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Just Another Dead Warlord
© 1996 by Word Warrior
The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are (c) Universal City Studios. The rest of it I thunk up. There are some references to a relationship of a sexual nature between two women, so if you object to that or are under 18, put this away please. There is also some violence, so if you're sensitive to that, best not read this. Dist. by permission of author only.
PART ONE: A DIFFERENT PATH
The path had been tramped to hard-packed dirt by thousands of passing feet. Travelers, peddlers, farmers, armies -- all had added their prints to help forge a way through the forest. An ancient, gnarled olive tree stood sentinel at the fork. One path went right, toward Thebes. The other curved left, its destination unmarked. The way to Thebes was well-known, and the road that forked toward it was straight and smooth. The other fork was barely discernible, with only the suggestion of a trail.
Xena, loosely holding Argo's reins, stood before the tree, wondering how many people had ever hesitated here. How many had ever questioned which path to take.
"Xena?" came a whisper from just below and behind her shoulder.
"Mmm?" she answered, not wanting human voices to disrupt the clamor of the forest.
"How long are we going to stand here?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena made no indication that she'd heard her companion's question. She held her body still, with no superfluous movement. Her arms were at her sides, as if any gesture at all might interfere with a sudden snatch at her sword. Her eyes, clear and piercing, were the color of the sky on a cold, cloudless winter day.
Gabrielle looked up at the Warrior Princess and internally told herself to be patient. At times, she wished that she could have Xena's inner detachment. That she could find the same state of calm mixed with readiness at which Xena lived. But as usual, Gabrielle was eager to get going, not privy to Xena's thoughts about paths and trees and choices.
"Let's go," said Xena, tugging at Argo's reins and taking the bare track to the left.
"Isn't Thebes the other way?" asked Gabby, hurrying a bit to catch up.
"But... well, I thought, I mean, you said earlier that we were going to take the path to Thebes."
"We did take the path to Thebes. It got us here. Now we're on a different path."
"Oh. Okay, I guess," said Gabby, not understanding but used to Xena's silences and cryptic speech. She debated saying something more, but instead squelched her disappointment. She had been looking forward to visiting the city. There were things she wanted to buy and luxuries she would have enjoyed. Thebes had a wonderful open market where she could purchase exotic fruits, nutmeats, and savories -- all sorts of delicacies to vary their rather pedestrian diet. And there were traveling entertainments to see, a house of oddities to visit, and the one luxury she'd anticipated most -- peace. No warlords, no centaurs, no Amazons, no pillaging villains. Just a city going about its business without the violence and the pain that was Xena's constant companion. Yes, Gabrielle would've enjoyed a side trip to Thebes. But she dismissed the thought as soon as she had it. Her place was here, at Xena's side, wherever this overgrown trail might take them.
Xena pushed a branch aside, ducked, and helped Argo through the narrow passageway. It felt more like a rabbit chase than a path, but Xena knew her destination was near.
She stopped for a moment, to let her ears tell her that the forest was undisturbed. The unseen creatures of the wood told her with their muted chatter that nothing untoward was happening. No one stalked the two lone women; no one spied upon them. She sensed no eyes, no malevolent hearts, no dangers. Finally, she allowed herself to relax.
"Hot today, isn't it?" she asked.
Gabrielle was startled out of her own thoughts by this unexpected banality. "Yes, yes it is. A real scorcher."
"There's a stream over there, about 15 minutes detour. Would you like to make camp early? Get in a swim, maybe catch some fish?"
"I'd love it! You mean we'd have the whole afternoon to just hang out and goof around? Playing in the water, relaxing, washing out our clothes, baking some fresh bread and then we could make--"
"Yeah. This way," Xena said, breaking through the underbrush.
The women struggled with Argo, who wasn't happy about being penned in by the green, but after several yards they hit another, almost invisible path. This one curved north and was easier going for the mare. And for the women. Within fifteen minutes they left it behind, crashed through more undergrowth and emerged into the most beautiful glade Gabrielle had ever seen. A small waterfall fell into a deep pool which swirled and eddied, pushed by currents deep beneath the surface. The pool emptied into a roaring whitewater stream which raced over stones, stumps and boulders, frothing and churning and tumbling around a bend beyond the hill.
There was tall, sweet grass which was tamped down into a feathery carpet. Buttercups, new roses and daisies were sprinkled like jewels around the cove, perfuming the loamy air. Wild strawberries dotted the area near the trees in decadent abundance and a tiny grove of apple trees were heavy with succulent fruit.
"How did you know about this place?" asked Gabrielle, awed.
"I once came here to die."
"What?" asked Gabrielle, wondering how Xena could speak so calmly of such a horrible idea. Suddenly, she forgot about the beauty around her and instead saw blood on the rocks, mingling with the raging waters. Xena's blood. Xena dying. Alone...?
"Nice, isn't it?" Xena asked, unwilling to offer more. She looked at the pool and smiled. "I was going to rest first, but that looks too inviting." Xena walked over to a large, flat rock and sat down. She began unlacing her boots. Gabrielle sat next to her and reached for her own laces, but stopped, unable to remain silent.
"Please, Xena. I have to know. What happened? Why were you dying? Was anyone here with you? Helping you? Xena hesitated, then looked at her friend. She saw the worry and the inquisitiveness and the love, all transparent on Gabrielle's youthful features. The warrior reached out a hand and gently stroked the bard's cheek. So tender was her touch that Gabrielle almost forgot her questions. Then Xena withdrew her hand and sighed, glancing up at the clear, blue sky. "Beautiful day," was all she said.
Gabrielle's fleeting peace evaporated. She wasn't going to be put off again. This time, Xena had to tell her. She just had to. With all the intensity of her young heart, Gabrielle whispered, "Please? Just this once -- could you be my bard?"
Xena smiled, bending back down to continue unlacing her boots. Sensing Gabrielle's deep hunger for the truth, she relented. "All right. Just this once." Speaking in a low monotone, Xena began her tale. "It was a long time ago. In a different life, when I was just earning the title, Warrior Princess..."
PART TWO: THE WOUNDED WARRIOR
"He's nearby. I can smell his fear," Xena said as she turned to Sarolias.
"There's a village down the way. Triphides," replied the general. "We can get food and horses there. And since Karralthus and his army are on the plains to the east, we can take the battle to them."
"We've had dealings before with Triphides. Last year, in exchange for supplies, we spared their lives."
"I'd forgotten. Yes, we own them, body and soul."
"Good," said Xena with a smile. "I think it's tax time." With a nod, Sarolias left her tent. Xena sat down on the edge of her cot then laid back, smiling in anticipation. It would feel wonderful to finally defeat Karralthus. He had been with Cortese when Xena's home village had been attacked. Karralthus had slashed right and left with his sword, killing the women and children, but when some of the men of her village had formed an attack, the cowardly Karralthus had hidden behind the skirts of his victims, begging for mercy. Fortunately for him, none of his fellow soldiers had seen this. And eventually, the men who he'd feared and the women who'd shielded him had all been put to the sword. So there had been no witnesses. No one, that is, except Xena.
Now Karralthus was a warlord. How had he managed that? Xena wondered. Yet the answer was clear. He had needed to destroy her, the one person on earth who had witnessed his shame. To do this, he had to build his own army. Unwittingly, Xena had forged yet another warlord, through an act as small as seeing what she wasn't supposed to see.
A slow, cold smile spread across her face. It would be good to meet him in battle. She would delight in smelling his fear-sweat, watching his eyes grow in terror as she toyed with him like a cat with its prey. One thing was certain: Karralthus would die badly -- and at her hand.
The village of Triphedes was eerily quiet. Not a soul stirred, nor was there a baby's cry or a child's voice raised in play. Xena knew it wasn't deserted, she could feel two hundred pairs of eyes on her and her small contingent of men. They were hand-picked for this scouting mission, but Xena instantly knew she should have brought the entire army.
She looked around, her hard blue gaze missing no detail. She sniffed the wind and turned to Sarolias.
"It's a trap," she said, digging her heels into her horse's side. But it was too late. The arrows thumped into her stallion's chest and it fell from under her, dead. Xena tumbled into the dirt, using the momentum to flip herself upright, her sword already unsheathed. "Ay yi yi yi yi!" she screamed, the war cry a clear signal to her men to take no prisoners.
Dust roiled in great clouds as Karralthus' army descended on Xena. She cursed her stupidity at being caught with so small a force, even as her sword slashed in arc after arc, slicing through flesh and armor and leather without regard. How could she have made such a foolish mistake? she chastised herself. She had been too sure of herself. Had gotten cocky from her successes. And had counted too heavily on Karralthus' cowardice.
She fought her way through a wall of warriors, leaving a path of destruction, extolling her men to escape if they could. She urged Sarolias to send someone back to their camp for reinforcements. Glancing to her left she saw Karralthus' soldiers drag the villagers from their homes. After casually killing the men and kicking the children aside, they fought each other for a chance at raping the women.
Bloodlust filled Xena's mind and for a moment she was again a victim of evil men. Her instincts screamed at her to protect the people of Triphides. It was a foreign thought, to the warlord, and one she instantly tried to squelch. Had she suddenly gone soft, she wondered? And while her concentration was focused on the battle being raged within, a sword raked deeply across her belly to her left side, silencing her battle cry; stealing the legs from under her. She could do nothing but fall to the dirt, faint with pain.
Her vision blurred, she gritted her teeth and thrust up and behind her with her sword, stopping the death blow aimed at her neck. "I don't have time for this," she spat and pulled herself to her knees. With a flick of her wrist, her chakram sailed toward the men who held the villagers, knocking out half a dozen soldiers before it arced back to Xena. Then she twisted and saw her men running, having broken through the lines. They were going to be safe. They would get her army and crush Karralthus, once and for all.
Unnoticed in the melee as all eyes switched their focus to the fleeing warriors, Xena dragged herself toward a ramshackle tack shop and fell inside, curling up in a corner, hugging her wound and finally, giving in to the blackness.
"She dead?" came a voice from a great distance.
"I dunno. She should be. Looka this. Blood everywhere."
"Turn her over. I don't recognize -- gods!" cried the first man's voice. "That's Xena!"
The second man snorted in disgust and the tender, ministering hands left her. "No sense helping a gorgon like her," he said. "Let's put her in the sun so she might die quicker."
"No, if we put her outside her army might find out and then we're all dead. Better to hide her in the barn."
"Good thinking, Dormeous. You take her legs."
A moan escaped Xena's lips as she was lifted without gentleness and carried through the back of the store. She fought the blackness, wanting to remain awake, but a sudden wrench as the men tried to walk in different directions stole her consciousness.
She awoke in a barn. Flies swarmed on her blood-caked midriff. Dirt, hay and feces from the livestock covered the ground where she lay, coating her wound with filth. A bowl of water and some food was nearby and she reached for the water, biting her lip to keep the screams at bay. Carefully, she inched it toward her. As she bent to drink, she hesitated, her nose crinkling in alarm. There was a faint scent of almonds. Poison. Drinking it would kill her. Putting it on her wound would hurry the festering that had already started. A quick inspection of the food with sight and scent told her it, too, was poisoned.
This was another deathtrap.
"She in the barn then?" came the threads of a familiar voice. It was Karralthus. He'd come for his revenge.
He must have caught her men and slaughtered them, she reasoned, to keep them from raising the alarm. She was entirely on her own, now. No rescue would be mounted, no stories told of the battle and her disappearance. Her life, what was left of it, was hers alone to save.
PART THREE: THE TOMBSTONE
Xena stood, removing the last of her clothing. Gabrielle drank in the sight of her nude, taut body, marveling at the depth of feelings it evoked inside her. Xena stretched and Gabby watched the play of muscles across her shoulders; the high, firm breasts lifting as the dark-haired woman raised her arms above her head. "Enough talking," Xena said, aware of her friend's scrutiny and delighting in it as she dove cleanly into the pool. Gabrielle, too bemused by her own mounting passion to move, watched the ripples grow, waiting. Finally, just as the younger woman began to worry, Xena broke the surface of the water, scattering droplets with a shake of her head; her smile bright, her face relaxed.
"How is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oooh," Xena groaned, ecstatically. "Delicious. Warm as a cooking pot. Get in here."
Gabrielle smiled. She adored it when Xena allowed herself to feel good. Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to have such tight control over her own emotions, but she didn't envy the taller woman this discipline. Gabby enjoyed feeling everything as it happened. She didn't have to pretend not to hurt, or hide her smiles and laughter. Not that Xena didn't know how to have fun. Her dry sense of humor was wickedly funny. Her smiles, when they came, were spontaneous and bright. And her tenderness could be--
"Ack!" screeched Gabby as Xena grabbed her by the ankle and pulled her into the pool. Spluttering and angry, she fought her way to the surface. "What th--"
"Awww, did you get your hair wet? No appearance at the King's court for you tonight!" clucked Xena, expertly staying away from Gabby's flailing, revenge-seeking hands. "Gonna have to settle for a princess."
"Look at me! Now my clothes are soaked! And this water is freezing, you liar!"
"Well, you were the one who mentioned laundry. I just saved you the trouble. C'mon, race you to the other shore," said Xena and she took off with long, bold strokes. Gabby shook her head in dismay, looked down at her water-logged clothing and awkwardly began stripping them away while treading water.
"You slacker!" Xena shouted from the opposite shore. She'd pulled herself onto a rock and was squeezing the excess water from her hair. "Some race that was. You didn't even try."
"I had to--" Gabby ripped off her top and threw it on shore, "get these blasted--" her skirt soon followed, "clothes off first! You can't expect me to race all hampered like that!"
Xena stood, staring at the sky for a moment and breathed deeply, then dove cleanly into the pool, surfacing under the waterfall. "C'mere a second, Gabrielle. I have to show you something."
Gabrielle paddled over, a little frightened by the crashing water. The falls were so thick, she couldn't even see the outline of her friend. "What is it?"
"Just c'mere!" Xena called.
Gabby swam the last couple of yards and surfaced under the falls. Light seeped in from the sides, but it was almost cavelike behind the crashing wall of water. Xena was staring at the curved rock wall behind the falls.
"What is it?" asked Gabrielle, a little spooked.
"Over here," said Xena, and she pointed to some markings etched into the rock face.
"'Here lies Xena,'" Gabrielle read. "'Just another dead warlord.' What does that mean? Xena, you're scaring me."
"Maybe I should continue my story," the warrior said, a bemused expression on her face as she stared at what was supposed to have been her tombstone.
PART FOUR: THE CRAWL
The farmer and Karralthus were talking outside the barn and Xena furiously wiped her eyes, trying to focus, desperate to regain her wits.
"Poison? For Xena? Oh, that's rich," said Karralthus. "No death by the sword for the Warrior Princess. No, rather a slow, painful, suffering, lingering, fade away. Perhaps she'll scream near the end. I'd love to hear that. Xena's screams. Yes, that's worth waiting for."
"I'm glad you're pleased, sir. Now about my wife and-"
"Not now. I don't want to ruin this moment by being merciful. Come, let's check up on the poor, suffering bitch, shall we?"
The men entered the gloomy barn and looked at the spot where Xena had been placed earlier that day. It was empty.
"Where is she, you fool?" asked Karralthus, a murderous edge to his voice.
"She was here! Nearly dead! She couldn't have gotten away, it's impossible. She's lost so much blood and --"
"Do you see her? Where is she if she 'couldn't have gotten away'? Idiot!"
Karralthus' dagger was out and threateningly close to the farmer's belly. Frantically, the smaller man ran over to where he'd put the injured woman only an hour before. The hay and dirt were soaked with fresh blood, but there was no sign of the warrior princess. He looked up, into the rafters and saw the dangling end of a bullwhip. "There! She must have crawled up there!" he shouted.
"Don't stand there -- go get her!"
"But I-- I'm no match for--"
"She's next to dead. How tough could it be to subdue her?"
Fearfully, the farmer climbed the rickety ladder to the lofts above. "I'm unarmed," he called down to Karralthus who threw his dagger, sticking it inches from the farmer's head. Quickly, the man withdrew the blade and crawled along the loft, stabbing it randomly into the hay. "She's not here," he said, his voice stronger now that the danger had passed.
"Xena!" screamed Karralthus, unable to believe that his broken quarry had somehow managed to escape.
The breeze carried the shout, now barely audible, to the ears of a woman, crawling across the bracken and stones of the deep woods. Her wound was bleeding freely again so she paused to readjust the bandage she had rigged before escaping the barn.
They've figured out that I've gone, she thought, having known that her bullwhip blind would delay them, but not for long. Without much hope, she finished fixing the bandage and turned back onto her right side, pulling her weight forward by inching fetally along the ground. Her legs had stopped supporting her after only a few steps. The awkward crawl was her only option. And it was in this painstaking fashion that she traveled through the night and half the following day.
By noon, Xena knew she had less than an hour of life remaining. She had no idea where she was or where she was going. She wondered only where she would choose to die.
The wound was growing worse with every movement she made. The festering pus told Xena that it had been fouled by the filth on the floor of the barn, the poisons beginning to spread inside her. With no water to wash it and no clean bandages, there was little hope left in the weakened warrior. Only the goal of hiding her carcass from Karralthus remained. She didn't want her body befouled by him, for he was known for his predilection toward defiling the corpses of his victims in unnatural ways. She was Xena, Warrior Princess, and would not allow herself to be taken, not even after her death, by a cowardly pervert like him.
PART FIVE: A SHOOTING STAR
"And then I pushed aside a bush -- right about here -- and I found this place." Xena was standing near a thick blanket of undergrowth, showing Gabrielle the very spot where she had crawled past death toward life.
"You must have cried for joy," said Gabby, unable to stop a tear from rolling down her cheek. The thought of Xena, crawling through the woods, pursued by a madman had unsettled her far more than she'd wanted to show.
"It seemed a pretty good place to die, yeah." Xena walked back toward their camp.
Despite her prodding, Gabrielle couldn't get Xena to tell her the rest of the story. The older woman kept saying that she'd finish it later, but not while the sun was bright, the pool beckoned and the fish were biting.
So they spent the afternoon pretending they were on holiday. They swam and played in the waterfall. They caught dinner in the stream. And they made passionate, tender love among the tall grasses, daisies and buttercups. Xena's vivacity grew more pronounced as the day progressed and Gabrielle had a glimpse of the woman her friend might have become had the fates not decreed her to be a warrior. And strangely, Gabby had a sense of deja vu. As if she'd known this Xena in another lifetime.
Gabrielle gathered the dishes and set them aside. The fire felt wonderful after the chill of sunset had set in. She stared at her partner, who avoided her gaze. "It's later, you know," said Gabrielle, hoping she had the stomach for the remainder of the tale.
"Mmmm," mumbled Xena, her eyes watching the heavens. Suddenly she pointed upwards. "Look! A shooting star! Make a wish, my little bard."
"My wish is that you'd quit stalling and tell me the rest of what happened with Karralthus," Gabrielle grumbled. Xena laughed.
"So impatient," she said, her smile lingering. She leaned back on her elbows, listening to the stream splash and gurgle in the night.
"And you seem in an awfully good mood today. Why? How can you be so happy and complacent when what you told me has me all wrapped up in knots!"
Xena looked over at her friend. "Because it's all in the past. Because I lived to tell the tale. Because I like being here, with you, comfortable and whole and healthy, knowing you're safe as long as I'm alive. And because I'm enjoying seeing you fret about me. It's nice to know my death would mean something to somebody. It wasn't like that back then. Then, I was alone and there would have been nothing but cheers at the news of my death."
"What about your army? Your generals? Your... lovers?" Gabrielle added quietly.
"Alone is alone, Gabrielle. Had there been anyone who cared, I wouldn't have been in that situation. No one came looking for me. No rescue was mounted. They were much more interested in who would take my place."
PART SIX: MISSING, ONE PRINCESS
Sarolias had seen Xena crawl into the store, wounded and bleeding. He knew this was the chance he'd been waiting for. Finally he would be the warlord he'd dreamed of being, and with Xena's band of cutthroats, there'd be no stopping him.
He and the others made it safely to the warcamp and announced to the assembled soldiers that their leader had fallen. Xena was dead. Sarolias was the reigning general, so he took Xena's mantle with relish, not even challenged by any of the of the other generals, the news of their leader's passing having left them dispirited and directionless. Sarolias immediately made battle plans to destroy Karralthus' troops. Their scouts had the location of the main camp and it wasn't easily defensible. This was going to be a rout, realized Sarolias. And he knew it would cement his position as their new leader. Only one thing could possibly stand in his way. He had to have proof that Xena was truly dead.
Xena pulled herself to the river's edge and drank deeply of the cold, crisp water. She tried to control her gulping but her willpower had evaporated as soon as she'd seen the waterfall, pool and stream. Even as she drank, she felt the nausea rise and was soon retching by the side of the stream. Weakened even more, she passed out.
She was awakened by the sound of a shout nearby. One of Karralthus' men had found her bloody trail through the woods. It was only a matter of seconds before they would crash through the bushes and see her. Xena pulled herself silently into the pool. The cold water shocked her awake and bit deeply into her wound.
With her left arm nearly dead from the infection which was crawling through her body, she pulled herself against the undertow with the right, just able to keep her head above water. As the voices drew closer she looked around frantically, searching for a place to hide. She swam for the waterfall. The bushes at the edge of the clearing shook and a man's voice shouted for the others to come. Xena dipped below the water, still yards away from her goal.
"Well, well, well," said Karralthus. "That is one hell of an amazing woman." He couldn't keep the respect from his voice. He still wanted her dead, but after having followed her trail for the better part of the afternoon, he was in awe of her strength. He knew he would never have been able to do what she did. But none of it mattered, not in the end. He had her now. "Find her and bring her to me," he said curtly, then settled down by the side of the pool.
For three days they camped in the glade. For three days they searched for the Warrior Princess. They knew she had been there. One of them finally found the inscription scratched on the wall beyond the falls.
"'Here lies Xena. Just another dead warlord.' Well, that proves it, doesn't? She's dead. Her body must've been carried away by the river," his lieutenant said with finality.
"You don't know Xena," replied Karralthus, lounging by the stream.
"She carved her own epitaph. You don't do that unless you know you're dead. Hades don't like jokes about stuff like that."
"Yes, it is spitting in old Hades' eye, isn't it?" Karralthus glanced up at the sullen man. "So why didn't we see her body? We've been watching for her all this time. We know she was here and we know she didn't leave this place. So why can't we find any trace of her, besides some graffiti on the rock?"
"Maybe she ain't human. Some say that Xena is no woman. They say she can do things not even a man can do. They say she's maybe a godling like Hercules, only she has powers unknown to all."
"They say that, do they?" Karralthus asked. He stood at his full height, looking down at his soldier with a sneer. "Xena is a woman, all right. 100% pure female. Not a goddess, not a ghost -- just a stinking, nothing of a woman. Now find me the Hades-cursed corpse!"
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant replied, knowing it wasn't to be found.
PART SEVEN: OF ECHOES AND SWORDS
"Where were you?" asked Gabrielle. Xena was lying on her back, the cool night breezes playing with the tendrils of her loose hair. She stared up at the stars, tired of talking. Wanting only to sleep. Gabrielle was propped on one elbow staring down at her, willing her to stay awake and finish her tale.
Xena reached up and pulled Gabrielle's mouth down to hers, lingering for a long moment on the kiss. Then she sighed and turned her back on the eager bard. "In the morning, Gabrielle," she muttered, closing her eyes. "I'll finish telling you in the morning. Now get some sleep. Dawn is less than an hour away and I'm exhausted."
"Gaaah!" said Gabrielle, knowing it was useless to badger her if Xena didn't want to do something. Unable to find any peace, Gabby rose and walked to the edge of the pool. How had Xena vanished? she wondered. Where could she have gone? If she'd hidden in the bushes or trees, the men would have found her immediately. There were no hiding places, no caves, no copses, no secret glens or...
"No caves?" she asked the night. Could there be a cave? Excited by the thought, Gabby stripped off her clothes, made a quick, makeshift torch and slipped into the water, holding the flame high. By sliding behind the falls at the edge, she was able to keep her torch lit. With her free hand, she felt along the rock, her fingers seeking that which her eyes still couldn't see.
And there it was. A tiny fissure. Even knowing it was there, Gabby couldn't tell that it hid a secret passage. The opening was underwater, and invisible unless one already knew it existed. How Xena had found it on that fateful day, Gabby chalked up to another of her friend's miracles.
She wanted to go inside, to see the place where Xena hid for days while killers waited. But she was afraid to do so in the dark. She couldn't bring her torch underwater and she had no idea if anything occupied the cave now.
A finger tapped her on the shoulder and she jumped, dropping the flame sputtering into the water.
"Knew you'd figure it out," came Xena's voice. It was so dark without the torch, Gabrielle couldn't even see the silhouette of her friend. "C'mon. I'll show you."
"But... but it's dark and --"
"Don't worry. I'll be with you."
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand and pulled her along as she dipped under the surface and swam into the opening beneath the falls. They were underwater for about thirty seconds, and Gabrielle thought her lungs would burst. She could sense the rock walls of the twisting tunnel closing around her and could imagine herself drowning, entombed here forever. But Xena's grip was strong and she swam purposefully, pulling Gabby up into the stale air of an echoing cavern.
Gabrielle nervously began treading water as she heard Xena swim away from her. Then suddenly the cavern was filled with light.
"I left my torches behind. From the last time. I knew I'd be back."
The cavern had a huge vaulted ceiling, dripping with stalactites. On the rough rocky floor Gabby saw the remains of a pack and some dried herbs. A cloth, crusted with blood, lay near the wall.
"This is where you hid?" whispered Gabrielle, not wanting her voice to overwhelm them.
"Yeah. While I crawled through the woods, I managed to gather enough herbs and leaves to tend my wounds, in case I found water. And I had some nuts and olives in my pouch. There are fish in that stream, even in here, so I had plenty to eat, water to drink, and I found that this mold here, on these pannis plants -- when you eat it, it kills infection. I've never found it anywhere but here."
"That's what you gave me when I got that bad cut, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. But I've used it all. And I don't like to be without it. That's one reason I knew I'd come back. It's stupid to die of an infection. Especially when you know how to cure it."
"You mean, this was your destination all along? We were never going to Thebes. And the 'detour' wasn't a detour at all."
"That's right. But I didn't feel like explaining it to you."
Gabrielle frowned. "You could've told me, you know," she said, the old bitterness at being left out of Xena's plans rising quickly. "I would've understood if you'd just said you needed more medicine."
"Yeah? Well the Gabrielle I know always asks more questions no matter what I say."
"That's so unfair!" said Gabrielle, pulling herself out of the water. The word 'unfair' echoed through the enclosed space.
"Forget it," said Xena, harvesting the mold.
"I'm not going to forget it. I deserve better, Xena. I thought we've been through all this. I don't like to be cut out of your life, your thoughts, your plans. We're partners now. More than friends, we're a team. And yes, you're the leader and I'll more than likely bow to your judgement but I hate it when you leave me out!"
Xena paused until the echoes died. Softly, she said, "Maybe I have been unfair. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle looked at her friend in surprise. "You know, you don't say that very often, but when you do it always sounds so nice."
Xena stopped gathering mold for a moment and faced her. "Words always do mean a lot to you, don't they? I forget that sometimes." Tenderly, the warrior pulled Gabby into an embrace. "I hate it when you're angry at me. And I always seem to bring it on myself."
Mollified, Gabrielle returned the embrace, then looked specutively at her friend. "So if you didn't feel like explaining the story about Karalthus, why--"
"I changed my mind," said Xena. She disengaged from the embrace and went back to gathering the mold. With her back to her friend, she said, "It's good for you to know that I can be hurt. That I can die. That we may not always be together."
"Why? Why would you say such a thing?"
"Because I want you to learn to think for yourself, to think about your own survival. You figured it out about the cave, didn't you? That's what I'm talking about. Karralthus was here for days and neither he nor his men ever found it."
Gabrielle smiled. Xena was so sparing with compliments that when she did give them, it felt twice as good. The young bard let the silence grow for a moment, reviewing Xena's story in her mind. "Whatever happened to Sarolias?" she asked.
"No one wanted to take the chance of following him unless he could produce my body. And because I was still using it--"
Suddenly Xena stopped talking. She put a finger to her mouth, quieting Gabrielle's unasked questions, then crept to a tiny fissure on the far side of the cave wall.
After listening for several minutes she turned to Gabby and frowned. "He's here," she whispered. "But I wasn't expecting him so early."
"Who?" Gabby mouthed.
"Karralthus. I knew he'd come. Tomorrow, it'll be ten years to the day, that he gave up looking for me -- that he admitted a dead woman had beaten him. Since then, he lost his armies, lost the respect of the other warlords. And worst of all, lost the ability to make people fear him. He's wandered alone ever since. I knew he couldn't resist coming back here. But I wasn't expecting him until tomorrow. This complicates things. Why do I always make stupid mistakes when dealing with Karralthus?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena and was suddenly afraid for her. The taller woman had no weapons -- they were still stacked neatly by the fire. Both women were naked and Gabby felt very vulnerable. "What are we going to do?"
"You're going to stay here, in the cave. I'm going to give Karralthus a souvenir of his visit," she said, her hand unconsciously stroking the length of the long thin scar across her belly.
Gabrielle used to ask about that scar. Now she knew only too well the cost of that particular memento. But it wasn't the once-torn flesh which held her attention now. It was the sight of the bloodlust returning to Xena's eyes.
Karralthus stood by the remains of the fire, frowning. He hadn't expected anyone else to know of this place. And where were the people who belonged to this stuff? He looked around but couldn't see or hear anything unusual. Bending down, he lifted the corner of a blanket and saw a leather bodice nestled near some familiar brass swirls.
"Xena..." he whispered.
"Awww, you remember," said a low, throaty voice just behind him. Karralthus reached for his dagger, but instantly felt her sword at his neck. "Don't turn around. I'm not exactly dressed for company," she said, a smile in her voice. "You really are a very stupid man, Karralthus. So predictable. I knew you couldn't resist returning here."
"Don't kill me, Xena. I'm not here to harm you. I'm nothing now. Nothing!"
"You always were, Karralthus. But you did me harm once. Really made things uncomfortable for me. I don't like being uncomfortable."
Karralthus fell to his knees, quivering. Xena hesitated, the thrill of her victory over her old nemesis gone in the face of his fear. She pulled her sword away, disgusted. "Hand me my clothes, then get out of here."
Karralthus held the leather bodice for a moment, staring at it, seeing in the simple piece of clothing all the hatred and loathing that had built up over the years. Unseen by Xena, he smiled. "Now!" he shouted.
Twenty men crashed through the woods, swords drawn, running toward Xena.
"Damn it. I hate fighting naked," she said then leapt into the air, spinning and twisting to escape Karralthus' sudden thrust with his dagger. Three men reached her at once and she dispatched them with ease.
"Get her you idiots!" shouted Karralthus as he grabbed her chakram. He glanced back to see how the battle was going and took a moment to admire the beauty of the nude warrior. This was even better than he'd dreamed.
Now seven men lay scattered at her feet as Xena thrust and parried, kicked and elbowed and punched her way through the wall of warriors. Now eight. Now ten. Half his force was dead or wounded but still they came and their numbers felt overwhelming because she wasn't given even a moment to catch her breath.
Xena wondered if she should jump into the pool and swim for the cave. But she couldn't take the chance that Karralthus had discovered her bolthole sometime during the past ten years. And Gabrielle was in there. Naked and unarmed. Stay in the cave, she silently told her friend. Don't listen for the sounds of the battle and try to help. Just stay safe.
Gabrielle was frantic with worry. Her ear pressed to the fissure, she could hear the battle raging and knew that Xena was fighting an overwhelming force. Gabby had already tried to escape the cave and join her, but she couldn't find the tunnel. It had been dark when they'd surfaced and she didn't know exactly where the tunnel had let out. Finally, she'd given up and returned to the fissure, praying to Artemis and Athena to lend their warrior strength to Xena.
The final four men stood between Xena and Karralthus. The woman's breath was ragged and uneven, her left bicep had been slashed and the arm hung useless, bathed in its own blood. Her right knee had twisted and was already swelling, leaving her off balance. But her eyes were clear, and her right arm, her sword arm, was still strong.
"What are you waiting for, boys?" she said, trying to keep enough air in her lungs to sound calm. This was the first break she'd had since the attack began and she used every moment to rest her muscles, fill her lungs and prepare herself for a final confrontation. Karralthus had finally done something right -- he'd hired first-rate warriors for this mission.
"Give up, Xena. You're beaten," said Karralthus. He was unharmed, having been only a witness to the battle so far. He looked down at his hand and noticed the chakram. The four men with swords were slowly surrounding her, taking turns stabbing at her, knowing that her time had run out, but intent on keeping her moving, stealing her chance at rest and rejuvination.
"I'm not beaten, Karralthus. I'll never be beaten. Especially by a coward like you." Xena slashed at one of the men but he dodged easily. These four had also stood back from the battle, so that they would be fresh for the final confrontation.
Karralthus laughed, enjoying the sight of Xena's sweat-drenched nudity. Yes, he mused, much better than any dream he'd had of this day. With a quickness Xena wasn't expecting he threw the chakram at her.
Without hesitating, she tossed her sword in the air, grabbed the chakram, sent it flying then caught the haft of her sword as it fell back to earth. The chakram slammed into all four attackers, knocking them off their feet, one of them mortally wounded as the weapon buried itself in his chest at the end of it's circuit.
Now Xena and Karralthus were the only two people standing. Karralthus began to sweat as he readied his sword. Xena sniffed deeply then smiled, cruelty in her eyes.
At last, Gabrielle found the tunnel. The sounds of battle had stopped about ten minutes earlier. Gabby's frantic search had finally paid off and she filled her lungs with air before quickly plunging into the dark depths. Feeling the wall with her hand, she followed it as it twisted, kicking with all the strength she had. She could hear an odd scratching sound, amplified by the rock and water. She was very afraid of what she'd find at the end of the tunnel.
Her lungs bursting, she pushed her head above the surface of the water, gulping in the sweet fresh breath of dawn. And standing beside her, calmly scratching with her dagger on the rock wall behind the falls, was Xena.
"Xena!" Gabrielle gasped.
"Good morning. Looks like it'll be another gorgeous day," the woman answered, not looking away from the wall where she was working.
"What happened? Where's Karralthus? Are you all right?"
"Got a scratch or two. Nothing a little pannis mold won't cure, along with a good breakfast. Feel like cooking this morning?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena's limp left arm and winced. "That looks bad."
"I'll dress it in a minute," she replied, her concentration fully on her work. With a final flourish, she stepped back. "There. That's better."
Gabrielle moved closer, to read her handiwork. It was the epitaph -- with a couple changes. Gabrielle read it out loud. "'Here lies Karralthus. Just another dead coward.'"
Gabrielle looked at Xena and noticed that though she was smiling, there was pain in her eyes. It was a familiar pain to the young bard. She'd seen it every time Xena thought about her past, and the killings she'd done. It would take more than Pannis mold to wipe away the effects of this night, Gabrielle realized. And serious wounds always leave a scar.
Silently, Gabrielle reached for her friend and brought the warrior's head to her shoulder. Xena's good arm held on to Gabrielle's slim body, as she finally lost the strength that had carried her through the night. The young woman cradled the proud head to her breast and made soothing murmurs, deep in her throat. Then a sound reached her ears and she looked down in surprise. The former warlord was weeping.
"Why are you crying, Xena?" asked Gabrielle, shaken by the sudden weakness in this always strong woman.
"Because..." faltered Xena, her voice breaking. She took a deep breath then said simply, "this time, someone wanted me to live."
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