A ROYAL PAIN

By PruferBlue

 

 

PruferBlue@aol.com

ęCopyright 1999

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: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.

Again, I am very grateful to my faithful friend, Karen Surtees, for her unselfishly generous and unflagging support. No matter how much I complain, she keeps smiling and nudging until I do it right!

And, finally, thank you to all of you wonderful readers who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I deeply appreciate your marvelous encouragement.

 

 

 

Prologue

Xena sauntered out onto the porch of the Amazon queen's hut and stood at the top of the steps, slowly stretching her almost healed muscles. The sun, waiting impatiently beneath the horizon, sent forth tiny, gleaming rays, pushing to hasten the departure of the night's velvet darkness.

Ahhhhh, it's great to be getting ready for the trail again. The tall, bronzed Warrior Princess raised herself onto her toes three times and, on the third lift, launched her body high into the air, flipping in a somersault off of the porch and onto the ground. Landing in a crouch, she held it for a heartbeat, before forcing her long leg muscles to stand erect. Something still didn't feel quite right. That simple action had sapped some energy.

"The whole village thanks you for not yelling your usual battlecry when you made that move." A smiling young Amazon stepped out of the trees beside the hut and glided over next to the warrior. She was tall enough to greet Xena eye to eye, and looked enough like her to be her sister.

"Hi, Leese." Xena grinned at the newcomer. "Just working out a few kinks. You ready to do some drills?"

"No, she isn't!" A golden-haired woman appeared in the doorway of the queen's hut with a frown on her face that matched her grouchy tones. Fully dressed and yawning, she was running her fingers through her tousled hair.

The young Amazon's hand reached to hide the grin that threatened to break across her lips. She turned swiftly away, just before Xena, bottom lip pushing against upper lip, rapped her on the shoulder with her open palm. Anyone else would have been jarred off her feet, but Elisa felt the movement of the air, as Xena had taught her, and instantly braced herself for the friendly swat.

"By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle admonished her friend, walking further from the doorway onto the porch, "can't you rest even on the morning we are leaving?"

"Uh, I'm outta here, folks. Catch you later," Elisa called over her shoulder as she quickly jogged away, out of the line of fire.

"Wait a minute, Leese. Stay here and help me when I'm under attack!" Xena called after her in pretended alarm. A raised arm and waving hand were the last glimpse of Elisa's departing back as she reentered the trees.

The warrior grimaced wryly then raised her eyebrow at the feisty bard. "You know, Leese helped to save your life. It's not very nice of you to yell at her."

"And YOU know she's not the one I'm yelling at."

Gabrielle shook her head and tried to swallow an incipient grin at the "do-you-mean-me?" look of feigned innocence on her partner's face. "Xena, you're just getting over some severe injuries to your body. I know you have been exercising and drilling to rebuild your strength, but even an iron woman like you should take a rest once in awhile. And we're just about to get traveling again."

Xena smiled wickedly back at her friend. "You're just mad at me for tossing you off your pallet before the sun came up." I envy your ability to sleep so soundly, my bard.

The queen wrinkled her nose at the warrior. "But I'm all dressed and packed. You're the one who said you wanted to get an early start. Do YOU have everything ready to go?" Gabrielle cocked her head and put her hands on her hips, challenging Xena to say yes. She knew the warrior hadn't saddled Argo nor fastened their traveling gear onto the golden warhorse. That was always left till last.

"Weeeeeellllll, any minute now, I will have." Xena's incredible hearing had picked up a familiar sound.

"Sure," the bard laughed out loud, figuring she had Xena trapped into admitting she wasn't ready. "Like you can get Argo saddled from here. I'll bet you my next pastry that even the Warrior Princess can't perform that trick."

Both of Xena's eyebrows shot up. "Oh? Your next pastry, huh? Just watch…" Slowly and theatrically she reached up a long, muscled arm, snapped her fingers above her head and looked further down the Square toward the stables.

It was a tribute to the Warrior Princess' ability to pull off almost any feat, that Gabrielle turned and peered in the same direction Xena was staring. The young queen's jaw fell open as Elisa rode a fully-provisioned Argo out of the stable and up to the porch.

Xena smiled broadly at her nonplussed friend. "You going to get your traveling bag or are you going to stand there gaping all day?"

"No fair, Xena, you put her up to this." Gabrielle looked accusingly from the warrior to the young Amazon, who was looking anywhere but at the bard.

"I swear I didn't, Gabrielle. You know Leese is always two steps ahead of everyone else. It was her own idea." Xena stepped next to Argo and gave Elisa a pat on the knee. "And your timing was perfect," she murmured, with a grin. "I owe you one."

Elisa's grin matched Xena's. "One of the cooks gave me a bag of food for you, earlier. I stuck it in a saddlebag. So, you really are all ready to go." She swung down from the golden palomino. "I just saw Ephiny come out of her hut, and Solari and Eponin are leading a group of women into the Square. They should be in place in a few minutes."

Gabrielle, as queen, would get a royal sendoff from the village with Ephiny, the regent; Eponin, the weapons master; and Solari, the chief scout, in charge of the farewell.

The bard came back out of the queen's hut with her traveling bag looped across her shoulder, her staff in hand. Elisa received the staff and mounted it in its holder alongside Argo's saddle. She kept Argo's reins and the three women walked to the group now assembled in the Village Square.

A loud, thrumming roll sounded from the leather-covered barrels of the village drummers, then softened to a muted background hum. Waiting in front of the crowd, Ephiny, with Eponin and Solari slightly behind her, stepped forward as Gabrielle neared. Queen Gabrielle was a favorite of the whole village and Xena, without a doubt, was the most powerful warrior they knew. So, there was always an underlying sadness to their departure.

When Gabrielle stopped, all the Amazons went to one knee, then rose again as she motioned them up with her upraised palms. She smiled at Ephiny and embraced her. "You take good care of yourself, Ephiny. Give your body a chance to get completely healed before you go trying anything difficult, OK?" The regent was still recuperating from a severe lung wound.

"You know I will, Gabrielle. You be careful, too, and keep an eye on your tall friend."

Gabrielle moved to say goodbye to Eponin and Solari. Ephiny managed to keep her eyes half lowered as she reached her arm to Xena. The Warrior Princess ignored it, stepped forward and grabbed the regent in a firm, but gentle bear hug. "'Bye, Eph. Stay out of trouble. And take good care of that lung." Xena bent her head till her lips were right next to the regent's ear. "No heavy breathing," she chuckled softly. Then she released the now red-faced regent who stepped back several paces. Only then, did Ephiny look up at her.

"'Bye, Xena. YOU stay out of trouble," Ephiny challenged. The two women locked eyes for a moment, then Ephiny had to grin. I'll get even with you one of these day, Xena. The Warrior Princess waggled an eyebrow in farewell and moved to clasp arms with Eponin and Solari.

"Don't stay away too long, Princess, you keep us on our toes when you are here," Eponin said gruffly.

Solari nodded her agreement. "Yeah, we'll miss you both. Things never seem quite the same without you two here."

Xena took each woman's arm in the warrior handshake. "We'll be back… sometime. You can count on it. And it's always good to know that we can depend on you." With Ephiny, these two women formed the cornerstone of the Amazons' strength. Xena thought of them as the Big Three. They were dedicated to their nation and their queen, and were also willing and efficient fighters, traits Xena had called on a few times in the past.

The warrior shifted her attention to Elisa, who still held Argo's reins. Xena threw an arm over the girl's shoulders and gave her a quick hug. "Thanks, Leese, for everything."

Elisa nodded. "Gwynna told me to say goodbye to both of you. She's on perimeter duty and couldn't be here." Then she tightened her lips together to steady them. I hate to see Xena leave. She's had something bothering her for a long time, now. And she doesn't seem to have her usual energy. How can I know whether it might be the last time I will ever see her?

Elisa handed the reins to Xena, who swung up onto Argo. Gabrielle gave Elisa a hug and thanked her, then reached up to Xena, who lifted the bard up behind her. Xena dug her heels into Argo's sides, clucked her tongue, and, waving, the two friends left the Amazon village. The drumming rose to a crescendo, then died away.

 

Chapter 1

"Gabrielle, are you serious? You don't want to go to Poteidaia?" Xena looked down from the saddle at the bard who was walking, as usual, next to Argo. The two friends had been on the trail for two days, heading toward Gabrielle's hometown. This afternoon, for the first time, Gabrielle had let it be known that she was not enthused about going home for a visit.

"What is there for me in Poteidaia, Xena?" The bard's voice sounded heavy and reluctant. "Lila's married and living her own life, now. All that's going to happen is my father will take nasty potshots at you and mother won't be strong enough to contradict him, no matter what she thinks. She'll just feel bad that he is hurting you, because she knows it hurts me; but she can't, or won't, stop him. Then she'll get all weepy and contrite and pour out her whole last 40 years of woes on me. I'd rather not even go."

Emotionally involved in what she was saying, Gabrielle didn't realize Argo had stopped. She walked on for several yards before turning her head and noticing that she was alone. Puzzled, she swung all the way around and saw that, not only had Argo stopped, but Xena had dismounted and was walking slowly toward a felled tree.

The bard stood still and continued to watch as the Warrior Princess turned, sat on the fallen tree trunk and leaned back against the live one it rested next to, closing her eyes. It occurred to Gabrielle that she seldom just watched Xena walk or move when she wasn't fighting. Admiration engulfed her as she observed the fluid, effortless motion of Xena's long, graceful body; the aura of power and strength that surrounded her. She seemed to OWN her body in a way other people never even considered. Maybe that's because her body isn't just a place for "being," as it is for the rest of us. Hers is a fine-tuned weapon, geared to keep her--and me--alive and unharmed.

Xena's cobalt-blue eyes opened and broke Gabrielle from her ruminative trance. The warrior patted the spot on the tree trunk next to herself and raised her hand, curled finger beckoning the bard. The command was softened by the tender look that the warrior reserved for her best friend, coupled with the hint of a lop-sided smile.

"How can I resist that wheedling look on your face?" the golden-haired woman confessed. She strolled over and sat next to her friend, noticing that Xena's eyes weren't quite as vivid as they usually were. "Are you tired?" Gabrielle asked gently. It's strange to see Xena look this weary in the afternoon.

"A little." That admission, coming from Xena, was like others saying they were exhausted. "Don't seem to be bouncing back so quickly this time, but I will be OK. We need to talk." Might help if I could get some damn sleep! Something's turning me into an insomniac again.

"Xena, you've had a couple of very rough weeks. I'm worried about you."

"I don't want to talk about me, I want to talk about you." The curtness of her friend's answer raised the bard's eyebrows. But why should that surprise me? She never wants to admit that anything is wrong with her. I'll just pay close attention to whether she improves or not.

Xena moved her head away from the tree and sat up straighter. She reached down and picked up Gabrielle's right hand from where it rested on the rough bark. The bard had quickly learned to avoid sitting on the warrior's right side, or rather, sword side, when they were on the trail. It made Xena uncomfortable to have access to her weapon hindered even in this small way.

The bard raised their entwined hands and shook them. "Am I in some kind of trouble?" she joked. But the banter bounced off of Xena's seriousness.

"Gabrielle, I WANT you to go to Poteidaia." An underlying current of urgency sounded in the silken tones.

Stray rays of late afternoon sunlight slipped past the leafy treetops and brushed the two confidantes, painting the bard's golden head in glowing fire and tipping the bronzed warrior with copper highlights.

"I can't believe my ears!" Mint-green eyes opened wide and stared into appealing blue. "Why would you want me to go to Poteidaia? Why would you want to subject yourself to my father's anger and rebuke? Why would…" The bard's voice came to a halt as she suddenly realized what was behind Xena's request.

"Xena." Gabrielle untwined their fingers and practically threw Xena's hand back into the warrior's lap. Words came tumbling from her lips like rocks from an avalanche--just as fast and just as deadly. "This is that "vision thing" again, isn't it? You want me to go to Poteidaia so you can leave me there and take off. I thought we had that all settled. I've never known you to go back on your word, before. If you think I am that easy to get rid of…"

The Warrior Princess grabbed the bard's hand again and slid off the tree trunk onto her knees in front of her. She reached her right hand toward Gabrielle and put her long fingers softly but firmly over her lips, cutting off the flow of words. She moved her hand sideways and caressed her friend's cheek, then dropped it to clasp the bard's captured hand in both of hers.

"Gabrielle." Xena's velvet voice dropped low. "I will never leave you. I have already promised you that and you needn't worry that I won't keep my word. I meant for both of us to go to Poteidaia. And, yes, it is the "vision thing," as you call it." Xena's voice became tortured. "If we aren't… somehow… able to stop it from happening… This may be… your last chance… to see your family."

Tears welled in those incredibly blue eyes and one drop overflowed, moving in slow motion down the bronzed cheek. Gabrielle reached up her free hand and softly brushed it away. Seeing the stoic warrior so moved never ceased to wrench the bard's heart, too. She bit her lip to stop it from trembling, then tried to speak. She made several tries before her voice would pass her closed throat.

"Xena, you will stop it… I know you will... You always think of something... I have faith in you."

The look of agonizing doubt on Xena's face made Gabrielle feel as though a nail had already pierced her skin. Xena opened her mouth to reply and, this time, the bard put her fingers over the sculpted lips. "Ssshhhh." Gabrielle slid her hand to Xena's shoulder and pulled her toward her. The golden head moved forward until it met the dark one. The bard spoke with quiet consolation. "We will go to Poteidaia. Together."

Chapter 2

I don't know why I thought it would be any different, he still hates Xena for "taking me away." Never mind that I was the one who dogged her footsteps until she almost had to let me go with her. He just can't accept the fact that I was not happy here. And I am happy with Xena.

Hecuba and Herodotus had soundly welcomed their daughter. They seemed genuinely happy to see her. But… not her companion. Hecuba gave Xena a short, tentative smile when she thought Herodotus couldn't see her, then quickly ushered a protesting Gabrielle out of the front room.

Xena and Herodotus faced each other silently. I have to keep remembering he is Gabrielle's father. Without him, she would never have existed. But it is sooooo hard to keep my hands still when I just want to smash his prejudiced face! In his world, women don't become warriors; they only become what their men tell them they can be. Praise the gods not everyone is as closed-minded as he is.

Thoughts jumped through Herodotus' mind, too. Look at her. Standing there like she owns the world. And coming here to throw it in my face that my daughter chose to follow her in her unwomanly ways. A female warrior! Sure, she saved our lives; and she saved our daughters. But that doesn't change what she is--an arrogant, despicable warlord! I may be forced to be civil, but I will never accept her.

Xena stood, apparently relaxed, waiting for Herodotus to make the first move, if any. She was reconciled to standing there for hours, if need be. But she knew most people were unable to stand and stare, or be stared at, without capitulating into speech.

And Herodotus was not an exception. He finally spoke. "I don't like you, you know."

Amusement flickered across the Warrior Princess' beautiful features and lit in her magnetic eyes. "Are you asking my permission?"

"NO!" the man abruptly threw the answer back. "Just letting you know where you stand. Don't expect us to fawn over you just because you have our daughter hypnotized."

"Would you rather I leave?" Xena purposely used her seductive tones to taunt Herodotus. Then watched with silent glee as he fought his natural inclination to say, yes, leave!

His voice came out low and begrudgingly. "You saved us. Out of respect for that, I will permit you to stay under our roof. Just don't expect anything more from us."

Xena nodded but refused to thank the man for permission that was not freely given, but wrested from him.

"Hecuba!" His wife came half-running into the front room. Herodotus tossed his head at the warrior. "She'll be staying here." He walked past Xena, giving her as wide a berth as possible, and went out the door.

Gabrielle had followed her mother into the front room. She rushed to Xena and gave her a quick hug. "You two got along?" Xena tilted her head back and looked stonily at the bard. Gabrielle smiled and frowned at the same time. "Uhhhh… just skip that question. At least there isn't any blood!"

Her mother gasped.

"Mother! I'm only kidding." Gabrielle laughed at the comical expression on her mother's face. "Xena doesn't hurt people just because they don't agree with her."

Hecuba looked up at the warrior who towered over her. Her voice was warm, but shaky. "We made up the bed in the girls' room while you were… talking. I'm sorry there is only one, but we gave Lila hers to take with her. If it's too uncomfortable, the barn is warm."

"Mother, Xena is not sleeping in the barn," the bard said forcefully. "We don't often get a chance at a soft bed. She and I can share it. And, frankly, I'm ready to share it now. It's been a long day." They said goodnight and Gabrielle reached for the warrior's arm and walked with her into the bedroom. "Mother laid out a couple of clean, fresh sleeping shifts for us. And there's fruit and bread and water there on the side table. Do you want anything to eat before we sleep?"

Xena shook her head as, arms crossed, she considered the sleeping arrangements. "Do you really think we will both fit on that bed? I'll sleep on the floor."

"Oh, no, you won't. I often shared that bed with girl friends when their families came to visit overnight. Two fit on it fine."

"Uh… were any of them taller than you?"

Gabrielle looked back and forth from Xena to the bed several times. Then she grinned. "Well, their feet didn't stick out over the bottom, if that's what you mean." Xena pulled in her lips and started to nod.

"But, I can fix that!" Gabrielle ran to the desk that sat in the corner and picked up the chair. She brought it over and sat it at the bottom of the bed. "How's that?"

Xena's head began to move from side to side.

"Look, Xena. If you, as my guest, insist on sleeping on the floor, I will be obliged to sleep on the floor, too. You wouldn't do that to me, would you?"

The Warrior Princess laughed and uncrossed her arms. "OK, OK, I will never hear the end of it. We will share."

The next morning, Gabrielle awoke at dawn, alone. She quickly rolled to the other side of the bed and peered over. Two twinkling blue eyes looked up from the floor into her inquisitive green ones. "You started kicking. I probably have bruises all over my legs. I had to take to the floor in self-preservation."

"C'mon!" Gabrielle snorted.

"Well, it was either that, or kick you back, or shove you out. And since it's your home… I took pity on you."

"Thanks. Sorry about the kicking. I guess I was a little more excited about being home than I expected to be. Let's get up and eat and then go look around the village." Gabrielle rolled back over and jumped out of bed.

"Now, I know you're excited. I didn't have to call you five times to get you up." Xena was pleased that Gabrielle seemed glad to be home. Lying on the blanket on the floor with her hands behind her head, and her thoughts miles away, she suddenly saw impish green eyes reappear over the edge of the bed, quickly followed by an upturned water pitcher.

Xena was fast, but because Gabrielle had surprised her, half the pitcher of water sloshed into her face. The warrior leaped onto the bed and managed to grab both the bard and the pitcher. She pinned Gabrielle to the bed and poured the remaining water into her friend's face. Gabrielle was giggling so hard, she swallowed much of the water and choked on it. Xena flopped her, spluttering, back over the edge of the bed and pounded on her back. Finally, the choking subsided, but the bard continued to giggle. "I gotcha! I actually gotcha! This has got to be a first!"

Xena, laughing, climbed off the bed and grabbed a cloth to dry herself. Finished, she flipped the end of the cloth to Gabrielle and, when she grabbed it, pulled until they were nose to nose. Xena narrowed her eyes and assumed a ferocious expression. "You know what paybacks are, don't you?" she growled. "And I am relentless!" Then she grinned and released the towel, as the bard cringed in mock fear.

Gabrielle began to dry herself as Xena cleaned up the blankets and water from the floor.

"Speaking of paybacks, wait till my father sees what you did to his shift!"

"This is your father's?" Xena was aghast. She looked down at what she was wearing. It was now wet, wrinkled, and a bit dirty, but that was only temporary damage. The rips that had happened when Xena dove across the bed after the bard were more permanent.

"Hades' helmet, Gabrielle, you didn't warn me this was your father's."

"Well, who else in this house is big enough to have one that would fit you? He'll never speak to you again!"

The two women looked at each other as that thought sunk in, then they both collapsed with laughter.

A timid knock came at the door. "Come in." Gabrielle could barely manage to get the words out.

Hecuba opened the door and peeked around its edge. She saw Gabrielle collapsed on the bed and Xena seated on the floor, both holding their sides from laughing. She smiled at the two women and found herself envying their friendship. "I heard you were up, so I fixed some porridge for breakfast. I'll leave it for you. I have to go to the market."

"Thanks, Mother, we're just about ready to eat." Gabrielle and Xena both smiled at Hecuba.

"That's the first I've ever seen you smile, Xena," she said shyly. "You should smile more often. You're quite beautiful, you know." With that, Hecuba closed the door and left.

Gabrielle pointed at a red-faced Xena and grinned. Then she sobered just a little. "I'm glad you insisted we come here, Xena. So far, it has been more fun, than trouble."

"Let's hope it stays that way, Gabrielle. Even your father wasn't too bad. Not so much name-calling this time. Not yet, anyway." A wistful expression touched the warrior's face briefly then was gone.

"Hey, let's go eat and then check out the village!" The bard jumped up and headed for the kitchen with Xena following.

********************

Gabrielle and Xena had been strolling through the village for about an hour. Many people they encountered knew and spoke to Gabrielle, welcoming her home. Many also recognized the Warrior Princess, more from reputation than from firsthand contact, and some greeted her. Eyes followed her everywhere.

A group of people had just passed and, as Gabrielle turned to look after them, she found that they had all turned their heads to follow Xena. "Do you ever get tired of being the focus of everyone's attention?" Gabrielle smirked up at her unconcerned friend.

Xena slid her eyes down and sideways toward the bard. "How do you know they are not watching you?"

"Because they are looking at a point about a foot higher than my nose, that's why." Gabrielle raised her hand a foot above her nose to demonstrate. " Hunhh." She grunted a soft laugh.

"What?"

"You're not even doing your infamous warlord swagger. If you did that, the streets would probably clear."

"Do you want me to clear the streets?" Xena suddenly stood straighter and started looking around in her maximum observant mode.

Gabrielle tugged on her arm. "No, Xena, don't you dare. I was only joking."

Xena shrugged off Gabrielle's arm and, to the bard's consternation, grabbed a hooded man who had been about to pass them. Xena manhandled him into an alleyway and, lifting him by the throat, slammed him up against a wall. Gabrielle was speechless with horror.

The Warrior Princess reached up and tore the hood from his head. The tall, slim man's eyebrows wrinkled in pain. Curly, dark hair topped a handsome, mustached face. Between his bottom lip and his chin rested a small tuft of beard.

Gabrielle gasped, "Autolycus!"

Autolycus, the King of Thieves, smiled wretchedly and tried to speak, but Xena still had him by the throat. He waved his eyebrows and pointed rapidly to her grip. At last, the warrior stood him back on the ground and loosened her hold.

The first thing he did was pull the hood back over his head. Then he rubbed his sore neck and smiled weakly at the two women. "Hi, Gabrielle. Who's this wild woman you're hanging around with?"

Xena pretended to reach once more for his throat and he jumped back. "Heh-heh. Hello, Xena. Nice seeing you again, too."

"Autolycus, WHAT are you doing here? And who are all these other hoodlums I see walking around?"

Gabrielle looked at Xena with surprise. She didn't say anything to me about hoodlums being around. Though, come to think of it, there are a lot more people in the village than there usually are. But maybe there's been a population explosion.

Autolycus was twitching his mouth around and around and up and down. He knew Xena would eventually get the truth out of him, but he wasn't eager to tell her.

"Hoodlums? Here? I had no idea. I'm just passing through, myself." Autolycus raised his eyebrows and smiled broadly in an effort to look innocent.

The Warrior Princess crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. A sardonic grin twisted her lips and she continued to look at Autolycus expectantly, ignoring his answer to her questions. A silent minute passed and then an impatient Xena uncrossed her arms, took a step toward the thief and her face turned to a stony mask. The man's name grated from her mouth, in a growl. "Autolycus."

The thief glanced nervously from side to side, then met the warrior's intense gaze. "OK, OK, Xena. Let's go someplace quieter and I'll explain."

The Warrior Princess grabbed a fistful of coarse cloth at his shoulder and hurried him along to the end of the alley. It emptied into a field on the outskirts of the village. She released Autolycus and gave him an extra shove as she came to a halt; he had to stumble to keep his balance.

He turned toward the warrior, shaking his shoulders to resettle the hooded robe. "Testy today, are we?" he ventured.

Xena didn't smile at him as he had hoped. Instead, she looked at him balefully. "I don't appreciate your trying to ply your trade here in Gabrielle's hometown. And since there is little here that should interest the King of Thieves, I want to know what trouble you are intending to stir up, and why. So, talk!!"

Autolycus answered a bit grumpily. "I'm not trying to stir up any trouble, Xena. I heard about a group of soldiers who are said to be bringing a chest full of jewels to King Philomaros. And they're supposed to pass near here on their way to his kingdom. I just thought I would like to get a look at them, that's all." Then a rueful smile broke across his face. "Of course, I'd like them to be in my hands when I'm getting that look at them!"

"I'll just bet you would," came Xena's sarcastic answer. "What about Zirkos and Tullios? They here for the same reason?"

Autolycus scratched his chin in thought. "Ah… well, I haven't spoken with them, but that would be my guess."

Gabrielle looked from one to the other. She was surprised at Xena's rough treatment of Autolycus, she knew the warrior considered him to be a friend. And Autolycus made no secret of the fact that he would like to be more than a friend to Xena. What she didn't understand was why the warrior seemed so disturbed at discovering the thief.

"Autolycus, if this trouble is going to take place anywhere near Poteidaia, I will have no choice. I will have to get involved." Xena put her hands on her hips and frowned, unseeing, out over the empty fields. Just my luck. Gabrielle's parents already think I am too wild and dangerous for their daughter to be associated with. Seems like every time we come here, I reinforce that notion. I was hoping this visit would be quieter.

The Warrior Princess straightened up, removing her hands from her hips, and turned to face Autolycus squarely. "And since I plan to stop the robbery, that means you won't be one of the thieves, right?"

Autolycus' whole demeanor looked crestfallen. "Aw, Xena, why do you have to spoil my fun? Why can't you just sort of hang around and pretend you don't even know what's going on? It's not like I'm trying to rob the little people." He figured his plea would fall on deaf ears and was not surprised when the warrior just looked at him without answering. When Xena's eyebrow slowly raised and one side of her lips started moving up, Autolycus knew his plans were about to be drastically changed.

"No, you won't be robbing the little people. In fact, you might even turn out to be a hero. If we save King Philomaros' jewels, he will surely want to reward us."

Autolycus perked up at the mention of a reward. "Right! I never thought of that!" Then Xena's words sunk in. "Hey, what do you mean, "we"? You said you were going to do it."

"Well, you just volunteered to help… didn't you?" The sultry tones of the Warrior Princess curled right around Autolycus' heart and he gave in with resignation. "All right. All right. What do you want me to do?"

Gabrielle stood aside and listened to the two with amusement. Autolycus knew he would lose the battle; he could refuse the Warrior Princess nothing. But he used these verbal jousts with Xena to keep some of his self-respect intact. And Xena, somehow understanding that, allowed the exchange to occur. Most others who opposed her would either have fled or felt the pinch by now. But Autolycus' good heart, and his help in the past, had made him a trusted friend.

The Warrior Princess was all business, now. "I need you to find out where the jewel carriers are, what trail they are taking and how soon they will be close to us." Autolycus nodded his agreement. "Gabrielle, you stay here and keep an eye on Zirkos and Tullios. I'll find out if they have some henchmen nearby, besides those in the village."

"Xena, who are Zirkos and Tullios? Are they thieves? Or what?" Gabrielle didn't like the idea of hoodlums running unchecked in her hometown.

"They're worse than thieves, Gabrielle, they are murderous outlaws."

 

Chapter 3

Gabrielle sat at the edge of the boardwalk in front of the village inn, weaving straw into a basket. As patrons entered and left the inn's tavern, she would glance sideways to identify them, then continue with her weaving.

Xena moved silently up the alleyway nearest the bard, stopping a few feet from entering the main street. "See anything, Gabrielle?"

"No, Xena. Zirkos and Tullios are still in the tavern. Did you find their friends?"

"Yeah, there's a bunch of them camped out about two miles from here. They look pretty settled in, so I don't think we have to worry about them until these two contact them." Xena leaned back against the side wall of the inn and propped one boot sole against it.

Gabrielle looked up at her. She's still not up to par. How often does Xena ever lean against anything when something's going on? "Autolycus was here about fifteen minutes ago, looking for you."

"Didn't he leave a message?" Impatience threaded the warrior's voice. Suddenly she straightened and melted back into the shadows cast by the inn. Minutes later, horses' hoof beats, wagon wheels, and creaking leather could be heard coming down the main street toward the Village Square.

Four mounted soldiers came into view, followed by a wagon and four more soldiers. From their uniforms, they appeared to be the Royal Guard that Autolycus had mentioned. And that would mean that the treasure chest was in the wagon. As the contingent neared the watching duo, Gabrielle let out a gasp. "Xena, that's my father driving that wagon!" Xena reached from the shadows and gently squeezed the bard's shoulder.

"Relax, Gabrielle, nothing's liable to happen here in the village--too dangerous. When they leave and go back into the forest is a more likely time for an ambush." Xena turned toward the back of the alley. "Here comes Autolycus, now. Maybe he has some information."

A moment later, Autolycus ran up the alley and sidled next to the Warrior Princess. Xena's lips twisted in irony. "Why, hi, there, Autolycus. I'll bet you're going to tell us that the treasure party is coming into Poteidaia, right?"

Autolycus looked exasperated. "I would have told you fifteen minutes ago, if I could have found you! Gabrielle said you were in the woods."

Xena relented. "OK, so you've found me. What can you tell us? Why is Gabrielle's father driving that wagon?"

"That's Gabrielle's father? Well, he's probably driving because it's his horse and wagon."

The Warrior Princess slowly turned her head toward Autolycus and fixed the full power of her intense eyes on him, not saying a word.

"Heh-heh, just a little humor there," the thief offered. When Xena didn't answer, he raised his hands, palm outward, as if to calm her and grinned weakly. "A wheel broke off the wagon the treasure was being transported in, damaging its whole side. The Guard had to hire another wagon to haul the chest for them for the rest of the journey. Then, they decided it was too late in the day to continue on, so they came into Poteidaia to eat and to stay overnight."

Xena favored the man with a slight smile then broke her gaze away from him. "Good work, Autolycus."

The King of Thieves rubbed his hands together and beamed.

"But what took you so long?" Xena, the ghost of the smile still lingering, slanted teasing eyes toward him.

Autolycus gulped and stammered. "Er… I ah… I had to…" Ohhhh, man, I could drown in those eyes. I AM drowning in those eyes…"Ah… What was the question, again?"

"Xena!" Gabrielle called urgently in a low voice. She tossed her head toward the inn. The warrior peeked around the corner and saw Zirkos and Tullios coming through the tavern door onto the boardwalk. She beckoned the bard to join her. Gabrielle rose and sauntered into the alley as Xena pulled her head back and listened.

"Well, look at that, will you? They deliver it right into our hands." The two cohorts laughed.

"Nah," said Zirkos, "we'd best wait till they leave and catch them on the trail. Let's round up the others then get back to camp and decide where to attack." The men turned and went back into the tavern.

"Gabrielle, you go speak to your father. Tell him what's going on and keep him off that wagon tomorrow." Xena automatically took charge of the situation. "I'll go warn the Guard, then scout out the camp in the woods. Maybe I can head them off before they start anything. Autolycus, you wait here till I speak with the Guard, then come with me to the camp."

The Warrior Princess waited until the man who obviously was the captain of the Guard finished supervising the unloading and storing of the chest. The soldiers carried the chest into the inn and the captain approached the owner to arrange their accommodations. At the captain's request that they all stay together, they were given a large room on the second floor.

Xena had followed the group into the inn and was standing off to the side as though awaiting her turn to secure a room. The soldiers weren't worried by her presence, though a few roving eyes admired the view.

When the men had finished moving the chest upstairs, Xena followed them up and knocked at the door. The door was cautiously opened only a crack, but when they saw it was the woman who had been waiting downstairs, they opened it all the way and invited her in. Several soldiers sheathed the swords they had drawn in case of trouble.

Xena's eyes sought the captain and she strode over to him. "I've come to warn you of a robbery." She proceeded to explain about Zirkos and Tullios and the attack being planned. "I'm going to check out their camp, see if I can put a halt to this before it gets started. But you need to be prepared in case I fail to stop them all."

The captain listened carefully to the whole story. "Who are you? And what's your interest in this?"

"My name is Xena. Let's just say I am a concerned citizen."

At her name, the soldiers' alertness perked up and some put their hands on their swords. Xena pulled herself up to her full height. Her eyes narrowed and her lip curled. "I'm here to stop trouble, not to start it."

"Stand down, men." The captain raised his hand to quiet them. "I'm Prince Hamlon, son-in-law of King Philomaros. Word is that the Warrior Princess is on the good side, now, and I've heard reports of your deeds." He then extended his arm to the warrior. "Thanks, Xena. We'll be ready for them. Do you want to take some of my men with you?"

"No, there may be others in the village who would be tempted by a smaller force. I'll be OK." Xena stuck out her arm and clasped Hamlon's. "I'll report back here as soon as I can."

********************

Gabrielle's father waited till the soldiers had removed the chest, then shook the reins to take the horse and wagon back toward his barn.

"Father!" He stopped the wagon when he heard Gabrielle's voice and she clambered aboard, seating herself next to him. He had seen Xena follow the soldiers into the inn and wondered where his daughter was. She's practically a shadow to that woman. I still can't see what the fascination is in being a warrior. She'd be safer and happier at home, if she hadn't been tricked into following HER.

"Gabrielle," he smiled at her. "I just got a well-paying job!"

"Father, that's something I have to talk to you about." She told her father what she and Xena had learned from Autolycus and their observations. "So, you see, Father, you will be in danger. You mustn't drive the wagon tomorrow."

Her father sneered. "You think I am going to give up this opportunity because that trouble-loving friend of yours says there might be a robbery? Hmmmph. Wouldn't surprise me if she was the one behind it. Get everybody looking for trouble tomorrow, then sneak in and take the chest tonight."

"And then what?" Gabrielle, indignation in her voice, automatically spoke up in Xena's defense. "Carry it off on her back?"

"Listen to yourself, no respect for your elders. That friend that you say taught you so much… she taught you that, too, I suspect. And living in the wilds. And brawling. And you wonder why I can't stand the sight of her?" Herodotus pulled the horse up at the barn and the two climbed down.

"Father, Xena is the bravest, most courageous, most…" Herodotus shook his head and waved Gabrielle to silence. "I don't want to hear it. Just keep her out of my sight."

Saddened, Gabrielle walked away, back toward the heart of the village. She didn't see the hands that came out and grabbed her father before he even got the horse and wagon into the barn. Oblivious to his predicament, she continued on.

********************

Xena hurried out of the inn and turned down the alley alongside it. Autolycus stood there with Argo and his own mount. "Gabrielle told me where Argo was stabled, so I went and picked her up for you."

The Warrior Princess nodded her thanks, leaped into the saddle and headed down the alley toward the forest. Autolycus scrambled to catch up. When they neared the robbers' camp, they dismounted and crept close enough to see that the men were bustling around preparing to leave.

Xena shook her head to clear the cobwebs that seemed to be congregating there and stifled a yawn. I just gotta get more sleep! "They must be going to move their camp closer to the trail south of here. That's good. We can get rid of them more easily when they are on the trail. Just start eliminating them from the back and work our way forward."

She says it like it's about as easy as swatting flies. Hmmmph!

"What are you snorting about?" Xena threw Autolycus a quick glance.

"Nothing! Just so full of good humor that it bursts out of me once in a while. Especially when the two of us are preparing to fight about 40 heavily armed, murderous brutes." Autolycus smiled dazzlingly at his companion. And actually got a small chuckle from her.

"We've done it before," the warrior said dryly.

Yeah, we have, but I am still amazed at what you can accomplish. And you seem to do it so easily, and gracefully, and beautifully, and you have such fabulous control over your body…and what a bo… whoa! Auto, you haven't got a chance. Get your mind back on business!

The two watched the activity in the camp for awhile, then Autolycus broke the silence. "Er… Xena…"

"Yes?" Xena responded, absently. Her mind was occupied with planning her attack.

"I know Zirkos and Tullios and I don't see them anywhere in the camp."

Xena jerked to full alert. Her eyes swiftly swept through the camp dwellers. "Damn!" Autolycus again found himself scrambling to catch up as Xena raced for Argo. With a flying somersault into the saddle, she tore away, and Autolycus diligently followed.

 

Chapter 4

"You know, Tullios, I've been thinking about what you said a minute ago. About them delivering the chest right into our hands." Zirkos' heavy brow was creased in thought. "Maybe we'd be missing a good chance if we don't grab the treasure now. We have 12 men in the village right now and they only have eight. Let's not be too hasty about riding to the camp. I'll send a message for them to get ready for an attack in the morning, but if we could steal it now, we'd look like heroes to the boss. Let's sit for awhile and think this over."

The two sat down with a couple of their men, drinking ale and contriving a rudimentary plan to steal the chest. They would gather their 12 men, walk boldly into the inn and knock on the door to the room where the treasure is being kept. When the door opens, they would rush in, overpower the Guards and steal the gems.

"But how will we get them to open the door? They don't know us and won't let us in without being prepared for an attack," Tullios pointed out.

"Yeah." Zirkos rubbed his stubbly whiskers. "I got it! We'll grab that wagon driver. They know him. Xandor, you go get him and bring him here. Quietly. Don't stir up any trouble. Threaten to kill his family or friends if he doesn't do as we say."

Zirkos sent another man to gather the rest of the band. Just as they all arrived and had been filled in on what was going on, Xandor brought Herodotus in. Gabrielle's father was trying to put up a brave front, but he was quaking inside.

The group rose. Since the tavern was part of the inn, they had only to go through a doorway that opened onto the stairwell. No one was in sight. All fourteen cutthroats crept up the stairs to the hallway, with Zirkos at the front, holding onto the back of Herodotus' shirt. "Listen, man, knock on the door and tell them something on your wagon broke and you will need some money to get it repaired in time for tomorrow."

Herodotus knocked as Zirkos, still holding onto his shirt, stood off to the side, out of sight. The door opened a crack and when the soldier recognized Herodotus and heard his story, he swung the door wide. Zirkos shoved Herodotus violently through the doorway and his band followed him. Caught by surprise, the soldiers gave little resistance and were soon overpowered.

Unfortunately for Herodotus, when thrown through the door, he had fallen on the floor and Tullios had tripped over him, going down heavily. As soon as the soldiers were captured, a raging Tullios jumped up, straddled Herodotus' body and grabbed his hair. He pulled back on the man's head, exposing his throat, and was bringing his sword into position to slit it.

"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" The unexpected battlecry froze everyone in the room into a tableau. Xena rocketed into the room, somersaulting through the second-story window and landing next to Tullios. She kicked the sword from his hand and straight-arm punched him at the juncture of his eyes and nose, sending him to the floor. She threw both fists backward alongside her head, taking out two more hoodlums. Jumping in the air, she twirled around, splitting the heads of two more with powerful thrusts of her boots before she hit the boards. Ducking a sword swipe from the side, she squatted down and twirled, leg out, in a semi-circle, dumping three more attackers with such force their heads smashed into the floor, knocking them out.

Autolycus, running up the steps of the inn, had reached the doorway and looked in. He saw the Warrior Princess was in battle frenzy mode and he stepped back, laughing. Those poor devils won't know what hit them.

Prince Hamlon was wise enough to see that, in such close quarters, his men would only get in Xena's way and he held them back, ready to step in, if needed.

But Xena didn't need help. Now the room was clear enough for the Warrior Princess to draw her sword. She flicked it viciously back and forth, swung it into the sides of two more men, swiped one across the neck, then jumped straight up and kicked the next two in their throats, strangling them on their crushed larynges. As Zirkos, the last remaining brigand, raised his sword and lunged at her back, she flipped her sword around, thrust it behind her and impaled him through the chest. Then, she turned, her sword still holding Zirkos' body partially upright. She planted a boot in his chest and pushed him off her blade. Bending down, she wiped the blade across his chest, then sheathed it.

As the warrior's wildly gleaming eyes came up from Zirkos' body, they met the wide-eyed stare of Herodotus who had crawled into a corner to get clear of the action. Her eyes changed from silver-tipped fury back to cobalt-blue as her battle lust died. Well, my girl, now you've REALLY made a great impression, she thought with a tinge of hopelessness. Her energy swiftly dissipated, leaving her feeling wrung out. But for her iron self-discipline, she would have staggered.

Hamlon directed his men to clean up the dead hoodlums and tie up those still alive. One of the soldiers grabbed Herodotus. "C'mere, you traitor," he growled.

Xena struggled to revive her energy, then grabbed the soldier by the shoulder, squeezing a pressure point until he was on his knees. "No!" she spit out. With her eyes still locked on Herodotus, she explained to Hamlon. "This is an honest man. He was forced to help these scum. They probably threatened his family." Then, her heart lurched and she asked, "Are Hecuba and Gabrielle all right?"

"I think so. I haven't seen them." Herodotus spoke slowly, his voice scratchy from stress. Herodotus was astounded at the incredible scene he had just witnessed. I thought I was dead and here comes this amazing woman, somehow flying through an upstairs window, and she saves my life. Me, who has done nothing but be rude and nasty to her. Then she proceeds to single-handedly wipe out a dozen or more hoodlums. Gabrielle tried to tell me she was special and I wouldn't listen. But she is special. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

Autolycus, still standing in the hallway, looked in to let Xena know that he was there. "I'll go check on them, Xena," he offered, then left.

Hamlon reached for Xena's arm. By the time his fingers touched her, she had swung around with a raised fist that flew toward, and stopped just short of, striking him between the eyes. Startled, he dropped his hand.

Xena's whole body jerked with the effort it took to stop her fist from landing. She took a deep breath, then grimaced. "Sorry, but it's not a good idea to touch me without warning me first. Especially right after a fight."

"I'm the one who should apologize. I just wanted to ask you to let go of my soldier's shoulder."

The warrior looked down at the soldier who was kneeling at her feet, teeth clenched against the pain. "Er… yeah." She let go of his shoulder, grabbed his arm and lifted him to his feet. The incredulous man stepped quickly away, rubbing his sore muscles.

She offered a hand to Herodotus, who hesitated but then grasped it and Xena pulled him up. She looked at Hamlon. "You still need his wagon, right?"

"Right. Be here at first light." Herodotus nodded and hurried out, glancing back at Xena, then looking quickly away as his gaze met her disturbing eyes.

Walking over to Tullios, who was tied up and seated on the floor with the rest of his cronies, Xena asked, "Who sent you here, after the gems?" Tullios just sneered. Xena reached down and hit him on both sides of his neck with her fingers. "I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds to answer me before you die a very painful death. Now, who sent you here?"

With his face screwed up in agony, Tullios forced the words through his teeth. "Draco sent us."

Xena's face didn't show it, but the answer surprised her. "What are you doing working for Draco?"

Panting now, Tullios gasped, "He said this was a big job, big enough for all three of us."

Her mind racing, Xena persisted, "Did Draco kidnap the prince?"

"I don't know the answer to that. Please…" Tullios' eyes started to roll back in his head and Xena stabbed at his neck again, releasing the pinch. She pulled back her fist to punch him, then controlled herself and dropped her arm.

It makes sense. Sounds like something Draco would do. Kidnap the prince, steal the ransom, then act as though someone else had stolen it and demand more. That rotten bastard. I'll love messing with his sick plans.

Xena made a move to leave, but Hamlon's voice stopped her. "Xena, I want to ask you a favor. Come sit over here at the table, please."

Exhausted, but curious, Xena followed the prince and sat where he indicated. At a signal from Hamlon, one of the men produced a wine flagon and filled two mugs. Xena took hers gratefully and swallowed the whole draught in one gulp. Hamlon smiled and motioned for a refill. The warrior was so dehydrated from the battle that she tossed the second mug down, too, and got another refill.

"You are an amazing woman, Xena. I've never seen anyone clear a room the way you just did. Or use such a unique method to extract information."

The Warrior Princess smiled wearily. "I have many skills."

Prince Hamlon laughed aloud. "That's the understatement of the year!" Then he sobered. "I can use your skills, Xena. My son, the grandson of King Philomaros, has been kidnapped. Whoever kidnapped him has demanded a huge ransom, which we didn't have on hand in our kingdom. So, King Philomaros sent us to a brother of his, to pick up this chest of gems that we are carrying." The prince took a long drink of wine and Xena joined him.

"If this chest doesn't arrive safely, and get turned over to the kidnappers, my son, Prince Ricondo, dies. If you hadn't come to the rescue today, the gems would have been lost and so would my son." Hamlon looked squarely into Xena's eyes. "I'm asking you, no, I'm begging you, to accompany us, to assure safe passage of the chest to our kingdom. I will pay you handsomely for your protection."

Xena looked down and played with her mug of wine for a moment. Then she looked up. "If I come, my two friends come, too."

Hamlon, delighted, blew the breath he had been holding out between his lips. "You bring anyone you want, I'll pay them, too."

"I'm not interested in the money. I want to help you get your son back."

The prince's jaw dropped. "You are unbelievable. I am a very grateful father. It's a deal, then?"

"It's a deal. We'll meet you in the Village Square at first light." Xena drained her wine mug, reached and clasped the prince's arm, and took her leave.

********************

Autolycus and Gabrielle were seated in the same spot at the corner of the boardwalk in front of the inn. The King of Thieves had recounted the whole fight to the bard, who listened with shining eyes to his descriptions of Xena's combat.

"I've been worried that Xena hasn't seemed to recuperate as quickly as she usually does, Autolycus. I'll recount our latest adventures to you when I get the chance. Xena was badly hurt and it still shows. But it doesn't seem to have slowed her down today. That is good news."

Autolycus looked toward the inn's door as he heard it open. "Here she comes, now."

The Warrior Princess plopped down, somewhat ungracefully, next to the bard and bowed her head. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Xena, have you been drinking?"

Swinging her lowered head toward the bard, Xena grunted. "Yeah, I have. I forgot those princes have the really good stuff that can hit you pretty hard. Especially on an empty stomach. And when I'm soooo tired."

That admission halted the retort Gabrielle had been ready to make. She stood up and reached down for her partner's arm. "C'mon, Xena, let's go home and get something to eat. Then it's to bed for you. You've had a tough day." Xena let Gabrielle grab her arm, but the bard couldn't budge her. "Autolycus, give me some help here, will you?"

Autolycus stood up then leaned down and spoke loudly into Xena's ear. "I'm going to grab your arm, Xena. Please don't kill me!" The warrior chuckled and lifted her left arm for Autolycus to grab. She pushed up, as the two friends lifted, and they got her to her feet. Each put one of Xena's arms over their shoulders and walked with her to Gabrielle's home and into the kitchen.

Hecuba, standing beside the fireplace stirring the evening stew, looked up and raised her eyebrows. "Is something wrong?"

"Nothing some of your stew won't help, Mother. Would you ladle some out for Xena, please?" The bard and Autolycus sat Xena at the table. Gabrielle indicated that Autolycus should sit down, too. "And this is our friend, Autolycus. He would appreciate some stew, too."

"Gabrielle, you know we don't eat until your father comes to the table."

"Mother! Xena fought a tremendous battle today. One in which she saved Father's life. Now she is exhausted and should be in bed, but she needs something to eat, first. If you won't serve us, I will."

Hecuba shook her head, threw her hands up into the air and stepped away from the pot. The bard got up, secured three bowls from the cupboard and served the stew.

When Hecuba saw that Gabrielle was determined to eat, she relented and cut some bread and cheese to go with the stew. The three friends ate ravenously, though Xena did have a little trouble finding her mouth at first. As she got the stew into her empty stomach, she began to return to her usual self. "This is wonderful," she praised, and Hecuba rewarded her with another bowlful.

When they finished, Gabrielle again enlisted Autolycus' help to get Xena into the bedroom. "I can walk by myself," the warrior protested, but when she tried to stand up, her legs wouldn't cooperate. So, she lifted her arms and "allowed" her two friends to take her in and sit her on the bed. Gabrielle lit a couple of candles in the wall sconces.

"Thanks, Autolycus. We don't have another bedroom, but you are welcome to sleep in the barn, if you wish. Here, I'll give you some blankets." The bard opened a chest and filled Autolycus' arms with bedclothes.

"Thanks, Gabrielle. I'll see you two in the morning. Good luck with the princess!" The King of Thieves chortled as he left. Never saw Xena in such a state. Proves she's only human, after all, I guess. Bet she'll have a bad head in the morning! Omigosh, the Warrior Princess with a hangover… THAT could be nasty!

Hecuba had again laid out clean shifts for the two women. Gabrielle helped Xena into hers, then made some attempt to help her to wash. The warrior finally wrested the cloth from her friend's hand. "Gabrielle, I can do this myself. Just spread some blankets on the floor for me, will you?" Xena laid the wash cloth down and lowered her head into her hands.

"Xena, you are not sleeping on the floor. You need a good rest. I'll sleep on the floor."

The warrior's head snapped up and she growled menacingly, "You are NOT sleeping on the floor. I am. Now stop arguing and spread the damn blankets!"

Flabbergasted, the bard just stood there and stared at her friend. Xena looked and sounded like a stranger.

Gabrielle's stricken face sank into Xena's befuddled brain and sobered her immediately. She reached out her hand and Gabrielle, uncertain, backed away. "Gabrielle." Xena concentrated on putting the intensity of her love for her friend into her spoken name. "Gabrielle. Please, come sit beside me." The bard took a step closer, but didn't open her forgiving heart until the next words came from those sculpted lips. "Help me."

Gabrielle closed the space between them and, sitting on the bed beside Xena, threw her arms around her. Xena returned the hug and as her head rested next to the golden one she loved, Xena murmured. "I'm sorry I yelled at you. Have you noticed that I am having some trouble controlling my emotions? I'm too happy or too sad or too angry. And I am having a terrible time trying to get a full night's sleep."

Gabrielle just nodded, afraid to speak and disrupt Xena's thoughts. "Something's going on, Gabrielle, and I'm not sure what it is, or what's causing it, or why. I just know this is not the real me. I am having a constant battle to act normally and I feel exhausted all the time. I just want to lie down and not get back up again. So, until I get to the bottom of this, forgive me if I hurt your feelings. I sure don't want or mean to. You know you're the last person I ever want to hurt."

"I know that, Xena. You just scared me a little. I thought maybe the drinking caused you to lose control."

"That's another weird thing. I've had lots more than three mugs of wine before, even the best wine, and it never affected me before today. I always stop before I get too much to drink, at least when we're out in public. Last time I drank too much, we were in the Amazon village and I knew I was safe, there. The only one in jeopardy was Ephiny." Xena grinned softly at the memory of the two enemies reestablishing their friendship.

"Well, you are the best person I know at finding answers, so let's hope you find the answer to this before long." Gabrielle turned her head and kissed the bronzed cheek. "Now, let's get you to bed." Maybe the wine will help her sleep. Best not to continue the quarrel about the floor. The bard pulled back from the embrace and smiled sweetly at her friend. "And I don't want any arguments, you are sleeping on the floor and that's final!"

Xena grinned and watched as the bard spread blankets on the floor. Then she let Gabrielle help her slide off the bed and onto the blankets. "By the way, I forgot to tell you, we are going with the Royal Guard tomorrow to help deliver the treasure safely. We're to meet them at first light."

The bard knelt and pulled a covering blanket up to Xena's chin. She shook her head and laughed. "Well, thanks for telling me. Wouldn't want you to wait till the last minute."

"Autolycus, too." Xena's eyes started to lose focus as welcome drowsiness finally overwhelmed her.

Gabrielle leaned down and kissed Xena's head. "Goodnight, Xena. I love you."

"Ummm. Love you, too." The Warrior Princess slept.

 

Chapter 5

Next morning was coming too early for Xena. She was filled with the lethargy she had been experiencing lately and, to make matters worse, her head was killing her. Gritting her teeth to keep from moaning, she rolled over and knelt up.

A rumble sounded outside and Xena recognized that Herodotus had started toward the Village Square with the wagon. Xena reached over and grabbed the bard's foot, tugging on it to wake her. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be there in a minute," Gabrielle mumbled.

Impatiently, Xena grabbed the foot harder and yanked. "Get up when you're called, why don't you!"

The bard practically leaped out of bed, shouting, "Hey, take it easy, you just about broke my foot!"

Covering her ears as she stood up, the Warrior Princess winced.

Grinning wickedly, the bard shouted again, "What's the matter, Xena, your head sore?" Suddenly, she remembered their conversation of the night before and was ready to feel contrite when a long arm grabbed the front of her shift, twisted it around a hand, and lifted her off her feet. Unexpectedly, a shiver of fear coursed through her body, raising goose bumps on her arms. C'mon, this is Xena. She's not going to hurt you. She always protects you.

But Xena's dangerous expression shocked her and Gabrielle's body refused to believe her own placating words. Her face paled, her skin got clammy and she started trembling. Somewhere, deep inside, exists a deadly warlord, her thoughts screamed in defiance.

Xena's mind was screaming as well. Haven't you been listening? Right now I have no PATIENCE! Can't you give me a rest for one minute without PESTERING me?

Gabrielle lowered her voice to a shaky whisper, pretending to make a joke of the situation. "OK, OK, I promise not to speak above a whisper for the rest of the morning if you're going to get so mad about it."

Xena closed her eyes; struggle tautened her jaw line. By the gods, Xena, this is your dearest friend. You going to bash her head in because she tormented you at just the wrong time? Where's that self-discipline you pride yourself on? First, you just about tear her foot off and now look how upset you're making her--over a few loud words!

The Warrior Princess reopened her magnificent eyes and the dangerous expression slowly dissolved into an apologetic one. She set the bard back on her feet and threw her arms around her. "I am so sorry."

I was ready to punch you, my friend, just because my head hurts? I can't believe I did that. She buried her face in Gabrielle's hair and groaned. "This is what I meant about exaggerated reactions. Whatever this is, it's getting worse. But I swear, I will never hurt you again."

Gabrielle reached her arms around the warrior and returned her hug, patting her soothingly on the back. And I will NOT be afraid of you.

Xena felt the change from fear to trust and tears sprung into her eyes. "I need you to help keep me from hurting anyone else."

"I'll help you," the bard pledged.

When Xena released her, Gabrielle saw a fine line of sweat glistening along her upper lip. She touched the warrior's arm in silent promise.

The Warrior Princess patted her hand. "Thanks, Gabrielle, for standing by me."

"Always," the bard affirmed. "Don't ever doubt that, Xena, no matter what."

As they dressed, Gabrielle frowned at her friend's odd behavior. "The more I think about this, the less I like it, Xena. I mean, besides being worried about your health. If you could turn on me, even that little bit, what might you do to a stranger?"

"Yeah, isn't that a pleasant thought?"

"No, frankly I find it a very scary thought. Maybe you should back off from this job. After all, they do have eight soldiers guarding the treasure."

"Yeah, eight soldiers who would be out hunting for that treasure right now. Or maybe dead." Xena quirked a rueful grimace at the bard and finished putting on her armor, scabbard and chakram.

"Xena, remember what you said last night. You're not eating or sleeping right. You're exhausted. And your actions this morning show that you are a bundle of nerves. What if you get out of control? Who's going to be able to stop you?" The more Gabrielle argued, the more she convinced herself that Xena shouldn't undertake this trip. The problem was convincing Xena.

Quickly annoyed again, the Warrior Princess shook her head at the bard and strode a few feet away. Then she turned and came back, stomping right up to her and forcing Gabrielle to crane her neck to look up at her towering partner. "I made a commitment to get this boy back and there isn't ANYONE going to stop me from THAT! I can control this. And you just promised to help, so I'm counting on that. Are you in, or out?"

Gabrielle stared up at her imposing friend, willing her to recognize the danger she could pose for others. I can see more argument, at this stage, is fruitless. Maybe I can have more success, later. The bard shrugged and surrendered. "Whatever you say, Xena. I'm in. I just hope you are right."

"I am." Xena's voice carried a no-more-arguments tone. "Let's get Autolycus and get outta here."

They went through the kitchen, grabbing something to take for breakfast and saying goodbye to Hecuba. Xena went to the barn to wake Autolycus and get the horses while Gabrielle soothed her mother's disappointment at her departure.

Autolycus was sleeping on his back on a pile of straw. Picking up a piece of the straw, Xena tickled his nose, chuckling as his mouth and mustache twisted every which way to stop the irritating sensation. Soon, his eyes popped open. "Aha," he grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "A dream come true. Just the woman I would like to get playful in the straw with."

"Stow it, Autolycus." Xena flicked the piece of straw at his face. "Grab your gear. We're going to join the treasure party."

"Oh, yeah? What's this 'we' stuff?" Uh-oh, Wrong question.

Three expressions fought for control of the Warrior Princess' face: anger, threat, and disdain. She flexed her fingers under his nose, finally closing them into a fist and shaking it up and down in frustration. "You ARE coming."

Alarmed at Xena's reaction, Autolycus jumped up and backed away from her. When she didn't actually hit him, a relieved, but puzzled, look crossed the thief's face. He stammered in his haste to agree with her demand. "Er… uh… yeah… sure… Xena, whatever you say." What's got into her? She usually saves her anger for more important things, not my joking with her. Short fuse, today? But he didn't feel it wise to push her in her present frame of mind. A nasty Warrior Princess was pretty terrifying. He scrambled to get his belongings and saddle his horse, which he'd had the foresight to put in Herodotus' barn.

Xena saddled Argo and swung up on her back. There I go again. First Gabrielle, now Autolycus. Keep this up and I won't be able to look anyone in the eye. She rode out of the barn, stopped to swing Gabrielle up behind her, then headed for the Village Square, with Autolycus following.

Gabrielle's father was surprised to see his daughter and Xena join the group. "Would you rather ride with your father?" Xena asked the bard.

No, I'd rather stay with you and help you fight the demons that are bothering you. But if I told you that, out here in the light of day, you would laugh. "OK, for a little while. It might be more comfortable than riding Argo all day. But come back and get me if you… need me."

Xena turned her head further around until her cobalt-blue eyes met her partner's concerned gaze. "I'll always need you," she murmured softly, followed with a rare, unbelievably sweet smile. "But I guess I can let your father enjoy your company for a little while."

Gabrielle's eyes sparkled back at her partner in appreciation. Now that's the Xena I'm used to. This hot and cold change of temper is tough on us sidekicks.

The Warrior Princess rode over to the wagon and, reaching behind her, swung Gabrielle down onto the seat next to Herodotus. The warrior nodded to the man and got a short nod in return. Herodotus was uncomfortable that the woman he reviled--a woman warrior--had saved his life. He still wouldn't allow himself to even begin to like Xena, but he reluctantly recognized her incredible abilities. At least, I know Gabrielle is not in the danger I thought she was in, while traveling on unsafe trails.

"Let's move out!" Prince Hamlon called, and the soldiers lined up as before, four in front and four behind the wagon. Xena, when she wasn't reconnoitering the area they were crossing, rode alongside Prince Hamlon, while Autolycus rode with the other soldiers.

For the first few days, Gabrielle stayed mostly with her father, telling her captive audience tales of her and Xena's adventures. Herodotus was so pleased to have his daughter's attention that he begrudgingly listened to her praise of her friend.

For a few hours each day, she rode with Xena, knowing that her presence was a calming influence. She knew Xena still wasn't sleeping well and could feel the tension in her body as she rode behind her. The bard was growing more and more concerned.

The Warrior Princess would always leave the group about half an hour before they camped, checking the surrounding area, assuring herself that the campsite was safe. Then she would surprise and delight the campers with fish or rabbit for their meals.

The soldiers were intrigued by the fighting abilities they had witnessed at the inn and Prince Hamlon persuaded Xena to put on an exhibition of her leaps and sword drills.

Autolycus and Gabrielle sat with Herodotus during the exhibition. When Xena was finishing up, Autolycus remarked, "She just keeps getting better." But that was a pretty short exhibition.

"Yeah, she does, doesn't she?" Gabrielle's eyes shone as she saw her friend in action. Xena practiced her drills very early in the morning, so the bard seldom witnessed them. And, during a fight, she hardly had time to watch her. Sitting here watching so many intricate movements, and the speed, grace and agility with which Xena performed them, was a real treat. Plus, the drills seemed to have a calming effect on the Warrior Princess.

The Guard clapped and whistled when Xena finished. She saluted them with her sword, sheathed it and walked over to join Gabrielle, her father and Autolycus. Dropping to the ground next to them, the warrior took several deep breaths. Gabrielle looked at her in concern. "Xena, are you…"

Xena's voice cut sharply across the bard's. "Don't ask." And I told Ephiny to avoid heavy breathing! The Warrior Princess ran her fingers across her forehead and flicked droplets of sweat onto the ground. Well, at least I can still laugh at myself.

"I WILL ask. Look at you! I've never seen drills drain you like this. Don't you think you better start taking it easy? Are you just going to keep on until you drop?" The bard spoke sharply even as concerned green eyes probed her friend's countenance.

Tired as she was, the Warrior Princess jumped up, grabbed Gabrielle's arm and hoisted her up alongside her. With a tight-lipped smile, she said, "Excuse us… please," and hustled the bard further into the trees.

"Xena, let go of me! What do you think you're doing?" Gabrielle fumed.

Letting go and waggling her finger beneath the bard's nose, Xena spit out between clenched teeth. "Now look who's losing her temper."

She's right. One of us better stay cool. Gabrielle fought her anger and it began to dissipate.

But Xena's didn't. "Don't you ever reproach me about anything in front of the people who are in my care. No matter whether you are right or wrong, if you feel a need to criticize me, you will do it privately. I thought you already understood that."

Chagrined, Gabrielle realized that Xena was right again. "I do, Xena, and I apologize. You looked so worn out after that short drill… I'm just so worried about you, I wasn't thinking straight."

Slightly mollified, the Warrior Princess merely nodded. Hades' helmet, it's even tiring to get angry.

"We both know you are not yourself. Maybe you should avoid exhibitions and any unnecessary physical activity until you feel more up to it. That's all I meant. I wasn't trying to embarrass you."

Xena took a deep breath and rested her hand on the bard's shoulder. "It's not a question of embarrassment, Gabrielle. It's a question of respect. If these soldiers see me letting you be critical, then they might think they could get away with it, too. And I would have to hurt anyone who tried. Understand?"

The bard swallowed, shook by this thought. 'I would have to hurt anyone who tried.' "Yeah, I understand. I was wrong and I'll try not to let it happen again."

Then Gabrielle gathered her courage. "But right now, there's no one else around and I have to say something. That's if you promise not to get angry."

The warrior took another deep breath, crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows. "Well?"

"You really should turn back, but you won't. You're just as hardheaded as ever, you know?"

Xena's face twitched, but a corner of her mouth lifted a little. "And you're just as much a pest. Always worrying about me."

Cobalt-blue eyes and mist-green eyes exchanged a tender look that crept past the surface and eased into their hearts. They knew that even angry words couldn't budge their rock-solid love for each other. "Well, somebody has to worry about you. You won't look after yourself." Gabrielle spoke softly. Even now, dead on your feet, you won't slow down, you just keep pushing. The relentless Warrior Princess.

"That's your job, you know." Xena placed her long arm across Gabrielle's shoulders and the two friends walked back into camp.

Herodotus looked up from his conversation with Autolycus. After hearing tales of Xena's exploits, watching the exhibition and, now, observing the obvious friendship between the two women, Herodotus began to get a glimmer of understanding of how close the two were and how much Xena meant to his daughter. Maybe I've been unfair to Gabrielle, demanding that she be what I wanted her to be. Maybe it's time for me to accept that she has a right to make her own choices. Even if I don't agree with them.

 

Chapter 6

Elisa smiled to herself as she replayed the scene in Ephiny's hut a few days ago. She and Gwynna had gone to see the regent to ask a favor. Ephiny, seated at her table with Eponin, Solari, and Claris--the chief healer, had called to the young Amazons when they knocked at her open door. "C'mon in."

The two youngsters entered and bowed to the regent. Elisa was tall, wiry and bronzed, with long black hair and bangs. When she wore her hair loose, as it was today, she looked strikingly like her idol, the Warrior Princess. Her face was slimmer and her cheekbones higher, but her long, gray eyes were nearly as arresting as Xena's blue ones. Elisa wore six throwing knives placed about her body and was an expert in their use. Her high-backed tunic top, unusual for an Amazon, served to mask the four scabbards lying against her shoulder blades, accessible to either hand.

With Xena's tutelage, and her own desire, Elisa had turned herself into an exceptional fighter. She was formidable with sword, staff, or hand-to-hand, and constantly worked to improve her skills.

Gwynna, her almost constant companion, also was tall, but built a bit sturdier and her fair, brown-eyed face was crowned with wheat-blonde hair. Gwynna's forte in fighting was the staff, though she also had become noteworthy with the sword, being tormented by Elisa into being her sparring partner. And she was the best tracker the Amazons had.

"What can I do for you?" Ephiny and the others smiled at the two newcomers. Both were well-liked and had proven their loyalty to their nation and their queen in battle.

Elisa looked at Gwynna, who nodded, and then she spoke. "Gwynna and I would like permission to follow after Queen Gabrielle and Xena."

Surprised, Ephiny raised her eyebrows. "You know your absence would be felt, here, Elisa. It would weaken our strength at a time when we could ill afford it. Is there a special reason for your request?" Elisa wasn't aware that news had just arrived of a warlord laying waste to several villages about a two-week ride from the Amazon nation. It was likely that he would cause them no harm but this unofficial meeting at Ephiny's had just been discussing sending a few Amazons to keep an eye on him.

"Xena's appearance, and some of the problems she was experiencing, lead us to believe she was not fully recovered when she and Queen Gabrielle left. In fact, she seemed like maybe something more was wrong with her." Elisa's voice had a new ring of maturity in it. "I've been thinking about it and worrying about it and finally, I decided I need to follow and find out how she is. A weak Warrior Princess would be dangerous not only for herself, but also for our queen."

"Just what do you know about her condition that worries you?" Ephiny's brow furrowed.

Elisa stood taller and swept all four women with her gaze. "When she was well, Xena always practiced drills with me in the early morning. As she started to recuperate from her wounds, she joined me again for the drills, but she never completed them. Even after a couple weeks, she still couldn't complete the drills. And she would be worn out when she finished what she did."

"That sure doesn't sound like the Princess," Eponin offered.

"Not only that, but when she did her leaping drills, she never went as high as usual. And she would skip some of them, too. When I asked her about it, she said she hadn't been sleeping well and she was a bit tired. I know that for a fact, because, as you may know, I always sleep outside, in the woods behind the queen's hut. I've seen Xena come out at all hours of the night and walk around a bit, then just sit on the porch. Sometimes she would take Argo out for a ride. But she never was real active."

Claris mumbled something and Ephiny turned toward the healer. "You make something of this, Claris?"

"Sounds to me like Xena could be suffering from some sort of fatigue. Can't sleep right, probably can't eat right, tired all the time, no energy, exhausted--and probably irritable. But who knows what could be causing it?"

"So, what would you suggest?" Ephiny asked.

"I don't think it's something Xena can just work her way through, which is probably what she is trying to do. Instead, she would be getting progressively weaker and tireder and having even more difficulty sleeping. It's a vicious circle. I would say that she should be brought back here right away, so we can find out the cause and treat it. The sooner the better."

Eponin exclaimed, "Like who's going to bring the Princess back here if she doesn't want to come, weak or not?"

Gwynna spoke up into the silence this remark caused. "If we can convince Gabrielle that Xena needs attention, maybe Xena will come back to please her."

Ephiny smiled at the blonde Amazon. "I think you are on the right track. Xena pretty much tries to do whatever Gabrielle asks her to, if she's insistent enough. OK, you two go after them and see if you can get Xena back here before either one of them gets hurt."

By now, Elisa and Gwynna had been on the trail for several days. They had been to Poteidaia and found out that Xena and Gabrielle were accompanying a treasure party to King Philomaros' castle. Elisa figured they should be coming upon the party soon. There were plenty of signs, complete with wagon ruts, that a large group had passed this way.

Suddenly, Elisa raised her hand, a sign to Gwynna to halt Nightmare, as Elisa halted Viktor. When Elisa beckoned, Gwynna nudged her ebony mare up next to her friend's palomino stallion. "There's a large party of some kind just ahead of us. You wait here in the trees and I will find out who they are."

Elisa dismounted, handed Viktor's reins to Gwynna, and took off running through the trees. In about 15 minutes she was back. "It wasn't the group we're looking for. This is a band of cutthroats, if I'm not mistaken. Looks like they might be following Xena's party. Let's swing off the trail and around them and warn the treasure party that they will have visitors, soon."

The two young Amazons urged their mounts through the forest, giving the brigands a wide berth. Satisfied that they were well past them, Gwynna suggested that they return to the trail. "Not yet, Gwynna. They might have a scouting party out ahead of them. Let's wait till we are nearer the treasure party."

They rode through the trees for a while longer then Elisa put her hand up again, stopped and dismounted. She stood there for a few moments, then said, softly but clearly, "Xena?"

The Warrior Princess strode from the trees, grinning. Elisa took a good look at her and saw that she was noticeably pale. She had lost weight and her face held a bare hint of fatigue. Even her magnificent eyes had lost a bit of their sparkle. But Xena came forward as though nothing bothered her, threw her arms around the young Amazon and gave her a quick hug. "Leese! What a great surprise!" Stepping away, Xena reached up and clasped the young blonde's arm. "Hi, Gwynna, good to see you. What are you two doing here?"

Not anxious to have that question answered yet, Elisa quickly jumped in. "We heard in Poteidaia that you are guarding a treasure party. What are your plans for the outlaws we just passed?"

"They've been following us since we left Poteidaia. I figure they are waiting to join up with a band that is camped about a day's ride southeast of here. Guess they don't want to take any chances jumping us before then. A group tried that already, but… we changed their minds for them." A feral grin crossed Xena's face and the Amazons had no doubt about who had changed their minds.

"I sent word from Poteidaia to King Philomaros that we would need help from the castle. A messenger just reported that about 50 men are on their way. I think they can take care of the band waiting ahead of us and we can take care of the one behind us."

"So…? When do we start taking them out?" Elisa's eyes lit at the prospect of action.

If you two only knew how glad I am to see you. I can use all the help I can get. Xena looked at Gwynna. "You game to try?"

"I go where Leese goes," Gwynna grinned, repeating a phrase similar to one she had heard from Gabrielle.

"Right. Then let's get started. Leese and I will knock them down and you whack them with your staff if they try to get back up. Then start tying them up with rope, reins, whatever you can find, and gag them. Leese and I will help with that part when we are finished."

The two dark-headed women worked at a steady pace. The outlaws were strung out along the trail, riding far enough apart that Xena and Elisa were able to surreptitiously pick two or three outlaws at the end of the group and, working their way up the line, gradually eliminate them. Their most effective mode of attack was to move into the trees above their target, swing down and kick them in the head or neck, sending them flying off their mounts onto the ground, unconscious. Gwynna tied the first few with her own ropes, then scrounged others from the outlaws' saddlebags to use on the next casualties. She pulled their shirttails out and stuffed them in their mouths as gags.

Moving forward in this fashion, they had eliminated all but fifteen when one of the outlaws ahead spied them and yelled. Those remaining turned their mounts and raced toward the three women standing in the trail.

Xena was first in line and she unhorsed the first three men who tried to race by her. Ducking under the first rider's sword swing, she grabbed his arm and threw him to the ground. Jumping into the air, she kicked the next one in the chest and, flipping off of him, she hit the third one in the side with both boots.

The fourth, fifth and sixth went by as she was taking out these three. Elisa dug her sword into the first as he missed her with his. Gwynna jammed her staff into the stomach of the next one who flew into the air, hit the ground and was trampled by another's horse. Elisa ran up a tree trunk, flipped up into the air and kicked two side-by-side riders under their chins, breaking their necks simultaneously. Gwynna dropped her hands to the bottom of her staff and swung it at the head of one coming in her direction. She saw one of the riders Xena had knocked down attempting to rise, and caught him alongside the head with a loud crack.

Jumping for a low branch and throwing her body sideways, Xena cleared three horses of their riders. Elisa and Gwynna downed them for good with sword thrust and staff.

Xena had hit the ground sideways, hard, and was just beginning to rise as the last four saw her predicament and ran their horses at her, intending to run her down. The Warrior Princess rolled sideways and grabbed the boot of one rider. Thrusting her feet against the ground and reaching high up the rider, she vaulted her body up with one hand, drew her chakram to fend off his sword, then sliced his neck with one jerk of the circular weapon as her body continued into the air. Landing on her feet, she saw that the other three riders were lying on the ground, with Elisa's knives sticking out of their throats.

Elisa removed the knives, wiped them off and replaced them in the scabbards she carried nestled against her back. She looked back at Xena and saw the Warrior Princess walk slowly to a seat on a log. Elisa went over and sat beside her and Gwynna joined them.

Xena breathed heavily for about three minutes, then asked, "How come you two are here, anyway?"

Elisa answered. "We came to ask you something." Then the three sat there. For fifteen minutes. Without a word. All three looking straight ahead. Xena could see the Amazons with her peripheral vision and they both sat stolidly, not moving the whole time.

Look at these two. They know something's up, but they won't ask what it is without permission. They'll just sit there without speaking until I give it to them. Or yell at them. Nah, I can't yell at them after what they have just done to help me.

Finally, Xena spoke. "I guess you two are prepared to sit here all night, if necessary, huh?"

Elisa nodded, then so did Gwynna.

"Without speaking."

They both nodded again.

Xena slapped her hands down on each Amazon's thigh. "Guess I taught you too damn well, Leese, and Gwynna is a fast learner, too. What is it you want to know?"

Elisa still didn't look at the warrior, but she was having a tough time keeping her eyes off of her. Somehow, she thought it would be easier for Xena to talk if no one was looking at her. "What's wrong with you, Xena?"

The Warrior Princess put both hands on her head and leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees. She took a deep breath and blew it out through loose lips. Might as well tell somebody the whole story. And I am going to need these two. How wonderful it was to hear them coming down the trail. "Truth is, I don't really know. I can't sleep right. I'm not eating right. I'm exhausted. And I want to smash everybody's face in, and I mean everybody's. I'm having a tough time keeping my temper in check."

The warrior lowered her hands, sat up and blew her breath out again. "Today was a nightmare. Expending so much energy is a terrible drain. Right now, it's an effort just to sit upright."

Finally, Elisa turned her cloud-gray eyes toward Xena and frowned. "You were going to get rid of about 40 outlaws all by yourself? How did you expect to accomplish that, in your condition?"

"Verrrrry slowly," Xena admitted and all three women laughed gently. "You don't know how happy I was to hear you coming. I am really glad you are here. And you both did a great job." Xena looked at each of them and smiled. "How long can you stay?"

"We can stay for as long as you need us." We'll stay forever, if you want us to. Elisa wanted to speak to Gabrielle before broaching the subject of Xena's returning to the Amazon village.

"Wonderful. I'm guarding a ransom that is needed to free a child." Xena explained the whole story to them. "I will be glad for your assistance. Now, let's get back to the group."

Elisa jumped up. "I'll get the horses." She dashed down the trail and came back shortly, riding Viktor and leading Nightmare.

Sliding off her palomino, she extended her hand to Xena. The Warrior Princess grabbed the hand and Elisa heaved her up. "Thanks," Xena smiled. "I'd like to keep my problems quiet, if possible. No sense in making the Guards nervous about whether I can protect them. I'll send a couple soldiers back to round up the prisoners and take them to the nearest jail."

"You can ride Viktor; Gwynna and I will double up on Nightmare." Elisa bent down by Viktor's stirrup, intertwining her fingers, and gave the warrior a lift onto Viktor's back. Then she hopped up behind an already mounted Gwynna and the two followed Xena to camp.

 

Chapter 7

The soldiers had stopped for a midday break and Gabrielle was supremely worried. Her father and Autolycus were seated at some distance from the soldiers. Pacing back and forth next to the two men, she marked every step with an angry stab of her staff into the soil. All the while she kept muttering to herself. Where is she? I know she keeps going off into the forest, checking to make sure the way is clear. But this is the longest she has been gone. She said another bunch of outlaws has been trailing us. What if they have caught her? What will they do with her? What will they do TO her?

Argo was tied to the wagon, which meant Xena was afoot. The bard ordinarily wouldn't have been so worried, but she knew that the sickness Xena was struggling with was gradually weakening her. Of all times to commit herself to assuring the safe arrival of this darn treasure. What is she going to do? Xena, where ARE you? And why didn't you take Argo?

Herodotus saw that his daughter was distraught and guessed that she was worked up over the warrior's absence. "I don't know why you are so worried. Your friend seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself."

Gabrielle whirled around. "You know, Father, if Xena only cared about taking care of herself, I wouldn't worry. But she's trying to take care of all of us and a treasure, too. She's the only one standing between us and those 30 or 40 outlaws out there. And besides that, she's sick."

Herodotus frowned as he contemplated the words he had just heard. One sick woman protecting us from that many outlaws? Impossible! Even Xena has her limitations. And what good are eight soldiers going to be against such a force? Herodotus started to be concerned about his daughter and himself.

"Gabrielle," Autolycus spoke up. "You can stop your worrying. Look over there."

The bard whirled around, looking in the direction the King of Thieves had indicated. Thank the gods! Xena… on Argo? Puzzled, Gabrielle's head swept from the mounted Xena to the tied Argo and back. Before her mind could get straight, Nightmare came out of the trees, carrying Elisa and Gwynna.

With a wide, wide grin, Gabrielle breathed, "Praise the gods!" Now Xena will have some help. And so will I.

The riders came to where she stood. Elisa and Gwynna slipped off of Nightmare and knelt on one knee in front of their queen. Gabrielle motioned them up then gave each a fervent hug. "What a welcome sight you two are! I am so happy to see you. What are you doing here?"

Herodotus looked on in surprise. So there really are Amazons that Gabrielle is queen of. I thought it was just an honorary title. Two more women warriors. Hummph. Though these two aren't much more than kids. That dark-haired one looks something like Xena, same arrogant look and all.

"You know Leese. She got restless," Gwynna laughed. "So here we are." They would wait to speak privately with Gabrielle before they revealed the real reason for their arrival.

Xena had dismounted and gone to sit next to Autolycus. "You remember the force of bandits who were following us? They aren't there anymore."

Autolycus turned to the warrior, wide-eyed. He twirled his finger, encompassing Xena and the young Amazons. "You three…?"

"Yep. Those girls are good." A weary smile graced her face.

"Why didn't you get me to help?" he asked.

"Well, I was only going to check on the outlaws, make sure they weren't readying an attack. Then out or nowhere come these two Amazons just rarin' for a fight and I thought, 'Why not?' So we did."

"And I missed all the fun!" Autolycus said with a happy grin.

"Yeeaaahh," the warrior chuckled. "Tell Prince Hamlon to send a couple soldiers to round up what's left of the outlaws and take them to the nearest village jail."

"I'll do that." Autolycus wasn't bothered by the fact that Xena ordered rather than asking. When she was in charge, she seldom asked. And he knew better than to refuse her. In fact, he was more than happy to have her in charge. He trusted no one's abilities more than he trusted Xena's. He had just spent the last hour trying to explain that to Herodotus who, in spite of seeing Xena in action, still had doubts about her. Funny, but I have the distinct feeling that he will get to see more of the Warrior Princess in action before this job is over.

********************

Early the next day, the travelers neared the area where the second group of outlaws had camped. Xena, assuming nothing, now rode at the front of the party, next to Prince Hamlon, ever alert. The presence of Elisa and Gwynna allowed Xena to alternate reconnaissance duties, allowing fresh eyes to be constantly on the watch for trouble. The young Amazons had left several hours before dawn to check on the forward area.

Because she had taken the time to dispose of the outlaws preying on the party from the rear, Xena had been unable to meet the force sent out by King Philomaros to deal with the second group ahead of them. Anxious to hear from either Elisa or Gwynna, the Warrior Princess fidgeted with a building restlessness. If someone doesn't show up soon, I'm going out there myself. That's the heart of Draco's army the king's forces are going against; I just hope they haven't underestimated that.

From her vantage point on the wagon seat, Gabrielle could tell Xena was restless. Her partner's head swiveled constantly back and forth and her shoulders stayed tight. Even Argo felt her tension. The golden warhorse flipped her head periodically, reacting to the pressure of Xena's hands unconsciously tightening on the reins.

As the bard watched, she saw Gwynna come rushing full tilt on Nightmare. The blonde Amazon swung her mount around and rode right next to Xena, shouting something to her and Prince Hamlon. Xena turned her head to the rear, yelling, "Autolycus!"

The King of Thieves spurred his horse past the wagon and steered to the other side of the Warrior Princess as the prince moved to make room for him

.

"Autolycus, the king's force is in trouble. Draco's army is beating them. You and Gabrielle stay here and help the Guard with the treasure in case some of those renegades break away and try to attack. And Autolycus..." Intense blue eyes bored into him and sent a clearly demanding message. "Keep an eye on Gabrielle and her father."

"I'll do that, Xena, I promise. And you be careful."

Xena's usual crooked grin pulled up the side of her mouth. "I'm always careful." She and Gwynna bolted off along the trail.

Autolycus snorted. Yeah, she's always careful. Wonder how Gabrielle puts up with watching her go off into danger time after time? That's gotta be heart-thudding for anyone who cares about her. I know it is for me!

"I'll ride next to the wagon," Autolycus told Prince Hamlon, understanding that the bard would be anxious to hear what was going on.

 

********************

Xena eased Argo back just a trifle to let Gwynna come even with her. "You say the king's men are surrounded? Where's Leese?"

"Yeah, Xena. It looks like they were sucked right into a trap. Rivers on two sides, a bluff on the third, and Draco's army advancing on them from the fourth." Gwynna's warm brown eyes crinkled in worry. "Last I saw Leese, she had climbed into the trees and was headed toward the action."

"I hope she has sense enough to wait for us."

"Yeah, me too," Gwynna prayed.

Finally, the two came close enough to hear the sounds of battle. Xena slowed Argo down and walked her carefully forward until she could see movement through the trees. She slipped off of Argo and threw the reins over a bush. Gwynna dismounted and followed her as the warrior crept closer.

Xena threw up her hand and stopped, listening. Other than the battle, Gwynna couldn't discern anything, but a few moments later Elisa dropped from a tree beside them. Gwynna reached out and squeezed her shoulder and was rewarded with a quick smile.

"Glad you waited for reinforcements," Xena drawled.

Elisa grinned as she shook her head. "There's only one Warrior Princess and it's not me."

Xena grinned back. "What did you find out?" The three squatted down and Elisa drew in the dirt with a twig to show the positions of the two forces.

"About fifteen archers on the bluff are showering arrows down on the king's troops. The rest of Draco's army is forcing the soldiers back against the rivers and the bluff and soon they will be in a position to slaughter them." Elisa filled Xena in calmly and thoroughly. "The only way out is down either river and that's pretty chancy because of the surging rapids where the two rivers meet. In a choice between fighting or drowning, I think the king's troops will fight."

"I think you're right, there. Any ideas on how to stop Draco?" Xena liked to give the young Amazons a chance to learn to develop strategy for fighting. They both appreciated her tutelage and gave serious attention to the problem.

"The archers need to be put out of commission." Gwynna voiced the first piece of strategy. Xena pursed her lips and nodded, then raised an eyebrow toward Elisa.

"While one does that, the other two could open a path for the king's men to escape through." Elisa suggested the second piece. Xena waited but nothing more was forthcoming.

She looked from one to the other. They were waiting for her assessment. "You're both right, up to a point. Leese, you take out the archers and Gwynna and I will open a path. But once the path is opened, we need to get the soldiers to turn to the left and right and split Draco's forces in two. Then his army will have to run for their lives or be trapped against the rivers themselves." Xena closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

A quick look of alarm passed between Elisa and Gwynna. The warrior's eyes flew open, catching them, and she snorted. "Stop worrying, we can do this. Get moving, Leese. Gwynna you stick close to me." The Warrior Princess didn't realize the young Amazons weren't concerned about the success of the strategy, they were concerned about her. All three stood up. The two young friends hugged each other and murmured a few parting words, then Elisa climbed into the trees and Gwynna hurried to catch up to Xena.

Spaced about 30 yards apart, the archers concentrated their efforts on felling as many soldiers as possible with barrage after barrage of arrows. The first didn't even hear Elisa sneak up behind him through the treetops. He felt the thud when she dropped to the ground. As he turned around, she slit his throat with one of her razor-sharp throwing knives.

Sheathing the knife, she jumped for a low limb and swung herself back into the trees. Quickly and stealthily she picked them off, one by one. Most didn't even feel her presence, but were dropped without a warning.

Meanwhile, Xena ran back to Argo and leaped aboard the saddle. Gwynna rushed to mount Nightmare and the two women charged through the trees and out toward the fray. Gwynna slid from her horse as the Warrior Princess vaulted from Argo.

Xena's "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi," battlecry echoed against the bluff and soared through the air. For a split second, all fighting froze. As Xena plunged into a horde of bodies, swinging her sword like a reaper, a man some distance away listened half-admiringly to the sound.

A wide grin split his face. "Xena. Well, Princess, I'm afraid you've got your hands full this time. Today, I'm the winner." Draco's confident bragging drew a grin from his men. But the grins were short-lived. They couldn't pull their eyes from the unbelievable sight of the Warrior Princess cutting a swath through their fellows. And the blonde with her was doing her share, too.

The young Amazon and the warrior fought savagely, side-by-side, eliminating everyone near them. Gwynna preferred fighting with the staff, but they were so vastly outnumbered she knew they could ill afford to fight the same outlaw twice, so she used her sword. Pushed to the limit of her abilities, and beyond, she drew strength from the fact that the legendary Warrior Princess fought at her side.

Thrusting, slashing, head-butting, jumping, kicking, punching, Xena systematically fought her way through the crowd. Knowing that she did not have her usual strength or stamina, the warrior paced herself but still steadily eradicated anyone near her.

Then one swordsman struck a blow to her leg as she parried several others. Blood oozed out and trickled down the bronzed limb, but that was only a minimal effect compared to the reaction it released in the Warrior Princess. Throwing all caution to the winds, Xena stormed into battle fury. All her movements soared into even higher gear. The horde of soldiers began to back away from her furious attack. Slash! Thrust! Hack! Her sword seemed to have a life of its own, spraying death and destruction on all in its path.

Suddenly, Xena's energy gave out and she stumbled. Just as her knee hit the earth, another cry sounded across the battlefield. "EeeeeeeeeeeYahhhhhhh!" Elisa, flipping through the air, landed at Xena's right hand and parried a thrust meant to cut down the warrior. The dark-haired Amazon took over where Xena had left off. What she lacked in Xena's strength and speed, she made up for in ingenuity and agility.

Her timely arrival gave the warrior a much-needed respite. Though short, it provided Xena an essential moment to catch her breath, call on whatever reserve strength she still had and resume the battle, once more pacing herself. The three women, working in concert, opened a path for the surrounded royal soldiers. When they poured forth, Xena directed one group to fall against the enemy on one side while Elisa and Gwynna pointed another group to the other side.

As Xena had planned, Draco's army was divided by this strategy. One contingent, caught between the bluff and a river, fell to the royal onslaught led by the two young Amazons. The second, realizing the sudden switch in the precariousness of their position, hurriedly retreated with their disgruntled leader, Draco.

As he fled the battle, Draco turned and waved his sword threateningly toward the warrior. "We'll meet again, Xena!"

The imposing Warrior Princess drew herself to her full height, thrust up her own sword and shouted back, "You can count on that, Draco! And you better not hurt that boy!"

Draco shook his head in disbelief as he and his men mounted their waiting horses and hurried away. How does she know I have the boy? Or did have him. She'd have a good laugh at the trouble he's caused me!

Xena caught hold of the leader of the king's troops and suggested that he round up his men, wait for the treasure party to reach them and join the party for the rest of the trip.

The three women gathered their horses and headed back. "What did you mean by what you yelled to Draco, Xena?" Elisa looked inquiringly at the warrior. "You think he has the boy?"

The warrior's face was still hardened from battle intensity and her jaw muscles rippled, "Yeah, I do."

"But why would he try to steal the treasure? He could just wait till the ransom was delivered." Gwynna frowned, trying to sort the answer in her own mind.

Elisa's quick mind arrived there first. "If he stole the treasure and no one connected the theft with the kidnapping, he could continue to demand the ransom. He'd get paid twice."

"Exactly. But he's tried twice and both times he has failed. Now, he'll probably settle for the ransom." The Warrior Princess' lip curled up in derision. "But now he knows that I know he kidnapped the boy and he's going to worry that he might not collect the ransom, after all."

"But if you stop the ransom, he might kill the boy," Gwynna argued.

"Do you think I'm that stupid?" Xena snapped. She sensed, rather than saw, Gwynna's startled reaction to her nasty tone. Easy, Xena.

"I won't stop the ransom," Xena assured her. Then her cobalt-blue eyes took on silvery highlights and her voice lowered into a snarl. "I'll just take it back after he returns the boy."

Elisa looked at Gwynna uncomfortably. I doubt even Gabrielle will be able to persuade Xena to return to the Amazon territory until this boy is saved. But can Xena hold herself together long enough to do all that she plans?

 

Continued...Part 2 (Conclusion)

 


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