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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 36: What Rabid Emotion Is This?…
"You're doing what?"
I'm certain they heard me in the centaur village. Now, Gabrielle was truly the last person on this earth who I wanted to scream at, but this was just too much.
"I'm not sure they heard you in Corinth, Xena," Selene said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Gabrielle had returned to find nearly our entire family relaxing in our quarters. We had all tried to pretend that we had no more on our minds than the weather, but in truth, we wondered how she fared over in the Community Hall. I couldn't believe my ears when she told me that she would be meeting Prax on the training field that afternoon.
"Everyone, please. Gabrielle and I need some privacy. Can you give us some time alone?"
I never saw people bolt from a room so fast. Oddly, Gabrielle seemed about to slip out the door behind the last of them.
"Where are you going?"
"Well, I'm not going to stay here if all you're going to do is yell." She gave me a weak smile in an attempt at humor.
"Very amusing. Okay, tell me again," I said, once she'd closed the door.
Gabrielle skirted the issue, which made me believe that she knew how I'd take this news. What I couldn't understand was why Gabrielle would have agreed to such a thing.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I just can't believe how incredibly suicidal it was for you to agree to this! Did you fall and hit your head recently?" The volume of my voice had increased with each word until I was indeed yelling again.
A knock at the door gave Gabrielle a temporary reprieve. I was sure it must have been the neighbors to complain of the noise.
"Enter!" I yelled out.
Ephiny came into the room matching my red-faced expression.
"Ah, perfect. You who follow her around like you're attached at the hip; tell me that you did something to stop her. Tell me that you didn't encourage this."
"I most certainly did not encourage this," Ephiny responded. Thank the Gods. She looked as upset at Gabrielle as I was.
"You are my Queen, Gabrielle, and I always try to respect your wishes…"
"But?" Gabrielle began to look a little upset herself.
"What in the world were you thinking? That girl is going to kill you if she gets half a chance!"
"All right, enough! I'm tired of getting screamed at here."
Ephiny held her tongue, but it looked to be at some great effort. She lowered her head in silent deference for her Queen, hands resting on her hips.
I admit that I had been going about it wrong, but shouting had always been my first response. Lucky for me, Gabrielle understood that, but it seemed that even her patience had a cutoff point.
I took a deep breath as I covered my face with both hands, slowly feeling them slide down. "Gabrielle…little one…I'm sorry for screaming at you, but do you understand what's at stake here?"
"My reputation and self esteem within the tribe."
"Okay, there might be that, but Gabrielle, you could really get hurt here. You could die."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence."
"I have a great amount of confidence in you, but this girl is a trained warrior. She's big and strong, and for some reason she wants your head. Those attributes make for a rather deadly combination."
"I'm not without training."
"I agree, but—who challenged who? What did you agree to fight with?"
"Oh, you're gonna love this," Ephiny muttered, followed by Gabrielle's glare at her Captain.
"She challenged, so she chose. Staves," Gabrielle replied.
Silence hung between all of us for a few long moments.
"Gabrielle…and I'm not yelling, you can hear how calm I am, right?"
"I can hear your teeth crushing together."
I took another very deep breath. "You do realize that Lexa, Prax's mother, fashions staves for a living. She's probably an expert in wielding the thing, and Prax has most probably learned everything Lexa knows, which is why she chose that weapon."
"It did occur to me, yes."
"Yes, it did occur to you. Okay. Now, can you tell me, do you know how to use a staff?"
"I've been working with a few of the girls nearly everyday for almost two moons."
"Two moons," I repeated, still trying to keep my voice composed and even.
"What? Even you said I'm better than any Amazon you've ever seen with my short sticks."
"But, you're not fighting with short sticks," Ephiny finally ended her silence. She tried to keep her voice as quiet as mine.
"Well, no, but it's not a big deal. I mean, a staff is just a big stick, right?"
Ephiny and I just looked at one another. If this hadn't been Gabrielle, if the situation had not been so grave, I would have fallen to the floor laughing.
For all her newfound maturity and strength, I had forgotten how utterly naïve and innocent Gabrielle could be about certain things. She had grown into her position as my partner and co-ruler so well and so quickly that I honestly didn't remember that there were subjects about which she was simply not as knowledgeable as she could, or should, be.
"Isn't it?" Gabrielle looked between the two of us, realizing what our silence meant. "Well, this isn't good news, is it?" she added, sounding more like the young woman I knew.
"I think you need to call this off," I said.
"That's not an option."
"Xena! I'd look like an idiot, for one."
"But a live idiot, and speaking of feeling the fool, how do you think this makes me look?"
"You? Xena, I would never do anything to make you look foolish, you know that."
"It was unwittingly, but you have nonetheless."
"Last night you took offense at Prax because you heard her bragging about beating me up, or at least I'm sure that's how she made it sound to her friends. Now, today you choose to meet her in combat. Don't you think that looks suspiciously as though you're fighting my battles for me? Every Amazon here is going to look at me that way, like some coward who ran from a fight. The Conqueror has to have her new wife beat her enemies up for her. "
"I honestly didn't think about that, Xena. I'm so sorry."
"I know you are, love, which is why I'm trying to be big about it." I tried to help the situation by offering her a smile.
"The Conqueror wouldn't be so forgiving."
"I know." It was all I could say. I could no more explain it than she could and I'd given up trying. I had truly become a different woman since Gabrielle had come into my life. Oh, I'm sure I could tell people that until I no longer had breath, but they were only words, weren't they? The truth had been in how I currently lived my life. I still felt angry and terribly paranoid that anyone should think me a coward, but unlike the Conqueror, Xena had the ability to see past the circumstantial and understand the reasons beyond the actions.
"I honestly didn't mean to step into anything here, Xena, but if I pull out now, I'll lose any credibility I've built up with these women. Backing down would make me look like some petulant child who agreed to this because I had a temper tantrum, as though I'd made my decision frivolously. Who will follow a leader with that sort of reputation? Gods! Am I just being selfish here?"
"It pains me to say it, Xena, but she's right. You're both right, but with you, it's mostly about pride. No offense intended. This could very well set the tempo for Gabrielle's entire reign. It wouldn't look good for her to back down at this point."
"I don't give a good gods damn what it looks like! My pride aside, I won't see you get hurt," I said to Gabrielle.
"Xena, we talked about this. I don't relish the idea of getting punched either, but you know I have to be a leader here. Being mentally strong isn't enough for a people who have been raised as warriors."
I knew she was right. Besides, if it had been me, I would probably be doing the same thing. I think that's what tore at me so; the fact that I knew this was the course of action she had to take. Rulers enjoy many compensations and pleasures, but most people will never know of the agony and pain that often goes along with such a life.
I walked over and stood before Gabrielle, taking her face in my hands. "I would never ask you to be less than you are, my love, and that includes you being an Amazon Queen, but can you honestly tell me that you see no other way?"
Her hands reached up to cover my own. "Xena, I give you my word that if there was another way, I would take it. You know how I feel about combat. I don't look forward to this."
I kissed her forehead. "Then pride-be-damned. I'll stand right beside you, my love. I won't like it and I swear, if she hurts you outside the ring, she won't have a safe enough spot to hide from me, but you are the ruler here, and I'll not turn away from you when you need me most."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle took me in a fierce embrace, unable to say anything more.
I looked over at Ephiny. She stood with her head bowed, affording us what little privacy she could. "Go find the best person with a staff that you can. We need to give her a few more lessons before this afternoon."
We walked over to the training field, all of us looking as though we were on our way to a funeral, I'm sure. Eponin continued to give Gabrielle tips and last minute instructions. As Weapons master of the tribe, Eponin was expertly proficient in hand-to-hand combat as well as at least a dozed different weapons. She taught and delegated all new recruits and she had been giving Gabrielle lessons for some time now. In exchange, Gabrielle had enlightened the Amazon on many of Yu Pan's fighting techniques, in which Gabrielle was expert.
"Remember, always be on watch for the leg hook…" I could still hear Eponin talking.
"Right," Gabrielle answered, looking up at the huge crowd on the field.
"If you fall to the ground, roll immediately…"
"When Prax puts her weight behind a right-sided blow, she drops her shoulder…"
"Ep, my brain's full," Gabrielle stopped to say. "It's going to explode if you say one more word."
Gabrielle sighed. "I don't suppose it would do any good in asking spectators to clear the field?" she asked of Ephiny.
"You could, but I'd advise against it. It might be a lot better for people to see what really happens here today as opposed to the rumors that could be tossed about."
"I had a feeling you were going to say that," Gabrielle answered.
"Lexa." Gabrielle suddenly said in greeting. She had turned around and there the woman stood. I could see that Gabrielle's jaws clenched in an attempt at civility.
"Your Highness…Gabrielle." Lexa looked at all of us before continuing. Perhaps she didn't know what to say, but it was apparent that she suffered from some little discomfort. "I—I—" She held out the staff in her hand, pushing it toward Gabrielle.
"I don't understand."
"I—I'd like you to have this. I made it myself."
"What's it going to do?" Ephiny muttered. "Break in half when she goes to use it?"
"I suppose I deserve that. No, it's one of my own, my best, in fact. I just thought…remember when you said that I should give one away in order to be heard by the Goddess?"
"Well, I thought I'd try it. This is one of my finest staves, and I hope it hold true for you."
"I—I admit to being a little surprised by this."
"I know you are. I believe what Prax is doing is wrong, Gabrielle, but she feels justified in her actions. I'm sure Ephiny told you of the rumors. As I said, she's wrong in doing this, but I do have to go stand in her corner. She's my daughter, after all. I wanted you to know how I feel."
"I see," Gabrielle answered slowly.
I could see that this made it even harder for Gabrielle to begin fighting Prax. In another circumstance, I could see this as a ploy by the other side, but I didn't believe Lexa was that good of an actor. I could easily tell that she was in pain. My mind pondered over what those rumors were. I wondered why Gabrielle hadn't told me about that.
"Thank-you, Lexa. I know this must be incredibly hard for you. I had hoped that it wouldn't come to this, but I pray that Prax and I can resolve this before either one of us gets hurt."
Lexa nodded in agreement and held out her hand. Gabrielle graciously took her arm. The woman abruptly turned and walked away, moving towards Prax's spot outside the sparring area. We watched as she approached her daughter. Prax gave our side a dirty look and said something to her mother. Lexa merely shrugged and Prax looked none too happy about her mother's response. Prax held her hands out and a friend wrapped long strips of cloth around Prax's hands and fingers.
"Why are they wrapping her hands up like that?" Gabrielle asked.
"So she won't hurt her delicate hands when she knocks you senseless," I muttered, followed by a raised eyebrow from Gabrielle.
"Sorry," I said.
"I have your wraps," Ephiny said.
Gabrielle held out her hands just as she had seen Prax do. This sort of fighting certainly wasn't new to Gabrielle, but she was admittedly more accustomed to a finesse type of fighting. Once she had started sparring with me, her style had taken on many of my own fighting techniques. When it came to hand-to-hand combat that meant punching, a man's type of fighting, rather than the openhanded strikes Gabrielle had learned from Yu Pan.
"All the while, Ephiny continued to give Gabrielle staff combat advice. I stood silent, glaring over at Prax. If the girl was actually dull-witted enough to think that she could actually beat me in the ring, then I wanted my expression to say that she should think twice about it.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, pulling my attention away from Prax. "You promised."
"I promised to have your back, my love. That means I stand in your corner and don't kill anyone, but if that girl takes one step beyond the rules, I'll make her sorry."
"Your Highness?" Eponin called from the center of the ring. The Weapons Master owned the training facility, thus Eponin would preside over the contest.
"That's me," Gabrielle said to me.
"You will come out on top, love. I'm confident of that."
"And if I get my butt kicked?"
I smiled and tried to infuse some of the confidence I didn't really feel into her. "Even then. You'll accept victory or defeat with the grace that I've come to know in you. That makes you a winner to me, no matter what. Just remember, love, that you can't always measure victory by who's left standing after the battle. That's a much too superficial way of looking at it."
She squeezed my hand, and I wondered if I'd really done any good at all, given her any hope. When she turned and walked away, I realized that I had never felt so afraid for her. In our time together, even through all that we had been, this was the closest I had yet come to a feeling of dread, as if I knew this would end badly.
The Amazons had a well-maintained field for team matches and squad practice. We now stood in the spot meant only for single matches. Clearing all the grass from the area, leaving only dirt and sand, had created the sparring ring. Stakes had then been driven into the ground and ropes connected them. The resulting ring was wide and long, perhaps the height of my body four times over if laid end to end.
We listened as Eponin explained the rules of fair and friendly combat. What a contradiction of terms in this case. There wasn't a thing friendly about this match, and knowing what little I did of Prax, I had my doubts as to how fair it would be. I believe the only amusing moment had been when Ephiny handed Gabrielle her staff. Prax looked at the weapon and then back at her mother. Again, Lexa shrugged.
It was so much harder on my nerves having Gabrielle on the other side of those ropes. Time went speeding by, yet I barely recall the blows thrown in those first few moments. They took their first break between steps and I remember feeling relief. Gabrielle had held her own, and her initial rush of adrenalin remained with her. She looked almost excited.
Numerous steps made up a match. The ring manager, in this case Eponin, took care to have the steps measured. A young woman outside the ropes carefully watched a water device meant to measure out time. When the prescribed time neared, she motioned to the ring manager and Eponin declared a step complete. The two combatants took a short break and were back at it again in hardly any time at all.
Once more, they met within the confines of the ropes. Gabrielle had begun to slip in a shot or two, but Prax's blows carried a great deal more weight behind them. It was easy to see that they had both begun to tire. By the next break, Gabrielle had begun to breath harder through her open mouth, never a good sign. I touched my fingertips to the reddened area on her right shoulder, and she winced.
"You're taking a beating there," I said.
"I know. She's so strong that my speed doesn't seem to count."
"She's getting as tired as you, so don't lose heart. Now is the time to start thinking about disarming her."
Gabrielle nodded her head at my advice, unable to spare the breath on a reply. She took one more swig from the waterskin, and slid between the ropes again.
It was nearly all I could do to keep myself under control. I found it painful to watch Gabrielle in a true battle. It took nearly all my energy to keep the beast within from waking. I had little desire to fool myself, however. I had to admit that the darkness had already wakened, and each time Prax struck Gabrielle, the beast tugged a little harder on its restraints. I could feel it, pacing, growling. I prayed to Athena for the strength to hold it back just a little longer. I could not bear to leave Gabrielle's side, yet I greatly feared what I might do should the beast overtake me.
Pride crept into my senses as the two women in the ring continued on, step after step. Gabrielle had not only held her own against a stronger opponent, but she actually won many of the steps outright. With every rest period they each looked a little worse for the wear. Fatigue had taken them, but I could see that my Gabrielle had become as stubborn as the young Prax. Neither woman would yield to the other when in a vulnerable position, nor would either quit of her own will. I wondered what Gabrielle was trying to prove.
At the end of each step, Eponin declared a winner of that step alone. At the end of a full candlemark of fighting, I could tell that Eponin dearly wished to end the match, but she would have had to proclaim it a draw. By my count, Prax and Gabrielle had each won an equal number of steps. Although Eponin was careful not to show any bias, I already knew that she would have loved to give the match to Gabrielle.
Prax slashed at Gabrielle's staff and caught her across the knuckles of one hand. In response to the biting sting, Gabrielle did just about the worst thing possible. She dropped her staff. Prax pressed her advantage and closed in for the kill, but Gabrielle wasn't about to give up that easily. She used her forearms to block the vicious strikes. For most people it might have broken a bone or two, but Gabrielle was trained for such hits.
I had spent many a morning watching as Gabrielle and Yu Pan worked out using the techniques the Tiger of Shaolin himself had created. They would take turns against wood poles, trees; whatever was solid and stood upright. They would strike the object over and over using their arms or legs. I was always amazed that Gabrielle had been able to keep her skin so silky smooth. Her arms had developed muscles that I indeed noticed, especially when she gave me a back rub.
Prax grew frustrated by Gabrielle's repeated blocks, but I knew Gabrielle couldn't keep that up for long. She was an expert in hand-to-hand combat, however, and she learned quickly by watching Prax. Using her feet, Gabrielle went after Prax's hands. It took a few attempts, but on the third or fourth try, Gabrielle made contact and Prax's staff fell from her numb fingers. She hadn't the time to retrieve the weapon before Gabrielle confronted her.
They each took a combat stance. Gabrielle held her hands up close to her face, her elbows kept close to her ribs. It was interesting to see that she had finally developed her own unique fighting style. It appeared to be a mixture of my boxing skills with Yu Pan's more elegant techniques. Prax acted first. She jabbed into the empty air with her left hand and kicked out sideways with her left leg. The action bent her torso backwards. Gabrielle easily blocked the blow to her face with her hands, but the force of the blow threw her back. She hit the ropes, bouncing her back against them and propelling her body forward in Prax's direction. Kicking out with her right leg, Gabrielle hit Prax in the stomach, causing her to move back a few steps.
They met in the center of the ring once more. Prax kicked out with her left leg and spun her upper body around to the right. She raised her arm in an attempt to hit Gabrielle with a backhand. Gabrielle ducked and the arm went sailing over her head, leaving Prax in a most vulnerable position. Bringing her right arm forward, Gabrielle punched Prax hard in the stomach. She put her entire weight into the punch, but didn't waste time. She quickly struck again with a left-handed punch. Prax had recovered, however, and Gabrielle's next right connected with nothing but air as Prax ducked. Quickly bobbing back up, Prax landed a punch to Gabrielle's kidneys. Gabrielle countered by flinging her right arm backward, but Prax blocked it. Bringing her knee up, she drove it into Gabrielle's midsection. Then, stepping back, Prax's left hand shot out and struck Gabrielle across the jaw.
I clutched the ropes, remembering my promise to Gabrielle. Whether it had been pride, stubbornness, or just plain foolishness, I had given her my word not to step in. It was apparent that Prax's blow had hurt Gabrielle. Even so, she kicked bravely kicked out with her right leg to push Prax away, giving Gabrielle a few heartbeats to catch her breath.
They stood off in the middle of the ring once more. With amazing speed and accuracy, Gabrielle struck out with her left leg, following the movement with a right cross. Unfortunately, Prax not only blocked the blow to her head, but once again, her fist connected with Gabrielle's jaw. Seeing Gabrielle was too fast in the open, Prax adjusted and grabbed Gabrielle's right arm while she still felt the sting from Prax's last punch. Holding Gabrielle's right arm immobile, Prax repeatedly drove her knee into Gabrielle's stomach. She connected with at least three blows before Gabrielle could push herself back by punching with her free hand at Prax's ribs. Prax completed another spinning kick that landed on Gabrielle's upper arm. The arm was already bruised and sore from numerous staff strikes, and Gabrielle cried out in pain.
Prax tried to backhand Gabrielle's face with her left hand, but Gabrielle caught and held Prax's arm while spinning to place her own backhanded blow to Prax's stomach. Gabrielle then used that same hand and punched upward, striking Prax's face. Using her entire body, Gabrielle made it look uncommonly easy as she flipped Prax over her body.
Instead of landing hard on her back, Prax did a cartwheel, landing upright and ready for Gabrielle's next leg kick. The blow glanced across Prax's cheek, but Gabrielle's momentum carried her too far and she momentarily had her back to Prax.
Grabbing both of Gabrielle's arms from behind, Prax pulled Gabrielle to her and slipped her arm around Gabrielle's neck in a chokehold. Gabrielle's hands immediately went to the arm tightening around her throat. She did the only thing that she could do at that moment. She dug her heels into the dirt and shoved her body backwards.
Prax hit the ropes, Gabrielle still in her grasp. Prax wasn't quite so close behind her now, however, and Gabrielle took the opportunity to drive both her arms backward and to the left side of her body. Her elbow connected sharply with Prax's midsection. Prax bent forward slightly and cried out in pain or merely surprise. Gabrielle repeated the maneuver on the right side of her body and then upward, catching Prax just under the chin with her fists.
Prax had no other choice but to let go. She leaned back against the ropes and Gabrielle spun around to face her opponent. Grabbing Prax's right arm and shoulder, Gabrielle tossed the girl to the ground. Prax hit hard and grimaced in pain, but Gabrielle was right there on one knee, pulling Prax's right arm backward and pinning it there.
Being compassionate had perhaps been my wife's mistake. Not wishing to hurt Prax any more than necessary, Gabrielle cried out, "Yield?"
Prax's answer had been to shoot out her right hand, striking Gabrielle in the face. She then grabbed Gabrielle, clutching a fistful of blonde hair and pulled her down. Gabrielle's body rolled over Prax and suddenly Gabrielle was the one flat on her back. Prax had rolled right along with Gabrielle and now sat astride her small form.
She punched Gabrielle twice, and I felt the beast pulling at my mind, fighting me for control. I won, but only barely, since it was the beast and not me wrapping my fingers around the hilt of my sword. The beast had gone from a low growl to a shriek. Prax struck Gabrielle once more with the back of her hand and I wished I could simply set my darkness free, but I could no more control the beast than I could master the incoming tide.
So suddenly that most present nearly missed the maneuver, Gabrielle captured Prax's left arm as it came down for another blow. Using the strength in her legs, she rolled Prax forward and off her. They rose quickly and although fatigue clearly showed in both their postures, Gabrielle looked as though she had borne the worst of it. Her movements were slower and I wondered how much longer she could go on.
Circling one another in the center of the ring yet again, they each kicked out with opposite legs at nearly the exact moment. When it came to the open ring, Gabrielle had the advantage. Her speed and her size gave her the ability to right herself quicker. Gabrielle had already struck out and connected with another leg hack by the time Prax could recover her stance.
Prax looked angry or frustrated, perhaps both. She lashed out hard with a left leg kick and followed it up with a right kick that turned her body around. Gabrielle astutely caught Prax's foot and flipped her over, but Prax landed easily on her feet again, spinning around and landing a leg kick to Gabrielle's face. She followed up by using her left leg to kick both of Gabrielle's legs right out from under her.
Gabrielle fell heavily to the ground with an audible grunt as the ground caused her to expel the air from her lungs. Instead of taking advantage of the situation and following up with a hold or move to demand a yield from Gabrielle, Prax did the unthinkable. She deftly scooped up one of the abandoned staves, holding it within both hands menacingly over Gabrielle.
Prax spoke, but so softly that even my astute hearing couldn't make out the words. Gabrielle looked up from her knees and I saw surprise in her eyes. Get up Gabrielle, I silently pleaded. I could tell that Prax planned to use the staff on the defenseless Gabrielle at any moment. All of this happened in a matter of heartbeats, even though it all goes much slower as I retell it now.
Gabrielle's eyes widened as Prax spoke, and I saw something that I couldn't remember ever having seen before. Gabrielle's brow furrowed together and her eyes narrowed. Her lips drew into a tight line, the bulge in her jaw indicating that she clenched her teeth together.
Prax stood there with a smile on her face, obviously enjoying the reaction her words had brought about. Eponin shouted something about foul or fair play. I can't remember which. A number of Amazons, Ephiny included, looked at one another, waiting for someone to be the first to react. I clutched the air at my sides with my clenched fists, unable to hear a sound around me, so deafening were the beasts cries inside my head.
I nearly missed what happened next. A low throaty growl seemed to be coming from the ring, actually, from Gabrielle. So fast that a blink of the eye would have missed it, Gabrielle jumped to her feet. As she rose, her hand shot forward, the palm facing Prax. It came at Prax, but she had no time to react. The force of the blow hit the staff Prax held before her, breaking through the hardwood and straight into her chest. The power of the blow lifted Prax clean off her feet. She landed like so much dead weight on her back, the ends of the staff in each hand rolling away from her barely conscious grasp.
Gabrielle continued to stand in the same position, her arm extended, rigid, and her entire body shaking. I vaulted the ropes and came up beside her. It took a few moments for her to recognize me. Her eyes had grown dark, as though a storm brewed inside. They cleared at last and the haze disappeared. Finally, Gabrielle appeared to recognize my gentle touch, but I believe what brought her around were Lexa's panicked cries.
"She can't breathe. Gods! She can't breathe."
Gabrielle knelt beside the girl, held in her mother's arms. "Lay her flat," Gabrielle ordered. "Give us some room."
Ephiny and Eponin pushed the onlookers back behind the ring's ropes. When Gabrielle laid a hand on Prax's chest, the girl tried to strike out with her hand. The pain that move caused had Prax screaming, but her constricted throat trapped the sound.
"I can fix this, Prax, but you have to let me touch you. If you don't, you'll die. It's as simple as that."
Prax's hand fell to her side and she made an attempt to nod, all the while gasping for breath.
"I wish Yu Pan was here," Gabrielle said, turning her head upward to face me.
"You have the skill, love. You can do it," I answered.
I had no idea what she was about to do or if she had ever done it before, but I knew she possessed a wealth of skills that even she did not yet realize. Yu Pan had entrusted Gabrielle with the wisdom of his many lifetimes, yet since most of them had been taught to her while in a hypnotic sort of state, she had no memory of them. Oddly enough, when she most needed them, she discovered that the knowledge returned to her.
Gabrielle gingerly rested her hand upon Prax's chest, feeling her way rather than seeing. She tenderly, yet quickly slid her hand upward, stopping when she neared the hollow at Prax's throat. With a sharp stabbing motion, Gabrielle struck the side of Prax's neck.
A large intake of breath indicated Gabrielle's success. Prax coughed and rolled to her side, clutching her chest in pain from the movement.
"I believe the bone there is broken. I'm sorry," Gabrielle said.
"Your Highness…Gabrielle, thank you so much," Lexa replied.
Prax said nothing. Instead of the thankful expression I had expected, she merely glared at Gabrielle. Rising to her feet, Gabrielle turned and Eponin moved to stand beside her.
"Winner of the match…Queen Gabrielle!" Eponin shouted.
A thunderous sound arose in appreciation of Gabrielle's victory. These women were, by nature, warriors. They measured strength in terms of the physical. Gabrielle's victory solidified her position among a people who valued battle skills above all. She had made a name for herself. It would be some time later before these women discovered that Gabrielle's mind and spirit were every bit as strong as her body.
Gabrielle accepted praise from all those around, even though it looked to me like she could barely stand. She didn't smile, but I think that had more to do with why they were congratulating her. Gabrielle had developed a warrior's body, but I doubted that she would ever have a warrior's mind. She fought today, and she would again someday, but she had done so under protest. In Gabrielle's mind, fighting would always be the last and least favorable resolution.
I let Gabrielle lean against me without making it appear so. I jumped over the ropes and reached back to push them down in order for Gabrielle to easily step over them. From that position, I couldn't see past Gabrielle. I had no idea anything had happened until I heard Ephiny scream Gabrielle's name.
I straightened up in time to see Adara lunge at empty air as Prax jumped past her. The girl held one of the broken halves of the staff in her upraised hand, and she rushed toward Gabrielle's back. In one sudden flash, the beast was there, freed from its bonds and ready for a taste of blood.
There was no conscious thought on my part to either release or restrain. It was simply there. The beast was me, and I was the beast. Just as any real animal, my senses were ten times that of a human with skills to match. I pushed Gabrielle and two others, knocking them all to the ground. It was easy to vault over their fallen bodies, easy for the beast.
Landing deftly before the crazed girl. I caught the wrist of her upraised hand in my strong grasp, pausing just long enough to tilt my head and sniff the air around us. There it was; I could smell it on her. Fear and anger; a rabid, crazed anger. There was something else there, too, buried so deep that it I only felt it as though it was a far away memory. It was pain.
While Xena felt a certain compassion for the girl, the beast suffered none of that, and the beast was in control. I pulled her to me and heard the popping sound her shoulder joint made as it loosed itself from the socket. With my other hand, I made a fist and as the girl came forward, I rammed it into her face. There was that satisfying crack the jaw makes as the bone splinters. The sound thrilled the beast just as a passionate kiss would affect a lover.
She lost her legs and began to slump to the ground. I gave her credit. A lesser warrior would have collapsed unconscious from the blow, but she fought it, struggling to remain alert even though everything in her wanted to give up and go silent. I caught her by the throat, tightening my grip, determined to end…what was this again? Why was I doing this? Battle…challenge…why was I here?
I felt a pain in my arm and turned to find out what the annoyance was. What a fool this small woman was, to hit me. Couldn't she see what I could do to people who stood in my way…hurt me? Hurt…that's why I was here, taking the life from the girl in my grasp. She tried to hurt me. No…she tried to hurt…Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle," I managed to gasp aloud.
"Xena," Gabrielle said and I watched as she hit me again hard. "Let go of her, Xena."
Gabrielle's voice filtered through the haze in my brain, and I could feel the beast retreating.
"She's just a girl," Gabrielle said, pulling on my arm.
The beast shrank away, disappearing into the recesses of my psyche once more. I released my grip on Prax's throat, feeling myself again. The girl fell to the ground and I realized I had been holding her up by the throat. She drew in a ragged, painful breath and I thanked Athena that I hadn't killed her.
"Take her to the Healer's," Gabrielle ordered.
Everyone had stood frozen in place, but all at once, they scurried about.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Yes," I nodded and placed an arm around her. "It's me. Is she hurt too bad, do you think?" I responded, watching them carry the injured girl away.
"I'm not sure, but I don't think so."
Our words sounded stinted and forced to my ears. As if neither of us knew what to say. I pulled her closer and she slipped her arm around my waist and squeezed gently. It was the same each time I returned from the clutches of the darkness inside me. We would have few words to say, but we craved the physical contact. In a short while everything would return to normal, but for a few moments, at least, we only wanted to revel in the fact that we were together even though circumstances had just tried to tear us apart.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Ephiny asked.
"I've felt better, but I'm okay, Eph."
"And this was security?" Ephiny angrily turned back toward her sister.
"You're right, of course. Forgive me, Gabrielle. Conqueror, if you hadn't acted with such speed…that was amazing. I should have—"
"I detest that phrase, Addie," I replied with an amiable expression. "Should have...none of us expected such a thing to happen and you did your best to protect Gabrielle."
"Thank you," she responded. "How are you feeling, Gabrielle?"
"Like I spent the better part of the day being pummeled by a woman twice my size."
"You were spectacular. Ephiny told me of your skills, but I am most impressed."
"I think I got lucky today," Gabrielle answered.
Suddenly her face took on an odd expression. I suppose the others attributed it to her physical state and the fact that she wanted nothing more than to fall into bed. I knew her best, however, and although I couldn't put my finger on it, I suspected that Gabrielle's expression had more to do with Adara's praise for Gabrielle's fighting ability. What was it about the victory that pained Gabrielle?
"Let's go, eh?" Gabrielle tugged me in the direction of our home in the village.
"Good idea. It's been a rather long day, hasn't it?"
"Ephiny, can you make sure the healer sends word to me as soon as she knows the extent of Prax's injuries?"
"I'll make it so," she replied and went off herself in the direction of the healer's shelter.
Selene caught up with us about halfway there. "That was amazing, Gabrielle," she said in a sort of breathless excitement. "I've seen you practice and all, but…wow."
Gabrielle smiled tiredly in reply.
She continued to walk along with us in silence. All at once, she slipped her arm around my waist. "And you, big sister. Are you okay?"
"Sure. You know me. My head's too hard to actually suffer any real damage."
"You looked…I know it sounds foolish," she said rather quietly. "But, you looked like you weren't aware of exactly what you were doing. Know what I mean?"
I gave her a wink and put my free arm around her shoulder. "I'll explain it later."
"I don't know about you two, but there isn't a bone in my body that isn't begging to lie down and soak in a hot tub," Gabrielle said.
"No, no bath," I replied. "That would be a bad thing."
"The way I smell, I think it would be a good thing."
I chuckled. "I didn't mean it that way, like you couldn't bathe at all, but a hot soak is the worst thing for your muscles. They'll feel good while you're in the bath, but the minute you cool off, you'll be sorry. They'll tighten up and hurt twice as much."
"Okay, how about a sponge bath and bed, then?"
We dropped Selene off at the door to the quarters she shared with Cyrene. Mother had offered to sit with Amira for the afternoon. She admitted that she had little desire to see two women beat themselves senseless.
"Ask mom to keep Amira for the night, okay?" I asked Selene.
She nodded and gave us both a kiss before disappearing inside. We continued in silence and besides our declarations of love before lying down to sleep, Gabrielle uttered only one word.
"Wow," she said before falling into a deep sleep.
I supposed the day was rightly summed up in such a way.
To be continued in : Chapter 37: Within Heaven’s Circle I Had Not Guessed At This...
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