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It had been a hard fought victory, Xena thought as she strolled through the village toward a stand of shady trees, where her companion, Gabrielle sat surrounded by villagers and children enthralled by the young bard's tales. Xena tugged Argo's reins gently and the horse followed with little resistance. It was time to move on.
"Wait Xena! Please wait," a voice called from behind them. "You can't leave yet. You must stay and join our celebration of freedom from Sarvodus."
Xena turned and tugged Agro's rein to a halt at a now familiar voice of old Barabus, the village elder, struggling to catch up to her with his frail back hunched over, digging his short walking stick into the earth to aide him. Xena smiled a half smile. The people of this village had endeared themselves to her somehow and there was something about old Barabus that was more endearing than the rest. She could almost consider settling down here.
Xena stiffened with that thought. It was not yet time. There were still so many sins to repent & make amends for, but she would remember this village especially and old Barabus. "I'm not much for celebrations, Barabus."
"But you must stay one more day, Xena. Just stay for the evenings celebration. We want you to come. It would be no feast of liberation without our liberator."
"I didn't fight them alone, Barabus and your people have much to celebrate in their own behalf."
"But you gave us courage, Xena. You and Gabrielle inspired our strength. Say you will stay one more day."
Xena pressed her lips together, considering her thoughts. This strange old man was hard to resist. How long had it been since she allowed some one into her favor so quickly and so easily. Only Gabrielle held a place as dear. "All right, we will stay, but only for this night. In the morning, we'll be on our way,"Xena decided, as her eyes shifted again toward the shady spot where Gabrielle entertained the villagers. With the glance, a feeling welled up that she could never put word to. This noisy, head strong, young bard had captured and secured a place in Xena's very soul and lighted it, like an ever-burning torch, when all around that place in her soul was darkness and memories of death at the hands of the warrior princess.
Old Barabus was beside himself, so pleased with a smile playing across his weathered features, showing a few lost teeth and stretching his aging wrinkles in a happy direction. "I will tell the others and my misses" he uttered , turning and moving more slowly back the way he had come, while Xena picked up her stride again toward Gabrielle.
Xena's young companion rose to her feet, brushed the dust from her Amazon wrap and moved to join her friend.
"No need to get up, Gabrielle, Xena instructed. We're staying another night."
"Wonderful, Gabrielle replied. I've had the best time here and it's nice to sleep in a less rocky environment for another night."
Xena allowed a slight smile to play across her too often serious countenance, agreeing it would be better to stay. Gabrielle deserved a comfortable place to rest. She too had fought hard against the men of Sarvodus. Her skills with the fighting staff were improving and impressive, Xena thought, recalling the final skirmish and at the edge of her vision the sight of Gabrielle's maneuvers.
Xena rubbed a sore and bruised place on her shoulder, where Sarvodus had struck her. She had tried to dodge the blow meant for her head. It was the last time Sarvodus would strike anyone again.
Gabrielle fluffed and straightened her bedding hides and furs and squirmed down into them, letting her eyes drift closed, feeling blissful at the moment with the last rays of evening glow before darkness set in. "I wasn't sure I agreed with you at first, when you insisted on sleeping in this barn instead of the beds they offered, Xena."
Xena relaxed in her own bedding, turning on her side and propping her head in her hand. "There wasn't room for us with half the village burned. People are crowded together as it is." "I know," Gabrielle replied, breathing in deeply. "There's nothing like the sweet smell of fresh hay and right now, anything's a welcome change from this rocky ground around here." "These people are as rugged as their landscape. I like that. It's going to make a good story, Xena," Gabrielle elaborated, thinking of how the villagers had resisted the tyrant Sarvados, but the warlord’s vengeance for such rebellion was more and continued devastation and harassment. Sarvodus had begun burning the village the day she and Xena had wandered near enough to see the billowing smoke rising from the ruins of meager dwellings and farm buildings, joining the villagers in fighting the spread of further destruction from the flames. Xena had arrived just in time. The villagers were close to surrendering to a despot. Her courage gave them hope as she helped them defend their way of life. "Yeah, a great story."
The celebration, the good food, happy faces and warm company was a happy ending touch to the story, Gabrielle noted for future telling and smiled inwardly, pulling her sleeping hides and blanket around her. "Some of the kids want to show me the cliff of their ancestors in the morning, but I'll be back when you're ready to move on, Xena. Just think of it, Xena, stories in painting from ancient times. I can't wait to see them."
Xena smiled warmly at Gabrielle's musings, lowering her arm, resting her head, letting that bright spot in her soul have sway for a moment, listening to Gabrielle's ramblings. "When I was little," Xena teased, " I wondered what it would be like to have a sister in the same room with me. Now I know."
Gabrielle's eyes opened and looked toward her friend briefly, seeing through Xena's teasing with more love and compassion for this warrior woman than she ever thought she could know for a friend. "I think it's true, what the wise ones say about friends, Xena. We're never really apart. Whatever the circumstances or distance, some part of our spirits are never out of touch and we can find each other, if we both want it to be."
Xena's eyebrows rose with some skepticism, but it was something to think on. Gabrielle was so completely honest and open with her opinions. It was a breath of spring, pushing away stormy clouds in Xena's mind for a moment. "Get some sleep, Gabrielle. We'll talk about it in the morning," she said, holding on to that lightheartedness to take with her in her own sleep.
As Gabrielle drifted off to sleep, Xena turned in her own bedding once again. Sleep and dreams were the measure, she thought, of how much more she had to atone for. Restful sleep grew easier, but still there were so many haunting dreams, too many yet, dreams of the horror stricken faces of those conquered by the warrior princess.
Xena gazed through the darkness illuminated by a high full moon and casting silhouetted clear shadows in the barn toward the image of Gabrielle. The young bard’s breathing had slowed and steadied and she was sleeping soundly. It was too difficult to express to Gabrielle how much Xena needed her friend at her side. Gabrielle’s admiration wasn’t an easy thing to comprehend either, but Xena knew it was needed. Since the first day Gabrielle pushed her way into Xena’s life there was a sense about her, and a warmth within at having a friend. Xena hadn’t thought about friendship before Gabrielle came along and never considered choosing friends. Certainly if she had, Xena mused, Gabrielle might not have been the first choice. It was the will and blessing of some gentle god that Gabrielle was there, but Xena didn’t care to question too deeply about it. She only accepted that her journey was a little happier with Gabrielle at her side and her burden lighter with the closeness that had grown and flourished in their friendship.
Xena closed her eyes at that thought, a thought she clung to when haunting dreams of the past hovered near. No matter how intensely the dreams played out, at the edge of consciousness was the knowledge of waking to a new day with Gabrielle at her side. It made the past seem less destructive somehow.
Once again, Xena started toward the end of the village with Argo behind her, saddle bags laden with food stuffs from the previous night’s feasting at the villager’s insistence. Gabrielle would be impressed by the campfire meal tonight, Xena thought, glancing around for her friend who was nowhere to be seen at the moment. Where was she?
Old Barabus was seated on a wooden bench that looked as old as he did near a spring at the end of the village. Xena approached him, feeling uneasy with Gabrielle's absence. “Have you seen Gabrielle? She’s not usually out of sight when she knows we’re leaving.”
Barabus nodded slowly. “The children took her to the cliff of the ancestors. They should return soon. Not to worry.”
But Xena was worried, and felt a strain in the back of her neck that crept up from her spine with a strong sense of danger and protectiveness for Gabrielle and the children. “Where is this cliff?”
“Follow the creek trail to the rock formations. It will lead to the cliff of the ancestors,” Barabus described, pointing to the shadowed rock facings in the distance.
Xena mounted Argo with an urgency in her soul. Something was wrong and she knew it, kicking the horse to a gallop. As the rock formations and out crops rose up before her, a village woman she recognized as Calantis, mother to several of the children was running toward Xena with a frantic look on her face and waving for Xena to stop. “Xena! Xena they’re gone! The children have disappeared!”
Xena pulled her horse to a dead stop and dismounted quickly. “What happened? Gabrielle was with them, wasn’t she?”
"Yes, yes, they went to look at the paintings on the rock of the ancestors. They were to be back long ago, so I went to look for them, but they’re gone!” the woman exclaimed breathlessly, bursting into fearful tears. “ What could have happened to them?”
“Show me where they went,” Xena commanded with the same question running through her own mind, not feeling prepared for comforting this hysterical mother seeking her children, yet no less concerned for their safety and Gabrielle’s. The sense of danger and protectiveness was full blown now. There was trouble and Gabrielle was right in the middle of it. Xena felt sure of it.
Calantis found reassurance in Xena’s instruction, gathering her emotions and leading the way back up the trail, winding upward, around and through rocky crevices until they came to an overhang.
Along the rock face were ancient crude paintings of hunting scenes, battles and religious symbols, but Xena's inspection of them was minimal. Instead she peered down over the cliff edge at the three story drop beneath, but there was no sign of accident. Xena checked the ground, rock and dust around the cliff and trail. There was little to find except in one dusty pocket midway back toward the village and what she spotted sent a cold chill through her as she knelt down to be sure her guess was correct.
“What have you found, Xena?” a man’s voice asked from behind her.
Xena glanced at him briefly, realizing other parents had come seeking their children and had gathered around her. “This hoof print. It’s unusual, too large for Centaurs and too small for mixed breeds like Argo. This is pureblood Arabian”, she determined and sifting through the dust picked up a few woven threads of dark brown material she had almost overlooked. “And this is Arabian, from the tribe of Alimar.”
“Gods protect them!” the man entreated. “Our children in the hands of Alimar.”
Xena stood up and faced the gathering. These people had suffered enough with Sarvodus and now this, not a warlord, but a nomadic snake of a warrior who enslaved the most innocent, children and young women to unspeakable abuses. Xena’s own heart tore at the thought of Gabrielle among them, mounting Argo with determination. “Your children will be returned to you,” she promised, turning her horse swiftly and working her way back down the trail with arage boiling inside. “Not one child will come to harm by Alimar, I swear it.”
Gabrielle's hair matted on her forehead and cheeks with beads of perspiration as she walked tiredly but steadily behind the four horses pulling her and the village children along, hands bound tightly with leather thongs. She had to focus on her steps to keep from stumbling. These men were strange and terrifying with their long dark brown robes, their odd gibbering language and the curved swords at their belts. The children were more tired than she, barely able to keep up, but keep up they did after one child had fallen and was brutally kicked, slapped and yanked to his feet. These men were unlike any she had dealt with before. Killing was not their goal for power. Brutality, torture and stripping the human spirit was. Even with the thought and hope that Xena would somehow find and rescue them, Gabrielle feared for the children and herself.
The leather thongs cut deeply into her wrists. The dry heat and scorching sun over head made walking that much more exhausting, but there was no stopping.
They had appeared out of nowhere near the cliff of the ancestors. She was seized and her hands bound so quickly there was nothing she could have done to put up a fight, even if she hadn't left her fighting staff in the village. The village, Gabrielle thought, seemed a lifetime away at the moment, but one thought hung close to her prayers to the gods, that Xena would come and come soon.
Two days into following the eastward trail of Alimar's horsemen and the many footprints of their captives, Xena felt exhausted. Argo was puffing and sweating heavily. Xena's leather was hot and miserable. Her arms and legs were reddening with sunburn. The armor drew in more heat from the sun at her back. Xena reined her horse toward a dense growth of scrub that could make tender for a small fire. The nomads knew this country, survived in this country. Xena had no idea how far ahead they could be, but she had to rest.
Dismounting, she took a water-bag with her, pouring the overly warm liquid into a cupped hand for the horse, then drinking for herself, but not too much, unsure of when she would encounter a spring in this wasteland. Unsaddling Argo, stripping off her armor and building a small fire as the sun lowered on the seemingly endless horizon, Xena partook of only a small amount of the food packed from the village, feeling not particularly interested in fine fair without Gabrielle to praise it and enjoy it as she would with endless commentary about how good it tasted. Xena split a small apple with a knife and offered half to Argo who didn't praise it, but apparently enjoyed its sweetness and the juicy moisture within. Xena tasted her own half slowly, remembering. Long ago she had traveled this place and beyond to the temples of those who taught her the fighting skills she possessed. Xena lifted her chakram, recalling those days and watching the fading sun bounce bright reflections from the weapon's circular brass surface. Even there, at the edge of the world the nomads of the wastelands had been feared and despised. It was hard, almost impossible to sit while Alimar had Gabrielle in his clutches and the village children. Xena exercised more restraint than she thought she had, when every fiber of her being wanted to keep moving until she found them, before it was too late; before someone was hurt and broken within, before Gabrielle was violated to her very core.
The dry arid heat had given way to a cooler night air as Xena leaned back and tried to rest. She needed to rest and Argo needed to rest. Argo's half Arab blood was not enough to keep up with the endurance of Alimar's horses, born and bread to this place. With slaves in tow, they were slowed only slightly and their camp could be days away from the village. Land and distance meant nothing to these nomads.
Moon and stars were brilliant over head and the fire kept predators at bay, though Xena sensed their presence, jackals, and hyenas, but the fire also consumed scrub brush greedily. Xena split one more apple with Argo. Her sense of urgency seemed overpowering as she threw her own half to the ground, while getting to her feet. Sleep was unthinkable. Dreams were like nightmares without Gabrielle's presence and thoughts of where Gabrielle was now seemed a living nightmare.
In minutes, Xena was on the move again. Unable to see the trail at night clearly, she let the sense of urgency within guide her. She decided to believe something Gabrielle had said, that whatever the circumstances or distance, some part of their spirits were never apart or out of touch and would always find each other if both parties wanted it to happen.
They had travelled day and night and another day before stopping. Gabrielle had fallen asleep instantly with the village children huddles around her. Now she awoke with a start when a large dark hand clasped her upper arm tightly and hauled her to her feet. "Hey! You could just shake me a little, all right?" Gabrielle fumed, but knew they understood nothing of her language.
The hair and eyes were as black as a raven's wing, but he grinned with startling white teeth as he took a gripping hold of Gabrielle's strong chin. "You have spirit. So few women have such spirit," he said, appraising her from head to foot.
Gabrielle heard only gibberish, but his look said enough as she yanked her chin away. She felt angry and fearful all at once, when the big man laughed.
They were given food that was unusual and unusually spicy. The children balked at the hot spicy concoction. "You better try to eat some of it," Gabrielle told them. "We have to stay strong."
"I'm scared," one little curly haired blond girl cried.
"Don't worry," Gabrielle assured. "It'll be all right. Just do what we have to until help comes."
"My papa will come," a young boy boasted. "He wouldn't let these people take us."
The young boy who had been struck the day before sat alone silently, the dark bruise on his on the side of his head and face a visible reminder. Gabrielle moved over near him, her heart going out to him. "Be brave and be strong. This time will pass," she comforted, but the boy only stared ahead with fearful eyes.
A short time later, the group was again walking and the land was growing more arid with each step, fewer trees, no hills and little sign of water. On horseback the big man who had harassed Gabrielle led the procession, sitting comfortably in his robe-covered saddle. He reached for a water-bag and lifted it to his mouth. "We will be there soon. Alimar will be pleased with our prizes," he proclaimed, drinking deeply of a drug-alcohol mix in the water-bag, but his heart was far from his words. He had decided it had been too long since Alimar had shown him, Rohad, prince of the Josad tribe any respect, decided he was not happy being among Alimar's tribe through the marriage to Alimar's sister, Tulsara, a marriage meant to end a blood feud between Alimar's tribe and the tribe of Josad. In Rohad's mind, the feud would never end and he distrusted Alimar. Alimar was not a man, taking villagers from the west lands. Where was the honor in that; where was the challenge; where was the courage in taking women and children. It was cowardly to Rohad who preferred battling the other fierce nomadic tribes, especially the great tribes of the great desert to the southeast, winning and conquering his prizes. What had he, Rohad come to, he wondered, looking back at the captives, when the best he could do was a small victory over a village woman who could show some spirit. He drank another mouthful of the mind-numbing liquid, growing lax from it's effects. Yes, he thought. she isn't so timid. She was spirited and fearful, she feared him. As it should be and perhaps yet a challenge to be met and conquered, he thought wildly as he turned back in his saddle, passing his drinking bag to the rider next to him.
Xena had not stopped when day dawned. Seeing clearly in the light of day that the trail of Alimar's men and their prisoners was still there, satisfied that Gabrielle's philosophy had proven to be true, but Gabrielle had a gift for insight. "Why would I be surprised?" Xena asked herself.
The tracks were also fresher and Xena's resolve was strengthened by the knowledge that she was catching up to them, if not gaining on them, but she couldn't push Argo too much during the hot day.
By midday Xena came upon the previous nights campsite of Alimar's men and captives. Many tracks and footprints were obvious and definite signs they had stopped there as was the scorched ground where a fire had been. These nomads survived by the barest of means, Xena noticed. With no available tender, they had burned their horse's dung.
Pushing onward, Xena felt less cautious about her travel than she might elsewhere. For the first time in a long time, there was no need to be overly guarded or acutely aware of the possibility of an ambush around the next bend in a road, or assassins lurking in trees and brush. This country was wide open and flat. Anyone approaching could be seen for miles, but it also gave Xena pause to consider her own visibility to Alimar's band and how she could get near them. The element of surprise, one of her strongest weapons was useless in this dry and desolate place, or was it, Xena thought with a slight smile of cunning playing across her mouth briefly as she thought her plan through.
From the entrance of a great tent surrounded by a dozen like it, Alimar stepped forth, his high white turban standing out from the dark brown ones around him. He surveyed his encampment, taking note of the possessions he prized most, a herd of fine horses with a high-stepping grey-white stallion tossing his with a wild and unruly grey dappled mane, while pacing and circling his devoted mares, keeping careful watch over them. The small herd of goats were also highly valued as well as their precious blood, which could be tapped from their necks when water was scarce. Several camels too, knelt and basked in the warm day. Slaves and women of the tribe were occupied with various tasks and milling about the portable hamlet.
Alimar observed it all with frequent glimpses toward the west, watching for the small dust cloud that announced the arrival of Rohad and the others with him. Keeping Rohad busy and keeping his attention away from tribal matters had grown tiresome, but soon it would be over. Johad had grown sleepy-eyed, complacent and at ease with Alimar's tribe since the marriage that settled the feud. The time was at hand to take advantage of it and destroy Johad's tribe to the last man when they least expected it.
Rohad halted his horse and the procession of prisoners, feeling heady under the influence of the drink he and the other riders had consumed. He could make out the tent-tops of Alimar's camp on the eastern horizon, even with a fuzziness surrounding his vision. The thought of returning to Alimar's camp in a rush did not appeal to him. he was not a leader of his own men there, not respected and feared for the warrior he was, as the prince of Johad should be.
"There's something out there coming this way," one of the riders announced, staring intently to the west, where they had come.
Rohad smiled with a thrill running through his veins. Angry villagers seeking their children were no threat, but would make the day more interesting. Rohad spun his horse to see for himself where the other rider pointed. Whatever excitement Rohad mustered a moment earlier drained away. It was only a lost horse following them and a mixed breed at that from the look of it. It could be captured for a meal, but there was little challenge to his honor in that, he decided, but as the animal came closer, it was plain to see the stray horse was carrying something or someone. "Go and catch it and bring it to me." Rohad ordered.
Xena balanced herself easily, sprawled across Argo's wide bare back like a limp rag. She wore no armor or leather, but had fashioned bedding and saddle hides into a wrapped tunic and skirt. Her boots were missing from the bare feet that dangled carelessly over Argo's hind quarters. Her horses mane was dishevelled and knotted. She carried no sword that was visible. A small knife belted to her waist could be seen and her chakram was wrapped in hide and attached to the only other thing she carried, a dusty, empty water-bag that hung loosely from her wrist by it's braided strap. Xena's lips were parched and her skin dirty, dusty red, browning to deep tan from the blazing sun.
Argo's reins hung free. Xena let her horse take the lead without looking up, counting on the horse's natural instinct to seek others of her kind, and Argo obliged nicely, moving ahead, stopping at intervals to neigh and call to the Arab rider's mounts.
Alimar's rider came forward and caught up Argo's reins in one sweep, leading her on to where Rohad was waiting, and inspecting as best he could what appeared to be an unconscious peasant woman from the western village. How long she had been in that condition was difficult to say.
Gabrielle could hardly believe her eyes when she recognized Argo and then Xena, but she had never seen Xena in such a condition. Gabrielle was very concerned, but with an incredible sense of relief. Whatever the problem, Xena was here, and that made all the difference in the world at the moment.
Rohad and all the riders circled the captured horse with questioning eyes. "If she carries some disease, it could be dangerous to return her to the camp, " one rider offered.
Rohad dismounted and walked over for a closer look. "It's no disease," Rohad said disdainfully. These men of Alimar were cowards through and through. "She's had too much sun, you fool. These west villagers cannot survive in our land. Give me water," Rohad instructed. When a water bag was handed down to him from one of the riders, he pushed Xena's hair back roughly and splashed water onto her face. Xena shook her head in surprise and fell from Argo's back to the ground in a heap, crossing her arms in front of her face as if to defend herself from a beating, looking up at Rohad with a fearful eyes.
Gabrielle breathed a new sigh of relief. This act was definitely not the Xena she knew, and could be nothing more than an act. Gabrielle would have laughed if not for the situation. As it was, she thought, this is going to make a great story.
Rohad was incensed at this woman, she did not fear him for his honor, she feared all. She had already been broken. "She's a run away slave from somewhere," he concluded, and a mouse. No doubt Alimar will think her the finest of the lot." Put her with the others and the horse. We can make a meal of it at least."
Xena was left unbound, unlike the other captives, but her small knife was removed. The useless seeming water bag with disguised chakram attached had been ignored. Her unexpected arrival put Rohad's mind back on the task of bringing new slave material to Alimar. Xena walked along but did not walk her usual, confident full height. She let her head hang and shoulders droop in a defeated and depressive manner. Had she not also spied the tent tops of Alimar's camp, she might have freed the village children and Gabrielle right there, but a fight now could bring a horde of riders and there were other slaves to be freed from the camp.
"Xena!" one of the children exclaimed, recognizing the warrior princess right off.
"What happened to her," a little girl asked, unsure of Xena's appearance.
"Xena is playing a game. She's pretending to be someone we don't know and we have to play the game with her if you want to go home," Gabrielle instructed, putting a finger to her lips to indicate silence and not giving away Xena's secret was important to the success of this game. Language barriers did not hide the language of the eyes, Gabrielle thought. One needed no translation to see recognition on the faces of children, and too much chatter between any of the captives would be suspect.
Arriving at Alimar's encampment, Xena took in details of their surroundings in glances, placements of tents, the animals, the people of the tribe and the slave women and children already in residence, carrying out menial tasks with expressionless faces, having given in to their fate with no hope of ever returning to the lives they had been shanghaied from. There were nearly 50 men of the tribe, Xena noted.
Alimar strolled out to meet the incoming riders and inspect the new arrivals, looking over the children intently. Apparently, Xena decided, this scum had no preference of girls over boys, and the thought curled into a hard knot of contempt in Xena's mind. It was one thing for a warlord to kill innocents along the way of overrunning a village and taking territory. It was quite another to abuse and violate children and rip away all shred of human dignity from them.
Alimar approached Gabrielle and Xena with curiosity, but far less than he had for the children, yet he appraised Gabrielle carefully, then Xena lifting her dirty face in a huge hand for closer examination. Xena held back her urge to take down this snake, relying on her own instincts that the time was not yet right. One of the riders explained how Xena and the mix breed horse had wandered near.
"Is this the best you could find, Rohad?" Alimar taunted. "Only one maid to share and one runaway slave woman? Was there only one woman in the village? And what need have we for a horse like that?"
Rohad's blood boiled at this reprimand from Alimar. In the haze of his drug, alcohol state, Rohad had taken just about all he was going to take from this cowardly excuse for a desert warrior. "We will talk later when I have rested," Rohad stormed and stalked away to his tent.
Alimar ordered the captives unbound. "They are to be rested and fed for now. They are of no use unfit or hungry" he added, watching Rohad walk away. His sister would keep Rohad out of the way, out of trouble and under watchful eyes.
As the captives were led away toward another tent, Alimar sneered slightly at the mixed breed horse with them, then turned his attention to his herd of beauties with pride pulsing through his chest, strolling toward them and reaching out a hand slowly beneath the flaring nostrils of the stallion, who was partly accepting, partly placing himself between Alimar and the mares of his possession , eyes trained on the new horse in his domain, Argo being tethered to a stake. Alimar reached into his robe and soon had a tasseled rope and leather halter on the stallion's head. "Bring me my saddle and riding robes," Alimar commanded to the young boys nearest him that were keeping watch on the animals.
Rohad entered his own tent angrily, quickly found one of several water bag bladders hanging from the center pole, yanked the tasseled stopper from the opening and drank deeply more mind numbing brew. Tulsara, a tall, thin, dark woman entered the tent a moment later. "What are you doing, Rohad?"
"There is no honor in this tribe," he bellowed, glaring at her.
"There is no honor in this," she spat back, attempting to take the drinking bag from him. "Is this where your courage lies?" she taunted, but Rohad jerked the bag away.
"Get away from me, Tulara. I've had enough of Alimar's tribe for one day."
Tulara changed her approach quickly, moving toward him more slowly, alluringly. "That is not what you said when we were married. You wanted me then and I am still here for you, for the prince of Johad."
Rohad's vision was blurring and he was tempted to surrender to her ploy, but stepped aside and seated himself heavily on a pile of silken cushions, looking away. "Let me alone, Tulara. I am tired from my journey. I wish to rest."
"Alimar wants us to make sure the new ones are fed", Tulara told him.
"We have other slaves for that," Rohad barked, looking up at her. "The prince of Johad is no more than a servant here now?"
"You are to look after the camp while Alimar rides. He would not ask any servant to watch over our tribe, Rohad."
Rohad wasn't entirely satisfied with her comment. Watching over this tribe of cowards and fools was no task of worth, but he rose to his feet and accompanied his wife.
Xena and Gabrielle sat together with the village children around them. "There are only two slaves guarding us," Gabrielle noticed.
"Where could anyone run to in this wasteland, Gabrielle?"
"Good point, Xena."
Rohad and Tulara stepped into the tent, followed by several slave women and children who offered bowls of more spicy food. Tulara looked over the two captive women briefly. "The tall one is the runaway slave?" she asked.
"She is nothing," Rohad answered. "She is a mouse."
"I don't like it, Rohad. Mice can be very destructive. She has run away once."
As Tulara spoke her concerns, Xena stood up slowly and stepped forward around the children, turned her bowl over and dropped it. This mouse was no mouse standing before them now, but a tall, confident warrior princess. "Everyone get back!" Xena yelled at slaves and captives who understood and scattered. In the same instant, Xena's leg flew forward, snapping a quick and devastating kick with her foot. Rohad fell. A second kick, and Tulara was down. "Everyone stay here until I return," Xena commanded to children and slaves. "Gabrielle, you're with me," she continued with her chakram in hand and taking Rohad's scimitar from his sash. She hefted the saber and swung it once to familiarize herself with its weight and balance. "Gabrielle, over there", Xena instructed, gesturing toward the shorter poles at the side of the tent. Gabrielle understood immediately, grasping a pole firmly in two hands and yanking it away from the canvass. The tent drooped at one corner in response. It wasn't the fighting staff she knew so well, like an extension of her own arms. This was slightly longer, slightly lighter, but it would serve the purpose.
Xena and Gabrielle moved swiftly out of the tent and into the open, not noticed right away by tribe men or women, but all slave eyes fixed on them, and the dark eyes of Alimar as he rode toward both women on the spirited stallion, grinning wildly. These women would know who Alimar was before the day was out, he thought, kicking the stallion to a gallop and drawing his own sword.
Rather than running in fear as Alimar expected, Xena stepped forward, drew her arm back and let fly her chakram. The circular, whirling, razor sharp blade spun relentlessly, finding its mark, slicing Alimar's face and knocking him from his saddle before returning to Xena's hand.
The stallion continued his riderless gallop. Xena was already running along side him as he thundered past the captives' tent. She grabbed the saddle and flung herself onto the animal's back, pulling the tasseled reins to a tight grip and wheeling the horse around.
"After her!" Alimar shouted, picking himself up from the ground with a hand pressed tightly over his chakram shredded cheek, enraged as Xena sped past him on the powerful stallion.
Gabrielle was soon surrounded by dark men in robes and her makeshift staff swung forward, catching the man in front of her on the head. She pulled the staff backward and plunged the end of it into the midsection of a man behind her, then swung the pole across her body clipping another tribesman in the throat, knocking the wind out of him.
Xena galloped the stallion down to the herd, came around it and charged forward toward the center of the camp once more, announcing herself with her high pitched battle cry. Slaves stood in awe as the mares followed, making an army of thundering horses, taking down tents, stomping through fires and plowing over everything in their way. Alimar, his men and everyone was forced to flee from the oncoming stampede. Several tribesmen tried to mount horses passing by them. Xena spun the stallion and sliced the scimitar through the air, knocking the would be followers from their steeds, and giving them deadly lashing wounds for their efforts.
Rohad awoke with his face hard pressed against the tent floor where he had fallen. His head was spinning from both the blow he had taken and the effects of the drink. He looked around at the slaves and new captives all standing together in a huddle, then pushed his way past the tent opening.
He stumbled out into the daylight to see tents collapsing, dust flying and horses circling through the camp. He stepped forward and stumbled again, almost falling and just ducking a blow from Gabrielle's staff as she fought off two tribesmen. Rohad dove low and caught the woman, bringing her down. Gabrielle struggled to swing the staff and knock him away, but Rohad stripped her of it, then hauled her to her feet and dragged her to his own tent, still standing.
Xena led the herd around the camp until nearly every tent was toppled and smashed save the one that held the captives, swinging Rohad's sword at any tribesman who dared attempt to stop her. Argo pulled at the tether excitedly trying to break loose and join the other horses. Alimar caught sight of the woman's mix breed still staked and ran toward her. It was better than no horse at all and would have to do to stop this mad woman in his camp.
On the stallion, Xena spotted Alimar coming toward her on Argo. She stopped the stallion dead in his tracks, a forward momentum threw her over the stallion's head, where she somersaulted to the ground, laid two fingers to each side of her lips and blew an ear piercing whistle Argo recognized instantly. Argo reared up suddenly. Unprepared Alimar lost his grip and slid backward down and off Argo's rump and onto the ground, where Argo finished the job with a high powerful kick. Alimar was struck in the head and fell in a dead heap.
With Alimar gone, the whole tribe stood speechless and confused. Xena looked around for Gabrielle, but her friend was nowhere in sight. Only two tents were left standing, the captives' and one other. Some tribesmen stepped forward to block Xena's path toward Rohad's tent, others joined them. Xena sliced with her sword, kicked, backhanded and slashed her way through them until all had fallen
Rohad tossed Gabrielle mercilessly onto the silky cushions. "So, you have more courage and spirit than I would have guessed," he uttered. It didn't matter that she wouldn't understand the words. Nothing mattered right now in his drugged and drunken stupor, except the fear in this woman's eyes, he thought as he stood over her. Gabrielle kicked out, connecting with his shin and buckling him. Rohad fell on top of her with a cry of pain, but took hold of her wrists, penning them down. Suddenly a hand was on his back, pulling up at his robes. He turned to look up at who it was and a fist came smashing into his face. He fell sideways, two fingers jabbed his throat and blackness poured into his vision.
Xena kicked the dead, limp Rohad over and reached out a hand to Gabrielle. Gabrielle stood up trembling and shaken. "He tried... He tried to..."
Xena embraced her and let her friend cling to her for a moment. "I know. I know what he tried to do. It's all right now, Gabrielle. It's all right. You'll be all right."
In the silent moments of comforting Gabrielle, Xena became acutely aware of the rising level of clamor and clatter outside the tent. Slaves had taken up the fight, rebelling and rounding up tribal members. Xena stepped back slowly, releasing her friend with a hesitancy that caused her to look Gabrielle in the eyes. Xena read a conflict of emotions in Gabrielle's eyes she had never seen before.
"Gabrielle, I need your help. We have to get these slaves..."
Gabrielle cut her off and turned away with a sense of defeat in her voice. "Yeah right. All this time, I've been telling myself you've needed me, Xena."
"I do need you, Gabrielle. I couldn't do any of it without you there," Xena reassured, moving behind her friend and laying hands on Gabrielle's shoulders affectionately, concerned for this sudden lack of confidence in her best friend.
"When I learned to fight with the staff, I finally felt like I could help and you wouldn't have to think about protecting me all the time."
"Gabrielle, if you were the most skillful fighter in world, it wouldn't matter. I would always think of protecting you, because I'm your friend and I need you with me. If you think you're not good with that staff, you're wrong."
Gabrielle turned to face Xena. "I...I guess I zigged when I should have zagged, huh?"
"I'm certain you won't let it happen again, Gabrielle," Xena affirmed. "Come on. We've still got work to do."
Stepping out of the tent and surveying the camp, Xena and Gabrielle moved quickly to where slave women and older boys had herded and encircled remaining members of Alimar's tribe into a huddled group and were moving in with swords, tent pole clubs, daggers and whatever they could find, preparing to execute them.
"Stop!" Xena shouted, walking into the circle. "There's been enough killing here."
The slaves halted except for one boy who continued advancing, holding high the scimitar he carried ready to slash the first Arab he came to. Xena moved in front of the boy, grabbing his raised arm. "Slaughtering them will not take away what you've suffered. It's over now."
The boy relaxed his arm and lowered the sword, hanging his head sadly. "You're free to go home now," Xena added, taking the weapon and squeezing his arm gently, recognizing that Gabrielle's brief moment of self doubt was one grain of sand compared to what this boy and all these slaves of Alimar had to recover from. "Go now," Xena instructed, "gather as many horses as we need and supplies for the journey."
"All right," the boy said, perking up slightly at having something constructive to do and the thought of leaving this place of horrors He went with several other slaves following.
Later that evening with Alimar's camp miles behind them, former slaves and villagers were laying down for the night around a large campfire. Xena had retrieved her saddle, accessories and her leather and ring mail along the way. Gabrielle had been conspicuously quiet during the day's travels and there was still a conflict of emotions in the eyes of Xena's friend. "Are you holding a grudge because I insisted you ride a horse?" Xena teased, trying to move things in a happier direction.
It worked for a moment. Gabrielle looked at Xena and smiled. "To tell you the truth, I was tired of walking in this desert," Gabrielle admitted, then retreated in silence once more, watching the fire. Then she stood up and walked away to the perimeter of the firelight with her temporary staff in hand. Xena followed. "Gabrielle," Xena began, but stopped, not sure what to say, not certain just what was needed to help her friend now.
Gabrielle spun around, the firelight catching the blazing anger in her eyes as she pounded the tent-pole staff onto the hard dry soil. "No one has the right, Xena! No one has the right!" she steamed through clenched teeth. "No one has the right to do that! He had no right! My body belongs to me!" Gabrielle stormed and tears began to flow and she continued to pound the staff until her rage was spent, then leaned on the tent-pole and wept.
Now Xena understood as much as she could understand because she knew her friend, how foreign such rage was to a free spirit like Gabrielle. It was as confining to Gabrielle's pure heart as a prison. There wasn't room for both kinds of emotion in Gabrielle. Xena moved closer and hugged her friend tightly. "Let it out. Let go of it, Gabrielle."
"You're sure you won't stay one more day?" old Barabus pleaded with many villagers crowded behind him.
"Not this time," Xena replied with finality in her tone. Thanks for your help in getting those people back to their homes. Take care," she added, waving to all, turning and leading Argo to the village limits with Gabrielle at her side.
They walked together down the well worn cart path with Argo behind them. "You know, if I had used my own staff instead of that tent pole, I could have fought better," Gabrielle speculated. "This thing has become a part of me now," she continued, raising her Amazon fighting staff for emphasis. "It was just too odd using a strange staff."
Xena smiled at the comments. "I know what you mean. My own sword and my chakram are like friends. There's really no way to replace them."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at the message in Xena's words.
"I think I've learned something important from all this," Xena revealed. "I know I have a lot to make up for with my past and what I became, but I realize too there are far worse ways to hurt people and far worse ways to be."
"That's an important thing, Xena," Gabrielle agreed, " a very important thing to remember and a good thing to remember."