Dahak's Entrance Delayed
DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
VIOLENCE: There are several occurrences of Xena-type violence.
SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the
TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends,
depending on the reader's view.
Author's note: These events take place immediately after Sacrifice II. This story follows my previous story "Friends: Forgiven, Forgotten, Forever" and while it is not necessary to have read it, some references are made to it in the story and it may help to clarify an occasional scene.
My thanks and appreciation to my friend, Karen Surtees, for the time and interest she gave to critiquing my story and for her insightful suggestions to enlarge upon and enrich several areas.
I would greatly appreciate comments on why you did or didn't like it. Suggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises. My e-mail address is PruferBlue@aol.com
Dahak's Entrance Delayed
Prologue - In the Halls of War
Dahak, the god who was the embodiment of evil, had forged a fiery passageway to earth through a well hole in the Halls of War. Xena, Warrior Princess had closed off that well hole with a gigantic metal disc, but the floor had opened and a chasm filled with molten fire had appeared. Dahak's daughter, Hope, was standing at the edge of that chasm and Xena was determined to reach her and kill her.
The Warrior Princess held a dagger in her hand, poised to strike. The hind's blood on the dagger would kill the god's daughter, and restrain Dahak from entering the world. The evil daughter had cast a spell on Xena that made it almost impossible for her to move. Xena struggled to force her body toward Dahak's child.
The warrior's cobalt-blue eyes bored into Hope's with feral intensity. The daughter of Dahak used her depraved powers to force the blade to turn toward Xena's hate-hardened countenance. By sheer force of will, the warrior realigned the point of the weapon in the direction of Hope's heart. The long, bronzed arm had reached its zenith and was about to slash the malevolent woman when a golden-haired woman, Gabrielle, used her Amazon staff to catapult across the room. She grabbed Hope, and propelled them both into the hungry flames of the chasm.
"XEEENAAAAAAA!" screamed the golden-haired young woman, in supplication.
"GABRIELLE! GAB..." shouted the anguished warrior, but Gabrielle was beyond help. She turned her mist-green eyes up to the edge of the hole for one last look at her dearest friend. Expressions of love and regret flitted across her face, followed by one last look pleading for understanding.
Xena's archenemy, the goddess Callisto, was an audience to these events. Standing behind Xena, she laughed insanely at Gabrielle's demise. "I never thought I'd feel so good again," she raved. "Seeing poor, dear Gabrielle sacrifice herself makes it all worthwhile. It finally gives me a reason... for living," she crowed. "And I have YOU to thank for it, Xena."
Xena, shocked at the horrendous turn of events, whirled around and buried the dagger in Callisto's stomach. The warrior's low-pitched voice churned passionate words through the agony in her heart, "No more living for you."
As the hind's blood coursed through Callisto's body, she began to collapse. Her startled look at Xena changed to a strangely sweet smile. Her caressing hand moved slowly down Xena's face and slid along her body armor as the goddess folded to the ground and died.
Joxer had been so bewildered and lost by Gabrielle's sacrifice that he turned blindly to follow in the footsteps of her equally stunned and lost best friend. He trailed behind as Xena, the hind's blood dagger clasped in one hand and Gabrielle's staff in the other, stumbled out of the Halls of War. She continued, instinctively, into the forest, to where her golden warhorse, Argo, had been tethered.
The tall woman automatically greeted her beloved horse with a pat on the shoulder. She smoothed and straightened the palomino's saddle blanket, checked the saddle fastenings and put Gabrielle's staff into its saddle holster. Then, she put her long arms around the golden horse's neck and buried her face in the mane. The stoic Warrior Princess released her tightly clamped emotion, and wept huge, wrenching sobs for her lost friend.
Joxer, trailing at a distance, heard the warrior's crying and his own face suddenly spouted rivulets of tears. He halted to keep from encroaching on Xena's privacy and gave in to his own mourning.
Eventually, Xena, numbed by grief, mounted Argo and let the horse plod aimlessly. After the palomino and the young man had moved in synchrony for several hours, Joxer's continued presence finally moved from Xena's subconscious into her conscious mind. She halted Argo and waited for the forlorn young man to catch up to her.
As soon as he saw the Warrior Princess waiting for him, Joxer came to an abrupt halt. "X-X-Xena," he stuttered, "I d-d-don't mean to upset you; I just don't know what to do." Tears shone in the young man's eyes, "Gabrielle's g-g-gone and I don't know what to do. Can I stay with you for awhile... please?"
The warrior's somber face and dulled eyes proclaimed the depth of her bereavement. "C'mon," she flatly intoned and returned to her aimless trek. Maybe the presence of another person will help distract me from this terrible, bone-chilling loneliness, Xena grieved to herself, as Joxer gratefully scurried to catch up.
Joxer trudged alongside Argo's rider for the rest of the interminable day and the two devastated companions made camp together for the night.
The muted light of pre-dawn crept silently across the forest floor and entered the campsite. Two bedrolls, embracing the damped fire between them, appeared in the murk. One was occupied; the other was unused.
Joxer had said, "Goodnight, Xena," and climbed into his blankets. Afflicted by the torment of losing the young woman who was the object of his unrequited love, he lay awake for a long time. He gave no thought to his traveling companion, and did not hear her leave the campsite.
The lone warrior, sword in hand, slipped deep into the forest. Within moments she was charging through it recklessly, slashing and cleaving trees, bushes, limbs with raging adrenaline-intensified fury. Night creatures bolted from her path, frightened and alarmed by this unknown animal that was crashing with berserk vehemence through their normally quiet habitat.
Trees as thick as a man's biceps fell to the earth, their trunks severed by one mighty blow. Nothing survived in a six-foot wide swath, as the wielder of the double-edged weapon granted no mercy.
With teeth clenched, and lips pulled back tight in a wide grimace, the Warrior Princess grunted harshly with each wrenching swipe of her weapon. The warrior's face and body were bathed in sweat; her heart hammered in her ears, but the inflamed exertion never faltered.
She ran at a bigger tree, jumped high into the air and, screaming her warrior yell, "Yiyiyiyyiyi," lopped off the topmost of its five large branches. One at a time, the limbs fell to the frenzied warrior's screaming attack. The trunk, now stripped, was a more formidable opponent. She hacked at it ferociously, and it, too, eventually fell to her unrelenting assault.
Finally, the adrenaline spent, Xena dropped her sword arm, threw her head back and howled like a wounded animal, "GABRIELLE!... GABRIELLE!... GABBBRIIIELLLLLE! The heavy burden of grief drove her to her knees, her voice now low and moaning, "Gab...ri...elle." Tears, finally released, streamed unchecked down the dark-haired woman's anguished face.
Finally, the tears and moaning subsided and only stillness was left. And darkness.
She surrendered to the darkness; the blackness of night was her constant companion, it enveloped her being. Inky gloom dwelt in her mind and delved to the bottom of her soul. She had once surrendered to its seductive evil.
But then Gabrielle had come into the warlord's life. The golden-haired woman's bright soul had shone its light into those dismal recesses. Weapons forged of goodness and love had beaten back the constrictive tentacles squeezing Xena's soul.
The warrior had dared to feel the beginnings of hope, the possibility of redemption, the lifting of guilt's black oppression. What would she become without that light? What would happen now?
The warrior was Night; dark, cold, glowering.
Sordid secrets scarred her soul and hardened her heart.
The youngster was Day; bright, warm, flowering.
Shining sunlight sparked her soul and honeyed her heart.
The Night met the Day; light, hot, welcoming.
Darkness, softened by the sun, was lightened of pain.
The Day met the Night; dusk, cool, lowering.
Sunlight wrestled with the gloom; and brightened the way.
The Night lost the Day; gray, chilled, sorrowing.
Torment agonized her mind and sharpened the ache.
The Day left the Night; shade, iced, suffering.
Sunlight tumbled into fire and Day didn't wake.
The warrior was grieved; black, numb, anguishing.
Dahak stole her soul away when Day had been burned.
The youngster was gone; red, seared, offering.
Sacrificed her light away and darkness returned.
Images of treasured moments from the past tumbled through Xena's mind. At first they began to refuel her rage... then, gradually, sweet memories of the bard soothed and calmed her: the bold young woman from Poteidaia speaking on Xena's behalf; Gabrielle's resurrection in the Temple of Asklepios; her beautiful face, the first glorious sight viewed by the warrior's blinded eyes; the beloved friend staring hopefully into the sarcophagus as Xena returned to life...
The Warrior Princess struggled mightily and achieved somewhat tenuous control. At last, she blinked back her tears, sheathed her sword and stood up. Gabrielle, wait for me, her heart cried, I'll find you, I promise.
She made her way toward the camp, detouring to plunge into the nearby river to cool and refresh her body, and, hopefully, her mind. Then she fished for breakfast. While standing in the water, she tilted her ear toward its surface. The dark-haired woman stood unmoving for several minutes. Her hand suddenly plunged into the river and reappeared with a large fish. Taking it to the shore, she gutted and scaled it.
Pulling some leaves from a plant nearby, she dipped them in the river and rolled the fish up in them.
Returning to camp, she pulled a covered frying pan out of a saddlebag. She laid the fish in the pan and covered it. Stirring the embers of the damped fire into flames, she added more wood and set the frying pan across two larger pieces. Using a cloth pad, Xena picked up the tea pot sitting near the fire and added fresh water from a water bag. She reached in a pouch at her belt and added some herbs. Then she set the pot back near the fire.
Satisfied that breakfast was well on its way, the warrior sat on a rock near the fire to keep an eye on the cooking fish. Daybreak's gift of a startlingly beautiful sunrise did nothing to remove the icy darkness that still clung to the warrior's soul.
"XEEENAAAAAA! XEEENAAAAA!" The Warrior Princess suddenly grabbed her head, flinging her hands over her ears. Why, Gabrielle? Why? Why did you sacrifice yourself? You know I was prepared to die. Whatever possessed you to do that? Will I ever stop hearing your cry? Will my heart ever feel whole again?
The woman brought down her trembling hands, balled them into fists, and her face hardened in determination. I will NOT let this beat me. I WILL get you back. I promise!
"Xena... are you all right?" Joxer's voice called tentatively to her as he slipped out of his bedroll.
"Yeah, I'm all right," Xena growled in a surly tone. How can I be all right, you idiot? Gabrielle is GONE! screamed a nasty voice inside her head. Then, C'mon, Warrior Princess, start acting the way Gabrielle would want you to. He loved her, too. Remember your promise, "If anything happens to me, promise you won't become a monster."
"Joxer, look, I know you're grieving, too. It's just..." the warrior couldn't
finish in a steady voice, and tears once again threatened.
"It's OK, Xena, I'm used to being snarled at. If anyone's going to do it, I'd rather it be you than anyone else I'm afraid of," Joxer forced a smile as he tried valiantly to make a little joke.
The corners of Xena's lips quirked back at him. "Gabrielle used to say something like that when she first started following me. I was pretty nasty to her, too. I..." again, the dark-haired woman had to stop. She didn't even bother trying to hide the pain that twisted her lips.
Joxer was in pain, too. But he was discerning enough to realize that the Warrior Princess' anguish was even greater than his own. He tried to turn her thoughts in another direction. "I know you'll figure out a way to make the gods bring her back, Xena. I believe in you. And I know Gabrielle does, too."
Cobalt-blue eyes laden with unspeakable melancholy turned toward the young man. "I'm not sure, yet, how to go about it, Joxer, but I'm working on a plan..." I still have the hind's blood dagger. I could threaten Ares with it... I wonder if Dahak would trade Gabrielle for Ares' life? No, I don't think he would. Now that Hope is pregnant with the God of War's child, there's no desperate need for Ares. If I killed him, Dahak would just put someone else in charge of his army. But there's got to be a way...Keep thinking...
"Joxer, I'm going to have to go to Amazon territory. They need to be told about their Queen. I think they should hear it from me, rather than someone else. We can travel together until we get there, but then we'll have to part," Xena explained.
"I understand, Xena. I want to thank you for letting me stay with you. It kinda helps with the..."
"It's OK, Joxer, forget about it," Xena, never comfortable with expressions of gratitude, waved off his words.
"C'mon, let's try to get some food in our stomachs," the warrior said. She served both of them and poured two mugs of tea. Both comrades ate a few bites of the succulent fish and just pushed the rest around their plates. They did drink the tea. Without the sunny bard there making bright conversation, nothing was enjoyable any more.
Finally, Xena reached over with a tired smile and took Joxer's plate from his hands. She took the used plates, pan, teapot and utensils to the river and cleaned them. When she brought them back, Joxer had rolled up the sleeping gear. They threw it on their horses, doused the fire, and got back on the trail.
Rarely talkative in the best of times, Xena barely uttered a word for the next three days on the trail. Her oppressive mood, and his own anguish, silenced the usually loquacious young man, also.
On the third night, the travelers set up camp in a small clearing next to a narrow stream. After building a fire, they had a supper of cold biscuits, berries, dried beef, and hot tea. Neither one had had much appetite lately, so Xena didn't bother hunting. Joxer and Xena continued to sit in silence until they turned in for the night.
Xena, as usual, got up before dawn and went into the forest to practice her drills. Although her tongue had been inactive, she finally had shaken off her numbed state and, as she drilled, her mind was racing. I need to think of a way to make the gods or Dahak or somebody give Gabrielle back. But also, I need to figure a way to get rid of Dahak, and probably Hope, too. I can't believe that falling into her father's realm would have killed her. Only the hind's blood would have done that. And if she's alive... maybe Gabrielle is, too!
This suddenly exciting thought began to lighten the warrior's mood. It should be easier to rescue a hostage than to force someone to raise another person from the dead. Maybe Dahak WOULD trade for Ares. What good is the bard to him anyway? Xena pursed her lips as a grin threatened to break out. She's probably down there talking him to death! Be patient, Gabrielle, I'll be there for you sooner or later.
For the first time in four days, the warrior felt hungry. She finished her drills and went hunting.
Soon, bearing a skinned and gutted rabbit, Xena re-entered the campsite. She pulled a large leaf from a tree and knelt near the fire. Laying the rabbit on the leaf and pulling a dagger from the scabbard on her boot, she carved the rabbit into sections and placed the pieces in a frying pan. Stirring last night's embers to flames, the dark-haired woman added several pieces of wood and set the frying pan on top of them. With a cloth pad, she lifted a small pot of water that had been heating in the embers, added some collected herbs to the pot, and set it aside to brew.
Joxer was just waking up. He got up and stretched and yawned.
"You hungry, Joxer?" she asked.
"Not really, Xena, but I think I could eat something," the young man answered. "I need to..."
The Warrior Princess threw up her hand for silence. Her acute hearing had picked up a sound in the forest. "Joxer," she whispered, "I hear someone." She glided into the forest and started moving surreptitiously toward the intruder. Joxer came tiptoeing in her footsteps, but he wasn't making any noise, so Xena let him come.
They crept along silently for several minutes before Xena raised her arm in a signal to stop. She motioned to Joxer to get behind a tree while she hid behind another. Footsteps were slowly moving toward them, starting and stopping, as though following tracks, but the underbrush here was thick and obscured the walker.
In a moment the person stepped into a clear spot. Xena's heart lurched, and she started running. "Gabrielle!" Joxer blurted and froze in astonishment. The bard looked up just as the warrior reached her. An ecstatic Xena caught the golden-haired woman under her arms, lifted her off her feet, and the two women embraced, laughing and crying at the same time. The Warrior Princess, in her joy, swung her friend round and round before setting her down.
Joxer finally unfroze and found his voice. He ran to the entwined women and threw his arms around the two of them. "Gabby, Gabby, you're back!" Unashamedly, he began to cry, also.
"JOXER!" came Xena's snarl, "You're getting my shoulder wet!" Then she laughed, reached an arm up around his neck and hugged him, too.
When the three calmed down at last, they seated themselves on the ground at the campsite, leaning back against the trees. Xena threw her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and drew her close, almost as if she would disappear if the warrior let go of her. "OK, my bard, this we have to hear. How did you get back here? We thought you were... dead," the warrior's voice stumbled over the last word.
Suddenly sober, mist-green eyes looked up into crystal blue ones alight with happiness. "Xena, Hope is still alive, too. When we fell into the fire, it didn't even burn us. We landed in a huge underground cavern that was as bright as day from the flames issuing out of its center. I banged my head pretty hard when I hit the ground and was knocked out. I still feel a little groggy and I have a terrible headache." The bard pushed back her hair and showed the warrior a huge black and blue lump on the side of her head, just above her temple. She paused, took a deep breath, and sighed as though exhausted.
"Gabrielle, you can finish telling us later; you look like you need some rest," Xena suggested.
"NO! Let me tell it NOW. I have to get this off my chest," insisted the feisty woman.
"OK, OK. No problem," the warrior acquiesced. She would have granted the bard any request. Joxer sat entranced on the other side of Gabrielle, watching her with adoring eyes.
"I'm sorry, Xena. I AM ecstatic to be back, but I feel really awful. Anyhow, as I was saying, I was knocked out when I hit. I don't know how long I was unconscious, but," looking slowly around, "if this is the next day, I must have been out for quite a while."
"Try FOUR days," Joxer informed her.
Xena suddenly jumped up, yelling, "WAIT A MINUTE," and ran over to the fire. She grabbed a cloth pad and pulled the frying pan away from the fire. She took a sharp stick and turned the browned pieces of rabbit over. "Wonderful," she smiled, "that side's nearly perfect. Who said I can't cook?" She set the pan near the edge of the fire to finish frying.
The tall woman didn't notice that a look of pain had crossed the bard's face when she heard the shout. Joxer became aware of her distress and patted her arm to soothe her. Gabrielle's first reaction was to pull away from him, but she recovered, smiled and patted his arm. "I'm OK, Joxer. My nerves are really shot. I was startled for a minute, and," she looked reprovingly at Xena, "your shout didn't help my headache!"
Even an out-of-sorts Gabrielle wasn't going to affect the warrior's joy. "Sorry," the dark-haired woman grinned. "I was worried about our breakfast, and we all know how important food is to you. Here, let me get you a mug of tea. It has some herbs in it that should soothe your pain."
Xena poured mugs of tea for all three of them, passed them out and rejoined the other two on the ground. "Carry on," smiled the Warrior Princess. She felt like she would never stop smiling; her heart was thumping so hard in her chest from sheer joy. I don't know when I've ever been any happier, the warrior marveled.
"Well," Gabrielle continued, "when I regained consciousness, I was lying on the floor of the cavern and Hope was seated next to me. She told me that Dahak had no use for me in his kingdom because he could see that I would not be turned away from being good. He WAS angry that I had forced Hope out of the world, but Hope convinced him that little harm had been done. Xena, she's planning to return after her child is born," the bard grimaced.
"But remember how I kept hoping that some measure of goodness remained in my daughter? Well, whatever little speck was still there apparently softened her heart toward me. She said I was her mother and she didn't want any harm to come to me. SHE was the one who sent me back. I know she wants me to love her. Maybe she hopes to win my affection by returning me. Or," the bard eyed Xena speculatively, "maybe win you over."
"Whatever the reason, you're back, and that's what's important to me," joyful tears again started to roll down the bronzed cheeks of the usually reserved warrior. She reached out and took Gabrielle's hand in her own.
The bard answered, "You're what's important to me, Xena."
Joxer planted his large hand on top of the two women's entwined hands and snuffled, "You're both important to me."
"Oh, NO," exclaimed the Warrior Princess.
"What?" said the startled bard and Joxer together, as Xena again jumped up.
"I hope you both like CRISP rabbit for breakfast," she remarked wryly, as she yanked the smoking pan from the flames.
The three friends spent the day resting and relaxing and trying to digest all that had happened. Gabrielle's headache slowly improved, but she was still a bit cranky.
Xena knew that the problem of Dahak had to be addressed sooner or later, so that evening, as they sat around the campfire, she broached the subject, "Hope is still alive. After her baby is born, she will probably return to round up sacrifices for Dahak to bring him into the world. We need to make some plans about stopping them both."
"Xena, why does that have to be your job. You've already given it a try. Can't somebody else worry about it?" the bard asked in a peeved voice. "Ares said if you killed Hope you would die, and that's probably still in effect. I DON'T WANT TO GO THROUGH THIS AGAIN."
The crackling fire cast a red reflection in the ex-warlord's night-darkened eyes, giving her the surreal aspect of an avenging angel. "Gabrielle, some inward compass of mine is pointing me toward Dahak as if he were a magnet and I were a piece of iron." Her strangely matter-of-fact voice gave eerie emphasis to the words, "There's no sense in even trying to move in a different direction. This battle is destined to be MINE."
She could see the bard's stricken look in the flickering firelight, and continued in a friendlier, softer tone, "But I will understand if you say you want no part of it. I won't insist that you help me."
"I don't know, Xena," her troubled friend admitted. " I'll have to think about this. I am still really upset over what happened. I'll let you know, tomorrow."
Xena's stone warrior mask dropped over her fire-lit face, rendering it inscrutable. "OK, tomorrow," came her husky voice. "I'd also like to continue toward the Amazon Nation. We may need their help in this."
The next morning, breakfast was finished and the two women were relaxing for a few moments before getting underway. Xena had asked Joxer to go on ahead, scouting for a stream or a spring. They had been walking away from the river and needed to replenish their water supply.
Gabrielle and Xena had resumed their conversation of the evening before. "Gabrielle, you don't need to come to a decision, yet, about fighting Dahak with me," the dark-haired woman said. "We can discuss it after we reach the Amazon compound. Take your time."
"You still have the hind's blood dagger, haven't you?" the smaller woman asked. "What have you done with it?"
"Yes, I still have it and I've put it in a safe place," Xena replied.
"Don't you think I should know where it is? Suppose something happens to you, Xena, and I need to find it," Gabrielle asked anxiously.
"No, Gabrielle, you're better off not knowing. I wouldn't want anyone trying to force that information from you," Xena reasoned with her.
"But they won't know that I don't know," the bard objected.
"I'm NOT telling you and that's the end of it," the dark-haired woman reiterated firmly.
"Xena," the bard remarked, changing the subject, "while I was unconscious, there in Dahak's pit, I had a dream. You were leading Ares' army AGAINST Dahak. It was so vivid, almost like a premonition."
Gabrielle's brow knit together in a frown, "Do you think that might be possible? You WOULD be the perfect choice, Xena. There is no other warlord with your abilities. Maybe this is part of your destiny."
The golden-haired woman's face took on an introspective appearance. "Of course," she reasoned slowly, "that's it. That's why you've been endowed with all these incredible abilities... you've been CHOSEN to fight Dahak... " The bard's voice slowed down and halted as she seemed to be giving this idea serious consideration.
Xena's expression turned speculative. "But Ares is on Dahak's side now, Gabrielle. I'm sure his army will be aligned with the evil one."
"But you could pretend that you have changed sides, that you can see that Dahak is so powerful that you have no chance against him. That you not only are enlightened but also feel obligated because Dahak so easily took me from you, but so generously gave me back. That you are convinced that the gods on Olympus have no chance against him and you want to be on the winning side," the bard reasoned, finally taking a breath.
"Then you could take over Ares' army under the pretext that you would lead them against the other gods, but, once you had them under your control, you would lead them against DAHAK's followers, instead. Doesn't that sound like a workable idea?" Gabrielle enthused.
"Ares might not think so," the ex-warlord intoned dryly.
"But, Xena, once you convinced Ares that Dahak could be beaten, he would change back to your side. You know he would," the bard argued.
"It just might work," the bronzed woman mused. "A lot would hinge on whether I could convince Ares that I wanted to lead his army in Dahak's service." The crystal blue eyes looked searchingly into the emerald green ones. "I might have to do some things you wouldn't like, Gabrielle."
"It will be in a good cause, Xena. Great gods, you could save the world from Dahak's evil," the young woman smiled.
The "warrior look" fastened on Xena's face and she could feel her blood lust rising. "Yes," she growled, "that end would justify ANY risk."
The Warrior Princess, seated on Argo, looked down toward Joxer who was walking alongside Gabrielle. For several days, the three travelers had moved slowly toward their goal and were just arriving at a fork in the trail near the edge of the Amazon territory. Gabrielle obviously wasn't feeling well, but she had refused to ride on Argo.
"Joxer," the tall woman called, "it's time for us to part. We'll soon be encountering Amazons."
"You're right, Xena," the young man said regretfully. "Thank you for letting me travel with you before... when we thought that... "
"OK, OK," Xena brushed off his thanks with a nod.
Joxer turned to the golden-haired woman, "Gabby, I can't tell you how happy I am that you're back and OK... Maybe I'll see you... the two of you... further down the way." He smiled at the two women and continued on a different fork in the trail, looking back at them, waving, until he was out of sight.
As Xena and Gabrielle crossed the edges of the Amazon land, certain bird whistles and an owl hoot from the trees informed them that their presence was detected and the village alerted. As two Amazons dropped from the trees, Xena raised her clasped hands high into the air and Gabrielle lethargically followed her example.
The Amazons knelt on one knee before the bard. "Welcome, Queen Gabrielle," they intoned. Gabrielle motioned to them and they both arose. "We will escort you to the village," they said, with side-glances toward Xena. Xena recognized them as Elisa and Gwynna, young Amazons whom they had met on their previous visit to the area.
"Hello, Elisa, Gwynna," she greeted them. "The Queen isn't feeling so well, right now. Let's get to camp quickly; she needs rest." Xena dismounted from Argo and put her arm around the bard's waist to support her. The party of four moved more rapidly down the trail to the heart of the village.
As they entered the encampment, all eyes, as usual, flowed first to the imposing Warrior Princess then to the bard, their Queen. Some concern showed on several faces as it became obvious that the Queen was being supported by the warrior.
Ephiny, the Queen's regent, was waiting for them in front of the Queen's hut, with several council members. Everyone knelt as Gabrielle and Xena approached. Ephiny and the others greeted the Queen, then all rose at a signal from the regent. Xena released Gabrielle's waist and Ephiny moved forward and hugged the bard. "Welcome home, Gabrielle," she said warmly.
"Thank you, Ephiny. I'll be glad for the chance to rest," the golden-haired woman smiled wearily. Ephiny's eyebrows rose. She turned toward Xena and looked into those incredibly blue eyes that always jarred her senses on close contact. "Gabrielle's had a couple of really rough days, Eph," the warrior explained as they clasped arms in the warrior handshake. "Let me get her into the hut so she can rest and I'll come over to your place and bring you up to date."
"Sure, Xena," the regent agreed. "Everything's freshly prepared in the hut. If you need anything, just holler." Ephiny turned to one of the accompanying Amazons, "Elisa, you stay near the hut in case the Queen needs anything."
Xena helped Gabrielle into the hut and over to a bed. The bard collapsed on it thankfully. "Gabrielle," the dark-haired woman frowned, "maybe I should have Claris take a look at you. How do you feel?"
"I'm OK, Xena, I keep telling you," Gabrielle insisted. "I just need some rest and I'll be good as new. I've had a pretty bumpy trip, you know," she grinned wryly and touched her head.
Xena walked over to the large table that had been filled with food and drink. She picked out a few pieces of fruit, some bread and cheese and poured a mug of water. She placed these on a small table near the bed, within easy reach. "Remember, Elisa's outside if you need anything. Will you be OK?"
"Go, Xena, I'm all right, believe me," the bard said. "I'm not sick, just tired."
The tall woman nodded and left the hut. As she made her way to Ephiny's hut she could again feel all eyes turn toward her commanding figure. Sometimes this attention nettled the warrior but today, for some reason, the admiration stimulated her. She stood taller and walked with her warlord swagger. With an imperious mien, she entered the open door to Ephiny's quarters.
Ephiny's chair fell to the floor with a crash as she jumped up and drew her sword. She stood in defensive mode for several moments before she realized Xena did not have her sword drawn and was not advancing on her. To the contrary, the Warrior Princess was standing just inside the doorway with her head tilted and her arms crossed. "Well, Eph," she remarked softly, "this is quite a welcome."
Ephiny resheathed her blade and reached down to straighten the fallen chair. She didn't take her eyes off the dark-haired woman. "If you could have seen your face when you walked through that doorway... You looked like you wanted someone's blood," Ephiny grumbled, but started to relax.
"Yeah, well this past week hasn't been a picnic," Xena admitted, "but it's not YOUR blood I want. Not yet, anyway."
"THAT takes a load off my mind," Ephiny snorted. She moved to the cupboard to fetch a bottle of wine and two mugs. "Sit down and tell me all about it."
"Ephiny, I'd like to have Eponin and Solari here to hear this, too. They need to know what's going on. I may need some help." Xena's serious tone caused Ephiny to move quickly. She set the wine bottle and the two mugs on the table.
"Grab a couple more mugs and I'll go get them," the regent promised, as she went out the door. She returned a few minutes later with Eponin, the weapons master, and Solari, second in command after Eponin. Both of these Amazon warriors had fought under Xena's command and held her in highest esteem.
Xena greeted both of them with a warrior handshake. "Good to see you, Xena," Eponin declared, as Solari nodded her head in agreement.
"Let's hope so," Xena returned cryptically, "I have a story I want you to hear that may change your minds."
The four women sat down at the table and Ephiny filled each mug with wine. The Warrior Princess began her account of Dahak and the astonishing events of recent days.
"Whew!" Ephiny remarked when Xena's tale was done, "That is SOME story. And our Queen got caught right in the middle of it! We always did know she had plenty of courage. I'm proud of her." Eponin and Solari nodded solemnly at Ephiny in agreement.
"Well, I'M NOT," growled Xena. Three Amazon heads snapped toward her. "I was overjoyed to get her back, but now I'm starting to get mad as Hades. She had NO RIGHT to throw her life away as though it had no meaning. Dahak is MY responsibility. I'm the one who was supposed to die, not her." The warrior was exhibiting unusual agitation.
Xena fought her anger and brought it under disciplined control. "But, I'll have to settle that with her later," she muttered. Three Amazons stopped holding their breath and looked sheepishly at each other.
"I'll need help against Dahak and I can't promise that it will be easy. Many people could be, and probably will be, killed." Xena looked at each Amazon in turn. "I want you to think about that for a few minutes. Then let me know if you're willing to try."
The three Amazons thought quietly for a short interval. Then Eponin spoke up, "From what you tell us, Xena, if this terrible evil is loosed on the world, many people will die anyway, and, knowing our Queen, she could be one of them. I, for one, think we should stand by her."
"Pony is always ready for a good battle," Ephiny smiled, "but in this case, I agree with her. We have to fight."
All three women turned to Solari. "Just let me know where and when," the dark-haired Amazon pledged, "and I'll be there."
"OK, you're in," Xena concluded gratefully. "Here's the plan."
After laying her plan before the three Amazons and discussing it thoroughly, Eponin and Solari left. Xena stayed and spoke privately with Ephiny, talking and arguing for another hour. Elisa's name came up in the conversation and Ephiny nodded. When the Warrior Princess finally left, Ephiny sat at the table with her head in her hands whispering softly, "No, no, no..."
Gabrielle slept through until the next morning. Just about dawn she opened her eyes and saw Xena sitting cross-legged on the opposite bed sewing a piece of leather. "You're up early," the bard half-smiled. "Breakfast isn't even ready yet, I'll bet."
"Mmmm," the warrior bit off the end of the thread, and replied in a monotone, "I guess that means you feel better, right?"
"I feel perfect," the golden-haired woman exclaimed. "The rest was just what I needed."
Xena continued flatly, "I saw the cooks going into the dining hut about half an hour ago. Breakfast should be ready soon. Or you can eat some of the fruit that's here, if you want."
"No, I guess I'll wait," Gabrielle decided. "Are you all right? You seem... upset."
"I am upset. At YOU," Xena confessed sharply.
The bard was dumbfounded. "Why?" she spluttered. "I just got back safe from Dahak's clutches. I would think you'd be happy! What did I do that you're so angry about?"
Xena's face grew dark and stormy. "I AM happy that you're back. But I'm truly angry that you were so willing to throw your life away. Dahak was MY worry, not yours. You had no right to choose your death to save my life. That choice was mine and you had no right to take it on yourself."
Xena's voice kept getting louder and louder, till finally, she was standing on her feet and shouting. "Did you give one thought to how I would feel for the rest of my life? You were there because of me, so you would be dead because of me. Gods, Gabrielle, I have enough guilt on my soul without adding your death to it. What did you think you were doing?"
Gabrielle stood up, too. "Xena, I'm... You're right, I didn't give any thought to the consequences... But Ares said you would die if you killed Hope. I couldn't let that happen."
"And why the Hades not?" the warrior, still shouting, began striding back and forth and waving her arms, as if hoping the movement would release some of the tension in her body. "We discussed it and I said I was willing to die if need be, just to make sure Dahak didn't get into this world. Nothing was said about your taking my place."
"Look, Xena," the bard, now starting to lose her patience, raised her voice. "I made a choice. So, you didn't like it. That's too bad, it can't be changed; it's over and done with. Let it be."
The ex-warlord suddenly stopped and whirled to face Gabrielle. Fisted hands raised corded muscles on her forearms and betrayed the tautness of her emotions. From a clenched jaw, her voice issued low-pitched and harsh, "Let it be? Let it be? You know, Gabrielle, at one time we trusted each other. Then, that trust was broken, but we managed to patch it up and start over. Then in one moment of SELFISH sacrifice, you throw that trust to the winds and try to say you are doing it for me."
"But I WAS doing it for you!" The bard stamped her foot on the floor, hard. "I didn't want you to die. Ares said the Fates would cut your life thread if you killed Hope. Xena, I love you, I couldn't bear to see you die."
Xena's low voice took on a bitter tinge, "Look into your heart, Gabrielle. Weren't you doing it for YOU? Wasn't it YOU who didn't want to be left behind without ME?" the dark-haired woman's lip curled up resentfully.
"How dare you... how dare YOU accuse ME of such selfishness," now the Queen was shouting. "Aren't you the ex-warlord who destroyed hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives because you lost your little brother? I couldn't even BEGIN to match your selfishness, Xena. Maybe I SHOULD have let you die!"
Xena, seething with anger, was raising her hand to slap Gabrielle just as Ephiny burst through the door. She was closely followed by Eponin and Solari.
"What's going on here?" Ephiny roared. "Are you assaulting our Queen? Stand away from her, Xena."
"This doesn't concern you, Ephiny, or the Amazons," the warrior roared right back, her attention never diverting from Gabrielle. "Keep out of it!" Eponin and Solari had their eyes riveted on the intimidating woman and their faces paled at the force of her anger. It was scorching off of her in hot waves that beat against the senses.
Eponin's common sense was urging her to turn tail and run. We'll be like matchsticks in a bonfire if she turns that flame on us! But she could not desert her Queen.
"Anything that concerns our Queen's welfare, concerns us," Ephiny yelled. The regent was infuriated by this threat to the Amazon Queen. With unselfish bravery, she stalked right up to Xena and shouted into her face, "STAND DOWN!"
Quick as a snake, the Warrior Princess grabbed the regent's neck, lifted her off the floor and pinned her to the wall. Eponin and Solari drew their swords but Gabrielle stepped in front of them to protect the warrior whose whole bearing radiated aggression.
"Xena," she urged in a subdued and trembling voice, "please put Ephiny down. She's only trying to protect me. I know we're angry with each other but we're all on the same side, remember?" The room became deathly still and the non-combatant's held their breath. Lives were at stake and their fate rested with the Warrior Princess.
The muscles on the warrior's face quivered as she battled her rage. Still not in complete control, she nevertheless reluctantly dropped the regent. Ephiny stumbled but kept her footing. Rubbing her neck, she opened her mouth to say something, but Gabrielle silenced her with a panicky shake of her head.
Striding back and forth, as four sets of wary eyes followed her, Xena fought to conquer her anger. Regaining control at last, the Warrior Princess' voice flattened and her whole body visibly drooped as the tension slowly ebbed from it. "Stay here, Gabrielle. Stay with the Amazons. I don't want you with me right now," Xena ordered, not looking at her friend. "I'm going to take your suggestion and join Ares to lead his army. He'll have a hard enough time believing I've turned back to evil; he'd never believe that you would. Who knows," she remarked caustically, "I may get to like it. At least a warlord KNOWS she has no real friends." The warrior swept the room with a dejected look that included the Amazons.
Gabrielle, for once in her life, was speechless. She opened and closed her mouth several times but nothing was coming out.
Xena strode over, grabbed the golden-haired woman in a stiff hug, which the bard half-heartedly returned, and kissed the top of her head. The warrior's voice was tight and dry, "Goodbye, Gabrielle. I can't say when I'll be back." She turned and walked to the door. The Amazons moved aside to let her pass.
As she lifted the latch, the bard regained her voice. "You're right, I can't come with you and Ares, but I'll be there when you face Dahak, Xena, I promise. I'll BE there," she emphasized stubbornly.
The Warrior Princess, eyes shining with restrained tears, turned a melancholy look on the bard, "We'll see." She went out the door.
Xena saw that Elisa was still at her post outside the hut standing near an open bedroll. Apparently she had been there all night. The Amazon nodded as the warrior came out of the hut. Her face did not betray that she had heard the shouting between Xena and her Queen and had summoned Ephiny.
At first, hearing the raised voices, Elisa had feared for the Queen, but then she remembered something she had heard Eponin say, "Xena is most dangerous when she is silent." Then that observation was followed with the wry remark, "Of course, she's almost always silent."
"Elisa," Xena directed, "I'm leaving the territory. Keep a close eye on the Queen." The depressed warrior headed toward the stables to get Argo.
The young Amazon was thrilled that Xena always remembered her name, let alone spoke to her. She had seen the Warrior Princess at her best and at her worst and she still idolized her. Boldly, she called, "Goodbye, Xena."
The warrior stopped and turned completely around. Her face was like stone, but her expressive eyes were so sad, the Amazon felt almost physical pain. "Goodbye... Elisa," came her low, throaty voice, and she turned and continued to the stable.
Argo swung her head and whinnied as Xena approached. The dark-haired woman folded her bronzed arms around the neck of the golden palomino and buried her head in its mane. "Hi, girl, at least I'm sure of your friendship," the warrior greeted her warhorse through a tight throat. She stood there for a few moments, then released her hold. She picked up the bridle, put the bit into Argo's mouth and slipped the straps over the warhorse's head. Grabbing the saddle blanket and examining it, the warrior threw it over Argo's back. Adding the saddle, she cinched it tight, then gathered the saddlebags. She tied the thongs on one saddlebag that wasn't closed properly, then removed Gabrielle's staff from its saddle holster and stood it against a wall.
Xena led the golden mare outside and swung up into the saddle. As she was passing through the village square, Ephiny was just coming out onto the porch of the Queen's hut. The Warrior Princess sat up straighter. She stood in the stirrups and danced Argo sideways for a short span as a tribute to the regent she had been in danger of killing. Ephiny's eyes misted over at the unexpected honor shown her by this troubled, but majestic, woman who was fearlessly facing death. You are an incredible and complex warrior, Xena. May your plan be successful, for your sake and for our Queen's.
Many eyes watched admiringly as the mighty warrior, her face an iron mask, passed by them. Once she reached the forest trail, Xena clucked Argo into a canter and headed out to Amphipolis.
As Xena neared her hometown, her spirits lightened. People in the outlying areas recognized her and watched curiously as she entered the town. She rode Argo right up to her mother's inn and dismounted. Taking hold of the golden mare's reins, she led her around back to the stables. Xena greeted the stable boy with a smile and left Argo with him with assurances that he would take special care of the warhorse.
Entering the kitchen of the inn, Xena saw her mother standing at the fireplace, sampling a large vat of soup. Xena walked over silently to the woman and, reaching from behind with her long arms, put her hands over Cyrene's eyes.
Startled, Cyrene dropped the ladle she was holding, grabbed hold of the warrior's wrists and yanked hard on them to free her eyes. The covering hands didn't budge. "Xena!" she scolded, feigning anger. "You scared me silly!"
The Warrior Princess dropped her arms and as her mother turned to her, they embraced each other warmly. The fact that Xena held the embrace a little longer than usual was not lost on Cyrene. "Xena, is there something wrong? Where's Gabrielle?" Cyrene's eyes swept the kitchen and dining area but did not see her favorite bard. "Is she all right?"
Her daughter looked uncomfortable, but Cyrene had learned not to pry. "Mother, there's some business I have to take care of without Gabrielle around. She's with the Amazons right now," Xena assured her. "I need to see Toris. Is he around?"
"Sit down and let me give you a bowl of this soup. Toris went to the next village to pick up some extra supplies. He should be back any minute now. Can you tell me what's bothering you?" Cyrene dipped a bowl of soup for her daughter and placed it on a nearby table. She added a fresh loaf of bread and a glass of ale.
"We'll talk when Toris gets here, Mother," the warrior promised. Xena walked outside to the water cistern and splashed refreshing liquid over her face and hair. Shaking her head to get rid of the excess, she went back inside and sat at the table. She had just finished her meal when her brother Toris came through the door. "Xenie," he whooped and dashed over to his sister. The warrior jumped up to greet him and the dark-haired, blue-eyed duo crashed together in a wild hug.
Cyrene covered her eyes and peeked through her fingers, expecting to see two felled bodies, but her children just laughed and took turns flinging each other around in circles. "All right, you two," she laughed with them, "stop before you wreck the place!"
The siblings gradually calmed down and Xena held Toris away from her for a moment. She looked him up and down with a searching cast to her face. "Gods, Xenie, if I looked at a woman like that I'd get slapped in the face," Toris grinned.
"Sorry, BROTHER," the warrior said with a slight blush. "I just wanted to be sure you were in good shape. I need a favor from you and it will take some physical stamina."
"What kind of favor?" Toris inquired. His face grew more solemn as he reacted to the change in his sister's demeanor.
"Sit down, Toris. You, too, Mother. I have something I need to tell you," Xena directed them. Cyrene called to one of the women who helped her in the inn to take over for her in the kitchen. Then she brought two more mugs, a pitcher of ale and more bread to the table and dipped Toris a bowl of soup. When this was accomplished, she sat down with her two children and listened to Xena's incredible tale of Dahak and his daughter.
As Xena's tale progressed, Cyrene looked from one to the other of her children and marveled at how similar they were on the outside but so far different on the inside. Whoever designed these two had chosen their hair and their eyes from the same color pot. Plus, they both had sculpted faces and remarkably similar smiles. But one was an ex-warlord who, praise the gods, had changed her ways and the other was a peace-loving man who never wanted to raise his hand in anger at anyone. How can two peas from the same pod be so alike yet so different? she mused.
And what's happened between my daughter and her bard? Something's not right there. Cyrene, like mothers everywhere, tucked that question away to be answered when the time was right.
A few hours later, when Xena had finished her story, Cyrene and Toris looked astonished. "But Gabrielle is back and safe now?" Cyrene asked to reassure herself.
"I left her with the Amazons, Mother. Remember, she's their Queen. They'll take good care of her," Xena promised. The fight gave me a good reason to leave her behind. And with my mind going a mile a minute planning against Dahak, I can't let her situation distract me.
"And what is it you have to do that she can't come with you?" Cyrene inquired with trepidation.
Xena reached over and took her mother's hand in her similar long-fingered one. Cobalt-blue eyes gazed steadily into cobalt-blue eyes. "I can't tell you that right now, Mother. Please, just trust me. The fewer people who know about this, the better. Telling you could be dangerous for you and I won't have that. Please excuse us, now. I must speak to Toris privately."
Cyrene squeezed her daughter's hand and arose from the table. She moved to Xena's side and reached down to hug her. She kissed Xena's cheek and said, "I love you, Xena, please be careful." Then she left her two children alone.
Xena explained to Toris, in detail, the favor she would need from him. She handed him a piece of parchment taken from her armband and a pouch of dinars untied from her waist. "Xenie," he rubbed his neck in discomfort, "you know I've never been a fighter. But this Dahak needs to be stopped."
"At any cost," the dark-haired woman asserted with uncharacteristic passion.
Toris nodded his head slowly. "At any cost," he agreed. "But I have a question that has occurred to me. Why aren't you seeking help from the gods on Olympus? From what you say, they don't want Dahak to come into the world, either. Or how about Hercules?"
"Toris, in my experience with the gods, they can't agree on anything... and I know they would never agree to follow me," the Warrior Princess explained dryly. "I think my plan is our best chance and it doesn't require them or Hercules. Besides, they are the only backup we have. If my plan fails, they will be forced to act, and they may be the world's last hope. And... maybe they'll let Hercules lead them, since he's half god."
Xena leaned forward toward her brother, "Toris, when I send for you, you must drop everything and come. The timing could be critical in this. You do understand how important that is don't you?" the warrior insisted.
"Yes, I do, Xenie, and I'll be there no matter what," he affirmed strongly. Xena reached out her arm to him and they clasped hands in a warrior's handshake.
The dark-haired woman visibly relaxed as this part of her plan fell into place. She sat back in her chair and propped her feet against the table supports. The two sat quietly for a few moments as Toris digested everything he had been told.
Xena's low voice broke the silence, "There is one other favor you can do for me, brother." She cocked her head at him.
"Name it," Toris said seriously, leaning forward in anticipation.
Moving more quickly than Toris' eyes could follow, Xena slapped her feet on the floor, reached across and grabbed a handful of Toris' dark hair, pulling him toward her. She put her face up to his, nose to nose. "You can stop calling me Xenie," she growled.
Startled at first, Toris then burst into laughter. "Never," he threatened, hooting. "Someone has to keep reminding you that you are the LITTLE one in this family."
Xena laughed, too. "I guess there's no accounting for how big brothers act," she grinned. The "little" sister pulled her brother's face close again and kissed him on the cheek. "I love you, Toris," she whispered.
Toris felt a lump in his throat as he touched her cheek and responded, "I love you, too, Xenie."
Xena departed Amphipolis the next morning. Besides her enjoyment of her family, her mother made sure that she had been provided two good meals, a real bath and a real bed. Sometimes I forget there is a softer side to life. It's good to come home once in a while and be reminded... But now the hard part begins...
Thoughts of Gabrielle entered the dark-haired woman's mind but she thrust them away. Stay focused, Xena. You'll have to attend to that later.
The Warrior Princess lifted her chin, squared her shoulders and commenced the journey that could save the world.
Xena had decided to try to contact Ares by heading for the Halls of War, his major temple. She had been only one day on the trail when she started to sense the creepy, crawly feeling that came over her skin whenever Ares was about to make an appearance.
She stopped Argo and vaulted to the ground. "I know you're there, Ares. Show yourself."
The black-clad God of War materialized from a dazzling light.
"I wasn't sure how you would receive me, Xena," his oily voice murmured. "We weren't exactly on the same side the last time we saw each other."
"We haven't been on the same side for a long time, Ares, so what else is new?" the imposing woman snorted.
"I... er... ah... heard that you got your little friend back and then proceeded to push her away. She's obviously not traveling with you... and I have to admit... I'm intrigued," the devilishly handsome man raised a questioning eyebrow.
"And how would you know about that?" the Warrior Princess demanded.
Ares just smiled and shrugged, "I have my ways. I always like to keep tabs on what my favorite ex-warlord is up to... and, of course, offer my usual invitation to lead my army..." Ares could sense that there had been some change in Xena but he didn't know what to make of it.
"Ares..." Xena's voice held an unusually plaintive note that alerted the God of War's attention. "I'm tired... tired and frustrated. For three years now I've tried the straight path and nothing has changed for the better. I've given up wealth and power. I've turned away from conquests of cities, villages, and... on occasion..." a salacious glint flitted across the warrior's narrowed eyes, "lovers." The God of War couldn't keep from grinning wickedly. Picturing the Warrior Princess as his lover was one of his favorite pastimes.
"And what do I have to show for it? Lousy living conditions, constantly fighting off attackers almost single-handedly, and a so-called best friend who has betrayed and humiliated me," the Warrior Princess' lips twisted with bitterness. She paused to let that sink into Ares' consciousness.
I heard about that fight at the Amazon Village. They almost came to blows! Even the Amazons were ready to skewer the Warrior Princess, Ares thought gleefully. I knew if she could be turned against her "friend," she would start to think straighter.
"Then along comes Dahak, the greatest god of evil who ever existed, and you know how I admire those who are the best at what they do. He's too powerful for me to fight, and I've nothing to gain from throwing my life away trying to fight him. Anyhow, what thanks have I ever gotten from anyone for helping them?"
She smiled wryly at the handsome Ares, "At least you've always appreciated me. I've given this a lot of thought, and I've decided you're right. If you can't fight him, join him... I've had a lot more rewards from doing evil than I've ever had from doing good," she snorted.
The God of War could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He had hoped for so long for Xena's return as his warlord, but had just about accepted that it was hopeless. "Xena, you're saying the same things I've been saying to you for years. You've always had a warrior's soul. Your blood lust and passion for battle are unequaled." Now Ares' passion was stirred, "You were the best, Xena... the best warlord I ever had. You belong with me."
"Well, at last I'm convinced, Ares. It's time for me to stop kidding myself and acknowledge my true nature."
"Xena," he almost whispered, "are you saying what I think you're saying? Are you willing to come back to me... to lead my army?"
"Yes... I... am... " The words were being dragged out of Xena almost against her will.
The black-clad man was overjoyed. "Xena, my Warrior Princess, welcome back to where you have always belonged and should never have left!"
Ares lifted his hand and stroked Xena's face with the backs of his fingers. His fingers moved slowly down her face, down her neck and started down her chest. Xena swatted his hand away, impatiently. "Look, Ares, I'm giving you my service, not my services. Keep your hands to yourself."
Ares looked at her with one of his little-boy pouts. "But, Xena, there's no reason we can't have a little fun, too, is there?"
The Warrior Princess threw her arm across Ares' shoulder and leaned toward him in appeasement. Her raven hair fell forward, framing her sculptured face, and her magnificent blue eyes gleamed with a wicked glow, "You know how focused I get. I don't want anything distracting me from the task at hand." Xena lowered her arm and stepped back. She slipped a hand behind her neck and lifted her hair back behind her shoulders. Her blue eyes deepened provocatively. "Maybe... afterwards," her seductive voice intimated.
The God of War actually gulped. "Yes... afterwards... I'll remember that, Xena," he breathed as his eyes glittered in anticipation.
"But in the meantime, Ares, let's get back to business," the dark-haired woman suggested abruptly. The black-clad god shrugged, put his hand on Xena's shoulder, and they disappeared in a flash of light.
They reappeared in an encampment established near the forest within sight of the Halls of War. Xena glanced around with a warlord's practiced eye. She could estimate, from the scope of the camp, that there were approximately 300 troops. The men visible nearby were lazing around under the trees or gambling in assorted groups. Others, in a cleared area, were apparently wrestling with each other. Horses, mostly saddled, stood scattered about in random array.
As Ares led Xena through the soldiers, whistles and lewd remarks followed her progress. The woman warrior ignored the coarse calls and crude suggestions but her face hardened. Ares led her over to the cleared area and called a halt to the wrestling.
"Men," he shouted, "I want those of you who believe you are the best warriors in the world and most capable of leading this army to step forward." His message was passed around throughout the camp and eventually ten men gathered in the clearing. Ares had them cluster about 100 feet from where he and Xena were standing.
"Men," he shouted again, "this warrior woman standing next to me is Xena, known as the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. I will warn you, she is the finest warrior I have ever seen and I intend to put her in charge of this army." The God of War paused and among the group a low muttering started which turned into a growl. "If you don't agree with this," Ares continued to shout, "then... KILL HER!"
With a shrug and a smirk at Xena, the God of War stepped back out of the line of battle. As the last two words were leaving his mouth, Xena was drawing her sword and unhooking her chakram. She snapped immediately into a defensive posture as the ten men pulled their weapons and rushed at her. Flinging the chakram directly at the group cut down the first two men. The Warrior Princess caught the weapon as it returned to her hand and hooked it back to her waist.
She screamed out her warrior yell, which raised the hair on the back of Ares' neck, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" Running straight toward them, she then flipped completely over the whole contingent that was rushing madly at her. She hacked two of them to their deaths as they tried to stop and turn toward her, and thrust her sword through the chest of a third. As she pulled her sword from the fallen soldier's body, a swipe by another brigand sliced into Xena's right arm just below her arm band, causing her to drop her weapon.
Again calling, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," and leaping high into the air, she caught that offender and another with powerful kicks to their chins that lifted them completely off the ground and into oblivion.
The last three slowed down and spread themselves in a circle around the unarmed, and wounded, woman. All three rushed her at the same time, swords at ready to pierce her chest. Xena waited until they were almost upon her, then, with another "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi," she threw her body once again into the air.
By this time, her yell was raising the hair on the necks of ALL those watching the Warrior Princess' fantastic display. The soldiers ran sword-first into each other, and they all were put out of action. Just to be sure, as the warrior came back toward earth, she landed feet first on two of the sorry trio, and kicked the third in the chin.
After the men fell, Xena heard the muted twang of a crossbow and the hiss of a bolt heading her way. As she snatched the bolt out of the air, left-handed, she heard a second one being released from behind her. Twisting almost faster than the eye could follow, she dropped the first bolt and snatched the second one from the air. Appreciative "ooohhhs" and "aaaaaaahhhs" could be heard from the assembled men.
Xena remained in defensive posture for a moment, her eyes scanning the crowd, to see if there were any other challengers. When it was obvious that no others were going to dispute her leadership, she walked over and retrieved her sword. As she picked it up, a wave of voices started chanting: "Xena! Xena! Xena!" Soon the whole encampment was roaring her name.
The Warrior Princess raised her sword on high in the universal symbol of victory and smirked at Ares as he ambled over to her. "Quite a display, Princess," he bowed, "but nothing less than what I expected."
"You might have warned me," Xena protested dryly.
"Why, would it have made any difference?" the God of War snorted. Xena just pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow and Ares laughed heartily. I've got to be the happiest god in existence! My Xena is back in all her glory and what magnificent glory it is!
Ares raised his arms and shushed the troops. "From now on, you will take your orders from Xena, Warrior Princess," he shouted. "Whatever she says, she says with my blessing!" Another mighty cheer went up from the men, now totally willing to follow such a fearsome leader.
The God of War looked again into his favorite warlord's astonishingly blue eyes. "Your job is to collect all the men, women and children from the three closest villages and bring them to the caves just north of here. There are servants of Dahak at the caves who will care for the hostages until the time of sacrifice arrives. This needs to be accomplished within the next three weeks."
"Ares," the Warrior Princess pointed out, "you brought me here without Argo. I'm going to need her."
"Right, I'll send her to you," the God of War promised.
The black-clad god again ran his hand down the side of Xena's face as if to assure himself that she was really there. "My army is all yours now, Xena," he uttered softly, then waved his arm and disappeared.
A soldier with bandages in his hand approached the warlord deferentially and offered to clean and bind her wound. Xena followed him to a small stream that ran alongside the campsite and he washed her injured arm, smeared an ointment on it that he carried in his pocket, and bound the deep cut. Xena thanked him and told him to report to the soon-to-be-erected headquarters tent at dawn next morning. Then she began to walk about the camp.
There were a number of tents stacked in the supply area. Since she was the only female in camp, Xena ordered a group of men to erect two adjoining tents for her personal use. They were also directed to put up a third one for her headquarters. She spent the next few hours strolling through the camp, chatting with the men and picking out several likely prospects to be her officers. These men were told to assemble in the headquarters tent promptly at first light the next morning for orders.
When the men arrived at the appointed hour, Xena gave five of them responsibility for certain areas of the camp. One was to oversee food and supplies, one the eating area, one the latrine, one the horses, and she put the healer in charge of the healing area. She had drawn a map of the camp on a piece of parchment and she divided the camp into quarters. She put four more men in charge of each of the divisions.
The warlord spoke to each of them, in turn. "I want fresh food for these men every day. Have an area set aside for eating and keep it clean at all times. Designate another area inside the trees, downstream, for the horses and collect them all into it. See that they are properly fed and watered, and that no one leaves a saddle on them unless they are going to be ridden soon. Dig a latrine just above the stabling area and see that everybody knows they are to use it. You four who are in charge of the men, set up two two-hour drills, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The rest of the day before afternoon mealtime is to be devoted to cleaning up the camp."
She turned to the healer. "Stay after this meeting and I will go with you to check out your supplies."
To the rest she said, "Go take care of what you have been charged with. I expect this camp to be in shape by tomorrow. We will have to start moving against our first target by tomorrow afternoon. Get these men organized and report to me again tonight."
Xena went with the healer to investigate what herbs and medicinal plants he and the other healers would have available for anyone who was wounded or sick. "What you have is good, but I know of a few more that can be found in the forest hereabouts. Take a walk with me now and I will show them to you."
The two set out into the forest and collected a goodly amount of herbs and medicinal plants to add to the available supply. Xena explained the use of each one to the healer as it was found. About two hours later, they were returning to camp when Xena heard hoofbeats approaching. She pulled the healer deeper into the forest and watched to see who was coming. Through the trees she could see patches of a golden coat. Smiling, she whistled and the golden mare came straight for her, ignoring the commands of its rider. Argo came to a stop in front of her mistress and nuzzled Xena in greeting.
The rider seemed taken aback at seeing a woman warrior hugging the palomino he was riding. "Let go of the horse!" he spluttered. "I was told to deliver it to the warlord in charge of the encampment just ahead. I don't want to get into any trouble." As he finished, the healer explained, "This is Xena, Warrior Princess, and she is the warlord in charge."
"And, yes, this is my horse," she smiled. "Thank you for bringing her to me. Now, if you'll change places with me, the healer will lead you back to the campsite and see that you get some food and drink." The rider, disconcerted, dismounted and handed the reins to Xena. The warrior swung up into the saddle and felt a vast comfort on being aboard her beloved horse once again. She waved to the two men and headed Argo toward the camp. They weren't aware that she made a wide sweep to the rear when she disappeared from their sight. Or that she stopped and passed two messages to an Amazon warrior before swinging back and returning to the camp.
By the second day of Xena's command, the camp was bustling and had taken on the appearance and morale of a well-run army camp. Xena called the division officers together. She chose two of them and said, "I want you each to have the men from your division, and yourself, ready to march, and provisioned for three days. Put twenty men from each division on horseback. We will meet at the beginning of the north trail in one hour. You other two will remain here and keep things going as they are now. You four have got this group looking like an army." The officers were pleased at this praise from their new leader.
As she was talking, the Warrior Princess had a fit of coughing and for a few minutes was unable to continue. She drank greedily from a water vessel on the table. Finally, she forced out a scratchy voice and continued with her orders. "We will surround the village of Troikius and demand their surrender. I think we can do this without bloodshed. The whole purpose is to round up every man, woman and child and escort them to the caves near the Halls of War. We will wait for the farmers and herders to return to their homes this evening, then we will seal off their water and the trails out of the village. No one is to be killed, or even hurt unless we can't avoid it. Is that clear?" The officers seemed surprised that they weren't to fight, but all nodded. Xena dismissed the men and made her own preparations for the possible siege.
An hour later, Xena, mounted on Argo and accompanied by the officers in charge of the two divisions, led their troops down the trail to Troikius. Xena sent twenty horseback riders ahead to dam the small river that flowed near the village and provided the inhabitants with their water. The army marched to the river, filled their water skins, watered the horses, and refreshed themselves before moving on. When they reached the village outskirts, Xena directed the men to surround the town and not let anyone pass in or out.
The dark-haired woman took a piece of previously prepared parchment out from under her armband and handed it to Burgios, one of the officers. "Take this into town and see that you give it to one of the village elders, then wait for an answer. The message tells them to call together their elders for a meeting with Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. It says I will come to the village meeting house at 5 o'clock to speak with them on a matter of grave importance to their village. Go, and bring me back their answer."
Xena's voice was continuing to bother her and sounded worse by the moment. The healer had found nothing wrong, but Xena suggested that the dust being stirred up by so many people confined in one small area was affecting her throat adversely.
While waiting, Xena pored over one of the several maps of the area that she had brought with her from headquarters. At least Ares has a decent mapmaker, she thought wryly. As she gazed at the map, her mind strayed and she saw, not terrain and towns, but a beloved green-eyed face with strawberry-blonde hair. No! I can't think of you right now, Gabrielle. The best thing I can do for both of us is to stay focused. The warrior exerted her iron discipline; the face faded and topography, momentarily blurred by blinked-back tears, came back into view.
When Burgios returned, he rode up to Xena. "The elders will be waiting for you, Xena," he reported. "Your name really shook them up and when I told them you were in charge of Ares' army, their knees knocked together."
"Good," the warrior smirked. "Burgios, get nine other men on horseback and you will accompany me into town as my guard," Xena directed hoarsely. "We'll leave now. By the time we get there it will be near 5 o'clock." Before leaving, Xena reached up and removed the bandage from her almost completely healed arm wound. Don't want anyone to get the idea that the warlord is injured, she grinned to herself. Image can be very important.
The warrior and her guard rode into the village square and pulled up in front of the largest building. The square was unnaturally empty for early evening. Xena selected four men to come with her and she left the other six outside to stand guard. As she and her men neared the door it swung open and a nervous man called to them to enter. The guards went in first. They could see no danger, just six older men sitting at a table looking anxious. The soldiers motioned to Xena. She dismounted from Argo, marched up the few steps to the doorway, and entered the building.
Six pairs of eyes were riveted on the tall, imposing woman as she strode toward them. One of the men, the chief elder, stood up. "Warrior Princess, we have gathered here to listen to what you have to say to us that is of grave importance. Please sit down," he invited.
"I prefer to stand," Xena retorted in a harsh but commanding tone. "I have an ultimatum for you that will not please you. We have surrounded your village. We have cut off your water supply and sealed off your roads. No one can enter or leave here. When the food and water you have in town runs out, there will be no more. You will not be able to survive." The warlord paused and the elders exchanged frightened glances.
"What is it you want of us?" the chief elder asked.
"We want you to surrender to us. All of you, men, women and children will be taken from here and escorted to the caves near the Halls of War. No one will be hurt if you will go quietly," the somber woman proclaimed in a rasping voice.
"But, why? What do you want us for?" the elder questioned.
"We need your village for a while," Xena answered, her voice now grating. "For two or three weeks. When we are finished with it, you may return unharmed. We will be back tomorrow morning to start evacuating your people. Bring whatever food and clothing you have. More food will be provided you at the caves. If there is resistance, we will take you there forcibly. I, Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, have spoken."
Xena turned without another word and stalked out, followed by her guards. They mounted their horses and left. The look on the face of the dark-haired, armored woman on the golden mare struck fear into the hearts of those villagers brave enough to peek out their windows. As the party of soldiers left the village there was a mass movement of people toward the village meeting hall.
The next morning, as Xena and her guard approached the village square, they could see it was filled with people. Many of them had carts loaded with food and clothing, some with children or old folks. More people could be seen streaming down the side streets. Happy Hades, they're coming without a fight, Xena thought gratefully.
Xena sent half of her men to escort the people to the caves, with orders to return to camp once the villagers had been handed over to Dahak's followers. She estimated it would take three days to move this number of people: one day to empty the town and two on the road to the caves. She led the rest of the army back to its staging campsite.
Over the next week, Xena was once again successful in herding the villagers from a second village, Siklos, into the caves with no bloodshed. Her reputation as the Destroyer of Nations, leading Ares' army, precluded them from fighting with her troops.
Everything was going well, except with her voice. By now, it was so ragged, she was wearing a light scarf across her nose and mouth to help keep the troublesome dust from aggravating her throat.
There was one more village to empty. Although it was to be captured using the same method as before, Xena painstakingly wrote down every single direction, every single threat, used to sway the village elders. She had almost completely lost her voice and wanted to take no chances that she might be misunderstood.
In the early afternoon of the day the approach was to be made to the third village, Arknos, Xena rode Argo into the forest to have a short respite from the constant responsibilities of leading an army. She also welcomed the relief from the ever-present dust. But there was a further purpose to her travels. She met another figure on horseback and exchanged messages. A shiny object was also removed from Argo's saddle blanket.
The Warrior Princess returned to the camp shortly before it was time to leave for Arknos. By now, her voice was almost completely gone and she relied on the parchment she had written out earlier. She pointed to the first sentence on the parchment, which said, "Burgios will speak in my place if my voice is not working. I will stand next to him and look intimidating." Burgios smiled and nodded when Xena showed it to him.
The next sentence said, "Get moving." The army moved out to accomplish its mission. As before, Xena, astride Argo, rode at their head.
The soldiers in Ares' army never suspected that it was not the Warrior Princess who was riding at their head. When Xena had ridden into the forest prior to leaving for the third village, she met a tall, bronzed person dressed in the same leathers and armor as she herself was wearing. This person had the same raven hair and the same cobalt-blue eyes as the Warrior Princess. When the two met, Xena pulled the scarf from her nose and mouth. Both dismounted and greeted each other with a hug.
Xena stepped back and looked the other person up and down. "You look wonderful," she remarked, with no apparent difficulty. Her voice was no longer harsh and raspy.
"Hades horsecakes, Xenie, I had a terrible time scraping some hair off my arms and legs, not to mention my armpits," Toris grumbled with a grin.
"I know, I know, I owe you one, Toris," his sister grinned back. "But you are going to be perfect for the job. Where'd you get the wig?"
"I went to the man you named and ordered this outfit and asked him about a shop that sold wigs. Looks real, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, it does. Put this scarf over your nose and mouth and let me take a look," the warrior directed. Toris added the scarf to his costume and frowned, mimicking one of his sister's "looks."
Xena's smile broadened. "They'll never know the difference. And if you look at them like that, they'll be afraid to come near you!"
She pulled a parchment from under her arm bracer and handed it to her brother. "I've written down every command I can think of that you might need to use. When you want something done, just point to it and they'll do it. If you can't find the order you need, use hand signals. They all know I can't talk, so whatever you do, don't SAY anything, Got it?"
"I got it," Toris replied.
"OK. Here's another parchment with the camp layout." Xena handed Toris a smaller, darker piece of parchment. "It's OK to carry this. After all, you're the warlord running this show. You can even pull it out and look at it whenever you want. Just look intent like you're studying something."
Toris nodded and said, "Don't worry, Xenie, I'll be all right. I didn't inherit your strength, but I've got a pretty resourceful brain." Then his voice changed to a more serious mode. "Please be careful, little sister. I told Mother you'd be fine. Don't make a liar out of me."
"I'll try not to. Before you take Argo, I need to get something." Xena turned back to the golden palomino and unsaddled her. She lifted off the saddle blanket and unfolded it. The hind's blood dagger was stuck in the fold. Xena released it and pushed it into her left arm bracer. She refolded the blanket and tossed it onto Argo's back, then Toris replaced the saddle and tightened it.
"Climb up on Argo, Toris, let me see how you look," Xena directed. Toris swung up on Argo with the same fluid motion he had seen his sister use hundreds of times over the years. He squared his shoulders and sat tall. "Very good," Xena nodded. "Don't forget to act a bit arrogant and remember to swagger a little when you walk. You're the best blasted warlord who ever walked the face of the earth and you've got to keep the men believing that."
Toris cocked one eyebrow in a perfect imitation of his sister.
Xena grinned, "OK, I'm convinced. The troops should just about be ready to leave for Arknos. You'll find them gathered on the eastern trail, with Burgios in charge. Here's what I want you to do..."
When Xena was finished describing Toris' mission, she repeated, "Remember, you'll hear two owl hoots three times in a row, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo. That will tell you that the Amazons are in place, and you can proceed. Just get yourself out as soon as you can. Now you better get going." Toris saluted, wheeled Argo around, and departed for the campsite. The warrior watched him out of sight, then mounted Toris' ink-black steed, Racer, and headed toward the Halls of War.
After riding hard for several hours, Xena dismounted beside a stream to give Racer a chance to rest. The horse drank from the stream and started nibbling the succulent grass bordering the water.
Suddenly, Xena unsheathed her sword, and jumped into a defensive stance. Her skin had delivered a warning signal, not crawling as when Ares was around, but more like a tingling.
The surrounding area filled with a muted white light. A translucent being appeared and solidified into the form of a handsome, flaxen-haired young man. A soft golden glow emanated from his body.
From his perfectly formed mouth, a melodious voice issued, "Do not be afraid, Warrior Princess, I bring you peace. You may put away your sword."
His mouth turned up in an enigmatic smile. "My name is Gabreel. I come as a messenger from the One Creator of the universe. The One greater than the lesser gods. The One who sends me with a promise to help you in your battle with Dahak, the evil one."
Xena could feel no danger coming from this unknown being. She resheathed her weapon but stayed alert, and fixed her crystal blue eyes on him questioningly. He has eyes like mine, was a passing thought.
The young man continued, "Dahak had risen up against the One Creator of the universe and because of this, the One Creator directed my fellow being, Mikel, to thrust Dahak into eternal fire. Mikel gathered an army of his peers and fought a furious battle against Dahak and his followers.
"The evil one was defeated and banished forever from the One Creator's presence. Dahak's awesome powers, however, will allow him to roam the earth, spreading evil and mayhem and seducing people to his cause. Dahak's time to be loosed on the earth, however, has not yet come," explained Gabreel.
"Wait a minute," the skeptical Warrior Princess interrupted. "Who is this One Creator? Why should I believe anything you're telling me? My experiences with the gods haven't imbued me with any trust for most of them."
An understanding smile crossed the celestial being's beautiful countenance. "He said it wouldn't be easy to convince you," he chuckled. "The One Creator is the spirit who created every natural thing you see. This world, other worlds, the sun, moon and stars. He created all the plants and animals on the earth, in the sky and in the sea. He created all the gods on Mt. Olympus, all the lesser gods and mankind. Everything."
"Is he the One God of the Israelites?" Xena demanded.
"He is the God of all beings, and, yes, the Israelites know him as Yahweh; other groups have other names for him, but he is the same supreme spirit," the young man nodded.
"Why does he let the gods on Mt. Olympus mess things up for us mortals," she inquired belligerently.
"When the One Creator brought the gods into existence, they were all good and worthy of their calling. But in order to complete their formation, the One Creator endowed them with a free will. You see he wanted them to be able to CHOOSE to be his followers. This would be more satisfying to him than creating drones who only did as they were programmed to do," Gabreel explained. "Unfortunately, through hundreds of years, many of them strayed from the path of true goodness. But the One Creator wants to give them plenty of opportunity to change, to redeem themselves before he gives up on them completely. Do you follow what I'm saying?" the young man inquired.
"Yeah," Xena answered, intrigued, "children are born pure, too, but the choices they make as they grow determines what kind of person they will be. But even those who do wrong are given a chance to change, sort of like what I'm trying to do, offset my guilt by doing good."
"Exactly!" The speaker continued, "The Creator knows and sees what you are doing in your noble cause to save the world from evil. He knows of your unselfish willingness to relinquish your life to save the world. And, he saw the ultimate sacrifice made by your friend, Gabrielle, to save you by taking your place."
The being moved closer. His wondrously shining eyes seemed to look straight into the depths of Xena's cobalt-blue ones, into her very soul. He touched Xena on the shoulder and for a moment she was filled with a peace beyond all understanding.
"You were endowed at birth with remarkable gifts, Xena. It was known that you would be the one, here in this worldly time, to fight Dahak and his followers in an attempt to obstruct the forces of evil."
The Warrior Princess' brow furrowed as she absorbed what she was being told. And a smidgen of skepticism remained, "You mean he GAVE me all these abilities that I work so hard to keep sharp?"
"Yes, it's true you need to work at them, Xena. But it's also true that no other mortal can ever become as skilled as you are even doing the same work you do. They would get good, maybe even excellent in one skill if they concentrated on it. But you have many skills, and they ARE a gift to you... from the One Creator," he smiled.
"Your free will started you down the wrong path, Xena, but with the planned intervention of Hercules, you were turned from evil. By continuing to fight against evil, you empower the goodness in many people. Gabrielle's destiny was to strengthen you to stay on the right path and to help you overcome the powers of darkness."
Xena's eyes clouded, "What about Gabrielle?"
The young man's voice admonished the warrior, "Those evil powers are still fighting a great battle for your soul, Xena, but Gabrielle has helped you to renounce their influence. You are right to love her and protect her. When decisions of principle need to be made, Xena, be guided by her behavior. She is your pathfinder, your compass, and she will never lead your heart astray."
The warrior finally was beginning to believe that this being was who he said he was, a messenger from the One Creator, "Gabrielle has been the One Creator's greatest gift to me," she admitted endearingly. "Please thank him for me." Then her face got very serious, "You know we have a problem..."
"I am sent to tell you that the Creator knows of your plans concerning Dahak. The Creator approves, but sees that there is a weak link.
"If you are not powerful enough to contain Dahak in his lair, he might get out in spite of your efforts. The One Creator promises that, if events occur according to your plan, at that moment another being like myself will be sent to assist you."
The Warrior Princess mulled this information over in her mind.
A loving glint arose in the young man's eyes and he smiled affectionately, "We, and Gabrielle, are still working on your soul, Xena. We have great hopes for it. Never give up. Follow your pathfinder."
The light slowly diminished and Xena was left alone to ponder on what she had just witnessed. So there is One Creator who is stronger than all the gods on Olympus. And he has destined ME to help protect the world from evil!
Lao Ma's voice echoed in her memory, "You are destined for great things, Xena. You just don't know it yet." And... there is hope for my soul!
Even these momentous revelations could not override Xena's concern about getting rid of Dahak. So at last I'm going to get help from a god... IF... events occur according to my plan. There's that word again...IF. I guess there are never any guarantees, it still comes down to me. Let's hope my plan's a good one!
Gabrielle was sitting in the Queen's hut conversing with Ephiny, when an urgent knock sounded on the door. "Come in," the Queen called. The door opened and Elisa burst through with a piece of folded parchment in her hand.
"I have a message from Xena," she reported to Gabrielle.
The bard reached swiftly for the message and unfolded it. She read aloud, "Gabrielle and Ephiny, come at once and bring ten Amazons, I need your help at the Halls of War. X."
"What is she doing there already?" the golden-haired woman uttered quizzically. "I thought she was with Ares' army." The Amazons had been keeping track of the army as it swallowed up two cities and was on its way to grab a third.
"Didn't that last report say that Xena was leading the army toward Arknos?" Gabrielle asked Ephiny.
"Yes, it did," replied the regent. "Maybe something unexpected came up that she had to take care of right away. Anyway, we should prepare to leave at once for the Halls of War."
"You're right, Ephiny," the bard said. She looked up at Elisa, "Go get Eponin and Solari and send them to me here."
Ephiny interjected, "Solari isn't here, Gabrielle. I sent her and about seventy of our tribe to the northern mountains on a tracking exercise. I didn't expect to hear from Xena so soon, either."
"All right, just get Eponin, then," the Queen commanded. Elisa bowed and left.
Eponin soon arrived at the hut. "Eponin, get a party of ten Amazons armed and ready to accompany us to the Halls of War, as soon as possible," Gabrielle ordered.
"I'll have them ready in half an hour," Eponin promised.
The Amazons, led by Gabrielle and Ephiny, were almost within sight of the Halls of War when Xena stepped out of the trees onto the trail in front of them. Gabrielle dismounted but she wasn't sure whether to run to her friend or not, because their last parting was so hostile. Xena did not look especially welcoming.
Ephiny felt no such qualms. She dismounted, walked right up to the Warrior Princess and, surprisingly, gave her a hug. She whispered in Xena's ear as she did so, "Good Luck."
Ephiny released Xena and the warrior stepped over to Gabrielle. No expression showed on her face. "I need your help," she said with a frozen face. "Will you come in with me?"
"You know I will, Xena, tell me what you want me to do," the bard answered with a sigh.
"I just want you to stand beside me, good facing evil," the tall woman said. "C'mon, let's go in." She turned toward the entrance. "Ephiny, set five Amazons on guard out here, then come inside with the other five." Xena entered the temple with Gabrielle right beside her.
The Warrior Princess was surprised to see that the huge metal dish-like fixture that had once been covering the well of fire had been removed. It was lying askew several feet away. The two women approached and Xena shouted, "DAHAK, I COME TO CHALLENGE YOU! SPEAK TO ME! DAHAK, SHOW YOURSELF!"
The building rumbled and, from the well, flames suddenly shot 20 feet in the air. As this was beginning, Xena surreptitiously removed the hind's blood dagger from her arm bracer. The flames leapt and danced and made a horrific noise.
Suddenly, Xena grabbed Gabrielle from behind with all her might, and put the knife up against the skin of her throat. "DAHAK," the warrior cried, "I know this is not Gabrielle, it is your daughter, Hope. If you do not return Gabrielle to me right away, I will slit Hope's throat with this dagger dipped in hind's blood, no matter what happens to me." Hope started screaming and wriggling. Xena tightened her grip on the golden-haired woman, and pressed the dagger tightly enough against her throat to make a dent in her skin.
A stupendous roar shook the temple. A powerful, unseen force picked Xena and Hope up and crashed the duo forcefully against one wall. The warrior's hold on Hope never budged. Knives hanging on the wall were magically released and flew toward her. Using Hope's body as a shield, Xena turned and twisted like a dervish avoiding them.
The roar from the flames was getting longer and louder, assaulting the hearing of everyone present. The Amazons had their palms over their ears trying to protect them from the ungodly sounds. Scenes of unspeakable obscenity were being projected into everyone's inner vision, and the Warrior Princess was being subjected to the worst of all. I WAS evil, Dahak, she fought his thoughts with her thoughts, but I have turned away from that and found goodness. Do your worst, you will NOT win.
"You'll not get her loose from me, you devil," Xena screamed. "Give up!"
Pieces of ceiling broke loose from above the Warrior Princess. The remarkable sense that always warned her of danger allowed her to look up in time to avoid the largest segment, but several smaller ones buried the two women. Ephiny and the other Amazons jumped quickly to the rescue. Dodging other debris that was raining down on them, they unearthed Xena and their Queen's look-alike daughter. Xena's arms were still locked around Hope's body with the hind's blood dagger pushed against the skin of her neck. Ephiny and Eponin helped her rise, dragging Hope with her.
"Wise up, Dahak, if you keep tossing us around like this, the dagger might slip and puncture Hope's skin. I'll give you five seconds to send Gabrielle back to me, NOW!!!" the warrior yelled, "or I'LL slip and puncture her skin." Horrible noise continued to assail the occupants of the temple. The well fire flamed higher and higher then belched and blew. A woman's body came hurtling out of the well opening and landed near Xena's feet.
"Ephiny," Xena hollered, "check her out."
The regent ran to Gabrielle's body and knelt next to it. She pressed her fingers against the bard's neck, feeling for a pulse. Ephiny beamed at the warrior, relieved. "She looks OK, Xena, just seems to be unconscious."
At the same time, a bright white light suffused the room, dimming the redness from the fire. As promised, a translucent being appeared and gradually took on the appearance of a young man, glowing with a golden light. "Xena, Warrior Princess, I am Mikel of whom Gabreel spoke. I am sent by the One Creator to assist you in your fight against Dahak. Do not fear, your friend will be all right. Hold onto Hope until I have her securely, then you may let her go."
The fire boiled and heaved and the already ear-splitting sounds increased in magnitude. But those present were not about to leave this incredible drama playing out before them.
Mikel walked over next to the warrior and wrapped his hand firmly around Hope's arm. Dahak's daughter screamed and yelled and hit and kicked, but it didn't seem to faze him. Xena released her hold on the evil woman and quickly knelt down to Gabrielle's still form.
As Mikel pulled Hope nearer to the well of fire, the flames gave out one last huge terrifying roar, then, surprisingly, withdrew. Mikel picked the screaming woman up by one arm and one leg and threw her down the well. Then the glowing man passed his hands over the well and the stone wall crumbled into the hole. When the circular wall had disappeared, the cement floor came together as if the well had never existed. Incised into the floor where the hole had been was a large circle enclosing two symbols, an alpha and an omega. The sudden silence was deafening.
Mikel looked toward Xena and saw the warrior seated cross-legged on the floor, hugging the friend she had pulled onto her lap. She was clasping Gabrielle tightly to her and calling her name over and over, willing her to respond to the feel of her body, the sound of her voice. He walked over to the dark-haired woman who was rocking forward and back, her beautiful face twisted by concern. Mikel placed one hand on Xena's dark head and one on Gabrielle's light head. A feeling of exquisite peace flowed through the warrior and, as she relaxed her hold and looked in Gabrielle's face, the bard awoke.
Mist-green eyes looked up into the most gorgeous crystal blue eyes she had ever seen, those that belonged to her dearest friend... "Xena," she uttered. One word that spoke volumes. Tears of joy streamed down her face.
The Warrior Princess, who had mastered many foes in battle, wasn't able to fight one word past the lump in her throat. She just pulled the golden-haired woman tight against her again, buried her face in that hair and hung on, silently crying in relief.
In an effort to provide the two friends some privacy in this highly emotional moment, Ephiny signaled to the Amazons who were inside the temple to go outside with her and join the others. When those on guard outside learned what had happened, they were overwhelmed with joy that their Queen had truly returned. They were laughing and talking and pounding each other on the back.
Inside, Mikel allowed the two women some time to themselves. When he felt that they had calmed down a little, he approached them and, smiling, sat on the floor facing them.
"Welcome back, Gabrielle," he nodded to the young woman, "no need to move, my dear, you're in good hands," he continued as the bard, flustered by the young man's glowing appearance, tried to get up from Xena's embrace. Mikel reached out and touched her arm and she peacefully, without question, settled back against the warrior, who had no intention of releasing her so soon.
"Well done, Xena, your plan worked to perfection," he praised the Warrior Princess. "Before I return to the abode of the One Creator, there are a few things I wish to tell you about Dahak. He is not destroyed, only weakened and delayed. Every evil act that transpires in the world flows power into him and makes him stronger."
The young man's appearance grew somber. "At some time, he will be strong enough to come upon the earth and generate greater evil than the world can imagine. But that time has not yet come. He has been delayed, first by your sacrifice, Gabrielle, then by your quick thinking, Xena. He can continue to be delayed by people who, like the two of you, fight evil and spread goodness. The One Creator knows that you sometimes falter, but he also knows that your footsteps have always returned to the path of good."
The somberness lifted from Mikel's face and he smiled into the bard's eyes. "Gabrielle, it is your destiny to assist Xena in her fight against evil. Try to keep your goal always centered on goodness, so you can be your friend's pathfinder. Xena is helping you to develop a warrior's confident heart; you must help her to develop a peacemaker's confident soul."
As the young man's eyes switched from Gabrielle's to Xena's, his countenance sparkled. "Today, Xena, you have fulfilled an important part of your destiny by delaying Dahak's entrance into the world. You accepted this responsibility without recrimination and you fought a worthy battle. The One Creator is pleased."
Listening to Mikel's words, and seeing his glowing appearance, Gabrielle had assimilated the fact that this young man was a messenger from a being he called the One Creator. This raised an immediate question in her mind. "May I ask you something," she requested humbly. Mikel inclined his head.
"What about the gods on Mount Olympus? Shouldn't they have done something to stop Dahak?"
"Yes, they should have, Gabrielle. The lesser gods have been given many chances to help the earth or eventually perish for their failure to spread good. But they never even acknowledged that Dahak was a threat to the world. In fact, they hid themselves from it. The only god who recognized Dahak's evil wanted to join him."
Xena snorted, "Ares."
"Yes, Ares," the young man agreed. Mikel winked conspiratorially, "And, if I'm not mistaken, you have plans to straighten him out, haven't you?
Xena raised an eyebrow, pursed her lips and nodded slowly.
The glowing young man smiled broadly as he rose to his feet. Xena and Gabrielle followed him up. "Thank you both. I may not see you again... I'm only sent to earth for momentous occasions. But it has been my privilege to meet you and to help you play a part in delaying Dahak's entrance. Now I must return to the abode of the One Creator."
Mikel reached his arm out and clasped Xena's. The Warrior Princess was again filled with peace, but was startled by Mikel's handshake. The young man laughed out loud, "I am a warrior, too, Xena," he explained and then she smiled and nodded, recalling that Gabreel had told her that Mikel had driven the forces of evil from the One Creator's abode.
Leaning down to Gabrielle, he kissed the golden-haired woman's cheek. "Take good care of our Princess," he murmured.
The light faded and Mikel was gone.
Xena and Gabrielle turned to each other and in a split-second were back in each other's arms.
Ephiny came through the temple doorway. "If you two can ever let go of each other, we have work to do."
The two laughed and separated and walked toward Ephiny. Gabrielle threw her arms around the Amazon. Absolutely delighted to see her queen and friend, Ephiny hugged her back. "Gabrielle, I am so glad to see you safe," the blond Amazon declared. "When Xena told me that woman was Hope and not you, I was devastated."
"Xena, how did you know it wasn't Gabrielle?" she asked. "Did she do something that gave her away? I certainly never noticed."
"It was more what she didn't do," the Warrior Princess replied. "In the beginning, I was so ecstatic, it didn't register. Then I started to notice little things that by themselves maybe wouldn't have persuaded me, but altogether they didn't ring true. But, still, I thought, Hope would have been big with Ares' child. What could have happened? Well, a day after she showed up, she kept telling me she didn't feel well. I think maybe she had a miscarriage from the fall that she took with Gabrielle. Or maybe Dahak had the power to keep the child from growing for awhile. Whatever."
The warrior started to itemize her suspicions, "First, she tried to talk me out of going after Dahak. Now, this is supposed to be the woman who SACRIFICED HER LIFE to get rid of Dahak and knew I was willing to sacrifice mine, it was that important to us. Next, she was suggesting that I lead Ares' army as a ruse. Now, even though that was a pretty good idea, Gabrielle would have had a lot of misgivings about my going back with Ares. Hope didn't show a single qualm. Of course, I realized later, she believed that once Ares had hold of me, I would be lost.
"Then, she said she wasn't sure if she wanted to come with me to fight Dahak. That was a dead giveaway because my pesky bard," Xena smiled at Gabrielle, "won't let me go anywhere without her, without a fight, let alone into battle. 'Wherever you go, I go' is chiseled on the inside of her skull.
"And, looking back to when she first showed up in the forest, I realized that if I had stood near the real Gabrielle crying..." the bard put her hand on Xena's arm, "she would have tried to wipe away my tears. She always does." The warrior looked affectionately at her friend and patted the hand that remained on her arm. "Plus, we both have special friendship rings that we always carry with us. Hope didn't have hers and she never mentioned losing it."
Xena continued, "When we first arrived at the Amazon village, Hope wasn't feeling well and she let me put my arm around her waist to support her. Gabrielle is always conscious of her image as the Amazon Queen; she would never walk into camp leaning on someone else unless she was near death."
The bard released the warrior's arm as she began to walk out of the temple, "Then, the first morning at the village, Hope seemed surprised that I was up early, but Gabrielle knows I always rise before dawn and do drills. And, finally, the real clincher, there was food on the table, but Hope said that she would WAIT for breakfast. We all know that no food is safe within 10 feet of the bard." Ephiny chuckled and Gabrielle backhanded Xena on the arm... then shook her tender knuckles.
Outside, Ephiny had a surprise for Gabrielle. She motioned to Eponin and the weapons master strode forward and handed the bard her staff. "Oh, Ephiny, Eponin, thank you both. You never can tell when I might need this and I miss it when it's not nearby."
"Well, I think you just might get a chance to use it," Xena declared. "We have some mopping up to do." She proceeded to tell Gabrielle just what had to be completed. The bard's eyes shone with the thought of being able to take part in some action concerning thwarting Dahak's plans. Up till now she had missed out on everything.
Earlier, when she first exited the temple, Ephiny had sent three Amazons to round up the horses that had been left some distance behind. Now they were ready to mount. "Gabrielle and I will take the horse Hope rode on," Xena directed. "We'll swing around and pick up the one I used. Go ahead and start for Arknos, we'll catch up." Ephiny nodded and the Amazon contingent got ready and left.
Xena swung aboard the horse that was left for her and Gabrielle, reached down and hoisted her friend up behind her. As they rode, the bard tightened her arms around the warrior's waist and laid her head against Xena's muscular back. "It's so wonderful to be together again, isn't it?" she sighed. She felt a tremor go through her partner's body, but Xena didn't answer. "Xena, did you hear me?" Gabrielle asked. The warrior nodded her head, but still didn't speak. Another tremor. She's crying! The bard finally realized.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry I left you alone. Please forgive me," Gabrielle's penitent voice pleaded. "I never meant to cause you so much pain and distress. I know how I must have hurt you, but I couldn't bear the thought of your being called to judgment too soon... and maybe not making it to the Elysian Fields. I don't want to spend an eternity without you beside me. Please, please forgive me." By now the golden-haired woman was softly crying, too.
Xena pulled the horse up at the spot where she had hobbled Toris' steed, Racer, and lifted Gabrielle to the ground. She swung herself down off the horse and turned to the bard. Xena opened her arms and her sobbing friend stepped inside them and flung her arms around the tall woman's waist. "There's no need to ask me to forgive you," the warrior's voice murmured sweetly into Gabrielle's ear. "You only did what you thought was best. How can I get angry with you for saving my life?" She stroked the golden head of the woman she loved most in all the world. The one who was lost and now was found.
"Besides," Xena confessed, "I already got rid of all my bad feelings by bawling Hope out. I was missing you so much and I was so angry with her, I dumped it all on her. Now I'm just so blasted happy that you're really and truly here that my eyes keep overflowing, and I never want to let go of you," Xena declared.
"Oh, is that what warlords do? They don't cry, their eyes just overflow?" the bard teased through her tears.
"Right," Xena sniffled, "Or sometimes it's the wind, or the dust, or something flew in my eye. But no warlord worth her salt ever cries."
Gabrielle, having gotten her sobs under control, pulled her head back and looked up mischievously into her friend's ocean-blue eyes, "Then, it must be raining. My hair's all wet."
Xena ducked her chin and a tiny grin started in the corners of her sculpted mouth. Gabrielle reached up and wiped the tears from her best friend's face. The grin continued to spread across the warrior's lips and she took hold of Gabrielle's hand which was lying on her cheek. The Warrior Princess leaned her face into the hand and, turning her head, kissed the bard's palm. "Thank you, for being you," she murmured.
Oh Xena, you can be so unexpectedly SWEET sometimes, the golden-haired woman thought, but you'd snort at me if I said so. I see a Warrior Princess no one else even guesses exists and I am eternally grateful for the revelation... and for your love.
Gabrielle spoke earnestly, "I have to say the same, you know. Thank you for being you; thank you for ALWAYS being there for me. Even in Dahak's lair, I had no doubt that you would rescue me. I knew I could count on you... and you always come through."
The two women embraced for a few more moments, then, realizing there was still work to do, they mounted their horses and headed for Arknos.
Toris was having great success at Arknos. No one questioned his orders or his identity. He had witnessed his sister's warlord mien often enough to be able to do a creditable imitation of her. He was just a tad taller and heavier than she was, but without her nearby, it wasn't noticeable. And their coloring and blue eyes were a perfect match. The idea of the lost voice was especially resourceful, he smiled. I just get out the parchment, point to an order, and it gets done.
The meeting with the elders of Arknos had taken place yesterday, and this morning the army was ready to round up the citizens. Since Arknos was situated in a blind canyon and there were impassable mountains all around it, it had been easy to cut it off from supplies. But the mountains meant the army would have to go through a pass, all the way to the back of the village, and work forward to clear out all the villagers. Since the people were leaving peacefully, one of the orders on the parchment directed the army to stay in the village until all the people had been evacuated, leaving only Toris and the other two officers to oversee their arrival onto the plain outside of the village.
As Toris directed the army into the village to start the evacuation, he heard an expected signal from the trees on either side of the pass into the village. "Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo," sounded as he approached. Everything was going according to schedule.
The army moved straight through the village to the base of the mountain then turned around and began to shepherd the villagers out. Arknos was the smallest of the three villages and by early afternoon, all of the people were moved out to the plain beyond the pass. As the last villager left, Toris pulled out the parchment and pointed to an order that sent the two officers into the town to direct the army into bivouacking there for the night, while the villagers would camp out on the plain.
When the officers rode into Arknos, Toris trotted Argo over to one side of the pass and entered the forest. The Amazon warrior, Solari, dropped out of a tree near him. Seeing Toris up close confused the Amazon for a moment. "Xena?" she asked.
Toris dropped the scarf from over his nose and mouth. "No, I'm her brother, Toris. Didn't she tell you about me?"
"Yeah, she did," Solari admitted. "But you sure look like her. For a minute I thought..."
Toris smiled the same lop-sided grin his sister used. "That's the whole idea. This masquerade only worked because we look so much alike. Are you ready to do your part?"
"Yeah, we have five large trees cut down ready to pull across the pass entrance tonight," the Amazon reported. "Just let me know when."
"I'm hoping Xena will get here before tonight with information for us about the army. If she hasn't come by a certain time, I'll come and let you know about the blockade." Toris turned Argo and headed back out of the forest. Campfires were being lit all over the plain where villagers were preparing for an all night campout.
Xena and Gabrielle caught up to the Amazons in a few hours. They made camp together that evening, under the trees, near a stream. The horses were hobbled and left to graze a little further down stream. "If we leave near dawn tomorrow morning," the warrior told the group, "we can be in Arknos by early evening. We may have a fight on our hands there and we may not. It remains to be seen."
Suddenly, the warrior's head whipped around and her hand went up for silence. "Someone's coming," she whispered and loped into the trees. The group of Amazons looked at each other and shrugged but they melted into the forest. Gabrielle and Ephiny remained seated at the campfire. After about 10 minutes, Elisa, the Amazon scout, rode into camp, followed by Xena. The other Amazons sifted back into camp through the trees.
"I have a message for Xena," Elisa said, "have you seen her?"
"Turn around, pup," Eponin snorted, "she's right behind you."
The young Amazon turned and saw twinkling blue eyes and a raised eyebrow. She blushed to the roots of her dark hair. Quickly, she swung down out of the saddle and held a folded parchment out to her idol, the Warrior Princess. Xena clasped the girl's whole forearm, lifted the parchment out of Elisa's fingers with her opposite hand and proceeded to complete the warrior handshake. "You've done a great job, Elisa, delivering all the messages to the right people at the right time, and keeping all the players in this game informed. You've nothing to be embarrassed about," Xena smiled at her. And, of course, she blushed all the more.
The imposing woman opened the parchment and read its contents. She looked up at the group and explained, "Arknos has agreed to the terms. The army will start evacuating the villagers tomorrow morning. Our timing is right on schedule." She didn't see any reason to repeat the rest of the message: "Hope to TALK to you soon. I haven't been this quiet in years! T."
Xena turned to one of the Amazons. "Gwynna, take care of Elisa's horse. I have a job for her." The warrior placed her hand on Elisa's shoulder and felt her quickly gather herself to stand taller and ready for orders. Inwardly pleased by the young woman's eagerness, Xena said, "Come with me, we're going hunting."
The two women moved deeper into the forest. Soon, Xena came to a stop. "Elisa, have you ever caught rabbits barehanded?" she inquired.
Elisa looked at the warrior with surprise. "Barehanded? NNNooooo..." she answered. Then she grinned. "Not yet."
"Perfect answer," Xena grinned back. "Today, you're going to learn how." She proceeded to explain and then demonstrated her methods to the enthusiastic youngster. "That's one rabbit for dinner," she held up the one she had just caught. "Now, it's your turn."
Elisa missed her first try, but caught the next one, then one more. When Xena added her three, she called it quits. The two women skinned and gutted the animals then started toward camp with them. Xena knew this time alone with Elisa would give the young Amazon more confidence in herself and help free her from the uncomfortable embarrassment she seemed to feel every time the warrior was near.
"Xena, thank you for teaching me how to catch rabbits barehanded. I'll be the envy of my friends," the young Amazon said happily. Not to mention their surprise when I tell them the Warrior Princess herself taught me!
Xena chuckled, "Don't bother trying to teach them unless they have very, VERY quick hands. I noticed right away that you have. Some other time maybe I'll teach you how to catch fish with your bare hands."
Elisa's velvety gray eyes grew rounder. "Fish? OK... fish... barehanded. I'd be grateful to learn anything you can teach me, Xena, but I would especially like to learn those jumps you do when you're fighting."
The Warrior Princess looked at the young Amazon speculatively. She's tall and strong and exceptionally fast... "Maybe someday," she nodded. "When we get back to your village, I'll show you some of the exercises and drills you will need to perfect before you will be able to even TRY jumping like that."
Elisa was thrilled. She wanted nothing more than to become a magnificent warrior like Xena, and was willing to work hard to accomplish that feat.
The two women arrived back at the campsite and all eyes turned toward the Warrior Princess and her companion. Xena had told Elisa to hand the rabbits to Gabrielle. "Here's supper," Elisa said, beaming proudly. The bard and another Amazon set about preparing the food. The Queen wasn't required to help with chores such as cooking, but she was the best cook in the camp, so she took charge of the meal.
Elisa went to join the other Amazons and Xena noticed them congregating around the young scout.
With a quirk in the corners of her lips, the warrior walked over and sat cross-legged on the ground opposite Ephiny and Eponin. "We know what you were doing," Ephiny grinned. Xena raised both eyebrows and looked around behind her, pretending Ephiny must be speaking to someone else.
"Yeah," Eponin added gruffly. "Trying to make up to that pup for me embarrassing her in front of everyone. Sorry about that."
"No, Pony it was my fault," the warrior admitted. "I shouldn't have followed right behind her into camp. I could have slipped in unnoticed. I wasn't thinking about Elisa's feelings."
Pony leaned forward and frowned into Xena's spectacular blue eyes. "Eph," she stage whispered, "is this really the nasty warlord Warrior Princess?" Whew! Now I know what Eph means about being bowled over by those eyes.
"Yeah, Pony, I'm pretty sure it is," Ephiny chuckled. "But you better be careful, Xena, you're going to ruin your reputation. People might think you have a heart."
"Well, you know how it is," Xena replied with a wry grin, "Gabrielle's back and I'm trying to be on my good behavior. Wait till tomorrow's battle, you'll see the real Warrior Princess."
Ephiny sobered. "Do you think there will be a battle tomorrow?"
"We're going to have to do some fighting somewhere, sometime," Xena answered, "I'm just not sure how much yet. A lot hinges on Ares and I haven't been able to contact him. I think using Toris to take my place has distracted him more than I expected. When I'm sure what's going on, I'll fill you in."
"Food's ready," Gabrielle called.
The Amazon group was nearing the Arknos plain in the late afternoon. They stayed in the forest and made their way around the edge of the plain to the beginning of the pass, joining Solari and the Amazons who were already there. Leaving them, Xena first spoke to Elisa then guided Racer deeper into the surrounding trees, into a small clearing. She dismounted and waited.
Before long, she heard Toris and Argo coming toward her. Several minutes later, her brother entered the clearing and swung down off the golden palomino. The two look-alikes came together and hugged each other. "Gabrielle is safe, Toris, and Dahak has been defeated," Xena told him.
"That's good news, Xenie. I've been anxiously hoping to hear that our little bard was all right," a relieved Toris said. "And everything here has worked perfectly," Toris enthused. "It went just like you planned!"
"I have many skills," Xena teased.
"And so have I," laughed Toris. "But impersonating you is one I'm ready to give up right now. This outfit you wear is heavy and hot and uncomfortable! And the uh... chest padding doesn't feel so great, either."
Xena's smile just kept getting broader and broader, the more Toris complained. "I don't know what you're complaining about, brother, I'm wearing the same outfit you are and I feel fine," she tormented him.
"Well, you must just be used to..."
Xena grabbed Toris and whispered, "Hide behind a tree, QUICK!" She was feeling that creepy, crawly sensation that warned of Ares' presence. Toris managed to hide himself just as Ares appeared with his usual dazzle.
"Xena, I see all is going as I planned," he boasted. "When these villagers reach the caves, Dahak will have enough blood sacrifices and can enter the world. And you and I will be rewarded for..."
"Guess again, Ares," the Warrior Princess interrupted.
"What?" Ares didn't like the look on Xena's face.
"Dahak's entrance has been delayed," the warrior taunted.
"What ARE you talking about," Ares demanded impatiently.
"I was at the Halls of War with the hind's blood knife; and with Hope, who was posing as Gabrielle. I held the knife to her neck and demanded Gabrielle's return," Xena informed him. "To save his precious daughter, Dahak coughed Gabrielle up, unharmed.
"Then a messenger from the One Creator threw Hope into Dahak's well, destroyed the well and sealed it with the One Creator's seal. Dahak won't be back for a long time."
The God of War was stunned. "But... but... you were HERE, I've been watching you! You couldn't have been at the Halls of War. Are you trying to trick me?" He cocked his head at Xena and looked toward her throat. "Wait a minute... you can talk!"
"I HAVE tricked you, Ares," Xena waved toward Toris to come out from hiding. He walked out of the trees, an almost exact image of the Warrior Princess.
Ares glared at the new arrival, following Toris with his eyes until the brother and sister stood side-by-side. Toris removed his wig. "Your BROTHER?" he sneered. Xena and Toris nodded simultaneously.
It suddenly dawned on Ares that he could be in big trouble with the other gods. "Where does this leave me, Xena," he asked plaintively, unaware of the irony of asking the Warrior Princess' advice. "The other gods will surely punish me for switching to Dahak's side. They might even take away my godhood!" The God of War was beginning to get frightened.
"Listen to me, Ares. I'm the leader of your army and I'm the one who destroyed Dahak. We could make a case that you had planned it that way. That it was your idea to have Toris impersonate me, to free me up to stop Dahak. That way you'd be a hero," Xena suggested persuasively.
"Yes. Yes! That would work," Ares jumped enthusiastically at the idea. Then his face sobered, "But what do you get out of this, Xena. I know you. You're not doing this from the goodness of your heart."
"You're right, Ares," the warrior nodded. "I want the use of your army to help me and the Amazons rid the caves of Dahak's followers. ThenI want them to escort the villagers back to their homes. I want you to personally tell them that is what they are to do. Then I want you to disband the army. What do you say?"
Ares hesitated. The idea of getting rid of his army was unappealing to him. "Just to help you make up your mind," Xena pointed out, "your whole army is cut off in the village of Arknos. We have them bottled up there and I have Amazon archers ready to cut them down as they try to come through the pass."
"Xena... Xena... Xena," the God of War swiveled his head from side to side in reluctant admiration. "You never should have stopped being a warlord. You still have that same devious, shifty mind that always kept you one step ahead of everybody else," Ares sighed, "including me... All right, I agree."
"No time like the present. I'll meet you at the pass in fifteen minutes," the warrior ordered. Ares bowed his head in acquiescence and disappeared in a lightning bolt.
Xena and Toris flinched from the lightning which almost struck them. "I guess he's upset," Xena chuckled.
Toris looked at Xena with amazement. "My little sister, ordering around the God of War. I'm impressed."
"Don't be too impressed," the warrior smiled wryly. "He lets me get away with a few things because he "likes" me."
"Do you have to..." Toris stopped and blushed as he realized what he almost had asked his sister.
Xena laughed heartily, "No, Toris, I don't. But he keeps hoping, so I keep using that attraction. Listen, I have to go meet him now. Go show your outfit to Gabrielle before you change. She just HAS to see it. She'd never forgive you, if you don't show it to her," Xena laughed again at the expression on Toris' face.
Xena prepared to mount Argo. "I'll see you back at our camp. You can't miss it; it's near the west edge of the plain. And, Toris, stay clear of the Amazons, OK? They don't like men... even when they're dressed as women," she added wickedly.
Ares appeared before his army with Xena at his side. He told them what battle they would be fighting and reminded them, again, to follow the directions of the Warrior Princess. He also explained that they would escort the villagers back to their homes when the battle was over.
Xena left Burgios in charge with orders to have the army ready to move out in the morning. She picked out an outfit and boots for Toris from one of the village stores, leaving payment in a bowl. Then she went back to the camp by the plain.
When she arrived at the camp, she and Gabrielle had some laughs at Toris' expense before Xena handed him the change of clothes she had brought. Toris removed the sword, sheath, chakram and armor then slipped into the trees to complete the change.
When he returned, Xena put her hand on his arm. "Toris, because of you, Dahak has been silenced and Gabrielle has been returned. I couldn't have done anything without your help. It was important that I catch Dahak by surprise. I am forever in your debt. You did such a good job impersonating me that even Ares never suspected," the Warrior Princess smiled.
"Xena," Toris said emotionally, I wasn't there the first time you needed me and Lyceus was killed. I've never forgiven myself for that and I swore it would never happen again. You don't owe me any thanks. I'm just grateful you still trusted me enough to let me help you."
Xena grabbed her brother in a bear hug and kissed his cheek. "I've forgiven you, Toris, a long time ago. And I never stopped trusting you. Now go home and tell Mother that Gabrielle's OK and everything is fine. I'm sure she's worried sick. Oh, and Toris..." the warrior looked questioningly at her brother as she released him.
"Yeah, Xena," he answered.
"What happened to Xenie?"
Admiration for his sister gleamed in Toris' cobalt-blue eyes. "I think she just grew up," her brother smiled, "or maybe I did." Xena grinned and punched Toris playfully on the shoulder as he turned to leave.
The young man went over to say goodbye to Gabrielle who had been busy writing on one of her scrolls. "Toris," the bard smiled. "I'm writing up your part in our latest adventure."
Toris screwed up his face, "Just don't put my name in it, OK? I don't want to be famous for dressing up like a girl, even if that girl is a warlord."
"OK, Toris," the bard laughed. "Tell your Mom I said we'll stop to see her as soon as we can. Goodbye." She kissed Xena's brother on the cheek.
As Toris rode out, Xena waved then continued on her way to speak with Ephiny. Solari and Eponin were seated with the regent. Solari rose as Xena approached. "Solari," Xena greeted the dark Amazon with a warrior handshake, "thank you for being just where we needed you to be. I know you didn't see much action, but just the threat of your being there served its intended purpose."
The warrior turned to include Ephiny and Eponin in her audience. "Ares has turned his army over to us, to clean Dahak's followers out of the caves. We can leave tomorrow morning. Eph, I'd like you to have a few Amazons spread the word throughout the plain that the army will be leaving Arknos in the morning, and the people can return to their homes."
The regent nodded. "Also," Xena continued, "I'd like the Amazons to leave tonight, as soon as possible." Xena pulled some dinars from her bag. "Buy some clothing from eight or nine of the village women and try to enter the caves tomorrow night to find out what their defenses are. It will take the army at least a day and a half to get there so you should have that information before the army arrives. Send Elisa to me with it. I have to return now to the army camp. And," the Warrior Princess bored her cobalt-blue eyes at each of the three Amazons to emphasize her order, "take good care of the Queen." All three nodded soberly.
The Amazon camp became a beehive of activity as they prepared to leave. "Why can't I come with you, Xena?" the bard inquired.
"Gabrielle, you'll be safer with the Amazons. They'll watch out for you. Ares' army camp is no place for a woman," Xena reasoned.
"But you're a woman," the bard argued.
I knew she would say that, Xena thought. "I'm the warlord of the army, Gabrielle, which is not the same thing. I had to defeat 10 of their best warriors, so they'd know not to mess with me..." Xena put her arms around the bard and she leaned her dark head onto the golden one. Her voice changed from argumentative to persuasive, "I just got you back... Don't you think I would have you with me if I could, so I could see you and touch you and know that you were all right? You'll still be an important part of what needs to be done. I just want you where it's best for you." The Warrior Princess raised her head, released the bard and flashed blue beacons into her friend's mist-green eyes. "And that's NOT with Ares' army," she said with finality.
"Ten warriors? Ares made you fight ten of his best warriors? I thought he liked you," Gabrielle said, astonishment distracting her from her argument.
"Well, he was right. I had to let them know I was capable of taking care of myself and leading them. If I didn't have their respect, they would never have followed me," the tall woman said matter-of-factly.
Gabrielle looked at her friend with shining eyes. She talks about fighting 10 fierce warriors like I would speak of washing clothes or cooking a meal... all in a day's work. No matter how long we are together, that's something I'll never get used to. My warrior is afraid of nothing!... except my getting hurt. "All right, I'll stay with the Amazons. But you have to promise me you'll be careful."
"I'm always careful, Gabrielle," Xena replied, and even, almost, believed it.
The army stopped within two hour's ride of the caves and bivouacked along a river. It was a typical spring midmorning, with not a cloud in the sky and a soft breeze blowing lightly through the leaves of the forest. Shortly after they stopped, Elisa delivered the information about the defense of the caves. Ephiny had also sent a crudely drawn map. Xena had a lot of respect for the Amazon regent. She had found Ephiny to be intelligent, strong willed, fair minded, a good tactician and a fierce fighter. And she would give her life to save her Queen.
Xena sat at a table in her private tent that she had brought with her from the previous campsite. She unfolded the parchment and perused it.
According to Ephiny's message, there were about 300 followers of Dahak settled in an area just outside the caves. They were spread out in tents and makeshift huts on the side of the river well below the entrance to the caves. This meant they were in a triangular area with the river forming one side and the converging mountains forming a second side. Only the third side was open to passage. It wasn't a military mind that picked that spot, Xena noted. No place to retreat.
The Warrior Princess pored over the map. Another 100 followers were settled in the first cave, a mammoth area from which the other caves radiated like spokes on a half wheel. It looked like each secondary cave was separated from the main one by a short, narrow passage. This arrangement allowed the 100 captors in the first cave to prevent any villagers from exiting each of the other caves. But the other caves can also be sealed off from them, Xena figured. If this could be accomplished, a frontal attack on the main cave could be made without jeopardizing the innocent villagers.
Because the enemy force was allowing the villagers free access to their area to clean and cook for their captors, the Amazons had been able to infiltrate the caves unnoticed. They were already in place. It would be easy for them to seal each cave off to protect its inhabitants.
Xena knew Elisa was waiting for an answering message, her eyes glued to the warrior. "Leese," Xena shortened her name, "toss me that saddlebag, will you?" Elisa reached down near her feet, picked up the saddlebag and threw it toward the seated woman. Without even looking up, Xena snatched the bag one-handed from the air. I'll have to learn that, the young Amazon thought, impressed.
The Warrior Princess pulled a piece of parchment, a quill and some ink from the bag and copied down her message to Ephiny. When it was dry, she folded it and handed it to Elisa.
"May I ask you something?" the Amazon asked respectfully.
Xena quirked an eyebrow in permission. "How did you know where the saddlebag was when you caught it?" Elisa queried.
The warrior stood up and moved closer to the youngster. "Close your eyes," she directed. "Now don't think of anything, just feel. Feel the surface of your skin. I'm going to swing my hand at someplace on your body. As soon as you can tell where my hand is, grab it."
Xena swung her hand at Elisa's forehead. When her hand was about six inches from the girl's face, Elisa grabbed it. "Good," Xena encouraged her. "How did you know where my hand was?"
"I could feel the air change against my skin," Elisa marveled.
"Right," the warrior agreed. "You can practice by closing your eyes and having someone throw something at you. Preferably soft," she grinned. "And once you get really experienced, you can work on HEARING where it is. That's how I catch arrows; I hear them. Now, how about taking this message to Ephiny?" Xena suggested.
"Right," Elisa answered in perfect imitation of Xena's inflection. Both women grinned. "Xena, thanks for answering my questions. I don't mean to be a pest," the young woman said.
"No problem, Leese. No one else has ever asked me how I do the things I do. No one except Gabrielle, that is. I'm happy to help you. Feel free to ask me anything," Xena offered generously. Elisa, bursting with joy, beamed her thanks. "And Leese," the girl, about to leave, looked back. "Say hello to Gabrielle for me," Xena smiled gently. Elisa nodded and left to deliver Xena's messages. Nice kid, the warrior thought, lots of natural talent and an inquisitive mind. Maybe I should start thinking about training a successor. Can't be fighting warlords all my life. Hmmmmm. I wonder if Leese has been given special gifts!
Xena went to the tent opening and summoned a runner. "Tell the officers to meet in the headquarters tent in thirty minutes," she ordered.
When the officers were assembled, Xena laid out her strategy. First, she explained the location of the enemy troops and the layout of their camp and the caves. "We have approximately 80 Amazons working with us in this venture. A few of them are infiltrating the caves, dressed as villagers. Their job is to seal off the passages to the secondary caves in order to protect the villagers.
"Once that is accomplished, one division of our forces, and the rest of the Amazons, will engage in a frontal assault on the main cave. At the same time, the balance of our forces will attack the enemy's camp. In both instances, there is no place for them to retreat to, so expect some fierce fighting. Cornered rats always fight harder. Does everyone understand?"
The dark-haired woman stood tall. "We will pull out tomorrow morning at one hour after dawn. I will take the one division and lead it against the cave forces. The Amazons will join me. Burgios will coordinate the other three divisions attacking the camp. Once the caves are cleared, my force will join the others. Go make your preparations."
Early the next morning, Elisa returned with another message from Ephiny. And one from Gabrielle. Xena sat at the table and opened Ephiny's. It told her that the passages to the secondary caves were now closely guarded and, once the battle started, no enemy personnel would be permitted through. The Amazons would kill any who tried to pass. Good, that's taken care of. Thank you, Eph, Xena thought. Next she opened the message from Gabrielle. It read: "My dearest friend, Promise me you will take very good care of the person I love most in the world." Beneath the words was an impression made by touching her friendship ring to ink, then to the parchment.
The Warrior Princess folded the parchment into a small square and pushed it into her leathers over her heart. She picked a parchment she had ready and wrote on it: "I promise. Always." Then she unpinned her identical friendship ring from next to her breast dagger, touched it to a drop of ink and placed the impression on the parchment. She replaced the ring, folded the parchment and handed it to Elisa. "Tell Ephiny everything's set to go, and give this to Gabrielle," she ordered. "We'll be with you in a few hours."
The army arrived at the caves area and split into two forces. As the smaller force, led by Xena, moved to the right toward the caves, the Amazons, led by Gabrielle and Ephiny, joined them. The cave dwellers had been forewarned of the army's attack by those outside who had seen it approaching. When they tried to gather their prisoners to be used as hostages, they were turned back from the narrow passageways by armed Amazons. Reluctant to be trapped in the caves, most of Dahak's followers ran outside to engage the attacking troops.
Those of Ares' army who were mounted had been assigned to the larger force to contain the perimeter of the battle. The Amazons who were mounted slipped from their horses to fight in a wedge, shoulder to shoulder with their sister Amazons.
Xena, on Argo, screamed her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyyiyiyi!" and charged into the astonished enemy troops. Swinging her sword in one hand and slicing with her chakram in the other, kicking, parrying, thrusting, she accounted for fifteen casualties before the main body of the division was engaged. Turning Argo in a wide sweep, she knocked down ten more before rejoining her force.
She rehooked her chakram, slid off of Argo and fought alongside her men, urging them forward by her example. Jumping a sword swipe here, ducking another one there, and parrying the thrusts in between, the Warrior Princess made short work of any enemy unlucky enough to miss her on the first try. An occasional thrust did find a home, but the warrior moved so quickly that none ever landed where the attacker planned. And no attacker ever got a second chance. If her sword didn't take them down, a well-placed fist or kick did. A quick glance toward the Amazons showed that Gabrielle was fighting in the middle of a triangle formed by Ephiny, Solari and Eponin. They were protecting their Queen.
The bard was holding her own. Although it was never her intention to kill an opponent, she knocked enough of them down or out to make the task easier for those who fought with more savage intent. Eponin, who had taken part in the bard's training, was gratified to see how expert she had become in fighting with the Amazon staff.
Gabrielle, holding the staff at an angle, faked a move with the top half. When her attacker ducked, she came up, hard, under his chin with the bottom half, laying him out cold. Then she whirled, squatted down with the staff horizontal to the ground, and caught two men rushing toward her just below their knees, upending them. As they tried to rise, she shifted her hands to the end of the staff. Using it like a bat, she swung it against the side of one man's head. His head mad a resounding "thunk" as it connected with the other man's head and they both went down in a heap. Huh! That was pretty good! The bard, grinning, complimented herself.
Then something hit her head and she went down, seeing stars. But she was just conscious enough to hear a yell that put terror in other hearts, but warmed her own. "Yiyiyiyiyiyiy!" came the scream ever nearer until she felt the ground beneath her vibrate with her friend's nearby landing.
Xena had seen the bard go down and her heart almost burst from the extra adrenaline that suddenly surged through her body. She immediately began her battle cry and threw her body up into the greatest flat-footed leap she had ever managed. "Yiyiyiyiyiyiy!" Flipping high into the air she soared over to her partner and landed with a thud next to her. The warrior thrust her sword up to the hilt into the enemy who had knocked Gabrielle down, and who was attempting to run her through as she lay on the ground.
Pulling her sword from his body, the Warrior Princess elbowed another attacker in the face, breaking his jaw and nose and getting spewed with his blood. She jumped six feet straight up and kicked a third man in the throat with such force that he hurtled ten feet before crashing to the ground.
Six of the enemy had formed a semi-circle and were bearing down on the two women. The tall woman sheathed her sword and reached down for Gabrielle's staff. With a running start, she stuck one end of the staff in the ground and used it to lift herself horizontal to the ground. Kicking her foot in the face of one man, the warrior rocketed from one jaw to another, putting them all out of commission.
When she swung back down to the ground, the fighting had moved beyond them and was in its last throes. Quickly looking beyond their area, Xena could see that the other divisions were also bringing their battle to a victorious conclusion.
She squatted down next to the bard who was lying still but now had both mist-green eyes open and a small smile on her face. Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's head and thoroughly examined it. She found only one large lump on the crown but no skin was broken.
"OK, faker," the Warrior Princess grinned, "you can get up now, the battle's over."
"It's sooooo much more fun to lay here and admire your acrobatic expertise," the bard smiled. "OOOOWWWW!" she groaned as Xena hauled her up.
"Are you OK?" Ephiny's voice came from behind the warrior. Xena turned around to see Ephiny, Eponin and Solari standing together looking a little contrite.
"Yeah, thanks Eph," Gabrielle replied. "I just got crowned all over again," she grinned wryly, rubbing her head.
"I thought you three were looking out for your Queen," Xena reprimanded them, frowning.
"We were, Xena," Ephiny protested "We saw Gabrielle go down just about the same time you did and you got here so quickly, and defended her so ferociously, we couldn't get near her. No, that's not strictly true, we were AFRAID to get near her."
"I would have stopped the one who clunked her in the head," offered Pony. "I saw him hit her with the hilt of his sword. I was running toward him ready to strike when this... this... heavenly body... fell from the sky between me and him." Solari poked Pony in the ribs and the two of them laughed out loud.
Xena took a menacing step toward the two and they ran behind Ephiny who was sucking in her lips to keep from joining the laughter. "Brave Amazons," Xena snorted. "I better not hear any more of this "heavenly body" stuff," she mock threatened.
Speaking of bodies, Xena looked down at hers. She was covered with blood and had quite a few cuts, some fairly deep but no longer bleeding. I guess this fast healing is one of the special gifts I received from the One Creator. Wait till Gabrielle hears THAT story! "C'mon," the warrior said, "the battle's over. Let's go wash off some of this blood in the river."
Ephiny smiled into those magnificent blue eyes that, close up, always made her heart skip a beat. "Your planning was outstanding, Xena. Everything fell into place just perfectly. And, most important to us, our Queen was rescued. On behalf of the Amazon Nation, and myself, I thank you."
Xena's disconcerting blue eyes grew thoughtful. Across her inner vision passed pictures of Toris, the Amazons, Gabreel, Mikel, and, yes, even Ares. "I had a lot of help," the Warrior Princess acknowledged gratefully.
When they went to the river, Xena walked Argo right into the water, slid off her back and sprawled in the refreshing liquid, making an attempt to float on her back. "AAAAhhhhhhhh, bliss," she shouted. "I'm not coming out for two hours."
Gabrielle jumped in, too, and made her way to the warrior. "Yeah, this is great. This is the first water I've been near since I disappeared down that hole!"
"Hey, stay downwind, then, will ya," her friend begged.
The bard placed her hand in the middle of Xena's stomach and pushed down hard, submerging the spluttering warrior. Then she turned and tried to swim away, to no avail. Xena dove under her, flipped her over and stood up, hoisting Gabrielle above her with both strong arms. A flash of déjà vu hit them both at once, bringing an unpleasant memory at the edge of a cliff. But they looked at each other, smiled and moved beyond it. They would forge a fun memory here in its place.
"You're not going to clunk me are you?" Xena asked in mock fear.
"I probably should..." the bard made a silly face and grinned.
The Warrior Princess bent both powerful legs. "Probably," she agreed, thrusting her bent legs and arms up at the same time. Gabrielle soared about ten feet and hit the water in a belly flop. This time, SHE came up spluttering, having got her mouth full of water. Xena swam over and pounded her friend on the back until she could catch her breath.
"You know, Gabrielle, you should have closed your mouth, you can't EAT water," she laughed.
The Amazons had followed their lead and were romping in the water just below them. Ephiny heard Xena's quip and yelled, "Pony must be hungry, too!" The two friends could see Solari pounding Pony's back, and they joined the laughter.
The water here was only up to Xena's waist and the bard could see cuts and scrapes and nasty bruises covering almost every inch of exposed skin. She's probably bruised all over under those leathers, too, Gabrielle guessed, and not a word of complaint.
"Xena, look at your skin," the golden-haired woman pointed out, concern in her voice.
"What?" the warrior demanded, glancing down at her arms.
"You have cuts and bruises all over," the bard admonished. "Shouldn't you do something, at least for the cuts?"
"Well, when a ceiling falls on you, it's hard not to get cut and bruised," the warrior defended herself.
"A CEILING fell on you?" Gabrielle asked in surprise. "When?"
"I forgot, you were still down in Dahak's lair playing games." Gabrielle made a face at her. "I had Hope around the neck with the hind's blood dagger at her throat and Dahak was bouncing me all over the place. Finally, he dropped some pieces of ceiling on me and the Amazons dug me out. That was right before he released you," Xena explained. "I'll be all right," she shrugged off the injuries.
"Shouldn't you put some salve or balm of some kind on them?" the bard persisted.
"The most important thing to do is clean the cuts out and I'm doing that right now. They'll heal with no problem. As for balm," Xena closed the distance between them and embraced her bard with her bronzed arms. "This is all the balm I need."
Gabrielle gently hugged her back. The warrior disengaged herself and swam over to Argo. "C'mon over here, Gabrielle, I have some soap for our hair." Xena reached into one of the saddlebags and held up a piece of colored soap. The bard swam over and joined her.
"Isn't this soap from Phintias' parents' house?" Gabrielle asked, pleasantly surprised.
"Yep," Xena smiled. "I've been saving it for a special occasion. And look what else I have." She pulled out two small jars of crystals, and wiggled them in front of the bard's face.
"Xena! I don't believe it. After all that complaining about how tired you were of smelling a flower garden in my hair, you sneaked some of those crystals. What a nice surprise!"
"I did NOT sneak them," the Warrior Princess was the epitome of innocence. "I asked the girl who was attending us at the pool to slip some in Argo's saddlebag and she did. I only had to make sure it was in mine and not yours. And look," she smirked, "I've got the flower garden scent and the wild berries, too."
The two friends unbraided and washed their hair. Then Xena spread a few flower garden crystals in Gabrielle's hair and the bard put the wild berries crystals on the warrior's hair.
"Ummmm," you smell delicious," Gabrielle remarked as she finished.
"Yeah, well just remember, my hair only SMELLS edible," the tall woman grinned.
"I'm getting hungry, Xena, seriously. I haven't eaten since yesterday."
The Warrior Princess rooted around in the saddlebag and found a piece of salted beef that she handed to the bard. "Here, chew on this for awhile. We'll be getting on the road soon and I'll hunt us something for supper. Time to get moving, anyway." Xena waved to Ephiny and pointed to the shore. She and Gabrielle splashed water all over Argo, then Xena gathered the golden horse's reins to lead her to shore.
As the two friends were moving out of the water, Gabrielle said, "So you were saving the crystals for a special occasion, huh? What's so special about this one?" she asked with a teasing smile.
"Remember the last time we used them you had a cracked rib and rode with me on Argo with your head sitting right under my nose?" the warrior asked.
"Yeah, I remember, and you gave me a hard time about it," Gabrielle accused.
"Well," Xena smiled sweetly, "this time you have your own horse."
"Only your bruised body is saving you from a poke in the ribs," the bard laughed.
Whatever followers of Dahak were left after the battle were rounded up and carted off by Ares' army, presumably to prison. After that, Ares himself disbanded the army, true, for once, to his word.
Xena sent Elisa with a message for Toris and her mother, telling them of the victory and noting that she and Gabrielle would be visiting in the near future.
Ephiny decided a big party should be planned to celebrate the rescue of Queen Gabrielle, so Xena and the bard were returning with the Amazons to their territory.
They were on the road for two days and arrived in the village late in the evening of the second day. To Gabrielle's surprise, Xena walked into the Queen's hut, took off all her armor, flopped on her bed and went promptly to sleep. That shows me more than anything else, just how difficult this time has been for her, the bard mused. She's had to carry this whole endeavor on her shoulders and everyone just expects that everything will come out all right. No wonder she's worn out.
The next morning Gabrielle awoke to see that Xena's bed was empty, as usual. The warrior seldom strayed far from her habit of rising before the dawn and going into the forest to perform her drills.
Gabrielle washed and dressed and was crossing the village square to the dining hut when she saw Xena, on Argo, coming back from the forest. She started to wave, then noticed that Xena was turned partly around, apparently looking at someone behind her. As Argo moved forward, the trailing rider came into view and Gabrielle saw that it was Elisa, also riding a palomino.
That's strange, the golden-haired woman remarked to herself, Xena usually practices by herself this early in the morning. I wonder why Elisa is with her? An odd little pang that the bard hardly noticed, skipped past her heart.
Gabrielle proceeded to the dining hut, knowing Xena would join her once Argo was attended to. She went inside and sat at the Queen's table. Soon Xena and Elisa came through the door. Elisa went to sit elsewhere and Xena walked over, touched the bard on the shoulder as she passed her, and sat opposite Gabrielle against the wall. "Anything good for breakfast?" she inquired, smiling at her friend.
"A couple bowls of porridge are on their way," Gabrielle answered. "How was practice this morning?"
Xena raised her eyebrows and shrugged. "Fine."
The porridge arrived and they began to eat. "I thought I saw Elisa come in with you, this morning," the golden-haired woman remarked nonchalantly.
"Yeah," Xena nodded. "She came to practice with me. I've promised to work with her to improve her fighting skills."
The women ate in silence for a few minutes and finished their meal. "So," Gabrielle continued casually, as if there had been no break in the conversation, "is this going to be a regular thing?"
Xena, who was not always good at interpersonal relationships, couldn't help but realize that something was bothering her friend.
"What?" she demanded quizzically, frowning.
"Running off in the middle of the night with Elisa, teaching her how to be a warrior," the bard said sarcastically.
The tall woman was caught by surprise. Holy Hades, she's jealous! Xena crossed both arms on the table and leaned forward, looking straight into the bard's shifting eyes. "I think we need to go back to the Queen's hut and have a talk," she suggested. Leaning back, she got up and started toward the door. Gabrielle arose and followed her.
When they entered the hut, Xena pointed to a chair and said, "Sit down."
"Look," Gabrielle said heatedly, "I'm the Queen, here. YOU sit down."
Turning her head and holding a hand over her mouth to hide a grin, the warrior pulled out the opposite chair and sat down. Still covering her mouth, she leaned her elbow on the table and looked up innocently at the bard.
Finally, the young Queen pulled out her chair and sat down. "And you can stop laughing at me, Xena," she said grumpily.
The Warrior Princess couldn't resist; she hooted. "Hoooo, you're jealous," she laughed.
"I AM NOT," Gabrielle insisted. "It's just... well... you never took ME to practice with you in the morning."
A huge grin still split Xena's face. "Gabrielle, when was the last time you were even AWAKE that early in the morning? And just how coordinated are you when you finally DO get up? If you tried to do drills before the sun came up, you'd probably stab yourself. C'mon now, admit it, you know I'm right."
The bard begrudgingly nodded, but didn't say anything. The dark-haired woman saw that what she thought was funny was truly upsetting to her friend. She stopped grinning, reached across the table, and took the smaller woman's hands into her long-fingered ones.
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice was now sympathetic. " I need to tell you something that happened before you were rescued. Something that will put your mind at ease."
The bard, embarrassed to admit that she really was jealous of Xena's friendship with Elisa, still would not look directly into her partner's eyes.
"You remember Mikel, the glowing young man we talked with after Dahak was defeated? Well, I had seen another young man, just like him. He appeared to me in the forest, on my way to the Halls of War. He said his name was Gabreel." The dark-haired woman smiled, remembering the similarity between his name and her friend's.
"He told me that stopping Dahak was part of my destiny and that the One Creator had endowed me with special skills in preparation for that," the warrior continued.
Gabrielle's mist-green eyes, startled, moved up to meet her friend's crystal-blue ones. Her eyes grew rounder as she absorbed this information. "You got your skills from this supreme being, the One Creator?" she echoed. Xena nodded. "I KNEW it," affirmed the bard, getting excited. "No one on earth can run as fast or jump as high or move as quickly as you can. Your eyesight and hearing are unmatched by anyone else and you're the cleverest person I've ever known. And the way you heal so quickly, now that's REALLY supernatural."
The dark-haired woman nodded again, "The skills, the healing, the fight with Dahak, all that was pre-ordained for me by the One Creator."
"Oh, Xena, that is so wonderful!" her friend enthused.
The warrior's face grew serious, "And something else wonderful was pre-ordained for me by the One Creator." Xena's hands closed more firmly on Gabrielle's and she moved her head closer toward the bard's expectant face. "You."
Gabrielle's face glowed with amazement. "I was PRE-ORDAINED for you?" she marveled.
"Gabreel told me your destiny was to strengthen me to stay on the right path, and to help me overcome the powers of darkness. He said you are my compass, my pathfinder. And that I am destined to love and protect you. So," Xena explained with a sweet smile, "you need never fear that anyone will take your place in my heart."
"Oh, Xena," the sentimental bard was smiling, her cheeks suddenly wet with a trickle of tears, "promise me you WILL love and protect me."
The Warrior Princess stood up and pulled her dearest friend up, too. She embraced Gabrielle, leaning her dark head against the golden one, and her silken voice murmured, "I promise. Always."
Author's Note: I know the names of the celestial beings are misspelled in this story, but they are appearing here incognito!
Reader's comments are welcome. Please e-mail them to PruferBlue@aol.com
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