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EXT. DESERT - EDGE OF THE CITY OF HAJAR - MORNING - 36 SUMMERS AGO
A crowd is gathered, and the wealthier citizens of Hajar are seated under open-sided tents. Forty horses and riders meander around near a banner that marks a starting line. Some riders are busy making last-minute checks of buckles and packs, while others are walking around with the more high-strung steeds. All of the riders are wearing fine clothing, and their horse's saddles and bridles are overly adorned in bright colored ribbons and silver trinkets.
Xena and Argo are standing prudently in the shade of a large tree, calmly watching the goings on. Xena is dressed in her same sensible desert attire, and Argo has no extra ornamentation on her tack. Xena sizes up the competition. She is the only woman rider and Argo is a bit larger than the smaller purebred Arabians.
They think you can't win, girl. They think
your blood's not good enough, and they
say you're too heavy to run as fast
through the sand as the Arabians can.
She scratches Argo between the ears, whispers conspiratorially.
I say you've got longer legs, and
you're gonna leave 'em all in the dust.
Argo whinnies and appears to nod in agreement.
Across the way, Galeel watches her, his eyes narrowed in anger. He paces back and forth and finally stops and looks around.
One of the riders looks up and Galeel motions at him to come over. Xena notices this, and surreptitiously watches them as they begin to talk.
You see that woman?
It is difficult to see
anything else, why?
If she even comes close to winning,
kill her... and her horse too.
Fajer stares at him in surprise.
Such loveliness. Both the
woman and the horse.
It would be a waste.
I hired you to keep an eye on
certain riders in this race. She
is one of them. Now go be friendly
with her and stick close.
Fajer smiles broadly at the prospect.
Tsk. Such terrible assignments you
give me. Be friendly, eh? I think I
can manage that. No worries. She's
not going to win on that large horse.
See to it that she doesn't.
Fajer trots off on his horse and sidles up to Xena, who flashes him a huge fake smile.
Good day, lady.
Xena looks up at the blazing sun and back at him.
What's so good about it?
It is a good day for racing.
I have a tip for you.
Yeah? And what's that?
When the race starts, they will all take
off running as fast as they can until we
are out of sight of the crowd. After that,
they will all slow down to a more bearable
pace. It's all for show, the beginning.
I'll keep that in mind. What else?
They told you about
the two checkpoints?
Galeel sent riders out a week ago from
here, and his brother, Majeed, has also
sent riders out from Gaza at the other end.
Each group has a caravan of supplies, and
has set up a checkpoint where you can be sure
to get fresh food and water, if you're running
low. It's best to time your race to reach those
checkpoints on the 2nd and the 4th day.
Sounds logical enough.
Keep an eye on your map
and watch your back at night.
Xena's eyes shine with danger, and she sits back just enough that her chakram is visible from beneath her long wrap. Her sword is already in plain sight in a scabbard strapped onto Argo's saddle, along with her coiled whip.
One more thing.
He guides his horse closer.
Half these riders won't finish the race.
Several of them won't live through it.
Why does a beautiful woman like
you want to take on such a challenge?
Because I can.
She looks away from him dismissively, just as Galeel steps up on a raised podium at the starting line.
All riders, line up at
the start, please!
An excited buzz travels through the crowd, as the horses and riders all make their way to the starting line. Xena and Argo amble over, taking a spot near one end of the line-up. Galeel holds up both hands, quieting the crowd. In one hand he holds a bright purple silk scarf.
Riders! I am going to raise this scarf
over my head and drop it. When you
see it hit the ground, that is your cue to
take off. I wish all of you luck. My
brother will be there to greet you
by the sea in Gaza at the finish.
He raises the scarf, and the crowd goes deathly silent. A few horses snort and whinny, while others stomp their hooves and flick their tails nervously. Argo stands a head taller than most of them, calmly chewing on a bit of fig Xena has given her.
Galeel releases the scarf and it floats to the ground, almost in slow motion. As it drifts into a crumpled pile on the podium base, the horses erupt into motion. They leave a cloud of dust behind them as they take off, their hooves sounding like thunder across the landscape.
As the dust begins to settle, all the horses are way ahead, except Argo, who is cantering steadily behind the rest. Xena watches them. Just as Fajer predicted, once the crowd is a speck on the horizon behind them, the horses begin to slow down, many of them to a walk. She smiles and leans over.
Just go at a comfortable pace, girl.
We've got 200 miles to cover, and
16 hours of daylight to cover it in.
They continue to canter, and gradually passes some of the other riders. She spots Fajer near the front of the herd, and grins as they begin to gain on him. Finally, she passes him, giving him a little wave of her fingers as they travel on by. After a few more minutes, Argo and Xena are in the lead, still keeping the same pace they started at until they disappear over a rise.
Another rider moves in next to Fajer.
Such an insane pace
she is keeping.
Ah, Wahed. No worries. At
that pace, her horse will be
dead before the day is over.
Good. No woman has ever entered
the race before. It's an insult.
Galeel would not have let her enter
if there was a chance of her winning.
Relax, my friend. She'll be out
of the running before nightfall.
EXT. DESERT CAMPGROUND - SUNSET - 36 SUMMERS AGO
Several of the front-running horses approach a campground below a range of low-lying hills. It is obviously used by desert travelers, with several smooth areas for laying out bedrolls and tents, and there is a large stone water well in the center. Fajer and Wahed are among the first group to reach the campsite. Their horses appear weary and are foaming at the mouths a little, while their coats are sleek with sweat. As they pull into camp, they spot a campfire at the far end and a tiny tent is pitched near the fire. Fajer sniffs the air.
Whoever that is, they are
roasting something delicious.
I'm so hungry I could eat these
stones. Maybe it's a vagabond
traveler, willing to share.
Let's go find out.
They dismount and walk the rest of the way over. They gasp in unison as they realize it is Xena. She's seated against a boulder with her feet propped up on a smaller stone. In one hand she's holding a mug of something, while with the other she's tending to something on a spit over the fire.
How long have you been here?
Oh, not long. I brushed down my horse,
cleaned her tack, sharpened my sword,
mended a bridle strap, washed up,
pitched my tent, built a fire, refilled
my water flasks and went hunting.
She indicates the roasting meat over the campfire.
Did you know spiny tailed lizard
tastes just like chicken?
She smiles innocently at them, but her eyes are full of mischief.
Where is your horse?
Who, Argo? She got bored
and went exploring.
Xena whistles and cocks her head to the side, listening. In a moment, Argo comes running up from near the hills, fresh as a daisy. She whinnies and stops next to Xena and nudges her with her nose.
She's fine, see?
Want some lizard?
She sticks a knife through a bit of the meat and holds it up toward the men in offering.
No, thank you.
Good night, Xena. We'll
see you in the morning.
Xena watches as they practically stomp away in disgust. She shrugs and removes the rest of her catch from the fire. She sits back with a satisfied smile and begins to eat.
Goody. More for me.
EXT. DESERT HILLS - DAY - PRESENT X&G TIME
Xena and Gabrielle have stopped in the shade of a tall rocky hill. They are seated on a blanket, eating lunch. The horses are grazing at dried scrubby vegetation.
Oh, that was mean, Xena.
You did all of that before
they ever arrived at camp?
Xena stops in mid-bite and smiles naughtily.
Yeah, but I left out the part where I
re-stacked half the well. The rocks
had been knocked over. I thought
that might push them over the edge.
Gabrielle laughs even harder.
So after that hard day of riding,
Argo was ready for more?
It was a lark for her, at least
the first couple of days.
Then what happened?
Gabrielle scoots closer and stretches out her legs and pats them. Xena smiles at her and lies back, resting her head in Gabrielle's lap. Gabrielle begins to play with her hair.
Tell me about it, please?
On the third day, Tartarus
came to earth....
EXT. DESERT HILLS - MORNING - 36 SUMMERS AGO
The sun is rising, and all we can see is sifting brown sand dunes and rocky ground. There is no campsite, but horses and sleeping riders are scattered all across the terrain.
Xena is asleep in her tent with just the top of her head poking out. Argo walks around nervously and keeps looking off toward the east where the sun is peeking over the horizon. She walks over and nudges Xena.
Give me another few minutes,
will ya? Sun's not even full up.
Argo insists and nudges her harder. She whinnies and paws at the bedroll, and finally gives Xena a big sloppy lick on the face. Xena shoots straight up, brushing her head against the tent roof.
Argo! For crying out loud, I know
you're eager to get going, but....
She stops and frowns, as a herd of gazelle appears and goes flitting past her, fast as lightening. Some of the other sleeping riders are disturbed by them and begin to rise.
Argo is as jittery as Xena has ever seen her and nudges Xena a few more times, then walks over and pushes her saddle toward Xena with her nose.
All right already. I'm awake. I'll
even eat on the trail so we can get
moving, if that'll make you happier.
She gets up and stretches and saddles up Argo, who is dancing nervously from hoof to hoof. She pauses again, as a herd of oryx comes racing past. Xena grows completely still, listening. A low rumble is heard growing steadily louder, along with an odd whistling sound. Xena squints toward the east. The noise begins to sound like thunder. All at once, the sun pops up into full view, and just as quickly is blotted out by a brownish haze. Xena's eyes widen.
She grabs her pack and weapons, leaps onto Argo and takes off, leaving her bedroll and tent behind. Argo needs no urging, her hooves clipping along in a blur. A few other riders are also racing behind them.
To the east, a great cloud of sand rises 100 feet from the desert floor. It rolls toward them, resembling an angry reddish-brown tidal wave. The wind is howling furiously, and the storm is gaining on the desperate riders.
Sorry girl, just keep running
as long as you can.
Argo is frothing at the mouth, and she's stretched out low to the ground. They pass some more hills and Argo veers off away from the others, who keep going. She races through a narrow passage, and skids into a turn, stopping beneath a long, low rocky outcropping off a westerly-facing hill.
Been this way before, huh?
She slides out of the saddle and digs in her bag, and pulls out a large square of material, and wraps it over Argo's face. She kisses Argo on the nose, then covers her own face and buries it into Argo's mane, just as the sandstorm reaches them, and rolls overhead. The noise is deafening, and blinding sand scours them from all sides. It lasts several minutes, before it grows deathly silent.
Xena slowly looks up. They are both covered in a coat of sand, and beyond the outcropping the ground is covered in a few fresh feet of it. She coughs and Argo sneezes, as Xena unwraps her face.
Hey. You okay?
She gives Argo a pat on the neck, and receives a contented whicker in return.
Let's brush you off.
She digs in her pack and comes out with a handful of sand. Her eyes grow wide in panic, and she uncaps her water flask and cautiously tips it over. Muddy brown liquid pours out.
A second flask yields the same result, but on the third one, she gets lucky as clear, sweet water drips out. She tilts it up to her mouth and takes a few sips, then offers Argo some in her cupped hand.
We're gonna have to ration water
until we reach the next well.
She finds the brush and takes care of Argo, then climbs back in the saddle. They cautiously walk back out to the open desert, which is now a vast landscape of newly-formed sand dunes. As they walk, she sees lumps in the sand. The wind blows over one as she passes it, uncovering the face of one of the riders. He is dead. Xena looks all around at the lumps and her face is very sober.
EXT. DESERT HILLS - DAY - PRESENT X&G TIME
Xena is still stretched out on the blanket with her head in Gabrielle's lap.
Xena, you could
have been killed.
If not for Argo, I would have been killed.
I'd never felt so alone. There I was in the
middle of the desert, and every living thing
around me had been flattened. If not for
Argo's company, I think I would've gone mad.
You said everything
changed. How so?
After that storm, winning the race became
less important than Argo surviving it.
She saved my life and I owed her the same.
From then on, I tried to slow the pace.
The race went on after that?
Yeah. By the third day there were some
way behind us, and some way ahead of us.
And even a few with us ended up surviving
by ducking into spaces in the hills like
Argo and I did. So no, not everyone
was trapped by the storm.
How did you make it all day
with only one water flask?
That was the longest day
of the race, Gabrielle.
That night, I gave up.
Yeah, really. We pulled into another
campground completely out of water,
and all our food had been ruined in the
storm. Neither of us had eaten all day.
The oats I carried for Argo were so
mixed with sand after the storm,
they weren't edible.
What did you do?
Luckily, the camp had a well, and I was able
to hunt down some more lizard. Even found
some plants Argo was able to eat. But I was
done with it. I was exhausted and dirty and
hotter than Hades. And I was afraid much more
might kill Argo. She was weary. We were down
to twenty riders. A few had dropped out of the
race, but the rest were killed in the storm. It
was damned quiet in camp that night.
So what happened? You went on to
Gaza, but didn't race anymore.
Xena rolls over to her side and lounges on one elbow. She pops a fig in her mouth and chews with great satisfaction, her eyes full of renewed energy.
Yep. We went on
to Gaza all right.
EXT. DESERT CAMPGROUND - EARLY MORNING - 36 SUMMERS AGO
Xena is sleeping on top of Argo's saddle blanket, having lost her tent and bedroll in the sand storm. All around her, men are breaking camp for another day of racing. Xena rolls over, face down, and covers her head with one arm. A man approaches her and gives her a little shake.
Go on. I'm not racing today.
But your horse is. Better hurry, or
she may take off without you.
She sits up and blinks, and looks over to where the riders are all getting ready, saddling up their horses. Argo is standing with them. She has somehow managed to drag her saddle and bridle along with her and is standing next to the tack, waiting patiently for another day of racing. Fajer and Wahed are nearby saddling up their horses. They snicker at the riderless Argo.
Well I'll be damned.
She whistles, but Argo whinnies back at her and shakes her head and refuses to come. Xena gets up and stumbles over to her and receives a reprimanding whicker. Fajer and Wahed continue to laugh until Xena gives them a withering stare. She turns back around and concentrates fully on Argo.
Okay. Fine. We'll race.
Just give me a minute
to break camp.
In short order, she packs everything up, and they take off to the west, only a little bit later than the others, who are all out of sight. As she passes by some low-lying hills, Fajer and Wahed slip out of the shadows on their horses and fall in way behind her.
EXT. DESERT CHECKPOINT - EARLY EVENING - 36 SUMMERS AGO
It is the last checkpoint on the last night of the race. Xena is sitting by a campfire, a ways off from the rest of the riders. Argo is standing close by, munching on a fresh bag of oats. Xena quietly observes the remaining fifteen horses and riders, all of whom are bustling about, taking advantage of the stores at the checkpoint.
Good thing we got
here early again, girl.
Argo's ears prick forward, and she makes a rumbling noise while she continues to eat.
I got the only extra blanket they
brought with 'em, so I don't have
to sleep on yours tonight.
Argo's nose comes out of the feedbag and she nickers in response.
Lost a lot of 'em today.
She looks around, and her eyes narrow as she spots Fajer and Wahed making camp not too far from her - close enough she can watch them, but not so close they can hear her.
A few we wish we
would've lost, huh?
Argo whinnies and nods her head in agreement. Xena continues to take stock of who is left. She studies another campsite on the other side of hers. Its tall lanky occupant has kept to himself for the entire ride and is currently hastily pitching a tent. He looks at Xena and quickly covers his face and disappears inside the tent.
What in Hades? He's just a boy.
First time I've seen him with his face
uncovered. Bet he can't even grow a
beard yet. Wonder what his story is?
She stands and stretches and pours herself a mug of something to drink, then sits back down on her blanket.
Not that I plan to bother him.
She peers back over at Fajer and Wahed. Fajer nods at her politely, while Wahed ignores her existence. She nods back at Fajer but doesn't smile.
Wish I had a tent to
put this blanket in.
She stokes the fire and packs up her travel bag, placing it next to Argo's saddle and bridle. She fluffs out the blanket and places her sword on one side and chakram on the other, and stretches out, using her turban for a pillow. She crosses her ankles and rests her hands on her stomach, looking up at the almost-dark sky.
Whoa. Did you see
that shooting star?
Argo moves closer and nuzzles her head, then nibbles at a strand of her hair.
Hey! Finish your oats.
Another star blazes across the sky as slowly the rest of the stars begin to appear, one by one, twinkling down on the campsite. Xena sighs and closes her eyes.
Gave up wishing on those things
a long time ago. But why not?
I can use all the luck I can get.
She turns her head to the side and looks over at Argo.
Gonna make a fresh start
after this race is over, girl.
One way or the other.
She closes her eyes again.
END OF ACT THREE