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Chapter 7: Lets Get Ready to Rumble
"...Still bright on clouds of suffering dim
Shines that soft, solemn joy;
Nor care I now, how dense and grim
Disasters gather nigh . . . "
The arena turned out to be an octagonal cage in the center of the village. Built up around it were wooden bleacher rising to seat over a hundred people. On the outside of the cage rested a huge sign that said "Welcome to the Ultimate Staff Fighting Championship." Spectators milled about, with heated excitement, waiting for the blood sport to begin. This tournament was particularly popular due to its laxity on rules; essentially, there were none.
On the outside of the cage, pacing with pent up bestial energy, was Xena. She had just found out about the tournaments unique rule that there were no rules. Her hands were clenching and unclenching around a shredded piece of parchment, the skin around her knuckles turning white with each contraction of muscle, her eyes hard and distant, and the lines of her jaw starkly outlined against the bronze of her face. Solari (being the sound mind that she is) had sent that piece of parchment, which told of this unfortunate turn of events, with a hapless villager. (An easy sacrifice for the Amazon. For she knew, that with Xena, killing the messenger was always a possibility. )
Gabrielle, upon seeing her friends agitated pacing, quickly rushed over. "Xena whats wrong?" (Isnt that cute that she always knows when Xenas upset? I mean Xena looks mad most the time . . . shes a bad-ass warrior for chrissakes . . . but Gabrielle always knew the difference between really upset and just looking upset.)
Xena turned and grasped Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Gabrielle listen to me. I want you to drop out of this tournament."
"What! No way Xena. I thought you had confidence-"
"Gabrielle I do! But this tournament is different. There are no rules."
No rules, you say? Big deal, you say? Well, youre right. So what? Gabrielle had defended and fought against thugs, warlords, crazed Amazons, raiders and . . . well the list goes on. So, whats the deal with this tournament? Why is Xena getting bent out of shape (and oh what a shape it is) over a no rules rule. Perhaps, I can explain. You see Xena- the embodiment of control freak- has no control here because behind the cage, separated from her love, will be Gabrielle. The bard, who holds Xenas heart and future in her strong hands, will be totally on her own. If Xena were to interfere, it would diminish the balance of trust that she and Gabrielle had established over the bards abilities. Nope. The only way that Xena could jump over that cage would be to save her bards life. Not that Im saying that its even a remote possibility but thats how Xenas seeing it. Flashing through Xenas frantic mind was thoughts of a bloody and battered Gabrielle. The thoughts of Gabrielle hurt had become most unbearable for the stoic warrior. This, my friends, was fear plain and simple. A fear so great that it overrode the confidence that Xena held in Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess was afraid of Gabrielle getting hurt while she could only watch. And this Gabrielle knew. For underneath it all, Xena had made a promise to the bard and Xena always kept her promises.
"Xena Im not afraid of getting hurt." Xenas eyes narrowed and the bard winced. "Okay maybe just a little bit but I need to do this. I know its just a silly tournament but its also become a test for me. I dont know why...I cant explain it." Yes I can. I want to do something to make you proud of me. To show you that I can be your equal . . . to show myself. Gabrielle took Xenas hand into hers and noticed how they fit nicely together. "Im not that fragile village girl that you saved from slavers. "
"No youre not Gabrielle . . . you never were. Youre strong and I believe in you but I dont think I can stand to see you get hurt because I . . . "
"Because what Xena?" Gabrielle uttered the sentence with a new hope in her voice. Say it . . . please say it.
Next to that octagonal cage, between the two insecure lovers to be, a spark ignited. A frozen flash of time releasing a bolt of energy. From one trembling conduit to the other this harnessed power prepared itself to be released. An eternal connection yearned to be established forever linking the bard and warrior like the elemental bond, which creates water; hydrogen and oxygen forever fuse to form the life-giving liquid. With an utterance of a phrase, a simple declaration of that which is denied the magic could be embraced. However . . .
"ARE YOU READY TO RUMMMMMBLE!!" An obnoxious announcer yelling at the top of his lungs cut off any reply Xena was to make. The crowd erupted into an excited roar and the spark faded from view (but fear not my friends because it did not die).
Ephiny and Solari came running out from the crowd. "GABRIELLE!"
Xena spun around on her heels. "WHAT!?"
The bard looked up at her taller friend with a disappointed grin then gently nudged the warrior aside. "What?"
"Youre first," Ephiny said while standing a good distance away from Xena (Solari had told the Regent about the bad news and Xena wasnt known for taking bad news well).
Gabrielle twirled her staff in her hands. "All right. Lets go."
Xena grabbed the bards arm. "Gabrielle . . . " A lost look plagued the warriors face. "Remember to guard your left side and . . . kick some butt."
An exuberant smile flashed onto Gabrielles face. "Okay." Then she disappeared into the crowd with Solari.
Ephiny gingerly laid a reassuring hand on Xena. She was pleasantly surprised when it wasnt shrugged off. "Shell do fine Xena."
"I know she will," Xena said. Then in a lower voice, "The question is, will I?"
Ephiny faced the warrior and for a moment, a millisecond of time, there was a look of pure helplessness on Xenas face. The regent blinked then looked again but the look was replaced with the hard mask of the friend she knew. Whoa, gods help the poor sap that hurts Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stood on the outside of the cage with Solari. She was nervous and it sat like a stone in her gut. She flipped her staff between her hands and flexed her knees in an effort to stay relaxed. Solari rubbed the bards tension filled shoulders. "Youll do fine my Queen." (Sly move by Solari in using the title "Queen". Yeah, Gabrielle was Queen of the Amazons and she had claimed that honor with astonishing bravery. Indeed, she had faced much worse than this silly tournament.)
"Solari I thought we talked about that my Queen thing." The bards tone was self-mocking but Solari felt a subtle loosening of muscle underneath her hands. The dark-haired Amazon smiled.
Inside the cage, the announcer, a man with strange black and white attire, motioned Gabrielle to step inside. With a brief glance over the crowd to Xena, the bard stepped in the cage. Suddenly, her world got very small. And then the music started. It was a deep pulsing beat that resembled the ceremonial drums of the Amazons. The steady rhythm reverberated in her chest (and she kinda liked it). Across from her, the small man from Chin also stepped into the ring. He gave the bard a jocular smile, which Gabrielle returned in kind. Well, at least hes not menacing.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," the announcer began. "WELCOME TO THE ULTIMATE STAFF FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP!" The crowd roared. Gabrielle wiped her hands on her skirt. "IN THIS CORNER," he pointed toward the bard. "WE HAVE THE RED . . . ER BLONDE . . . UM . . . STRAWBERRY-BLONDE POWERHOUSE CALLED THE BILIOUS GREEN WONDER FROM POTATO!" Gabrielles mouth opened in confusion. Immediately, she put her hands up to stop the announcer and forcefully walked over to him.
"Excuse me but Bilious Green Wonder from Potato? Whats that?"
"Thats you sweetie," the announcer said rather perturbed at being interrupted. "Now if youll go back-"
"Wait a minute that is not me and Im not your sweetie."
"Look dont get your skirt in a twist. You have to have some catchy name . . . you know like Dr. Deranged, Prince of Pandemonium, Destroyer of Nations. You gotta have something to catch the audiences attention. Now please-"
"Okay," the bard interrupted again. "I understand the name thing but Bilious Green Wonder? Where did that come from?"
"Your friend picked it out when she signed you up."
"She did huh?" Gabrielle turned an evil eye toward the crowd searching for her raven-haired friend. Xena sat, next to Ephiny, looking back at the bard rather sheepishly. She raised her hand in a toodles type wave that taunted and apologized all at the same time (the Warrior Princess was really good at that). Gabrielle smiled back but the wheels of revenge were already spinning madly in her mind. She turned back toward the announcer. "Fine, but Id rather be called Gabrielle from Poteidaia not Potato. Got it?"
"Yeah, yeah now please. The people are paying good dinar for this." He pushed the bard back toward her corner and continued. "AS I SAID, WE HAVE THE BILIOUS . . . " Gabrielle shot him a hard look. "I MEAN GABRIELLE OF POTADATA IN THIS CORNER AND IN THAT CORNER WE HAVE JACKIE SPAM FROM CHIN!"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. It was better than nothing.
"LETS GET IT ON!" With that the announcer ran from the ring leaving Gabrielle stunned in the middle.
Xena was at her feet in an instant. Blue eyes intent on the action in the cage. Come on baby.
Moments after the announcer made a mad dash out of the ring the bard realized that the contest had begun. She increased her grip on her staff and crouched to a ready stance. Across the ring, the man from Chin was already a flurry of movement. His moves were intricate and flashed by with amazing speed. The staff tips blurred into a constant circle as he twirled his staff over his head, across his chest, between his legs, over his back, around his waist and finally around the neck. Gabrielle kept waiting for him to advance but he didnt. Instead, he stood there, twirling his staff in dizzying circles. Confused, the bard looked up to Xena who just shrugged. The bard waited a few moments more but frankly, she was getting bored. Deciding to move the contest up a notch she walked up to the small man. He didnt notice her, as he was quite intent on spinning his staff. Gabrielle tilted her head and tried to judge the velocity of the spins. With exact precision and timing (the bard was very good at physics) she stuck her staff in the middle of the whirring circle.
As she expected, the staff flew out of Jackie Spams hands and into the crowd. Shocked, the small man from Chin stood motionless. "Ahh, very good move."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks. Ready to give up?"
"No, blonde . . . um..red..er . . . strawberry-blonde haired foe. You have disarmed me but Im very acrobatic." Then he was all movement again. This time he was jumping back and forth doing flips and aerial maneuvers that would rival Xena. Gabrielle sighed, stuck her staff in the dirt and waited for the man to tire himself out.
Ephiny nudged Xena in the shoulder. "What the Tartarus is he doing?"
Xena, who was visibly more relaxed (she had managed to wipe the big ol grin off her face, after Gabrielle had disarmed the man, before anybody could see it) just shrugged. "I dont know but hes very . . . acrobatic."
"Hades! Whats the point to all that flippin stuff?" Solari, who had rejoined her friends, asked. Xena shot her sideways glare. Solari began to backtrack. "Not that when you do it, Xena, its not completely effective." Xena smiled and Solari let out a sigh of relief.
Back in the cage, Jackie landed squarely in front of the bard. His hand shot out in a quick fist punch but Gabrielle, who was very quick herself, anticipated the move and blocked his punch with her staff. She then brought the other side up to whack him soundly on the head. It was lights out for Jackie, who was very acrobatic, but not very lethal.
The crowd erupted into applause. "GAB-RIELLE, GAB-RIELLE, GAB-RIELLE!!" The crowd shouted. Again the music started and the bard was quickly ushered from the cage. The bard was converged by a mass of hands and praise. She was starting to get a bit overwhelmed when she felt a familiar set of hands on her shoulders. The rough calluses sending a warmth down her spine. Gabrielle smiled as she was spun around to face a very happy Warrior Princess. "Good job." The praise was simple but it meant everything to the bard. If she hadnt realized it before (but I think she did) she now knew that she would do anything for Xena.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny and Solari emerged from the crowd and once again broke the moment. (Amazons, although very useful for many things, had an uncanny knack for interrupting at the worst times). "That was great," Ephiny praised the bard.
"Yeah," Solari chimed in. "But what was with the name? Bilious Green Wonder?"
Gabrielles eyes narrowed on Xena. "I dont know youll have to ask the Warrior Princess."
Although, the notion was fantastic: Xena tried to look as innocent as possible. "Youll pay Princess," Gabrielle warned in a low voice (that was somewhat flirtatious) and headed back toward the cage.
Xena smiled and thought whatever the price, Ill gladly pay my bard.
"Bilious Green Wonder Xena?" Solari interrupted the warriors musings. "Gods for a warrior with," Solari thrust her hands up in the air and made quotes with her fingers, "many skills I guess picking names aint one of them."
Xenas eyes focused intently on Solari. "Oh really what would you have come up with?"
Solari shrugged. "Oh I dunno. Maybe something with Amazon in it like, Gabrielle the Amazing Amazon."
Xena looked at Ephiny who was trying very hard not to laugh. She mouthed, "Amazing Amazon?"
Ephiny put a comforting arm around Solari. "Stick to what you know warrior . . . stick to what you know."
Chapter 8: The Myth of One Night Stands
"..I care not in this moment sweet,
Though all I have rushed oer
Should come on pinion, strong and fleet,
Proclaiming vengeance sore:.."
The Rusty Sword had taken on an air of festivity. The dark wooden interior clamored with excited chatter. Spirits were liberally consumed and events of the day repeated for posterity. In the background a band was playing. The weather-beaten door opened and a single stream of light invaded the crowed tavern. Then a golden voice could be heard in the distance. "No, I really cant sign that for you. If you have some parchment, I would gladly put my signature on that."
Gabrielle had two more fights after her bout with Jackie. Fights, she won quite easily (it seems as if our fair-headed heroine had learned a thing or two from the dark warrior). This fact, and her natural charisma, had made her a favorite of the crowd. And now Gabrielle, who was partner to the greatest warrior to ever walk Greece, had her own fans. Indeed, she had her own entourage, groupies and Gabbites.
The bard entered the tavern surrounded by her people. They moved as an amoebae (okay, so this is ancient Greece and amoebae werent discovered yet. Cut me slack for artistic reasons). Gabrielle was at the center of the human mass. Where she moved, the group followed and when one person was lost another person was gained. (It was really an amazing sight)
On the outside of the group walked two Amazons and a rather perturbed warrior. Ever since the end of her second fight, Xena had not been able to get close to the bard. (This fact irritated her more than she would like to admit. She had come to yearn for the closeness of walking shoulder to shoulder with the strawberry-blonde). When another groupie hurled herself at Gabrielle in hopes of gaining the bards attentions, the Warrior Princess kicked it into warlord mode. "ALL RIGHT! THATS IT!" Xenas yell stopped all activity in the Rusty Sword cold. Except for the clueless groupie who remained intent on reaching the object of her affection. With a low growl, Xena launched herself into the air, executed a perfect backflip, landed on the heads of the patrons, ran over to the bard and intercepted the groupie who had just launched herself toward Gabrielle. The unfortunate fan ran full force into a heavily armored chest and slumped to the ground in a daze. A swirling print embedded in her forehead.
Xena looked down at the groupie with narrowed blue-eyes. "I said, thats it. Now, back off girlie." She smiled triumphantly when the woozy fan backed away. There was an insistent tap on her shoulder gauntlet. Irritated, the warrior turned to face the fool who would dare touch her. "Are you furkin insane . . . " It was Gabrielle whose sardonic gaze quickly quieted the raving warrior. "What?" Xena innocently asked.
"What was that about?" The bard motioned toward the stumbling groupie.
Xena shrugged. "I thought she was attacking you." Snorts of laughter erupted from somewhere behind Xena. They sounded suspiciously like Amazon snorts. Xena turned to give Ephiny and Solari the look but the two Amazons were suddenly interested in the fine craftsmanship of the ale mugs.
"What do you think Solari. Pre-Mycenaean structure with a hint of post modern deconstructionism?" Ephiny asked as she held up a mug for Solaris perusal.
"Yes, right again Eph. I believe this mug to be originally from Arcadia . . . "
Xena rolled her eyes at the Amazons and turned her attention back toward the bard. "Gabrielle, I honestly thought-" Xena was cut off by the strangest look she had ever seen come from her bard. It was happy, warm . . . loving?
Indeed, the warmth from Gabrielles soul was clearly manifesting itself through her eyes. Xena is jealous. Once again, as it had so many times before, the bards hand left her side to reach for her warrior. This time, however, she would not stop until she touched her loves face.
"Xena!" A voice from the, now active, crowd interrupted the path of Gabrielles hand. Xena turned her head toward the sound and her face went slightly dim with recognition. Out of the crowd a beautiful women emerged. She was tall, almost as tall as Xena, and her body was just as muscled. She had short brown hair and full sensual lips. Gabrielle noticed that her eyes were the lightest color of brown she had ever seen. The woman walked with a sense of confidence. She had experience and she showed it.
Oh no, the bard said to herself. When are the gods gonna cut me a break? Gabrielle had traveled with Xena long enough to know of the warriors sexual appetite. When they had first started traveling together Xena was blatant about her need. At a tavern, she would spot somebody, attractive and strong. Male or female it didnt matter. Then she would disappear and Gabrielle was left alone. Then as their friendship deepened things started to change. The looks more subtle the disappearances less often. And soon Xena never left Gabrielle alone. However, Xena had lovers in her past. The bard instinctively knew that this woman was part of this elite group.
Xena took two steps toward the approaching woman then turned around to face a slightly stunned bard. "Gabrielle find a table. Ill be right back." And then she was gone engulfed by the crowd.
Gabrielle craned her neck trying to find her friend but, as miraculous as it seemed, she couldnt. She started to move in the same direction but a firm grip on her arm stopped her. Ephiny smiled. "Gabrielle, I see a table over there." Dejected, the bard followed the Regent.
"Hello Tess," Xena said cautiously to the woman who stood before her. Her blue eyes discretely took in the woman whose attire was definitely masculine (white silk tunic, brown leather pants, boots and vest) but altogether feminine when it was upon her body.
Brown eyes moved up slightly but not before taking in the length of the warrior she had once known intimately. "Hello Xena." Then there was silence. That long uncomfortable silence that makes you keenly aware that not all memories are pleasant. Xena shifted her stance and the brown-haired woman relented. "Well this certainly brings back fond memories."
"Of how you once dazzled me with conversation." Tess smiled and it was neither malicious nor forgiving.
Xena shrugged off the remark with a smile of her own. In truth, she was glad for the tension breaker. "What brings you to Dundar Tess?"
"I suspect the same thing that brought you. To compete."
Xena was not surprised. "Im not competing and I didnt see you out there today."
Tess stopped the barmaid as she walked by. "Excuse me but could I get a cider and an ale for my friend here." She flashed a smile that charmed the barmaid to her very toes. Blushing, the barmaid nodded and quickly retrieved the drinks. The woman turned her attention back toward Xena. "I didnt need to compete today. I won the thing last year and the champion competes in the final rounds only. You know . . . its a little perk of winning."
"You must be very good."
Tess gave an affirmative nod of her head. "Do you remember what else I was good at?"
Oh you bet Xena remembered what Tess was good at. It had been a little over four years now. The brown-haired woman was younger then but her look was the same. Her rugged beauty marked her as a soldier, not one of Xenas but of some other warlord. Although, Tess had wanted to be Xenas . . . very badly.
It was in a tavern, much like the one they stood in now, late one evening. In a town under the warlord Xenas control, two armies met to discuss . . . business matters. One warlord was but a little fish in a big pond. A guppy really. The other was the predator at the top of this aquatic food chain. There was no mistaking who was calling the shots; her steel blue eyes left little doubt of that.
The guppy warlord was stupid and tried to push the boundaries of Xenas patience. Tess was there, a lieutenant in the other army. In a way that was neither disrespectful nor weak, she convinced her commander to back down. Xena noticed and appreciated the woman for her tactical mind among other things. And for Xena, appreciation usually turned into other more lustful thoughts.
Oh and Tess noticed Xena (like who wouldnt). That was never a question. Tess had zeroed in on Xena the moment the warlord set foot in the tavern. Her body sung at the site of the raven-haired warrior. The warlord was wild and her scent was the pheremone that lured Tess in. The women were primal in their need. The sex was raw and the caresses were hard. In the morning, as Xena put her armor on, Tess rolled over to face the woman who had taken her so completely. "Let me join your army," she said as her body still twitched with passion.
Xena smiled as if she knew that this was coming. As fun as Tess had been, she needed no complications or distractions. Xena had plans that didnt include jealous lovers. With a deliberate smoothness, the warlord stepped toward the woman who lay exposed upon the bed. She bent down and with the back of her hand, she stroked Tess face. Then, with a voice that made you yearn for things that would never be yours, she spoke, "You already have an army." With that she kissed the woman soundly and left the room. Yeah, Xena was cold.
Tess had never seen Xena again after that night. She had continued to travel with that warlord for a couple more years. She gained some measure of success but that life was never for her. Her need for rough adventure had been quelled but still she traveled. Searching and yearning for something she couldnt put her finger on. She never forgot that wild night or the sting she felt the next morning. To her, it was unfair that the warlord had affected her so much when she didnt even dent Xenas armor. So when Tess saw Xena again, standing in that crowded tavern her mind immediately raced back four years ago. Oh no, Tess thought. That would never do.
For Xena, the past was never far behind.
Do I remember what else youre good at? Xena let the memories rush over her body before quickly snapping her attention back to the present. Yes, I do remember, the warrior thought to herself. But I was different then. I was alone then. Xena shrugged. "That was a long time ago."
Tess smiled then looked down into her mug of cider. "Not that long ago." She looked up and her brown eyes challenged Xena to disagree. "I heard you had changed Xena. Traveling about, doing good deeds, righting wrongs, and . . . saving maidens. Tell me Xena, save any maidens lately? Of course, Im sure they didnt stay maidens for long in your company." (You think Tess had a little anger left?)
Xena let out a single biting laugh. She lifted her mug in a salute. "Thanks for the ale but Ive got someone waiting for me." She turned to leave but Tess wasnt finished yet.
"Yeah I know. Shes cute . . . if you go for that wholesome, innocent peasant girl look. I thought you would go for someone with more . . . experience. Honestly, she doesnt look like she could keep someone like you satisfied. However, her tight little body will probably keep you sated for a while. Let her down easy when youre done with her Xena. Some women dont take it so well."
The Warrior Princess smiled (not her friendly I kinda like you smile but her your in deep poop type of smile) and took a long pull off her ale. Then her left hand shot out to grab Tess leather vest. In less than a heartbeat Tess was thrust up against a bronze breastplate and dangerous blue eyes drilled into her stunned brown ones. "Her name is Gabrielle and you watch your mouth. Understand?"
Slowly, Tess brought her hand up and disengaged herself from Xenas grip. She took a step back and composed herself. However, she remained undaunted. "So that is Gabrielle? Well, I guess what they say is true."
"And what do they say?" Xenas tone was gentler but no less dangerous.
"That the great Xena has been whipped . . . so to speak."
The dark warrior almost choked on her ale (of course, she showed no outward signs of this distress). "Whipped?" Although, Xena had resigned herself to having very strong feelings for the bard (remember, shes not yet ready to call it love) being whipped was entirely unacceptable and made her most uncomfortable. That would mean that Xena wasnt in complete control of the situation. "Ridiculous."
"Yeah, oh really. We are just very good friends."
"Whatever you say. Regardless, Im going to have to whip your *friend* tomorrow."
Tess held up her hands in surrender. "In the competition. I saw her today. Shes good but not good enough."
"I wouldnt underestimate her."
"Please Xena," Tess snorted.
"Im better." (Do you get the sense that this conversation wasnt just about staff prowess?)
"I dont think so."
Okay, Tess knew she had Xena right where she wanted her. "All right Xena. If your precious is so good how about a small wager?"
Xena rolled her eyes. She had learned a long time ago that wagers were never small. "I dont think so."
"You see. I told you so."
Okay, you dont do a lot of things when youre in the company of the Warrior Princess. For example, you dont touch her uninvited, you dont wake her up, you dont talk bad about her horse, you dont touch Gabrielle (even if you were invited) and you dont say "I told you so." Xena really hated that.
Xena downed the last of her ale and slammed the mug on a nearby table. Consequently, the unsuspecting patrons of said table nearly passed out but that was to be expected. Xena focused on Tess. "Fine. Ill take your silly wager because I know Gabrielles gonna kick your butt. So . . . what is it."
Tess face lit up with a smile so seductive and cunning that it rivaled Xenas (when she was into that evil seducing type of stuff). Hook, line and sinker Xena. She moved toward the ex-warlord with predatory energy. " I have your word then. You accept the wager?" Xena shook her head yes even though all the warning bells were going off in her head. However, pride would not let her back down now. "The wager is this Xena: If you win, Ill give you fifty dinars. If I win then I . . . get a night with the Warrior Princess."
"W-what do you mean a night?"
"Like that night four years ago."
"Wait a minute I dont-"
"Too late Princess. Youve accepted the wager. Besides, it wasnt so bad last time was it? After all, you said that Gabrielle was just a friend."
Xena shook her head in defeat. Xenas tactical mind was getting rusty because she had just made a major error. "Yeah, just a friend."
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