regarded the bard. "Thank you for your help today and for this." Her eyes dropped to take in the fresh bandages around her torso, and she looked back up at Gabrielle. "Hurry and do what you were going to do and then come back here." She patted the ground beside her, designating a spot for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smiled. "Give me just a minute." She stood and hurried over to the saddlebags, pulling out one of Xenas clean shifts and a bag of dried fruits and nuts. She grabbed another waterskin and dropped all of that beside the warrior and sat down.
"Here, lets get this shift on you first." It took some effort to get the shift over the warriors head and down over the injured shoulder. Since it was impossible for Xena to lift her stiffened arm, the bard just slid the shift over the injured area, leaving the short sleeve to dangle empty. Once that was complete, she snuggled in beside the warrior and pulled the blanket up around them with one hand and reached for the trail mix with the other.
"I hope that you dont mind a cold supper tonight." She mumbled as she took a handful of trail mix and stuffed it into her mouth. Then she reached over for the waterskin as Xena took a handful of the mix for herself.
Xena smiled and rested her head over against the bards. "Gabrielle," her low voice rumbled. "I am perfectly happy right now. We have something to eat and drink, and most importantly I have you." She turned and brushed her lips against her partners temple. "I dont need anything more than that."
Gabrielle turned so she could look into the warriors eyes. "I love you too, Xena," she whispered.
She leaned forward, and Xena captured her lips in a tender kiss. After a long moment, Xena lifted her head and reached to pull Gabrielles body closer to her own. She tucked the bards head against her chest and lowered her lips to kiss the silky blonde hair that was temptingly close.
Life was paradox, Xena reflected somewhat sadly. Sometimes it was filled with hatred and evil, and people like Kilaro and Alti were the instruments of destruction for other people. And sometimes life was sweet and filled with love, and people like Gabrielle were the instruments of happiness. She hugged Gabrielle a little tighter, grateful that her life had been touched by that goodness. She closed her eyes and let the warmth and love radiating from the bards body fill her dreams as she relaxed into a peaceful sleep.
Above them, unnoticed, the same two squirrels that had been playing earlier in the day were watching contentedly from their nest in that same tree. And the quiet of the night blanketed the area in a subtle, quiet splendor.