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BACKGROUND: Once upon the time on the XENA NETFORUM, Stradivarius, a bored Xenite, suggested that we all get together and write a cooperative story. The group who responded and contributed included Stradivarius, JayBird, XenaAddict, Raye Dene, and Wishes. This story was written over the course of two weeks and without consultation among the authors. We hope you enjoy it.
Chapter 1, by Wishes
The last four days had been a trial for Gabrielle, but she refused to complain. Xena had wanted to leave her behind in Manteus's village, and she had insisted on coming along. No way was she going to give the big warrior a chance to say "I told you so."
For Xena's part, she was filled with admiration for the tiny bard's determination. Since this rocky, mountainous terrain would have been a risk to Argo's legs, they were both on foot and had been running more than walking. Xena realized that Gabrielle's shorter legs had to move three steps for every time Xena's moved two. Seeing that Gabrielle's breath was coming in short gasps, Xena stopped and announced, "I'm tired. Let's rest for a few minutes." She took a deep drink from their last water skin and handed it to Gabrielle, who took a small sip and started to hand it back. "No. Drink what you want. You need water inside your body, not inside this skin. If we run out, I'll find more." Gabrielle took a long pull on the water skin, and Xena could tell how thirsty she had been. Her admiration for her friend took another leap upward.
After resting a few minutes, Gabrielle said, "We better move on. We have to warn the people of Arcanae that Peleus and his bandits are coming. After what they did at Manteus' village. . . . " She shook her head, as if the motion would help wipe out the memory of what she had seen there. "And to think it would have been even worse if Manteus hadn't found you and you hadn't arrived to drive them off when you did."
"When WE arrived to drive them off," Xena corrected, remembering how bravely and effectively her small friend had fought. Sometimes it still amazed her that Gabrielle would stand her ground against men twice her size, facing swords and maces with her Amazon staff--and defeat them. It also made her heart rise to her throat at the thought of losing her best friend should one of those swords or maces penetrate her defense. . . .
"Let's go," Gabrielle said, giving Xena a hand up, "if YOU"RE not too tired." It was clear from her tone that she had seen through the warrior's pretense. "How long until we get there?"
"About five minutes." Xena smiled.
"Arcanae is just over that rise."
Gabrielle punched Xena in the hard muscle of her upper arm. "OW!" the bard cried, shaking her hand.
"When will you learn?" Xena asked. "Come on."
They hurried to the top of the rise and looked down on their destination, Arcanae, the legendary town of peace, a place where no weapons could be carried, or words of anger spoken. - - - - - - - -
Chapter 2, by JayBird
Xena and Gabrielle started down the rocky slope to Arcanae. It seemed ordinary enough. About thirty or so simple stone structures that filled a niche in the mountains. You could call it a valley if you were feeling charitable.
"How long has this place been here?" Gabrielle asked. "Who knows?" Xena shrugged. "For ages and ages people have known of Arcanae."
"Then how come there are no stories about it?" Gabrielle pressed. "A city of peace seems like the perfect subject of a Bard's tale."
Xena smirked. "It's not the kinda place people talk about."
"What do you..."
Xena shushed her as they approached a small stone kiosk. There were signs in a dozen languages from Greek to Celtic. They all said the same thing. Please deposit all weapons here. Or else. Xena took her sword and scabbard from its cross-carry position, along with the daggers and blades she had secreted on her leathers.
"I don't know," Xena replied. "No one's ever found out... and lived to talk about it."
"Yeah, right." She held up her Amazon staff. "So do I give up my..." "You're walking stick? Naaaah." Xena slipped her chakram off her belt and carefully eased it over her head, letting to lay around her neck.
"Nice jewelry," Gabrielle said.
"It's cutting edge," Xena replied.
They moved into the village. Gabrielle noticed no livestock or chickens. "The people of Arcanae don't believe in the consumption or suffering of livestock," Xena said, neatly reading her mind. "There are caves in the surrounding mountains with hot springs. The villagers grow very special vegetables there." "What's so special about them?' "You'll see." Xena stopped as a woman approached them. She was old and gray haired, but Gabrielle noticed there was something about her that seemed to put Xena on her guard.
"Hello, Xena," she said. "So we meet again."
Chapter 3, by Wishes "Margola," Xena acknowledged. "I didn't think you would still be here."
"At my age, you didn't expect me to be anywhere. Except in Hades." The old woman noticed Gabrielle and looked her up and down. "So, is this your latest?" "This is my FRIEND Gabrielle."
"You have a friend, Xena?" The woman chuckled, a low, throaty sound. "Can what I hear about you be true? Have you changed?"
"I have," Xena said. "Have you?"
"That's something you'll soon discover." The woman made a slight gesture and several large men came from behind a nearby stone wall. "Take her," the woman ordered. "What are you doing?" Gabrielle cried. "Take us where? We came to help you."
"No one is taking you anywhere, little girl, " Margola answered. "You are free to go. The Warrior Princess, however, is another matter." "Gabrielle, go now. Before she changes her mind. I'll explain about Peleus and his bandits. Go." Xena started to go with the men, offering no resistance.
"But, Xena, why are you going with them? What's going on here?" Gabrielle tried to follow, but Margola placed a surprisingly strong hand on her shoulder. "If you are really her friend, you will leave so you don't see her shame."
"Shame? What shame? Xena is good."
Margola shook her head with what seemed to be real regret. "Little girl, Xena was warned long ago to never return to the City of Peace. Now she will have to answer for all her sins, for all the evil she has done. Go now. There's nothing you can do to help."
Chapter 4, by JayBird
Margola led the way up another steep slope to one of the mountain caves that seemed to be everywhere in the small valley. The two men hauled Xena along, gripping her by her arms and the pressure-points of her neck. "Why did you really come, Xena?" Margola said. "You knew I could handle a few simple bandits." She looked at her. "After all, I handled you once... quite easily." "Girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do," Xena wheezed as they yanked her along. They entered the mouth of the cave. Instantly the chill of the outside was replaced by the damp heat of the springs. A third man came from the darkness, carrying a variety of chains and shackles. "Restrain this... woman," Margola said. "There will be no escape for the Great Warrior Princess today." "Famous last words," Xena muttered as she kicked back with her right leg. One of her captors screamed as his leg was snapped at the knee-joint. Xena swung the other man around and viciously head-butted him. He fell to his knees, spitting teeth.
She backflipped, and almost instantly her chakram was in her hands. The guard holding the chains looked at Margola. "Leave us, Maxim."
He dropped the chains and edged along the side of the cave past Xena and Margola, then took off like a scalded dog down the slope. Margola laughed. "You've made it easy for me, Xena." "Have I?" Xena whispered. "You may have powers... you may even be immortal for all I know... but unless you want to go through eternity holding your head in your hands, you better let me pass."
Margola frowned. "Then you will take the challenge?" "On my terms. Not in chains, and not forced by a couple of your stooges. I'll go of my own free will. Weapon in hand."
"You've gotten not a day wiser since we last met," Margola said. "But you do have courage." She nodded. "Then go."
Xena nodded and started walking into the pitch blackness of the cave.
Margola returned to the sunlight as her two guards helped each other down the slope. "You should hurry, little one," Margola said aloud.
Gabrielle appeared from behind some rocks, holding her staff in a defensive stance. "Go to your beloved," Margola said. "But be warned, you won't like what you find."
Gabrielle started for the mouth of the cave. "You'd follow her anywhere," Margola whispered. "Wouldn't you?"
"I'd follow Xena to Tartarus," Gabrielle replied. And then she was gone. Rushing headlong into the darkness.
"Tartarus?" Margola laughed. "Tartarus is easy. Arcanae is hard..."
Chapter 5, by Wishes Gabrielle soon slowed to a walk. The interior of the cave made night seem not so very dark. She held her staff in front of her to feel for obstacles
and shuffled her feet like one newly blind. "Xena," she called. "Xena!"
She was met only by the echoes of her own voice.
She thought that she saw a flash of light ahead but wasn't sure her own eyes weren't playing tricks on her. She remembered lying in bed when she was a child and closing her eyes as tightly as she could. Finally pinpricks of light had appeared behind her own eyelids. Was that what was happening here? Her own eyes rebelling against the unrelenting darkness? No, she was sure now. There was light up ahead. It seemed more green than white, an odd glow, but it was light. Again yelling, "Xena!" she ran toward it. The small woman had reached a large cavern. The walls were covered with what looked like moss, much like that which grows on trees in the deep forest, but this plant, if that's what it was, glowed. It was responsible for the light in this underground chamber.
Xena was standing in the middle of the cavern, and she seemed to be listening to something--or someone. Gabrielle listened and heard nothing. "Xena," Gabrielle said loudly. After several moments, Xena turned and seemed to notice her friend for the first time.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing here?" In her voice was what sounded to Gabrielle like despair. "Go back quickly while there's still time." Before the younger woman could answer, Xena went rigid, seeming to listen again. "It's already too late. You shouldn't have come."
"I had to." Said simply, there it was. Knowing the truth of it, Xena nodded. "What is this place? Why did the old woman bring you here?"
"This is my sentence," Xena explained, "pronounced by Margola long ago. This is my prison--and my place of execution--for defiling the city of peace almost eight years ago."
Gabrielle heard only the word "execution." "Oh, no, Xena," she protested, "we're not going to start that all over again. Been there, done that. No more guilt trips over your past. You promised me you wouldn't give yourself over for punishment again, not ever again."
"This isn't about giving myself over, Gabrielle. Once they brought me to this cave, I had no choice." She looked around the glowing walls. This cave has power, Gabrielle. It talks to me. Can't you hear it?"
Gabrielle listened, then shook her head. "Xena, you're scaring me. What do you think the cave is saying?"
"It says the path of destruction is the only way to be saved." "Huh?"
"Since you HAD to be here, you might as well follow." Xena started toward a passage that branched off to her right. Of several openings in the cave wall, this was the only one that also glowed. "Maybe you're supposed to be here--to watch and to take a warning to others. Maybe the cave will let YOU survive." With those cryptic words, she stepped into the passage.
Chapter 6, by JayBird
Gabrielle stumbled after Xena, her eyes slowly getting used to the eerie green glow that surrounded them. As the passage narrowed, Gabrielle walked behind her, slipping her hand into Xena's. She felt Xena start to pull away, then respond with a welcoming pressure.
"Tell me about this place," Gabrielle whispered. "All right," Xena replied. "Once upon a time, a tribe of people lived in these caves. The people of Arcanae are their descendents..."
"Why'd they leave?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"Because the magic here became too powerful. It became twisted and stagnant. It would have killed them... or changed them the way it changed Margola." "Then Margola is..." "The last of her kind, the last of these caves' original occupants." Xena smirked. "And don't ask me who or what she is. Margola is eternal. Neither God nor mortal, neither good nor evil. She's just... Margola."
"Then why come here? Why bring us all this grief? You knew she could handle Peleus and his men." "I didn't know Margola was still here until I saw her. And by then it was too late." Gabrielle stopped, holding onto Xena's hand and jerking her to a halt.
"No more games, Xena. No more riddles." Gabrielle looked at her friend, and, in the ghostly light of the cave, Xena's eyes seemed to glow like a wolf's. "What is this place? Why are you here? Tell me." "I'm here because I have to be," Xena replied. " And like Margola, this place is neither good nor evil. It's merely a... reflection... of who you are." Xena shrugged. "That's the best I can do."
"Oh, that's a help," Gabrielle replied. "It's all perfectly clear to me now! Clear as a river mud flat at low tide!"
Xena allowed herself a smile, and then froze.
"Hear it, Gabrielle? We're almost there!" Xena pulled her hand free and ran as if knowing the way to a destination she desired.
Gabrielle hurried to keep up with Xena down another twisting passageway. Finally Xena stopped, with Gabrielle almost running into her.
Gabrielle peeked over Xena's shoulder. The passageway had come to a dead
end. Here the glow was brighter, illuminating a stone altar. But the altar was bare.
"Now what?" "Wait for it," Xena whispered. "It's coming." Gabrielle heard a hissing sound, and then felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up as something burst through the stone altar. It was... a mushroom. A big woodear mushroom just like the ones Gabrielle had seen all her life. She scratched her head.
"We came here to talk to a mushroom?" she whispered. "Gabrielle." Xena turned to her, face so close she could feel her breath. "Know this. No matter what happens, I will always love you. You are part of me, and nothing can ever change that." Gabrielle met her eyes. "Two souls intertwined..."
"...Forever." Xena finished. Leaning down from her greater height, she held her companion's eyes for a long moment and then gently kissed her. Suddenly turning, the warrior snatched the mushroom from the altar and jammed it into her mouth, chewing rapidly. She swallowed.
Xena screamed, slipping to the floor of the cave and gripping her belly. She started to shake as Gabrielle went to her. She pulled her face up to the light and felt her world fall away. Xena's eyes were black on black. Souless orbs that saw nothing... and everything.
-Gabrielle- Gabrielle blinked. She could hear Xena, but it wasn't her voice. It was the sound of her soul.
-So beautiful, Gabrielle-
"Xena, what is it? What are you seeing?"
And then Xena was gone. She still breathed, her heart still beat, but her soul... her life essence was somewhere else.
Gabrielle leaned back, eyes wide. She knew her screams and tears would be useless. There was nothing she could do...
Gabrielle turned at the hissing sound coming from the altar, as another mushroom just like the first pushed through the stone.
Without a second thought, Gabrielle pulled the mushroom loose and ate it, forcing herself to swallow as she looked down at Xena.
-Don't worry, Xena. I'm on my way-
Chapter 7, by Wishes
Gabrielle found herself back in Arcanae. Was that all there was to it? Eat a mushroom, have a bellyache? All is forgiven? She looked around for Xena but didn't see her. A young woman was walking by, a basket of bread under her arm. "Are you hungry, stranger?" she asked.
Gabrielle was always hungry, but she shook her head. "I'm looking for my friend," she said. "She should have been here just before me."
"A tall dark warrior?" the woman asked. "Yes!" "She's in the temple square. No need to hurry. She'll be there for a while." The woman laughed, then hurried on.
Figuring that the square would be in the center of the city, Gabrielle headed deeper into Arcanae. Her stomach rumbled, and she wished she had taken the bread. It was nice of the woman to offer. But probably typical of a citizen of the City of Peace. The street was deserted at first, but then she started to see people walking in the same direction as she. There were a few people by themselves and several family groups. She decided this must be a holiday. Probably had something to do with why Xena went to this square and why the young woman figured she would stay there for a while.
She saw the people were gathering into a crowd farther down the street, and she picked up her pace. They seemed to be looking at something, and they were laughing and having a good time.
"I'll take that bet," one man said. "I say 15 strokes."
"No way. It'll take 20. Before they can't bring her around."
"1000 dinars. Unless you're more talk than coins."
"Excuse me, excuse me. . . ." Gabrielle worked her way through the crowd. She strained upward to see over all of these taller people Was everyone in this town a giant? Finally she was able to wiggle between two ample women, and she suddenly could see.
Xena stood in the middle of the square securely bound by chains to a stout post. She faced the post with her arms stretched tightly around it. Gabrielle ran forward, and no one stopped her. "Xena!" Her friend looked at her, and there was little comprehension in her face and no recognition. Xena had been beaten until her beautiful body was covered with bruises. Her face was nearly unmarked, but her suffering was written clearly there.
"She doesn't know you."
Gabrielle turned to see Margola standing with four men, as big as those who had taken Xena to the cave. One of the men held Xena's own whip. Suddenly Gabrielle understood what the men had been betting on.
Margola continued. "You haven't met yet. In fact, in this time, in your proper place, you are ten or eleven years old."
Gabrielle looked at Xena again, and this time made herself look past the suffering. This was a younger Xena, a woman not much older than Gabrielle herself. As Xena seemed to regain full consciousness, a look came over her face that Gabrielle had seen hints of, but only a few times. The look was one of pure, murderous rage.
"She's awake," said the man with the whip. He seemed to be asking permission for something. And he seemed eager that this permission be granted.
"Soon," said Margola. "She's still a little foggy. Wait until she is fully conscious."
"How can you be doing this?" Gabrielle yelled at the old woman. "This is the City of Peace. No violence is allowed here."
"City of Peace?" one of the other men asked. "Are you crazy? This is Arcanae. This crazy warlord came raging in here with her army and got knocked off her horse. Before we get done with her, she'll understand why Arcanae is called the City of Revenge. And when we put what's left of her at the city gate, no other bandit will try what she did!"
"Now?" asked the man, who had been watching Xena closely.
Margola walked over to Xena and, grasping her hair, pulled up roughly so that she could look into her face. The warrior spit in Margola's face, and Margola laughed. "Yes, she seems to be awake." The old woman dropped Xena's hair, but spoke to her. "When you came here before it was to a city that didn't know of anger or revenge. When you were captured, they tried you at my urging. They even condemned you to the cave. But you were treated humanely."
"I've never been here before," Xena growled.
Margola ignored her words and gestured to the waiting crowd. "Now you see what would have happened back then if their hearts had been as black as your own."
"You're crazy, you old witch!"
"Beg for mercy, Xena. Perhaps it will be granted."
"Beg? I'll die first."
Gabrielle, who had been listening, stepped forward and tried to stroke Xena's cheek. "Do what she says, Xena. Tell her you're sorry. Tell her you'll change."
"Who in Hades ARE you?" Xena yelled. "Get away from me."
"They're going to whip you, Xena. People in the crowd are BETTING on how long it will be before you lose consciousness again." Gabrielle was in tears. "They'll kill you, Xena."
For an instant, there was something in Xena's eyes, some human feeling for this young girl who could weep for her pain--for her death. Then it passed. "Well, if you have any coins, little girl, put them on a high number."
Margola shook her head, "You were always a fool." She nodded to one of the men, and he stepped forward, preparing to pull Gabrielle away. To the man with the whip, she said, "You may begin."
Chapter 8, by Raye Dene
Gabrielle stopped the burly guard with a look."I can walk by myself,"she informed him. At a nod from Margola,the guard resumed his former place. Gabrielle brushed past him and stood at the edge of the crowd. Steadily, holding her emotions under tight control, she watched as the whip sliced again and again into the tender skin of Xena's back.
Although Xena flinched many times, she never cried out nor begged for mercy. Good thing, Gabrielle thought with a shudder. There was precious little of that in the faces of the townspeople. Indeed the pleasure that they seemed to derive from this flogging nearly turned Gabrielle's stomach.
Finally there came Margola's cry of "Enough!"
"Thank the gods,she's passed out!"Gabrielle reached Xena just as the guard cut the bonds holding her to the post. All that Gabrielle could do was cushion her fall. Even at that,the pain of the fall finally wrung a cry of pain from Xena. Gabrielle brushed Xena's dark hair back from her face and tried to soothe her.
"Please,"she begged Margola in a voice that shook with love and pain,"Please let me care for her."
"You don't get it, do you? She is not the woman you know. She's a warlord who will kill you if she's given an opportunity! She doesn't know you!"
"Maybe not,"replied Gabrielle,"but I know her and I know I can reach her!" Leaning over Xena,Gabrielle whispered, "One soul." and placed a kiss on her friend's brow.
Margola sighed heavily. "On your own head be it,then". With a few commands,she ordered Xena taken to the garrison infirmary.
Chapter 9, by Wishes
In the infirmary, Gabrielle helped the old healer as he bathed Xena's back and put on herbs that would stop the bleeding and speed healing. Over these he put a soft cloth soaked in a soothing potion. Mercifully, Xena remained unconscious as he worked on the welts and cuts that criss-crossed her back. As he finished, he spat out, "Waste of time."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked. "How can it be a waste of time to help a suffering human being?"
"They'll just do it all over again in a few days, girl," he answered. "Didn't you know that?"
"I thought. . . . I thought if she survived the whipping, they would let her go."
"She'll be whipped every few days to unconsciousness. Until finally even my skill can't bring her back. Then she'll be hanged from the city gate as a warning to others like her not to attack Arcanae. That's our way." His
voice changed from indifference to concern. "You seem like a sweet girl. Don't concern yourself further with this barbarian. Go back home. Forget her."
"May I stay and take care of her?" Gabrielle asked.
He sighed. "Do what you will. But be careful. Serpents who've been trod upon have the most vicious bites."
When he had left, Gabrielle pulled a chair beside Xena's bed. She stroked the soft, dark hair and leaned close to whisper comfort and love into her ear. After a long while, Xena stirred and whispered, "Water."
Gabrielle found a cup and pitcher and helped her friend with the difficult task of drinking while lying on her stomach. "Thank you."
"A warlord or not, Xena, you always had good manners." The injured woman tried to change her position and groaned. "Don't wake yet," Gabrielle cautioned her. "Rest. Get strong. I promise you that the whipping won't be repeated. No matter what it takes, no matter what the cost to me, no one will cause you more pain."
As if taking comfort from the words of this young girl, the warlord quieted and seemed to sleep.
Chapter 10, by JayBird
When Xena finally awoke, it was raining outside. She looked about, realizing she was still in the infirmary and that her right leg was shackled to the stout bedpost. She stretched. Her leathers were in tatters, but her back had begun to heal. Almost ready for another session on the post, she thought.
It was then she realized the girl who called herself Gabrielle was sitting beside her bed, looking out the open window at the cold slanting rain. For the last two days this girl had fed her, cleaned her and even helped her perform her most intimate of tasks.
"Why?" Xena asked. "Why do you help me?"
"You'll find out," Gabrielle replied, still looking out the window.
Xena snorted, sinking back into her straw pillow.
"Yesterday, while you were sleeping, I attempted to leave this village," Gabrielle said.
"Every time I started down the mountain trail, I ended up back where I started... like nothing exists outside this village."
"Think about it, Xena. There was never a 'city of revenge', and the people who existed here for so many centuries could never maintain the hatred I saw in that crowd without killing each other!" She leaned over to her. "This city... these people... exist only in your mind."
"Tell that to my back."
"Your wounds are real, because your pain is real... because your guilt is real. The guilt you feel for towns like Arcanae and Cirra and... and the hundreds of other places you left your mark as a warlord." She sighed. "But all that is over. Xena the Warlord might have deserved your fate, but my Xena does not. My Xena is a good and kind person. Whom I love very much."
Xena smirked. "Then why did you stand around and watch me get whipped?"
Gabrielle looked back out the window. "That was wrong of me. I thought somehow if you paid your penance we could leave this place and get back to our lives. Now I know there is only one way out for either of us."
"How very true, my dears."
Both looked up to see Margola at the door with three of her well-armed stooges.
"The healer says you're ready for another go-around." Margola smiled. Outside, they could hear the growing chants of the people of Arcanae. "Come along. Mustn't keep your audience waiting!"
It was a vicious replay of the other day's events. The same crowd, the same chains and even the same whipping post as Xena was bound to the heavy wood.
Gabrielle stood at the edge of the crowd. The man with the whip came forward to a chorus of cheers. He unfurled the wicked length of leather and cracked it in the air to the delight of the crowd.
That's when Gabrielle made her move. Breaking from the crowd she plunged headlong towards Xena, wrapping her arms tightly about her and protectly Xena's body with her own. "What'n Tartarus d'you think you're doing!" Xena hissed.
"What I have to do," Gabrielle whispered in her ear.
There was a fresh chorus of bets as the crowd now wagered how long this crazy young girl would willingly allow herself to be whipped. The man with the whip uncoiled his weapon and looked to Margola.
"You may proceed," she said with a smile.