After they had changed the campsite and built a fire, Gwynna pulled out some bread and fruit she had brought with her. Xena had some herbs to make tea and they had a light repast. They were sitting on the ground around the fire finishing their tea when Elisa decided to broach the subject of why they had been sent after the warrior.
"Xena," she started. "At risk of making you angry again, I have to tell you the real reason why Gabrielle sent us."
The Warrior Princess waved an eyebrow. Her voice was low and slow. "And, why is that, Leese?"
"She's really worried about you, Xena. She told us about how you have a constant battle against your dark side and how she has helped you change; that she is the one who lights your path," the young Amazon began. She noticed, with uneasiness, that Xena's face had gone very still.
Yes, Gabrielle, you are the one who lights my path; but you won't light anyone's path if you are dead.
"She told us you think something awful is going to happen to her unless you stay away from her and she wants you to know that she's willing to take that risk, just as she always has in the past." Elisa's brow was wrinkled with her concentration on what she was trying to convey.
"But I'm not willing to let her take that risk," the Warrior Princess stated firmly.
Elisa leaned forward toward the Warrior Princess whose eyes had gone silver-blue. She put as much earnestness as she could muster into her voice. "Gabrielle believes SHE is the one to make that choice, not you."
"Humph!" snorted Xena and her lip curled. "Not while I'm still walking on two feet," she growled.
Elisa, undeterred in spite of being concerned about Xena's mood, straightened back up. "You're too used to being her protector, Xena. But Gabrielle is a grown woman. She has helped you change your path and she feels she has the right to walk that path with you if she so chooses, in spite of any risk to her life."
Gwynna was looking at Elisa in amazement. Something about the Warrior Princess brings out the eloquence in Leese. Like she saves it up for special occasions and out it comes!
"Get this straight, Leese," Xena said in a low, but insistent, voice. "I choose who will walk with me AND who will not. And Gabrielle will NOT."
"But, Xena, consider this," Elisa implored her. "Gabrielle wants to stay with you and she's willing to risk her life to do it." Elisa leaned forward again in entreaty. "Please... go back to her. She loves you."
Silence held sway for awhile, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Then, a tear rolled down Xena's cheek and Gwynna leaned over and attempted to wipe it off with a tender touch of her fingers. Xena reflexively flinched, then turned wet eyes in her direction. "Just call her Gabrielle, junior," Elisa smiled.
Xena put long, bronzed fingers over a mouth that was smiling and quivering at the same time. "Thanks, Gwynna," she whispered. Just a tiny reminder of Gabrielle and I fall apart. I NEED to go back. But I can't. I can't! Xena groaned aloud and forced her voice through her emotion-choked throat, "I can't go back. Not when Gabrielle's life depends on my staying away."
Elisa slowly nodded. "I promised Gabrielle I would give it my best shot, Xena. But I have to admit, if it were Gwynna's life at stake, I wouldn't go back, either."
Gwynna's warm brown eyes turned swiftly to her friend. "But, that's not fair. I can see Gabrielle's point. I should be the one to decide if I am willing to risk death. Just as she should be."
The two dark-haired women looked at each other. Xena raised both eyebrows and Elisa shrugged as they traded smiles of understanding mixed with frustration. Gwynna just shook her head at them.
Silence fell, again, among the trio. Finally, Xena spoke, "Let's get some sleep. First thing tomorrow, I have to stop at Stevanos' in Pergaros for my armor. Then I'm moving out of here."
"I'll pick up your armor, Xena," Elisa offered. "You know how fast Viktor is. I can be there and back while you and Gwynna clear the camp. Deal?"
"Deal, Leese. Let's break out the bedrolls." This must be a night for tiny reminders. Don't think I'll ever hear the word 'deal' without thinking of Solan. That thought brought another. I tried to stay away from him to protect him and wound up losing him, anyway. Some things you just can't control... But I'm going to try my best to control this one.
Though you can't keep me always safe
And banish every fear,
When danger comes into my life
I need to have you near.
The next morning, Elisa walked into the metalworker's hut in Pergaros. Stevanos was working on a piece at the fire. He heard someone enter and turned. "Xena! Hello!" he greeted her. When Elisa got a little closer he saw his mistake. "Sorry, you look a lot like Xena. Are you her sister?"
"No, just a friend," Elisa smiled. "She sent me to pick up her armor. Is it done?"
"Sure is." Stevanos went to a table and lifted the repaired armor from it. "Here it is, good as new. Sorry I didn't have it ready the first time."
"No problem," she assured him. "But I know Xena will be glad to get it back." He handed the heavy armor to Elisa and she offered to pay him for his work.
"I don't want any money from Xena. She saved our village." The metalworker gently pushed Elisa's hand away. "You tell her I'll fix her armor anytime, no charge."
"Be easier to wear that than to carry it," Stevanos suggested.
"Good idea," Elisa nodded. She removed her scabbard, slipped the armor on and clipped it together, then replaced her weapon. She smiled as she recalled the set of armor she had at home that was almost identical. "Thanks."
"Tell Xena I said hello," Stevanos grinned.
"Sure will," the Amazon promised. She waved to Stevanos and left.
The dark-haired Amazon rode Viktor out of town and into the forest. No sooner had she entered the trees than three nets dropped over her head and several horsemen surrounded her. She tried vainly to cut her way through the nets with one of her daggers, cursing herself for not being more alert to danger. One rider came up behind her and hit her in the head with a staff, knocking her unconscious.
One of the men pulled her from Viktor's back and, after he removed the nets, tied her hands and feet. Then he slung her back across the saddle and tied her down. "Hooeeee! We just caught us Xena the Warrior Princess!" he boasted. The attackers, hearing that Xena had left her armor at Stevanos's, had made plans to waylay her when she came to pick it up. Unfortunately for Elisa, she looked enough like Xena to be mistaken for her and would suffer punishment in her place.
"Yeah," another brigand laughed. "Now, let's take her to Cirra, like we planned, and auction off the right to whip her! There's still plenty there would like the chance, I'll bet!"
The men rode away, hard, pulling Viktor and his unconscious mistress with them.
Back at the campsite, Xena and Gwynna had cleared everything and packed up their gear and were waiting for Elisa to come with the armor. When more than enough time for her return had passed, Xena jumped on Argo. "C'mon, Gwynna, I think something must have happened."
The tall, blonde Amazon climbed on Nightmare and she and Xena rode quickly along the trail to Pergaros. They pushed their mounts straight into town, up to the metalworker's shop. Xena jumped down from Argo and hurried inside. Stevanos was bent over an anvil hammering out a delicate piece of metal.
He looked around and his face lit up when he saw the Warrior Princess. "I hope you're not here after your armor. A young woman already picked it up. She looked enough like you to be your sister."
"Did she seem to be in any trouble when she was here?" Stevanos noticed that Xena's eyes quickly took stock of his whole shop in one glance.
"No. I suggested she wear the armor rather than carry it and she put it on and left."
"Thanks." Xena was out the door before Stevanos could say another word.
Outside, she vaulted onto Argo and spoke to Gwynna as they rode toward the forest. "Keep your eyes out for any sign of foul play. Leese was wearing my armor and was probably mistaken for me."
As she entered the forest just outside of town, Gwynna, in the lead, threw up her arm and both women halted their horses and jumped down.
They examined the ground. "Looks like 5 horsemen," Gwynna said, "with two or three more on foot. "They ganged up on someone coming from town and this left front hoofprint has a half-moon scar on it just like Viktor's. It was Leese, I'm sure of it."
Xena bent down and picked up a piece of heavy string. "This is a piece of net. She must have had time to cut it loose before they pulled her down." She pointed to signs on the ground that someone had been lying there.
"But why would anyone kidnap Leese?" Gwynna seemed puzzled. "I haven't heard of any kidnappers in the area recently."
"This was planned, Gwynna. It's not a random kidnapping." Xena looked angered. "Somebody was watching and planned to kidnap me when I picked up my armor. They saw Leese come into town and pick it up and mistook her for me." Now, because of her resemblance to the Warrior Princess, she's in trouble. Does it ever stop?
"Let's go get her back." The violent determination in Xena's voice sent shivers down Gwynna's back. The two mounted their horses and followed the tracks of the kidnappers. In late afternoon, across a rocky expanse, they lost the tracks. After crisscrossing the area for hours, night fell. The darkness kept them from picking up the trail so they were forced to stop and wait for daylight.
As soon as the eastern sky lightened, Xena and Gwynna were back searching for some sign of the kidnappers. At last, Xena heard a welcome birdcall from Gwynna and galloped Argo over to meet her.
"Here's where they entered the forest, Xena. See, there's the half-moon scar on Viktor's hoof." Gwynna squatted down to point at the mark. "And here are some droppings. They're dry which means we are pretty far behind."
"Good work, Gwynna." The Warrior Princess praised the young Amazon and immediately took off down the trail. Gwynna hurriedly leaped onto the ebony Nightmare and followed. For the rest of that day, Xena and Gwynna pushed their horses in pursuit of the kidnappers.
On the third morning, they renewed their trek. After several hours, they stopped to rest the horses and to grab a bite of bread and cheese, washed down with fresh water from a spring found nearby. "Looks like they're headed northeast," Xena noted.
"What's northeast of here?" Gwynna asked. In her warlord days, Xena had conquered half of Greece and knew its geography well.
Xena looked at the ground without speaking and her face got hard and sullen. Gwynna waited, watching her demeanor with foreboding. The warrior raised her head and straightened her slumping shoulders. Fire seemed to glow deep in her blue eyes. Her sculpted lips twisted and became ugly. "Cirra," she whispered.
Xena and Gwynna resumed their journey. The Warrior Princess didn't speak another word and the blonde Amazon was wary of disturbing Xena when her face looked like it was chipped from stone. And brooding. Cirra. The village decimated by Xena, the Destroyer of Nations. The home of Callisto... Cirra. Will I ever hear that name without feeling like my body has been cleaved in half and is still bleeding?
Last time I saw it, the town was rubble, even after ten years. But I've heard that relatives and friends of those killed there decided to rebuild the village, as a memorial to their lost loved ones. And that's where these goons are taking Leese. One place where, it's safe to say, Xena is still hated.
Elisa regained consciousness with her head pointed toward the ground, bouncing up and down against the side of a horse. She realized she was tied across Viktor's saddle and a bunch of men on horseback were riding in front of her. Viktor's hooves were pounding into the ground and she was getting jolted unmercifully, but she could hear occasional snatches of conversation.
By the gods, they think I'm Xena! And they're taking me someplace called Cirra. Elisa would rather not have heard the rest of their plans. Apparently, they think people at Cirra will pay money for the chance to beat Xena--me! With a whip! Just the idea of being hit with a whip struck terror into the heart of an otherwise courageous young woman. The terrible beating with a cat-o'-nine-tails that she had taken as a child had left ugly scars on her back and on her psyche. She shivered and tried to close her mind to the horrid pictures conjured up by her imagination.
Eventually, the band stopped. One of the men pulled her off Viktor, tied her hands together and put a neck iron connected to a long chain on her. They padlocked it to a tree and allowed her some privacy for about 15 minutes. After feeding her some biscuits and water, they sat her back on Viktor with the chain connected to the stallion's saddle horn and proceeded on their journey at a swift pace. They traveled in this manner for two days, stopping only to eat and for a short night's rest. In the afternoon of the third day, they arrived at their destination.
Cirra. The village seemed almost new. Everything was clean and bright. Elisa took a quick look around as they entered the Village Square. Every villager in the square watched as the men rode in leading a dark-haired warrior woman on a palomino horse. One of the men unhooked the chain from Viktor's saddle horn and yanked the Amazon off her horse. She flipped in the air and landed nimbly on her feet, much to his surprise. He reminded himself to walk a little more carefully the next time he approached her. They had all heard stories of Xena's strength.
With a tug on the chain, he dragged her into the jailhouse. He removed her body armor and threw it into a corner. Then he stuck her in a cell, padlocking the chain to one of the bars. "Here she is, boys," he bragged to the jail keepers. "Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, just like we promised. Doesn't look so tough on the end of a chain, does she?"
"Althar is outside auctioning off the chance to whip her tomorrow in the square. We're going to build a platform so everyone can see it." He bowed low in front of the cell. "Goodnight, Princess, I'll watch you get your skin peeled off tomorrow." Elisa curled her lip at him and he laughed and left. Hurry, Xena. I don't know what I might do once that whip hits me. I know the last time it happened, I went crazy.
Late the next morning Elisa was yanked out of the cell and pulled into the Village Square. A large crowd had gathered and catcalls and jeers were heard as they caught sight of the Warrior Princess.
A whipping post was set up at one end of a long platform that had been erected early that morning. Elisa's eyes grew wide and she fought to subdue the tremors that threatened to show themselves. If I'm supposed to be Xena, I want to act as brave as she would be, the Amazon told herself. If I really were Xena, I would be able to fight my way out of this, but I don't see how I can do that.
The man holding her chain led her up onto the platform. Facing Elisa toward the post, he tied her hands to metal loops on a cross post. After removing the iron collar so it wouldn't get in the way of the whip, he reached to the back of her neck and tried to tear her tunic to expose her back. The tunic was too thick and it wouldn't tear, so he gave up on it and walked away. He didn't realize that he had grabbed hold of a piece of leather holding four of Elisa's throwing knives.
Althar climbed onto the platform. He introduced the man who had bid the highest for the chance to punish the Warrior Princess whose army had killed so many of their family and friends. A loud cheer went up as the high bidder, Turos, a husky man with wavy black hair, raised his fist into the air in the sign of victory.
Althar handed him the whip. The crowd grew silent as he prepared for the first lash. He drew back his arm and cracked the whip across Elisa's back with a loud snap. The crowd roared and Elisa went berserk. Her raging anger strengthened her unbelievably. She swung her feet up against the post and thrust powerfully against it, tearing the metal loops out of the crossbeam just after the whip hit her again. As her hands came free, she flipped in the air and twisted, landing face to face with Turos. He was standing there like a statue, dumbfounded.
Elisa grabbed the whip from his hand, stepped back and smashed him across the jaw with the heavy handle. He grabbed his face and fell to his knees. She turned to Althar who had been too astounded to move. She flicked the whip toward him but he finally reacted, jumping off the platform and avoiding the lash.
By this time, the crowd had regained its senses and men were rushing up the platform steps toward the deranged Amazon. Elisa caught the first one across his eyes and he screamed and fell off the edge of the steps. As she brought the whip back crossways against the next attacker, she heard, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi," and Xena landed on the platform next to the steps.
The Warrior Princess didn't draw her sword, she was loathe to kill villagers who were misled into this atrocity, but she kicked the next one coming up the steps in the chest, knocking him into some of the ones behind him, slowing their progress.
Suddenly she felt a lash hit the scabbard on her own back and turned, startled, to see a half-crazed Elisa drawing the whip back to strike again. As the whip flew toward Xena, she stuck out her arm. The whip wrapped around her arm and she yanked on the weapon, pulling Elisa toward her. She struck the girl in the jaw with her fist, knocking her out. Sorry, Leese. Can't trust you behind me.
Xena drove an elbow into the midsection of the man trying to catch her from behind and swung around with her fist catching the next one in the throat. She jumped again into the air, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi," and kicked two more in the jaw. The group coming up the steps wavered and halted.
Xena heard a voice behind her snarl, "Don't move, Xena, or your twin, here, dies." The Warrior Princess slowly turned around and saw Althar with the unconscious Elisa in front of him. He was grasping her head by her hair and holding a knife at her throat. The villagers saw what was happening and quieted.
All signs of fight went out of the warrior. "What do you want?" she demanded.
"I want what I've always wanted," he sneered, "Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. Somehow, we got the wrong one. I've heard that you always keep your word. If you give your word not to try to escape, I'll let this one go. If not, she dies. Right now."
"All right. I'll not try to escape, if you let her friend take her away," Xena agreed. Althar nodded and dropped Elisa's body back to the platform. "And I want her sword. Send someone after it," Xena commanded. Althar nodded to one of his men who ran and fetched it. He brought it back to Xena.
"Gwynna!" the warrior called and Gwynna came past the group on the steps and walked over to Elisa. She reached down and grabbed Elisa and swung her up over her shoulder. She turned and looked at Xena with sorrowful eyes. The warrior lips twisted up in an ironic smile and she shrugged. She handed the young Amazon Elisa's sword, then nodded toward Elisa. "Take her home, Gwynna. Take Argo, too. Tell Gabrielle I said hello, or maybe goodbye. And Ephiny, Eponin and Solari."
Althar watched the two women with narrowed eyes but he was not brave enough to question Xena's word so he just left them alone, waiting to see what developed.
"I'll do that, Xena," Gwynna promised.
Xena put out a hand and turned the sad-faced Amazon around. "Go, Gwynna. Go right home. Don't let Leese tell you any differently. Tell her I said that."
"OK, Xena. Goodbye," Gwynna walked down the steps, her friend slung over her shoulder. The crowd, still awed by the power of the woman standing on the platform above them, parted and let the young Amazon pass.
The Warrior Princess watched the blonde Amazon carry her friend to their horses. Gwynna tied Argo's reins to Viktor, and Viktor's reins to Nightmare. She laid Elisa in front of her saddle and climbed onto the black mare. Pulling Elisa up, she settled her more comfortably against her and rode out of town.
After she had left the village, Xena unhooked her scabbard and chakram and laid them on the platform. Then she turned to Althar. "OK, I'm all yours."
Solari had been entering Pergaros with some trading goods when she saw Xena come hurtling out of the metalworker's shop, vault onto Argo and take off with Gwynna, on Nightmare, following at a hurried gallop. She ran over to the shop and entered. The man working there stopped and raised his eyebrows in inquiry. "I just saw my friend run out of here like she was being chased by the Furies. What happened to her?"
"Don't really know." Stevanos rested his hammer against the top of the anvil, picked up a piece of cotton and wiped his streaming face. "Someone who looked like her picked up her armor earlier this morning and didn't take it back to her, I guess. When she heard I gave it to the other woman, she went busting out of here."
"Thanks." Solari walked slowly out of the shop and stood for a moment with her brow furrowed. That had to be Elisa. But why didn't she take the armor back to Xena? And where was Xena rushing off to? The only reason Elisa wouldn't go back to Xena with her armor is if someone kept her from returning. Of course! Xena and Gwynna are trying to find her! I better go tell Gabrielle about this!
The Amazon head scout got on her horse and headed back to the Amazon territory as fast as the animal could go. When she passed the perimeter guards, they sent word ahead that Solari was coming as though in trouble. When she reached the village, Gabrielle was in the Village Square waiting for her.
Pulling her horse to a stop in front of the Queen, Solari jumped down. "Something's happened to Elisa! She's missing and Xena and Gwynna are hunting for her."
"Calm down, Solari, and tell me the whole story." Gabrielle took Solari's arm and led her to the Queen's hut. As they crossed the square, Gabrielle sent a scout to fetch Eponin. She brought Solari into the hut and sat her down at the table. Pouring a mug of wine from the flacon sitting on the table, she offered it to the scout. Solari took a long draught of the wine and sat the mug down. Eponin came dashing into the hut, barely coming to a stop next to Gabrielle.
"What's wrong? I was told you needed help." Eponin was panting and her eyes were wide.
Gabrielle smiled at the admirable fervor of the weapons master. "Solari says Elisa is missing and Xena is hunting for her. Sit down, Pony, and we'll hear the whole story from her."
Solari related what she had learned in Pergaros. When she had finished, Gabrielle pursed her lips in thought. "I believe you may be right. Sure sounds like Leese is missing."
Eponin looked from one to the other. "But if Xena is looking for her, she'll probably be all right."
Gabrielle nodded. "That may be so, Pony. But I've learned not to assume anything. If one of our Amazons is missing, we need to learn more about it." And this gives me a good excuse to leave Ephiny in charge, again, while I find out what's happening with Xena. "Let me see if Ephiny feels up to being in charge for awhile. You two round up five other scouts and meet me back here as soon as possible. Outfit yourselves for an extended journey. Prepare everything for me, too. And pick a good tracker; we're going hunting."
The two Amazons hurried out and Gabrielle walked over to the healer's hut. She entered and went straight to Ephiny. The regent was healing without complications but was still weak and confined to bed. Claris wanted her to stay close by in the hut so she could keep an eye on her. Ephiny was happiest when she was working and the forced rest was already beginning to bother her.
Her face lit up when she saw Gabrielle. "Hi, you're a little early for your daily visit, aren't you? Not that I'm complaining, mind you. This place is dead."
Claris called from across the hut. "Better this place, than you!"
Ephiny laughed. "You got that right." Then she noticed Gabrielle's manner. "What's up? You look like you have something on your mind."
The bard explained the situation. "Do you think you can manage here without me for a time? We need to find out what's happened with Leese."
"And maybe check out Xena at the same time?" Ephiny smiled at the tinge of red this question brought to the young Queen's face. She reached out and touched Gabrielle's arm. "I know you are worried sick about her. I'm worried, too. And now we have Elisa to add."
Ephiny was silent in thought for a moment. "Look, everything seems to be going well, here. I'm sure I can take care of whatever needs to be done. Claris will lend a hand, if need be." The healer nodded her agreement to this as Ephiny continued. "You go ahead. And hurry. I don't feel right about an Amazon just disappearing into thin air."
"Right. We're leaving right away." Gabrielle had just finished the words when Eponin and Solari came through the door. All three women gave Ephiny a hug of goodbye.
"Gabrielle." The Queen turned back to Ephiny as she was about to leave. "Say hi for me to that hard-headed friend of yours when you catch up to her. That's if she'll stand still long enough to listen to you."
The golden haired bard grinned and waved as she went out the door. "She'll stand still if I have to chain her!"
Althar picked up the neck iron and chain that had been taken off of Elisa and approached the warrior. Xena's eyes narrowed to glittering blue slits and her lips drew back from her teeth. "You touch me with that and our deal is off," she growled.
Althar gulped. He had control of a woman whose strength he had severely underestimated and the feeling of power both fascinated and frightened him at the same time. But he was determined to rescue his original plan. "Take off those leathers," Althar demanded. Xena removed her leathers, tossed them over on top of her scabbard, and stood before him in her cotton undergarment.
Turos, the man who had won the chance to whip the Destroyer of Nations, had gotten over being hit with the whip handle and was seated cross-legged on the platform, rubbing his jaw. He was not budging as long as the warrior woman was unfettered.
The center post and crossbar were still standing. Althar was handed some rope from a cohort. He turned Xena's face to the post and proceeded to tie her hands to the crossbar and her feet to the bottom of the post. True to her word, the Warrior Princess put up no resistance.
Xena's mood was one of acceptance. I never have paid for the devastation my army caused here. I didn't order it, but it did happen because of me. Maybe this can be partial atonement. Nobody ever promised redemption would come at an easy price. At least it's me atoning and not Leese.
Turos stood and picked up the discarded whip. His sore jaw gave him even more motivation to beat Xena and he poured his anger into every one of the ten lashes he had purchased. The warrior grunted with each strike but no scream left her throat.
When he finished, Turos had sweat streaming down his face. He was further angered that he had not been able to elicit a scream from the woman. "Everyone! Get up here and hit her. We all deserve some vengeance," he yelled.
People poured up the steps and across the platform, punching and kicking Xena as many times as they could before the next person pushed them out of the way. By the time they had vented their anger, the warrior was slumped against the pole, only the ropes keeping her upright. Her face was swollen, bruised and bleeding and her body hadn't fared any better.
When the last villager had passed by, Althar picked up the neck iron and hit Xena viciously across the head with the chain hanging from it. The chain wrapped around her head, caught the edges of her eyes and swelled them completely shut. Then he locked the iron around her neck and padlocked the chain to the post.
The crowd of villagers gradually dispersed. Althar and most of his cronies went off to the village tavern, leaving several men as guards. The Warrior Princess sagged against the post, battered, bleeding and semi-conscious. Some of the bolder children jeered and threw rocks up at her and an occasional passerby would thump her with their staff or walking stick.
She hung there through the afternoon and night. There was no feeling left in her arms. But there was plenty of feeling elsewhere. Her back was aflame from the lashing it had suffered. Turos had swung the whip so hard that her skin had split and splattered blood. The kicking and punching had bruised her badly and broken a couple ribs.
Her breath was ragged and shallow, each respiration agonizingly inflating her lungs against the broken ribs. Only her strong willpower kept the terrible pain at a bearable level. Don't chase away all the pain, Xena, it's the only damn thing keeping you conscious. But, even so, she slipped in and out of consciousness. Then, shortly after dawn, she awoke and her remarkable hearing picked up a sound from the forest that squeezed fresh tears from her swollen eyes. A birdcall.
Gwynna hurried Nightmare along the trail, holding on tight to Elisa as she went. She was about an hour from Cirra when Elisa started to regain consciousness. Gwynna pulled Nightmare to a stop and swung Elisa partly around, cradling her head in her arms. The dark-haired Amazon opened her eyes and looked up into the smiling brown eyes of her friend. Elisa started to smile, too, then recognition dawned and she quickly sat up. "Where are we? Where's Xena?" she demanded. She slid down off Nightmare and jumped onto her palomino, Viktor while Gwynna untied his reins. The slice of pain across her back recalled the whiplash she had suffered and the surrounding events tumbled into her mind.
"I was kidnapped. They thought I was Xena. They took me to Cirra and tied me to a post. Someone was going to whip me."
"Someone did hit you. Then you went crazy and got loose. You grabbed the whip and started beating everyone in reach." Gwynna proceeded to tell Elisa the whole story.
The dark-haired young Amazon was furious. At herself, at the situation, and at Gwynna. "We can't just run out on Xena. She wouldn't leave us, would she?"
"Leese, calm down, please. Xena said I was to tell you to go get Gabrielle and the Amazons. At least, I think that's what she was saying. There are too many people at Cirra for us to handle. If we get captured, then there is no one to go after help." Gwynna was pleading with Elisa, knowing that her friend was dying to go back and help her idol.
Elisa's face grew hard and her jaw set. "I'm going back. You can go after help."
Gwynna's exasperation grew. "Think a minute! If I don't make it to Amazon territory, what happens? No one comes to help. You know it's safer if we both go. Besides, Xena would never forgive herself if you went back and something happened to you. And you know it."
Elisa sat on Viktor, mulling over what Gwynna was saying. At last, reluctantly, she nodded. "You're right. I don't like it, but I know it's what Xena would want us to do. Let's not waste any more time."
The two friends flew down the trail all day, with only an occasional rest stop. It was nearing dusk when Elisa threw up her arm and they both halted. "Someone's coming. Sounds like a group. Let's move off the trail." They pulled the horses deeper into the forest and watched to see who was coming.
Elisa could have cried when she saw the first two horses coming around a bend in the trail. It was Solari and Eponin. She spurred Viktor, still towing Argo, back onto the trail and waved the group down. Quickly, she moved Viktor up among them, seeing that Gabrielle had come, too.
Greetings finished, Elisa filled them in on what had happened at Cirra and Xena's situation. Gabrielle's face turned white and her green eyes burned with anguish. "Cirra. By the gods, they'll kill her. Let's get going." Of all places for her to be taken, Cirra has to be the worst. Hang on, Xena. Please hang on.
Our souls can never separate;
No one can cut us free.
You're my protector; I'm your light;
We ARE our destiny.
The Amazon troupe lit out for Cirra riding all out. Their occasional rest stop found both Gabrielle and Elisa pacing with impatience. Finally, they arrived outside Cirra just before dawn. They stopped and dismounted. Gabrielle approached the chief scout. "Solari, do you think you can slip into the village and take a look around without being seen?"
"I'll sure give it a try." She turned to Eponin. "It will be light, soon. Give me a birdcall when you see me come out so I don't waste any time hunting for you." Solari went to her horse and removed a lightweight blanket from the saddlebag. She tied it loosely around her neck, swung up into the nearest tree and took off toward the village.
The sun had not yet risen, but the sky was beginning to lighten when Solari reached the collection of buildings. She lowered herself to the ground, swirled the blanket around her shoulders and upper body and walked into the Village Square. Only a few people were about at this early hour and none of them paid any attention to the disguised Amazon.
The platform was easily visible in the early light and Solari could see a figure was slumped against the post with both arms tied to the crossbeam. She sauntered next to the end of the platform holding the post and could see the long, black hair of the Warrior Princess cascading from her bowed head.
Even in the nascent daylight, Solari saw that Xena had suffered a terrible beating and blood was evident on her back and clothing. The chief scout was near enough to hear ragged, raspy breathing, though it was very faint. What in Tartarus are they trying to do? Beat her half to death then let her hang here till she dies? Sickened by evidence of such horrible abuse of a woman she respected, Solari turned and hurried away from the Village Square to the edge of town.
When she came out of the village, sunrise had brightened the sky, allowing Eponin to see her and send the birdcall Solari was listening for. The one that Xena heard, too.
Solari dropped from the trees into the waiting group. "Xena's tied to a post set up on a platform in the Village Square. She's been beaten really badly; she's covered with blood. I don't know whether she is conscious. Or whether she's still alive. There are three men lying on the platform, probably meant to be guards. The villagers are just beginning to stir."
"Leese," Gabrielle, her heart thudding in torment, turned toward the tall, dark Amazon. "How many kidnappers were there?"
"Eight. And the villagers mostly weren't armed." Elisa was thinking ahead, as usual. She also was seething at the thought that Xena had been whipped and beaten. "Why did they do this to her? She's not a warlord anymore. She's been doing nothing but helping people fight against evil."
"Years ago, before Xena changed, her army destroyed Cirra. I guess they wanted vengeance," Gabrielle explained, sadly.
They want vengeance? They'll see vengeance when I get there. Next to Gwynna, Xena was the most important person in Elisa's life. And, though she knew Xena didn't need it, she felt very protective of her.
Gabrielle looked at Eponin. "What would you suggest we do, Eponin?"
The weapons master rubbed her chin in thought. "Chances are the villagers aren't going to be a big worry. The guards could give us some trouble, though, and the rest will most likely show up as soon as they see us. Still, I think our best bet is to ride right up to the platform and get rid of the three guards. Then we can free Xena and fight our way past the others if need be."
"Any other ideas?" Gabrielle looked from face to face.
Gwynna spoke up. "First, we better build a litter."
The bard nodded in agreement. "Good thinking, Gwynna. OK, let's get busy. We'll hook it to Argo. As soon as we get finished the litter, we move. Six of us will go into the square. Eponin, Solari, Elisa, Gwynna. And you better come with us, Rhea, we'll need a healer. You can bring Argo and the litter. Eponin, pick four archers to send up on some buildings in the square so we won't be surprised by anyone. They can cover our retreat and then join us."
Elisa pulled one of the daggers she wore on her back, under her tunic. "I can take the three guards out with these."
"It may come to that, Leese, but I'd rather just try to chase them off. This group laid in waiting for Xena, planning to deal with only one person. I don't think they will be too anxious to fight all of us." And I am soooo tired of violence...
The bard looked each woman in the eye. "Xena taught me that attitude can be half the battle. We are going to ride into this village as if we have been invited and have every right to be there. We will be daring anyone to stop us. As Pony suggested, we will ride right up to the platform and get up onto it as soon as possible. We'll shove the guards off, if possible, and form a defensive circle on the edge of the platform. Leese, you have the heaviest sword. You cut Xena's bonds. We'll get her onto the litter and get out as quickly as possible."
All the Amazons pitched in and had a litter built and hooked to Argo in about 15 minutes. The four archers entered the village at various points and surreptitiously managed to get onto some rooftops overlooking the square. When they were in place, another birdcall informed the women who had mounted and were awaiting the signal.
Gabrielle and Eponin led the column, followed by Elisa and Gwynna. Next came Rhea leading Argo and the litter and Solari brought up the rear. The women entered the Village Square and trotted their horses up to the platform. Some villagers who saw them raised their eyebrows and looked questioningly at each other, but made no attempt to stop them.
As they dismounted and strode up the stairs, the three guards jumped up and drew their swords. Gabrielle and Gwynna, using their staffs, swiped the feet out from under two of the guards and shoved them off the edge of the platform. Elisa ran toward the third one, jumped into the air and yelled, "EeeeeeeYaaaaaahhh!" as she hit him in the chest with both boots, hurtling him to the ground. She flipped backward and landed on her feet, then turned quickly to Xena, slumped against the post.
Even Elisa's heavy sword took three swings to cut through the chain connected to the iron piece around Xena's neck. Then she slashed through the ropes that secured the warrior's wrists and feet. Gabrielle and Eponin cradled Xena's body as it fell free. Solari and Gwynna stood guard as the bard and Elisa grabbed Xena's shoulders and Eponin grabbed her feet. They carried the Warrior Princess down the steps to the litter and laid her down just as Althar and his gang rushed at them.
Eponin, Solari and Rhea drew their swords and surrounded the litter, protecting it.
Elisa let out another yell and ran right at Althar. He stopped, grinned malevolently and waited till she was near. He raised his sword and brought it down toward her unprotected head. Elisa, quick as a cat, threw her sword up to block his move. With her left hand, she pulled one of her daggers from her back scabbard and slashed Althar across the midsection, laying it open. He made a gasp of surprise and collapsed. You'll never have another person whipped, you scum.
Gabrielle stabbed her staff into the chest of one of the men and, when he bent over, she cracked him across the head.
Simultaneously, Gwynna swung her staff at the side of the knee of the lout nearest her. His leg folded and he stumbled and fell. She grabbed her staff like a bat and swatted his head, knocking him out.
The other men faltered, then turned and ran.
Elisa bent down and wiped her knife on Althar's clothing before sheathing it. Then she put her booted foot against his body and shoved it off the platform. As the young Amazon raised her eyes, she met Gabrielle's sad gaze. Elisa's chin raised and her lip curled. "He's the one who ordered the whippings." She pulled her angry eyes from Gabrielle's and bent down again and picked up Xena's leathers, scabbard and chakram.
Villagers, hearing the commotion, were beginning to fill the square. When they saw what was happening at the platform, they hung back, not anxious to get into a fight with Amazon warriors.
Elisa caught Gwynna's eye and yelled to her, "Follow me!" The dark-haired Amazon flipped down from the platform, dropped Xena's gear on her litter, and dashed across the square to the jail. Holding her sword in front of her, she passed easily through the throng, who parted to let her through. Gwynna raised her staff to an attack position and raced behind her.
The two entered the jail, with Elisa waving her sword and wearing her most formidable expression. The two jailers raised their hands and backed away. Gwynna stood guard as her friend marched to the corner and retrieved Xena's armor from where it had been thrown.
The two young Amazons ran back out to join the others. When they reentered the square, they heard Gabrielle's voice. She was addressing the villagers. As they returned to Xena's litter and stowed her armor, and the belongings they had thrown there earlier, in one of Argo's saddlebags, they listened to their Queen.
"People of Cirra." The bard was standing at attention on the platform, holding her staff upright like a Queen's scepter. The morning sun sent a finger of light between the buildings that touched her golden hair with a radiant crown. Her voice was solemn and majestic and drew rapt attention from those assembled. "Yesterday, you were party to the kidnapping and beating of a member of the Amazon Nation. As the Amazon Queen, I would be within my rights to declare war against you and perhaps even level this village, again, as happened here in the past. Instead, I choose not vengeance, but peace." The worried frowns that had appeared on the faces of the villagers began to smooth.
"Yesterday, when Xena, the Warrior Princess, was brought before you, you chose a terrible vengeance. And you were wrong. That warrior, who devastated your village, doesn't exist any more. Did she use her sword against anyone, yesterday?" Villagers looked at each other and shook their heads as they remembered that she hadn't.
"No, she didn't. She has changed her ways and now follows a path of atonement for her past misdeeds. The only fighting she does now is against injustice." Gabrielle turned and gestured toward the litter where Rhea was tending to the blood-covered Warrior Princess. "And there she lies, half-dead, because of your misguided desire to harm her. What if she wants vengeance for this and comes back with an army to destroy Cirra again?"
The shocked look of the villagers showed that they hadn't considered that very real possibility. Gabrielle took this opportunity to make her point. "Vengeance never ends, does it? It just goes back and forth, causing death and destruction, forever."
The Queen raised her voice. "Now, hear me well. Cirra is no longer an enemy of Xena's. She will not be coming back with an army to punish you for yesterday's assault. She will forgive you. And it is time for you to forgive her. Can you do it? Can you turn your back on vengeance and move forward? Look into your hearts and answer that question for yourselves. Make Cirra a village that celebrates life, not death."
Gabrielle stood silently for a moment to allow that thought to sink in. The she moved off the platform, back to the waiting Amazons. They mounted their horses and rode out of the village, unhindered, as proudly as they had entered. Within the edge of the forest, they waited for the archers, then rode down the trail for about half an hour. Solari posted sentries and they set up camp next to a stream.
As the others put things in order and built a fire, Rhea began to examine Xena. The warrior's breathing was ragged. Gabrielle reached for her friend's hand. "By the gods, her hands are like ice," the bard remarked in surprise.
"That's probably because she hung by her arms all night," Rhea explained. "We need to warm her arms to get the blood moving in them. Try wrapping them in furs right now. When we get the fire built, we can bathe them with warm water."
Gabrielle pulled off Xena's boots and arm guards. Elisa came over and, looking at Xena's neck, suggested that she try to remove the neck iron by picking the lock with one of her daggers. Gabrielle agreed and the dark-haired Amazon set to work. She had the iron off in two minutes. "Thank you, Leese," the bard acknowledged her help. Elisa didn't meet Gabrielle's eyes; she just nodded and moved a little apart.
Gabrielle wrapped Xena's arm in a small fur and Eponin came over and wrapped the other arm. The bard gazed sorrowfully at the damaged face and body of the woman who was her friend, her protector. Her beautiful eyes were swollen shut, her sculpted lips were puffed and split, her cheeks bruised and scratched. Something had made scuff marks across her forehead and eyelids. Oh, Xena, what pain you must have suffered. And I wasn't there with you.
"Looks like she has a couple broken ribs, she's having trouble breathing, and her back is badly cut from the whip. I think those marks on her forehead and eyelids are from a chain and I can't tell whether her sight is affected. There's nothing else major that I can tell. Who knows about her insides?" Rhea finished her examination. "I'll get some water from the stream and wash the blood off of her. Then I can bind her ribs and put some of that salve on her that you two brought us. Let's hope it works its usual miracle."
Gabrielle lifted a hand toward Xena's cheek, wanting to caress it but afraid she might cause more pain, even if Xena was unconscious. "Go ahead," Eponin prompted softly. "Even if it hurts, she will know your touch and feel better."
The bard laid her palm gently against the warrior's face. She felt a slight ripple of muscle beneath her fingers and bit her lip. Eponin saw her reaction and called, "Princess? How are you doing?"
Xena couldn't see, couldn't move her arms, and, because of her condition, couldn't speak, either. All she could do was lean her head into Gabrielle's tender touch.
"I know you'll be all right, Xena. We'll take good care of you," the bard sniffled and promised. At least your body will be all right. And maybe we can get your mind sorted out, too. "Rhea's going to clean you up and bind those broken ribs. Then she'll put salve on your back and on the cuts you have. We'll talk later. OK?"
The Warrior Princess nodded once against the bard's warm palm. Eponin offered Xena some water and she drank slowly from the waterbag. Xena always healed rapidly and her arms were regaining sensation. The return of this sensation was excruciating but Xena wanted to spare Gabrielle that knowledge. She prolonged her drinking until the worst of the pain was past.
Rhea was waiting. Gabrielle reluctantly removed her hand from Xena's face and Eponin moved aside. The bard picked up one of the cloths Rhea had ready and began to wash away her friend's blood from her face and hair.
Cleaning her body was a nerve-wracking job. Blood from the whiplashes and numerous other cuts had dried, bonding Xena's skin to her cotton undergarment. Pieces of the cotton had become embedded in the wounds. Gabrielle and Rhea kept constantly wetting the area, then covering Xena with a fur to keep her warm while the water soaked in. Finally, Rhea was able to cut the undergarment off as Gabrielle, assisted by Eponin, carefully pulled the material away from her friend's lacerated body.
The only indication of Xena's agony was the occasional catch in her labored breathing. But tears ran down Gabrielle's cheeks the whole time. Eponin, sympathizing with the young Queen's distress, reached over and squeezed her shoulder. Gabrielle glanced up, a little surprised at this show of feeling from the stoic weapons master, and thanked her with a sad smile.
At last, the final piece of cotton was removed and Rhea was able to thoroughly cleanse the wounds. Gabrielle and Eponin slipped the furs from Xena's arms and were surprised to find that her skin now was warm. "Hey, those furs worked pretty well," Eponin remarked and Gabrielle nodded in agreement. They didn't realize that the speed with which the warrior's arms had recovered was unusual.
Rhea smeared the wonder salve all over Xena's body, even on her eyelids. "I don't know if this stuff works on bruises, but I'm going to give it a try," she explained. Then she gave a soft laugh. "But how much is salve and how much is Warrior Princess healing magic will be hard to tell."
Gabrielle and Eponin both grinned at the truth of this statement. They supported Xena's body as Rhea tightly bound her ribs, then bandaged her back. Then they slipped a shift over her and laid her on her side. Elisa, vigilant through the whole process, covered Xena with a dry fur. The bard, sniffing as tears still straggled down her face, pulled the fur up to Xena's chin, gently cupped her face in her hand and kissed her cheek. "We've finished pushing and pulling you for now. See if you can rest; the trip back will be bumpy." Gabrielle moved her hand up and carefully brushed her friend's bangs back from her bruised forehead.
A barely perceptible, "Ummm," was heard and the warrior turned her head away. An unseen tear escaped from under one swollen eyelid and slid into the hair next to her face. Oh, Gabrielle, the pain I'm causing you is harder to bear than my own. I'm so sorry, my bard. I never intended this.
Gabrielle walked the few paces to the circle of logs Solari had directed to be placed around the campfire, and sat with the others. Eponin, Rhea and Elisa joined them. The chief scout handed them some bread and cheese. The golden-haired woman gazed unseeing at it, then absently fed herself. Eponin, Rhea and Elisa wolfed their food. Then a wineskin was passed to ease their thirst.
Eponin saw Solari staring at her and motioning with her head toward Gabrielle. Eponin frowned and Solari tossed her head more energetically in the bard's direction. The weapons master took a deep breath.
"Gabrielle." The Queen turned vacant eyes toward Eponin. "This isn't your fault, you know. Even if you had been with the Princess, you couldn't have stopped what happened to her. It's bad enough she got battered, she wouldn't want you beating yourself about it."
Gradually, the mist-green eyes focused on the weapons master's concerned face. "Thanks, Pony. My mind knows you're right." Then, the soft voice turned wistful. "My heart just won't listen."
Gabrielle reached out and patted Eponin's arm, then slowly rose. "Time to get moving, don't you think?"
In their eagerness to bring Xena quickly to a more comfortable place, the Amazon party had traveled night and day. Periodic stops gave time for short rests and for treatment. The Warrior Princess was well on her way to healing, as usual, but the extent of her injuries had slowed the overall process. Huge discolorations on her lower back and stomach attested to the many kicks and punches that had been intended to harm her. That she had willingly stayed on the litter during the four-day journey was compelling evidence that she was still in need of rest and recuperation.
When the group reached the Amazon village, two other Amazons helped Eponin and Solari take Xena to the healer's hut. They laid her on her side several pallets away from Ephiny's and the two helpers left.
The regent winced when she got a good look at the warrior. Although Xena could now see, the skin around her eyes and on her face and body was going through the green-yellow-purple-black-red healing phase. And her split lips were just barely beginning to return to normal.
"Sweet Artemis, Xena, you look like you ran into a rainbow and it stuck to you." Ephiny knew sympathy would be shrugged off or ignored altogether. Taunting seemed to work the best.
"Yeah, something rained on me, Eph, but it sure as Tartarus wasn't water."
Gabrielle stepped between them. "All right, you two. You can talk all you want to tomorrow. Right now, Xena, you are going to sleep. I know you couldn't have rested too well in that bouncing litter." She opened a blanket and covered the warrior, tucking it in around her.
"Yes, my Queen." Xena didn't argue. She knew her great healing powers worked best when she was rested. And, wonder of wonders, as soon as Gabrielle had showed up, her nightmares had stopped. The warrior's eyes closed and she was asleep in seconds.
Gabrielle helped Ephiny over to a table near where Claris mixed her medicines. She and Eponin and Solari sat with the regent and Claris, whom they called to join them. The three newcomers gave Ephiny and Claris a rundown of the events of the past week.
Gabrielle looked at the healer. "Rhea was great, Claris. She has given Xena all of her attention and the salve, again, has worked wonders."
Ephiny cringed inside. If that salve has been so wonderful, what must Xena have looked like four days ago? No wonder Gabrielle seems so worn out. She's probably suffered every pain Xena has.
"How did you make out, Ephiny?"
"I'm glad you're back, Gabrielle. I discovered I'm not quite ready to take on full-time responsibility, yet. Claris has been really helpful but another week of inactivity would be very welcome."
The bard searched the regent's face and noticed tired lines still showing there. "We'll get out of here, then, and let you sleep, too." Eponin assisted Ephiny back to her pallet and the visitors began to leave.
Gabrielle hugged Ephiny and said softly, "I'll come in tomorrow and check on the two of you." And see if I can talk some sense into my partner.
Gabrielle was seated at the table in the Queen's hut, going over the weekly reports brought to her from the various chiefs: stores, housing, healing, weapons, etc. A knock came on the open door frame and she looked up to see Elisa standing there, waiting deferentially for an invitation to enter.
"C'mon in, Leese. Have a seat, I'll be with you in a minute." The Queen waved the young Amazon to a seat and pretended to continue reading as she gathered her thoughts. Gabrielle was disappointed with the girl's behavior at Cirra and had wanted to speak to her about it. She just wasn't too sure how to approach her about it. She wants to be like Xena. Maybe I can use that.
Gabrielle laid down the paper she was holding and clasped her hands in front of her on the table. "What can I do for you?" Elisa's head and eyes were lowered, studying her own clasped fingers. Gabrielle waited. Slowly, Elisa's chin raised and her smoke-gray eyes found the bard's concerned green ones. "I... I don't exactly know how to say this."
The Queen didn't say a word, she just kept gazing at Elisa. Her hair, her height, her shape, her movements... she looks so much like Xena that people mix them up. Yet, the shape of her face is different and the color of her eyes... And something else is different about her eyes. Her eyes are vulnerable. That's a rare condition in Xena's eyes. One she lets only me see. Leese hasn't yet learned how to hide that.
Elisa saw that she wasn't going to get any help, so she plunged ahead. "You got mad at me at Cirra. I saw the look on your face." Still no response.
Elisa's tone turned defiant. "He ordered Xena and me whipped. He deserved to die."
Finally, the Queen spoke. Her compassionate eyes searched the young Amazon's belligerent ones. "And who decided that, Leese? That whipping someone should result in death?"
"Xena's stronger about killing than you are. She would have done the same thing I did," Elisa said, defensively.
"Are you so sure of that? Xena kills in battle, yes. And, sometimes, she's pretty nasty about it. But does she kill strictly for vengeance, as you did?" Gabrielle leaned toward Elisa. "I think she has tried to get beyond that and I would like to see you get beyond it, too."
"He was trying to kill me," Elisa argued.
"C'mon, Leese. We both know he wasn't even in the proper attack position. I'm no sword fighter and even I could see he was no match for you. You could have disarmed him and turned him over to the authorities for kidnapping you." The bard lifted her eyebrows, inviting Elisa to agree with her.
The Amazon sat back, sighing, and lowered her hands to her knees. "My mind knows you are right, Gabrielle. I shouldn't have killed him." She looked away. "I wanted to kill him, but, when I did, it didn't make me feel better. I felt worse. And when I saw your face... I felt guilty." Her eyes, coming back to Gabrielle's, looked haunted. "How do I stop myself when I want vengeance?"
Gabrielle sat back, too. "I think today is a step in the right direction. Now that you know you want to change, and have admitted it to yourself, it will help you change. Just bring this conversation to mind when you start to feel vengeful."
Elisa's lips turned up in a shy grin. "I see why Xena calls you her light. Maybe I can borrow a beam or two from you, too."
The Queen's broad smile lit her face. "I'd be happy to help you anytime I can, Leese. Don't hesitate to ask."
The girl stood up to leave. "Is it OK with you if I tell Gwynna about this conversation?"
"That's fine with me. Maybe Gwynna can help you rein in your anger," Gabrielle suggested.
"She already does," Elisa admitted, with another shy grin. "She kinda reminds me of you."
Gabrielle thought about her friend as the young Amazon left. Someday, Leese, you'll realize Xena's strength comes from within. She's gaining more and more control of that powerful mind and will of hers. That's what makes her admirable. Not how many people she's killed.
Gabrielle had been trying to change the warrior's mind for a week. It had gotten to the stage where the same arguments were being repeated endlessly. "Why do you have to be so stubborn? You're not always right, you know." Gabrielle's frustration with Xena's adamant intention to go her own way had built to the breaking point.
Xena, finally back in her leathers, sat on the edge of her pallet in the Queen's hut, her head in her hands. Her healing had progressed rapidly and this morning she had moved out of the healer's hut. Another week to get back into condition and she would be ready to leave.
"I just don't understand you, Xena. You have to tell me why you are so determined to leave me behind. What is this terrible vision that you have seen?" The bard was pacing back and forth. She stopped and walked right up in front of the Warrior Princess.
"Look at me, Xena," she commanded. "Look at me!"
The warrior dropped her arms across her knees and turned her cobalt-blue eyes up to meet the bard's mist-green ones. Gabrielle put one hand on each side of Xena's face and gazed earnestly into those sad depths. "I know you love me. And I love you. So, no matter what else you say, I will follow you. If I die because of that, so be it."
Xena's eyes seemed to turn from blue to near-black She will never give up. I have to explain why I need to leave, even if it hurts her. Why we can't stay together. She patted the pallet she was sitting on. "Sit down, Gabrielle. I'll tell you all about it."
Xena told her about the shamaness Alti and her vision of their deaths. "We were being crucified. You were lying on the ground being fastened to the cross next to mine." The warrior's throat choked up.
"So, you figure that if you leave me, it can't happen." Gabrielle voiced the words that were driving her friend away. It wasn't anything I said, after all.
Xena nodded. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. "If we're not together, we can't die together."
The bard lifted her friend's hand and intertwined their fingers. "We all die, Xena. You could die without me or I could die without you. But I would rather die while traveling with you than be left anywhere without you. Why can't you accept that?"
"Gabrielle, don't let me be the cause of your death." Anguish poured from Xena's eyes and threatened to drown her voice.
"But you don't know for sure that we died in that vision. Maybe it's just a warning. Maybe we were rescued. You don't really know." The bard's troubled eyes grew a deeper green. "After all we've been through together, all we have meant to each other... I can't believe you would just... leave me. You did that once before when you went to Chin and there were terrible consequences. Please, promise me you won't leave me, again."
Gabrielle reached an arm around Xena's shoulders but the Warrior Princess abruptly stood up. She turned her head away, hiding the agonized expression on her face. "I told Ephiny I would take a walk with her. It's a good way for both of us to rebuild our strength. Do you want to come with us?"
"No, I have other things I have to do." Gabrielle rose, reluctant to end the conversation but recognizing that Xena had finished listening. And, she hadn't answered Gabrielle's request for a promise.
They walked outside and the warrior looked down at the bard. She stifled the pain she was feeling but couldn't keep her concern for her friend from her voice. "You will take care of yourself, won't you? And stay out of danger?"
"Well, if you aren't here, you won't know whether I do or not, will you?" Gabrielle's frustration sharpened her sarcasm. She could have bitten her tongue when she saw the hurt that flitted across those magnificent blue eyes. "Xena," she said softly as she touched the bronzed arm with her outstretched hand. "I'm sorry."
Her friend's eyes grew sad as she covered the bard's fingers with her own, then dropped her hand and walked away. "So am I," she whispered to the wind.
Ephiny and Xena had been walking down the path next to the turbulent river for nearly an hour. They had just climbed to the top of a small plateau that overlooked the raging rapids. Ephiny was more than ready for a rest, but would not admit that to her companion. Finally, Xena noticed a bead of sweat on the regent's lip and realized she had been pushing her too hard. "Let's rest here for awhile, Eph, and watch the river. It sure is a lot wilder than usual."
"OK, if you really think you need to," Ephiny panted.
Xena turned and grinned at the curly-headed blonde. "Well, we CAN keep going..."
Ephiny gave up pretending, collapsed to the ground and spread-eagled her body. "Forget that "we" stuff. If I go any further without resting, I'll need my head examined. We aren't all indestructible Xena's, you know."
The Warrior Princess sat down cross-legged beside the supine Amazon. "I'm not indestructible, Eph." Xena pulled some tufts of grass from the ground in front of her and tossed them up into the light breeze that blew over them. The torrent below them made a sibilant background to their voices. "I want to ask you a favor."
Struck by the seriousness of the warrior's tone, Ephiny sat up, brushing some loose twigs from her curls. She gazed at Xena's bowed head, knowing that when those intensely blue eyes swept up and met hers, her heart would lurch as it always did. Steeling herself for that reaction, she cleared her throat. "Ask away."
The Warrior Princess looked up and Ephiny blinked. Twice. A tiny twitch ruffled the corner of Xena's eyebrow and Ephiny, exasperated with herself, frowned and looked away. "Just ask your damn favor, Xena."
Xena's voice was soft and low-pitched. "Eph, next to Gabrielle, you're the best friend I have. You know that, don't you?"
"Friend. Yes. I know that," came from the regent in small spurts. There was silence from the Warrior Princess. After a moment, Ephiny's head turned back and Xena had such a false, sugary-sweet smile on her face that the Amazon let go of her petulance and burst out laughing. "By the gods, a sweet Warrior Princess. I don't know if I can stand that. Bring back the real you. Please!"
Xena laughed, too, and reached out her arm. "Friends?"
"Friends," the regent agreed. The two women clasped their arms together in the warrior handshake. "Now, what's the favor you want?" Ephiny inquired with a little more grace.
Xena's manner turned serious. "I am leaving Gabrielle here. I want you to keep a special eye on her, for me. Will you do that?"
"You know I will, Xena. Even without your having to ask. But you also know that she will follow you. How do you expect me to stop her?"
"You won't be able to stop her. I'll just have to stay ahead of her. But could you send an Amazon or two with her to keep her company? Maybe, sooner or later, she'll get tired and give up."
"If you really believe that, Xena, you don't know her as well as I thought you did. She's had a pretty good teacher at being relentless."
Suddenly, Xena jumped up. Her head swiveled, then faced upstream. "Wha..." Ephiny began, but Xena put a hand out to silence her, then ran to the edge of the plateau, still looking upstream. "It's Gabrielle. She's in the river!" The Warrior Princess took off running in the direction of the voice her phenomenal hearing had picked up.
The hunting party had been riding upriver for about 10 minutes. The path they were taking usually ran along the bank about ten feet above the plane of the water. Today, however, the water was almost even with the top of the bank and the current surged along at a pace more rapid than Eponin had ever seen.
A thrust of sandstone narrowed the path at this point and the Amazons were strung single file along it. The weapons master was at the head of the column and Gabrielle rode directly behind her. Six more women were in the party with Gwynna and then Elisa trailing at the end.
Everyone knew the Queen was not fond of riding horseback so a large, complacent horse was picked for her to ride, because of his good nature. Unfortunately, his size was his downfall. He stepped on an edge of the path that had been partly undermined by the heaving river and, when it gave way beneath his hoof, he went to his knees, then toppled into the water. He didn't have a chance. And neither did Gabrielle.
She was flung from the saddle and grabbed by the swift current. Before anyone could help, she was swept out of reach and carried downstream. "Xena!" she screamed, in an automatic reflex. "Help! Xena!"
Elisa was the first to react. "Follow me!" she screamed and backed her horse off of the narrow path. As soon as she got to a wider part, she turned Viktor and galloped downstream, hoping to get below Gabrielle's path and somehow save her. Each of the Amazons followed suit until they were all pounding down the path.
Xena heard the Amazons coming down the path she was running up and immediately realized she was running the wrong way. The riders were trying to get below the fallen Queen. She swung up into a tree and as Elisa came by, the warrior dropped onto Viktor, behind her. "What happened?" Xena yelled.
"Gabrielle's horse tripped and they went into the river," Elisa hollered against the wind flying into her face. "If we hurry to the plateau, we might be able to get a rope to her before she gets into the worst of the rapids and goes over the falls."
"When we get there, get everybody's ropes and tie them together," Xena directed. "I'll tie them around my waist and go into the water after her."
"Let me go," Elisa pleaded. "You're still weak. We might lose you both."
"Leese, I appreciate the offer, but you're not strong enough on your best day to fight that current. I'm her only chance."
Elisa knew Xena was right, she wasn't strong enough. The terrible whipping she had taken several years ago had done some permanent damage to her back and shoulder muscles. Ordinarily, that didn't hamper her, but swimming against a strong current was beyond her capabilities.
But the Warrior Princess was still recuperating from her horrible beating. Would she be strong enough? Elisa hoped so, because she knew that there would be no arguing against it. Xena was going into the river.
Viktor pounded onto the plateau and Xena and Elisa leaped off. As Xena ran to the edge to seek unsuccessfully for Gabrielle, Elisa yelled to the following Amazons, "Give us your ropes! Hurry!" The women stopped their horses and immediately gave their ropes to Elisa, and now Gwynna and Eponin, who were tying them together. Xena joined them.
When they were nearly finished, Xena spoke to Elisa. "You have the best eye for judging distance. Go to the far side of the plateau and watch for Gabrielle. I'll be jumping from right here. When you see her, raise your arm. As soon as you see it is time for me to jump, throw your arm down. Go!" Elisa ran to the far side and looked upriver. Gabrielle hadn't come into sight.
The ropes were done and Xena tied one end to her waist while Eponin tied the other end to the tree nearest the water. The excess rope was coiled at Xena's feet. Ephiny came over. "Xena, this is suicide. You're in no condition to go into that water, and you know it. You'll never make it." The regent's expression was anguished. Gabrielle was a close and dear friend and it looked like they would lose her. And maybe Xena, too.
Xena turned her head toward the regent and Ephiny flinched at the fanatically determined look coming from the warrior's burning eyes. "I'll make it. That's Gabrielle out there." A mane of black hair flew into the regent's face as Xena's head jerked toward Elisa. Her arm had gone up. Every eye on the plateau watched as Elisa's arm came slashing down.
Xena took off at a dead run. As her feet hit the edge of the plateau, she thrust herself up and out, covering an inhuman distance. She came down in the raging torrent about 20 feet short of where she needed to be to intercept the bard. With mighty kicks of her feet and powerful strokes of her arms, she reached Gabrielle just in time to grab the barely conscious bard around the waist with an arm. She struggled to pull her friend to her and finally got her long legs wrapped around the bard's body. By now, Gabrielle had begun to lose consciousness.
Xena held on with both arms and legs, knowing the rope would pull her into shore if she could just endure the fight to keep the bard in her grasp. The next moments seemed like a lifetime. Just let me hold onto her and I'll never let her go again.
Ephiny was right, Xena was too weak to hold the bard, but her tremendous discipline and focus wouldn't let her body succumb to that fact. She willed her body to hold on and it did. At last, the rope swung completely to the shore and Xena was able to get her feet onto the riverbed. She reached for her boot dagger, cut the rope and stumbled out of the water.
Laying Gabrielle on her stomach, Xena stood astride her, reached down and picked her up with her arms around her waist. The Warrior Princess bounced the bard up and down shaking water from her mouth until she started choking and spitting up. "I'm OK. I'm OK," she gasped and Xena turned and laid her on the dry ground and flopped down on her back, beside her, gulping air.
When the warrior's breathing eased, she turned her head toward Gabrielle. The worn-out bard turned toward her at the same time and a joyful and loving smile appeared on her face. "I'm not sure what you did, Xena, but I know only you could have done it. You saved my life. Again." The golden-haired woman reached for her friend's hand and clasped it. "I love you, Xena."
The scene's eerie resemblance to the crucifixion vision that had been coloring her every thought and action struck the warrior. Startled, she struggled up and wearily pulled Gabrielle up beside her to chase away the similarity. Xena wrapped her arms around the bard and hugged her close. "I'm so thankful you are still alive. I love you, too."
"Xena," the bard spoke in hushed tones, her breath warm against the warrior's wet skin, "you always say friends should stand by each other. Well, friends should stand WITH each other, too. I don't want to be apart from you. We belong together. Promise you'll stay with me."
If I hadn't been here to rescue her, she could have died. So, even if I stay away from her, there are no guarantees that she will be safe. A fearful destiny might lie ahead, but we'll face it together. And maybe even beat it.
"I promise, Gabrielle." The bard could feel the rumble of Xena's low, warm voice right next to her strong heartbeat. "I won't leave unless you tell me to."
As Xena's arms gave her an extra squeeze, Gabrielle tightened her arms around the waist of her beloved friend. "And that will never happen," the bard answered.
My warrior, don't abandon me;
Don't tear our souls apart.
Regretted words, that forced you out,
Weren't spoken from my heart.
I never truly sent you off;
You used my words like knives.
You strove to separate our souls
And disconnect our lives.
The vision that foretold our deaths
Was frightening you away.
But who's to know if destiny
Decreed that dreadful day?
Though you can't keep me always safe
And banish every fear,
When danger comes into my life
I need to have you near.
Our souls can never separate;
No one can cut us free.
You're my protector; I'm your light;
We ARE our destiny.
Comments are welcome. PruferBlue@aol.com
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