Xena was awake before anyone else in the house stirred. She dressed herself quietly because she didnt want to wake her companion, but before leaving the room she glanced back at her friend. She watched the bard sleep for several minutes, as she had done so many times before. Xena took solace in the expression on the bards face, because it was washed in complete serenity. These two women had been through so much. So much pain. So much anger. So much love. In these brief moments before twilight, Xena watched. Never had she loved another so much, save perhaps her only son. Gabrielle was everything to Xena, and the warrior would stop at nothing to protect her. Perhaps that is why she savored these quiet moments before the sun peeked above the horizon. In these few moments Xena knew her friend was safe not forced to endure horror the likes of Karenas youth. Xena snapped herself back to the present as she savored the peacefulness of the moment. Without making a sound, the armor-clad warrior left the bedroom.
When Xena stepped out the front door she felt a cool damp breeze brush across her face. The sun was above the horizon, and although it fought to withdraw the blue darkness of the night, it had not yet had a chance to warm the air. Xena walked toward the stable; she didnt know when Malchus would make his appearance and she wanted her horse to be prepared in the event of an emergency. As Xena stepped into the stable a soft breeze of cool air wafted the comforting smell of fresh hay and sweet grain under her nose. Argos saddle was on the mares back before anyone else in the village decided to greet the new day. Given the bad feeling in her gut Xena went the extra step to tack Karenas horse, just in case.
Karena was in the kitchen preparing a hearty breakfast when Xena returned from the stable. "I didnt know anyone else was up." She said as the warrior walked in, the smell of hay and grain following behind.
"I didnt want to wake anyone. I figured the more sleep everyone got today the better." Xena said softly, as she didnt want to disturb the other two who were soundly sleeping.
"Xena. I cant ask you to stay and fight. If Id of known what Bryccus tried to do to you and Gabrielle at the request of Shma-, uh, Malchus. I never would have tried to bring you here. Hes capable of so much evil. Maybe I should just let him take me "
"Malchus isnt taking anyone anywhere." Xena was tired of hearing Malchus name and regretted now, more than ever, listening to Bryccus so many years ago. She should have made certain that Malchus was dead after his betrayal. Xena decided that it was finally time she made him pay, and it wasnt going to be at her or anyone elses expense.
"Mmmm, that smells good." Gabrielle appeared in the kitchen entryway speaking through a yawn. Xena looked up at her friend, her stomach knotted and she felt an ache in her heart. For some reason the warrior couldnt release the image of Karenas torture at the hands of Malchus. The image of Gabrielle as a slave-girl kept forcing its way into Xenas mind. The image that had been granted her by the Fates, a few seasons ago.
The aroma drifting from the hearth phased Gabrielle, but the look in Xenas eyes caught the bards attention before the warrior had a chance to cast her stare toward the table where she sat. The young bard crossed the small room and sat along Xenas right side. Again, the bard could sense that Xenas mind had drifted elsewhere. After sitting down Gabrielle looked up at Karena whod been watching the exchange between the two women. Karena smiled warmly and excused herself without words. Gabrielle placed her hands atop the warriors. Xena was mindlessly playing with a leather strap, but stopped at her friends touch. "Xena, I know what youre thinking." Xena looked up at the bard, eyes narrowed. She knew it was pointless though. Gabrielle really had known the warrior long enough to know when something was wrong. Xena found it more and more difficult to hide her feelings from the bard, which unnerved her to no end.
"How could you possibly know what Im thinking?" Xena responded in futility. The look Gabrielle gave her was typical: head cocked to the side, mouth turned up at one corner, and those amazing green eyes in a half-shut glare. If the expression on the bards face could have been put into words she would have shouted oh please! Xena couldnt help but relax her face and smile. "Im sorry. I cant stop thinking of what Malchus did to her. The thought of someone I care about going through "
"Xena. When the Fates toyed with you," She shouldnt have been, but Xena was struck by Gabrielles ability to see right through her. "They were just showing you what life would have been like had you not chosen the way of the warrior; they werent giving you a vision of the future." Gabrielle knew that these thoughts had been weighing on her friends mind since yesterday, in the stable. "Ive never been a slave and I dont intend on making a career change anytime soon." Xena smiled at her companion and when Gabrielle placed her left hand on the side of Xenas face, the warrior leaned toward her friend and consumed her in an embrace, burying her face in the bards neck.
"When did you become the brave one, huh? Im supposed to be the one doing the reassuring." Xena sighed, not wanting to turn her companion loose.
Breakfast had barely been cleared from the table when the stampede of horses sounded like a burst of thunderbolts from the north end of the village. Warrior and bard exchanged looks before readying their weapons. Karena walked over to her brother, "Rygel, you do just like Xena told you. You go to the bathhouse and you stay put until this is over. Worst case scenario you wait until the dust settles and you go to the cave we went to last night. Theres plenty there to keep you comfortable for several days. Let the fervor from this battle die down and then you go find the village Gabrielle told you about you go find Lila. Understand?"
"I understand. Please be careful " The boys bottom lip trembled as he bit back painful tears.
Gabrielle was standing by Xena during the exchange between brother and sister. She looked up at the warrior and whispered, "What cave what is she talking about?"
"I dunno. I came to bed not long after you. Karena and Rygel were still awake, talking in the front room when I left." Xena responded, her curiosity matched only by the bards. Once the boy was tucked away in the bathhouse the three women went to the front door of the only home Karena had ever known. Karena opened that door and stepped over the threshold, the other two women closely behind her.
The horses were nearly on top of the village when the three women reached the center of the Square. They waited patiently as villagers began to stir from their homes. The Elders were gathered in front of the Village Hall, dressed in all their splendor, forcing Xena to shake her head in disgust. The first line of soldiers was stopping in front of the Hall by the time the women reached the Chieftain.
"Xena! You were supposed to leave our village!" The sound of his voice turned her stomach.
"And miss the party? Nah, I plan to watch your little ceremony! One young girl to save the whole village? Seems a fair exchange. Hell take her, then hell take your reserves!" Xena warned. The Chieftain waved her off as Malchus arrived, directly behind his entourage.
"Still the coward I see!" Xena yelled at Malchus. "Couldnt come get one defenseless girl without an army to protect ya, huh?" Xena growled through a menacing grin.
"Chieftain! Youve betrayed me!"
"Not a nice feeling is it Malchus?" Xena was still taunting the warlord.
"No! Shmaluc we didnt want her here. The girl brought her. We tried to make her leave!" The Chieftain was trying, in vain, to salvage his compromise.
"Xena, give me the girl! Dont make me hurt these innocents!" Malchus said as he yanked on his horses bit to get him to rear back, causing many of the villagers to scatter. The three women stood their ground, in defiance.
Xena shook her head, "Youre gonna have to comean get her!"
Malchus let out a roar and dug into his horses sides in an effort to make the beast lunge forward. The smell of battle loomed in front of the Warrior Princess and brought her to life.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiy!!" The infamous battle cry resonated off the buildings that lined the Village Square. The cry seemed to propel Xena up and forward, directly into Malchus charge. When she met the warlord in mid-flight she kicked him in the chest knocking him from his steed. Malchus landed with a thud, forcing the breath from his lungs. Xena drew her sword and began her decent on the fallen man. Her attention was pulled elsewhere, though, when she saw six soldiers encircle Gabrielle and Karena.
The bard was a capable fighter but fairs fair and Xena felt the need to even the odds a little; she knew there would be time enough to deal with Malchus. Xena replaced her sword to its scabbard and leapt in a forward flip to close the distance between herself and her friend. As she closed in on the six soldiers, Gabrielle was dispatching one with several devastating blows from her staff. The bard wielded the weapon with so much force that the brute before her didnt stand a chance.
Karena was busying herself with a second thug and didnt see the third one come in from behind. He raised his sword and started to come down across his chest with a 2-arm swing. Xenas chakram was poised and when she sent it flying it careened over the two young women, striking the sign above Torbyns tavern, causing it to ricochet toward the public livery. When the circular blade blasted into the iron anvil it sent sparks flying before sailing straight toward the soldiers sword. The double-edged blade was no match for the chakram. The sword snapped in two, just above its hilt. The soldier had already committed himself to the swing, though, and when the weight of the blade was removed from the equation, the soldiers own body weight compensated and carried him throughout the circular motion. He was lying flat on his back by the time the swing was completed.
Karenas sword was buried up to its hilt in the chest of her foe before she realized what had taken place behind her. She snapped her head around, then turned to find Xena catching her chakram an evil grin revealing a personal triumph. Karena planted her right boot in the center of the soldiers chest, in order to remove her sword. As he fell to the ground, she swung around twirling her sword above her head before slicing in into the neck of the soldier sprawled out on his back behind her. Hell not be sneaking up on anyone else she mused to herself.
Gabrielle glanced up when she heard the chakrams strike, her ears followed the flying blade back to its mistress. When the bard found Xena in the crowd of confusion she smiled a look of gratitude the warrior knew well. The smile was short-lived, though, as one of the remaining three soldiers kicked her from behind, sending her forward, "Arrrgghhhhh!" The scream bellowed from Gabrielles muscle hardened abdomen allowing her the extra thrust of energy she needed to regain her balance and countermand the attack with on of her own.
The bards right foot skidded to a stop in the dirt and she used her staff as a brace to keep herself from falling all the way forward. The instant her balance was secure she raised her left leg and extended it into a sidekick that connected with the soldiers sternum. Evidently he underestimated her ability because hed kept coming forward, his momentum thrashing him even harder into the bards kick. The soldiers body kept its forward motion with his chest planted firm on Gabrielles foot. The bards five-foot four-inch frame wasnt going anywhere, but the soldier bulk crashed to the ground. By the time he hit, Gabrielle pushed forward, allowing herself to stomp his upper body into the earth. She was amazed that he tried to rise up off the ground but she met his attempt with a crack from the tip of her staff. The bard grimaced at the sound of the soldiers jaw breaking, but was immediately brought back into the fight by an approaching soldier.
"Two against two, much better." Xena spoke out loud through a wicked smile, reassured by the present odds facing her friend and Karena. The warrior now turned her attention back to Malchus, but as she tried to make her way back she was jumped by a handful of soldiers. She rolled her eyes as she hissed, "Boys, Id love to play, but Ive got much bigger fish to fry!" Before the soldiers knew what happened, Xena was swinging her sword to the music of her own laughter. Soldiers fell, some unconscious others lifeless. Still others retreated without the permission of their leader.
By the time Xena made it back to the spot where shed left Malchus he was gone. The warrior tightened her jaw and narrowed her eyes as she scanned the earth for the man. "Malchus!" Xenas search was halted when she heard a woman scream from about 50 strides away. She turned to look for the scream and found a woman on the other side of the Square frozen in horror. When Xena tried to extrapolate where the womans eyes were transfixed she caught sight of a soldier, atop a horse, racing toward a small boy.
"Jerratt!!" The Chieftains voice sliced through the battle. The terror in his voice was undeniable and Xena realized immediately that the boy in the soldiers path was the Chieftains son. There were too many people in the Square for Xena to make a straight run for the boy. She reached for her chakram but she caught a glimpse of Gabrielle sprinting for him. The bard was only a few strides away from him and Xena knew she would reach him in plenty of time.
"All right Malchus. You and me. Come face me you coward!" Xena again searched for the warlord. She wasnt about to let him escape her a second time. Several moments had passed, but the warrior couldnt find the man whod betrayed her so many years ago. During her search, Xena was forced to dispatch a few more soldiers here and there. She noticed that Karena was still holding her own Learned to fight form the armchair of the throne "Pretty impressive observer " Xena thought aloud of the ex-slave girl.
The sounds of the battle had dwindled; most of the remaining noises were from battered soldiers not wanting to re-engage the fight. Xena scanned the Square, which was now littered with heaps of the men whod marched on the village, their mission: to recapture a slave-girl. They had fallen, but Karena remained as did Xena and Gabrielle
Xena was brought back to the moment when she saw the Chieftain hugging his son. She let a sour smile form on her lips as Karena approached her left side. She turned to look at the young woman and was surprised to see her standing alone. Xena looked back up at the faces in the crowd of villagers remaining in the Square. "Karena wheres Gabrielle?" The warrior asked.
"I dont know. The last time I saw her she was running toward Jerratt. I didnt think much of it Gabrielle against one soldier, I felt bad for him. Two more thugs surrounded me. There was nothing to it but it was still a distraction. When the battle died down I just figured shed joined back with you after saving the boy." Karena was still a little winded form the fight but she instantly regained her composure when she saw the look on Xenas face. The warrior started for Jerratt and the Chieftain, Karena on her heels. As Xena approached father and son she ignored the protests from the Chieftain and knelt in front of the boy.
"Jerratt," Xena started slowly and very controlled, hiding the sinking feeling in her stomach. "When that man came at you on the horse " The boys eyes were as wide as two moons. "The young woman who came to protect you?"
Xena was cut off as the Chieftain grabbed his sons shoulder and said, "Come along son " Xena shot her blue eyes up at him, willing him to feel her anger. But before she could rise Karena had thrust herself on the Chieftain, grabbing him by the lapels of his robe forcing him backward until he tripped on the front step of the Village Hall. After he tripped he fell backward, landing himself face-to-face with the much smaller woman.
"Shut your mouth!" Karenas words were spoken through tightly clenched teeth. "You will allow your son to tell Xena what he knows of the woman who saved his life!"
Xena returned her eyes to the boy, whod kept his eyes focused on the woman before him. Xena softened her voice before she continued. "The woman who came to protect you?"
"The bad man hit her from behind." Jerratt whispered.
"The man whod come for you?" Xena hoped the answer would be yes because it would have meant that Gabrielle was still fighting the original soldier. The words that followed from the boy, though, ripped at Xenas heart.
"No. She hit the man who came for me. When she bent down to pick me up the bad man hit her on the back of the head. She fell to her knees. I asked her if she was okay, but she didnt say anything. He grabbed her and threw her on the back of his horse. He said The Destroyer would pay with her life. I dont like him, he scares me. He hurts people. He hurt that nice lady. I wish my father was as brave as her." The boy would have continued but Xena placed her palm on the side of his face and ran her thumb along the curvature of his right brow.
"Shhh. Its okay. He wont be hurting anyone else, Ill see to that. Now go with your father." Xena reassured the boy and sent him with the Chieftain who was straightening his robes as the boy turned and faced him. Before Xena could rise to her feet the boy turned back around.
"Excuse me miss. The lady who saved me she left her stick over there she may want it back." Xena turned her head in the direction the boy had pointed, and let her lids drop at the sight of the lone fighting staff.
Xena was already in the stable before Karena could catch up to her. "Xena. What are you doing?"
Xena was so focused at the moment that she hadnt realized the girl had entered the stable, much less that she was standing right behind her. The warrior shook herself to, and put Argos reigns back over the pommel. She turned slowly but met Karenas eyes with burning blue intensity. "Karena, you get Rygel and get on this horse." The warrior indicated Karenas Paint in the next stall. "And you ride out of here, now. You put as much distance between yourselves and this valley before nightfall, as you can. Poteidaia is about 5 days travel south of here. When you get there find Lila and tell her whats happened. Ill catch up as soon as I " Xena hesitated before finishing. "Shes still alive, otherwise hed of left her behind and taken the boy."
"Xena, you dont know what hes capable of."
"Either way, Im going after my friend and Im gonna bring her home. After Ive dealt with him." Xena never broke her stare.
Karena arched her brow. "Youre going to march into a heavily guarded castle, whose halls form a labyrinth that would drive Hades mad; kill Malchus and rescue Gabrielle. Keeping in mind that the dungeon where Gabrielle will surely be kept has trip wires all around to keep prisoners in, and the likes of you out." Karena was almost amused at how much the Warrior Princess was underestimating Malchus stronghold.
"Malchus figured out how to storm the castle Ill manage."
"Malchus wasnt racing against his own timetable. If Gabrielle is still alive it wont be long before he starts the punishments " Xena shot the girl a sidelong glare. "Ill go with you "
"Absolutely not! Gabrielle would never forgive me, or herself for that matter, if you were captured trying to save her. Shes rather die than live with the guilt of you suffering at the hands of that tyrant its her nature."
"She may well die if you dont let me help. Xena, I can get you inside the castle. I can even tell you where to find Malchus where hell be the most vulnerable. This is a race against time. You wont be able to do both, kill Malchus and save Gabrielle. No more discussion, Im going with you."
Xena dropped her head and closed her eyes for a brief moment. The warrior brought her eyes up to meet Karenas without lifting her head. "Fine." The one word response was all Karena needed.
The castle gates closed heavily behind Malchus as he rode through with his replacement for Karena. "I suppose thisll teach you to risk your neck for ungrateful "
"Lord Malchus." A heavily armored soldier broke Malchus attention as he took hold of the horses bridle. "Where are the rest of the men?"
"Men? Pitiful excuse for soldiers is what they were. Here, get this thing off my horse. Take her to the dungeon, before the sight of her makes me sick." Malchus spat as the soldier pulled Gabrielles limp body from atop the horse.
"Is this the slave "
"Just shut up and do as your told!" Malchus dismounted his horse after the bard was removed. "This one has a special place in my heart, so dont make haste get started on her immediately. Ill be down shortly to make sure shes behaving herself.
The soldier slung the girl over his right shoulder and made his way toward the dungeon. Gabrielle didnt start to regain consciousness until the soldier had finished placing her wrists in the ceiling-mounted manacles. The young bards head throbbed with the force of a thousand chariots as she started to focus on her surroundings. No Im not dead. Not even Tartarus could smell this bad, Gabrielle thought to herself as the odor of death forced its way into her nostrils. She drew her eyebrows together as she tried to steady the image of the soldier before her. "Uh, and you would be?"
The only answer the bard received was the back of the soldiers fist against her right jaw. The noise that rang through Gabrielles head seemed to bounce around her skull for several moments. When she lifted her head back toward the soldier she barely caught a glimpse of the narrow club he wielded in his right hand. The soldier had already started the swinging motion that crashed the club into the bards left ribcage. He followed through with the swing, creating a figure-eight motion as he brought the club back around and plowed it into her right side, breaking two more ribs. Gabrielle tried to let out a scream to help relieve the pain but was silenced under the pressure of three broken ribs.
"Now you listen, and you listen close! I ask the questions here, not you. The only sounds I wanna hear outta you are breaking bones or the answers to my questions!"
"Well then snap, crackle, pop!" The bard retorted through a painful but indignant grin.
"Well see how long you keep that attitude, little girl!" The soldier said as he thrust the tip of the club into Gabrielles abdomen just beneath her sternum, driving the air out of her lungs. The girl coughed as she tried to suck in the death-saturated air from the dungeon. Gabrielle brought up her chin in order to look the soldier in the eyes. She tried to tighten her jaw but hesitated at the piercing pain on the right side of her face. The bards breathing was shallow as she stared at the soldier and waited for the next blow. Just then the entrance to the dungeon creaked open. The soldier lowered his right arm and brought the club to his side.
"Gabrielle, is it? Irritating blond and sidekick to the great Xena!" Malchus bellowed as he approached the chained bard. He waved off the soldier in order to stand directly in front of Gabrielle. "You werent the one I wanted from that village, but you will certainly prove to be more valuable." The look in Malchus eyes brought a momentary chill to the girls spine. "Your future will be dictated by one of two choices. Either you tell me everything I want to know about Xena or "
"Id rather die!" The bard hissed through a defiant and angry glare.
Malchus grabbed Gabrielles face and drew her closer to him. "Thats option two. Insolence like that, though, will make it a very painful one!"
The stench of his breath on her face caused Gabrielles stomach to churn. She rolled her eyes and drew them closed for a brief moment before looking back into Malchus hauntingly dark eyes. "Talkings never been a problem for me, Malchus. It just wont be anything you wanna hear." Gabrielle spoke almost in a whisper as she was finding it more and more painful to fill her lungs with air. With that Malchus flared his nostrils and turned his mouth down as though he had caught a whiff of his own breath. With a wordless roar the warlord tightened his grip on the bards face and threw her head crashing into the dungeon wall. Gabrielles body went limp as she once again lost consciousness.
"Everyone has their breaking point. If shes not awake in an hour, wake her! Comean get me when shes ready to talk. If she refuses shell feel the end of my whip at dawn!" Malchus growled the orders to the ever-obedient soldier. The warlord sneered at Gabrielle one last time before storming out of the dungeon.
Rygel was given explicit instructions on how to get to Poteidaia, and was sent on his way riding his sisters horse. On the way to Malchus castle Karena and Xena stopped at a secluded spot, well off the main road. Karena was sure to disguise the path she and Xena traversed to the cave, which she and her brother had turned into a stronghold. Xena didnt even recognize that the path had been traveled as early as last night when Karena and Rygel came up to stock the cave with supplies. The entrance to the cave was well camouflaged, impressing even Xena. After they entered, Karena lit two torches and replaced them to their holders, casting sufficient light for the women to work. She then sealed the entrance No need to attract attention Karena thought.
The cave contained enough necessities to keep three to four people comfortable for several days, including their equine companions as Xena noticed several bails of hay and fresh grain. As a matter of fact, all the supplies looked fresh. "You and Rygel did this last night, didnt you?" The warrior asked as she continued looking around the cave.
"Yeah, after you and Gabrielle went to bed." Karena responded absently while she retrieved several rolled up pieces of parchment. "Here, these are maps of the interior of the castle. I drew them from memory after my parents were killed. Just in case someone unfamiliar with the terrain might need to know her way around the maze." A smile tugged at the girls lips as she unrolled the maps for Xena.
"Impressive. Wheres the dungeon ?" Xena focused her attention on the second map that showed the lower half of the castle.
"Oh no." Karena shook her head slowly. "The dungeons mine. If Malchus is a smart little boy hell figure on you coming after your friend. Hell be ready for that, and I dont have time to explain where all the booby traps are. No, you let me worry about getting to Gabrielle. You worry about distracting your boy Malchus. Here, this first map shows the main floor and his private chambers."
The warrior began studying the map before her, committing it to memory. She listened as the girl described all the secret passageways those used by the soldiers and the ones used by the slaves. "When the castle was originally built, they were used by the monarchy, primarily as a means of undetected escape in the event of an invasion. After Antius became king the passages were mostly closed off. He was never one to sneak around. The king didnt realize that the slaves under his rule started using them again, which is why I know about them. We found the slaveways to be an efficient way of moving from room to room. To my knowledge, Malchus never discovered the slaveways because the slaves under his rule stopped using them. No one wanted to be efficient in serving Malchus." Karena was pointing to several rooms and halls as she spoke, showing Xena the most likely place to encounter Malchus with the fewest guards.
"How can you be sure that Ill find him there? Whos to say he wont be in the dungeon with Gabrielle, punishing her?" Xena gritted her teeth on the last words, anger willing its way from her core, as she imagined her friend being tortured.
"No. The routine punishment is done by a select group of his men. Malchus likes his victims to be completely submissive when he exacts the final punishment. That punishments usually given after he gets everything he wants from his victims, usually its an admission of guilt for whatever theyre being punished for. In Gabrielles case itll probably be information. Remember, weather its an escaped slave or a captured soldier from another army the punishment, or torture, is the same. He probably thinks that Gabriellell give him the low down on you, so he can be better prepared for his next encounter with you " Karena hesitated for a brief moment at the look Xena gave her. "I know, shed die first."
"Not if we can help it." The women spoke the phrase in unison.
Xena was packing a few supplies to carry with her to the castle when she stopped, mid-stride and knelt to the ground. The warrior stood slowly and approached Karena, with several ornate vials in her hand. "Whats with this stuff?"
Karena looked at the vials and inhaled deeply before meeting Xenas eyes. "Just some herbs and tonics "
"Herbs and tonics? Youve got the makings of a hospice here. These vials contain medicines and antidotes for very specific ailments." The warrior replied without taking her eyes off the girl.
"My mother was the village healer, I learned from her."
"Everything in this cave is very specific. Youve stocked it in preparation for someone being taken captive, havent you?" Xena was now kneeling before the young woman.
"I hoped I was being overly cautious. But in case Malchus took anyone but me I wanted to be prepared." Karena looked again at the vials in Xenas hand.
"But Karena," Xena held the vials up closer to the girl. "These vials whats he planning to " Xenas voice cracked.
The younger woman cupped her hands around the warriors hands, silently removing the vials. "Xena well get to her in time."
"No! Thats not good enough! Healing someone who has been tortured shouldnt require the likes of whats in these vials. Karena, tell me what hes going to do to my friend!" Xena wouldnt relent; she kept pushing for Karena to explain.
Karena placed the vials on the floor of the cave. She looked at Xena briefly before turning her back to the warrior. The young woman began lifting her linen blouse to reveal a sight that caused the warrior to gasp. The ache on the surface of Karenas back brought her momentarily to the final punishment she had received at the end of Malchus whip. The whip twenty leather straps braided together allowing the last six inches to hang loose, a jagged rock fixed to the end of each loose strap.
Malchus hatred for Karena had been unique, as he didnt whip her across deaths threshold. He had coated each jagged rock with the rancid insides of a diseased rat. Malchus had only whipped the girl into unconsciousness because he had intended to leave her in the woods to die a slow, painful, infected death. Malchus just never counted on her conviction to live. It was a conviction that gave her the strength to crawl to the roadside where Myilus and Rygel had found her. Karena softly explained to Xena the final punishment Malchus had delivered to her. When she dropped her blouse she turned to face Xena. Karena wasnt sure if the anger on Xenas face was for Malchus cruelty or because shed withheld this information from her.
"My mother saved my life with the salve in those vials. To my knowledge, I was the only on to have ever been whipped like that. I guess I held a special place in his heart maybe thats why he wanted me back. He wanted to do it right this time. Xena, I dont know if hell do the same to Gabrielle "
"I wont give him the chance. Come on," Xena stood and offered Karena her right hand to help the girl to her feet. "Weve got a castle to storm." The two women finished preparing in silence before making their way to the southeastern face of the castle.
"There, thats the hidden door. Push that stone no the faded one." Karena leaned on the face of the castle as Xena pushed on the stone. As silent as the breath of a whisper, a section of the castle wall gave way under Karenas weight. The two women entered, undetected, as the hidden door closed behind them. Karena didnt bother to light any torches as she took Xenas hand and led her through the dark tunnel. This was a passage shed taken many times when she wanted to play, as a child, outside the castle walls. Xena was following all the turns in her mind as she recalled the map Karena had showed her. The warrior was completely oriented when they met with a lit hallway, and she knew exactly where it led. Xena narrowed her eyes and tightened her jaw as she cast a sidelong glance at Karena.
"Ill find him from here. You have no idea how much trust Im placing in you right now. Get her back to the cave and start treating her. I wont be long. You know what to do, though, if I dont return." Xena said almost in a whisper.
"Dont worry about us you just be careful. Xena give this to Malchus for me when you see him." Karena tossed Xena a leather strap attached to a jagged rock. The warrior caught it and cast the girl a confused look. "Its something I kept to remember him by. Id like to see that he gets it back before he dies." The women shared solemn looks before parting ways and setting off on their separate missions.
In no time at all Karena made her way to the passageway directly behind the dungeon where Gabrielle was being kept. The passageway was one typically used by the kings guards, as the conventional route from the dungeon to the main floor was cumbersome and lengthy. Since Malchus rule, though, the passageway was littered with booby traps and trip wires. This route was dangerous in its own right but it eliminated any encounters with the guards and soldiers. Karena maneuvered around wires and trap doors, while disabling several alarm mechanisms. The final trap was connected to the hidden door leading into the dungeon. If not properly disengaged it would release thousands of poisonous darts in a cone-shaped pattern from the wall opposite the hidden door. It could prove to be a fatal error for anyone standing within 15 feet of the door.
Karena felt along the hinge side of the hidden door and found the small lever that would trigger the darts when tripped. She disengaged the lever and pressed on the top left corner of the door. The door latch sprang free permitting the young woman to enter a room filled with the stale stench of death. As Karena entered the dungeon rats scattered, save a few brazen rodents who stood their ground hoping to make a meal of the rooms newest occupant. The girl looked to her left and saw an unconscious Gabrielle. The only things keeping the bard halfway standing were the ceiling manacles attached to her wrists. Before approaching the bard, Karena slid to the only proper entrance to the dungeon. When she peered out the small slat half way up the door she saw the back of a soldier as he walked up the exterior dungeon steps. He had a small narrow club in his right hand. Shed seen such a weapon before and realized that the soldier had just finished a punishment session. Karena took a deep breath before whispering to herself. "This close to their meal hour, Ive got plenty of time to get Gabrielle out of the castle. No more punishments today " With that Karena turned and closed the distance between herself and Gabrielle.
"If youre still in the dungeon, you havent been whipped Dear Gods, please let me be right." Karena stood directly in front of the bard and placed her in a gentle embrace to feel the surface of her back. "Sweet Zeus." The young woman whispered on the back of Gabrielles neck.
"Xena " Karena wouldnt have heard the bards cry for her friend had her ear not been so close to Gabrielles mouth. Karena pulled back slightly and placed a hand on each side of Gabrielles face. She ducked her head in order to see into Gabrielles eyes, but they were swollen shut. "Xena leave. Its a trap. Hell kill " Gabrielles words were a desperate warning. Even in this state she was trying to protect her best friend.
"Shhh. Gabrielle, its me Karena. Xenas gone to find Malchus. Dont worry. We knew he would be expecting us. I know about all the traps. Youre safe no more beatings. Cmon, lets get you outta here." Karena tried to reassure the bard as she picked the locks on the manacles and released Gabrielle from her restraints. Karena listened for a brief moment to ensure that no one was coming down the dungeon stairs before she disappeared through the hidden door and down the passageway to freedom.
Xena continued down the lit hallway until she reached a lavish fountain. The fountain marked a five way split in the hall, where the northern most split lead to the dining area. The warrior hadnt wanted to wait so late in the afternoon to come after Gabrielle as time was of the essence. Karena was right, though, mealtime afforded Xena the ability to make her way through the castle while encountering very few guards. The few she had encountered wouldnt be eating again until at least breakfast, and even then, their jaws would be too sore to chew. Remembering the directions on the map and the instructions Karena had given her, Xena made a final turn down a narrow hall. "One guard you arrogant bastard!" Xena hissed quietly to herself. "No more hiding from you Malchus." With that Xena stood and started her saunter directly for the lone guard standing in front of Malchus private chamber.
"Howd you " The guard wasnt able to finish his thought before Xena was on him, both hands grabbing at his leather armor just below his collarbone.
"I have many skills!" Xena whispered through a toothy grin, before rearing back her head. When she thrust it forward she pulled the guard toward her. The sound of the impact created between her forehead and the bridge of his nose bounced off the walls and ceiling of the hall. The soldier went limp in her grasp but instead of letting him melt to the floor the warrior picked him up and hurled him behind her to the right. The left side of his body crashed into the wall causing a decorative curtain to come loose and cover his unconscious bulk, as he slid to the floor. "So much for hired help " Xena said as she entered the chamber to face a monster.
Once inside she scanned the chamber quickly. She didnt have to wait long before Malchus offered his appearance. "What the " Malchus came running from his private spring bath, a beige loincloth barely covering his nether region. "Xena! Where how did you " The warlord sputtered as he reached for his sword.
"Oh good grief at least put on some clothes." Xena said in disgust at the sight of the now completely naked warlord, save of course the sword in his left hand. Xena picked up a pair of linen britches and tossed them at Malchus. "If Im gonna kill you Id rather not do it while looking at your, uh, manhood!"
Malchus looked down at himself, as the coolness in his sleeping chamber became apparent. "Kill me? Even if you succeeded, youll never make it to your precious little friend in time." Malchus struggled to put his pants on without dropping his sword. "My slave-girl will be here anytime with my dinner. As soon as she sees you or whatever it is you think youre going to do to me, shell alert my guards and theyll see to it that the blond pays for your boldness." Malchus was rambling as the thought of a one-to-one confrontation with Xena began to rack his body with fear.
Xena had already started circling Malchus, her blue stare drilling through him as he spoke. "Oh dont you worry your little head about the blond, shes already being taken care of. Speaking of slave-girls though, a friend of mine asked me to give this to you, said you might like it back." Xena tossed Malchus the leather strap Karena had given her. Malchus caught it with his free hand and when he realized what it was he offered Xena an arrogant smirk.
"Yeah, I mad a mistake with her. Shoulda just kept whipping her til she died. I wont repeat that one with Gabrielle. Actually she should be about ready. After I deal with you Ill finish her off. She wont get off as easy "
"You bastard! Tell Hades I said helllooo " Xena screamed as anger swelled within her. She lunged forward as she ripped her sword form its scabbard. Her momentum landed her on top of the warlord before he had a chance to bring his sword to the ready. Xenas weapon came crashing down with a force that knocked Malchus all the way to the ground. Sparks flew as the two blades collided. Malchus tried to roll away from the warriors vengeance, and as he stood he had just enough time to bring his sword up in defense of another devastating swing from Xena. The clang of metal rang throughout the chamber. Xena kept swinging her sword with a double handed grip, beating the warlord further and further into submission. She knew she could have just run him through at any time, but that would have brought her no satisfaction.
The image of Malchus torturing Gabrielle forced such a rage within Xena that she didnt realize he was inching himself closer to the head of his bed where a slender silk rope was suspended from the vaulted ceiling. Just as Malchus got to within grabbing distance of the rope he smiled, a fatal move on his part because Xena noticed the grin and allowed her eyes to follow the rope upward to where it attached to a series of pulleys and levers. Booby traps and trip wires. Karenas words scarcely had a chance to register in Xenas mind before Malchus pulled at the rope.
Xena heard the mechanisms go to work above her head, igniting a chain reaction that would unleash several henbane coated arrows directly at her waist and chest. The world around the warrior seemed to stop as her body began moving in slow motion. Xena wasnt sure what type of death trap had just been set, but she knew Malchus was safe where he was otherwise he wouldnt have pulled on the rope. The safest place for Xena to be at that instant was where Malchus lay. The warrior leapt forward with her sword still held in a fighting position. As Xena landed on Malchus her sword was thrust deep into his upper abdomen. The arrows flew across the chamber as Xenas body crashed into Malchus. Air exploded from his mouth from deep within his chest. As he tried to retrieve what little life saving breath he could Xena could hear the gurgling sound coming from the back of his throat. The sword entered his abdomen and was driven upward, piercing the mans right lung.
"Xena " Malchus strained to call out to the woman who hovered above him, as warm blood tried to escape the wound, past Xenas sword.
"Dont like your women on top? Thats a shame Malchus its my favorite position." Xena whispered as her eyes widened. When the warrior lifted herself off the carcass beneath her she placed her left boot on his chest to give her enough leverage to withdraw her sword from his stomach. Xena snapped her head around to face the chamber door as it opened with a slow squeak, keeping her blade at the ready. She relaxed her shoulders as a meager looking slave-girl entered carrying a tray of fresh goose and vegetables. The look on the girls face was first one of shock then one of fear as she was sure the bloodstained sword was next meant for her. Xena wiped her sword on the silk sheets covering Malchus bed before replacing it to its scabbard.
"Im not going to hurt you." The warrior spoke softly. "Malc Shmaluc is dead. Gather together the strongest slaves, its time you retook the castle." Xena disappeared through a hidden doorway before the girl could vocalize her gratitude.
The sun had already eased itself below the western tree line by the time Karena made her way to the woods edge. A cool chill tugged at her earlobes making her thankful that Xena had packed extra blankets on Argo, because the bard would require help keeping herself warm on the trek back to the cave. As Karena crossed into the cover provided by the tree line she pursed her lips and sent a stifled whistle into the darkness. Argo emerged with the lidder dragging behind her. Karena had plenty of strength to carry the bard back to the cave, but as shed predicted, Gabrielles injuries required as much immobilization as possible.
The horse stood patiently still as Karena lowered the injured woman onto the lidder. Leather straps were used to keep Gabrielle from moving too much on the transport back. Karena retrieved several blankets from behind Argos saddle then covered the young woman, as she knew shock had already begun to set in. Finally convinced that the bard was secure, Karena took the reigns and led horse and patient back to safety.
The cave was heated by a natural hot spring so there was no need to waste time with a fire. Karena had already prepared a makeshift bed for Gabrielle and transferred her to it with painstaking care. Before covering the bard, Karena retrieved several smooth rocks from the spring and placed them in thin linen sheets. The hot rocks were gently placed around the unconscious bard with extra ones gathered around her feet. Karena knew that this would be the most efficient way to keep Gabrielle warm while she tended to the womans injuries.
Gabrielles left arm was broken, as were several of her ribs. Karena didnt think there were any significant internal injuries and aside from some bruising to her abdomen and lower back, the worst injury was a deep gash on the back of her head. The wound had coagulated twice over, but by its appearance, Karena believed it was the original blow from Malchus back in the Village Square.
Karena busied herself with splinting the young womans broken bones before tending to the head wound. "They tried to make you talk, didnt they. Judging by the bruises on your cheeks, Id say they thought they could squeeze the words from your mouth. They tend to do that with the stubborn ones." Karena offered a gentle smile to the motionless bard. "A bard who wouldnt speak. Bittersweet irony if you ask me." Karena continued tending to the womans injuries in silence as she thought to herself That village didnt deserve your help in the first place. I know I didnt deserve it. But you stayed and you gave everything without a thought to your own safety.
Karena paused briefly as she looked at the bards face. Even through the bruises and swelling, Karena could see an inner beauty that was surely born of the Gods. Tears stung at the girls eyes as her bottom lip trembled. "So brave " Karena didnt realize that the words had been spoken aloud, nor did she realize that Xena was standing behind her.
"By the Gods " Xena whispered under her breath at the horrifying sight before her. Xena knelt on Gabrielles right side across from Karena. She placed her hand on her friends forehead and gently stroked her bangs back. Karena was struck by the emotion on Xenas face and was even more struck by the fact that the warrior made no attempt to hold back the tears that were welling from the blue pools of her eyes.
"Its much worse than it looks, shes going to be fine. She has a strong will a will no one could break." Karena offered reassurance.
"I- it Shoulda I shouldve gone to the dun " Xena stammered, but Karena finished the thought for her.
"You were, Xena. You were with her, in her heart. When I got to her she called out to you. Even in this state she was trying to protect you. She tried to warn you of the traps Malchus had set. She may not be a warrior by reputation, but she has the bravest heart of anyone Ive never known." Karena was sitting back from the two soul mates, touched by the emotion Xena showed for her friend. "I consider myself truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend time with you both. Youre lucky to have her in your life, Xena." Karena didnt expect a reply from the warrior when she finished speaking. The young woman stood and turned to Argo. She moved the horse toward the back of the cave in silence to give Xena privacy. Karena realized how close Xena came to losing her best friend today. She also knew that it would have been a loss felt by far more than just the warrior.
Xena heard every word but she wouldnt divert her eyes from her friend. Tears cascaded from the warriors cheeks onto Gabrielles face. The young womans eyes fluttered until she met with Xenas. Xena kept the stare for a brief but timeless moment before leaning down and kissing the bard just above her right brow. When Xena finally pulled back she looked toward Karena whod somehow felt Xenas eyes on her. Karena turned to face the warrior and saw her lips form the words but heard no noise, "Thank you "
Return to The Bard's Corner