Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other text or characters mentioned, from the original series, are owned by Renaissance Pictures, Studio USA. or whoever owns the material 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 Jul, 2001. Rev. 1b. Dec 2001
Warning: Rated as adult material for violence and a loving relationship between two consenting adults. 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.
Warning: If you haven't seen 'The Last Battleground: A Friend in Need' STOP! This story contains spoilers!
Enter the Dragon
The guards on the palace walls watched the lone rider's dust, across the shimmering heat of the desert, for hours, as it slowly came towards them. The dust cloud never slackened and the guards became concerned. Whoever was coming their way was killing their horse to get there in a hurry. They knew well that it was a horse because a camel wouldn't raise that much dust. They became concerned enough that they notified the Sultan of the riders mad dash.
The Sultan dispatched a dozen warriors to intercept the rider for it was becoming plain that his horse was flagging and he would probably not make it to the fortress.
The rider was within sight of the fortress when his horse foundered.
They found him lying with his horse. When the animal died it rolled over him. He was dead. He carried a signet and a hastily scrawled scroll. They were taken immediately to the Sultan.
The Sultan paled at the sight of the signet and read the hastily scribbled scroll with shaking hands.
'Brother, I have failed you. A mighty horde has come from the north destroying everything in their path. Nothing survives behind them. Nothing can stand before them. My armies are as chaff in the wind before their might. We fight our last on this cold heartless night and tomorrow the eaters of carrion shall feast on my worthless carcass. Make your peace with the gods, my brother, for your doom is upon you.'
None of the usual floral writing and no signature. Just a hastily penned note signed with his brother's signet. The signet he now held in his hand.
He turned his ashen face to his closest advisor. "We are doomed Achmed. All is lost!" he exclaimed, handing the note to him.
Achmed paled as he read the note. "Jafar had the mightiest of your armies, oh Great One!"
"They are no more Achmed. Jafar was our fiercest warrior and greatest leader. If he could not stop them, then there is no hope."
"Then we must do the unthinkable. We have nothing to lose if you summon the Dragon, Lord."
Anger flared across his face. "You dare mention the accursed Dragon in my presence!"
Achmed dropped to his knees before the wrath of his Sultan. "But my Lord! The Dragon has sworn to help those in dire need. Surely we must take what help we can!" he said, shaking.
A faint glimmer of hope, mixed with fear and loathing, shone in the Sultan's eyes. "Surely the Dragon is dead Achmed. Nothing could survive those wounds. No one knows where the Dragon has gone, where would we look? It has been too long!"
"Have faith, my Lord. Summon the Dragon in the prescribed manner. We have nothing to lose," Achmed said.
"As usual, you are right, my friend. Very well. Summon the Dragon, then pray the gods protect us all from that demon, from the darkest depths of the underworld."
"No! Xena, don't! I'm warning you, yaaaaaahhhhhh!" She managed to turn and hit the water head first and the dive took her deep. She surfaced in time to see Xena's sleek body slide into the water with barely a ripple. How does she do that? She wondered. After so many years Gabrielle had forgotten or didn't notice the oddities of Xena's behavior and Xena did her best to keep things as normal as possible.
Strong hands caught her around the waist and tossed her in the air.
She surfaced to find Xena just a few feet away, grinning in pleasure.
"That wasn't fair, Xena," she said grinning back.
"Aw. What's the matter my bard, losing your grip?" Xena asked, pulling a little pout.
"No! I was just thinking and wasn't paying attention. You took advantage of my soft nature."
"Oh yeah, right," Xena scoffed, "you left your soft nature in Japa."
Gabrielle's smile faded.
"Damn! I'm sorry Gabrielle, it just slipped out." She paddled up in front of the bard. "I'm really sorry."
"That's okay, Xena," she said softly. She smiled slightly and brushed her fingers lightly over Xena's face. "Don't worry about it." She turned to the shore and Xena knew it wasn't okay. Gabrielle's mood had taken a plunge with just the mention of Japa.
Xena kicked herself mentally. After all these years she still managed to be able to get both of her feet in her mouth at the same time.
Gabrielle climbed out on the bank and sat with her back to the water, the brilliant colors of the dragon tattoo seeming alive on her back. Xena sat down beside her and wrapped the smaller woman in her arms, kissing her forehead. Gabrielle clutched her tightly and began sobbing silently into her neck.
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered. She continued to hold her while she cried. A short time later Gabrielle's sobs quieted and she lifted her head. She kissed Xena's full lips, running her hand down her cheek then sat up sniffling.
"You'd think after all these years I'd quit that," she said, sounding a little disgusted with herself. "Guess I'm just an old softy."
"Gabrielle, it's okay. I'm sorry I upset you."
She looked back up at her soulmate and smiled. "It's okay, Xena. You don't need to be sorry every time I get upset. It's just a release, I guess. I've been doing it for years and will probably be doing it for the rest of my life. I'm done now. Let's forget it." She got to her feet and started to their camp. Xena followed behind still kicking herself. When they got to camp, Gabrielle took out a sleep shirt and pulled it over her head. She turned to find Xena back in her leathers.
"Xena, can't you ever wear anything else? I mean, is that the only thing you're allowed to wear, ever?" she asked.
"What?" Xena said looking down at herself. "What's wrong with this. It's just my leathers. I'm comfortable in them."
"Yeah well, I'm comfortable in my Amazon stuff or the samurai stuff but I don't wear them all the time. It's afternoon around the campfire and nobody within leagues of us, so live a little. How about a nice loose shift, like this, that you can just be all comfortable and loose in? All I ever see you in is your leathers or your skin."
"What's wrong with my skin?" Xena asked, putting her hands on her hips.
"Well, nothing. Look, humor me, okay? Just try it," she said sounding a bit exasperated.
Xena rolled her eyes. She went to Gabrielle's saddlebags and produced a shift exactly like Gabrielle's, removed her leathers, showing very nice skin indeed, then put the shift on. "How's that?" she asked.
"Fine. Now isn't that more comfortable?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well… yeah, I guess. I don't know. I feel kind of naked under here."
"Well you are naked under there!"
"Yeah, but I don't feel that way in my leathers," she said.
Gabrielle groaned. "Xena. You can be exasperating sometimes. Just ignore it, you'll like it. Now can I get my dinner? It's getting late."
"Sure. What are you having?"
"Not much. I'm not very hungry."
"Gabrielle, don't you start that again!" Xena said scowling at her.
"I'm not. Just back off okay. I'm just not hungry tonight."
"Well. Okay, but I'm gonna keep my eye on you."
"Yeah, yeah," she said, as she got out an apple and a little cheese. She poured some tea and sat down on their bedroll, crossing her legs.
Xena sat down beside her and watched her eat.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nothing," Xena said.
Gabrielle ate in silence for a while, watching her.
"What?" Xena asked.
"Nothing," she answered, "well… I was thinking."
Xena rolled her eyes. "I hate when you do that."
Gabrielle poked at her. "Will you be serious."
"What were you thinking, my bard?" Xena asked.
"Let's go up into the mountains for a few days. It's nearly time to move camp anyway."
"Gabrielle, we are in the mountains, in case you haven't noticed and what's wrong with this camp."
"No. I mean up there," she said, pointing to the snow capped peak in the distance.
"Oh no! Last time you talked me into going up there you almost died in an ice storm. No, no, little Amazon Queen. That place is dangerous," she said firmly.
"Oh come on, Xena. It's really pretty up there!"
"No. It's no place to be in bad weather. You got out once, but you were pressing your luck. There are plenty of other places to go without risking being frozen in a snow drift or trapped by an ice storm. No."
"No!" she said firmly.
Gabrielle finished her apple in silence, sipping her tea. The silence lengthened and Xena could see she was mad.
"Gabrielle, it's too dangerous," she said, a note of pleading in her voice.
"You've made your point, Xena," she said in a huff.
Xena looked up at the waning sun. "The sun will be down soon. I can leave now if you want."
Gabrielle suddenly looked apprehensive. "No. I'm sorry Xena. Stay with me."
"All right. Into bed then."
Gabrielle crawled under the covers and Xena came in beside her. Gabrielle got comfortable on her back and Xena snuggled into the crook of her arm laying her head on her breast. Gabrielle brushed Xena's hair out of her eyes and kissed the top of her head.
"I love you, Xena," she whispered.
"I love you too, Gabrielle," Xena whispered back.
Gabrielle was asleep before the sun set and Xena faded away.
When Xena returned in the morning she was startled to find Gabrielle dressed, armored, and carrying all her weapons. She also wore a turban and long flowing desert cape. She was packing up her horse.
"What are you doing, Gabrielle? I thought we agreed it was too dangerous up there?" Xena said, a bit angry and concerned at the same time.
Gabrielle climbed into the saddle looking down at Xena.
"Someone summoned the Dragon, Xena. I have to go. Get Argo and come along if you want."
"Wait, Gabrielle. What's going on?" she asked.
She shrugged. "Beats me. I just heard the horns in the middle of the night. Someone is in trouble and needs me," she said, turning her horse and nudged her into a gallop down the lonely trail.
"Gabrielle, slow down! What's the rush, it's barely sunrise. You haven't even had breakfast yet," Xena said, coming up beside her on Argo.
"Xena, back off the mother hen stuff, okay? I've been up for hours, you know that. It's the price I have to pay, for going to sleep with you. Breakfast is long over."
"Oh. You usually wait for me," she said.
"I usually have nothing better to do," Gabrielle answered.
"What's that supposed to mean!" Xena asked, her hackles raising.
Gabrielle sighed. "I'm sorry. I simply meant that I needed to get going so I didn't wait. I thought you'd understand. You know I cherish every moment we have together. Don't be mad."
"Well, okay, but do you have to rush into this?"
"What rush? I gave my word to respond to the call if either side broke the peace. That was nearly eight years ago. Would you have me go back on my word?" she asked, looking sidelong at the warrior.
"Well, it's been so long, Gabrielle. You haven't been in a battle in years," she said.
"Yeah? So… what, Xena? I'm too old? Xena, I'm not much older than you were in Japa. That hardly makes me ancient, you know."
"No Gabrielle, that's not what I meant…" she said, beginning to get exasperated.
"Well it sounded like it to me," Gabrielle answered, cutting her off.
"I just meant you haven't had to fight in a major battle in quite a while. Since that battle, in fact. It took you nearly a year to heal from that fight."
"But I did heal."
"But you haven't had to fight, other than with thieves or small bands of warriors, since then."
"What's your point, Xena? I 'm past my prime and can't handle it anymore? I forgot how to fight? I'm a has-been? What?" Gabrielle snapped out.
"No, Gabrielle, no. I simply meant you may have lost the edge because you haven't fought."
"We keep up my skills, Xena," she answered, only slightly mollified.
"But not the edge. That comes with fighting. You know that Gabrielle. I'm just saying you could get hurt, that's all. I worry about you," she said.
"Yeah. Like I worried about you. Didn't stop you from going off and getting yourself killed without letting me in on your little plan, did it?"
"Gabrielle. Let's not go over this again. You know I had to stop Yodoshi and that was the only way I could."
"Oh, well that makes me feel much better!" She spurred her mare to a faster gait pulling ahead of Xena.
They rode in silence for more than an hour. Xena watching Gabrielle's stiff back for any sign of relenting. There was none. She was really upset. Xena sighed and spurred Argo up beside Gabrielle's mount.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. Let's not fight," she said softly.
"No problem," she said and kicked her mare to a higher gait again, pulling away.
Xena let Argo slow a little and watched Gabrielle's stiff back again, a tear dropping from her eye. She hated when Gabrielle got in these moods. They tore at her soul. At the same time she realized they were a defensive mechanism Gabrielle used, when the pain of her death became too much for her to handle. It would pass, but it would be a long day today.
They stopped at noon, at a small, quickly moving stream, to rest Gabrielle's horse. Gabrielle was still sullen and Xena kept her distance. She knew that sometimes the sorrow overwhelmed Gabrielle and she couldn't stand the sight of Xena, because it was too painful, but at the same time she wanted her near. Gabrielle stayed down by the stream until she was ready to leave, then mounted and rode on. Xena followed at a discrete distance. When evening came they were down on the high plateau. Gabrielle found them a secluded camp with running water and made her evening meal. After cleaning up she wrote in her journal for a short time then crawled into her bedroll. She looked up to Xena and held the covers for her. Xena changed into the night shirt and joined her, looking into her eyes.
Gabrielle pressed her fingers to Xena's lips. "Not tonight, Xena. Just hold me close," she said softly, then, after a long silence, "Gods… I hate Japa sometimes!" she sobbed.
Xena tightened her hold on her and listened to her quiet sobs. The storm had come. Now it would pass.
Gabrielle was deep asleep before the sun went down.
Gabrielle was already in the saddle when Xena and Argo appeared.
"I take it you heard the horn again?" Xena asked.
"Yeah. In the desert instead of the mountains, but much closer. We should reach them by tonight. Let's get started."
Xena rode up beside her and studied her face, out of the corner of her eye. She looked much more relaxed today, much more her old self.
"What am I?" Gabrielle asked and Xena grinned. This would be a much better day.
"Are you living or dead?" Xena asked.
"Living," Gabrielle answered.
They had just returned to the trail after Gabrielle's lunch break when she pulled up short, holding out her hand to stop Xena. Then she suddenly pulled off the road and into some dense foliage.
They waited on taught strung nerves as the rumble became audible then rapidly grew louder. When it was almost deafening, a band of more than forty warriors went thundering by at the gallop, headed up the trail the way they had just come. They remained silent until all had passed.
"Those aren't desert nomads, Xena," she whispered.
"No. They're from the northern plains, Gabrielle."
"What are they doing here?"
"Nothing good, you can count on that."
"My summons?" Gabrielle asked.
"I wouldn't bet against it. If they're here in force they would be difficult to stop," Xena answered.
"Come on, let's get going before we're too late to help," Gabrielle said, taking her mare onto the trail and bringing her to a gallop.
Amir startled awake at the lonely wail of the horn and swore. Two nights they had been calling the Dragon and he was getting sick of the hourly call. They had the chance of only one outpost against dozens, that they would ever see the Dragon, if the accursed woman was even still alive. More likely one of the roving mountain parties would find her. He was young enough to doubt her very existence. How could a woman be so powerful, and so feared? Women weren't warriors; they were slaves to their masters whim! The stories of her battle prowess were legend of the most exaggerated sort and she was greatly feared by young and old alike. If he were to believe the tales, she had killed thousands of his kinsmen. She should be the most hated of enemies, yet in this time of need, the Sultan himself had raised the call for the very person that had defeated him! He should be calling her to her death, not to help them in their struggle. He checked the stars, then grunted and rolled from his blankets. It was his turn to take up the vigil. Thoughts of the Dragon continued to bother him. It was said she was only average height, but powerfully build, very fair, and very beautiful, with penetrating green eyes and golden hair. He would like to meet this legend, if indeed she were real. He would take the measure of her and if he found her lacking he would strike her head from her shoulders and prove her a fraud to the Sultan himself!
He trudged up the small dune to Sanzar's position and took the horn as it was tossed to him. "Another boring night, eh, Sanzar?" he asked.
"At least my part's over, Amir. It's your turn to lure the Dragon," Sanzar replied, heading for their camp.
"True, my friend, but we still have another day to waste on this accursed Dragon."
Sanzar waved back at him, not bothering to answer.
Amir checked the stars again and searched the dark horizon for any signs of dust that might warn of an approaching storm, then sat down crossing his legs.
"Come to me, oh mighty Dragon, that I may know the measure of you, and claim my prize for my Sultan," he said into the night.
He felt the tiniest prick of a blade on the back of his neck and his blood turned cold at the gentle woman's voice, so full of steel.
"What prize do you wish to claim, Amir?"
"I… A thousand pardons most noble Dragon, I was simply ranting to the stars in boredom," he said in a shaky voice.
"Be careful what you wish for in your ranting, Amir," she answered.
"I humbly apologize most noble Dragon. I meant no harm," he stammered.
"Time may give us the truth or lie to that Amir. Have a care. You have a message for me?"
"Yes… from Sultan Balthazar himself. It is in our camp."
"Take me there," she said, and the blade was gone from his neck.
He rose slowly and started for the camp, not daring to look around lest the Dragon strike his impudent head from his shoulders. He cursed himself for a fool, at the words he had so bravely spoken. He cursed himself for a coward, at the beads of sweat, that had sprung to his brow at her chilling voice. He praised the gods that he still lived and still retained his accursed tongue.
Sanzar was just curling up to sleep when he saw Amir come in to camp.
"What is this, Amir? Why are you not at your post?"
"The Dragon wishes to see the scroll, Sanzar."
Sanzar climbed to his feet and placed his hands on his hips.
"Which Dragon is this you speak of, little brother?"
"This..." he turned and his jaw dropped. "She was here, Sanzar!"
"You should take a woman, Amir. Such dreams would no longer haunt you, my friend."
"But she was here, I tell you!" Amir exclaimed.
"As a ghost perhaps? That I well believe, Amir, for surely the bitch is long dead. I myself added to her fatal wounds!" he boasted.
He felt a sharp stab to his back as a blade cut through his clothes and bit into his flesh. The woman's icy voice froze his blood. Amir's eyes went wide at her voice behind Sanzar and he dropped to the sand.
"The bitch is very much alive, Sanzar, and in no mood for your boasting. Bring out this scroll from your Sultan, immediately, or the bitch will cut your bragging tongue from your insolent mouth."
His knees failed him and he dropped to the sand, bowing his head.
"Forgive me, most noble Dragon. I am but a worthless fool. I most humbly beg your pardon," he wailed.
"The scroll, Sanzar, now!" she said.
Sanzar scurried to his gear and rifled through it with shaking hands, finding the scroll and holding it over his head behind him.
When she took it he dropped his face to the sand as Amir was already doing.
She moved silently to the fire and read the scroll.
They waited in terror, for the wrath of the Dragon, but nothing happened. They waited for nearly an hour, but all was silent. Finally Amir tempted the wrath of the Dragon and took a hurried look, then raised his head and looked all around. They were alone. It was as if she were a ghost. When some of their bravado returned they tracked her into the desert but her trail went only a short distance then disappeared, returning their fright to them.
They huddled together near the fire for warmth, though it was a warm night.
Finally in a hushed whisper Sanzar said, "We will speak of this night to no one, Amir."
Amir nodded. "Then I will get back to calling the Dragon. We have already missed one."
Sanzar grabbed his arm. "Do we dare? She may return."
Amir looked into his frightened eyes recognizing the fear as his own. "It would be no more than we deserve, Sanzar, but surely she has no need to return to us. We were fools to speak of such boastful things. Surely she can hear our very thoughts. I for one will never speak of the Dragon again, lest she hear me and relieve me of my worthless tongue."
"Wisely spoken, my friend. Come, I will keep you company on your watch."
"You're incorrigible, Gabrielle!" Xena laughed.
"Me? What did I do?" she asked as they lathered their hair.
They were in a tiny oasis enjoying the small pond to clean several days grime from their bodies.
Xena scoffed. "Gabrielle! You scared the life out of those guys!"
"Hey. It's their own fault. The first one wanted my head…"
"You don't know that," Xena countered.
"Oh come on, Xena. 'Come to me, oh mighty Dragon, that I may know the measure of you, and claim my prize for my Sultan,'" she parroted in a deep voice. "What does that sound like to you?"
"Gabrielle, he was just a kid."
"Yeah. A nice kid who wanted my head in a bag. You can keep your nice kid, thank you very much," she said as she washed herself. "And what about the other guy, huh? '… surely the bitch is long dead. I myself added to her fatal wounds,' she parroted in her deep voice again.
"Hey. They were just bragging each other up. Guys do that," Xena said, scrubbing her hair.
Gabrielle chuckled, "yeah, well next time those two brag each other up, I bet it isn't about me."
Xena laughed, "no bet. You made believers out of them, that's for sure!"
"Yeah, I did, didn't I?"
"Shoultar! Why have you summoned me?" the Captain of the Guard said as he stopped next to the sentry.
Shoultar merely pointed into the distance. "The Dragon comes," he said.
The Captain felt his heart skip a beat. He had had the good fortune to be one of the very few that survived a battle with the Dragon. To this day his nightmares carried that beautiful, blood streaked, golden haired woman into battle, slaughtering everything around him. He saw his death in her smoldering green eyes. Saw the blur of light as her strange eastern sword came for his life, knowing that his head would leave his shoulders in the next instant, only to have his horse shy away and pull him out of the line of the racing blade. So very close had death come to his door that he still carried the deep scar of her steel in his shoulder.
He prayed to the gods he never had to face her wrath again.
"I shall inform the Sultan, Shoultar," he said and turned away from the nightmare, so rapidly approaching them.
Gabrielle stopped her horse just outside of range of any arrows that might await her, from the fortress palace.
"I guess we wait and see what they do, Xena."
"Yeah. My guess is you won't have long to wait," she answered.
"Okay. No more funny stuff. I have to be serious now," Gabrielle said, looking serious.
"I'm warning you, Warrior Princess. My image is at stake here."
The gates opened and a contingent of riders came towards them.
"Looks to me like your reputation is intact Gabrielle. That's old Balty himself, come to face the Dragon in her den."
"Stop it, Xena. Don't you make me laugh."
She waited silently for the Sultan. He rode to within a hundred paces of her then stopped his men and came on alone.
He thought time would mellow his hatred of this demon bitch, from the pits of the underworld, but it hadn't. He had to fight to prevent himself from drawing his sword and removing her insolent head from his sight. She had destroyed him. Forced him to surrender to a hated peace with the infidels to his north and west. She had led the heathens in slaughtering his armies, as if they were nothing, and he had watched in helpless rage. The shame of being beaten by a single warrior was enough, but that the warrior was a woman, had blackened his very soul. That he had to call on her for aid was the vilest thing he had ever done. He vowed that once she rid his lands of the northern heathens he would not rest until her head was set at his feet and he crushed it beneath his heel.
'Watch it, Gabrielle. This guy gives off hatred like the sun gives off light.'
'I feel it, Xena. I don't think he likes me much.'
'You destroyed him, Gabrielle. What do you expect?'
'I didn't expect him to be the one calling me, that's for sure. Looks like your northerners are the problem and beyond his capabilities.'
The Sultan stopped his horse in front of her. "Greetings, oh wise and noble Dragon," he said bowing slightly to her.
"Greetings, Sultan Balthazar," she answered, sitting straight in her saddle and looking him in the eye. "How may I be of service to you?"
"Please do me the honor of entering my most humble dwelling, that we may be more comfortable in our conversations."
'Said the spider to the fly!'
"Thank you for your most generous offer, Sultan Balthazar, but I must decline. If I am to assess your enemy, I should get started immediately. Already they are destroying your cities. Time is most important in saving the lives of your people."
His eyebrow arched in surprise that she knew so much already, and anger that she would dare refuse him.
He bowed slightly. "You are most wise noble Dragon. We will await your return."
"No. You will gather your armies and meet me on the Plains of Despair in three days, if you plan to be rid of these northerners. To wait will mean your defeat. When you arrive I want complete control of your armies immediately. They shall do my bidding, and mine alone."
He turned purple with rage at her insolence. "You dare to demand my armies? You dare to threaten me? I will…." Reason overcame his vanity and he stuttered to a halt.
"There is no threat, Sultan Balthazar. You called on me. If you want my help I must have complete control. Anything less and I ride away. The force descending on you will not be swayed by a fragmented army. I get full control or all is lost. It's your decision and yours alone." She sat unmoving waiting for his response.
Damned her insolent eyes! he thought. Curse the events that forced me to call this bitch to our aid. May she burn in the hottest fires of the lowest underworld and may I be the one to torture her for eternity. He would give his very soul for the chance.
He smiled and bowed. "It is as you command, most noble Dragon. We will meet you on the Plains of Despair in three days," he bowed again and turned his horse away before she could respond.
'Wow. Did you see those eyes, Xena?'
'You be careful, Gabrielle. That man would like nothing better than to tear your heart from your chest with his bare hands.'
'Yeah, when he's in a good mood. He wants to do worse than that.'
'You be very careful. He'll kill you in an instant.'
'Not until I save his stinking hide, he won't.'
The hackles rose on the nape of her neck at the carnage spread before her. The army was camped in and around the carnage they had wrought. What they hadn't killed they tortured and raped. Bodies of men women and children roasted over their fires. Heads of the dead were mounted on pikes driven into the ground.
"By the gods, Xena! They can't be human," Gabrielle whispered, her gorge rising in her throat at the stench.
"Oh, their human, Gabrielle. They are only returning the favor. The same has been done to them."
"But to eat the dead of their own kind!"
Xena shrugged. "When you're starving, Gabrielle, you can eat anything. Besides I'm sure they consider them no more human than our side considers them," she said.
"How can you say that, Xena? It's inhuman, bestial!"
"To you and me, not to them."
She forced herself not to think of that while she studied the army. Their tents spread as far as the eye could see. They were as many as locusts and they laid waste to everything in their path.
"You've got your work cut out for you, Gabrielle," Xena said.
Suddenly Gabrielle reached up and caught an arrow headed for her chest.
"Time to go, love. The locals are getting impatient with us." She turned her horse and made her way down the narrow path.
Gabrielle sat at a table before the Sultan, in his tent, on the Plains of Despair.
"Archers. How many archers have you brought?" she asked.
"Fourteen hundred of the finest," he said in his proudest voice.
"Not enough. Find more. How many arrows?"
"Two hundred per archer," he stated in a somewhat lower tone.
"To few. Find more, fast," she said looking him right in the eye.
His fingers itched to close around her neck, crushing it, as he lifted her up so he could drive his blade into her insolent guts.
"It shall be done most noble Dragon," he said bowing slightly.
"I would see your commanders now," she said.
"At once," he said bowing again to her and clapping his hands.
She brought them to the table and laid her plans out on the crude map she had drawn. He watched in fascination as she deployed his men in ways he never would have thought possible. He grudgingly had to admit she was an exceptional strategist and commander.
Once he started to interrupt and she held up her hand to silence him!
'Watch it, Gabrielle!'
'I got it, Xena. Quit worrying.'
He had his dagger in his hand, trembling in rage, before he got himself under control. She never even turned to him! She would suffer an agonizing death for that. He would tear her hide from her body a little at a time.
When his commanders were gone to do her bidding, she finally turned to him. Her green eyes were smoldering with suppressed rage. "Sultan Balthazar, I am aware of your hatred for me, but I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing it for your people, who will be utterly destroyed if the northerners are not stopped. We have an uneasy truce at best, because you asked me for help and I am willingly giving it. If you ever draw a blade on me again, you better be ready to finish the job because I will kill you where you stand." She turned from him and walked out of the tent.
Sweat stood out on his forehead as he realized death had stood just outside, waiting for him to complete his mistake. How had she known? His blade made no sound, yet she had known he had drawn it. He suddenly realized just how deadly this woman was. She had known his every move, even behind her back! He realized if he had moved towards her, in stealth, as he had planned, he would be lying dead in his own tent. Killing this insolent woman would be a greater challenge than he had thought.
Sultan Balthazar stopped his horse next to his hated savior, watching the unfolding battle before them. She sat astride her warhorse without turban or robe, in her finely made armor, her golden hair blowing in the light breeze, the hated katana seeming to float at her hip.
"Your plan is brilliant, noble Dragon," he said, "they will be destroyed!"
"No. There are too many of them. This battle is only to bloody their noses, hurt them a little, make them mad."
"But we overwhelm their forces!" he protested, "and we destroy their tents and supplies!"
She nodded. "We do, but they will stop us shortly, once they get organized. Right now they are in chaos because we surprised them. When they regroup they will come for use. Our armies should retreat shortly."
"But we are winning! We cannot retreat!"
"Sultan Balthazar, we cannot win today. They outnumber us hundreds to one. They could overrun us even without weapons. We have to hit and run or we are lost."
"We will not retreat. I have forbidden it!" he shouted.
She blanched and turned to him. "What! What have you done, you fool?"
He drew his sword and slashed it across her body but somehow she wasn't there. He sidestepped his horse away from her. "I have taken back control of my armies, you insolent pig! We are on the way to victory and it is time for you to die!" He drove his horse into hers and it stumbled and fell, screaming in fright, but she rolled away from it and came to her feet, the accursed eastern sword in her hand. He attacked her and slashed down across her face intending to cut her insolent eyes from her head but his sword cut through the empty air where she should have been. A fire woke in his belly as he passed her, turning his mount back to run her down, and he found the reins suddenly heavy. She came into his view and his rage carried him towards her but she dodged his horse and his blade. He turned to her again, the hatred burning from his black eyes, but his sword slipped from his suddenly weak grasp and he bent forward into the pain. A river of blood coursed onto his saddle and down his legs. He didn't understand. He had been so sure of his kill but she stood before him unmarked, while his own life's blood sank into the sand beneath his horse. He hadn't even seen the blow that had taken his life. He looked to the plains below and saw, to his horror, that she had been right. His army was being crushed. He was indeed a fool. He turned back to her, the hatred gone from his eyes. "Save my people," he said.
"I doubt that I can, now," she said softly.
"Try. For them, I beg you," he said as the pain took him lower in the saddle.
"I will try," she said.
He groaned and slid to the ground.
Her horse was uninjured so she swung into the saddle and raced to the front, plunging into the chaos with a vengeance. Her katana sang the song of red death all around her as she cut her way through the horde before her. Time seemed to stand still as her katana tore life from the slow moving souls around her. She was past her forces, and seeing her, they rallied behind her and took the battle back to the enemy. Her katana bit through flesh and bone on both sides of her mount as she passed it from hand to hand in a blinding blur of death. She felt a blade enter her side but still she fought on for an eternity of slow moving time, while cuts appeared on her arms and legs from the chaotic battle around her. A blade cut across her chest and left arm, only slightly deterred by her armor, but it didn't even slow her down, in her battle frenzy. She drove the enemy before her in droves as she cut a swath of crimson death through their lines, screaming the chilling name of a long dead warrior. Then she saw him and redoubled her efforts. His men tried to stop her onslaught. She went through them like they were standing grain and then she was trading blows with their leader. She was cutting him to ribbons when he jumped his horse into hers and they both went to the ground. She rolled to her feet in time to block his sword from her neck and cut across his ribs.
A dagger appeared in his left hand and he attacked her with dagger and sword. She brought her dagger into play to counter his. They fought furiously, their blades invisible to all but the sharpest eyes. The circle was closing, his men coming to his aid, her time was short. He began to force her back towards his men, using brute strength against her but she anticipated his moves and dodged around him, towards her men, laying a long gash open on his leg.
He attacked her in a rage and she suddenly saw her chance.
'No, Gabrielle!' Xena screamed in her mind.
Her katana cut through his heart, while she blocked his sword with her dagger, but the thrust cost her dearly as his dagger skidded off the edge of her armor and went deep into her chest. She looked into his smoldering eyes and smiled.
'It had to be, Xena. I had to stop him.'
"Your reign of terror is over," she said.
'At a terrible cost, Gabrielle!' Xena cried.
"Who are you?" he grated out, as his heart ripped itself apart against her blade.
'At any cost, Xena. You of all people should know that.'
"Little Dragon," she said, as he dropped away from her. She let him fall, pulling her katana from his chest.
'The price was too high, Gabrielle.' Xena sobbed.
'The price is always high, Xena. It was much too high when you were taken.'
She looked slowly around to see that his men had fled and the battle had passed her by. The northern horde was fleeing, now that their leader was dead. She stumbled, but caught herself.
"Help me, Xena," she whispered.
"I will, my love," she answered, her voice breaking.
With Xena's help she made her way to her horse. Somehow she made it into the saddle, just before several of her commanders stopped in front of her. She straightened in the saddle and smiled at them. "You are in charge, commander, she said to the nearest. My work here is done. Don't let them stop until they have cleared your borders."
'Stay with me, Xena.'
'I've got you, Gabrielle. I won't let go.'
They looked in amazement at this small golden haired woman, covered in the blood of hundreds, and marveled that she was able to move at all, yet she had smiled at them and spoke in a cheerful, confident voice, while her life's blood oozed past the dagger in her chest!
"It shall be as you command, most noble Dragon!" he said proudly.
"Take care of your people well. You have paid a terrible price for their freedom. Cherish it in your hearts."
'You have paid for them, my love.'
'I did what I had to, Xena.'
She turned her horse and rode away into the foothills. Every man she passed bowed to her in honor."
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly as she bent over her tiny figure, where she had fallen. "Gabrielle."
Her eyes fluttered open. "Oh, Xena," she said, smiling faintly, "where are we?"
Tears dropped from Xena's eyes but she managed to smile in return. "In a lovely little valley you admired once, several years ago. We spent the night here, then. Come my love. The sun will fade in less than three hours," she said, "Let me help you."
Gabrielle smiled through her grimace of pain and reached to brush a tear from Xena's face. "Don't cry, my love. We have had many wonderful years together and our journey has just begun."
"I know, Gabrielle. I'll be all right," she said. She held out her hand and Gabrielle took it. Xena helped her to her feet and started towards the secluded camp.
Gabrielle stopped and looked up at her. "Xena, take me to the stream. I'd like to clean up a little. I'm a real mess," she said softly.
"Time is short, Gabrielle,"
"I know. Please," she whispered.
"All right," Xena said tenderly and helped her to the water. She helped her out of her blood soaked clothes, her heart torn at each groan and cry from her soulmate. She gently washed her body free of all the blood she could, without touching her many dried and crusted wounds.
"There. How's that?" Xena asked, smiling at her, through her tears.
"Better. Thank you. Take me back to camp," she said.
Xena helped her to their camp, then helped her dress in a recently crafted copy of her red Amazon skirt and top, buckling the worn silver buckle for her.
"I always liked this one best," Gabrielle said.
At her direction Xena laid out her weapons next to the bedroll then helped her into her blankets. She crawled in with her and Gabrielle lay down in the crook of her arm, her head on Xena's shoulder.
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered.
"I love you too, Gabrielle," Xena answered gently, a new flood of tears clouding her vision."
"Hold me tight, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"I will, my love," Xena sobbed, pulling her closer.
"Thank you. That's better," Gabrielle whispered, a trickle of blood running from the corner of her mouth. "Pull the knife, Xena."
Gabrielle gasped and cried out, as the knife slide from her chest, then snuggled down closer to Xena.
"Good night, my love," Gabrielle whispered.
"Good night, Gabrielle," Xena choked out, kissing the top of her head.
Xena held her in a loving embrace, comforting her pain and gently caressing her golden hair with a tender touch, soothing her heart with soft words of love and comfort, until the last spark of life left her body.
When Gabrielle's soul departed, Xena went with her, leaving Gabrielle's frail body to sleep the eternal sleep, beside a gentle stream, high in the mountains she had come to love.
'Xena? Where are you, Xena?'
'I'm here, Gabrielle.'
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