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 Feb 2001.
Rated as adult material for some violence and a loving relationship between two 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 haven't seen 'The Last Battleground: A Friend in Need you may want to wait to read this as it contains spoilers!
Lost Soul, Part 6 - Endless Journey
Continued from Lost Soul 5 - Desperate Endeavor
I stumbled to my knees, exhausted, nearly falling on my face, but held up by my bonds. The sharp sting of the whip on my back brought clarity to my fogged mind.
"On your feet, slave!" one of my captors yelled and grabbed the yoke that my hands were tied to, pulling me back to my feet. He rudely jammed a waterskin in my mouth and I drank as rapidly as I could before he pulled it away. He pulled it roughly away from me then moved around behind me and shoved, his hand bringing new fire to my back. "Move!"
For two days, since my capture, they had forced me to walk between two of my own horses, my hands tied straight out on a long rough, quickly cut young tree. They had taken everything from me except my Amazon halter, skirt, and boots. By day, the blazing sun blistered me while the cold winds buffeted me. By night, I would have frozen to death, but they had orders to keep me alive, and tossed a dirty bug infested blanket over me. It was enough to keep me from freezing but not enough to keep me warm. Time had again stretched and slowed until my existence was one long numbing agony of thirst, hunger, cold, and pain.
I stumbled forward, pulled on by the two horses I was roped between. The whip struck me again but I remained silent, still another eternity passed and I felt the sting of the whip several times more but was numb, the whip barely penetrating the fog in my mind. Finally, they stopped for the night and I fell almost to my knees, the horses keeping me from falling any further. They left me hanging there while they made camp and I was instantly asleep. I woke when they loosened the ropes to the horses and let me drop. I landed on my back looking up at them as they led the horses away. Two of them returned and dragged me to a place outside their camp and let me fall. One of them roughly forced water on me again, though I would willingly drink a small lake; then they left me. A short time later I could smell roasting meat and my empty stomach threatened to cramp on me I was so hungry.
My capture had been a fluke, one of those little insignificant twists of fate that can so dramatically change lives. I had traveled through the mountains and into the plains beyond without any problems. Two weeks had passed peacefully and I had regained my full strength, and put a little weight back on. I was back to my full routines with my weapons and exercises. Although my physical well being had greatly improved, emotionally I was a wreck. On several more occasions, I felt the wrath of the demon Xena, each time driving me more frantically to get back to Japa, each time I was overwhelmed with the consequences of my failures.
I had been camped in the western foothills of a smaller range of mountains, still far north of where I wanted to be. The spot I had picked was perfect for my needs, except that it was too noisy for safety. A gentle waterfall dropped into a pool then fell away over another waterfall. The water in the pool was fast moving but near the edge there was an eddy pool, perfect for bathing. I had traveled hard that day and had not seen an enemy for several weeks. Against that little tingle of better judgment, I made my camp there, reasoning that I was in desolate country still. I had done my evening exercises and my meal was over. As I was preparing for a brisk bath in the cold waters, to wash away several days dust, I heard a faint scream from upstream. When I looked up a small body was tumbling down the gentle falls to my right. Without thought, I stripped off my weapons and dove into the water. The eddy pool was relatively calm, but further out the water was moving rapidly. Further downstream the water fell into another pool before rushing over some rocky rapids. I swam as hard as I could but barely managed to catch hold of the child before we went over the falls. I clutched the child to me and curled my body around her, hoping to protect her from the rocks below. When we surfaced, I held the child up so she could breath, even as I sank below her. Then I surfaced and fought her clinging arms until I could get her onto my back. She held me so tightly she was choking me and I had to take time to talk to her and loosen her hold, then I struck out for shore. The current was too strong and it had taken me too long to get her under control. When I knew we wouldn't make it, I again wrapped myself around her in protection. Somehow, we made it down the rapids. I had been slammed against several rocks and was hurting but I didn't think anything was broken.
The water was calmer here, and with the child returned to my back, I managed to crawl out onto the narrow debris strewn beach, the child still clinging desperately to me. I lay for a moment trying to catch my breath then was kicked in the side hard enough to drive my breath from me. Several men grabbed me. One grabbed my hair and put a knife at my throat, bending close so I could hear him over the rushing water.
"You behave and I'll let the child live. Fight me and I'll cut her throat."
All fight went out of me, and after they beat me for a while, they tied me up and led me away. Behind me, I could hear the child crying and hoped her parents would find her after we left.
I was captive, just like that. It turned out I had camped just up stream from a small army searching for me. It seemed Jengus was unhappy that I had escaped his trap and killed many of his soldiers. The soldiers were of another warlord but Jengus had put a high price on my head and they meant to collect it. It also turned out he would pay double if I were alive. He wanted the pleasure of my death to himself.
They found my camp easily, collected my weapons and horses, and then the long march to their leader's domain began. I pointed out they could make better time if they put me on one of the horses that I was tied between and got a beating for my efforts. We went west out of the mountains, then south. Now, after two days of agony, I lay on the rough sand, trying to ignore the flame on my back, smelling cooking food and hearing boisterous voices.
The stars were out and I had a good view although the campfires muted the view some. There was little wind for a change and the night was only chilly, not cold as they had been for so long. I slept again, from pure exhaustion, though I was too chilly to sleep well. Later I was awakened by a kick in my already sore ribs. Two men stood over me. They lifted me to a sitting position and one of them stuffed a piece of greasy meat in my mouth. I made short work of it hoping for another, but that was all he had. The other man gave me water and then they left me. I had to go so I moved a little away from where I was expected to sleep and did the best I could with my hands tied to a pole. My undergarment had been ripped off me the first time I had had to go.
I returned to my place and sat on a small outcropping of harder dirt. The water and food had revived me. It was good that I had been in top shape when they captured me or I would probably be dead by now. Then again, it seemed I was dead anyway, so why suffer all this pain? I was sure Jengus' plans for me would not be pleasant.
Once again, a filthy blanket was tossed over me and I lay on the cold sand shivering. I slept fitfully until just before dawn then there was a commotion in the camp. After some confusion and a lot of shouting a troop of warriors entered the camp and my hopes slipped even further. This troop was twice the size of the one I had been captured by and they were Jengus' men. Some time later my two captors led them to me. There were four of them, one of them obviously the leader. My captors lifted the blanket from me and the new warriors studied me out of black expressionless eyes.
The leader stooped and took hold of my jaw, turning my face to see the damage. He studied the cuts and bruises to my body then lifted me to see my back. I heard a surprised grunt when he saw the dragon. He turned me back over then studied the condition of my hands, tied to the pole for so long. He stood and looked to my captors.
"Jengus instructed that she not be harmed if she was captured alive."
"She's alive," one of them sneered. "Jengus is getting what he wants."
"It's good you didn't damage the dragon," he said. "But you should not have whipped her. You might have damaged it."
"We know how to use a whip," the insolent one replied.
"How many have taken her?"
My captor sneered. "She is a foreign demon. None would touch her!"
The new man smiled. "It is good. Then none of your men has to die. No one but the two of you, for beating her against Jengus' wishes."
Two of his men stepped to my two captors and drove their daggers into them. The leader turned to the fourth man.
"Question the men and insure that she has not been taken. If she has, kill them all." He turned and walked away to the deep bows of his second.
They left then, to question my captors.
As the sun rose, four different men approached me. The first knelt in front of me after they had all taken a good look at my back.
"We will be taking care of you, demon. I'm going to release your hands. You will behave or, unlike the two lying there, I do have the right to harm you. If you will behave, I will leave you free for a time so that you can eat and take care of your personal needs. No one will bother you. You must surely know that there is nowhere you could go to escape us. There are too many of us. Jengus wants to see you alive, but if necessary he will be satisfied with your head," he said and his cold eyes held mine, "and your back."
He stood away from me and cut the bonds on my right hand as another cut my left had free. I pulled them into my lap unable to feel them or move my fingers. They were puffy and dark looking and I was afraid it had been too long, and that I would have lost the use of them.
"Now, we are going to leave you for a while. Use the waters of the spring on your hands. It may help." They left, taking the two dead bodies with them. I stood looking at my swollen hands, wondering if they would recover or if I would lose them. Whatever Jengus' plans for me were, and I had my suspicions after their intent to see if I was taken, I was sure he wouldn't care to have me without hands. If they didn't recover then he would just put me to death. If they did, I was sure he had other plans I would not like.
I made my way to the spring and lowered my hands into the water. To my surprise, it was warm! I sat there with my hands in the water for some time and began to feel a tingling that soon turned to pain.
While I soaked them and bit my lip to hold back the pain, the first guard returned. He tossed some robes on a nearby rock then set some soap and cloths near me.
"Wash yourself then clothe yourself in these robes. Jengus will wish to keep you hidden from all eyes, especially those that would help you." He turned and left.
There was no one in all of this desolate, never ending land that wanted to help me. I looked around me. The spring was wide open to the camp and I was in plain view but all eyes were turned away. I shrugged. If they looked, they looked. There was nothing I could do about it and I had the feeling that if I disobeyed him I would be given a bath.
The pool was nearly as warm as the spring and I luxuriated in it' taking my time, washing my Amazon clothes and myself, my hands clumsy and painful. The clothes I washed were becoming a bit worn with the hard use they had seen these past months. I dropped the items I was trying to hold, from stiff unresponsive fingers, many times before I was done.
Out of the pool, I awkwardly dried myself then pulled on the loose pants and blouse and finally the long robes. They were white and all of the warriors wore black. There was no way I could hide among them if I got loose.
My new captor gathered my Amazon clothes and boots and I was forced to remain barefoot. He studied me a moment.
"You are my captive, woman, and Jengus' slave. If you behave you will be treated well. If you do not I can make this a very unpleasant trip for you and still deliver you with no new blemishes. It is your choice." He studied me a moment longer then shook his head. "I do not understand why brave men would fear such as you. You are a mere woman, not a demon, could they not see that?"
The question did not seem directed at me and I was sure my answer would get me in trouble, something I could do without for a while, so I remained silent.
"Let me see your hands."
I held them out and he checked them over closely. "Good. It would be unfortunate if I had to remove them. Tend them closely. Follow me."
I followed behind him as he marched off without considering it was not a good idea to show your enemy your back, something I wasn't about to tell him. I just followed docilely along. If he wanted to think me no threat that was just fine.
In the camp he had a blanket set out and instructed me to sit on it. I was provided food, water, and a strong bitter drink. I sat on the blanket cross-legged and ate the food while I studied my surroundings and the men. There were nearly fifty of them and they were obviously better trained than my previous captor's men had been. My previous captors were still there and the leader of Jengus' men summoned their leader.
He came forward all bluster and show. It was a game they took very seriously, this game of face. My new captor stood waiting for him; the two men that had been my guards lay at his feet. The other man stopped at their feet and they exchanged formal greetings.
"Your men violated Jengus' wishes and they have paid the price. I give you permission to depart and return to your Khan. I ask only that you take a message from Jengus Khan."
"What is your message, Ghangai?"
"You will deliver the heads of these two to your Khan and say that Jengus wishes no bad blood between us, but his men must be more respectful of Jengus' wishes."
The other man bowed stiffly, anger showing in his eyes but not on his face. Facing fifty men to his twenty, he knew that he would be lucky to leave here alive.
"I shall deliver your message, Ghangai." He waved two men forward and they took the feet of the dead men.
"This carrion will stay here, Hoi Lai. You may take only the heads. The rest will stay to feed their brethren, the wolf and buzzard."
I could feel the tension between the two as if it were a real thing. Hoi Lai was so close to venting his rage, but he held it back. He was no young brash warrior. He simply bowed and instructed the two men. They cut off the heads of the two guards and left. A short time later Hoi Lai and his men rode stiffly out of the camp.
Ghangai watched them out of camp and then sent two men to follow and make sure they left. Then he turned to me. "You have eaten?"
I nodded, watching his every move. He was no taller than I but powerfully built and he walked with an easy grace that promised he would be a dangerous, confident opponent. Like all his men, he had black eyes and a parchment complexion. His long black hair was worn tied tight, high on the back of his head, then flowed down to his shoulders. His face was clean except for a neat little beard only on his chin.
"Good. Come with me," he said, and I found myself hurrying after him.
He led me to a horse with a blanket but no saddle. Without a word, he held his hands and I mounted the horse. He walked away and I was left to watch the rest of the preparations for travel, my guards surrounding me. When they were ready, Ghangai returned to me.
"Cover your head and your face, woman. If I see them again I will have you beaten." He turned to his horse without waiting to see if I obeyed, confident in his dominance over me.
I covered myself, having no need for another beating. When the warriors led off, Ghangai was at the lead and I was way in the back, one man leading my horse and two more riding beside me, but not too close. The fourth rode behind me. We traveled at a brisk pace. I had nothing to hold on to except the horse's mane. Fortunately for me the horse was large and had an easy gait, so riding without a saddle was not a problem. For three days, we traveled steadily. I was constantly watched, day and night, but never directly looked at by anyone except Ghangai or the leader of my guard. It was as if I was invisible to them. I spent the time alone regaining my strength because they kept me well fed and gave me plenty of water.
On the morning of the fourth day, just after we set out, one of the scouts raced to the leaders and we stopped. A short time later half of the men left and I perked up. This could be that chance I was waiting for. My hopes were dashed a short time later because I was taken to a nearby stunted tree and chained to it.
"I need no demons with me in battle," Ghangai said and walked away.
I was left with enough chain to move around and two guards to watch and cater to me. The day was long and hot in the little place I sat, behind a fair sized hill. Though it could still be cold at night or when the wind blew from the north, today there was no wind and the blazing sun beat down mercilessly on my guards. I was thankful for the little shade I had, but even so, my body was soaked in sweat.
They were gone until after dark. When they returned Ghangai had lost half his men and many more were wounded. Even Ghangai had several minor wounds staining his robes when he visited me.
We stayed the night there and I was kept chained. In the morning, we were up and riding early and again I was chained, this time the horse was saddled and the chains secured to the saddle. We moved rapidly and Ghangai had many outriders out. Suddenly arrows struck two of the riders ahead of me. My horse was whipped to a gallop, my guards beside me. We raced through the canyon and several more riders were hit including one of my guards. Another immediately replaced him, and we rode hard, leaving the wounded where they fell. We were barely out of the canyon and into some low lying brush when my horse stumbled, still we continued on. The horse stumbled again and slowed though my guards were trying to coax it on. Then he fell and I kicked free of the saddle but the chain almost cost me my life as the horse rolled towards me. A rock stopped him saving me from being crushed under him.
I lay dazed for I had hit a rock as well, fortunately just a glancing blow. Staring up with glazed eyes I saw my guards dismount and move towards me. Arrows appeared in their bodies; they fell on top of me and I blacked out.
When I woke, it was dark and silent. A heavy weight covered me and I could not move. Memory was slow coming back to my throbbing head but it finally did and I began to push the weight off me. I heard a hoof hit stone and froze. An arrow drove through the body above me and entered my chest. I gritted my teeth against the pain knowing that to cry out would bring more and I would surely die. I lay helpless, expecting to die any second, listening to several men talking in loud whispers. At last they moved on, but still I lay without moving. Now I had a problem. The arrow hadn't gone very deep into my chest, having spent its energy on the man above me but when I moved him, it pulled against the skin causing intense pain. The head was buried in the soft flesh enough that it would have to be cut out.
Finally, I could wait no longer. I hadn't heard anything for some time and I had to risk it. I rolled the man off my body, turning with him. Even so, the arrowhead ripped out causing intense pain, which I managed to suppress to a groan.
Neither man had the key to the shackle on my wrist. I searched out the other end of the chain on the horse and discovered it was simply tied on with a leather cord! The knife I had taken made short work of it and I gathered the chain in my left hand. I stripped the man's sword, scabbard belt, and outer robe from him. I took the waterskin from the horse and moved off into the brush, anxious to get out of the open where the enemy could return any second.
I made my way part way up the side of a hill and found a good place to watch what went on below. I had been very careful getting up here and doubted anyone could follow my tracks. The black robe from the warrior helped me hide better than the white I had been forced to wear. Daylight found me still huddled against the hill behind some cover. I had not moved since I had gone to ground.
The first to appear was Ghangai and his warriors. They searched the area thoroughly and picked up the trail I had left, which led at an angle to the way they had returned. He left several guards just in case I returned.
An hour passed, then two, the sun scorching the earth with an intensity that hurt the eye. I dozed, 'with one eye open', as Xena would have said, my senses on high alert to any sound. The four guards left behind stayed hidden but I knew where each one was. Even their horses were quiet.
It wasn't the noise that alerted me, but the silence. Around me were the natural sounds of life, even here on the edge of the desert, in the scrub brush that grew in this place. Little sounds of life that go unnoticed, until they vanish. The untrained might just feel a sense of unease. With Xena's training, I was instantly wide awake and on high alert. When nature became silent, predators were on the prowl. I hardly dared breath, much less move. I lay at an awkward angle, my back to the ridge, looking straight out towards Ghangai's men. From the corners of both eyes, I caught movement to either side of me, and then it was gone down the slope. Whoever they were they were good, very good. I heard nothing disturbed by their passing. Two had passed my position, but I didn't move, afraid that there were more.
More than an hour passed before anything happened, then I heard a horse snort and blow below, nothing more, but I was sure Ghangai's men were dead. More time passed and I realized that nature had resumed her everyday business. Whatever had been perceived a threat was gone. I breathed a sight of relief and moved slightly to ease my cramped muscles. A shadow loomed to both sides of me, and pain exploded in my head.
This was getting to be a habit. I woke looking at stone right in front of my face. I was on my right side, my hands and feet tied together behind me. I lay still listening to my surroundings and heard very subdued voices a short distance away. They were low enough that I could not make out what they were saying. Slowly I began to turn my head and received a sharp poke in the back, at my left shoulder. Someone was right behind me with a spear or sword, and I had not heard any sound from them! I listened as I had been taught to listen, beyond the obvious, straining my senses. Finally, I had him, just two paces away! He was very good at hiding his presence.
The voices grew louder in argument then silenced. A moment later, I was dragged out into the open and many hands held me down as my bonds, robes, and shirt were cut open in back. More argument erupted at the sight of the dragon and it was soon apparent to me that they knew about it and had captured me because of it. Several minutes passed in argument then they quieted again and I suddenly felt a knife cut into my back!
I struggled violently, managing to suppress the scream that rose in my throat. The cutting stopped while they subdued me again then continued. Again, I struggled causing them to quit. This time when they finally got me under control one of them had me in such a position that he could strangle me or snap my neck. I felt the knife again and again tried to struggle but there were too many of them and I was being strangled. There was nothing I could do while they cut the dragon from my back.
Suddenly I heard a strange cry and my captors vanished, leaving me lying as they had held me. I scrambled up and back to the rock ledge, I had been under before, just as two arrows struck the dirt where I had been. Another struck closer to me. I was pressed tight against the rock, my bare back against cold stone. I gathered the chain to use as a weapon and to prevent it from snagging if I got a chance to run. Then I waited, my muscles tense with expectation.
Someone came up the ridge in front of me; one of my new enemies dressed in clothes the color of the earth. He had a bow in his hand and was bringing it up as I lunged out from under the ledge and threw the chain at him. He was too far away and it barely reached him but he flinched away from it, giving me time. As he swung back towards me, both of my feet struck him in the chest and sent him back over the ridge. He made no sound as he fell but I wasn't paying much attention. I was too busy running and listening for more of them. I ran no more than two steps without changing my direction and the arrows sent after me missed their target. Very soon, I was off the little hill and into the thicker scrub, ignoring the pain and cuts to my bare feet. I didn't even slow down but modified my course even more, especially when I heard any sound.
There were warriors all around me, much noisier than the ones I had just fled and much easier to evade. I assumed they were Ghangai's men but I was taking no chances with any of them. When I came to the small river, I quickly waded upstream until I found a place to hide among a jumble of rocks. The place I found was a small cavern created within the pile of rocks and I squeezed into it, careful not to let my back touch anything. Inside it was larger but I could not stand up straight. The cold water was above my waist and already I was shivering.
I waited, listening for any sign of pursuit and heard nothing but the sounds of the river. Then I noticed a tint of darker stain in the water as I turned. I moved closer to the light and lowered myself into the water to my neck. The water around me turned red then gradually cleared. I stood, waited a moment and lowered myself back into the water. It turned red again. The wounds on my back needed treatment and there was no way I could do anything about them. I needed help, which meant I had to find Ghangai. Inwardly I groaned. I had finally gained my freedom and now I had to place myself back in captivity! I didn't know how badly my back was cut but another dip proved it was still bleeding quite a bit. Well, I either found help, or took my chances and maybe bled to death.
With my mind made up, I slid back out of my hiding place, carefully looking around. I saw no one and ventured further into the water. To my relief, Ghangai sat his horse about where I had initially entered the water. He sat quietly, a smug look on his face, that I wanted very much to wipe off for him, but I played the part he expected of me.
"Why did you run?" he asked, his voice hard.
"Because they were going to kill me," I answered in a subservient tone.
"They?" he asked surprised. "You were captured by the Wind Warriors?"
"I was captured by someone. They were cutting the dragon off my back when you returned and I managed to get away."
"Let me see your back," he said coming down off his horse, concern in his voice. He took a look at my back then sighed. "The dragon is undamaged." he said, then grudgingly, "but you need tending."
It seemed I was only of value to both of these enemies if the dragon were intact!
He climbed into the saddle and held out his hand.
"Come, woman. We must hurry," he said then pulled me up behind him.
I resented his demeaning tone and his contempt for my skills but this was no time to quibble. I seated myself and hung on to him as he put his horse across the river and into a gallop towards his camp.
His camp was no more than a bank of the river. He had nothing left to set up having had to abandon most of it when his force got too small to manage it.
After he tended the wounds on my back Ghangai provided me with another shirt and robe to replace the damaged ones I had been wearing. The shirt was taken from his saddlebags, the robe was from a dead warrior; they were both black.
As soon as he was done and I had dressed, I was chained to a different horse and Ghangai set off at a fast pace. It was obvious that whoever my mysterious captors had been, Ghangai wanted nothing more to do with them. I had to agree since their immediate goal had been to remove the dragon from my back, then either leave me to die or kill me. I didn't really understand why they hadn't just killed me first but suspected it was some sort of belief to do with the dragon. Whatever the reason, I was glad they waited and even happier that Ghangai had reappeared before they had a chance to cut the dragon off me.
Ghangai kept up the hurried pace until well after dark. When he stopped, it was to water the horses and give them a breather on some short grass. The men broke out some cold hard trail rations and I was given a small piece and some water. We stayed there barely half an hour before Ghangai ordered his men into the saddle and we resumed our trip.
Morning found us in the desert again. Both horses and men were tired from the long ride. Ghangai called a halt in a small oasis consisting of a few scattered clumps of grass. He sent six of his twelve remaining men to sleep as soon as the horses were tended to and everyone had had a quick bite to eat. The other six were on guard on the dunes around the oasis.
Ghangai lay out a blanket for me then gave me another to shelter me from the sun. I lay awake a long time, partially because of my back but also because I had had another episode of anger and rage, I was sure was caused by Xena. She was getting worse, the bouts of anger becoming more frequent and more intense. I was becoming better at controlling my reactions to her fits of rage but still, as the rage got stronger, had a harder time dealing with it. She needed me, I hoped, and I needed to get to her, but everywhere I turned, I found obstacles to my goal.
Now I was a captive on my way to see the most dangerous man in this part of the country. A man that had tried to have me killed from our first encounter, but now wanted me alive, for what purpose I could only guess. I was very sure it wouldn't be good for me.
Each hour of our travels brought us closer to Jengus and his army. Each hour lessened the chance that I would be able to escape. I had watched and anticipated every opportunity to get away but after my last flight and capture, he was taking no chances. Even now, the six guards watched inwardly as much as they did for signs of the enemy.
After two hours, Ghangai wakened the six sleepers and put them on watch while the other six got two hours sleep. I finally dozed a little after they were settled again.
The horses were flagging. They had been ridden too hard and too long and they were just about done for. Ghangai knew it but still he pressed on, hoping for a little more distance from the enemy behind us. When we reached a wide riverbed, now containing only stagnant pools and a slow trickle of running water, the horses were done for. Ghangai let them have their fill then led them up on the other shore. He found a defensive position on a rocky knoll with a good view all around. The horses were turned loose on some dry scrub grass and we slept again, this time leaving only four guards.
In the hours just before dawn, Ghangai picked his lightest rider and the two best horses. He sent the rider ahead, with the second horse for relief, to get reinforcements. Then he waited for the enemy to catch up to us. All of his men had bows as well as sword and dagger. Each man had most of his thirty arrows left although some had been used in an earlier fight. All they could do is wait.
They didn't have long to wait because several of the enemy warriors were not far behind. I saw them in the distance before Ghangai's men spotted them. There were six of them and they were hard to see even here in this desert of dry grasses and scrub brush. They made use of every bit of cover as they came purposely towards us. Ghangai was ready for them with a volley of arrows, but they stopped just out of range and dismounted, then just seemed to vanish.
I had gotten a pretty good look at them but there wasn't much to see. They wore loose fitting dessert clothes nearly the color of the drab desert. They were hooded and the drape of the hood covered their faces. At the distance, it was impossible to see the eyes or any feature of their faces. The only distinguishing feature was that they each carried bow, sword, and dagger.
Xena, I may be joining you soon. Ghangai and his men are good, capable fighters, but they are no match for the men they fight. They are like ghosts, even in the day. I had two of them pass right by me yesterday and I never heard a sound. All I caught was the shadow of their movements. They are very good, better than anything I have ever seen before, and I think this battle is lost, though it hasn't started yet. Whoever they are, they seem to be after me. They want the dragon off my back. I wish Ghangai would give me my weapons, but he refused. I'm not sure I could be much help against these people but I hate to have to just sit here while they come to kill me. If I have to die today, I would rather take some of them with me. All I have for a weapon is a length of chain shackled to my left wrist. If they get close enough I'll use it, but I doubt they will. They are all armed with bows. They're coming now. I just caught a glimpse of one. I love you, Xena.
I had a little time and I prepared myself for battle, blocking out all other thought, concentrating on the enemy. They may be the best I had ever seen but I wasn't bad myself and I planed to go down fighting with my last breath. My senses were fully alert now and I watched one of them come up the hill, noting his tactics. He was very good, but he had been found out because I studied everything he did and did not do. Once I lost him but now that I knew a little more about him, I found him again. I had only known one his equal or better and that was Xena. She had come at me up a similar hill in broad daylight, to prove a point when I was being smug about my level of training; I had never seen her. I had her skills now, and I had this one to watch.
They took their time and arrived at the top of the hill just after the sun set, knowing we would be fatigued from watching for them all day. The man I had watched slid in among the rocks near me then moved towards the nearest warrior, several feet away. He never saw me or knew what hit him. I took his sword, dagger and bow, grabbing the quiver and diving back into the rocks. I had seen enough of my surroundings to know that at least two others were on the hill already and no one had spotted them! I nocked an arrow and took aim for the one near Ghangai, aware that Ghangai was pulling an arrow on me thinking I was shooting at him. We let fly at nearly the same time and I moved to dodge his arrow. I caught it and nocked it then sent it towards the other Wind Warrior, but he disappeared before my arrow got to him.
Ghangai had turned as my arrow passed him and was staring in amazement at the Wind Warrior barely four paces away from him!
The enemy was more cautious now, aware that we had at least one who could find them. I immediately dropped among the rocks and moved to another position, watching the place I had just vacated. The Wind Warrior that appeared there took my arrow through the throat. I moved again but this time I was more concerned with an attack on my new position. They had fallen into my trap once, but would not do so again. They would be looking for me near where I had been and without going into the open I could only move a little ways away from my last position.
A man screamed in agony but I didn't turn from my vigil. I knew it was one of Ghangai's men and where he was. I also knew an instants inattention could get me killed. Sure enough, the man that came towards me had expected me to turn. To his surprise, his striking blade met mine. The battle was furious but lasted only a short time, then he was gone. I had touched him with my blade twice and knew he was wounded, probably badly, but I couldn't be sure how badly. The instant he was gone I dropped back into the rocks. An arrow struck the rocks and dropped on me. It looked like they didn't want me alive anymore.
They went to ground after that. Time was on their side. A while later, Ghangai made his way to me. He gave me a bite to eat and some water, ignoring my weapons. He also produced a key and released the shackle on my wrist. Then he was gone, back to his post, without so much as a word.
The night was long, broken only by the scream of one of Ghangai's men who got careless and took an arrow for it. They were near and they were watching.
The arrow was a mistake, because I not only heard it and knew the direction it came from, but I had heard his release; was barely ten paces from me! Maybe it was time I paid him a visit. Time I became the hunter instead of the hunted. I stripped off the robe and clutched the dagger in my teeth. I would have to be careful because I still wore those white pants, though they were dirty gray from the dirt and water they had seen. They were still lighter that I would have liked, but an even greater danger was my hair and light complexion. I was still bare foot and I was glad. I left my position and moved towards my enemy but not directly towards his location. Instead I swung wide and around to get behind him.
A sudden rage seized me and I had to stop and force it down. I needed caution here. Xena's rage could get me killed. I waited and a short time later, it passed as quickly as it had come. I moved on, feeling out the ground with my bare feet before moving. It took me nearly an hour to get where I wanted to be, an hour of utter silence from both sides. In the total silence, I entered the little space he was using, well hidden behind several large rocks and giving him a perfect view of the top of the hill. Ghangai should have seized this position. He was sleeping! His body lay against the rocks, curled up slightly. I started towards him, my hackles rose, and I dropped into a roll, the arrow just missing me. It had been a trap and I had fallen for it! I rolled to my feet as he jumped down in front of me and swung his sword. I blocked it with my dagger then kicked his shin with all my strength, hearing bone snap. He suppressed most of his scream and rolled away from me. I turned frantically looking for the man that had been pretending sleep and he was still there. He wasn't pretending. He had to be the man I had fought earlier and he was apparently dead. The man in front of me wasn't and broken bone or not he intended to get me if he could. As he came out of his roll, he threw a dagger at me. I dodged it but it was close. It hit the rocks to my left and skittered away. He came at me along the rocks on his one good leg, swinging his sword, forcing me back. He lunged again and swung, forcing me back again and I suddenly got very nervous. Without thought, I dodged his blow then moved into him, my dagger driving into him just under his ribs. He gasped. I didn't stop but went past him, turning him in time to feel the arrow thud into him. The other Wind Warrior, the last I hoped, stood on the ridge above nocking another arrow. I had already pulled the knife out of the man before me and as he fell, I threw it. It caught him low, driving into him to the hilt. He sagged into it pulling his bow off target. His released arrow struck me in the right thigh passing through to the feathers. The scream died in my throat as the rage hit me again. I kicked the man beside me over on his back and grabbed his fallen sword. As I stood, the Wind Warrior stood. With all my rage and strength, I threw the sword. It flipped once and went through his belly. He dropped to his knees still lifting his bow as I fell sideways, the pain of my landing releasing my scream, but it was a scream of frustrated rage. He lifted the bow as I tried to get up. I wasn't going to make it so I stopped and waited with both hands ready. He wavered, his pull loosening, but then he firmed up and took careful aim. He fired and I dodged and grabbed. It was too close. The arrow went through my left wrist and into my right shoulder as he fell from the rocks.
Slowly I got to my feet and walked towards him, the rage still upon me. He lay on his back looking up at me. I grabbed the sword and pulled and he screamed, but he also pulled a dagger and struck at me. I turned, feeling the dagger slide along my ribs. I brought the hilt of the sword down on his hand as I dodged away, driving it down and away, the dagger dropping from his numb fingers. I kicked it away then backed away from him. He was unarmed and dying and I was hurting and feeling faint. I started to turn away from him and Xena's voice screamed in my mind, something she had drilled into me relentlessly. Never leave an enemy at your back! I turned back to him, my sword coming up barely in time to strike his dagger and fling it away. He not only had a second, but was lifting a third to throw at me. My strike at the knife had pulled at the arrow through my left arm and into my shoulder, I cried out, and stumbled to my knees, my injured leg buckling. As I fell, he tossed the third knife. My fall and his weakening condition saved me. The knife struck me in the left side but skidded along my ribs beneath the surface.
It was a struggle but using the sword, I managed to get to my feet. The warrior was dead and I turned away again. When I finally managed to get close to the camp, I called out to Ghangai. He refused to come to me thinking it was a trap.
"Don't shoot and I will come to you then," I answered him. I gathered my strength and limped towards his position. "Unless there are more than six, the battle is over," I said, then went to my knees.
He came to me then and I was carried carefully to his position. Someone brought a blanket and they lay me on it. He offered me water then checked my wounds.
"This will hurt, woman," he said, as if I didn't know that. He snapped the arrow that held my left hand trapped to my shoulder. I made no sound and his eyebrow raised in surprise. "You handle pain well, for a woman."
"How kind of you to say so," I answered, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I saw his anger flare but he forced it down. I cursed myself for my remark because he was less gentle after that. Before he had finished tending my wounds, the sun pushed up over the nearby desolate mountains.
He finished wrapping my right thigh and sat back looking at me. "You continue to surprise me, woman. Through the treatment of your wounds you have not uttered a sound and remained awake. How do you do it?"
"You mean because I'm a weak woman?"
"Yes, of course," he answered and I knew that's exactly what he meant.
I patted his hand. "You just keep thinking that."
"You are very lucky. To be hit by arrows and a dagger from a Wind Warrior and live is unusual. They usually hit their mark better than that."
I smiled. He would never understand the training I had received or the little gifts of a soulmate. "I have little faith in luck, Ghangai."
He shook his head puzzled, then covered me with a blanket. "Sleep now and regain your strength."
I snuggled down into the blankets and closed my eyes. He would never know what an effort it had been not to scream my head off and pass out, while he tended my wounds.
When I woke it was late afternoon. I was glistening with sweat but had a chill. I opened my eyes to see Ghangai seated watching me. When my eyes opened, he offered me some water.
"The curse of your wounds is upon you, woman. You burn with fever."
I took the water then lay back, feeling too weak even to answer, my eyes closing.
"I took a look around after you went to sleep," he remarked. "What I found is impossible."
My eyes snapped open. He looked genuinely confused.
"What is impossible?" I asked in a horse whisper.
"Six dead Wind Warriors. I have never seen even one."
"Why? They are but men, as you are." I said.
He shook his head in disbelief. "Wind Warriors are more than mere men. They are part wolf, hawk, and wind. They move with the stealth of the wolf, have the eyes of the hawk and the speed of the wind. They are never where you think they are and appear when you least expect them. No man has ever killed more than one of them and none that have killed a Wind Warrior ever lived out the year. The rest of them know and hunt them down."
"Oh, great. Now you tell me," I muttered, not really caring, "and here I was planning to live for years at Jengus' court."
He frowned. "You are a fool, woman, to jest about such things."
"Perhaps," I admitted. "If I thought it would improve my chances I would be serious about it, but somehow I don't think it will matter to your lord, Ghangai. Nor will it matter to him that I did what you say is impossible and killed six Wind Warriors, so why should I be serious."
"You are a strange woman. I do not understand you."
"My name is Gabrielle, and I'm strange only because I refuse to live by your rules for women."
He tried my name several times then gave up. I suppressed a grin.
"Bah, a demons name! No one could say it!" he growled.
"I thought I was a simple woman?" I asked.
He growled and stood looking down at me. "Go back to sleep!" he ordered, which I was only too happy to do.
We crested a ridge in the mountains and I was looking down at my fate. Jengus' encampment was huge. There were hundreds of cook fires and tents spread across the plains, all the way to the distant river. In the center of it all, stood one of the largest tents I had ever seen.
Five more days had passed. The first day I had slept while Ghangai waited for his reinforcements to arrive. The second day had been spent getting prepared for the trip, including making sure everyone in the battle was better rested and well fed. By then most of the horses had regained their strength. When we were ready to leave, Ghangai came to me with a litter for me to ride. I promptly got up, showing him more strength than I felt and none of the pain of my movements. He argued I should stay on the litter to recover my fragile health. Instead, I climbed into the saddle of one of the nearby horses and refused the litter. Again, he was confused and upset by my actions. Well, let him be confused. I had wondered just how strong his cultural blinders were and it appeared they were very strong. He seemed incapable of understanding my actions and so I had to be a demon, since a woman could never do the things I had done. As a demon, I was capable of anything and so he kept a safe distance from me, his manner becoming coldly indifferent, yet he still insisted, at times, in treating me like a fragile woman! The argument about the litter and my being able to mount a horse only served to convince him more thoroughly that I was indeed a demon and not to be trusted. After that, he ignored me, except to make sure I was well guarded and, after the first part of the trip, again shackled to the horse. During our final ride, I had had no chance to escape and wouldn't have gotten far if I had. I needed time for my injuries to heal, time to regain my full strength, but it didn't look like I would get it. This very morning he had again insisted I wear clothes to hide the fact that I was a woman, including a hood.
We rode down the path into the camp in some semblance of order, the warriors riding four abreast, except where I rode in the center of the formation. I rode in a space two horses wide and two long, with guards on either side, leaving me extra room to move but more to emphasize my status as a dangerous prisoner. Cold dark eyes watched me pass towards the Khan's tent, no hint of sympathy or compassion in any of them.
At the Khan's tent, I was ordered down and my guard surrounded me, the one behind me holding the other end of my chain. All six of them drew their swords. Ghangai spoke to me from outside the circle.
"We go to meet our Khan, demon. You will remain cloaked and hooded, unless our Khan wishes differently. If you remove your hood without his approval you will be killed instantly, your head removed from your shoulders. If you utter a sound without his permission, you will suffer the same fate. If you look towards the Khan without permission, you will also die. You will keep your head bowed and when I tell you, you will fall on your knees. You will not rise until the Khan allows it. If the Khan chooses to see you, you will not move no matter what he chooses to do to you. You are his property to do with as he sees fit. Obey these rules or die." He turned to the tent and the sword behind me nudged me forward.
Well, it looked like this was to be my end. If I broke any of his precious rules they would kill me and from what he had told me previously the Khan would probably kill me anyway. Today was probably not going to be one of my favorite days.
As we entered the gloom of the tent, I lowered my eyes and followed the guards ahead. Until I had some idea of what I was up against there was no sense getting myself killed over some stupid rule. The interior was divided into several rooms by sheer hangings. The rooms were elegantly done in beautiful carpets and furnishings, but I caught no movement of other people. I did hear several giggles from one room off to my left and assumed they were from the Khan's concubines or wives. Finally, we entered a large room and I was marched towards an ornate, golden chair. They stopped me four paces from the chair.
"Kneel!" Ghangai commanded. He dropped the bag he carried to one side. I dropped, as my guards also dropped to their knees. Ghangai dropped to his knees then laid my weapons out before him before bowing his head.
Nothing happened for several minutes then a shadow passed from my left to the chair.
"Your report, Ghangai," said a soft voice, but there was the ring of authority in it.
Ghangai began his report with their departure on their mission! He droned on through the first part of it fairly quickly, until arriving at the camp where I had been taken from the other Khan's warriors. From there on, he told nearly every detail! We all remained on our knees, heads bowed, my guards' swords grounded outside the circle I was in, while he told the whole thing right up to the ridge above the camp. The Khan never interrupted him, though I did see a shadow pass to him and heard some drink being poured. Less than half way through the tale, my right leg began to bother me more than a little. By the time he finished, I was in a lot of pain; sweat covering me. When he finished, there was silence for several minutes.
"You may stand, Ghangai, and dismiss your guard."
Ghangai did so, taking a position beside me but facing the Khan.
"This is the demon, who impersonates a woman, with the dragon on her back?" the Khan asked.
"Yes, eminent one." Ghangai replied, bowing.
"These are her weapons?"
The room was silent while he studied my weapons.
"She carried all of these weapons, Ghangai?"
"Show this woman, who is a demon, to me, Ghangai," he said.
Ghangai bowed. "May I have permission to chain her first, your eminence?"
"Yes, yes. Just show it to me."
Ghangai locked my chain to a ring in the floor then pulled me to my feet and removed the hooded cape, letting it drop along the chain.
Silence followed while the Khan studied me. "It has unnatural color in its skin and hair, Ghangai."
"Yes, eminence. It also has green eyes," he replied and I noted that I had become an 'it' to him, mimicking the Khan's usage.
"I would see the dragon, Ghangai," the Khan said and Ghangai ripped open the back of my shirt and let it fall. I stood naked to the waist while the Khan walked around me.
"What are these wounds, Ghangai."
"The Wind Warriors took it prisoner and were removing the dragon, eminence."
"The dragon has green eyes also, Ghangai," he muttered.
"I would see it's other wounds as well. Show me," he said after a long pause while he studied the dragon.
Ghangai showed him the wound in my wrist, shoulder, and side then dropped my trousers and showed him the wound in my leg.
"Show me the face and eyes of this demon, Ghangai."
"Yes, eminence. Raise your head, demon," he commanded.
I raised my head. The man in front of me was slightly taller than Ghangai. He was strongly built, obviously a fighter. This Khan fought with his men, I could see that in his stance and his weapons for he was fully armed and his weapons were not just for show. They were well made and showed signs of much use. His face was strong, angular, with a slightly hooked nose. His lips thin and drawn down at the edges under a thin mustache, the long ends hanging to his jaw. The rest of his face was without whiskers. His hair was worn the same as Ghangai's, pulled back high on the back of the head into a tight band then flowing to his shoulders. What set him apart was his eyes, under thick black brows. There was a fire there, an intensity that I had seen only once before and that had been in the eyes of Caesar. I shivered.
He studied my eyes, then scanned my body. He stepped closer for a better look at my eyes.
"Please, eminence, the demon is very dangerous."
"How dangerous can it be, Ghangai? It is unarmed, chained, and naked."
"It was unarmed and chained when it killed the Wind Warriors, eminence, though the chain was not secured to anything.
He studied me a moment longer without getting any closer then turned to my weapons again. He carelessly grasped the chakram then dropped it as if it were hot, blood welling in a line across his hand.
There were several moments of confusion as Ghangai abased himself for not warning the Khan, and the Khan wrapped his hand. Finally, he went back to my weapons and picked up one of my sai, studying it closely. "What good are these, Ghangai? The blades are not sharp."
"I'm not sure, eminence. I suspect they are used for throwing."
"It would not tell you?"
"I did not ask. A demon would naturally lie, eminence."
"Yes, perhaps that is so." He took out one of my daggers and this time Ghangai warned him that they were razor sharp."
"These are nicely balanced, Ghangai."
"Yes, eminence. I suspect they are for throwing but also for close fighting."
"And what is this, Ghangai?" he asked picking up my katana."
"The demon's sword, eminence. It is extremely sharp."
"Really? It seems too fragile to be an effective weapon." He grabbed the hilt and pulled it apart, dropping the ornate scabbard to the carpet and holding up the blade to get the feel of it. He made several passes with it and a little smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "It is well balanced and seems to have a life of its own, Ghangai. It turns well and is very light." He flexed the blade then suddenly struck the flat side of it against a nearby tent pole. "It is very strong." He spun around and struck the pole again with all his might, but this time using the blade. It sliced cleanly through the pole and he was forced to retreat from that corner of the tent as it partially collapsed. "And very sharp indeed. I will keep it for my own."
"I urge caution, mighty Khan. It is a demon weapon and could turn on you," Ghangai said, and as if to confirm that, the Khan touched the blade and it cut him badly. He dropped it, holding his thumb and turning in anger to me. "Perhaps I will use it only once, to take the head of this demon!" He pushed the hovering Ghangai away and went to his throne, lifting his glass, watching me.
"Now that you have seen it, eminence, I would advise you to kill it." Ghangai said.
The Khan stared at me and I stared right back at him. The silence grew long, and then he smiled. "No, Ghangai, I have never owned a demon before. I will keep it for now. Tell me, how was it clothed?"
"I can show you, eminence," he answered and turned to his saddlebags, off to one side. He removed my Amazon clothes and dropped them in front of the Khan.
"This is like the ones brought to me from her horse. It wore so little, in the cold?"
"No, eminence. It had outer garments and a cloak."
"Leave us, Ghangai."
"Yes, eminence," Ghangai responded and left immediately.
He studied my clothes then studied me again.
"Can you speak, demon?" he asked.
"Yes." I answered.
"My commander thinks I should kill you, demon. What do you think?"
"Why would you care what I think?"
"I don't, just curious about your answer."
"I think you will do what you wish to."
"A curious answer. You do not beg for your worthless life."
"How much good would it do?"
"There's always a chance."
"No. You would like to see me beg, but you would kill me even sooner. I read it in your eyes."
He smiled slightly. "I think I like you demon. You are entertaining."
He picked up the katana then lifted my halter on the tip, holding it out to me. "Put this on. I would like to see my demon in its' clothes."
"I can't put it on with the chain on my wrist."
He studied me a moment. "I will release the chain, but remember, if you try anything I will use your own sword to take your head."
He released the chain, watching me closely. I put the top on and he tossed me the skirt. I slipped it on and stood.
"The boots, too," he said. I complied and stood up again.
"You do not dress as a warrior, demon, yet you carry enough weapons for two warriors. Why is that?"
"Before I became a warrior I was a bard and an Amazon. I dress as an Amazon. These are Amazon clothes."
"Amazon? I do not know this word. What is an Amazon?"
"An Amazon is a member of the Amazon Nation. Most of them are warriors."
"A warrior nation that permits its women to fight?"
"A warrior nation that is all women."
His eyebrows raised. "A nation of all women? Really, or is this a demon lie?"
"I do not lie and I'm not a demon."
He slashed the katana at me, stepping closer, his face contorting in anger.
"I, Jengus Khan have proclaimed you a demon! If I say you are a demon, then you are a demon!"
He glared at me, daring me to contradict him, the katana ready to strike. I remained silent and finally he cooled down and spoke as if nothing had angered him.
"What is a bard?"
"A teller of stories," I answered.
"You are a teller of stories?"
"I was. I haven't told stories in a long time."
"Tell me a story, demon. Tell me of your conquests."
"I make no conquests."
"All warriors make conquests. That's why they are warriors. Tell me of your conquests or I will kill you, demon," he said, leaning back in his chair and picking up his drink. My katana was still in his other hand.
I told him of routing a warlord from a village.
"Ah, see. You take the village from the other warriors and now they pay tribute to you."
"They pay me nothing. I have never been back there."
"Then you are a fool. Why take the village only to release them."
"I didn't take the village at all. I fought with them to help rid them of an oppressor who was taking all their crops and money."
He was silent a moment, watching me. "You speak of someone like me."
I didn't answer him.
"If we were to meet, you would be against me. You would attack me."
Again I didn't answer and he rose from his seat, coming towards me.
"You would seek to stop me, to kill me," he said, his eyes boring into mine.
"If that was the only way to stop you, yes." I returned his look without flinching.
"Ghangai is right, I should kill you." He raised the katana, indecision in his eyes, which hardened into resolve when I didn't flinch. He swung the katana with all his strength. I ducked it and his swing took him off balance. I gave him a kick to help him along and tumbled across the floor coming to my feet with my sais at the ready. When he turned to me there was fury in his eyes that I had dare touch him and he rushed me swinging the katana again. I blocked it then struck his arm hard and the katana flew out of his hand. I back peddled and caught it as he drew his sword and met his blow, countering with one of my own. He fought like a demon himself but I had no problem holding him off though I couldn't seem to get through his defenses.
Suddenly a rage came over me more potent in its' fury than any before. I screamed my war cry and leaped into the air, my sword slicing cleanly through the rider's neck and he fell from the frightened horse.
My world righted itself and I stood over the headless body of the Khan. I dropped to my knees in shock not even seeing the body before me. "Xena! You have to stop. Please, you have to stop!" I sobbed. "Please stop, before I have to find a way to stop you." I was horrified by what I had felt in that brief instant. The rage and hatred had been so intense I could hardly believe the intensity I had felt and was shaking like a leaf. I had to get to Japa. I had to leave, now. I stood and turned to find Ghangai standing in the entrance, his sword in his hand. Two guards stood behind him, their swords also drawn.
"You will not leave her alive, demon!" he shouted in rage and attacked me, the two guards following. He wasn't as good with the sword as his Khan had been, and I quickly disarmed him, knocked him to the ground, then took out the guards.
I stood over Ghangai. "I'm leaving her, Ghangai. Your Khan tried to kill me and I don't kill easily."
"There are four thousand men outside, demon."
"You will tell them to let me pass or I will destroy them all, Ghangai."
"You cannot kill them all, demon."
"I cannot kill six Wind Warriors either, according to you, but I did. You will let me pass or you will have nothing left but an army of the dead, Ghangai. Think of your men, Ghangai. You are Khan, now."
He studied me for several moments but I didn't waver, my katana steady on his throat.
"How do I know you will leave us in peace?" he finally asked.
"Because I must get to the coast. I have business in another country. I do not plan to come back here. All I want is to be left alone to go my way. If you let me go and do not follow me I will not return."
He studied me a moment more before relenting. "All right. You may leave, but I must tell the men their Khan is dead."
"Tell them after you escort me to the edge of your camp." I said as I backed away from him. "I am in a hurry. I want to leave now. Provide me with my horses and equipment and I will leave you in peace. Tell your guards to arrange it."
He bowed slightly to me. "It shall be done." He turned and instructed the guards while I collected the rest of my weapons.
When we left it was the middle of the night. Ghangai rode ahead of me, stiff in the saddle. I rode behind with my two extra horses in tow. All around me, men slept with only the occasional guard. None of them challenged him though they did look to me curiously since I was once again cloaked and hooded. My heart hardly seemed to beat as we went through the camp. One sign from Ghangai and it was all over, but evidently he believed I could destroy his army or perhaps he just wanted rid of me before I could cause any more trouble. Whatever the cause I breathed a sigh of relief when we were beyond the camp. Ghangai turned to me.
"I have kept my word, now you keep yours, demon. If you return to this country we will hunt you down and make your last days last a thousand years."
"I will keep my word as long as you don't follow me," I answered.
"Believe me, I want nothing more to do with you." He nudged his horse past me to his camp and I kicked my horse to a fast ground eating gait, as fast as I dared go along the moonlit path. The further away from the camp I was the better I would like it.
A short time later, I found a path leading off the main trail into the mountains and took it. I didn't trust him not to have an ambush on the main trail, or this one for that matter, but thought it less likely. I rode along the narrow trail until the moon dropped towards the mountains in the west, then found a small glade, took care of my horses, and then rolled in my blankets.
I was up before the sun and back on the trail. I crested the mountain through a rough pass showing some remnants of snow then made my way down the eastern slopes. The path was rough and slow going. Many times I was forced to walk, leading the horses carefully over dangerous sections of the winding path down the mountain. As evening approached, I found a stream fed pool with a little meadow to graze the horses and made camp after thoroughly checking for neighbors. I had no desire to be captured again. I caught several fish and found a few greens and several mushrooms for my dinner, hardly a great meal but one of the best I had had in a while. When the meal was over, I bathed in the cold waters then checked the wounds I could, using my recovered medical kit. They were healing nicely. Finally, I crawled between my blankets and lay listening to the night sounds around me, and the soft sighing of the evening breeze through the trees, as I stared up at the stars.
Xena. I'm coming, love. Please hold on! Don't give in to the demon within. You're strong. I know you can keep her caged. Don't give in, please don't give in!
Another five days had come and gone while I traveled this never-ending country. The people watched me pass in silence then went on their way. No one bothered me as I raced across the land towards the coast, until that fifth day.
I crested a hill and below me lay the remains of a village, wisps of smoke still rising from the ruins, the acrid smell of burnt flesh in the air. Straight-ahead, on the other side of the village, a large army was camped, some of their soldiers wandered through the village looking for anything of use or value. I saw a soldier kill an unarmed man at the same time I felt the wrath of demon Xena come over me again, less violent but blending in with my own rage at the warrior. I jumped my horse to a gallop and raced across the thin grasses covering the descent into the town. Then I was among them and though Xena's rage had subsided, my own was still burning, spurred on by another needless killing before I could get there.
The warriors could not help but see me coming, and they gathered to meet me in force. I reined my horse to a hard halt in front of them and vaulted over his head to land before them. My katana slid into my hand without thought and as they charged me, I waded into them with no thought of mercy. These men were wanton killers; my proof lay nearby gasping out his last breath as his blood flowed into the earth from the gash in his throat.
My katana was a blur aided by the dagger in my other hand and I cut them down as though they were unarmed. Eleven men charged me. One chose to flee as his last ally's head struck him in the chest, and I started for him. I let him go, watching for others. There were none. I watched the last man race across the short distance to their camp and to the larger tent, knowing that I had started something I would probably not be able to finish.
Some villagers came hesitantly towards me, out of the ashes of their homes; half afraid that this blood splattered, strange looking fighting woman would turn on them. I returned to my horse, found a rag to clean my weapons, and sheathed them. An old man approached me bowing all the way.
"We are in your debt stranger. Minga's warriors would kill us all, but for you."
The language was oddly accented and difficult to understand but I was able to puzzle it out.
"Honorable grandfather, I have only bought you a short time. You must flee into the hills. I cannot stop his entire army and they will come soon. Please leave, until they have gone."
"These are our homes, warrior. How can we leave?" he answered.
"They will be your graves if you stay, grandfather. It is wiser to flee for now and return when they are gone."
"But we do not need to. You have come, as has been written so long ago. You will save us from this evil."
Just great, I sighed. They had legends of a savior, and I had fallen into the trap.
"Grandfather, I am not a savior, merely a traveler that has stopped to offer aid. I cannot defeat an entire army."
He smiled the smile of the knowing. "It is written that in the hour of our most pressing need a golden warrior will come from the west. With the power of the dragon, she will crush our enemies, and we shall know peace for many years thereafter."
I was stunned speechless, an icy finger working its way down my back, causing me to shiver.
"Grandfather, I cannot be this warrior," I finally managed, hardly able to speak.
"Daughter of destiny, you can be no other. With golden hair and skin, I would already be sure, but with the dragon to strengthen you, you must be the one."
He bowed deeply as the others were already doing.
"You have but to command us daughter and we will do whatever you wish."
"Please, grandfather, do not bow to me. I am but a weary traveler."
"Command us daughter," he answered, and I groaned inwardly.
"All right. Gather what you can of your belongings and flee into the hills."
He looked up at me, defiance in his eyes. "We would stay and help you fight these barbarians, daughter."
I leaned forward and pulled him to his feet. "If I am to help you, grandfather, you must do as I say. Are any of you warriors?"
"Then you cannot stay here. If I am to fight here I need to know that you are safely away from the fighting or I will worry too much about you and give the enemy an advantage I cannot afford to let him have. Please do as I say. Get everyone safely away from here before the battle begins. You must hurry. Already they stir."
He nodded reluctantly at my words. "Very well, daughter."
"Please hurry, grandfather. There isn't much time."
He bowed and turned to the villagers and they quickly disbursed to gather their belongings.
I turned to watch the enemy camp. I had stirred an anthill. Even from here, I could hear shouted orders as they hurried to get ready for battle.
Looks like I've gotten myself into a real mess, Xena. I wish you were here. Unbidden some of her last words to me flowed into my mind, "I will always be with you, Gabrielle," and I knew it was true. Even though I had forbidden her to follow me and her spirit was in Japa, I knew that I carried her in my heart, and always would. A sadness filled me because I knew only a miracle would get me out of this one. I would have to try to make amends to her on the other side, if she would even see me, but I couldn't just leave these people. I had to do my best for them. See you soon, my love.
I went to my horses and released the two extra animals, handing their reins to the grandfather as he returned. "Please take care of these horses for me, grandfather."
He bowed. "It would be my honor, warrior. I came to tell you that most of the people are already leaving. I will be last."
"You may use my horse, if you can ride, grandfather."
"Thank you, daughter. It has been a long time, but I think I can remember."
"The mare is gentle, grandfather. She will not offer you surprises."
"I came to tell you something that may help you, daughter, if you would care to hear it."
"Minga is a proud warrior. He boasts that no one can beat him in a fight. All that have tried have died."
I smiled. "Thank you, grandfather, you have given me the way to defeat him. Hurry now. They are almost ready."
I helped him mount the mare and watched him ride stiffly into the distance, catching up with his people, then turned to my enemy. They were ready and beginning to move. I searched my saddlebags and found a white cloth. I rode half way to them and stopped, displaying my white banner. They halted and a short time later a rider rode towards me showing a white banner. Good. I had been afraid they would not answer a flag of truce. He rode hard towards me and pulled up sharply a few paces away.
"What do you want, woman?" he snarled, spitting 'woman' out as if it was something dirty and beneath him. "Do you wish to surrender to the great Minga and beg his mercy?"
"No, I merely wondered if this braggart Minga had the courage to meet a woman in battle or if he was going to cower behind his men."
"You dare to insult the great Minga? He will torture you for a thousand days!"
"Yes, I'm sure he would like to do that, but first his men must capture me while he cowers behind them in fear. I see the metal of this great warrior," I said as derisively as I could. "Tell him he is a coward, afraid of the challenge of a woman."
"Minga will tear you apart with his bare hands, foreign slut."
"After I'm dead and he need not fear me, perhaps, but not before. Take this message to the coward. If he has the nerve to face a woman, perhaps he could find the courage to face her with a sword."
"I will take your message, whore. Minga will slice you into pieces for his dog."
"Minga hasn't got the guts to slice a dead pig. My challenge stands. I will wait to see if this coward has the courage to meet me without wetting himself."
He wheeled his horse and sped off, rage plain on his face. I lifted my waterskin and took a long slow drink. If he were smart, his men would ride over me, but I knew something of the pride of warriors, especially in this country. When the word of my challenge got out, and it would, I doubted his men would follow him until he proved me wrong.
It didn't take long and I saw him come from his tent and vault into the saddle. I dropped the white banner into my saddlebags as he charged towards me without a banner showing. He stopped a short distance away and sat studying me. I sat with my hands resting on the pommel. He was a large man for these parts, probably a little taller than me and he was strongly built. I could see that he would be a tough adversary. His neck was thick and his face rounded. Black hair flowed to his shoulders and his drooping mustaches hung below his chin. After a cursory look at him and his weapons, a curved sword and dagger, I ignored all but his malevolent black eyes and the cruel twist of his mouth.
"So, you think Minga is a coward?" he said. "Normally I would kill you quick, but for that I will make you suffer a thousand deaths."
"You cannot kill me with words, killer of children and old women. You must take up a weapon, if you have the guts."
He turned purple in rage and attacked me, screaming in anger, his sword swinging to take off my head, but my katana met his blow and deflected it. My return cut across his ribs, cutting him even through his hide armor. He was past me and turned as I turned to him."
"A child could do better than that, killer of the helpless." I taunted, and he flew at me, his rage even more intense. We traded blows, the clash of metal ringing across the tundra, the intensity of his rage driving him like a madman. While we fought, his entire army cheered him on sending curses to hinder me and help him. They cheered wildly when his deflected sword gashed my right thigh open and went crazy with excitement when his warhorse rammed mine and sent it staggering for footing, his sword coming so close it nicked my throat. Fortunately for me he pulled his horse in or mine would have overbalanced and sent me to the ground, but instead he recovered and we returned the charge. His horse reared as we slammed into it and went over backwards. He jumped clear and rolled to his feet. I left the saddle in a flip and landed a short distance in front of him.
"Are you ready to fight yet?" I taunted. He roared like a bull as he charged me, raining heavy blows on my katana, forcing me to retreat, but in his rage he made a mistake. My katana took his head from his shoulders even as he was realizing his folly and his fatal mistake.
The cheering choked off as if cut with a knife and no sound came from the army. They stood in disbelief, their sacred leader slain by a foreign woman of strange manner, size and color. To add insult to injury I wiped my sword on his shirt then, though the thought revolted me, I spit on him as if he were nothing, then turned to face the enemy in defiance. They were incredulous, amazed, horrified, unable to believe what they had seen with their own eyes, the invincible Minga, vanquished by a woman. With as much contempt as I could muster I sheathed my katana then turned my back on them and mounted my horse. I sat on my horse watching them, waiting to see what they would do. A long time passed in silence, then three men lay down their weapons and marched to retrieve their leader. They returned with him and slowly the army returned to their camp. A short time later the first tent was struck and I knew I had won. I returned to the burned out city, found a place where they could not see me and heaved my guts out.
I spent a few hours there, only because of my leg wound and blood loss. The people would have fawned over me, giving me everything they owned which was pitifully little with their town burned, but I refused and had grandfather send them on their way. When I felt a little better, I climbed into the saddle though he pleaded for me to stay.
"I cannot stay, grandfather, my mission is yet to come and most urgent."
"You could stay until your wound is healed," he replied but I shook my head.
"No, grandfather. My work is done here and I am sorely needed elsewhere. My wound will heal."
"Then go with the town's blessing, warrior and know that we will forever be in your debt. Won't you please grace us with your name, so we may remember you always."
I smiled at him. "I will give it gladly but I doubt you can pronounce it. You name me grandfather."
"Tell me this name please. I would try."
"My name is Gabrielle, grandfather."
He tried several times then grinned sheepishly. "You are right, the forming of it escapes me, but in here I shall remember it always," he said tapping his head. "I shall name you with honor daughter and you will always be welcome here."
"Thank you. I must go now. Goodbye."
"Goodbye, most noble warrior. May the gods of earth, wind and fire always favor you."
I turned from him and put my horse into a ground-eating gallop away from him, not wanting him to see the tears in my eyes.
I traveled several leagues then found a place to stop, though the day would have allowed me to go further. In truth I had lost a lot of blood and was weary beyond what I should have been. The night was cool but warmer than the mountains and I made a cold camp in a cut in the earth that led to a small spring and a few trees. I cleaned up, had a light meal of cold travel rations then rolled in my blankets staring up at the few early stars I could see.
I have been delayed again, Xena, but I couldn't leave those helpless people to be slaughtered. Today I purposely baited a man to his death and then spit on him. It sickens me that I have the ability to do this but he had to die and his men had to know my contempt for him. It worked and his army has gone, but I feel dirty, soiled, for having done it. I'm glad you didn't have to see me do such a thing. It may have been necessary but it doesn't feel right to do that to any human, even a monster like him. How is it that what I have done can be right but feel so very wrong here inside me. I wish you were here. I could use a shoulder to cry on tonight. Wait for me, love, please wait.
I crested the ridge and my heart leaped into my throat. There it was. The sea. The goal I had fought so hard these many months to reach now lay far below me, breaking against the sheer cliffs. All I had to do is find a port city and I would be on my way. I was too far north still, by a great deal because I could see far to the south and saw nothing but desolate cliffs and beaches. I immediately started south, but had hardly gone a league when I was forced back into the mountains. The land along the coast was desolate, broken and impassable. I would have to go back inland then turn south. My frustration was so high I wanted to scream, but instead I turned that energy to my goal and pressed on even harder. Day after day I traveled south, several times having to turn even further inland to find a way around deep gorges cutting my path. The land was desolate, unfriendly, and inhospitable to most life. Several times, I was forced back into the higher mountains to find water and food. I felt like I had traveled half the world round and still I came on nothing familiar.
My discouragement began to grow along with the frequency of Xena's rages. I knew in my heart that my foolishness had cost me my soulmate. Xena had returned to the old ways, her rages told me that. I desperately needed to get to Japa and stop her. I wondered if Ares had brought her back yet, fearing that he had, and she was destroying that strange, violent, but enchanting land, with Ares watching in delight.
I clung desperately to the hope that I was wrong but all the while the ever more frequent rages made me fear that I was right. Even while I found it hard to believe that the Xena I knew could ever become the Xena of the past; I shook in fear every time her rage overwhelmed me.
As I traveled south, the weather changed as the new season broke on the land and I found myself traveling through torrential rains. Everything became soaked through and I traveled for days without being dry. The roads became flooded quagmires and the rivers swollen over their banks. Finally, I came to a small town large enough to have an inn and high enough to be above the floods. My entry into the room silenced all conversation as everyone turned to me. My quick automatic survey of the room showed me mostly hostile faces and plenty of possible trouble. This was not a place for the timid. Well, I had never been timid, rather having more bravery and curiosity than was good for my health, when I was younger. Now my actions were tempered with years of experience and my wary senses warned me that it might be wise to move on, but I was tired, and days drenched, having had little to eat during that time. Unless the proprietor asked me to leave, I would stay.
The tables were full so I made my way to the owner. The man that came to me was a brute, thick neck and chest and bulging arms. He stood before me studying me. I asked for a room and food. The man was silent a moment and I thought he would send me away but instead he called over a young girl and had her take me to a room. I was surprised. The room was fairly large with a steaming tub in one corner and a wide pallet in another. The small table was strewn round by many pillows. I was dipping my finger in the tub when the door slid back and my host appeared with a steaming mug. He bowed to me and set the mug on the low table.
"This room is for special guests. The water is fed by a heated spring and is very soothing. I have brought you a warm drink to chase the chill of dampness from your bones. In the small chest, there in the corner you will find several robes. I'm sure you can find one to fit you. When you have made yourself comfortable ring this small bell and my daughter will bring you food."
"Thank you. You honor me sir, but I am hardly special. You don't even know me."
"One does not need to know the person to know of them. Word travels fast when things of note occur. Far to the north and west, the ruins of my childhood village are being rebuilt and my parents still live to help in the rebuilding because of you. Word has traveled far of the golden warrior and her slaying of Minga the Mighty. Please enjoy your stay and stay as long as you like."
He bowed out of the room and slid the door closed.
I was surprised that something so far away could be felt here. How is it that my travels led me to this place? I had no answers but I very much wanted that bath. I took off my soaked clothes and slid into the tub. A moan of pure pleasure escaped me as the warm water enveloped my body chasing the damp chill from my skin and replacing it with a warm glow. I dropped below the surface for a moment then lay back against the edge, the water above my shoulders. I closed my eyes and reveled in the soothing feel, the relaxation that soothed away the days of weary rain soaked travel. I lay there until I was ready to fall asleep then reluctantly washed my hair and the rest of me. Finally I climbed from the soothing warmth and dried off then found a robe that fit. It was thick and large and comfortable and I settled at the table and tasted the by now cool drink. Even cool it was relaxing and very good. After another sip, I picked up the little bell. The soft tinkling had hardly stopped when the door slid open. The young girl entered with a small tray, set it down then closed the door. She picked up the tray and came to the table. She knelt across from me and placed the tray beside herself on the floor, then placed a bowl of clear broth before me. She set a bowl of vegetables beside it and another of rice. Finally, she set a pair of chopsticks on the table, then bowed and picked up her tray. She went to the tub and picked up my sodden clothing.
"Oh, no. That's okay. I will take care of those," I said.
She bowed to me then left taking my clothes with her. So much for my authority over children.
I lifted the bowl and sipped the broth and it had a wonderful flavor, surprising in such a clear broth. I finished it, then went to work on the vegetables and rice. The seasoning was very good and I hungrily finished it all, the best meal I had had in a very long time. By the time I finished the drink, I was very sleepy.
I turned back the blankets and dropped the robe then slid under the covers pulling them up to my neck. A deep satisfied sigh escaped me.
The next two days were a pleasure, but they also weighed on my mind as another delay in my travels. Late afternoon of the second day the sun peeked through the lowering clouds for the first time in more than a week, promising sunshine the next day. I stayed on; enjoying another night of being cleanly bathed, well fed, and comfortable on a soft pallet. My dreams were still troubled, but much less than they had been, and I was able to get some restful sleep.
In the morning, I was awake early, only to hear the steady drone of heavy rain on the roof. With hidden reluctance I departed the inn and pressed on because the innkeeper refused payment and I could not stay under those conditions. I felt I didn't have the right to deprive him of earnings he might otherwise make, and I felt uncomfortable not being able to pay for my keep. Dreading the days ahead, I gathered my gear and readied my mounts. When I was ready, I mounted the stallion I had taken to calling Brat, due to his cantankerous nature. He was actually becoming used to my ways and was much better behaved, but he still had his quirks. The mare I had named Splash because of a white mark on her brown face that looked like a splash. My pack pony I now called Lazy because he tended to hang back and want to stop a lot.
I sat in the entrance to the stable watching the heavy downpour that poured from a leaden sky. Outside it was no brighter than evening though it was an hour after sunrise. I hated the idea of riding in the rain again and Brat agreed, backing away from the entrance until I stopped him. He grumbled his disagreement with my plans shaking his head violently.
I sighed, pulled my nearly useless cloak tight and nudged him out into the rain. How I longed to stay at the inn in that cozy little room, but I could not let the innkeeper pay my way, so I set a steady but cautious walk for my animals. Besides, I longed to be in Japa even more. The roads were quagmires and once I got out of town I made better time off the roads than on, the grasses firming up the footing some. I made maybe three hours progress in the entire day, spending that night poorly sheltered by some thick old trees.
The next day was more of the same, and the day following that. I came across a small town where I managed to get a few supplies and pressed on. That afternoon thunder rumbled off in the distance and I searched in vain for any shelter, but the land was flat and empty as far as I could see in any direction so I pressed on. Lightening walked across the land in front of me as the storm moved towards me and all the stories I had heard as a child about the dangers of being in a storm like this came to mind. There was nothing I could do. Nothing broke the landscape, now mostly water with grasses poking through. My horse skidded dangerously but righted himself. I dropped from the saddle into ankle deep water and led them on, slipping and sliding myself on the treacherous earth. To make matters worse the winds rose as the violent storm approached until the rain was driving almost horizontal and I was leaning at an angle to maintain any headway at all. As the storm closed in, darkness enveloped us as thick as a moonless night, but repeatedly shattered by blinding light, and rumbling thunder. Then the full fury of the storm was upon us, and I could do nothing but pull the three horses close together and try to calm them as blinding lightening flashed ever closer, accompanied by ear shattering thunderclaps. Somehow, I kept hold on them though they shied and reared in fear. My mind was numb from the incessant pounding of thunder and blinding light that seemed to go on for hours. The water continued to rise until it was up to my knees, though the current was thankfully sluggish. By the time the storm had passed and we were left with only the incessant rains, I was exhausted from fighting the horses. My arms felt like they had nearly been pulled apart. Fortunately the horses seemed almost as tired as I was, and also seemed to want my company because once the lightening moved off into the distance and the thunder diminished to a distant rumble, they crowded close wanting the comfort of my presence.
Daylight found me nodding off against Splash's neck. I roused myself and looked around and my heart sank. The water was above my knees now and I could see nothing but water in any direction. It looked like I stood in the middle of an ocean with no land in sight, and still the rain fell.
It was several hours later when I spotted a dark smudge on the water in what I thought was an easterly direction. Slowly I made my way towards it hoping it was higher land, for the water was now half way up my thighs. My progress was slow as I carefully searched out and tested each step, pushing against the sluggish waters. Slowly the dark smudge took form and I could see that it was a group of people. Closer still and I could see that they appeared to be children desperately clinging to something. Close up I counted seven children from teen aged down to toddlers being held by the older children. Frantically trying to watch and care for them all was a woman who must be their mother. They were in serious trouble, clinging to a two-wheeled cart with a broken wheel. The water here was up to my waist.
It took me a while to convince the frantic mother that I wasn't trying to steal her children. Then I got everyone, except myself, aboard one of the horses. The mother accepted my help in desperation but was obviously terrified of me. I returned the way I thought I had come, but with the low gray clouds and no sun to tell direction, everything looked the same. Slowly the water lowered back to above my knees but went no lower. Hours passed with me covering only short distances, then the water began to rise again and I had to turn back. Evidently, I was on a slight rise with lower land in at least two directions. The day wore on and the rain continued, the water rising to my hips again. Towards evening, I shared out some of my travel rations, which were not suitable for the two youngest, but the mother could feed them. I made sure she got the most to eat since she needed nourishment to make milk for her babies.
With evening the younger children became frightened again and were hard to settle down. Finally, they slept fitfully. I had to keep close watch because they were all very tired and I was afraid of losing one to the waters if they fell asleep. By morning, the waters were even higher and the rain continued. It looked to me like the sky was lighter, but it may have been my wishful imagination.
Time moved with the speed of the sluggish river and I found myself having trouble staying awake. I made myself busy checking on everyone and getting them another skimpy meal. That done I spent even more effort trying to keep my exhausted body awake and functioning. There was no room on the horses for me and I wouldn't burden the poor beasts anymore anyway. It had been two days since they had had anything to eat and that had been insufficient.
The sky was definitely lightening and the rain had slowed slightly. I prayed for a clue to direction. I had been traveling east with a large river away to my south. The only safe way to go was north. Any other direction and the water would become deeper and we would be lost. North was the only hope and even that was uncertain. I studied the sky repeatedly but could not find any sign of the sun.
I woke with a sputter as I submerged, struggling frantically against the water. I managed to regain my feet and make my way back to the horses, nearly twenty paces away in that short time. I had to do something soon or the river would claim us all. I studied the sky and thought the sky was a little brighter in one direction. Some time later the brighter area seemed lower and even later, I was sure of it. I now had a western bearing and immediately started off to the north, keeping an eye on the feeble glow in the clouds.
The water became deeper, up to my navel, but I pressed on. My feeble beacon fell lower and lower towards the never-ending water, the water slowly rising to my breasts, still I pressed on, searching relentlessly along the horizon. Our situation was desperate. I doubted the children could endure much more and I knew I was reaching my limit. I continued on, my hope dropping with the slowly rising water. Now the horses were having trouble with their footing and beginning to complain. I stopped to rest and to rest them; the incessant pushing against the water was draining my strength. The glow in the clouds began to diminish as the sun dropped to the horizon, then brightened as the clouds near the horizon thinned, and I could actually make out a hazy disk for the sun. It shed more light on the world than it had for the past few days, and off in the distance I saw what I thought was a smudge of land. I started towards it immediately, gently coaxing the horses to follow. The water continued to rise until all but my shoulders were covered and I was walking on my tiptoes fighting my own buoyancy, but the smudge was definitely land.
I made sure everyone was secure then with a silent plea for Xena to help me through this, I struck out towards the land, swimming more than walking. The bottom dropped out from under me and then the horses were struggling to swim with their loads. The strain was immense and the distance seemed hardly to shrink. I kept testing for land below and when we were half way to the land in front of me and I was about at the end of my strength my foot touched the bottom. A little farther and I could stand, and immediately turned to help the horses struggle to regain their footing.
Then it was over. I hardly realized what I was doing as I led them up on the low muddy hill. I staggered to my knees near the top and looked into the gloom for any shelter. There was something ahead. I left them and went slowly forward. It was the ruins of an old stone building of some sort, crumbling back into the earth but in a far corner I found a raised section that still had a bit of a roof. I returned to my charges and led them into the little shelter. I helped the mother get her children settled, giving them all a little of the remaining rations then stripped the gear from the horses. With that done, I lay out a soggy bed for myself and literally collapsed onto it.
I woke the next day, flushed and chilled, my head stuffed up and my body achy and weak. Fond memories of some nameless inn where I had suffered much the same symptoms but with a doting Xena to care for me, filled my thoughts as I struggled to make my stiff joints work. When I managed to stand, I felt lightheaded and had to hang on to the wall for a moment. This was no time to be sick; I had too much to do.
I checked on my little family and gave the mother enough rations to feed them, explaining to her that I had to check out our surroundings and take care of the horses, but would be back. I made a quick search of our little world and it was actually fairly large but was indeed just a small hill on the flat plain. The light was poor so I couldn't see very far into the distance and all I saw was water in all directions. Returning my attention to my immediate surroundings, the hill had a stand of old trees on it and a lot of grass, much of it lying flat on the ground but some still standing. I returned and led the horses to the best spot I found. No doubt by now they were nearly starving.
I spent some time gathering some water laden wood to bring into shelter to dry. There was no telling how long we would be here. Back in the ruins, I did a little exploring around the other sides and discovered another room, often used for camping, by the look of it, and to my delight, it had some wood neatly piled in the corner. This room was a little more sheltered than the other one was, and I decided to move my family here and keep the other for the horses. I would need to gather more wood but there was enough here for a couple of days if used carefully. I took the time to make a small fire and then I went and got the family. The fire cheered them a great deal and I set about making a thin stew from some of the dried foods I had. It wouldn't be the best ever but it would be warm and nourishing and we all needed it.
The fire was small but I rigged a little apparatus to hang things on and began to dry out some of the clothes, beginning with the smallest children. I hung my bedding and the few clothes in my saddlebags, to dry, but further back. The children came first.
Though the day was another one of constant steady rain, there was no wind, and the temperature wasn't too bad out of the rain. In our little dry spot, the small fire made a big difference.
After I got the stew cooking I made another search for wood to bring in for drying. There was quite a bit of it lying around under the trees behind the ruin and I made several trips. I kept my eyes out for any edibles to add to the stew and found several nice mushrooms and a few tubers. Our meal turned out much better than I expected. I fed the children and their mother as much as they wanted and when they were through there wasn't much left, but that was okay. I was feeling pretty bad and I didn't think it would stay down anyway. Still, at the mother's nervous insistence, I tried a little of it, but I had all I could do to choke it down and it came right back up.
We spent the day getting dried out, though I kept making trips to check on the horses, search for more wood and edibles, and I stayed soaked. By evening, I had gathered quite a lot of wood to dry and more tubers, though the mushrooms were scarce. I even killed a couple of rabbits that had made it out of the water. Our meal was even better and enough to keep for the next day if we were careful, but I could eat none of it. I could hardly keep plain water down and I was burning up while shivering with a chill. I ignored it and did what I had to do to keep my charges alive.
By nightfall, my bedding was dry and I made up a bed for the children and their mother. It was crowded but it was warm and they were all dry. Once everyone was tucked in, I made sure the fire was out and crawled in between two still damp horse blankets.
It was a miserable night and I woke that poor family up several times with my nightmares, all of which were about the evil Xena. In my dreams, she wantonly slaughtered helpless people in her rages, while I watched unable to do anything to stop her. I woke shaking uncontrollably at dawn, from the fever and chills and from the final nightmare as Xena's sword passed through my neck and she laughed in delight.
Fortunately, I woke silently. The family still slept as I crawled unsteadily from my uncomfortable bed. It took me a while to steady myself enough to walk, then I went and checked on the horses, noting that the rains had tapered to a light drizzle, but also noting that our little island was smaller. The water was still rising.
Brat came to me and let me pet him, something he would seldom do. The other two were right there for their attention, not wanting to be left out. I spent a little time talking to them, comforting them, and easing the inner turmoil I felt from the disturbing dreams. I made my way to the little clump of trees and searched for more wood, but there wasn't much left. I had already gathered most of it. I only had four small pieces. I stooped to gather a fifth and my legs gave way sending me sprawling into the mud. I lay on my back, the rains beating against me, staring up at the trees, unable to figure out how I got there. Somewhere in the back of my mind a little voice shouted at me to get up and I tried but fell back unable to even sit up. With some effort I rolled over onto my stomach and pushed to my knees. When I tried to push up from there my arms collapsed and I went face first into the mud then slid down the incline into the water. I felt lightheaded and the trees were tilting like they were all going to fall in on me.
I lay with my head turned looking down at the muddy water covering me to my chest, rain pelting my face and running off me to the muddy river. That innocent little blond from far in the past nagged me to get up and my warrior stood beside her sadly shaking her head. Because of them, I tried again. When I fell this time I hit my forehead on a rock and a little rivulet of red merged into the running water, making its way into the river. Darkness crowded me and I strained to force it away but it only got worse. My eyes closed on water just below my chin and I was in complete darkness, but I could still hear the incessant hiss of the rain. Then even that faded away.
Continued in Lost Soul 7 - Strained Relations
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