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Editor's Choice Award

The Contest


Chapters 1-2

by Eimajj
eimajj@earthlink.net



Disclaimer:

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are owned by MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended. The rest of the characters and the story are mine. This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

Comments are greatly appreciated-send them to eimajj@earthlink.net



Prologue:

The autumn sun climbed higher in the sky and warmed two weary travelers who trudged down the dual wagon ruts of the Thessalian road. The strikingly beautiful women showed the dust and the mud of long acquaintance with the thoroughfare. The raven haired, tall, muscular women who strolled the right furrow wore the armor and leather of a warrior stained with rust colored blood. She was armed with a large sword in a scabbard strapped to her back and an ornate silver and gold chakram that hung from her waist. She led a golden palomino warhorse. Every once in a while she would lift her head up from staring at the ground and search the horizon in all directions with a cold blue icy gaze. Once satisfied that no danger lurked nearby, her head would drop once again. Her companion shuffled to her left and slightly behind. Her head also drooped and she leaned heavily on a large Amazon carved staff. Her long ash-blond hair covered part of her face and showed the need of a combing and re-braiding.

The warrior turned to her companion and her piercing glance softened as she noted the weary condition of her best friend. "Gabrielle, what do you say we call it a day and find a nice quiet camp spot off a ways from this gods forsaken road?"

"Thought you were in a hurry to reach Veroia and find out why King Melias sent for you," Gabrielle replied abruptly. "Whatís the matter Xena, tired?"

Xena shrugged, "Just thought you could use a shorter day and maybe wash up a bit."

"Look, Iím just fine," Gabrielle snapped.

The warriorís eyes narrowed as she looked away and muttered, "Suit yourself."

Xena moved ahead slightly faster and returned to studying the ground. Her face was a mask, stern and impassive but her mind was churning. She wanted to discuss her concerns surrounding the events that had befallen the two travelers on the Thessalian road but Gabrielle was clearly in no mood for conversation. How unlike the young blond bard! Xena was so used to Gabrielleís sunny spirit and constant chatter. This new cold silent Gabrielle was a strange and troubling entity to the warrior.

"Focus, better to talk to Gabrielle tonight," Xena mused. She knew what was troubling her friend. It had been two months since Gabrielle had lost her young husband of one day, Perdicus. He was brutally murdered by Callisto, Xenaís sworn enemy. He had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and Callisto had killed him to torment Xena. Gabrielle had never had a chance to mourn or work through her sorrow. The two friends had been on the move constantly since, thrown from one adventure to another. It seemed like every week there was a new crisis, new danger and another brush with death. The stress built. Gabrielle had not written down or told a single story since Perdicusís death. She had stopped singing and playing her flute. Her girlish chatter had lapsed into stony silence. The change in the young bard was striking and wore on the warriorís mind and spirit.

The warrior glanced back at Gabrielle but the young bard did not notice, her head bowed, lost in her own thoughts. Xena turned back and once again scanned the country side. It was lovely, rolling green hills and forest with some of the trees showing the first tinges of fall color. To the right the Arcadian mountains reached high towards a bright blue sky with faint wisps of white clouds showing behind them.

Yet the warrior knew that that this calm peaceful setting was masking some dark purpose. It just made no sense. They had traveled this road for a week and had fought at least one battle a day. Today, they were attacked twice and it was still early afternoon. The attacks had all been the same, four or five unshaven, smelly louts running or jumping from ambush with the intent to maim or kill. They did not demand money or anything else for that matter. Stranger still, all were very poorly armed with either rusty unkempt knives, spears or swords and were very unskilled in their use. These scruffy ragged men wore no armor and had a lean hungry look about them that spoke of poverty and despair. The warrior had no trouble dispensing them and had avoided killing any of the brutes until the last encounter earlier in the day. Fatigue had won out. In frustration, Xena had drawn her sword and sent a couple of attackers to Hades.

Gabrielle had scattered the rest with her staff. She was getting very good with her Amazon weapon as she was getting a lot of practice on this road. What bothered Xena was simply why? The attacks were too similar and happened too often to be coincidence. They seemed planned but for what purpose? There did not ever seem to be a leader among them and the ruffians never said a word.

Suddenly, the warrior got a cold feeling and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. Her keen hearing picked up the faintest rustling in the trees to the left and slightly behind them.

"Gabrielle, get your staff ready and watch your back!"

No sooner was the warning out from the warriorís tightened lips when with a yell a group of raggedly dressed men jumped up from behind a clump of trees. Gabrielle whirled and caught the first two neck level with her staff. The fight was on!

Chapter 1

The sun sank behind the mountains as shadows darkened the landscape. The air held a chill giving signs of a cold and damp night. Gabrielle sat staring into a small fire burning in a sheltered cove near a tumbling stream. Xena strolled into the camp and deposited two skinned rabbits beside her. She walked back to the stream to wash her stained hands. Without a word, Gabrielle skewed the meat and placed it over the fire.

She then turned and placed a pot with some greens and water to the side of the flames. She deftly reached into a pouch and pulled out a pinch of salt and sprinkled it over the meat. Xena returned to the fire and watched as Gabrielle poured course flour into a small bowl and mixed it with water. She was making her special trail biscuits. Soon the savory smells of the cooking meal filled the camp, nestled between two giant boulders.

Xena turned her head to listen and stare coldly into the shadows. "Iím going to have a look around one more time, be right back."

Gabrielle looked up and watched her friend quietly slip away. The thought crossed her mind that Xena could never sit still more than a few moments. She sighed and went back to kneading the dough. Their last fight of the day had been short but furious. Xena had killed two of the attackers with her chakram. The rest had run away but not before one had knocked Gabrielle down and given her a nasty bruise on her arm. Gabrielle knew that Xenaís restlessness was due to the attacks they had weathered on the road. The trouble was that Gabrielle just didnít care.

Xena was gone for quite awhile and returned just as the meat was done. She wearily plopped down next to Gabrielle and took one of the roasted rabbits from the skewer. They ate in silence. Once the meal was dispatched and the cooking utensils put away, Xena decided to broach the subject of Perdicus.

"Gabrielle, look I know we havenít had much time to talk but I understand what you are feeling. I really do."

The bard looked up coldly at her friend, "What do you mean?"

"What I mean is that I am here for you if you want to talk. Losing Perdicus has left you with a great deal of pain and grieving is what you need to do. You need to cry for him."

Gabrielle returned her gaze to the fire. "I donít want to talk about it," she replied firmly.

"But you must. When I lost my brother Lyceus, I was filled with pain and grief. I had no one to talk to and I grew bitter and angry. The anger turned to hate and it became easy for the bloodlust to take over. I was consumed by it and became a worse warlord than the one Lyceus and I fought. I had no time to feel...anything. When I lost my beloved Marcus, again I was consumed with grief but you were there for me. You helped me to work through my pain. Please, Gabrielle, let me help you."

This astonishing speech filled the silence between the two friends. Never had the warrior spoken of her feelings before to anyone not even herself. Nor had she ever begged Gabrielle for anything. It was not in her nature to show emotion or be concerned for the emotions of others. Gabrielle looked up into the soft blue eyes of the warrior and saw the love there for her. The pain was just too great. An almost physical ache burned in her chest and she shook her head. She had no reply. She stood up and went to her blankets on the other side of the fire and rolled into them turning her back. Xena watched her for a moment and then turned misty eyes towards the fire.

At night, with the fire burning low and Gabrielle asleep, Xenaís demons came out to haunt her thoughts and drag at her soul. In the ashes of the fire, she saw the faces of those she had killed and maimed. She saw blood, heard the cries of battle and relived what she had been. As the night wore on and sleep eluded her, the voices whispered to the warrior. "You are to blame," they taunted. "Perdicus would be alive if you had not wronged Callisto so many years ago. If you had let Gabrielle be, she would be happily married in her home village of Poteidaia; perhaps have children now, be content. Instead, you stole her happiness and doomed her to know your enemies, fight your battles, live your weary useless life. She gave you her light and what did you give her but grief, pain, and suffering. She has seen blood, smelled battle and can she be far away from taking her first life?"

The warrior shook her head and fought back the despair. She had done some good, made some amends.

Yet it never seemed enough. She was a warrior and accepted that creed and the life it meant. She would face her end someday at the end of a sword in battle but what of Gabrielle? Didnít she deserve more, a better life, less strife and pain? Shouldnít she have a family, loved ones around? Xena got to her feet and stretched her long lanky frame. She quietly stole to Gabrielleís side and slipped her blanket on top of the slumbering bard. She then moved away to lean up against a tree and keep watch. She dozed slightly and waited for the morning light to come and chase the gloomy thoughts away.

 

Chapter 2

The gray of dawn became visible over the eastern foothills. Xena got a small cooking fire going and put some water up to boil for tea. She packed their few belongings on the tall warhorse and bent down over her sleeping friend. She shook the bard gently, "Gabrielle, its time we were moving." The young woman woke with a start and then slowly climbed out from under the blankets. Wordlessly, after a quick breakfast of biscuits and tea, the travelers returned to the Thessalian road.

They no sooner rounded a corner when a group of tattered men attacked them from both sides. Xena drew her sword and blocked the thrust of an attacker while kicking his companion in the stomach. She whirled and blocked a spear thrust of another while delivering a kick to the knee of the first. Her moves were as quick and graceful as a choreographed ballot. She smiled wickedly as the feeling of power and strength flooded over her. A quick glimpse to the left showed that Gabrielle had decked one lout and left a second on his knees with a staff poke to the groin.

Suddenly, several more men ran down the hill in front of them and joined the fight. Xena shouted her war cry "AYiYiYiYi" and charged directly into them. She knocked the first of these new adversaries down with the flat of her sword. The second was leveled with a quick elbow to the neck and a kick to the chest dropped the third. Those that could move, took off running back over the hill. Out of breath and dripping sweat, the warrior turned and cast a worried glance in Gabrielleís direction. The bard was leaning on her staff panting, but seemed none the worst for the morningís exercise.

"Come on, letís get out of here." Xena climbed onto the horseís back and held her hand down for Gabrielle to reach. The bard hesitated a moment, her dislike of riding on her face. Then without argument, she reached up and swung up behind the warrior. The large warhorse walked with a quick step down the road carrying the two woman with little effort. "Ya Argo," Xena called and urged the palomino into a cantor.

They made good time and finally stopped to rest beneath a large shade tree. As Gabrielle slid off the tall horse, she looked up into her friendís face. As usual, she saw a cold, expressionless mask with piercing blue eyes looking down at her.

"Xena, whatís going on? Who are these men? Did you fight with your army in this area before?"

"My army did fight near here some years back and we took a number of villages to the south ," the warrior replied woodenly. "I donít recognize any of these men but I guess that doesnít mean much."

Suddenly, a sound alerted the warrior to more trouble. "Gabrielle, get ready and watch behind you," Xena shouted and reined Argo around to meet the charge of yet another group of ragged men. She charged her horse into the middle of a group of louts, swinging her sword to the right and left. She cut a large black bearded man across the chest and dropped another with a blow to the head. She blocked the sword thrust of a third and cut a fourth ruffian on his arm. Xena whirled Argo back around under the tree in time to see Gabrielle trip one attacker and knock another on the head.

However, three more attackers jumped from behind a bush and surrounded Gabrielle in an open area.

Xena saw she was in a bad position, dropped her sword into its scabbard and reached for her chakram.

Two ruffians, one on each side of Argo tried to attack but Xena kicked each in the head while she kept her eyes on Gabrielle.

Suddenly, a man dropped behind Xena onto the horse from the tree branch above and thrust his dagger into her shoulder. The blade glanced off her armor and cut a deep gash into her bare arm. With a sharp cry more of rage than pain, Xena buried her left elbow into the attackerís midsection and he fell backwards off Argo.

Xena snatched her chakram from her side and let it sail. It ricocheted off a tree and hit all three men that surrounded Gabrielle before hitting another tree and bouncing back into Xenaís hand. A look over her shoulder showed Xena that more men were running down the hill to the left and others were coming up the road behind them. She reined in the rearing Argo and galloped to Gabrielleís side. With a grasp of her strong left hand, she lifted her friend up behind her. Yelling "Ya Argo," she dug her heels in the side of the great warhorse. They took off down the Thessalian road scattering dust and rocks behind them as they flew.

Argo stretched out into a flat run as the road dipped down and then climbed up a hill. As they crested the rise, Xena pulled the plunging horse to a stop. "Gabrielle, are they following us?"

Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder while holding onto Xenaís waist with a tight grip. "No, they are just standing around where we left them."

"Ahuh. Then I guess weíll take a little detour." With that, Xena urged Argo over the hill and galloped down the road until it curved. She slowed the horse to a walk and reined her to the right into thick bushes and trees. Xena guided the horse carefully through the undergrowth, looking for the toughest terrain and rocky ground to travel. Several times she back tracked. Her falcon sharp blue eyes scanned the countryside looking for attackers and then starred at the ground ahead.

Gabrielle kept her eyes moving as well looking for further attacks.

Suddenly, she felt something warm and sticky on her right arm. Blood!

"Xena, youíre hurt. Weíve got to stop and look after this."

"Itís not bad, just a scratch. Look, thereís a stream over there. Weíll head into it and that should make it pretty hard to track us."

Xena urged Argo into the fast moving water and then headed the horse downstream. Finally, after a few minutes she urged the horse across the water to the west bank and into a secluded spot between several large boulders and trees. Gabrielle, slipped off the tall warhorse and Xena swung down as well.

The "scratch" was trailing a fast flowing stream of blood down the warriorís arm. "Keep it elevated," Gabrielle commanded in her best Xena imitation voice.

While Xena sat on a rock with an amused grin on her face, Gabrielle ran to Argoís saddle and pulled the pouch from her back that contained their supplies. She grabbed a cloth and wetted it in the stream and then ran back to Xenaís side. Gabrielle cleaned the wound with firm but gentle pressure just as she had seen Xena do so many times in the past.

"Itís not long enough to need stitching," Xena observed watching the proceeding.

"OK, but Xena, itís a very deep cut. I think it goes to the bone. Does it hurt?"

"Yes, a little," Xena admitted. "Itís in a bad place on my sword arm. It will make fighting a bit tough for a few days, thatís for sure. Bind it tight."

Gabrielle tied the bandage tightly and offered the waterskin to Xena. With a worried look, she watched as the warrior took a long drink and then slipped off the rock to sit up against it. With her head back and her eyes closed, a worn, tired look crossed the warriorís normally expressionless face.

Gabrielle went back over to Argo and pulled the saddle from her back. She lead the horse down to the stream for a drink and tied her near some good grazing. She then fell to work scrubbing the dried blood from the saddle and packs.

Xena opened her eyes and watched her friend quietly. "Sorry, Gabrielle, but no fire tonight."

Gabrielle nodded and pulled out some biscuits and a hunk of cheese that made a cold afternoon supper for them. After eating, Gabrielle spread out their blankets and stretched out for a rest. Xena surprised her by rising to her feet.

"Where are you going? You should be resting."

"Iím going to take a short walk around. Iíll be right back, Gabrielle.

Donít worry. Iím fine."

"Xena, for just once will you take it easy on yourself," Gabrielle snapped with more than a touch of annoyance in her voice.

The warrior looked at her friend with soft eyes, smiled a bit sadly and slipped noiselessly into the forest.


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