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Childhood's End (Parts 5-6)

by Anon.

Copyright Statement
"Childhood's End" (November 1996 - January 1997)

© Copyright 1997 by F.S.

This story may not be sold and may be archived at public sites only with direct permission from the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.

See Childhood's End (Parts 1-2) for the complete disclaimer statement and other notes from the author.

Part 5

When Gabrielle saw the figure running toward her and Argo, she felt a twinge of alarm. The alarm soon grew to be a full-blown panic when she saw who the runner was. Spurring Argo into a fast run (while praying to the gods that she would be able to keep her lunch down), Gabrielle raced to meet the woman.

"Janya, what's the matter?" the bard cried as she leaped from Argo's back.

"Gabrielle, I'm so glad I found you," Janya managed to say between her gasping breaths. "There's a problem. The soldiers you tied up the day before? They've been looking for you. We put them off for awhile, but now ... now they've got Xena."

Gabrielle felt her heart plunge as she stared at the woman.

"We need to move fast. The troops are still looking for you and me. There's a safe place we can stay in town ... come on, I'll fill you in as we go."

Jumping back into Argo's saddle, Gabrielle helped Janya get on, then spurred the mount forward. [The old Xena would be really proud of me ... my riding skills have never been better] the bard thought wistfully, but pushed the thought back down. Night had fallen by the time they had reached the village. Using the darkness as a cover, both women quickly stabled Argo and quietly walked along the streets towards the tavern. Soldiers were everywhere, but the two managed to pass unnoticed. Janya led Gabrielle through the back entrance of the bar, and in moments, Gabrielle found her self in a small dank cellar, lit only by a single torch. There was already a large gathering of other people there, and Gabrielle was surprised to see that many of them regarded her with expressions of dislike and hate. Kala, however, came forward to greet the bard warmly.

"Did you find what you were looking for at Apollo's temple?" she queried.

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded.

"Good. We will need it." Kala turned to the crowd. "This is the one I told you about, the companion of Xena. She has come a long way to help us, and we must help her in return."

"Send her back! If it wasn't for her and that pesky little girl, then Jilly would not be in such grave danger," a woman from the crowd shot back. "We never asked for her help ... our town was better off without the likes of them."

"Yeah! Yes!" the crowd murmured. "Give her over to the soldiers. Maybe they'll give Jilly back then!"

"Hold!" Janya stood forward. "Are you all blind? What kind of a life do we have now? Are we going to stand here and let Falceus take what he wants without fighting back?"

"But if we fight, someone's bound to get hurt or killed!" the woman raged. "Do we want to risk it all, just for a stranger and her child? No! Protect our own, that's what I say."

"We all have to die someday, Eirian," Kala said calmly. "The difference is whether we die with honor or not. This is not about strangers or our neighbors. They took a child, an innocent child, only on the basis that she fought back to protect her friend from harm. Has this village come to a point where the blood of children can be spilled so freely?"

"But if we help this bard rescue the child, then what will become of us? Falceus would never let us go without punishment. He's sure to bring down his whole army and raze the village to ashes. There are other lives we have to think about ... such as those of the other children. Why should we put all our families in danger, for the sake of just two children?"

"Just two children? When have two lives been more important?" Kala's angry voice was echoed by the rising tension in the rest of the villagers.

"Stop it, all of you." Gabrielle's voice was quiet and tired, but it had the desired effect. All the arguments ceased as every person turned to look at the bard. "At least hear what I have to say. True, you don't have a reason to help me or Xena, but we're not asking that you put your lives on the line just for our sakes. If you do anything, do it for yourself. The two that the soldiers captured may not have been your own children, but they might have been. Who knows what Falceus will decide to do next? Wars are not that easy to fund, and Falceus has paid for his with your blood. With the need he has for soldiers, I wouldn't be surprised if he keeps lowering the age limit for enlistment. Soon he will be snatching your children right out of the cradle! You may live in peace now, but someday, Falceus will begin to lose his battles, and another warlord will take his place. The cycle will begin again. Don't you see? It'll never end. You'll never be free ... unless you work for it yourselves. Xena can only show you the way to fight. It is you that must walk the path towards freedom." Gabrielle stopped and swept the room with her eyes. "So, don't do it for me or Xena. Do it for your own freedom and for the lives of your children. Do it because it's the right thing to do."

"That's easy for you to say." Eirian turned away. "You won't have to live here. After you get your precious little girl back, you'll leave. We'll be the ones facing the consequences."

"I won't abandon you. That's a promise. I will not stop fighting until you and your people are free," Gabrielle said somberly, but the woman did not listen.

"I won't turn you in, but I won't join you either." She headed for the door. To Gabrielle's dismay, the majority of the villagers followed her, although most of them cast the bard a long, regretful look before hurrying away. Soon, only Gabrielle, Kala, Janya, and Shaya were left in the room.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Kala sighed heavily. "But you can't blame them, you know. They have families to protect. They've lost so much to Falceus that they can't take any more risks."

Gabrielle gave the old woman a sad smile. "I don't blame them at all. If it were my own village, I don't know how I would react."

"I do." Kala straightened up. "You would fight back." Her face fell as she looked up the steps to where Jalen was faithfully tending the bar, so not to arouse any suspicions. "I don't know what I'm going to tell Jalen. He loves Jilly so much ..."

"Don't worry about it. I'm going to get her back." The bard gripped her staff determinedly.

"How?" Janya exclaimed. "The village has refused to help you. Oh no ... you're not going to take on hundreds of soldiers by yourself, are you?"

"Watch me." Gabrielle started for the door. "Besides, it's not hundreds of soldiers, only about fifty. A patrol camp like that tends to be rather small."

"Just one soldier would be enough! You'll be killed! It's a fool's mission!"

"Then call me a fool," Gabrielle shrugged. "I've heard worse. I just can't leave my best friend in the clutches of those soldiers. Besides, if I get killed, then your village won't have to worry about the wrath of Falceus." Seeing the hurt look on the others' faces, Gabrielle softened. "I didn't mean that. It was a rude thing to say ... I'm sorry."

"You were right to say it, though," Kala nodded grimly, then sighed. "If you insist on going on a fool's errand, then at least let the oldest fool of all time help you get ready."

Gabrielle gulped as she put on the last piece of armor. "Are you sure this is going to work?"

"Trust me. You look like any other meat-headed soldier in that getup." Janya helped her straighten the swordbelt. "The body brace helped flatten your, uh, curves, and if you tuck your hair in, no one will know the difference between you and a typical dolt of a soldier."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Gabrielle chuckled.

"This is a better way than just charging into the camp. You don't have the brute force to challenge all of them, so you'll have to use your brains," Kala told her quietly.

Gabrielle fiddled with the sword sheath. "I'm not that great with swords, you know. I much rather have my staff."

"The standard military man usually does not carry around an Amazonian war staff or use Amazonian fighting tactics. But don't worry ... you're not planning to use your sword, remember?"

Gabrielle nodded uncertainly. Kala saw her hesitation and laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"You'll do fine, Gabrielle. You just have to trust in yourself."

"The last time I tried to impersonate a warrior, it ... uh ... didn't come off too well." She shifted and the armor clinked. "And I'm also worried about your village. That woman was right. Once I help Xena and Jilly escape, then Falceus may take out his anger on you." Gabrielle turned away, eyes troubled. "I don't know if I have the right to place you in such danger. If anything happens, it'll be my fault. But I can't leave Xena there either."

Kala held the bard gently within her arms. "It is not an easy decision, but don't worry Gabrielle. What you're doing is the right thing. If anything does happen, then remember that it would have happened anyway, given time. We've spent our whole lives under Falceus' foot ... we would have been crushed sooner or later."

"But it'll be my fault ..." Gabrielle repeated softly. "Some hero I'm turning out to be, huh?"

Kala gently turned the bard around to face her. "A typical hero is one who defies the odds and does what is right, despite the consequences. However, a true hero is the one who is able to do what she thinks is right and deal with the aftermath of her actions, even if her decision turns out to be wrong. I know that you are a true hero, Gabrielle, and that you are troubled knowing that your actions could weigh heavily on our fate. However, you have to what is right. Risk is a part of life. If Falceus does decide to take revenge for this, then yes, it will be partly due to your actions. But it also has to do with the town not helping, the fact that we did not stand up for ourselves in the past, Falceus himself, and yes, even the Fates' wide wheel ... nobody's blameless in this. In fact, I think you are one of the most innocent of all." Kala's eyes were steady as she gazed into Gabrielle's face. "Now, are you ready?"

The bard raised her head. "Let's do it."

If big, hairy men could get any uglier than Commander Vervain, then Xena really did not want to meet them. Even more obese and unwashed than Captain Corvin, who already looked like he would belong better in a pigsty than an army camp, the commander smelled of ale and dried blood as he leaned over to look at the girls in the cage. Xena wrinkled her nose.

"You need a bath. You smell worse than cow doot," she told him, with a hand clamped over her face.

"You need to get some manners," he sneered as he banged the cage. Jilly wailed again in fright, but Xena refused to even flinch. "Saucy little thing, aren't you? Let's see how much spunk you'll have once you had a taste of my hand." He turned to Martis. "Unlock the cage. We'll see what this one knows."

"I bet she knows plenty. She was with the one who defeated our soldiers the other day," Captain Corvin said eagerly. "I bet she even knows where Xena is."

"I am Xena," Xena declared icily as Martis fumbled with the keys. Commander Vervain gave a contemptuous bark of laughter.

"Is that so? Well, little girl, pray that you do have some warrior spirit in you, because after I'm through with you, you'll need it."

"But sir, she's only a child," Martis said softly. "Do you think that force is necessary?"

Commander Vervain gave the soldier a blow to the shoulder that sent Martis sprawling. "Spineless coward! Afraid to get your hands wet? Fools, I'm surrounded by fools!" He glared at Corvin. "Can't even handle a small girl, or a helpless woman armed only with a stick." The captain shrunk away as Vervain pushed past him to snatch the keys out of Martis' hands.

"I'll show you how a real man handles things." He unlocked the cage and roughly hauled Xena out. Xena took stock of the situation and brought her foot down hard on the Commander's right boot. Vervain, however, did not let her go, but instead backhanded the girl viciously, sending Xena flying to the ground.

"By the gods, I'll teach you a lesson," he bellowed. Xena watched him come at her, terrified. He was just so big! But in the midst of her fear, a tiny candle of determination lit the girl's soul. Whatever happened, she wouldn't give in or cry. She just wouldn't. A warrior princess would never give up! As Vervain towered over her and pulled back his boot for a kick, Xena braced herself for the pain. It did not come. Looking up, she saw that Martis had blocked the blow. Commander Vervain looked with surprise at this unexpected interference.

"What do you think you're doing?" he bellowed.

"You'll never get an answer out of her this way." Martis was clearly frightened, but he forged bravely on. "I know five-year-olds ... I have a little sister just her age. Leave her to me ... I'll get her to tell what you need to know."

"Are you questioning my actions?" Vervain's hand flitted to his sword.

"No!" Martis yelped. "Of course not, great commander. But I know something ... this girl is the little sister of the Warrior Princess. If you harm her, then Xena will surely cut you down. If instead, you use her as bait, then we would have the Warrior Princess right where you want her. However, she needs to be healthy and intact for the plan to work!"

Commander Vervain narrowed his eyes. "Is this true?" he demanded of Xena. "Are you the sister of Xena?"

"Yes," Xena said coldly.

"How interesting," Vervain purred as he turned to Martis. "Thank you for telling me. However, you better not think of defying me again. You know the penalty for dissension. After all, we do want your little sister to grow up to be a fine, healthy woman now, don't we?"

Martis' eyes hardened, but he nodded. "I am at your command, as always."

"Good. See that it stays that way. Otherwise it will be your head." Vervain turned to Captain Corvin. "Send a messenger to the Realthan. Tell them to inform Lord Falceus of this new development. I'm sure that he'll be interested."

He smiled dangerously at Xena. "Well now, seems that you'll keep your hide after all. But I can't say the same of your little friend over there. Tell me, where is this sister of yours?"

Xena glared at him angrily. "I don't know. If you hurt me or Jilly, then my sister will come and rip your gizzard out."

"Commander, I really don't think she could tell you anything useful. After all, why would the warrior woman tell a little girl of her plans?" Martis gulped as Vervain glared at him, but the man did not reach for his sword.

"Of course not, you idiot," the commander snarled. "Chances are that Xena is already plotting to get her back. That is why *you* must see that she doesn't. If these two escape, it will mean your family's life."

"Yes, sir," Martis replied, his eyes never leaving the ground.

"I'm glad you understand me," Vervain chuckled humorlessly. "Take heart. You'll probably be the first one she kills if she comes."

The soldier gulped, but saluted the commander bravely. Vervain walked away, a wicked smile on his face.

"I'll tell Xena not to kill you," Xena told Martis as he resettled into his post. "You're not that mean."

"Thanks, little one, not that it matters any." The soldier's face had a drawn, weary look to it as his fingers wandered along the hilt of his sword.

"Why are you a soldier? You aren't like Corvin and Vervain." Xena traced the bars of the cage nervously as she looked around at the camp, including all the other soldiers in her gaze. They turned away uncomfortably. "You all aren't very mean, 'cept for Vervain and Corvin. Why are you doing this?"

"We're an army. We have to do as we're ordered," Martis muttered. "Now shush, you're going to get us in trouble!"

"You don't have to do it. What you're doing is bad," Xena insisted as her eyes swept the camp again, accusingly. The other men busied themselves with minor chores, trying to avoid the child's penetrating look.

"What do you know about wrong or right? You know nothing of warfare or pain." Martis turned away. "We're not innocent little girls like you."

"I'm not little," Xena huffed. "But I KNOW you don't want to be bad," she declared. "I can feel it. You're not awful men. Why do you want to hurt Jilly and me? We never did anything too bad. Well, not really. Okay, maybe taking the cookies was a little bad, but we were really sorry. We'll be very good now, I promise ... please let us go ..."

"Just shut up, will ya?" Martis snapped. The other soldiers shifted guiltily as unease rippled through the camp. The words of the little girl had affected them more than they wanted to admit. "If Vervain hears you talking, then he'll definitely hurt you."

"You didn't let him the first time. You look nice. Why can't you let me an' Jilly out?"

"I just can't. Don't ask me that again." Martis turned away from the cage, trying to escape those pleading blue eyes.

"If you don't like being a soldier, quit," Xena said earnestly.

"Listen, it's not that easy!" he told her fiercely. "You're just a child. How could you understand?" His eyes looked past Xena, "Having your family in trouble, having to kill ... by the gods, I wish I did not have this life!" He slumped. "But the Fates would have me here. Pray that you never know the anguish I do, little one. Pray that your innocence holds you through the night."

The sky was still dark when Xena suddenly woke up. She had fallen asleep in the middle of her plan to try to chew her way out of the iron bars of the cage. It was still night, and Xena could tell that it was probably very late. Beside her, Jilly snuffled as she turned around in her sleep. A few feet away, Xena could barely make out the forms of a couple of dozing sentries. Martis was to her right, still trying valiantly to keep guard, although his eyelids were drooping lower and lower. The rest of the camp seemed to be asleep.

Wondering why she was now awake, the girl silently sat up. Not a single beam of moonlight filtered through from the sky, and the tendrils of smoke from the dying embers of the fire made the air seem spooky and full of ghosts and haunts. Shivering, Xena hugged Lightning tight to her chest as she scanned the camp for any trouble. A sudden movement at the left edge of her vision made her turn around. A soldier was there, carefully avoiding all the other soldiers that were sprawled in and out of their tents. Xena cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. The soldier was sure behaving strangely, but before she could ponder the incongruity, the figure was at her cage.

"Shh ... it's me, Gabrielle." The figure pulled back her helmet to reveal a single lock of strawberry blond hair. Xena nearly cried with joy but remembered herself just in time.

"You came to rescue me? Is my big sister here?" Xena whispered quietly.

"No, it's just me." Gabrielle's face darkened as she traced the bruise that Vervain had left on Xena's face. "I've got to get you outta here. Wake Jilly up quietly while I go look for the keys."

"Martis has them," Xena replied. "He's the soldier over there ... the one that doesn't look or smell as bad as the others. Don't hurt him ... he's not really that bad."

Gabrielle nodded as she stealthily made her way toward the drowsy guard. Xena, meanwhile, shook Jilly awake. The girl blinked once before emitting a startled squeak. Xena shushed her.

"Gabrielle's here. We're being rescued!" Xena told her. "But be quiet."

Jilly gulped, her eyes large. Both girls watched as the bard crept closer and closer to the keys to their freedom. Holding her breath, Gabrielle eased up to the soldier. The keys were around his belt. As gently as possible, she began to undue the buckle. As the leather fell lose, the keys jangled slightly. The bard froze, but Martis remained half asleep. Cautiously edging her hand along his waist, Gabrielle stifled her embarrassment as she grasped the keys and scooted them off the belt. Talk about getting into a man's pants! Slipping back to the cage, with keys in hand, Gabrielle let out a tiny sigh of relief as she knelt at the lock.

"I'll have you two out of here in no time," she breathed as she tried the first key. Unfortunately, it did not work. The second key produced the same result, as did the third. Gabrielle was beginning to sweat as she neared the end of the ring. The sudden prick of a sword on her back did not help matters either.

"What in the name of Hades do you think you're doing, soldier?" a furious male voice assailed her.

Gabrielle turned around slightly to find the guard she had robbed staring at her, one hand grasping his sagging pants, the other holding a very sharp sword. Catching sight of her face, the soldier gasped.

"It's you!" Gabrielle felt the sword dig in deeper. "You're the one who attacked Corvin!"

"No, Martis!" Xena cried. Already, the men around the campfire were beginning to stir. "She's my friend. Please don't kill her. You said that you didn't have a choice ... well, you do!"

Staring at the deep blue eyes that seem to pierce his soul, Martis sighed. The pretty blonde that gazed at him from his the other side of his sword did not help matters either. Sensing that the soldier was weakening, Xena pressed her advantage.

"Please, Martis. You said that you couldn't help us escape ... but she can! Otherwise, Vervain will kill Jilly and me!"

Martis turned away, letting his sword point drop as he hitched and buckled his pants. "It's the last key on the rung," he muttered. Gabrielle quickly seized it and turned the lock. Xena sprang out as soon as the door opened, but Jilly was a little more slow. Giving the soldier one last grateful look, Gabrielle swept the little girl up and started running. However, the soldiers had already been roused, and they had started to realize that something was not quite right. Shouts and yells echoed through the camp as soldiers tried to arm themselves. Gabrielle knew that she would never make it holding Jilly, but she refused to drop the girl. Just a little farther ...

"Give her to me." Suddenly, hands reached out an took the load. Looking up, Gabrielle saw that it was Martis.

"Run!" she told him frantically. "Go to the east edge of the camp. Make sure they get out of here safely. I'll hold your friends off." She whipped around and broke off a tent pole. It was a little lighter and a little shorter than what she was used to, but it would have to do. Giving an angry warcry of her own, the bard launched herself at the coming soldiers. Her staff was a whirling tornado as it threw down men. Time, she had to give Martis some time. Janya was waiting at the edge of the woods with their mounts. The woman had instructions on what to do with Xena. Their trail would lead the army away from Cyanthus for awhile. Gabrielle just hoped that they would be able to restore the warrior in time to save the village. As for herself, well, she would not go down without a fight! Besides, she owed these monsters one for what they had done to Xena. She fought skillfully, and for a short time, it looked like she might actually break free of the surrounding mob.

"GABBY!" A sudden scream sliced through the air. Gabrielle froze in horror as she turned to see a sight that would linger in her mind for the rest of her days. She dropped her staff in defeat as an overwhelming feeling of helplessness enveloped her. Somehow, Xena had been captured. And now a madman held a knife to her throat.

Part 6

Morning dawned, grey and cloudy. Tied to a giant wooden stake, Gabrielle reflected that she had seen better days. However, the fact that this one would probably be her last made it all that more precious.

"I ask you again, where's Xena?" Commander Vervain spat at her. Gabrielle turned to give him a nonchalant look.

"I don't know," she shrugged. "Haven't seen her for awhile." She braced herself as the man pulled back his fist and punched her again. By this time, Gabrielle was getting pretty used to the feeling.

"I've been easy so far with you, girl, but I'm quickly losing my patience."

"Oh, go suck a donkey. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but your words won't ever hurt me."

"I'll break your bones all right, if you don't start talking."

Gabrielle snorted. "You want to know about Xena? She may be here already. She may be lurking just around your camp, waiting to take your fat head off."

"She's not here. Otherwise, she would have tried to pull off the rescue herself. She must be away planning some other attack." Commander Vervain chuckled with glee. "And if I were to figure out where and tell Falceus, my reward would be rich indeed. However, your reward will be a sword in your belly unless you talk now."

"I think I already have enough iron in my diet, thank you very much. But you look like you could use some more. Wait 'til Xena gives you a taste of her chakram." Gabrielle winced as he strode up to her again, but the man did not strike. Instead, he turned to the soldier next to him. "Go and get that little bratty sister of the Warrior Princess. I tire of this game." The soldier looked at the commander once, as if in reluctance, then went off to do his bidding.

Gabrielle tried to smile weakly as Xena was dragged up to her stake. The little girl started to cry when she saw Gabrielle.

"Hey now, it's not as bad as it looks." She gave the girl a wink. "You should have seen what I did to the other guys."

"Isn't this touching? Well, now, I don't want to break up the happy reunion, but unless you want your little friend to watch a disemboweling first hand, I suggest you start remembering Xena's plans."

Gabrielle turned to Vervain, horrified. "Kill me if you must, but you don't have to do it in front of her!"

"Oh, on the contrary, I believe it would be an educational experience. Trust me, I hate to do this, but the fact of the matter is that while she's valuable, you're not. Unless, of course, you start talking."

"I have nothing to tell you."

Vervain's eyes narrowed. "So be it. You had your chance. But before you die, I just want you to know that your soldier friend just signed his family's death warrant last night, as well as the rest of the village's. As soon as Lord Falceus gets here, there will be nothing left of Cyanthus. Not even the Warrior Princess could stop that. Don't feel guilty, though. You won't be around to see it." He turned to one of his men, who was armed with a crossbow.

"Kill her. Aim for the stomach. I hear that it's an excruciating way to die."

"Nooooo!!!" Xena screamed as she twisted out of the arms of her captor. "Leave Gabby alone! I know what you want ... ask me!" The terrified five-year-old ran and put her arms around her friend, effectively blocking the archer's shot.

"Well, then, aim for the head." Vervain shrugged. When the soldier did not react, he looked at him irritably.


"But the little girl ..."

"Surely you can aim over her." Vervain snatched the crossbow out of his hands. "I'll do it myself then."

However, before he could take aim, a loud crash reverberated through the camp. He threw down the crossbow in disgust.

"What is it now?"

"Sir!" A soldier ran up, panicked. "It's the villagers! They're attacking! What do you want us to do?"

Vervain clenched his fists in frustration. Did he have to tell these numskulls EVERYTHING? "Fight back, you fool! Don't just stand there!"

"These are just villagers, sir, armed only with farm tools ..." The soldier looked at his commander uncertainly.

"Then you should have no problem with them." Vervain snapped, then sneered at Gabrielle. "You put them up to this, didn't you? Well, they'll die today, alongside you."

"Leave them alone!" Gabrielle yelled angrily as she watched the soldiers rush out to battle. "Or I swear, I'll ... I'll ..."

"You'll do what? My soldiers will cut them down to ribbons. This is what happens to those who question Lord Falceus' authority!"

"No! Listen to me, all of you." Gabrielle shouted with all her might. "Look at what you're doing! These aren't some foreign enemies, these are your own people ... your family, your kinsman! Does Falceus have such a great hold over your soul that your own people mean nothing to you?!? They've done nothing wrong! If you obey Vervain, you will be just as guilty as Falceus in enslaving your land! Please, you all have the power to stop it!"

"Shut up, you bit**!" Vervain viciously slapped the bard. Gabrielle turned to face him steadily.

"You've lost, Vervain. Your soldiers won't fight against their own people." Gabrielle said calmly. "See their faces? It's the same look I saw on Martis' face right before he helped me with the escape. Sure, some may remain loyal to you, but the majority of them will turn against you. You've asked them for too much, pushed them too far."

Swallowing fearfully, Vervain could see that the bard's words were right. All around him, soldiers were putting down their weapons, even though they could have easily defeated the ragged group of peasants. Vervain paled. He knew that he had lost. Picking up a sword, he turned to the bard.

"If I go down, then I'll take you with me," he snarled as he leveled the point straight at Gabrielle's heart.

"No." A voice, tiny in the chaos, broke through the soldier's assault. Vervain turned to see a tiny figure holding his discarded crossbow, which was now pointed straight at his stomach. With such a large target area, the girl was sure to hit and kill him. He froze, sword clattering out of his numbed hands. His mouth opened to scream soundlessly in desperation as he watched the fingers of the girl begin to pull back.

"Xena!" Gabrielle gasped as she watched the little hand twitch on the trigger. "Don't do it, Xena, it's not worth it."

"But he hurt you, Gabby, and he wants to kill you." Xena choked back her tears. "He hurt me and Jilly ..."

"That still does not give you the right to kill him. You don't understand what you're going to do."

"But I hate him!" Xena cried out, the point of the arrow dipping ever so slightly. That was the opportunity that Vervain had been waiting for. With a savage snarl, he lunged at the girl, knocking the crossbow out of her hands. Xena toppled over, with Vervain crashing on top of her, mad eyes gleaming insanely. Then a thump that sounded louder than thunder shook the world around her, and suddenly, there was a warm liquid flowing everywhere, covering her arms and legs. The body on top of her became a dead weight, which was suddenly removed as somebody flung Vervain aside. Shakily, Xena saw that it was Martis, the discarded crossbow still in his hands.

"Try to kill my family, you bast***!" he snarled as he kicked the body of the fallen commander. Then Martis turned to Xena and offered her a grimy hand to help her up. "Are you all right?"

Xena started sobbing hysterically, and through the haze of tears, she could see Martis walking over to Gabrielle and freeing her. Then the bard's arms were around her, rocking her and comforting her. The day suddenly became too much for the girl, and she surrendered to the mouth of blackness that gaped over her, safe in the grasp of her friend.

The sunset showered the fields around Cyanthus with its scarlet fingers, turning the waving grasses into a sea of flame. Gabrielle watched as the sun dipped below the horizon, absently toying with her staff. She felt cold and empty as she watched the sky change hue. The day had been so long! A sudden sound to her right made her spin around, but it was only Shaya.

"The others would like to speak with you now," she squeaked.

"Tell them I'm coming," Gabrielle murmured as she headed back toward the village. She had been avoiding the others for most of the day now, making excuses about needing to clean herself up and having to tend to a slumbering Xena. However, the need to be alone had finally driven her outside, to watch the day draw to a close. The red rays of the sun had made her uneasy ... how much time would they have before the fields would be stained with real blood?

As she walked into the tavern, she quickly went up a small flight of steps and hurried over to a small room on the right. Kala got up when she saw the bard enter. Xena was still asleep on a small bed, turning slightly in her dreams. The old woman sighed softly as she gently tucked the blankets back around the child.

"Poor little thing, the day's been too much for her. She'll sleep quietly through the night, I wager. Children her age seem to be able to just dream their troubles away. She already woke once, and I got a glass of warm milk down her before she went back to see Morpheus." Kala gave Gabrielle a hug. "Don't worry, she'll be just fine. Little kids bounce back like rubber. With the spirit that she has, well, she'll be running you ragged before tomorrow morning."

"I know she'll be okay." Gabrielle fondly brushed the top of her friend's head with her hand before turning quietly to leave the room. "It's what I have to do that bothers me."

"Ach, come now, don't tell me you're scared!" Kala led the bard to where the other villagers were waiting. "You? The one who tried to capture a whole battalion of guards single-handedly?"

"I had some help." Gabrielle looked to the assembled people. Some were soldiers, but most were the simple peasant folk that had resisted her attempt to rally them just the night before. They now turned to her with determination in their eyes, and she was surprised at the level of faith she saw shining there. Where had all the resentment gone?

"We've been planning for Falceus' attack." Martis stepped forward. "He's sure to come with an army ... we need to prepare. He's no more than a four days' march away."

"Are you sure you want to fight?" Gabrielle looked at the floor. "I've been meaning to ask you ... why did you come to save me? I thought you didn't want to be involved."

"Martis had a great hand in turning the tide." Kala looked at the young man proudly. "When he and Janya came riding into the village with Jilly, we all thought that you had brought down the army upon us. Instead, he told us about how you stood alone against the soldiers. How could we leave you in the camp then?"

"Besides, I told them that my fellow soldiers were sick of the killing. We may not be from Cyanthus, but we're simple farm boys, too. My mother and sister would never forgive my soul if I turned against my own people. I knew that the rest of my troop would feel that way." Martis' words were cheered by his comrades.

"But now Falceus' is coming. He will hear of this, for certain!" The woman from the night before twisted her hands in despair. "He has a whole army, full of hundreds, even thousands of men! How can one small camp of troops stand against such great odds?"

"Is there any chance that the army would turn against Falceus like you did?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.

"I'd wager that they would be too frightened." Martis had a tight look on his face. "You see, Falceus holds our families as hostages against rebellion. Mine are in Hycanthis, far from here. If Falceus found that I had defected from his army, he would kill them. That's how he keeps our loyalty." His face fell. "Already, half the battalion refuses to fight with us because of this. They won't pick up arms against our cause, but they won't confront Falceus either. In all, about thirty men stand with us. The rest opted to retreat."

"The cowards," a soldier next to Gabrielle spat. She turned to him and smiled sadly.

"Thank *you*, anyway, for staying with us," she told him earnestly. He just gave her a weather-beaten grin.

"Figured that I'd pay Falceus back for every innocent I've had to run my sword through." His eyes were chilly and distant. Gabrielle swallowed. She had thought that Xena had been battle-scarred, but the look that some of the men wore showed that they had seen worse.

"Gr-great," she stuttered. Martis nodded.

"That's why we're all here. We'll try spread the word to the other camps, but it'll be of little use. Falceus is too smart. He'd probably send mercenaries to confront us. At any case, the messenger Vervain sent would have already alerted him. Falceus won't take any chances if he thinks Xena's around. He'll come himself and bring plenty of hired troops, bet on it." His eyes darkened. "Most of our boys are fighting at Tynthus against the Centaurs. Falceus never keeps too many of us close to home ... he's afraid that we might get ideas. He can't afford to pull any of our forces out of the battle now, so he'll have to rely on hired help. So we'll be fighting against people who don't care a fig for us. But at least we'll die in the name of freedom."

"That's easy enough for you to say. You don't have children here!" The angry woman spoke up and her voice was joined by some others. "We can still make it work ... just hand over this brat and her whelp to Falceus. He doesn't have to know that you betrayed him, and our village won't get plundered. However, if we fight for freedom, we'd be doomed."

"If I thought it would help, I would give myself up to Falceus," Gabrielle said softly. "But I won't let you do that to Xena. As for being doomed, listen. I've got a plan." Martis, Kala, and the others leaned closer.

"I thought you would, little one," Kala smiled. "You're a bright one, in both spirit and mind."

"It's not going to be easy. All I ask is that you give me two days."

"But Falceus will be here in four!" the woman snapped.

"Yes, but Xena the Warrior Princess will be waiting for him," Gabrielle said firmly, although her heart sank at her words.

At the mention of the warrior's name, the room fell into an awed silence.

"You mean she's really here?" Martis looked at the bard in bewilderment. "I thought that Vervain said that she was far away. Can she really make it here on time to save us?"

"Well, she's already here," Gabrielle said quietly.

"What do you mean? Why doesn't she show herself?" The soldier looked around the room wildly. Gabrielle hid a wry smile.

"She's the same one that you saved today," she told him.

"The little girl? But I thought that she was Xena's sister!"

"Oh, come on! Whose family would actually name two kids Xena?" Gabrielle shook her head. "No, she's the real thing."

"But a five-year-old can't lead an army," another soldier spoke up.

"She won't be five years old. I'm going to change that." Gabrielle's heart felt like it was about to break, but she continued on. "Trust me, in two days, Falceus is going to wish that he never heard of Xena."

"Yeah." Martis grinned impishly. "If you could pull it off, won't that be a kick in the butt? I can just picture his face when he sees who he's up against. I know for a fact that he's more scared of her than he is of all the gods combined. With the Warrior Princess leading our troops, we'll have a better chance of winning."

"Well, I don't think so," the woman said tensely. "Even if you did get her back, what can one woman do against a whole army?"

"You must not know Xena very well then. I've seen her take on odds that are worse than this and still come out on top." Gabrielle took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. "I just need two days."

Kala spoke up, putting a reassuring hand on the bard's shoulder. "I believe her. After all, Gabrielle herself was able to change our lives for the better already, and she, too, is only a single woman. Imagine what we could do if we all worked together." Kala gazed hard into the room. "The odds may be against us, but they're not definite. However, if we do turn over Gabrielle to Falceus, the end would be clear ... we'd be stuck in this rut we've driven ourselves into for the rest of our lives. Do you really want another child to grow up in conditions like these? Eirian, I know you mean well enough, but think, woman. How many sons have you lost to this warlord? How many daughters have you given over to his pleasure? Don't you even feel the slightest urge to fight back, at least once?"

Eirian glared at Gabrielle for a split second more before backing down. "What do we have to do?"

"First, you need to build some traps outside the village." Gabrielle looked at Martis. "I assume you know how to do that."

"Only too well," the soldier replied.

"Meanwhile, Shaya, you lead the children, and those too weak to fight into Spirit's Glade. I doubt that even the need for revenge would drive Falceus into the woods, not with Pan guarding the place. You guys would be safe there."

"Pan won't take kindly to us either," Janya pointed out uneasily.

"Tell him to do it as a favor to Xena and that doing this would really help her. He sorta owes her one." Gabrielle bit her lip and hoped that what Apollo said about the demigod was true. "Also, tell him that Xena's very sorry about everything she said. I have a feeling that he won't do anything too bad to you."

"I hope not," Janya said as she twisted a lock of hair absently. "Although Shaya can be a pig sometimes, I really don't think she wants to become one."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Somehow, I just know he won't do anything like that. Call it divine intuition. Now, it's going to take all of us to make this work. Are we all agreed?" She turned meaningfully to Eirian. The woman nodded.

"Your warrior friend better have some good ideas. Otherwise, you've sealed our fate."

"Xena will," Gabrielle said confidently.

"Even if she doesn't, I'm sure you will come through for us, Gabrielle," Martis told her quietly. "And if something does go wrong, then the women and the children can leave through Spirit's Glade to look for a better life elsewhere. Know that you've at least accomplished that much ... finding a way out."

"What about the rest of you and your families that aren't in Cyanthus?" Gabrielle asked.

"We'll die free men, and we'll die knowing that we have not disgraced our names. This is our land, our people. Perhaps we may not be related by blood, but Cyanthus is a part of the culture I hold dear. I see my true battle now, thanks to you and Xena. Our freedom is much too precious to let it slip out of our hands. We'll fight for it, even if it costs us the last drop of our blood," Martis said calmly, and Gabrielle was taken aback by the conviction in his voice. Even Eirian stood by the soldier's words firmly. The people under Falceus had suffered enough. They were going to take a stand. Gabrielle surveyed the group again. By the gods, they were so few! There were only about sixty fighters in total, counting both men and women. What chance did they stand against Falceus? Gabrielle gulped and tried to hide the apprehension that was building within her. A tiny grain of self doubt had begun to worm its way into her thoughts. What if Xena didn't come up with a good plan?

"Doubting yourself will get you nowhere. The line has been drawn, Gabrielle, and we stand firm by it." Kala's eyes shone. "Long have I waited for a day like this! Thank you, little bard, for bringing it to us."

Slowly, a chant began to build up, and Gabrielle realized that they were shouting her name. Blushing a deep shade of scarlet, the bard tried to shush them.

"Goodness, please stop! I don't deserve this! I'm not even a good warrior!" Gabrielle said flustered.

"But you are a lighter of spirits," Janya told her cheerfully, but the group quieted down, much to Gabrielle's relief.

"We all know what we have to do now." Martis nodded to Gabrielle. "We'll start the preparations once there is enough light to see by. Meanwhile, let me show you the safest passage past the other camps in Falceus' territory."

Gabrielle watched as the soldier unfolded a map and began to circle large spots with a charred stick. "These are where most of the soldier encampments are. We usually patrol in a fixed pattern ..." He demonstrated by drawing lines and crosses. "So if you avoid the marks, you'll be fine. However, if you do run into trouble, take this." He handed her a gold token carved with a charging boar. "It's Vervain's commander insignia. Any lower ranking troops will let you go unquestioned if you present this to them. Fitting that the swine will help you now."

Reaching for the token, Gabrielle pocketed it. "Thanks," she smiled tiredly.

"Meanwhile, I think it's high time that you got some sleep." Kala gripped Gabrielle's arm and gently tugged the bard away from the group. "After all, you've had quite a day yourself, being beaten up and nearly killed."

"I'll be okay. Getting beaten up and almost killed is not a new experience for me." Gabrielle turned to look back at where Martis was in deep conversation with his fellow soldiers, planning out a strategy.

"They'll be fine without you," Kala told her firmly. "Martis is quite a capable leader. Besides, making war does not seem to be your strong suit. Come, leave the planning and killing to those who have the most experience."

Both women walked up the stairs of the tavern. Gabrielle held her breath as she quietly looked in on Xena. The girl looked like she was resting peacefully, and Gabrielle's soul ached when she thought about the mission she would have complete tomorrow.

"Having second thoughts about bringing her back?" Kala asked gently.

"You could say that," Gabrielle said softly. "I don't know if I'm doing the right thing. I feel as if I'm asking her to sacrifice because I can't do the job myself. This could be her second chance at life, to start over again without the pain of her past, without ever having lost her blood innocence." She brushed back a strand of black hair that had strayed across the child's face. "I'm her best friend ... she means so much to me and to see her so happy ..."

"Gabrielle, I know this is hard, but I believe Xena has always had a good soul, no matter how old she was. Even if you let her stay this way, she'll resent you when she grows older and finds that she could have done something to help. You know that."

"Yeah, I guess so," Gabrielle admitted reluctantly. "Well, I've already said I would do it, and I can't think of another way that we could defeat Falceus. I'm not a leader like Xena is, nor can I bring victory to your village. I know she can get you all safely through this mess, unlike me ..."

"You underestimate yourself greatly, Gabrielle. Still, you're right, in a way ... I can see no other options either. Falceus will not think twice about destroying us, and he's an experienced and cunning warlord. We need your friend's knowledge about dealing with this type of scum. I know you hate to think that Xena's being used as a weapon, but her presence will make Falceus hesitate and lend strength and confidence to our meager forces. Sometimes, life is about making sacrifices. The end of her childhood may give others a chance to grow up. Still, knowing this does not make it any easier, does it?"

"No, it doesn't," Gabrielle said softly as she tucked the covers up on Xena.

Kala looked at the bard tenderly. "I understand. You want to hold on to her, protect her from the world. But you can't shelter her forever. How safe do you think she'll be once word gets around that she's now a defenseless child? You saw what happened with Vervain. Others will try to take advantage of her as well. This is for her own protection, too. She's Xena, Warrior Princess. That's all the world will ever see her as."

"Not me."

"That's because you are gifted to see with your heart," Kala smiled wryly. "You'll always find the right path that way."

"How did you become so wise, Kala?"

"I am a mother, you know, and Time has given me quite an earful." Kala led her to a small room, off to the side of Xena's. "Dawn will come soon enough without you waiting for her, and you'll have plenty to do once she arrives. But for now, just rest. Only the gods know when you will have a chance to sleep after this."

Gabrielle finally agreed. As soon as her head hit the pillow, the bard sank into a deep dreamless sleep.

Continued (Parts 7-8)

Go back to the beginning of "Childhood's End."