Xena woke with a start feeling slightly disoriented. She opened her eyes to see the burned out campfire in front of her. She sat up, quickly twisting around to look behind her, half expecting to see Gabrielle’s sleeping figure curled up under her blanket. Her gaze fell on a patch of bare ground reminding her that her negotiations with Yama had not been just a dream. She reached out an arm to place her hand gently on the ground beside her.
She sat still for a moment, her face calm, not betraying any emotion - unlike her stomach that had apparently decided to turn itself inside out. She tried to calm herself but time was short. It was not long after dawn and she had only three sunsets to complete her plan, a plan that depended on her understanding of how Gabrielle would respond under certain circumstances and, in a contradictory fashion, a plan that depended on Gabrielle not knowing the plan.
Xena got to her feet. ‘Time to visit an old friend,’ she thought.
She walked to the top of the ridge bordering her camp. ‘Let’s see if Yama has kept to one of our agreed conditions,’ she wondered.
Xena and Yama had negotiated over the conditions of the wager for some time and it had taken all of Xena’s verbal skills to ensure that she could complete her plan within them. She had no choice; Yama had insisted that if she broke the conditions then the wager would be forfeit and she would lose.
Reaching the top of the ridge, Xena looked out over the green valley below. Amphipolis looked better than when she had last seen it. The buildings looked well kept and there was a bustle of activity in and around the village. She felt the urge to visit her mother and brother’s tomb but she quickly dismissed it – there wasn’t time. Besides, there was a living person who needed her far more just now.
“Thank you Yama,” she said out loud. She had no idea whether or not Yama was watching at that moment, but it did no harm to appear conciliatory to ensure that he remained calm.
Xena returned to her camp and prepared the horse that she had negotiated she be provided with. She mounted and rode off towards the sun that was now climbing slowly into the sky in front of her.
“Put that wine down on the table and then leave me to eat in peace.” The serving girl did as she was commanded and hastily left through the large, heavy door to the dining room. The ageing warlord watched the petite, blonde haired, green eyed girl leave, sighed and then strode over to the chair, opposite which the food and wine had been placed. He sat, a little slowly as the various joints in his knees and hips protested at being flexed, and reached out for a leg of chicken.
“Hello Draco.” The voice came from behind one of the long drapes hanging next to the window almost directly opposite to where the warlord sat.
“Who’s there, and how did you get in here?” he demanded, his deep, bass voice rumbling across the room, still strong even in his advancing years.
“You know me Draco, we go back a long way. We fought side by side, slept with each other, fought each other and even sang a duet together, remember?” Xena knew that Draco wouldn’t recognise her voice (another of Yama’s conditions that prevented anyone from recognising her) but she hoped, with her phrasing and shared experiences, she could convince him who she was.
Fortunately Draco was one of the brighter warlords and listened to what Xena was saying.
“There’s only one that can claim those things,” he said, “but you don’t sound like her. Show yourself.”
“That won’t help Draco, I don’t look like her either.”
“Well,” he said cryptically, “if it doesn’t look like a duck or sound like a duck, then how am I supposed to know that it is a duck?”
Xena smiled. Draco had always had a sense of humour and now that he was a little older, well quite a bit older actually, he seemed to have mellowed and was letting it out more.
“Because it still acts like a duck and tastes like a duck.” she replied, chuckling.
“Ha!” Draco laughed, “Come on out Xena and show me what the duck looks like now.”
Xena stepped out from behind the drape. To Draco she seemed as tall as he remembered Xena and athletically proportioned, but there the similarity ended. She had shoulder length mid-brown hair; dark, almost black eyes and her features were just… different. Draco still liked what he saw.
He sat back in his chair and folded his arms.
“Well, if you are indeed Xena, the years have certainly been kind to you. It must be at least thirty years since we last met and you don’t look any older, even if you do look completely different.”
Xena sat in the chair at the opposite end of the table.
“It’s a long story Draco and I may fill you in on it sometime, but for now suffice to say that the gods have had a hand in this.” She made a gesture with her hands as if to draw his attention to her body.
“Well I must admit, they haven’t done too bad of a job.” He said. “But answer me one question. What was my dream for you and I?”
Xena smiled again at the test.
“For me to join you and rule the world, but then I invited you to join me to do good.”
“Humph!” snorted Draco. “Like that was ever going to happen. So why are you here Xena? Have you come to taunt an old man with your extended youth and your tales of derring-do?”
“I’m hardly a youth, Draco. No, I am here because of Gabrielle.” Xena hadn’t wanted to mention Gabrielle’s name at all, in case Yama overheard, but she hadn’t been able to think of a way around it. She would simply have to take the risk.
At the mention of Gabrielle’s name, Draco sat bolt upright and his hands shot forward to rest palms down on the table in front of him. Ever since he had been stuck with one of Cupid’s arrows many years ago he had been profoundly in love with Gabrielle and time had not diminished his feelings for her in the slightest.
His voice cracked slightly as he said wistfully:
“Gabrielle? Where is she?”
Xena felt a pang of sadness and guilt. It had been on her urging that Cupid had left his spell on Draco, knowing that Gabrielle would never return his love. At the time it had been a bit of a prank and a fair retribution for the problems that Draco had caused her and Gabrielle, but now, after so many years, it just felt callous and cruel. But right now, she needed Draco’s help and his feelings for Gabrielle were the means to obtain it.
“Where she is is not important right now,” said Xena. “I am here because I am worried about her future.”
“Why,” he demanded, “what’s happening?”
She picked her words carefully:
“Soon she will be left on her own with no-one to look out for her.”
“On her own?” Draco looked at Xena, puzzled. “What’s happening to y…”
Xena cut him off before he could finish:
“The gods are calling in their debt.” She made the same gesture with her hands, drawing attention to her body.
“Yes, time is running out.” Again preventing him from making a direct link between her and Gabrielle. “She will need someone,” she added.
“But she made it clear, she doesn’t want me,” he objected.
“Draco,” said Xena softly, “it wasn’t that she didn’t like you. It’s just that she had other … things in her life at the time.”
“You mean, like y…”
“But times have moved on, Draco, and soon she won’t.”
Draco thought for only a moment before making his decision.
“What do I need to do Xena?”
Xena sighed inwardly as another piece in the plan fell into place.
“Meet me in two days time, when the sun is high, just to the North of Agrothea. We’ll both be there and my time will be almost up.”
As Xena rode away from Draco’s mansion she again felt guilt pangs for what she was going to put Draco through. But she reconciled it with the good it would help to achieve and how that would, in turn, help, in a small way, to redress the balance against the evil that Draco had wreaked in his past.
Riding on towards where she knew Gabrielle had been during her earlier visit to the world, she steeled herself for what could be the hardest part of the plan for her to deal with. It was time to find Gabrielle, but the meeting could not be the happy reunion she would have liked it to be.
‘Another inn, another dinar’ thought Gabrielle as she entered the village of Hypericum. She had felt in better spirits since Aphrodite’s last visit to her and she had slept better than she had done for a long time. But the waiting for something to happen was wearing her patience a little thin. Still, Hypericum was a nice place. She could browse the market stalls and the inn, The Leaky Cooking Pot, served the nicest lamb casserole this side of Athens.
Leaving her horse in the stables, Gabrielle wandered between the market stalls occasionally stopping to examine a piece of merchandise more closely. She made a mental note to call back to one stall, after she had a few dinars in her bag after the evening’s barding, to haggle over a particularly nice blanket. She realised that she was feeling happy and looking forward to the future for the first time in quite a while, and the feeling made her smile to herself.
She threaded her way out of the market and headed for the inn. As she approached she noticed a piece of parchment pinned to one of the posts holding up the door canopy; it seemed to have a familiar sketch on it. Her heart skipped a beat as she drew closer and recognised the sketch as a fair image of Xena’s face. The words on the parchment did nothing for her mood.
“Wanted: Xena, sometimes known as the warrior princess, more accurately described as the murdering whore.
“The warlord, Balonius, offers the sum of 1,000 dinars for the head of Xena, attached to the body or not.
“Balonius also offers the sum of 100 dinars for the delivery of her sidekick, Gabrielle, alive – she is of no use for information dead.”
Gabrielle’s warm feelings were instantly replaced with a boiling rage. She glanced around but no one seemed to be paying any attention to her or the notice. She tore it from the post and stormed into the inn.
There were few customers in the inn at that time of day and the innkeeper, Valene, was at her bar discussing something with one of them. At the sound of Gabrielle’s entrance she looked up.
“Gabrielle!” she exclaimed, “How lovely to see you again.”
Gabrielle was in no mood for pleasantries.
“This,” she said vehemently, thrusting the parchment towards Valene, “was stuck on the outside of your inn. Who put it there? And when?”
Valene rocked back on her heels, shocked by the spitfire in the body of the mild mannered young woman she thought she knew. She had seen Gabrielle handle herself in a fight once when a gang of ruffians had picked on a young villager. Gabrielle had dispatched them very neatly. She had been with Xena on that occasion but Valene had been impressed with the calm, controlled way that she had dealt with them. But this seemed to be a completely different person.
Valene took a moment to read the notice and from the look on her face it was obvious that it was the first time she had seen it and couldn’t believe it.
“I don’t know, Gabrielle. Where was it, on the front?”
“Yes, on the post.”
“Well, I don’t know,” she repeated. “It wasn’t there ten minutes ago.”
“Someone must have seen something,” fumed Gabrielle, looking around.
Valene recovered her composure quickly and gestured to Gabrielle to follow her to the other end of the bar, away from the customer she had been talking to.
“Gabrielle,” she whispered, “be careful. As far as I am concerned, this is ox dung but not everyone knows you and Xena as I do, and that is a lot of money. Look, that notice couldn’t have been there for more than a few minutes so maybe no one else has seen it yet. Please don’t go brandishing it about the village, you might do more harm than good.”
“You might be right,” said Gabrielle, calming down a little and not wanting to make trouble. “Besides,” she said reluctantly, “even if I find out who pinned it up it would probably only be a messenger. And anyway, I know who is behind it,” she finished, looking at the name on the notice again.
“I think that’s a wise move,” said Valene, smiling. “Let me get you a drink and you can tell me how you and Xena are getting on.”
Valene had, of course, been delighted to have Gabrielle stay at her inn and to tell one of her stories. Once again, word had got around and the inn was a busy place that evening.
For her part, Gabrielle had been on edge for the rest of that day. That notice was worrying; there was no telling how many villages had been posted and, consequently, how many bounty hunters might be on the lookout for her. Bounty hunters! She knew that if she got a good one on her tail it could only end one way. By their nature, bounty hunters were in it for the money and they simply would not stop as long as they thought they might win. Good ones weren’t fools either – they didn’t last long if they were. If she were captured, she knew that she wouldn’t be traded for the reward, not if there was ten times the amount on offer for Xena herself. She had considered that she might head north again tomorrow, passing quickly through villages on the way to see if any more of the notices had been posted. Hopefully she would soon leave the noticed area and that would be an end to it.
For her story that evening, Gabrielle told of how Xena had saved all the young girls from her own village of Potidaea from the clutches of the warlord Draco – she felt it couldn’t do any harm to remind people how Xena had changed from her own war lording ways, just in case someone else had seen the notice before she tore it down.
During her story she had been carefully scanning the audience for anything out of the ordinary. She had noticed one person sat in a dark corner at the back of the room who had hardly moved since she had started her story. He, or she, wore an odd headdress with a half veil, covering only the eyes. Other than that, there was nothing. As the story progressed Gabrielle felt herself getting more and more wound up. She was desperate to get to the end so that she could disappear up to her room, lock the door and start to relax.
As she finished and the expected applause and congratulations died down, a strong female voice rang out from the rear of the room with more than a hint of taunting in its tone.
“Nice story, Gabrielle. Pity you missed out the juicy parts.”
Gabrielle’s eyes snapped up to look directly at the veiled person, who still hadn’t moved. The worry and tension of the day descended all at once onto Gabrielle as she feared the worst. ‘Damn it!’ she thought.
“What, exactly, are you trying to say?” she yelled, a little too loudly, her patience gone. She knew she was on the verge of losing control but there seemed to be nothing she could do to prevent it.
“The way I heard it there was a lot more murdering and whoring going on.” The voice seemed to be enjoying itself, although the person still didn’t move.
“That’s a lie!” Gabrielle’s voice was cracking under the stress but still carried a heavy undertone of menace.
The audience was quietly shuffling itself to the edges of the room leaving a clear path between Gabrielle and the stranger.
“Someone doesn’t think so,” said the person behind the veil, calmly, “and they’re prepared to put their money where their mouth is apparently. Where is the Xena bitch by the way?”
Gabrielle’s hand snapped to her waist, to find nothing there. She had left her katana in her room. She was about to bend to lift her sai from their boot holsters when a woman’s face appeared in front of hers.
“Gabrielle!” the voice was quiet but urgent. “Gabrielle! What are you doing?”
Gabrielle looked into the face, puzzled, as if not recognising it.
“Valene,” she said after a moment. “I…I’m sorry. I…”
“Calm down, Gabrielle. I’ve seen you handle hecklers before, and this isn’t the way. Especially not in my inn.”
Regaining some rationality, Gabrielle glanced around Valene towards the stranger. She saw only an empty chair. Stepping round her, Gabrielle advanced towards the villager who was sat nearest to the door.
“Where did she go?” she demanded.
The villager cringed away. “I dunno,” he said. “She just said ‘Tell her: Till tomorrow’”
Xena strode back to her camp, a short distance from the village, well hidden in a small wooded area. On her way she stopped occasionally to listen carefully for sounds of a pursuer, but none came.
Reaching the camp, she pulled off the headdress and flung it to the ground. She sat down heavily onto a log alongside the campfire and buried her face into her hands.
“Shit!” she exclaimed loudly, hating herself.
She had caught up with Gabrielle that afternoon, an hour or so before reaching Hypericum village, and had anticipated that that was where Gabrielle was headed. She had goaded her horse on to make time so that she would reach the village well ahead of Gabrielle and during the ride she’d had the idea of the wanted notice. Timing it to perfection, she had pinned up the notice just seconds before Gabrielle emerged from the market.
Then, after making camp, Xena had staked out the inn, waiting for the right moment to slip in and take up the corner spot. When Gabrielle had entered the bar room and throughout her story it was all she could do to maintain her composure and remain still. When Gabrielle had looked at her curiously during the story, Xena had been thankful that she had thought of the veil to hide her eyes. Even though her eyes would not look like Xena’s eyes to Gabrielle she had had a strong feeling that Gabrielle would still see her through them.
And then the taunting; Xena had felt every word like a stab into her own heart. But she had had no choice. She had to get Gabrielle ready to kill her. She had seen Gabrielle’s hand flick to her waist and knew, at that moment, she had done all that she could. When Valene had stepped in front of Gabrielle, Xena blessed her. It had given her the perfect opportunity to get out of the inn. She didn’t want the showdown there; it had to be outside, with just the two of them.
Her message left with the villager was bitter sweet. On the one hand, there was more of the same still to come. On the other, there would be, at last, the reunion; that was, of course, assuming that Gabrielle didn’t actually kill her.
Xena lay down under her blanket, not expecting much in the way of sleep that night, and murmured to herself:
“Till tomorrow, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the morning sun streaming in through the window of her small room in the inn. She had no idea how much sleep she had had; her night had been a massive jumble of thoughts and dreams. Looking back, she couldn’t tell which parts were which. All she knew was that she felt as wound up as she had when she eventually fell into bed following her debacle of yesterday evening.
She decided that she would try to meditate herself into a calmer state. She sat up on the bed and crossed her legs, resting her hands gently on the top of her knees. She started the breathing exercises that would normally lead her into a calm and peaceful place. After a quarter of an hour of trying she gave up.
Feeling, if anything, even more irritated she gathered her things together, slipped her sai into her boot holsters and fastened her katana onto her hip. Reluctantly she thought again about the veiled stranger and that it was unlikely that she would get through today without meeting her again. ‘Who was it?’ she wondered, ‘Just some anonymous soldier of fortune or someone with something more personal at stake?’ She had no way of knowing but it was likely that the outcome of their next meeting would end the same way, regardless of who she was.
She made her way into the bar room determined to have something to eat, even if it was simply some bread. She really didn’t feel like eating but she knew she was going to have a busy day.
Xena rose at first light, fed up with lying on her bed trying to sleep. As she packed up the camp she ran through her plan for the day, trying to anticipate everything that might happen and working out contingencies for all of them.
As she thought things through the thought struck her that she and Gabrielle had never fought each other in anger. They had sparred together many times, of course, but Xena knew that underlying those bouts there was always the teacher and pupil attitude between them, even towards the end when Gabrielle’s skill, in some areas, was a match for her own. Xena suddenly realised that she actually had no idea how good Gabrielle was in a full-on fight to the death. She had no doubt that, in a straight, no-holds-barred contest she, Xena, would ultimately win but that wasn’t the case here. Gabrielle would indeed be fighting to win but Xena wouldn’t. In fact, she would actually be fighting to lose.
Xena shook her head, trying to take into account this odd situation that she, for some reason, hadn’t fully realised before. It was complicated. On the one hand, she couldn’t simply let Gabrielle win because, if she did, she would either be dead or Gabrielle wouldn’t attempt to kill her, showing mercy to an opponent who was not a serious threat; either of which would scupper the plan. She had to fight as though she meant it, simply not taking a decisive winning advantage if it presented itself to her. On the other hand, Gabrielle would take an advantage if she saw one even if it was not the one that Xena would have to give her to bring the fight to its planned conclusion. In that case, if Xena wasn’t quick enough to counter it, she would again be dead. And, she reminded herself, she had to be careful to disguise her style; Gabrielle knew it intimately and would pick up on it if Xena used any of her usual moves. And to top it all, when it came down to it, Xena had to trust that what she had planned would be enough to stop Gabrielle from finishing the killing move otherwise, once again, she would be dead.
Xena shook her head again and gave up trying to square it all. ‘Oh well,’ she thought to herself, ‘I’ll just have to wing it,’ she made a wry smile as she finished the thought, ‘like I’ve never done that before.’
Having finished packing and loading up her horse, she slipped out of her tunic and poked through the dead embers of the fire until she found a suitable piece of charcoal.
Gabrielle set off from the village and headed north, as she had planned. She picked a route with plenty of clear ground around it, offering a minimal possibility of an ambush. After some distance she came upon a clear area alongside a flowing stream. She wanted a space where she could perform some loosening up exercises; she was still feeling very tense after the night she had just endured, and this seemed as good as any. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was being watched though, which she thought was not unreasonable since she probably was. That in itself was slightly disquieting since Gabrielle had been unable to pick up any hints of someone following her even though she had been carefully looking for them. Whoever it was, was obviously very competent. However if it came to a fight, this was also as good a place as any for that too.
As she started running through her warm-up exercises she thought again about the veiled stranger. She had very little to go on since the stranger had sat completely still in the dark corner the whole time, apart from when she got up to leave, and then Gabrielle had missed that. She wracked her memory for any small detail that might help her anticipate what she was up against, but there was nothing. She mentally shrugged and concentrated on her exercise drills.
Xena stood, hidden in a small copse of trees at the Southern edge of the clearing. She watched her friend working through her warm up and then start her drills. She smiled, admiring the precision and quality of movement that Gabrielle displayed. Her thoughts wandered, remembering how many of their sparring sessions had started in just this way and how they had usually ended with both of them breathing hard, hot and sweating and racing each other to be first into the lake or stream to cool off.
Xena snapped out of her reverie, angry with herself for losing focus. Getting all mushy wasn’t helping, in fact… Without a further thought she decided to use the anger that she had caused in herself. She turned to retrieve the javelin that she had strapped to the side of her horse, hefted it and threw it with an easy, looping trajectory directly towards Gabrielle, who had just begun to finish off her workout. Then, stooping slightly to reduce her height a little, Xena strode out of the copse in the same direction as her javelin.
Having worked through her drills, Gabrielle was mentally alert and heard the faint hiss as the javelin arced through the air. She looked towards the sound immediately picking up its flight. She took a small step to her left and then focused on the advancing figure. The javelin smacked into the earth half a pace to her right. She stood calmly, relaxed but ready as she watched the veiled stranger approach, taking in the details about her assailant. ‘Tall,’ she thought, ‘almost as tall as Xena. Moves well, looks like she will be a good fighter; regular looking sword, no armour that I can see. Why is she wearing that stupid veil?’
“So, Gabrielle, do you want to do this the easy way or the painful way?” Xena was about twenty paces from Gabrielle and her tone of voice seemed to suggest that she would be disappointed with the former option.
Gabrielle ignored the taunt; she wasn’t going to get into a slanging match today.
“Why are you doing this? Is it just for the money?”
“Not this time. I want that whore for personal reasons. Where is she?” Fifteen paces.
“Just tell me, what has she done to you?” Gabrielle kept a concessionary tone in her voice, trying to keep the conversation going. If it was at all possible she was going to avoid the fight.
“Not to me, to my father Balonius. She seduced him and betrayed him; stole his army and left him to the mercy of his enemies. This is revenge, not profit.” Ten paces.
“Xena has changed; she’s not that person anymore.” Gabrielle could see she wasn’t making any difference.
“Irrelevant! She did it, now she will pay. Where is she?” Five paces. Xena stopped.
‘Last chance,’ Gabrielle thought.
“I don’t want to hurt you. Just back away and leave it be.” She looked at her tall, muscular opponent, weighing up her chances. If her opponent was as good a fighter as she looked, then she would have the advantage in hand to hand combat. Gabrielle reasoned that her best chance would be with her sword. She moved her right hand to her katana.
Xena saw the movement and felt a glow of pride. ‘Good girl,’ she thought. Xena was happy with the choice of swords anyway since, ironically, it meant she would have to hurt Gabrielle the least. In hand to hand it would have been unavoidable that she would have had to hit her. She moved her own hand to her sword handle.
“No problem, Gabrielle, just tell me where the whore is and you can walk away from this… once I know you’re telling me the truth of course.” Xena put as much scorn and derision as she could muster into her voice.
“You’re leaving me with no choice.” Gabrielle said sadly. She slid her katana from its sheath, grasped the braided handle with both hands and raised the blade to point directly at Xena’s chest. Her eyes looked into the gauze of her opponent’s veil.
“That makes two of us then,” said Xena as she too drew her sword.
The two women slowly circled each other, carefully watching each other’s movements, neither making the initial attacking move. This was not going to be the wild, abandoned hack and slash of dimwitted soldiers or henchmen; these two knew that the slightest clumsy move or poorly executed attack would bring instant, deadly counter attack.
Xena opened her account with a simple thrust towards Gabrielle’s midriff. The parry was, as expected, economical and effective. Gabrielle did not reply, her heart was thumping heavily inside her chest with the adrenalin surge but she paid no attention to it. Her focus was on Xena’s face but that damned veil was making it difficult to anticipate the next move from watching her opponent’s eyes. She waited patiently.
Xena’s next move saw her loop her sword over and slash towards Gabrielle’s left shoulder. There followed a lengthy, rapid sequence of parry, riposte, counter parry moves at blinding speed, the clash of steel upon steel ringing out around the clearing. Both stepped away from the exchange breathing heavily and resumed their cautious circling.
Gabrielle felt a slight pang of uncertainty. ‘This isn’t going to be easy,’ she thought. ‘She’s quick and accurate, and she doesn’t leave any openings at all.’
Curiously, Xena was having very similar thoughts: ‘I’m going to have to work hard at this. Gabrielle doesn’t give much away. As I thought, now that she’s pumped up and fighting for her life, her movements have an edge that I haven’t faced before.’
Gabrielle initiated the next exchange, dropping low and executing a vicious leg sweep. Xena hopped into the air and swung her sword down aiming for a head blow. Gabrielle’s katana blade was already in the way, blocking its path. Xena pressed forward forcing Gabrielle her onto the back foot, as she tried to resume her stance, parrying blow after blow from Xena’s sword. Xena was just beginning to look for a way to stop her advance, without it looking like she was stopping, when Gabrielle executed a delicate glancing parry that carried Xena’s sword away to her side. At the same moment she rolled the opposite way and stepped forward. She was now alongside Xena’s left shoulder and Xena’s sword was extended out to the other side.
‘Hades!’ thought Xena, ‘That was a neat move.’ But she didn’t have time to admire Gabrielle’s handiwork. Gabrielle’s katana was already on an arc that would slash its blade across Xena’s lower back. Using her forward momentum from her previously parried blow, Xena threw herself into a forward roll. Gabrielle’s blade sliced through the air a mere fraction from Xena’s back. As Xena rolled to her feet she extended her sword to protect the back of her head just in time to hear another ring of steel telling her that Gabrielle had indeed followed up her attack. Xena took two quick steps forward and turned, sword at the ready but Gabrielle had stopped. She was looking at Xena with a slightly quizzical, suspicious expression.
‘It has to be now,’ thought Xena, ‘I’ve given myself away.’
Xena attacked with a series of thrusts and slashes, each being parried in turn but with Gabrielle again retreating from each blow.
‘Now!’ thought Xena.
She left herself slightly open on her next slash and sure enough Gabrielle took the advantage. She flicked her katana upwards towards Xena’s torso, a blow that would have split Xena’s abdomen from pubic bone to sternum. Xena was ready for the move and eased herself backwards, but only slightly. The katana blade sliced effortlessly through the front fastenings of Xena’s tunic laying it open. Gabrielle felt the blade miss its mark and stepped in towards Xena to finish the move. With her katana held high, poised for a strike that would pierce Xena’s chest at the base of her neck, she lent forward thrusting her blade towards Xena’s bared chest. Her eyes widened and the blade stopped with its point touching Xena’s skin.
There, in the centre of Xena’s chest, just below the point of the katana blade, was a symbol. A circle that looked like a miniature chakram with a small cross attached to its lower edge.
Xena dropped her sword and waited for what she expected to happen next.
Gabrielle had recognised the symbol immediately as the one that she and Xena had agreed upon years ago in India as a means for them to recognise each other should they ever find themselves in different bodies or unable to recognise each other for some other reason. It was impossible that anyone else could have known its significance; but then, if this was Xena…
After what felt an eternity Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak a single word as a question but nothing emerged past Xena’s hand. Watching Gabrielle closely for that precise moment, she had extended her right arm and placed her fingers over Gabrielle’s mouth. With her other arm she pulled off her headdress exposing her eyes to Gabrielle for the first time. Gabrielle looked up and into Xena’s eyes that were not Xena’s eyes. Xena dropped her act and let the love that she felt for her friend shine through her eyes and echo in her voice as she said:
“My name is Anex.”
It was imperative that Gabrielle did not speak her name; another of Yama’s conditions, although one that Xena had negotiated. Originally Yama had insisted that Xena could not use past friends, family or acquaintances as her target for the wager but Xena had protested that, so many people knew of her because of her reputation, that it was an unreasonable condition, so surely there had to be a more straightforward way of defining it. Eventually, after much arguing, they had agreed that if the target uttered her name the target would be disqualified and Xena would have to start again, but with no additional time. Also, as a way of preventing her from using someone who might be sympathetic to her and would help her, Xena was not allowed to explain the nature of the wager to anyone, in any way – and that had included gods.
Gabrielle still hadn’t moved, frozen by the clashing emotions of aggression, doubt, hate, hope, horror and love. Xena used her left hand to slowly move the katana blade away from her neck and, still holding her right hand gently over Gabrielle’s mouth and keeping their eyes locked together, moved closer to Gabrielle. She then slid her left hand around Gabrielle’s waist to locate her spine with her fingers. As she slid them gently down Gabrielle’s spine, Xena felt her friend tense slightly and watched her eyes widen. When she reached the spot that she knew so well she gently pressed her fingers deeper into Gabrielle’s back. Gabrielle’s knees buckled, her eyes closed and a muffled sigh crept past Xena’s hand. Xena relaxed the pressure of her fingers but kept her hand firmly on Gabrielle’s back and waited for her to reopen her eyes. As she did so, all of the conflicting emotions had gone, only love and joy mingled with confusion, a lot of confusion, remained.
“My name is Anex!” said Xena again, this time with a hint of urgency in her voice and pleading in her eyes.
After a second Gabrielle gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod and Xena removed her hand from Gabrielle’s mouth.
All at once Gabrielle felt closed in, as if in a darkened room with no way to determine where she was or what was around her. She pushed away from Xena, took two stumbling steps backwards and fell onto her backside, dropping her katana. At the same time she was screaming inside, demanding to know what in Tartarus was going on and why Xena had been treating her in the way that she had. Simultaneously her belief and trust in Xena, and she now had no doubts that this was Xena, kept her silent knowing that whatever was going on was a sensitive and dangerous situation. Xena’s plea to her to go along with it and follow her lead was as clear to her as if she had used those very words.
Xena was surprised by Gabrielle’s reaction. She stepped forward and held out her hand. “Are you alright, Gabrielle?” she asked gently.
Gabrielle looked at Xena’s hand as if were some alien object, the purpose of which she couldn’t even guess. She looked up into Xena’s face but didn’t see her friend’s familiar features. She closed her eyes, turned, stood up and walked away. Unable to process all the information fast enough, she needed space. She stopped some twenty paces away, sank cross-legged to the ground and started to calm herself; she needed to stop the mental clamour before she could start to sift through what had just happened and try to make sense of it. Until then she couldn’t know how to respond.
At first, Xena felt totally lost and deflated. In her imagination this hadn’t been the way that their reunion should have played out, but she was at a loss to know what to do next. She reminded herself that, to Gabrielle, this stranger didn’t look like her and that, even if Gabrielle knew that it was really her inside, it was going to take a while for Gabrielle to get used to it. Then she saw Gabrielle sit down and she started to relax. She knew this coping mechanism of Gabrielle’s and had discussed it with her on more than one occasion. She also knew that the best thing to do was to keep out of the way and let Gabrielle come back when she was ready. She returned to the copse to retrieve her horse and then busied herself making sure that both horses were tended to and ready for travel.
Presently Gabrielle stood and turned to look at Xena who, by this time, was sat on a convenient fallen tree alongside the two horses. Gabrielle started to walk slowly towards her, a look of calm determination on her face. The whole way her eyes didn’t stray from Xena for a moment.
When she reached Xena, she stood directly in front of her. Xena, who had watched her walk the distance between them, looked up from her seat on the tree trunk into Gabrielle’s eyes, not knowing what would happen next.
Gabrielle extended her right hand towards Xena, as if offering a simple hand of friendship.
“I am unsure of what to say or do, however, I trust you… Anex.” she said.
Xena swallowed away the lump that had leapt into her throat, stood and grasped the offered hand. She pulled the two of them together into a simple embrace, as two good acquaintances might on meeting each other after a long time apart. As her face moved alongside Gabrielle’s head, Xena whispered “Thank you!” so quietly that not even eavesdropping gods would have heard.
“So, why are we heading to Agrothea?” asked Gabrielle. They were riding at a steady walking pace along a well-worn track through a wooded area.
“We’re meeting someone tomorrow. I have some business to finish,” said Xena.
It was a difficult journey at first with little being said. On the one hand, Gabrielle didn’t know what she could say or even ask that might not imply something that would cause a problem. On the other hand Xena had found it incredibly difficult to talk to Gabrielle at all without exposing their relationship or her plan.
Eventually, Xena had the brainwave of asking Gabrielle about herself, where she had come from and her experiences. Gabrielle cottoned on to this idea very quickly and her barding skills kept the chatter going for long periods with suitably edited tales of her adventures. Xena made her contributions relating tales from her days before she had met Gabrielle. Gradually the two friends started to relax in each other’s company and actually started to enjoy telling each other familiar, but not quite accurate, stories. Laughter became a regular interruption to the stories’ flow.
“I don’t know about you Anex,” said Gabrielle at one of the breaks in the banter, “but I’m ready for something to eat; I’ve only had a bit of bread and milk today.”
Xena checked the sun’s position in the sky; they had made reasonably good time.
“Sounds good to me. How about some fish?” she suggested, looking at the stream a short distance off to their right.
“Great!” said Gabrielle, wheeling her horse to the right. “Hunt or cook?” she asked.
“What do you think?” said Xena with a laugh, and nearly bit off her own tongue. “Do I look like a cook to you?” she added quickly, hoping that it sounded like a simple continuation of the good-natured teasing that had been going on.
Gabrielle was quick on the uptake, realising what had happened.
“Well,” she replied, “I would guess you’re more of a hunter so, since I don’t mind cooking, you can catch the fish. However I am prepared to be corrected if my assumption is wrong. You just never know who is going to be the next celebrity chef these days.” She turned in her saddle to beam a huge smile at Xena.
Xena couldn’t help laughing and admiring Gabrielle’s quickness at obscuring her slip of the tongue.
“No objection from me,” she said. “Any particular type of fish?”
“Not eel!” laughed Gabrielle.
Gabrielle slid off her horse and tied it to a tree. Xena walked her horse up beside Gabrielle’s and did the same. As she did so, Gabrielle came up behind Xena and stood almost touching her. She looked at Anex’s back and then up to her head. She mused at how Anex was so much like Xena in size, build and posture while not looking or sounding like her at all. She sighed and immediately felt a strong urge to wrap her arms around her friend. She pushed the feeling away, wondering what had prompted it. Then she realised what it was; there was another way in which Anex and Xena were actually identical, they smelled the same. If Gabrielle had needed any more confirmation that this was indeed Xena then that would have clinched it.
A penny dropped in Gabrielle’s mind at that moment and within the space of a split second several pieces of the puzzle fell into place. ‘This is obviously Xena’s body;’ she thought, ‘it’s just that there must be some kind of disguising spell on her making her look and sound different. This is the work of a god, but presumably a Japa god that I know nothing about. That’s what all the secrecy is about; in case we’re being watched.’
Sensing Gabrielle’s presence behind her, Xena turned slowly and took half a step backwards to look down at her friend.
“What?” she said curiously. “Has a bird crapped on my shoulder?”
“No!” laughed Gabrielle, feeling better about the fact that she was starting to get some idea of what was going on. “I was just musing that, a few hours ago I was about to kill you. I’m ever so glad that I didn’t.”
“You’re glad!” said Xena with an expression of mock surprise. “Come on, let’s get that food inside us.”
Some hours and several miles later, not far from Agrothea, with the sun getting low in the sky, Xena turned them off the track they had been following and led the way into a large copse of trees.
”We’re not far from Agrothea now, we’ll camp in here for tonight.” she said.
Much later, as the embers of the campfire died and their glow faded to nothing, the moonless night sky sparkled with thousands of variously coloured gems. It was so dark now that only the most vague of outlines could be made out. Xena, lying on her blanket, looked to her left where she could just make out the profile of the similarly recumbent Gabrielle. Since setting themselves into their beds they had continued talking and stargazing as the fire had burned down, both reluctant to stop and surrender the night to sleep.
Xena extended her left arm to bridge the small distance between them. Her hand touched a shoulder and she felt Gabrielle turn her head towards her. She slid her hand gently underneath Gabrielle’s neck and further still until it was under her shoulder. With the encouragement of a slight lift of the arm under her shoulder Gabrielle rolled over into Xena, resting her head lightly on her friend’s shoulder and nuzzling gently into the side of Xena’s neck, breathing in the familiar scent. Gabrielle’s arm fell naturally across Xena’s chest to rest her hand on the opposite shoulder. Xena gently caressed Gabrielle’s exposed shoulder with her hand as Gabrielle’s leg slid slowly onto the top of Xena’s legs.
Xena woke slowly the next morning to find her face just inches away from Gabrielle’s hair. She opened her eyes and looked fondly at the back of Gabrielle’s still sleeping head. She smiled as she remembered the previous day’s events and how the reunion she had imagined had eventually come to pass.
Gabrielle gave a gentle snort and stirred. Remembering how Gabrielle often starting speaking before she was properly awake, Xena propped herself up on an elbow, gently put her hand over Gabrielle’s mouth and whispered into her ear “Gabrielle! Wake up!” Sure enough a miniature torrent of muffled words crashed against Xena’s hand before Gabrielle opened her eyes wide and sat bolt upright.
“By the gods!” she exclaimed in panic, “What did I just say?”
Xena, still propped on her elbow, just smiled up at her shaking her head and said:
“I have absolutely no idea. Come on,” she continued, “let’s go find some breakfast.”
While they were getting the camp packed up and their horses ready for the final leg into Agrothea, Gabrielle was unusually quiet and seemed absorbed in her own thoughts. Heading back to the road, Xena was about to ask her if she was all right when they emerged from the copse, surprising a rough-looking gang of men also heading for the village.
One of the men, seemingly the leader, stared at the two women for a moment and then roared with laughter.
“Well lads, seems the gods have smiled on us this day. Looks like we won’t have to go very far to find us some sport and a couple of good looking slaves that we can sell to the traders.”
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and smiled.
“Don’t be too sure about that,” Xena called back, “some of the gods have been known to have a sadistic sense of humour.”
They slid off their horses and Gabrielle bent down to pick up a sturdy branch from the floor. Xena looked at the branch then at Gabrielle with a sardonic expression.
“Hey, I’m not built like a titan you know and these are big lads,” said Gabrielle defensively. “Besides, I kind of miss fighting with one of these.”
“Bet you I still take out two to your one,” replied Xena.
“You’re on. Loser collects the firewood tonight.”
The branch didn’t quite make it through the entire fight, although it did make quite an impression before it eventually broke in half across the back of one of the thugs. By then though it was pretty much all over. Eight men lay sprawled around in a rough circle in various states of semi-consciousness. A ninth dragged himself to his feet after being soundly thumped by one of Xena’s roundhouse kicks and staggered off down the road back where he had come from.
Xena and Gabrielle looked around them doing a quick tally.
“Ha!” exclaimed Xena, “Three to you, six to me.”
“No it’s not,” objected Gabrielle, “you only got five. You can’t count the one that ran off.”
“Why not? I hit him last”
“Yeah, but only after I had softened him up for you.”
“The deal was whoever took them out. I took out the last man. He wasn’t running until I hit him the last time.”
Gabrielle lifted her arm and threw a punch, which whistled past Xena’s head to land itself on the nose of one of Xena’s thugs who had got back up and was about to bury a rock in the back of Xena’s head. The thug lay down again.
“There, another one to me,” said Gabrielle indignantly. “I hit him last.”
“OK, OK,” said Xena laughing. “I’ll get the firewood,” she chuckled, choosing not to think about the second phase of her challenge that had to come before any firewood could be collected that day.
As they walked back to collect their horses, without looking at Xena, Gabrielle said:
“Anex, when we fought yesterday, I think that you wanted me to kill you.”
Xena’s heart skipped at least three beats.
“What in Tartarus are you talking about?” she replied trying to keep her voice steady.
“Well, now that I’ve got to know you a little I don’t believe that you’re evil. I think you were compelled by some oath or duty but, in your heart, you know that to murder for revenge is wrong and that you would rather be killed than kill someone else.”
‘Damn it Gabrielle,’ Xena thought, ‘do you always have to be so smart. Stop fishing.’
Pausing for a moment to decide how to respond, she raised her voice in anger:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. If you don’t want to destroy everything between us, stop trying to psychoanalyse me.”
Gabrielle was taken aback by Xena’s angry response but realised quickly that she was obviously too close to the truth for comfort and that, apparently, she wasn’t supposed to know what was going on.
“I’m sorry Anex, I didn’t know that would upset you, but I understand now. It won’t happen again.” she said carefully.
“That’s all right,” Xena said in a gentler tone, “and I’m sorry I snapped at you. I just don’t like people trying to guess what’s going on in my head.”
She put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and said, “Come on, let’s get going.”
After a short time back in the saddle, Xena and Gabrielle reached Agrothea. They slid off their horses and led them through the gates into the main street of the village, which was already a hive of activity. They had walked barely fifty paces when a shout rang out from a little further down the street.
Xena and Gabrielle looked in the direction of the shout but couldn’t make out what was going on amongst the general throng of people. Suddenly the crowd parted and a horse emerged galloping at full tilt, its rider hunched low over the horse’s neck and headed directly for the village gate. Before they could react, the horse had already passed them.
Slipping the chakram from her belt, Gabrielle paused a moment and then threw it towards the post holding up the main gate to the village. With a metallic clang the chakram deflected across the path of the charging horse. It sliced through the bridle’s reigns leaving the thief with no control of the horse. Sensing it was now free the horse veered to the right dumping the thief unceremoniously onto the ground to its left. A couple of villagers pounced onto the sprawling thief and quickly had him under control, retrieving the purse of dinars he had helped himself to. The chakram, having completed its task, bounced off a wall and flew back to Gabrielle.
“Hmm, you’re pretty good with that thing aren’t you?” said Xena admiringly as Gabrielle caught it deftly.
Gabrielle looked round at Xena and smiled as she clipped the chakram back onto her belt.
“I learned from the best. However, I’m only looking after it for someone and I think I’ll have to give it back soon.”
They soon found themselves in the local tavern, ordering a breakfast of smoked meat, cheese and bread, to be washed down with a flagon of thin ale.
“By the gods, I’m ready for this. I’m famished,” said Gabrielle.
“Protecting the innocent’ll do that to you every time,” replied Xena, continuing with a grin, “especially after a good night’s sleep.”
Gabrielle jabbed her elbow into Xena’s ribs.
They were just making a start on the spread in front of them when the door burst open to be filled by a tall, well-built man.
“Xena! Gabrielle!” he called into the room.
Xena choked on the mouthful of bread she had just taken, spraying breadcrumbs across the table. Gabrielle froze not knowing where to look.
The tall man quickly scanned the room and picked out the two women. He walked over and stood in front of them expectantly.
“Ha!” he exclaimed, “I knew it had to be you two… Oh!” he had noticed that it apparently wasn’t Xena.
Gabrielle looked up at the man and recovered her composure.
“Virgil! What are you doing here?” she asked, a little accusingly.
“I…er…hope I’m not intruding?” he replied awkwardly, his eyes flicking back and forth between Gabrielle and Xena.
“No, of course not,” said Gabrielle quickly. “Please sit down, we’d love you to join us, wouldn’t we, Anex?”
Xena was still trying to wash away the last breadcrumbs from her windpipe with some ale and blink away the water in her eyes. She looked sideways at Gabrielle with a ‘What are you thinking?’ expression.
Virgil sat down a little hesitantly. After a moment’s awkward silence, Gabrielle enquired:
“How did you know… I was here?”
“Well, after I heard the story outside about how you stopped that thief with the chakram, I knew that it had to be…” he paused, not quite knowing how to finish the sentence. As far as he knew, only Xena used the chakram.
Xena was starting to panic.
“I see,” said Gabrielle. “Yes, I’m getting pretty good with it these days.”
Another short silence followed. This time, Virgil broke it.
“Anex, was it? Are you two…friends?”
Xena looked up, straight into Virgil’s enquiring eyes.
“Barely,” she replied, “we only met yesterday and Gabrielle almost killed me.”
Gabrielle forced a laugh.
“Virgil is an old friend. We haven’t seen each other for a couple of years, I guess,” she said to Xena. She turned to Virgil. “What brings you to Agrothea?”
“Mum’s birthday,” he said. “I’m on my way home and called in here to pick up a gift for her.”
“Oh! Do give her our…my best wishes when you see her, won’t you.”
“Of course I will.”
Another silence exploded between them before Virgil spoke up again.
“Well, look, I really must get going. I’ve got to find this gift and then get on the road.”
Gabrielle stood up and stepped round the table to give Virgil a hug.
“It was lovely to see you again Virgil. Hopefully it won’t be so long before the next time.”
“I hope not,” he said, returning Gabrielle’s hug. “And nice to meet you too… Anex.”
Xena nodded and mumbled something incomprehensible.
Once the door had closed behind Virgil, Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other for a moment and burst into laughter.
The sun was about as high as it gets when Xena and Gabrielle rode up onto the top of the small rise just to the north of the village. They noticed the three mounted warriors waiting for them from some distance away but Gabrielle, not wanting to put her foot in it again by asking an inappropriate question, had not questioned Xena about their identity. As they approached though, Gabrielle had the odd feeling that she should know who the oldest of the three was.
Stopping fifty or so paces apart all five dismounted from their horses and started to walk slowly towards each other. Gabrielle noticed that Xena had left her sword on her horse.
“Anex,” she said, “your sword!”
“I know,” said Xena, “it’s all right; not needed.”
Gabrielle looked a little surprised, but carried on anyway, comforted by the fact that her own katana and sai were where they were supposed to be.
As the two groups approached each other, Gabrielle was staring intently at the oldest warrior in the centre of the three approaching them. With a shock, suddenly, she realised who it was. She stopped and grabbed Xena’s arm. Dragging her back a step and turning away from the other group, she said desperately, “X…” catching herself just in time, “Anex, that’s Draco.”
Xena stared wide-eyed directly into Gabrielle’s eyes, “I know!”
Doing a passable impression of a fish stranded on dry land, Gabrielle paused a moment wondering what in the known world this puzzle would throw at her next, and then turned to resume her walk; a forced, bright smile on her face.
“Hello Draco,” she said pleasantly but with a certain amount of apprehension.
Draco walked straight up to Gabrielle and dropped onto one knee.
“Gabrielle,” he said, his voice deep and soft, “though I am much older than when we last met, my love for you is as strong and everlasting as ever. These years we have been apart I have pined for you each day and begged the goddess Aphrodite to deliver you to me.”
‘I must remember to have a word with Aphrodite about that’ thought Gabrielle, not quite knowing where to look, or what to say. She looked sideways at Xena who just looked back at her with a pathetic half smile and made an odd nodding and cocking of her head gesture towards Draco.
“Oh Draco, that is so sweet.” Gabrielle said eventually looking back at Draco and resisting the urge to gag on the words.
Draco apparently satisfied with the response, stood slowly, gently easing out his knee joints again after their unaccustomed performance, and turned to Xena.
“So what now?” he said.
Xena mentally took a deep breath to prepare herself. This was the bit that she couldn’t plan in any detail. Almost anything could happen next, she just had to be wide-awake and ready for it, whatever it was.
At Draco’s question, Gabrielle turned to look at her friend and saw what few other people, if any, would have seen as Xena steadied herself. ‘Here we go,’ she thought, coming to a heightened state of readiness herself.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Xena said, “I’m not letting you have Gabrielle.”
‘What is she doing?’ thought Gabrielle, immediately guessing correctly, ‘She’s trying to provoke him. But why?’
“You scheming bitch,” said Draco, surprisingly calmly and with the hint of a smile. “I don’t know what you’re up to Xena, but if you thought that I thought you would give up the love of your life to one of your old enemies, you must think I am completely senile.”
At the mention of Xena’s name, Gabrielle looked back up at her friend with a shocked, questioning expression.
Xena ignored Gabrielle and replied, “There is no way you’re going to get her while I am alive.”
Draco raised his arm and his eyes flicked to look at a point somewhere over Xena’s right shoulder. Xena and Gabrielle both saw the eye movement and prepared to turn to face the threat they anticipated would come from behind them.
Xena reminded herself to be patient and let Gabrielle protect her before acting.
Gabrielle thought, ‘That’s it, she wants someone else to kill her for some reason, that’s why she wouldn’t take her weapons.’ She knew at that moment, plan or no plan, she couldn’t let that happen – not again.
An almighty thunderclap froze everybody where they stood as Yama appeared behind Draco and his two henchmen. With a wave of his arm, Yama sent the three of them sailing through the air to land heavily some fifty paces away. The two henchmen groaned and writhed about, but Draco lay still.
Yama moved towards Xena and Gabrielle, a depth of fury on his face that brought a meaning to the phrase ‘the wrath of the gods’.
“You insolent mortal,” he roared at Xena, “you sought to cheat me by using your lover.”
Xena’s mind was spinning. This was one eventuality that she hadn’t considered. Not only that but her whole plan had been obliterated by this turn of events. She couldn’t see how the second part of the challenge could now be completed, certainly not within the time limit. Besides, no one could now pretend that she and Gabrielle didn’t know each other. Xena decided that her best option was to try to argue her way out of this.
“No cheating, Yama,” she said as calmly as she could manage, “I haven’t broken any one of the conditions that we agreed upon.”
Pieces of the puzzle were now dropping into place in twos and threes for Gabrielle. The only piece that was still eluding her was why Xena had wanted Draco to kill her.
“Conditions!” Yama spat out the word. “My condition was that you couldn’t use past friends or relatives. I think this,” gesturing towards Gabrielle, “falls into that category.”
“We agreed that was unreasonable. The condition was that the target would not utter my name. I’m sure that Ame-no-Koyana will verify that.” Xena’s voice was becoming more strident.
Gabrielle still had no clear idea of what was going on but she sensed extreme danger here. This god, she presumed was from the Japa realm, was an unknown quantity to her but it was blindingly obvious that he was beside himself with rage at having been cheated, or at least outsmarted in some way by Xena.
Yama continued ranting:
“Conditions, conditions. What do I care about your petty conditions?”
“We have a binding agreement that includes those conditions and you have compromised my challenge by gate-crashing my party. I claim a default win.”
If it was at all possible, Yama became even more infuriated, but then inexplicably he seemed to simmer down and actually smiled; a nasty, sadistic smile.
“So!” he said ominously, pausing briefly before continuing, “There is, I think, one of your conditions that isn’t so binding.”
Xena’s heart leapt into her mouth, what had she missed?
Yama continued, relishing every word he now uttered, “For your deception I penalise you one half day of your allotted time. You have not completed the challenge and your time is now up. You’re mine Xena.”
With that he drew back his right arm and threw it directly towards Xena’s chest. As the arm reached it’s full extent a fireball erupted from his hand.
Xena had been preoccupied with the cut and thrust of the argument and was totally unprepared for the attack. She braced herself for the impact, unable to move fast enough to avoid it.
A split second before she would have felt the heat from the fireball, a blonde head of hair flashed across in front of her. Gabrielle had not been so preoccupied and was in a state of readiness to respond to an attack. On seeing the throwing action she instinctively twisted on one leg to turn and put herself between Xena and Yama.
Yama’s fireball splashed against Gabrielle’s back, the impact throwing her forwards into Xena. Fire spread outwards across her back, burning away her tunic and revealing the many-coloured dragon tattoo given to her by Akimi long ago in Japa as a defence against spirit powers. The colours on the dragon glowed intensely as the fire regrouped itself back into a ball and then launched itself back from whence it came. It struck Yama full in the chest knocking him, stunned, to the ground.
Gabrielle recovered her feet and stepped back looking up at Xena, who was completely baffled by what had just happened.
“Akimi’s tattoo,” said Gabrielle, breathlessly, “I had completely forgotten about it.”
“Of course!” said Xena, who knew about the tattoo but had never seen its effects.
Xena felt suddenly disoriented and put out her hands to steady herself on Gabrielle’s shoulders.
The expression on Gabrielle’s face changed quickly from relief to puzzlement, to concern and then to joy.
“Xena!” she cried, “You’re back!”
Xena’s head had cleared and she realised, as she took in Gabrielle’s words, that the challenge had been completed after all, ironically by Yama’s own hand. She smiled knowing that, not only was she fully herself again but she was also now safe from Yama; another of those pesky conditions she had negotiated.
“Yes I am,” she said to her friend, “and to stay.”
Gabrielle’s expression changed again, more abruptly this time, from happiness to one of surprised pain. The air was shattered with Xena’s scream, “NO!” as she saw the point of a katana blade emerge from Gabrielle’s chest, just below her left breast.
As Gabrielle collapsed into Xena’s arms, Xena saw Yama crouching behind her friend, his hand still holding the handle of the katana. He whipped it out from Gabrielle’s body, flicked its blade to remove the blood and sheathed it in one smooth movement.
“I may have lost our wager,” he snarled, “but I’m not going away empty handed.”
With that, he reached out his hand and tore Gabrielle’s soul from her dying body and disappeared with a loud crack.
Xena sank to her knees still holding onto Gabrielle’s lifeless body, tears streaming over her cheeks. She started to rock gently to and fro.
“Gabrielle, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
“It will be all right. I promise you, it will be all right.”
XWP - Changing Places continues in Part 3
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