Following the signs of her own passage, Elisa traveled back along the path she had taken through the forest. She moved slowly and haltingly, half-blinded by the tears of grief that would not stop. Finally, she came to the clearing that was the site of her greatest crime. Dashing the tears from her eyes, she searched the ground until she found the stain made by the blood that had spilled from Gwynna's neck.
Falling to her knees, the dark-haired girl's body heaved as terrible sobs tore from her throat. At last, emotionally spent, she prostrated herself next to the stain from her friend's life's blood and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Xena's mind was twisting and turning, trying to decide what approach might work with Elisa. Not overly anxious to confront Elisa again without some kind of plan, she did not push Argo. The golden mare stepped along the forest trail, headed for the clearing where Xena and Elisa had last met.
Xena's mind flashed back to herself at the beginning of her warlord days. If she had met Hercules then, would her life have changed at that time? She had to believe it would have. I wasn't so far along the road to evil then. Reforming would have been even less wrenching than it was later. But, then again, later I was more ready for it. I had been there, done that and still wasn't satisfied. There was a yearning inside me for something more. Hercules helped me to see that yearning was for a better life, helping people instead of hurting them.
Maybe I can awaken that yearning in Leese. Make her see that there's no lasting satisfaction in revenge. Especially revenge let loose on innocent people. It only starts a continuous cycle of hate. Until you wind up hating yourself.
I'm not really sure how to handle her. The Warrior Princess raised her eyes to the heavens. I could really use some guidance here. Help me to choose the right way to bring her back. I know I said I'd kill her if I have to, but I also know that I wouldn't. Killing her is not a true option.
Still undecided, Xena was nearing the clearing where she and Leese had fought, when she heard the sounds of someone breathing. Heavy, slightly irregular breathing. Someone's sleeping there. She dismounted and approached cautiously on foot. As she peered into the clearing, she was surprised to see that it was Elisa who was stretched out on the ground, asleep.
The Warrior Princess walked into the clearing and called her name, "Leese."
The young Amazon, in one motion, sprang to her feet and pulled her sword. Her lip curled and her eyes glittered. "It's time we settled this, Xena. Draw your weapon."
"I don't want to fight you anymore, Leese. I've taken over your army. You're no longer a threat to anyone but yourself," Xena informed her. "You didn't really think I would let you get away with this ridiculous scheme, did you?"
"Well, Xena, then I guess I'll just have to take my army back," the dark-haired Amazon sneered and rushed at the warrior. "Or die trying."
She swung viciously at Xena's midriff, but Xena just flipped into the air, easily avoiding the blow. Looks like I'm going to have to fight her again, the warrior thought dispiritedly as she drew her weapon.
The two women came together once again in battle. This time there was no audience to guess at the terrible emotional strain suffered by both combatants--one who did not want to kill and one who wanted to be killed. They swung and parried and thrust. They punched and kicked and head-butted back and forth across the clearing. Finally, Elisa feinted toward Xena's body then made a wild swing at the warrior's head, one she knew the Warrior Princess could easily avoid.
Xena ducked and swung her weapon heavily toward Elisa's exposed side. At the last second, she turned the sword sideways and hit the young Amazon with the flat of the blade. The power of Xena's swing knocked Elisa off her feet, and she fell to the ground, badly bruised but otherwise unhurt. Xena stepped on the gift sword's hilt and caught Elisa's hand under it pinning her arm to the ground. She rested the tip of her weapon at the base of the young Amazon's throat.
"Are you ready to quit yet?" Xena asked in a deceptively quiet voice.
"No," Elisa answered just as quietly, "not till one of us is dead." Not until I'm dead.
Xena stared grimly into Elisa's smoke-gray eyes. A shaft of enlightenment suddenly hit Xena's soul. She backed up and released the sword from beneath her foot. "Get up," she uttered in the same quiet tone.
Elisa got up, holding her weapon at her side.
Xena threw her own sword on the ground and walked right up to the young Amazon. Her narrowed blue eyes stared defiantly into the Amazon's cloudy gray eyes. "Now, kill me," she demanded. Elisa was completely startled. "Go on, kill me! You say you won't quit battling me until one of us is dead. Well, I won't kill you, so you will have to kill me," the warrior pronounced boldly.
"If you keep going down this road, you'll have to learn to kill anyone who gets in your way. And I am going to be in your face every waking moment of every day. I'm not letting go of you until you change, until you decide to come back to us. The only way you can keep that from happening is to kill me. So, do it! NOW!"
Tears brimmed over and started to roll slowly down Elisa's cheeks. "My mother's dead because of me, Gwynna's dead because of me and I even tried to kill you, a friend. So now you WANT me to kill you? I can't do it, Xena, I've had enough of killing... I wanted you to kill me." Elisa flung her sword to the ground and stood there with downcast eyes and diminished spirit. A picture of her past self, burying her weapons and armor, flashed across the Warrior Princess' mind.
At the same time, she was startled to hear that Elisa believed that Gwynna was dead. Xena experienced renewed hope that, after she heard the news about Gwynna, Elisa would come to her senses. She reached out and grasped Elisa's shoulder. "But Gwynna's not dead," she said firmly.
"Nice try, Xena," Elisa muttered.
Xena gave the youngster's shoulder a shake. "Look me in the eye, Leese," she commanded.
Elisa's stormy gray eyes lifted to face-to-face cobalt-blue eyes that looked deeply into hers. "Gwynna... is... not... dead." Xena reiterated. "She's back at the army camp with Gabrielle. And Viktor," the warrior smiled gently.
The news lifted a thousand-pound weight from Elisa's heart. She was half-afraid to believe that Xena's knowledge of healing had saved Gwynna's life. But Xena's shining eyes told her it was true. Elisa tried to thank her but her lips were trembling too hard to form the words and only a groaning sound came forth.
Xena patted the youngster's shoulder and said kiddingly in a dry voice, "You've got to work a little harder on that stoic bit."
To Xena's stark amazement, Elisa threw both her arms around the Warrior Princess' neck and cried copiously on her shoulder. Gabrielle was right, she's no warlord. She's a confused youngster who cares deeply. And she's just lost her mother. And regained her friend. Xena, hesitant at first, wrapped her arms across the young Amazon's back. Then, moved by the girl's tears, she hugged her close.
Although there was a cot in the field tent, there were no chairs, only wooden boxes lying haphazardly around a larger box that obviously served as a table. A crude latrine had been dug in one corner and another corner held several leather buckets, three with water in them.
Gabrielle picked up one empty bucket and filled it with the remnants of several meals that still sat on the table. Probably from those soldiers who were in here when we arrived, she thought. Actually, other than the leftover food, the tent was in neat order. The bard pulled her waterbag from her pack and took it to the cot to offer to Gwynna.
The young Amazon, with Gabrielle's support, sat up and sipped at the water. "Thank you," she said. "I'm really thirsty but it's hard to swallow."
"Just take your time," the green-eyed woman smiled. "We'll probably be here for awhile."
"Gabrielle, I'm scared to have Xena going after Leese without you there," Gwynna admitted. "I still remember the bruises she put all over my chest."
"Gwynna, I don't want you to think badly of Xena," Gabrielle shook her head. "That time she kicked you , she was only trying to protect me. She was semi-conscious and thought you were attacking us."
"I know, Leese told me the same thing. But it's really scary to be on the other end of her anger," Gwynna explained. "It's like she gets ten times bigger and fiercer than she usually is. I felt lucky to get out of there alive," the girl said worriedly.
"I'm really afraid for Leese. I know she needs to be stopped but Xena can do terrible..." Gwynna halted, suddenly remembering she was talking to the Warrior Princess' best friend. The same woman the Amazon village had seen the warrior drag behind a horse... and no one had been able to stop her. The episode had left a lingering fear of Xena's uncontrolled anger. "She even turned on you," the girl pointed out. Her eyes grew wide and darkened with fear. "What if she gets out of control with Leese, like she did with you? Leese won't stand a chance." Concern for her friend wrinkled Gwynna's brow.
"Gwynna, it's true that Xena has done some terrible things. Things she will regret for the rest of her life. She was driven mad with grief over her son's death, which was partly my fault... you've heard the story. But when it came to the point of her actually killing me, she couldn't do it. I've forgiven her, Ephiny's forgiven her and the rest of the Amazons at least accept her." Gabrielle pulled a box over near the cot and sat on it. "They recognize that Xena is still my friend and protector. Not only that, her very presence in the area makes it safer for everybody. She's always there to help when anyone needs her."
The young Amazon sipped from the waterbag as her Queen continued. "Xena's not the dreadful ogre some people think she is. She has a noble heart, Gwynna. She's had to overcome a horrible past that was the result of mistakes that she made. Now, she's trying to prevent Leese from making those same mistakes."
Gabrielle reached out for the waterbag, took a few sips and handed it back to Gwynna.
"But how do you know Xena won't go out of control again?" the girl questioned.
"No one ever knows that for sure, not even Xena," Gabrielle admitted. "That's part of what always makes her so intimidating to everyone. But she's gotten almost perfect at channeling her anger and using it against a foe rather than a friend.
"Xena could have turned her back and walked away from Leese--let her become whatever she's bent on becoming. It sure would have been the easy way out. But, that's not her way. She feels responsible for Leese. Xena taught Leese how to be such a feared fighter and now she feels the need to stop her." The bard's voice took on a somewhat wistful note. "I'm not sure why, but somehow, Leese is special to her and I know Xena doesn't want to hurt her. What happens to Leese depends more on her than on Xena."
The blonde Amazon nodded her head. "There is a special feeling between them, I can see that, too. I was jealous, at first."
A ghost of a smile played about Gabrielle's lips as she recalled her own early jealousy.
Gwynna continued, talking slowly because of her injured neck, "Then I realized... Leese's friendship for me hadn't changed. She has always wanted to be a great warrior and when she met Xena, it was like an answer to her prayers. She just had so much admiration for her that she wanted to be exactly like her. She was thrilled when Xena agreed to teach her."
A commotion that had arisen outside the tent was becoming too loud to ignore. "I better see what's going on," Gabrielle said. "I'll be right back." Gabrielle stood up, grabbed her staff and walked out through the tent flap.
Xena held the young Amazon until she had unburdened herself of all the tears she had been holding inside of her. Finally, Elisa got her emotions under control and stepped away from the Warrior Princess, somewhat embarrassed that she had broken down. "Xena, I don't know what to say... how to apologize... how to thank you..."
The Warrior Princess waved the girl to silence. "Apologies, I'll accept," she stated. "But, thanks? I didn't do any more for you than I would have for anyone else, so save your thanks, OK?"
And that's the truth. She would have helped anyone who needed it. But, still, even though she'll never admit it, I know she came after me because she cared. Elisa's smoke-gray eyes were looking deep into Xena's crystal-blue eyes as these thoughts passed through her mind. The young Amazon's mouth slowly turned up at the corners and she reached out and grasped the warrior's shoulder. "I've always known you are the greatest," she acclaimed.
"Let's go get our friends and disperse an army," Xena suggested gruffly.
Mounted double on Argo, the two dark-haired women made their way back to the army encampment. As they neared the site, Xena's sharp hearing recognized the sounds of a commotion. She led Argo through the forest around the edge of the gathering and came up near the back of the command tent. She and Elisa dismounted and crept unnoticed to the back of the tent.
While the two young women had been in the tent, several men had been lolling around a campfire quibbling about the arrival of Xena and the change of events. Constant fortification from a flask fueled their foolhardiness, filling a couple of the men with liquid courage.
"Just who does this Xena think she is coming in here and taking over?" one of the younger and more ignorant of the men blustered. "Dropping two good-looking women down here in the middle of a camp full of men can't be the smartest thing in the world to do," he leered.
"Yeah," another drunken comrade agreed. "Let's go check 'em out. They might be lonely... for us! Maybe we oughtta go show them a good time." He staggered to his feet and winked at the other bigmouth.
A warning voice chimed in. "Why don't you guys wise up. They're friends of Xena's and you better let 'em alone."
"Xena who?" the first one snorted. "I don't see her around anywhere. C'mon, Nikos, if they don't want a good time, we'll show 'em one anyway." He joined his comrade and the two of them stumbled up to the tent housing Gabrielle and Gwynna, and got into a loud argument with the one man guarding the tent. The other guard had gone to the latrine.
The smaller of the two drunks picked up a club as his friend was shouting with the guard. He quickly moved up to the guard and bashed him in the side of the head, knocking him unconscious. The larger man swatted him on the shoulder in congratulations. "Now, let's get those women and show them a good time," he bellowed.
"And what women would those be?" Gabrielle demanded as she stepped outside the tent and walked confidently up to the two drunks.
"Why, you, girlie," the large man smirked as he lumbered toward the bard, his arms outstretched to grab her. The small man stood to the side with an anticipatory grin on his bewhiskered face.
Gabrielle stopped the drunk's forward progress with a stiff jab under his chin with her staff. As his head snapped up, she swung in a complete circle to gain momentum and hit him behind the knee, dumping him to the earth.
The smaller man ran up behind her, thinking to take her unawares. She ducked under him as he grabbed for her, then rose sharply, flipping him over her back. When he hit the ground, he started to jump back up, but the bard rapped him, hard, on the side of the head and he dropped like a boulder.
The large assailant had gotten up and surged at Gabrielle again. She cross-hit him on the left side of the face and then came back with the other end of the staff in a cross-hit to the right side of his face. Then she swung the full staff at his chest with as much force as she could muster. He went down.
Both men were sitting on the ground shaking their heads. The Amazon Queen stood over them in a fighting stance and hollered for all to hear, "Does anyone else want to show us a good time?" she challenged. A dead silence had fallen over the whole group. Huh, Gabrielle marveled to herself. Guess I have more intimidating power than I realized.
All eyes in the camp seemed to be on something that was occurring in front of the tent. Xena and Elisa worked their way around the side of the tent and saw Gabrielle begin her battle with the two drunks. Elisa started forward to help, but Xena held her back, shaking her head and crooking her finger in a "follow me" gesture.
They moved around, unseen by Gabrielle, to the front of the tent. Elisa, glancing at Xena, mirrored her tall stance, squared shoulders and set jaw and they stood, like twin sentinels, arms crossed, on either side of the entrance flap. They watched the bard dispose of the two obnoxious men and listened in admiration as she challenged any others. Now the whole camp became aware of the arrival of the two warriors who stood behind the golden-haired woman, and a dead silence fell.
There was no question in the minds of the onlookers as to which was Xena, Warrior Princess. Even standing next to one who looked so much like her, the Warrior Princess was clothed in an aura of deadly menace that the less-experienced Elisa had not yet achieved and, perhaps, never would. A slight twitch in her upper lip warned the onlookers that she was eager to confront any who opposed her. No one in the camp was anxious to loose that menace on himself.
Gabrielle, feeling every inch the Amazon Queen, turned to reenter the tent.
Her eyes widened as she saw Xena and Elisa in their forbidding stances behind her. "Ah... welcome back! Both of you," she grinned. So much for MY intimidating abilities! And Leese is back in one piece, praise the gods. She had the presence of mind not to seem surprised and merely ducked through the tent flap that Xena reached over and held open for her.
Xena entered behind Gabrielle and took her arm, leading her away from the cot. Gwynna's eyes searched the warrior's face in trepidation, then widened in shocked surprise when she saw Elisa come into the tent after Xena. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she reached out both arms to her friend and cried, "Leese..."
Elisa ran to the cot, fell on her knees and embraced Gwynna, being careful of her wounded neck. "You're alive...you're alive..." she sobbed. "I thought I had killed you!"
"And I was afraid Xena was going to kill you," wailed Gwynna.
Although they were standing as far as possible from the cot, to give the girls some privacy, Xena's head bowed when she heard Gwynna's words. Gabrielle quickly put her hand on the bronzed arm of the Warrior Princess. "I knew you wouldn't," she avowed in a soft voice.
Xena's head came up and her steel-blue eyes changed to cobalt as she met her friend's mist-green eyes. She stared into those depths for a moment, then produced the wide smile that always warmed Gabrielle's heart. Xena rarely mouthed the words, but Gabrielle knew she had just been thanked.
"Nice job you did on those drunks out there," the Warrior Princess praised. The usually serious blue eyes twinkled.
Gabrielle grinned and her eyes sparkled in return. "If I'd known what backup I had, I would have stepped aside and let you and Leese have some fun."
"No-no-no-no-no," Xena corrected her. "We had enough of fighting for today."
The bard got more serious. "Are things OK between you two, now?" she whispered.
"So far," Xena responded in a low voice. She looked toward the two Amazons and saw that they were both recovered from the tumultuous emotions of their greeting. She walked over to them and filled everyone in on what she planned to do.
She looked at the dark-haired girl who now was seated on a box. "Leese, we are going to disband this army. Now, they may not be too happy about that, but the two of us should be able to intimidate them into doing as we say. We'll just threaten them with... death... if they don't agree to leave." As Xena said "death," her eyes narrowed and all three listeners had no doubt she meant exactly what she said.
And those soldiers should recognize that, too, thought Gabrielle with relief. If they have any sense at all they won't try to oppose her.
"Then, you're going to ride back to Ephiny and get her to send a healer and some scouts and a wagon to escort Gwynna back to the Amazon village. After that," the warrior continued to look directly at Elisa and her voice changed to a commanding, no-nonsense tone, "I'm taking you back to Lamikos to get that death sentence changed."
Elisa opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it when she saw Xena's jaw clench. The Warrior Princess' steel-blue eyes locked onto the Amazon's cloud-gray until the youngster finally nodded her assent.
"OK," Xena said briskly, "Let's go get rid of this army."
Xena grabbed the bottom of one of the boxes. Picking it up with one hand, she strode out through the tent flap. Gabrielle and Elisa followed her out. Moving to a small rise in the ground to the left of the tent entrance, the Warrior Princess set the box down and stood on top of it. "MEN!" she shouted. "YOUR ATTENTION!" She waited for a few moments as the men nearby became aware of her presence and the information filtered quickly to the farthest edges of the camp. Soon all eyes were on the imposing woman.
Xena's voice was strong and firm and carried to each of the listeners. "I know you have all come here expecting to become part of an army led by Xena, the Warrior Princess... me. Well, that was all a case of mistaken identity. The who called this army together was this young woman here." The warrior drew her sword and pointed it at Elisa who was standing attentively nearby.
"You have gathered here with false expectations. Xena, the Warrior Princess is not going to lead this army. I'm disbanding it, now."
Murmurs sounded throughout the group and one voice was raised above them. "C'mon, Xena, lead us. We'll follow you anywhere," was heard, followed by cheers of agreement. The warrior sheathed her sword and put her hands on her hips.
"Follow me anywhere?" she repeated. Another affirmative cheer went up. "Let me see a show of hands. How many of you have brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers?" Nearly everyone's hand went up. Xena pointed to one of the soldiers standing near. "Do you want us to raid your village, kill your relatives? Speak up, man. Yes or no?" she prompted.
"Well, no, not my village," he answered.
"You, back there, with the black shirt and green pants. Do you want us to raid your village and kill your relatives?" she demanded.
"No, Xena, not my village," the man shouted.
She pointed to two other men in succession, asked the same question and got the same reply.
"No one wants us to raid his village," she crowed. "Can't you see that the people you want to raid are the same as you? They don't want you to kill them or their relatives, either!"
"Well, I'm not leading you in any raids, either. I'm sending you home. You aren't an army yet, and I'm not training you to be an army. You are disbanded. GO HOME! If anyone wants to argue the point with me, step right up with your sword in your hand and I'll settle our differences." As Xena said this last part, she stretched even taller and raised her chin in defiance.
Gabrielle, watching the crowd with her staff at ready, glanced at her friend out of the corner of her eye. How does she do that? Like Gwynna said, she just seems to grow bigger and fiercer. Like she would chop you into little pieces and throw you to the wind if you dared to defy her!
On the other side of Xena, Elisa narrowed her eyes and grinned the feral grin she had learned from watching her hero. She stood in battle stance, all senses alert and ready to respond to any hint of danger.
As Xena had been talking, a number of men had been gradually filtering through the others and gathering to one side in a hostile-looking group. Noticing this secretive assembling, Xena anticipated that some opposition was brewing to her disbanding the army. I swear, there are some in every group, she thought disgustedly.
The Warrior Princess glanced toward Gabrielle, then Elisa, and saw they were aware, too, that trouble was imminent.
When Xena's challenge rang out, the opposing group formed a triangular phalanx and rushed toward the three women, the point of the phalanx aimed directly at the warrior. The other men, not willing to take sides at this time, fell back out of the way and watched.
Xena straight-armed the point man with the heel of her hand, taking him and two of the men aligned directly behind him out of the fight. She ducked under a sword swing, kicking out her leg and catching the perpetrator in the side of the knee, crumpling him to the ground. A smash in the jaw with her fist knocked him unconscious. As three men were about to pounce on her, she leaped high into the air, screaming her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," and threw mighty kicks at their faces, bowling them over. Spinning in a circle like a dervish, her fists thrust out shoulder-high to either side, she caught the next group of rebels across their faces scattering them like straw scarecrows.
Meanwhile, Elisa threw her hands onto the ground and flipped her feet up, backwards, hitting two on-comers under their chins and laying them out flat. She then completed her flip, landing on her feet just in time to throw side chops with each hand into the necks of two more assailants. She stood in one spot, alternating kicks with each leg, and downed several more.
While the two warrior women were engaged in tossing the opposition about like rag dolls, Gabrielle was making certain that the men that Xena and Elisa knocked down, stayed down. As they fell, she put the finishing touch on them by rapping them across the head.
The remnants of the group were still looking for a fight and, after a slight pause, once again rushed the women. Xena looked over at Elisa and reached out to her. Grinning, the dark-haired Amazon grasped hold of the Warrior Princess' arms and let herself be swung out horizontally to the ground. As Xena's powerful arms swung her around in a circle, Elisa's feet met the charging men, tumbling each of them with a mighty kick to the head. Gabrielle completed their downfall with another smack against the head for good measure.
The opposition had been destroyed without a single sword blow. Xena slapped Elisa on the shoulder in acknowledgement of her good work, and patted the bard on her back. It was all Elisa could do to get her feet braced when she saw the slap coming, so that she, too, wouldn't wind up on the ground. With a wide smile, she punched the Warrior Princess back, on her shoulder, and noticed with chagrin that Xena didn't even budge. Guess I'm going to need some lessons in balance! the young Amazon told herself.
Xena jumped back up on the box and yelled, "Anyone else?"
If the men had had any thoughts, before, about confronting the three women, what the two armor-clad warriors had just accomplished with virtually their bare hands changed their minds. There was a lot of face-saving muttering going on but no one stepped forward with any further challenge.
"Very well," Xena declared, "You have until tomorrow at noon to be outta here, or else. Any stragglers will have to answer to me! Any questions?"
When no one answered, Xena yelled, "Now get moving!" She hopped down from the box and beckoned Gabrielle and Elisa closer. She smiled at the two young women and her remarkable blue eyes glowed. "Nice work, both of you. Now, fun's over, let's get back to work. These men guarding the tent will be leaving, too, so Gabrielle, you and I will take rotating turns of four hours each, standing outside and guarding the tent ourselves. Leese, get Viktor ready and leave as soon as possible for the Amazon village. We need to get Gwynna someplace where she can get the proper care. By the time you get back with a wagon, she should be able to travel."
By noon the next day, the men had departed the camp, with no further opposition. As Gabrielle had suspected, every soldier who had been there was convinced that Xena would make sure all of them were out of there by noon, or else. No one wanted to discover what the "or else" was.
Within four days, a contingent of Amazons arrived with a wagon to transport Gwynna back home. When Rhea, the healer who accompanied them, saw the wound in Gwynna's neck she was astonished that the girl was still alive. She spent some time with Xena going over exactly what the warrior had done to preserve Gwynna's life. "I don't know of anyone else who could have accomplished this," she marveled.
Xena smiled enigmatically and murmured, "I have many skills." Mostly because I've been in many battles. Kill with one hand, save lives with the other, she thought ironically.
Xena, Gabrielle and Elisa accompanied the Amazons until their paths diverged.
There was a tearful leave-taking between the two young friends who were being separated. "I'm not sure what's going to happen to me, Gwynna," Elisa warned her friend. "Even Xena can't change the laws. But I need to get this straightened out so I can return freely to the Amazon village. Whatever happens, you rest until your neck is completely healed. I don't want anything going wrong with you, OK?"
"I will, Leese," Gwynna promised as they embraced, "May the gods go with you."
For most of the journey, as usual, Xena rode on Argo and Gabrielle walked. This time, though, Elisa often dismounted from Viktor and walked along with the bard. Although not at all talkative, Just like her hero! she did attempt to answer the hundreds of questions the bard asked her. As Gabrielle got to know her better, she found herself drawn to the young Amazon's innate goodness and sense of responsibility. She does remind me of Xena. I'm sure glad Xena got her straightened out; she's too good a person to be a warlord. I think I can see what the connection is between them. Leese sees who she wants to be, and Xena sees who she might have been.
"Gabrielle..." the young Amazon surprisingly initiated a conversation. She spoke hesitantly. "What do you think might happen to me if the elders won't believe me?"
The bard considered the question thoughtfully. "I don't see any reason they won't believe you, Leese. You have the proof of your stepfather's cruelty on your back. Once they see that, they surely will have to see that you're telling the truth."
"Well, sometimes people get sentenced to jail terms who don't really deserve it, isn't that so?" Elisa asked nervously.
"Yes, that's happened before," Gabrielle admitted. "But, Leese, Xena is on your side. Trust her. She won't let anything bad happen to you."
This partly mollified the Amazon, but to dissipate her nervous energy, she kept taking her knives out of their scabbards one at a time, hefting them, tossing them up in the air and catching them, then putting them back. She performed this action over and over as though it were some kind of safeguarding ritual until Xena came to a halt where the trail widened into a broad clearing.
"We're just a few miles from Lamikos," the warrior informed them. "Make camp near the stream over there," she nodded toward the small span of water. She reached back, unhooked the saddlebags and handed them to the bard. "I'm going to ride in and talk to the elders."
Gabrielle nodded agreement. "Be careful, Xena," she warned.
"Always," Xena grinned, kicked Argo into a trot and disappeared down the trail to Lamikos.
Elisa unloaded her saddlebags and bedroll from Viktor's back and dumped them on the ground. Then she led the big palomino closer to the stream and tied him within reach of the water. Gabrielle, in the meantime, pulled two pots from the saddlebags Xena had handed her and filled them from the stream. She carried them to the center of the clearing and set them on a fallen log.
"Leese," she called, "will you help me pull a couple more logs over here near where we'll build the fire?"
The young Amazon came over to lend her a hand. "You know, Leese, Xena's really sticking her neck out for you," Gabrielle pointed out.
"How do you mean?" asked the girl.
"Well, the elders could accuse her of harboring a fugitive and try to throw her in jail," the bard explained.
Wide gray eyes grew even wider. "I never thought of that."
"Seems to me there are a few other things you never thought of," the bard broke the harshness of the accusation with a friendly smile. "Sit down here a minute, Leese, I need to talk to you."
The dark-haired youngster sat across from Gabrielle and gazed at her with questioning eyes.
"Xena would never in her lifetime say this to you, but I think you need to hear it..." Gabrielle began. "You know, she never turns problems over to someone else, she thinks she has to solve them all herself. And when it's a problem that she had any hand at all in causing, she gets doubly determined." Gabrielle took hold of Elisa's hand as she spoke. This is a delicate situation here. I don't want to break her already wounded spirit. But I want to make sure she knows the hurt she has caused, so she never turns the wrong way again.
"Xena took a special liking to you and considered you her friend. She taught you to be an exceptional fighter, and when you started to go wrong and were planning on using what she had taught you to harm innocent people... she was terribly, terribly hurt." Elisa bowed her head and cast her eyes at the ground.
"Gabrielle," she murmured. "What I have to say may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. I've always thought Xena was just about the most perfect person I ever met. When I first saw her, I could only hope that she would occasionally look my way when she came to our Amazon village. And then she actually noticed me, and my heart swelled with joy," the quiet voice went on.
"Then, when she befriended me, it was like she had given me a little piece of her heart to hold in mine, that's how much it meant to me. I know, when I betrayed her trust in me, I hurt her terribly. You're not telling me anything I don't already understand. I could feel every bit of that hurt pulsating in that small piece of her heart. So I know what unspeakable suffering I caused her." Elisa took a great, quivering breath.
"My mother's death had temporarily unbalanced my thinking, but when I finally realized the huge mistake I was making, I was devastated. I didn't know how I was going to live with the guilt of having caused my mother's death, having killed Gwynna--or so I thought at the time--and having betrayed Xena. These were three people that I had loved; and I had ruined, or tried to ruin, them all. In that last battle we had, the one you didn't see, I tried to force Xena to kill me." The young Amazon stopped and wiped the gathering moisture from her eyes.
"Well, I couldn't do anything for my mother, except grieve. But what first stirred hope in me happened in that last fight." Elisa looked incredulously at the bard.
"I told her I would fight until one of us was dead, so... Xena threw down her sword and demanded that I kill her! She said if I didn't she would be in my face every waking moment of every day, until I straightened out," Elisa's voice was almost a whisper. "She was willing to risk losing her life in order to show me that I was making the wrong choice... turning down the wrong path." Gabrielle shivered as she could picture the bold Warrior Princess doing exactly that.
"She was willing to die to save me. That's when I knew that she had forgiven me for every rotten thing I had done to her and her reputation. That's when the glimmer of hope started--from that tiny corner of my heart that belonged to Xena. Hope that I could be a good person; that I could follow in her future footsteps instead of in her past ones. And she wouldn't even let me thank her." Elisa's smoke-gray eyes joined the bard's mist-green ones and they both slowly smiled at this typical characteristic of their beloved warrior.
"Afterwards, when Xena told me that Gwynna was still alive, that stirring of hope overflowed. And why was she still alive? Because of Xena, the person whose name I was ruining, the person I had tried to kill. The woman who offered me unconditional forgiveness." Gabrielle sat enthralled by the story coming from this usually reticent young woman.
"Gabrielle, if you need me to say it, I will say it." Elisa let go of the bard's hand and knelt on the ground in front of her. "You are the Queen of the Amazons, and, as one of your subjects, I will never stray again from our sovereign laws. I swear it. Please forgive me for any hurt I have caused you, the youngster finished.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and said hoarsely, " I forgive you. Please rise, Leese." They both stood and she embraced the young Amazon. "Thank you for telling me this, I know it wasn't easy for you." She stepped back and looked up. The two young women smiled at each other. "Now, let's finish setting up this camp before Xena returns or we're both in trouble," the bard advised with a grin.
The Warrior Princess rode straight into town to the inn. Dismounting, she loosely tied Argo's reins to the hitching rail and entered the door. "Innkeeper," she called out, "where can I find Petros, the town elder?
"There's a meeting going on right now, over at the Town Hall. It's the largest building in the Village Square," he informed her. "But outsiders aren't allowed into the meetings, so you better wait until it's over."
"Isn't this a little early in the day for a town meeting?" Xena asked.
The innkeeper recognized Xena from her last visit to the town. Xena, Warrior Princess! Maybe she could help us! "Yeah, but this is a special meeting. Since we're a fishing village, we've always given tribute to Poseidon. Some time ago, Hera and Poseidon had a falling out over some town called Argolis and, to get back at him, Hera is trying to take our town away from Poseidon. She put some awful monster in a cave just north of town and told us if we didn't pay tribute to her instead of to Poseidon, she will turn the monster loose on our town. The elders are meeting to try to decide what to do."
"Thanks," Xena said, and left. She spotted the largest building in the Square and headed for it. A man was standing at the top of a steep flight of stairs near the entrance. Xena bounded up the stairs in three strides. "Stop!" he said. "You can't come in here, the elders are meeting." The warrior grabbed two fistfuls of shirt, picked the man up off his feet and swung him over the balustrade. He was hanging about 15 feet from the ground.
"Would you care to rephrase that statement?" Xena asked calmly. She held the petrified man there for a full minute, then swung him back onto the steps. Letting go of him, Xena opened the door, unopposed, and entered the meeting chamber.
Petros knew her at once and, to his credit, foresaw that she might be helpful to them in their difficulties. "We have a serious problem, Xena. One which perhaps only someone of your abilities can solve for us."
"I have a problem which needs solved, first, Petros," Xena forestalled him. "I've brought Elisa home to face the charges against her. I'll bring her in and have her show you the scars on her back, but I want to know what will happen to her."
"Since you last offered to bring her in, Xena, I have talked with the other elders," Petros responded. "If she has the scars, as you say, we will drop the sentence of hanging. Still, she broke the law and we feel she must make some repayment. We reached a term of two years' imprisonment."
Xena's face blanched. "Two years? Two years for killing a man who was a fiend? A man who was trying to beat her to death with a cat-o'-nine-tails? What kind of justice is that?" She'll never last two years closed up in a jail, out of the free air and sunshine.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but she had no right to take the law into her own hands. We have rules about that and we have to follow those rules," Petros rejoined.
"What about the five men who broke into her home and killed her mother? What kind of justice did they get?" the warrior demanded.
"They will each serve two years' imprisonment for what they did," Petros assured her.
"You were ready to hang a young girl for killing a monstrous stepfather, but these men, who killed an innocent woman, serve two years apiece? I don't think much of your system of justice," the Warrior Princess scoffed, her cobalt-blue eyes sparking.
"But they were all family men, Xena. They only intended to arrest Elisa, they didn't mean to kill her mother. That was an unfortunate accident," one of the elders tried to explain.
"Accident!" Xena sneered. She stood looking from one to the other of the elders, her angry blue eyes narrowed and her face wearing an expression of distaste. She shook her head, turned and strode toward the door she had entered. "Xena, wait!" Petros called. The warrior stopped, hesitated, then turned to face him.
"Can you help us with this monster?" the agitated elder pleaded. "We don't have anyone in the village capable of stopping it. And if we don't stop it, we'll have to pay tribute to Hera, and Poseidon threatens to drown us with a tidal wave if that happens! Please, we need your help. It's an impossible situation."
"Elisa is a fierce fighter. I would need her help in overcoming the beast and you won't even let her in the village without arresting her. I can't ask her to help a town that wants to put her in jail. I won't do it." Xena moved again toward the door.
"Wait! Please... wait," Petros begged. He spoke quietly and urgently to the other men seated at the council table. Then he again addressed the warrior. "We'll give Elisa a pardon after the two of you destroy the monster."
"A full pardon, NOW," the Warrior Princess demanded as she turned back to the council table. "Then we'll take care of Hera's creature."
The men began to argue feverishly about handing out a pardon before the monster was defeated. Xena marched over and slammed her fist down on the table, silencing the arguing men. "Make up your minds. Either Elisa gets a pardon, NOW, or I leave. I'm not hanging around here forever."
The men looked hesitantly at each other then nodded. "All right," Petros agreed. He reached for a parchment and quill and wrote out the pardon for Elisa. He signed it and offered it to the warrior.
"All of you sign it," Xena instructed.
"But my signature is sufficient," Petros assured her.
Xena crossed her arms and clamped her jaw. "All of you," she growled between clenched teeth.
Petros' hand quivered as he handed the parchment around for the others to endorse. When the signing was completed, he handed the pardon to the imposing woman who rolled it up and stuck it in her armband.
"Good," Xena commended, appeased. She again looked each of the assembled elders in the eye, one by one, blue bolts holding their rapt attention. "Now," she commanded in an authoritative tone, "tell me everything you know about this monster."
When the elders had filled her in on everything they had learned about the monster, the Warrior Princess left the Hall. She stopped at the blacksmith's shop, described an implement she needed, and waited while he forged some for her. She walked out with a large, bulging bag that she tied to Argo's saddle horn. Then she rode out of Lamikos, heading back to join her two companions.
Xena entered the camp that Gabrielle and Elisa had prepared in her absence. The young Amazon was just finishing building the campfire and the bard was laying out items on a log to prepare a meal. They both looked up as Argo came to a halt. "Why was I able to ride into camp unobserved?" Xena demanded, with a frown, as she jumped from the golden palomino, loosened the saddle and bridle, and strode over to the fire, disturbed by the seeming carelessness of the two young women.
"Well, about two minutes ago, your protégé said you were on your way in," Gabrielle informed her partner with a smile.
Both eyebrows lifted behind her dark bangs as now, pleased, Xena turned to the girl, "Good work, Leese," she approved. "I didn't know you had learned to do that."
Elisa smiled back, praise from the Warrior Princess turning her cheeks pink. "Ever since you taught me to really listen, I keep adding to what I can hear... and identify," she explained. "But..." the young Amazon continued, "what did the elders say?"
"Yes, Xena, we're dying to know what happened," Gabrielle chimed in. The three women seated themselves in a triangle on the logs that Elisa had arranged around the fire. The bard continued meal preparations, putting two pots over the fire to boil. She dropped dried vegetables and herbs in the stewing pot and other herbs in the pot meant for tea.
Xena's warm blue eyes gazed into the young Amazon's questioning gray ones. The Warrior Princess slid the parchment from under her armband. She handed it to the young Amazon, saying, "You've been granted a full pardon." Elisa's eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs and her jaw dropped open as she stared with stunned incredulity at the words proclaiming her a free woman.
"Xena... thank you... I... I'm overwhelmed," Elisa stammered.
"You're welcome, Leese. I'm glad we were able to get it all straightened out so easily," the warrior answered. She turned her bronzed face to include Gabrielle, looking into the bard's mist-green orbs.
There was a miniscule change in the depths of the blue pools that met the golden-haired woman's eyes. Uh-oh, why do I get the feeling that there's a big catch to this? Gabrielle pursed her lips and raised one eyebrow in perfect imitation of Xena's "you-expect-me-to-believe-that?" look.
Xena laughed at the bard's expression and Elisa smiled, too. "OK... OK... so I promised the elders that we would do some work. The townspeople need a favor from us," Xena explained. "They've got a pretty bad situation there. Because they are a fishing village, they've always honored Poseidon as their god. For some reason, Hera suddenly got jealous that Lamikos pays tribute to Poseidon and she sent a monster to terrorize the town unless they paid tribute to her, instead. Then Poseidon heard about it and threatened to wipe them out with a tidal wave if they changed their allegiance."
This was met with a moment of silence, then Gabrielle's eyes widened and she looked with trepidation at her friend. "So, we're going to jump in here between Hera and Poseidon and straighten everything out, right?"
"Right," Xena answered, her crystal-blue eyes sparkling at the challenge.
"And," the bard continued, "we'll get rid of the monster that Hera sent."
"That's the idea," Xena admitted with a nod and a shrug.
Gabrielle's tone got very serious. "Xena, did it happen to occur to you that fighting off two gods AND a monster might be too much to ask of three mortals... even if one of them is you?"
"Well, yeah, it did pass through my mind," Xena said with a grin at her friend's gentle sarcasm. "But I have a plan. And I'll tell you all about it after dinner," she promised.
The Warrior Princess jumped up from the log she was sitting on. "C'mon, Leese, maybe Gabrielle will pour us some tea while we get a couple rabbits for that stew. You get one, I'll get one."
After a satisfying dinner, the two younger women insisted that Xena sit and relax while they cleaned up. When they had finished, they rejoined her at the campfire. "OK, we're ready to hear this plan of yours... about fighting two gods and a monster," Gabrielle addressed the Warrior Princess. A slight quiver in her voice betrayed the trepidation she was feeling.
The fire had diminished and, in the fading evening light, it cast a faint glow on the surrounding faces and reflected from their eyes. A trick of the flickering radiance made Xena's eyes look like two live coals with a bluish cast. Gabrielle shivered as goose bumps came and went across her arms. Elisa's gaze locked onto the warrior as she began to speak.
"First of all, we're not going to fight TWO gods," I hope, Xena attempted to mollify them. "I'm going to talk to Poseidon and convince him that we are helping him by helping the town. Lamikos has always honored him and will continue to, when this monster is dealt with. If he can keep Hera off our backs while we get rid of the beast, we have a better chance."
The Warrior Princess turned her burning eyes to Elisa. "Leese, the elders say this creature is hiding in a cave in a limestone bluff on the northeast edge of town. Are you familiar with the area?"
"I know where you mean, Xena," Elisa replied. "That whole bluff is riddled with huge, interconnecting caves. One gigantic entrance always shows on the land side, but it can only be reached by scaling the bluff. Several large openings appear on the sea side and are easy to get into, but they're only accessible at low tide. With all those huge entrances, there's no way we could trap the thing in there," she concluded. "It's black as pitch inside, too, so we pretty much stayed away from playing in the caves. I was never any further inside than the big ones that appear at low tide."
Xena propped her elbow against her thigh and rested her chin in her hand, her thumb upright against one cheek. She slowly flexed her fingers down along the other cheek several times, finally curling them together against her chin. She stared into the fire for several minutes before breaking the silence.
"Leese, suppose this creature couldn't escape out through the lower caves. Is there any other way for it to get out, other than the cave on the land side?" Xena finally asked.
"Not that I know of," the young Amazon answered, her brow furrowed in concentration. "But with so many connected caves, it could evade any attack long enough for the tide to go out. After that, it would be able to get out any one of the lower entrances. You'd need an army to prevent it from escaping, then."
Gabrielle was paying close attention to this exchange but, at the same time, grinning quietly with secret amusement. Listen to them. These are the two least communicative people I know, until it comes to talking strategy. Then they can outdo even me.
"Well, then, it looks like we are going to need some help," Xena decided. As she sat thinking, the rising full moon took over the job from the diminishing embers, and cast a soft light on all three women. The live coals in Xena's eyes gradually were replaced by a silver-blue glistening and the moonlight delineated her sculpted features.
Even in the midst of this serious discussion, the younger women were struck by the warrior's natural beauty, a beauty she herself never seemed to recognize nor acknowledge. I don't think she even realizes how beautiful she is or what a pleasure it is just to look at her, thought Gabrielle with a sweet twinge in her heart. But... back to business! she chided herself.
Xena, sensing as always that Gabrielle's thoughts had changed, swung her eyes to meet the mist-green ones of her best friend. "What?" the warrior softly questioned, her eyebrow raising in concert with her word.
"Uh... nothing," the bard smiled. "Just admiring the view." Elisa smothered a giggle and Xena's other eyebrow joined the first as she turned to meet suddenly innocent-looking gray eyes above a widely grinning mouth now being covered by its owner's swiftly moving hand.
"Well, tomorrow's view might not be quite so fascinating if you two don't pay attention, here," Xena remarked dryly.
The two women glanced guiltily at each other. "Yes, Xena," they said together, then giggled at the coincidence.
Even Xena had to smile. We could be dead tomorrow, and here these two sit giggling over only the gods know what. Was I ever that young and unaware? Or, with sudden insight, is this their way of getting rid of tension?
"Suppose, while you're both in such a good mood, we get to sleep," the Warrior Princess proposed. "I can fill you in on the rest tomorrow. EARLY," she said pointedly.
"Yes, Xena," the two answered in unison, on purpose this time. Then went off again into wild giggles.
The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes at them and the three went after their bedrolls in a relatively happy mood.
Well before dawn, Xena awoke, climbed quietly from her bedroll and picked up her sword. She saw Elisa also rising and smiled. The young Amazon followed Xena to a spot a little upstream from the camp where they could still see Gabrielle in the bright moonlight but would not awaken her. The two warriors ran through a series of warm-up sword drills together, with Elisa facing Xena and mirroring her every move. Before starting the next drill, Xena called a halt for a moment.
"Leese, this monster we are going to fight sounds extremely formidable. I'll fill you and Gabrielle in on it when she gets up," the Warrior Princess began. "Gabrielle's staff isn't going to be much help so the burden of the fighting is going to fall on us. I just want to make sure that if anything happens to me, you will leave me and look out for Gabrielle."
"You stopped me from doing some things that would have brought great shame to the Amazons, and to myself, Xena, and I'll always be grateful for that," Elisa spoke seriously. "Thanks to you, I am still an Amazon and Gabrielle is my Queen. My first duty is always to protect her and I solemnly promise you I will live, or die, by that duty."
"Thanks, Leese," Xena reached out and the two women grasped arms in the warrior handshake. Then they continued their drills, getting faster and faster until Elisa could no longer keep up with Xena's speed, then they quit and returned to the camp where Gabrielle was just stirring. Xena grabbed some herbs from the pouch Gabrielle had left sitting on one of the logs and dumped them in the pot of water that had been prepared during cleanup the night before.
The women stowed their bedrolls on the two palominos and made a quick breakfast of hard rolls and the leftover stew that had continued to simmer all night in the embers. They washed it down with mugs of the tea Xena had brewed, then set the camp in order.
When they were done, they again sat on the logs so Xena could finish telling them about the monster.
"The elders tell me the creature is shaped like a 20-foot tall man, with two arms, two legs and a huge head. The head has a big forehead bulging over tiny eyes and a wide mouth with fanged teeth. There are some kind of thick scales covering every inch of its body... including its head," the Warrior Princess advised them. "Some have tried to fight it, but nothing has dented those scales, not even stones tossed from a catapult or poles shot from a huge cross-bow type machine. Everything thrown against it has just bounced off."
"So, how do you think we should attack it?" asked Elisa. "I could throw my knives at the eyes to blind it, but if the eyes are really tiny and the head is moving, I can't guarantee that I would be able to hit them."
"Yeah, you could try that, Leese, but like you said there are no guarantees. And even if you blinded it, we still have to kill it. Seems to me the most likely place to strike is in the mouth, and that's not going to be easy," Xena remarked in an understatement. "You or I will just have to get him to take a bite at one of us and strike him then."
"You're not leaving me out of this," Gabrielle warned.
"No, we're not," the Warrior Princess smiled at her friend's insistent objection. "As Leese said, it's pitch black in those caves and we're going to need to see. You get to carry the torch."
As Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue this, Xena leaned forward and squeezed her shoulder. "You've always been my light-bearer, Gabrielle, the one to show me the way, remember?" the warrior asked in a low, husky voice.
The bard took a deep breath and her protest died. "Right," she whispered.
Xena sat a moment, looking deep into her best friend's now damp eyes, and a slow, soft smile quirked her lips. Then, she jumped up and said briskly, "Time to go, I have to talk to Poseidon."
Elisa reacted at once and jumped up, too, but the quick change of mood startled Gabrielle. She got up more slowly, her brow knitting together in puzzlement. "Talk to Poseidon?" she inquired, her mist-green eyes searching for an answer to her perplexity.
"Yep, things will be a lot easier for us if I can get him on our side," Xena explained. "So, I have to ask for his help."
"But the last time you saw Poseidon, he wanted to kill you," Gabrielle reminded her friend.
"Don't be so negative, Gabrielle," Xena poked her in the side with her elbow. "That was a whole different situation. You know how fickle these gods are. Kill you today, honor you tomorrow."
Gabrielle swallowed loudly, "Right," she barely forced out through her constricted throat. She always acts like the gods are cranky little kids... The odd thing is, she usually gets away with it. One of her many skills, I guess! she told herself, trying to reinforce her courage.
Xena and Elisa tightened the saddles and bridles on their horses and mounted them. Reaching down an arm, Xena swung the bard up behind her. Gabrielle seized Xena around the waist in a hammerlock and laid her head up against the warrior's strong back. As they rode out, she felt Xena pat her hand and the low, warm voice murmured, "Hey... I have to breathe, ya know."
"Sorry," the golden-haired woman said, loosening her tight hold. "I think I'm a little scared," she confessed.
"So am I," admitted the warrior. She smiled as she felt the warmth of Gabrielle's snort against her back. "We'll just get through this together, like we always do, OK?" You'll be all right once the battle starts, partner. You always are. I count on it.
"OK," the bard agreed and gave her a quick squeeze.
Xena looked back toward Elisa following behind them on Viktor. The young Amazon's smoke-gray eyes were alit with the excitement of an imminent battle. Xena grinned and nodded as their eyes met, realizing that her own eyes probably carried the same unholy glow.
They arrived at the base of the bluff at high tide. Xena swung her leg forward over the front of the saddle and jumped down without disturbing Gabrielle. "You two wait here. I'll see if I can raise Poseidon," she directed.
The warrior walked to the edge of the water. "Poseidon! Poseidon! It's Xena, Warrior Princess! I've come to talk to you about Lamikos!" she hollered. After the third time she had shouted this same invocation, the water several hundred feet from shore began to churn and bubble. Soon the agitated water spouted up and congealed into the huge, imposing body of the King of the Sea.
"Xena, Warrior Princess, what can you possibly have to say to me that I care anything about?" the god roared angrily.
"Look, Poseidon, we're trying to help Lamikos get rid of the monster Hera sent against them. Our helping them will help you, too. But I need you to give us a hand," Xena roared back defiantly.
"I don't know, Xena, our meetings in the past haven't been exactly friendly," the sea-god's powerful voice rebuked her.
"I'm not asking for friendship, Poseidon, nor offering it," Xena shouted disdainfully. "You know how I feel about the gods. Just give us some help here to get rid of this beast, and Lamikos will be back in your fold. It's to your advantage to help us."
"All right, Xena. I can see the sense of that. I've always admired your intelligence and courage, even when I've wanted to slap you down for your insolence." Poseidon rumbled loudly with laughter and, cuffing his hand against the surface of the sea, shot a wide stream of water toward the Warrior Princess. Xena easily jumped away from the force of it but was drenched, nonetheless. "What favor are you asking from me?"
The warrior flicked her dark head back and forth to rid it of the water that was streaming from her hair into her face. "Very funny, Poseidon," she snorted. "But... I guess you owed me one. Now, if you're finished with your fun and games, I'll let you know what I need you to do."
Xena pointed toward the bluff. "Hera's monster is hiding in that bluff. We're going in that entrance up there to attack him. But there are also several underwater entrances he could escape through if we pursue him. I need you to hold up the tide, don't let it run out until we have conquered him, however long that takes... And don't let Hera bother us."
Poseidon studied the request for a moment, his eyes on the bluff. He didn't relish the idea of helping the Warrior Princess but he knew that she might be the only one who could beat Hera's monster and return Lamikos to his allegiance.
"Very well, Xena, I will hold up the tide, but I can't do that for an unlimited time; it could cause havoc around the world. I'll give you three hours," Poseidon proclaimed in his thunderous voice.
The warrior looked over at the cliff, estimating the time it would take to scale the wall up to the cave entrance, and noting the current height of the tide. "OK, Poseidon, but give us an hour before you hold the tide. That will give us time to reach the cave and the lower levels will still be flooded." In five hours, the tide will be low enough to allow passage through the lower levels. We'll be cutting it close if we have to chase the beast around much.
"Very well, Xena, you have your wish, and I will also make sure Hera doesn't bother you. She's tied up in another part of the universe at the moment, so what she doesn't know will help us both!" Poseidon let out another booming belly laugh and melted into the sea.
Xena opened one of the saddlebags packed on Argo's back and pulled out several metal spikes, two hammers and two lengths of rope. "We're going to have to scale the face of the bluff to reach the opening," she said, stating an obvious fact.
"Er... Xena, I'm not too good on heights, remember?" the bard remarked with a sickly smile.
"That's OK, Gabrielle, Elisa and I will climb up then pull you up with the rope," Xena said as she handed the gear to Elisa. She then untied the large, heavy bag that she had brought from Lamikos and handed it to the golden-haired woman. "Bring this up with you when you come," she directed. "You can tie it around your waist." She noticed that Gabrielle's eyes held a skittish look.
Xena started to walk away, then stopped and came back. She held out her arms to her friend and Gabrielle fell into them. The two women gave each other a big hug. "You'll be all right," Xena said softly as they embraced.
"It's not me I'm worried about, Xena. Promise me you'll take very good care of the person I love most in this world," the bard breathed.
"Always." Xena gave Gabrielle a final squeeze then stepped back and smiled at her friend. "See ya at the top," she said and walked to the base of the bluff to start the climb.
It took nearly forty-five minutes to maneuver to the cave entrance and another fifteen minutes to raise Gabrielle to the top with them. Xena helped to untie the bag that the bard had brought up with her, then removed several items from it. First, she took out three torches and some pieces of steel and flint. She handed these around to each of them. Then she showed them what was left in the bag.
The Warrior Princess pulled out a half-ball-shaped object that was made of several different sizes of nails welded together. The heads of the nails were connected into a base, and the points stuck out at all angles from that base. When set on the ground, the nails provided a six-inch high and twelve-inch wide foot-menacing trap.
"The elders said this monster is covered with hard scales that no sword can penetrate, but we don't know whether the soles of his feet are protected or not," Xena explained. "If they aren't, we can put these down in strategic areas and help to force him in the direction we want him to go."
"No wonder that bag is so heavy," remarked Gabrielle. "It weighs more than I do!"
"Let's just hope they are useful," Xena declared as she tied the bag to her own waist with a slipknot. Then she struck pieces of steel and flint together and lit the torch she had kept. "I'll lead the way. Slide your torch in your belt in case we get separated.
"Leese, when I draw my sword, you draw yours and Gabrielle, you be ready to take the torch from me. Leese and I will need our hands free to fight. If you have to make a choice of whether to help me or Leese, you help Leese, OK?"
Gabrielle just looked at Xena without answering, her eyes pained. The warrior's eyes narrowed. "She's a sister Amazon and you're her Queen. You help her, agreed?"
"Agreed," the bard replied reluctantly. Then the realization that she WAS the Amazon Queen hit home and she straightened up and tilted her chin in the air. She cast off the fear and mentally donned the mantle of the Queen. "Agreed," she said, more firmly this time.
One corner of Xena's mouth twitched up and her eyes sparkled. "Good," she nodded. "Now let's go get that monster."
Xena walked quietly into the cave entrance. Illuminated by the torch, the first cave soared 30 feet high and was easily 50 feet across. Three tall, fairly narrow openings, situated randomly around the walls, branched off in different directions. Huge 5-toed footprints showed in the dust on the floor of the cave. Most of the prints led to one opening so the explorers headed in that direction.
They stopped in front of the opening and both Xena and Elisa raised their heads and swung them slowly from side to side, tracking for sounds, smells, or changes in air currents that might warn them of the monster's proximity. There were none. Before entering the opening, Xena took six nail traps from the bag and put two of them across each of the other two openings. As they passed into the next cave, she laid two in the opening they had just come through.
They continued through two more caves that had no other entrances, and the warrior laid the nail traps in each entry after they passed. Suddenly, Xena's hand came up to halt them and Elisa's was a split-second behind the Warrior Princess' warning. "Breathing," the young Amazon mouthed and Xena nodded.
The warrior crooked her finger at Gabrielle and motioned for her to light her torch with Xena's. Xena and Elisa pulled their swords and crept through the next cave just ahead of the bard. The breathing sounded louder, but the cave was empty. There were two openings in this cave and Xena laid down the traps in both openings, then cautiously passed through to the next cave. The breathing had become a mild roar.
The Warrior Princess reached behind her and grabbed Elisa's arm in warning. The young Amazon slowly came up beside Xena, and Gabrielle stealthily followed her. An alarming sight met their eyes.
A gigantic creature, apparently sleeping, lay curled up in a ball on the floor of a massive cave. The cave had four other openings along its walls. The beast was covered with hard scales, just as the elders had reported, but the soles of its feet seemed unprotected.
Xena stuck her torch into a fissure in the wall and turned to her two companions. She pointed to the bag of nail traps, to herself and to the cave exits. They nodded and the warrior ran quickly around the perimeter of the cave laying the nail traps in each exit, then rejoined Gabrielle and Elisa.
"It's a pretty heavy sleeper, but I guess we're just gonna have to wake it up," she drawled with a feral grin. "Leese, I'm gonna get up by its head and you attack its foot," she directed. "If it roars with pain when you strike, maybe I can thrust my sword into its mouth and kill it."
The two women charged the sleeping figure and Elisa thrust her sword into the bottom of its foot. The animal let out a cave-rattling roar, but never separated its teeth. Xena stabbed the inside of its lip with her weapon but did no real damage. She ducked under a swipe of its scaled arm as Elisa tried to penetrate the scales on its stomach. The creature swatted her away as though she were a fly, but she was able to land on her feet, bruised but uninjured. It lumbered to its feet and its gigantic size gave all three women pause for a moment. The brute took off running through one of the openings, screaming again as its feet came in contact with the nail traps.
Xena grabbed her torch from the fissure and yelled, "You two get back to the main cave; that's the only way it can get out, so it will head there. Move FAST, you don't want your paths to cross in these caves." She quickly untied the bag from her waist and handed it to Elisa. "Take the rest of the nail traps and scatter them in front of the main entrance. We've got to keep it from leaving. I'll be coming right behind it, so don't do anything foolish; wait for me."
The three hurriedly separated and Xena rocketed after the monster, screaming her battlecry as she ran, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi." She could hear the creature stumbling ahead of her and she kept a safe distance, continuing to yell her cry to herd it toward the main entrance. Thanks to Poseidon, the beast was unable to exit through the water-filled lower caves. Xena could tell when the monster's path eventually converged on the caves the trio had entered through, as it screamed anew when it ran into more nail traps.
The other two women had reached the main cave without any trouble and had laid the nail traps at the main entrance as Xena had told them to. They lit the third torch and stuck their two into fissures in the wall. The whole time they were there, they could hear the beast screaming. Soon, they could hear sounds that it was approaching. Gabrielle's heart lifted when she heard Xena's battlecry, almost drowned out by the creature's noise.
The monster crashed into the main cave and stopped, momentarily stupefied by the lighted interior. Some of the nail traps were still stuck in its feet and it was in obvious pain. Instinctively, it headed toward the visible exit opening. Its foot hit one of the nail traps and its progress halted. When it saw the nail traps at every opening, it would not attempt to go through them. Now it was, like any cornered animal, ready to fight.
Elisa let fly three of her knives at the creature's eyes, and her aim was perfect. The beast's blinking reflex, however, saved it from harm as the knives just bounced off of its scaly eyelids.
Xena ran in front of it and swung her sword with all her strength against the side of the animal's knee but even the Warrior Princess' vaunted strength caused no damage. Gabrielle dashed over, swung around in a full circle to gather momentum, and struck the beast in the groin area with her staff. This had no result other than to have the creature raise its foot to smash her.
Elisa drove her sword clear up to the hilt into the huge foot that threatened the bard. The monster let out another loud cry and writhed around, swinging its leg to hit the young Amazon with the side of its foot as she withdrew her weapon. Elisa ducked, but its heel caught her shoulder, dropping her. The animal started to reach down to grab her when Xena, screaming her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi," ran up the side of the cave wall, vaulted off of it and kicked the monster in the jaw with powerful thrusts of both feet, momentarily jarring it. The Warrior Princess flipped back down onto the ground, grabbed Elisa, and she and Gabrielle hurried the slightly dazed Amazon out of the monster's path.
The warrior turned back to the battle, trying to bring the beast down by slamming her body into the back of its knees. The creature barely staggered, and never lost its balance. Xena then charged up the front of its body and did a quick, stomping dance on its nose, but the impervious scales afforded too much protection. She took a stab at one eye with her sword, but, again, reflexive closing of the lid prevented injury and Xena flipped back to the cave floor. Looks like the only answer is to get this beast to open its mouth, the warrior determined.
Gabrielle began attacking the beast's feet, striking down across the tops of them with her staff, driving the nails even deeper into the soles of the creature's feet. Recovered, Elisa ran up the monster's back to try to stab it in the throat, but it reached back, grabbed her arm and flung her, hard, against the wall. The young Amazon's body hit first then her head snapped back, striking the wall. Stunned, she dropped her sword, slid down the wall and slumped over. Gabrielle ran over to her to see if she could help. She reached for the waterbag that was slung across her body and poured it over Elisa's head.
Meanwhile, Xena stabbed the monster again in the foot when it started to take a step toward Elisa, and her sword stuck. The crazed beast reached one monstrous hand down and seized the warrior around her neck while she was retrieving her weapon. With its other hand, it knocked Xena's sword away and it clattered on the ground. The creature squeezed her neck, shook the Warrior Princess back and forth like a rag doll, then raised her toward its mouth and opened its huge jaws, its fangs reaching toward Xena's head. Its enormous mouth, capable of taking off the warrior's head with one snap was poised to close on her.
"XENA! NO!" Gabrielle shouted when she saw her friend's precarious situation. The bard grabbed a torch from the wall and ran up to the monster. She reached down with her staff, slid it under the monster's big toe, and, heaving against it with all her might, levered it about six inches from the ground. Then she stuck the torch under the toe as far as possible.
The monster howled even louder than before and reached down for the bard. It grasped her around the neck also and pulled her up even with Xena, who was struggling mightily against its hold with no success. The creature seemed to be deciding which woman to eat first, then settled on Gabrielle. It opened its jaws wide again and prepared to bite off her golden head. Gabrielle's eyes were scrunched tight, expecting a horrible death.
Elisa had come to and immediately saw the danger Xena and Gabrielle faced. She speedily retrieved her sword and slid her hand down the blade to the point of it. Shouting, "XENA!" the young Amazon threw her sword at the Warrior Princess. The warrior's bloodshot and bulging eyes swerved toward Elisa's voice. The perfectly balanced sword, Elisa's gift from Xena, flipped end over end in graceful symmetry and landed flawlessly, hilt first, in the warrior's outstretched hand. Pulling her arm back, Xena thrust the sword with all her strength into the open mouth of the monster just as it moved forward to crunch the bard's head with its fangs.
Xena's whole arm disappeared into the open maw and she wrenched her shoulder back and forth. For a moment, time seemed to stop as Xena, grimacing, pulled out the sword dripping with blood. Then, both of the creature's arms dropped to its side and the hands opened, depositing Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess on the ground. Gabrielle's eyes flew open in astonishment. Xena dropped the sword and rolled quickly to the bard. She threw long bronzed arms around the golden-haired woman and continued to roll away from the teetering monster whose mouth was running with blood. The creature wobbled for a few seconds more then fell to the ground with an immense crash. The body bounced twice and then lay still.
Xena let go of Gabrielle and sprawled out on the ground grabbing huge gulps of air into her starving lungs. The bard looked at her friend with concern, noticing that Xena's neck was inflamed and oozing blood. She pulled some salve and bandage from her ever-present supply in the pouch at her belt and started to minister to the warrior.
Elisa had run over to the two women when Xena had rolled them to safety. "Leese," Gabrielle, looking up at the young Amazon, asked in confusion, "what happened? I thought we were dead for sure."
Elisa grinned just about as broadly as anyone could grin and answered, "I threw Xena my sword and she stuck the monster in the roof of the mouth, straight into his brain, just as he was about to bite your head off." Her tone changed when she realized Xena hadn't moved except to gulp air, and Gabrielle was trying to put salve on the warrior's throat. "Xena, are you OK?" she asked with a worried frown.
The Warrior Princess opened her blood-reddened eyes and forced a small smile,
"Gimme fifteen minutes or so and I'll be OK," she uttered hoarsely. "The
damn thing nearly choked me to death."
And anyone else would be dead, Elisa realized. She survived that through sheer force of will.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and her eyes softened, "I..." The bard put her fingers over the warrior's lips, silencing her. "No talking for fifteen minutes," she ordered with a sweet smile at her friend. "We can stay here just as long as you need."
While Gabrielle finished tenderly spreading salve on Xena's throat, Elisa retrieved her three knives and the two swords. She slipped her knives back into their sheathes, laid Xena's sword down next to the warrior and sat down to clean the blood from her own. Gabrielle gave her some bandage to help with the job. The two women sat quietly for some time, resting from the ordeal.
At last, the young Amazon broke the silence. "You know, it's really funny how things work out," Elisa mused. "If Xena hadn't given me this sword, we'd probably all be dead by now." She looked at Gabrielle. "And I know for sure you two would be. My old sword was too light and too unbalanced for me to throw it with any accuracy. Swords aren't really made for throwing, you know." The young Amazon hesitated, then continued. "It's almost as though someone foresaw this fight a long time ago and planned every last detail. Like someone was watching over us. Does that sound impossible or what?"
Gabrielle's mist-green eyes sparkled and a gentle smile appeared. "Travel with Xena long enough," she responded, "and nothing seems impossible." She looked down at her friend and saw now-clear blue eyes come open and a slow smile spread across the sculpted face.
Xena sat up, at least partially restored. Elisa stood up, reached down and hauled Xena to her feet. The Warrior Princess rotated her head, stretched her neck and bent her head back and forth. Then she stretched each limb and, finally, her whole body. "Well, everything still works," she said in a near-normal voice. The two younger women smiled in relief. "How about you, Leese, you all right?" The young Amazon nodded, and Xena teased, "You gotta stop trying to bounce off of stone walls." Elisa grinned and rubbed the back of her sore head.
The warrior bent to pick up her sword, "Now," she said matter-of-factly, "let's carve out its brain."
"You're kidding, right?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. Xena raised both eyebrows.
"...Leese just cleaned her sword," the bard added lamely.
"Look, I said we'd kill this monster if the elders gave Leese her pardon. We are going to take proof to the elders that we did, indeed, kill it," Xena explained. "The easiest proof is to take them its head, but since we can't cut through the blasted neck, we'll have to take the brain. Do you have a problem with that?" she asked innocently.
"Nooo..." Gabrielle answered. "Just as long as I don't have to help cut it out."
"Leese and I will take care of that," Xena promised. Just as the bard was exhaling in relief, the warrior waved her eyebrows, smiled wickedly and said, "You only have to carry it."
"XENA! NO!" the golden-haired woman protested, "I'm too squeamish!"
"Squeamish? This from a woman who attacked a 20-foot tall monster by burning his big toe with a torch?" The two dark-haired women both laughed at the look on the bard's face. "And to think I told Leese your staff wouldn't be of much help. You sure made great use of it as a toe-lifter!" the warrior commended the golden-haired woman.
For a minute the gruesome brain was forgotten as this rare praise from her friend lit Gabrielle's eyes. I did make a difference this time. I helped save Xena's life, was her very comforting thought.
"Seriously, Gabrielle, Leese and I will lower you down the bluff, but she and I have to climb down. It's easier for you to carry it. I'll put it in the bag the nail traps were in. You can pretend it's not a brain. Or... we can sit up here for another few hours and walk out through the lower level, if you prefer."
"No, thank you, I don't want to stay up here any longer than I have to," the bard answered. "I'll carry the darn bra...uh... bag!"
Xena and Elisa cut up through the top of the mouth and removed the brain of the monster and Xena put it in the nail bag. The two dark-haired women cleaned their swords and sheathed them and the Warrior Princess tied the bag to the bard's waist.
After lowering Gabrielle to the bottom of the bluff with the ropes, Xena and Elisa climbed down and met her. Xena took the bag from the bard and walked down to the edge of the water. "Poseidon! Poseidon!" Xena shouted. "It's Xena, Warrior Princess. Show yourself!"
Again, the water churned and swirled into a vortex, which rose up to become Poseidon's immense form "Xena," he boomed, "I've been waiting for you. Did your plan work?"
"Yes, Poseidon," Xena yelled. She reached into the bag and lifted the gory mass out for the sea god to view. "Here's the monster's brain," she said. "The village won't have any more terror from the beast. Now, they'll be turning their allegiance back to you."
"Well done, Warrior Princess... but this still doesn't make us friends," the God of the Sea thundered.
"You're so right, Poseidon," Xena barked. "We killed the monster and you held back the tide. I'd call us even. Like I said before, I'm not asking for friendship."
The sea god had a grudging respect for the brazen warrior who was able to accomplish feats no one else would even venture to try. It's probably her impertinent arrogance that enables her to overcome such daunting obstacles. Bold, and beautiful, too... I can see why Ares thinks she's so special, the huge god chuckled to himself.
"Until next time, Xena," he called and sank into the sea.
The Warrior Princess dropped the brain back into the bag, trotted back up the hill to her two companions and tied the bag to Argo's saddle horn. The three mounted the horses and rode back to Lamikos.
When they reached the village, a merchant indicated that the elders were meeting again in the Town Hall. All three women dismounted in front of the building and climbed the steps. The guard quickly scrambled out of Xena's way, as she approached, and let them pass.
The assembled men looked up as the trio entered the Hall, and Petros greeted them, noticing that Elisa was one of the three. "Xena, we were just discussing our options about the monster. Have you come up with any ideas to get rid of it?"
The Warrior Princess slapped the bag onto the meeting table. "We've already gotten rid of it," she informed them. "We would have brought you its head, but it was impossible to detach it. So, we brought the next best thing..." She turned the bag upside down and dumped out the huge, blood-soaked organ onto the table. "Its brain," she explained.
The men at first shrunk away from the grisly object, then eyed it with fascination.
"Elisa," Petros addressed the young woman, "On behalf of the council and the rest of the village, I'm truly sorry about what happened to your mother and the trouble that resulted from the death of your stepfather. We can't do anything to change any of that but we've made it known throughout the village that you have been pardoned and you are welcome here at any time. Xena gave us money to arrange your mother's burial and we took care of that. Thank you for your part in killing the monster."
"Where is my mother's grave?" Elisa whispered.
"She has been laid to rest in the southeast corner of the town cemetery, far away from your stepfather's grave, as Xena directed," Petros assured her.
He turned back to the Warrior Princess. "And thank you, too, Xena," he said.
"And my friend, Gabrielle, too," the warrior prompted. "This was definitely a three-person effort."
Petros hastened to add with a slight bow, "And thank you, too, Gabrielle. Lamikos will be forever grateful to all three of you."
The three women nodded their acceptance and left the Hall. Xena and Gabrielle accompanied Elisa to the cemetery to visit her mother's grave. They helped Elisa cover the gravesite with armloads of wildflowers then stepped away to allow the girl some private time with her grief. Later, they all went back, together, to their campsite.
The trio dismounted at the camp and Gabrielle went to stir the smoldering embers into a flame. She added some of the wood Elisa had stacked next to the fire.
"Gabrielle, Elisa," Xena took a deep breath. "I want to tell you that killing Hera's monster was one of the toughest battles I've ever been in. Both of you outdid yourselves in courage and resourcefulness... and managed to save my life in the process. That monster would never have been beaten without your help and I'm proud of the two of you."
Gabrielle looked up from where she was squatting by the fire and flashed a big smile, her eyes twinkling. "Thank you, Xena. Happy to be of service." Pretty impressive speech for our stoic Warrior Princess!
Elisa walked over to Xena and extended her arm for the warrior handshake. As their forelimbs joined, she said, "Thank you, Xena. What I did doesn't even begin to make up for everything you've done for me. You saved my life, too."
Xena waved off the girl's thanks and quickly changed the subject. "C'mon, Leese, let's go get some fish to eat," Xena suggested, "My stomach is rumbling as loud as that monster's snore."
The two dark-haired, armor-clad warriors shucked their boots and walked into the nearby stream. They stood about six feet apart, heads bent close to the water, listening.
Gabrielle, making preparations for the meal, looked out at the two and grinned. Leese really is a mirror image of Xena. No wonder Callisto called her Xena, Junior. And I'll bet our "insensitive" Xena lets her catch a fish first.
Leese did catch the first fish and it was a big one. "That's all we'll need, Leese," Xena approved. "And since you caught yours first, I'll even clean it for you."
"Whoa, that's a first," the bard remarked. "I always have to clean my own."
"Yeah..." Xena drawled, "but you catch yours with a pole. That doesn't deserve any special treatment!"
Grinning proudly, the young Amazon bowed and handed it over. "Thank you, O Warrior Princess of Fish Cleaning," she jested.
Xena quickly flipped the fish over, caught it by the tail, and smacked it against Elisa's still-bent-over rear. "Ouch!" she yelped in mock indignation.
"That's enough out of you, Leese. It's bad enough I have to put up with a sassy bard, don't you start," the warrior laughingly threatened. The two look-a-likes climbed out of the water and retrieved their boots. "How about seeing if you can find some berries or nuts or something to go with this, while I clean it?"
Xena gutted, scaled and filleted the fish, then chopped it into serving-size pieces. Pulling some large leaves from a bush, she wet them in the stream and wrapped the pieces in them. Gabrielle had heated a small amount of water in a covered frying pan and dropped some dried vegetables and herbs into it. When Xena brought the fish over, the bard opened each packet and seasoned the fish with herbs. She wrapped it back up, added it to the pan and put the lid back on to steam the contents.
While the fish was cooking, Elisa returned with a pouch of nuts and a large leaf, filled with blackberries. She and Xena cracked the hard nutshells two-at-a-time with their hands and pulled out the sweet nutmeats. By the time they were finished the fish was ready and the trio sat on the logs and enjoyed a tasty meal.
After they had eaten and cleaned up, they relaxed for a while around the fire, going over the different facets of the morning's adventure. Finally, Xena rose and the other two women stood up, also.
"Well, Leese," the Warrior Princess said, "We'll be going to Amphipolis, but I guess you'll be heading back to the Amazon Village, right?"
"Yes, I will, Xena. I'll be leaving right away, there's still a long afternoon left in the day. I can go back now as a free woman, thanks to you and Gabrielle," the young woman said. Her smoke-gray eyes deepened. "I don't know how to thank you properly, Xena, for everything you've done for me. You've given me back my life, and even made sure it's one I can be proud of. You saved my best friend and gave us back to each other. I know I can never repay you."
The Warrior Princess walked over to Elisa and grabbed her shoulder. "You made the change, yourself, Leese, I only helped you see the way. The way to repay me is to remember to do good with your life," Xena directed.
"I'm going to talk to Gwynna about training with me, see if she and I can go about once in a while helping others, like you and Gabrielle do," Elisa promised.
"That's a wonderful idea," Gabrielle praised. "You really have a lot of skills that could be used aiding others, and I bet Gwynna will like the idea, too."
"Thanks, Gabrielle, I really appreciate your faith in me." Elisa walked over and knelt on one knee in front of the bard. "My Queen," she honored Gabrielle.
Gabrielle touched the dark head so reminiscent of Xena's and said simply, "Go and do good." Then she took Elisa's arm, helped her to her feet and gave her a hug.
Elisa turned back to Xena and said, "And thank you for giving me back my future." The tall women hugged and the Amazon held on for an extended moment. Finally, she released her hold on the Warrior Princess and said, "I hate to leave you, Xena, I feel like I'm leaving my family."
The low, warm voice of the Warrior Princess answered her, "We are your family, Leese. If you ever need us, just call, and we'll be there."
Elisa, wiping her damp eyes with the back of her hand, nodded and smiled, "Likewise." She swung aboard Viktor and waved as she rode out toward Amazonia.
Xena looked quizzically at the bard as Gabrielle wandered over and sat at the base of a large tree. "Xena, we've got plenty of time. Amphipolis is only a couple hours from here and it was a pretty rough morning. Come here, please, and sit next to me and just relax for awhile, will you?" Gabrielle patted the ground next to her.
Xena cocked her head and looked at the shining green eyes and sweetly smiling face of her friend. It sure is hard to resist whatever she asks when she looks at me like that. She wraps me right around her little finger, and she knows it! Then again, why resist? Raising an eyebrow, Xena walked over and sat where the bard had indicated. Their shoulders touched and, as usual, Xena's habitually churning tension abated.
They sat quietly for awhile, then, surprisingly, the Warrior Princess broke the silence. "Gabrielle, I know I already thanked you for risking your life to save me but I especially want to tell you how unbelievable you were this morning. The only weapon you had was your staff, yet you never once backed down. You threw yourself into that fight just as hard as Leese and I did. I've never seen anyone show greater courage than you did." A chuckle started in the warrior's belly and rumbled upward. "And burning the beast's big toe was sheer genius," Xena praised, as full-blown laughter erupted from her lips.
Gabrielle, her face flushed by her friend's approval, laughed with her. Then, as they quieted down, she said, "I only did what I've seen you do over and over again You know, Xena, we both almost died this morning... and that's a pretty scary thought. But because of you, again, we're still alive and the village won't be terrorized by the monster. You are a truly awesome person... and I love you," Gabrielle declared. She suddenly stretched over and kissed Xena on the cheek.
The Warrior Princess reflexively backed away from the bard's affectionate move. She glanced over at Gabrielle and read the disappointment in her eyes even as the bard tried valiantly to mask it with a forced smile.
Xena looked away, and said, "Gabrielle, I don't mean to turn away from you, but tigers don't change their stripes, leopards don't change their spots and Warrior Princesses don't..." automatically find it easy to handle expressions of emotion. Especially, unexpected ones. Being affectionate doesn't come as naturally to me as it does to you.
"Don't what, Xena? Don't stop now, finish that thought," Gabrielle cajoled. "What's wrong with showing someone that you care, giving them a hug or a kiss just because you're so happy to be with them? And in this case, also happy to still be alive!"
"Well, I'm happy that we're both alive, too," the warrior agreed. Hesitantly, Xena continued. "But Warrior Princesses don't always act the way you think they should... They don't always act the way you want or expect them to... They don't always act like other people would... Take your pick, Gabrielle," Xena offered with a small apologetic shrug.
"Hummmph," the bard snorted playfully as the diminutive hurt quickly receded. "How about if I pick all of the above?"
"I'd say you're most probably right on target," the dark-haired woman remarked dryly.
"Oh, well," Gabrielle sighed theatrically, "Maybe someday I'll learn to accept that. Or maybe my wonderful, caring, lovable, outgoing, embrace-the-world personality will eventually persuade even a Warrior Princess to loosen up a bit more."
Xena, happy that the bard's mood had lightened, pursed her lips and grinned lopsidedly. "You'll have a hard time changing me at this late date," she warned as she shook her head.
"One always hopes," the golden-haired woman replied with a comical frown and turned to meet her best friend's smiling gaze. "SOME people would enjoy more affection." Like me.
But your eyes give you away, Xena, don't you know that? passed through the bard's thoughts as their eyes locked together. Their crystal blue warms and deepens in a special way when you look tenderly at me, or Cyrene, or Toris. So I know I am loved, even if you find it hard to say... or get uncomfortable with a show of affection. I can handle that. But I wish, a little more often, you would give me a hug. Not a 'hello' or 'goodbye' hug, or a 'we might not live through this' or 'Wow, we survived' hug. Just a 'I'm glad you're my friend' or 'I'm happy we're together' hug. I wish you could learn to be a little warmer toward me, a little more...
As Gabrielle's wistful eyes held Xena's, the bard saw a subtle change take place.
She doesn't ask for much, the dark-haired woman reminded herself. And I am really glad she's here with me. "All right, all right," the Warrior Princess' low voice chuckled. Xena reached out one long arm, enclosed the bard's shoulders and pulled her near. The warrior laid her dark head against the golden hair of her friend. Gabrielle slipped her arms around Xena's waist and snuggled against her shoulder. A contented smile graced the bard's face. "Ummmmm, this feels so good," she breathed.
Yeah, it really does. This is one battle I don't mind losing. Xena's feelings for the young woman swelled her heart. She gave the bard an extra squeeze and murmured softly against her hair, "I love you, too, Gabrielle."
Hope you enjoyed the story. I always acknowledge comments. Please send any you may have to PruferBlue@aol.com
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