The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal Pictures. Their use in this piece of fan fiction is not intended to infringe upon the rights of the studios or any of their benefactors.

Violence: Well… of course! We are talking about the Warrior Princes, aren’t we? Nothing more graphic than what’s on the show, though.

Sex: Puhlease… get your collective minds out of the aqueducts! Sorry, but my imagination isn’t quite that developed.

Subtext: Not really… but it does contain some emotional moments. It’s basically a Xena/Gabby adventure with a little of me thrown in ;)

Enjoy!!

 

So Brave…

By Gabby Kat

Leaves and twigs cracked at the edge of the clearing. An untrained ear may have dismissed the disturbance in the night air as some woodland creature, but the once sleeping warrior knew otherwise. The unseen danger, lurking at the base of an old cypress tree, peered through the misty darkness at his sleeping prey. Unfortunately for him, the warrior was feigning sleep to ensure her advantage of surprise.

Clutched in the warrior’s right hand was a circular blade, adorned with polished shells that shone like jewels. The chakram’s gold and silver color created the finished look of an ornate piece of jewelry. This piece of jewelry, however, was known to cut through steel, hard woods, and the occasional cranial cap. As the warrior tightened her fingers around her weapon, she tilted her head to her right, away from the danger in the woods. The safety of her companion was first and foremost. The bard was soundly sleeping on her back, with her legs crossed at her ankles, left arm draped across her exposed abdomen and right arm behind her head. The chill in the air became apparent as the bard rolled onto her right side, pulling a blanket across her left shoulder. Settling once again, the bard nuzzled into the soft earth beneath her woolen bedroll. Content that her companion was relaxed in place, the warrior focused her senses, once again, on the wood’s edge.

It was instantaneous, the snap of the twig and the whistle of the chakram seemed to occupy the same existence. Steel cracked against steel and the intruder’s sword snapped in two. As the damaged blade hit the ground, the warrior leapt to her feet, grasping the chakram, once again, as it sailed back to her on the whisper of a disappearing night. She replaced the weapon to its holder on her right hip, and leveled her steely gaze at the intruder as he encroached upon the clearing. He was still holding his wrist in his left hand from the reverberation of the chakram’s strike.

The intruder, with his tangled web of hair and foul smelling garb, rushed the warrior with the fury and determination of a Centaur attacking an Amazon. He barely got within ten feet of the warrior before she expelled her war cry, startling the intruder, causing him to hesitate. She scarcely relied on the hesitations of her attackers, but the warrior certainly knew how to take advantage of them. With the grace of a swan and the strength of a tiger, the warrior leapt forward, tucking her knees to her chest, completing a forward flip in the direction of the intruder. To his dismay, the warrior extended her left leg at the end of the flip, creating a devastating connection between the outside edge of her foot and the end of his chin. The intruder’s hulking frame melted into the damp earth. Satisfied that this barely competent intruder was reduced to unconsciousness, the warrior relaxed her shoulders.

"Xena!" the bard’s scream pierced the air like a dart.

The warrior spun around on one heel and steadied herself into a fighting stance. When her eyes met her companion’s, the warrior’s jaw set strong and firm. The first attack was a rouse to distract her… it worked. The bard had been plucked from her sleep by a thug three times her size. She was locked in by a one-arm hold, trapping her own capable limbs. What disturbed the warrior most was the blade pressed against her companion’s throat. It was Xena’s sword. The warrior scanned the campfire stones and found her empty scabbard. Xena’s right shoulder tightened as she moved for her chakram.

"I’ll slit her throat before it ever leaves your hip."

"And yours’ll be slit before she hits the ground!" Xena hissed through clenched teeth. The bard’s brow wrinkled at the thought of her lifeless corpse being a mere distraction for this mongrel of a man.

"Oh come now, Xena, if there’s one thing I can count on its your devotion to this brat." Xena’s companion rolled her eyes as she struggled against her captor’s strength. "Uh, uh little girl! You’re the leverage I’ve been waiting for," he mumbled through rotten teeth and foul breath. As the kidnapper began inching away from the clearing, the bard went limp on her right leg.

"Gabrielle!" Was Xena’s exclamation at the sight of her injured friend. "You bastard, what have you done to her?!"

The kidnapper’s expression went from irritation to perplexity. "Oh for Hades’ sake, what’s wrong with you?" The kidnapper asked as he was now dragging his limp prize.

"Unless you intend to carry me to wherever it is you’re taking me, you’ll let me get my walking stick. You don’t think traveling with the Warrior Princess comes without the occasional sprained ankle, do you?" The bard’s gift of gab was a true showcase of her talent.

"Oh all right! But Xena, if you so much as flinch… I’ll run her through with your sword!" Xena put her hands up as if in surrender. After which she crossed her arms and watched the bard go to work. Gabrielle hobbled to the campfire stones, with the point of Xena’s sword in the small of her back. The kidnapper kept himself in Gabrielle’s wake as if to shield himself from the warrior’s vengeance. While the two walked, he kept his eyes trained on Xena to make sure she didn’t try anything.

Once at the campfire stones, Gabrielle stooped over to retrieve her walking stick. Grabbing it firmly with both hands, the bard, who had been trained to use this *stick* by Amazons, whirled around, catching the kidnapper on the cheekbone with the tip of the fighting staff. Caught off guard, the kidnapper dropped Xena’s sword, and with one circular motion, the bard swept the back of his ankles with her staff, knocking him to his back. Foul air rushed from his gullet as he reached for the right side of his face. Xena was kneeling over the kidnapper before he released his first moan. A jab from each of Xena’s middle fingers to either side of his neck, just above the collarbone, rendered the kidnapper helpless. He began losing sensation in his lower extremities as his oxygen-deprived brain began to waiver.

"I’ve cut of the flow of blood to your brain. You’ll be dead in 30 seconds unless you tell me what you were doing." Xena spoke these words as if they were a standardized warning to all those who opposed her. While the kidnapper gasped for air and struggled against Xena’s infamous *pinch* Gabrielle held fast to her staff and scanned the wood’s edge for further attacks. Blood began to pool from the thug’s nose and each labored breath was a desperate clutch at life.

"The choice is yours, tell me what I want to know and I’ll release you. Who sent you?" Xena’s patience was wearing thin.

"Mm… Malchus."

"Malchus?! First you interrupt my sleep, then you try and kidnap my best friend, now you’re lying to me!"

"Nnno, I swear it! Malchus hired me to grab the girl. Said you’d do anything to get her back."

Xena squinted her eyes, "Malchus knows I’d come after her, he’s too much of a coward to stand against me in a battle like that."

"He didn’t want the brat, just proof that I had her… the ransom she was going to bring was mine to keep." The kidnapper’s words were becoming increasingly strained.

"Xena, what is he talking about, it doesn’t make any sense." Gabrielle whispered.

The flow of blood from the kidnapper’s nose was steady now, "I swear it Xena, that’s all I know!" Xena inhaled slowly, tightened her jaw and thrust her fingers into the kidnapper’s neck, reversing the deadly pinch. The kidnapper relaxed at once, sucking in air from the cool night. The rush of sensation to his body nearly caused unconsciousness. At the moment just before he should have passed out, he looked up and caught Xena’s glare, then proceeded to catch Xena’s right fist across the bridge of his nose.

"Xena?… " Xena was quite familiar with the tone in Gabrielle’s question and she knew that the bard was looking for answers that the warrior just did not have. Xena calmed herself before she stood and approached Gabrielle. Gabrielle was still clutching her staff, her dazed stare focused on the kidnapper. "Who is Malchus and what in Zeus’ name would he want with me?" Gabrielle’s question turned into a demand for information, as Xena put her hand on the bard’s tense shoulder.

"Evidently, Malchus didn’t want you… just proof that you were gone," Xena’s attempt at a soothing tone wasn’t quite successful.

"Proof?! I don’t even want to know what that meant!"

Xena could tell that her friend was loosing patience with this whole ordeal, as was the warrior, herself. Xena softened her voice, "Don’t worry Gabrielle, we’ll get to the bottom of this."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves. She returned her stare to the motionless cretin on the ground. A cool breeze whirled the leaves around them and taunted the bard’s nose with the kidnapper’s odor. Gabrielle shivered and hunched her shoulders at the thought of this man’s embrace. She looked back at Xena, who was beginning to pack up their camp, and said, "Okay, what about him?"

Xena raised her left eyebrow, "Oh he looks comfy right where he is, with any luck a wild boar will come snuggle with him after we leave." The bard couldn’t resist a chuckle at such an image.

***

The warrior and her companion finished packing up the campsite as the morning sky started to glow soft amber with the first hint of sunlight. Xena’s thoughts drifted to a time, long ago, a time that wasn’t blessed with the presence of her most trusted friend.

She knew Malchus from many years ago when he had ridden with her army, until the day he betrayed her. Among his many character faults was his tenacity for being overly arrogant. Malchus had intentionally botched a reconnaissance mission, enabling an opposing warlord the advantage of surprise. Xena lost 8 soldiers that day when she was ambushed at the Hermopolis Canyon. The death toll should have been 9 when she had found out the ambush was because of Malchus’ betrayal. Xena wanted his blood on her hands but her 2nd in command, Bryccus, told her that the warlord reneged on his original deal with Malchus and had run him through with his sword upon his return to the warlord’s camp.

Xena’s trust in Bryccus’ word was misplaced, because in that instant she realized the familiarity she found in the kidnapper. Bryccus had put on a few extra pounds and let his personal hygiene fall to the wayside, and had evidently taken up mercenary kidnapping as a new profession. Xena surmised that Bryccus must have bottomed out, leading him to ally himself again with Malchus. ‘I don’t know what you’re up to Malchus, but you’ll wish that warlord had sent you to ride on Charon’s boat by the time I’m finished with you…’ Xena narrowed her eyes as she thought to herself.

***

The sun was hanging low in the morning sky, and the warmth it brought encouraged a chorus of songs from the birds. But the peaceful noises echoing from the woods were silenced at once. Xena sat back in her horse’s saddle, which brought Argo to a standstill. The bard looked up at her companion, brow furrowed. Xena squinted her eyes, as her senses started to focus. The warrior dismounted her horse, and as she landed on the leaf-covered trail she removed her sword from its scabbard. Xena pressed her left index finger to her lips, an unspoken indication for Gabrielle to keep quiet. Brushing past the bard, Xena approached a small pine sapling that was bent away from the trail and in toward the woods. Xena cross-stepped her way to the unnaturally disturbed sapling with her sword at the ready.

"Show yourself… you don’t want me coming in there after you!" Xena’s command was in a low tone; however, said in such a way that the person hiding in the woods felt compelled to come forward. Stumbling from the wood’s edge was a small boy, 9 or 10 years of age, with hair the color of the midnight sky and eyes as green as the Ixion Stone. The boy was covered with a tattered tunic that looked like it was soiled from days of hiding in the woods.

The boy approached Xena ad was consumed by the shadow cast by the warrior’s six-foot frame. He did his best to look Xena in the face, holding his head high and his shoulders square, but the size disparity was too great. Xena re-sheathed her sword and knelt in front of the boy. He watched her every move with burning intensity and when Xena placed her hand on his left shoulder he tightened his muscles in an effort to display his strength.

"What’s your name?" Xena asked, almost in a whisper.

"Rygel. And you’ll let me pass or suffer consequences you can not begin to imagine." The boy responded, trying to hide the fear in his voice.

Xena raised her eyebrows. "Easy now. We mean you no harm. As a matter of fact, if you tell me where you’re headed, we’ll make sure you get there safely."

"The only help you could give me is to tell me where Hercules is. He’s the only one who can help my village. Or at least that’s what the Elders say." Rygel cast his stare toward the ground. Xena realized that the boy was exhausted and now he looked defeated. His fašade of bravery was beginning to give way to his physical limitations.

"Xena…" Gabrielle’s words were interrupted by the boy.

"Xena?! The Warrior Princess!" Gabrielle glanced at the boy, then back at Xena, but before she could continue speaking, the boy’s excitement brought forth a flood of words. "My sister told me about you. She insisted that you could help us, but the Elders wouldn’t hear of it. They said no woman could defeat the warlord. They said we would have to search out Hercules or Jason or someone like that. She tried to convince them, even said that you’d probably be easier to find!" Rygel’s speech was becoming difficult to understand.

"Okay, okay, calm down. Yes I’m Xena and this is Gabrielle." Xena looked up at Gabrielle as the bard began to lower herself to her knees. "I can probably find Hercules for you… "

"Karena wanted you to help us. She’s the smartest person I know. A lot smarter than any of those Elders!" The boy was still hurling his words in desperation.

"They must not be very smart, if they sent a young boy into the unknown to search for help." Gabrielle offered.

"Well, they didn’t send me. All they’ve done for the past week is argue about what needed to be done. Problem is, they’re all a bunch of cowards. No one would volunteer to quest for Hercules." Rygel was visibly irritated at the thought of the men making all the decisions for his village.

"So you volunteered?" Gabrielle asked, impressed with Rygel’s bravery.

"Well, not exactly… "

"What do you mean not exactly?" Xena interjected, furrowing her brow.

"Well, Karena volunteered, but the Elders wouldn’t hear of it. They said that this was no job for a woman."

"No job for a woman… the men were too afraid to do it themselves, but even more afraid to let a woman do it for them?!" Xena was becoming determined to pay the Elders a visit regardless of their need for help.

"I know, I know, like I said, they’re cowards. When Karena came home from the village meeting, she told me she was going to set out the next morning to find you, not Hercules, and bring you into help us. She said it would really irk the Elders." Rygel wrinkled his nose on the last words, to which Gabrielle couldn’t resist a stifled laugh.

"Then where’s your sister?" Xena asked, still processing the child’s words in her mind.

"Back home I guess. I couldn’t let her leave the village. She’s the only one with enough guts to stand up anyone, especially that stupid warlord."

"I like her already," Gabrielle replied.

"Anyway, I left her a note and begged her not to follow. I wanted to be the one to bring help to the village. Of course I figured it would be Hercules, but Karena will be so proud of me… the Warrior Princess." Rygel’s face lit up.

"You’ve convinced us Rygel, how far is your village from here?" Xena started to rise, placing her hand on the boy’s head and mussing up his hair.

"Arghhh.. my sister does that to me." Rygel squirmed to get out from under Xena’s hand. "Therian… it’s about a day and a half east of here."

"A day and a half? You look like you’ve been in these woods for a week or more." Gabrielle mused at the condition of the boy’s clothes.

"I’m a little clumsy, besides, these are my ‘adventure clothes.’ I didn’t want Karena to have to mend my good ones when I got back." Rygel looked down at his tunic as he spoke.

Gabrielle picked up her staff in her left hand and put her right arm around Rygel’s shoulder. "Since we have a long walk ahead of us… do you like stories?"

"She’s got hundred’s of’em Rygel," with that Xena climbed onto her horse and nudged Argo’s sides to get several strides in front of the bard and their new traveling companion.

 

 

***

"Karena, calm down-"

"Calm down… calm down?! How can you say that to me? My brother is out there all alone, because none of you would volunteer to go look for your ‘Champion’! I would have done it in a second, but no! That wouldn’t meet with the Elders’ approval either. So now, I’ve got to brood over the fact that my baby brother is traipsing into Gods’ know what kind of trouble… Oh this is ridiculous!" The young woman’s cheeks were flushed with anger as she continued her tirade, her brother’s note a wrinkled piece of parchment in her white-knuckled fist.

******

Karena was wise beyond her years. Her life seasoned and hardened by unspeakable horrors. Her past was mostly a mystery to the people of Therian, which explained why most of the villagers shunned her and refused to accept her offer to find help against the warlord. It wasn’t so much because she was female but because she was not born of Therian. She was found several seasons ago, beaten to unconsciousness and left for dead at the edge of the north road leading into the village. She had been discarded, left for the vultures to swarm and mangle. It was only by luck that Rygel and his father, Myilus, had returned home three days early from their fishing trip. The weather had proved to be unseasonably cold that fall and quite unexpected. The disappointment in Rygel’s face that morning nearly broke Myilus’ heart, but there’s no way they could have withstood the frigid winds blowing in from the north. The winds beckoned father and son home like a message from the Gods because they forced an encounter that saved Karena’s life.

When Myilus found Karena and saw the brutality that had been bludgeoned upon her weakened frame, he’d felt his heart skip a beat. Quite honestly, he had thought she was already dead, but when he knelt beside her and placed his callused hand upon her bruised cheek, she opened sullen green eyes that reflected terror at him.

Outsiders weren’t welcomed in Therian, but Myilus couldn’t leave the girl. He had looked up at Rygel and saw nearly the same terrified green eyes in his son that had looked up at him from the girl. Myilus picked up the girl and placed her as gently as he could manage into their small weather-beaten wagon. When Myilus and Rygel had finally returned to Therian, Myilus’ wife awaited them inside their home. The house was warm and smelled of fresh roasted mutton and cinnamon bread. Darian had a sixth sense for knowing when her family was near… roasted mutton was her husband’s favorite meal and cinnamon bread always brought a smile to Rygel’s face.

There were no smiles when Rygel had come through the front door, though. Myilus followed, with Karena in his arms, as limp and frail as a withered olive branch. Darian’s mouth dropped open in horror. She had rushed to her husband and stroked the girl’s forehead. No words were spoken. Darian acted instinctively. She tended to the girl’s wounds and took it upon herself to bring Karena back to health.

From that day forward, Karena was known, by the villagers, as Rygel’s sister. She did her best to fit into the every day life of Therian, but the only acceptance she found was from Myilus and Darian and of course her ‘baby brother’.

***

Karena was pacing, now, her shoulder length silken brown hair thrashing the air as she turned and continued her nervous walk. She tightened her jaw as she looked back down at the note her brother had left. ‘Please don’t follow. It’s time I proved that I can be the man of the house…’ "So brave…" Karena didn’t realize the words had escaped her lips, nor did she realize a tear had rolled down her cheek.

"Karena, it’s going to be okay. Rygel’s not a fool. You’ve taught him well. Myilus would be proud of you both." The man next to Karena spoke the words softly, hoping to calm the young woman, but he knew that it wasn’t likely. He was a trusted friend and the only member of the village who came to Karena’s side when she lost her parents in the last raid on Therian.

"Torbyn, you know as well as I do, that Rygel has no business being out there alone." Karena pressed her eyes closed fighting off more tears. She was never one to give into emotion, except when it came to her family. "I promised Myilus, my last words to him before he died, I promised that I would protect Rygel… no harm would ever come to him as long as I had breath in my lungs. He’s all I have left in this world. Gods help me… if that tyrant lays one hand on him." Karena turned her head away from Torbyn. It was bad enough that her anger was so visible, the tears were simply unacceptable.

"When did he leave?" Torbyn offered, trying to help Karena’s thoughts drift elsewhere.

"I’m supposing two nights past, after I went to bed. I got up early yesterday morning to gather my things, to start preparing for my ‘quest’ when I heard the commotion in the square-"

"Yeah, it pretty much stirred the whole village. It’s a good thing you hadn’t left yet. I don’t know what it is about you, but you’re the only one who can calm that idiot’s mare." Torbyn shook his head as he recalled the First Elder’s mare running rampant through the Village Square. "I think she does it to get your attention…"

"Well, it was a distraction I didn’t need. It took me the better half of the morning to catch her and calm her down. That ungrateful piece of Centaur dung she has as a master doesn’t even realize what a prize he has in her! I just wish she hadn’t done so much damage to my own stable. It took the rest of the afternoon and all my strength to fix what she’d done. By the time I got home I thought Rygel had just gone to bed. I didn’t find the note until this morning… Oh what have I done?" The despair in Karena’s voice was silenced at once.

"Karena!!!" The scream shattered the early morning quiet of the village.

"Rygel?!" Karena flung open the door to Torbyn’s tavern and looked wild-eyed around the village until she caught a glimpse of her brother running at what looked like a horse’s gallop toward the tavern. When he finally reached his sister he leapt into her arms and she scooped him up and hugged him as though he’d been gone for years. "Oh thank the Gods! I was so worried!" Karena eased her brother back to the ground and when she finally released the bear hug she had on him, her face was overcome with ‘that look’. It was the same look Darian used to cast him when he was in trouble. "Rygel! What were you thinking?! You could have gotten yourself hurt, if not worse. You have nothing to prove to me. Please, don’t ever do…"

"Karena!" Rygel cut off his sister in mid lecture. "I brought Xena, she’s gonna help us!" Rygel looked over his left shoulder toward the warrior who was clad in brown leather and bronze armor. Her raven black hair was a stark contrast to the blond tresses of the young woman walking with her.

The warrior and her companion approached Rygel and his sister. The two stopped just short of the sibling reunion and waited for Karena to rise. When Karena came to her feet her stunned look turned to one of admiration as she met the warrior’s stare. Her five-foot six-inch frame was still no match for Xena’s presence, as she had to look upward to catch the warrior’s penetrating eyes.

"Xena. I don’t know what to say." Karena looked down at Rygel, who was looking rather triumphant. She returned her eyes to Xena then to the young blond. She noticed the fighting staff in Gabrielle’s left hand and the scrolls poking out of her shoulder bag. "You must be Gabrielle."

Gabrielle offered a proud little smile, "Yes, I am… you’ve actually heard of me?"

"My mast- um… an acquaintance of mine used to always gripe about the ‘Warrior Princess and her sidekick’. The ‘irritating blond’ is what he used to call you, I think." Karena’s jaws tightened as she thought of her ‘acquaintance’ from the past.

"Irritating blond!" Gabrielle retorted with resentment, as she cast a quick glance toward Xena.

"Oh don’t worry, I never bought into anything he told me." Karena said through a thoughtful smile. "He talked of Xena like someone he knew well. Perhaps ‘hated’ would be a better word. Actually, I don’t think he ever had the pleasure of your company, Gabrielle. He was only going on the stories passed to him from transient thugs who’d had the misfortune of becoming acquainted with the tip of that staff." Karena glanced at the bard’s weapon, impressed with the design. Karena looked back at the pair before her. "I’ve heard plenty of other stories about you two, though. Stories that I believed; stories that gave me the strength to go on, when I thought all was lost. I guess it was those bardic tales that made me want to search you out to help my village. Especially given the warlord who has been terrorizing Therian. ‘Shmaluc the Great’ he calls himself."

Xena turned the corners of her mouth down and looked at Gabrielle before speaking to Karena. "Never heard of him."

Karena looked confused but didn’t speak it aloud to Xena. Shmaluc used to speak of Xena like a well-known resented enemy. ‘The Warrior Princess and her sidekick - the irritating blond’ the words reverberated in Karena’s mind, a haunting memory of the only person she had ever hated.

"Well, we’ll have enough time to talk about him after breakfast. Or have you three already eaten?" Karena asked, her own hunger pangs tugging at her palate.

"Actually… we’re famished, aren’t we Rygel?" Gabrielle spoke up, cutting off Xena as she looked down at the boy. Before speaking again, she cast Xena a sidelong glance. "Someone wasn’t happy with the stream we stopped at just after day-break. It’s one thing to be moved by poetry or a beautiful sunset, but one does not have to be ‘moved’ to catch a fish!"

"Just as well," Karena replied with a warm smile, "I’ve got fresh eggs from the chicken coop, and those sausage rolls you love." Karena smirked at Rygel as she mussed up his unkempt bangs. Rygel didn’t squirm too much as the prospect of his favorite breakfast sent his mind adrift. Karena turned to the tavern owner, "Torbyn, go call on your brother. Tell him to call to order another meeting of the Elders. Another village gathering. Tell him we’ve found our ‘Champion’.

Part 2

"That was delicious!" Gabrielle sighed as she pushed back from the table.

"Thank you. I’ve never seen someone your size eat so many sausage rolls. Rygel, is the water ready?" Karena called out to her brother, who’d left the table about a half-hour earlier.

"Yes… wait, ow!! That was hot! Wait a minute, I need to add some cold water!" Rygel sounded irritated as he busied himself near the rear of the house. Xena still looked on in amazement at the empty plates in front of her companion. Her stare was broken when Karena tapped her on the shoulder.

"Rygel’s filling the bath for you and Gabrielle. He’ll show you where everything is. The blue-green herbs at the head of the bath are the best to use on your hair. I’m going to go look for Torbyn and find out if the Elders agreed to the meeting." Karena smiled softly trying to hide the angst in her heart. Xena saw beyond the girl’s pain though. She realized that the girl was hiding something, she just wasn’t sure what. Karena’s eyes held painful memories that had never been shared with her family, but Xena saw through the strong exterior. The warrior knew similar pain and when she looked into Karena’s eyes she saw a reflection of herself.

"Xena… Xena! C’mon, it’s time to get the stench of that kidnapper’s breath out of my hair." The bard was snapping her fingers in the direction of her companion.

"Uh, yeah… on my way."

Once the warrior and her bard were settled in the tub the two began to relax almost instantly. The aroma of rose petals and honeysuckle danced about the small steam filled room. Gabrielle wasn’t a fan of her ears being cleaned, but Xena never acknowledged her complaints. Satisfied that each was clean, Xena leaned back on the side of the oaken tub, her shoulder pressed against Gabrielle’s, allowing the steam to carry the soothing scents all about them.

"All right!" Gabrielle was the first to break the silence.

"What?" Xena snapped her distant stare from the surface of the water up to her friend.

"Whaddya mean ‘What?’… What’s wrong? I’ve known you long enough to know when something’s bothering you. Since breakfast, your thoughts have been miles away. A breakfast to die for, by the way! Finally, a meal we didn’t have to gut! Anyway…" Gabrielle found Xena’s arm under the water and made Xena meet her eyes before continuing. "What’s the matter?" Gabrielle softened her tone as she looked at Xena, and waited for her to speak.

"I dunno. There’s something she’s not telling us."

"Whoa, you don’t think she’s in cahoots with the warlord that’s terrorizing the village do you. I mean I’ve met deceptive people in my time but…" The bard was well on her way to a story but Xena cut her short.

"No. She’s not in cahoots with him, she just knows more about him than she’s letting on. I can’t put my finger on it… something in her eyes. Good grief, I’m starting to sound like you!" With that Xena splashed water in the bard’s face, starting the ritualistic water fight that seemed to end all their bathing sessions.

***

By the time Karena returned, Xena and Gabrielle were dressed and their hair dry. Karena closed the door behind her to find Xena sharpening her sword and Gabrielle writing in a scroll. She couldn’t see her brother, but she could hear him snore, as he often did when he napped too soon after a big meal.

"Xena, I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of tending to your horse. You’ll find all her leather gear on the table next to her stall. She’s got fresh water and hay. I held off on the grain, I figured you might like to see what I feed mine before I gave her any. I also noticed that she threw a shoe. I’ll fit her with a new set just as soon as I get the fire going." Karena was already busy changing her clothes to prepare for shoeing Argo.

"Karena, that’s too much trouble. You don’t…"

"Trust me it’s no trouble. In fact it’s the least I can do after everything you and Gabrielle have done."

"We haven’t done anything, yet."

"You brought my brother back to me safe and unharmed. And you’re actually willing to help us. Besides, consider it pre-payment for what you’re going to face at our village meeting."

Gabrielle glanced up from her scroll with a perplexed look on her face. Xena responded in order to quell the young bard. "I take it they’re not too pleased with the notion of our help."

"…Haven’t told them that you’re the one’s who are gonna help us. Figured we’d spring it on them at the meeting." Karena said absently as she left to tend to Xena’s horse.

‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this,’ Xena thought. The warrior closed her eyes and tilted her head skyward as she released a long sigh. Gabrielle shared the sentiment, however, she didn’t speak it. Xena re-sheathed her freshly honed sword and followed Karena to the stable, Gabrielle closely in tow.

***

When Xena and Gabrielle entered the village Meeting Hall behind Karena, heads turned and mouths gaped open. Words were whispered and gasps were sounded. "Here we go again!" Gabrielle mumbled under her breath. She didn’t realize Xena had heard her until she felt the warrior’s elbow in her side, gigging her, as they walked down the middle isle toward the front of the Hall. "Naturally we have to walk past everyone and be gawked at while we find our seats." The bard found it difficult sometimes to keep her thoughts to herself.

"Gabrielle…" Xena ushered the warning through closed teeth. Gabrielle acknowledged it with a raised eyebrow and deep breath.

Karena found a small bench, in front, near the pulpit, which emptied in a hurry as she approached with the new strangers. She directed Xena and Gabrielle to take their seats before she took her own. Silence fell across the Hall as the Chieftain Elder approached the pulpit, followed by the First Elder. They were both gaunt looking men with gray hair and hard faces. The scornful look they cast in the direction of the three women was unmistakable. Xena leveled her icy-blues at the Chieftain and maintained the exchange of stares until he closed his eyes in disgust and turned to the people gathered before him.

The uneasy silence was broken when the Chieftain spoke. "As you are all aware, the warlord who besieged King Antius’ castle so many seasons ago has decided to reap havoc on all of the surrounding villages. Until very recently he has left Therian relatively untouched-"

"Only because you agreed to pay him protection money." Karena interrupted him with an edge to her voice. "If you Elders would have allowed me to bring in help when he started demanding money…"

"Silence child!" The Chieftain’s voice boomed. "I will not tolerate such out bursts from the likes of you."

"The likes of me?! I’ve given more to this village than any of you ‘proud’ Elders! If you had it your way you’d have probably given away your first born to appease Shmaluc! You’ve already given away more stocks than we can afford. What’s next? Our women as slaves?!" Karena’s anger was beginning to show as her strong hands began trembling.

"We’ve worked out a compromise, this morning in fact. He’ll let us live in peace." The Chieftain attempted a look of confidence.

"Shmaluc will not allow peace for our village until he has our mineral reserves! I’ve told you people that so many times, when will you start listening to me?! What compromise could you have possibly made to compensate for those reserves?" The young woman’s voice was filled with anger and frustration. Gabrielle looked at Xena before grabbing hold of Karena’s right hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Karena closed her eyes and bowed her head as if in defeat.

"All will come to pass tomorrow, child." As the Chieftain spoke, all the Elders raised their eyes and stared at the woman who had remained standing, head bowed. Xena caught the unified look and realized that this ‘compromise’ somehow involved Karena. "And Xena, with all do respect. You must leave this village at once. If Shmaluc sees you here tomorrow, he’s likely to think we’ve tried to trick him. His vengeance will fall upon us with the wrath of Ares."

Xena leveled her stare at him, once again, as she stood. Gabrielle came to her feet as well, placing her arm around Karena. Xena kept her eyes on the Chieftain as she waited for the bard to lead Karena out of the Hall. Xena tightened her jaw before breaking her stare with the Chieftain and falling in behind Gabrielle.

***

The three women arrived at Torbyn’s tavern just shortly before he returned from the meeting. When he came inside he went immediately to the bar and retrieved three wooded mugs. Without asking, he filled one of the mugs with dark colored mead and handed it to Karena. He looked up at the warrior and she nodded, indicating the same drink for herself. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose when he picked up the third mug and looked at her. "You wouldn’t happen to have some sweet cider?"

"What kind of tavern-keep would I be if I didn’t?" Torbyn responded with a smile and a wink of his right eye. The silence that followed was thick.

The bard was the first to speak. "What do we do from here?"

"We do nothing. Xena, Gabrielle… I’m sorry I wasted your time. You’re welcome to stay the night and rest. Although, I would leave tonight if I were you. Put as much distance between yourselves and this godsforsaken village as you can before sunrise." Karena spoke without lifting her eyes to meet Gabrielle’s question. The bard looked at Xena who had just taken a long swallow of her mead. "As for me and Rygel… we’re leaving at first light."

"Karena, you can’t. This is your home!" Torbyn interrupted.

"This is where I live. This hasn’t been my home since that monster killed my parents." Gabrielle’s mouth dropped slightly, as she looked down at her mug.

"I have fought to keep this village intact… if for no other reason, than to respect Myilus’ memory. But it’s useless. The elders have always chosen the easy way out. Their shortsightedness this time will get you all killed. Rygel and I will be far away from here when that happens." Karena spoke as tears filled her eyes.

"That’s not going to be good enough." It was Xena who spoke, not lifting her eyes from the bottom of her nearly empty mug. The warrior lifted the mug once more and took a final swallow, emptying it. After placing the mug on the bar, Xena looked over at Karena. "This ‘compromise’ the Elders have hatched… it involves you somehow." Karena and Gabrielle looked at the warrior together, brows furrowed.

"Me?! What are you talking about?"

"Oh I’m sure he won’t comply with the compromise, but if I’m right and it does involve you, leaving won’t keep him from getting what he wants… and I don’t believe it’s just the mineral reserves." Xena’s tenacity for being cryptic tended to get under her companion’s skin, or perhaps it was the fact that Xena always seemed to see the big picture before her young friend. "I think it’s time we had a long talk… just the three of us. No offense, Torbyn."

"None taken. Just let me know if I can do anything to help."

***

Xena and Gabrielle followed Karena to her stable. It would be quiet and private. The stable would allow for no interruptions, as Rygel never volunteered to go inside it because his sister usually put him to hard labor. Xena eased up to Argo and stroked the mare on her golden neck and whispered into her ear. When she turned around she found Gabrielle sitting on a short stool with her staff at her left side and her head resting on the weapon in deep thought. Karena was propped up against a stall door, arms crossed, biting at the corner of her lip.

"All right. First things first. Why do the people of this village resent you so much?" Xena made no haste with the questions. Gabrielle’s head came off the staff, as she looked, first at her companion, then at the young woman. Karena looked somehow smaller to the bard, like she had given in and lost her will to fight. "They treat you like an outsider. We haven’t been here long, yet I’ve still been able to sense it."

"I wasn’t born here. I was one of King Antius’ slave-girls. Quite frankly, I couldn’t tell you where I was born. All I’d ever known was the castle. The king was a good man; we were all treated fairly. I really didn’t know that being a slave was a bad thing until Shmaluc’s men raided the castle and killed the king. He took us all for his own. He killed all the weak servants. Evidently he thought I was worth keeping around because I became his personal slave. It afforded me the opportunity to watch and learn from his soldiers’ practice sessions, though. I actually learned to fight from the armchair of the throne. I committed all of his practices and rituals to memory. He’s the most order-minded piece of…" Karena paused and steadied herself before beginning again. "The older I got the more defiant I became with him. Then the day came, keeping right with his schedule of conquests, when he forced himself, um, I uh… I decided to run away. I knew the penalty if I got caught. I knew I was signing my own death warrant. Shmaluc is very methodical and he always punishes those who betray him the same. But I knew the castle like the lines on the palm of my hand. I figured it would be easy to escape, undetected. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The punishment…" The tears were streaming from the young woman’s face as she recalled the events that brought her to that roadside, outside Therian so many seasons ago.

By the time Karena finished, she was sobbing. Gabrielle leaned her staff against Argo’s stall and held the girl, trying to comfort her. Xena approached the two young women, and stood in front of them in silence. She realized that Karena wasn’t as old as she initially thought. The woman had a youthful face but her hardened life produced an older woman’s maturity. In fact, Karena was no older that Gabrielle. It pained Xena’s heart to think of her beloved bard being at the mercy of such a tyrant. Xena’s mind was instantly brought to a time when the Fates had decided to meddle in her affairs. The warrior had been thrust into a life’s thread there the ‘Warrior Princess’ didn’t exist, and the ‘irritating blond’ wasn’t a loved and trusted friend, but a slave-girl. A defiant strong willed slave-girl, at the mercy of a warlord. A life’s thread away from being Karena.

Xena placed a gentle hand on the back of Gabrielle’s head and caressed it once before resting her hand on the bard’s shoulder. Tears stung Xena’s eyes before she closed them tightly, trying to will them away, but not before Gabrielle saw the emotion on her friend’s face. Xena let Karena finish crying, as she figured this was the first time she’d allowed herself any kind of a release of the demons that haunted her soul. The girl finally eased away from the bard and was trying to regain her composure when Xena put her other hand on Karena’s trembling shoulder. "Shmaluc’s compromise with the Elders is the fact that they’re going to turn you over to him. He’s finally figured out that you survived and he wants you back. His ‘conquest’ escaped him…"

"Xena?! He’ll kill her if he gets her back to that castle!" Gabrielle felt a surge of protectiveness swell inside of her. The bard would not stand for compliance with the compromise. "He didn’t count on us being here…"

"Gabrielle, we’re…" Xena started.

"’He didn’t count on you being here’" Karena echoed the bard’s words. The other two women glanced at Karena then back at each other. "Whoa! Wait a minute! The last time Shmaluc raided our village, when my parents - when Myilus and Darian were killed… why he didn’t just send his hired thugs like usual I don’t know. He came in person; I guess he thought it would scare us more. I remember him saying that he would ‘finally have what he’d deserved all these years… *she* wouldn’t stand in his way this time’. He kept referring to this self- proclaimed ‘Destroyer of Nations’. He was ranting on like a madman. But he kept insisting that this ‘Destroyer’ woman wouldn’t be a problem… *she* wouldn’t be able to protect us because he was going to dispose of the blond. I can’t believe this. Why I didn’t put it all together…" Karena was talking to herself as much as she was talking to Xena and Gabrielle

Xena’s jaw tightened before she interrupted the young woman’s speech. "Karena." The warrior waited until she had the girl’s attention before continuing. "When was the last time ‘Shmaluc’ raided your village?" When he was crazed and ranting about this ‘Destroyer of Nations’ woman?" Gabrielle recognized the edge to Xena’s voice and her heart dropped.

"Uh, ‘bout a week ago. That’s what started the Elders on their frenzy of meetings and discussions. It’s what prompted us to quest for a ‘champion’."

"Karena, when you were a servant under Shmaluc, did he ever keep company with a man named Bryccus?" Xena was making sense of all the recent events that had plagued her and her companion.

"If you want to call him a man. More like an idiotic excuse for a human being! But how did you know? I thought you’d never heard of Shmaluc." Karena asked, a little confused now herself.

"You’re right. I don’t know of a ‘Shmaluc’… but that’s not his real name. His name, at least when he was under my command, the command of the ‘Destroyer of Nations’ was Malchus." The warrior looked sidelong at her companion, as anger crept up her spine.

Xena realized that Malchus had managed to forge some type of army, which afforded him the opportunity to take King Antius’ castle. Perhaps he ‘bought’ them with the promise of wealth from Therian’s mineral reserves. The warrior supposed that Malchus somehow caught wind of her presence near Therian and knew she would make every effort to stop him. ‘Dispose of the blond’ Xena was replaying Karena’s words in her mind. "…’Just proof that he had her’" Xena repeated Bryccus’ words aloud from his earlier attempt to kidnap Gabrielle. "I told you we’d get to the bottom of things, Gabrielle." The warrior looked at the bard. "Malchus paid Bryccus to kidnap you in the hopes that I would follow after him to get you back… taking me far away from Therian and the mineral reserves."

"Now what?" Gabrielle posed the question even though she already knew the answer.

"One thing’s for sure, no one’s leaving here before Shmaluc or Malchus or whatever he’s calling himself these days, decides to pay us a visit." Xena hissed.

Continued - Part 3

 


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