If anyone has any questions, comments, or quibbles about this story (or my previous efforts) feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I always like to hear from fellow Xena fans :)
The sun shone bright on the clearing beside the river, reflecting off the leaves of the oak trees and the iridescent bodies of dragonflies darting along the shore. The peaceful afternoon was broken by the gentle murmur of the water, the twittering of birds in the trees, and the sharp clack of wood hitting wood. Xena and Gabrielle had been practicing staff techniques since right after lunch and Gabrielle was starting to get tired. She knew Xena was going easy on her, making sure not to hit her in earnest as the experienced warrior showed the young woman a litany of moves designed to augment her burgeoning fighting skills. When Gabrielle missed an easy parry, Xena realized her young student was getting tired and called a halt. They sat down under the nearest tree with a waterskin to cool off.
“You’re getting a lot faster,” Xena said, handing the waterskin to the perspiring young bard.
Gabrielle took a healthy swig from the skin and wiped her mouth. “Do you really mean that, Xena, or are you just humouring me?”
Xena accepted the waterskin back and swallowed a mouthful of water before answering. “No, I mean it. You’re quick on your feet and you’ve got good balance. You’re getting really good at low strikes too. Pretty soon you’ll be giving me a run for my dinars.”
Gabrielle gave her a rueful smile. “Now I know you’re humouring me. But the moves do flow a lot more easily now. At least I don’t hit myself in the head like I did when Eponin first showed me.”
Xena laughed. “Well, by the time we see the Amazons again, I think you’ll be able to impress even Eponin.”
Gabrielle beamed at the unexpected praise. “Thanks. I guess it pays to have a great teacher.” That got a quick smile from Xena. “So, does that mean you’ll teach me how to defend against swords now?”
Xena’s face clouded. “Gabrielle, I’ve told you before, you have to learn the basics first. Once you know the core moves so well that you can do them without thinking, then I’ll teach you the more advanced stuff.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Okay, that makes sense. I guess that’s more of your ‘wisdom before weapons’ philosophy, huh?”
Xena smiled. “Yeah, it is. You have to learn to think before you learn to fight. Speaking of which ...” Xena’s voice lowered and Gabrielle could sense a change in the warrior’s mood.
“What is it?”
Xena sighed. “I think it’s time I taught you about ... lethal strikes.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened and her mouth opened but no sound came out. She finally collected her wits and said, “Xena, I ... I don’t want to learn how to kill.”
“I know. That’s why you need to learn where the deadly strikes fall on the body, so you can avoid those places. You wouldn’t want to kill someone by accident because you hit them in the wrong place, would you?”
Gabrielle thought about that for a few moments. “Noooo, but ... I mean, I’ve been in a few fights already and I haven’t killed anyone.”
“That’s because you’ve been fighting defensively and mostly striking low. But if you’re going to move on to more complicated techniques, you’ll need to know how to avoid killing strokes.” Xena leaned forward and grasped the end of Gabrielle’s staff, pulling it toward her own body. “Look, if you hit me here—” she placed the end of the staff against her temple “—you’ll knock me out. But if you hit me here—” she moved the staff down an inch “—you’ll kill me. Same thing here and here,” she added, placing the end of the staff against two points on her throat barely an inch apart. “Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do that counts.”
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. “All right, I see what you mean. But how am I going to learn this stuff? I’m not going to practice on you, Xena. I don’t care how good you are, if I accidentally hit you in the wrong place—”
Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s arm, touched by the young bard’s concern for her safety. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t take that kind of chance.”
Xena stood up and pulled Gabrielle to her feet, leading her into the trees. They stopped at a thick oak with a crude dummy attached to it. The dummy was man-sized, stuffed with bracken, and had several spots painted on it in black and red.
Gabrielle stared at the dummy, trying not to laugh. “So, this is what you were doing while I made lunch. But how is this supposed to help me?”
Xena handed Gabrielle her staff and pointed to the spots painted on the mannequin. “Look, the black spots are non-lethal ... you can hit opponents there all day. The red spots are kill zones ... avoid those and you’ll be fine.”
Gabrielle nodded and stepped back, raising her staff and studying the dummy. She took a tentative step forward, slamming her staff into the dummy’s head, hitting the black spot precisely. She repeated that with the black areas on the dummy’s throat and chest. She gave Xena a look of triumph, but her face fell when she saw the warrior’s expression.
“No, no, Gabrielle. You’re going too slow. What happened to that speed you had when we were sparring?”
“Xena, I can’t be fast if I’m looking to see where to hit. I have to take my time.”
Xena shook her head. “No, in a real fight you won’t have that kind of time. You have to strike without thinking, otherwise you’ll leave yourself open to an attack.”
Gabrielle nodded; Xena’s advice made sense, but she found it difficult to put into practice. When she struck without thinking about it, she hit the red spots as often as the black. But if she took the time to insure her strikes were precise, Xena told her she was too slow. After trying for an hour or so, she got frustrated and slammed the staff against the dummy, hitting it right in the red spot on its head.
Xena gently took the staff from her hands. “Take it easy, Gabrielle.”
“I’m sorry, Xena, “Gabrielle said, her voice shaking, “but I don’t think I’m ever going to get this.”
“ You’re overthinking it. You have to focus.”
Gabrielle gave her a look of frustration. “But when I focus you say I’m too slow.”
Xena shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. When I say focus, I mean you need to stop thinking about your next move and just trust your instincts. Let them guide you—without thinking—and you’ll be fine.”
Gabrielle had seen Xena fight enough times to know what the warrior meant. But being able to do it herself ... . “Xena, I’m not sure if I can do that.”
Xena smiled. “Well, it’s not something that comes easily to most people. We’ll keep working on it tomorrow. How about some fish for dinner?”
The thought of food cheered Gabrielle up, her exertions of the afternoon having made her ravenous. Xena caught a couple of fine trout and Gabrielle stuffed them with herbs and cooked them to a perfect turn over the fire. A few figs and pomegranates completed the meal and they stretched out on their bedrolls to relax. Gabrielle was writing about their adventure in Troy when Xena suddenly sat up straight, glancing around. Gabrielle slowly set her quill and parchment down and reached for her staff.
“What is it?” she whispred, looking around for whatever had startled Xena.
The warrior’s only answer was to leap to her feet and draw her sword as eight men charged out of the darkness into the circle of light thrown by the fire. Xena met the first two with quick parries of her sword, slamming her other fist into each man’s face in turn. She turned to confront another three ruffians, leaving Gabrielle to face the last three, who were trying to work their way around Xena’s blind side. Gabrielle found herself fighting defensively, nervous about the possibility of accidentally killing her opponents. She wished Xena had never brought up the idea of lethal strikes; now she was so spooked, she was afraid to even aim for the head. She found herself staying low, using sweeps to knock the men down and whacking them across their backs to keep them from getting up.
Xena handled her opponents easily and moved over to knock out the three Gabrielle was fighting. Gabrielle stepped back to watch as Xena took care of them, but when Xena glanced over at the bard, her eyes widened in shock. “Gabrielle, behind you!”
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and saw one of Xena’s first two opponents raising a sword to split her in half. Without conscious thought, Gabrielle whipped her staff around, catching the thug on the side of his head and sending him sprawling. Gabrielle stepped forward to look at the still form and her hands started shaking as she noticed blood oozing from his temple. Xena moved past her and knelt to check the man’s pulse.
“Is he ...?”
Xena smiled up at her. “He’s fine, except he’ll have one Hades of a headache when he wakes up. That was a perfect strike ... knocked him out, but won’t do any permanent damage.”
Gabrielle looked down at the staff in her hands. “Really? I ... didn’t even think about where I was aiming, I just ...”
Xena stepped forward and put her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Trusted your instincts?”
Gabrielle looked up at her with a smile. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
“I knew you could do it.”
After they’d disarmed the bandits, revived them, and run them off, they settled back into the camp. Gabrielle tried to resume her writing, but found it difficult to concentrate. “Xena, how did you know I’d be able to do that? Follow my instincts, I mean. It’s not like I have your experience as a fighter.”
Xena looked at her, the firelight throwing shadows over her face as her expression turned serious. “Gabrielle, my first instinct is usually to kill. It’s something I learned in my warlord days. Finish your opponents off now so you don’t have to worry about them later.” She looked over at the young bard, expecting to see judgment on her face, but found only understanding. “So now when I fight, I have to go against that instinct and hold myself back from killing anyone who attacks me. But your first instinct has always been not to kill, so if you trust that instinct ...”
“It’ll work out fine,” Gabrielle finished.
Gabrielle considered that for a moment. “So, you really think I can trust my instincts in the heat of battle?”
Xena nodded. “Sure. I think you proved that earlier tonight. It’s fine to study your opponent and plan a strategy, just remember not to overthink it. It’s okay to trust yourself ... I certainly trust you.”
Gabrielle looked away for a minute or two, not wanting Xena to see the tears her praise had brought to the young bard’s eyes. When she trusted her voice again, she said, “Thanks, that means a lot to me.” After a pause, Gabrielle grinned and said, “So, does that mean I’m ready to learn how to defend against sword strikes now?”
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