A Near Life Experience
by Claire Withercross
Disclaimer : The characters in this story are copyright MCA/Universal
Lyrics copyright Dark Wings/Songwaves Music
Violence/Sex Warning : No more than an average episode.
Thanks : To Ann for putting up with an annoying bard above and beyond the call of sanity. To everyone who wrote and said how much they enjoyed "Waiting To Happen", special mention to Kamouraskan for getting in first. To everyone who read it and didnt write.
And to those who have not yet read it, read it!
Dedication : Id like to dedicate this story to my sister for driving a hundred miles to come and rescue me.
Other ramblings : This is a what if story. If you want to know what what if then read it. Also read the complementary story "A Near Life Experience,Too".
"Take me! Let the others go," I remember saying.
In retrospect it was probably a stupid thing to say, but at the time I thought I was being brave. Maybe I was.
That was when I caught my first glimpse of her, standing in the bushes in just a slip, before the man stepped between us and brought the handle of his sword down on my head.
The next time I saw her was when I regained consciousness. She was leaning over me, her expression for the most part unreadable, but I thought I saw flashes of concern, anger, and something that may have been revulsion.
"Take it easy," she said, as I groaned and tried to sit up. Her voice was low pitched and soothing.
She pressed a cloth to my head and I winced in pain.
"Sorry," she said, her face contorting in a mirror of my pain. "Don't worry, it's not too bad. It'll be sore for a day or so, but there won't be any permanent damage."
"Gabrielle!" I heard a familiar voice call out my name. "Gabrielle! Are you all right?"
I turned my head in the direction of the voice and smiled. By the look on Lila's face it must have been more of a grimace than a smile.
"I'm fine," I said. I held out a hand, but my sister was in a separate cage and our fingers failed to connect by several inches.
"What's all this noise?" a man's voice growled. "Oh, it's you. I might have guessed," he sneered at me.
I recognised him as the one who had struck me. He kicked out at my hand outside the cage, but I managed to move it away in time.
"Keep the noise down, or I'll teach you a lesson in manners you won't ever forget," he threatened convincingly.
"Your boss won't like you damaging his goods," said the woman in the slip.
The guard laughed, it wasn't a pleasant sound. "I know ways of 'damaging' without any outward sign."
"Really? I've always preferred the direct method myself," I heard the woman whisper menacingly to him.
He looked her up and down, laughed again and walked away.
I looked at the woman, her eyes followed the guard until he disappeared. I was glad I was not on the receiving end of that look. When she turned her gaze back to me her face immediately softened, and she smiled.
The smile took my breath away. It was a complete transformation, like the sun bursting through heavy clouds.
"I'm Gabrielle," I said. I had to say something. "And you are?"
She appeared confused for a moment. "Uh...um, I... Serena."
"That's my sister Lila," I pointed to the other cage. I turned to look in the other cage, Lila smiled sadly and waved. "We'll get out of this, I promise," I told her.
"I SAID QUIET!"
Lila jumped at the shout and tried to make herself small. The guard didn't make a reappearance. I looked around the cage I was in. There were six of us. Four women I recognised from my village, myself, and Serena.
"What brought you to Poteidaia?" I asked Serena, quietly.
"Just passing through," she replied, her eyes scanning around outside the cage before settling on me.
She smiled again. I wished she wouldn't, because it was making me forget the trouble we were in. Maybe that was why she was doing it.
"Just passing through," I repeated. "In your slip?"
She looked down at her clothing as if noticing for the first time that she wasn't dressed properly. "Long story," she shrugged.
"I don't have anything planned for the rest of this evening."
She smiled ruefully and shook her head.
As night fell so did the temperature. Our captives gave us some bread and water, but no blankets. There were several fires in the camp, but none near enough to be of any benefit. I noticed Serena acted as if she didn't feel the cold, though her body betrayed that notion.
She must have seen me shiver, for she rubbed my arms to keep me warm.
"Thanks," I said. "Aren't you cold?"
"I'm used to it," she said. "Here," she gave me the remainder of her bread.
"I suppose you don't feel hunger, either," I took the bread but didn't eat it straight away.
"I'm used to it," she said again, this time with a smirk.
She stood up suddenly and turned to face three guards striding towards our cage. The women nearest the door shrunk back as they unlocked it.
"You!" the head guard said, pointing a sword at Serena. "Come with us."
Serena moved forward without protest. When she was within reach the guards grabbed her and secured her hands behind her back, while the head guard locked the cage. I moved to the front of the cage and watched as they led her across the camp to a large tent. Presumably where the slave boss was. She was roughly pushed inside and I thought that was probably the last time I would see her alive.
Almost immediately the guards came back out. Two of them stood outside the tent while the head guard moved over to one of the camp fires.
I sat and watched the tent on the other side of the camp. There was nothing else to do.
After a few minutes there was movement by the tent. One of the guards entered, then came out and hurried over to the head guard. The head guard rushed to the tent, his subordinate hurrying along behind him. All three guards entered the tent.
I'm not sure, but I think I heard a raised voice from inside. Then the three guards came out and headed towards the cages. As they got nearer I saw they were headed to the cage next to mine.
I turned to seek out Lila. She was sat at the back of the cage, head resting against the bars, eyes closed. She opened them when she heard the cage door open.
My blood ran cold as the head guard pointed his sword at my sister.
Lila shook her head mutely.
"Don't make me come in and get you," he growled.
"No," Lila moaned.
"Lila!" I called.
"Gabrielle!" she cried.
"Get her out."
The two junior guards entered the cage and grabbed Lila. We both screamed.
"What are you doing? I said not to hurt her."
I turned and saw the slave boss striding across the camp. He pushed the head guard aside and ordered the two others out of the cage. They left Lila lying sobbing on the floor of the cage.
The slave boss crouched down and whispered gently to Lila. I couldn't hear what he said. She stopped sobbing and looked at him.
"That's a good girl," he said with a smile, and held out his hand.
Lila looked at me, the slave boss turned in my direction and smiled. His smile was almost as attractive as Serena's.
"I'm not going to hurt her," he said to me. "I'm just going to put her in with you."
I just stared at him, neither believing or disbelieving. There was something in his eyes that part of me wanted to trust. I looked over the camp towards his tent. I could see Serena standing just outside. It was impossible to tell from this distance, but I was sure she nodded.
"It's okay, Lila. He's just going to put you in here with me."
Lila seemed to accept that and took the offered hand.
The slave boss was true to his word and brought Lila to my cage. We fell into each others arms, smiling and crying at the same time.
"And don't forget the blankets," I heard the slave boss shout as he walked back to his tent.
The guards brought blankets. There weren't enough to go round, so Lila and I shared one, but it was large and warmed us both. Eventually we fell asleep.
I awoke at dawn to the sound of birds singing in the trees. For a moment I forgot I was locked up and facing an uncertain future. Lila was still asleep, so were some of the other women. I noticed immediately that Serena was not in the cage.
My mind turned back to last night. Had Serena asked the slave boss to put Lila and I together? Why would he do it? Why did he leave Serena on her own? And why didn't she run away?
Maybe she agreed to whatever sick plans he had for her if he allowed Lila and I to be together, and maybe he threatened to hurt us if she had run away.
That made sense. Almost.
It still didn't answer why the slave boss did what he did. Surely he could have just forced Serena to do what he wanted by threatening us? I made a note to ask her when she came back. If she came back.
But she didn't come back.
Not for the reasons I feared, though.
The guards brought us some thin porridge for breakfast. It was cold and barely edible. I used it to soften the crust of the bread from last night.
Across the other side of the camp I saw Serena being led from the slave boss's tent. She was no longer wearing her slip, but a knee length cloak. A guard rode up leading another horse. Serena went to mount the horse but the slave boss held her back. He touched her face and pulled her close to kiss her. I was shocked when she responded.
The smile she gave him before mounting was clearly visible to me. It shot like an arrow across the camp and into my chest.
Serena and the mounted guard rode away.
After breakfast, we were herded out of the cages and chained together.
I tried to ask the head guard what happened with Serena.
He laughed and struck Lila. "Keep quiet or next time I won't be so gentle with your sister."
I decided to shut up. Lila gave me a dirty look for getting her hit. I tried to make an apologetic face, but she turned away.
After a couple of hours marching we were ordered to rest. A few waterskins were distributed among us. After taking a drink from one I passed it onto Lila. She took it and offered me a shy smile.
"Sorry," she whispered.
"No, I'm sorry," I replied. "I should learn to keep my big mouth shut."
Lila laughed. "That's impossible."
I heard the sound of hoofbeats and saw the guard who'd left with Serena coming down the road, leading a riderless horse. The slave boss went to greet him and they exchanged a few words. Another guard approached them to take the horse.
When the slave boss turned around, our eyes met. He smiled his charming smile and walked towards me.
"I heard you were asking after your friend?" he said to me. "Hmm, what did she tell you her name was?" he raised his hand to his chin, and pretended to think. "Selena? Syrena?"
I was going to correct him, but decided not to play his game. Mainly because I didn't know what game he was playing.
He laughed heartily at my refusal to play along. "Do you know who she really is?" He could see I wasn't going to answer, so he continued. "That was Xena. You may have heard of her. The Warrior Princess. The Destroyer of Nations."
I had heard of her. Who hadn't? But I couldn't believe that the kind, gentle woman in the cage was the same evil, bloodthirsty harpy that was terrorising most of the known world. The slave boss saw the doubt on my face.
"Why else would I let her go?" he asked. "Why else would I let your sister join you in the cage last night?"
I couldn't keep quiet any longer. "If she was Xena, why would she ask you to do that?"
He frowned. "You know, I asked her that same question. Do you know what she replied?"
I shook my head.
"She said, 'Just do it or I'll rip your stomach out through your mouth.' Well, as you can imagine, I couldn't refuse an offer like that. Even if she was standing there in a slip with her hands tied behind her back." He leaned in closer to me. "I didn't press for any further explanation," he whispered. He stepped back. "So, I promised to treat you nicely and she promised not to kill me. Other than that, you are still my property until I sell you, and if you give any lip to me or my guards I'm within my rights to slit your throat. Are you clear on that?"
"Perfectly," I replied, keeping my voice neutral.
The march continued.
I was thinking it must be about lunch time, and when I thought of food my stomach growled. There was a shout at the front of our little convoy and we came to a halt.
"Great, I wonder what culinary delight we get for lunch," Lila grumbled behind me.
I was about to reply, when I saw her again.
Serena was standing in the middle of the road, arms folded casually, holding a sword in her right hand. She was dressed in leather with some metal armour additions.
Correction. Xena was standing in the middle of the road.
The slave boss approached her, arms spread wide. They were too far away to make out what they were saying clearly, but the slave boss was acting cautious. Xena on the other hand was smiling and acting casual. This smile however was not the same warm smile that eased me last night, this was a cold smile. A smile of a cat that was about to have some fun with a crippled mouse.
I noticed several of our guards slip into the trees at the side of the road in an attempt to outflank her. She must have noticed them, too.
She moved fast and had the slave boss around the throat within a heartbeat.
"Call your men back, Draco," Xena shouted. "Or you die on the spot."
Xena's voice was loud and strident, not the soft soothing tones of Serena last night.
The slave boss, Draco, called his men back. I could tell he was less than pleased.
When his men returned to the road, Draco spoke. "If you want them, you should at least earn them properly, not just take them."
"Why not?" replied Xena. "You took them."
"I have a business to run."
"Very well. I'll fight you for them. If I win, you let them go."
"And what if I win?" asked Draco.
"Hmm. I hadn't considered that possibility," Xena mocked him. "Don't worry, you won't win."
"Okay," said Draco. "I'll fight you for them. But only on my terms."
"What are they?"
"If you win, I'll let them go. If I win, you join them."
Xena nodded. "Sounds fair."
"We'll fight with staffs. First one to the ground loses."
"That's fine by me."
"And we fight blindfolded."
Xena's smile widened, and her eyes sparkled. She was enjoying herself.
"Deal," she said.
Draco ordered his guards to bring the staffs and blindfolds. Xena gave her staff a few practice twirls before allowing herself to be blindfolded.
"If any of the prisoners speak: kill them." Draco commanded.
Xena laughed. "I knew you'd say that. The same goes for your men. If any of them speaks, I'll kill them."
"If any of them speaks, I'll kill them," said Draco.
"You spoil all my fun," chuckled Xena, and took up a fighting stance.
Draco did likewise.
It was a strange sight watching the fight. The two opponents circled each other, one would lash out, the other would block, almost as if they weren't blindfolded. The eeriest thing was the silence. The guards and the prisoners were under threat not to make a noise, and the combatants were not speaking to avoid giving away their position. Only the sound of the staffs clashing broke the silence.
Xena was the first to get a strike in. Draco had moved to block a low swipe, but Xena jumped and twisted and brought her staff down on the slaver's shoulder, quickly followed by a strike to his back. Draco stumbled forward almost losing his footing and his grip on his staff. However, he recovered enough to block Xena's next attack. And get in his own counterattack.
The staff caught Xena in the middle of her chest, forcing her to step back and she tripped. Just when it seemed she was about to fall she used her staff to push herself into a backflip and landed neatly on her feet. This put her near one of Draco's men, and when she moved forward, he put out his foot to trip her. I was tempted to call out, despite the threat, but it was not necessary. She brought her staff up and the guard crumpled to the ground. She allowed herself a small triumphant laugh.
Draco heard the noise and homed in on Xena. He moved quickly and silently. At least to me he did, but Xena sensed him and moved out of the way just in time. Draco quickly shifted his grip on his staff, swung low at the back of Xena's legs and swept her off her feet.
But Xena was too clever for him and knocked him down as she fell.
She landed partly on top of him, and they both scrambled to their feet ripping off their blindfolds.
"I win," declared Draco. "I knocked you over."
"I knocked you over."
"But I knocked you over first."
"You hit the ground first."
"Then we'll call it a draw."
"We fight on until there's a clear winner."
"Hear me out first," said Draco. He beckoned her away to the side of the road and whispered something to her.
She looked right at me, her blue eyes clouded by thought. It was not a simple thought, there was a monumental struggle going on within.
I'm not sure what I felt at that moment. This woman had deceived me, yet she was now fighting for my freedom. I didn't know why. A part of me didn't want help from this awful creature, this killer, who most probably had some ulterior motive for wanting to help. Maybe she wanted me as a personal slave!
"No," said Xena.
At first I thought she was reading my mind, I wouldn't have put it past her, but she was talking to Draco.
"What if I don't want to continue to fight?"
"You have no choice," said Xena coldly.
She pulled a metal hoop from her hip and threw it. I was not the only one who watched in disbelief as it ricocheted off trees, rocks, guard's helmets and the chains binding us prisoners together. Xena grinned as she appeared to whip the hoop out of thin air and reattached it to her hip.
I looked down at the broken chain on the floor at my feet. For a moment I was convinced I saw a wisp of smoke come from the edge of a broken link.
"I think it's time for the prisoners to go home. Don't you, Draco."
Draco scowled at Xena, then smiled. "I'll let them go. For old times' sake."
The guards stood by as the women started to move away. They were ready to recapture us if Draco ordered it, but the slave boss appeared unconcerned at our departure.
I hung back, I wanted to speak to Xena, ask questions, or at least I hoped for one last look into those blue eyes to try and gain some understanding of why she was doing this. But her attention was on Draco and his men.
"Come on, Gabrielle, let's go," insisted Lila, tugging on my arm.
I somewhat reluctantly turned and fled with my sister.
A few days later Xena came back to the village, and explained her actions. She said she was confused, that she was trying to turn away from the violence of her past. In order to atone for her sins she had decided to fight for good. To fight for the people, not against them.
When she said she couldnt do it alone and that she needed help, a friend, a companion, the part of me that had initially stood up against Dracos men wanted to speak up. But something made me hesitate a fraction of a heartbeat.
"Ill do it," piped up Lila.
"You will? Thats great," replied Xena.
Over the years I have often been envious of Lilas life with Xena, but never had the courage to do anything about it. I stayed in Poteidaia and lived the life that was expected of me, not the one I dream about. I love my husband and children, but I always wanted something else out of my life. To travel and see the world, like Lila. Anyway, Lila is better suited to the hero business. She could always beat me up!
I haven't left the village since being captured by Draco.
"Dont let the chance pass you by
youve got to reach out and grab it"
A Near Life Experience - Walkyier
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