A Return To Form
Part 2.


By Jay and Silent Dee.
With apologies to Susannah Hoffs and the rest of The Bangles.

********************


Several moons passed uneventfully as Gabrielle travelled along the banks of the Nile. She made a point of spending a few days in every settlement she encountered, but always made her camp just outside the boundaries of the town to be alone with the warrior. She'd gradually become accustomed to communicating with her partner through thought alone while they were in public together, but Xena still longed to hear the blonde's voice.

Sometimes she would wander among the bustling streets, sampling local produce and soaking up the atmosphere. Other times she would sit and captivate the locals and their children with tales of ancient legends, and some of her more harmless adventures with Xena. The bard never spoke of the events that had occurred in Japan, and if anybody ever asked what had become of her friend, she would merely tell them that the Warrior Princess had grown weary of battle and now spent her days on a trawler - shrimp fishing off the coast of Corfu. Every time, a warm hand would come to rest on her shoulder, a soft chuckle resounding in her ears.

Gabrielle would never accept any payment proffered from those she entertained, but if they wanted to donate anything to her in the way of food she always thanked them graciously for the gift.

At night she would routinely go through a series of sword drills, and practice various combat moves with Xena. After all, the warrior felt no pain (though conveniently pleasure was a different matter altogether), and was probably the only person left who was quick enough to block everything Gabrielle threw at her. Most of the time.

The bard was relentless in her mission to keep in shape. Whenever Xena felt she must surely be tiring, she would allow the blonde to get a punch or two in before chasing her to the nearest body of water and throwing them both in to freshen up and relax.

Sitting outside her tent and sharpening the chakram by firelight, Gabrielle pondered, "You know Xena, sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here." Then with a sad shake of her head, "You must be disappointed in me."

Xena crossed the camp and settled behind her partner, beginning to gently massage the tense muscles in her shoulders and the base of her neck.

"Why? Because you haven't gone looking for a fight?" The bard shrugged in response, and Xena could feel the shorter woman's self-doubt building.
"I could never be disappointed in you. If nothing happens here by the time you feel the need to move on - that's a good thing. Trouble always found us, not the other way around."

Gabrielle's body stiffened and her senses kicked in, now on full alert as she detected footsteps falling on the dry earth beyond the crackling of the fire.

*Spoke too soon*

Whipping her sais from her boots, she turned in the direction of the approaching footsteps and braced herself. Slowly, the form of a young boy emerged from the darkness, and she lowered her weapons. His face was familiar and he was no more than seventeen years old.

"I saw you in town today, you were listening to my story." the blonde ventured.

"Great warrior, forgive me for following you...but I need your help."

Gabrielle looked at him questioningly, and motioned for him to sit down. Taking in his rather emaciated appearance, she filled a bowl with stew and handed it to him.

"Thank you..." he began, scooping some of the food into his mouth. "My name is Yaseen. I come from a small village just outside of Thebes. It is a small farming community and my people are not prosperous, but we are happy. We make the most of what we have without complaint."

*Sounds like Poteidaia* thought Gabrielle without turning to glance at the silent form beside her.

"Lately, a terrible darkness has befallen us. The ground has turned sour and the cattle are dying. We have no resources..." The boys eyes began to cloud over. "The tombs of our ancestors have been defiled. Someone is taking the bodies of our loved ones. My father..."

Gabrielle lay an arm around his shoulder as he wiped a tear from his cheek. "Go on.", she prompted.

"For many years my family have been the guardians of the Zythum Stone. It holds great power and is said to be indestructible. It is inscribed with the tools which would allow someone to translate the words of Ulrika - an evil god thought to be long forgotten. The stone was sealed in my father's tomb with him when he passed away. Two weeks ago, it was taken - along with my father's body. Ever since, we have known great suffering and I fear it will worsen.
Our legends tell of a gifted warrior woman with a pure heart and hair as gold as the sun. She carries a unique weapon - the one that hangs by your side. No stranger to these shores, she would one day return and deliver our people from a great enemy." he paused, looking uncertain.

"Take me to your village, Yaseen. I'll do everything I can."

The boy breathed a sigh of relief. "I must go now, will you meet me behind the schoolhouse at noon tomorrow?"

"Of course." Gabrielle nodded solemnly. He took her hand and kissed it in thanks, then turned to leave. She stared after him for a while, deep in thought.

"Careful, you know what'll happen to him if he gets a crush on you..." came the deep voice from beside her.

"Look who's talking!" Gabrielle snorted.

Xena took her partner's hand and reverently kissed it.

"Now that's more like it!" grinned the blonde.

"If my little Warrior Princess is agreeable, I would be honoured to escort her to her bedroll."

"Stop calling me that!" uttered Gabrielle with fake menace, then her voice softened again. "You heard they needed a girl with a chakram. It was me all along..." she reflected, her features tinged with sorrow.

Xena quickly interrupted in the hope that she could avert the onset of a deep anguish. "Come on, sounds like we're in for a busy day tomorrow."


**********


Xena heard it first. A soft occasional pattering against the tent. At first she'd thought nothing of it, but there was something that didn't feel quite right. She turned her head and whispered, "Gabrielle...Gabrielle, wake up!", giving the bard a slight nudge.

"Hrrrmph" came the response as a stray leg tightened its' grip across the warrior's stomach.

"HEY!"

"What?! What is it?"

"Shh. Listen..."

The pattering was becoming increasingly frequent, and there was something more...

"Is it raining?", the blonde asked, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.

Something like...

"I don't think so."

Buzzing?

"Stay where you are. I'm going to check it out.", and with that, Xena rose to her feet and stepped right through the side of the tent.

"Stay where you are..." Gabrielle tutted. "Five months dead and she's still pulling that one!"

The dying embers of the fire were enough to cast eerie flickering shadows on the canvas, and the bard just had to satisfy her curiosity. Clambering to her knees, she cautiously unclipped the front of the tent and peered outside. With a surprised yelp, she quickly fastened the material back up and scrambled away, vigorously ruffling her hair. With an upwards glance she noted that the warrior had returned - and was eyeing her with that "I-told-you-so" expression.

"You're right. You never listen. What was I thinking..." Xena waved her hands around, exasperated.

"Xena, M....MANDIBLES!!!!" the blonde blurted out in horror.

"Locusts. There must be thousands of them. We're camped right next to some grain fields that they're making short work of. As soon as they're done they'll swarm somewhere else. They'll be gone by morning."

"Ugh!" Gabrielle shuddered, "I want a bath!!" She glanced up just in time to see a frown settle on Xena's face as the warrior flickered and then winked out.

**********

Elsewhere...

Xena squinted as her eyes adjusted to the blinding fluorescent light. "Looks like they've done this place up a bit since I was last here." she noted with a sigh. A strange rhythmic pounding seemed to hang in the air. It sounded reminiscent of the various tribal chants Xena had heard in her time, but she could see neither musicians nor singers. The closest thing she could compare it to was the horrible hallucination she'd once suffered of a musical competition in Melodia, after Gabrielle had slipped a little too much hensbane into her tea. Far from being annoyed over the incident, Xena had merely insisted that the blonde try to atone by go-go dancing for her whenever the whim struck. Before long she found herself tapping her fingers along to the beat on her chair arm, much to the disdain of an elderly looking gentleman next to her.

"Are you an actor?" he finally ventured, successfully halting her infuriating tapping.

"No, why?"

"That's quite an unusual outfit you're wearing...you're not one of those...sci-fi fanatics are you?"

Xena gave him a brief puzzled look before deciding to ignore his final comment. She wasn't sure she wanted an explanation anyway. "This old thing? I wear it every day. What are you supposed to be, some kind of monk?"

The grizzly old man regarded his brown robes with barely disguised hatred. "No madam. This is someone's idea of a joke. I can't get the blasted things off. Bloody film..."

Some time later the familiar metallic voice boomed "Xena of Amphipolis to interview room H!"

Her interrogator this time was a smartly dressed man with some manner of black lenses perched atop his nose. She was not happy with being unable to read his expression.

"May I call you Xena?"

"Sure, why not? I find it has more of a ring to it than "Caesar's Thracian Whore".

"Tell me, is there anyone who can verify your whereabouts for the last two months?"

"You mean aside from my partner, the only person who can see me, who I'm somewhat of a permanent fixture with now that I'm dead? Something that you lot arranged if I'm not mistaken?"

"I'll be straight with you Xena, we've had some reports of a woman matching your description running a tavern just outside of Athens. The word is that it doubles as...a place of ill repute. I am duty bound to inform you that absconding from your host is greatly frowned upon, and any unseemly behaviour will result in a rather - how shall I put this - "unsatisfactory" situation when your next life comes around."

"Are you threatening me?" the warrior glowered before leaping over the desk, hoisting him up by his tie and brandishing a pen at his face. Her voice dropped to a low growl. "If you people took the time to check your facts you'd know that the woman you're speaking of is named Meg. I died young and left a good looking pile of...ashes, Meg is a wrinkly old lush. While we're at it you may want to note that there are two other women who no doubt also match my description, by the names of Diana and Leah - should they still be alive... So before you think about interrupting my eternal peace again, it might be wise to do a little more research." Xena plucked the dark lenses from the man's face and deposited them on her own. His eyes were wide with terror - clearly he had not taken the time to read her file.

"Really! Manners cost nothing! I don't know what sort of behaviour you're used to but violence wont solve anything here!"

"I know that, fuckwit! It would sure as hell improve my mood..." she uttered, settling back in her seat.

"Of course...you're perfectly within your rights to demand some compensation for this minor inconvenience." he stammered. "You may choose any item from this book."

He handed over a hefty tome with the inscription "Argos catalogue 1999.", which the warrior flicked through, confusion darkening her features.

"Ah, sorry. Wrong one. I don't suppose you'll find much use for Phantom Menace merchandise. I just had to pacify Mr Guinness with this version. He was the elderly fellow that was in here before you. Tried to negotiate a way to receive profits from this stuff rather than take any of it...Curmudgeonly Englishman he was...that's er, Britannia to you..." the man babbled, before handing her the 31AD copy.

Briefly glancing through the items available, a satisfied grin settled over the warriors face. "Well, it's funny you should offer..." she began, and then named her request which would be made available to her once she was back in her own time. "Now don't bother me again unless it's of vital importance to me or my partner - or I'll have your head on a plate. Do you understand me?"

**************

When morning arrived Gabrielle began to take a tentative peek out of the tent, before flinging it open in shock.

"By the gods...!"

"You still say that?" came an incredulous voice behind her, as Xena joined the bard outside. Quickly surveying the area, she took in the awesome sight. Through the early morning mist the devastation was clear. Every field was ravaged and there wasn't an inch of vegetation to be found.

The blonde turned to face her partner and noted with a curious frown, "You have something on your face..."

Removing the offending articles and perching them on Gabrielle's nose Xena said "These are for you. They'll stop the sun from hurting your eyes."

**********

Gabrielle ate a small breakfast before breaking camp and heading towards town. Xena fell into stride beside her and once again began whistling a jaunty tune before breaking into song.

"All the cops in the doughnut shop say: Way-oh, way-oh, oh-way-ay-oh, way-ohhhhh!!!"

"What is that?"

"Walk like an Egyptian!!"

"Huh?"

"It was playing in the waiting room when I got called to Elsewhere last night. I can't get it out of my damn head now..."

"I thought you only sang when you were moved?"

"Well, I'm at peace and I'm with you. I couldn't get much more moved." Xena smiled and took the blonde's hand in her own while continuing to whistle. It wasn't much, but it sure beat a set of tuneless pan pipes.

Up until now Gabrielle had been content to hitch a ride with passing travellers who would take her as far as they were able. However, with the hot desert sun beating down on her, hoisting her belongings around on her back was - quite frankly - getting to be a bit much.

She'd already gained extra cargo, what with the unexpected additions of the chakram, bullwhip, and a sword she'd acquired in Japan. Combined with the sais tucked into her bootstraps, she was a veritable walking armoury.

Xena had offered to do the gentlemanly thing and carry some of the load, before Gabrielle had gently reminded her that you could sail a barge through the hole in that plan.

"I should see about getting a horse." the bard announced.

"Good idea. You don't want to end up with a hump on your back...hey, how about a camel?" Xena suggested with a wry smile.

"After the last one? Are you kidding? Never again!"


**********

Gabrielle had endured three long days with the stinking beast. She had procured the animal soon after she arrived, from one of the many merchants found plying their trade along the banks of the Nile. The man had a kindly face, and if he was to be believed, this camel was the greatest creature ever to lollop across the earth. It could apparently understand commands in many languages, which may have been true, but if so, the camel chose to ignore them all. It preferred instead to lie on the sandy ground and sulk - only stirring to spit at the blonde whenever she tried to approach it.

"Maybe you just need to spend some quality time with it. You know, bond with each other." Xena had smirked. "Remember, it took a while for you and Argo to get along."

"Argo and I had a lot of common ground..."

Xena had considered this for a while before an idea struck her. Sticking two fingers into her mouth she let out a piercing whistle. The camel barely batted a heavily lashed eyelid. "Okay, you can get rid of it." She concluded.

"Wait, maybe it can't hear you...I'll try." Gabrielle whistled, which prompted even less of a response. "Hmm, that's just perfect. Of all the camels in Egypt, I get the one with an attitude problem!"

Xena pointed at the burdened beast. "You'd have an attitude problem if you had that thing on your back." She was referring to what the merchant had described as the camel's unique selling point. In a grand gesture, he had pulled a thick blanket from the animal's hide, like a magician unveiling a spectacular trick.

The camel had three humps.

Two were of normal size, and the third rested between them uncomfortably. The size of an oddly shaped watermelon, the third hump was bald and pale...and quite disturbing. Gabrielle had been assured that the lump was not a tumour of any sort, and the merchant was quite offended by the suggestion. This camel was the last of its kind, a line bred especially for the Pharoahs. The extra hump was sign of good luck, and very useful for long journeys. In reality, the hump made the beast impossible to ride with any degree of success. The only way was to sit atop the strangely pointed mass, which caused no end of problems.

Three days of torment later, the blonde had had enough. After much encouragement and cursing, she finally managed to haul the ruminant to its feet - and she wasted no time in dragging its protesting bulk to the nearest town and trading it in for a tent and some food.


**********

The morning sun had almost reached its apex as the two women arrived on the outskirts of the town. Gabrielle pulled at her top repeatedly, trying to circulate some air over her hot skin. A rivulet of sweat slipped between her breasts, making her wriggle. "I think I'm melting." She huffed, her pack dropping to the floor with a thud. "Aren't you hot?"

Xena looked nonplussed. "No. I'm fine. Feel." The ghostly warrior placed her hand on the blonde's reddened chest. It's coolness forced a squeal from Gabrielle's lips.

"That's fantastic! Here, do my back!" The bard turned around, pulling the straps from her shoulders.

"Erm...I really don't think this is the time or place for this Gabrielle. It's almost noon."

Gabrielle glanced up at the burning sun for a split second. "I'd say it was about eleven forty-six, we've got plenty of time...hey! Did you see what I did?! I can do that thing!"

"It was very impressive - can we go now?"

The blonde sighed and replaced her shoulder straps. "Okay, we'll carry on, but could you put your arm round my shoulders as we walk?"

**********

"I've never seen anything like this."

Naked trees reached into the sky like bony fingers. The birds perching on them were reduced to silence, a few pecked at the barren soil in vain attempts to find sustenance.

"No-one has." Xena responded finally. "Not for a few thousand years at least."

As the two women approached the town centre the silence was replaced with the sound of sobbing. People gathered in groups to express their grief. Men hugged and patted each other on the back and women tended to their crying children. The expression on all their faces reflected the devastation around them. It was an emotion Gabrielle knew well - a feeling she had experienced too many times in her young life.

"Xena, we have to help these people." She said, wiping a stray tear from the corner of her eye.

"Well unless you can plant entire new crops and speed up the harvest there's not much we can do. We should start by finding Yaseen, see if we can make any sense of this. Any idea where the schoolhouse is?"

Gabrielle spotted two men sitting on a low wall nearby. As she approached, she noticed one of them was quietly snivelling as he stroked a large black cat on his lap. His friend was trying to comfort him. "You still have your horses, Fazuk. And lucky Oz, there." He said softly, pointing to the purring feline.

Fazuk turned to his friend, his eyes streaming and red. "Lucky Oz? This cat belonged to my wife, rest her soul. Since she passed he refuses to leave me alone. If I try and stand now, he'll unleash his claws and I'll be cut to shreds."

"It just shows he loves you."

"But I'm allergic to cats! And he knows it. His fur gets inside my skull and tickles my eyes and throat until I am reduced to tears!" Fazuk blubbed, before sneezing explosively.

The friend sat back on the wall. "I thought you were upset about losing the farm."

"I am. But I'm not crying about it. Like you said, I have the horses it's just a shame I have nothing left to feed them with."

Gabrielle interrupted the exchange with a small cough. "Excuse me. I was wondering if you could help me at all."

Fazuk regarded the blonde warrior bending over him. She was by far the most attractive, and underdressed woman he had ever seen. Quite formidable looking too, despite her height - or lack of it. His wife, may the gods guide her soul, wore more clothes to bed than this golden goddess standing before him. He quickly wiped his streaming eyes to get a better look. "If it is in my power, I will help you all I can."

Gabrielle smiled, and then straightened herself up when she saw where Fazuk's eyes were fixed. "I'm looking for the schoolhouse."

"A-ha, indeed, I can help." Fazuk tried to stand, but the talons gripping his thighs forced him to remain where he was. Oz didn't like to be disturbed. The cat studied the bard with his large green eyes, before turning his attention to the vacant space next to her.

As Fazuk gave Gabrielle detailed directions, Xena noticed the black cat staring in her direction.

"Can you see me?" She wondered aloud. Oz remained still, as if weighing up some unfathomable problem, yet giving nothing away. The undead warrior reached out her hand in friendship. "Hey pussy."

"Not now, Xena." Gabrielle blurted instinctively, stopping Fazuk in mid sentence.

"Xena?" He said, puzzled. His wife, oh beauteous dove of enchantment, had mentioned that name before. She called it out, he recalled, during one of their monthly conjugal meetings.

"Sorry, I was thinking aloud. Please, carry on."

As Xena's outstretched hand approached, Oz bared his teeth and hissed loudly. Fazuk was able to squeal, "And the schoolhouse should be around the very next corner", before the cat lunged upward, clawing at his owner's tunic in fear.

"Okay, cats can see me, but they don't like me."

The two women beat a hasty retreat, as Fazuk received a severe mauling from the traumatised beast. They could still hear his screams as they hurried towards the street where the schoolhouse was situated.

Slowing to a less suspicious pace, Gabrielle noted how drained the town now appeared. Yesterday there had been drapes and clothing in every colour adorning the streets, today it was as if all of the life had been sucked from the place. The only thing missing was tumbleweeds. A shiver made its way down her back as she sensed something was amiss.

*I'm being watched.*

"I know."

Spotting the schoolhouse in the distance, Gabrielle could just make out the image of Yaseen being dragged away by two worryingly burly men. She broke into a sprint only to find her path quickly blocked by two more men who appeared even more of a challenge in close-up. They sized her up and gave each other a satisfied glance, laughing as though this diminutive girl posed no threat to them. Sauntering forward, they intended to apprehend her but found themselves recoiling in shock as she whipped out her sais and landed a volley of hits square in their guts, knocking the wind right out of them. With her assailants temporarily immobilised, she dropped into a crouch and spun around delivering a powerful kick which swept their legs from beneath them. As they crumpled unceremoniously to the ground the blonde ran ahead, ducking down an alley in the hope of avoiding further unwanted attention.

The alley ran parallel to the street she'd just been accosted in, and afforded her a better view of Yaseen's current dilemma. She struggled to hear further warning signs beyond the thumping of her own heart and her breath coming in sharp bursts as her feet pounded through the dirt. It turned out such concentration wasn't really necessary as a laughable warcry sounded from somewhere above her. Yet another adversary launched himself from an adjacent rooftop and came crashing down on the bard, slamming her to the ground and pinning her underneath him. "You interfering heathen witch!!" he hollered, roughly capturing her wrists and trapping them behind her back thinking he'd rendered her helpless.

Twisting her face out of the filth, Gabrielle looked up just in time to see Yaseen being trussed up and thrown onto the back of a horse, before its rider turned around and smirked at her, and then raced away.

*Shit!!*

She heard the sound of a dagger being unsheathed behind her, and as her attacker leant down to whisper some toe-curling cliché into her ear she rammed her head backwards into his face with as much force as she could muster, trying to block out the sound of the sickening crunch that followed.

"That's my girl!" exclaimed Xena with a proud smile on her face, as the man scurried backwards, clutching his nose in an attempt to stop the crimson eruption from spraying in all directions.

The bard rose to her feet, removed Xena's whip from her side and lashed it around his ankles, rendering him flat on his back in one swift move.

"Where are they taking him?!" she roared.

The man merely shielded the shattered appendage, hate burning in his eyes.

"I will tell you nothing, you impish troll!"

Gabrielle slapped him hard across the face, but after several attempts he still refused to answer.

"Is this a personal conversation or can anyone join in?" Xena's voice wafted from behind her.

"Well, it looks like I'm talking to myself so yeah, I guess you could call it a personal conversation!" Gabrielle sneered at the man who was now lying still with a very concerned look on his face.

"Well, you could always..."

The blonde beat her to it, swiftly putting the pinch on the troublesome goon. "I seemed to have caused you a considerable amount of pain by breaking your nose. There are many other body parts I can snap, and if you don't want to find out exactly how many that amounts to - you'll tell me where they took my friend."

"The blood! The blood of the Guardian! They took him...(cough...) to The Dark Temple...(splutter...) deep within the caves! Outside Thebes...(rasp!) Two....two days..."

"Twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight..."

Gabrielle released the pinch raising an eyebrow slightly as the man promptly passed out. "Good, I was going in that direction anyway." She surveyed the area in search of some manner of transport, and sighed as her gaze came to rest on an unpleasantly familiar three-humped camel nearby. "You have got to be kidding me...Xena, it's gloating! Look at it!"

"How much money do you have?" the warrior piped up.

"Enough to buy a horse."

She quickly made her way back to Fazuk and relieved him of one of his steeds without bothering to haggle. Tying her belongings to it, she launched herself onto the creature's back and galloped away in a billowing cloud of dust, leaving Xena dumbstruck in her wake and Fazuk struggling to pocket the cash with his recently shredded digits.

**********

"Whoa there, Tiger!" Gabrielle heard, as a pair of hands came to rest on her hips.

"Ah, sorry about that. I guess my warrior instincts told me to go tear-arsing off into danger and leave you at the side of the road. Guess that's what you get for leaving your soul lurking in here huh?"

"My god, I'm at my own mercy!" Xena grinned holding on for dear afterlife. As they thundered towards Thebes, two voices carried across the sand...

"When the buzzer rings!"

"Oh-ay-oh!"

"They're walkin' like an E-gyp-tian!"


Part 3.


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