These images were being mulled over by Xena when Gabrielle stopped the horses. A broad, sweeping valley was unfolding before them about a league away. "Xena, we're here."
"Yes, we just passed a sign back up the road. Look, it's almost daylight, what do you say we stop here and rest for a while? You know, until people start stirring about. We will need to ask someone for directions if we are going to find Darinius."
"Very well," said Xena.
Gabrielle led her to a spot that the morning dew had mostly missed and they ate a light breakfast. Soon travelers began appearing on the road and once more the two women mounted their horses.
"Keep your eyes open," said Xena. "We will be hitting an outpost soon."
"You mean, like a sentry?"
"Yes. They have checkpoints on every road leading into the valley. We will probably be stopped and asked what our business is here," said Xena.
Gabrielle looked up the road that was now becoming more heavily populated. "But these people seem to be moving freely enough," she said.
"They are not strangers here," said Xena. "We are. They are very wary of strangers here."
"Oh, you mean because..."
"Yes, Gabrielle, this valley was attacked often in the past. I myself was here twice."
Gabrielle knew of the two epic battles Xena and Darinius had fought here. With her bard's eye she could see the two great warriors clashing on those long ago battlefields. How terrifying it must have been! Xena's fierce aggressiveness and courage pitted against Darinius's cool resolve and tactical skill. Gabrielle still shuddered every time she remembered Xena's graphic narration of the horrendous second battle. And now they were both her friends. The delicate threads of life weaved by the Fates were wondrous indeed.
"Halt! Who are you?" The sentry's challenge whisked Gabrielle away from those bloody battlefields.
"Oh, ahh my name is Gabrielle. My friend and I have come to see Darinius. Can you tell us where he lives?"
"Darinius, huh?" grunted the sentry. "Now how would a grubby little runt like you know Darinius? I've never seen you here before."
"What did you say?" demanded Xena. She slid off Argo and began striding in the direction of the man's voice, her temper already at the boiling point. Blind or not, she was not going to let this bastard be disrespectful to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle immediately sensed what was about to happen and quickly dismounted to intervene. "Uh, I can handle this, okay?"
The gentle tug at her elbow and the urgency in Gabrielle's voice managed to calm Xena down--a little.
But she could not let this pass completely without comment. "You've got a big mouth, friend. Maybe if I fattened those lips up some they wouldn't flap so much."
"Xena, really, it's okay," pleaded Gabrielle.
"XENA!" I didn't think you were just some peasant woman," spat the sentry. "You have your nerve coming back here. I lost two brothers to you and your stinking marauders."
How many times has this been repeated to me? thought Xena. Only the subjects changed: son,brother, father, friend. Will there ever be an end to it?
"I am truly sorry about what happened here," said Xena. "Things were...different then."
"Different? Nothings different. My brothers are as dead as they ever were. And I am not alone. Almost everyone in this valley has lost someone to all those damn warlords and especially to you, Xena."
To Gabrielle it was evident the situation was about to explode. She had to do something to diffuse it.
"Please. We are only here to see Darinius. He is a friend of ours."
"And who are you, her slave? growled the sentry.
"No. No I am not her slave. I am her best friend," said Gabrielle.
"Well, the Xena I remember would not be letting some wench like you hang around unless there was some profit in it." The sentry broke into a sly grin. "Maybe I see what your profit is, after all. I'll bet you're her little-- arrrgggh!"
The hand with the crushing grip now on his neck had moved so swiftly the sentry had not even seen it coming. Xena braced her legs and lifted the man up off the ground by his neck.
"I told you once you have a big mouth," Xena literally spat the words out.
Gabrielle had never seen Xena this angry before and she was both fascinated and a little frightened by her display of raw power. She's going to kill him, she thought.
"No! Xena! Gabrielle turned to the sentry, "Here look. I can prove we know him."
Gabrielle ran to Argo and removed a small pouch from the saddlebag.
"Xena! Please put him down. Xeeena!"
Xena gave the gasping man's neck one last hard squeeze and dropped him. The sentry fell like a stone and began gasping for air. Gabrielle removed the contents of her bag and dropped to her knees beside the man.
"Here, see? Darinius gave this to me."
The sentry took the necklace from her and looked it over.
"See?" continued Gabrielle. "The scales. The symbol of Mymalar. And there. The crest of your army."
"It's..it's his all right," coughed the guard. "I guess you do know him. You could have saved us both a lot of trouble it you had shown me this in the first place."
"I'm sorry, I..."
"Gabrielle, don't apologize to this bag of dung," Xena cut her off.
"Let's be on our way." She leaned over at the waist near the sound of the coughing. "If that's all right with you, sir," smirked Xena.
The sentry only nodded in assent.
After they rode a short way Gabrielle dropped back beside Xena. The memory of Xena's startling reaction to a seemingly minor insult still clung to her. "Xena?"
"Why did you get so mad at that guy?"
"I don't know. I guess it was frustration more than anything. Aaand I didn't like his insolent manner toward you."
"I, I thought you were going to kill him there for a moment," said Gabrielle.
"I'm sorry if I frightened you," said Xena. She paused and cocked her ear. "I hear a horse coming. Let's ask for some directions"
Soon the sweeping vista of the famed general's estate lay before them.
"Oh, Xena, it's beautiful," gushed Gabrielle.
As they rode up the long lane that let to the house Gabrielle described the fields, the vineyards,and the massive orchards to her friend.
"I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to leave this place," said Gabrielle. "It has everything. And to think Darinius was away from here for years!"
"Material wealth does not guarantee peace, Gabrielle. Believe me." This was one thing Xena was certain of. Over her years of raiding and looting she had held in her possession literally millions of dinars worth of booty but it had only been a means to an end to her. She could have taken whatever cut she wanted and no one would have dared oppose her but she never did. At last they reached the end of the lane. There the main house stretched out before them.
"I've never seen anything like it," gasped Gabrielle. She had never seen a house with so many rooms in it. And two floors too!
Planted on each side of the house were many different varieties of flowers and in the front was a large circular lawn with a fountain in the middle.The house itself was covered with a type of stone Gabrielle had never seen before "This place must have cost a fortune," she continued.
As they rode up to the front of the house a man stepped out the door and slowly made his way toward them. Gabrielle wondered what unfortunate fate had crippled the man this way. He was one of those individuals whose age is hard to guess. With the balding head and the specks of white in his beard he obviously was no longer a young man but he somehow still had a youthful appearance about him.
He was short, not much taller than Gabrielle, and he had muscular arms and a barrel chest. His face was tanned and Gabrielle wondered what events those brown eyes of his had witnessed during his life.
"Xena, let me do the talking, okay?" whispered Gabrielle.
"Can I help you, ladies?" asked the man.
"Uh, yes. We are looking for Darinius. We were told he lives here," said Gabrielle.
"That is correct, young lady, he does."
"Can we speak with him, please? He knows us."
"Well, you see, he's not here. He has gone to Thessaly to look at some cattle. At least that's where he said he was going. Personally, I think he is getting itchy feet again," grinned the man.
"Did he say when he might return?" asked Gabrielle.
"No. Hard to say with him. The last time he was gone for over three years. Here he has been back only about four months and already lately he's been getting that look in his eye again. I think this place reminds him of Lycidia too much. A sad story there if there ever was one."
"Lycidia, the girl he was to marry?"
"Yeah. She was killed by a raiding party while he was in Sparta. It took something out of him. I think he blames himself; like he should have been here to protect her or something. Did you know he didn't want to be a soldier? With all he's done, I think he would trade it all for Lycidia and a hovel somewhere."
Gabrielle turned her head toward the great orchards lining the back lane.
"How did he amass all this?"
"The people of the valley gave it to him in appreciation. You would not believe the money this place makes each year. Our valley has some of the best farm land in Greece and this is the best of the best. To tell you the truth, he is embarrassed by all this. That's why he hired all us old veterans to work the place for him. He feels part of it is ours, too. Most of us are impaired in some way but we work hard and he pays us a lot more than he should. I don't mind saying, young lady, everybody around here considers this place well earned by him. All they have to do is think about what might have been. That devil Xena or one of those other bastards would have destroyed the whole valley were it not for Darinius." The old soldier grinned and shook his head, "You must forgive me, miss. Once I get to jabberin' I just go on and on."
"I have heard of the great battles fought here," said Xena. "Especially the ones against Xena. They say they were terrible."
"Well, you heard right. Particularly the second one. That's where I got this." The old soldier pivoted to reveal the huge scar traversing the calf of his leg. "Got most of the leg tendons severed in that one. That Xena was mighty tough. They said she had never lost a battle but we got her--twice. I'll say this, though, they were both awful close. If it hadn't been for Darinius..." The mere thought of it made the old veteran unable to finish the sentence.
The man gathered himself and continued, "Like I said, I talk too much. So, uh, you know him, huh? From where?"
"I've known him for some time," said Xena. "Just a few months ago we were able to be of some help to him."
"Well he's the type who never forgets a friend, that's for sure. Like I said before, though, I don't know when he will return."
"We will be on our way, then," said Xena.
Xena cut her off. "No. We must be going."
As they began to turn the horses back up the lane the old veteran put his hand on Xena's horse. "You didn't tell me your names. If Darinius gets back any time soon I'll tell him you stopped by.
"Our names aren't important," said Xena. "Just tell him a couple of his old ship mates were here."
"Ship mates?" chuckled the old soldier. "He does get around."
Xena stared in the direction of the voice. "By the way, I am sorry about your leg."
"Ahh don't feel bad," replied the man. "A fellow gets used to it after a while. Besides it wasn't your fault, now was it?"
Gabrielle waited until they were some distance up the lane before bringing her horse up along side Xena.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Did you hear him, Gabrielle? It wasn't my fault,"
"Xena you mustn't blame yourself."
"You know," said Xena, "I am beginning to think someone is punishing me for my past. And I think I deserve it."
"You're wrong, Xena. You don't deserve this. Look, we will beat this if we have to climb Mount Olympus to do it."
"Gabrielle, there comes a time when one has to face facts. For me that time is now. I'm blind. It looks like I am going to stay that way. I have to determine what I am going to do with the rest of my life."
"What you are going to do? You mean we don't you?" Gabrielle did not at all like the direction this was going.
"No, Gabrielle, I mean me. I am not going to allow you to spend the rest of your life chained to a cripple."
Ares listened to this conversation with sweet anticipation from his hiding place in the orchard. This is it, he thought. This is where Xena dumps the little brat. It's going to work. Oh, she will pine for her little friend for a while but soon enough Xena will turn frustrated and bitter. Later that bitterness will turn to anger and it will then be just a matter of me using the right approach and the old Xena will rise once again.
"What do you mean 'chained'?" demanded Gabrielle. "Xena I could never feel that way toward you. I want to be with you."
"You feel that way now, Gabrielle, but in time you will begin to feel like you are trapped. It's only natural. I want us to remember our friendship as it was and not have it eaten away bit by bit."
"Oh, that was very good, Xena," said Ares to himself. "Keep up the pressure on the brat."
"My feelings for you will never change, Xena. Tell me, if I was the disabled one would you abandon me?"
"Yes, I would," lied Xena. "The road is no place for a handicapped person."
"I don't believe you," said Gabrielle. Two people who have had the experiences together that we have don't just kiss off each other when the going gets tough for one of them."
"Gabrielle, you are only making this harder. Now listen, I want you to take me to the oracle at Delphi and leave me there. I might be able to find out what is in store for me."
"I'll take you there, if you want, but I am not going to leave you."
Xena decided it was time to play her last card. "Gabrielle, are you really that stupid?" shouted Xena. "Can't you get it through your head I don't want you around any more? I am sick of your nagging! I don't need you!"
Excellent!, thought Ares.
To Xena it felt like her heart was going to crack wide open. Oh, Gabrielle, forgive me, she thought. Xena waited for the expected protest but there was only silence. She strained her senses to their limits to pick up any indication of a reaction. At last she heard very soft intermittent sniffling. She's crying and she doesn't want me to know.
DAMN YOU! Xena cursed herself. All I have ever done is cause pain. Even to those I love. And taking into account all the deeds of her evil past, Xena never hated herself as much as she did now. I am only doing what's best for her, she tried to convince herself.
"Well, aren't you going to say anything? demanded Xena. Be strong, she urged herself.
Gabrielle's voice revealed only the slightest hint of a crack as she softly spoke, "I know what you are trying to do. It's not going to work. And we are not going to Delphi, either. We are going to the Amazon nation and we are going to stay there for as long as necessary."
Xena angrily dismounted Argo, walked over to Gabrielle and roughly pulled her off her horse.
"Gabrielle, don't disobey me," she warned in her best warlord tones. "You're lucky. There was a time when I killed those who were disobedient."
"THEN KILL ME!"
Instantly Xena sensed Gabrielle's hand rushing toward her. The handle of a knife was being thrust into the palm of her hand. Using all her strength Gabrielle placed one hand over the fist Xena held the knife in and placed her other hand around Xena's wrist and pulled the knife point up to her own throat.
"Kill me, Xena!" she repeated. "I'd rather be dead than see you this way. DO IT! You'll be doing me a favor. I mean it."
Xena realized her plan had failed. She stood there for what seemed like an eternity just blinking and trying to form the words. Finally she managed to speak, "Gabrielle, I'm..I'm so sorry. I didn't mean any of it, you know that. I was only thinking of you."
No longer able to hold back the tears Xena wrenched her hand free from Gabrielle and threw down the knife. She pulled Gabrielle close to her and hugged her so tightly she could hear the air being forced from the girl's lungs.
"I know you were," whispered Gabrielle as she lay her head on Xena's chest. "But we will get through this together. Xena, I don't care what happens to you I will always love you."
Gabrielle's warm tears were falling on Xena's breast and tracking down inside her dress. Xena placed two fingers on Gabrielle's face and, upon finding her lips, gently kissed them.
"Gabrielle, every night I thank the gods for sending you to me. You're my life, you know that? Before I would hurt you I would cut off my own hand."
"No. NO! It's not supposed to be this way!"Ares could not figure out what had gone wrong. "Xena get rid of the little pest. She's weak. She's keeping you from your destiny. Xeeena!"
"I love you. I always have. "You know," Xena broke into sheepish grin,
"I, I have been more afraid of you than any king or warlord."
"Afraid? Of meee? C'mon Xena."
"I mean it. I've wanted to tell you how I feel for a long time but I was scared. Do you believe it? Me, the "Warrior Princess". I was terrified of losing you if I told you how I truly felt."
"Remember that night on Kathos, you know, when we were waiting for Iolaus and Darinius to return? I almost told you then. If Autolycus had not been there I would have, I guess. After that things sort of got in the way and well..."
Gabrielle looked up and touched the warrior on the cheek. "Xena, I have known all the time. I feel your love like a warm blanket wrapped around me. You make me feel so safe. And like for the first time in my life I matter."
"Gabrielle, there's never been anybody like you." Xena kissed the girl on the top of the head and finally released her powerful embrace. "Okay, we will do it your way, but only after one more suggestion from me."
"That on the way we stop in Templaris. There is a place there where we can sell my stuff. It looks like I am not going to need it anymore and we are going to need the money. It's a long way to the Amazon territory."
"Xena, you don't..."
"Gabrieeellle," smiled Xena.
"Okay, okay, no more arguments."
Ares was beside himself. What kind of power does that little wench have on Xena? he wondered. How can that nobody turn such a great warrior into so much mush? Well--I won't give up. I can't. I have got to have her.
"Did you get what we decided on?" asked Xena.
"Yes." But Gabrielle had not. The fat merchant had only offered half of what Xena had told Gabrielle to settle for and when she had tried to leave with Xena's things he set a couple of his goons on her to scare her.
Caught in closed quarters and without her staff, Gabrielle was no match for them. They took the beautiful sword Darinius had given Xena, Xena's clothes, Gabrielle's chain, everything. All for half the price Xena wanted. The merchant told her she was lucky he didn't just take it all instead of paying her his pitiful price.
Gabrielle was ashamed for lying to Xena but she not dare tell her what really happened. She knew if she did Xena would try to do something about it. It's not worth risking her being hurt, thought Gabrielle. I'll make it up to her. I just won't eat so much.
The only thing of value she had left was Xena's wedding bracelet. Gabrielle had substituted her chain for it. They had even taken Gabrielle's horse and she had told Xena she had to throw it in to seal the deal.
"You should not have sold the horse, Gabrielle. It will take us longer now to reach our destination.
"I told you, Xena, he would not take anything unless the horse went also. Besides it's extra money for us."
"Uh huuuh. You forget one little thing. Remember Darvax?"
Gabrielle had indeed forgotten Darvax. He had not been heard from since that day almost three weeks ago.
"Maybe he's given up trying to find us," said Gabrielle. "Maybe he went home."
Xena was right, of course. She always was. Gabrielle's lack of a horse was slowing them down. They were still traveling in spite of the fact there had been no sign of Darvax or anyone else following them. Xena, however, was taking no chances.
Ten days later found them nearing the Amazon territory. To Xena it seemed Gabrielle was becoming more and more reserved. In fact, the last few days she had hardly spoken at all. Xena knew there was something wrong but she couldn't put her finger on it.
Xena could not know that in the last weeks Gabrielle had barely eaten enough to keep her alive. She was giving most of her share to Xena. Normally finding food was not that difficult but the drought had really wrecked havoc on the land. Game was scarce, crops were poor, the orchards had not produced much, and the rivers and streams were well below their normal levels.
Gabrielle was glad they were only a couple of days away from their goal now. She could feel herself weakening noticeably but she felt she could hold out that long. It will be good to see Ephiny again, she thought.
Later that afternoon Xena was awakened by Argo's whinnying. "Gabrielle?
Gabrielle? Something was wrong, Xena could feel it. "Gabrielle, where are you? Are you all right?" Then she heard it.
Someone's here, she thought.
A myriad of colors exploded in Xena's brain as the club found its mark on her head.
"We got her, Darvax."
"Good. Now make sure she is properly secured. I don't want any surprises," said Darvax. He walked over to where two of his men were holding Gabrielle. "Well, you're not so tough now are you, little girl?"
Darvax backhanded her across the mouth twice and, seizing her by the hair, pulled her face close to his. "Now, harlot, I'm going to show you what happens to those who give me so much trouble. First, though, you will provide me with some fun before you die. And big, bad Xena won't be able to help you this time."
Gabrielle just managed to pucker her cheeks up to spit on him but a big fist caught her on the chin and her senses, too, were engulfed in blackness.
Gabrielle did not know how long she had been unconscious. She was still too groggy to really think straight and all was aware of for certain was the awful ringing in her ears. It wasn't bad as the last time but is was bad enough. And this time Xena was not there to relieve her pain. XENA! The fog began to clear from Gabrielle's brain.
As her eyes began to focus she could make out several dark forms moving around her. She was suspended in the air with her arms tied over her head at the wrists by a rope slung over a tree limb. and her arms were almost numb.
"Well well, so you are not dead after all, huh? That's good. I would have been sorry to lose the chance to kill you myself," sneered Darvax.
"Let her go, Darvax," said Xena, "I'm the one you want."
Gabrielle was shocked by the pleading tone in Xena's voice. "Xena, are you all right?"
"Quiet!" roared Darvax. Again he backhanded Gabrielle across the face, this time splitting open her lip. All the activity in the camp now ceased and the only thing to be heard was the soft moan from Gabrielle.
Xena broke the silence. "Darvax, when you and I meet in Tartarus I am going to rip your guts out a hundred times a day till the end of time." The rage within her almost caused her to choke on the words.
"Maybe so, Xena. But one thing is for sure. You will have to wait for me because it looks like you will be there first. And your little friend her will cross over before either of us. You see, I know what she means to you and I want to see your face as she slowly dies before you. I know you are blind,Xena. Yes, I know. These clods would never have taken you otherwise. But you are not deaf. And the girl's screams will serve me just as well."
Darvax cast his eye to the sun sinking behind the hills. "I really should kill the both of you tonight but I want you to have all night to ponder the fun we're going to have here tomorrow. He ran a finger across Gabrielle's cheek. "She is a pretty thing. And some of these men have not had a woman for sometime. Sooo..."
"Darvax, you son of a bitch," hissed Xena.
"Pleasant dreams, Warrior Princess," grinned Darvax.
Soon the camp was quiet. Xena's hearing had grown so acute she could pick up almost imperceptible sounds. She listened for any indication of movement in the camp but there seemed to be none. No sound at all could be heard from Gabrielle's direction, either. This and the cooling breeze on her face told her that it was now night. Xena racked her brain for some way to get Gabrielle out of there. I've got to get loose, she thought.
Darvax's men were so afraid of Xena they had not dared to use the same method to bind her up that they had used on Gabrielle. They not only wrapped her arms around a tree and tied her wrists together but then they coiled an entire rope around her torso and tied it off. Xena began to shake her body to try to ascertain how tight the ropes were. For hours she struggled against the ropes. By continuously applying and releasing pressure to the ropes she hoped to eventually stretch them just enough to free herself. Meanwhile, her efforts were not unobserved.
To say Ares was not happy with the current state of affairs was an understatement. He did not take pleasure in seeing Xena this way. What had gone wrong? These mortals had the maddening habit of not doing what was expected of them. He had not counted on that idiot Darvax becoming mixed up in his scheme. And Xena. Why had he not been able to bust up her relationship with the girl?
"What is it that binds them together so tightly?"
"It's called love, Ares."
Ares was so engrossed in his own thoughts he had not sensed her presence. "Artemis, what are you doing here?"
"I've come to admire the mighty God of War's handiwork. Tell me, Ares, is this what you wanted? The great Xena and her young friend doomed to die a death not fit for swine?"
"I did not count on that fool Darvax interfering," said Ares. "But Xena had her chance. She should have gotten rid of the girl like I wanted." Ares turned to the goddess and clinched his fists. "Why does she cling to that nothing so fiercely?"
"I told you, Ares. Love." Artemis swept her arm toward Xena. "Look at her. See how she struggles against her bindings. She will fight to her last breath for Gabrielle."
"All right. All right. Xena loves her. But why? She is so unworthy of Xena."
"Not to Xena she isn't," replied Artemis. "And not to anyone who knows her."
"That brat is just a snotty nosed kid who forced herself on Xena," scowled Ares.
"Ares, I never realized how dense you really are. Don't you see they are of one soul now? Tell me, are you proud of what you have done? Is this what the great God of War has been reduced to? Petty vendettas against individual mortals?" Does he not have more important ways to pass time?"
Xena was one of my greatest disciples. I only wanted her to return to me."
"She will never return to you. She has found another path. Now is she going to have to die before her true time because of your meddling?
"What do you care?" asked Ares. "What is your interest in all this?"
"You are not the only one interested in Xena," said Artemis. "Besides, Gabrielle is an Amazon princess and as you know the Amazons are special to me."
"I won't save her," protested Ares weakly.
"You don't have to 'save' her. Just give Xena back her sight. She can take care of the rest. Well...Ares?"
Eos had done her work particularly well that morning. The sun was beginning its slow ascent in the cloudless sky and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful autumn day.
"Well, Xena, it's going to be a beautiful day to die," said Darvax.
"Go right ahead, Darvax. Don't let me stop you."
"Ahh, I didn't know the Warrior Princess had such a sense of humor. Let's see how funny you are after we tear your little friend apart."
"Darvax, let her go. She's has done nothing do deserve this."
"Oh, how touching," smirked Darvax. "The mighty Xena pleading for a stupid peasant girl. Well, it's time." Darvax pointed to Gabrielle. "Cut her down."
The soldier nearest Gabrielle quickly cut her ropes. No longer supported and too weak to stand on her own she dropped in a motionless lump on the ground.
"Looks like this one is about dead already," remarked the soldier.
"I don't care," said Darvax. With his foot he pushed Gabrielle on her back and spread her legs. "Just as long as she doesn't die before I have her."
One of the soldiers drew nearer to see what was happening and stopped beside Xena's tree. She knew it was now or never. The soldier never new what hit him. Xena's right hand lashed out, caught the man around the neck, and smashed his skull against the tree. As he sagged to the ground Xena managed to grab his sword by the hilt, allowing his downward momentum to pull the sword free.
Three swift chops and she was free. In their lustful excitement the others now surrounding Darvax and Gabrielle were not aware their own personal Nemesis was loose. They were shaken from their erotic reverie by the most terrifying sound most of them had ever heard. These were men who, for the most part, had seen plenty of fighting and heard all sorts of yells and war cries. But the resounding cry originating from behind them was one like none other. It was primitive, primordial, even beastlike; rage in its purest form.
"It's XENA. She's free!"
"Don't worry, you jellyfish," said Darvax. "She's blind, remember? She can't do us much harm."
"I've got a surprise for you, Darvax. You son of a bitch!" said Xena, gritting her teeth. To prove her point she snatched up the dagger from the fallen soldier's belt and, hurling it from a good twenty-five paces away, neatly cut the rope tethering Argo.
"She's not blind!" shouted one of the men.
"You got that right, genius," sneered Xena. "I hope you dung heaps have made your peace because this is your last day on earth." Xena's face was now livid with blood lust. Already she had determined not one of these bastards would be allowed to live.
"Get her, she's only one woman!" screamed Darvax.
Xena gave a short two note whistle and Argo came charging through the crowd toward her and trampled three or four men in the process
"Kill them!" pleaded Darvax.
His men moved forward but it was plain most of them did not have their heart in it. As Argo drew along side Xena she reached into the saddlebag and retrieved her chakram. At once the beautiful but deadly weapon was launched to do its grim work. No fewer than five men were killed in its first pass.
By now three men had reached Xena and they managed to hold her up for all of ten seconds before, they too, were dead. Now Xena began her irresistible march to Gabrielle's side. She somersaulted up on Argo's back and charged those men still standing beside her friend. Her work was soon over. Some were crushed under Argo's hooves, or had their heads caved in by her powerful kicks. More were killed by Xena's second throw of the chakram and still more perished by her relentless sword.
By the time she reached Gabrielle there were only four men standing. In terror they fled the woods and ran out into the open field toward the road. Xena vaulted off Argo and calmly picked up a bow and a quiver of arrows one of her victims had no more use for. She took her time and aimed carefully knowing they could not outrun the range. One by one the terrified soldiers' backs were bisected by an arrow sent screaming at them by Xena's bow.
"What a pity," sighed Ares. "She is one of a kind."
"Ares, you did the right thing," said Artemis softly.
"Well don't think I am going to make a habit of it," he reminded her.
Only an occasional groan from one of the fallen men served to break the silence in the still morning air. For Xena, however, it was not over yet. Slowly, methodically, she checked out each of them. Each one who was, indeed, still alive received a sword thrust thought the heart.
To Xena it was not the idea she might have been slain by these vermin that enraged her so. It was the knowledge of what they would have done to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle." she whispered. That sweet word snapped Xena out of her visions of hate and death. "Gabrielle!" Xena rushed to the young woman's side and for the first time saw the condition she was really in. Gabrielle was never very big and now, to Xena's horror, she discovered the girl was practically nothing but bones. The full meaning of it was like a burning sword through Xena's heart. Gabrielle had literally been starving herself for her love.That's why she had been so quiet. That's why she had been so vague about the food! The poor girl was trying to conserve her strength.
"Oh, Gabrielle!" Xena gathered Gabrielle up in her arms and sat there all morning, rocking her and washing her face with tears that would not stop. Late that evening Gabrielle awoke and Xena managed to get a little food in her. She was careful not to try to make her eat too much. That night, as Gabrielle slept, Xena sat staring into the fire wondering what she had ever done to deserve someone like her. The little bard's courage, loyalty, and love seemed to have no bounds.
"Xena!!" Gabrielle awoke and bolted upright, staring into the darkness.
Xena was beside her in an instant. Her strong arm cradled Gabrielle's head on her shoulders. "It's all right, Gabrielle."
"I...I dreamed you were--dead. I..."
"I'm right here," whispered Xena. "I'm here. I'll always be here." Xena kissed her on the top of the head.
Soon Gabrielle laid her head in Xena's lap and went back to sleep. Only at the first rays of dawn did Xena gently lay the saddle bag under Gabrielle's head and rise to make preparations for the coming day.
"Ummm this is good. What is it again?" Gabrielle was sitting by the smoldering fire with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and having a marvelous time with dried beef and bread Xena had liberated from the soldiers.
"It's called food," said Xena wryly. "Food. You remember. That stuff I'm always reminding you to put in your mouth."
"Oh, yeah, it's all coming back to me now." And there it was. For the first time in what seemed like an eon Xena saw Gabrielle smile. It had been worth the wait, she decided. "Hey, go slow with that or you will get sick," reminded Xena.
"What do you suppose you made your sight come back like that?"
"I don't know. It just returned to me as I stood there tied to that tree."
"How did you get free?" asked Gabrielle.
"I worked all night exerting pressure on the ropes. By morning I was able to get a hand free."
Gabrielle looked at Xena's wrists and saw the ugly raw spots on them created by her battle with the rope. "Oh, Xena, you're hurt." It was pure instinct on her part to rise to help Xena but her still rubbery legs would not obey her and she plopped back to the ground.
"I'm all right," assured Xena. "Now don't try that again, okay?"
"Aren't you going to ask me what happened here?"
Gabrielle, of course, had counted the twenty-six bodies strewn all around her but she didn't know if she wanted to know what occurred here or not. She lowered her head and poked at the ashes of the fire with a stick. "I figured you would tell me if you wanted me to know."
But Xena did not reply. Something began nagging at Gabrielle and she decided that she had to know after all. "Xena?"
"Do you remember your promise?" Gabrielle was referring to Xena's long ago promise not to return to her old ways should something happen to Gabrielle.
"Yes, I remember," replied Xena softly.
"Is--is that what happened here? Did you think I was dead and..." The rest of it hurt too much for Gabrielle to finish.
Xena knew she had to explain this to her once and for all. "No, I knew you weren't dead. But I want you to understand something. I am not going to allow anyone to harm you. Now whether that means pinching some drunk's nose or killing twenty-six men it makes no difference to me. I'll do as much as I have to do to keep you safe. These bastards hurt you. They were going to kill you. I could not allow that to happen. Not as long as I have a breath in me."
Xena decided to omit the part about Darvax's lust. Darvax!
Xena quickly scanned the dead men and realized he was not among them. No matter. She would attend to him in her own good time.
Gabrielle wrapped a small hand around Xena's big bicep and gently squeezed. "I'm sorry, I should know by now you always do what you think is right."
Xena placed the palm of her hand on Gabrielle's cheek and looked her straight in the eye. "Gabrielle, don't ever be sorry for saying what you think." She then flashed that little half smile Gabrielle knew so well and added, "It keeps me on my toes. Now get some rest and, if you feel up to it, we'll get out of here this evening."
A couple of hours before sunset Xena hoisted Gabrielle up on Argo's back and they departed that scene of so much death. As they made for the road Gabrielle saw the four men lying in the field each with an arrow protruding from his back. Obviously this was Xena's work but to Gabrielle's surprise it did not bother her. Xena had decided it was necessary and that was good enough for her.
With the slow pace Xena set they did not travel very far before dark but her main goal was to remove Gabrielle from the site of all that death. That night Gabrielle slept much more peacefully and even Xena managed to get some much needed rest in the quiet hours before dawn.
The next morning found the two of them moving along at a leisurely pace. Toward noon Xena's senses began to warn her of someone approaching. Before long she saw two men coming toward them on horseback with another horse trailing behind.
"Do you think it's trouble?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't know." Xena pulled out the sword she had brought with her, walked out in front of Argo, and waited. Soon the forms of the horses began to take shape.
"Is that...no. It can't be." Xena felt her eyes must be playing tricks on her again. Gabrielle, however, quickly confirmed her observations.
"Xena! It's Hercules!"
And so it was. Xena naturally assumed the other rider was Iolaus but she soon saw it was Darinius. Hercules and Darinius likewise had to blink for a moment to make certain the two women on the road were really who they appeared to be.
"Xena!" shouted Hercules.
Xena answered by raising her fist high in the air. Gabrielle began waving like a madman and almost lost her balance on the horse. Soon the four friends were embracing in the middle of the dusty road. After seeing his friends were really all right Darinius finally allowed himself to be upset with them.
"Where in Tartarus have you guys been? Do you realize I have spent the last five weeks looking for you?"
Hercules cocked his head toward him and smiled, "I have had to listen to that ever since we joined up."
"Well it's true," shouted Darinius.
Xena saw this was not another one of his jokes. He was mad at them."You guys left two days before I got back," said Darinius. "I knew you were in trouble when Mageron described you. Why didn't you stay there and wait for me?
"We kind of got the feeling we were not welcome," said Gabrielle.
"Well, I straightened that out," said Darinius. "I made it known that Xena was no longer an enemy and, whatever their feelings toward her, she would always be welcome in my home."
"Xena," said Hercules, "Hippocrates said you were blind. What happened?"
"Hercules, I still don't know. One night my sight was gone and, just like that, it returned. Why? How? I don't know."
"Are you feeling okay now?" asked Hercules.
"Yeah, I'm fine," said Xena. "Gabrielle is the one who needs help."
Darinius had been eyeing Gabrielle keenly and he did not like what he saw. He cupped his hand and passed it up and down the length of her arm. "Gabrielle, you are nothing but bones.What happened?"
"It's a long story," she answered. "I'll tell it to you when I'm up to it."
But Darinius was still not satisfied. He noticed her bruised face and split lips and his eyes narrowed. He pointed to her face. "How did you get that?" he asked quietly. "Somebody do that do you?"
"Darvax," said Xena.
"Darvax, huh?" Darinius' demeanor at once altered from extreme agitation to something almost serene. He turned to Hercules and grinned like a cat who had just swallowed a bird.
"Well, well, isn't that a coincidence?" asked Hercules. He too, seemed to be amused by Xena's mention of Darvax.
"What is it with you two anyway?" she demanded.
Without a word Hercules walked back to the horse they had been leading and removed the blanket covering the lump on the horse's back.
"Yep." Darinius still had that odd grin on his face. "We caught him trying to steal one of our horses last night."
"It seems he had just about ridden his into the ground," added Hercules.
Darinius bent over at the waist and looked up at the prisoner. "So, you hurt Gabrielle, eh? A real big man."
"No wonder he was in such a hurry," said Hercules. "I'm surprised he is still alive."
"She killed my men!", screamed Darvax. His mind would never be the same after witnessing first hand the full, horrific fury of the Warrior Princess.
Darinius, however, was not sympathetic. "So you ran on them, huh?
"Twenty-six men....dead!" It was the last rational thing Darvax would ever say.
Darinius pulled the corners of his mouth down and cocked his head. Xena had never seen him this way. He was livid at the idea Gabrielle had been beaten by this man. Well, she thought, he's not the only one.
"We were going to turn this slug into the authorities in the next town," said Darinius, "but maybe that's all changed. Gabrielle, just say the word and this rat will never see another sunset."
"Darinius," warned Hercules.
Gabrielle ran the back of her hand across her forehead and sighed, "No, just turn him in. That's all I ask. There's been enough death."
Xena felt the same way Darinius did but she knew Gabrielle was right. "Okay, if that's what you want," said Darinius brightly. And just like that his demeanor changed. "Say, Gabrielle, I'll bet you are hungry. You should see the stuff we have. We even have some of your favorite, you know, nut bread. Or maybe you'd like an apple, or a pear. How about some dried beef. I know, how about some pig's feet!"
"I'll take all of them," giggled Gabrielle. "Except for the pig's feet. Ugh!"
"Well, that's good because we don't have pig's feet anyway," grinned Darinius.
He took her by the hand and led her back to the bulging saddlebags on his horse as Xena and Hercules stood watching them. Darinius was on a roll now and Gabrielle's laughter was absolute music to her Xena's ears. He always could make her laugh, she thought.
"I guess it was pretty bad," said Hercules, finally. "I mean, you being blind and all."
"Yeah. I hated feeling helpless like that." Xena turned to see Darinius piling food up in Gabrielle's arms. "You know, ah...Gabrielle, she ah..." Xena was struggling mightily to hold back her tears. She did not want Hercules to see her this way.
"I know." Hercules saw how uncomfortable she was."Wondrous, isn't it, the things friends will do for one another?"
Nothing more was said between the two great warriors. They merely stood staring into each others eyes.
"Here, Gabrielle, you take this stuff and let's go sit under that tree over there and eat ourselves silly," said Darinius. "You go on ahead and I'll get a blanket for us to sit on."
As Gabrielle made her way to the tree Darinius quickly walked around to where he could see Darvax's face. He made sure Xena and Hercules were not looking and he bent over. "Darvax, you are a dead man," he whispered. "It won't be today but in my mind you are already dead. I'll kill you for what you did to her. I don't care what Hercules said."
As he turned away he could not resist delivering one solid fist to the back of the prisoner's head. "Just consider that a down payment, friend." He looked up, saw Gabrielle had made it to the tree, and yelled, "Hey, Gabrielle, do you like figs?"
That evening the four friends made camp under some birch trees lining the road. Hercules tied Darvax to one of the trees in the same manner that had been used on Xena. Most of the afternoon had been spent resting and catching up on what each of them had been doing since their last adventure together.
By late evening it was plain to see that Gabrielle was the one reaping the most benefits from their crisp autumn day together. The combination of good friends and the fresh, clean food had worked wonders on her. By nightfall she was even relating to the others the new story she was working on that told of their trip to Kathos.
"They they were, the little band blindly groping their way through that dark, stinking temple; desperately searching for the mighty Hercules. When, suddenly, they were attacked by twenty blood thirsty minotaurs."
"Oh," interrupted Darinius, "so it's twenty now, is it? Gabrielle, aren't you laying it on a little thick?"
"No," replied Gabrielle sweetly. "Twenty is a nice round number. It will be easier for people to remember. Don't you know anything about story telling?"
"My apologies, oh great bard. It is true I am ignorant in such matters," laughed Darinius.
"Apology accepted, ignorant one," said Gabrielle with mock smugness.
"If you don't let her finish," sighed Xena, "we will be up all night."
"Go on," urged Hercules.
She skillfully brought the tale to its dramatic climax and finished the story with a powerful account of their good byes in Cataria. "And so, all the warriors from the mighty Xena to the lowly Joxer, having successfully completed their heroic mission, once again returned to the fabric of their daily lives and waited for the next call to help their fellow man." Gabrielle paused to let her final words sink in before asking, "So, what do you think?"
"It's marvelous," allowed Hercules.
"I especially liked the part about old Autolycus getting zapped by the cage," said Darinius. "I wish I had seen that."
"Stupid cage," mumbled Xena.
"What was that?" asked Hercules.
"That stupid cage destroyed my sword," said Xena.
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that," said Gabrielle, snapping her finger. "I'll have to put that part in my next version."
"Oh, so you didn't like it's replacement?" teased Darinius.
"I didn't say that," said Xena. "It just takes time to get used to the balance and feel of a new one."
Hercules could see Xena's mind was on other things; things that were best forgotten. He decided to try to put a little fire back into those enchanting blue eyes of hers.
"Uh, Xena, I was wondering."
Hercules pointed at her peasant's dress and grinned, "Is this a new look for you, I mean is the rustic look in this year?"
Darinius never missed a beat and chirped in, "I like the bare feet, Hercules. Kind of does something to a man, don't you think?"
"You guys are just a barrel of laughs, aren't you?" retorted Xena in that dry tone she used so well. "Well that's just like men; heroes one minute, fools the next."
At this little exchange Gabrielle put her hand over her mouth. Hercules was the first to notice her discomfort.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?" he asked.
"It's not Xena's fault. I--I had to...to sell her things. We were hungry and...I--"
Gabrielle's green eyes began to well up and the tears began streaming down her face. Hercules put his massive arm around her shoulder and gently squeezed.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. It was a bad joke."
"It's all right," said Xena. "Those were just possessions. They aren't important. What is important is that you are here. We are here."
"But Xena I betrayed you," said Gabrielle.
"What kind of a crack is that?" demanded Xena.
"I let that guy cheat me. You were depending on me and I let you down. I'm so sorry."
Xena knelt down in front of the bard and lifted up her chin with her finger. "Don't you ever say that again. Do you hear? When I needed you you were there--in spite of my being a blockhead. I will always be grateful. And Gabrielle?"
"Yes?" she sniffed.
"If you ever call yourself a traitor again, I'll really give you something to cry about, got it?"
"Got it," answered Gabrielle, laughing and crying at the same time.
They sat there in silence for some time watching the fire burn, each in his own way thanking the gods things had turned out all right. Finally Gabrielle broke the silence.
'Umm Hercules, where is Iolaus?"
"Ahh," replied Hercules, with a dismissive wave of his hand, "after we finished our business in Macedonia he decided to stick around and check out the fishing. The drought was not nearly so bad up there and the locals said the fish were really biting so that's all he needed to hear.
"How did you find out about...us?" asked Xena.
"Hippocrates." answered Hercules. "He learned I was in the area and he sent word for me to come and see him. He told me all about your misfortune and that you were being hunted so I knew I had to find you." He jerked his thumb toward Darinius. "That's when I ran into this guy."
"And it's a good thing, too," said Darinius. "My negotiations with that fat ass merchant were starting to break down. Oh well, Templaris never was one of my favorite places anyway."
"What are you talking about?" asked Xena.
But Gabrielle knew. "You don't mean--?" she gasped.
"Gabrielle, you are too smart for me," smiled Darinius.
He got up, walked to his horse, and untied a bundle attached to the front of his saddle. He carried the bundle to Xena, held it up in front of her, and softly said, "I believe this is yours, Warrior Princess."
Xena opened the bundle to reveal her boots, armor, dress, gauntlets, and sword.
"I don't know what to say," she said finally.
"Friends don't have to say anything," said Hercules.
"Besides," added Darinius, "that feed sack you're wearing does nothing for you. But the credit should go to Hercules. He was the one that took care of the merchant's two goons. Seems the guy didn't like the price I offered him."
Xena nodded to Hercules and he responded by folding his arms and dropping his head the way he always did when someone praised him.
"So, what are you going to do now?" asked Hercules.
"I'm going to take Gabrielle to Hippocrates and have him check her out. Make sure she's okay."
"After she is well enough, I am going to take her to the Hestian Springs." Xena lifted Gabrielle's chin up with the crook of her finger. "The springs. I promised, remember?"
"I remember," said Gabrielle.
"Now let me see," continued Darinius. "I keep thinking I'm forgetting something." He snapped his finger and reached inside his tunic. "Oh, yeah, now I remember, " he grinned and pulled out the chain bracelet he had given to Gabrielle in Cataria. He placed the chain in the palm of Gabrielle's hand and closed both his hands on top of hers. For a moment he alternated looking between Xena and Gabrielle.
After a moment he stood and smiled sheepishly, "Well, I gotta go. Nature is calling, you know."
Xena watched him disappear into the darkness of the trees and shook her head. " And to think I used to want to kill him." She then fixed her gaze on Hercules."So, what are you going to do now?"
"Go to Thebes and wait for Iolaus. We are to meet there in about a week." Hercules' smile left his face and he went on, "Xena this must have been terrible for you. I mean, for someone like you not to able to--"
"It was bad," Xena cut him off. "After a while I didn't want to go on. But something good did come out of all this."
"What good could have possible come out of it?" asked Hercules.
"I finally learned I have friends I can truly count on if I ever need them," she answered.
"You, Darinius, Hippocrates....Gabrielle."
Suddenly Gabrielle lifted her head off its resting place on Xena's shoulder. "Oh, Xena, remember the day before all this started? You and I were talking about that very subject, remember?"
"Yes, I do," said Xena.
The still night was interrupted by Darinius crashing through the underbrush. "Whoa! I thought some monster had hold of me there for a minute."
Hercules broke into a broad grin, Gabrielle began to giggle, and Xena could only shake her head.
"Go to sleep, Darinius, before you break your neck," she smiled.
The next morning found them preparing to go their separate ways once again. Hercules still did not trust Darinius to be alone with Darvax so he offered to take him up the road to the magistrate in the next town. Darinius had not protested and serenely given his assent.
Hercules shook hands with Gabrielle and Darinius and when Xena offered hers, he neatly sidestepped it and kissed her lips. In the blink of an eye he was mounted on his horse and, with Darvax trailing behind, was gone.
"So what are you going to do now," Xena asked Darinius.
"Me? I'm going home. I've got some company coming"
"Company?" asked Gabrielle. "Anyone we know?"
"Autolycus," he answered.
"Yeah, I've offered him a job. Trying to make an honest man out of him, you know. He won't take it though. He likes the adventurous life too much. As for me.." Darinius put his hand on his stomach and grimaced, "adventure gives me heartburn."
"Yeaaah, riiight," smirked Xena.
"I forgot to ask," said Gabrielle. "How did Joxer do with his sword lessons?"
Darinius shook his head and laughed, "Well, he will never be another Xena but I think he learned enough not to cut his own foot off, either."
Again, Gabrielle laughed. He can do it to her every time, thought Xena.
But the cheerful look departed Darinius' face and was replaced by a very somber one as he touched Gabrielle on the arm. " Promise me the next time I see you there won't be any bones sticking out of you, okay?" Gabrielle, I almost died when I first saw you like this."
"Okay," smiled Gabrielle. "I promise."
"You guys mean the world to me and I want to do something for you," he continued.
"Xena, last night you mentioned something about going to the Hestian Springs?"
"Not far from Hippocrates' temple lie the Eulsian Springs. They make the ones at Hestia look like cess pools."
"But I thought only royalty could go there," protested Gabrielle.
"You just show them your necklace and tell them I sent you. They will take care of the rest. Stay as long as you want. My treat."
"Ohhh, Xena, can we?"
"Sure, why not?" replied Xena. "After we see Hippocrates first."
"Oh, all right," said Gabrielle, impatiently.
"And, uh, one more thing, Xena," said Darinius.
"Weeell, times being what they are, it doesn't hurt for one to have a, ahem, nest egg."
"You're not going to--"
Before Xena could finish Darinius pulled a fair sized leather pouch from his saddle bag and tossed it to her.
"There's about ten thousand dinars in there," he said. See that the bard gets fattened up a little, okay? And from the looks of it you could stand to gain a few pounds yourself."
Darinius mounted his horse and turned it in the direction Hercules had taken.
"Take care of yourself," said Xena.
"Darinus, you're the best," said Gabrielle.
"If you gals are ever in my neck of the woods again come on up and see me sometime.And if I'm not there just throw down your stuff in any room you like and make yourselves at home. Mageron will take care of you."
He touched his hand to his forehead, said a final good bye and he was gone. The two of them watched until he had disappeared around the bend.
"Good bye," whispered Gabrielle.
"So do you want to ride?" asked Xena.
"Not right now, I feel pretty good."
They walked in silence for about a league before Xena turned to her. "Gabrielle, do you remember what I said?"
"Remember that night you were so mad at me you said you wanted to slug me?" asked Xena. "And I said if I recovered you could?"
"Well, here's your chance."
"Oh, Xena, I was just blowing off--"
"No, c'mon. A promise is a promise," said Xena."I deserve it."
"Okay, if you say so."
Xena spread her legs wide and braced herself for the expected blow. "Okay," she nodded. "I'm ready."
Gabrielle spit into both hands and gleefully rubbed them together. She balled up her hand into a fist. "Okay Xena, close your eyes now."
Xena closed her eyes and waited.
With a glow that only love can bring Gabrielle smiled and tiptoed to bring her lips up to Xena's. The girl kissed the Warrior Princess tenderly and found herself enfolded in Xena's strong arms. Xena looked down at the emaciated woman-child with the bruised face and the split lips and decided Gabrielle had never looked more beautiful to her.
Gabrielle again smiled, laid her head on Xena's breast, and whispered loudly, "Gotcha!"
The Bard's Corner