Disclaimer: All the characters in the following story belong to Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright violations were intended. This story was written purely for entertainment purposes and not for profit of any kind.
Xenaverse Historical Note: This story is a sequel to another of my works "White Water Terror." There were some troubles still to be resolved at the end of it, so Im continuing the story. I would recommend that you read that story first so the events here will make more sense, but this story, though written as a continuation, has its own plot and can be read separately. Also, you should note that these events occur some time after the events of the fourth season episode "A Family Affair."
Hope you enjoy it! J
Subtext Notice: This story is about two women who are deeply in love with one another. If you find this type of story offensive, you will want to pass on this one and choose another to read.
Consciousness returned slowly and brought with it pain. By the gods, what had happened? Xena struggled to clear the fog from her brain and to find some order in her chaotic thoughts. However, the pain in her arms and her head were nearly unbearable, making it impossible to focus. Slowly, as the thoughts began to crystallize, she realized that her arms were extended out to the sides of her body and that they were supporting her weight. Her eyes widened in panic and she drew in a gasping breath. Crucified? And even though there was a brief burst of adrenaline through her veins, her head remained hanging loosely between her shoulders, and it took a monumental effort just to lift it and look around.
No. She hadnt been crucified, at least not in the traditional sense. She appeared to be in some sort of dungeon or holding cell, which she suspected was in the caverns she and Gabrielle had been investigating. The wall behind her was rock, but the rest of the cell was manmade and constructed of iron bars. The area was shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from a lone torch over near a locked door.
She struggled to make sense of her situation. Whoever her captors were, they had made sure that she wasnt going to escape. In addition to being locked in this iron cell, she was also chained to a large crossbeam that had been placed behind her shoulder blades and extended about four feet to either side of her. Her arms and wrists were wrapped tightly to the board, the metal chain links digging into her flesh. The crossbeam itself was suspended from the ceiling with sturdy chains that might have once been part of a ships anchor, and just to make sure she didnt escape, her legs were also bound. A large chain was wrapped around her ankles, and the other end of the chain was locked securely to a large bolt in the floor. There was just enough tension in the chain to make her feel she might be pulled apart if she resisted.
She took in a deep breath and released it, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, which was probably not a good idea since the movement intensified her headache. However, she was able to focus a little more on her situation. "Gabrielle " The tortured whisper escaped her dry throat. Where was the bard? Was she all right?
Xena had no clear memory of what had happened to her, and worry began to gnaw at her gut. What was going on here? She was helpless to do anything at the moment, and she gritted her teeth in frustration. She had an elemental need to be in control of things, and right now she was about as out of control as she could get. Damn it to Hades and back!!
How had she been captured and who was responsible for this? The fogginess began to fade from her jumbled thoughts, and she remembered the events of earlier in the day. How could things have gone so wrong? She thought back to the peaceful morning that had started it all.
The warrior stirred and then blinked open her eyes, squinting to adjust to the darkness around her. The cave in which they had taken shelter was not a large one, but it was large enough to meet their needs. The fire pit had burned down during the night, and the glowing embers cast a soft light over the bedroll and Gabrielles sleeping form beside her. It was slightly less dark over near the entrance of the cave, signaling the days beginning.
The warrior reclined on the furs of the bedroll, her shoulders and head resting on a rolled up blanket being used as a pillow. She could feel the pent up energy inside herself and the restlessness brought about by three days of recuperation in one place. Three days. How could such a short time seem like such an eternity?
While traveling to find some shelter out of the rain, they had come upon some villagers trying to save their wives and children who had been stranded on a bridge over a flooded river. And then when attempting a rescue, both she and Gabrielle had been washed down river.
It had been one disaster after another. She had sustained a concussion, and Gabrielle had strained the muscles in her back. But that wasnt the end of the trauma. Once they had found shelter in this cave, they had been attacked by a small group of robbers looking for trouble. "And they found plenty of that," the warrior thought fiercely. A slight movement beside her distracted her from her thoughts, and she smiled down at the sleeping form of the bard.
Gabrielle was curled up next to her on the bedroll, her head resting on Xenas chest and her right arm snugged around the warriors waist. Xena smiled tenderly and wrapped her arms securely around her partners body, relishing the shared warmth that kept the damp coldness of the cave at bay. She knew that she should get up and stoke the fire and warm up some of the soup from the night before, but she just couldnt make herself move from this spot. Not yet.
She took a quick inventory of her injuries and was fairly pleased. The blurred vision she had experienced after the concussion was gone, and though breathing in deeply still hurt her bruised ribs, the pain was much better than it had been the past couple of days. It was amazing what a couple of days of rest could do! Not for the first time she was thankful for her bodys natural tendency to heal quickly.
She felt Gabrielle stir slightly against her side and looked down into the pair of sleepy green orbs blinking up at her. "Good morning," she murmured, bending her head forward and placing a gentle kiss on top of the blondes head. "How are you feeling?" Noticing the slight frown that formed on Gabrielles forehead, she thought she could probably guess.
"Ugh." Gabrielle lowered her head to rest on the muscled shoulder beneath her. "Is it morning already?" She peered groggily around the cave and noticed that it was still dark. "Its not." She glanced up at Xena, a reluctant smile tugging her lips. "At least not by normal standards."
Xena chose not to respond to the comment and instead raised her hand to stroke the back of Gabrielles head, closing her eyes and enjoying the closeness.
"Umm? " Blue eyes blinked open and met the searching green ones of the bard.
"How are you feeling?"
Xena shifted her shoulders in a slight shrug and smiled. "Im fine - just a slight headache and some stiffness. Should be better once I get up and moving." She squeezed the bard a little tighter in her arms, hugging her closer. " How are you doing?"
Gabrielle grimaced as she shifted her body away from the warrior and rolled over onto her back. "Ouch. Every muscle in my back feels like its cramped around one large knot in the middle. Gods, Im stiff!" Gabrielle rolled her shoulders experimentally. "But at least everything seems to be working." She grimaced and then noticed Xenas concerned look. "Its O.K. I just have a few kinks to work out." To prove her point, she sat up and began doing some slow stretching movements to loosen the muscles.
Xena shifted into a sitting position, running her hand through her uncombed strands. The dull, pounding pain in her head increased slightly with this change of position, but it was bearable. She stood up and began gathering some wood from the pile near the far wall. "I hope soup is O.K. for breakfast." She glanced back at the bard, smiling slightly as Gabrielle focused intently on her stretching.
"Sounds great to me!" The bards enthusiasm wasnt lost on the warrior, whose own stomach was growling with hunger. Xena smiled and added a few more logs to the fire, and once the flames were rekindled, Xena crossed to the bedroll and resumed her place beside the bard. "Lie down and roll over."
"Lie down and roll over." This time a tender smile and a slightly pleading look accompanied the command.
Finally comprehending, Gabrielle smiled and rolled over to lie on her stomach. Xena grabbed some healing ointment out of the nearby saddlebag and began to rub it into the abused muscles, her firm strokes slowly kneading out the soreness.
Gabrielle sighed contentedly and let her eyes close, surrendering to the healing touch.
Some time later she opened her eyes. The first thing she noticed was that it was daylight. In fact, by the amount of light in the cave, she would guess that it was late in the morning. She sat up and looked over at Xena sheepishly. The warrior was sitting over by the fire, her sharpening stone moving in regular strokes against the metal of the sword.
"Good morning, my queen," Xena teased.
Gabrielle blushed and yawned. "Xena, cut that out! What time is it anyway? How long have I been sleeping?" She rubbed her hand over her eyes to wipe away the sleep.
"Oh, its about three candlemarks past dawn. Time for breakfast." Xena polished her sword with a soft linen cloth and slid it into the scabbard. "Hungry?" She stood and stirred the soup.
Gabrielle grinned. "Oh yeah. Im famished!" She rolled slowly to her feet, testing her back muscles. "By the gods, your hands are magic!" She walked over and hugged the warrior. "Thanks."
The hug felt good. "Youre welcome, Gabrielle. Anytime." Xena lifted both eyebrows and smiled suggestively down at the bard and was rewarded by a gentle blush that traveled up the skin of Gabrielles neck to her face. That blush always melted a place deep inside her soul that was reserved only for her partner.
She lifted her hand slowly and let the back of her fingers brush lightly over the smooth, flushed skin of the blondes cheek. "Are you feeling good enough to travel today?" She couldnt quite hide the wistful note in her voice.
Gabrielle pulled back out of the embrace. "Sure. And you? You know, three days in one place is almost a record for you." She teased.
It was the warriors turn to blush, and she smiled sheepishly. " Guilty. I was hoping that maybe we could move on, but not before you are feeling better."
Gabrielle patted her lightly on the shoulder and then turned her towards the steaming pot of soup. "Well, its settled then. Lets eat and then well get things packed up!" They exchanged quick grins and sat down to eat, the anticipation of some action brightening their moods.
It didnt take long to pack up the camp and load their belongings onto Argo, and about a candlemark later they were headed up river to check on the flooded village they had tried to help three days earlier.
The reverberating crash of the dungeons metal door interrupted her memories from the morning, and she looked up to watch several well-armed soldiers approach the outside of her cell. She lifted her chin, letting them speak first.
After standing and watching her for a few moments, one of the soldiers finally stepped forward to speak. "Queen Kilaro has sent us to deliver a message to you." The soldier paused a moment, waiting for Xena to respond. When she didnt react or change her expression, he continued, his anger obvious. " The queen has planned a party in your honor, and you will be taken there in half a candlemark." The soldiers exchanged knowing looks and grinned at each other, sharing a private joke.
Xena smirked and let her disgust for the queen show. "The queen can request all she likes, but Im not interested in attending any party of hers, even one in my honor! Tell her that I respectfully decline, " the warrior purred, each word dripping with sarcasm.
The closest guard angrily reached for his keys, but the older man beside him grabbed his arm. "Its all right," he reassured the other guard, his eyes never leaving Xenas face. "Well just go and relay this message to the queen. Im sure well be back to take this wench to do the queens bidding!"
He unsheathed his sword and held in out in front of Xenas face through the bars. "And you .well. Just enjoy these last few minutes of whats left of the rest of your existence!" He playfully smacked the back of his shorter companion. "Come on. Lets get out of here and report this to the queen."
Xena glared with frustration at their retreating backs and wondered again how she was going to get out of this. Her worry was not for herself. She had been in these types of situations for well over 10 years of her life. It was her worry for Gabrielle that was eating at her reserves. Was her partner alive, and if so, what had this queen done with her? Xenas frustration built, her anger coming to the surface, and she rattled the chains with grim determination. She did know one thing. She wasnt going to be able to help Gabrielle until she could get out of this cell, and she was going to need help to do that. She decided the best way was to let the guards help her out of here since they were so anxious to get her to the queen. However, until they returned, she was stuck here, waiting. She let her thoughts wander back to the events that had led to their capture.
It had been at least a half candlemark since they had left the cave, and they were making good time. The trail was still slightly muddy from all the rain over the last few days, but enough of the water had dried up to make travel easier than it had been when they had last passed this way. Xena walked beside the bard, Argos reigns loosely clasped in her long fingers. Her brows were furrowed in deep thought.
"Xena, what do you think well find when we get to the village?" Gabrielles question startled the warrior out of her troubled thoughts.
Blue eyes jerked to meet the bards. "I dont know. It seems strange that no one from the village has come looking for us by now." She shook her head and squinted into the distance. "Somethings not right. I dont like it."
Gabrielles own senses went on alert. "What do you mean exactly?"
The warrior cocked her head to the side and came to a halt. "Tell me, what do you hear?"
The bard stopped and listened. "Nothing out of the ordinary. The river. Some birds. The wind." She looked questioningly at Xena. "What is it?" She felt the hair on her arms raise and goosebumps ripple along her skin.
"Thats just it, Gabrielle. There isnt anything else. The village is just around the next bend of the river here. We should be hearing voices, noise, or something from there by now." A snarl curled her lips as she felt an eerie sense of deja vu. "I dont like it one bit! Come on!" She took off jogging down the path with Gabrielle right behind her.
As Gabrielle ran, she wondered what they would find. When she had last seen the villagers, the women and children had been screaming and holding on to an old wooden bridge that had broken loose from its supports in the flood waters. The men from the village had been trying to anchor the bridge to the shore with ropes that Xena had attached to it, but the angry currents were battling them every step of the way.
There had been a slim chance that the ropes would hold and the bridge would be pulled securely ashore, but Gabrielle had never had a chance to see what happened next. It was at that point that Xena had been injured and had fallen into the raging waters. The bard had jumped into the current and had managed to pull Xenas body to the surface, but both of them had been swept down the river in the swift current.
Now they were returning to the scene of the accident, and Gabrielle didnt want to think about what they might find. She and Xena had survived the rough trip down the river, but they had climbed up the riverbank that was opposite the village. Now the flooded river lay between them and the village. She steeled herself for the worst.
As they cleared the last of the trees, both she and Xena stopped, their eyes wide with horror. The village was gone, burned to the ground, the smoke still curling in lazy wisps off the charred ruins. What was left of the bridge was smashed on the far shore in pieces the size of kindling wood. And though there were hundreds of footprints stomped into the muddy bank, there was not a sign of another living being in the area.
Xenas lips pressed together in a grim line. She glanced at Gabrielle. "Come on. Theres another bridge a couple of miles from here. We can cross there and double back." She headed up the path without waiting for the bards response.
It took about three-quarters of a candlemark for them to get to the crossing and then return to the village. Gabrielle gripped her staff tightly as she followed Xena through the smoldering ruins, convinced that she must really be on edge because there seemed to be an almost sinister presence around them.
She could tell that Xena also sensed something. The warrior was alertly scanning the area, her head turning in quick movements to the left and right as she slowly turned in a complete circle.
"Can you feel them?" The warriors deep voice was almost a whisper.
"Them?" Gabrielles worried eyes scanned the surrounding trees.
The warrior nodded slightly, indicating the direction with her head. "To the right and behind us. I cant tell how many." She frowned in concentration. "You stay here and continue to dig through the rubble. Im going to double around behind them." Her eyes met Gabrielles in silent understanding.
The bards brow was furrowed with worry. "Be careful."
The warriors eyebrow lifted briefly in response, and she turned and quickly disappeared into the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing. Gabrielle turned to the nearest burnt structure and began tossing aside the charred lumber, making as much noise as possible to distract the watchers. Her stomach was tied in knots as she waited for something to happen.
She continued to dig through the ashes, her nerves on edge, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when Xena jogged out of the woods a few feet away from her.
"Xena! By the gods, you scared ten years off my life!
The warriors look was fierce. "Theyre gone!"
Gabrielle was confused. "What do you mean gone?"
"Just what I said," the warrior snarled in frustration. "They just disappeared." She scanned the surrounding treetops one more time, and then looked back at the blonde. The look of frustration was still there, but it was softened with a slight apologetic smile. "Sorry to snap at you, but I cant believe that they could get away from me that easily. They were there in the trees one minute, and the next minute they were gone! Thats not possible." She glared at the trees lining the clearing.
Gabrielle looked around nervously. "What are we going to do now? We obviously cant stay here! If the villagers are still alive, they need our help!"
"Oh, theyre alive all right! Look over here at these tracks." She led Gabrielle over to the twin sets of parallel ruts in the mud and began following them down the road. "Wagon tracks, and notice that they were heavier on the way out of town than they were on the way in."
Gabrielles eyes hardened with recognition. "Slavers!" She spat the word out distastefully.
Xena grabbed Argos reigns and started walking south away from the river, following the wagon tracks, and Gabrielle hurried to catch up. "Maybe slavers." She barely heard the quiet words of the warrior.
"Xena? What did you say?"
"I said, Maybe slavers." Xena glanced over at her. "If these are slavers, they are the most talented bunch Ive met. They shouldnt have been able to elude me just now. It wasnt humanly possible to get out of there without me seeing or hearing them." Xenas eyes were like chips of flint as she scanned the surrounding trees as they walked.
"Not humanly possible?" Uh oh! Little alarm bells went off inside the bards head. Great. Just great!
They walked for another candlemark before Xena stopped them for a short rest. They sat on the trunk of a fallen tree and chewed strips of dried meat. They ate in silence for a few minutes, and then Gabrielle couldnt stand the quiet any longer. "How much farther do you think well have to go?" She watched as the warrior took a drink from the waterskin before answering.
"Id say that they are about a days walk ahead of us, and they dont seem to be in any hurry. They could have left this area by now if they had wanted to, but these tracks are still pretty fresh." She added suspiciously. "I dont get it. Why would they kidnap a whole village and then stay in the area where they committed the crime?"
She frowned in thought. "And now they know we are following them. They should be trying to hide their tracks, but theyre not. Its almost as if they want us to follow them." Xena wiped off the mouth of the waterskin and handed it over to Gabrielle. "Here. Lets finish up and get started again."
Gabrielle took a long swallow, a little of the water dripping down her chin. "If they want us to follow them, arent we probably walking into a trap?" She looked over at her partner.
The bard choked and her startle gaze jerked to Xenas face. The warrior stood up and shrugged. "Expecting us or not, we have to get those villagers to safety."
Gabrielle stood and braced her shoulders. "Youre right. Wed better get going." They quickly reorganized their supplies on Argos back and set out once again.
They traveled for some time before Xena raised her hand and stopped. Gabrielle looked and then nodded. There in the middle of the road was a steaming pile of fresh horse manure. They were close!
Xena led Argo over to the edge of the woods and secured the loose reigns to the saddlehorn. "Argo, you stay here, girl. O.K?" Xena spoke quietly into the horses ear and rubbed her neck in a comforting motion. "Well back in a little while. You stay out of trouble and stay out of sight." Argo snorted softly and pawed the earth with her right foot, signaling her understanding. Xena flashed a quick smile at Gabrielle. "O.K. Lets go."
The warrior led the way as they headed off into the woods to the right of the roadway. Up ahead, Gabrielle could see some white cliffs towering above the tops of the trees. Xena headed straight for them.
"Do you think they are in those rocks?" She whispered into the warriors back.
Xena turned, placing her finger to her lips. "These cliffs are laced with caves and passages. I once camped here with my own army. This would be an ideal place for them to be hiding." She frowned and looked back towards the cliffs. "Or waiting!"
"Waiting? Xena, do you still think that this may be a trap?" The thought made Gabrielles nerves wind just a little tighter. "That doesnt make any sense. Why would they be waiting for us?" She looked over at the warrior.
Their eyes met. "Lets go find out!"
A path leading up to the cliffs had been cleared, and it was obvious that it had been heavily traveled recently. Xena drew her sword out of its scabbard and continued to scan the area carefully as they approached a narrow gap between the rocks.
"It looks like a cave opening," Gabrielle commented as she peered hesitantly into the darkness. She looked over at the warrior. Xena was looking up the side of the rock face above them.
"The sides of these cliffs are too steep for a whole army to climb. This must be one of their main entrances into the caverns." She frowned as she looked around them. "Lets circle around the base of the cliff a little more to another entrance, one thats not so popular. Come on." She headed off to the left of the entrance with Gabrielle right behind her.
They walked for about a quarter candlemark before they found a steep path up the outside of the rock face. Xena glance back over her shoulder. "This is it." She hesitated a moment, every instinct screaming for her to have Gabrielle stay here. But she had learned a long time ago that Gabrielle wouldnt be left behind.
She looked directly into the bards eyes. "This is going to be dangerous." She hurried on when she saw that Gabrielle was about to protest. "Dont worry. WE will be going into this together." She smiled slightly when she saw the pleased look on her partners face. "Just remember to stay close. I dont feel very good about this. Something just isnt right." Xenas eyes narrowed as she looked into the nearby trees. She looked back at the bard and her eyes softened. "Are you ready?"
Gabrielle reached out and laid a reassuring hand on the warriors shoulder. "As ready as Ill ever be. Lets go."
The climb up the path was harder than it looked. There were large boulders to climb around, and the path was covered with loose rubble that made every step hazardous. Finally, they reached the top edge of the rocks and cautiously looked over the edge.
It was a living nightmare!
The rocks they had just climbed formed an outer wall that encircled a large clearing. A good-sized army was camped in this protected space, and around the outer edge of the camp, cages had been set up. These cages were filled with human captives: men, women and children. Some of the captives were tied up to poles, arranged along a large scaffolding at one end of the camp. It was clear that they had been tortured. On the far side of the encampment, there was a large opening in the side of the cliff, obviously leading to yet another occupied area.
Xena turned her head to the side and met Gabrielles worried gaze. "Its worse than I thought. These rock walls make a perfect fortress for these slime. Its not going to be easy to get the villagers out of here without a fight." Gabrielle could almost see Xenas mind wrestling with these obstacles, working to form plans and back-up plans, struggling to find a way for them to all get out alive.
"Whose army is this and what do they want?" Gabrielles worried gaze returned to the caged villagers.
"I dont know, but maybe we are about to find out." Xena nodded with her head back to the cave opening below them.
The soldiers, who had been lying about haphazardly, were now standing in straight rows on either side of the darkened opening, obviously standing to honor their leader. The camp noise had diminished to a whisper. Several large warriors stepped out into the sunshine, but they too parted and stood at attention. Xenas eyes were drawn to a slight movement in the shadows of the cave. A hooded figure stepped forward and placed a hand on the arm of the closest soldier. At this gesture, the soldier leaned down and the hooded figure said something quietly into his ear.
The soldier, probably the second in command, turned and addressed the rest of the soldiers. "Queen Kilaro wants to congratulate all of you on your work here." His voice was deep and echoed in the enclosed space. "However, there is much more to do before our work is done. We must now ." A hand on his arm stopped him in mid-sentence.
The hooded figure beside him was staring at the top of the cliff where Xena and Gabrielle were hiding. She pointed to their exact location and whispered again into the ear of the tall soldier.
He responded immediately. "Intruders! There at the top of the cliff! Get them!"
Xena backed against the rock wall behind her. "How? How did she know?" She looked over at Gabrielles pale face. "Weve got to get out of here. Now!"
The trip back down the steep cliff was even more dangerous than the climb up, but now there was no need to worry about being quiet. They slid on the loose rocks, creating mini-avalanches as they navigated quickly down the path, simply jumping over obstacles they had carefully climbed over earlier. The sense of urgency gave them an extra burst of speed as they ran for their lives.
At the bottom of the path, Xena could already see several soldiers waiting for them with their swords drawn. She felt her own feral strength rising to the surface, and she grinned in anticipation. She had just bent her knees in preparation for a jump that would put her in the face of those soldiers, when she heard an explosion of sound above her head. She turned and looked up. A cascading wall of rock was headed their way. She lunged backwards and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, dragging her over to the rock wall and sheltering her as much as possible with her own body.
The first few rocks bounced over their heads and landed behind them on the path, but there were simply too many raining down on them to dodge them all. A couple of hard impacts staggered the warrior, and she fell back from the wall. And then she felt a brief, sharp pain on the back of her skull, and everything faded to blackness.
Even now, as she thought back over those events, there were some things that Xena couldnt explain. For example, who was this Queen Kilaro, and what kind of powers did she have? Somehow this hooded woman had known exactly where they were hiding on the cliff! And how had that avalanche occurred at exactly that time and place? It was a little too convenient to have been coincidental. Xena frowned as she contemplated these questions, but there was only one way to get to the bottom of all this. She was going to have to confront Kilaro to find the answers.
But first she was going to have to find Gabrielle. The bard had been trapped in the avalanche just as she had, but what had happened to her? The fact that Gabrielle was not in the dungeon with her meant one of two things. One, Kilaro had some sort of plan for the bard, possibly to be used as leverage against her, or .well, the second option she didnt want to even consider. She was sure that she would have felt it if something bad had happened to Gabrielle. Somehow, if the bard were dead, shed know it!
She shook off those dark thoughts as she heard the approaching footsteps of the guards clicking against the hard stone floor and prepared herself for the confrontation.
In another part of the caverns, the bard was dealing with problems of her own. The room she was in was probably the largest of the caverns and seemed to be the main area for socializing and eating meals. She had been locked into an iron cage, and then both she and the cage had been raised 30 feet up from the floor. The cage was attached to a ring in the ceiling with a strong length of hemp rope and was swinging gently from side to side as she moved about. Fortunately, she was being ignored by the soldiers, most of whom were lounging on the furs spread throughout the room.
She was angry and frustrated with her situation, but more than that she was worried about Xena. She had neither heard nor seen the warrior for quite some time now, and that was not a good sign. The last she had seen of her was when the soldiers had carried the warriors unconscious body into the caverns, disappearing into the darkened passages. They had been separated from that moment, and Gabrielle was terrified as she imagined what the soldiers might be doing to the injured warrior.
She glanced down at her own scrapes and bruises. Fortunately, the falling rocks hadnt seriously injured her; Xenas body had protected her from the worst blows. The thought of her injured partner caused a leaden feeling in her chest that brought with it a sense of anger and despair. What had happened to the warrior?
Loud shouting from the men below interrupted her thoughts. She strained forward against the bars to get a better look at what was happening. There was a large entrance at one end of the cavern, and the thirty or so men in the room had turned to face that direction.
Gabrielle could see the hooded figure of the queen standing in the doorway, one hand on the arm of the strong soldier beside her. She was an impressive figure, demanding and receiving the respect of these combat-hardened soldiers. Gabrielle was fascinated by the power emanating from the woman and in some way respected her ability to lead all these people, but that same fascination and respect was also laced with tendrils of fear for what this person might do. Somehow all of this was connected to Xena, and not in a good way.
Gabrielle continued to watch the events below her in amazement. Unlike most strong military leaders, this woman never directly addressed her men. She whispered into the ear of her escort, and then he addressed the men in a clear, deep voice.
There was going to be a great contest scheduled for later in the evening, and only the bravest of the men would be honored and allowed to participate. The contest was going to pit the best of the soldiers against their prized captive, Xena.
A cold shiver ran down Gabrielles spine. No. This couldnt be happening! Xena. She took a shaky breath and tried to calm her racing heartbeat. By the gods, who was this hooded woman and what did she want with Xena? Gabrielle felt relief in knowing that Xena was still alive, but that feeling was greatly overshadowed with the fear of what was to come.
She knew that the falling rocks had injured her partner, and now she was going to have to fight for her life. She clenched her teeth together so tightly that her jaw ached. Well, there was one thing that she had learned a long time ago about her partner; as long as Xena was still alive, there was always a glimmer of hope. The woman never gave up!
Gabrielle fought her frustration and began to closely observe the scene below her, hoping to discover something that might help them later.
By the time the guards arrived at the cell, Xena had cleared her face of all emotion, and the only sign of her extreme frustration was the twitching muscle in her lower jaw. The pain was easy to disguise because she didnt really feel much pain or discomfort anymore; she had lost the feeling in her arms and legs quite some time ago.
She watched stoically as five heavily armed guards approached her cell. The soldiers had their swords drawn and were walking warily, as if expecting her to leap out at them. "Whats wrong, boys? Afraid of something?" She flashed them a fierce smile, hoping to taunt them enough so that in their anger they might get careless enough to give her a chance for escape. She knew the risks of this approach. Shed had to take beatings before for things less important than this. Above all else and regardless of what happened here, she had to get to Gabrielle. It was a need as essential to her as breathing air into her lungs.
One of the guards unlocked the cell door and stepped forward, his body only inches from hers. "You think youre so smart, but you arent." He reached out and clamped his fingers on her jaw, bruising the flesh with his cruel grip. "The queen has plans for you tonight, but even if she didnt, I would." His eyes roamed over her bound body, and then he looked back up and into her icy, blue stare. " And I think I would really like that," he purred. He smiled and she could see the desire in his eyes and fought down her disgust. She tried to jerk her chin out of his grasp, but his grip was too strong. He continued as if she hadnt resisted. "But tonight well see what you are really made of. Well all get to see the death of a legend!" In a sudden shift of mood, he spat in her face to show his contempt, and Xena fought to not react. She didnt want to give him the satisfaction, so she continued to stare into his eyes, never blinking.
They stared at each other in a contest of wills until the guard finally relented. He turned around angrily and signaled to the others, and they came forward to loosen the chains holding the crossbeam to the ceiling. Xena clenched her jaws shut tightly as the jerking motion put extra pressure on her bound arms, and she felt her body being lowered to the floor. The chain around her ankles had not yet been released, and that combined with the lack of feeling in her legs caused her to collapse to her knees. The heavy weight of the crossbeam slowly settled onto her slumped shoulders as the last of the ceiling supports were released. She prayed that her arms would also be released from the crossbeam, but that didnt look like it was going to happen at least not yet.
A hand gripped the back of her head, pulling it up. She looked up into the face of the guard who had spit on her moments earlier. "Get up and follow me!" He jerked her hair to emphasize his point.
Xena growled low in her throat. "If you want me to walk, youre going to have to release the chains on my legs first."
At first she thought he was going to refuse, but he looked up to meet the eyes of his companions and nodded. "Release her legs." He looked back down at her as the soldiers unlocked the restricting chain and unwrapped it from around her ankles. "Now. Get up and follow me."
She was pulled roughly to her feet, but her legs were still without feeling and she fell back to the ground unable to catch herself. The weight of the crossbeam across her shoulders caused her to overbalance and smash face-first onto the stone floor. She grunted in pain.
"Carry the beam and drag her with it." The commander of the guards then turned and left the room, and the remaining guards lifted the beam to their shoulders and walked after him. Xenas feet could just reach the ground, and she struggled to take strides with her numbed legs, hoping the movement would help the feeling to return before she reached her destination.
Gabrielle was worried. She had been watching the preparations being made for the nights event, and she didnt like what she saw. A large space had been cleared below her, forming an arena. An impressive arsenal of weapons had been brought out and placed over to one side of the area, and the ledges along the walls of the caverns had been lined with furs where the spectators were going to sit. Just beyond the cleared arena, there was a raised stage that featured a long table and several chairs. The chair in the middle of the table was larger than the others, and Gabrielle figured Kilaro would sit there. Just moments ago, servants had placed an abundance of food and wine at this table, so the bard was certain that the evenings event was about to begin.
A trumpet sounded near the entrance of the cavern, and rows and rows of soldiers began to enter, climbing to take their places on the padded ledges along the walls. Kilaro and her attendants were the last to enter, and they moved to the table on the stage. The queen still wore a hooded robe that disguised her face, but the robe she wore tonight glistened with sequins and rubies. Her presence dominated the room, and when she raised her arm to get everyones attention, the noise in the room immediately ceased.
She looked slowly around the room and then snapped her fingers. Previously unlit candles and torches that were liberally scattered throughout the room burst into flames simultaneously.
Gabrielle gasped as her eyes jerked from the lit torches back to the queen. There was obviously more to this woman than what she had shown them so far. How many more secrets would be revealed as the night progressed? Gabrielle chewed nervously on her lower lip and gripped the iron bars of the cage a little tighter as her eyes followed the turned heads of the crowd below her.
The queen signaled again, and her second-in-command turned and pointed to the caves entrance. His deep voice echoed against the cavern walls. "As you all know, we are gathered here this evening to honor our queen and to enjoy some entertainment together. Tonights contest is one of honor and stamina. Our queen has chosen the 30 best soldiers from among you to fight against a legend from this part of the world, Xena Warrior Princess."
Excited murmurs and boos rippled around the room as Xena was dragged into the arena. The warrior was walking on her own, though her legs were still a little unsteady. The weight of the crossbeam on her shoulders and upper back was a torture, but she walked with her head and eyes up, an aura of power surrounding her even though she was bound. She looked around the room and into the eyes of each spectator in the room, issuing a silent challenge.
And then her eyes tracked to the iron cage suspended above one end of the arena, and she saw Gabrielle clinging to the bars. The bard looked tired and very worried, but she didnt seem to be seriously injured. Their eyes locked for an instant, and thats all the time they needed to communicate the love and relief that they were feeling.
Xena was certain that her heart stopped briefly as their eyes met, but she looked away quickly before her feelings for the bard were revealed to the others in the room. She knew that the next candlemark or so would determine whether they lived or died, and she didnt want Gabrielle to be used as a pawn against her. What she didnt know was that the decision had already been taken out of her hands.
The murmuring of the crowd continued as the spectators excitedly placed their bets, and once the noise quieted, the commander continued to explain the rules of combat.
"The soldiers may choose to fight the warrior woman one at a time or as a group. The weapons of combat have been provided for all participants and have been placed on the furs along the far wall. If Xena wins," he paused here as a wave of laughter circled the room. "If Xena wins," he repeated more forcefully, "then her companion may go free, and the warrior will be awarded a swift and honorable death. However, if Xena loses," he paused until the cheers died down. "If she loses, then her life and the life of her companion is forfeit, and they will be tortured to death." This time the noise from the cheers was deafening.
Xenas eyes shifted slowly from the announcer to Gabrielle. She could easily read the look of horror on the bards face, the look of disbelief. Xena tried to give her a reassuring grin, but she knew she didnt quite pull it off.
In one way she was relieved. There was some hope for Gabrielles survival. If she could win this contest, then at least the bard would be spared. As for her own destiny, she wasnt worried. She would gladly sacrifice her own life for her lovers. Somehow she had always known that it would come down to this moment of ultimate choice, but she found that there was really no choice at all. Without Gabrielle, her life would be nothing.
Xena considered all her options and made her decision. If the situation had been simply a sacrifice of her life in order to save Gabrielle, the answer would have been simple, but this time there was more to consider. Kilaro was an unknown factor, and there was no way to know if she would keep her word and spare Gabrielle even if Xena did win.
That narrowed all the warriors options down to one: She would have to survive the battle, free Gabrielle, and find a way for them to escape. Nice and simple. She smirked at her own understatement and turned to look at the hooded figure in front of her.
She stepped forward to stand in front of Kilaro. "Who are you? What do you want with me?"
The hooded figure rose slowly to her feet, extended her right arm, and pointed to the chains binding Xenas arms to the beam. Slowly, by themselves, the chains began to unlock and unwrap. Xenas pale face looked with shock at the woman standing above her on the stage. "Who are you?" She whispered. "What are you?" She felt a cold tendril of fear wrap around her heart, and she looked at the hooded figure with new respect.
The chains and crossbeam crashed heavily to the floor, and Xena swayed dizzily, the relief from the pain almost a torture itself as the blood rushed back into her arms and fingertips. Two guards grabbed her arms and led her over to the end of the arena opposite from where Gabrielles cage was suspended. Xena leaned against the cool stones of the wall and waited, trying to figure out a good plan of attack.
A movement from the cage caught her attention, and she looked up. Gabrielle was trying to signal something to her, but she couldnt quite see what the bard was trying to show her. She blinked her eyes and tried to concentrate on the subtle clues the bard was sending her.
And then she saw it.
There was a thick, braided rope stretched across the cavern from wall to wall. It was being used to support some large tapestries that had been used as temporary walls for this large cavern, but now those tapestries were pushed aside and the area was open for the competition. The rope, however, remained in place, only a few feet away from Gabrielle and the cage.
Xena smiled slightly and winked at Gabrielle, seeing the brief answering smile before it was hidden behind the bards hand. Xena turned and looked at Kilaro. To what extent would this woman interfere if Xena were to defeat the soldiers?
There was only one way to find out, and Xena flexed her shoulders and arms in anticipation of the fight. She would have to hit hard and fast and get out of there quickly. Her greatest chance of survival rested on the element of surprise.
She glanced quickly around the arena as the soldiers moved into position opposite her, looking over the weapons and choosing the ones they were going to use. Xena looked back at the guards that were standing closest to her, and she noted that they were actually paying more attention to the preparations at the other end than they were to her. Perfect.
It was time. She glanced quickly up at Gabrielle and flashed her a quick smile, grinning even wider when she saw the bard flash her a quick thumbs up sign. She felt a dark energy rise towards the surface, and she basked in its fierceness, knowing that she would have to call on all her skills and strength to survive. The fierce joy at finally being able to take some action drew a war cry from deep in her chest, and she lunged for the sword of the closest guard.
He never had a chance. Xena landed a double-handed blow to the top of his shoulder, snapping his collarbone, and before his numbed fingers could drop the sword, she had snatched it from him and leveled him to the floor with an elbow to the jaw. With the sword in hand, she sprinted towards the wall where one end of the tapestry rope was anchored.
By this time the rest of the room had recovered from the initial shock of the warriors unexpected attack, and the soldiers charged towards her. Some had time to grab a weapon, and some just charged empty-handed, hoping to have a chance to tackle her to the ground.
What they didnt anticipate was Xenas acrobatic skills. When she reached the base of the wall, she didnt stop moving; she drove her legs harder and faster and ran up the side of the wall just far enough to grab the thick rope. Her momentum swept her body in a graceful arc so that she landed neatly on top of the rope with both feet and was able to keep her balance by extending her arms to either side of her body.
There was no time to worry about falling. To fall was to die, and that simply wasnt an option. She knew she had to hurry though and knew that there was no time to be cautious. In seconds the soldiers would be close enough to attack.
She took a deep breath and focused all her concentration on the rope in front of her and took off as quickly as she could across the swaying rope. She blocked out everything else around her except her need to reach Gabrielle. She heard the swish of a rotating blade through the air and ducked as a battle-ax whistled past. Her jerky movement nearly threw her off balance, but she bent her knees and fought the swaying rope until she finally regained her balance. However, during that time two or three more of the soldiers had time to close on her. She swung her sword in a twirling motion and knocked aside two knives that had been thrown, and her left arm swung up in a blur of motion to grip the knobby shaft of an arrow that had been headed for her heart. She snarled as the rage built inside her, and she yelled again in defiance of the odds stacked against them.
Without looking away from the men below her, she yelled to Gabrielle. " Start swinging the cage!" She knocked aside a couple more arrows and grimly resumed her progress towards the bard. Sooner or later the soldiers would get past their blind rage and would realize that the rope she was on could be cut. She wanted to get to Gabrielle before that happened.
She flinched as a spear passed closer to her than she expected, the point of the shaft digging a furrow across her upper arm as it passed. Damn. She was running out of time.
Gripping the handle of her sword firmly, she somersaulted high into the air, landing on the rope only feet from the bard. Gabrielle had managed to get the cage swinging so that as it reached the top of its arc, it was within striking distance of the warriors sword. Xena wasted no time. As the cage swung past her, she swung downward with all her strength, her sword smashing the lock on the cage door. And then before the cage could swing away from her, she leaped and grabbed the outside of the bars, bracing her feet against its bottom edge.
Gabrielle was ready for her. As soon as the warrior leaped from the rope, the bard swung the gate open and prepared to escape. Xena shifted to stand beside the bard, wrapped her arms around her waist and jumped, using the momentum of the swinging cage to somersault over the heads of the soldiers below them. Her exultant cry echoed across the caverns.
Gabrielle experienced a dizzying series of turns before finally jarring to the ground. The air was knocked from her lungs, but she hardly noticed. Her focus was on the large soldier standing between them and the gate covering the exit. She could hear Xena behind her fighting off the few soldiers who had been standing near this end of the caverns, so she knew that this one was hers to deal with. She grinned up at him. "That was amazing wasnt it!"
His surprise at her comment was short lived because as he opened his mouth to respond, Gabrielles knee drove solidly into his groin, crumpling him to the ground like a rag doll. As she grinned down at him, admiring her handiwork, a strong hand grabbed her upper arm and dragged her toward the gate. Though slightly disoriented, she recognized the feel of her partners grip, and she hurried after her. The gate proved to be no obstacle at all. In the excitement of preparing for the contest, the guard had forgotten to lock it.
Xena jerked the gate open and pulled Gabrielle through. "Run! Ill meet you in the courtyard!"
Gabrielle turned around in time to see Xena slam the gate shut and snap the lock down, and then the bard turned and ran as fast as she could down the lit corridor.
After snapping the lock into place, Xena took a quick look at the platform at the other end of the cavern. Kilaro was standing there alone, her arms calmly crossed, nodding her head as if she had expected nothing less from the warrior. It occurred to Xena that maybe Kilaro had known this would happen. She certainly didnt seem surprised! But if she had known, why did she let it happen? The woman obviously possessed powers beyond those of mortals, so why wasnt she using them?
But there was no more time to analyze and wonder. Xena stepped back away from the danger, backing down the passageway and keeping her eyes riveted to the soldiers gathered on the other side of the gate. She fully expected them to attack with any weapon that they could throw or shoot, but instead the men gathered close to the gate and then stopped, staring quietly at her retreating figure. Xena stopped and frowned. Something was wrong here.
A womans voice, clear and strong, sang out through the eerie silence. "Enjoy your freedom, Xena. You wont have it for long. Well meet again soon. Very soon! You killed my mother, and now its my turn to kill you." And then a harsh, cold laugh rang out, causing the hair on the back of the warriors neck to stand on end.
What did the woman mean by that? Who had she killed?
Xena felt a brief moment of indecision. She knew that the only way to discover the truth was to confront Kilaro and get the truth from her. However, the warrior also knew her limits. There was a time to fight and a time to run, and clearly the odds were stacked against her here. It was time to leave and regroup.
It was the right thing to do, but she didnt have to like it. Her lip curled up in a silent snarl as she stared at the soldiers in front of her, and then she pivoted quickly and sprinted down the passageway to find the bard.
She breathed in a lung full of fresh air as she stopped at the edge of the courtyard and looked around. It was dark outside, but the glow of several torches bathed the clearing, providing enough light for her to see what was happening. She caught a glimpse of Gabrielles blonde head across the compound as the bard released the last of the villagers from the cages. The people that had been freed moments earlier were already hurrying out the main opening and into the safety of the surrounding forest, and on the ground near the empty cages, the bodies of two unconscious guards were sprawled face down. The warrior wasnt sure whether Gabrielle or the villagers had been responsible for that, but it didnt matter. Those guards wouldnt be giving them any trouble soon.
Xena drew on the last of her reserves and jogged over to meet Gabrielle. "Come on. Lets get out of here." She shifted her eyes from left to right, scanning for trouble. "That gate wont hold them for much longer."
She glanced down to find Gabrielle giving her a wide-eyed look. "What?"
Gabrielle grinned and winked up at her. "My hero."
Xena refused to get embarrassed, but she could still feel a slight warmth rush to her face. She reached down and lightly clasped the bards hand and brought the fingers up to her lips for a gentle kiss. "Come on, Gabrielle. Lets go." The warmth of the warriors low voice took away any sting from the concise words, and Gabrielle closed her eyes and let that warmth soothe her soul.
A gentle tug on her arm reminded her that they needed to keep moving away from this place, and with a last glance over her shoulder, the bard shed the cold fear that she had been harboring and followed her partner out into the protective darkness of the night.
Hours later, Gabrielle was collapsed on her bedroll and staring into their campfire. She had reached a point where she was simply too tired to sleep. Her thoughts were jumbled and unfocused, but her body was still too wound up to relax. She glanced away from the flames and looked worriedly at the silent warrior beside her.
Xena had hardly spoken a word since they had left Kilaros camp. After they had found Argo, who had still been waiting for them right where they had left her, they had taken some time to track down the escaping villagers and to direct them to a place of safety upriver from their burnt out homes. There was no guarantee that the next village would be safe from Kilaro and her soldiers, but at least the people would be away from the dungeons and cages and would have a place where they could get warm food and find a place to sleep.
Anyway, Gabrielle mused, Xena had seemed sure that Kilaro wouldnt bother the villagers any more, though the bard had no idea how her partner could know this. The warrior seemed to know something that she didnt know, but Gabrielle wasnt too concerned. She knew that given time, Xena would confide in her.
Once the villagers had been safely on their way, she and Xena had ridden all night, only stopping for water twice. Finally, they had stopped to set up camp, quickly arranging their bedrolls and building a fire. The warrior had been strangely preoccupied with her thoughts, and it had been over a candlemark since she had uttered a word. Gabrielle couldnt stand the silence any longer.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle spoke the familiar words softly and reached over and placed her left hand over Xenas, which was resting on the blanket between them.
Xenas eyes never moved from the fire, but she smiled a little and tightened her fingers around Gabrielles. "Not really." And then to help take the sting out of those words, her eyes did shift to meet Gabrielles, filled with love and a sadness that the bard didnt understand.
Gabrielle stared intently into those elusive blue depths for a long moment, trying to read the truth that Xena was hesitant to tell. "Its about Kilaro," she guessed.
Xena nodded slightly and then pulled the bard over next to her and wrapped a strong arm around her lovers slim waist, hugging her close. They sat like that for several moments, eyes shut, gathering comfort from the closeness. It was a time of healing, a time to appreciate things that had almost been lost forever.
Finally, Xena pulled back slightly, lowered her head, and pressed her lips tenderly against Gabrielles. It wasnt a passionate kiss, but it was one of reassurance, a quiet celebration of their escape. After a few moments, Xena lifted her head and looked down lovingly into the bards shining green eyes. She spoke slowly, her voice deep and caressing. "I love you, Gabrielle."
The muscles in the bards throat tightened, and her eyes glittered in the firelight with unshed tears. " I love you too, Xena," she whispered hoarsely and lowered her head to the muscular shoulder in front of her, tightening her arms around the warrior. "You dont have to tell me what it is thats bothering you. Just know that Im here for you if you want to talk."
Xena was silent for such a long time that she was sure that the warrior wasnt going to respond, but finally Xena shifted their positions so that they were again sitting side by side facing the fire. The warrior hugged her close. "Kilaro said something to me as I was leaving the caverns."
Gabrielle couldnt hide her surprise. "She SAID something to you? Are you sure?"
Xenas face was a closed mask, her emotions locked away, but her eyes were shining with a fierce intensity as she stared into the darkened forest around them. "Im very sure." The warriors voice was quiet, but low and firm.
Gabrielle sat quietly for a moment, waiting for Xena to continue. When she didnt, Gabrielle prodded her a little further. "Will you tell me what she said?"
Gabrielle could see the ripple of muscle move in Xenas jaw as she clenched her teeth, and Gabrielle reached up and brushed her fingertips along her partners cheek, offering comfort and reassurance. She sucked in a quiet breath when she felt the warrior lean into the caress, and she waited silently, knowing that Xena needed some time to think.
Finally, the warrior reached up and wrapped her hand around Gabrielles, holding it tighter against her face, drawing strength from the bard. "She wants revenge, Gabrielle. She claims that I killed her mother, and now she wants to avenge her death by killing me." Though the warrior tried, she couldnt keep the bitterness out of her voice.
Gabrielle sat there stunned. She didnt know what she had been expecting Xena to say, but she hadnt been prepared for that. She glanced up at her partner, her surprise turning to anger. "Its not true, Xena. Shes wrong!" The bard pulled Xenas face around so she could look into her eyes. "Did she give you any specific information or clues of who her mother was?"
"No. And theres no way to find out unless I ask her." Xenas lips compressed into a grim line.
Gabrielle recognized that look. "Xena! You cant! We barely escaped with our lives this time. Who knows what will happen if we have to face her again!" Gabrielle leaned in closer and hugged the warrior. "Come on. Were both tired. Lets try to forget about this at least until morning and try to get some sleep. Well be able to think more clearly once weve gotten some rest."
Gabrielle did have a good point. There was nothing they could do tonight, and she was exhausted. Xena smiled gently and leaned down to place a kiss on top of the bards head. "Youre right, Gabrielle." She smoothed a stray strand of hair out of her partners eyes. "Its time to get some rest." She leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielles lips and then laid back on the bedroll, pulling the bard down next to her.
They pulled the furs up to keep away the chill night air and snuggled together, reveling in the shared warmth. Gabrielle shifted her body so that she was lying nearly on top of the warrior, her head tucked securely under her partners chin, and within a few minutes she was sound asleep.
Unfortunately, Xenas mind wasnt being so cooperative. Kilaros words kept replaying over and over. Had she been responsible for the death of Kilaros mother? Maybe. She certainly had a lot of blood on her hands from her violent past.
Whatever the truth was, she was pretty sure she would find out one way or another in the near future. Kilaro hadnt seemed like the type of person who would give up easily, and Xena was very familiar with that kind of determination. She had shown that same focus when she had led her own armies against other warlords.
She had two choices. She could pretend that everything was all right and wait for Kilaro to ambush them along the road somewhere. Or, she could be the aggressor and track Kilaro and her army to force the confrontation. She could take the element of surprise away from the other woman and use it to her own advantage.
Xena looked down at the peaceful form of her partner and sighed. She didnt really have a choice. She had to go after Kilaro. " We have to go," she corrected herself with a slight smile, knowing the bard would not stay behind.
Gabrielle was not going to be happy when she broke the news to her in the morning, but they no longer had a choice not unless they wanted to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders, and Xena had no intention of doing that.
The warrior closed her eyes and willed herself to relax and get some rest. Tomorrow the hunt would begin!
Continued in "White Water Terror 3: The Hunt"
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