Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other characters or text mentioned from the original series are owned by Renaissance Pictures, Studio USA. or whoever has the rights now. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fan fiction just for fun. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. Some of the characters may be theirs but the story is mine. Copyright Nov 2001. Rev.1
Rated as adult material for rape, violence, and a loving relationships between consenting adults and because anything can happen in my stories. If you are easily offended please read something else.
Email me at:email@example.com
Constructive comments and criticisms or just plain chats, good or bad are most welcome. No flames please.
Suggestion: If you havenít seen ĎThe Last Battleground: A Friend in Need you may want to wait to read this as it contains spoilers!
Gabrielle dropped her mug into her saddlebags, tied her bedroll to Cinder's saddle, then gathering the reins of the dirty gray warhorse, led her out of their recent campsite and back to the wagon rutted road. It was a beautiful crystal clear morning and Gabrielle had taken her time getting ready to leave. She had just been through a rough week, and this was the first time she had really been able to relax. She felt good, rested, and in the mood to walk for a while.
"Dinar for your thoughts," Xena said, as she came up alongside her.
"Hum?" Gabrielle looked to her left, realizing the warrior was beside her and had spoken. "Oh, sorry, Xena. I was just gathering wool."
"What sort?" Xena asked.
"Nothing serious. Just a happy old memory I hadn't visited in a long time," she answered as she ambled along the narrow path.
"Anything you can share?" Xena asked.
"WellÖ I donít know, its pretty private stuff," Gabrielle said, pretending reluctance.
"Okay," Xena said.
"Xena! You do that on purpose!" Gabrielle said, disappointed.
"Do what on purpose?" the warrior asked innocently.
"Oh, nothing, never mind, Miss innocent," Gabrielle huffed.
"Uh, oh, the battling bard's peeved," Xena quipped.
"I am not peeved," Gabrielle denied in her most righteous voice.
"Beyond peeved," Xena prodded.
"You're asking for trouble, Xena," Gabrielle growled. "You better stop!"
"Way beyoÖ. Hey!" Xena yelled, flinching away as Gabrielle swatted her.
Gabrielle turned to her, putting her hands on her hips and taking up her 'scolding mom' pose. "You're about to be in very serious trouble, little missy!" she scolded. "Keep it up and you get no story tonight."
Xena hung her head and scuffed her toe through the dirt. "Gee, Gabby, I can't sleep without my story," she pouted.
"Don't you dare call me Gabby! You know I hate that!"
Xena stuck her lower lip out further and looked up at her with her head still lowered and Gabrielle lost it in a cascade of giggles. She looked up to see a radiant smile and a mischievous sparkle in those stunning blue eyes.
"I win," Xena said.
"You cheat," Gabrielle replied.
"Me?" Xena said, affecting shock. "I don't need to cheat! That was pure talent! I could a been aÖ ah, say what are you anyway, I forgot. A bard, is it? I could a been one of those."
"Yeah, the befuddled bard of forgetfulness!" Gabrielle chuckled.
They walked in silence for a moment, climbing a gradual incline towards the pass, between two hills, the surrounding trees swaying to a gentle morning breeze.
"So. You gonna tell me, or what?" Xena asked.
"Okay, but you'll have to think way back, Miss befuddled."
"If it's more than a week, how did you manage?"
"Hush, just listen to a real bard spin a tale," Gabrielle said in her haughty voice.
"Oh, brother!" Xena groaned.
"Do you want to hear this, or not?" Gabrielle asked, giving her the 'don't mess with me warrior' frown.
Xena gave her the, ' uh, oh, I been busted, better be good' look, and nodded her head.
"Okay. Here we go," Gabrielle said, shaking herself and composing her face. She dramatically cleared her throat and began. "A long time ago, in the far north of Greece, during a blizzard, the young Amazon Queen, Gabrielle, and her warrior princess sidekick, struggled through the howling winds with their trusty warhorse Argo. They were hur...."
"Okay, bard. There's a little too much poetic license being taken here. I seem to remember the sidekick thing the other way around," she said, arching her brow, "and what's with this, 'Queen Gabrielle' and 'warhorse Argo' and 'warrior princess' business? My horse gets a name, the pesky kid gets a name and the one that does all the work gets a 'warrior princess.' I do have a name, in case you've forgotten."
"Okay, okay! What a grouch," Gabrielle said, grinning. "Who's telling this story anyway? The bard telling the story can leave out a few insignificant little details for the sake of brevity."
"Oh yeah, and Xena makes it so much longer than warrior princess," she shot back.
"Hey, why don't you tell the story. I'm just trying to relieve the boredom here, by telling aÖ." Gabrielle stopped, looking above the trees ahead.
"What?" Xena asked following her gaze. "Oh, smoke."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said as she gathered Cinder's reins and climbed into the saddle. "So much for a quiet morning," she sighed, then nudged Cinder into a gallop up the last hundred paces to the top of the hill and down into the valley beyond. As soon as she topped the hill she could see the cause and she nudged Cinder even faster. About a quarter league away a small village was in flames. As she drew rapidly closer she could see that the village was under attack and not much was left. She saw no villagers, just raiders. As she went past the first building she saw several bodies scattered along the street, including a little girl. She pulled her katana, screamed her battle cry, and rode right into the midst of the raiders, scattering them. The raiders fought like mad and she was hard pressed for a few moments but Cinder was battling too, at Gabriele's command, kicking out at horse and man coming up behind them, or crowding the enemy's mounts. Soon the raiders discovered they had a raging lioness in their midst, and fled in all directions to get away from her. In their brief encounter seven men died and three more were badly injured, two with shattered legs from Cinder's hooves.
When the battle was over Gabrielle made a thorough search of the village, but she found no survivors. She returned to the center of the village, where she had left Cinder, carrying a little boy. Tears streaked her face as she lay the small child in the shade beside two older women. She felt a tender touch on her shoulder, turned, and was wrapped in powerful arms.
"I was too late, Xena," she sobbed.
"You can't save everyone, Gabrielle," Xena said, holding her tightly.
"I know," she said, sobbing into Xena's shoulder. "If I'd just been a few minutes soonerÖ. "
"Don't do that, Gabrielle," Xena admonished gently. "There is never any way to know that. No matter how hard you try you can't know when something like this will happen. Just be thankful for the times you can make a difference."
Gabrielle raised her head and looked into Xena's sad eyes. "Thanks. You're always here for me."
"I always will be, Gabrielle," she answered, smiling at her and gently caressing her cheek.
Gabrielle released her and stepped back, wiping at her eyes. "I better see what I can do about a pyre for these poor people," she said.
"Yeah. Wish I could help," Xena said.
"You do, just by being with me, Xena," she said affectionately.
Gabrielle worked tirelessly for hours. She built a large pyre inside the only building still standing, to handle the thirty-one bodies. She used a small two-wheeled cart, complete with donkey, she found just outside of town, to haul the bodies to the pyre, then turned the little donkey loose. Finally she was ready and lit the pyre. It was a sad heartbreaking scene as she stood alone and watched the fire burn. There had been nine children among the dead.
When the building was entirely engulfed in flame Gabrielle mounted Cinder and rode out of town. She immediately began circling, looking for tracks. She found what she was looking for and set out at a trot, keeping a close eye on the trail she was following.
"What are you thinking, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, from behind her, after she was on the trail.
"That there were no young women among the dead, "she said, her emotions tucked away and her voice very controlled. "The raiders were after slaves; young women only. Since I took the time to care for the dead they have about a five or six hour lead on me, but theyíll have to travel slower. There are no wagon tracks, so their pace will only be as fast as the slowest person. Eleven men took off when I got the best of them. Three limped or crawled off and are probably out of it. I figure they got between ten and twenty women from that village, if they took them from the age of twelve or thirteen to maybe thirty. There may be another dozen men, so I'm probably facing twenty or twenty-five raiders,"
Xena patted her on the shoulder. "Good girl."
"I have a good teacher," she said.
Xena chuckled. "Your teacher has a good student."
Gabrielle rode hard, until it was too dark to see the trail, then made a cold camp, rolling into her blankets after a quick bite to eat. Xena held her close as she let a little more emotion release, and continued to hold her through the night.
Gabrielle was up before the sky began to pale and was on the trail the instant she could make out the tracks. She caught them unprepared, just beginning to stir, and she went into the camp with a vengeance. They tried to rally but most of them were still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, barefoot, and shirtless. She seemed to be everywhere, either her and her deadly sword, or the fearsome round weapon she wielded with such deadly accuracy. Twelve men died. The rest, wounded and out fought, had had enough and fled into the trees.
When the battle was over Gabrielle turned to the prisoners, and was appalled. By the gods, Xena. There were more than fifty women in the camp, roped together. Obviously several villages had been raided, and this was their holding camp. They sat huddled together watching her, their emotions everything from near hysteria to elation. Even from where she stood Gabrielle could see that they had been mistreated. Many of them were badly bruised and their clothes were torn, though she saw few serious injuries. It didn't do to permanently damage the merchandise, but she did see a few that were more seriously injured.
Gabrielle picked up a fallen dagger, near one of the dead raiders, and turned to the prisoners. Immediately fear registered in many of their faces.
"Calm down. I'm just going to release you. I'm here to free you," she said softly, then stepped up to a dark eyed, dark complected brunette and cut her ropes. She then handed her the knife. "Help me cut them loose," she said. In a short time they had freed them all.
"All right everyone, listen to me!" Gabrielle said, mildly surprised when they immediately quieted down. "Can any of you use any weapons?"
She was greeted by silence, then slowly a short blond and a tall redhead came forward. They both were dressed in simple country chitons. Both of them looked tired and had puffy eyes from crying, but they both had determined looks on their faces. She watched them move.
"Featherheads?" she asked and the redhead nodded. "My name is Cyanne."
"I'm Ragena," the blond said. "You look like a featherhead yourself, though I've never seen a sword like that.
"I'm Gabrielle. I was a featherhead a long time ago," she said.
"Once a featherhead always a featherhead," Ragena said smiling.
"Yeah, but speaking of strange," Cyanne commented, "that round thing on your hip. I've heard tell of it. It's called a, umÖ."
"Chakram," Gabrielle supplied.
"Yeah, but legend says itís a mystical weapon and Xena, the Warrior Princess, was the only one ever known to carry one."
Gabrielle nodded. "This was hers. It's power passed to me when she died. She was my partner."
Cyanne looked at her skeptically. "There were rumors of Xena and her partner still being alive about five or six years ago, but that would have put them in their sixties. I never gave the stories any credit."
"It's a long story, Cyanne. We weren't near that old and we were up north about five years ago. Xena died three years ago in a land beyond Chin," Gabrielle said sadly.
"ThenÖ." Ragena's eyes went wide in amazement. "Great Hera's tits, you're that Gabrielle!" she exclaimed, then bowed her head and dropped to a knee. "I am yours to command, my queen."
Cyanne's eyes got large and she too dropped to a knee. "I'm your servant, my queen."
The rest of the women were watching in confusion and a rising excited babbling.
"Whoa, slow down!" Gabrielle said, holding up her hands as if to hold them off.. "That was a very long time ago."
"Maybe so, my queen, but you are still the queen of all the Amazons," Ragena said, almost reverently. "Your return to the Amazon Nation six years ago was deemed a miracle and you have been forever proclaimed the high queen of the Amazons. It is our honor and duty to serve you, Queen Gabrielle."
Gabrielle groaned. "Okay. I give up. Rise please. We have things to do."
"What would you have us do, my queen?" Ragena asked.
"Arm yourselves, for a start, then get these women something to eat while I tend to the wounded. Keep your eyes open. Most of those raiders didn't have much on when they left. They may decide to come back for their stuff," she said. She watched them set resolutely to work. She had seen the pain of their losses in their eyes, but purposely not asked. Right now she needed them busy and they needed to be busy, as did many of the others. There would be time to grieve later.
Once they had fed everyone a quick meal Gabrielle organized them. They went through the camp and collected everything they could use and packed it into small bundles. All articles of clothing were shared out to the women most in need, until they all had at least a little something to clothe themselves in. The heavy stuff they put on the two horses still tethered in the camp, and on Cinder. Cinder complained mildly then accepted the unusual load, but every time Gabrielle got near her she would nip at her to show her displeasure. The last thing Gabrielle did was to have them collect the rest of the camp equipment and weapons, keeping all the daggers. She had them put everything else in a pile, and then she burned it all. She wasn't leaving anything for the enemy, not a crust of bread.
Finally she turned to the group raising her hands for silence. "Okay! Give me a minute, then we'll get started!" Gabrielle said. "I've talked with several of you, but mostly with Ragena and Cyanne because they are Amazons and are familiar with the land. We are in a pretty serious situation but if we all pull together we can get out of this. Cyanne knows the land around here best, and she tells me that the nearest town where we can expect help is over the pass in front of us. As you can see, there is some snow near the top of the pass so it will be cold up there. We are going to have to move fast and get through there as rapidly as we can because none of us is really dressed for cold weather. If we plan it right, and the weather holds, we can cross the pass tomorrow during the day. That means we have a lot of walking to do today, and we are going to spend a chilly night, but not nearly as cold as it would be higher up in the pass. Now, for the bad news. The trail through the pass has a rocky cliff on one side and a sheer drop into a river on the other. We're going to have to be really careful, even though we need to move fast. We don't want to lose anyone."
Gabrielle paused a moment, for emphasis, then continued, her voice softer, "I need you to help each other. I know you're still grieving and several of you are injured but we can't stay here and we can't return to your villages. I need you to help each other through this. Again she paused, then went on more briskly. "Okay. We're going to start off pretty fast and see how long we can do it. I will be in the front, Ragena will be in the middle and Cyanne will be in the rear. The three of us will lead the horses. If you have any problems just call to one of us. We're here to help each other. Let's go."
"Well done, my bard," Xena said.
"Thanks," Gabrielle whispered as she set off down the trail. 'Stay close, my love', she thought, as Cyanne passed her going to the rear.
"I'll be here, Gabrielle." Xena answered, placing her hand gently on her shoulder.
"Sever! What in the seven levels of Tartarus is that racket all about!" Gregon yelled at his second. There was a growing commotion outside.
Sever ducked out of the tent and was back a moment later. "It's Janus! He's alone and on foot. Looks near naked," Sever said as he stopped in front of the table.
"Get him in here!" Gregon bellowed, climbing to his feet. He was a huge man, nearly a head and a half taller that Sever's average height. In bulk he would make three of Sever but little of it was fat. His black hair and beard were shot with gray, giving him a fierce, older look than his thirty-two years. He had stone-gray, mean eyes and a long nose that had been broken several times, and was bent to his left. His voice was a deep bass bellow. Men trembled when he spoke and shook in their boots when he spoke directly to them, because it usually meant they were in way more trouble than they wanted. He carried a wicked looking long sword, and two daggers almost as long as short swords. His leather armor was black, studded with metal pieces. Gregon had reached his position by being just a bit smarter than, and brutally efficient at, eliminating his competition.
Sever turned to the door just as Janus stumbled through and fell to his knees.
Gregon studied him a moment. "Get him some water, Sever!"
Sever grabbed a waterskin and held it out to him.
Janus took the skin and drained more than half of it.
"What happened to you?" Gregon bellowed.
A warrior attacked us at first light. Killed half my men and the rest fled," he said, still breathing hard.
"Did I hear you just say a warrior, as in, one warrior?" Gregon bellowed and Janus winced. If he'd had any boots on his bloody feet he would have been shaking in them. Gregon was not a forgiving man.
He kept his head down as he answered. "Yes. Just one."
Gregon stepped forward and pulled his head back by the hair. "Look at me while you insult me!" he bellowed. "You're telling me more than twenty of my warriors were incapable of handling a single warrior?"
"Yes, Lord Gregon," he answered.
Gregon backhanded him into the tent wall. "My men don't fail!" he bellowed. He kicked him in the stomach. "My lieutenants never fail, Janus! That means you and your men did the impossible! Tell me about this warrior, and it better be one damned amazing story or I swear I'll cut your heart out and make you eat it!"
Gregon walked back to his chair and sat down, propping his feet on the edge of his table. "Get up Janus! Let's hear about this warrior that can defeat twenty of my finest and their lieutenant!"
Janus got painfully to his feet and cleared his throat several times. "She, ah, she hit us abÖ"
Gregon's feet hit the floor and he bolted out of his chair. His massive right hand wrapped around Janus' throat and he lifted him off the ground bringing them eye to eye.
"You mean this warrior was a woman?" he bellowed. "What have you been drinking, Janus? I'll kill you for this!" He shook Janus like a rag doll then threw him into the tent wall again. The tent leaned ominously.
Janus gagged and choked trying to breathe. Slowly his color returned to normal, from the purple it had become.
"Talk fast, Janus, or I'll cut your guts out and strangle you with them!"
"Warrior woman," he gasped, "Had a strange round weapon she could throw and hit anything and it would fly back to her. She also had a sword like I've never seen before. She was unstoppable. Carder shot her with a crossbow at less than twenty paces and she caught the bolt! She killed half my men before most of 'em realized she was there!"
Gregon was leaning against his table studying him.
"You ever see her before?" he bellowed.
Janus shook his head.
"What did she look like?" he asked.
"Short blond hair. Light skin. About average height, for a woman, but very well muscled. She moved like a hunting cat. She was lightening fast. Um, lets seeÖ." He paused thinking. "Oh, yeah, she wore Amazon garb, you know; boots, short fighting skirt, and little top."
"Amazon!" Gregon bellowed. "Sever! Go get Cyger. That old wolf knows about Amazons."
Sever bolted out the door happy to be away from Gregon's wrath.
When he returned with Cyger, Gregon was seated at his table with a wine mug. Janus was on his knees and he had a few more bruises than he'd had earlier.
"Tell Cyger about thisÖ warrior, Janus," he spit the words out like a filthy oath."
Janus described her again and told of the battle.
"Know her?" Gregon asked.
Cyger shook his head. "Something tickling my tongue, wants out, but I can't say I remember no blond warrior of that skill. Amazons are good, but I never seen the one could outfight twenty men. Two or three, maybe, but not twenty." He snapped his fingers. "Got it!"
Gregon leaned forward. "Who is she?"
"Not her, the weapon! I heard of a round weapon like that before," he said excitedly. "Seen it once."
"Where?" Gregon bellowed.
"I'm working on it!" Cyger said absently then was quiet for several minutes. "Yeah, that's it. Xena."
"Xena? Heard of her. She's a myth!" Gregon bellowed.
Cyger shook his head. "She's no myth, Gregon. She's as real as my chin. I saw her once, up north of here about five, six years back. She could have done what Janus tells of and then some, but she wasn't no blond. Blackest hair and bluest eyes you ever seen. Stood taller than me and I ain't exactly small."
"You sure that wasn't your warrior, Janus?"
Janus shook his head. "She was shorter, had blond hair, and her eyes were gray or something. I couldn't really tell that early in the morning."
"I heard tell a year or so back that Xena was dead," Cyger remarked as he tried to pull out snippets of the past. "Xena had a partner though. Seems to me she was a short blond." He paused a moment. "Yeah, I remember, now. She was a cute little blond. Odd one though. She was a bard and a good one. I got to hear her in the local tavern the night I seen Xena in action. Xena was there, but in the corner at the darkest table, alone. She kept an eye on that bard, real close."
"What's so odd about her, Cyger?" Gregon said.
"She was also an Amazon Queen. Yeah, I remember now. She told a story about having to take the throne when her regent was killed. There was a great battle and Xena helped her defeat Pompey the Magnus, a Roman General. Good story."
"You think she could be the one Janus saw?" Gregon asked gruffly.
"Not sure. Maybe. I heard Xena died but I never heard nothin' about her partner. Never heard of an Amazon having a weapon like Xena's though; that round thing. Can't remember what it was called but I seen it on Xena's hip. Got a scrap of parchment? I'll draw it for you."
Gregon turned over a map and held up a piece of charcoal.
Cyger took the charcoal and drew two rough circles then the center design. "This is real poor but it looked something like that."
Gregon looked at it then up at Janus. "Come here."
Janus got to his feet and approached the table.
"Look anything like that?" Gregon asked pointing to the parchment.
Janus looked at it for a moment then nodded. "I'd say that's a real good likeness. It looked just like that."
"Sever! Ready the men! I want my property back!" He turned around and grinned. "Thanks, Janus. Youíve been a big help." As Janus started to smile Gregon drove one of his long daggers in under his ribs and lifted him off the ground. "Too bad you failed me!" he growled, then let him slide off the blade.
Gabrielle glanced again at the early afternoon sun and reluctantly called a halt in a small clearing, near a cold mountain stream. They had made less than half the distance she had hoped to. The injured were in pretty poor shape and they were holding them back. There was nothing she could do about that. She turned to them, as they bunched up in front of her. "All right. We stop here for the night."
Several women sat down right where they were, and a few others were eased to the ground by the women supporting them.
Gabrielle smiled at them. "I know you're all tired. Youíve done really well today but Iím going to have to ask you to help me. We need some organization, or weíll never get anything done. I want you all to separate into five groups of about ten each. Do it now, please."
"Bossy little thing, aren't ya?" she heard Xena remark in her head.
"Not now, Xena!" she thought back.
She waited while they clustered into groups. Ragena and Cyanne joined her while they waited.
When they had settled down she continued. "Okay. The three of us will be your leaders, until we get you some place safe. If you have any problems, bring them to us. Hereís what has to happen next. I want each group to talk quietly and select a leader and a helper. When that is done I want each group to set up a campsite. Keep them close together but no need to crowd. In an hour I want to see five organized campsites with small cook fires. Then I want each group to get cleaned up. No more than one group at a time in the stream. Itís too small to handle all of us at one time. Leaders, you and your helpers will make sure everyone gets a quick bath. Help each other, especially the wounded. Be as fast as you can because we are more vulnerable at that time. While one group bathes I want the next group in line to stand guard. For weapons, some of you have daggers. The rest of you can find clubs. The leaders of the first three groups will guard the last group. We are going to scout the perimeter then find something to feed all of you. When I return I want to see five neat campsites and fifty clean bodies. Oh, sorry, the clothes stay dirty. Thereís not enough time to dry them today and no one sleeps in wet clothes tonight. When you lay out your camps, keep in mind you will probably be snuggling tonight to keep off the chill. Make arrangements for the injured to have a warm body on both sides. They need the warmth the most. The rest of us can survive a little cool weather. Okay. Thatís it for now. Get moving."
She watched them as they started introducing themselves to their camp mates and began the process of selecting a leader, then turned to her two Amazons.
"Either of you scouts?" she asked. They both nodded and she smiled. "Good. You know what to do then. Iíll cover from there to there. Cyanne, you take that third and Ragena you take the other. Full sweep to a quarter league. Fast as you can but extra caution. We canít afford to lose any of us. Once you know your sector is clear see what you can scare up to feed this lot. No hunting until you know your sector is clear! I donít care if you see the biggest buck youíve ever seen and heís a perfect shot. Iíd much rather go hungry that lose either of you. Just keep in mind that most of these women wonít survive without us," Gabrielle squinted at the sun, then turned back to them. "I want to hear the kestrel in half an hour or less, from both of you or I come after you. Iíll give the same signal. Then we hunt for about an hour." She turned a very stern look on them. "If youíre not back by the time the sun touches that peak Iíll come looking. Donít make me come after you."
"Yes, my queen," Cyanne said.
"Weíll be here, my queen," Ragena said.
"Good. Good luck and good hunting," Gabrielle said, then turned and looked over her charges. Three groups were already beginning to organize their campsites. Two more were still selecting their leaders. One of the three was working very efficiently even though three of their members were injured. A slender brunette was clearly the leader and was not only directing the others but doing a lot of the work herself. Gabrielle walked over to her. Close up she was surprised how young the woman looked.
"Whatís your name?" Gabrielle asked, studying her. She was maybe a very little bit taller than Gabrielle, brown hair and large brown eyes. Her face was angular with a long straight nose and full lips. Her slender figure looked work hardened.
"Celeste," she answered, in a vibrant voice. She looked Gabrielle straight in the eye, clearly unafraid of her, unlike many of the others that were still intimidated by her. It was obvious immediately that there was no nonsense to this woman.
"My Amazons and I have to be out of camp to make sure there are no enemies near, and to hunt. You are in charge of the entire camp while Iím gone. The rest of the leaders will report to you. Do what you have to, to keep them occupied, Celeste. If theyíre busy they canít dwell too much on whatís happening. In half an hour, unless you hear otherwise, send some of them out to gather roots, mushrooms and whatever else they can find. Send them in pairs." She smiled at her. "Youíre doing a good job already."
Celeste blushed slightly. "Thank you, Gabrielle. Iíll do my best."
"I know you will, Celeste," Gabrielle lifted her head and raised her voice. "Everyone! Let me have your attention! While Iím gone, Celeste is the camp leader. What she says goes. You other leaders report to her." She lowered her eyes and smiled again. "Iíll be back as soon as I can but no later than when the sun touches that peak" She walked away and disappeared into the forest.
Gregon stood against the trees, near the ridge, so as not to skyline himself. He had spotted one of his men returning in the valley below and waited impatiently for him. Most of his force waited just behind him, in the forest. Privately Gregon doubted the little blond bitch could be that good, but he always preferred to err on the safe side. No sense letting her know they were coming.
Just as the sun reached the horizon his scout approached him.
"You find them?" he asked, his deep voice booming even though he was trying to be reasonably quiet.
"Aye. Tracked them to a clearing then got out of there as they sent out perimeter guards. Theyíre headed for yon pass," he answered.
"You see that blond?" he asked.
"Sheís the leader all right, but sheís short on talent. She only had two others that looked like they could put up a fight. We take those three out and the fight is over."
Gregon grinned. "Good. Can we get into the pass before them?"
"If we start now we should be able to get in there and set up before they arrive. I know just the place," he answered.
Gregon clapped him on the shoulder nearly taking him off his feet. "Good man, Talos! Tell Sever to get everyone ready to go. Before we leave I want you to tell everyone what the other two fighters look like. Get moving!" he boomed.
Gabrielle returned to the camp fairly early. She had three rabbits and two squirrels.
Ragena was gutting a hind. Cyanne was the only one that hadnít returned yet.
"Celeste! I need some people to clean these and take over for Ragena!" she shouted.
A moment later five women walked up to her. "You two take over from Ragena. The rest of you take care of these. Keep the meat together. Weíll share it out when we know what we have. Ragena, get two women from Celeste and follow me," Gabrielle turned to the stream. When Ragena and her helpers showed up Gabrielle had her boots, weapons and clothes off. She looked up to Ragena and the two helpers and smiled. "The rules apply to me, too. No wet clothes. Youíre on guard, Ragena, Iím going fishing." She waded into the water grinning at the perplexed looks she had received before turning to the water.
Gabrielle waded into the deepest part of the stream, which barely came to her waist then prepared herself as her audience watched. She was motionless for several moments. When she moved, it was like a striking snake and all three of the women watching her jumped.
"Catch!" she yelled and tossed a large trout onto the bank. The women were so surprised that none of them reacted, and the fish hit Ragena on the thigh and dropped to the ground at the edge of the water. Ragena recovered suddenly and made a grab for the fish. It slid through her hands, fortunately away from the water and she grabbed again. This time she held on and gave it to one of the other women to carry up to the butchers.
Gabrielle caught three more fish then turned to cleaning up a little. She returned to the bank just as the top of the sun touched the horizon. And after a little, mostly ineffectual attempt to dry herself with her hands, she got back into her clothes. She had others on Cinder, but no one else did, so she stayed in what she had on.
"Ragena, can you wait for your bath? Cyanneís late and I need to start looking for her."
"No problem, my queen. Just bring her back safe," Ragena said.
"Thanks. Full alert. We should have heard something from her by now," Gabrielle said as she finished tying her boots and got to her feet. She collected her weapons and loped off in the direction Cyanne had gone.
Gabrielle went on full alert, pushing her senses to the limit as she entered the forest. She warbled a recall and waited. No answer. That was bad. Even injured, Cyanne should have responded. She moved silently through the shadows, little more than a shadow herself.
'Xena, are you there?'
"Right here," the warrior responded immediately.
"I missed talking to you today," Gabrielle said, her voice low and soft. "You sense anything I should know about?"
"No. Iím not getting anything from Cyanne. Let me take a look. Iíll be right back." She disappeared and Gabrielle continued silently into the forest.
When Xena returned Gabrielle knew something was wrong by the expression on her face.
"What is it Xena?" she asked anxiously.
"Sheís dead, Gabrielle," Xena said as she took the little blond by the shoulders.
"What! What happened?"
"Come on, Iíll take you there. Itís better you see for yourself." She turned and started off making sure Gabrielle was following.
"Raiders?" she asked.
"No, a boar and damned bad luck," Xena said. "Prepare yourself, itís bad."
When they found her Gabrielle threw up what little was on her stomach. When she recovered she went over and closed her eyes. The signs of a wild boar attack were obvious but the boar hadnít killed her, though it had hurt her badly. She was lying on her back. A large dead tree across her chest. The tree had crushed her chest rupturing her stomach and a dead branch had gone completely through her just below her throat. There was blood everywhere.
"By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle choked out through her tears.
"I know, Gabrielle. She never had a chance," Xena said, putting a comforting arm around her.
"Weíll have to bury her," she said. "I better go back and break the news."
Xena walked her back to the camp. Gabrielle leaned on her all the way back, until just before entering the camp. Even in the camp Xena kept a comforting arm around her.
When she came out of the trees everyone immediately knew something was wrong. They waited silently for the bad news.
Gabrielle walked to the center of the camp and looked around. Ragena came up to her, tears already filling her eyes.
"Cyanne is dead," Gabrielle said in a choked voice. "She was fighting a boar when an old tree collapsed on her. Iíll need volunteers to help me get her out from under the tree and bury her."
Everyone there solemnly volunteered and she held up her hand. "Thank you. Cyanne would be pleased to know you all care, but I need volunteers with very strong stomachs. Celeste, pick four volunteers. The rest of you get the food divided and start cooking. I know none of us feel much like eating now but we have to keep up our strength. Cyanne would want us to go on." She turned and gathered Ragena into her arms. Ragena hadnít known Cyanne long but she had liked her and she was a sister Amazon.
All four of the volunteers were sick when they saw Cyanne. Celeste was the first to recover and automatically turned to help the others through it. Gabrielle had refused to allow Ragena to accompany them, but allowed Celesta since Ragena had to stay in camp.
They buried her nearby, after digging her out from under the tree, then solemnly returned to the camp in almost complete darkness, their feeble torch only making the surrounding darkness more complete. All of them were covered in blood and Gabrielle made an exception to the rule about washing clothes for the five of them. Several women were sick when they returned covered in so much blood and Ragena went white and passed out. Gabrielle got out her two blankets and cut them in half for the four women to cover in, until their clothes were dry. She gave in and put on one of her sleep shirts.
Though the catch had been sparse for that many people there was quite a bit of food left over, which they kept for the morning.
Gregon reviewed the plan and smiled. If these idiots could follow a simple plan, the blond and her two companions would be dead before the day was much older, and he would have his catch back.
They were situated to catch them in a pincer. He had six men with crossbows to take out the blond warrior. Two more would take out the rear guard. He himself was at the forefront with the six archers. He wanted to see this warrior himself. Sever was at the rear with strict instructions not to move until the attack, at the front, started. They would have to take their chances with the one in the center, but with the other two out of the action she would be easy.
Gregon glanced up and spotted his lookout. He was waving. They were coming. He picked up his crossbow and cocked it, placing the bolt carefully. Wouldnít hurt to have a seventh.
Gabrielle walked at the head of the column, Cinder following with her head hanging. The day had started cool, but the sun beat mercilessly against the cliffs and they were all sweating profusely. Tonight would be cold, since they would have to stop more than half way to the top.
"Gabrielle. You better take a break soon. Some of your charges are about to drop in this heat," Xena said.
"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "Right ahead at that little stand of trees. I caught a glimpse of them a ways back and thought it would be better to stop where there is some shade."
Gabrielleís reactions blurred into motion, at the same time Xena screamed a warning, and she caught two crossbow bolts, batting another aside. She stopped a fourth from hitting her in the chest by putting her arm in the way. The bolt hit her half way between the wrist and elbow and she turned slightly to absorb the impact. Another one hit her high in the left thigh, and then one hit her in the side at her waist, bending her over in pain and backing her up, as she sidestepped, almost avoiding it. The last one hit her in the shoulder spinning her sideways. A rock rolled under her foot and she overbalanced on the edge of the path, her foot continuing to slip on the loose surface near the edge. She looked into Xenaís eyes with the sudden knowledge she was going to die, then slowly went over the side, her scream blending with Xenaís. She tumbled and saw the rocky projection coming up fast, then everything went black.
"Yes!" Gregon shouted as the blond went over the side, hit three or four times. His men raised a loud shout and charged the women, expecting little resistance.
Sever heard the commotion and his two archers fired their bolts into the blonde's back. She pitched forward on her face and Sever and his men charged forward making a fierce racket to frighten the other women.
As his men ran forward to capture their prize Sever stopped and stuck a toe under the blonde's hip pushing her over on her back. Both of the bolts had gone clear through her, the points sticking out of her chest. She was still alive, looking up at him from striking gray eyes. She was breathing hard, air bubbling out of her chest with the blood, obviously in great pain. He put his foot under her to push her over the edge.
"Wait," she whispered.
"What?" he asked, curious.
She choked, blood running from her mouth. "Closer," she said.
He leaned down slightly, careful of a trick, but she looked beyond any trickery.
"Tell the queen I..." Her voice faded as she gasped for air. "IÖ I gÖ."
He could hardly hear her and bent closer. "You what? Say it!"
"I gÖ" she sighed, weaker. "goÖ."
He leaned closer.
"Got you!" she said savagely as she slashed her dagger across his throat.
He stood to his full height as his blood sprayed from the gash in his throat and kicked the blond hard enough in the hip to send her over the edge. Then he was on his knees and fell forward, his head hanging off the edge, his blood running into the canyon. His men found him that way, his eyes wide in shock.
The men were surprised when the women fought back with clubs and knives. They were soon subdued but not before a dozen men were injured, three severely and two more were killed. They lost four men over the side and two others had shattered legs, all done by the dirty gray warhorse, which went crazy after the blonde fell off the edge, then took off up the path. Three archers fired bolts after the fleeing horse, and two hit it in the hind quarters but it was gone. Three women were also injured but not seriously. They were herded into the little grove and tied together again.
Gregon surveyed his prize and was well pleased. If he could get them to market in reasonably good shape, they would bring a nice sum. Janus had done a good job collecting them.
Gregon looked around then grabbed a passing warrior. "Find Sever! I want him here, now!" he growled. He gave the man a push and watched him scurry away.
A short time later he saw Cyger coming towards him.
Cyger stopped in front of his leader. "Severís dead," he said. "That other blond got him."
"What about the redhead?" Gregon asked.
"No sign of her. Sheís not with them."
Gregon grunted. "Keep an eye out for her. Youíre my new second, by the way."
"Iíd rather notÖ"
"Iím not asking, Cyger!" he roared.
Cyger bowed his head slightly. "Yes, Lord Gregon."
"Get some food started," Gregon said. "Nothing like a good kill to give me an appetite!"
Xena appeared, kneeling beside her soulmate. A short distance away the falls roared down the gorge and into the river making waves in the surface that had pushed Gabrielle against the edge and beached her in the eddy pool.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was frantic, helpless to help her badly injured soulmate. In addition to the arrows she had taken, she had several bad cuts and scrapes from her trip through the rapids and over the falls. The worst was a huge bump on the right side of her face. Xena had seen lesser bumps kill.
"Gabrielle!" she cried again running her hand over her face.
She spun around and Gabrielle stood behind her.
"No!" she screamed, scrambling to her feet and running to the bard. "Go back, Gabrielle!"
"Back where, Xena? What are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked.
"Gabrielle, you have to go back, now!" Xena said frantically.
As she started to answer, her eyes flicked beyond Xena. "Who's that you wereÖ." She looked stricken then pushed past Xena and went to her body kneeling down looking at herself. She reached out and touched her body, caressing the cheek then looking over the wounds. "Iím dead, Xena," she said, her voice sounding strange,
"Not if you go back now, Gabrielle," Xena said.
Gabrielle looked up at her with tears in her eyes. "IÖ Iím dead," she repeated.
Xena knelt down beside her and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her. "Gabrielle, listen to me, you have to go back. Those women are lost if you donít go back."
"Iím not sureÖ I can, orÖ want to," Gabrielle said looking into Xenaís eyes. She saw the pain there.
"Gabrielle. Please, itís not your time," Xena pleaded.
"How do you know that?" Gabrielle asked, looking down at her own body again.
"Eli!" Xena screamed. "Michael! Callisto! Help me!"
Eli and Callisto appeared before Gabrielle and she stood slowly, then Michael appeared. Michael stepped forward and smiled at her. "Xenaís right, Gabrielle. Itís not your time. If you donít go back your destiny will be incomplete and those women will have no chance."
Callisto and Eli came up beside Michael. "Gabrielle. This is not your destiny," Callisto said.
"Go back, Gabrielle," Eli said.
"How?" she asked, not knowing what to do.
"You have to want to go back. Close your eyes and will yourself back. Weíll help you," Michael said.
Gregon watched Cyger march the brunette towards him. He gave her one last push, almost into Gregon's arms but she stopped herself and pulled away.
"What's this, Cyger?" he asked.
"She seemed to be some sort of leader," Cyger answered. "The others look to her."
Gregon turned back to her and studied her. She was about average height, slender, but her body did nice things even to the rag she was wearing. She had brown hair and eyes, and a striking face with a long straight nose and full lips.
"What's your name?" he bellowed, watching her eyes. She didn't even flinch. She was not afraid of him even though she knew he could do anything he wanted with her. Her large brown eyes stared back at him with defiance, instead of the fear he saw in most.
He reached out and wrapped his large hand around her throat, watching her eyes. He squeezed tighter and tighter until she was struggling for air but the defiance never left her face. Slowly he lifted her off the ground.
"I asked you a question. I expect an answer!" he said, lifting her higher. She was turning purple but her gaze held steady on him and she didn't struggle. He realized she would die before she would cooperate with him and he smiled. He liked that, but she would be easy to break. He lowered her to the ground and let her go, then waited until she had recovered her breath, and stood again defiantly before him.
He smiled at her. "I like your spirit, girl," he spun her around and closed his hand around her bound wrists, then lifted until her shoulders were painful enough that she groaned. "I don't suppose this will work on you either. Pain is usually a good tool but I'd probably have to really get into it before you'd break and that would mean disfiguring you. Then I might as well kill you because you wouldn't be worth anything at the market." He pulled harder and held it a moment. She groaned again and he could see her face was contorted in pain, and tears were running down her face, but she wasn't going to give in. He let go suddenly and she stumbled to her knees. He walked back around in front of her and lifted her back to her feet by her throat.
He ripped her rags off watching her. She didnít flinch. He ran his eyes over her very shapely body then stepped forward and ran his hands over her, while watching her eyes. "This won't work either," he said, stepping back. "I thought not. Well, I tried."
"Cyger!" he looked up to his second, then to the slaves, watching a short distance away. He picked his target. "Bring me that cute little blond, fourth from the end."
Cyger brought the blond back and Gregon smiled. She would do nicely. Her eyes were wide in fear, she was shaking like a leaf in a strong wind, and she was breathing fast.
"Strip her!" Gregon said. "Then bring her here."
Cyger ripped her clothes off then grabbed her arm and pulled her to Gregon.
Gregon grabbed the blond and pulled her against himself, facing the brunette. He ran his hands over the blond stopping to crush her breasts painfully while watching the brunette. Then he pulled one of his long daggers and put it to her throat. "Last time. What's your name?" He pressed the blade into the blonde's throat and started to draw it across, drawing blood and a painful cry from the blond. The brunette's eyes went wide in fear for the blond, and a tear of angry frustration slid down her cheek.
"All right! Let her go!" she said, in defeat.
He kept the pressure on, still cutting into her throat.
"Your name," he growled.
"Celeste!" she said. "Let her go."
He eased the pressure off but kept the dagger in place.
"Maybe I should kill her, to show you I mean business," he said.
"No. Please don't," Celeste begged.
He waited several long moments watching her. "If you want to keep her alive, and the others, you will cease to defy me, or I will force you to watch while my men use her, then beat her, then torture her. When they are done I will finish this." He drew the knife the rest of the way across the blonde's throat, cutting the skin enough to bleed and elicit a frightened scream, but not deep enough to hurt her. The cut was deep enough that blood ran down her throat and over her chest. Celeste watched in horror, thinking for an instant that he had killed her anyway, then she realized it was a very brutal warning.
Celeste bowed her head. "I will give you no reason to hurt her."
"You will do more than that, Celeste. You will lead these sheep to slaughter, for me; keeping them in line."
She nodded. "Yes."
"Speak up so they can all hear you!"
"Yes," she repeated, louder.
"You will be my servant!" he bellowed.
"Yes," she said.
She looked up at him, hatred and defiance blazing in her eyes. He smiled and raised the dagger.
"My whore, Celeste."
The defiance went out of her and she slumped like a deflated bellows. "Yes," she said, tears running down her face.
"Cut her free, Cyger," Gregon said.
Cyger cut her ropes, and she absently raised her hands rubbing them together to get the circulation back.
"Cyger. Celeste has free run of the camp. None of the men will touch her, even if she walks as she is now through camp. If she does anything against my wishes, I want to hear of it. Remember this little piece of fluff because if Celeste causes problems this one dies first, long and painfully."
He turned back to Celeste. "Are you understanding me, Celeste."
"Yes," she said, not looking at him.
"Lord Gregon," he rumbled.
Her eyes snapped to his and the fire of anger flickered in hers, but died and she nodded. "Yes, Lord Gregon."
"Good!" he said, returning the knife to the scabbard. He put his hand back on the blonde's breasts feeling her warm blood on her chest. "Get me wine. Cyger will show you where it is."
"Yes, Lord Gregon," she said and reached down for her torn clothes.
"No, no, Celeste. I like you just the way you are, today. Maybe tomorrow I will find something for you to wear."
She stood back up. "May I tend Laurel's wound, Lord Gregon."
"After you get my wine, you may tend her, then speak with your sheep while you tie her back in line. Tell them to behave or I start killing, with this one and as many others as it takes."
"Gregon," he said.
"Yes, Lord Gregon."
"Show my new whore where the wine is, Cyger." He watched them walk away admiring Celeste's lithe body. He squeezed the blonde's breasts again. "You stand right her blondie, until Celeste comes to get you. If you move, I will put a crossbow bolt in your back." He released her and walked away. She sagged and nearly collapsed but recovered and did as she was told.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, touching her cheek as she moaned.
Finally, after a long time, her left eye fluttered open. The right eye was swollen shut by the swelling on the right side of her face.
"Gabrielle, can you hear me?" Xena asked, her voice full of compassion and anxiety.
Gabrielle moved and gasped.
"Try not to move just yet, Gabrielle. You're badly wounded," Xena said, laying a hand on her arm to prevent her getting up.
"I, um," her voice was hoarse as she tried to speak, "figured that out myself. MyÖ heaÖ head hurts," she managed.
"Just lie still until you get your bearings," Xena said.
"Yeah," she whispered. "I'll just rest." Her eye closed.
"No, Gabrielle! Don't go to sleep!" Xena pleaded urgently.
"Just for a minute," she sighed.
"No! You can't sleep! Stay awake!" Xena pleaded.
"Why not," She whispered, licking her lips. "You got any water?"
"Gabrielle, you know I can't help you with that!"
"Why not? Are you hurt too?" she asked, then her brow wrinkled. "Who's Gabrielle?"
Xena was stunned. "That's not funny, Gabrielle!"
"Stop calling me Gabrielle! Oh, my head." she said groaning again. "Where's the water?"
"I don't have any, Gabrielle, but you're laying in a river of it."
"Get me some, will you?" Gabrielle said, licking her lips again.
"You know I can't!" Xena answered in exasperation.
"So you are hurt then," Gabrielle said.
"No! What's wrong, Gabrielle?"
"Silly question," she said. "I need water. Now stop calling me that, or are you talking to someone else?"
"Oh, gods!" Xena groaned then quickly recovered. "What do you want me to call you?" she asked.
"UmÖ I don't know. My head hurts too much. I can't think," she said. "What's that noise?"
"Waterfall," Xena said absently. "You need to tend to your wounds,"
"Um, yeah, okay. Soon as it's light."
"What!" Xena exclaimed.
"When the sun comes up," she said.
"Oh, my gods!" Xena exclaimed.
"What's the matter, umÖ who are you anyway?" Gabrielle said.
"Oh, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry," Xena, choked out, tears streaming down her face.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked in confusion.
"The sun is up, Gabrielle," she said softly.
"Oh," she said, then was silent for several minutes. "I guessÖ. Um... I guess I better treat my wounds then." Her eye was bright with tears. She tried to sit up and groaned in pain. "Can you help me sit up, umÖ who are you?"
"Xena," she sobbed.
"Help me sit up," she asked, when the pain subsided.
"I can't help you," Xena answered, her voice breaking.
"Okay. Just thought I'd askÖ Xena."
Gabrielle then struggled into a sitting position. She was gasping in pain when she finally got up. "This isn't going to be easy."
"I know. I'm sorry I can't help," Xena said.
"What's wrong with you anyway?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'm deaÖ. I'mÖ. Let's just worry about your injuries right now," she managed to choke out.
"Okay, yeah. What happened?" she asked as she leaned over a bit and cupped a little water.
"You were ambushed. You' have four crossbow bolts in you and a lot of cuts and scrapes," Xena said.
"Oh. Sounds like I lost whatever happened. How is it they didn't take me prisoner or finish me off?" she asked as she gingerly felt out some of her wounds.
"You fell off a cliff, into a river," Xena said.
"Part of my plan, I'm sure," she mumbled. "Which wound first, my arm?"
"You need something to bandage the wounds with first," Xena said.
"You got anything?" she asked.
"No," Xena said, struggling to contain her emotions while tears streaked her face. "There's a dead Amazon down stream a little ways. You could use her clothes."
"That means I have to move, right?" Gabrielle asked. "I don't suppose you couldÖ"
"No, sorry," Xena said.
"Of course not," she mumbled as she struggled to her feet.
"Here, give me your hand," Xena said. "I'll lead you."
Gabrielle held out her right hand and Xena took it, pulling her gently along. She was doubled over and limping badly. Sweat popped out all over her as she struggled to suppress the pain. When she spoke it was through gritted teeth. "Wait a minute. Why can't you help me if you're able to lead me? I thought you were injured."
"It's a long story. Just trust me for now," Xena asked.
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said.
"I know. I'll explain later," she said. "We're here. You'll have to reach out into the water and pull her to shore. She's caught on some debris."
She guided Gabrielle to her and Gabrielle managed to get her free and pull her ashore.
"Take her chiton off, Gabrielle, but be careful, She has two crossbow bolts sticking out of her chest, They could cut you," Xena said.
Following Xena's directions she took the chiton off of her. "This doesn't feel right, Xena, robbing the dead."
"Gabrielle, she won't mind. In fact, she would want you to take it to bandage your wounds," she answered.
"She was in the same fight I was," she said, as a statement, not a question. "Did I know her?"
"Yes, Gabrielle. She was one of your Amazons. You are her queen."
Gabrielle tore a strip off the chiton. "A queen? And, since you insist on calling me that, I guess my name is Gabrielle?"
"Yes," Xena said.
"I guess I should know you, too?"
It took Xena a moment, but she managed to answer without her voice breaking. "Yes, Gabrielle. You do know me."
Following Xena's instructions she wedged the crossbow bolt in her arm in some rocks then broke it off. She pulled it out, screaming at the pain, and wrapped the wound, but had a very difficult time tying it.
Xena directed her in breaking off the one in her shoulder and removing it. She passed out for a short time after removing the one in her side. The one in her thigh was the most time consuming and painful because she had to cut it out.
When her wounds were taken care of, Xena encouraged her to rest a little.
She lay back against a rock and closed her eye. The silence didn't last long. "What was her name?"
"Ragena," Xena answered. "She was a good warrior."
"I feel really bad I can't remember her," Gabrielle said.
"Give it time, Gabrielle. You had a brutal fall and the bump on your head is really bad. Your memory will return as you get better," Xena assured her, hoping desperately that she was right. "We need to find you shelter, soon. The sky is darkening. A storm is coming."
"Great," Gabrielle sighed. "I need to do something about Ragena."
"You don't have the strength, Gabrielle," Xena said.
"I can't just leave her for the animals!" she complained.
"She would understand, Gabrielle. She wouldn't want her queen to risk her life for her dead body. She's in a better place now," Xena said, trying to head off a storm of stubbornness.
"Then help me with her," she said.
"I can't, Gabrielle!"
"Can't, or won't?" she said angrily. "I'm not sure I like you much!" Gabrielle pushed to her feet. "Point me to a stick I can dig with!" Her voice was sharp, angry.
"Gabrielle, you can't!" she pleaded. "You'll kill yourself. You're too badly wounded!"
"Fine, I'll use this, then," she snapped back, tugging the chakram off the hook on her hip."
"Ouch!" Gabrielle exclaimed, dropping the chakram.
"Ösharp," Xena finished. Rushing forward and taking her hand.
Gabrielle pulled her hand away. "Don't touch me!" she shouted, even angrier. Then she grabbed her head and stumbled to her knees, crying out, as pain assailed her from everywhere, especially her head.
"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed, in panic rushing forward again, but Gabrielle pushed her away.
She bent over until her head nearly touched the ground, moaning in pain. Xena hovered, in a panic, afraid to touch her. Finally she pushed back up, sitting on her heals, her good eye still squeezed shut with the pain.
"Gabrielle, we have to get you to shelter."
"Help me with Ragena first," she finally responded through gritted teeth, her voice cold and unfriendly with her anger and determination.
"I canÖ" Xena started, then stopped, realizing that Gabrielle's mind was made up, and telling her she couldn't help would only alienate her further. She sighed. "Let me see what I can find. I'll be right back."
Gabrielle lost herself in her battle to control or ease her pain, but she also felt a sudden loss and fear knowing the confusing woman was gone. She was alone. Completely alone, beside a river, not knowing who she was, badly wounded, and blind. If the woman left her she might as well lay down next to the dead Amazon because she couldn't survive alone. Her mercurial anger had dissipated enough to allow her rational mind to assess her situation realistically. She realized that, as much as she hated to leave the Amazon lying on the edge of the river, she really had no choice if the damned woman wouldn't help her. Her temper flared again but she got it under control. She tore another strip of cloth and bandaged her hand.
"Gabrielle?" Xena inquired softly.
Gabrielle raised her head staring at the sound, her one good eye still sparking with suppressed anger.
"I found a small cave, not far from here. It's above the high water marks and you can block it with stones. You could leave her there. You can't bury her in this soil. It's too rocky." She kept her voice low and soothing, only loud enough to override the nearby falls."
"Will you help me," Gabrielle asked, again.
"I can guide you, but I can't help you directly," Xena answered, braced for another tirade.
She saw the anger flare in Gabrielle's face and eye, but she controlled it. When she spoke her voice was tight with anger.
"Fine. Let's get to it."
"Pick up the chakram," Xena said.
"The what?" Gabrielle asked.
"The thing you cut yourself with," she replied. "It's one of your weapons. You'll need it."
She complied, gingerly lifting the circular weapon and putting it back on the hook.
Xena led her back to Ragena and guided her as she pulled the Amazon by the arms down the canyon to the cave. The cave was small, more a deep depression in the rough surface and at about Gabrielle's waist. She had a very difficult time lifting the dead body and getting it all into the opening. She had to rest several times, nearly passing out from her exertions. Finally, Xena guided her to several rocks that she could manage in her condition. When the opening was sealed, Gabrielle leaned against the rock wall in a cold sweat, catching her breath. She had to admit that doing this had probably been very foolish, and might cost her dearly, but she felt better about doing something for a woman that had probably been killed because of her.
"Gabrielle, you need to hurry. The storm's coming. You can't afford to be out in it if you want to survive." She helped the bard to a standing position and reluctantly she followed Xena's lead.
She led her partway back toward the falls then stopped.
"Gabrielle. There's the body of one of your enemies near shore, where you can reach it. He has a wineskin on his belt. You need to get it and fill it with water."
Gabrielle nodded, not trusting her voice.
The body was in shallow water and she reached it easily, recovering the wineskin.
When Gabrielle had filled it Xena said, "Drink as much of it as you can, then refill it."
While she did that, Xena checked the darkening sky. Dark clouds were moving rapidly over the canyon and the wind was picking up, though the canyon shielded Gabrielle from the worst of the wind.
Gabrielle finally finished, and laboriously got back to her feet. Xena took her hand, and this time there was no resistance. She led her up a narrow trail, talking to her constantly. The cave she had found wasn't far but it was uphill and Gabrielle was almost at her limit. She stumbled to her knees twice and Xena had to scream at her to get through the fog she was sinking into. At long last she guided her into the cave out of the harsh wind and the beginnings of the storm.
The next two days were a nightmare of delirium for Gabrielle. She alternated between fever and chills, ranted about things in her past without realizing any of it. Late on the morning of the third day Gabrielle opened her good eye into darkness, unable to make out anything. She remembered nothing of the last three days, when she first awoke.
"Xena?" she whispered with a voice both dry and weak.
"I'm here, Gabrielle," she answered immediately.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"In a cave," Xena replied, "There's a little water still in the waterskin by your right hand.
How did I get here?" she asked, groping for the waterskin.
"You walked." she answered. "How are you feeling?"
"Pretty weak. Hungry," she said after draining the last of the water. It was enough to moisten her throat, no more. "I don't suppose you have any nutbread?"
"Gabrielle?" Xena said feeling a rush of excitement. "Do you remember who I am?"
"What? Of course! What a silly question!" Gabrielle said, puzzled. "Why would you ask such a thing?"
"You weren't remembering much the other day," Xena said.
"Oh," she said, then gasped. "Oh, Xena! Ragena's dead, isn't she!"
"Yes. You buried her in a cave."
"IÖ I remember," she gasped suddenly. "I remember! I couldn't see!"
Xena remained silent and so did Gabrielle. Finally, in a small voice she asked, "Is it dark in here?"
"Yes, it is."
"Totally?" she asked in dread.
"Take me to light, Xena. I have to know," she said, pulling herself up the rocks behind her.
Xena took her hand, led her to the entrance, and stopped. She turned in time to see the hope die on Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle reached up and pried her right eye open but the tears were already flowing.
"Can you see anything, Gabrielle?" Xena asked softly, already knowing the answer.
She shook her head, biting her lip to try to stop the tears. "It's a little less dark than in the cave, but... no."
Xena wrapped her in her arms and let her cry. After a short time she made a great effort to stop and gradually succeeded.
"This sort of complicates things a little," she said, trying to smile.
"We'll get through it, Gabrielle. We always do," Xena answered.
"Almost always," Gabrielle said bitterly, surprising Xena. She recovered immediately. "Well, unlike someone I know, I still need to eat. I don't suppose there's a market or tavern close at hand?"
"No," Xena said. "Let's refill your waterskin, and you, then I'll take you to some tubers and roots.
"Yeah. That's what I had in mind all right," Gabrielle said in a lighter tone, smiling.
An hour later Gabrielle sat on the edge of the narrow path, her feet dangling over the shear cliff, while she ate some raw tubers.
"Gabrielle, you're making me nervous, it's a long way to the bottom. I wish you'd lean back," Xena said, next to her.
Gabrielle leaned forward looking down. "I can't tell, Xena, are you sure?"
"Gabrielle!" Xena said near panic. "Please, that's not funny!"
Gabrielle leaned back and turned to her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you. I was just clowning around."
Xena could tell she was on the edge. It wouldn't take much to push her into depression and perhaps worse. She was trying very hard to make light of her situation because she was scared and devastated at losing her sight. She was trying too hard to hide it. Xena knew she better get her off this cliff before the crisis came, and it would come. Gabrielle was a very emotional person, often impulsive, and Xena was very afraid of what could happen to her.
"I worry about you, Gabrielle," Xena replied. "I'll feel better when we are in a nice inn and you can recover properly. Come on, let's get moving; take my hand."
Gabrielle extended her hand and Xena took hold, helping her up.
"No more clowning, okay?" Xena pleaded.
"All right," Gabrielle conceded. "Honestly, Xena, you're turning into an old mother hen!"
Xena felt much better when they reached the main path. They rested for a short time then Xena started down the path. Gabrielle balked.
"Wrong way, Xena. We have to go over the pass, remember?"
"Gabrielle, you are in no shape to climb this pass. You need to find a place to recover for now," she said.
Gabrielle put her hands to her hips and stared at her. "Xena, I don't have time for this. I have to get after them or those women will end up as slaves to some horrible little man that collects women because he can! You go down if you want but I'm going after them." She turned and started walking carefully up the path.
"Gabrielle! This isn't a good idea," she said catching up to her. "You need rest and food. You could die going over this pass in your condition."
Gabrielle turned on her and Xena could see there would be no talking her out of it.
"It seems to me I'm living on borrowed time anyway. I've just been shot full of arrows, fell off a cliff, nearly drowned, bashed to pieces in rapids, gone over a waterfall, and endured two horrible days close to death before I decided to wake up and live. Now, I have a choice. I can chose to lay around and get well and let those women be placed in a living hell or I can try to save them. If that costs me my life then it just does. I won't sit and let them be sold if there is even a remote chance I can stop it." She was breathing hard and had to stop for a moment, then went on, her voice still full of determination. "Now, for a rather obvious reason I could use your help, but I'm going with or without you!" She turned back to the path and started out again.
Xena sighed and caught up to her, taking her hand. She pulled it away, still mad.
"If you really want to help, help me to learn to live with this little problem of mine," she said. "If I use the senses you taught me to use then I have a head start. I already know pretty much where the trail is by the sounds around me. What I can't see are the dips and projections in the road. Help me with the stuff I can't sense and let me do the rest. That will help me improve my senses."
"All right, Gabrielle, but you do need rest and food," she answered
"I know that," she said curtly. "I just want to get started on the trail. I don't expect to get far today."
Xena shut up and watched her. She started hesitantly, unsure of herself and her surroundings but slowly she gained confidence as her senses opened up and told her of her surroundings. Xena only interrupted her when she was about to get into trouble.
Gabrielle made it past the battle scene and into the grove where Gregon had camped after the battle. Xena helped her find some tubers and nuts and even a few berries. On the way back to camp Gabrielle heard a noise and froze. She waited, all her senses alert, her dagger sliding into her hand. Infinitely slowly she cocked her arm, waiting. Suddenly she threw it, then listened to the thrashing in satisfaction.
"Dinner," she announced. "Rabbit sounds really good to me tonight.
When they got to camp, Xena helped her get a fire started only by telling her where the sparks were hitting, and when the tinder was lit. She gave her just a little guidance in skinning the rabbit, then made sure it didn't burn on her, though Gabrielle did fairly well by smell alone.
In the morning, after finishing the food left over from the previous night, Gabrielle had Xena help her find a branch or young tree suitable as a staff. Armed with her new staff she walked up the path with more confidence. The climb was very tiring on Gabrielle and Xena tried to get her to quit but she refused. She had to rest often and near the end she was staggering she was so tired. Xena found an empty cave for her to spend the night in. Fortunately for Gabrielle it was a mild night near the summit, but she still spent a long cold night shivering against the chill.
The next day she was hardly rested but insisted on continuing. The distance to the summit was short but it took Gabrielle nearly two hours to get there. After a short rest she continued on. That night she was below the frost line and had time to gather some wood and get it into the small cave Xena led her to, before the rains started. She had a few berries for her dinner and immediately fell into an exhausted sleep. She roused several times during the night to the sounds of nearby thunder and the increasing chill as her fire died down. She would add wood to the fire and return to her deep sleep.
Xena sat nearby worried nearly to tears about her condition and the chill weather. She needn't have worried. Gabrielle woke feeling much better though cramped and stiff. She worked the kinks out, then Xena led her to water and found her some berries to eat. Gabrielle still walked with a bad limp and moved slower than normal to prevent tiring herself out, but the trip was almost all down hill and she made very good time. She was into the high plains by early evening, camping by a cool stream. Her meal was a few tubers and nuts. Game was scarce in this area for some reason.
That night the emotional storm Xena had feared came. Gabrielle became argumentative and surly. Nothing Xena said pleased her and she berated the warrior about everything they spoke of. Xena sighed and waited patiently while the bard vented her anger and frustrations. She burnt then boiling tubers that made up her meager dinner, something Xena could hardly ever remember her doing. Angrily she threw the pot at the warrior, when Xena tried to console her, then disappeared into the woods still shouting angrily at Xena. Xena waited patiently. When she figured enough time had passed she went into the woods after her. She wasn't hard to find. Her sobs led the warrior right to her. When Xena touched her she swarmed into the warriors arms crying uncontrollably. Eventually Xena led her back to camp and she lay in the warrior's arms crying her heart out late into the night, then she fell into an exhausted sleep. Xena wasn't surprised that much of her anxiety, fear, and frustration was because she felt she was failing the women she had sworn to take to safety.
Gabrielle slept until mid-morning and when she woke she was calmer but Xena thought she looked like she had lost a bad fight. Her face was puffy and she still looked tired. She walked slowly along the widening path not paying much attention to anything until about an hour before midday when she heard several horses in a nearby field. One of them whinnied and Gabrielle's head came up, listening intently. She whistled shrilly and heard an answering whinny.
"It's Cinder!" Gabrielle said, excited, staring off towards the sound. "Can you see her, Xena?"
"No. There's a line of trees in that direction. I think she's in the field behind them," she responded.
"Tell me how to get to her!" she said impatiently.
"All right," Xena said grinning. It was good to see her perk up. "Keep going along the path and I'll tell you where to turn up the lane."
Gabrielle promptly started off at a fast walk using her staff to sense the ground before her.
They heard Cinder whinny again, followed by several shouts, and then the sounds of a fast moving horse.
Gabrielle was nearly running and Xena took her arm. "Let me help you before you fall and hurt yourself." Gabrielle didn't protest and Xena guided her to and then along the lane. While she was walking down the lane the shouts continued; the pounding hooves getting closer. Gabrielle stopped and waited, a wide grin on her face, as the galloping horse came towards her. Cinder stopped in front of her and whinnied, then nuzzled her, nearly knocking her off her feet. Gabrielle stroked her long nose and talked gently to her, hugging her several times.
Gabrielle could hear three men running down the lane. By the time they got to her, she was between them and Cinder, waiting; her staff relaxed in her hands but ready for action. They slowed as they got closer.
"Here, you! Get away from that damned horse!" the first man yelled, walking rapidly towards her.
"Why would I do that? She's my horse," Gabrielle said.
"She's our horse. We found her wounded and abandoned," the man said. "We took her in and treated her wounds."
"I thank you for that, and will gladly pay you for your trouble," Gabrielle said.
"Donít listen to her Jed, she looks like one of them damned Amazons!" A small mean sounding man in the back said. "Looks like someone else had trouble with her and run her off!"
The big man, Jed, in front, took a step back. "We donít want no trouble, Amazon," he said.
"Neither do I," Gabrielle replied keeping her voice firm. "I just want my horse back."
"How do we know itís your horse?" Jed asked.
Gabrielle raised her voice only slightly. "Cinder, back, girl."
Cinder obligingly backed away from Gabrielle, grumbling her displeasure at leaving her to face the three men.
"Itís all right, girl," Gabrielle crooned. "Come here."
Cinder came back and nuzzled her in the back then stood watching the men.
"Cinderís a trained warhorse. If I wanted to cause you harm all I'd have to do is say the word and she would attack you." Gabrielle said. "Sheís very protective."
Jed nodded, not liking giving the horse to her but realizing the danger of trying to keep it. Reluctantly he said, "Ten denars for board and fixiní her wounds."
"Ten denars! Thatís robbery!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Gabrielle, donít argue with them," Xena urged. "Youíre in no shape for a fight."
"Thatís my price," he said, folding his arms and setting his jaw. If he had to give the horse up it wasnít going to be cheap.
"Three denars," Gabrielle said, resting her left hand on her katana.
His eyes dropped to the sword then went back to her face. "Was that a threat?" he asked, his voice going cold.
"I donít make threats," Gabrielle said, staring right back at him with her one good eye. She heard one of the men move off to the left. "Is that a threat?" she returned, pointing to the man.
Jed looked at him and motioned him back where he was, then turned back to her. "Six denars," he said.
"Four," she replied, thatís two more than itís worth.
Jed studied her for a moment. There was something odd about her, but he couldnít put his finger on it. "All right, in the name of good relations with the Amazons, four it is." Then he thought he had it. Quietly he stepped slightly left but she followed his movements. He leaned back to the right and she didnít until he spoke, then her eye tracked to his voice. "Iíll take it now," he said reaching slowly back for his dagger.
"Gabrielle, he knows you canít see, be careful," Xena said.
"Jed, donít try it. If I donít get you Cinder will," she said softly. "Protect Cinder!"
The big horse came up beside her and whickered, lowering her head and looking right at Jed.
Jed backed away, surprised. He pulled his hand away from the dagger. "Hold on there, I mean no harm," he protested. She seemed to know his thoughts but he would swear she was blind!
She dug out four denars. "Jed."
"Yeah?" he asked.
"Catch," she said then tossed them to him one at a time.
He grunted acknowledgement and turned to leave.
"Weíre not through, Jed," she said. "Thereís the little matter of my tack and my belongings."
"You got your horse," he said and turned away.
"Jed. Regardless of what you thought you saw, I can cause you more trouble than youíve ever had or ever want. If I canít do it alone I can call on the entire Amazon nation and they will destroy you. Get my tack and belongings. If everything is there, I will tell the Amazons to stay clear of you unless you cause them problems."
"I donít believe you can cause that much trouble," he said.
"Youíd be wrong," she said coldly, then sensed the dagger coming from the little mean man and moved her staff while stepping out of direct line with it, just in case. It thunked into the wood. "Your man just made a dreadful mistake, Jed. You might want to fire him. If you donít, my Amazons will think you supported his attack on the Queen of the Amazon Nation and you wonít survive."
All three of them looked at her in amazement. Jed got a tight sinking feeling in his gut. He was sure she was blind, yet she had stopped the dagger, using the thin staff as a shield. He felt a deep sense of dread. If she really were the queen of the Amazons they would be wiped out. He had two choices. Kill her or give in, now. Killing her now seemed a much more difficult task than when they had first spotted her with the horse.
She heard the little man draw another dagger. "Tell him to drop the dagger, Jed or Iíll kill him," she said, as she pulled the dagger from the staff and hefted it.
"Drop it, Micus!" Jed growled.
"Youíre a fool Jed!" he said cocking his arm. "Sheís blind!"
Gabrielle threw the dagger as he got set and it hit him in the center of his chest, going in to the hilt.
He gasped and staggered back, his dagger falling. Then he fell over backwards.
Gabrielle turned back to Jed. "Iíll forget he worked for you if youíll deliver my equipment, now. All of it."
"Youíll get your equipment," Jed said shaken to the core. He walked rapidly away with the other man following close behind.
"Howíd I do, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Iíd say you did just fine, but you had me worried," she admitted.
"The mother hen thing again?" Gabrielle asked, smiling.
"Iím not a mother hen, Gabrielle!" Xena said in a huff and Gabrielle chuckled.
A short time later her equipment was placed on the path in front of her.
"Youíll keep your word? No Amazons?" Jed asked, his tone much more submissive.
"No Amazons as long as you leave them and their belongings alone," she said.
"You have my word," Jed said, then walked away. Gabrielle stayed ready for trouble, not moving to her belongings until they were gone. Even then she stayed vigilant. The sooner she was away from here, the better.
Gabrielle sat high on Cinder, while the great warhorse ambled down the path. Riding was more painful in some respects but not as tiring and faster, even at a walk. Xena sat behind her, giving her assistance only if she needed it. Cinder was pretty smart and she could be trusted to follow the path Gabrielle set her on. When she did decide to stray, for some really fine grass or water, Xena would tell Gabrielle and a simple nudge of her knee and some soft words kept Cinder on the path.
They made good time, and reached a tiny village with an inn, late in the afternoon.
"Gabrielle, you should stop here and get a good nights rest and some good food," Xena said.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," she sighed. She really wanted to keep going but she knew she needed the rest and more importantly the food. She left Cinder with a friendly young lad to tend her and, taking her saddlebags, made her way to the inn.
She stepped in and closed the door, waiting while Xena told her the layout and something about the people inside.
"Ten patrons, Gabrielle, they are all looking this way to check out the newcomer. Two at the bar, six paces to your left. One barmaid behind the bar, a short pleasant looking blonde, just a little on the heavy side. Two tables of four, both on the back wall, just to your left, close to the bar. The one farthest from the bar could be trouble. There are two tables to your left on this wall and three to your right. The center of the room is empty. Thereís a large fireplace on the right wall but no fire. Six tables on the back wall. The one on the back wall near the fireplace is empty and itís pretty dark there. Go straight in three paces and turn right a little.
Gabrielle moved towards the table following Xenaís instructions. She seated herself in the corner appearing to study the room.
"Everyoneís turned back to their own business, but the two facing you on the trouble table are still watching you. The barmaidís coming," Xena reported.
"Can I help you, miss?" the blond asked, sounding a little nervous, as she took in the bandages, bruises and weapons.
"Gabrielle," she said smiling to put the woman at ease. "Please call me Gabrielle."
"What can I do for you, Gabrielle?" she asked.
"Well, Iíd appreciate it if youíd tell me your name, then a good mug of ale would do to start," Gabrielle said, still smiling.
"You got her," Xena remarked. "Sheís smiling."
"My names Meria," she said,
"Pleased to meet you, Meria," Gabrielle replied.
"Iíll get your ale." Meria said. She returned a moment later and set the ale down.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said. "I was hoping we might do a bit of business, Meria."
"What kind of business?" she asked skeptically.
"Iím a bard, Meria. I thought that maybe I could help you improve your dinner business in return for room and board for the evening. Iíll also give you one dinar for every five I take in."
"Youíre broke, is that it?" Meria asked, her voice a little frosty.
"No. Iíll pay for the whole thing now, if you like, but if you accept my offer you give it back. Iím not broke but I do need to add to my purse before I am," she said.
"You look like an Amazon to me," Meria said. "I didnít know Amazons were bards."
Gabrielle heard the change of tone again. Evidently Amazons were not well thought of around here.
"This one is," Gabrielle said. "You sound like youíve had problems with Amazons,"
"Not directly, but the town has and I've had problems because of them," Meria admitted.
Gabrielle leaned forward slightly. "Iím sorry to hear that, Meria. As a rule Amazons donít cause problems. They like to live in peace with their neighbors. I will cause you no problems, but I will defend myself if anyone causes me problems," she said.
"Canít ask fairer than that, Gabrielle," Meria said smiling. "Make it one in four and youíve got a deal. Just watch yourself. Personally I think the trouble with the Amazons was caused by a few of our less thought of elements and they may be here this evening."
"Thanks for the warning, Meria," she said. "Might not there be a few of them at that table?" she said indicating the table of troublemakers Xena had spotted.
Meria nodded, "There might indeed, Gabrielle."
"Include a bath in that room and you have a deal, Meria," Gabrielle said.
"Let me get you a nice meal to start our bargain off right," Meria said.
A short time later Xena reported Meria talking to the two men at the bar, then they left.
"The two at the bar have gone to spread the word, Gabrielle," Xena informed her.
"Good," she whispered. "How am I doing so far."
"Just fine, but Iím worried about that table. Keep your staff handy," Xena remarked.
Meria brought her a large bowl of stew and some fresh bread. "Thereís plenty of stew, if you make it through this," she said.
"Thank you, Meria, it smells wonderful," she answered.
The stew was very good, wonderful to Gabrielle who had had very little to eat lately. She had a second bowl and thought about a third but decided she might not be able to finish it. She sat back with another mug of ale and listened to Xena describe the people as they entered. Xena was very thorough in her estimates of possible threats from the people and where they were seated. Gabrielle built a picture of the room up in her mind. She also caught little bits of the conversation around her and most of it contained no animosity towards her, though there were a few exceptions. Most of the comments were just curiosity about what sort of bard she'd turn out to be. Bards were a rare treat in these small villages and were treated very well, unless the bard caused a problem.
Finally the inn was crowded and Meria set a chair in front of the fireplace then raised her hands.
"Quiet everyone! Quiet down!" she waited for them to settle. "Weíve got a little treat for you this evening. A young bard by the name of Gabrielle has consented to tell us a few tales, so Iíll turn the floor over to her."
Gabrielle stood and one of the troublemakers yelled, "Sheís no bard. Sheís one of those damned Amazons!"
A second yelled. "Looks like someone nearly killed her. Too bad they didn't finish the job!"
Meria turned on him. "You keep quiet, Trese! You too, Nardos! Most of us would appreciate a good yarn and sheís caused no trouble here." She turned back to Gabrielle. "Sorry," she said softly.
Gabrielle walked over to her, smiling. "Itís alright, Meria. Iím used to hecklers. I can handle them."
"Well good luck with that lot," she replied and walked away.
Gabrielle followed Xenaís directions and seated herself on the chair placing her staff across her lap. She gave the crowd a wide smile.
"Good evening. As your charming hostess said, my name is Gabrielle. The first impulsive gentleman is right. I am an Amazon, but Iím also a bard. Actually I was a bard first. I became an Amazon because I tried to save someoneís life. I wasnít successful and she died of the wound she already had, but she was an Amazon princess and gave me her rite of cast. Let me tell you how an innocent young girl from the little village of Poteidaia can become an Amazon princess and then an Amazon queen. It all started one bright summer day when slavers rounded up the people from my village and were going to take the women for slaves. Unfortunately I was one of them. In those days I was pretty innocent in the ways of the world and I challenged the leader of the slaves to take only me and let the rest go. You can imagine how well that went over and next thing I know the leader has a whip and is about to use it on me, when suddenly a warrior appeared and took the whip away from him. A dozen armed and armored warriors attacked this single warrior and they were losing. Well I knew right thenÖ." Gabrielle spun the tail in a friendly easy manner, emphasizing her extreme inexperience and sometimes downright stupidity in getting them into trouble. She had most of the crowd almost immediately and even the troublemakers finally gave in and just enjoyed her story.
When she finished the crowd pounded their mugs on the table in appreciation and demanded more. Meria brought her a mug of ale and Gabrielle took a large swallow.
She held up her hand and they quieted in anticipation of another tale. "Thank you. I always appreciate a friendly crowd. Well, letís see," she put her finger to her chin as she looked around the room in thought. "You know quite a bit about me, and some of the trouble I managed to get into when I was younger. Iíve introduced you to the warrior princess, so I think Iíll tell another story on myself. In this one the warrior princess had to rescue me from imminent death while she was blind!"
She listened in approval to the murmurs from the crowd. "We had split up, because the warrior princess hated shopping, unless it was for new armor or something. I, on the other hand, could shop for days. For you men, not too familiar with women and their likes and dislikes, many of us would rather shop than eat. Iím one of those. Now shopping doesnít mean you have to buy a lot but it does involve looking at everything and touching a lot of it. If there is one thing I like better than shopping, itís haggling over some item. I had just bartered a cloth merchant out of a nice piece of cloth, for a third of what he was asking, and was feeling quite happy as I wandered through the market. Unfortunately for me I wasnít watching around me and two men grabbed me and pulled me into an alley. I had a warstaff, better than this one, and beat them off but the leaderÖ." She had them laughing at her silly antics and shaking their heads in amazement at Xenaís capabilities, even when blind. When she finished, their applause was even louder.
She stood and took a bow then waved them to silence. "Thank you! You are a fun audience. Iíve enjoyed my time with you but I must leave you now. Itís been a very rough week and I need to rest." She returned to her table amidst more applause. Many of the patrons stopped by to thank her and leave a few denars. Many more gave some to Meria to give to her.
Meria brought her the coins beaming. "Youíre good, Gabrielle! You held everyone in here in the palm of your hand." She placed the coins on the table.
"Thank you, Meria. Youíre too kind," Gabrielle responded smiling up at her.
The inn was fast emptying but Meria leaned in close for privacy. "I donít know how you do it, Gabrielle," she whispered. "Would you like me to count your coins for you. Iíd not cheat you."
Gabrielle was slightly taken aback. "I, uhÖ yes please, that would be helpful."
When she was finished Gabrielle gave her her share but she handed them back. "Iíd not feel right, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle promptly handed them back. "Nonsense! We had a deal and I always pay my debts."
"But, yourÖ" she started and Gabrielle interrupted her.
"Yes, I am, but that doesnít stop me from taking part in life, the good and the bad," she answered. "Part of life is earning your keep, and Iím fortunate enough to have a very usable skill. Iím also a trained warrior and I ride the world on a wonderful warhorse. Iím not wanting for anything Meria. Life has been very good to me."
"IÖ " Meria studied the little blonde woman then shook her head. "Youíre a strange one, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle grinned at her. "Not so strange, I think. I just prefer to earn my keep, like everyone else. Iíd appreciate it if youíd keep my little secret."
"Iíll not say a word," Meria said.
"What gave me away, by the way?" she asked.
"Nothing definite, Gabrielle," she admitted. "Iíve worked around people all my life and watched them. Something about you bothered me and then suddenly it just popped into my head after you started the story about the blind warrior."
"Well, I appreciate you keeping my secret," she said.
"Youíre room is ready and soís your bath. Down the hall and second on the left." Meria said.
"Thank you. Can I get a mug of cider to take with me."
"Iíll meet you at the stairs."
Meria left and Gabrielle picked up her saddlebags, tossing them over her left shoulder. She picked up her staff, shifting it to her left hand, and then started for the stairs. As she passed the troublemaker's table one of them loudly said, "Watch your back, Amazon bitch."
He caught his breath as she turned to him, her katana cutting a quick arc that ended against his throat. Her flashing green eye seemed to see into his very soul.
"Threatening me can be a very dangerous thing, if you want to live very long. Iím not just a bard anymore."
Her katana disappeared back into its scabbard and she walked to the stairs, meeting Meria. "Sorry about that," she said, taking the cider.
"Not a problem," Meria said. "You were provoked."
"Nevertheless I did say Iíd not cause problems," Gabrielle said. "You might tell your morning crowd I could be persuaded to tell another tale before I leave, but Iím an early riser. Good night."
"Good night, Gabrielle," she said already making plans for a breakfast crowd.
When Gabrielle was gone she turned to the troublemakers. "That was a foolish thing to do, Jarus. Havenít you ever seen a dangerous warrior before? If the lot of you have enough brains to make a complete thought youíll leave that one very much alone. Maybe you noticed how fast she pulled that sword. You mess with her and Iím thinking weíll have a little less trouble around here. Now finish your ale and get out." She turned and went to one of the tables to clean up.
Gabrielle closed the door to the room and tossed her saddlebags on the bed as Xena described the room for her. It was small and rather plain, but clean, containing a large old comfortable looking bed, a small table beside it with a stool, a cold fireplace on the far wall, and a narrow window in the outer wall. In front of the fireplace a large wooden tub sent steam into the room. There was a candle on the table and another on the mantle.
"This is going to feel so good," Gabrielle remarked.
Xena chuckled. "Just remember your friends downstairs. Keep your guard up."
"Donít worry," she said as she slipped her top off. "Ugh. These clothes are so dirty I think theyíll stand on their own,"
She retrieved two daggers from her saddlebags then took the stool over to the tub and dropping the top next to the tub. She took her weapons off, unsheathed her katana and the two daggers and lay them on the stool with the mug of cider. She took off the rest of her clothes and removed the dirty bandages then eased into the steaming water.
"Oooohhh gods," she sighed. She submerged for a moment then surfaced and pushed her hair out of her face Sighing contentedly she lay back, her arms stretched along the edge. "I could just stay here forever," she moaned.
Xena was leaning against the wall watching her. "Thatís something I really miss," she admitted.
"You mean I donít get baths after I die?" Gabrielle asked. "Well Iím not going then."
Xena chuckled. "Iím sure youíll find other things to interest you, my bard. That was a pretty smart move inviting a crowd for breakfast."
"Yeah, well I really donít want a fight here, if I can avoid it," she said. "I figure they will be less likely to cause trouble with a crowd around. Then if they cause trouble after we leave, well, Iíll deal with it, but at least Meriaís inn wonít be trashed."
She picked up the cider and took a little drink. "Ummmm, this is really good."
"Gabrielle, Iíd rather not know!" Xena said. "Thatís something else I miss."
"What! No cider, no ale!" she said grinning. "Now I know Iím not going!"
She heard the creak of floorboards but no footsteps.
"Company's coming, Gabrielle," Xena said.
"Yeah, I heard them," she acknowledged, shifting the cider to her left hand and picking up one of the daggers. She leaned back against the back of the tub, covered in the water to just above her breasts. "Theyíre bigger fools than I thought," she remarked as she followed their progress. They stopped outside the door for a moment then she listened as the latch was slowly lifted. They slammed the door open and rushed into the room, two turned towards the bed and two towards her. They all held clubs.
Gabrielle threw the knife. It flashed past the faces of the two facing her and thudded into the door. She immediately picked up the other one and held it ready. "That was a warning, this one kills someone!" she said.
All four of them stared at her in surprise. They were even more surprised to see her lounging in the tub with a mug in her hand, but were much more interested in the knife in her other hand.
"Which one of you wants to die first?" she asked. "Iíll make it quicker than the death your three friends will suffer if I have to get out of this nice warm tub and pick up my sword."
Her casual demeanor served to unnerve them. They looked at her, the knife in her hand and the katana on the stool then suddenly all four tried to get out the door at once.
"Close the door," she said, but they bolted down the hall. "Damn," she said. "How very rude. I suppose now I'll have to get out."
She heard someone hurry down the hall, a lighter step, and dropped her knife back onto the stool, knowing who it was.
Meria entered the room then stopped. "Oh, Gabrielle! You're all right," she exclaimed, obviously upset.
"I'm fine, Meria," Gabrielle acknowledged.
"I heard those men leave and was afraid they had harmed you," she said. "I see I was wrong." She turned to the open door and gasped.
"Sorry about that, Meria. My unwanted guests needed convincing they were in the wrong room," Gabrielle said.
Meria took in the scene and shook her head. Lounging in the tub when four ruffians enter her room and she still had the cider in the hand! "Gabrielle, you amaze me," she said, trying to pull the knife out of the door. It was stuck fast, the blade more than half imbedded in the wood.
"Leave it, Meria. I'll remove it when I get out of here," Gabrielle said. "I would appreciate it if you could close the door though," Gabrielle smiled as Xena related her looks and expressions.
Gabrielle washed her hair and body then stayed in the tub with her eyes closed enjoying the soothing feeling, until the water was getting cold then, reluctantly climbed out and dried off.
She washed out her dirty clothes in the cool water and hung them to dry. "Not the cleanest they've ever been but much cleaner than they were," she remarked to Xena.
She padded over to the bed and rummaged in her saddlebags for a sleep shirt. Her hand touched something and suddenly tears were coursing down her cheeks.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle?" Xena asked putting her arm around her.
Gabrielle pulled her hand out and she was holding her journal. "I guess I won't be writing in this anymore," she managed to get out, her voice breaking several times.
Xena enfolded her in her long arms. Gabrielle put her head on Xena's shoulder and sobbed silently for some time. Xena was at a loss for anything to say to comfort her, so she just held her and let her cry.
When she raised her head she looked embarrassed. "Some warrior I am," she said, wiping at her eyes.
"You're doing fine, Gabrielle," Xena said. "You've lost something very precious, hopefully temporarily, but it's bound to upset you. You are living in a completely different world, now. You can't expect to be insensitive to that."
"You're right," she said smiling. "Thanks for holding me."
"Any time, my bard," Xena said softly, kissing her forehead. "Now put the journal away and get into bed."
Gabrielle slid the journal back in her saddlebags. "I should just drop that off at the Academy of Performing Bards."
"No, Gabrielle, at least not yet. You don't know that this will be permanent," Xena said.
"It feels pretty permanent right now," she remarked as she pulled out the sleep shirt she was looking for. Check my wounds, Xena so I can get into this thing."
Xena checked her wounds, satisfied with their progress. "You're healing well. I don't think you really need to bandage any of them anymore."
"Oh, good. Now everyone can see how gross I really look," she commented as she dropped the saddlebags on the floor. "Oh, I nearly forgot. I promised Meria I'd get the knife out of the door. She stepped over to the door and paused to listen."
"Aren't you forgetting the sleep shirt, Gabrielle?"
"No. I decided it's too warm for clothes,"
"Someone could be in the hall," Xena remarked.
"If they are, they're amazingly quiet,"
"You could give them quite a thrill, Gabrielle,"
She snorted. "More like make them sick, when they see my wounds,"
Suddenly she pulled the door open and grabbed the knife, pulling hard. She wiggled it a couple times as she pulled and it came right out in her hand. She closed the door.
"Did you enjoy that, little miss exhibitionist?" Xena asked.
"No one was out there,"
"Tell that to the old couple standing in their doorway in shock,"
"Oh, Xena, they were not," Gabrielle scoffed as she returned to the bed and set the dagger on the table. She pulled back the covers and crawled in holding the covers wide. "I have a feeling I'll need you tonight warrior princess, though if you keep up with the old couple thing, I might decide I need to throw you out the window."
Xena smiled and slid in next to her. Gabrielle promptly snuggled up to her shoulder.
"Ugh, Xena will you shed the armor. It's really uncomfortable to sleep against."
Xena promptly lost the armor.
"That's better, a little. It wouldn't hurt to lose the leather too."
The leathers also disappeared and Gabrielle snuggled tight against her.
"Thank you. Your undergarments I can live with if you feel you need them," Gabrielle said as she began to drift off.
Xena lost the undergarments and Gabrielle sighed. "Much better." In a moment she was sound asleep.
Gabrielle slept well for most of the night, but strange noises in the inn woke her twice. Gabrielle, in an exhausted sleep, was more aware of her surrounding than most people were when they were awake. There was never any danger of anyone getting into the room without her knowing. Fortunately for them, no one tried. Towards morning she woke twice, crying from unsettling dreams, about her eyesight. Xena comforted her until she went back to sleep.
Gabrielle was up and dressed at the crack of dawn even though Xena encouraged her to sleep in. She dressed then donned her armor and weapons. Today she would be prepared for anything.
She had heard people in the inn before she came down, but was unprepared for the crowd, including many women and children. There were people standing as well as filling every available seat, except the table in the corner.
A very happy Meria bustled up with a mug of cider in her hand and guided her to the empty table. "Good morning, Gabrielle," she said, eyeing the armor. "You looking for trouble today?"
"Snakes," Gabrielle answered. "Snakes masquerading as humans."
Meria turned a puzzled look to her. "You don't mean those slavers that came through here a few days ago?"
"Yes," she answered. "They killed two Amazons and thought they had killed me, to get those women. I owe them and I owe those women. I promised to help them."
"That's a mean lot, Gabrielle," Meria said.
"Not mean enough, Meria," she said and Meria shivered at the tone in her voice. "Not nearly mean enough."
"You want to eat or talk first?" Meria asked to change the subject. She could not comprehend how a blind woman intended to fight slavers but she had a feeling she would not want to be in their boots when this puzzling little blonde caught up with them.
"I hate to keep all these folks waiting. I'm sure they have things to get to," Gabrielle said.
"I'll introduce you, then," Meria said.
This time her introduction earned her a rousing applause as she stepped to the chair and sat down.
"Thank you all for the warm welcome," she said. "I'm sure you have things you want to get to, so I won't keep you waiting. This morning I think I'll tell a very unusual tale I have chosen to call 'Been There, Done That.' It took me a long time to pry the details out of the warrior princess, but I think you'll agree, it was well worth it. It all started in a barn in the little town ofÖ" Gabrielle spun the tale and caught her audience in the trap Xena had been caught in, she played parts of it for laughs and parts of it for sadness. She heard several sniffles as she described Joxer's death and even more when she described her own. Sadness reigned again as she told of the young woman who had taken poison because her father was going to marry her to someone she didn't love. They laughed hilariously while she told of the huge fight in the central square that Xena had completely ignored. They were rolling on the floor while she described her problems when Xena took her staff in the middle of the fight, leaving her to scramble around trying to avoid some people seriously intent on doing her harm. They sighed in relief at Xena's amazing method of saving the girl and uniting the young lovers. When she was done the applause was resounding and she smiled happily. She was after all a bard, and nothing makes a bard happier than giving the gift of entertainment to an audience. For a short time these people had been transported from their daily problems into a magical world of laughter and tears. They had experienced something that moved them and Gabrielle loved it.
Meria brought breakfast to her table but it was quite a while before she was able to eat it. When everything quieted down Meria brought a mug of cider for herself and sat down, counting the coins on the table and dividing them. "You've gained quite a following here, Gabrielle, me among them."
"Thank you, Meria. That means a lot to me," she said a little shyly.
"Yeah, I could see it on your face. You love entertaining people, don't you?"
"Yeah, I do, Meria. I really do," she acknowledged.
"Well why don't you, Gabrielle," Meria said. "You could play Athens even. Give up this chase. You'll only come to grief."
Gabrielle's smile faded. "It's not that easy, Meria. I promised."
"How could you promise anything like that, in your condition?" she asked. "They had no right to expect youÖ"
Gabrielle held out her hand. "Meria." She stopped and Gabrielle paused, staring at her. "I wasn't blind then."
"Oh, gods. You mean this is recent?" Meria asked, suddenly breathless like the wind had been knocked out of her, as Gabrielle nodded. "They did this?"
Gabrielle nodded again. "Yes. I was shot off a cliff into some rapids. When I woke up, in addition to my other wounds, I had this lovely bump you see on my face, only it was much worse then, and I was blind."
"When did this happen?" Meria asked.
"About eight days ago," she said.
She was amazed. "Gabrielle! You should be in bed, not chasing slavers!"
"Perhaps," she conceded, "but if I don't catch up to them, fifty frightened women are going to be sent to strange countries as slaves, concubines, whores and worse. I can't let that happen, Meria."
Meria was silent for a moment. "Gabrielle. You may be the strangest, most courageous woman I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. I wish you well." She left the table and Gabrielle could tell she was upset. She wished she could help her but she had problems enough.
When Gabrielle left the tavern the town was still alive with people, as had been her plan. She had no trouble in the stable and was soon on the road. She let Cinder set her own pace and the warhorse set off at a trot, eager for some exercise. Gabrielle's heightened state of vigilance was becoming automatic, her other senses improving to compensate for her loss of sight. In someone else the changes would have been more gradual but Gabrielle had been trained by the best and her senses were already trained far beyond normal. They became even sharper. She could 'see' anything that made even the slightest noise or radiated heat or blocked the winds. What she could not see, except by inference, was the silent. She could not see the path or the pitfall or the lake, though she might smell the lake or deduce the path from the picture of her surroundings formed buy her senses. Gabrielle's nemesis was the stone, the hole, and the stick, all waiting to trip her. Without Xena's help the going would have been much too slow, but with Xena's help, and now Cinder's, she was making good time. She could travel, in a day, what took the slavers five or six days. The only problem she faced was that she was running out of time. She estimated they could reach the coast in as soon as a day or two. When that happened, she had a matter of hours before the slavers would set sail and all would be lost.
Gabrielle had traveled less than a quarter hour when she pulled up suddenly.
"Oh, you're good, my bard," Xena said.
"You think?" she asked.
"Oh, yes. Very good indeed," Xena said proudly.
"Thanks. That means a lot coming from you, Xena," Gabrielle said. She leaned on the pommel staring off at a clump of bushes.
"You might as well come out. I know where you are," she said, raising her voice only slightly.
She heard the sound and reached out and plucked the arrows from the air. "Not good enough. Not nearly good enough," she said. "If you keep bothering me you're gonna make me mad. You don't even want to think about making me mad, because if you do, I'll come after you, and geld every one of you. So unless you want to be a eunuch I suggest you be on your way."
They finally got the message, or three of them did because, after some noisy movement she heard their horses beat a hasty retreat.
When the hoof beats died away she said, "Did you stay because you're stupid, or do you really want to be a eunuch?"
Xena chuckled as the sound of his horse dwindled into the distance. "A eunuch? Where'd that come from?" Xena asked.
"Hey. Men are attached to those things. I just wondered if they cared to keep them. I guess they do," she said as she started Cinder on the trail again.
She rode hard and stopped near a small stream for the evening. She hadn't had to worry about lunch or dinner because Meria had packed her a couple meals and brought them to her at the last minute. She turned in early and slept pretty well, baring a couple of nightmares again, about her sight. She was on the road at first light.
Celeste woke early. She lay silent waiting for her head to quit throbbing. Gregon's snoring didn't help. Her mouth had an awful taste and she remembered the wine Gregon had forced down her, almost choking her. She was thankful later, when he beat her and raped her again. Now she just felt like she'd have to get better to die but it numbed the pain of the things Gregon had done to her.
When her head quit thumping quite as badly she crawled out of the bed, grabbed her clothes and left the tent for the river, naked. She didn't want her clothes to touch her soiled body. All the water in the world wouldn't wash away the soil on her soul but she could at least get rid of the stink of him and his seed before dressing. As so often happened in the morning she threw up before she reached the river. The thought of his vileness covering her and inside her made her skin crawl and her stomach rebel. She hated him with an intensity that was beyond anything she had ever dreamed possible. She had all she could do not to puke in his face, something she knew would surely cost Laurel a painful death. Not that Laurel had gotten away completely. Gregon allowed his men use of the slaves, while they traveled. Laurel had received more than enough attention, as had most of the others.
No she couldn't give in to her impulse to throw up in his face. Instead she had taken to killing him in her mind to take her mind off of what he was doing to her. He didn't know it but he had died a dozen times in her mind. She had no doubt that if the chance ever came she would take great pleasure in killing him, even if it meant her own life.
Finally her stomach stopped rebelling and she made it into the cold water. She submerged until her lungs were near bursting and prayed for the willpower to stay under and let it end, but she was too weak, and came to the surface gasping for air. Then she scrubbed her body raw trying to get rid of him, tears flowing down her lovely face the whole time. When she was cried out, she left the water and dried off, then dressed in Gregon's livery. She wore black leathers with a short skirt his leather workers had made for her. The leathers came just over her breasts leaving plenty for him to admire as he watched her throughout the day. The skirt barely covered her bottom and he much preferred she not wear anything underneath in case he should get the urge. He had taken her in many places, even on his horse while they rode along side the slaves and on the back of the wagon in full view of his men and the slaves. He loved degrading her because he knew she would not resist.
She pulled on her long boots and grieves then put on her bracers, gloves and finally her weapons. Gregon forced her to dress as a warrior in his army, even to weapons. He knew she couldn't use them and he dared her to try using them on him. If she thought for an instant she would succeed she wouldn't hesitate but she had seen him in action and he was uncanny and very deadly. She didn't try, not because he would kill her if she failed but because he wouldn't. He would kill others instead while she was forced to watch.
When she was dressed she went to check on her charges. The number had grown to nearly three hundred as they traveled and other groups of Gregon's army joined them with more captives. She checked through her own band first, then made a quick check of the newer captives. She didn't go among the newest arrivals because they saw her as one of Gregon's warriors while older ones knew, from Laurel, that she was more captive than they were. She made sure they were all fed and watered, knocking down a server who treated one of the women to a whack in the head with his ladle. He snarled in anger and threatened her, but was afraid to touch her and she knew it.
Finally she went to the cooks and picked up Gregon's meal and returned to his tent. She entered to find him sprawled on his back snoring loudly. She groaned inwardly when she saw him. The man was insatiable. His huge member stood hard and ready and she knew he would take her again when he woke. Tears came to her eyes as she set his breakfast, remembering the pain and discomfort that oversized weapon had caused her and would cause her again. She waited as long as she dared, then after wiping her eyes she went to the bed.
"My Lord Gregon, It's time to greet the new day," she said, no hint of her personal pain in her voice.
He stopped mid-snore and his eyes snapped open. He smiled cruelly at her.
"Celeste. My new day won't start until you have pleasured me."
"Yes, Lord Gregon," she responded and straddled him. She would need another long bath
He pushed hard into her and she cried out. He laughed. Celeste closed her mind to what was happening to her and entered her private world of pain and death for her cruel master.
Less than a quarter hour after a lunch break to care for Cinder and take a quick bite herself, Gabrielle smelled dust in the air and moved off the path, into the surrounding cover. She paralleled the road listening for what was ahead of her, causing the dust. She heard the snap of a whip and a woman's cry and knew what she faced. When she got closer, Xena filled her in.
"It's not Gregon, Gabrielle. There are about thirty women roped together and ten men guarding them. There are three men in the front, one mounted, and three in back. The other four are two to a side."
"All right. We go for the front and take out the mounted man," Gabrielle said. "Don't want him telling tales."
"I'm not sure you're up to this, Gabrielle," Xena said.
"Physically I should be okay," Gabrielle answered as she urged Cinder forward to parallel the leaders.
"That's not what I meant," Xena said.
"I know," she said, drawing her katana. "Here's where we find out."
She nudged Cinder into a burst of speed as they came out of the brush, Xena rattling directions to her. Cinder plowed over the first man and into the enemy horse taking it off its feet, screaming its fear. The rider had no chance to get off and the horse landed hard on him crushing his leg. Cinder knew her job and immediately went after the third man. Gabrielle kicked out when Xena told her to and caught him right in the face. She went down the right side of the column and took the first man out the same way. The second got his sword out, but seeing the huge warhorse bearing down on him unnerved him and he tried to flee. Unfortunately for him he tried to cross in front of Cinder and she went right over him. Gabrielle kept Cinder moving and hit the three men at the rear knocking them in all directions. One of them fell into the captives and they tore him apart, killing him with his own weapons. Gabrielle took one out with a slash across the neck. The third made the mistake of coming at her from behind and Cinder's hooves caught him full in the chest tossing him into the air. He was dead before he landed. The last two started to run but when the warhorse came after them they dropped their weapons and surrendered.
Freeing the women turned out to be fairly easy. The hard part was preventing them from killing the men that surrendered, or were wounded. They had been treated cruelly and many had been raped. They were not in a forgiving frame of mind. Gabrielle couldn't blame them, but she couldn't let them murder defenseless men; it would haunt them forever.
Finally she got them calmed down and organized. She appointed a leader, a tall redhead named Lyria, with flashing green eyes, who seemed the most together and had a reasonable attitude. She detailed some to collect all the weapons and give them to the most able, and others to tend the injured, theirs first, then their prisoners. Finally she told one of the women where she had last camped and designated her their guide. She told them to stay there for a while because continuing on would just get them captured again.
Just as they were ready to leave and Gabrielle had mounted Cinder, Xena said, "You got company, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle froze, listening intently. The women noticed her intent listening posture and quieted, watching her.
"Sounds likeÖ" Xena started
"Amazons," Gabrielle finished, then shouted. "Everyone drop your weapons and raise your hands, now!" She immediately raised her hands over her head, clasping them together in surrender, and the slaves followed suit, though hesitantly.
She heard them come out of the trees on both sides of the path. There were a lot of them. This wasnít just a scouting party.
"Youíre either in deep trouble or will have a lot of help. This is a full war party, Gabrielle, more than one tribe. Be careful. Something bad has happened and they're ready to kill," Xena warned. "Theyíre on a hair trigger."
Gabrielle listened to them as they completely surrounded the women.
"You, on the horse! Get down on this side!" one of them shouted.
Gabrielle threw her left leg over Cinder and slid to the ground, keeping her hands high.
She heard someone walk up in front of her. "If you move Iíll kill you," she said and her voice was definitely unfriendly.
She felt someone come up behind her and take her weapons.
"Now tell me who you are and what happened here."
Gabrielle told her briefly what had happened.
The woman slapped her hard enough to knock her to the ground.
"If you lie to me again, Iíll slit your throat!" she snarled.
"Sheís not lying!" Lyria said.
"Tera, bring that woman here!" the leader shouted.
Lyria was pulled up beside Gabrielle.
"Why do you lie for her?" the leader asked.
She was slapped hard.
"Do you think Iím stupid? The womanís blind!" she fairly screamed at her.
There was a chorus of gasps and a confused murmur from the freed slaves, then stunned silence.
"Now, tell me what happened here. If you lie to me again Iíll kill the both of you!" she said to the frightened woman."
"Sheís not lying!" another of the prisoners shouted and several of the others agreed.
"What you say is impossible!" the Amazon shouted.
"Give me a warstaff and put your best warrior against me," Gabrielle said.
The leader was silent a moment. "Cina! Bring another staff!"
Another warrior came forward and presented a staff to Gabrielle and she took it, with Xenaís direction.
"Everyone back off and give them room." The leader commanded.
Gabrielle hefted the staff and twirled it. It was a little lighter than she remembered her practice staff being, but was well balanced, with leather grips.
"You ready?" her adversary asked.
"Yes," Gabrielle answered and ducked the blow to her head. Her staff caught the woman in the stomach then behind the legs and knocked her to the ground.
To her complete amazement Cina found the blind womanís staff at her throat.
"Do you yield?" Gabrielle asked.
She tried to roll away and the staff smacked her in the forehead, then was back at her throat.
"Yield," Gabrielle commanded.
"I yield," Cina responded after a moment.
Gabrielle immediately pulled her staff away and extended her hand to help her up, then handed her the staff and waited.
"Who are you?" the leader asked her.
"My name's Gabrielle," she answered.
"You dress like an Amazon, but your weapons are most definitely not Amazon."
"I am an Amazon, or was at one time," Gabrielle responded.
"Karena," Cina said, a curious tone to her voice. "I know of this weapon."
Karena turned away from Gabrielle. "What do you know, Cina?"
"This is the mystical weapon carried by Xena, or one very like it. I saw it when I was a young girl."
Karena tuned back to Gabrielle. "What can you tell me of this?" she asked.
"It was Xenaís weapon. Itís use passed to me when she was killed," Gabrielle answered.
Cina gasped. "Then you are the Gabrielle, High Queen of the Amazons!"
When she next spoke she was on her knees. "Forgive me for striking at you my queen!"
There was a lot of excited chatter, then from just in front of her, Karena said, "Forgive me, my queen! My life is forfeit to your pleasure!" She was on her knees.
"Looks like youíre in charge again, Gabrielle," Xena said, chuckling. "They are all on their knees bowing to you."
"Please rise all of you!" Gabrielle said.
"Karena and Cina are still on their knees, Gabrielle," Xena said after a moment.
"Karena, Cina, I forgive you. Please rise," she said.
"I am deeply sorryÖ" Karena started.
"I understand Karena. Iíve forgiven you. Please tell me what you are doing here in such numbers and what makes you so angry." Gabrielle said.
"We seek the scum that attacked our villages and took our sisters into slavery, and to avenge the sisters that died in the raid," Karena said bitterly.
"You lost someone in the raid, Karena?" Gabrielle asked.
Karena was silent a moment and when she spoke her control had slipped. "My mate was taken after being wounded. IÖ Iím not sure if she survived or not."
"Iím sorry, Karena. We will do everything to find her," Gabrielle answered. "I am after the same people".
"But how could you possibly fight them?" Karena asked. "You should be in the village helping lead us, my queen.
"Karena, Iíve never been one to stay in the village and I donít intend to start now," Gabrielle said.
"But youíre blind, my queen!" Karena said.
"Karena. My blindness is not the handicap you think it is," Gabrielle said. "You will have to take my word, because, since you have acknowledged me as the high queen, you must obey my commands. My first command to all of you is to forget about my blindness. My second command to you is to assign four of your most inexperienced warriors to these women. They will take them to my previous camp and help them survive for a few days while we tend to the slavers. I have placed Mavin in charge," she said as she placed her hand on the shoulder of the woman next to her, "and they will assist her in any way possible. They will take them away from danger and defend them with their lives, if necessary. My third command is for you to assemble your strategists and scouts so that we may determine the best way to tackle this problem. Now get some scouts out to protect us and get to work."
"You are a bossy one, my bard," Xena said.
"Quiet, Xena," she whispered. After the Amazons disbursed to do her bidding.
"Hey, just because Amazons will fall all over themselves catering to your every whim doesnít mean you can push me around!" Xena scolded, in a mock huff.
"Xena, please!" Gabrielle whispered urgently.
"Oh, all right," Xena said. "Iíll behave."
"Thank you, I love you," Gabrielle said.
"Oh, yeah. Yell at me and make me feel bad, then pull the I love you bit."
"I did not yell at you. I justÖ" she paused as she heard someone approaching and turned to them. Just you behave, Xena.
"We are ready for you, my queen," a very young Amazon said.
"Thank you. Please lead the way."
"Not fair, Gabrielle! I was just getting warmed up," Xena said but Gabrielle ignored her and followed the youngster to the assembled Amazons.
"All right," Gabrielle said. "Tell me everything you know about these slavers and where you think they are. Weíll need to send scouts to find them before we move, but we have to move fast. If they get to the port we will have lost any chance to free anyone."
When Gregon was through with Celeste he pushed her off on the floor. She immediately scrambled up and pulled his chair out for him. He sat down and began eating what she had set on the table.
"Sharpen my sword, bitch," he thundered.
"Yes, lord Gregon," she said and got his sword and sharpening stone. She knelt on the floor where he could watch her and sat back on her feet. She began methodically sharpening his sword. She was getting better at it. Either that or he was getting tired of hitting her.
When he finished she dressed him and handed him his weapons. He didnít even look at her. He knew she would obey.
When he was gone she cleaned up his tent then grabbed a cloth and headed for the river. She barely made it half way before she was violently sick. As soon as she was able she headed for the river, removing her clothes as she went. She went into the river and submerged, swearing to herself that she would stay under this time, but of course she couldnít. She cried again as she scrubbed her skin almost raw, dreading the rest of the day. Several of Gregonís groups had failed to show up yet and he had decided to wait another day before sending out search parties. That meant he would be prowling the camp, bored, which meant he would be looking for her.
She turned from her discussion with Karena.
"The scouts have returned. I sent them for something to eat and told them to stay there," Cina said.
Xena chuckled. "A clever plan to get you to eat, my bard."
"Thank you, Cina," Gabrielle said. She turned to Karena. "Perhaps we should move there ourselves."
Karena bowed, "Yes, my queen."
Gabrielle turned and walked away towards the cook fires, leaving them both to follow and wonder how she managed to move so easily through the forest. They all were learning that their blind queen could do some pretty incredible things.
Cina showed her queen where the scouts were eating while Karena got a trencher of food and a drink for her. The scouts all stood and bowed to her and she told them to knock off the formalities and return to their meal. She was seated against a tree and they all took positions around her. Karena gave her the trencher and set her drink where she could reach it. When Karena and Cina were settled with food brought by two young Amazons following Karena, Gabrielle started while Xena told her what was on her plate and where it was located. Her Amazons watched in amazement as she ate her lunch without any help, knowing just where everything was.
"I'd like to hear from the scouts while we eat, but please stay seated while you talk. I hate formalities during meals," she said grinning.
"Why don't you start, Lilis," Cina said. Lilis nervously started to get up and Cina motioned her back down. Xena, of course, told Gabrielle everything that was going on.
"Relax, Lilis," Gabrielle said, surprising them all. "I don't bite, unless provoked," she smiled to make sure the girl knew she was trying to relax her. Several nervous giggles followed her statement.
"Yes, my queen," Lilis said nervously. Meeting a real ancient legend was a bit daunting for her. "IÖ ah, I went east and north from here. I saw an overturned wagon with two dead men nearby."
Gabrielle nodded, encouraging her. "There must have been women with the wagon."
"Yes, my queen. I did find a bag with some women's things in it. There were a lot of tracks and some funny lines in the dirt that could be the ropes tying ankles together. I found a few heavy boot tracks and prints of a single horse."
"Good, Lilis. That matches the group I attacked. They had about thirty slaves and ten men, one on horseback. Anything else?"
"No my queen, except that I saw no one else on the road, which is unusual for that road." Lilis answered.
"Mavis," Cina said.
"I went due east, my queen," Mavis said. I went four leagues without seeing anything then I came across a small town," her eyes had clouded up and her voice got husky. "Everyone wasÖ. They were dead. I didn't have much time but I built a pyre for the little ones."
"Mavis, did you search the whole town?" Gabrielle asked gently.
She nodded, wiping at her eyes. "Yes, my queen. They were all dead."
"I want you to think back. I know this memory is painful. I've seen the same thing in a different town, before I was blinded," she said softly. "If you saw the same thing I did, you saw men, children and older women. Did you see any younger women?"
Mavis thought for a moment then shook her head. "No. Now that you mention it, I didn't."
"Thank you, Mavis," Gabrielle replied. She had set her unfinished meal down, no longer hungry. The thought of that village was too gruesomely powerful.
"Carla, your next," Cina said.
I went east and south, my queen. "I encountered a group of fourteen slavers. They had about fifty women and were headed south and west. I circled them and continued for another three leagues but saw no one," Carla reported.
"Megan," Cina said.
"I went south, my queen," she started. "About four leagues south I encountered perimeter guards. They are not very good. I passed them and came on a large camp. There was one large tent and several smaller ones. While I watched I counted seventy men. There are close to three hundred prisoners roped together. Just after I got there a woman warrior came from the forest and went over to the prisoners. She made sure they were fed and watered then returned to the tent with a tray of food. Later a very large man came from the tent. He was very brutal to several of the prisoners. The woman came from the tent and returned to the woods. It took me a while but when I got around there I found her taking a bath. I could have killed her, my queen, but was told not to do anything to let anyone know we were around. I left by a different route and easily avoided their perimeter guards."
"Thank you Megan. I think you found their base camp. It looks like they are waiting for that group still on the road, or perhaps several groups. That gives us a little more time, but probably not much. We must make our plans and move immediately. Cina, prepare us. Karena, lets go over our strategies quickly. There can be no mistakes.
Celeste got lucky. One of the late groups came in and Gregon spent the afternoon berating his warriors and checking over the new slaves. He took one unlucky woman to his tent for the afternoon. Celeste spent the afternoon working with the new prisoners and the old. Most of them, except the latest bunch knew of her plight by now and she hated the pity she saw in their eyes. She stayed away from the tent through the evening feeding, and into the late evening hours when she heard Gregon bellowing for her.
When she entered the tent she wanted to be sick but tucked it away.
"Yes, Lord Gregon?" she inquired, no emotion in her voice.
"Where in Tartarus have you been?" he bellowed, turning to her with anger in his eyes.
"Tending the prisoners, my Lord Gregon. With the new batch there are over three hundred," she answered, without flinching at his anger.
He grunted, partially mollified. "You take too long, bitch! He pointed to the floor. Get that out of here!"
" Yes, Lord Gregon. May I tend her wounds?" she asked.
"Of course, stupid cow! I expect her to bring top price. Fix her up," he bellowed and took an unsteady pull on a wineskin.
He was drunk. That explained his mood and his violence.
"I shall be gone for a while, Lord Gregon," she remarked.
"Just you be back here before I need you," he said.
"Of course, my Lord Gregon," she answered, having no idea when that would be and hoping he would drink himself into a stupor. If he didn't he would beat her again.
Celeste pulled the nude, badly beaten brunette to her feet. She picked up the torn garment she had been wearing and covered her, collected a medical kit, soap, and some drying cloths then helped her from the tent.
She took her to the stream but the woman was in too bad a shape to go in unassisted so Celeste removed her clothes and took her in the water.
The woman looked at her out of her best eye, which was nearly shut from swelling. When she spoke her voice was filled with loathing.
"How can you work for that man and call yourself a woman. He's a monster!"
Celeste felt the words like daggers through her heart. "I have no choice," she answered.
"There are always choices!" she said in scorn. "I'd kill myself rather that work for him."
"So would I, if it would end there," Celeste answered surprising her."
"What does that mean?" she said her voice still derisive.
"It means that Iím more of a prisoner than you are!" Celeste said, her anger and frustration taking hold of her. "It means that if I don't do exactly what that monster says I will be forced to watch while he tortures and kills some of the prisoners. It means that I am whatever he wants me to be, or he kills someone else. It means that I have to put up with your scorn and hatred to save your life, in the faint hope something will happen to free us from this nightmare. It also means that when he sells all of you into slavery I won't get even that slim chance at a better life. I will be forced to stay with him!" she said, and suddenly found herself being held by the woman she was supposed to be helping while she cried her eyes out.
Gabrielle rode through the dappled light in the quiet forest apparently all alone, but looks can be very deceiving. Forty Amazon warriors glided through the trees as effortlessly as a young couple strolling down a lane. Even when they were forced to the ground they were unseen and most people would never know they were there, but Gabrielle knew. Her heightened senses marked their passage around her enough to let her know a large force was around her, but even her senses were hard pressed to pick out an individual for more than an instant.
Gabrielle had come to love the forest this early in the morning. The fresh smell of a new day sparked something in her bardic soul that brought her to life. Even with her eyesight gone the forest remained a magical place full of the fresh scents of life and the heavy scents of decay all combined into a wonderful homey feeling for her. Unfortunately now she had other things on her mind. The odds they faced were heavily against them, almost two to one. She felt an Amazon was easily able to handle and defeat several men without much problem, but not all at the same time. Another worry was what would happen to the prisoners. She had to spend a large portion of her forces to protect the prisoners. Anything could happen. It was very likely the enemy would use them to force her to surrender, if they had control of them, and also possible that they would kill them out of hand. But by committing so many of her forces to protecting the prisoners she could doom them to failure. She had gone over everything with the greatest strategist she had ever known, in the very early hours, away from camp. Xena had helped her with a few minor details but admitted that Gabrielle had learned very well. She found no flaw with her plan. The one comfort she had was that, as the situation unfolded, she would have the advantage of having two minds assessing the problems and making changes as opportunities arose. The disadvantage was that Xena would also have to keep up a running commentary of what was happening around her, even as Gabrielle relied on her senses in the battle. Now that she had this quiet time with only a few scattered comments from Xena, she marveled at how calm she was. She was blind, yet was going headlong into a battle for the lives of some innocent people torn from their lives by a ruthless monster. She felt she should be scared out of her wits but instead she was calm. Gabrielle had heard herself described as foolishly rash and as fearless. She wasn't sure which was closer to the truth. Certainly in her colorful years, following the warrior princess around the known world, she had never lacked for courage but also certainly she had done some very rash, impulsive and even foolish things that had resulted in getting her in deep trouble. Was she leading her Amazons to victory against the enemy or was she leading them to their death. It was times like these, just before a battle, when her doubts assailed her. She was familiar enough with herself to know that once the battle was joined the doubts would disappear and she would decisively command her warriors. Only time would show if victory or death awaited them.
Gregon had spent the night drinking himself into a stupor, finally passing out on the floor. For once Celeste slept, alone and untouched, while his great bulk snored loudly from the floor. He was still snoring when she made her way down to the prisoners and found Laurel. She untied her and took her to the river, the third time she had done so, at great risk to both of them if Gregon found out and decided he didn't like the idea. The rest of his men just figured she had developed a taste for the little blonde. They talked quietly as they made their way to the stream just after sunrise. When they got to the stream they sat on the rocks talking while Celeste worked to remove her boots.
From out of nowhere a small blond appeared with a brunette. The blond appeared before Celeste. She seemed to recognize her suddenly and drove her fist into her stomach then into her jaw knocking her to the ground, while the brunette grabbed Laurel and pulled her away. A dagger appeared in the blonde's hand and she knelt down lifting the dagger to kill her.
"No!" Laurel said. "Don't kill her!"
At the cry, Gabrielle reversed the knife and hit her on the jaw, knocking her out, then stood and turned to the blond, her chest still heaving with the rage she had felt when Xena told her who the woman was.
"Tell me quickly why I shouldn't kill the traitor!" Gabrielle spit out.
Laurel nearly fainted. "Gabrielle!" she said in a breathless hush. "By the gods, I saw you die!"
"If you were one of the prisoners, why would you protect Celeste? She betrayed all of you!" Gabrielle said through her anger.
"No, Gabrielle, no!" Laurel said. "Celeste has suffered more than all of us! Gregon forces her to do horrible things or he will kill me and then others, forcing her to watch. She is helpless against him. He threatens to torture us to death if she refuses him. He uses her terribly. He beats her and rapes her. Please don't hurt her. She sacrificed herself to save us."
Gabrielle backed up unsteadily and sat down on one of the rocks feeling sick inside. "By the gods, Xena! I nearly killed her!" she whispered loud enough that Laurel and Cina both heard her.
Celeste groaned. Laurel pulled away from Cina and ran to her. Cina let her go then went and knelt before her shaken queen and took her hands.
"It was a mistake, my queen. You couldn't know," she said softly.
"No. I let my anger control me, Cina. I can't afford to do that," Gabrielle said, a tear dropping down her cheek. "She didn't even resist me, but in my rage at knowing who was in those leathers I would have killed her if her friend hadn't stopped me."
"We all make mistakes, my queen. Had I known what you knew of her and found her in those leathers I would have been much faster to kill her than you. Look how we treated you when we first found you. Be thankful her friend was here to give us the truth of the matter," she said softly.
She turned at the familiar voice. "Celeste, I'm sorry," she said, her voice trembling.
Celeste got up and came and knelt beside her. "Laurel told me what happened. Gabrielle, you couldn't know. Given the circumstances your reaction was normal."
"I nearly killed you, Celeste!" she said and her voice broke.
Celeste smiled. "Then it's a good thing my little friend was here to save me," she said. "Gabrielle, I understand, believe me I do. It bothers me more that part of me wishes you had succeeded"
"Oh, Celeste, you must never think that!" Gabrielle said. "Life is a precious gift. Don't let a monster like Gregon spoil it for you."
She looked down then said coldly. "But he has, Gabrielle. He's ruined everything."
"Then we'll just have to find a way to change that, Celeste," Laurel said. "You are much too good a person to suffer so. We will find a way."
Celeste took the little blonde's hand and squeezed it. "Thank you," she said, so softly they hardly heard her.
"We have to get you two to safety," Gabrielle said.
"No!" they said in unison.
"Gabrielle, if Gregon finds out I'm gone he'll kill some of the prisoners!" Celeste said.
"I can't go either," Laurel said. He would miss me. He likes to kick me around a little or tease me."
"You both are in grave danger," Gabrielle said.
"No more than the past eternity," Celeste said and Laurel nodded. "We can't chance it, Gabrielle."
Reluctantly Gabrielle agreed, especially since Xena was berating her about the same thing.
Suddenly Celeste waved her hand in front of Gabrielle and gasped. "By the gods, Gabrielle! What happened to you?"
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "A gift from your captor, Celeste."
"I'm so sorry!" she said taking Gabrielle's hand.
"Thank you." she said, "but I'm managing. Let's worry about the current situation. If you're going back you better get moving."
Gabrielle sat silently listening as they both wet their hair and their bare limbs, then walked off to the prison camp. She shuddered to think of them returning to Gregon's clutches. There goes a couple of very brave and selfless women, Xena. I hope they'll be okay.
Xena nodded absently. "It's up to you to get to them in time."
"Come, my queen we must get started," Cina said softly, when Gabrielle didn't move.
Gabrielle nodded. "It's even more critical that we protect the prisoners, now that we know something of the leader and his penchant to hurt people."
They disappeared into the forest.
Gabrielle would have laughed if the stakes werenít so high. In the early morning quiet her Amazons just appeared quietly in the camp. One of the drowsy guards looked up to see Karena walking towards him. She smiled and waved. "Tough night?" she asked.
"Yeah IÖ hey!" He tried to draw his sword but it was much too late for him.
Small skirmishes erupted throughout the camp and then there was quiet as her warriors surrounded the prisoners and began cutting them loose and sending them into the woods. Other Amazons were waiting for them to point them to their gathering point.
Gabrielleís warriors were taking the tents of sleeping men one at a time, when Gregon discovered them and bellowed in rage. He had staggered out of his tent to relieve himself and everywhere he looked, Amazons were moving through the camp.
Men came swarming from the tents, swords in hand and the battle was on. To the amazement of her Amazons, Gabrielle seemed to be everywhere, especially in the middle of the thickest fighting. She seemed unstoppable, cutting a swath through the enemy. Seeing her fight, her Amazons fought even harder, swelling with pride for their blind queen.
Gregon stepped back into his tent. Celeste was sitting up on the bed rubbing her eyes and yawning.
"Get up you lazy bitch! Get my armor!"
"Yes, Lord Gregon!" she said and scurried to comply.
She handed him the armor then his sword belt.
He buckled it on quickly. "My weapons, bitch," he bellowed and held his hand out.
When the sword didnít appear in his hand he turned growling threats at her then stopped.
She stood a pace away, the sword in her hand by the hilt, a looked of hatred and loathing on her face. She pushed forward with all her weight and strength. "Your sword, master!" she spit out. The blade entered his side, under his ribs, then cut up through his lung, severing a large artery.
He backhanded her across the room then clutched at the sword as the pain hit him.
Celeste climbed to her feet, picked up one of his long daggers and advanced on him. He held his bloody hand out to ward her off as he sank to his knees. She slashed the blade across his hand and he pulled it back in pain. "Your dagger, master," she said and drove it into his chest above his armor. She went and got his other dagger and stopped next to him as he lie on the floor gasping for breath against the blood filling his lung. She looked down at him and smiled waving the other dagger at him. "I think Iíll keep this one a while. Will that be all, Lord Gregon?" Her voice fairly dripped with venom.
Celeste left him to die and stepped outside. "Gregon is dead!" she yelled, holding up the other dagger. "You fight for nothing! Gregon is dead!"
The battle raging around her rapidly changed as her words were repeated. The men broke off fighting and either surrendered or tried to flee. Surrender was roughly accepted. Those that fled were run down and they either surrendered or died. None escaped.
A large group of prisoners screamed in anger and descended on Gregonís tent, many returning from the woods. Celeste was nearly trampled as they rushed into the tent. Someone took the dagger away from her. She walked away from the tent in a daze. It was over. Tears of relief ran down her cheeks and she crumpled to the ground, sitting with her face pressed into her hands as she sobbed. Gregon hadnít been quite dead when the women found him and she vaguely heard his screams.
She looked up and Laurel was kneeling in front of her. Laurel gathered her into her arms. "Itís over, Celeste. Letís get away from this horrible place." She helped her to her feet and guided the larger woman away from the camp.
Gabrielle finished tying her bedroll on Cinder, aware of the large crowd around her. She could delay the inevitable no longer. She had already made her formal good-byes now she just had a few more personal good-byes to get through. She turned from her completed task.
"Gabrielle, we want you to stay. You would be invaluable to us and we are proud to call you our queen," Karena said. She stood, with her injured mate, Sarah, beside her.
"Karena, you offer me a great honor and it saddens me to say no, but there are things I must do," Gabrielle said.
Karena nodded, then remembering her queenís condition said, "We will all miss you, Gabrielle. Please come back to us once in a while. You will always be welcome."
"Thank you, Karena. I promise Iíll be back," Gabrielle answered. "This month has been a happy one for me. You all have treated me wonderfully. I'll miss all of you."
Karena moved away and Laurel and Celeste stopped in front of her.
Gabrielle smiled and took their hands. "I wish the two of you the very best," she said. "The Amazons are good people. Iím glad you decided to stay."
"Thank you for my life back, Gabrielle," Celeste said and hugged her.
Celeste stepped back and Laurel hugged her. "You will always have a special place in our hearts, Gabrielle."
Finally Cina came forward and hugged her. "Thank you, Gabrielle. I will never forget you," she said with tears in her eyes.
Gabrielle climbed into the saddle, waved all around her then started down the path.
The Amazons watched their high queen out of sight feeling a heavy sense of loss.
Gabrielle waited until she was out of hearing to answer Xenaís tirade.
"Xena, take a break. Youíre giving me a headache."
"Oh, so now Iím a headache!" the warrior grumbled. "Youíve been pointedly ignoring me all morning, but Iím the headache!"
"I havenít been ignoring you, Xena," Gabrielle said patiently. "I couldnít very well answer you with all those Amazons around. Theyíd turn the royal hut into a royal prison for their crazy queen."
"Since when can't you answer me?" Xena asked, then went on, not waiting for an answer. "Locking you up would be better than your crazy plans! You should be locked up!"
"Xena, that was uncalled for and not very nice," Gabrielle said, in a huff. "I think you just lost your bedtime story, for that."
"Oh, come on, Gabrielle! Thatís not fair!" the warrior complained.
"I donít have to be fair. You just said I was crazy," Gabrielle said frostily.
"I did not!" Xena exclaimed in exasperation. "Iím just concerned about you wandering around the country like this."
"You mean crazy people should be locked up, not left loose?" Gabrielle goaded.
"No! Stop twisting my words. You know what I mean. In spite of what you think, youíre blind and that is going to make some situations tough," she said.
"WellÖ mostly blind anyway," Gabrielle admitted. "But I donít see the problem. I mean I have you for eyes. What more could I need?"
"Gabrielle, thatís not the sameÖ uh, wait a minute, back up there," Xena said. "What does mostly mean?"
"Well, lets see. According to my bardic memory it means almost all, or pretty much all, orÖ "
"Very funny, my bard," Xena said sarcastically. "Now tell me what it means when weíre talking about you and seeing in the same sentence."
"Well, it means mostly, like, Ďyeah, Gabrielle does pretty good, considering sheís mostly blindí. Like that," Gabrielle said grinning.
Xena grabbed her shoulders and leaned forward. Gabrielle quickly wiped the smile off her face.
"Was that a smirk I saw on that smug little face?" Xena asked.
"Huh? No, whereíd you get that idea?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
Xena grumbled, not really buying the innocent look. "Well, tell me specifically what mostly means when someone says Gabrielle is blind and you say mostly?"
"Well, it meansÖ I donít know, just mostly," she said.
Xena growled in frustration and Gabrielle had a hard time not laughing.
"Does that mean you can see?" she asked, her voice a low rumble.
"Not really," Gabrielle answered, bracing herself.
"Ares balls, Gabrielle! You are driving me crazy!" she shouted and Gabrielle cringed, but she was smiling again.
"Maybe the Amazons should get that hut ready for you, Xena," Gabrielle answered.
"Oh! Gabrielle! You are so in trouble!" Xena growled.
Gabrielle laughed. "Gotcha!"
Xena groaned. "That wasnít fair!"
"To quote a famous warrior princess, ĎHey, Gabrielle, anythingís fair in this game.í" she said smugly.
"Youíre a rat!" Xena said in frustration.
"No, Iím not. Iím just better at this than you are," Gabrielle said.
Xena growled again and Gabrielle laughed. Xena was silent for several minutes then asked, "So is your sight improving or was that just a cruel part of the game? If you say mostly again IíllÖ."
"Youíll, what? Haunt me maybe?" Gabrielle asked.
"Gabrielle! I do not haunt! You are in big trouble for that remark!" Xena fumed.
"Gotcha again, Xena," Gabrielle said smugly.
"Gabrielle! Tell me!" Xena said in total exasperation. "Please."
"Okay," she said chuckling. "I really had you going there."
"Just tell me," Xena said in a soft voice.
"Well, I havenít got my hopes up. Iím afraid to, I guess, but things seem a little brighter, thatís all. Itís probably nothing, but even a little sight would be wonderful. Even shadows. Iím tired of being in the dark." She sounded discouraged.
"Gabrielle, any change is a good sign," Xena said.
"Well, I hope so, Xena. Iíd like to see your ugly face again," she said.
"You are so rotten today!" Xena said.
"No, Iím not," she denied.
"You are, little bard. Youíve been giving me a bad time sinceÖ."