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The Contest


Chapters 3-6

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


Chapter 3

The forest was bathed in late afternoon shadows and was silent. Not a bird sang nor was there the rustle of little animals in the under brush. Xena circled the area around the camp and made sure there were no followers lurking nearby. She moved off in a direction that soon brought her back to the worn ruts of the Thessalian road. She kept to the trees and heavy brush and traveled parallel to the highway. Voices up ahead caused her to move more slowly and silently as she crept closer.

In the curve of the road, behind some bushes in yet another good ambush spot, a group of unkempt men were lounging. Several were loudly arguing with each other while the rest listened. Xena was surprised that no guards were posted and moved closer.

"I say theyíre not coming and we head back to the open field."

"Youíre a fool. We can camp here and still be ready for them. Besides, Enos shouldnít travel."

"Whoís going to tell the dark rider that they didnít show up?"

"Donít look at me, Iím staying right here."

"You can go to Tartarus and back for all I care. I tell you we need to spread out and look for them."

"You just want another crack at the prize. Havenít you had enough for one day?"

As the men argued back and forth, Xena noticed a black bearded man lying near a tree with his head pillowed against a small log. He had a bloody cut across his chest that was poorly bandaged. "Must be Enos," she mused. "Bet I gave him that."

Suddenly, the clip clop of a galloping horse was clearly heard on the hard packed road. Some of the men jumped to their feet and ran towards the roadís edge while the rest remained in their reclined positions.

Xena pulled back into the shadows of the forest and watched this new event with interest.

The rider came into view on a lathered bony horse and when he saw the men, pulled the animal to a stop.

He looked like a farmer and seemed to be unarmed. "What are you doing here, laying around? Weíve lost them. Get moving! Thereís several hours of daylight left. Donít you want another chance?"

The men grumbled and finally started moving back along the road. The rider shook his head and watched the group disperse. He dug his heels into the horseís side and galloped ahead down the road. In a few minutes, only Enos remained under the tree alone, his companions forgetting about him or simply not caring.

Xena scanned the empty clearing and then moved silently forward to stand before the stricken man. As she knelt down on one knee next to him, Enos opened his eyes wide and stared at her. Terror showed on his face as he tried to reach for his sword. The movement caused him to groan in pain and he gave up trying.

"Take it easy, I wonít hurt you." Xena spoke softly to the injured man. She pulled the waterskin from around her neck and gave the man a drink. He took a big gulp and his eyes looked up at her gratefully and then with wonder in them.

"Thatís a bad cut." Xena pulled out a clean cloth from her pouch and very quickly bandaged the wound firmly.

"Thatís about the best I can do for now. You need to rest and be tended.

With care, youíll be all right."

"Thanks," he said. "I never figured Xena, warrior princess, would help anyone she fought."

"Well, Enos is it?....I want something in return. I what to know just what is going on here and why all of you are attacking me?"

Enos looked up in surprise, "You donít know? I thought everyone knew, itís the contest."

"What do you mean?"

Xena offered the stricken man another drink, and after he took a swallow, he spoke slowly. "Iím a poor farmer from Balania."

"Thatís near Poteidaia, right?" Xena interrupted.

The injured man nodded and continued, "We have had a terrible drought, crops dried up, everyone going hungry. Then this stranger came into town. He wore rich black clothes and rode a black stallion that pranced and seemed to breath fire. He said he would run a contest and any of us could win. All we had to do was pay one dinar for expenses and then we would have a chance of winning 500,000 dinars."

"500,000 dinars, that is a chest full of gold!" Xena exclaimed.

Enos nodded and continued, "In order to win the prize, all you had to do was kill Xena, the warrior princess and bring her head to the man in black. If enough men kept trying, someone was bound to get lucky and get the job done. Most of us were down on our luck farmers, some were robbers and scum, others just louts and fools. But each of us had a chance to win the prize. More kept coming every day.

We left our homes and followed the man in black. He never told us what to do, gave us weapons or anything. He just said you would be on the Thessalian road and he pointed out good ambush spots."

Xena looked at the man in amazement. She could see there was no reason for him to lie. There had been rewards put on her head before by a warlord or old enemies but never to such a scale. She shook her head as the meaning of this plot sunk in.

Enos watched her for a moment and then went on, "Thereís more, Xena. If anyone cuts you or sheds any of your blood, thereís a 5000 dinar prize paid to him immediately. That cut on your arm got Theos a nice fat purse. I saw him accept it from the man in black."

Xenaís hand went unconsciously to rub her arm as her cold eyes narrowed and showed the fury building there. "This man in black, does he have a name?"

"None I have heard. Some called him Hadesís messenger and others said he was the tool of the gods."

"Did you see his face? What does he look like?"

"Only once," Enos whispered and fear crept into his voice. "He has white hair and a white beard. But itís his eyes I remember; cold black and emotionless. Theyíre not human. They just bore right through you.

Iíll never forget those eyes, his stare. Itís like looking death in the face."

Xena looked out over the injured manís head and tried to remember all the gods and men she had known.

This did not sound like any of them.

"Enos," Xena called gently, "I have to be going. Here, keep this waterskin and rest. You walked too far today with this wound. If you feel better tomorrow, try to get a ride to a village where someone can help you."

"Xena, if I had known you before...honest, I wouldnít have entered this contest. Itís just that my family was hungry.....and."

Xena put a hand on Enosís shoulder and nodded. "Itís OK, maybe thereís a lot of desperate men like you trying to help their families by doing this."

"By the way, do you know how many men are entered into this contest?"

Enos shrugged, "Last I saw over two hundred, maybe more."

Xena stood up and looked down at the prone man. A wave of bitterness and hate crossed her face, "Two hundred," she muttered. "Take care, Enos and good luck. Go back to farming. Youíre not a warrior. I donít want to have to meet you again."

"Xena, take care yourself. I promise we will never cross swords again."

 

Chapter 4

Xena moved silently back towards camp and Gabrielle. "Gabrielle....gods what am I going to tell her about this." As she came back to the stream, gurgling pleasantly in the evening air, the warrior stopped and took a long drink from it. Feeling tired and a dark despondency taking over her mind, Xena decided to rest. She settled down with her back to a large elm.

The full meaning of what she had heard from Enos was becoming quite clear. There was no way to defeat wave after wave of money hungry louts. They would just keep coming until one of them won. Xena sighed. She had always thought her end would come in battle against a warlord or warrior her match.

Instead, she would die at the hands of an unshaven smelly fool who was in the right place at the right time. Sometime when she was tired, her defenses down or she was careless, it would happen. This was the fitting end for the warrior princess. Xena smiled bitterly, perhaps this was a fitting end. She would not run or hide. Besides, where could she hide that they wouldnít find her. Better to just have done with it.

Then the thought of Gabrielle flooded into the tired warriorís mind. These fools would kill her as well.

She would be in their way, fighting side by side with her friend. Even if she were not killed, she would have to watch Xena die. Another loss! Xena knew she would never leave once she understood the danger. So... it was clear, Gabrielle must not know.

Xena thought back to her friendís torment and sorrow. Somehow, the warrior was going to have to protect Gabrielle from more pain. The young bardís soul could only take so much. But how? Looking up, the warrior saw the sun setting over the Arcadian highlands and watched the golden shafts of light stream through the trees. Suddenly, it came to her.

"We could cross the mountains, through the Lokos pass and rejoin the Thessalian road near the forks," the warrior mused. "This short cut would save time and keep us out of trouble.

Once, back on the road,

Gabrielle can go home to Poteidaia. It would be good for her to be with her sister at this difficult time anyway. Then, I can go back up the road and deal with this situation."

Xena felt the cold rush of hate course through her body. Whoever this man in back was, he was going to get a big dose of the warrior princess, by gods. "If Iím going to see Hades, then Iím going to have some company," she vowed under her breath. "Send others out to do your dirty work. Weíll see what you really have, what youíre made of, Mr. Hadesí messenger. And if the gods are involved then to Tartarus with them too."

Xena scrambled to her feet and resolutely set out for camp and a showdown with Gabrielle. She could only hope that the bard in her current state would be easier than usual to influence. As the warrior silently glided into the secluded camp, she saw Gabrielle down by the stream, starring out at the water. As she drew closer, she heard quiet sobs coming from the small bard. Carefully, the warrior put her arm around the shoulders of the troubled girl as she sat down next to her. Gabrielle looked up into the gentle blue eyes of the warrior. Neither spoke, as the warrior held her close. Finally, Gabrielle bushed the tears away and looked into her friendís face. She saw only love there.

"Gabrielle, Iíve been thinking. If we cut over these mountains, we can save days of travel and be at the forks in no time. Then we can head over to Poteidaia and give you a chance to see your family."

"What about King Melias?"

"The good king can take care of himself for awhile. You need to see your family, and frankly with this arm of mine, I can use some rest. Iím worn down and a break would be good for me as well."

Gabrielle looked at her friend in astonishment. Never had the warrior admitted to fatigue and her wonderful strength and endurance were legendary. She glanced at the bandaged arm. Was the wound worse than it appeared?

Seeing the gentle smile on Xenaís face, Gabrielle sighed. She was so tired and confused by all that had happened. If Xena wanted to rest, that was fine with her. Going to Poteidaia suddenly seemed like a great idea.

"Fine with me, Xena," was all the bard said as she went over to her blankets. Xena watched her friend crawl between them. A shadow passed over the warriorís eyes as she anticipated events to come.

"Itís fine with me too, Gabrielle," she thought. "Sooner, the better!"

Chapter 5

Dawn came with a cold chill and the smell of fall in the air. Xena had been able to sleep deeply, perhaps due to tiredness brought on by her wound; perhaps due to the settled feeling of decisions made. She was up as usual with the first gray light. She was quite surprised when Gabrielle rolled out of her blankets not needing to be awaken. They munched dry biscuits, filled their remaining waterskins and were off into the early morning.

Xena insisted they ride as they headed straight for the steep foothills of the Arcadian highlands. "Weíll be doing a lot of walking and climbing soon enough," she explained to the young bard. On they climbed through deep meadows of grass starting to lose the bright green color of summer and up towards the clouds starting to roll in above. The afternoon sun found the two on a very narrow trail littered with rocks steeply climbing almost straight up towards the sky.

"This is about as far as we can ride," Xena observed as Gabrielle slid off the side of Argo. Xena swung to the ground and began to lead the patient warhorse up the rocky slope. Gabrielle fell in behind and they had slow going over the rough terrain. As they climbed higher and higher, Gabrielle noticed how hard it was to catch her breath. She could hear Xenaís labored breathing as well. On and on they climbed as the wind picked up and the chill in the air became more noticeable.

As night fell, they camped on a ledge with a grand view of the valley far below. Gabrielle could make out the Thessalian road snaking along the middle of the valley. "How high do you think we climbed?" she asked.

"Several thousand feet I would guess. Tomorrow afternoon if the weather holds, weíll make it over the pass and then down to a small valley between the mountains. Use to be an inn there where we can rest up. Hope itís still there."

"Xena, Iím fine. I donít need to rest!"

"You wonít be after tomorrow," Xena patiently explained. "That pass is over 10,000 feet and it almost always rains or snows. Itís a tough climb."

Gabrielle started a retort but decided not to go any farther with it. Clamping up her jaw she turned towards the fire they had used to cook a meal and warm their tired bodies. Xena watched her friend for a moment and then went to check on Argo.

That night the rain started and came down heavily on the travelers. Dawn found them back on the trail cold and wet. As the day wore on, the climbing got more treacherous as the muddy trail became slippery.

Xena tied Argoís reins to the saddle horn and let the sure footed animal pick her own way. She kept close to Gabrielle giving her a hand over the tough spots and grabbing her when she started to slip. The trail climbed then dipped down only to climb higher again. They walked across many small streams of muddy water which cut the trail as the rain continued to fall.

Suddenly, just as Argo passed a very steep narrow section of the path, the trail crumbled under the feet of the two travelers. Both Xena and Gabrielle fell and slid towards the edge of the cliff. The warrior grabbed the tip of a bush branch as she skidded by and reached out her arm. Gabrielle grabbed hold of Xenaís hand and dug her heels in the soft mud. She stopped right at the edge of the precipice that plunged into a drop of several thousand feet. Xena climbed to her feet and pulled Gabrielle back from the edge. Argo had faired better and was watching them from above.

On they climbed until finally late in the day they reached the marker at the top of the pass. The wind howled and the cold rain came down at sharp angles. "Come on, Gabrielle. We need to find shelter."

Gabrielle looked at her friend with dull eyes. She was miserable. "You go ahead. Iím going to rest here awhile."

"No, its too cold and wet to stay here. We must keep moving."

"You move, Iím staying," announced the bard.

The more stubborn and angry the bard became, the more careful and gentle the warrior responded. She knew her friend had reached the limit of her endurance. "Come on now, Gabrielle," Xena coaxed, "Just a little further and its all down hill. That inn I told you about is just ahead."

Taking the bard by the hand, the warrior lead her friend down the slippery path. Brown muddy water gushed down the trail and over the rocks making the footing almost impossible. Again and again they slipped and fell but the warrior would jump up and pull the bard with her always moving forward. Night fall was close at hand when the rain finally stopped.

The trail descended steeply towards the valley below. As they scrambled over the rocks that made stone steps, Xena lost her balance and grunted as she fell on her right arm. Behind her, Gabrielle lost her footing as well. She went down hard bouncing over two sharp boulders. Xena struggled up with the limp girl now in her arms. The warriorís strength was almost gone but she would not give in. Up ahead she could barely make out Argo who nickered a welcome and began to move faster down the steep trail. Around the bend, a light shown in the distance.

Xena stumbled forward and finally at the end of the path came to a wooden structure. She banged on the door and waited hopefully. The door opened to a cheery fire and a bent old man with a candle in his hand. "What do you want, weíre closed!"

"Please, we need help and shelter for the night."

The old man peered closer at the warrior and noted the young woman in her arms. "Well, Xena. Come to deliver another body?"

Xena pushed past the old man into the main bar room of the inn. She carefully laid Gabrielle on a table near the fire. "Look, Demontrie. We can talk over old times later. My friend is all done in and needs some warm food and dry clothes now. Get it!"

The grizzly old man with a white scruffy beard looked at the warrior a moment and then glanced down at the pale young woman who was showing signs of coming around. "Harumff," was all he uttered as he disappeared into a back room.

Exasperated, Xena began to pull off Gabrielleís wet clothes. Before she got very far in her task, the old man returned with some dry blankets and placed them on the table. He glared at the warrior a moment and with another "Harumff" disappeared into the back room again.

Xena pulled the rest of Gabrielleís wet clothes off and wrapped her in a blanket. She rubbed her arms and legs while she watched her face. How relieved she was when color returned to Gabrielleís cheeks and she opens her eyes. "Where are we?"

"Itís OK, Gabrielle. We made it to an inn. You took a pretty bad fall but I donít think anything is broken."

Just then the old man returned and set two steaming bowls of soup on the table. With another "Harumff" this time uttered more gently he again left the women. Xena pushed a bowl towards Gabrielle and watched as she started to drink the broth. The old man returned with two cups of weak wine and shoved it across the table to the two woman. Gabrielle took a small drink and then pushed it away.

Xena turned to the old man who stood watching his uninvited guests. "Can my friend use a room upstairs?"

"Up the top of the stairs to the right, thereís a room made up with a warm comforter on the bed. Use that one," the old man instructed.

Nodding, Xena turned to Gabrielle and gently lifted the bard from the table. She carried her up the stairs and placed her on the bed. Carefully, she pulled the warm down comforter over her. Gabrielle was asleep instantly. Xena for a moment peered down at her friend and then kissed her forehead. With a weary sigh, she turned around and went back down the stairs.

"Do you still have a stable?"

The old man motioned with his thumb. "Out back."

Xena turned and went outside to find Argo who with her head down, was patiently waiting. "Come on, girl. Letís take care of you," Xena cooed to the palomino whose ears flickered back and forth as if she understood. She lead the mare around back and found the barn filled with straw. She removed Argoís saddle and rubbed the horse down. Making sure there was water and feed for the animal, Xena slowly trudged back to the inn.

Once inside, she plopped down on a bench by the fire. "Youíd better tend to yourself or catch your death," the old man observed not unkindly. Xena looked at him with cold blue eyes and then with a half smile began to remove her armor and leathers.

"Harumff," was all the old man said as he got up and disappeared into the back room. Xena watched him go and then removed the rest of her garments. She wrapped herself in the blanket still on the table and sat back down before the fire. The second bowl of soup was still warm. She drank it down and then drained the cup of wine. She was starting to feel better. A throbbing, shooting pain in her arm caused her to look down at her wound just as the old man returned with a bowl of warm water and some soft white cloth.

"Figured you might need this," he said looking at the arm Xena was examining.

"Ahuh," was Xenaís only comment as she took the cloth and started to wash the cut. Watching her a moment, the old man finally moved forward and took the cloth out of her hands. He carefully washed the infected area. He then tightly bandaged the arm.

"Thanks, you did that well."

"Yeah, well Iíve had practice in my day. Slipping up, arenít you? You used to be the one who caused others to need the bandaging."

"Times change, Demontrie. Didnít know if you were still here. Itís been awhile."

"Four years since the warrior princess paid me a visit. Canít say that Iím glad to see you, Xena. Heard talk of you over the years, the usual burning and looting, but not much recently. Lose your touch?"

Xena glanced around the empty inn. Changing the subject she turned to the old man, "Business not so good? Whereís your wife?"

Demontrie looked up at the warrior and was surprised by a softness in her eyes. "Must be getting daffy," he told himself.

"You took care of most of my business when you burned and looted the villages south of here. Helga died last summer, old age I guess. With the kids grown and gone, she just didnít seem to want to keep on." The old man sadly looked at his hands then glanced up to see the warrior watching him steadily.

"Sorry to hear that. She was a good person."

"Harumff, and so why are you here, Xena? I donít think you decided to pay me a social call."

"Just taking a short cut to the forks of the Thessalian road when we got caught in a bad storm." It was Xenaís turn to look down and study her hands. Had the old man heard of the contest? He would not be a threat but he might blurt something out to Gabrielle. Looking up, she could see Demontrie watching her, curiosity on his face.

"Why do you travel with an innocent young woman? Where is your army? Whatís happened to you, Xena?" he asked.

"I donít conquer or loot anymore, Demontrie. Iíve given that life up." And Gabrielle is my life, my light, the one hope for my tormented soul. These thoughts she did not share with the old man.

"Well, well," was all the astounded old man could say. "I donít get may visitors up here anymore so Iím sort of out of touch with all the news. If you speak the truth, then Iím glad for you, Xena."

The warrior smiled at the old man and patted him on the arm. She rose and headed towards the stairs to bed relieved that he had not heard of the price on her head. She turned as the old man also rose from the table.

"Let my friend sleep tomorrow. Iíll be up early but be back around later.

She is a wonderful story teller,

Demontrie. Get her to tell you some tales. She does them well. I remember you were pretty good with stories yourself. Goodnight, and thanks for your kindness."

With these words, the warrior slowly climbed the stairs and went into the room on the right. Gabrielle was gently snoring. "Sweet dreams, my friend," Xena whispered softly and then climbed into the adjacent bed. She was asleep almost instantly.

 

Chapter 6

The afternoon sun streamed through the window and fell on the young bardís face. She stretched and opened her eyes to a sparse but comfortable room. She rolled over on her side and groaned as some bruises on her anatomy made themselves apparent. She was sore everywhere! The bed next to hers had been slept in but was now vacant. Xena must be up and about, Gabrielle thought. She got to her feet and noticed that she had nothing on. Then she saw her clothes hanging in the corner, dry and clean. How does she do that, Gabrielle wondered? Pulling on her top and skirt was easy, lacing up her boots was something else. "Guess the feet took a beating yesterday, too," Gabrielle mentioned out loud to no one in particular.

The bard traipsed down the stairs and found the old man from last night cleaning some plates. "Well, well about time you were up. I thought you might be dead or something," the old man said with a twinkle in his eye.

"Itís definitely something, Iím starved. Got anything to eat?"

"Harumff," the old man muttered and disappeared only to return with some nutbread, a cup of tea and porridge. "Been keeping this on the fire for you. Thought I might have to throw it out," the old man teased.

Gabrielle grinned and sat down to her feast. She made quick work of it all and complimented the cook highly. She then followed the old man outside and sat next to him in the sun.

"Whereís Xena?"

"She took off to climb that mountain peak over there early this morning.

Said she would be back later,"

the old man informed her.

 

Gabrielle shook her head. After a day like yesterday, Xena was up early mountain climbing. The woman was amazing.

"By the way Gabrielle, my name is Demontrie."

"Glad to meet you, and thank you for your generosity last night."

"When Xena shows up, refusal isnít something a person does if he wants to live," the old man noted ruefully.

"You knew Xena before?"

"Yes, four years ago, she and a small scouting party from her army came through the mountains. They stayed here and took supplies before heading over the pass and down into the valley. Gabrielle, you should have seen her, riding at the head of her men. She was a leader, a warrior proud and strong. Iíd never seen her like. Let me tell you, in my day I was a warrior myself and fought in the wars with Sparta. So I know what Iím talking about. She was something. Her commands were loud and clear. Her men obeyed without question. She knew what she wanted and set about getting it. I tell you, no one but no one stood up against her."

Demontrie seemed lost in thought a moment and then went on, "She had divided her army. The main body of her troops was marching down the Thessalian road ready to encounter a warlord, Draco I think. She took her scouting party through the mountains, over the Lokos pass and got them behind Dracoís army. They won the day even though Draco had twice as many men. No one thought you could cross the mountains with a group of men but Xena did it. She did it in winter in less than two days, an impossible feat." A mile crossed the old manís face and he nodded his head.

"You seem to admire her," Gabrielle observed.

"Harumff, she is a bloody killer and destroyer of villages. All the towns on the south side of these mountains were looted by her army. She caused much destruction and sorrow here and most villages have yet to recover from their bout of the warrior princess."

"You know, Demontrie, Xena has changed. She doesnít do that anymore."

"So she said last night. Now, let me explain something to you. She may not loot or burn villages anymore but Xena is a warrior. It is her being, it is who and what she is. Donít underestimate or confuse that. She is a warrior and warriors do only two things in this world, they kill and are killed. It is very simple, really. Anything else, is just window dressing. Do you understand what I am saying, Gabrielle? If you travel with her, you must know that is all she does, all she knows. She may fight for good or against an evil war lord but in the end she kills and someday she will be killed. If you stay with her, your life will become the same. You cannot stay innocent. I see you know what I am saying is true. You have a sadness in your eyes beyond your years. Will you tell an old man what happened to you?"

"I was a simple girl from Poteidaia and followed Xena after she saved my town from slavers. I was to be married to a young man in my village but I wanted adventure and left. He left as well but later we met again and married. He was killed by an enemy of Xenaís a day after our wedding." When Gabrielle finished speaking, tears she had tried to hold back streamed down her cheeks.

"I am sorry," the old man smiled at her gently. He took her hand softly in his and looked into her tragic eyes. "This is what I was trying to say. Anyone who travels with Xena will have to follow the code of the warrior. It is simply kill and be killed."

"When I left my village to follow Xena, I thought only of adventure and travel. I never thought where any of this would lead."

"But now Gabrielle, tragedy has come and you must think. You must choose. If you choose to follow the warrior, you must accept her code. She can never change. You will have to, or you must not follow. I am an old man. When I gave up being a warrior and moved with my wife to this inn, we were happy here for many years. I gave up the life, the code and I have no regrets. Xena cannot give up her essence. Being a warrior for her is more than a job which can be changed. It is who she is."

Demontrie shook his head sadly and smiled. "This is none of my affair but an old man can say many things that others cannot or would not. I see so much change in this woman. Her eyes are softer, more human. She has fears, I saw them yesterday when she was afraid for you. The old Xena was fire and hatred, she feared nothing, felt nothing. She dared anything. Gabrielle, this Xena is vulnerable and can be hurt. This Xena can and will be killed. Donít let her take you with her. You have a life to live, love to give. Donít throw it away!"

Gabrielle looked into the earnest eyes of the old man and smiled at him. "You mean well and your words are kind. You are making me think where before I only followed my feelings. Thank you for your advice.

I still think you admire and like the warrior princess even if you wonít admit it to yourself."

The old man let out another "Harumff" but grinned back at the young bard. She jumped up and walked around the structure to a beautiful meadow green, with wild flowers yet blooming. She sat down in the middle of them and studied their beauty. How peaceful and lovely was this country. Long she gazed over the small valley and watched the mountains on all sides. Her mind and her heart whirled around the old manís words. She and Xena were as much to blame for Perdicusís death as Callisto. She saw that now. It was the path they were on.

Xena came swinging down the trail from her mountain climb. She felt alive and free with the warm sun on her face. She saw Demontrie sitting on a bench in front of the inn and went over to him.

"Gabrielle up yet."

"She got up about an hour ago and ate me out of house and home."

"Sounds like Gabrielle. Where is she?"

"Over there," the old man said pointing to the meadow. Xena turned and saw the golden ash hair of the young bard as she sat surrounded by yellow wild flowers. She smiled at Demontrie and with long strides soon covered the distance between her and her friend.

Gabrielle looked up as Xena approached and sat down beside her. "Pretty here isnít it?"

"You noticing beauty in your surroundings, Xena? Whatís this?"

"Guess Iíve been hanging around a certain bard too long," Xena smiled at her.

"Xena, Iíve been thinking a lot about you, me and Perdicus. I feel responsible for his death. If I hadnít left Poteidaia, he would be alive today. Perhaps, weíd be married, have children."

Xenaís head shot up and she looked at her friend. Having Gabrielle utter the words out loud that her tortured soul whispered to her during the night was almost unbearable. Her eyes softened and she reached for Gabrielleís hand.

"Listen to me. You did not kill Perdicus. Callisto killed him in cold blood for revenge. You canít do this to yourself. Playing "what if" games will drive you crazy and serve no purpose. If you want to have regrets, thatís fine. We all have them but use them to learn and do something different. Please Gabrielle, you are not guilty of anything but loving Perdicus and loving me."

Gabrielle looked up in amazement at this long speech from her not overly communicative friend. Was she telling her to make a different choice than to keep following the warriorís path? Then the tears came.

The warrior held her close as her own eyes watered as well. Long they held each other as the warm afternoon sun sank behind the mountains.

Finally, getting up they returned hand in hand to the inn. Gabrielle knew she had a choice to make and she had not made it. Xena knew she had made her choice and now must have the resolve to execute it.


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