Just as Gabrielle was contemplating whether her plan of escape could work, she heard someone approaching from the tunnel. She peered through the bars and saw the torch glow in the darkness once more. There were no voices, only the sounds of boots. More than two sets, Gabrielle thought. Was this bad news? Not a good time to attempt an escape.
Najara approached the door and this time Gabrielle stood back against the wall without the need for instruction. The bolt slid back, the door swung open and this time two other girls entered before Najara came into the room. One girl was carrying a huge bowl of food - breads, cheeses, fruits and berries; a feast fit for an Amazonian Queen. The second girl brought a jug of water, a mug, 5 more candles and a fresh scroll. The two girls proceeded to the table and lay their various items on it, then bowed their heads at Gabrielle and left the room. The bolt slid across, locking Najara, once again, in the room alone with Gabrielle.
"How are you feeling?" Najara asked. She seemed to be genuinely concerned.
"Fine, I guess. Considering the circumstances", Gabrielle replied in a calm and even friendly manner. She saw no point in ruffling Najara's feathers unnecessarily.
"I see you've been scribing", Najara observed as she glanced over at the used scroll on the table. When Gabrielle didn't reply, Najara diverted the conversation back to the current situation. "I know this isn't ideal, but it won't be for much longer." Gabrielle was almost afraid to ask:
"Preparations are being made. Soon you will be a disciple of the Jinn". Najara seemed pleased. Gabrielle's eyebrows rose as she asked:
"What?" Najara was happy to explain:
"There can be no greater calling, Gabrielle. I will show you the way and the Jinn will bring you home". Najara didn't realize it, but her words and innocent smile were freaking Gabrielle out.
"What are you talking about?"
"Your commitment to the light, Gabrielle. The Jinn have decided to bestow upon you a great honor - the same honor that I have been blessed with. The Jinn have decided you are far too pure a spirit to simply let go to waste".
"Is that so?" Gabrielle was really panicking now, but she tried to hide it. Najara seemed oblivious.
"There will be a right-of-passage ceremony followed by a formal initiation, and then you'll be one of us".
"Like you, you mean?"
"Of course. You will be a soldier of the light. The Jinn will speak to you directly. Only an honored few earn that right. You will share with them a wisdom and vision few possess. I know that together, you and I will be an unstoppable force for good". Najara seemed absolutely earnest in her words. Gabrielle took a step closer to Najara and studied her eyes for any hint of regret. At the moment she could only see blind faith.
"Najara", Gabrielle spoke calmly and sincerely, "Do I even get a choice in this?" Najara sighed.
"You may make the wrong choice".
"But I don't want to be here. I don't want to become a soldier of the light any more than I want to become a disciple of the Jinn. Don't you understand? I am an Amazon Queen. I have responsibilities elsewhere and I have a..." Gabrielle hesitated there. How would she describe to Najara her relationship with Xena? "...well, I have Xena". Yeah, that pretty much covered it. Gabrielle waited patiently for a response. Najara nodded and repeated the cursed name:
"Yes, Xena. I know you think she's this...this wolf in sheep's clothing but that's not it at all. Xena is good".
"Yes!" Gabrielle's voice was begging Najara to be empathetic. "Najara, Xena didn't force me to stay with her. I chose to. And right now I couldn't imagine being with anyone else". Gabrielle was practically pleading with Najara to listen to what she was saying and to just let her go.
"Well, I'm sorry Gabrielle. But you won't feel that way after the right of passage ceremony. The Jinn will show you the truth and you will be changed". Now Gabrielle began to shed her calm exterior:
"What truth?" Gabrielle didn't wait for a reply, but continued on a different tack. "How long have the Jinn been with you, Najara?"
"Since I was a child. Why?"
"You never had a choice". Najara contemplated the statement, not sure of what Gabrielle was implying.
"What do you mean? The Jinn are my guides. Why would I not be happy to have them in my life?"
"Because they've manipulated you from the beginning. You can't see that what you're doing is wrong". With that comment Najara saw red and in one foul swoop backhanded Gabrielle across the face forcing her backwards against the wall. Gabrielle's expression was one of shock as she put her hand to her mouth. Her lip was bleeding. Najara was angry but she seemed to be composing herself rather quickly. She took a deep breath, and then in a tone that was both calm and matter-of-fact, she warned:
"It'd be in your best interest to not speak ill of the Jinn". Najara turned and headed for the door. Before she exited, she turned back to face Gabrielle, her voice once again returning to the pleasant charade that had fooled Gabrielle from the beginning.
"Please, eat. And get some rest. You've got a big day ahead of you tomorrow. It will be hard, but I promise you, things will seem so much clearer. Sleep well". Gabrielle was left speechless as the bolt slid into its latch once more.
Najara had been having nothing but trouble with Xena's horse since the moment she'd tried to bring Argo back with her to Argos. When she'd finally made it back here with both the troublesome steed and the unconscious bard, she'd locked the horse immediately in the stables. Since then Argo had been kicking and bucking and the noises coming from her muzzle would have matched nothing short of a mule being struck through the gut with a blunt knife. Najara didn't want to release the horse but she didn't want it to hurt itself either with all its bucking, so she finally freed her, deciding the horse was now of no consequence. She was wrong.
Xena had been traveling south for some time now, after she realized the tracks had turned in that direction only a little way past Xena and Najara's meeting point. Xena had been pushing her newly acquired horse hard, but the steed was no "Argo" and it was telling in speed and stamina. Just as Xena realized the horse was being pushed past its limits, she heard the pounding of the hooves of an approaching steed. She pulled her horse to a halt and waited and to her amazement, there she was - Argo. The most beautiful sight Xena had seen for days. Xena jumped off the worn out Arabian, and took Argo's muzzle in her hands. She stroked the steed's neck and mane, and kissed her forehead.
"Hey girl, are you a sight for sore eyes!" she said dotingly, then she removed the saddle and reins from the ruffian's worn out beast and geared Argo up. She mounted Argo and before she'd even had time to ask the horse to take her to Gabrielle, the intelligent Argo turned around and headed south again, straight for her rider's soul mate.
Gabrielle decided there was no more time for pause. Her escape plan would have to be executed soon. But it did require a visit from her captors. So without stopping for food or for water, she began to work. She removed the glowing candles which were held in place by spikes on the candelabra, and placed them upright on the table so that they would continue to burn. Then she took the candelabra, and with a bit of effort she broke four of the five spikes off at their base. They were now make-shift nails, and the base of the candelabra was now a make-shift hammer. She took the blanket off the bed and walked over to the door with it. She decided to nail the blanket into the right wall at about three paces back from the door. She held the corner of the blanket close to the ceiling and hammered two spikes through it and into the wall. Then she took the other corner of the blanket and walked it over to the left wall and did the same again. Now the blanket was a curtain hanging parallel to the door. She picked up a couple of the biggest shards of the broken jug on the floor and considered the sharpness of the edges. They would do as make-shift weapons, as would the candelabra and a leg off the table. She thought the plan through in her head. She would keep an eye out for the next visitor, and when they came they would see only darkness through the door's window. Gabrielle would explain that she had fallen asleep and accidentally let the candles burn out before having a chance to light the new candles that had been brought to her. With a bit of luck, the visitor would open the door and walk straight into the blanket. Gabrielle would attack them while they were disoriented and try to fight her way past whoever else would be out in the tunnel.
As Gabrielle considered her plan, she started to have doubts. This is not what Xena would do, I'm sure, she thought to herself. Thinking of Xena, Gabrielle sat down at the table and took the quill in her hand for the second time since she'd been locked away in this dimly lit cell. She thought for a moment, unrolled the fresh scroll, dipped her quill in the ink well and scribed-
I know that at this very moment you are on your way to save me. You always seem to be doing that - even still. But you know I'm not the little girl I used to be..."
When Gabrielle finished scribing, she picked up the scroll and put it gently to her lips. She closed her eyes and imagined the warrior princess was there with her, a cheeky grin on her beautiful face, that loving look in her eye that she thinks Gabrielle doesn't see. She imagined Xena's voice whispering reassuringly in her ear, "I'm here, Gabrielle". And she imagined being wrapped up safely in those strong arms, chasing all the badness away. Gabrielle brought herself back to reality. She put the scroll down on the table and extinguished three of the five candles. Then she walked over to the makeshift curtain and pulled it back just enough to see if anyone was coming down the tunnel. When she saw there was no one, she let the curtain fall and moved back to the table. She poured herself
a mug of water and drank heartily, then took an apricot out of the food bowl and proceeded to eat. With her free hand she picked up the scroll and as she tried to read, she realized the words seemed rather blurry. Before she had time to think "henbane", her legs collapsed from beneath her and she fell to the floor, and once again darkness consumed her.
Argo moved with the speed of Pegasus until she arrived with her rider at a small village called Argos. It was here the great horse came to a halt. Xena looked around and noticed that on the surface everything here seemed normal; a market place, a tavern, an apothecary, a hospice. People were moving about as people do and no one seemed to pay Xena much mind. She dismounted and walked with Argo cautiously through the village. Were these Najara's people? Were they Jinn followers? Xena made her way to the hospice, told Argo to wait there and went inside. Xena looked around the hospice. There were about ten beds, and only a few had people in them. One woman was muttering and sweat was beading on her forehead. Another patient's leg was splinted and another appeared to have a nasty rash all over her arms and legs. But there was no Gabrielle. A nurse noticed Xena at the door and approached her.
"Can I help you, dear?"
"Yes. I'm looking for someone. A blonde girl, about this tall", Xena held out her hand indicating a height up to about her neck. "Her hair is kinda short", she added. The woman seemed to be thinking, and then her mouth formed an "Oh" as if she'd just come to a realization.
"Why, you don't mean Najara do you?" No, she didn't, but that would do.
"Yes, actually. You've seen her then?" The nurse nodded:
"She came in looking for some henbane only yesterday."
"Henbane?!" The nurse noticed that the tall dark woman seemed alarmed.
"Yes. I told her we don't keep any of that here. Too dangerous. These radical new medicines...headed for disaster if you ask me. I sent her to the apothecary."
"Do you know where she's staying?" Xena was trying to remain calm but a hint of anxiety was creeping into her voice.
"Ah...Heckliss might be able to help you. The apothecary".
"Yep. Sure did see her. She gave me five dinars for some henbane. I was only wantin' four but, you know, she insisted. Nice girl".
"Yeah, she's a real goddess". Xena rubbed her forehead. She could feel a stress headache coming on.
"Hope she's real careful with that stuff. Too much of it and she might start thinkin' she's Hera. Can I interest you in some? In small doses it's great for sea sickness".
"Heckliss", Xena was getting impatient, "Do you know where she is now, or where she's staying?"
"No, but I did see her hanging around the stables. Had a mighty fine looking horse with her but the thing was wild, let me tell you. Givin' her Hades it was".
Xena found herself at a homestead only a small distance from the village centre. The stable owner had said he'd shod Najara's horse for her and ridden it out to her when he was done - not something he would normally do, but she had seemed so nice and she'd had a sick "friend" to take care of so he wanted to help out any way he could.
As Xena stealthily approached the building, she noticed it was extremely quiet. There were no horses, and there was no sound coming from inside. Xena made her way to the door and put her ear to it; Nothing. She drew her sword, stood back a little and kicked the door in with one almighty thrust of her foot. She quickly entered and scanned the room. There was no furniture, and there were no partitions. Just one big empty space, with a few torches lining the walls. Xena relaxed a little when she realized there was no immediate threat and walked around the large room. She stood in the centre of the room and sheathed her sword.
Nothing, she thought. Then she looked down and noticed she was standing on what looked like a small door in the wooden floor. She stood aside and pulled on the piece of rope that was attached to it. The door opened out and Xena saw a ladder inside, leading into a pit of darkness. Xena went to the wall and grabbed a torch, then finding the flint on the floor nearby used her sword to create a spark to light it. With torch in hand she descended down the ladder into the darkness.
The tunnel was only just deep enough for Xena to stand up straight in. She took sword in hand and made her way through the tunnel. She could only see a little way in front of her, so she moved cautiously, being very quiet and listening intently. A small distance in, she came to a bolted door. Peering through its window she could see nothing. Xena hesitated. Then, taking a deep breath she slid the bolt across and opened the door.
Xena scanned the small room. There was a bed to one side. On the floor near the door was a blanket, in the near corner a smashed jug. Had there been a struggle? In the far corner was a chair and a table, and on the table was a food bowl and a water jug. Xena could see two scrolls, one on the table near the food bowl, and one on the floor under the chair. She walked over, sheathed her sword and picked up the scroll from under the chair. It was Gabrielle's writing. As Xena read, tears began to well in her eyes:
are Without -
Without Voice -
A smile in the night
becomes a Scream
in the Dark -
Everything that I
leaves me Empty and Alone -
The Heart's Desire
the Soul's Defiler
Lost and searching long -
"Gabrielle", Xena whispered longingly. She picked the scroll up off the table and read that too, hoping for any hint as to where she might be now, or what Najara's plans for her could possibly entail.
I know that at this very moment you are on your way to save me. You always seem to be doing that - even still. But you know I'm not the little girl I used to be.
I fear I may be out of time, so I have to do something before it's too late. It may not be the best idea ever. Gods know I'd be a lot more confident about it if you were by my side. But I have to try this. In a way you are here with me. I'm drawing on your strength right now, as I always do when I feel my own strength is not enough to get me through.
If I don't make it, I want you to know something. I am not sorry that I found you, or that I followed you. I'm not sorry that I stayed with you and no matter what happens I'm not sorry that I loved you. I know sometimes it's been hard, and if I could change some things - some bad choices I've made - I would. But I know you've forgiven me. And if you ever have any doubts about yourself or about us, know that even at the worst times, you have give much more than you have ever taken away. I could not imagine my life without you. I love you, now and always.
Forever your bard,
Xena sat on the bed. Tears began to roll down her cheeks. She knew this was no time to fall apart, but she'd been searching for days and now she had finally made it only to find she was too late. Gabrielle was gone. Suddenly Xena stood up. There was no time for this. She rolled both scrolls up and placed them in her scabbard. Xena knew Najara could not have gotten far and Gabrielle was counting on her. She made her way out of the tunnel. It was time for this thing with Najara to end.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and found herself lying on a bed in what appeared to her to be an Amazon Queen's hut. Someone was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching over her with loving eyes.
"I can't believe you're here", Gabrielle said softly, as if speaking too loud would make her raven haired warrior vanish into thin air.
"Where else would I be?" Xena whispered back, as if she too was afraid this frail vision would end. Gabrielle sat up and took Xena in her arms, not wanting to ever let go.
"I love you", the blonde bard said, and she pulled back to face the warrior, her arms still draped over Xena's shoulders. Xena looked shocked at hearing those words. Why? Gabrielle thought. Didn't Xena know how the bard really felt about her? Xena then smiled and stroked Gabrielle's cheek.
"I..." Xena stammered a little, trying to give voice to the words she'd so longed to say. "I love you too", she finally breathed in a voice so low Gabrielle barely heard. For a moment they just looked into each others eyes. Then Gabrielle looked down at Xena's soft lips, then back to her crystal blues. Xena, realizing something was about to happen that she dared not even dream of before, felt her heart pounding so hard she thought it would burst through her chest. She waited, not daring to rush the moment. Gabrielle lent in, and Xena closed her eyes. And then Xena felt those beautiful soft lips on her own.
Najara waited for the henbane to wear off a little. Gabrielle had been out cold since she'd drank that mug of water. She knew Gabrielle would try to escape, so drugging her seemed like the only way to bring her out of Argos without a struggle. Najara had seen the bard stirring a little - finally - so she sat on the edge of the bed and waited. To her amazement Gabrielle had woken up and actually seemed pleased to see her.
"I can't believe you're here", she had said, in a voice so tender it had touched the blonde warrior in a way she couldn't have imagined. And then she had hugged Najara and actually told her that she loved her. That left Najara momentarily speechless. And suddenly as the words "I love you, too" left her lips, Najara realized that maybe she hadn't been doing this for the Jinn at all. Then, just when Najara didn't think she could feel any more for the bard than she did at that moment, Gabrielle had actually kissed her so tenderly and with so much love that it hit her like a blow to the gut, knocking the wind right out of her and leaving her breathless. She pulled away. Yes, Najara desired to be with Gabrielle, but first things first. The Jinn would not be pleased if she put her own desires before those of her spiritual guides, to whom she owed everything.
"Here, drink this". She handed Gabrielle a mug of water and prompted her to drink some more. It was important to keep her drugged so that she wouldn't feel the urge - or the energy - to escape. Najara hated to do it, but it was by order of the Jinn, and the Jinn knew best.
"I'll be back soon", Najara reassured Gabrielle, and before Gabrielle could protest she was gone. In her attempt to follow the woman she thought was Xena, Gabrielle dropped the mug of water on the floor. As she watched the liquid soak into the ground by her bed, so her vision and all her senses did drain away.
part 4 (conclusion)
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