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Xena's Past, Elisa's Future
DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. All other characters are property of the author. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
VIOLENCE: There is very slight reference made to spousal and child abuse and its violent aftermath. There also are several occurrences of Xena-type violence and some hurt/comfort scenes. There is no intentional sub-text, just two strong women who are exceedingly close and loving friends.
Author's note: This story is the third and last of a three-part arc. I would like to suggest that the previous stories, "Dahak's Entrance Delayed," and "Xena, Junior, Meets Callisto," be read first, in order to fully understand references in this story.
My profound thanks to Karen Surtees for her "unerring eye of truth," and her generous assistance in pinpointing areas that needed to be expanded (and then pestering me into doing it!). I am grateful, my friend.
Please feel free to comment on why you did or didn't like the story. Suggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises.
And, finally, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I value your encouragement.
Xena's Past, Elisa's Future
Gabrielle called a meeting of the Amazon council to fill them in on what had happened to her and Elisa when they clashed with Callisto. The Amazons were amazed and delighted with Elisa's part in saving their Queen by killing Callisto, and the council decided, yes, her actions should be honored by a celebration. Because Elisa needed some time for her head wound to heal, the festivities were set for a week away.
As part of the celebration, Eponin, the weapons master, suggested that they have some staff-sparring contests and asked that Xena be included among the participants. Eponin and Solari were put in charge of these events and Ephiny, the regent, accepted responsibility for the overall celebration.
When Gabrielle approached Xena about her taking part in the staff contest, Xena pointed out that she still had a broken arm. "Sure," Gabrielle laughed, "we both know that arm will be healed before the end of the week. C'mon now, no shirking! You know every warrior in the village would like a chance to spar with you."
After much persuasion, Xena finally gave in, "'OK, I'll fight anyone who makes it past you. Deal?"
"Deal," the bard clapped her hands. "I'm going to go let Eponin and Solari know, OK? Only, Xena, the word here is spar, not fight, remember?"
"Riiiiight," Xena grinned and raised an eyebrow. "But you better make sure Eponin knows that, too. You know how competitive she gets and I wouldn't want her hurting the Queen. I wouldn't take too kindly to that."
"Hmmmm. I never thought about that," Gabrielle admitted. She looked seriously at her very protective friend. "Would you hurt someone just because they hurt me? Even if it was unintentional?"
"An expert with the staff shouldn't make a mistake like that," the Warrior Princess stated matter-of-factly.
"Xena, you didn't answer my question," the golden-haired woman pointed out.
The warrior's cobalt-blue eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah, if someone hurt you, I would feel honor-bound to make them pay for it. Besides, the Amazons all know my reputation well enough to know they would be running that risk." A tiny grin formed at the edge of Xena's mouth. "But I wouldn't kill anyone."
"Xena!" Gabrielle expostulated. "If that's the case, they'll never make it past me. They'll be too scared they might hurt me. You won't have to spar with anyone!"
Xena folded both arms, splint and all, lifted both eyebrows and grinned wolfishly. "That's the deal we just made, my Queen," she shrugged. "But I think you underestimate the courage of some of your warriors."
Gabrielle just shook her head in exasperation and left to find Eponin and Solari.
Xena headed for the ironworker's hut. Bolenda was out behind her hut working on a small dagger. She stopped what she was doing and gave the Warrior Princess a half smile and a nod. "What can I do for you, Xena?"
Xena pulled out her sword and the woman backed up a step. "I'd like to know if you can make a sword to match this one?" the warrior asked, ignoring Bolenda's retreat. "Except I want the letter 'E' worked into the hilt where the 'X' is on mine." She handed her sword to the ironworker.
Bolenda, looking relieved, hefted the sword and examined its hilt. "I'm pretty sure I can duplicate this. Just leave your sword with me a couple days and it shouldn't be a problem." The woman looked up at the warrior as she finished and saw her face change into a hard mask.
"I'm not leaving my sword anywhere," Xena scowled.
"Sure, sure, Xena, anything you say," the ironworker was quick to reply. "I'll just measure it and build from that." The Amazon quickly measured the parts of Xena's sword and handed it back.
"Two days, right?" the warrior glared at Bolenda as she sheathed her weapon.
"Right, whatever you want," the woman almost bowed. Xena walked away and secretly smiled. Sure is fun to intimidate some of these Amazons. Keeps me in practice. Wouldn't want them to think I'm just some ordinary visitor! She moved towards the healer's hut to check on Elisa.
The Warrior Princess walked through the door of the healer's hut and saw Elisa lying on a cot. Claris was standing over her like a mother hen. An angry mother hen. "Xena," the healer growled, "would you please convince this young woman that she has a serious injury and should take it easy for awhile? She thinks she should be healed already."
Xena looked at Elisa and raised questioning eyebrows. "Claris is treating me like a baby, Xena. She put a healing salve on my cut and it feels fine. She gave me a tea made from some of those herbs you gave her and even my headache is gone. But still she insists that I stay here in bed." The young Amazon looked disgusted.
"Leese, even though you feel all right, you've had a nasty blow and you need some time to get over it. I'll make a deal with you," Xena bargained. "You stay quiet here in the healing hut today and tomorrow. Do everything Claris asks you to and, after the two days, I'll have a surprise for you. OK?"
Elisa half rose on her elbows and her eyes lit up in anticipation. "A surprise? What kind of surprise?" she asked eagerly. Xena lifted an eyebrow, slowly shook her head and gave the girl one of her "You-don't- really-think-I'm-going-to-tell-you?" looks.
The young Amazon sank back down, grinning. "OK, deal," she agreed. "I'll be a perfect patient for two whole days. But this better be worth it!"
Claris gave the warrior a grateful look, then asked, "Do you want me to resplint your arm, Xena? That doesn't look too comfortable."
The Warrior Princess looked at her arm as though she had forgotten it was broken. "OK, Claris. It most likely should have a splint for a couple more days."
Claris opened her mouth to say something and then closed it. It probably WILL be healed in a couple days. The way her body renews itself is a marvel! The healer got her supplies and put a new splint on Xena's arm.
"Thanks, Claris," Xena responded. She walked past Elisa's cot and poked her on the arm. "I'll be back day after tomorrow to check on you and I better hear only good things!" the warrior mock threatened.
"I'll be good, Xena, I promise," Elisa pledged with a big smile.
Xena waved goodbye and walked to the door. As she reached it, Elisa's friend, Gwynna, was about to come in from the other direction. For a fleeting moment, the tall blonde woman's shoulders squared, her jaw set and her brown eyes narrowed. Then the moment passed and she nodded to Xena and stepped aside to let the Warrior Princess proceed.
There's some fire in that one, Xena mused as she returned the nod and strode on out the door.
Gabrielle walked over to the weapons hut and found Eponin talking to Solari. Both Amazons stopped speaking and turned to the Queen. "I'm glad I found you together," Gabrielle smiled. "I'd like to discuss the sparring contest with you. Xena has agreed to compete but only against those who can get past me."
The two Amazons looked surprised. "You're going to compete?" Solari asked.
"Of course," Gabrielle answered. "You don't think I'm going to miss out on all the fun, do you?"
"But if challengers have to get past you to spar against Xena, that could cause some problems," Eponin reflected. "No one would want to hurt our Queen but, in the intensity of the match, you could get hurt accidentally."
"Personally, I wouldn't want to so much as nick your hand with Xena watching," Solari vowed. "She would probably break my neck!"
Eponin's head swiveled around and she looked at Solari thoughtfully. "I never considered that possibility, Solly. Yeah, that could make life difficult."
"Well," Gabrielle looked from one to the other of the Amazons, gazing straight into their eyes, "I expect you two to keep anything bad from happening."
Eponin and Solari stared back at her glumly. Sure, thought Eponin, like we can handle Xena if she gets mad.
Solari spoke up, "My Queen, you know you are the only one who has any control over Xena. No one else in the village can come even close."
"Well, what do you two think? Should we cancel the sparring?" the golden-haired woman asked.
"No, my Queen," both said at once. Solari continued, "Maybe you and Xena could do an exhibition instead of joining in the competition?"
"No way," Eponin disagreed. "Several of our better warriors would welcome the chance to try their skills against the Warrior Princess, including me."
"Pony, do you think any Amazons might be able to get past you?" Gabrielle asked.
"We have three or four who are really good and they sometimes beat me," Eponin answered. "Gwynna's one of them and she's a close friend of Elisa's so she's going to want to show off. Another is Seloka. She's big and strong and tough. And Mepasa who also is big and strong, and mean. Then we have Elisa who often beats me, but, with her head wound, she won't be contending."
"OK, let's have Xena at the top, then me, then you. I'll spar with anyone who gets past you, and Xena will spar with anyone who gets past me. We can start the elimination contests tomorrow and time them so that Xena is sparring with the finalists on the day of the feast. We'll just have to hope there isn't any trouble. Does that sound OK?" the Queen asked.
"Sounds good to me," Eponin answered.
"Me, too," rejoined Solari. "Pony and I will set up the contests and the referees for them. If Pony is in the finals, I'll referee them."
"What if you're both in the finals?" Gabrielle asked.
Solari snorted, "I can't beat Pony on my best day so I know I won't get past her."
"Ok, I'll leave the details in your hands. I'll see you on the "battlefield," Gabrielle grinned and left.
"Pony, do you really think you can beat Xena?" queried Solari.
"Solly, I always think I can beat anyone!" the weapons master declared. "Besides, maybe Xena will be weaker now that she's just recovering from a broken arm. That arm's got to be weaker than normal."
For the next couple of days, Xena, her broken arm quickly healing, continued with her usual predawn drills. During the day, she and Gabrielle would watch the sparring contests and in the early evening they would go into the forest and practice with the staff, preparing for the upcoming bouts.
Over the years, the bard had gotten better and better with the staff and now could hold her own with most other fighters. The Amazons the weapons master had named would most likely be the only ones with a chance to make it past both Eponin and Gabrielle, to Xena.
Most Amazons practiced fighting with the staff every day and were highly skilled. The best fighters were especially anxious to try their strength against the Warrior Princess. Many had seen her remarkable abilities in battle, but had not seen her engage an enemy with the staff. The possibility of sparring with Xena added zest to the competition.
The rules were simple. All staffs were heavily padded on both ends. All body hits had to be with a padded end of the staff. Kicking, kneeing, punching, forearm smashes, head-butting or any other similar use of one's body against the other's body would be a violation and would mean immediate disqualification. The first to knock her opponent to the ground three times won. Or an opponent could concede.
On the second day of competition, Xena and Gabrielle were sitting on the sidelines, watching the bouts, when Xena arose and turned to leave. "Gabrielle, I have an errand I have to take care of," the Warrior Princess said. "I'll be back in a little while. Keep an eye on the fighters that Eponin told us about. See if they show any weaknesses, OK?"
"Sure, Xena," the bard answered. She was engrossed in the competitions and her presence there as Queen seemed to enliven the participants.
As the tall, dark-haired woman strode the length of the practice field, many eyes and heads swiveled in her direction. Noticing this, Xena could not resist the temptation to swagger a bit as a smile played around her lips. She moved toward the ironworker's hut.
Swinging her way into the hut, she found Bolenda just putting the finishing touches on the new sword for Elisa. The Amazon hammered the hot blade a couple more times then lifted it and looked along its edge. She doused the sword in a tub of water and handed it to Xena. The warrior hefted the sword in her hand a few times then grasped it by the hilt and spun it in several directions. Bolenda's eyes never left Xena's face.
A small smile turned up the corners of Xena's mouth and she nodded her head. Then she held the sword's blade and examined the initial "E" that had been encrusted into both sides of the hilt with blue stones. Her smile broadened. "This is perfect," the Warrior Princess praised. She reached into a pouch at her belt and laid several gold pieces on a table.
"Oh, no, please, Xena, that is too much," Bolenda protested.
"I'm not paying you for a sword, Bolenda," the warrior acknowledged. "This is a work of art."
Xena left the ironworker beaming as she walked toward the healer's hut. She slipped her own sword out of its sheath and replaced it with Elisa's sword. As she entered the doorway of the hut, she surreptitiously stood her own sword just inside the doorway, against the wall, and walked over to Elisa's cot. The young Amazon was sitting on the edge of her cot, fully dressed, flipping a knife up and down from one hand to the other, when she looked up and saw Xena approaching.
"Hi, Xena," she greeted the warrior, as her face lit up. She was still wearing her raven hair in a single plait down her back, but she had cut bangs along her forehead to cover the healing cut marks.
Xena smiled a greeting. "Hey, Claris, how's your patient been acting? Listening to everything you told her?" she called to the healer.
"She's been absolutely perfect, Princess," the healer responded.
"Well, in that case..." The Warrior Princess in one quick motion, reached behind her head, drew the sword and placed the tip of it against Elisa's neck. The young Amazon's eyes grew large and dark and her knuckles whitened on the knife she was holding. Claris froze.
After a few tense seconds, Xena laughed, pulled back the sword and flipped it in the air, catching the blade end in her hand and presenting the hilt end to Elisa. "Put that little plaything away and grab hold of a real blade," the Warrior Princess directed.
Elisa, catching her breath, slipped her knife into a small scabbard on her boot and wrapped her hand around the hilt of the new sword. Her smoke-gray eyes widened in wonder. She turned her hand over and saw the "E" emblazoned in the hilt. A smile of undiluted delight crossed her face. "This is the surprise you promised," she breathed. "Xena, what a great gift. It's just like yours! Thank you so much."
Never at ease with the gratitude of others, Xena shrugged and waved her hand. "Just use it well, Leese, and I'll be happy," she said. She walked over to the doorway and retrieved her own sword. "Now, c'mon, ready to go watch some sparring?" The two tall, dark-haired women strode out of the healer's hut together.
Three days later, the preliminary bouts had ousted most of the Amazons from the competition and, as Eponin had predicted, Gwynna, Seloka and Mepasa had gotten past her and now waited to meet Gabrielle.
By draw, Mepasa was the first challenger.
Xena advised Gabrielle about strategy. "She's bigger and stronger than you are so you'll have to outsmart her. Let her go on offense first to get a feel for the rhythm of her movements. Once you have that, put more strength in your parries and each time she starts a new move, step toward her. This will force her backwards, keeping her off-balance. Watch for a good opening. She might get angry which could work in your favor."
"I'll just pretend it's you I'm sparring with," Gabrielle said seriously, "Except you never get angry with me."
"Just don't let your guard down. She's a mean one," Xena warned.
Gabrielle sparred just as Xena had prompted. After parrying about ten blows, she recognized the bigger woman's rhythm. She also was relieved to find that, although larger than Xena, Mepasa did not have the strength of the Warrior Princess. Whenever Gabrielle parried a blow from Xena's staff, her whole body reverberated from the warrior's power.
Because Gabrielle had been constantly retreating, Mepasa believed she had the upper hand and grinned wickedly in expectation of victory. But the bard soon had her thinking otherwise. Mepasa swung the end of her staff across and down at Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard threw her staff up horizontally, blocking the down swing. Even as she parried it, she stepped closer to the Amazon. Mepasa was forced to back up to make room for her next move. She ducked down and swung at Gabrielle's legs but the golden-haired woman easily jumped over the attempt and came down driving her weapon toward her opponent. Her staff caught Mepasa in the side of the head with a resounding "thunk!" and the Amazons shouted approval.
On the far side of the practice field, Ephiny was seated next to Xena watching the match. She heard the Warrior Princess hiss, "Yes!" and saw her mouth twitch at the corners into a tiny grin as she watched the bard's expert handling of Mepasa.
Gabrielle stepped in closer, backing the larger woman up again. Four times in a row, as Gabrielle parried a blow, she stepped toward Mepasa, forcing her to give ground.
Suddenly, Gabrielle switched from defense to offense. As Mepasa stepped forward, intending to deliver a strike, the bard shifted the staff lengthwise and thrust the end of it, hard, into Mepasa's midsection drawing an "Oooof" of departing breath from the surprised woman. Mepasa's guard dropped and Gabrielle quickly swung the right side of the staff up. She slammed the bigger woman's head with a cross blow, turning the Amazon's body partly sideways. Then the Queen reversed the force of her hands and swept backwards with the left side of the staff against the backs of Mepasa's knees. With a startled cry of disbelief, the Amazon crashed to the ground.
Frustrated by being upended by the smaller woman and angered by the catcalls coming from the assembled Amazons, Mepasa jumped up and increased her attack. Again, Gabrielle parried each blow, but kept stepping forward. Only, this time, she counterattacked after each parry, laying several hard blows to the Amazon's body.
Xena's small grin had grown into a full-blown smile as she proudly watched her smaller friend handle a larger, heavier adversary. Gabrielle's physically active life on the road, and her constant staff practices with Xena, had conditioned and strengthened her body so well that Mepasa's size was unable to wear her down.
Then Gabrielle fell back for a moment, seeming to hesitate. Mepasa, eyes glittering, seized the opportunity to lunge at the Queen. Gabrielle neatly sidestepped the expected assault, then squatted down and swept Mepasa's feet out from under her. The big Amazon crashed to the ground for her second fall.
The spectators cheered and booed, simultaneously. Screaming with rage, Mepasa leapt to her feet and with a fierce kick knocked the staff from the bard's hands. Quickly, Gabrielle stooped to retrieve her staff and just as quickly Mepasa grabbed her own staff by a padded end and started a mighty swing with the mad intention of hitting the bard alongside her unprotected head with the exposed wood of the staff.
When Mepasa kicked the staff from the Queen's hands, Ephiny sensed Xena tensing up. Just as Ephiny turned to look at the Warrior Princess, Mepasa was shifting her hands to the padded end of the staff and Xena was already running across the field. With an abbreviated battlecry, "Yiyiyiyi," she flipped into the air for the last few yards and landed between Mepasa and Gabrielle, prepared to grab the staff as it came around. The referee stood frozen, startled at the swift change of events.
But Gwynna was even closer than Xena and her reactions had also been swift. When Mepasa began to move her hands to the end of the staff, Gwynna, who was seated with the other contestants waiting her chance in line, jumped up and reached for her own staff. She took three fast steps and, with a strong, ankle-high sweep, took Mepasa's legs from under her before she could finish her murderous attack. The big Amazon fell, again, to the ground.
A fuming Xena reached down with her left arm, grabbed Mepasa by the throat and, in her fury, lifted her, first to her feet, then completely off the ground. Mepasa hung there, her rage counteracted by her stunned recognition of the Warrior Princess and the astonishing strength being manifested by her. Knowing Xena's warlord past, she fully expected to have the life throttled out of her. Face to face, she witnessed Xena's struggle as Death flickered across her cold blue eyes, but was battled to a retreat. Instead, the warrior, fist cocked at her waist, delivered a roundhouse punch to the Amazon's jaw which knocked her 10 feet in the air before she crashed to the ground. Xena started for her again, but Gabrielle grabbed her friend by the arm to stop her.
The Warrior Princess snapped her head around toward this perceived adversary and raised her fist, prepared to punch her, too. Just as she realized it was Gabrielle and halted her swing, her legs were swept out from under her by Gwynna's staff. Xena sat down hard on the ground but did a back roll and immediately came to her feet. Stepping between Xena and the Queen, Gwynna assumed a defensive posture. Xena's knees crouched, her lips drew back against her teeth and her eyes narrowed. Her whole being shrieked with unsatisfied fury.
Quickly, Gabrielle moved around Gwynna so that she stood in front of the young Amazon, facing Xena. She put an arm out to restrain the girl from coming back around her.
The bard realized that Xena had been so focused on Mepasa, she did not see that Gwynna was the one who had intervened to save her Queen. Gabrielle waited until Xena's fuming blue eyes dropped to meet her mist-green ones, then she walked slowly toward her friend and put her hand on the warrior's chest. "Xena," she said firmly, "Gwynna was only trying to protect me; she was the one who knocked Mepasa down." Gabrielle stood there as Xena's face twitched, then gradually stilled, and her tension came down a notch. A slight incline of her dark head told the bard that the Warrior Princess was returning to the normal world.
"Please, stay with me, Xena," Gabrielle requested. She moved her hand to Xena's forearm and gently brought the warrior to her side. Together, they slowly walked toward Gwynna and the bard put her other hand on the young Amazon's arm. "It's OK, Gwynna, Xena wouldn't hurt me. She thought at first that I was another attacker and she started to react to that. Her fist had stopped just as you hit her legs. But I am very grateful to you for stepping in and taking Mepasa down. As strong as she is, I could have been badly injured, or even killed, if she had struck me as she intended."
The blonde Amazon slowly relaxed her defensive posture, her eyes focused on Xena's stony face.
All of the spectators had congregated at the battle scene, but no one made a move to come even close to the area where the Warrior Princess stood, still radiating tension. Gabrielle's continued touch soothed Xena and her tension gradually diminished.
An eerie silence had overtaken the Amazons as they watched the action unfolding between Xena, Mepasa, and Gwynna. The Queen's composure and lack of fear in dealing with Xena's ferocity raised her esteem in the eyes of her subjects. At the same time they were in awe of the strength and power displayed by the imposing Warrior Princess and could almost feel the rage surging through her body. Eventually, when it became obvious that Xena had truly begun to relax, so did the group of Amazons and the thick anxiety that had been hanging in the air dissipated.
Ephiny chose two of the Amazons and said, "Take Mepasa to the jail hut. An assault against the Queen is a very serious matter. We'll deal with her later." The women took her away.
Gabrielle declared, "I think Gwynna has earned a place of honor for her assistance. For the rest of the celebration, when she isn't sparring, she will sit next to Elisa and be honored, as well, for her bravery."
Elisa, who had arrived at the scene with the others, grabbed her friend in a big hug. "This is great," she laughed, "Now we both have saved the Queen!"
Left standing alone as the crowd moved away again to the sidelines, Gabrielle gazed up at a now perfectly calm Xena and threw her arms around her. "Thanks for being there for me, again," she smiled. The warrior leaned back and looked down at her best friend. "Always," she answered. "But... what happened to 'Don't let your guard down?'" she questioned with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle shrugged and rolled her eyes and the Warrior Princess just shook her head.
Solari, walking next to Eponin, poked the weapons master with her elbow, "What were you saying about the broken arm being weaker?" Eponin just grinned wryly at her friend.
When everything had settled down, Ephiny called Xena and Gabrielle together. The Warrior Princess strode up close to the regent and turned her cobalt-blue gaze full on her. Ephiny's heart, as usual, lurched. Either I've got to get used to those eyes or stay away from them. As if I really was able to do either one! the regent laughed at herself. And the rascal knows exactly how she affects me.
Ephiny cleared her throat to steady her voice and declared, "Xena, I know you agreed to spar with the contestants who got past Gabrielle, but I don't think any of us realized just how good our Queen had gotten with the staff. It's possible no one will get by her and we won't have anyone to spar with you tomorrow. Frankly, after all the excitement she just went through, I'd be happy if she would step down from the competition and let Gwynna and Seloka go past her to spar with you. And maybe Eponin to round it out to three matches. Would you do that?"
Xena raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Would that suit you, my Queen?"
"Er, yeah, I think I've had my fill of competitive sparring for the time being," the bard confessed. "Is it OK with you, Xena?"
"Yes, I'll do it to honor Elisa. She deserves the celebration," the dark-haired woman agreed.
"And Gwynna," reminded Gabrielle.
"I'm not too sure Gwynna would consider anything coming from me an honor," Xena stated dryly. "I think she's looking forward to clouting me a few times with her staff."
"You two just got off on the wrong foot, she'll come around one day," Ephiny offered.
"'Off on the wrong foot' is exactly the problem," Xena said, with a lopsided grin. "I don't think she's ever forgiven me for leaving bootprints on her chest, even if I don't remember doing it."
"OK," Ephiny finished the conversation, grinning, "I'll make the announcement that today's matches are canceled and Gwynna, Seloka, and Eponin will spar with the Warrior Princess tomorrow."
After they heard Ephiny's announcement that the remaining contestants would move up to spar against Xena, Elisa pulled Gwynna into a small clearing in the privacy of the surrounding forest. The dark-haired Amazon rested her staff against one of the trees and, putting her hands on her hips, turned to her blonde friend. "I hope you realize how close you came to Xena kicking your butt out there!" she scolded.
"I thought she was going to hit the Queen. Was I supposed to just let her go ahead and do that?" Gwynna argued right back.
"She wouldn't have hurt the Queen. She stopped herself as soon as she recognized Gabrielle," Elisa retorted.
"Look, Elisa, you and I both know that, once before, Xena dragged the Queen outta here behind a horse, remember? And I'm supposed to expect a maniac like that not to hurt her again?" the blonde Amazon disputed.
"There was more to that than we will ever know, Gwynna. Gabrielle's daughter killed Xena's son, and Xena went crazy with grief. She and Gabrielle have settled that, and you know it," Elisa asserted.
"I don't get it," Gwynna said sarcastically. "Twice now I've tried to save the Queen and ended up being the bad guy. You just think Xena can do no wrong. Well, I'm glad I knocked her down and I can't wait till tomorrow to do it again."
Elisa looked at her partner and shook her head in disbelief. "Gwynna, don't be so darn cocky. You might not even lay a hit on Xena, let alone knock her down. The woman is an unbelievable fighter and she's had worlds of experience compared to any of us. I'd like to work with you on some kind of strategy that will at least keep you from being embarrassed."
The dark-haired young Amazon knew her words of warning had not convinced her friend, but sometimes cockiness gives you an added edge and Gwynna would need all the help she could get.
To prepare her friend to meet the Warrior Princess, Elisa demonstrated some of Xena's possible moves and had Gwynna parry and counterattack against them. She IS good, thought Elisa, but nobody is as good as Xena. Gwynna's about to learn that firsthand. Maybe she can learn something from Xena that someday could save her life.
"Gwynna, Xena will be watching for your rhythm of fighting and most of us have one. You have a habit of using the same move about every fifth try. Get yourself out of that, now, or Xena will make short work of you. Try not to fall into a pattern, mix it up. And don't bother trying to find her pattern, she doesn't allow herself to have one," Elisa counseled. Xena's only pattern is beating everyone she fights. And, if anyone does seem to be getting ahead of her, she gets tougher, faster and meaner. I just hope Gwynna doesn't get herself hurt.
For the sparring matches on the last day of the celebration, the three challengers drew straws and were to go in the order of Seloka, Eponin and Gwynna. Xena and Seloka had finished their stretching warm-ups and Solari gave them the signal to begin.
The Amazon was four inches taller than Xena and outweighed her by about 50 pounds but she came nowhere near matching the warrior's speed. Xena knew at once that she could outspar Seloka but she prolonged the match and even let the woman land a few exciting hits so as not to embarrass her. Allowing a decent interval between takedowns, Xena dispatched her with very little difficulty.
There was a half-hour rest between matches and Xena could hear snatches of the conversations going on, about her match coming up with Eponin. The weapons master was adept at using the staff and so competitive that she was never an easy opponent. Her match with Seloka had been a very long one and Seloka's sheer size and weight had worn Eponin down.
Soon, Solari signaled Xena and Eponin to begin. Eponin was a crafty fighter and an expert at feinting and cross-hitting. She and Xena went at it in earnest, both totally serious in their efforts to take the other down. Back and forth they went across the practice field, hitting, thrusting, parrying. Eponin feinted a hit at Xena's head, and when the Warrior Princess ducked, Eponin cross-hit her under the chin with a solid blow that knocked the Warrior Princess to the ground.
Xena bounced right back up and started after Eponin more aggressively. Soon, Xena made a mighty swipe at Eponin's ankles and the weapons master slammed against the ground. Unable to stand up, Eponin sat on the ground wondering what had happened to her feet. Apparently the fall had pinched a nerve and numbed her feet and she wasn't able to get up to continue. She lost the match by default. Disgusted, Eponin wouldn't allow anyone to help her off the field but crawled off herself on her hands and knees and sat on the sidelines.
Xena and Gabrielle walked over to her during the half-hour rest to see how she was. "I never saw that happen before, Pony," the warrior said. "Did you?"
"Yeah, Princess," the weapons master admitted dejectedly, "I had a pretty terrible fall from a horse a few years ago and injured my back. Ever since then, if I hit my back a certain way, my feet get numb. But I'll be OK in a couple hours. That's the first time it ever happened when I was using the staff."
"Guess Xena just got lucky," Gabrielle said.
"You got that right!" Xena and Eponin spoke in unison, then both laughed. Xena held out her arm to Eponin and they clasped arms in the warrior handshake. "Better luck next time, Pony."
As Xena and Gabrielle walked away out of earshot, Gabrielle asked softly, "You let her knock you down, didn't you?"
"Was it that obvious?" Xena asked.
"Probably not to anyone but me. That was a move I've tried against you a hundred times and I've never even hit you, let alone knocked you down," the bard clarified.
"Well, Pony is the weapons master. She has a certain reputation to uphold," the warrior explained. "I didn't want to make it too one way. I'm kinda glad her feet went numb; now she can believe that she might have beaten me."
Gabrielle looked up at her imposing friend. "Sometimes you are very nice," she smiled.
Xena laughed, threw her arm over the bard's shoulder and gave her a quick squeeze. "You might get an argument about that statement. Even from me."
Now it was time to meet Gwynna's challenge. At first the two opponents appeared to be evenly matched. They thrust and parried, made sweeps, feinted and cross-hit for several minutes. Xena had landed several blows but Gwynna had yet to score. Xena danced away from the young Amazon and called out at her, loud, "Every time you hit me once, I'll let you hit me again, just to make this bout interesting." Gwynna's face reddened and her knuckles whitened against her staff.
Xena recognized that Gwynna was trying to change the rhythm of her fighting. In her other bouts, Gwynna had been using the same cross-hit try on every fifth move, alternating left and right cross-hits. In spite of the change, Xena knew that sooner or later the cross-hit would come and she watched for it. As a result, each time she tried it, Xena was landing a solid blow to Gwynna's body and the Amazon had still not landed a hit on the Warrior Princess. Gwynna was starting to get frustrated. She desperately wanted to knock Xena's head off.
Gwynna quickly turned her staff horizontal to the ground at waist height and rushed straight at the warrior, thinking that Xena might fall to the ground to avoid the hit. She had forgotten Xena's skills. The Warrior Princess flipped up in the air overtop Gwynna and landed behind the now disconcerted Amazon. Xena could have hit her anywhere she wanted to, and as hard as she wanted to, but instead, she tapped Gwynna on the shoulder with the end of her staff.
When Gwynna got turned around, Xena taunted her again, "When are you going to hit me, Gwynna? Scared?" Again Gwynna's face got red and she attacked Xena with even more vigor. She aimed one particularly mighty swing at Xena's head. When Xena ducked, Gwynna went off balance and Xena barely touched her with the staff, making her fall to the ground.
Gwynna rolled over as if to get up, but instead she made a quick sweep with her staff from the ground at ankle level, catching Xena unaware, and the Warrior Princess crashed to the earth on her back, knocking the wind out of her.
Gwynna moved over to stand above Xena but the rules said an opponent had to stand at least a staff-length away from the one who had fallen, and could not strike until the fallen one was back on her feet. Solari motioned to Gwynna to back up. While this was going on, Xena recovered her breath. As soon as Gwynna had moved away, Xena sprung up, laughing, "Well, I'm glad to see you came here to fight and not just to play, little girl."
Not even realizing she was doing it, Gwynna fell back into her usual rhythm. The second time she cross-hit on her fifth swing, Xena poked the Amazon in the stomach with the tip of her staff then came back with an uppercut to her jaw, knocking her down almost at Elisa's feet. This time, Xena moved further away from the fallen woman, not giving her an opportunity for the ankle swipe. As Xena moved, she saw Elisa call something to Gwynna but there was too much noise from the spectators for Xena to hear it.
Gwynna got up and came at Xena aggressively. This time, on her fifth swing, Gwynna merely feinted a cross-hit. Instead, she stepped sideways and swung with all her strength at the warrior's head. She could already imagine the satisfying reverberations she would feel when the staff landed, finally, against Xena's taunting face.
But Xena knew what she, herself, had taught Gwynna's friend, Elisa, about patterns. She figured that Elisa had called to Gwynna to change her pattern, and she was ready for the feint. The Warrior Princess' awesome strength and agility allowed her to grab the oncoming staff, duck under it and pull, taking Gwynna to the ground for the third fall. The victory was Xena's.
The Warrior Princess walked over to Gwynna and offered her an arm. The young Amazon was angry, disappointed and frustrated. She ignored Xena's arm and clambered up by herself. The spectators rushed to the sparring area and surrounded the combatants, slapping them both on the shoulders in appreciation. Then the Amazons made way for their regent, as Ephiny and Solari, supporting Eponin between them, approached the two women. "Congratulations, Xena. You certainly gave us a few lessons in sparring. I've tried to memorize some of those moves of yours," Ephiny grinned. "Kinda makes me glad I was a spectator and not a participant."
Xena grinned and nodded her thanks.
Gabrielle and Elisa joined the group while the other Amazons headed for the village hall for the feast.
Ephiny then turned to Gwynna, who was standing with her head down, looking at the ground. The regent reached over and lifted the girl's chin. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Gwynna. You put up a remarkable battle. No one we know of has ever beaten Xena, but you made a good showing and you even knocked her down once. Most of us haven't even done that. In fact, in this whole contest, Eponin was the only other one able to do it."
Eponin quirked a half-grin at the Warrior Princess and chimed in, "Yeah, Gwynna, you did us proud. I've had a few other matches with Xena and that's the first time I've ever taken her off her feet."
"Except when Xena's feet were up in the air, going over your head," Solari quipped.
"Yeah? Well, you won't even fight her," Eponin taunted her friend.
"It's good that one of us has some sense, don't you think?" Solari shot back and everyone grinned.
Xena nodded at Gwynna. "You did a good job, Gwynna. You had me working hard there."
Gwynna looked searchingly into Xena's remarkable blue eyes. "Why were you ragging at me?" she demanded. Gabrielle, too, looked questioningly at the Warrior Princess.
"You were too tight," Xena answered. "I knew you would have a better chance if you could loosen up, and sometimes a little anger will do that. Just so it doesn't get out of control, and yours didn't."
"You were trying to help me?" Gwynna asked in confused surprise. Elisa grinned at the look on her friend's face.
"Why not? We're all on the same side, aren't we?" Xena shrugged. Xena stretched out her arm to the girl who willingly clasped it this time in the warrior handshake.
"I have some rethinking to do about you, Xena," Gwynna admitted. Elisa nodded her head in agreement.
"Just so you make up your own mind, Gwynna. Don't let anyone else tell you how to think. Unless it's Elisa and you're in a sparring bout," Xena laughed. Elisa looked apologetic.
"Yeah, she told me to feint on my fifth move, but you were too quick!" Gwynna marveled.
"It might have worked if you had swung at the back of my head instead of the front," Xena suggested to the astonished Amazon.
Sure, Gabrielle thought, like Xena wouldn't have reached behind her and grabbed it anyway! But I guess she's trying to encourage the girl.
"I'll remember that," Gwynna promised.
"Now, suppose we go feast?" Gabrielle started in the direction of the village hall, and everyone followed.
Two days had passed since the celebration, and Xena and Gabrielle were preparing to leave. "It'll be good to see Mother and Toris again," Xena was saying to the bard. They were in the stable checking the saddlebags and adding the food and herbs the Amazons had given them to take on their journey.
Elisa came through the stable door. "Xena, Gabrielle, I'd like to ask one more favor of you," the young woman said. "I knew you were leaving but I just heard this morning that you were going to Amphipolis. My village is on the way and I would like to return for a visit with my mother. Would you mind if I ride along with you? I have everything ready."
Xena looked at Gabrielle who nodded. "Sure, Leese," the Warrior Princess answered. "We'll be glad to have you ride with us."
The two dark-haired women mounted their palominos and Xena reached down and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. As they rode out into the Village Square, Ephiny, Eponin and Solari were waiting on the porch of the regent's hut to wave goodbye to them. The three travelers waved and rode out of the Amazon village.
They were on the trail for two days and nights before approaching the fork in the trail that led to Elisa's village. In the mornings, because of Elisa's healing head wound, she had shortened practices with Xena during her early drills, allowing her to get used to the heft of her new sword. The Warrior Princess went through her full routine as usual.
The young Amazon had grown increasingly disturbed as they got closer to the turn off for her village. By the time they reached the fork, Elisa was barely talking. Gabrielle, walking beside Elisa's horse, Viktor, had made several attempts to engage the girl in conversation but had not been successful.
Finally, Xena pulled Argo up next to Viktor and asked Elisa flat out what was bothering her. The girl was hesitant to answer at first, but the warrior's cobalt-blue eyes bored into her, waiting for her reply. "Xena, I... I'm not sure... what kind of welcome... I might get. I'm so anxious to see my mother again, but I'm worried that I might run into trouble. I did... after all... kill my stepfather."
The girl's gray eyes looked sad and worried. "No one knows I joined the Amazons, not even my mother. I've sent messages, keeping in touch with her, but I've never told her where I was. I was terrified someone would come after me. I didn't even tell Gwynna I was riding out with you. I knew she would insist on coming and I don't want her to get in trouble, too."
Gabrielle looked at the distressed girl. "But that was a few years ago, Leese. Maybe the town has put it behind them." Elisa turned an anxious face toward the bard, but didn't answer.
"Do you want us to go with you?" Xena's low voice asked.
Elisa immediately looked relieved. "Would you? I'd feel a lot better with the Warrior Princess along."
"Well, Leese, there are some towns where I'm not particularly welcome, either," Xena drawled. The side of her mouth turned up in a half smile. "But we'll come with you."
The village, Lamikos, lay about an hour's ride from the fork in the trail. It looked like a hundred other villages: a collection of homes, one main trail into and out of the center of town, an inn, blacksmith's shop, stable, jail and a few stores. The outlying area was used for farming, but fishing seemed to be the main concern of the village. It was near the sea and the smell of fish pervaded the area.
Elisa's mother lived at the far edge of the town, on a spit near the sea. The three travelers had to cut through the middle of the central area to reach it. Heads turned and mouths gaped at the unusual sight of two dark-haired women, one wearing warrior armor, the other dressed like an Amazon, on matching palomino horses. A few people recognized Elisa and greeted her. Elisa nodded and waved but continued on to her mother's home. Everything seemed quiet.
When they arrived at the house, Elisa dismounted, hitched Viktor to a post and looked up at Xena. "Leese, you go ahead in and see your mother," the Warrior Princess suggested. "Gabrielle and I will take a look around for awhile." The young Amazon smiled, nodded and turned toward her home.
"Great," said the bard, clapping her hands, "We can do some shopping!"
"Gabrielle," Xena shook her head in disbelief, "I bet when you were born the gods gave you a bag with 'SHOPPING' written on it in big letters."
"Maybe so," the bard agreed with a laugh. "I haven't filled it up yet, but I'm still trying!"
Xena dismounted and hitched Argo next to Viktor. Then she and the bard began walking around the village. They seemed to be the focus of attention as they walked about, people even coming out of their homes to look at the new arrivals. Several people were dashing about from house to house with some unknown purpose.
Gabrielle looked questioningly at Xena as her friend stood taller, squared her shoulders and took on a slight swagger. Xena's jaw set and her eyes narrowed. "What?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Have you noticed the unusual amount of activity we seem to have caused?" Xena replied. "Something's going on here. Let's step into the inn and see what happens."
The two women entered the inn. As soon as they got inside, all talk subsided. Curious eyes settled on the two, who began to feel like intruders. "Can I get you ladies something?" the innkeeper asked.
"Two mugs of ale," Xena answered and she and Gabrielle sat at a table. The innkeeper brought the ale, Xena paid him, and she and Gabrielle worked on the drinks. The people who had been in the inn gradually left. When the women had finished their ale, they rose to go. The innkeeper hurried over, "Can I get you something else?" he asked, "We have good food here. We have many fish dishes, beef..." Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm and moved her toward the door.
"Let's go, Gabrielle, something's not right," Xena said as she hurried out the door. Once outside they could see people rushing toward the end of town where they had left Elisa and Xena could hear the clash of swords. The two took off running and Xena soon outpaced the bard. As she neared Elisa's mother's home, she saw a group congregating there and could tell the sword-clashing was coming from inside the house.
Xena's battlecry halted the crowd in their tracks. "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiy," echoed through the town as the Warrior Princess flipped overtop the bulk of the assembled people and landed at the open door to the house. People quickly fell back out of her way as she drew her weapon from its scabbard.
Rushing inside, the warrior's glittering blue eyes registered an unbelievable sight. Elisa, sword flying, was being backed into a corner by five men. An older woman, barely breathing, lay in a pool of blood on the floor near the girl's feet.
Xena shouted at the men, "OK, boys, looking for trouble? Well, here I am!" The men turned as one at the sound of her voice and attacked her. "Take care of your mother!" she yelled to Elisa. The girl hesitated for a split second, then dropped to the floor and gathered her mother into her arms.
Xena hit the man nearest her on the top of his head with the hilt of her sword, knocking him out. She sheathed her sword and swung a mighty fist at one to the left of her, catching him square on the jaw and putting him down. She came back, hard, with the same arm and elbowed a man to the right of her in the middle of his face and he collapsed, too. Then she jumped about three feet in the air and kicked out with both feet catching each of the last two men under their jaws and sending them to oblivion. No one had laid a blade on her.
Holding the sword in front of her, Xena spun around to face the doorway. She walked outside and people backed away as she neared them. "Gabrielle!" she called. The bard, just arriving, stepped through the crowd and approached her friend. "Gabrielle, get the medicines from Argo's saddlebag and take a look at Elisa's mother. She's been wounded." The bard hurried to do as Xena directed.
No one threatened, so Xena sheathed her sword and walked back inside. Picking up the unconscious men one by one, she flung them out the door, then stalked outside. "Someone get the leader of this village and send him to me!" the warrior shouted. "And don't anyone else step through that door!" Pointing to the unconscious men she demanded, "And make sure they know that."
Returning inside, Xena hurried over to where Gabrielle was tending to Elisa's mother. The bard looked up with misting eyes as Xena knelt by the woman, and shook her head. "She's gone, Xena. There wasn't anything we could do."
The Warrior Princess' eyes darkened with sympathy as she looked across the mother's body to the eyes of the daughter. Xena reached over and put a hand on Elisa's arm. "I'm sorry, Leese," the warrior said softly. As she looked at Elisa, the young Amazon's face turned from tragedy to anger, to stone.
In that split second, Xena saw the walls go up and recognized Elisa's transition from vulnerable youngster to guarded adult. Oh, Leese, I wish I could have protected you from this, Xena agonized in her heart. I see my face in yours and I know the bitterness that you harbor in your heart. Let go of it, Leese, don't let it ruin your life. The warrior knew that her words would just bounce off that hardened heart at this time, so she kept her silence. But her own heart grieved for the young woman's loss, both of her mother and of her youth.
A knock sounded at the open door and Xena went to it and stepped outside, closing the door behind her. An elderly man stood there, unarmed. "I am Petros, the leader of the village elders," he informed the warrior. "You asked for me?"
"Are you aware of what happened here?" Xena asked.
"Yes, I have been informed," he answered.
"What was the reason for this attack?" the imposing woman demanded.
"When word was received that Elisa had returned to the village, these men volunteered to arrest her and bring her to the jail. The girl's stepfather was a respected man in this village," the leader explained. "She viciously killed him and ran away. These men had no right to attack her but they were friends of her stepfather and apparently, instead of arresting her, intended to avenge his death."
"Avenge his death by killing her mother?" Xena sneered. "What kind of justice is that? And what ever happened to allowing someone a fair trial?"
"I truly regret that her mother has been killed. These men will answer for that," said the elder. "And the girl was tried even though she wasn't present. We had a trial and she was condemned to be hanged. She still is liable for her stepfather's death. She should be brought to the jail and kept there until the sentence can be carried out."
"Did you know her stepfather had torn up her back with a 'cat-o'-nine-tails' and was starting to beat her mother with it when Elisa killed him?" Xena inquired.
The council leader looked disturbed. "No. The wife claimed that was what happened but she didn't have any unusual scars to show to prove it. You have to understand, we don't usually meddle in what goes on between a husband and wife. We thought she was just trying to protect her daughter. Unless someone can prove differently, the sentence stands."
"Let me get Elisa to show you the scars she carries on her back. You'll have no doubt of her mother's story after you see them," the warrior assured him. Xena opened the door and went back into the house. Elisa was not there.
"Gabrielle, where is Leese?" Xena asked.
"Gone," explained the agitated bard. "We could hear you talking to the leader of the elders. When he said she had been condemned to hang, she kissed her mother a last goodbye and slipped out through a back window."
"What does she think she's doing?" the dark-haired woman exploded. "They would have lifted the sentence if they could have seen the scars on her back!"
Xena calmed down and thought for a moment, then decided, "Let's get out of this place; she'll probably contact us. You get up on Viktor as though he's your horse, or they might try to keep him."
"What about her mother?" the bard asked.
"I'll give the elder some money to take care of her burial," Xena said. "Let's go."
The two women walked out to where the elder was waiting. "Elisa heard what you said about being condemned to hang and she took off," Xena explained. "If we can, we'll try to get her to come back and show you the scars. Would that clear her?"
"It certainly would be a point in her favor. I can't speak for the rest, but they are good men and would try to be fair," the elder answered.
Xena reached into a pouch at her belt. "Here's some money to bury her mother. And bury her somewhere away from the butcher she was married to." Xena's lip curled in disgust.
"That would be highly irregular," Petros remarked.
Xena pulled out a few more coins and offered them to Petros. "Here's some extra to smooth out the 'irregularity.' Will that take care of it?" she asked.
Petros, who was inches shorter than the imposing warrior, looked up into her fierce eyes and determined face. I don't think I want to cross this woman. "Yes, it will. Her mother will have her own burial site," Petros promised.
Xena nodded and she and Gabrielle mounted the horses and rode out. As soon as they were out of sight of the village, Gabrielle called to Xena, "Do I need to stay on this horse? I'm uncomfortable enough on Argo; on a strange horse, I'm petrified!"
"No, you can get off and walk. I just want to get a little further before we make camp," Xena informed her. "Leese is afoot, too, and I'm sure she will contact us, but we need to be a safe distance away from the village."
Eventually, Xena found a small stream and they set up camp. Gabrielle was laying out preparations for cooking and Xena was building a fire when the bard saw Xena's head go up and tilt as if listening. "Is it Leese?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah, she'll be here in a few minutes," the warrior answered. "With two rabbits. Skinned and gutted."
"Like you really know that," the bard snorted.
Xena just smiled and finished building the fire. She pulled one log over next to the fire for Gabrielle to set her cooking paraphernalia on and two other logs to use for sitting. Just as she finished settling the logs, Elisa walked into the camp. With two rabbits. Skinned and gutted.
Xena raised her eyebrows at Gabrielle who made a face at her. Then the warrior turned to the young Amazon. Anger and bitterness were etched into the stone mask of Elisa's face. Without a word, she took the rabbits to Gabrielle and handed them to her. "Thanks, Leese," the bard offered a smile then went to the fire to start cooking the meat.
Elisa merely nodded. "Leese," the Warrior Princess addressed her, "c'mon over here and sit down, will ya?" Elisa joined Xena and they sat on one of the logs. Xena explained the burial arrangements they had made for her mother and the young Amazon thanked them both.
"Leese, I had the elder talked into changing your sentence if he could see the scars on your back," Xena informed her. "I'd like you to go back with me and get that fixed so you won't be a wanted person."
"No, Xena," the frozen face didn't change. "Even if they would agree not to hang me, they probably would make me spend some time in jail and I couldn't stand that. I'm an outdoors person. I even sleep outside when I'm at the Amazon village. Right behind the Queen's hut." A small, sad smile broke through the stone mask for a moment and curved one side of her mouth, "It drives Gwynna crazy."
"I wondered how you always seemed to meet me right on time when we were starting out for our drills together," Xena smiled in return. "Now I'll know where you're coming from."
"Xena, I'm not going back to the Amazon village. How can I? I'm a wanted criminal in the eyes of the law and, now that they know I'm an Amazon, I could bring trouble to the Amazon nation," Elisa said harshly. "Will you let Gwynna know what has happened? Tell her I just need to be by myself for awhile. I need to sort things out."
"Leese, I'm really bothered by the look I see on your face. You're bitter and angry and probably not thinking straight. I've been down that road and it's not a good place to be," Xena said with concern.
"You thought it was at the time," the young Amazon argued. "Until you got the anger and bitterness out of your system. Now I need to find a way to handle mine."
"Leese," the Warrior Princess said softly, "you never, ever, get it out of your system. You have to learn to control it instead of it controlling you."
The young Amazon stood up abruptly. "I have to get out of here. You know I have a lot of respect for you, Xena, and for Gabrielle, but this is something I have to do for myself. I feel like I've been killed and reborn. I need to decide what I've been reborn to do."
Xena stood, too. In profile, except for their clothing, they looked like two Xena's facing each other.
The warrior's face had gone chalk-white at Elisa's words. They were an eerie echo of her own words at the beginning of the worst times of her past. After her betrayal and crippling by Caesar she had uttered similar words about being reborn: A new Xena is born tonight... with a new purpose in life... death!
The Warrior Princess shivered at the memory. Oh, Leese, please, please, don't follow in those footsteps. They lead in the wrong direction... a terrible direction.
Gabrielle, seeing Xena's distress, stepped next to her and touched a hand to her arm to soothe her. In her other hand she held a wrapped package. "Leese, take some of the rabbit with you. It's all cooked and you'll need something to eat."
Elisa took the package, then hugged Gabrielle. "Thank you for everything, Gabrielle. You'll always be one of my favorite people."
Then she turned back to Xena and offered her arm. The two dark-haired women clasped their arms in the warrior handshake. "And thank you, too, Xena. You'll always be my hero."
Xena pulled Elisa close and hugged her. "Be well, Leese. I hope you can find a way to tame your demons and find your peace." When Xena released the young Amazon, Gabrielle took hold of her friend's hand. Though no emotion was visible on the warrior's face, Gabrielle could feel her trembling. She and Xena stood there hand in hand as Elisa mounted Viktor and left.
Gabrielle put both her hands together on Xena's and pulled the Warrior Princess to a seat on the log. "Are you OK?" the bard asked gently.
A few tears brimmed out of Xena's crystal-blue eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks. "I think she's headed for serious trouble and I don't know how to stop it," Xena confessed. "I'm totally frustrated. I should never have left her alone in the village. I could have protected her mother."
Gabrielle reached up, as always, and wiped the tears from her friend's face. "We were both there, Xena," Gabrielle argued. "There was no way we could foresee what was going to happen. You, of all people, should know that it's useless to regret what we can't go back and change."
An ironic grimace lifted Xena's lips and she ruffled Gabrielle's hair. "And you, of all people, should know you are talking to the Warrior Princess of Regret."
Gabrielle smiled sadly and leaned her head on Xena's shoulder. The two friends sat for a long time just watching the flames of the campfire.
The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle set out to return to the Amazon village. Xena had entertained the thought of continuing on to Amphipolis and sending a message to Gwynna but she decided she would rather speak to Gwynna personally. If something so gut-wrenching had happened to Gabrielle, she would want to hear it first-hand, not from a messenger.
They had been on the trail for one full day when Xena heard a single horse coming toward them. She and Gabrielle continued along the trail and soon the horse and rider appeared. It was Gwynna atop her black horse, Nightmare. When she saw the two women, she became very agitated. "Where is Elisa?" she demanded, almost shouting. "Ephiny said she went off with you two. She didn't even tell me she was leaving."
"Take it easy, Gwynna," the bard advised. "We'll tell you all about Leese if you'll just calm down."
Xena added, "There's a turnoff just above here to a nice quiet spot. Come there with me and we'll explain everything." Xena guided Argo past the young Amazon's horse and both women followed her.
When they had dismounted and settled themselves comfortably, Xena told Gwynna everything that had happened, including her attempts to get Elisa to change her mind.
"She's in a bad state right now, Gwynna. She's angry and bitter and has hardened her heart. And she has pretty strong feelings about wanting to be left alone," Xena added.
"Well, I'm going after her. If she doesn't want to come back, that's OK, just so I can be wherever she is," the blonde Amazon declared. "I can't believe she just left, without telling me." Gwynna's face showed the hurt she was suffering.
Gabrielle put her hand on the girl's arm. "She just wanted to protect you from the trouble she's in," the bard explained sympathetically.
The young Amazon jumped up and declared, "I don't need protected, I'm big enough to take care of myself. I'm going after her and if she doesn't want me I will just hang around until she knows I'll never leave her! She'll never get rid of me!" A glance of reminiscence passed between the bard and the Warrior Princess.
"I'll stick to her like a... like a..." Gwynna fumbled for the word.
"Like a burr?" Gabrielle suggested with a gentle smile, remembering Leese's promise to Xena when asked to watch out for her Queen.
"Yeah," even Gwynna smiled for a moment. "That's what Elisa says, 'like a burr.' I'm going after her right now. I know I can track her. When I find her, I'll try to talk sense into her. Thank you both for your help."
Gwynna clasped arms with Xena, and Gabrielle hugged her. The young Amazon knelt on one knee before the bard and bowed her head. "Wish me well, my Queen," she requested.
Gabrielle rested her hand on the blonde head. "Safe journey, Gwynna. I hope you find what you're looking for."
The girl rose, mounted her horse, waved, and left.
"Do you think they can work things out, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"Maybe so. Gwynna sounds as persistent as a certain bard I know," Xena answered with a smile. "And, for Leese's sake, I hope she is."
A day and a half later, Xena and Gabrielle arrived at Amphipolis. The last time Xena had been home had been to seek her brother Toris' help in saving Gabrielle from Dahak. They rode up to the inn belonging to Xena's mother, Cyrene. Xena dismounted, led Argo by the reins, and she and Gabrielle walked behind the inn to the stables, leaving Argo with the stable boy. The youngster, recognizing the Warrior Princess and her friend, smiled broadly. "Hi, Xena, Gabrielle, welcome home," he greeted them.
"Thanks, Ari," Xena answered. "Take your usual good care of Argo, OK?"
"You bet, Xena, it's my pleasure," the boy proudly agreed. He led the big Palomino mare into a stall and the women entered the kitchen through the rear door of the inn. Cyrene saw them as soon as they entered and came running over. She ran right to Gabrielle and smothered the bard in a big hug. "Oh, Gabrielle, I am so glad to see you. Toris told me we almost lost you. Praise the gods you were saved!" Tears of happiness were running from the delighted blue eyes, so like her daughter's.
Gabrielle, overcome by Cyrene's emotion, started crying, too. Xena, smiling, stood to the side watching this heart-warming display of love between the two women. She knew her mother and her best friend enjoyed a special relationship and was happy that they did.
After a few moments, her mother reached out an arm toward her daughter and drew the Warrior Princess into the embrace. "You know I'm glad to see you, too, daughter. Toris told me most of the story, but I'm waiting for Gabrielle to fill it in for me. Though I'm never sure I want to hear all of the danger you two put yourselves in." Cyrene took hold of their arms and led them both to a table in the kitchen.
"Sit here, I'll get you something to eat and drink," Cyrene commanded. And when Cyrene commanded, even Xena usually listened.
Cyrene dished up two bowls of her famous venison stew and put them on a serving platter. She added warm bread, butter, and two mugs of ale. Just as she was about to pick up the platter, she heard a very familiar voice holler, "Better make that three bowls, Mother."
Xena jumped up and ran toward her brother Toris and crashed into him as he came through the door. The two, in their usual greeting, took turns swinging the other one up in the air as they spun around three or four times. Cyrene, shaking her head at the antics of her children, added another bowl of stew and mug of ale to the platter and took it to the table, barely managing to get by the brother and sister as they slowed to a stop.
The two were laughing so hard they were having trouble talking. "Toris, it's great to see you," Xena finally managed to say.
"Same here, sis," Toris gasped, rubbing his chest. "But you've got to do something about that damn armor!"
Cyrene flicked him with a cloth she usually carried tucked in her belt. "Watch your language around the ladies," she warned Toris. Xena raised her eyebrows and looked conspicuously around the kitchen. Her mother flicked her with the same cloth. "Gabrielle and I are ladies, Xena," she said in a haughty voice.
"Whew, thank the gods for that," the warrior said, rolling her eyes in relief. "For a minute, I was afraid you were including me in that group."
Even Cyrene laughed at the expression on Xena's face. "No, daughter, I'm finally used to the idea that Warrior Princess suits you better."
"For a time, that title suited Toris, too, Mother," Xena smiled. "Warrior Princess Toris. Did he tell you about that?" She could tell from the murderous look Toris was giving her that he had not told his mother everything about his adventure, especially the part where he masqueraded as his sister, costume and all.
"Xena, you promised," Toris reminded her.
"Not me, brother. Gabrielle told me she promised not to use your name in her story about Dahak, but I never promised anything," the warrior grinned wickedly.
"Well, you've already told Mother, but you better not tell anyone else!" Toris warned.
"I don't know why you don't want anyone to know, you looked pretty good," Xena teased.
Toris grabbed the cloth from his mother, flicked his sister with it, dropped it on the table then took off running outside. Xena jumped up, picked up the cloth and took off after him.
Cyrene sat down beside Gabrielle and smiled at her. "I don't think those two will grow up until they're a hundred years old."
"Or maybe longer," Gabrielle agreed, returning the smile. "But it's so good to see Xena be able to relax and enjoy herself. I think this is the only place she ever truly does. And I know it's because you and Toris totally accept her now for who she is. I'm grateful to you for that."
Cyrene hugged the golden-haired woman. "You're a big part of Xena's life, too, and I'm grateful to YOU for that. Now, how about telling me about Warrior Princess Toris?"
Gabrielle's eyes lit up and she proceeded to tell Cyrene the story of "Dahak's Entrance Delayed."
Gwynna picked up Elisa's trail right away. She could see places where her friend had tried to hide her tracks and, several times, Elisa had ridden across rocks or through streams. But Gwynna not only was an excellent tracker, she also was a patient one. She had been following Elisa for three weeks, always just missing her it seemed, when Elisa's tracks entered a village and the blonde Amazon lost her trail.
Maybe I can find something out in the village. I'll go in and hang around at the inn. The blonde Amazon rode into the village and found the usual inn. She left Nightmare hitched outside and entered the inn, sat at a table and ordered two mugs of ale. Several people in the room noticed her entrance and one man came boldly over to her. "Are you with that other Amazon?" he asked.
"I'm looking for an Amazon," Gwynna replied. "She's tall and dark-haired and riding a palomino. Is she the one you saw?"
"Yeah, she was in here trying to recruit some of our men to join her army. Isn't she really Xena, the Warrior Princess?" the man inquired. "She sure looks like all the descriptions we've heard of the Destroyer of Nations."
"No, she's not," the young Amazon answered. She only thinks she is.
The man's look of disbelief told Gwynna she was wasting her breath to deny it. "Do you know where she went?" the girl asked.
"She said anyone who wanted to join her could meet her at Kragos Bluff by the end of last week. That's about ten miles north of here," he supplied, before Gwynna could ask him. "You can tell her the elders will be keeping a close eye on what goes on there. We don't want a warlord messing around here."
Gwynna pointed to the second mug of ale. "That's for you. And thanks." She finished her ale and left. Mounting Nightmare, she rode out of town on the trail heading north.
After riding about the ten miles the man at the inn had mentioned, she could hear activity ahead of her. She moved off the trail and started across a small clearing, when Elisa dropped from a tree in front of Gwynna, with her sword drawn. She was wearing an outfit made of dark gray leather, with black armor. By the gods, Gwynna thought, no wonder people think she's Xena.
Gwynna dismounted and looked at Elisa. She could see on her face the ravages of the devastating loss of her mother. She seemed older, and weary.
"I was told you were coming, Gwynna, but I don't want you here," her voice grated harshly. "Go home."
"Well, I think I'm old enough to decide for myself where I want to be and I want to be wherever you are," the blonde Amazon said firmly. "So, you might as well put that fancy sword away unless you intend to use it on me." Gwynna walked right up to Elisa and threw her arms around the young woman's resisting body. "I'm really sorry about your mother," she murmured. At first, Elisa stood stiff as a board but soon Gwynna's warmth started to thaw her frozen heart. The dark-haired Amazon's emotional barriers fell in response to her friend's actions and, dropping her sword, she returned Gwynna's embrace, sobs shaking her body and unshed tears finally surfacing and streaming down her face.
Gwynna held her and soothed her until the emotional upheaval had run its course. She picked up Elisa's treasured sword and handed it to her and then guided Elisa to a seat on some rocks near the edge of the clearing.
"What's going on, Elisa?" her friend asked. "The people in town seem to think Xena is raising another army."
"I'm raising the army, Gwynna. At first, I tried to tell them I'm not Xena but no one believed me. Then I just went along with the idea. I guess we look too much alike," Elisa explained. "I'm getting an army together and I'm going to destroy the town that killed my mother," she said as her voice and face turned ugly.
"No, Elisa, the town didn't kill your mother," the astonished girl protested. "Xena said only five men were involved in that tragedy."
"But no one stopped them," Elisa said bitterly. "If Xena hadn't been there they might have killed me, too. And my good neighbors," her lip curled in derision, "didn't do anything, just watched. They deserve to die," the girl finished vehemently. "And they will. They are going to pay. In two more weeks, I will have enough men gathered together to wipe them out."
"Elisa, you can't do this," Gwynna argued. "You're an Amazon. We're your family. Now that your mother's gone, we're your only family. Surely, you don't want to bring disgrace on the Amazon Nation, but you can't just break the law without having to pay for it."
"I don't want to hurt the Amazon Nation," Elisa admitted. "That's why I've stopped wearing my Amazon clothing. In this outfit, with the dark gray leather and black armor, no one will connect me with the Amazons."
"No, just with Xena. And do you think that's fair to her? She's worked for years now to rid herself of her warlord reputation and you're going to wipe out all her efforts with your own selfishness," Gwynna reproached her friend.
"Xena can take care of herself. She doesn't need you sticking up for her," a suddenly angry Elisa shouted at Gwynna. "If you don't like what I'm doing, you can leave the same way you came."
Gwynna stood up and pointed to the weapon in Elisa's hand. "Xena's the one who gave you that beautiful sword, because she cared about you. She taught you how to fight better, showed you her special drills and this is how you repay her? Maybe you're right. Maybe I shouldn't be the one sticking up for Xena. She should be doing that herself. I'm going to get her and bring her back here. Maybe she can talk some sense into you." Gwynna walked away toward her waiting horse. Or knock it into you!
Elisa looked startled that Gwynna was being turned away so easily. Then, as her words sunk in, Elisa realized a meeting with Xena was inevitable so she might as well get past it as soon as possible. "Go right ahead," she sneered, "if that's what you think a real friend would do." She sheathed the sword, turned away and stomped off.
Gwynna's heart was heavy. She hadn't been able to dissuade her friend from her path to destruction. Maybe Xena could do it. Gwynna swung up on Nightmare and headed for Amphipolis.
"Xena!" Toris came rushing into the stable yard with Gabrielle following him. Xena had just returned from a ride on Argo. She was brushing the golden mare down, but stopped when her brother and Gabrielle entered the yard. "Someone just told me that Xena, Warrior Princess, was going back to being a warlord and forming another army."
Xena looked from her brother's agitated blue eyes to Gabrielle's mist-green ones. "Leese," the warrior stated.
"It probably is, Xena," the bard agreed solemnly. "She's had time to look for an army. It's been three weeks since she left."
"Has this army done anything yet, Toris?" his sister asked.
"Not that I know of, Xena. It seems to be in the recruiting stage from what I heard," Toris answered.
"Well, Gabrielle, it looks like our vacation is over," Xena said. "Gather our things and I'll pack the saddlebags. We'll leave as soon as everything is ready." Gabrielle left to go to the inn.
"I'll get mother to pack some food for you two," Toris offered.
"Thanks, Toris," Xena smiled affectionately at her brother. "Ask her to put in extra trail rations if she has any. I'd like to travel as quickly as possible and that means no cooking."
"And Toris," her brother turned as he was leaving. "Ask mother to throw in something extra for Gabrielle, will ya?"
"Sure, Xena, but I know mother will do that without even asking. We all know how Gabrielle loves to eat!" Toris laughed and continued on his way.
Xena went into the back room of the inn and picked up a cloth bag. Into it, she gathered the salves she had made during her stay at home plus extra herbs she wouldn't be able to find elsewhere. Her mother had donated a long roll of cloth suitable for making bandages, and thin twine for suturing. As the warrior went through the kitchen, she also grabbed some of the biscuits that were lying on a sideboard, popping one in between her teeth. Cyrene came through another entrance and saw Xena with the biscuit. "Take them all, Xena, they'll keep well on the trail," she offered. Xena smiled her thanks and went back and gathered them up.
Cyrene came and stood beside her tall daughter. They had the same startlingly blue eyes and raven hair but Xena towered over her shorter mother. "This is one of the longest visits you've ever had with us," Cyrene said wistfully. "I kind of hoped you were going to stay permanently."
Xena put an arm around her mother's shoulders and smiled down at her. "Mother, Gabrielle and I were in need of a long rest; we just went through some difficult times. But you know I won't retire as long as I can do some good by fighting against evil. And the bard insists on going wherever I go, so she's not retiring, either."
"I know, Xena, but there's no law against wishful thinking," Cyrene chuckled. Then she went about getting the food Xena and Gabrielle would need for their journey.
When everything was packed and the hugs and goodbyes completed, the two travelers set out. Since they were in a hurry, Gabrielle was riding behind Xena on Argo. They were on the trail for two days when Xena suddenly pulled the mare to a stop. "What?" asked Gabrielle in a low voice.
"I think it's Gwynna," Xena said with a surprised note in her voice. Soon a single horse appeared and the rider, as Xena had guessed, was the blonde Amazon.
"Xena!" she greeted the warrior and bowed her head to Gabrielle. "Queen Gabrielle. I'm glad we've met so soon. I need your help. Leese needs your help!" In her excitement, Gwynna adopted Xena's nickname for her friend.
"OK, Gwynna, tell me about it as we ride," Xena suggested. The Amazon told Xena and Gabrielle about Elisa's misguided plan. She explained how she tried to change her friend's mind but nothing had worked. "Finally, I told her I was going to get you, Xena, to talk to her. She said go ahead, but it wouldn't do any good. And she's letting everyone think she's you, Xena."
Gwynna's troubled gaze looked into cobalt-blue eyes that showed nothing. "Please, Xena, come talk to her. Maybe she will listen to you," the Amazon pleaded.
"That's where we were headed, Gwynna," Gabrielle offered when her partner remained silent.
"Do you really think she can be talked out of this?" Xena finally spoke.
"No, I don't," Gwynna admitted, "but I have to get you to try. I can't sit by and watch her ruin herself. And you, too. If people think she is you, you'll be in more danger than you already are. And you won't be welcome anywhere."
"I didn't think of that," Gabrielle murmured against Xena's back.
"I'll speak to her, Gwynna, but if that doesn't work, you may not like what I have to do to stop her. But stop her, I will. Are you prepared for that?" Xena's face and voice were emotionless and Gabrielle shivered.
Tears glistened in the blonde Amazon's eyes. "I couldn't bear to have her disgrace herself and you and the Amazons by killing innocent people, Xena. I know she has to be stopped. But please, try to stop her without hurting anyone if you can."
"I'm not making any promises, Gwynna, but I'll see what I can do," Xena said. "Let me know when we're about two miles from her camp."
Gwynna pulled up in a small clearing and waved Xena and Gabrielle to a halt. "Xena, we're within two miles of the camp now," she advised.
"OK, you go get Leese and see if she'll come out here to meet with me. Just tell her I want to talk with her," the Warrior Princess directed. "If she doesn't want to come, tell her I'll come in after her if I have to." Gwynna nodded and moved on.
Xena lowered Gabrielle to the ground, then dismounted from Argo. She led the mare off to the side near some sweet grass and left her to graze. Then she moved to the center of the clearing and started some stretching warm ups followed by a short sword drill complete with jumps and flips.
"You don't think she's going to listen to you, do you?" Gabrielle asked the silent warrior. Xena just looked at her and didn't answer.
"Xena, please, don't go stoic warrior on me. Talk to me," the bard insisted.
The Warrior Princess stopped what she was doing, walked over to a nearby rock and sat down. She dug the point of her sword into the ground and leaned both hands on it. Her face wore what the bard called her 'stone warlord' look.
"No, I don't think she's going to listen," Xena had trouble getting sound through her tight throat. "She's modeled herself after me... I've even trained her for gods sakes... and I, myself, never listened to anyone until Hercules came along. Well, I'm no Hercules. He's a trusted and trustworthy demigod and I'm an ex-warlord with a terrible past. Why would she listen to me? I wouldn't have."
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked, with a worried frown.
Xena struggled again to talk. "You could say I created this girl, Gabrielle, just as I created Callisto, although in a different way. I can't let her loose on innocent villagers, I just can't. I'm not sure what it will take to prevent that, but whatever it takes, I'll do it. I have no choice," she finished in a whisper.
Gabrielle knew her friend well enough to take whatever hurt she actually expressed and multiply it about ten times. Xena was in agony, blaming herself for Leese's wrongdoing. And Xena would straighten this out no matter what hurt she suffered from it. That was her code of honor. You cleaned up whatever mess you caused.
"Xena, at least try to talk to her, please?" the bard requested.
Xena's head went up heralding the arrival within minutes of Gwynna and, yes, Elisa.
"I don't want to hear any more, Xena, the answer is still NO!" The Amazon, her dark hair flowing loose, spat the words out furiously, turned her back and stalked away.
Xena had tried to reason with Elisa in every way she could think of. This talking things through isn't my favorite way to solve a problem and it's getting nowhere. Time for action.
Now the Warrior Princess' face hardened and her jaw set. As she drew herself taller, Gabrielle saw the change coming over her friend and a bolt of fear passed through her heart. These two just don't quit, do they? She looked over at Gwynna and saw fear showing on her face, also.
Xena strode over to Elisa and straight-armed her in the shoulder. The Amazon whipped around to face the warrior. "You give me no choice, Leese. If you won't listen to reason, then I'll have to resort to force." Xena's voice was so cold Gabrielle shuddered.
Elisa also recognized the change that had come over Xena and her face took on a harder look, too. "I don't want to fight you, Xena," Elisa grated in a warning tone. "I have no argument with you."
"But I have an argument with you," Xena growled. "You're just another would-be warlord right now, and I helped make you into a fighting machine. You're even using my reputation to build up your credibility. So, it's my responsibility to stop you before any innocent people suffer."
She slapped Elisa, hard, across the face and her ex-warlord voice went colder and deadlier. "I'll kill you if I have to. Draw your sword. Let's see what you're made of."
She backhanded the Amazon across the face again and Elisa's lips drew back against her teeth. She backed away from Xena and drew her sword, the sword Xena had given her as a present. The snick it made coming out of the scabbard sounded abnormally loud in the deathly silence that had fallen across the clearing.
Gabrielle and Gwynna were standing together, fists clenched and eyes wide. Gwynna was frightened for her friend. Gabrielle was frightened for Elisa, too, but she had the added concern of how Xena would be affected if she did, indeed, have to kill the girl. She knew that Elisa, almost from their first meeting, had touched her stoic friend's heart in a special way. Can she possibly handle any more guilt? Doesn't even Xena have her limits?
An answering snick came from Xena's scabbard and both blonde women flinched. The two contenders came together slowly but once their swords met, the fighting became fast and furious. Thrusts, parries and swipes were mixed with kicks, hits and head butts. Both women flipped in the air and crossed each other, Xena's battle cry mingling with Elisa's.
Elisa's loose black hair created an eerie ambiance; Xena seemed to be fighting against herself.
The women battled with flying swords and crunching blows for ten minutes with no signs of tiring. Then the tip of Elisa's weapon barely caught the edge of Xena's shoulder but it was enough to throw the Warrior Princess into battle fury mode, which instantly created a quicker and meaner Warrior Princess. She rocketed into the air and kicked out at Elisa's jaw. Pure reflex turned the Amazon's head to miss the full force of the kick, but still she was slightly dazed. In spite of this, she counterattacked by swinging her sword low where she expected Xena's feet to land.
Instead, changing direction as she came down, Xena's other foot excruciatingly crunched Elisa's sword hand to the ground and she lost hold of her weapon. As Xena's first foot touched the earth, she bounded back up and flipped overtop the Amazon, coming down right behind her.
Elisa tried to turn, rise and retrieve her sword, all at the same time. As she came around, Xena hit her full force in the chest with a mighty kick that lifted her and sent her flying backwards. The exceptionally agile Amazon was able to hit the ground with her feet under her but her momentum kept her stumbling backwards and she finally fell to a sitting position about thirty feet from the Warrior Princess, her chest heaving.
Vanquishing her adversary cooled the warrior's battle fury and she visibly returned to normal fighting mode. "Are you ready to listen to reason yet?" she called to the dark-haired Amazon.
Rapidly recovering her breath, Elisa, crazed with blood lust, gasped, "NO!" Swift as a snake, she dropped her sword, her hand moved behind her neck and first one, then another, throwing knife whizzed toward her opponent.
Xena knocked the first one away with her sword, but the second one found a target.
On the sidelines, Gabrielle and Gwynna had been watching the battle's progress with mounting terror. At last, both were extremely relieved when Xena apparently had brought the fight to an end with little bloodshed. Then Gwynna saw Elisa release her sword and move her hand to her back and knew, with panic, what the expert knife-thrower was about to do. In her fear for Xena's safety, she leapt in front of the Warrior Princess just in time for the second knife to hit her in the side of her throat.
She had diverted the path of the knife away from Xena but she fell to the earth with blood spurting from her wound. "Gabrielle, get the reed from my pack, hurry!" the warrior yelled as she quickly sheathed her sword, knelt and pressed her fingers against Gwynna's neck. The knife had severed a main artery to the girl's brain and she could die in minutes if quick action wasn't taken.
Elisa had pulled a third knife, ready to throw again at Xena, when she saw Gwynna get hit. Her blood lust turned to horror at what she had done to her dearest friend. She had never seen anyone survive a neck wound that serious. I've killed her. I've killed Gwynna. The young Amazon, dazed by the death of her friend at her own hand, stood up, automatically picked up her sword and stumbled into the forest.
The warrior reached for the reed Gabrielle was handing to her. "Gabrielle, put your fingers here where mine are," she directed. The Warrior Princess cut off a short piece of the reed and inserted it first into the flaccid end of the blood vessel that had been severed and then into the end oozing blood.
Holding the ends of the artery together with one hand, Xena rooted in the pack for the needle threaded with twine and, using very fine stitches, sewed the severed edges together. Just before putting in the final stitches, she removed the reed, then finished sewing the artery. "You can let go, now," she directed Gabrielle and they watched as blood flowed once more through the artery to Gwynna's brain. Xena sewed torn muscle and skin together, then closed the wound. Gabrielle got healing salve and bandages from the pack and Xena stepped back and let the bard finish dressing the wound.
Xena stood impassively watching the fallen youngster. Her remarkable blue eyes never left Gwynna's face. I've seen soldiers with that wound die and some of those few who didn't die weren't right in the head after losing too much blood to the brain. I can only hope I was quick enough.
In a few minutes, the blonde Amazon began to stir and her brown eyes opened. She looked dazed and unseeing and Xena's heart skipped a beat. Slowly, her eyes cleared and regained their warmth. They were directed right at the warrior. "Xena," the young Amazon smiled weakly, "you're all right." Then a look of horror flashed across her face. "But what's happened to Leese?"
At last Xena's concern eased and her face softened. She squatted down next to Gwynna and took hold of her hand. "And you're gonna be all right, too," she smiled back. "Leese ran off, Gwynna. We'll have to see to her later."
"That was a very brave thing you did, Gwynna," praised Gabrielle. "You risked your life to save Xena. Thank you."
"Yes, thank you," echoed Xena. "Now, rest if you can. We'll make a litter for you. We have to take you someplace else where you can have a chance to heal."
Gabrielle covered Gwynna with a blanket from her bedroll and she and Xena moved away to gather branches to make the litter. "Xena, where will we take her?" Gabrielle asked with concern. "We're pretty far away from everything out here and she shouldn't travel a long distance. If anything is jarred loose, she could die."
"We'll just have to take her to the army encampment," Xena answered, startling Gabrielle.
"The army encampment?" the bard repeated incredulously. "But what if Leese is there?"
"Whether she is or she isn't, Gabrielle, that's the closest place and that's where we're taking her. She wouldn't stand a chance, otherwise," Xena said in her "don't argue with me" tone.
"But..." Gabrielle stopped abruptly when Xena glowered at her. Careful, the golden-haired woman told herself, she's gone through a tempest of emotions these last few hours. Including a slam-bang, duel-to-the-death fight with a girl she cares about. With maybe more to come...
Gabrielle, frowning, looked away from the warrior but finally, exasperated, Xena almost shouted, "What?"
"Leese will have a whole army around her this time," the bard pointed out.
"If there's one thing I know how to handle, Gabrielle, it's an army," Xena replied sarcastically.
"But it's HER army, Xena."
Gabrielle's growing fear began to show itself and Xena relented. She put a hand on her friend's shoulder and looked at her with piercing blue eyes. "I guess I'll just have to take it away from her, then, won't I?"
Gabrielle swallowed an answer and bent to retrieve some of the branches Xena had cut for the litter. She says that like I would talk about what I'm going to eat. Nothing fazes her, does it?
When she straightened back up, Xena's eyes were still on her. Gabrielle's mist-green eyes looked up at her tall friend. "Where you go, I go," the bard declared with a small smile.
One side of Xena's mouth crooked up in a return smile. "Let's get this litter built."
The litter was prepared for Gwynna, covered with a blanket and attached to Nightmare's saddle. Xena carefully lifted the young Amazon and her covering blanket onto the litter and the three women headed toward the army encampment. Gabrielle led Elisa's palomino, Viktor, with them.
Elisa had stumbled away from the scene of her atrocity. She was agonized and heartsick, recalling the sight of her knife hitting Gwynna's throat and then Gwynna lying there, dying. Blundering further into the forest, she fell at last at the base of a large tree. She sat there with her arms crossed on her knees and her head bowed onto her arms.
The same thoughts kept blasting through her brain in ceaseless turmoil. I've killed Gwynna, my best friend of all the Amazons. I've killed again with my knives, the ones my father gave me, the ones I never wanted to use against anyone. The first two times I can excuse because I killed two monsters. But Gwynna was no monster. She was just as innocent as my mother was. And Xena isn't a monster either, but I tried to kill her.
In my bitterness, I thought I was justified in raising an army to wipe out the criminals who killed my mother. But I wasn't, and I've done something almost just as bad as what they did. I've killed Gwynna and I tried to kill Xena, who has never done anything to hurt me. She cares about me. She taught me her special drills and jumps, something she had never taught anyone else. She taught me how to use the sword and even gave me one and how do I thank her? By using it against her when she was only trying to keep me from making the same mistakes she made, to steer me back onto the right path.
Elisa staggered to her feet. Her emotions were so battered they were affecting her coordination. She stumbled to a nearby stream and, kneeling, doused water into her face over and over again until some semblance of calm returned. She took a few moments to splash water all over herself, washing dirt from her body and her clothing. As she looked down at the costume she wore, so much like Xena's, the extent of the disservice she had done the Warrior Princess hit her full force. I not only turned against the one who had befriended me, but I also assaulted her reputation. Xena's been trying for years to live down her old Destroyer of Nations reputation and I've resurrected it. Xena, please forgive me!
I wasn't listening to Xena or Gwynna. They both wanted me to straighten out. Now my mother's dead because of me, Gwynna's dead because of me and Xena probably hates me. How could I have been so terribly wrong? I don't deserve to live. I don't even want to live. I'm going back. I'm going to let Xena finish me off, put me out of my misery. Then I won't be a threat to anyone else again, ever.
The tall young Amazon rose and drew her sword. She held it across both hands, looking at the present Xena had given her. She felt the heft, the perfect balance, and examined the initial "E" embedded in both sides of the hilt. She stood there for a while, tears trickling down her cheeks, then sheathed the sword, wiped her face and set off back along the path she had come.
As they neared the army camp, its sounds drifted to them warning of its proximity. Obviously no sentries had been posted because the women had not been challenged.
"Gabrielle, get up on Victor and ride next to me like the Queen of the Amazons," Xena directed. The blonde-haired woman climbed aboard the large palomino stallion. Good girl! Xena surreptitiously smiled as Gabrielle took on the commanding persona of the Queen, holding her ready staff as if it were a symbol of her office.
In turn, the imposing dark-haired woman stiffened her body, squared her shoulders and put on her stone face becoming Xena, the warlord, Destroyer of Nations.
Trailing Nightmare and Gwynna's litter behind them, they rode brazenly into the camp as if they belonged there. A buzzing stirred in the camp. Men, mostly sitting around in bunches, whispered and commented among themselves, but no one attempted to stop them until they reached the headquarters tent. Those soldiers at a distance thought Elisa had entered the camp. Most of those nearby, recognizing or suspecting that it truly was Xena arriving, with a confident Amazon riding next to her, had no stomach to confront them.
Four men emerged from the command tent and, as the women reached it, one of them stepped forward accusingly, "You're not the one who recruited us," he challenged.
"No," the bronzed woman stood up in the stirrups and shouted for all to hear, "I'm Xena, Warrior Princess, and I've taken over this army. Any objections?"
Backing up to stand again with his comrades, the soldier looked around to make sure they were with him then replied, "Yeah, we object. We're in command of these men and Elisa is leading us. You can just take your friends and get out of here." He drew his sword and waved it at them.
"Are you prepared to die to keep the right to command?" Xena dared him. She vaulted in a flip from Argo's back, landing directly in front of the startled men. Drawing her sword, she stood in a battle stance. "Fight or flight?" she sneered.
Gabrielle had led Nightmare off to the side. Now she dismounted and stood at the warrior's back, her staff prepared to keep others from interfering.
The other three men drew their weapons also. They were joined by four others but most of the soldiers were content to drop back and watch the battle, not really concerned about the outcome. They knew that leadership was a matter of survival of the strongest and they would follow whoever won.
The group rushed Xena. She jumped straight up and kicked the two directly in front of her beneath their jaws practically snapping their heads off. The two beside her swung their swords at empty air and she came down swinging hers left and right, viciously, at their exposed bodies. They both went down, bleeding profusely. She sprung again into the air and flipped overtop the remaining four men, screaming her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" The Warrior Princess swung around and caught one man in the face with a piston-driven fist and hit another in the side of the head with the hilt of her sword, felling them both. The last two men backed off, now hesitant about tangling with this awesome battle machine.
"Come on, boys," she taunted. Her lips drew back in a feral smile that held not one ounce of humor. "Don't you want to lead this army?"
The two survivors looked at Xena then at each other and shook their heads. "No, Xena," one of them answered, "we'll be happy to have you lead it." They threw their weapons on the ground. Xena turned to the rest of the soldiers. "Anyone else?" she demanded. A voice came from back in the group, "We'll follow you, Xena." Then another, "Right on, Xena!" And another, "Let's go, Xena!" Soon the men picked up a chant, "Xena, Xena, Xena!" The Warrior Princess smiled and waved her sword in answer. Then she sheathed it and quieted the men.
"You two, pick up your swords and guard this tent. I have some business to attend to and I'm going to leave my friends here. If anything happens to them, you will answer for it," she glowered at them. "We'll take good care of them, Xena, we promise," one answered and the other nodded his agreement. "See that you do," she commanded.
Gabrielle had entered the tent and investigated it. She came back out and reported, "The place is pretty clean, Xena. And there's a bed in there suitable for Gwynna."
Xena walked over to the litter and smiled down at the awakened young Amazon. "How do you feel?" she inquired.
Gwynna smiled back at her a little sadly, "I couldn't turn my head to see the fight, but I could hear it. I'm sure glad you're all right. But what's going to happen with Leese?" the girl looked at Xena with her concern showing in her chocolate eyes.
"I can't answer that question," Xena admitted, "but I'm going to find her and get this settled one way or the other." Xena picked up the girl and the blankets and carried her to the bed in the tent. Gabrielle followed her in. "Meantime, you get plenty of rest. Gabrielle will stay here with you. I'm sure she'll find you some food and drink. Let her know if you need anything else and I'll return as soon as I can. Hopefully, with Leese." The warrior squeezed Gwynna's shoulder and turned to Gabrielle.
She tilted her head at the bard and walked outside with Gabrielle behind her. Xena's cobalt-blue eyes looked seriously into Gabrielle's mist-green eyes. "I don't know how long I'll be. I might have to fight Leese again. I don't want to, but if that's the way it has to be, then I will."
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and felt the tension thrumming along her muscles. "Xena," she simply said, in that voice that told her friend she could feel every single hurt that Xena felt. The Warrior Princess put her hand over the bard's and the two just stood there for a moment until some of Xena's tension eased. Then her mouth quirked up in a half-smile and she patted Gabrielle's hand. "I have to go," she said quietly.
"I know," Gabrielle answered. "But, please, remember that Leese does care deeply about the people she loves. She's no warlord; she's just a confused young woman right now."
"I'll remember," Xena promised. But that thought just makes the job tougher, not easier. She strode over to Argo and swung up into the saddle. She looked down menacingly at the two guards. "See that Gabrielle gets anything she asks for," she commanded them. "I'll be back." She waved to the bard and rode away.
Following the signs of her own passage, Elisa traveled back along the path she had taken through the forest. She moved slowly and haltingly, half-blinded by the tears of grief that would not stop. Finally, she came to the clearing that was the site of her greatest crime. Dashing the tears from her eyes, she searched the ground until she found the stain made by the blood that had spilled from Gwynna's neck.
Falling to her knees, the dark-haired girl's body heaved as terrible sobs tore from her throat. At last, emotionally spent, she prostrated herself next to the stain from her friend's life's blood and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Xena's mind was twisting and turning, trying to decide what approach might work with Elisa. Not overly anxious to confront Elisa again without some kind of plan, she did not push Argo. The golden mare stepped along the forest trail, headed for the clearing where Xena and Elisa had last met.
Xena's mind flashed back to herself at the beginning of her warlord days. If she had met Hercules then, would her life have changed at that time? She had to believe it would have. I wasn't so far along the road to evil then. Reforming would have been even less wrenching than it was later. But, then again, later I was more ready for it. I had been there, done that and still wasn't satisfied. There was a yearning inside me for something more. Hercules helped me to see that yearning was for a better life, helping people instead of hurting them.
Maybe I can awaken that yearning in Leese. Make her see that there's no lasting satisfaction in revenge. Especially revenge let loose on innocent people. It only starts a continuous cycle of hate. Until you wind up hating yourself.
I'm not really sure how to handle her. The Warrior Princess raised her eyes to the heavens. I could really use some guidance here. Help me to choose the right way to bring her back. I know I said I'd kill her if I have to, but I also know that I wouldn't. Killing her is not a true option.
Still undecided, Xena was nearing the clearing where she and Leese had fought, when she heard the sounds of someone breathing. Heavy, slightly irregular breathing. Someone's sleeping there. She dismounted and approached cautiously on foot. As she peered into the clearing, she was surprised to see that it was Elisa who was stretched out on the ground, asleep.
The Warrior Princess walked into the clearing and called her name, "Leese."
The young Amazon, in one motion, sprang to her feet and pulled her sword. Her lip curled and her eyes glittered. "It's time we settled this, Xena. Draw your weapon."
"I don't want to fight you anymore, Leese. I've taken over your army. You're no longer a threat to anyone but yourself," Xena informed her. "You didn't really think I would let you get away with this ridiculous scheme, did you?"
"Well, Xena, then I guess I'll just have to take my army back," the dark-haired Amazon sneered and rushed at the warrior. "Or die trying."
She swung viciously at Xena's midriff, but Xena just flipped into the air, easily avoiding the blow. Looks like I'm going to have to fight her again, the warrior thought dispiritedly as she drew her weapon.
The two women came together once again in battle. This time there was no audience to guess at the terrible emotional strain suffered by both combatants--one who did not want to kill and one who wanted to be killed. They swung and parried and thrust. They punched and kicked and head-butted back and forth across the clearing. Finally, Elisa feinted toward Xena's body then made a wild swing at the warrior's head, one she knew the Warrior Princess could easily avoid.
Xena ducked and swung her weapon heavily toward Elisa's exposed side. At the last second, she turned the sword sideways and hit the young Amazon with the flat of the blade. The power of Xena's swing knocked Elisa off her feet, and she fell to the ground, badly bruised but otherwise unhurt. Xena stepped on the gift sword's hilt and caught Elisa's hand under it pinning her arm to the ground. She rested the tip of her weapon at the base of the young Amazon's throat.
"Are you ready to quit yet?" Xena asked in a deceptively quiet voice.
"No," Elisa answered just as quietly, "not till one of us is dead." Not until I'm dead.
Xena stared grimly into Elisa's smoke-gray eyes. A shaft of enlightenment suddenly hit Xena's soul. She backed up and released the sword from beneath her foot. "Get up," she uttered in the same quiet tone.
Elisa got up, holding her weapon at her side.
Xena threw her own sword on the ground and walked right up to the young Amazon. Her narrowed blue eyes stared defiantly into the Amazon's cloudy gray eyes. "Now, kill me," she demanded. Elisa was completely startled. "Go on, kill me! You say you won't quit battling me until one of us is dead. Well, I won't kill you, so you will have to kill me," the warrior pronounced boldly.
"If you keep going down this road, you'll have to learn to kill anyone who gets in your way. And I am going to be in your face every waking moment of every day. I'm not letting go of you until you change, until you decide to come back to us. The only way you can keep that from happening is to kill me. So, do it! NOW!"
Tears brimmed over and started to roll slowly down Elisa's cheeks. "My mother's dead because of me, Gwynna's dead because of me and I even tried to kill you, a friend. So now you WANT me to kill you? I can't do it, Xena, I've had enough of killing... I wanted you to kill me." Elisa flung her sword to the ground and stood there with downcast eyes and diminished spirit. A picture of her past self, burying her weapons and armor, flashed across the Warrior Princess' mind.
At the same time, she was startled to hear that Elisa believed that Gwynna was dead. Xena experienced renewed hope that, after she heard the news about Gwynna, Elisa would come to her senses. She reached out and grasped Elisa's shoulder. "But Gwynna's not dead," she said firmly.
"Nice try, Xena," Elisa muttered.
Xena gave the youngster's shoulder a shake. "Look me in the eye, Leese," she commanded.
Elisa's stormy gray eyes lifted to face-to-face cobalt-blue eyes that looked deeply into hers. "Gwynna... is... not... dead." Xena reiterated. "She's back at the army camp with Gabrielle. And Viktor," the warrior smiled gently.
The news lifted a thousand-pound weight from Elisa's heart. She was half-afraid to believe that Xena's knowledge of healing had saved Gwynna's life. But Xena's shining eyes told her it was true. Elisa tried to thank her but her lips were trembling too hard to form the words and only a groaning sound came forth.
Xena patted the youngster's shoulder and said kiddingly in a dry voice, "You've got to work a little harder on that stoic bit."
To Xena's stark amazement, Elisa threw both her arms around the Warrior Princess' neck and cried copiously on her shoulder. Gabrielle was right, she's no warlord. She's a confused youngster who cares deeply. And she's just lost her mother. And regained her friend. Xena, hesitant at first, wrapped her arms across the young Amazon's back. Then, moved by the girl's tears, she hugged her close.
Although there was a cot in the field tent, there were no chairs, only wooden boxes lying haphazardly around a larger box that obviously served as a table. A crude latrine had been dug in one corner and another corner held several leather buckets, three with water in them.
Gabrielle picked up one empty bucket and filled it with the remnants of several meals that still sat on the table. Probably from those soldiers who were in here when we arrived, she thought. Actually, other than the leftover food, the tent was in neat order. The bard pulled her waterbag from her pack and took it to the cot to offer to Gwynna.
The young Amazon, with Gabrielle's support, sat up and sipped at the water. "Thank you," she said. "I'm really thirsty but it's hard to swallow."
"Just take your time," the green-eyed woman smiled. "We'll probably be here for awhile."
"Gabrielle, I'm scared to have Xena going after Leese without you there," Gwynna admitted. "I still remember the bruises she put all over my chest."
"Gwynna, I don't want you to think badly of Xena," Gabrielle shook her head. "That time she kicked you , she was only trying to protect me. She was semi-conscious and thought you were attacking us."
"I know, Leese told me the same thing. But it's really scary to be on the other end of her anger," Gwynna explained. "It's like she gets ten times bigger and fiercer than she usually is. I felt lucky to get out of there alive," the girl said worriedly.
"I'm really afraid for Leese. I know she needs to be stopped but Xena can do terrible..." Gwynna halted, suddenly remembering she was talking to the Warrior Princess' best friend. The same woman the Amazon village had seen the warrior drag behind a horse... and no one had been able to stop her. The episode had left a lingering fear of Xena's uncontrolled anger. "She even turned on you," the girl pointed out. Her eyes grew wide and darkened with fear. "What if she gets out of control with Leese, like she did with you? Leese won't stand a chance." Concern for her friend wrinkled Gwynna's brow.
"Gwynna, it's true that Xena has done some terrible things. Things she will regret for the rest of her life. She was driven mad with grief over her son's death, which was partly my fault... you've heard the story. But when it came to the point of her actually killing me, she couldn't do it. I've forgiven her, Ephiny's forgiven her and the rest of the Amazons at least accept her." Gabrielle pulled a box over near the cot and sat on it. "They recognize that Xena is still my friend and protector. Not only that, her very presence in the area makes it safer for everybody. She's always there to help when anyone needs her."
The young Amazon sipped from the waterbag as her Queen continued. "Xena's not the dreadful ogre some people think she is. She has a noble heart, Gwynna. She's had to overcome a horrible past that was the result of mistakes that she made. Now, she's trying to prevent Leese from making those same mistakes."
Gabrielle reached out for the waterbag, took a few sips and handed it back to Gwynna.
"But how do you know Xena won't go out of control again?" the girl questioned.
"No one ever knows that for sure, not even Xena," Gabrielle admitted. "That's part of what always makes her so intimidating to everyone. But she's gotten almost perfect at channeling her anger and using it against a foe rather than a friend.
"Xena could have turned her back and walked away from Leese--let her become whatever she's bent on becoming. It sure would have been the easy way out. But, that's not her way. She feels responsible for Leese. Xena taught Leese how to be such a feared fighter and now she feels the need to stop her." The bard's voice took on a somewhat wistful note. "I'm not sure why, but somehow, Leese is special to her and I know Xena doesn't want to hurt her. What happens to Leese depends more on her than on Xena."
The blonde Amazon nodded her head. "There is a special feeling between them, I can see that, too. I was jealous, at first."
A ghost of a smile played about Gabrielle's lips as she recalled her own early jealousy.
Gwynna continued, talking slowly because of her injured neck, "Then I realized... Leese's friendship for me hadn't changed. She has always wanted to be a great warrior and when she met Xena, it was like an answer to her prayers. She just had so much admiration for her that she wanted to be exactly like her. She was thrilled when Xena agreed to teach her."
A commotion that had arisen outside the tent was becoming too loud to ignore. "I better see what's going on," Gabrielle said. "I'll be right back." Gabrielle stood up, grabbed her staff and walked out through the tent flap.
Xena held the young Amazon until she had unburdened herself of all the tears she had been holding inside of her. Finally, Elisa got her emotions under control and stepped away from the Warrior Princess, somewhat embarrassed that she had broken down. "Xena, I don't know what to say... how to apologize... how to thank you..."
The Warrior Princess waved the girl to silence. "Apologies, I'll accept," she stated. "But, thanks? I didn't do any more for you than I would have for anyone else, so save your thanks, OK?"
And that's the truth. She would have helped anyone who needed it. But, still, even though she'll never admit it, I know she came after me because she cared. Elisa's smoke-gray eyes were looking deep into Xena's crystal-blue eyes as these thoughts passed through her mind. The young Amazon's mouth slowly turned up at the corners and she reached out and grasped the warrior's shoulder. "I've always known you are the greatest," she acclaimed.
"Let's go get our friends and disperse an army," Xena suggested gruffly.
Mounted double on Argo, the two dark-haired women made their way back to the army encampment. As they neared the site, Xena's sharp hearing recognized the sounds of a commotion. She led Argo through the forest around the edge of the gathering and came up near the back of the command tent. She and Elisa dismounted and crept unnoticed to the back of the tent.
While the two young women had been in the tent, several men had been lolling around a campfire quibbling about the arrival of Xena and the change of events. Constant fortification from a flask fueled their foolhardiness, filling a couple of the men with liquid courage.
"Just who does this Xena think she is coming in here and taking over?" one of the younger and more ignorant of the men blustered. "Dropping two good-looking women down here in the middle of a camp full of men can't be the smartest thing in the world to do," he leered.
"Yeah," another drunken comrade agreed. "Let's go check 'em out. They might be lonely... for us! Maybe we oughtta go show them a good time." He staggered to his feet and winked at the other bigmouth.
A warning voice chimed in. "Why don't you guys wise up. They're friends of Xena's and you better let 'em alone."
"Xena who?" the first one snorted. "I don't see her around anywhere. C'mon, Nikos, if they don't want a good time, we'll show 'em one anyway." He joined his comrade and the two of them stumbled up to the tent housing Gabrielle and Gwynna, and got into a loud argument with the one man guarding the tent. The other guard had gone to the latrine.
The smaller of the two drunks picked up a club as his friend was shouting with the guard. He quickly moved up to the guard and bashed him in the side of the head, knocking him unconscious. The larger man swatted him on the shoulder in congratulations. "Now, let's get those women and show them a good time," he bellowed.
"And what women would those be?" Gabrielle demanded as she stepped outside the tent and walked confidently up to the two drunks.
"Why, you, girlie," the large man smirked as he lumbered toward the bard, his arms outstretched to grab her. The small man stood to the side with an anticipatory grin on his bewhiskered face.
Gabrielle stopped the drunk's forward progress with a stiff jab under his chin with her staff. As his head snapped up, she swung in a complete circle to gain momentum and hit him behind the knee, dumping him to the earth.
The smaller man ran up behind her, thinking to take her unawares. She ducked under him as he grabbed for her, then rose sharply, flipping him over her back. When he hit the ground, he started to jump back up, but the bard rapped him, hard, on the side of the head and he dropped like a boulder.
The large assailant had gotten up and surged at Gabrielle again. She cross-hit him on the left side of the face and then came back with the other end of the staff in a cross-hit to the right side of his face. Then she swung the full staff at his chest with as much force as she could muster. He went down.
Both men were sitting on the ground shaking their heads. The Amazon Queen stood over them in a fighting stance and hollered for all to hear, "Does anyone else want to show us a good time?" she challenged. A dead silence had fallen over the whole group. Huh, Gabrielle marveled to herself. Guess I have more intimidating power than I realized.
All eyes in the camp seemed to be on something that was occurring in front of the tent. Xena and Elisa worked their way around the side of the tent and saw Gabrielle begin her battle with the two drunks. Elisa started forward to help, but Xena held her back, shaking her head and crooking her finger in a "follow me" gesture.
They moved around, unseen by Gabrielle, to the front of the tent. Elisa, glancing at Xena, mirrored her tall stance, squared shoulders and set jaw and they stood, like twin sentinels, arms crossed, on either side of the entrance flap. They watched the bard dispose of the two obnoxious men and listened in admiration as she challenged any others. Now the whole camp became aware of the arrival of the two warriors who stood behind the golden-haired woman, and a dead silence fell.
There was no question in the minds of the onlookers as to which was Xena, Warrior Princess. Even standing next to one who looked so much like her, the Warrior Princess was clothed in an aura of deadly menace that the less-experienced Elisa had not yet achieved and, perhaps, never would. A slight twitch in her upper lip warned the onlookers that she was eager to confront any who opposed her. No one in the camp was anxious to loose that menace on himself.
Gabrielle, feeling every inch the Amazon Queen, turned to reenter the tent.
Her eyes widened as she saw Xena and Elisa in their forbidding stances behind her. "Ah... welcome back! Both of you," she grinned. So much for MY intimidating abilities! And Leese is back in one piece, praise the gods. She had the presence of mind not to seem surprised and merely ducked through the tent flap that Xena reached over and held open for her.
Xena entered behind Gabrielle and took her arm, leading her away from the cot. Gwynna's eyes searched the warrior's face in trepidation, then widened in shocked surprise when she saw Elisa come into the tent after Xena. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she reached out both arms to her friend and cried, "Leese..."
Elisa ran to the cot, fell on her knees and embraced Gwynna, being careful of her wounded neck. "You're alive...you're alive..." she sobbed. "I thought I had killed you!"
"And I was afraid Xena was going to kill you," wailed Gwynna.
Although they were standing as far as possible from the cot, to give the girls some privacy, Xena's head bowed when she heard Gwynna's words. Gabrielle quickly put her hand on the bronzed arm of the Warrior Princess. "I knew you wouldn't," she avowed in a soft voice.
Xena's head came up and her steel-blue eyes changed to cobalt as she met her friend's mist-green eyes. She stared into those depths for a moment, then produced the wide smile that always warmed Gabrielle's heart. Xena rarely mouthed the words, but Gabrielle knew she had just been thanked.
"Nice job you did on those drunks out there," the Warrior Princess praised. The usually serious blue eyes twinkled.
Gabrielle grinned and her eyes sparkled in return. "If I'd known what backup I had, I would have stepped aside and let you and Leese have some fun."
"No-no-no-no-no," Xena corrected her. "We had enough of fighting for today."
The bard got more serious. "Are things OK between you two, now?" she whispered.
"So far," Xena responded in a low voice. She looked toward the two Amazons and saw that they were both recovered from the tumultuous emotions of their greeting. She walked over to them and filled everyone in on what she planned to do.
She looked at the dark-haired girl who now was seated on a box. "Leese, we are going to disband this army. Now, they may not be too happy about that, but the two of us should be able to intimidate them into doing as we say. We'll just threaten them with... death... if they don't agree to leave." As Xena said "death," her eyes narrowed and all three listeners had no doubt she meant exactly what she said.
And those soldiers should recognize that, too, thought Gabrielle with relief. If they have any sense at all they won't try to oppose her.
"Then, you're going to ride back to Ephiny and get her to send a healer and some scouts and a wagon to escort Gwynna back to the Amazon village. After that," the warrior continued to look directly at Elisa and her voice changed to a commanding, no-nonsense tone, "I'm taking you back to Lamikos to get that death sentence changed."
Elisa opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it when she saw Xena's jaw clench. The Warrior Princess' steel-blue eyes locked onto the Amazon's cloud-gray until the youngster finally nodded her assent.
"OK," Xena said briskly, "Let's go get rid of this army."
Xena grabbed the bottom of one of the boxes. Picking it up with one hand, she strode out through the tent flap. Gabrielle and Elisa followed her out. Moving to a small rise in the ground to the left of the tent entrance, the Warrior Princess set the box down and stood on top of it. "MEN!" she shouted. "YOUR ATTENTION!" She waited for a few moments as the men nearby became aware of her presence and the information filtered quickly to the farthest edges of the camp. Soon all eyes were on the imposing woman.
Xena's voice was strong and firm and carried to each of the listeners. "I know you have all come here expecting to become part of an army led by Xena, the Warrior Princess... me. Well, that was all a case of mistaken identity. The who called this army together was this young woman here." The warrior drew her sword and pointed it at Elisa who was standing attentively nearby.
"You have gathered here with false expectations. Xena, the Warrior Princess is not going to lead this army. I'm disbanding it, now."
Murmurs sounded throughout the group and one voice was raised above them. "C'mon, Xena, lead us. We'll follow you anywhere," was heard, followed by cheers of agreement. The warrior sheathed her sword and put her hands on her hips.
"Follow me anywhere?" she repeated. Another affirmative cheer went up. "Let me see a show of hands. How many of you have brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers?" Nearly everyone's hand went up. Xena pointed to one of the soldiers standing near. "Do you want us to raid your village, kill your relatives? Speak up, man. Yes or no?" she prompted.
"Well, no, not my village," he answered.
"You, back there, with the black shirt and green pants. Do you want us to raid your village and kill your relatives?" she demanded.
"No, Xena, not my village," the man shouted.
She pointed to two other men in succession, asked the same question and got the same reply.
"No one wants us to raid his village," she crowed. "Can't you see that the people you want to raid are the same as you? They don't want you to kill them or their relatives, either!"
"Well, I'm not leading you in any raids, either. I'm sending you home. You aren't an army yet, and I'm not training you to be an army. You are disbanded. GO HOME! If anyone wants to argue the point with me, step right up with your sword in your hand and I'll settle our differences." As Xena said this last part, she stretched even taller and raised her chin in defiance.
Gabrielle, watching the crowd with her staff at ready, glanced at her friend out of the corner of her eye. How does she do that? Like Gwynna said, she just seems to grow bigger and fiercer. Like she would chop you into little pieces and throw you to the wind if you dared to defy her!
On the other side of Xena, Elisa narrowed her eyes and grinned the feral grin she had learned from watching her hero. She stood in battle stance, all senses alert and ready to respond to any hint of danger.
As Xena had been talking, a number of men had been gradually filtering through the others and gathering to one side in a hostile-looking group. Noticing this secretive assembling, Xena anticipated that some opposition was brewing to her disbanding the army. I swear, there are some in every group, she thought disgustedly.
The Warrior Princess glanced toward Gabrielle, then Elisa, and saw they were aware, too, that trouble was imminent.
When Xena's challenge rang out, the opposing group formed a triangular phalanx and rushed toward the three women, the point of the phalanx aimed directly at the warrior. The other men, not willing to take sides at this time, fell back out of the way and watched.
Xena straight-armed the point man with the heel of her hand, taking him and two of the men aligned directly behind him out of the fight. She ducked under a sword swing, kicking out her leg and catching the perpetrator in the side of the knee, crumpling him to the ground. A smash in the jaw with her fist knocked him unconscious. As three men were about to pounce on her, she leaped high into the air, screaming her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," and threw mighty kicks at their faces, bowling them over. Spinning in a circle like a dervish, her fists thrust out shoulder-high to either side, she caught the next group of rebels across their faces scattering them like straw scarecrows.
Meanwhile, Elisa threw her hands onto the ground and flipped her feet up, backwards, hitting two on-comers under their chins and laying them out flat. She then completed her flip, landing on her feet just in time to throw side chops with each hand into the necks of two more assailants. She stood in one spot, alternating kicks with each leg, and downed several more.
While the two warrior women were engaged in tossing the opposition about like rag dolls, Gabrielle was making certain that the men that Xena and Elisa knocked down, stayed down. As they fell, she put the finishing touch on them by rapping them across the head.
The remnants of the group were still looking for a fight and, after a slight pause, once again rushed the women. Xena looked over at Elisa and reached out to her. Grinning, the dark-haired Amazon grasped hold of the Warrior Princess' arms and let herself be swung out horizontally to the ground. As Xena's powerful arms swung her around in a circle, Elisa's feet met the charging men, tumbling each of them with a mighty kick to the head. Gabrielle completed their downfall with another smack against the head for good measure.
The opposition had been destroyed without a single sword blow. Xena slapped Elisa on the shoulder in acknowledgement of her good work, and patted the bard on her back. It was all Elisa could do to get her feet braced when she saw the slap coming, so that she, too, wouldn't wind up on the ground. With a wide smile, she punched the Warrior Princess back, on her shoulder, and noticed with chagrin that Xena didn't even budge. Guess I'm going to need some lessons in balance! the young Amazon told herself.
Xena jumped back up on the box and yelled, "Anyone else?"
If the men had had any thoughts, before, about confronting the three women, what the two armor-clad warriors had just accomplished with virtually their bare hands changed their minds. There was a lot of face-saving muttering going on but no one stepped forward with any further challenge.
"Very well," Xena declared, "You have until tomorrow at noon to be outta here, or else. Any stragglers will have to answer to me! Any questions?"
When no one answered, Xena yelled, "Now get moving!" She hopped down from the box and beckoned Gabrielle and Elisa closer. She smiled at the two young women and her remarkable blue eyes glowed. "Nice work, both of you. Now, fun's over, let's get back to work. These men guarding the tent will be leaving, too, so Gabrielle, you and I will take rotating turns of four hours each, standing outside and guarding the tent ourselves. Leese, get Viktor ready and leave as soon as possible for the Amazon village. We need to get Gwynna someplace where she can get the proper care. By the time you get back with a wagon, she should be able to travel."
By noon the next day, the men had departed the camp, with no further opposition. As Gabrielle had suspected, every soldier who had been there was convinced that Xena would make sure all of them were out of there by noon, or else. No one wanted to discover what the "or else" was.
Within four days, a contingent of Amazons arrived with a wagon to transport Gwynna back home. When Rhea, the healer who accompanied them, saw the wound in Gwynna's neck she was astonished that the girl was still alive. She spent some time with Xena going over exactly what the warrior had done to preserve Gwynna's life. "I don't know of anyone else who could have accomplished this," she marveled.
Xena smiled enigmatically and murmured, "I have many skills." Mostly because I've been in many battles. Kill with one hand, save lives with the other, she thought ironically.
Xena, Gabrielle and Elisa accompanied the Amazons until their paths diverged.
There was a tearful leave-taking between the two young friends who were being separated. "I'm not sure what's going to happen to me, Gwynna," Elisa warned her friend. "Even Xena can't change the laws. But I need to get this straightened out so I can return freely to the Amazon village. Whatever happens, you rest until your neck is completely healed. I don't want anything going wrong with you, OK?"
"I will, Leese," Gwynna promised as they embraced, "May the gods go with you."
For most of the journey, as usual, Xena rode on Argo and Gabrielle walked. This time, though, Elisa often dismounted from Viktor and walked along with the bard. Although not at all talkative, Just like her hero! she did attempt to answer the hundreds of questions the bard asked her. As Gabrielle got to know her better, she found herself drawn to the young Amazon's innate goodness and sense of responsibility. She does remind me of Xena. I'm sure glad Xena got her straightened out; she's too good a person to be a warlord. I think I can see what the connection is between them. Leese sees who she wants to be, and Xena sees who she might have been.
"Gabrielle..." the young Amazon surprisingly initiated a conversation. She spoke hesitantly. "What do you think might happen to me if the elders won't believe me?"
The bard considered the question thoughtfully. "I don't see any reason they won't believe you, Leese. You have the proof of your stepfather's cruelty on your back. Once they see that, they surely will have to see that you're telling the truth."
"Well, sometimes people get sentenced to jail terms who don't really deserve it, isn't that so?" Elisa asked nervously.
"Yes, that's happened before," Gabrielle admitted. "But, Leese, Xena is on your side. Trust her. She won't let anything bad happen to you."
This partly mollified the Amazon, but to dissipate her nervous energy, she kept taking her knives out of their scabbards one at a time, hefting them, tossing them up in the air and catching them, then putting them back. She performed this action over and over as though it were some kind of safeguarding ritual until Xena came to a halt where the trail widened into a broad clearing.
"We're just a few miles from Lamikos," the warrior informed them. "Make camp near the stream over there," she nodded toward the small span of water. She reached back, unhooked the saddlebags and handed them to the bard. "I'm going to ride in and talk to the elders."
Gabrielle nodded agreement. "Be careful, Xena," she warned.
"Always," Xena grinned, kicked Argo into a trot and disappeared down the trail to Lamikos.
Elisa unloaded her saddlebags and bedroll from Viktor's back and dumped them on the ground. Then she led the big palomino closer to the stream and tied him within reach of the water. Gabrielle, in the meantime, pulled two pots from the saddlebags Xena had handed her and filled them from the stream. She carried them to the center of the clearing and set them on a fallen log.
"Leese," she called, "will you help me pull a couple more logs over here near where we'll build the fire?"
The young Amazon came over to lend her a hand. "You know, Leese, Xena's really sticking her neck out for you," Gabrielle pointed out.
"How do you mean?" asked the girl.
"Well, the elders could accuse her of harboring a fugitive and try to throw her in jail," the bard explained.
Wide gray eyes grew even wider. "I never thought of that."
"Seems to me there are a few other things you never thought of," the bard broke the harshness of the accusation with a friendly smile. "Sit down here a minute, Leese, I need to talk to you."
The dark-haired youngster sat across from Gabrielle and gazed at her with questioning eyes.
"Xena would never in her lifetime say this to you, but I think you need to hear it..." Gabrielle began. "You know, she never turns problems over to someone else, she thinks she has to solve them all herself. And when it's a problem that she had any hand at all in causing, she gets doubly determined." Gabrielle took hold of Elisa's hand as she spoke. This is a delicate situation here. I don't want to break her already wounded spirit. But I want to make sure she knows the hurt she has caused, so she never turns the wrong way again.
"Xena took a special liking to you and considered you her friend. She taught you to be an exceptional fighter, and when you started to go wrong and were planning on using what she had taught you to harm innocent people... she was terribly, terribly hurt." Elisa bowed her head and cast her eyes at the ground.
"Gabrielle," she murmured. "What I have to say may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. I've always thought Xena was just about the most perfect person I ever met. When I first saw her, I could only hope that she would occasionally look my way when she came to our Amazon village. And then she actually noticed me, and my heart swelled with joy," the quiet voice went on.
"Then, when she befriended me, it was like she had given me a little piece of her heart to hold in mine, that's how much it meant to me. I know, when I betrayed her trust in me, I hurt her terribly. You're not telling me anything I don't already understand. I could feel every bit of that hurt pulsating in that small piece of her heart. So I know what unspeakable suffering I caused her." Elisa took a great, quivering breath.
"My mother's death had temporarily unbalanced my thinking, but when I finally realized the huge mistake I was making, I was devastated. I didn't know how I was going to live with the guilt of having caused my mother's death, having killed Gwynna--or so I thought at the time--and having betrayed Xena. These were three people that I had loved; and I had ruined, or tried to ruin, them all. In that last battle we had, the one you didn't see, I tried to force Xena to kill me." The young Amazon stopped and wiped the gathering moisture from her eyes.
"Well, I couldn't do anything for my mother, except grieve. But what first stirred hope in me happened in that last fight." Elisa looked incredulously at the bard.
"I told her I would fight until one of us was dead, so... Xena threw down her sword and demanded that I kill her! She said if I didn't she would be in my face every waking moment of every day, until I straightened out," Elisa's voice was almost a whisper. "She was willing to risk losing her life in order to show me that I was making the wrong choice... turning down the wrong path." Gabrielle shivered as she could picture the bold Warrior Princess doing exactly that.
"She was willing to die to save me. That's when I knew that she had forgiven me for every rotten thing I had done to her and her reputation. That's when the glimmer of hope started--from that tiny corner of my heart that belonged to Xena. Hope that I could be a good person; that I could follow in her future footsteps instead of in her past ones. And she wouldn't even let me thank her." Elisa's smoke-gray eyes joined the bard's mist-green ones and they both slowly smiled at this typical characteristic of their beloved warrior.
"Afterwards, when Xena told me that Gwynna was still alive, that stirring of hope overflowed. And why was she still alive? Because of Xena, the person whose name I was ruining, the person I had tried to kill. The woman who offered me unconditional forgiveness." Gabrielle sat enthralled by the story coming from this usually reticent young woman.
"Gabrielle, if you need me to say it, I will say it." Elisa let go of the bard's hand and knelt on the ground in front of her. "You are the Queen of the Amazons, and, as one of your subjects, I will never stray again from our sovereign laws. I swear it. Please forgive me for any hurt I have caused you, the youngster finished.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and said hoarsely, " I forgive you. Please rise, Leese." They both stood and she embraced the young Amazon. "Thank you for telling me this, I know it wasn't easy for you." She stepped back and looked up. The two young women smiled at each other. "Now, let's finish setting up this camp before Xena returns or we're both in trouble," the bard advised with a grin.
The Warrior Princess rode straight into town to the inn. Dismounting, she loosely tied Argo's reins to the hitching rail and entered the door. "Innkeeper," she called out, "where can I find Petros, the town elder?
"There's a meeting going on right now, over at the Town Hall. It's the largest building in the Village Square," he informed her. "But outsiders aren't allowed into the meetings, so you better wait until it's over."
"Isn't this a little early in the day for a town meeting?" Xena asked.
The innkeeper recognized Xena from her last visit to the town. Xena, Warrior Princess! Maybe she could help us! "Yeah, but this is a special meeting. Since we're a fishing village, we've always given tribute to Poseidon. Some time ago, Hera and Poseidon had a falling out over some town called Argolis and, to get back at him, Hera is trying to take our town away from Poseidon. She put some awful monster in a cave just north of town and told us if we didn't pay tribute to her instead of to Poseidon, she will turn the monster loose on our town. The elders are meeting to try to decide what to do."
"Thanks," Xena said, and left. She spotted the largest building in the Square and headed for it. A man was standing at the top of a steep flight of stairs near the entrance. Xena bounded up the stairs in three strides. "Stop!" he said. "You can't come in here, the elders are meeting." The warrior grabbed two fistfuls of shirt, picked the man up off his feet and swung him over the balustrade. He was hanging about 15 feet from the ground.
"Would you care to rephrase that statement?" Xena asked calmly. She held the petrified man there for a full minute, then swung him back onto the steps. Letting go of him, Xena opened the door, unopposed, and entered the meeting chamber.
Petros knew her at once and, to his credit, foresaw that she might be helpful to them in their difficulties. "We have a serious problem, Xena. One which perhaps only someone of your abilities can solve for us."
"I have a problem which needs solved, first, Petros," Xena forestalled him. "I've brought Elisa home to face the charges against her. I'll bring her in and have her show you the scars on her back, but I want to know what will happen to her."
"Since you last offered to bring her in, Xena, I have talked with the other elders," Petros responded. "If she has the scars, as you say, we will drop the sentence of hanging. Still, she broke the law and we feel she must make some repayment. We reached a term of two years' imprisonment."
Xena's face blanched. "Two years? Two years for killing a man who was a fiend? A man who was trying to beat her to death with a cat-o'-nine-tails? What kind of justice is that?" She'll never last two years closed up in a jail, out of the free air and sunshine.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but she had no right to take the law into her own hands. We have rules about that and we have to follow those rules," Petros rejoined.
"What about the five men who broke into her home and killed her mother? What kind of justice did they get?" the warrior demanded.
"They will each serve two years' imprisonment for what they did," Petros assured her.
"You were ready to hang a young girl for killing a monstrous stepfather, but these men, who killed an innocent woman, serve two years apiece? I don't think much of your system of justice," the Warrior Princess scoffed, her cobalt-blue eyes sparking.
"But they were all family men, Xena. They only intended to arrest Elisa, they didn't mean to kill her mother. That was an unfortunate accident," one of the elders tried to explain.
"Accident!" Xena sneered. She stood looking from one to the other of the elders, her angry blue eyes narrowed and her face wearing an expression of distaste. She shook her head, turned and strode toward the door she had entered. "Xena, wait!" Petros called. The warrior stopped, hesitated, then turned to face him.
"Can you help us with this monster?" the agitated elder pleaded. "We don't have anyone in the village capable of stopping it. And if we don't stop it, we'll have to pay tribute to Hera, and Poseidon threatens to drown us with a tidal wave if that happens! Please, we need your help. It's an impossible situation."
"Elisa is a fierce fighter. I would need her help in overcoming the beast and you won't even let her in the village without arresting her. I can't ask her to help a town that wants to put her in jail. I won't do it." Xena moved again toward the door.
"Wait! Please... wait," Petros begged. He spoke quietly and urgently to the other men seated at the council table. Then he again addressed the warrior. "We'll give Elisa a pardon after the two of you destroy the monster."
"A full pardon, NOW," the Warrior Princess demanded as she turned back to the council table. "Then we'll take care of Hera's creature."
The men began to argue feverishly about handing out a pardon before the monster was defeated. Xena marched over and slammed her fist down on the table, silencing the arguing men. "Make up your minds. Either Elisa gets a pardon, NOW, or I leave. I'm not hanging around here forever."
The men looked hesitantly at each other then nodded. "All right," Petros agreed. He reached for a parchment and quill and wrote out the pardon for Elisa. He signed it and offered it to the warrior.
"All of you sign it," Xena instructed.
"But my signature is sufficient," Petros assured her.
Xena crossed her arms and clamped her jaw. "All of you," she growled between clenched teeth.
Petros' hand quivered as he handed the parchment around for the others to endorse. When the signing was completed, he handed the pardon to the imposing woman who rolled it up and stuck it in her armband.
"Good," Xena commended, appeased. She again looked each of the assembled elders in the eye, one by one, blue bolts holding their rapt attention. "Now," she commanded in an authoritative tone, "tell me everything you know about this monster."
When the elders had filled her in on everything they had learned about the monster, the Warrior Princess left the Hall. She stopped at the blacksmith's shop, described an implement she needed, and waited while he forged some for her. She walked out with a large, bulging bag that she tied to Argo's saddle horn. Then she rode out of Lamikos, heading back to join her two companions.
Xena entered the camp that Gabrielle and Elisa had prepared in her absence. The young Amazon was just finishing building the campfire and the bard was laying out items on a log to prepare a meal. They both looked up as Argo came to a halt. "Why was I able to ride into camp unobserved?" Xena demanded, with a frown, as she jumped from the golden palomino, loosened the saddle and bridle, and strode over to the fire, disturbed by the seeming carelessness of the two young women.
"Well, about two minutes ago, your protégé said you were on your way in," Gabrielle informed her partner with a smile.
Both eyebrows lifted behind her dark bangs as now, pleased, Xena turned to the girl, "Good work, Leese," she approved. "I didn't know you had learned to do that."
Elisa smiled back, praise from the Warrior Princess turning her cheeks pink. "Ever since you taught me to really listen, I keep adding to what I can hear... and identify," she explained. "But..." the young Amazon continued, "what did the elders say?"
"Yes, Xena, we're dying to know what happened," Gabrielle chimed in. The three women seated themselves in a triangle on the logs that Elisa had arranged around the fire. The bard continued meal preparations, putting two pots over the fire to boil. She dropped dried vegetables and herbs in the stewing pot and other herbs in the pot meant for tea.
Xena's warm blue eyes gazed into the young Amazon's questioning gray ones. The Warrior Princess slid the parchment from under her armband. She handed it to the young Amazon, saying, "You've been granted a full pardon." Elisa's eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs and her jaw dropped open as she stared with stunned incredulity at the words proclaiming her a free woman.
"Xena... thank you... I... I'm overwhelmed," Elisa stammered.
"You're welcome, Leese. I'm glad we were able to get it all straightened out so easily," the warrior answered. She turned her bronzed face to include Gabrielle, looking into the bard's mist-green orbs.
There was a miniscule change in the depths of the blue pools that met the golden-haired woman's eyes. Uh-oh, why do I get the feeling that there's a big catch to this? Gabrielle pursed her lips and raised one eyebrow in perfect imitation of Xena's "you-expect-me-to-believe-that?" look.
Xena laughed at the bard's expression and Elisa smiled, too. "OK... OK... so I promised the elders that we would do some work. The townspeople need a favor from us," Xena explained. "They've got a pretty bad situation there. Because they are a fishing village, they've always honored Poseidon as their god. For some reason, Hera suddenly got jealous that Lamikos pays tribute to Poseidon and she sent a monster to terrorize the town unless they paid tribute to her, instead. Then Poseidon heard about it and threatened to wipe them out with a tidal wave if they changed their allegiance."
This was met with a moment of silence, then Gabrielle's eyes widened and she looked with trepidation at her friend. "So, we're going to jump in here between Hera and Poseidon and straighten everything out, right?"
"Right," Xena answered, her crystal-blue eyes sparkling at the challenge.
"And," the bard continued, "we'll get rid of the monster that Hera sent."
"That's the idea," Xena admitted with a nod and a shrug.
Gabrielle's tone got very serious. "Xena, did it happen to occur to you that fighting off two gods AND a monster might be too much to ask of three mortals... even if one of them is you?"
"Well, yeah, it did pass through my mind," Xena said with a grin at her friend's gentle sarcasm. "But I have a plan. And I'll tell you all about it after dinner," she promised.
The Warrior Princess jumped up from the log she was sitting on. "C'mon, Leese, maybe Gabrielle will pour us some tea while we get a couple rabbits for that stew. You get one, I'll get one."
After a satisfying dinner, the two younger women insisted that Xena sit and relax while they cleaned up. When they had finished, they rejoined her at the campfire. "OK, we're ready to hear this plan of yours... about fighting two gods and a monster," Gabrielle addressed the Warrior Princess. A slight quiver in her voice betrayed the trepidation she was feeling.
The fire had diminished and, in the fading evening light, it cast a faint glow on the surrounding faces and reflected from their eyes. A trick of the flickering radiance made Xena's eyes look like two live coals with a bluish cast. Gabrielle shivered as goose bumps came and went across her arms. Elisa's gaze locked onto the warrior as she began to speak.
"First of all, we're not going to fight TWO gods," I hope, Xena attempted to mollify them. "I'm going to talk to Poseidon and convince him that we are helping him by helping the town. Lamikos has always honored him and will continue to, when this monster is dealt with. If he can keep Hera off our backs while we get rid of the beast, we have a better chance."
The Warrior Princess turned her burning eyes to Elisa. "Leese, the elders say this creature is hiding in a cave in a limestone bluff on the northeast edge of town. Are you familiar with the area?"
"I know where you mean, Xena," Elisa replied. "That whole bluff is riddled with huge, interconnecting caves. One gigantic entrance always shows on the land side, but it can only be reached by scaling the bluff. Several large openings appear on the sea side and are easy to get into, but they're only accessible at low tide. With all those huge entrances, there's no way we could trap the thing in there," she concluded. "It's black as pitch inside, too, so we pretty much stayed away from playing in the caves. I was never any further inside than the big ones that appear at low tide."
Xena propped her elbow against her thigh and rested her chin in her hand, her thumb upright against one cheek. She slowly flexed her fingers down along the other cheek several times, finally curling them together against her chin. She stared into the fire for several minutes before breaking the silence.
"Leese, suppose this creature couldn't escape out through the lower caves. Is there any other way for it to get out, other than the cave on the land side?" Xena finally asked.
"Not that I know of," the young Amazon answered, her brow furrowed in concentration. "But with so many connected caves, it could evade any attack long enough for the tide to go out. After that, it would be able to get out any one of the lower entrances. You'd need an army to prevent it from escaping, then."
Gabrielle was paying close attention to this exchange but, at the same time, grinning quietly with secret amusement. Listen to them. These are the two least communicative people I know, until it comes to talking strategy. Then they can outdo even me.
"Well, then, it looks like we are going to need some help," Xena decided. As she sat thinking, the rising full moon took over the job from the diminishing embers, and cast a soft light on all three women. The live coals in Xena's eyes gradually were replaced by a silver-blue glistening and the moonlight delineated her sculpted features.
Even in the midst of this serious discussion, the younger women were struck by the warrior's natural beauty, a beauty she herself never seemed to recognize nor acknowledge. I don't think she even realizes how beautiful she is or what a pleasure it is just to look at her, thought Gabrielle with a sweet twinge in her heart. But... back to business! she chided herself.
Xena, sensing as always that Gabrielle's thoughts had changed, swung her eyes to meet the mist-green ones of her best friend. "What?" the warrior softly questioned, her eyebrow raising in concert with her word.
"Uh... nothing," the bard smiled. "Just admiring the view." Elisa smothered a giggle and Xena's other eyebrow joined the first as she turned to meet suddenly innocent-looking gray eyes above a widely grinning mouth now being covered by its owner's swiftly moving hand.
"Well, tomorrow's view might not be quite so fascinating if you two don't pay attention, here," Xena remarked dryly.
The two women glanced guiltily at each other. "Yes, Xena," they said together, then giggled at the coincidence.
Even Xena had to smile. We could be dead tomorrow, and here these two sit giggling over only the gods know what. Was I ever that young and unaware? Or, with sudden insight, is this their way of getting rid of tension?
"Suppose, while you're both in such a good mood, we get to sleep," the Warrior Princess proposed. "I can fill you in on the rest tomorrow. EARLY," she said pointedly.
"Yes, Xena," the two answered in unison, on purpose this time. Then went off again into wild giggles.
The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes at them and the three went after their bedrolls in a relatively happy mood.
Well before dawn, Xena awoke, climbed quietly from her bedroll and picked up her sword. She saw Elisa also rising and smiled. The young Amazon followed Xena to a spot a little upstream from the camp where they could still see Gabrielle in the bright moonlight but would not awaken her. The two warriors ran through a series of warm-up sword drills together, with Elisa facing Xena and mirroring her every move. Before starting the next drill, Xena called a halt for a moment.
"Leese, this monster we are going to fight sounds extremely formidable. I'll fill you and Gabrielle in on it when she gets up," the Warrior Princess began. "Gabrielle's staff isn't going to be much help so the burden of the fighting is going to fall on us. I just want to make sure that if anything happens to me, you will leave me and look out for Gabrielle."
"You stopped me from doing some things that would have brought great shame to the Amazons, and to myself, Xena, and I'll always be grateful for that," Elisa spoke seriously. "Thanks to you, I am still an Amazon and Gabrielle is my Queen. My first duty is always to protect her and I solemnly promise you I will live, or die, by that duty."
"Thanks, Leese," Xena reached out and the two women grasped arms in the warrior handshake. Then they continued their drills, getting faster and faster until Elisa could no longer keep up with Xena's speed, then they quit and returned to the camp where Gabrielle was just stirring. Xena grabbed some herbs from the pouch Gabrielle had left sitting on one of the logs and dumped them in the pot of water that had been prepared during cleanup the night before.
The women stowed their bedrolls on the two palominos and made a quick breakfast of hard rolls and the leftover stew that had continued to simmer all night in the embers. They washed it down with mugs of the tea Xena had brewed, then set the camp in order.
When they were done, they again sat on the logs so Xena could finish telling them about the monster.
"The elders tell me the creature is shaped like a 20-foot tall man, with two arms, two legs and a huge head. The head has a big forehead bulging over tiny eyes and a wide mouth with fanged teeth. There are some kind of thick scales covering every inch of its body... including its head," the Warrior Princess advised them. "Some have tried to fight it, but nothing has dented those scales, not even stones tossed from a catapult or poles shot from a huge cross-bow type machine. Everything thrown against it has just bounced off."
"So, how do you think we should attack it?" asked Elisa. "I could throw my knives at the eyes to blind it, but if the eyes are really tiny and the head is moving, I can't guarantee that I would be able to hit them."
"Yeah, you could try that, Leese, but like you said there are no guarantees. And even if you blinded it, we still have to kill it. Seems to me the most likely place to strike is in the mouth, and that's not going to be easy," Xena remarked in an understatement. "You or I will just have to get him to take a bite at one of us and strike him then."
"You're not leaving me out of this," Gabrielle warned.
"No, we're not," the Warrior Princess smiled at her friend's insistent objection. "As Leese said, it's pitch black in those caves and we're going to need to see. You get to carry the torch."
As Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue this, Xena leaned forward and squeezed her shoulder. "You've always been my light-bearer, Gabrielle, the one to show me the way, remember?" the warrior asked in a low, husky voice.
The bard took a deep breath and her protest died. "Right," she whispered.
Xena sat a moment, looking deep into her best friend's now damp eyes, and a slow, soft smile quirked her lips. Then, she jumped up and said briskly, "Time to go, I have to talk to Poseidon."
Elisa reacted at once and jumped up, too, but the quick change of mood startled Gabrielle. She got up more slowly, her brow knitting together in puzzlement. "Talk to Poseidon?" she inquired, her mist-green eyes searching for an answer to her perplexity.
"Yep, things will be a lot easier for us if I can get him on our side," Xena explained. "So, I have to ask for his help."
"But the last time you saw Poseidon, he wanted to kill you," Gabrielle reminded her friend.
"Don't be so negative, Gabrielle," Xena poked her in the side with her elbow. "That was a whole different situation. You know how fickle these gods are. Kill you today, honor you tomorrow."
Gabrielle swallowed loudly, "Right," she barely forced out through her constricted throat. She always acts like the gods are cranky little kids... The odd thing is, she usually gets away with it. One of her many skills, I guess! she told herself, trying to reinforce her courage.
Xena and Elisa tightened the saddles and bridles on their horses and mounted them. Reaching down an arm, Xena swung the bard up behind her. Gabrielle seized Xena around the waist in a hammerlock and laid her head up against the warrior's strong back. As they rode out, she felt Xena pat her hand and the low, warm voice murmured, "Hey... I have to breathe, ya know."
"Sorry," the golden-haired woman said, loosening her tight hold. "I think I'm a little scared," she confessed.
"So am I," admitted the warrior. She smiled as she felt the warmth of Gabrielle's snort against her back. "We'll just get through this together, like we always do, OK?" You'll be all right once the battle starts, partner. You always are. I count on it.
"OK," the bard agreed and gave her a quick squeeze.
Xena looked back toward Elisa following behind them on Viktor. The young Amazon's smoke-gray eyes were alit with the excitement of an imminent battle. Xena grinned and nodded as their eyes met, realizing that her own eyes probably carried the same unholy glow.
They arrived at the base of the bluff at high tide. Xena swung her leg forward over the front of the saddle and jumped down without disturbing Gabrielle. "You two wait here. I'll see if I can raise Poseidon," she directed.
The warrior walked to the edge of the water. "Poseidon! Poseidon! It's Xena, Warrior Princess! I've come to talk to you about Lamikos!" she hollered. After the third time she had shouted this same invocation, the water several hundred feet from shore began to churn and bubble. Soon the agitated water spouted up and congealed into the huge, imposing body of the King of the Sea.
"Xena, Warrior Princess, what can you possibly have to say to me that I care anything about?" the god roared angrily.
"Look, Poseidon, we're trying to help Lamikos get rid of the monster Hera sent against them. Our helping them will help you, too. But I need you to give us a hand," Xena roared back defiantly.
"I don't know, Xena, our meetings in the past haven't been exactly friendly," the sea-god's powerful voice rebuked her.
"I'm not asking for friendship, Poseidon, nor offering it," Xena shouted disdainfully. "You know how I feel about the gods. Just give us some help here to get rid of this beast, and Lamikos will be back in your fold. It's to your advantage to help us."
"All right, Xena. I can see the sense of that. I've always admired your intelligence and courage, even when I've wanted to slap you down for your insolence." Poseidon rumbled loudly with laughter and, cuffing his hand against the surface of the sea, shot a wide stream of water toward the Warrior Princess. Xena easily jumped away from the force of it but was drenched, nonetheless. "What favor are you asking from me?"
The warrior flicked her dark head back and forth to rid it of the water that was streaming from her hair into her face. "Very funny, Poseidon," she snorted. "But... I guess you owed me one. Now, if you're finished with your fun and games, I'll let you know what I need you to do."
Xena pointed toward the bluff. "Hera's monster is hiding in that bluff. We're going in that entrance up there to attack him. But there are also several underwater entrances he could escape through if we pursue him. I need you to hold up the tide, don't let it run out until we have conquered him, however long that takes... And don't let Hera bother us."
Poseidon studied the request for a moment, his eyes on the bluff. He didn't relish the idea of helping the Warrior Princess but he knew that she might be the only one who could beat Hera's monster and return Lamikos to his allegiance.
"Very well, Xena, I will hold up the tide, but I can't do that for an unlimited time; it could cause havoc around the world. I'll give you three hours," Poseidon proclaimed in his thunderous voice.
The warrior looked over at the cliff, estimating the time it would take to scale the wall up to the cave entrance, and noting the current height of the tide. "OK, Poseidon, but give us an hour before you hold the tide. That will give us time to reach the cave and the lower levels will still be flooded." In five hours, the tide will be low enough to allow passage through the lower levels. We'll be cutting it close if we have to chase the beast around much.
"Very well, Xena, you have your wish, and I will also make sure Hera doesn't bother you. She's tied up in another part of the universe at the moment, so what she doesn't know will help us both!" Poseidon let out another booming belly laugh and melted into the sea.
Xena opened one of the saddlebags packed on Argo's back and pulled out several metal spikes, two hammers and two lengths of rope. "We're going to have to scale the face of the bluff to reach the opening," she said, stating an obvious fact.
"Er... Xena, I'm not too good on heights, remember?" the bard remarked with a sickly smile.
"That's OK, Gabrielle, Elisa and I will climb up then pull you up with the rope," Xena said as she handed the gear to Elisa. She then untied the large, heavy bag that she had brought from Lamikos and handed it to the golden-haired woman. "Bring this up with you when you come," she directed. "You can tie it around your waist." She noticed that Gabrielle's eyes held a skittish look.
Xena started to walk away, then stopped and came back. She held out her arms to her friend and Gabrielle fell into them. The two women gave each other a big hug. "You'll be all right," Xena said softly as they embraced.
"It's not me I'm worried about, Xena. Promise me you'll take very good care of the person I love most in this world," the bard breathed.
"Always." Xena gave Gabrielle a final squeeze then stepped back and smiled at her friend. "See ya at the top," she said and walked to the base of the bluff to start the climb.
It took nearly forty-five minutes to maneuver to the cave entrance and another fifteen minutes to raise Gabrielle to the top with them. Xena helped to untie the bag that the bard had brought up with her, then removed several items from it. First, she took out three torches and some pieces of steel and flint. She handed these around to each of them. Then she showed them what was left in the bag.
The Warrior Princess pulled out a half-ball-shaped object that was made of several different sizes of nails welded together. The heads of the nails were connected into a base, and the points stuck out at all angles from that base. When set on the ground, the nails provided a six-inch high and twelve-inch wide foot-menacing trap.
"The elders said this monster is covered with hard scales that no sword can penetrate, but we don't know whether the soles of his feet are protected or not," Xena explained. "If they aren't, we can put these down in strategic areas and help to force him in the direction we want him to go."
"No wonder that bag is so heavy," remarked Gabrielle. "It weighs more than I do!"
"Let's just hope they are useful," Xena declared as she tied the bag to her own waist with a slipknot. Then she struck pieces of steel and flint together and lit the torch she had kept. "I'll lead the way. Slide your torch in your belt in case we get separated.
"Leese, when I draw my sword, you draw yours and Gabrielle, you be ready to take the torch from me. Leese and I will need our hands free to fight. If you have to make a choice of whether to help me or Leese, you help Leese, OK?"
Gabrielle just looked at Xena without answering, her eyes pained. The warrior's eyes narrowed. "She's a sister Amazon and you're her Queen. You help her, agreed?"
"Agreed," the bard replied reluctantly. Then the realization that she WAS the Amazon Queen hit home and she straightened up and tilted her chin in the air. She cast off the fear and mentally donned the mantle of the Queen. "Agreed," she said, more firmly this time.
One corner of Xena's mouth twitched up and her eyes sparkled. "Good," she nodded. "Now let's go get that monster."
Xena walked quietly into the cave entrance. Illuminated by the torch, the first cave soared 30 feet high and was easily 50 feet across. Three tall, fairly narrow openings, situated randomly around the walls, branched off in different directions. Huge 5-toed footprints showed in the dust on the floor of the cave. Most of the prints led to one opening so the explorers headed in that direction.
They stopped in front of the opening and both Xena and Elisa raised their heads and swung them slowly from side to side, tracking for sounds, smells, or changes in air currents that might warn them of the monster's proximity. There were none. Before entering the opening, Xena took six nail traps from the bag and put two of them across each of the other two openings. As they passed into the next cave, she laid two in the opening they had just come through.
They continued through two more caves that had no other entrances, and the warrior laid the nail traps in each entry after they passed. Suddenly, Xena's hand came up to halt them and Elisa's was a split-second behind the Warrior Princess' warning. "Breathing," the young Amazon mouthed and Xena nodded.
The warrior crooked her finger at Gabrielle and motioned for her to light her torch with Xena's. Xena and Elisa pulled their swords and crept through the next cave just ahead of the bard. The breathing sounded louder, but the cave was empty. There were two openings in this cave and Xena laid down the traps in both openings, then cautiously passed through to the next cave. The breathing had become a mild roar.
The Warrior Princess reached behind her and grabbed Elisa's arm in warning. The young Amazon slowly came up beside Xena, and Gabrielle stealthily followed her. An alarming sight met their eyes.
A gigantic creature, apparently sleeping, lay curled up in a ball on the floor of a massive cave. The cave had four other openings along its walls. The beast was covered with hard scales, just as the elders had reported, but the soles of its feet seemed unprotected.
Xena stuck her torch into a fissure in the wall and turned to her two companions. She pointed to the bag of nail traps, to herself and to the cave exits. They nodded and the warrior ran quickly around the perimeter of the cave laying the nail traps in each exit, then rejoined Gabrielle and Elisa.
"It's a pretty heavy sleeper, but I guess we're just gonna have to wake it up," she drawled with a feral grin. "Leese, I'm gonna get up by its head and you attack its foot," she directed. "If it roars with pain when you strike, maybe I can thrust my sword into its mouth and kill it."
The two women charged the sleeping figure and Elisa thrust her sword into the bottom of its foot. The animal let out a cave-rattling roar, but never separated its teeth. Xena stabbed the inside of its lip with her weapon but did no real damage. She ducked under a swipe of its scaled arm as Elisa tried to penetrate the scales on its stomach. The creature swatted her away as though she were a fly, but she was able to land on her feet, bruised but uninjured. It lumbered to its feet and its gigantic size gave all three women pause for a moment. The brute took off running through one of the openings, screaming again as its feet came in contact with the nail traps.
Xena grabbed her torch from the fissure and yelled, "You two get back to the main cave; that's the only way it can get out, so it will head there. Move FAST, you don't want your paths to cross in these caves." She quickly untied the bag from her waist and handed it to Elisa. "Take the rest of the nail traps and scatter them in front of the main entrance. We've got to keep it from leaving. I'll be coming right behind it, so don't do anything foolish; wait for me."
The three hurriedly separated and Xena rocketed after the monster, screaming her battlecry as she ran, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi." She could hear the creature stumbling ahead of her and she kept a safe distance, continuing to yell her cry to herd it toward the main entrance. Thanks to Poseidon, the beast was unable to exit through the water-filled lower caves. Xena could tell when the monster's path eventually converged on the caves the trio had entered through, as it screamed anew when it ran into more nail traps.
The other two women had reached the main cave without any trouble and had laid the nail traps at the main entrance as Xena had told them to. They lit the third torch and stuck their two into fissures in the wall. The whole time they were there, they could hear the beast screaming. Soon, they could hear sounds that it was approaching. Gabrielle's heart lifted when she heard Xena's battlecry, almost drowned out by the creature's noise.
The monster crashed into the main cave and stopped, momentarily stupefied by the lighted interior. Some of the nail traps were still stuck in its feet and it was in obvious pain. Instinctively, it headed toward the visible exit opening. Its foot hit one of the nail traps and its progress halted. When it saw the nail traps at every opening, it would not attempt to go through them. Now it was, like any cornered animal, ready to fight.
Elisa let fly three of her knives at the creature's eyes, and her aim was perfect. The beast's blinking reflex, however, saved it from harm as the knives just bounced off of its scaly eyelids.
Xena ran in front of it and swung her sword with all her strength against the side of the animal's knee but even the Warrior Princess' vaunted strength caused no damage. Gabrielle dashed over, swung around in a full circle to gather momentum, and struck the beast in the groin area with her staff. This had no result other than to have the creature raise its foot to smash her.
Elisa drove her sword clear up to the hilt into the huge foot that threatened the bard. The monster let out another loud cry and writhed around, swinging its leg to hit the young Amazon with the side of its foot as she withdrew her weapon. Elisa ducked, but its heel caught her shoulder, dropping her. The animal started to reach down to grab her when Xena, screaming her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi," ran up the side of the cave wall, vaulted off of it and kicked the monster in the jaw with powerful thrusts of both feet, momentarily jarring it. The Warrior Princess flipped back down onto the ground, grabbed Elisa, and she and Gabrielle hurried the slightly dazed Amazon out of the monster's path.
The warrior turned back to the battle, trying to bring the beast down by slamming her body into the back of its knees. The creature barely staggered, and never lost its balance. Xena then charged up the front of its body and did a quick, stomping dance on its nose, but the impervious scales afforded too much protection. She took a stab at one eye with her sword, but, again, reflexive closing of the lid prevented injury and Xena flipped back to the cave floor. Looks like the only answer is to get this beast to open its mouth, the warrior determined.
Gabrielle began attacking the beast's feet, striking down across the tops of them with her staff, driving the nails even deeper into the soles of the creature's feet. Recovered, Elisa ran up the monster's back to try to stab it in the throat, but it reached back, grabbed her arm and flung her, hard, against the wall. The young Amazon's body hit first then her head snapped back, striking the wall. Stunned, she dropped her sword, slid down the wall and slumped over. Gabrielle ran over to her to see if she could help. She reached for the waterbag that was slung across her body and poured it over Elisa's head.
Meanwhile, Xena stabbed the monster again in the foot when it started to take a step toward Elisa, and her sword stuck. The crazed beast reached one monstrous hand down and seized the warrior around her neck while she was retrieving her weapon. With its other hand, it knocked Xena's sword away and it clattered on the ground. The creature squeezed her neck, shook the Warrior Princess back and forth like a rag doll, then raised her toward its mouth and opened its huge jaws, its fangs reaching toward Xena's head. Its enormous mouth, capable of taking off the warrior's head with one snap was poised to close on her.
"XENA! NO!" Gabrielle shouted when she saw her friend's precarious situation. The bard grabbed a torch from the wall and ran up to the monster. She reached down with her staff, slid it under the monster's big toe, and, heaving against it with all her might, levered it about six inches from the ground. Then she stuck the torch under the toe as far as possible.
The monster howled even louder than before and reached down for the bard. It grasped her around the neck also and pulled her up even with Xena, who was struggling mightily against its hold with no success. The creature seemed to be deciding which woman to eat first, then settled on Gabrielle. It opened its jaws wide again and prepared to bite off her golden head. Gabrielle's eyes were scrunched tight, expecting a horrible death.
Elisa had come to and immediately saw the danger Xena and Gabrielle faced. She speedily retrieved her sword and slid her hand down the blade to the point of it. Shouting, "XENA!" the young Amazon threw her sword at the Warrior Princess. The warrior's bloodshot and bulging eyes swerved toward Elisa's voice. The perfectly balanced sword, Elisa's gift from Xena, flipped end over end in graceful symmetry and landed flawlessly, hilt first, in the warrior's outstretched hand. Pulling her arm back, Xena thrust the sword with all her strength into the open mouth of the monster just as it moved forward to crunch the bard's head with its fangs.
Xena's whole arm disappeared into the open maw and she wrenched her shoulder back and forth. For a moment, time seemed to stop as Xena, grimacing, pulled out the sword dripping with blood. Then, both of the creature's arms dropped to its side and the hands opened, depositing Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess on the ground. Gabrielle's eyes flew open in astonishment. Xena dropped the sword and rolled quickly to the bard. She threw long bronzed arms around the golden-haired woman and continued to roll away from the teetering monster whose mouth was running with blood. The creature wobbled for a few seconds more then fell to the ground with an immense crash. The body bounced twice and then lay still.
Xena let go of Gabrielle and sprawled out on the ground grabbing huge gulps of air into her starving lungs. The bard looked at her friend with concern, noticing that Xena's neck was inflamed and oozing blood. She pulled some salve and bandage from her ever-present supply in the pouch at her belt and started to minister to the warrior.
Elisa had run over to the two women when Xena had rolled them to safety. "Leese," Gabrielle, looking up at the young Amazon, asked in confusion, "what happened? I thought we were dead for sure."
Elisa grinned just about as broadly as anyone could grin and answered, "I threw Xena my sword and she stuck the monster in the roof of the mouth, straight into his brain, just as he was about to bite your head off." Her tone changed when she realized Xena hadn't moved except to gulp air, and Gabrielle was trying to put salve on the warrior's throat. "Xena, are you OK?" she asked with a worried frown.
The Warrior Princess opened her blood-reddened eyes and forced a small smile, "Gimme fifteen minutes or so and I'll be OK," she uttered hoarsely. "The damn thing nearly choked me to death."
And anyone else would be dead, Elisa realized. She survived that through sheer force of will.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and her eyes softened, "I..." The bard put her fingers over the warrior's lips, silencing her. "No talking for fifteen minutes," she ordered with a sweet smile at her friend. "We can stay here just as long as you need."
While Gabrielle finished tenderly spreading salve on Xena's throat, Elisa retrieved her three knives and the two swords. She slipped her knives back into their sheathes, laid Xena's sword down next to the warrior and sat down to clean the blood from her own. Gabrielle gave her some bandage to help with the job. The two women sat quietly for some time, resting from the ordeal.
At last, the young Amazon broke the silence. "You know, it's really funny how things work out," Elisa mused. "If Xena hadn't given me this sword, we'd probably all be dead by now." She looked at Gabrielle. "And I know for sure you two would be. My old sword was too light and too unbalanced for me to throw it with any accuracy. Swords aren't really made for throwing, you know." The young Amazon hesitated, then continued. "It's almost as though someone foresaw this fight a long time ago and planned every last detail. Like someone was watching over us. Does that sound impossible or what?"
Gabrielle's mist-green eyes sparkled and a gentle smile appeared. "Travel with Xena long enough," she responded, "and nothing seems impossible." She looked down at her friend and saw now-clear blue eyes come open and a slow smile spread across the sculpted face.
Xena sat up, at least partially restored. Elisa stood up, reached down and hauled Xena to her feet. The Warrior Princess rotated her head, stretched her neck and bent her head back and forth. Then she stretched each limb and, finally, her whole body. "Well, everything still works," she said in a near-normal voice. The two younger women smiled in relief. "How about you, Leese, you all right?" The young Amazon nodded, and Xena teased, "You gotta stop trying to bounce off of stone walls." Elisa grinned and rubbed the back of her sore head.
The warrior bent to pick up her sword, "Now," she said matter-of-factly, "let's carve out its brain."
"You're kidding, right?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. Xena raised both eyebrows.
"...Leese just cleaned her sword," the bard added lamely.
"Look, I said we'd kill this monster if the elders gave Leese her pardon. We are going to take proof to the elders that we did, indeed, kill it," Xena explained. "The easiest proof is to take them its head, but since we can't cut through the blasted neck, we'll have to take the brain. Do you have a problem with that?" she asked innocently.
"Nooo..." Gabrielle answered. "Just as long as I don't have to help cut it out."
"Leese and I will take care of that," Xena promised. Just as the bard was exhaling in relief, the warrior waved her eyebrows, smiled wickedly and said, "You only have to carry it."
"XENA! NO!" the golden-haired woman protested, "I'm too squeamish!"
"Squeamish? This from a woman who attacked a 20-foot tall monster by burning his big toe with a torch?" The two dark-haired women both laughed at the look on the bard's face. "And to think I told Leese your staff wouldn't be of much help. You sure made great use of it as a toe-lifter!" the warrior commended the golden-haired woman.
For a minute the gruesome brain was forgotten as this rare praise from her friend lit Gabrielle's eyes. I did make a difference this time. I helped save Xena's life, was her very comforting thought.
"Seriously, Gabrielle, Leese and I will lower you down the bluff, but she and I have to climb down. It's easier for you to carry it. I'll put it in the bag the nail traps were in. You can pretend it's not a brain. Or... we can sit up here for another few hours and walk out through the lower level, if you prefer."
"No, thank you, I don't want to stay up here any longer than I have to," the bard answered. "I'll carry the darn bra...uh... bag!"
Xena and Elisa cut up through the top of the mouth and removed the brain of the monster and Xena put it in the nail bag. The two dark-haired women cleaned their swords and sheathed them and the Warrior Princess tied the bag to the bard's waist.
After lowering Gabrielle to the bottom of the bluff with the ropes, Xena and Elisa climbed down and met her. Xena took the bag from the bard and walked down to the edge of the water. "Poseidon! Poseidon!" Xena shouted. "It's Xena, Warrior Princess. Show yourself!"
Again, the water churned and swirled into a vortex, which rose up to become Poseidon's immense form "Xena," he boomed, "I've been waiting for you. Did your plan work?"
"Yes, Poseidon," Xena yelled. She reached into the bag and lifted the gory mass out for the sea god to view. "Here's the monster's brain," she said. "The village won't have any more terror from the beast. Now, they'll be turning their allegiance back to you."
"Well done, Warrior Princess... but this still doesn't make us friends," the God of the Sea thundered.
"You're so right, Poseidon," Xena barked. "We killed the monster and you held back the tide. I'd call us even. Like I said before, I'm not asking for friendship."
The sea god had a grudging respect for the brazen warrior who was able to accomplish feats no one else would even venture to try. It's probably her impertinent arrogance that enables her to overcome such daunting obstacles. Bold, and beautiful, too... I can see why Ares thinks she's so special, the huge god chuckled to himself.
"Until next time, Xena," he called and sank into the sea.
The Warrior Princess dropped the brain back into the bag, trotted back up the hill to her two companions and tied the bag to Argo's saddle horn. The three mounted the horses and rode back to Lamikos.
When they reached the village, a merchant indicated that the elders were meeting again in the Town Hall. All three women dismounted in front of the building and climbed the steps. The guard quickly scrambled out of Xena's way, as she approached, and let them pass.
The assembled men looked up as the trio entered the Hall, and Petros greeted them, noticing that Elisa was one of the three. "Xena, we were just discussing our options about the monster. Have you come up with any ideas to get rid of it?"
The Warrior Princess slapped the bag onto the meeting table. "We've already gotten rid of it," she informed them. "We would have brought you its head, but it was impossible to detach it. So, we brought the next best thing..." She turned the bag upside down and dumped out the huge, blood-soaked organ onto the table. "Its brain," she explained.
The men at first shrunk away from the grisly object, then eyed it with fascination.
"Elisa," Petros addressed the young woman, "On behalf of the council and the rest of the village, I'm truly sorry about what happened to your mother and the trouble that resulted from the death of your stepfather. We can't do anything to change any of that but we've made it known throughout the village that you have been pardoned and you are welcome here at any time. Xena gave us money to arrange your mother's burial and we took care of that. Thank you for your part in killing the monster."
"Where is my mother's grave?" Elisa whispered.
"She has been laid to rest in the southeast corner of the town cemetery, far away from your stepfather's grave, as Xena directed," Petros assured her.
He turned back to the Warrior Princess. "And thank you, too, Xena," he said.
"And my friend, Gabrielle, too," the warrior prompted. "This was definitely a three-person effort."
Petros hastened to add with a slight bow, "And thank you, too, Gabrielle. Lamikos will be forever grateful to all three of you."
The three women nodded their acceptance and left the Hall. Xena and Gabrielle accompanied Elisa to the cemetery to visit her mother's grave. They helped Elisa cover the gravesite with armloads of wildflowers then stepped away to allow the girl some private time with her grief. Later, they all went back, together, to their campsite.
The trio dismounted at the camp and Gabrielle went to stir the smoldering embers into a flame. She added some of the wood Elisa had stacked next to the fire.
"Gabrielle, Elisa," Xena took a deep breath. "I want to tell you that killing Hera's monster was one of the toughest battles I've ever been in. Both of you outdid yourselves in courage and resourcefulness... and managed to save my life in the process. That monster would never have been beaten without your help and I'm proud of the two of you."
Gabrielle looked up from where she was squatting by the fire and flashed a big smile, her eyes twinkling. "Thank you, Xena. Happy to be of service." Pretty impressive speech for our stoic Warrior Princess!
Elisa walked over to Xena and extended her arm for the warrior handshake. As their forelimbs joined, she said, "Thank you, Xena. What I did doesn't even begin to make up for everything you've done for me. You saved my life, too."
Xena waved off the girl's thanks and quickly changed the subject. "C'mon, Leese, let's go get some fish to eat," Xena suggested, "My stomach is rumbling as loud as that monster's snore."
The two dark-haired, armor-clad warriors shucked their boots and walked into the nearby stream. They stood about six feet apart, heads bent close to the water, listening.
Gabrielle, making preparations for the meal, looked out at the two and grinned. Leese really is a mirror image of Xena. No wonder Callisto called her Xena, Junior. And I'll bet our "insensitive" Xena lets her catch a fish first.
Leese did catch the first fish and it was a big one. "That's all we'll need, Leese," Xena approved. "And since you caught yours first, I'll even clean it for you."
"Whoa, that's a first," the bard remarked. "I always have to clean my own."
"Yeah..." Xena drawled, "but you catch yours with a pole. That doesn't deserve any special treatment!"
Grinning proudly, the young Amazon bowed and handed it over. "Thank you, O Warrior Princess of Fish Cleaning," she jested.
Xena quickly flipped the fish over, caught it by the tail, and smacked it against Elisa's still-bent-over rear. "Ouch!" she yelped in mock indignation.
"That's enough out of you, Leese. It's bad enough I have to put up with a sassy bard, don't you start," the warrior laughingly threatened. The two look-a-likes climbed out of the water and retrieved their boots. "How about seeing if you can find some berries or nuts or something to go with this, while I clean it?"
Xena gutted, scaled and filleted the fish, then chopped it into serving-size pieces. Pulling some large leaves from a bush, she wet them in the stream and wrapped the pieces in them. Gabrielle had heated a small amount of water in a covered frying pan and dropped some dried vegetables and herbs into it. When Xena brought the fish over, the bard opened each packet and seasoned the fish with herbs. She wrapped it back up, added it to the pan and put the lid back on to steam the contents.
While the fish was cooking, Elisa returned with a pouch of nuts and a large leaf, filled with blackberries. She and Xena cracked the hard nutshells two-at-a-time with their hands and pulled out the sweet nutmeats. By the time they were finished the fish was ready and the trio sat on the logs and enjoyed a tasty meal.
After they had eaten and cleaned up, they relaxed for a while around the fire, going over the different facets of the morning's adventure. Finally, Xena rose and the other two women stood up, also.
"Well, Leese," the Warrior Princess said, "We'll be going to Amphipolis, but I guess you'll be heading back to the Amazon Village, right?"
"Yes, I will, Xena. I'll be leaving right away, there's still a long afternoon left in the day. I can go back now as a free woman, thanks to you and Gabrielle," the young woman said. Her smoke-gray eyes deepened. "I don't know how to thank you properly, Xena, for everything you've done for me. You've given me back my life, and even made sure it's one I can be proud of. You saved my best friend and gave us back to each other. I know I can never repay you."
The Warrior Princess walked over to Elisa and grabbed her shoulder. "You made the change, yourself, Leese, I only helped you see the way. The way to repay me is to remember to do good with your life," Xena directed.
"I'm going to talk to Gwynna about training with me, see if she and I can go about once in a while helping others, like you and Gabrielle do," Elisa promised.
"That's a wonderful idea," Gabrielle praised. "You really have a lot of skills that could be used aiding others, and I bet Gwynna will like the idea, too."
"Thanks, Gabrielle, I really appreciate your faith in me." Elisa walked over and knelt on one knee in front of the bard. "My Queen," she honored Gabrielle.
Gabrielle touched the dark head so reminiscent of Xena's and said simply, "Go and do good." Then she took Elisa's arm, helped her to her feet and gave her a hug.
Elisa turned back to Xena and said, "And thank you for giving me back my future." The tall women hugged and the Amazon held on for an extended moment. Finally, she released her hold on the Warrior Princess and said, "I hate to leave you, Xena, I feel like I'm leaving my family."
The low, warm voice of the Warrior Princess answered her, "We are your family, Leese. If you ever need us, just call, and we'll be there."
Elisa, wiping her damp eyes with the back of her hand, nodded and smiled, "Likewise." She swung aboard Viktor and waved as she rode out toward Amazonia.
Xena looked quizzically at the bard as Gabrielle wandered over and sat at the base of a large tree. "Xena, we've got plenty of time. Amphipolis is only a couple hours from here and it was a pretty rough morning. Come here, please, and sit next to me and just relax for awhile, will you?" Gabrielle patted the ground next to her.
Xena cocked her head and looked at the shining green eyes and sweetly smiling face of her friend. It sure is hard to resist whatever she asks when she looks at me like that. She wraps me right around her little finger, and she knows it! Then again, why resist? Raising an eyebrow, Xena walked over and sat where the bard had indicated. Their shoulders touched and, as usual, Xena's habitually churning tension abated.
They sat quietly for awhile, then, surprisingly, the Warrior Princess broke the silence. "Gabrielle, I know I already thanked you for risking your life to save me but I especially want to tell you how unbelievable you were this morning. The only weapon you had was your staff, yet you never once backed down. You threw yourself into that fight just as hard as Leese and I did. I've never seen anyone show greater courage than you did." A chuckle started in the warrior's belly and rumbled upward. "And burning the beast's big toe was sheer genius," Xena praised, as full-blown laughter erupted from her lips.
Gabrielle, her face flushed by her friend's approval, laughed with her. Then, as they quieted down, she said, "I only did what I've seen you do over and over again You know, Xena, we both almost died this morning... and that's a pretty scary thought. But because of you, again, we're still alive and the village won't be terrorized by the monster. You are a truly awesome person... and I love you," Gabrielle declared. She suddenly stretched over and kissed Xena on the cheek.
The Warrior Princess reflexively backed away from the bard's affectionate move. She glanced over at Gabrielle and read the disappointment in her eyes even as the bard tried valiantly to mask it with a forced smile.
Xena looked away, and said, "Gabrielle, I don't mean to turn away from you, but tigers don't change their stripes, leopards don't change their spots and Warrior Princesses don't..." automatically find it easy to handle expressions of emotion. Especially, unexpected ones. Being affectionate doesn't come as naturally to me as it does to you.
"Don't what, Xena? Don't stop now, finish that thought," Gabrielle cajoled. "What's wrong with showing someone that you care, giving them a hug or a kiss just because you're so happy to be with them? And in this case, also happy to still be alive!"
"Well, I'm happy that we're both alive, too," the warrior agreed. Hesitantly, Xena continued. "But Warrior Princesses don't always act the way you think they should... They don't always act the way you want or expect them to... They don't always act like other people would... Take your pick, Gabrielle," Xena offered with a small apologetic shrug.
"Hummmph," the bard snorted playfully as the diminutive hurt quickly receded. "How about if I pick all of the above?"
"I'd say you're most probably right on target," the dark-haired woman remarked dryly.
"Oh, well," Gabrielle sighed theatrically, "Maybe someday I'll learn to accept that. Or maybe my wonderful, caring, lovable, outgoing, embrace-the-world personality will eventually persuade even a Warrior Princess to loosen up a bit more."
Xena, happy that the bard's mood had lightened, pursed her lips and grinned lopsidedly. "You'll have a hard time changing me at this late date," she warned as she shook her head.
"One always hopes," the golden-haired woman replied with a comical frown and turned to meet her best friend's smiling gaze. "SOME people would enjoy more affection." Like me.
But your eyes give you away, Xena, don't you know that? passed through the bard's thoughts as their eyes locked together. Their crystal blue warms and deepens in a special way when you look tenderly at me, or Cyrene, or Toris. So I know I am loved, even if you find it hard to say... or get uncomfortable with a show of affection. I can handle that. But I wish, a little more often, you would give me a hug. Not a 'hello' or 'goodbye' hug, or a 'we might not live through this' or 'Wow, we survived' hug. Just a 'I'm glad you're my friend' or 'I'm happy we're together' hug. I wish you could learn to be a little warmer toward me, a little more...
As Gabrielle's wistful eyes held Xena's, the bard saw a subtle change take place.
She doesn't ask for much, the dark-haired woman reminded herself. And I am really glad she's here with me. "All right, all right," the Warrior Princess' low voice chuckled. Xena reached out one long arm, enclosed the bard's shoulders and pulled her near. The warrior laid her dark head against the golden hair of her friend. Gabrielle slipped her arms around Xena's waist and snuggled against her shoulder. A contented smile graced the bard's face. "Ummmmm, this feels so good," she breathed.
Yeah, it really does. This is one battle I don't mind losing. Xena's feelings for the young woman swelled her heart. She gave the bard an extra squeeze and murmured softly against her hair, "I love you, too, Gabrielle."
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