Xena's Past, Elisa's Future


By PruferBlue

 

PruferBlue@aol.com

ęCopyright 1998

DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. All other characters are property of the author. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.

This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.

VIOLENCE: There is very slight reference made to spousal and child abuse and its violent aftermath. There also are several occurrences of Xena-type violence and some hurt/comfort scenes.

SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.

Author's note: This story is the third and last of a three-part arc. I would like to suggest that the previous stories, "Dahak's Entrance Delayed," and "Xena, Junior, Meets Callisto," be read first, in order to fully understand references in this story.

My profound thanks to Karen Surtees for her "unerring eye of truth," and her generous assistance in pinpointing areas that needed to be expanded (and then pestering me into doing it!). I am grateful, my friend.

Please feel free to comment on why you did or didn't like the story. Suggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises.

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

 

Xena's Past, Elisa's Future

By PruferBlue



Chapter 1

Gabrielle called a meeting of the Amazon council to fill them in on what had happened to her and Elisa when they clashed with Callisto. The Amazons were amazed and delighted with Elisa's part in saving their Queen by killing Callisto, and the council decided, yes, her actions should be honored by a celebration. Because Elisa needed some time for her head wound to heal, the festivities were set for a week away.

As part of the celebration, Eponin, the weapons master, suggested that they have some staff-sparring contests and asked that Xena be included among the participants. Eponin and Solari were put in charge of these events and Ephiny, the regent, accepted responsibility for the overall celebration.

When Gabrielle approached Xena about her taking part in the staff contest, Xena pointed out that she still had a broken arm. "Sure," Gabrielle laughed, "we both know that arm will be healed before the end of the week. C'mon now, no shirking! You know every warrior in the village would like a chance to spar with you."

After much persuasion, Xena finally gave in, "'OK, I'll fight anyone who makes it past you. Deal?"

"Deal," the bard clapped her hands. "I'm going to go let Eponin and Solari know, OK? Only, Xena, the word here is spar, not fight, remember?"

"Riiiiight," Xena grinned and raised an eyebrow. "But you better make sure Eponin knows that, too. You know how competitive she gets and I wouldn't want her hurting the Queen. I wouldn't take too kindly to that."

"Hmmmm. I never thought about that," Gabrielle admitted. She looked seriously at her very protective friend. "Would you hurt someone just because they hurt me? Even if it was unintentional?"

"An expert with the staff shouldn't make a mistake like that," the Warrior Princess stated matter-of-factly.

"Xena, you didn't answer my question," the golden-haired woman pointed out.

The warrior's cobalt-blue eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah, if someone hurt you, I would feel honor-bound to make them pay for it. Besides, the Amazons all know my reputation well enough to know they would be running that risk." A tiny grin formed at the edge of Xena's mouth. "But I wouldn't kill anyone."

"Xena!" Gabrielle expostulated. "If that's the case, they'll never make it past me. They'll be too scared they might hurt me. You won't have to spar with anyone!"

Xena folded both arms, splint and all, lifted both eyebrows and grinned wolfishly. "That's the deal we just made, my Queen," she shrugged. "But I think you underestimate the courage of some of your warriors."

Gabrielle just shook her head in exasperation and left to find Eponin and Solari.

Xena headed for the ironworker's hut. Bolenda was out behind her hut working on a small dagger. She stopped what she was doing and gave the Warrior Princess a half smile and a nod. "What can I do for you, Xena?"

Xena pulled out her sword and the woman backed up a step. "I'd like to know if you can make a sword to match this one?" the warrior asked, ignoring Bolenda's retreat. "Except I want the letter 'E' worked into the hilt where the 'X' is on mine." She handed her sword to the ironworker.

Bolenda, looking relieved, hefted the sword and examined its hilt. "I'm pretty sure I can duplicate this. Just leave your sword with me a couple days and it shouldn't be a problem." The woman looked up at the warrior as she finished and saw her face change into a hard mask.

"I'm not leaving my sword anywhere," Xena scowled.

"Sure, sure, Xena, anything you say," the ironworker was quick to reply. "I'll just measure it and build from that." The Amazon quickly measured the parts of Xena's sword and handed it back.

"Two days, right?" the warrior glared at Bolenda as she sheathed her weapon.

"Right, whatever you want," the woman almost bowed. Xena walked away and secretly smiled. Sure is fun to intimidate some of these Amazons. Keeps me in practice. Wouldn't want them to think I'm just some ordinary visitor! She moved towards the healer's hut to check on Elisa.

The Warrior Princess walked through the door of the healer's hut and saw Elisa lying on a cot. Claris was standing over her like a mother hen. An angry mother hen. "Xena," the healer growled, "would you please convince this young woman that she has a serious injury and should take it easy for awhile? She thinks she should be healed already."

Xena looked at Elisa and raised questioning eyebrows. "Claris is treating me like a baby, Xena. She put a healing salve on my cut and it feels fine. She gave me a tea made from some of those herbs you gave her and even my headache is gone. But still she insists that I stay here in bed." The young Amazon looked disgusted.

"Leese, even though you feel all right, you've had a nasty blow and you need some time to get over it. I'll make a deal with you," Xena bargained. "You stay quiet here in the healing hut today and tomorrow. Do everything Claris asks you to and, after the two days, I'll have a surprise for you. OK?"

Elisa half rose on her elbows and her eyes lit up in anticipation. "A surprise? What kind of surprise?" she asked eagerly. Xena lifted an eyebrow, slowly shook her head and gave the girl one of her "You-don't- really-think-I'm-going-to-tell-you?" looks.

The young Amazon sank back down, grinning. "OK, deal," she agreed. "I'll be a perfect patient for two whole days. But this better be worth it!"

Claris gave the warrior a grateful look, then asked, "Do you want me to resplint your arm, Xena? That doesn't look too comfortable."

The Warrior Princess looked at her arm as though she had forgotten it was broken. "OK, Claris. It most likely should have a splint for a couple more days."

Claris opened her mouth to say something and then closed it. It probably WILL be healed in a couple days. The way her body renews itself is a marvel! The healer got her supplies and put a new splint on Xena's arm.

"Thanks, Claris," Xena responded. She walked past Elisa's cot and poked her on the arm. "I'll be back day after tomorrow to check on you and I better hear only good things!" the warrior mock threatened.

"I'll be good, Xena, I promise," Elisa pledged with a big smile.

Xena waved goodbye and walked to the door. As she reached it, Elisa's friend, Gwynna, was about to come in from the other direction. For a fleeting moment, the tall blonde woman's shoulders squared, her jaw set and her brown eyes narrowed. Then the moment passed and she nodded to Xena and stepped aside to let the Warrior Princess proceed.

There's some fire in that one, Xena mused as she returned the nod and strode on out the door.

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

Gabrielle walked over to the weapons hut and found Eponin talking to Solari. Both Amazons stopped speaking and turned to the Queen. "I'm glad I found you together," Gabrielle smiled. "I'd like to discuss the sparring contest with you. Xena has agreed to compete but only against those who can get past me."

The two Amazons looked surprised. "You're going to compete?" Solari asked.

"Of course," Gabrielle answered. "You don't think I'm going to miss out on all the fun, do you?"

"But if challengers have to get past you to spar against Xena, that could cause some problems," Eponin reflected. "No one would want to hurt our Queen but, in the intensity of the match, you could get hurt accidentally."

"Personally, I wouldn't want to so much as nick your hand with Xena watching," Solari vowed. "She would probably break my neck!"

Eponin's head swiveled around and she looked at Solari thoughtfully. "I never considered that possibility, Solly. Yeah, that could make life difficult."

"Well," Gabrielle looked from one to the other of the Amazons, gazing straight into their eyes, "I expect you two to keep anything bad from happening."

Eponin and Solari stared back at her glumly. Sure, thought Eponin, like we can handle Xena if she gets mad.

Solari spoke up, "My Queen, you know you are the only one who has any control over Xena. No one else in the village can come even close."

"Well, what do you two think? Should we cancel the sparring?" the golden-haired woman asked.

"No, my Queen," both said at once. Solari continued, "Maybe you and Xena could do an exhibition instead of joining in the competition?"

"No way," Eponin disagreed. "Several of our better warriors would welcome the chance to try their skills against the Warrior Princess, including me."

"Pony, do you think any Amazons might be able to get past you?" Gabrielle asked.

"We have three or four who are really good and they sometimes beat me," Eponin answered. "Gwynna's one of them and she's a close friend of Elisa's so she's going to want to show off. Another is Seloka. She's big and strong and tough. And Mepasa who also is big and strong, and mean. Then we have Elisa who often beats me, but, with her head wound, she won't be contending."

"OK, let's have Xena at the top, then me, then you. I'll spar with anyone who gets past you, and Xena will spar with anyone who gets past me. We can start the elimination contests tomorrow and time them so that Xena is sparring with the finalists on the day of the feast. We'll just have to hope there isn't any trouble. Does that sound OK?" the Queen asked.

"Sounds good to me," Eponin answered.

"Me, too," rejoined Solari. "Pony and I will set up the contests and the referees for them. If Pony is in the finals, I'll referee them."

"What if you're both in the finals?" Gabrielle asked.

Solari snorted, "I can't beat Pony on my best day so I know I won't get past her."

"Ok, I'll leave the details in your hands. I'll see you on the "battlefield," Gabrielle grinned and left.

"Pony, do you really think you can beat Xena?" queried Solari.

"Solly, I always think I can beat anyone!" the weapons master declared. "Besides, maybe Xena will be weaker now that she's just recovering from a broken arm. That arm's got to be weaker than normal."

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

For the next couple of days, Xena, her broken arm quickly healing, continued with her usual predawn drills. During the day, she and Gabrielle would watch the sparring contests and in the early evening they would go into the forest and practice with the staff, preparing for the upcoming bouts.

Over the years, the bard had gotten better and better with the staff and now could hold her own with most other fighters. The Amazons the weapons master had named would most likely be the only ones with a chance to make it past both Eponin and Gabrielle, to Xena.

Most Amazons practiced fighting with the staff every day and were highly skilled. The best fighters were especially anxious to try their strength against the Warrior Princess. Many had seen her remarkable abilities in battle, but had not seen her engage an enemy with the staff. The possibility of sparring with Xena added zest to the competition.

The rules were simple. All staffs were heavily padded on both ends. All body hits had to be with a padded end of the staff. Kicking, kneeing, punching, forearm smashes, head-butting or any other similar use of one's body against the other's body would be a violation and would mean immediate disqualification. The first to knock her opponent to the ground three times won. Or an opponent could concede.

On the second day of competition, Xena and Gabrielle were sitting on the sidelines, watching the bouts, when Xena arose and turned to leave. "Gabrielle, I have an errand I have to take care of," the Warrior Princess said. "I'll be back in a little while. Keep an eye on the fighters that Eponin told us about. See if they show any weaknesses, OK?"

"Sure, Xena," the bard answered. She was engrossed in the competitions and her presence there as Queen seemed to enliven the participants.

As the tall, dark-haired woman strode the length of the practice field, many eyes and heads swiveled in her direction. Noticing this, Xena could not resist the temptation to swagger a bit as a smile played around her lips. She moved toward the ironworker's hut.

Swinging her way into the hut, she found Bolenda just putting the finishing touches on the new sword for Elisa. The Amazon hammered the hot blade a couple more times then lifted it and looked along its edge. She doused the sword in a tub of water and handed it to Xena. The warrior hefted the sword in her hand a few times then grasped it by the hilt and spun it in several directions. Bolenda's eyes never left Xena's face.

A small smile turned up the corners of Xena's mouth and she nodded her head. Then she held the sword's blade and examined the initial "E" that had been encrusted into both sides of the hilt with blue stones. Her smile broadened. "This is perfect," the Warrior Princess praised. She reached into a pouch at her belt and laid several gold pieces on a table.

"Oh, no, please, Xena, that is too much," Bolenda protested.

"I'm not paying you for a sword, Bolenda," the warrior acknowledged. "This is a work of art."

Xena left the ironworker beaming as she walked toward the healer's hut. She slipped her own sword out of its sheath and replaced it with Elisa's sword. As she entered the doorway of the hut, she surreptitiously stood her own sword just inside the doorway, against the wall, and walked over to Elisa's cot. The young Amazon was sitting on the edge of her cot, fully dressed, flipping a knife up and down from one hand to the other, when she looked up and saw Xena approaching.

"Hi, Xena," she greeted the warrior, as her face lit up. She was still wearing her raven hair in a single plait down her back, but she had cut bangs along her forehead to cover the healing cut marks.

Xena smiled a greeting. "Hey, Claris, how's your patient been acting? Listening to everything you told her?" she called to the healer.

"She's been absolutely perfect, Princess," the healer responded.

"Well, in that case..." The Warrior Princess in one quick motion, reached behind her head, drew the sword and placed the tip of it against Elisa's neck. The young Amazon's eyes grew large and dark and her knuckles whitened on the knife she was holding. Claris froze.

After a few tense seconds, Xena laughed, pulled back the sword and flipped it in the air, catching the blade end in her hand and presenting the hilt end to Elisa. "Put that little plaything away and grab hold of a real blade," the Warrior Princess directed.

Elisa, catching her breath, slipped her knife into a small scabbard on her boot and wrapped her hand around the hilt of the new sword. Her smoke-gray eyes widened in wonder. She turned her hand over and saw the "E" emblazoned in the hilt. A smile of undiluted delight crossed her face. "This is the surprise you promised," she breathed. "Xena, what a great gift. It's just like yours! Thank you so much."

Never at ease with the gratitude of others, Xena shrugged and waved her hand. "Just use it well, Leese, and I'll be happy," she said. She walked over to the doorway and retrieved her own sword. "Now, c'mon, ready to go watch some sparring?" The two tall, dark-haired women strode out of the healer's hut together.

 

Chapter 2

Three days later, the preliminary bouts had ousted most of the Amazons from the competition and, as Eponin had predicted, Gwynna, Seloka and Mepasa had gotten past her and now waited to meet Gabrielle.

By draw, Mepasa was the first challenger.

Xena advised Gabrielle about strategy. "She's bigger and stronger than you are so you'll have to outsmart her. Let her go on offense first to get a feel for the rhythm of her movements. Once you have that, put more strength in your parries and each time she starts a new move, step toward her. This will force her backwards, keeping her off-balance. Watch for a good opening. She might get angry which could work in your favor."

"I'll just pretend it's you I'm sparring with," Gabrielle said seriously, "Except you never get angry with me."

"Just don't let your guard down. She's a mean one," Xena warned.

Gabrielle sparred just as Xena had prompted. After parrying about ten blows, she recognized the bigger woman's rhythm. She also was relieved to find that, although larger than Xena, Mepasa did not have the strength of the Warrior Princess. Whenever Gabrielle parried a blow from Xena's staff, her whole body reverberated from the warrior's power.

Because Gabrielle had been constantly retreating, Mepasa believed she had the upper hand and grinned wickedly in expectation of victory. But the bard soon had her thinking otherwise. Mepasa swung the end of her staff across and down at Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard threw her staff up horizontally, blocking the down swing. Even as she parried it, she stepped closer to the Amazon. Mepasa was forced to back up to make room for her next move. She ducked down and swung at Gabrielle's legs but the golden-haired woman easily jumped over the attempt and came down driving her weapon toward her opponent. Her staff caught Mepasa in the side of the head with a resounding "thunk!" and the Amazons shouted approval.

On the far side of the practice field, Ephiny was seated next to Xena watching the match. She heard the Warrior Princess hiss, "Yes!" and saw her mouth twitch at the corners into a tiny grin as she watched the bard's expert handling of Mepasa.

Gabrielle stepped in closer, backing the larger woman up again. Four times in a row, as Gabrielle parried a blow, she stepped toward Mepasa, forcing her to give ground.

Suddenly, Gabrielle switched from defense to offense. As Mepasa stepped forward, intending to deliver a strike, the bard shifted the staff lengthwise and thrust the end of it, hard, into Mepasa's midsection drawing an "Oooof" of departing breath from the surprised woman. Mepasa's guard dropped and Gabrielle quickly swung the right side of the staff up. She slammed the bigger woman's head with a cross blow, turning the Amazon's body partly sideways. Then the Queen reversed the force of her hands and swept backwards with the left side of the staff against the backs of Mepasa's knees. With a startled cry of disbelief, the Amazon crashed to the ground.

Frustrated by being upended by the smaller woman and angered by the catcalls coming from the assembled Amazons, Mepasa jumped up and increased her attack. Again, Gabrielle parried each blow, but kept stepping forward. Only, this time, she counterattacked after each parry, laying several hard blows to the Amazon's body.

Xena's small grin had grown into a full-blown smile as she proudly watched her smaller friend handle a larger, heavier adversary. Gabrielle's physically active life on the road, and her constant staff practices with Xena, had conditioned and strengthened her body so well that Mepasa's size was unable to wear her down.

Then Gabrielle fell back for a moment, seeming to hesitate. Mepasa, eyes glittering, seized the opportunity to lunge at the Queen. Gabrielle neatly sidestepped the expected assault, then squatted down and swept Mepasa's feet out from under her. The big Amazon crashed to the ground for her second fall.

The spectators cheered and booed, simultaneously. Screaming with rage, Mepasa leapt to her feet and with a fierce kick knocked the staff from the bard's hands. Quickly, Gabrielle stooped to retrieve her staff and just as quickly Mepasa grabbed her own staff by a padded end and started a mighty swing with the mad intention of hitting the bard alongside her unprotected head with the exposed wood of the staff.

When Mepasa kicked the staff from the Queen's hands, Ephiny sensed Xena tensing up. Just as Ephiny turned to look at the Warrior Princess, Mepasa was shifting her hands to the padded end of the staff and Xena was already running across the field. With an abbreviated battlecry, "Yiyiyiyi," she flipped into the air for the last few yards and landed between Mepasa and Gabrielle, prepared to grab the staff as it came around. The referee stood frozen, startled at the swift change of events.

But Gwynna was even closer than Xena and her reactions had also been swift. When Mepasa began to move her hands to the end of the staff, Gwynna, who was seated with the other contestants waiting her chance in line, jumped up and reached for her own staff. She took three fast steps and, with a strong, ankle-high sweep, took Mepasa's legs from under her before she could finish her murderous attack. The big Amazon fell, again, to the ground.

A fuming Xena reached down with her left arm, grabbed Mepasa by the throat and, in her fury, lifted her, first to her feet, then completely off the ground. Mepasa hung there, her rage counteracted by her stunned recognition of the Warrior Princess and the astonishing strength being manifested by her. Knowing Xena's warlord past, she fully expected to have the life throttled out of her. Face to face, she witnessed Xena's struggle as Death flickered across her cold blue eyes, but was battled to a retreat. Instead, the warrior, fist cocked at her waist, delivered a roundhouse punch to the Amazon's jaw which knocked her 10 feet in the air before she crashed to the ground. Xena started for her again, but Gabrielle grabbed her friend by the arm to stop her.

The Warrior Princess snapped her head around toward this perceived adversary and raised her fist, prepared to punch her, too. Just as she realized it was Gabrielle and halted her swing, her legs were swept out from under her by Gwynna's staff. Xena sat down hard on the ground but did a back roll and immediately came to her feet. Stepping between Xena and the Queen, Gwynna assumed a defensive posture. Xena's knees crouched, her lips drew back against her teeth and her eyes narrowed. Her whole being shrieked with unsatisfied fury.

Quickly, Gabrielle moved around Gwynna so that she stood in front of the young Amazon, facing Xena. She put an arm out to restrain the girl from coming back around her.

The bard realized that Xena had been so focused on Mepasa, she did not see that Gwynna was the one who had intervened to save her Queen. Gabrielle waited until Xena's fuming blue eyes dropped to meet her mist-green ones, then she walked slowly toward her friend and put her hand on the warrior's chest. "Xena," she said firmly, "Gwynna was only trying to protect me; she was the one who knocked Mepasa down." Gabrielle stood there as Xena's face twitched, then gradually stilled, and her tension came down a notch. A slight incline of her dark head told the bard that the Warrior Princess was returning to the normal world.

"Please, stay with me, Xena," Gabrielle requested. She moved her hand to Xena's forearm and gently brought the warrior to her side. Together, they slowly walked toward Gwynna and the bard put her other hand on the young Amazon's arm. "It's OK, Gwynna, Xena wouldn't hurt me. She thought at first that I was another attacker and she started to react to that. Her fist had stopped just as you hit her legs. But I am very grateful to you for stepping in and taking Mepasa down. As strong as she is, I could have been badly injured, or even killed, if she had struck me as she intended."

The blonde Amazon slowly relaxed her defensive posture, her eyes focused on Xena's stony face.

All of the spectators had congregated at the battle scene, but no one made a move to come even close to the area where the Warrior Princess stood, still radiating tension. Gabrielle's continued touch soothed Xena and her tension gradually diminished.

An eerie silence had overtaken the Amazons as they watched the action unfolding between Xena, Mepasa, and Gwynna. The Queen's composure and lack of fear in dealing with Xena's ferocity raised her esteem in the eyes of her subjects. At the same time they were in awe of the strength and power displayed by the imposing Warrior Princess and could almost feel the rage surging through her body. Eventually, when it became obvious that Xena had truly begun to relax, so did the group of Amazons and the thick anxiety that had been hanging in the air dissipated.

Ephiny chose two of the Amazons and said, "Take Mepasa to the jail hut. An assault against the Queen is a very serious matter. We'll deal with her later." The women took her away.

Gabrielle declared, "I think Gwynna has earned a place of honor for her assistance. For the rest of the celebration, when she isn't sparring, she will sit next to Elisa and be honored, as well, for her bravery."

Elisa, who had arrived at the scene with the others, grabbed her friend in a big hug. "This is great," she laughed, "Now we both have saved the Queen!"

Left standing alone as the crowd moved away again to the sidelines, Gabrielle gazed up at a now perfectly calm Xena and threw her arms around her. "Thanks for being there for me, again," she smiled. The warrior leaned back and looked down at her best friend. "Always," she answered. "But... what happened to 'Don't let your guard down?'" she questioned with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle shrugged and rolled her eyes and the Warrior Princess just shook her head.

Solari, walking next to Eponin, poked the weapons master with her elbow, "What were you saying about the broken arm being weaker?" Eponin just grinned wryly at her friend.

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

When everything had settled down, Ephiny called Xena and Gabrielle together. The Warrior Princess strode up close to the regent and turned her cobalt-blue gaze full on her. Ephiny's heart, as usual, lurched. Either I've got to get used to those eyes or stay away from them. As if I really was able to do either one! the regent laughed at herself. And the rascal knows exactly how she affects me.

Ephiny cleared her throat to steady her voice and declared, "Xena, I know you agreed to spar with the contestants who got past Gabrielle, but I don't think any of us realized just how good our Queen had gotten with the staff. It's possible no one will get by her and we won't have anyone to spar with you tomorrow. Frankly, after all the excitement she just went through, I'd be happy if she would step down from the competition and let Gwynna and Seloka go past her to spar with you. And maybe Eponin to round it out to three matches. Would you do that?"

Xena raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Would that suit you, my Queen?"

"Er, yeah, I think I've had my fill of competitive sparring for the time being," the bard confessed. "Is it OK with you, Xena?"

"Yes, I'll do it to honor Elisa. She deserves the celebration," the dark-haired woman agreed.

"And Gwynna," reminded Gabrielle.

"I'm not too sure Gwynna would consider anything coming from me an honor," Xena stated dryly. "I think she's looking forward to clouting me a few times with her staff."

"You two just got off on the wrong foot, she'll come around one day," Ephiny offered.

"'Off on the wrong foot' is exactly the problem," Xena said, with a lopsided grin. "I don't think she's ever forgiven me for leaving bootprints on her chest, even if I don't remember doing it."

"OK," Ephiny finished the conversation, grinning, "I'll make the announcement that today's matches are canceled and Gwynna, Seloka, and Eponin will spar with the Warrior Princess tomorrow."

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

After they heard Ephiny's announcement that the remaining contestants would move up to spar against Xena, Elisa pulled Gwynna into a small clearing in the privacy of the surrounding forest. The dark-haired Amazon rested her staff against one of the trees and, putting her hands on her hips, turned to her blonde friend. "I hope you realize how close you came to Xena kicking your butt out there!" she scolded.

"I thought she was going to hit the Queen. Was I supposed to just let her go ahead and do that?" Gwynna argued right back.

"She wouldn't have hurt the Queen. She stopped herself as soon as she recognized Gabrielle," Elisa retorted.

"Look, Elisa, you and I both know that, once before, Xena dragged the Queen outta here behind a horse, remember? And I'm supposed to expect a maniac like that not to hurt her again?" the blonde Amazon disputed.

"There was more to that than we will ever know, Gwynna. Gabrielle's daughter killed Xena's son, and Xena went crazy with grief. She and Gabrielle have settled that, and you know it," Elisa asserted.

"I don't get it," Gwynna said sarcastically. "Twice now I've tried to save the Queen and ended up being the bad guy. You just think Xena can do no wrong. Well, I'm glad I knocked her down and I can't wait till tomorrow to do it again."

Elisa looked at her partner and shook her head in disbelief. "Gwynna, don't be so darn cocky. You might not even lay a hit on Xena, let alone knock her down. The woman is an unbelievable fighter and she's had worlds of experience compared to any of us. I'd like to work with you on some kind of strategy that will at least keep you from being embarrassed."

The dark-haired young Amazon knew her words of warning had not convinced her friend, but sometimes cockiness gives you an added edge and Gwynna would need all the help she could get.

To prepare her friend to meet the Warrior Princess, Elisa demonstrated some of Xena's possible moves and had Gwynna parry and counterattack against them. She IS good, thought Elisa, but nobody is as good as Xena. Gwynna's about to learn that firsthand. Maybe she can learn something from Xena that someday could save her life.

"Gwynna, Xena will be watching for your rhythm of fighting and most of us have one. You have a habit of using the same move about every fifth try. Get yourself out of that, now, or Xena will make short work of you. Try not to fall into a pattern, mix it up. And don't bother trying to find her pattern, she doesn't allow herself to have one," Elisa counseled. Xena's only pattern is beating everyone she fights. And, if anyone does seem to be getting ahead of her, she gets tougher, faster and meaner. I just hope Gwynna doesn't get herself hurt.

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

For the sparring matches on the last day of the celebration, the three challengers drew straws and were to go in the order of Seloka, Eponin and Gwynna. Xena and Seloka had finished their stretching warm-ups and Solari gave them the signal to begin.

The Amazon was four inches taller than Xena and outweighed her by about 50 pounds but she came nowhere near matching the warrior's speed. Xena knew at once that she could outspar Seloka but she prolonged the match and even let the woman land a few exciting hits so as not to embarrass her. Allowing a decent interval between takedowns, Xena dispatched her with very little difficulty.

There was a half-hour rest between matches and Xena could hear snatches of the conversations going on, about her match coming up with Eponin. The weapons master was adept at using the staff and so competitive that she was never an easy opponent. Her match with Seloka had been a very long one and Seloka's sheer size and weight had worn Eponin down.

Soon, Solari signaled Xena and Eponin to begin. Eponin was a crafty fighter and an expert at feinting and cross-hitting. She and Xena went at it in earnest, both totally serious in their efforts to take the other down. Back and forth they went across the practice field, hitting, thrusting, parrying. Eponin feinted a hit at Xena's head, and when the Warrior Princess ducked, Eponin cross-hit her under the chin with a solid blow that knocked the Warrior Princess to the ground.

Xena bounced right back up and started after Eponin more aggressively. Soon, Xena made a mighty swipe at Eponin's ankles and the weapons master slammed against the ground. Unable to stand up, Eponin sat on the ground wondering what had happened to her feet. Apparently the fall had pinched a nerve and numbed her feet and she wasn't able to get up to continue. She lost the match by default. Disgusted, Eponin wouldn't allow anyone to help her off the field but crawled off herself on her hands and knees and sat on the sidelines.

Xena and Gabrielle walked over to her during the half-hour rest to see how she was. "I never saw that happen before, Pony," the warrior said. "Did you?"

"Yeah, Princess," the weapons master admitted dejectedly, "I had a pretty terrible fall from a horse a few years ago and injured my back. Ever since then, if I hit my back a certain way, my feet get numb. But I'll be OK in a couple hours. That's the first time it ever happened when I was using the staff."

"Guess Xena just got lucky," Gabrielle said.

"You got that right!" Xena and Eponin spoke in unison, then both laughed. Xena held out her arm to Eponin and they clasped arms in the warrior handshake. "Better luck next time, Pony."

"Thanks, Princess."

As Xena and Gabrielle walked away out of earshot, Gabrielle asked softly, "You let her knock you down, didn't you?"

"Was it that obvious?" Xena asked.

"Probably not to anyone but me. That was a move I've tried against you a hundred times and I've never even hit you, let alone knocked you down," the bard clarified.

"Well, Pony is the weapons master. She has a certain reputation to uphold," the warrior explained. "I didn't want to make it too one way. I'm kinda glad her feet went numb; now she can believe that she might have beaten me."

Gabrielle looked up at her imposing friend. "Sometimes you are very nice," she smiled.

Xena laughed, threw her arm over the bard's shoulder and gave her a quick squeeze. "You might get an argument about that statement. Even from me."

Now it was time to meet Gwynna's challenge. At first the two opponents appeared to be evenly matched. They thrust and parried, made sweeps, feinted and cross-hit for several minutes. Xena had landed several blows but Gwynna had yet to score. Xena danced away from the young Amazon and called out at her, loud, "Every time you hit me once, I'll let you hit me again, just to make this bout interesting." Gwynna's face reddened and her knuckles whitened against her staff.

Xena recognized that Gwynna was trying to change the rhythm of her fighting. In her other bouts, Gwynna had been using the same cross-hit try on every fifth move, alternating left and right cross-hits. In spite of the change, Xena knew that sooner or later the cross-hit would come and she watched for it. As a result, each time she tried it, Xena was landing a solid blow to Gwynna's body and the Amazon had still not landed a hit on the Warrior Princess. Gwynna was starting to get frustrated. She desperately wanted to knock Xena's head off.

Gwynna quickly turned her staff horizontal to the ground at waist height and rushed straight at the warrior, thinking that Xena might fall to the ground to avoid the hit. She had forgotten Xena's skills. The Warrior Princess flipped up in the air overtop Gwynna and landed behind the now disconcerted Amazon. Xena could have hit her anywhere she wanted to, and as hard as she wanted to, but instead, she tapped Gwynna on the shoulder with the end of her staff.

When Gwynna got turned around, Xena taunted her again, "When are you going to hit me, Gwynna? Scared?" Again Gwynna's face got red and she attacked Xena with even more vigor. She aimed one particularly mighty swing at Xena's head. When Xena ducked, Gwynna went off balance and Xena barely touched her with the staff, making her fall to the ground.

Gwynna rolled over as if to get up, but instead she made a quick sweep with her staff from the ground at ankle level, catching Xena unaware, and the Warrior Princess crashed to the earth on her back, knocking the wind out of her.

Gwynna moved over to stand above Xena but the rules said an opponent had to stand at least a staff-length away from the one who had fallen, and could not strike until the fallen one was back on her feet. Solari motioned to Gwynna to back up. While this was going on, Xena recovered her breath. As soon as Gwynna had moved away, Xena sprung up, laughing, "Well, I'm glad to see you came here to fight and not just to play, little girl."

Not even realizing she was doing it, Gwynna fell back into her usual rhythm. The second time she cross-hit on her fifth swing, Xena poked the Amazon in the stomach with the tip of her staff then came back with an uppercut to her jaw, knocking her down almost at Elisa's feet. This time, Xena moved further away from the fallen woman, not giving her an opportunity for the ankle swipe. As Xena moved, she saw Elisa call something to Gwynna but there was too much noise from the spectators for Xena to hear it.

Gwynna got up and came at Xena aggressively. This time, on her fifth swing, Gwynna merely feinted a cross-hit. Instead, she stepped sideways and swung with all her strength at the warrior's head. She could already imagine the satisfying reverberations she would feel when the staff landed, finally, against Xena's taunting face.

But Xena knew what she, herself, had taught Gwynna's friend, Elisa, about patterns. She figured that Elisa had called to Gwynna to change her pattern, and she was ready for the feint. The Warrior Princess' awesome strength and agility allowed her to grab the oncoming staff, duck under it and pull, taking Gwynna to the ground for the third fall. The victory was Xena's.

The Warrior Princess walked over to Gwynna and offered her an arm. The young Amazon was angry, disappointed and frustrated. She ignored Xena's arm and clambered up by herself. The spectators rushed to the sparring area and surrounded the combatants, slapping them both on the shoulders in appreciation. Then the Amazons made way for their regent, as Ephiny and Solari, supporting Eponin between them, approached the two women. "Congratulations, Xena. You certainly gave us a few lessons in sparring. I've tried to memorize some of those moves of yours," Ephiny grinned. "Kinda makes me glad I was a spectator and not a participant."

Xena grinned and nodded her thanks.

Gabrielle and Elisa joined the group while the other Amazons headed for the village hall for the feast.

Ephiny then turned to Gwynna, who was standing with her head down, looking at the ground. The regent reached over and lifted the girl's chin. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Gwynna. You put up a remarkable battle. No one we know of has ever beaten Xena, but you made a good showing and you even knocked her down once. Most of us haven't even done that. In fact, in this whole contest, Eponin was the only other one able to do it."

Eponin quirked a half-grin at the Warrior Princess and chimed in, "Yeah, Gwynna, you did us proud. I've had a few other matches with Xena and that's the first time I've ever taken her off her feet."

"Except when Xena's feet were up in the air, going over your head," Solari quipped.

"Yeah? Well, you won't even fight her," Eponin taunted her friend.

"It's good that one of us has some sense, don't you think?" Solari shot back and everyone grinned.

Xena nodded at Gwynna. "You did a good job, Gwynna. You had me working hard there."

Gwynna looked searchingly into Xena's remarkable blue eyes. "Why were you ragging at me?" she demanded. Gabrielle, too, looked questioningly at the Warrior Princess.

"You were too tight," Xena answered. "I knew you would have a better chance if you could loosen up, and sometimes a little anger will do that. Just so it doesn't get out of control, and yours didn't."

"You were trying to help me?" Gwynna asked in confused surprise. Elisa grinned at the look on her friend's face.

"Why not? We're all on the same side, aren't we?" Xena shrugged. Xena stretched out her arm to the girl who willingly clasped it this time in the warrior handshake.

"I have some rethinking to do about you, Xena," Gwynna admitted. Elisa nodded her head in agreement.

"Just so you make up your own mind, Gwynna. Don't let anyone else tell you how to think. Unless it's Elisa and you're in a sparring bout," Xena laughed. Elisa looked apologetic.

"Yeah, she told me to feint on my fifth move, but you were too quick!" Gwynna marveled.

"It might have worked if you had swung at the back of my head instead of the front," Xena suggested to the astonished Amazon.

Sure, Gabrielle thought, like Xena wouldn't have reached behind her and grabbed it anyway! But I guess she's trying to encourage the girl.

"I'll remember that," Gwynna promised.

"Now, suppose we go feast?" Gabrielle started in the direction of the village hall, and everyone followed.

 

Chapter 3

Two days had passed since the celebration, and Xena and Gabrielle were preparing to leave. "It'll be good to see Mother and Toris again," Xena was saying to the bard. They were in the stable checking the saddlebags and adding the food and herbs the Amazons had given them to take on their journey.

Elisa came through the stable door. "Xena, Gabrielle, I'd like to ask one more favor of you," the young woman said. "I knew you were leaving but I just heard this morning that you were going to Amphipolis. My village is on the way and I would like to return for a visit with my mother. Would you mind if I ride along with you? I have everything ready."

Xena looked at Gabrielle who nodded. "Sure, Leese," the Warrior Princess answered. "We'll be glad to have you ride with us."

The two dark-haired women mounted their palominos and Xena reached down and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. As they rode out into the Village Square, Ephiny, Eponin and Solari were waiting on the porch of the regent's hut to wave goodbye to them. The three travelers waved and rode out of the Amazon village.

They were on the trail for two days and nights before approaching the fork in the trail that led to Elisa's village. In the mornings, because of Elisa's healing head wound, she had shortened practices with Xena during her early drills, allowing her to get used to the heft of her new sword. The Warrior Princess went through her full routine as usual.

The young Amazon had grown increasingly disturbed as they got closer to the turn off for her village. By the time they reached the fork, Elisa was barely talking. Gabrielle, walking beside Elisa's horse, Viktor, had made several attempts to engage the girl in conversation but had not been successful.

Finally, Xena pulled Argo up next to Viktor and asked Elisa flat out what was bothering her. The girl was hesitant to answer at first, but the warrior's cobalt-blue eyes bored into her, waiting for her reply. "Xena, I... I'm not sure... what kind of welcome... I might get. I'm so anxious to see my mother again, but I'm worried that I might run into trouble. I did... after all... kill my stepfather."

The girl's gray eyes looked sad and worried. "No one knows I joined the Amazons, not even my mother. I've sent messages, keeping in touch with her, but I've never told her where I was. I was terrified someone would come after me. I didn't even tell Gwynna I was riding out with you. I knew she would insist on coming and I don't want her to get in trouble, too."

Gabrielle looked at the distressed girl. "But that was a few years ago, Leese. Maybe the town has put it behind them." Elisa turned an anxious face toward the bard, but didn't answer.

"Do you want us to go with you?" Xena's low voice asked.

Elisa immediately looked relieved. "Would you? I'd feel a lot better with the Warrior Princess along."

"Well, Leese, there are some towns where I'm not particularly welcome, either," Xena drawled. The side of her mouth turned up in a half smile. "But we'll come with you."

The village, Lamikos, lay about an hour's ride from the fork in the trail. It looked like a hundred other villages: a collection of homes, one main trail into and out of the center of town, an inn, blacksmith's shop, stable, jail and a few stores. The outlying area was used for farming, but fishing seemed to be the main concern of the village. It was near the sea and the smell of fish pervaded the area.

Elisa's mother lived at the far edge of the town, on a spit near the sea. The three travelers had to cut through the middle of the central area to reach it. Heads turned and mouths gaped at the unusual sight of two dark-haired women, one wearing warrior armor, the other dressed like an Amazon, on matching palomino horses. A few people recognized Elisa and greeted her. Elisa nodded and waved but continued on to her mother's home. Everything seemed quiet.

When they arrived at the house, Elisa dismounted, hitched Viktor to a post and looked up at Xena. "Leese, you go ahead in and see your mother," the Warrior Princess suggested. "Gabrielle and I will take a look around for awhile." The young Amazon smiled, nodded and turned toward her home.

"Great," said the bard, clapping her hands, "We can do some shopping!"

"Gabrielle," Xena shook her head in disbelief, "I bet when you were born the gods gave you a bag with 'SHOPPING' written on it in big letters."

"Maybe so," the bard agreed with a laugh. "I haven't filled it up yet, but I'm still trying!"

Xena dismounted and hitched Argo next to Viktor. Then she and the bard began walking around the village. They seemed to be the focus of attention as they walked about, people even coming out of their homes to look at the new arrivals. Several people were dashing about from house to house with some unknown purpose.

Gabrielle looked questioningly at Xena as her friend stood taller, squared her shoulders and took on a slight swagger. Xena's jaw set and her eyes narrowed. "What?" Gabrielle asked softly.

"Have you noticed the unusual amount of activity we seem to have caused?" Xena replied. "Something's going on here. Let's step into the inn and see what happens."

The two women entered the inn. As soon as they got inside, all talk subsided. Curious eyes settled on the two, who began to feel like intruders. "Can I get you ladies something?" the innkeeper asked.

"Two mugs of ale," Xena answered and she and Gabrielle sat at a table. The innkeeper brought the ale, Xena paid him, and she and Gabrielle worked on the drinks. The people who had been in the inn gradually left. When the women had finished their ale, they rose to go. The innkeeper hurried over, "Can I get you something else?" he asked, "We have good food here. We have many fish dishes, beef..." Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm and moved her toward the door.

"Let's go, Gabrielle, something's not right," Xena said as she hurried out the door. Once outside they could see people rushing toward the end of town where they had left Elisa and Xena could hear the clash of swords. The two took off running and Xena soon outpaced the bard. As she neared Elisa's mother's home, she saw a group congregating there and could tell the sword-clashing was coming from inside the house.

Xena's battlecry halted the crowd in their tracks. "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiy," echoed through the town as the Warrior Princess flipped overtop the bulk of the assembled people and landed at the open door to the house. People quickly fell back out of her way as she drew her weapon from its scabbard.

Rushing inside, the warrior's glittering blue eyes registered an unbelievable sight. Elisa, sword flying, was being backed into a corner by five men. An older woman, barely breathing, lay in a pool of blood on the floor near the girl's feet.

Xena shouted at the men, "OK, boys, looking for trouble? Well, here I am!" The men turned as one at the sound of her voice and attacked her. "Take care of your mother!" she yelled to Elisa. The girl hesitated for a split second, then dropped to the floor and gathered her mother into her arms.

Xena hit the man nearest her on the top of his head with the hilt of her sword, knocking him out. She sheathed her sword and swung a mighty fist at one to the left of her, catching him square on the jaw and putting him down. She came back, hard, with the same arm and elbowed a man to the right of her in the middle of his face and he collapsed, too. Then she jumped about three feet in the air and kicked out with both feet catching each of the last two men under their jaws and sending them to oblivion. No one had laid a blade on her.

Holding the sword in front of her, Xena spun around to face the doorway. She walked outside and people backed away as she neared them. "Gabrielle!" she called. The bard, just arriving, stepped through the crowd and approached her friend. "Gabrielle, get the medicines from Argo's saddlebag and take a look at Elisa's mother. She's been wounded." The bard hurried to do as Xena directed.

No one threatened, so Xena sheathed her sword and walked back inside. Picking up the unconscious men one by one, she flung them out the door, then stalked outside. "Someone get the leader of this village and send him to me!" the warrior shouted. "And don't anyone else step through that door!" Pointing to the unconscious men she demanded, "And make sure they know that."

Returning inside, Xena hurried over to where Gabrielle was tending to Elisa's mother. The bard looked up with misting eyes as Xena knelt by the woman, and shook her head. "She's gone, Xena. There wasn't anything we could do."

The Warrior Princess' eyes darkened with sympathy as she looked across the mother's body to the eyes of the daughter. Xena reached over and put a hand on Elisa's arm. "I'm sorry, Leese," the warrior said softly. As she looked at Elisa, the young Amazon's face turned from tragedy to anger, to stone.

In that split second, Xena saw the walls go up and recognized Elisa's transition from vulnerable youngster to guarded adult. Oh, Leese, I wish I could have protected you from this, Xena agonized in her heart. I see my face in yours and I know the bitterness that you harbor in your heart. Let go of it, Leese, don't let it ruin your life. The warrior knew that her words would just bounce off that hardened heart at this time, so she kept her silence. But her own heart grieved for the young woman's loss, both of her mother and of her youth.

A knock sounded at the open door and Xena went to it and stepped outside, closing the door behind her. An elderly man stood there, unarmed. "I am Petros, the leader of the village elders," he informed the warrior. "You asked for me?"

"Are you aware of what happened here?" Xena asked.

"Yes, I have been informed," he answered.

"What was the reason for this attack?" the imposing woman demanded.

"When word was received that Elisa had returned to the village, these men volunteered to arrest her and bring her to the jail. The girl's stepfather was a respected man in this village," the leader explained. "She viciously killed him and ran away. These men had no right to attack her but they were friends of her stepfather and apparently, instead of arresting her, intended to avenge his death."

"Avenge his death by killing her mother?" Xena sneered. "What kind of justice is that? And what ever happened to allowing someone a fair trial?"

"I truly regret that her mother has been killed. These men will answer for that," said the elder. "And the girl was tried even though she wasn't present. We had a trial and she was condemned to be hanged. She still is liable for her stepfather's death. She should be brought to the jail and kept there until the sentence can be carried out."

"Did you know her stepfather had torn up her back with a 'cat-o'-nine-tails' and was starting to beat her mother with it when Elisa killed him?" Xena inquired.

The council leader looked disturbed. "No. The wife claimed that was what happened but she didn't have any unusual scars to show to prove it. You have to understand, we don't usually meddle in what goes on between a husband and wife. We thought she was just trying to protect her daughter. Unless someone can prove differently, the sentence stands."

"Let me get Elisa to show you the scars she carries on her back. You'll have no doubt of her mother's story after you see them," the warrior assured him. Xena opened the door and went back into the house. Elisa was not there.

"Gabrielle, where is Leese?" Xena asked.

"Gone," explained the agitated bard. "We could hear you talking to the leader of the elders. When he said she had been condemned to hang, she kissed her mother a last goodbye and slipped out through a back window."

"What does she think she's doing?" the dark-haired woman exploded. "They would have lifted the sentence if they could have seen the scars on her back!"

Xena calmed down and thought for a moment, then decided, "Let's get out of this place; she'll probably contact us. You get up on Viktor as though he's your horse, or they might try to keep him."

"What about her mother?" the bard asked.

"I'll give the elder some money to take care of her burial," Xena said. "Let's go."

The two women walked out to where the elder was waiting. "Elisa heard what you said about being condemned to hang and she took off," Xena explained. "If we can, we'll try to get her to come back and show you the scars. Would that clear her?"

"It certainly would be a point in her favor. I can't speak for the rest, but they are good men and would try to be fair," the elder answered.

Xena reached into a pouch at her belt. "Here's some money to bury her mother. And bury her somewhere away from the butcher she was married to." Xena's lip curled in disgust.

"That would be highly irregular," Petros remarked.

Xena pulled out a few more coins and offered them to Petros. "Here's some extra to smooth out the 'irregularity.' Will that take care of it?" she asked.

Petros, who was inches shorter than the imposing warrior, looked up into her fierce eyes and determined face. I don't think I want to cross this woman. "Yes, it will. Her mother will have her own burial site," Petros promised.

Xena nodded and she and Gabrielle mounted the horses and rode out. As soon as they were out of sight of the village, Gabrielle called to Xena, "Do I need to stay on this horse? I'm uncomfortable enough on Argo; on a strange horse, I'm petrified!"

"No, you can get off and walk. I just want to get a little further before we make camp," Xena informed her. "Leese is afoot, too, and I'm sure she will contact us, but we need to be a safe distance away from the village."

 

Chapter 4

Eventually, Xena found a small stream and they set up camp. Gabrielle was laying out preparations for cooking and Xena was building a fire when the bard saw Xena's head go up and tilt as if listening. "Is it Leese?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah, she'll be here in a few minutes," the warrior answered. "With two rabbits. Skinned and gutted."

"Like you really know that," the bard snorted.

Xena just smiled and finished building the fire. She pulled one log over next to the fire for Gabrielle to set her cooking paraphernalia on and two other logs to use for sitting. Just as she finished settling the logs, Elisa walked into the camp. With two rabbits. Skinned and gutted.

Xena raised her eyebrows at Gabrielle who made a face at her. Then the warrior turned to the young Amazon. Anger and bitterness were etched into the stone mask of Elisa's face. Without a word, she took the rabbits to Gabrielle and handed them to her. "Thanks, Leese," the bard offered a smile then went to the fire to start cooking the meat.

Elisa merely nodded. "Leese," the Warrior Princess addressed her, "c'mon over here and sit down, will ya?" Elisa joined Xena and they sat on one of the logs. Xena explained the burial arrangements they had made for her mother and the young Amazon thanked them both.

"Leese, I had the elder talked into changing your sentence if he could see the scars on your back," Xena informed her. "I'd like you to go back with me and get that fixed so you won't be a wanted person."

"No, Xena," the frozen face didn't change. "Even if they would agree not to hang me, they probably would make me spend some time in jail and I couldn't stand that. I'm an outdoors person. I even sleep outside when I'm at the Amazon village. Right behind the Queen's hut." A small, sad smile broke through the stone mask for a moment and curved one side of her mouth, "It drives Gwynna crazy."

"I wondered how you always seemed to meet me right on time when we were starting out for our drills together," Xena smiled in return. "Now I'll know where you're coming from."

"Xena, I'm not going back to the Amazon village. How can I? I'm a wanted criminal in the eyes of the law and, now that they know I'm an Amazon, I could bring trouble to the Amazon nation," Elisa said harshly. "Will you let Gwynna know what has happened? Tell her I just need to be by myself for awhile. I need to sort things out."

"Leese, I'm really bothered by the look I see on your face. You're bitter and angry and probably not thinking straight. I've been down that road and it's not a good place to be," Xena said with concern.

"You thought it was at the time," the young Amazon argued. "Until you got the anger and bitterness out of your system. Now I need to find a way to handle mine."

"Leese," the Warrior Princess said softly, "you never, ever, get it out of your system. You have to learn to control it instead of it controlling you."

The young Amazon stood up abruptly. "I have to get out of here. You know I have a lot of respect for you, Xena, and for Gabrielle, but this is something I have to do for myself. I feel like I've been killed and reborn. I need to decide what I've been reborn to do."

Xena stood, too. In profile, except for their clothing, they looked like two Xena's facing each other.

The warrior's face had gone chalk-white at Elisa's words. They were an eerie echo of her own words at the beginning of the worst times of her past. After her betrayal and crippling by Caesar she had uttered similar words about being reborn: A new Xena is born tonight... with a new purpose in life... death!

The Warrior Princess shivered at the memory. Oh, Leese, please, please, don't follow in those footsteps. They lead in the wrong direction... a terrible direction.

Gabrielle, seeing Xena's distress, stepped next to her and touched a hand to her arm to soothe her. In her other hand she held a wrapped package. "Leese, take some of the rabbit with you. It's all cooked and you'll need something to eat."

Elisa took the package, then hugged Gabrielle. "Thank you for everything, Gabrielle. You'll always be one of my favorite people."

Then she turned back to Xena and offered her arm. The two dark-haired women clasped their arms in the warrior handshake. "And thank you, too, Xena. You'll always be my hero."

Xena pulled Elisa close and hugged her. "Be well, Leese. I hope you can find a way to tame your demons and find your peace." When Xena released the young Amazon, Gabrielle took hold of her friend's hand. Though no emotion was visible on the warrior's face, Gabrielle could feel her trembling. She and Xena stood there hand in hand as Elisa mounted Viktor and left.

Gabrielle put both her hands together on Xena's and pulled the Warrior Princess to a seat on the log. "Are you OK?" the bard asked gently.

A few tears brimmed out of Xena's crystal-blue eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks. "I think she's headed for serious trouble and I don't know how to stop it," Xena confessed. "I'm totally frustrated. I should never have left her alone in the village. I could have protected her mother."

Gabrielle reached up, as always, and wiped the tears from her friend's face. "We were both there, Xena," Gabrielle argued. "There was no way we could foresee what was going to happen. You, of all people, should know that it's useless to regret what we can't go back and change."

An ironic grimace lifted Xena's lips and she ruffled Gabrielle's hair. "And you, of all people, should know you are talking to the Warrior Princess of Regret."

Gabrielle smiled sadly and leaned her head on Xena's shoulder. The two friends sat for a long time just watching the flames of the campfire.

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

The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle set out to return to the Amazon village. Xena had entertained the thought of continuing on to Amphipolis and sending a message to Gwynna but she decided she would rather speak to Gwynna personally. If something so gut-wrenching had happened to Gabrielle, she would want to hear it first-hand, not from a messenger.

They had been on the trail for one full day when Xena heard a single horse coming toward them. She and Gabrielle continued along the trail and soon the horse and rider appeared. It was Gwynna atop her black horse, Nightmare. When she saw the two women, she became very agitated. "Where is Elisa?" she demanded, almost shouting. "Ephiny said she went off with you two. She didn't even tell me she was leaving."

"Take it easy, Gwynna," the bard advised. "We'll tell you all about Leese if you'll just calm down."

Xena added, "There's a turnoff just above here to a nice quiet spot. Come there with me and we'll explain everything." Xena guided Argo past the young Amazon's horse and both women followed her.

When they had dismounted and settled themselves comfortably, Xena told Gwynna everything that had happened, including her attempts to get Elisa to change her mind.

"She's in a bad state right now, Gwynna. She's angry and bitter and has hardened her heart. And she has pretty strong feelings about wanting to be left alone," Xena added.

"Well, I'm going after her. If she doesn't want to come back, that's OK, just so I can be wherever she is," the blonde Amazon declared. "I can't believe she just left, without telling me." Gwynna's face showed the hurt she was suffering.

Gabrielle put her hand on the girl's arm. "She just wanted to protect you from the trouble she's in," the bard explained sympathetically.

The young Amazon jumped up and declared, "I don't need protected, I'm big enough to take care of myself. I'm going after her and if she doesn't want me I will just hang around until she knows I'll never leave her! She'll never get rid of me!" A glance of reminiscence passed between the bard and the Warrior Princess.

"I'll stick to her like a... like a..." Gwynna fumbled for the word.

"Like a burr?" Gabrielle suggested with a gentle smile, remembering Leese's promise to Xena when asked to watch out for her Queen.

"Yeah," even Gwynna smiled for a moment. "That's what Elisa says, 'like a burr.' I'm going after her right now. I know I can track her. When I find her, I'll try to talk sense into her. Thank you both for your help."

Gwynna clasped arms with Xena, and Gabrielle hugged her. The young Amazon knelt on one knee before the bard and bowed her head. "Wish me well, my Queen," she requested.

Gabrielle rested her hand on the blonde head. "Safe journey, Gwynna. I hope you find what you're looking for."

The girl rose, mounted her horse, waved, and left.

"Do you think they can work things out, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.

"Maybe so. Gwynna sounds as persistent as a certain bard I know," Xena answered with a smile. "And, for Leese's sake, I hope she is."

 

Chapter 5

A day and a half later, Xena and Gabrielle arrived at Amphipolis. The last time Xena had been home had been to seek her brother Toris' help in saving Gabrielle from Dahak. They rode up to the inn belonging to Xena's mother, Cyrene. Xena dismounted, led Argo by the reins, and she and Gabrielle walked behind the inn to the stables, leaving Argo with the stable boy. The youngster, recognizing the Warrior Princess and her friend, smiled broadly. "Hi, Xena, Gabrielle, welcome home," he greeted them.

"Thanks, Ari," Xena answered. "Take your usual good care of Argo, OK?"

"You bet, Xena, it's my pleasure," the boy proudly agreed. He led the big Palomino mare into a stall and the women entered the kitchen through the rear door of the inn. Cyrene saw them as soon as they entered and came running over. She ran right to Gabrielle and smothered the bard in a big hug. "Oh, Gabrielle, I am so glad to see you. Toris told me we almost lost you. Praise the gods you were saved!" Tears of happiness were running from the delighted blue eyes, so like her daughter's.

Gabrielle, overcome by Cyrene's emotion, started crying, too. Xena, smiling, stood to the side watching this heart-warming display of love between the two women. She knew her mother and her best friend enjoyed a special relationship and was happy that they did.

After a few moments, her mother reached out an arm toward her daughter and drew the Warrior Princess into the embrace. "You know I'm glad to see you, too, daughter. Toris told me most of the story, but I'm waiting for Gabrielle to fill it in for me. Though I'm never sure I want to hear all of the danger you two put yourselves in." Cyrene took hold of their arms and led them both to a table in the kitchen.

"Sit here, I'll get you something to eat and drink," Cyrene commanded. And when Cyrene commanded, even Xena usually listened.

Cyrene dished up two bowls of her famous venison stew and put them on a serving platter. She added warm bread, butter, and two mugs of ale. Just as she was about to pick up the platter, she heard a very familiar voice holler, "Better make that three bowls, Mother."

Xena jumped up and ran toward her brother Toris and crashed into him as he came through the door. The two, in their usual greeting, took turns swinging the other one up in the air as they spun around three or four times. Cyrene, shaking her head at the antics of her children, added another bowl of stew and mug of ale to the platter and took it to the table, barely managing to get by the brother and sister as they slowed to a stop.

The two were laughing so hard they were having trouble talking. "Toris, it's great to see you," Xena finally managed to say.

"Same here, sis," Toris gasped, rubbing his chest. "But you've got to do something about that damn armor!"

Cyrene flicked him with a cloth she usually carried tucked in her belt. "Watch your language around the ladies," she warned Toris. Xena raised her eyebrows and looked conspicuously around the kitchen. Her mother flicked her with the same cloth. "Gabrielle and I are ladies, Xena," she said in a haughty voice.

"Whew, thank the gods for that," the warrior said, rolling her eyes in relief. "For a minute, I was afraid you were including me in that group."

Even Cyrene laughed at the expression on Xena's face. "No, daughter, I'm finally used to the idea that Warrior Princess suits you better."

"For a time, that title suited Toris, too, Mother," Xena smiled. "Warrior Princess Toris. Did he tell you about that?" She could tell from the murderous look Toris was giving her that he had not told his mother everything about his adventure, especially the part where he masqueraded as his sister, costume and all.

"Xena, you promised," Toris reminded her.

"Not me, brother. Gabrielle told me she promised not to use your name in her story about Dahak, but I never promised anything," the warrior grinned wickedly.

"Well, you've already told Mother, but you better not tell anyone else!" Toris warned.

"I don't know why you don't want anyone to know, you looked pretty good," Xena teased.

Toris grabbed the cloth from his mother, flicked his sister with it, dropped it on the table then took off running outside. Xena jumped up, picked up the cloth and took off after him.

Cyrene sat down beside Gabrielle and smiled at her. "I don't think those two will grow up until they're a hundred years old."

"Or maybe longer," Gabrielle agreed, returning the smile. "But it's so good to see Xena be able to relax and enjoy herself. I think this is the only place she ever truly does. And I know it's because you and Toris totally accept her now for who she is. I'm grateful to you for that."

Cyrene hugged the golden-haired woman. "You're a big part of Xena's life, too, and I'm grateful to YOU for that. Now, how about telling me about Warrior Princess Toris?"

Gabrielle's eyes lit up and she proceeded to tell Cyrene the story of "Dahak's Entrance Delayed."

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

Gwynna picked up Elisa's trail right away. She could see places where her friend had tried to hide her tracks and, several times, Elisa had ridden across rocks or through streams. But Gwynna not only was an excellent tracker, she also was a patient one. She had been following Elisa for three weeks, always just missing her it seemed, when Elisa's tracks entered a village and the blonde Amazon lost her trail.

Maybe I can find something out in the village. I'll go in and hang around at the inn. The blonde Amazon rode into the village and found the usual inn. She left Nightmare hitched outside and entered the inn, sat at a table and ordered two mugs of ale. Several people in the room noticed her entrance and one man came boldly over to her. "Are you with that other Amazon?" he asked.

"I'm looking for an Amazon," Gwynna replied. "She's tall and dark-haired and riding a palomino. Is she the one you saw?"

"Yeah, she was in here trying to recruit some of our men to join her army. Isn't she really Xena, the Warrior Princess?" the man inquired. "She sure looks like all the descriptions we've heard of the Destroyer of Nations."

"No, she's not," the young Amazon answered. She only thinks she is.

The man's look of disbelief told Gwynna she was wasting her breath to deny it. "Do you know where she went?" the girl asked.

"She said anyone who wanted to join her could meet her at Kragos Bluff by the end of last week. That's about ten miles north of here," he supplied, before Gwynna could ask him. "You can tell her the elders will be keeping a close eye on what goes on there. We don't want a warlord messing around here."

Gwynna pointed to the second mug of ale. "That's for you. And thanks." She finished her ale and left. Mounting Nightmare, she rode out of town on the trail heading north.

After riding about the ten miles the man at the inn had mentioned, she could hear activity ahead of her. She moved off the trail and started across a small clearing, when Elisa dropped from a tree in front of Gwynna, with her sword drawn. She was wearing an outfit made of dark gray leather, with black armor. By the gods, Gwynna thought, no wonder people think she's Xena.

Gwynna dismounted and looked at Elisa. She could see on her face the ravages of the devastating loss of her mother. She seemed older, and weary.

"I was told you were coming, Gwynna, but I don't want you here," her voice grated harshly. "Go home."

"Well, I think I'm old enough to decide for myself where I want to be and I want to be wherever you are," the blonde Amazon said firmly. "So, you might as well put that fancy sword away unless you intend to use it on me." Gwynna walked right up to Elisa and threw her arms around the young woman's resisting body. "I'm really sorry about your mother," she murmured. At first, Elisa stood stiff as a board but soon Gwynna's warmth started to thaw her frozen heart. The dark-haired Amazon's emotional barriers fell in response to her friend's actions and, dropping her sword, she returned Gwynna's embrace, sobs shaking her body and unshed tears finally surfacing and streaming down her face.

Gwynna held her and soothed her until the emotional upheaval had run its course. She picked up Elisa's treasured sword and handed it to her and then guided Elisa to a seat on some rocks near the edge of the clearing.

"What's going on, Elisa?" her friend asked. "The people in town seem to think Xena is raising another army."

"I'm raising the army, Gwynna. At first, I tried to tell them I'm not Xena but no one believed me. Then I just went along with the idea. I guess we look too much alike," Elisa explained. "I'm getting an army together and I'm going to destroy the town that killed my mother," she said as her voice and face turned ugly.

"No, Elisa, the town didn't kill your mother," the astonished girl protested. "Xena said only five men were involved in that tragedy."

"But no one stopped them," Elisa said bitterly. "If Xena hadn't been there they might have killed me, too. And my good neighbors," her lip curled in derision, "didn't do anything, just watched. They deserve to die," the girl finished vehemently. "And they will. They are going to pay. In two more weeks, I will have enough men gathered together to wipe them out."

"Elisa, you can't do this," Gwynna argued. "You're an Amazon. We're your family. Now that your mother's gone, we're your only family. Surely, you don't want to bring disgrace on the Amazon Nation, but you can't just break the law without having to pay for it."

"I don't want to hurt the Amazon Nation," Elisa admitted. "That's why I've stopped wearing my Amazon clothing. In this outfit, with the dark gray leather and black armor, no one will connect me with the Amazons."

"No, just with Xena. And do you think that's fair to her? She's worked for years now to rid herself of her warlord reputation and you're going to wipe out all her efforts with your own selfishness," Gwynna reproached her friend.

"Xena can take care of herself. She doesn't need you sticking up for her," a suddenly angry Elisa shouted at Gwynna. "If you don't like what I'm doing, you can leave the same way you came."

Gwynna stood up and pointed to the weapon in Elisa's hand. "Xena's the one who gave you that beautiful sword, because she cared about you. She taught you how to fight better, showed you her special drills and this is how you repay her? Maybe you're right. Maybe I shouldn't be the one sticking up for Xena. She should be doing that herself. I'm going to get her and bring her back here. Maybe she can talk some sense into you." Gwynna walked away toward her waiting horse. Or knock it into you!

Elisa looked startled that Gwynna was being turned away so easily. Then, as her words sunk in, Elisa realized a meeting with Xena was inevitable so she might as well get past it as soon as possible. "Go right ahead," she sneered, "if that's what you think a real friend would do." She sheathed the sword, turned away and stomped off.

Gwynna's heart was heavy. She hadn't been able to dissuade her friend from her path to destruction. Maybe Xena could do it. Gwynna swung up on Nightmare and headed for Amphipolis.

 

Chapter 6

"Xena!" Toris came rushing into the stable yard with Gabrielle following him. Xena had just returned from a ride on Argo. She was brushing the golden mare down, but stopped when her brother and Gabrielle entered the yard. "Someone just told me that Xena, Warrior Princess, was going back to being a warlord and forming another army."

Xena looked from her brother's agitated blue eyes to Gabrielle's mist-green ones. "Leese," the warrior stated.

"It probably is, Xena," the bard agreed solemnly. "She's had time to look for an army. It's been three weeks since she left."

"Has this army done anything yet, Toris?" his sister asked.

"Not that I know of, Xena. It seems to be in the recruiting stage from what I heard," Toris answered.

"Well, Gabrielle, it looks like our vacation is over," Xena said. "Gather our things and I'll pack the saddlebags. We'll leave as soon as everything is ready." Gabrielle left to go to the inn.

"I'll get mother to pack some food for you two," Toris offered.

"Thanks, Toris," Xena smiled affectionately at her brother. "Ask her to put in extra trail rations if she has any. I'd like to travel as quickly as possible and that means no cooking."

"And Toris," her brother turned as he was leaving. "Ask mother to throw in something extra for Gabrielle, will ya?"

"Sure, Xena, but I know mother will do that without even asking. We all know how Gabrielle loves to eat!" Toris laughed and continued on his way.

Xena went into the back room of the inn and picked up a cloth bag. Into it, she gathered the salves she had made during her stay at home plus extra herbs she wouldn't be able to find elsewhere. Her mother had donated a long roll of cloth suitable for making bandages, and thin twine for suturing. As the warrior went through the kitchen, she also grabbed some of the biscuits that were lying on a sideboard, popping one in between her teeth. Cyrene came through another entrance and saw Xena with the biscuit. "Take them all, Xena, they'll keep well on the trail," she offered. Xena smiled her thanks and went back and gathered them up.

Cyrene came and stood beside her tall daughter. They had the same startlingly blue eyes and raven hair but Xena towered over her shorter mother. "This is one of the longest visits you've ever had with us," Cyrene said wistfully. "I kind of hoped you were going to stay permanently."

Xena put an arm around her mother's shoulders and smiled down at her. "Mother, Gabrielle and I were in need of a long rest; we just went through some difficult times. But you know I won't retire as long as I can do some good by fighting against evil. And the bard insists on going wherever I go, so she's not retiring, either."

"I know, Xena, but there's no law against wishful thinking," Cyrene chuckled. Then she went about getting the food Xena and Gabrielle would need for their journey.

When everything was packed and the hugs and goodbyes completed, the two travelers set out. Since they were in a hurry, Gabrielle was riding behind Xena on Argo. They were on the trail for two days when Xena suddenly pulled the mare to a stop. "What?" asked Gabrielle in a low voice.

"I think it's Gwynna," Xena said with a surprised note in her voice. Soon a single horse appeared and the rider, as Xena had guessed, was the blonde Amazon.

"Xena!" she greeted the warrior and bowed her head to Gabrielle. "Queen Gabrielle. I'm glad we've met so soon. I need your help. Leese needs your help!" In her excitement, Gwynna adopted Xena's nickname for her friend.

"OK, Gwynna, tell me about it as we ride," Xena suggested. The Amazon told Xena and Gabrielle about Elisa's misguided plan. She explained how she tried to change her friend's mind but nothing had worked. "Finally, I told her I was going to get you, Xena, to talk to her. She said go ahead, but it wouldn't do any good. And she's letting everyone think she's you, Xena."

Gwynna's troubled gaze looked into cobalt-blue eyes that showed nothing. "Please, Xena, come talk to her. Maybe she will listen to you," the Amazon pleaded.

"That's where we were headed, Gwynna," Gabrielle offered when her partner remained silent.

"Do you really think she can be talked out of this?" Xena finally spoke.

"No, I don't," Gwynna admitted, "but I have to get you to try. I can't sit by and watch her ruin herself. And you, too. If people think she is you, you'll be in more danger than you already are. And you won't be welcome anywhere."

"I didn't think of that," Gabrielle murmured against Xena's back.

"I'll speak to her, Gwynna, but if that doesn't work, you may not like what I have to do to stop her. But stop her, I will. Are you prepared for that?" Xena's face and voice were emotionless and Gabrielle shivered.

Tears glistened in the blonde Amazon's eyes. "I couldn't bear to have her disgrace herself and you and the Amazons by killing innocent people, Xena. I know she has to be stopped. But please, try to stop her without hurting anyone if you can."

"I'm not making any promises, Gwynna, but I'll see what I can do," Xena said. "Let me know when we're about two miles from her camp."

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

Gwynna pulled up in a small clearing and waved Xena and Gabrielle to a halt. "Xena, we're within two miles of the camp now," she advised.

"OK, you go get Leese and see if she'll come out here to meet with me. Just tell her I want to talk with her," the Warrior Princess directed. "If she doesn't want to come, tell her I'll come in after her if I have to." Gwynna nodded and moved on.

Xena lowered Gabrielle to the ground, then dismounted from Argo. She led the mare off to the side near some sweet grass and left her to graze. Then she moved to the center of the clearing and started some stretching warm ups followed by a short sword drill complete with jumps and flips.

"You don't think she's going to listen to you, do you?" Gabrielle asked the silent warrior. Xena just looked at her and didn't answer.

"Xena, please, don't go stoic warrior on me. Talk to me," the bard insisted.

The Warrior Princess stopped what she was doing, walked over to a nearby rock and sat down. She dug the point of her sword into the ground and leaned both hands on it. Her face wore what the bard called her 'stone warlord' look.

"No, I don't think she's going to listen," Xena had trouble getting sound through her tight throat. "She's modeled herself after me... I've even trained her for gods sakes... and I, myself, never listened to anyone until Hercules came along. Well, I'm no Hercules. He's a trusted and trustworthy demigod and I'm an ex-warlord with a terrible past. Why would she listen to me? I wouldn't have."

"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked, with a worried frown.

Xena struggled again to talk. "You could say I created this girl, Gabrielle, just as I created Callisto, although in a different way. I can't let her loose on innocent villagers, I just can't. I'm not sure what it will take to prevent that, but whatever it takes, I'll do it. I have no choice," she finished in a whisper.

Gabrielle knew her friend well enough to take whatever hurt she actually expressed and multiply it about ten times. Xena was in agony, blaming herself for Leese's wrongdoing. And Xena would straighten this out no matter what hurt she suffered from it. That was her code of honor. You cleaned up whatever mess you caused.

"Xena, at least try to talk to her, please?" the bard requested.

Xena's head went up heralding the arrival within minutes of Gwynna and, yes, Elisa.

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

"I don't want to hear any more, Xena, the answer is still NO!" The Amazon, her dark hair flowing loose, spat the words out furiously, turned her back and stalked away.

Xena had tried to reason with Elisa in every way she could think of. This talking things through isn't my favorite way to solve a problem and it's getting nowhere. Time for action.

Now the Warrior Princess' face hardened and her jaw set. As she drew herself taller, Gabrielle saw the change coming over her friend and a bolt of fear passed through her heart. These two just don't quit, do they? She looked over at Gwynna and saw fear showing on her face, also.

Xena strode over to Elisa and straight-armed her in the shoulder. The Amazon whipped around to face the warrior. "You give me no choice, Leese. If you won't listen to reason, then I'll have to resort to force." Xena's voice was so cold Gabrielle shuddered.

Elisa also recognized the change that had come over Xena and her face took on a harder look, too. "I don't want to fight you, Xena," Elisa grated in a warning tone. "I have no argument with you."

"But I have an argument with you," Xena growled. "You're just another would-be warlord right now, and I helped make you into a fighting machine. You're even using my reputation to build up your credibility. So, it's my responsibility to stop you before any innocent people suffer."

She slapped Elisa, hard, across the face and her ex-warlord voice went colder and deadlier. "I'll kill you if I have to. Draw your sword. Let's see what you're made of."

She backhanded the Amazon across the face again and Elisa's lips drew back against her teeth. She backed away from Xena and drew her sword, the sword Xena had given her as a present. The snick it made coming out of the scabbard sounded abnormally loud in the deathly silence that had fallen across the clearing.

Gabrielle and Gwynna were standing together, fists clenched and eyes wide. Gwynna was frightened for her friend. Gabrielle was frightened for Elisa, too, but she had the added concern of how Xena would be affected if she did, indeed, have to kill the girl. She knew that Elisa, almost from their first meeting, had touched her stoic friend's heart in a special way. Can she possibly handle any more guilt? Doesn't even Xena have her limits?

An answering snick came from Xena's scabbard and both blonde women flinched. The two contenders came together slowly but once their swords met, the fighting became fast and furious. Thrusts, parries and swipes were mixed with kicks, hits and head butts. Both women flipped in the air and crossed each other, Xena's battle cry mingling with Elisa's.

Elisa's loose black hair created an eerie ambiance; Xena seemed to be fighting against herself.

The women battled with flying swords and crunching blows for ten minutes with no signs of tiring. Then the tip of Elisa's weapon barely caught the edge of Xena's shoulder but it was enough to throw the Warrior Princess into battle fury mode, which instantly created a quicker and meaner Warrior Princess. She rocketed into the air and kicked out at Elisa's jaw. Pure reflex turned the Amazon's head to miss the full force of the kick, but still she was slightly dazed. In spite of this, she counterattacked by swinging her sword low where she expected Xena's feet to land.

Instead, changing direction as she came down, Xena's other foot excruciatingly crunched Elisa's sword hand to the ground and she lost hold of her weapon. As Xena's first foot touched the earth, she bounded back up and flipped overtop the Amazon, coming down right behind her.

Elisa tried to turn, rise and retrieve her sword, all at the same time. As she came around, Xena hit her full force in the chest with a mighty kick that lifted her and sent her flying backwards. The exceptionally agile Amazon was able to hit the ground with her feet under her but her momentum kept her stumbling backwards and she finally fell to a sitting position about thirty feet from the Warrior Princess, her chest heaving.

Vanquishing her adversary cooled the warrior's battle fury and she visibly returned to normal fighting mode. "Are you ready to listen to reason yet?" she called to the dark-haired Amazon.

Rapidly recovering her breath, Elisa, crazed with blood lust, gasped, "NO!" Swift as a snake, she dropped her sword, her hand moved behind her neck and first one, then another, throwing knife whizzed toward her opponent.

Xena knocked the first one away with her sword, but the second one found a target.

On the sidelines, Gabrielle and Gwynna had been watching the battle's progress with mounting terror. At last, both were extremely relieved when Xena apparently had brought the fight to an end with little bloodshed. Then Gwynna saw Elisa release her sword and move her hand to her back and knew, with panic, what the expert knife-thrower was about to do. In her fear for Xena's safety, she leapt in front of the Warrior Princess just in time for the second knife to hit her in the side of her throat.

She had diverted the path of the knife away from Xena but she fell to the earth with blood spurting from her wound. "Gabrielle, get the reed from my pack, hurry!" the warrior yelled as she quickly sheathed her sword, knelt and pressed her fingers against Gwynna's neck. The knife had severed a main artery to the girl's brain and she could die in minutes if quick action wasn't taken.

Elisa had pulled a third knife, ready to throw again at Xena, when she saw Gwynna get hit. Her blood lust turned to horror at what she had done to her dearest friend. She had never seen anyone survive a neck wound that serious. I've killed her. I've killed Gwynna. The young Amazon, dazed by the death of her friend at her own hand, stood up, automatically picked up her sword and stumbled into the forest.

The warrior reached for the reed Gabrielle was handing to her. "Gabrielle, put your fingers here where mine are," she directed. The Warrior Princess cut off a short piece of the reed and inserted it first into the flaccid end of the blood vessel that had been severed and then into the end oozing blood.

Holding the ends of the artery together with one hand, Xena rooted in the pack for the needle threaded with twine and, using very fine stitches, sewed the severed edges together. Just before putting in the final stitches, she removed the reed, then finished sewing the artery. "You can let go, now," she directed Gabrielle and they watched as blood flowed once more through the artery to Gwynna's brain. Xena sewed torn muscle and skin together, then closed the wound. Gabrielle got healing salve and bandages from the pack and Xena stepped back and let the bard finish dressing the wound.

Xena stood impassively watching the fallen youngster. Her remarkable blue eyes never left Gwynna's face. I've seen soldiers with that wound die and some of those few who didn't die weren't right in the head after losing too much blood to the brain. I can only hope I was quick enough.

In a few minutes, the blonde Amazon began to stir and her brown eyes opened. She looked dazed and unseeing and Xena's heart skipped a beat. Slowly, her eyes cleared and regained their warmth. They were directed right at the warrior. "Xena," the young Amazon smiled weakly, "you're all right." Then a look of horror flashed across her face. "But what's happened to Leese?"

At last Xena's concern eased and her face softened. She squatted down next to Gwynna and took hold of her hand. "And you're gonna be all right, too," she smiled back. "Leese ran off, Gwynna. We'll have to see to her later."

"That was a very brave thing you did, Gwynna," praised Gabrielle. "You risked your life to save Xena. Thank you."

"Yes, thank you," echoed Xena. "Now, rest if you can. We'll make a litter for you. We have to take you someplace else where you can have a chance to heal."

Gabrielle covered Gwynna with a blanket from her bedroll and she and Xena moved away to gather branches to make the litter. "Xena, where will we take her?" Gabrielle asked with concern. "We're pretty far away from everything out here and she shouldn't travel a long distance. If anything is jarred loose, she could die."

"We'll just have to take her to the army encampment," Xena answered, startling Gabrielle.

"The army encampment?" the bard repeated incredulously. "But what if Leese is there?"

"Whether she is or she isn't, Gabrielle, that's the closest place and that's where we're taking her. She wouldn't stand a chance, otherwise," Xena said in her "don't argue with me" tone.

"But..." Gabrielle stopped abruptly when Xena glowered at her. Careful, the golden-haired woman told herself, she's gone through a tempest of emotions these last few hours. Including a slam-bang, duel-to-the-death fight with a girl she cares about. With maybe more to come...

Gabrielle, frowning, looked away from the warrior but finally, exasperated, Xena almost shouted, "What?"

"Leese will have a whole army around her this time," the bard pointed out.

"If there's one thing I know how to handle, Gabrielle, it's an army," Xena replied sarcastically.

"But it's HER army, Xena."

Gabrielle's growing fear began to show itself and Xena relented. She put a hand on her friend's shoulder and looked at her with piercing blue eyes. "I guess I'll just have to take it away from her, then, won't I?"

Gabrielle swallowed an answer and bent to retrieve some of the branches Xena had cut for the litter. She says that like I would talk about what I'm going to eat. Nothing fazes her, does it?

When she straightened back up, Xena's eyes were still on her. Gabrielle's mist-green eyes looked up at her tall friend. "Where you go, I go," the bard declared with a small smile.

One side of Xena's mouth crooked up in a return smile. "Let's get this litter built."

The litter was prepared for Gwynna, covered with a blanket and attached to Nightmare's saddle. Xena carefully lifted the young Amazon and her covering blanket onto the litter and the three women headed toward the army encampment. Gabrielle led Elisa's palomino, Viktor, with them.

 

Chapter 7

Elisa had stumbled away from the scene of her atrocity. She was agonized and heartsick, recalling the sight of her knife hitting Gwynna's throat and then Gwynna lying there, dying. Blundering further into the forest, she fell at last at the base of a large tree. She sat there with her arms crossed on her knees and her head bowed onto her arms.

The same thoughts kept blasting through her brain in ceaseless turmoil. I've killed Gwynna, my best friend of all the Amazons. I've killed again with my knives, the ones my father gave me, the ones I never wanted to use against anyone. The first two times I can excuse because I killed two monsters. But Gwynna was no monster. She was just as innocent as my mother was. And Xena isn't a monster either, but I tried to kill her.

In my bitterness, I thought I was justified in raising an army to wipe out the criminals who killed my mother. But I wasn't, and I've done something almost just as bad as what they did. I've killed Gwynna and I tried to kill Xena, who has never done anything to hurt me. She cares about me. She taught me her special drills and jumps, something she had never taught anyone else. She taught me how to use the sword and even gave me one and how do I thank her? By using it against her when she was only trying to keep me from making the same mistakes she made, to steer me back onto the right path.

Elisa staggered to her feet. Her emotions were so battered they were affecting her coordination. She stumbled to a nearby stream and, kneeling, doused water into her face over and over again until some semblance of calm returned. She took a few moments to splash water all over herself, washing dirt from her body and her clothing. As she looked down at the costume she wore, so much like Xena's, the extent of the disservice she had done the Warrior Princess hit her full force. I not only turned against the one who had befriended me, but I also assaulted her reputation. Xena's been trying for years to live down her old Destroyer of Nations reputation and I've resurrected it. Xena, please forgive me!

I wasn't listening to Xena or Gwynna. They both wanted me to straighten out. Now my mother's dead because of me, Gwynna's dead because of me and Xena probably hates me. How could I have been so terribly wrong? I don't deserve to live. I don't even want to live. I'm going back. I'm going to let Xena finish me off, put me out of my misery. Then I won't be a threat to anyone else again, ever.

The tall young Amazon rose and drew her sword. She held it across both hands, looking at the present Xena had given her. She felt the heft, the perfect balance, and examined the initial "E" embedded in both sides of the hilt. She stood there for a while, tears trickling down her cheeks, then sheathed the sword, wiped her face and set off back along the path she had come.

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

As they neared the army camp, its sounds drifted to them warning of its proximity. Obviously no sentries had been posted because the women had not been challenged.

"Gabrielle, get up on Victor and ride next to me like the Queen of the Amazons," Xena directed. The blonde-haired woman climbed aboard the large palomino stallion. Good girl! Xena surreptitiously smiled as Gabrielle took on the commanding persona of the Queen, holding her ready staff as if it were a symbol of her office.

In turn, the imposing dark-haired woman stiffened her body, squared her shoulders and put on her stone face becoming Xena, the warlord, Destroyer of Nations.

Trailing Nightmare and Gwynna's litter behind them, they rode brazenly into the camp as if they belonged there. A buzzing stirred in the camp. Men, mostly sitting around in bunches, whispered and commented among themselves, but no one attempted to stop them until they reached the headquarters tent. Those soldiers at a distance thought Elisa had entered the camp. Most of those nearby, recognizing or suspecting that it truly was Xena arriving, with a confident Amazon riding next to her, had no stomach to confront them.

Four men emerged from the command tent and, as the women reached it, one of them stepped forward accusingly, "You're not the one who recruited us," he challenged.

"No," the bronzed woman stood up in the stirrups and shouted for all to hear, "I'm Xena, Warrior Princess, and I've taken over this army. Any objections?"

Backing up to stand again with his comrades, the soldier looked around to make sure they were with him then replied, "Yeah, we object. We're in command of these men and Elisa is leading us. You can just take your friends and get out of here." He drew his sword and waved it at them.

"Are you prepared to die to keep the right to command?" Xena dared him. She vaulted in a flip from Argo's back, landing directly in front of the startled men. Drawing her sword, she stood in a battle stance. "Fight or flight?" she sneered.

Gabrielle had led Nightmare off to the side. Now she dismounted and stood at the warrior's back, her staff prepared to keep others from interfering.

The other three men drew their weapons also. They were joined by four others but most of the soldiers were content to drop back and watch the battle, not really concerned about the outcome. They knew that leadership was a matter of survival of the strongest and they would follow whoever won.

The group rushed Xena. She jumped straight up and kicked the two directly in front of her beneath their jaws practically snapping their heads off. The two beside her swung their swords at empty air and she came down swinging hers left and right, viciously, at their exposed bodies. They both went down, bleeding profusely. She sprung again into the air and flipped overtop the remaining four men, screaming her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" The Warrior Princess swung around and caught one man in the face with a piston-driven fist and hit another in the side of the head with the hilt of her sword, felling them both. The last two men backed off, now hesitant about tangling with this awesome battle machine.

"Come on, boys," she taunted. Her lips drew back in a feral smile that held not one ounce of humor. "Don't you want to lead this army?"

The two survivors looked at Xena then at each other and shook their heads. "No, Xena," one of them answered, "we'll be happy to have you lead it." They threw their weapons on the ground. Xena turned to the rest of the soldiers. "Anyone else?" she demanded. A voice came from back in the group, "We'll follow you, Xena." Then another, "Right on, Xena!" And another, "Let's go, Xena!" Soon the men picked up a chant, "Xena, Xena, Xena!" The Warrior Princess smiled and waved her sword in answer. Then she sheathed it and quieted the men.

"You two, pick up your swords and guard this tent. I have some business to attend to and I'm going to leave my friends here. If anything happens to them, you will answer for it," she glowered at them. "We'll take good care of them, Xena, we promise," one answered and the other nodded his agreement. "See that you do," she commanded.

Gabrielle had entered the tent and investigated it. She came back out and reported, "The place is pretty clean, Xena. And there's a bed in there suitable for Gwynna."

Xena walked over to the litter and smiled down at the awakened young Amazon. "How do you feel?" she inquired.

Gwynna smiled back at her a little sadly, "I couldn't turn my head to see the fight, but I could hear it. I'm sure glad you're all right. But what's going to happen with Leese?" the girl looked at Xena with her concern showing in her chocolate eyes.

"I can't answer that question," Xena admitted, "but I'm going to find her and get this settled one way or the other." Xena picked up the girl and the blankets and carried her to the bed in the tent. Gabrielle followed her in. "Meantime, you get plenty of rest. Gabrielle will stay here with you. I'm sure she'll find you some food and drink. Let her know if you need anything else and I'll return as soon as I can. Hopefully, with Leese." The warrior squeezed Gwynna's shoulder and turned to Gabrielle.

She tilted her head at the bard and walked outside with Gabrielle behind her. Xena's cobalt-blue eyes looked seriously into Gabrielle's mist-green eyes. "I don't know how long I'll be. I might have to fight Leese again. I don't want to, but if that's the way it has to be, then I will."

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and felt the tension thrumming along her muscles. "Xena," she simply said, in that voice that told her friend she could feel every single hurt that Xena felt. The Warrior Princess put her hand over the bard's and the two just stood there for a moment until some of Xena's tension eased. Then her mouth quirked up in a half-smile and she patted Gabrielle's hand. "I have to go," she said quietly.

"I know," Gabrielle answered. "But, please, remember that Leese does care deeply about the people she loves. She's no warlord; she's just a confused young woman right now."

"I'll remember," Xena promised. But that thought just makes the job tougher, not easier. She strode over to Argo and swung up into the saddle. She looked down menacingly at the two guards. "See that Gabrielle gets anything she asks for," she commanded them. "I'll be back." She waved to the bard and rode away.

Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)

 


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