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When the Sun Begins to Set
DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. 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 are several occurrences of Xena-type violence and some hurt/comfort scenes. There is no intentional sub-text other than what is seen on the TV show, just two strong women who are exceedingly close and loving friends.
Author's note: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.
My deepest thanks to my friend, Karen Surtees, for pestering me into writing this story and for the time and effort she spent in critiquing it. I am truly grateful, no matter what I said in the beginning. ;-O
Please feel free to comment on why you did or didn't like the story. Suggestions are also welcome.
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.
When the Sun Begins to Set
The world turns dim and cheerless
When the sun begins to set;
Predicting nightfall, with its dreams
Of horror and regret.
If one can clasp the sunlight
And embrace it till the morn,
'Twill banish each dark phantom's clutch
And offer life, reborn.
The warrior's heart is grieving;
Oh! How could her bard forget?
"I need your light beside me, when
The sun begins to set."
"Xena, tell me again why we are climbing through these rocks, will you?" called Gabrielle. The blonde-haired young woman was scrambling across the rocky incline about 30 feet higher up the slope than her partner, using her staff to help make her way between the large stones that lay helter-skelter about the ground.
The early morning sun, reflecting from the shiny, rocky surface, spread its light and warmth over the climbers. A mild breeze carried promise of a pleasant day to come. A quarter-mile further down the slope could be seen a tree line that marched slowly down the hill and eased into a rolling, verdant valley.
The two friends had been travelling steadily for about a month, aiding various villages in their fights against invading warlords or just fighting off bands of ruffians bent on attacking innocent travelers. Their travels had carried them far from both Amphipolis and the Amazon territory where they usually stopped to renew and refresh themselves.
A few days ago, a scout had caught up to them with a message from Ephiny, the regent who led the Amazons in the absence of their Queen, Gabrielle. The message told them that the towns surrounding the Amazon village had invited the Amazons to take part in their Harvest Festival. Because this was a momentous occasion--the Amazons had never before been invited to the festival--Ephiny asked that Gabrielle, as their Queen, return in time to accompany them. The two friends sent the messenger back with word that they were on their way and would arrive in plenty of time for the celebration.
One evenint kinds of wounds." Climbing with little effort, Xena was matching her strides to Gabrielle's. She was purposely keeping the bard above her in case the smaller woman misstepped. A fall down the rock-strewn landscape would be nasty.
"I want to see the plant, maybe get seeds or a root that could be planted at Amphipolis or in your Amazon territory. Sounds like something worth a little climbing, don't you think?" A tiny quirk appeared at the side of Xena's mouth. "And, look, I'm letting you go ahead of me so I'm the one who gets pelted with the rocks you are kicking loose."
Gabrielle stopped and turned around, making a face, "Are you insinuating that I am clumsy? So that's the thanks I get for coming along to keep you company? You know, I could have stayed down in the forest with Argo, instead."
A picture in Xena's mind of Gabrielle's face, as she sat astride the big palomino mare, turned the quirk into a lopsided grin. "Yeah, like you and Argo are such good friends. After four years, you still don't like to ride her."
Look at those two fools. It was almost too easy to persuade them to climb up here! Make yourself look like a little old woman and everybody believes anything you say. The goddess Discord, stealthily peering down from atop the mountain, almost laughed out loud, but quickly smothered the temptation. She didn't want to give herself away. Ares had made her promise not to kill Xena, but he hadn't said anything about not killing her little friend. If I can get rid of that one and make Xena think Ares did it, then Ares would never get her back as his warrior. Then I would be his favorite, as I should be. I don't know what he sees in her, anyway. All she ever does anymore is try to stop wars, not start them. Discord waited until Gabrielle was exactly where she wanted her to be. Then she drew back her arm, filled her fist with a power bolt and threw it at the bottom of a pile of boulders that she purposely had set at the edge of the mountaintop.
Suddenly, Xena stopped grinning and her bronzed body snapped to attention. She slowly turned her head from side to side, cobalt-blue eyes coming to rest toward the top of the mountain. With all her senses alert; she could feel danger but she did not yet recognize it.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked in a hushed voice. She, too, turned, following the warrior's gaze at the peak. Almost as soon as the words had left her mouth, a loud boom sounded above them and the top of the mountain spewed stones and boulders. An avalanche grew with the speed and roar of a stampeding herd of wild horses. The earth shook with its vibrations. Gathering smaller stones and boulders that littered its path, it rushed with rolling, sliding, bouncing force directly at the bard.
"Gabrielle! Run!" Xena shouted as she came charging up the hill toward her. Gabrielle dashed to her left, trying to get out of the path of the coming onslaught, but she knew she would never make it.
It's going to hit her screamed through Xena's head. Her reflexes strengthened by the urgency of Gabrielle's danger, the warrior, in full stride, jumped to the top of a boulder and, with a mighty leap, used her momentum to carry her into a flip that delivered her immediately behind the bard. She sucked in a deep breath and grabbed her friend.
Just as the boulders were almost upon her, Gabrielle felt Xena's hands grip her beneath her arms. With a mighty heave, the warrior threw her, still clinging to her staff, beyond the path of the slide.
The Warrior Princess fell under the stony avalanche, which knocked her off her feet, then almost completely covered her. When the slide had passed by her, only the sole of one boot, barely showing, revealed that a human being was entombed there.
Gabrielle flew through the air, screaming Xena's name. In the split second before her head came into contact with an unyielding rock, she feared that the warrior hadn't gotten clear of the avalanche. Then emptiness engulfed her.
About a hundred feet further down the side of the mountain, the avalanche petered out. The rumbling roar ended and only the sound of a few loose rocks still bouncing further down the mountain could be heard. Finally, the dust settled and there was nothing but silence.
It missed her! Furious, Discord had been watching her plan to kill the bard go awry. Gabrielle is still alive and Xena might be dead. And, if she is, I'll be in big trouble with Ares! But, then again, knowing how blasted hard she is to kill, maybe she will survive. I'm going to have to get someone up here to dig her out. This is going to take some maneuvering. With a flash of light, the frustrated goddess disappeared.
Gabrielle came to when the sun was directly overhead. Her body lay in a heap with her head sideways between two of the random boulders. The sun's warmth felt good and for a few moments she just lay there soaking it in. As consciousness fully returned, the golden-haired woman slowly sat up, holding her hand to her aching head. She felt a stickiness and, pulling her hand away, she looked at it and saw blood. Tentatively, she felt the gash on her forehead and realized that the cut was not severe but the raised bump around it was painful.
Guess I fell and banged my head, she thought. She looked around slowly at the barren landscape, including an apparent rockslide behind her. Something seemed to be nagging at her brain but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. She looked down at her side and saw her staff lying there, next to her shoulder bag. Picking them up, she used the staff to hoist herself up, her whole body feeling not sore, exactly, but rather uncomfortable.
Looking at her surroundings more carefully, she noticed the valley below. What am I doing here? she asked herself. Then with a mixture of confusion and horror, it dawned on her that she had no recollection of anything! Where am I? Stunned, the young woman sat down on the nearest rock.
After a few moments of feeling terribly alone, Gabrielle took stock of what she had--her clothes, a staff and a bag. She recognized that her clothes were out of the ordinary, although she couldn't figure how she knew that. The staff told her only that she must be in the habit of walking about; it was well worn. Opening the bag, she examined its contents, pulling them, one by one, into her lap. First, she encountered several long rolls of cloth about three inches wide that she surmised must be bandages. The gash on her head wasn't deep enough to worry about putting a bandage on, so she merely tore off a small piece of the cloth and wiped away the sticky blood with it.
Next, she came across some dried meat and hard bread, a welcome sight. She wolfed down a portion of the food and immediately felt her spirits lift a little. Right next to the food was a waterbag and she used some of that to slake her thirst. Stuck down the side of the bag was an empty scroll and in the bottom of the bag were a quill and a pot of ink. Maybe I'm keeping a diary or something. She also found a piece of flint, a piece of iron and a sharpening stone. Flint and iron for starting a fire, her mind told her. But what is the sharpening stone for? I don't seem to have a knife. Lastly, were a brush and a comb and some hair ties.
Gabrielle sat for awhile, gazing at the unfamiliar objects and mulling over her situation. She absently worked the brush through her long hair, putting it back in order. Finally, with a sigh, she replaced everything in the bag, used her staff once again to help her rise and started to walk down the mountain toward the valley. As she moved away from the slide, she heard some rocks shift. Must be a pretty recent slide. Maybe that's what knocked me down and made me hit my head. Paying it little further attention, she continued her trek to the valley.
Xena wasn't even half-conscious but, instinctively, her body was fighting to free itself. She expended tremendous energy trying to move, to little avail. The rocks barely shifted. Having spent the last vestiges of her energy, the Warrior Princess settled into deep unconsciousness.
Gabrielle had reached the forest and was walking along a trail she had found, reasoning that it must eventually lead to people. I'm walking around here with no overnight supplies, so maybe I am a local resident, she surmised. Deep in thought, she heard a rustle in the treetops that didn't really penetrate her senses. A few seconds later, a woman dropped from the trees right into Gabrielle's path.
The bard came to an immediate stop and observed the woman standing before her. The woman was tall and dark-haired with bronzed skin and deep-set, dark-blue eyes. Shoulder length hair hung loose, framing a square, strong-jawed face. A high-bridged nose and heavy eyebrows gave the face a fierce, hawk-like expression. Her muscular body indicated a physically active lifestyle. Gabrielle noticed that her clothing, made of brown leather, was very similar in style to her own.
The woman stood there, hands on hips, not saying a word. I thought this little one was an Amazon but she's not from our village and she doesn't look very tough.
"Do I know you?" the golden-haired woman asked. Something about the woman seemed vaguely familiar.
Dark-blue eyes narrowed and a quizzical frown appeared on the square face. "Shouldn't you know the answer to that?"
Gabrielle sensed no danger from the woman, in spite of her unusual descent from the trees, so decided to be honest about her predicament. "Well, I guess I should, and I probably would if I could remember anything."
"You lost your memory," the tall woman stated rather than asked.
"Yeah." Gabrielle put her hand to her still-aching head. "I think I fell and hit my head on a rock and I don't remember much of anything. Where I came from, where I'm going " A rueful smile curved her lips, "Or who I know and don't know."
The dark-haired woman tilted her head and gazed sideways at the bard. "What's your name?" she inquired.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer and nothing came out. Her mouth opened and closed several times and a look of confusion, coupled with consternation, creased her forehead. "It's it's I don't know," she half-whispered. Her confused expression turned to shock. By the gods, I don't know my own name! How could that be? What's happened to me?
The taller woman could see that Gabrielle was totally bewildered and she took pity on her. "Well, my name is Mara, and I'm an Amazon. You're dressed like an Amazon and you're carrying an Amazon staff, so I would guess you are an Amazon, too; though I've never seen you before."
Mara had been tossing an idea around in her head and now made a decision. "It's not safe to wander alone through these parts. There are outlaws hereabout who prey on single travelers. Would you want to come with me to our village?" She's too small to do us any harm, and maybe she will turn out to be a nice addition to our family.
"That's a very trusting offer, Mara. I accept, with thanks." The bard, still somewhat disturbed by the shock she had experienced, gratefully acknowledged the invitation.
"And you really don't know your name?" the Amazon prompted.
Gabrielle frowned again, making a visible effort to remember, then shrugged and grimaced. "Sorry."
"Well, I can't just call you, 'Hey, you.' Pick a name to use, why don't you?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment then suggested, "How about Ga Galya?"
"OK, Galya it is, " Mara agreed and reached out her arm. When Gabrielle tentatively followed her lead and reached her own arm out, Mara clasped it in the warrior handshake. Then, turning toward the nearest tree, Mara called over her shoulder, "Follow me through the treetops. We'll be heading north." She started climbing the tree.
Gabrielle called to her, "Wait Mara I don't climb trees. How about if we walk?"
The Amazon swiftly dropped to the ground from the limb she had reached and stared incredulously at the golden-haired woman, her eyebrows lifting. "You're an Amazon and you don't climb trees?"
"Well," Gabrielle said defensively, "I didn't say I was an Amazon. You guessed that I was one."
Mara began to rethink her invitation to the unknown young woman. "Can you use that Amazon staff you are carrying?" Reaching to the scabbard strapped to her back, the bronzed woman drew a sword and lightly swung it down toward the bard's head. Gabrielle suddenly changed from an innocuous-looking woman to an alert fighter. She put both hands on her staff and lifted it up, blocking the approaching sword. Then, with quick ease, she pushed the sword aside, stepped back and slammed one end of the staff into Mara's stomach, knocking the wind out of her. As the tall Amazon, paralyzed with pain, fell to her knees, Gabrielle stepped away from her and gripped her staff with both hands at the end, ready to crash it across the back of Mara's neck.
The Amazon closed her eyes, fearing the worst. The bard didn't complete the blow, but Mara was well aware that she had just been spared a mighty headache.
Puffing, she rose unsteadily to her feet. "I would say you have passed the staff-fighting test," she gasped. Who would have guessed this mild-looking woman could handle a staff so well and she's FAST. Let's face it, Mara, she could have killed you if that was what she wanted.
After she had caught her breath, Mara looked at the bard with new respect. "OK," she said, "we walk."
It was mid-afternoon and Rigos and Polios had just reached the area of the landslide. "You know, Polios, I never heard of a landslide on this particular mountain, but that old crone was right, that's what the noise was, sure enough," Rigos remarked as he started climbing up along the line of piled rocks. "I almost didn't believe her when she said she heard someone yell and thought they might have got caught in it. I wonder what caused it?"
"You think it's safe to walk up here?" Polios asked. He slowly followed the more adventurous Rigos, his eyes raking back and forth across the pile as he walked along it. Suddenly, he stopped and called excitedly to his friend. "Rigos, come here. Look! This looks like a shoe sticking out here!"
Rigos scrambled back down to where Polios was standing, pointing. He looked carefully and then agreed. "It is a shoe. Let's see if there's somebody attached to it." He approached the spot where the shoe was visible and started lifting rocks from the area. After a few minutes of labor, they had uncovered a whole boot and part of a knee above it.
Rigos touched the skin near the boot. "Polios," he stated, "I think he's still alive, the skin feels warm. Let's work a little faster."
"Do you think I should go to the village for help?" asked Polios.
"No, that might take too long. I think it will be better for the two of us to uncover him first, then we can see what shape he is in. He could die under these rocks before I could uncover him by myself. He might anyway, but I think he'll have a better chance if we work together," Rigos reasoned.
The two men set to work. Some of the boulders were pretty big and had to be moved carefully so as not to put more pressure on the buried person. After a half-hour's work, they uncovered a scabbard holding a sword, then moved above it to clear the person's head. Gradually, a head appeared, along with the back attached to the scabbard.
When they saw the long, black hair on the head they were startled. "Looks like this might be a woman," Polios observed, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Yeah, and with that sword, I'd say a warrior woman," Rigos agreed.
"Might be one of those Amazons we sometimes see in these parts," Polios suggested.
"Maybe so," Rigos answered. "Let's just keep digging."
The two men worked for another couple of hours. The sun was long past its zenith but still cast enough warmth to make the digging an uncomfortable and sweaty task. They were thankful for the waterbags they had attached to their belts; an occasional swallow washed down the ever-present dust. Both men were concerned about saving the victim and constantly checked to make sure she was still alive. When one took a breather, the other continued moving the rocks.
Finally, they had Xena totally free of the rocks that had buried her. They carefully lifted her out from where she had fallen and laid her down on the rocky ground beyond the slide. "Looks like the boulders she fell between gave her some protection from the slide," Rigos noticed, "But she's got a couple nasty gashes in her arms and legs and a huge lump on her head. Can't tell what might be broken inside her."
"So what do we do with her now?" Polios asked. "She could die before we get her all the way to the village."
"How about taking her to the old crone who sent us up here? Looked like she was settled in the cave at the bottom of the mountain," Rigos answered. "That's not too far."
"Yeah, sounds as good an idea as any," Polios conceded. "Let's make a litter and pull her down there." The two scooted down to the trees and started to cut branches to make a litter. They had cut several branches when they heard a movement in the brush about 30 yards away.
Rigos looked at Polios, held his finger to his lips and motioned that he would circle around the spot the noise had come from. Polios nodded and Rigos, pulling a dagger, took off. Polios waited what seemed an eternity then an even louder noise came from the same direction and was coming toward him. Suddenly, he heard his partner's voice and he relaxed. "Hey, Polios, look what I found!"
Rigos appeared from the brush leading a large palomino mare behind him. "She must have left her horse down here," he assumed. "Now we won't have to pull the litter ourselves."
"Best news I've had all day," Polios grinned.
The two men built a litter and rigged it to Argo's saddle, then carefully guided the mare up the rock-strewn face of the mountain to where Xena lay. They shifted her to the litter and walked slowly down the mountain, leading the golden warhorse.
Soon, they reached the crone's cave and, hearing the noise of their arrival, the old woman came out to meet them. Rigos spoke up, "Mistress, you were right! There was someone caught in a landslide. We found this injured woman. If you would care for her, she would stand a better chance for survival than if we had to carry her all the way to our village. Would you have the kindness to do that?"
The old woman didn't answer at once. She walked all the way around the litter, looking at Xena, and then put her hand on Xena's forehead. "She has no fever, but looks badly injured. I make no guarantees for her life," the crone said, shaking her head.
"Look, if you'll take care of her, we'll throw in the horse," Rigos bargained resourcefully. Polios struggled to keep a straight face. Quick thinking, Rigos, he laughed to himself. That will probably persuade her and we don't want to be accused of being horse thieves.
"Very well," the woman agreed. "Carry her in and put her on the pallet in the cave," she directed. The two men did as bidden, then took their leave, satisfied that they had done their best for the landslide victim.
As soon as they had left, the old crone walked over to the pallet, gazing venomously at the unconscious woman. "Well, Warrior Princess," she smirked, rubbing her hands together in anticipation, "Your little friend has amnesia and is wandering farther and farther away from here. And I have a feeling she might soon disappear from these parts altogether." With a little help! The woman grinned malevolently. "Let's see what I can do to slow you down without actually killing you!"
I can't believe she actually was able to save that yellow-haired brat from the avalanche I started. The crone walked over to a table sitting against a stone wall of the cave. A lighted oil lamp stood on a natural shelf above the table and threw enough light to make everything in the cave visible. Other than the table, strewn with cloths, bowls, various utensils and exotic looking jars and vials, there were only a chair and the pallet that held Xena.
In one of the bowls, the old woman mixed together some of the contents of several jars and added a few drops from one of the vials. She stirred the obnoxious concoction vigorously. Tearing one of the cloths into strips, she spread the mixture on several pieces. She took the cloths over to the pallet and wrapped one around each of the large gashes in Xena's arms and legs. Then she stood back a minute to look at her handiwork. The poison in that "medicine" should put the dear Warrior Princess out of commission for weeks! She'll barely be able to function enough to feed herself, let alone go rescue her little friend. I can see her now, crawling on her hands and knees, whimpering! The vision of the proud warrior being reduced to an animal-like existence brought a smile of pure pleasure to the crone's face.
The old woman, her task finished, walked outside the cave into the darkness of early evening. With a flash of smoke and lightning, she turned back into the goddess, Discord, and disappeared.
The oil lamp had burned throughout the night and still sent some light through the cave room. Bright sunlight from a brilliant dawn reached its fingers into the opening and added more light and even a bit of warmth to the stony enclosure.
Xena stirred. By the gods, my head feels like an overripe gourd about to burst, she groaned to herself, her eyes still shut. Bright pictures of remembrance suddenly filled her head. Huge boulders bouncing inexorably down the mountain Gabrielle right in their path Xena's heart straining to speed her reflexes as she leaped to her friend's aid grabbing the bard's body and throwing her with every ounce of her strength then, nothing.
Xena's cobalt-blue eyes flew open and immediately recorded her surroundings. Seeing no one in the cave, she tried to sit up. Pain suffused her body and, as her brain threatened to black out, she quickly reclined. Lying there, she discovered that her arms and legs were badly swollen and her whole body was filled with extreme pain.
Gabrielle! Did I throw her far enough? If so, where is she? With an effort of will, Xena quieted her mind and began to take stock of the situation. Somebody rescued me and bandaged my injuries. If it had been Gabrielle, she would have gotten Argo and brought me here to take care of me. Most of our medicines are packed in Argo's saddlebags, but I don't see our saddlebags anywhere about. She could still be under those rocks!
Her heart heavy with fear for her best friend, Xena made a superhuman effort to sit up. The pain was enormous even though she raised her sweating body inch by inch. Teeth clenched tightly together, the warrior finally was sitting upright. Waves of agony battered her sensibilities and it took ten long minutes for her to exert the power to sublimate enough of her suffering to be able to function.
After a momentary pause to regularize her breathing, Xena continued her efforts until she was on her feet--not upright, but standing. Bent over, she staggered out of the cave and saw a beautiful sight that brought tears of joy to the stoic warrior's eyes. Her beloved Argo, reins dragging, was grazing off to the side of the cave entrance. She whickered as she saw her mistress and pranced over to her. Xena knew that touching the golden mare was going to cause more pain in her body but the Warrior Princess was so relieved to see her faithful warhorse that she slowly raised her arms and hugged the snuffling mare. "Oh, Argo," she groaned through the dark mist that threatened to overcome her mind, "I am so glad to see you."
Every movement Xena attempted could only be accomplished in slow motion. Otherwise, she knew, in her weakened condition, the unbearable pain eventually would knock her out. So, slowly, she took hold of Argo's reins and, slowly, she pulled herself into the saddle. Once up on Argo's back, though barely hanging on to her, Xena could see a mountaintop nearby. Supposing it was the one she and Gabrielle had been climbing, she headed Argo in its direction.
In due time, she passed beyond the tree line and arrived at the rocky slope nearly at the point of the landslide. Guiding Argo through the scattered boulders, she approached the visible line of the slide. She found the hole that she assumed she had been dug out of, urged Argo up onto the loose rock and crossed to the other side of the slide. She moved the mare up to about the point she thought Gabrielle might have landed and looked closely at the ground. It was too rocky to show any evidence that anyone had been there.
Suddenly, Xena's searching blue eyes caught a familiar stain on one of the boulders. Very slowly she lowered herself from Argo's back until she could reach down and painfully touch a finger to the stain. Grimacing, she raised the finger to her nose and smelled it. Blood! But not much. So Gabrielle didn't get caught in the landslide. And, hopefully, was not badly injured. But, where is she? Why didn't she come after me? Who did save me? Who bandaged my wounds? And how can I find Gabrielle if I can barely move without passing out?
This question made another arise in her laboring mind. What, in the name of Hades, injured me enough to cause this excruciating pain? Tentatively, she touched her stomach, and both her hand and her body recoiled in instantaneous agony. Xena struggled to recover her breath. This is not a normal reaction to injury. Something strange is going on here. Xena raised her arm to her nose and sniffed at the bandage. Suddenly, moving as fast as the pain would let her, she tore the bandages from her arms and legs. Poison! Someone has put poison on my wounds and it's been absorbed into my system.
Having to constantly fight down the extreme pain was taking its toll on the Warrior Princess. Horror tore at her already overtaxed mind as she recognized the poison. It was a mixture of compounds that pulled all the energy from the body and replaced it with non-stop, agonizing pain, which she was experiencing firsthand. It also caused swelling of the limbs which made the pain even worse. The effects normally lasted for months unless one could find the antidote. Even then, the victim was left in a weakened condition for weeks afterward.
The only natural antidote I know of grows far south of the Amazon Nation, but if I can make it to the Amazon village where Claris is, I know she has some. I've seen it there. But, even traveling night and day with few stops, it will take about three days to get to the village. And three days to get back. Wherever Gabrielle is, I hope she's not in trouble. I can't do anything for her in this condition... I need help.
Xena laboriously placed one of the poisoned bandages in a saddlebag. Then she climbed back aboard Argo and guided the mare down to the tree line and into the forest. At the first stream she came to, she slowly dismounted and bathed herself, cleaning all vestiges of the poison from her wounds and her skin. Then she took ointment and clean cloth from the saddlebags and reapplied bandages to her injuries. Analyzing the condition of her body, she saw that she probably had lost a lot of blood because her skin had paled from its usual bronze to a fairer shade. Her arms and legs were badly swollen but nothing seemed to be broken, unless something inside her had. The excruciating pain masked any internal injury she might have suffered.
Xena took the saddlebag that carried the dried food in it and hung it on the saddle horn next to the waterbag within easier reach. She took a rope from another bag and rigged it to tie herself into the saddle when she mounted Argo. Her sword and her chakram, surprisingly, had never been removed from her possession. Whoever did this expected the poison would be enough to incapacitate me. And why? What was their purpose?
Horror again shook her as a possible reason tore at her mind. Someone wants to hurt Gabrielle! The avalanche was purposely caused to hurt her. Only my intervention saved her from probable death. And now I've been laid low so I can't protect her. But why go to the trouble of rescuing me and then poisoning me--and it's not even a lethal poison! They don't want me dead. This whole thing smells of Ares.
The Warrior Princess made another tremendous effort to get past the pain and mount Argo. When she at last managed to get into the saddle, she tied herself securely with the rope she had prepared for that purpose. In the past, Xena had discovered that she could will her body into a dormant condition where she would not need food or water or nature calls for days at a time. She wanted to reach the Amazons as quickly as possible, so she willed her body into that state again. Then, leaning forward, in anguish, against Argo's neck, she whispered into the golden palomino's ear, "Take me to the Amazons." As Argo set off on the journey, Xena ceased fighting against the unspeakable pain and welcomed oblivion.
"You brought that light to my life,
And spread sunshine from above;
You led me from destructive paths
And helped me learn to love."
Gabrielle and Mara had been walking for two days. During that time, Gabrielle had drawn much of Mara's history, and that of the Amazon village she lived in, out of the bronzed woman. She found that Mara had been born into the Amazon tribe and was fiercely loyal to it.
"How far is your home from here?" Gabrielle asked.
"My village is about two more days' travel from here," the tall woman answered.
"So, what are you doing in these parts?" Gabrielle continued.
Mara frowned. "A warlord has recently been attacking villages north of our territory and we think it's just a matter of time until he gets to us. Queen Fidalia sent me and Korminy, another Amazon, to seek help from our closest sister village, which is near where we met." Mara glanced at Gabrielle and the frown gradually turned to a smile.
Gabrielle returned the smile and guessed, "And then you saw me."
"Yeah. When we were returning, we saw you wandering around and followed you for awhile. Since you seemed to be an Amazon and looked like you were lost, we couldn't just leave you. We decided that I would stay to help you and Korminy would continue on home with the answering message."
"Is the other village going to help you?" the smaller woman inquired.
Disappointment and worry flashed across the dark-haired Amazon's face. "Their warriors are away on an extended hunting expedition. Although they are willing to help us, it looks like they won't be able to get there in time to be much good."
"That's bad news. Sometimes even a few more fighters can make the difference between winning and losing," Gabrielle commented.
"Well, his army outnumbers us, but we are fierce fighters and it's our territory he's coming into, so I think we have a decent chance against him," Mara declared.
The two women trudged on for a few minutes mulling over the situation.
Gabrielle thought a change of topic was in order. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Gabrielle asked.
"I have a half-sister in the same village I live in. We have different fathers, but the same mother. In fact, she's our Queen, Fidalia," Mara answered.
"Galya, you sure do like to ask questions. Do you ever take a rest?" Mara grinned at the younger woman who had turned out to be a pleasant companion on their journey.
"Yeah, I do kinda ask a lot, don't I? I have an empty scroll and a quill in my pack. Maybe I'm a writer!" The idea struck Gabrielle as a definite possibility and she turned the idea over in her mind. " I could write about meeting you," she decided, nodding.
Just then seven men burst from among the trees on the side of the trail and ran at the women. Gabrielle turned to face the three nearest her, her staff raised and ready, as Mara drew her sword against the four coming at her.
The bard caught the man on her left with a cross hit to the jaw, knocking him over. She swung the bottom of the staff at the shins of the man on the right, causing him to stumble past her. Using the same move she had used on Mara, Gabrielle hit the third man in the pit of the stomach with the end of the staff and, as he fell to his knees, she switched her hands to the end of the staff and cracked him across the neck, rendering him unconscious.
She could hear steel ringing against steel as she turned to face the first two again. Guess Mara is holding her own. As one of the marauders came at her for the second time, she swung and hit him, hard, in the side of the head, taking him down like a felled tree. The other swung his sword down at her head. Lifting the staff rapidly, she halted the blow and blocked the offender off to the side. As his momentum carried him beyond her, Gabrielle bent low and twirled in a circle, taking his legs from under him. She finished him off with a crack across his head.
She turned at once toward the Amazon, who had dispatched one of the attackers and wounded a second. Gabrielle saw that she had been backed against two trees by the three remaining brigands and, with little room to maneuver, was in serious trouble. Gabrielle ran over quickly, tapped the closest man on the shoulder with the end of her staff and, as he turned his head, she swung a mighty blow at it, putting him out of commission. The second fighter turned her way and thrust his sword at her body. Stepping sideways, Gabrielle thumped his sword arm, hearing the crack as the bone broke. He dropped his sword and ran, following the other three who had partly revived and decided that they were not ready to be beaten up again by a small woman with a large staff. Mara had just relieved the last ruffian of his sword and he turned and ran, also, joining his fellow cowards.
"Galya, you are some kind of fighter," Mara praised. "I don't know what might have happened if you hadn't come to help me. Those three had me cornered against that tree."
"Why didn't you just flip over them?" Gabrielle asked.
Mara tilted her head and frowned questioningly at the smaller woman, then snorted as she felt she was being kidded. "Sure, next time. I'll have to remember that. But I'm not wearing my jumping boots today!" she laughed.
She noticed that Galya looked confused, rather than amused, and put it down to her amnesia. Mara shrugged, "Well, let's get moving. They might decide to come back."
Although she didn't realize it, Mara's words were prophetic. The marauders reassembled a short distance away, where they had hidden their horses, and made a plan to capture the two women. "I never saw anyone fight with a staff the way that little one did," one of the men said as he rubbed his head. "We need to use nets to catch her."
"Good idea; that's just what we'll do," their leader said. "We'll catch them with the nets and knock them out. Then we can tie them up and sell them to that slave dealers' caravan we saw this morning. They are taking slaves to sell at a market in the east and they are always glad to get a few more. Get your nets."
The man with the broken arm was having it set by one of the others. "And make sure that little one gets sold to the nastiest dealer there. She should pay for breaking my arm!"
"Yeah," the leader agreed, with a vile grin. "And I know just the one."
The men pulled out their nets and hung them from the saddle horns. They mounted their horses and rode through the trees far away from the trail but parallel to it. When they had covered several miles, they rode nearer to the trail, looking for an area thick with trees. When they found what they were looking for, they left their horses in the forest and moved quickly along, finally climbing into trees that overlooked the trail the women were traversing.
Soon, Mara and Gabrielle came into view. As they passed below the trees harboring the would-be kidnappers, the men dropped their nets onto the unsuspecting women. The men jumped down from the trees and thoroughly entangled the women in the netting. Unable to offer much resistance, Mara and Gabrielle were punched until they were unconscious.
The thugs freed them from the nets and tied their hands, stringing another rope between them to keep them together. Then they threw water in their faces to revive them and pulled them to their feet. Both women had bruised faces, and Mara's nose was bleeding. Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something and the oaf with the broken arm slammed his other forearm into her face, splitting her lip. "Shut up," he growled.
Mara gave him a dirty look and he marched up to her face. "Slaves don't speak until spoken to," he sneered. Then he laughed.
You will pay for that, you low-life, thought the Amazon. She was more worried over the treatment of her new friend than of herself. Gabrielle is one heck of a fighter, but she doesn't look all that strong. I'm gonna have to keep an eye on her. Then Mara laughed to herself. Listen to me, getting protective, like I was her mother, or something. I better start worrying about how to get out of this jam!
One of the men tied a rope to the center of the one that joined Mara and Gabrielle together. Then, following the others, he led them to the horses. He mounted a horse and tied the rope to the saddle horn. As he moved onto a side trail, the women were forced to jog behind him. The group headed down the trail for several hours until they caught sight of the slave dealers' caravan moving through the valley.
As the forced march had progressed, Mara had continually looked over at Gabrielle. She was surprised that the young woman was holding up so well. She seems to be doing all right. Maybe she's tougher than I gave her credit for. Gabrielle caught Mara's look and smiled at her. "I'm OK," she whispered. Mara smiled back and nodded encouragement. And that sweet smile! How long will that last once the slavers get hold of her?
The leader of the group had ridden ahead to the caravan and was now returning. "They'll take them both," he grinned. "And they will pay enough that we each will get a few coins from the deal." He gestured to the one who had the rope. "C'mon, let's introduce these 'ladies' to their new masters." The two rode toward the caravan, dragging Mara and Gabrielle toward a wretched and horrifying existence.
"Mara should have returned long ago." Fidalia, Queen of the Amazons, strode back and forth in front of the table she was using for her battle strategy charts. Several charts were open and held charcoal markings on them. Shalene, her weapons master, sat in a chair pulled up to the table. She was leaning her blonde head on the arm she had propped against the wooden surface, studying the charts. She looked up at the redheaded Queen, seeing a medium-tall, muscular woman with a square-jawed, powerful face. Her eyes were an odd, cinnamon-red hue that almost matched the color of her hair. The heavy sword in the scabbard strapped to her back lent weight to the menacing looks she was occasionally called upon to display.
At the moment, her face was frowning with a mixture of impatience and worry. Shalene tried to soften the worry. "Korminy said that the Amazon Mara stayed behind to help was harmless looking. They followed her for awhile and she seemed to be lost. It wouldn't do for an Amazon, and especially the Queen's sister, to leave another Amazon to fend for herself when she obviously needed assistance. Besides, Mara is one of our best warriors; she can take care of herself."
"Under ordinary circumstances, I would agree with you, but these are not ordinary times, Shalene. You know the slavers' caravans have been passing near here for the last two months and every time they are in the area, everybody is in danger. We've lost people to them in past years." Fidalia had halted her pacing for a moment and now, even more agitated, she resumed it. "That's why I've always insisted that no one travel alone and that someone always be made aware of the travelers' whereabouts. I'm going to send a group of scouts after Mara. I can feel it in my bones that something has happened to her."
"I'll send a group out, now," Shalene offered. "But they can't spend much time away from here. With probably no help in time from the next village, we'll need every warrior we have to battle this warlord." She tapped the chart in front of her. "This is not going to be easy."
"You're right about that," Fidalia agreed. She stopped pacing again and rubbed her jaw. "I'm going to put you in charge of the group, Shalene. We've already determined our weapons needs and if our warriors aren't ready to fight by now, they never will be. You can better serve by getting the group back here in plenty of time for the coming battle." Shalene rose and the Queen put her hand on her friend's shoulder. "Besides, I know if anyone can find Mara, you will. Take six women with you and leave as soon as you have everything ready."
Fidalia watched with a heavy heart as Shalene left the hut. I know Mara is a grown woman, but she's my younger sister and I not only love her, I also feel responsible for her. I wish I could shake this bad feeling I have about her. With a sigh, the Queen dragged her attention back to the charts.
The journey toward the Amazon village had to be one of the strangest in Xena's life. She never climbed down from Argo's back. Every time she would awaken it was to indescribable pain. It was a good thing her bodily processes were dormant; eating or drinking anything was out of the question. She had to fight through the curtain of blackness that seemed to constantly surround her, to make sure that Argo was still heading toward Amazonia. Once she had satisfied herself that they were still on the right path, she surrendered again to unconsciousness. Only good luck prevented the Warrior Princess from being waylaid while in such a vulnerable condition.
When the Amazon messenger had returned with word that Xena and Gabrielle were headed back toward their territory, Ephiny, the regent, had sent a group out as an honor guard to meet them and accompany the Queen back to the village. The guard was two days out from the village when scouts, sent on ahead in the treetops, saw a horse fast approaching with a rider who seemed to be unconscious. Bird calls sent messages to the honor guard. As the horse and rider came at a gallop, two Amazons dropped from the trees and the large animal halted. One of the scouts, a tall blonde with dark eyes, named Gwynna, recognized the rider. "It's Xena!" she exclaimed. She walked slowly so as not to spook the sweat-lathered mare and reached Xena's side. She saw that the warrior was tied to the saddle and apparently unconscious.
Gwynna called Xena's name several times. The Warrior Princess stirred, clawing her way up through heavy black clouds of pain. "Gwynna," she gasped, recognizing the young Amazon, "Poisoned bandage in the saddlebag."
The blonde Amazon grabbed the saddlebags from Argo's back and quickly opened them. In one she found a soiled bandage. She lifted it out and handed it to Brindis, the other scout. "Take this to Elisa, tell her to ride as fast as possible to the village and give this to Claris." Gwynna knew that her friend Elisa's horse, Viktor, like its owner, was the fastest of the bunch. "Explain that Xena's been poisoned by whatever is on this bandage and get her back here right away with an antidote, if she has one. I'll bring Xena toward the village as quickly as I can. The sooner we meet, the better."
Brindis tucked the bandage in a bag at her waist and turned to leave. "And, Brindis," Gwynna called after her, "on your way, ask Solari to send some of the guard here with a litter." Brindis climbed quickly into the trees and hurried off.
Gwynna turned back to the warrior. Xena's eyes were narrowed, her jaw set, and her nostrils flared. The top half of her body rested against Argo's neck and the only thing holding her in the saddle were the ropes she had tightened on her body. Her arms and legs were red and swollen and so much heat was coming from her that Gwynna didn't have to touch her to know that she was feverish.
"Pain?" asked Gwynna softly. One side of Xena's mouth quirked up and down and her eyes closed slowly and reopened. By the gods, I've never seen the Warrior Princess in this condition. And where is Queen Gabrielle? Gwynna voiced her thought, "Xena, where is Gabrielle?"
The warrior's eyes closed again for a longer time and the muscles of her face rippled. Her cobalt-blue eyes opened with a different kind of pain in them. "I don't know," she struggled to answer. "Need you to find her." Then Xena blacked out again.
Gwynna took hold of Argo's bridle and was leading her to meet the guard. She was about halfway there when Solari and two other scouts arrived on horseback, pulling an empty litter. Solari, the head scout, directed the Amazons as they untied Xena, lifted her down from Argo and placed her on the litter. "She looks like death warmed over," observed Solari. "Claris better get here in a hurry."
"And let's hope she has an antidote," seconded Gwynna. The young Amazon climbed aboard Argo. "How about if I go to meet Claris?" she suggested to Solari. "I can give her a rundown on Xena's condition. It might give her a head start in treating her. And Argo wants to keep moving," she grinned and patted the big palomino. Solari nodded and waved her on. That horse is just like her mistress; doesn't know how to quit, the dark Amazon shook her head and smiled grimly to herself.
The three scouts with the litter joined up with the rest of the honor guard and headed back to Amazon territory. The next day, Claris, Elisa and Gwynna met them on the trail. They dismounted and Claris, clutching a saddlebag to her, ran to the litter. Solari moved at once to her side. "Solari, camp right here for the moment. Get a fire started, and heat some water. I have to make a tea of the herbs to counteract the poison in Xena's system."
Claris examined the warrior lying on the litter. She's poisoned all right and by one of the worst. It doesn't kill you, you just wish you were dead. She laid her hand on Xena's forehead and long fingers suddenly clamped tightly around her wrist. Claris' hand was jerked away as the warrior's eyes slitted open. Seeing Claris, she released her hold. Claris, who was startled at first, smiled. "Well, whoever did this hasn't taken you away from us yet, Princess, has he?" she remarked, rubbing her wrist.
Xena's face contorted into a pain-wracked mask and Claris hurriedly said, "I've brought the antidote, Xena. I'll have it ready for you shortly." Only the Warrior Princess would still be able to grab my wrist after days of having this poison in her system. But judging by the look on her face, even she is in extreme pain.
Claris was right, the warrior was in terrible physical pain but, added to that, and even worse, was the anguish of not knowing what had happened to Gabrielle, and not being able to help her. "Leese," Xena mumbled. Claris didn't understand what she said, but Elisa did.
The tall, dark-haired young Amazon who so resembled Xena had been standing off to the side, giving Claris room to minister to her patient. She had, however, never taken her gaze from the stricken warrior's face. Xena had been Elisa's mentor and, beyond that, had called her a member of her family. Elisa's hearing had been sharpened by Xena's training and she immediately recognized her nickname when the warrior muttered it. She strode quickly to Xena's side and knelt next to the litter.
"I'm here, Xena. What do you want of me?" Elisa asked.
Xena's contorted face took on an added look of desperation as she fought to speak. "You Gwynna Find Gabrielle."
Elisa's smoke-gray eyes moistened when she saw the awful struggle the Warrior Princess was undergoing just to talk. She reached out a hand, intending to stroke Xena's arm in comfort.
"NO!" the word wasn't loud, but it exploded from Xena's mouth and arrested Elisa's movement. "Hurts," the warrior gasped in explanation.
"It hurts when someone touches you?" Elisa asked in dismay. Xena didn't answer aloud, just looked at her young friend, closed her eyes and reopened them. "By the gods, Xena, whoever did this to you will pay," the Amazon promised, her own face contorting with anger. Then her mind came back to the reason Xena had called to her. "Is Gabrielle hurt?" she asked.
Again the Warrior Princess battled to get her words out. "Don't know . Follow trail to landslide mountaintop. Gwynna track her."
Elisa repeated the directions to Xena to make sure she was hearing her right. "You want me and Gwynna to follow your trail back to a mountaintop where there was a landslide." Again Xena closed and reopened her eyes. "Was Gabrielle caught in the landslide?" asked Elisa, disturbed that her Queen might be hurt.
"No," Xena panted, "I was."
Quick-witted, Elisa was beginning to put the scenario together. "You were caught in a landslide, but Gabrielle wasn't. When you got free from the slide, Gabrielle wasn't there and you couldn't find her. So now you want me and Gwynna to find out what happened to her."
"Please." The word came out with such intense misery that it clutched Elisa's heart.
"We'll get started right away, Xena. And, don't worry, we'll find her," Elisa pledged. "When we locate her trail, we'll leave signals for you. As soon as you are well enough, you can catch up to us." This last was said out of respect for the Warrior Princess. Looking at the condition she was in, Elisa didn't really expect her to be of much help in finding Gabrielle. It's likely to be a long while before she can even sit on a horse, the youngster thought sadly.
Solari organized the honor guard and got a fire going. She poured the contents of her own waterbag into a pot that was set atop the burning wood. She was appalled at Xena's appearance and anxious to do anything she could to contribute to her recovery. Soon the water was hot and Claris came over and dropped some special herbs into it. In a few minutes, the tea was brewed and the healer poured some into a cup and took it over to Xena just as Elisa was beginning to move away from her.
"Claris," Elisa warned, "Xena says it hurts her even to be touched by anyone. Please try to be gentle with her."
"Right, Elisa, that's what this poison does to you," Claris answered. And not a peep out of the Princess when I touched her forehead, thinking she was unconscious. It's no wonder she grabbed me. Guess I'm lucky I didn't get clouted.
Claris spoke to Xena to be absolutely sure that the warrior was aware of what she was doing. "Xena, I'm going to give you the antidote, now. You have to drink it all, OK?" Claris held the cup to Xena's lips and she gulped its contents. "This won't take all the pain away, but you should get some relief. I added a sleeping potion to the mix, so you can sleep while we bring you back to the village. That will help relieve the pain from the poison and from your swollen arms and legs while you travel. I can't do anything for the weakness; that will just have to wear off in its own time."
"Thanks," Xena whispered, then closed her eyes. She was satisfied that she could let herself sleep now that she knew Elisa and Gwynna would be tracking Gabrielle. Still, her heart agonized over where her friend could be and whether she was all right. I'm coming for you, Gabrielle, as soon as I can. I'm coming
Elisa had called Gwynna to her side and the two young Amazons walked over to Solari. Elisa explained Xena's request to Solari who nodded her head in agreement. "Anything we can do that will help find the Queen, we'll do. I'll fill Ephiny in about it when we get back to the village. You and Gwynna take whatever supplies you will need and get going. I know these two are only youngsters, but if Xena believes she can depend on them, that's good enough for me.
"And Elisa," Solari continued, "make sure you do mark the trail. Even if Xena isn't able to come after you, some Amazons certainly will. I know Ephiny will send some and, hopefully, I'll be one of them. And if you run into any trouble, wait for us if you can." Solari looked meaningfully at Gwynna who grinned and answered, "Don't worry, Solari, I learned that lesson from Xena's foot, a long time ago."
"And don't you forget it," Solari grinned in return and slapped the young blonde woman on the arm.
Elisa and Gwynna collected what supplies they could find and, mounting their horses, rode back up the trail Xena had recently come down.
Claris explained to Solari that she didn't want to keep Xena sedated any longer than necessary so they needed to travel straight through the night to get to the Amazon village as soon as possible. There, Xena could at least be put on a more comfortable pallet and would not have to withstand the jostling she was getting on the litter.
Solari agreed and let the honor guard know that was what they would do. Still, slowed down by the litter, it took nearly two full days to reach the Amazon territory. The first line of scouts signaled their arrival to the perimeter guards who passed the information on to the village center.
Ephiny, the Queen's regent, met the travelers at the village entrance with some other Amazons who assisted them. Ephiny directed one of the Amazons to tend to Argo and the golden palomino was led off to the stables.
"What can you tell me, Solari?" asked Ephiny.
"Beyond what you already know, that Xena has been poisoned, not a whole lot, Ephiny," the swarthy Amazon answered. "We were three days out on the trail when the outlying scouts saw Argo coming with Xena slouched across her back. Gwynna recognized her and brought her on in to us. She was in extreme pain and so weak she had tied herself into the saddle. She told Gwynna she was poisoned, so Gwynna sent Elisa back to get Claris to bring the antidote. Claris gave it to Xena two days ago and said it should take effect right away, but she still would have pain from her swollen limbs and it wouldn't help the weakness at all."
Ephiny nodded then voiced the statement about their Queen that also had Solari troubled. "And Gabrielle wasn't with her."
Solari, frowning at such an unusual occurrence, shook her head. "No. No sign of the Queen. Xena told Elisa and Gwynna that Gabrielle had more or less disappeared after Xena got caught in a landslide. She asked Elisa and Gwynna to track her and find her, so I agreed and they went off in search of her. They are going to mark the trail for any of us who follow them."
Ephiny patted the head scout on the shoulder. "Thanks, Solari, we'll discuss following them later. First, I want to see how Xena is."
As they had talked, some of the Amazons, at Claris' direction, carefully removed Xena from the litter. They got hold of the warrior, carried her into the healer's hut, and laid her on a pallet that Claris indicated. The regent followed them into the hut. "Gods, Claris, she looks awful," Ephiny said in concern.
She was right, Xena did look awful. Her skin was pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was uncombed and her body unwashed and she had dirty bandages on her swollen arms and legs. She also, in spite of the distended limbs, had lost weight.
"Whatever wounds were under those bandages have healed but I would guess that was how the poison was administered. Elisa brought me a poisoned bandage when she came to get me," Claris explained to Ephiny.
Claris sent the other Amazons out, allowing only the regent to remain. Then Claris and her assistant, Rhea, undressed Xena, removed the soiled bandages from her swollen arms and legs, washed her body and put a clean shift on her. The warrior never stirred through the whole process so they even took the time to brush the tangles from her hair.
"The last time I treated Xena, I had to cut her leathers off of her. This time they almost fell off. She has lost a lot of weight," Claris informed Ephiny.
"Do you think she will be all right?" Ephiny inquired. She sat on the pallet next to Xena's.
"It's hard to tell anything with the Princess," Claris responded, thoughtfully. "She doesn't react to illness or injury the way most people do. But there's been a change in her body color and she's lost a lot of weight. Judging from her personal hygiene, she came to us non-stop, so she hasn't had the poison in her system for a long time. And that should work in her favor. But this is a nasty poison, Ephiny. She will be weeks, maybe even months, recovering her strength."
"At least, thank the gods, she's still alive," Ephiny murmured. She reached up and brushed some loose hair from the face of the Warrior Princess. Then her hand caressed a sunken cheek. "I wonder where our Queen is?" the regent whispered, almost as though asking the warrior. She knew that the same question had to be tormenting Xena's every conscious moment.
Claris was a little startled to see that Ephiny obviously cared about Xena. I don't think I'd feel that tender toward someone who had broken MY arm, went through the healer's mind. Oh, well, maybe she and Gabrielle see something in Xena that the rest of us can't see. The healer pondered on that for a few moments. That's not exactly right. Eponin and Solari are always sticking up for Xena and so are Elisa and Gwynna. Maybe the Warrior Princess is starting to loosen up a little and actually making some friends here. Though I don't know if I'd want a friend I was scared of half the time.
Xena started to moan and both Claris and Ephiny became alert. Ephiny laid a hand on Xena's arm and the warrior's blue eyes popped wide open and she bellowed, "DON'T TOUCH ME!" Ephiny removed her hand with a jerk as though she had been burned.
Xena's face was contorted and her lips pulled back into a snarl. She was fighting valiantly for control of the horrible pain that had taken what seemed like permanent abode in her ravaged body. To Ephiny, she looked like the ex-warlord she was, with murder in her heart. Ephiny was fighting to control her trembling but she was not backing down. Claris and Rhea had shrunk away from the other two women.
"Claris!" Xena yelled.
Claris, trembling a little herself, stepped forward, "I'm here, Xena," she answered.
"I think I need more of the antidote," the warrior gasped with tears running down her face.
"By the gods, Xena." Claris was agitated. "I'm terribly sorry. I wasn't sure of the dose, but it must not have been enough. The sleeping potion masked that fact." She hurriedly prepared more antidote as she spoke, mixing the herbs into a pot of water hanging in the fireplace. "The two people I've known who had been poisoned with that concoction couldn't even move without screaming for hours."
"Well if I don't get more antidote soon you'll know a third one."
Claris' eyes started to fill with tears, a reaction that completely surprised her. I thought I was pretty hardened to pain by now, but here is a woman who has been in terrible torment for days and she's joking about it! Maybe she'll never be a close friend, but she sure has earned my respect for courage.
Quickly brushing the tears from her eyes, Claris dipped a cup into the pot and, turning back to her patient, carefully poured the liquid into the mouth of the Warrior Princess. Xena gulped it down, closed her eyes and soon, for the first time in a week, began to feel some relief from pain and agony. She started to relax, then her mind turned at once to the mystery of Gabrielle's disappearance and anxiety tightened her muscles again.
Ephiny saw the radical return of Xena's tension. "What's wrong?" asked Ephiny, alarmed.
"It's Gabrielle. I've lost her," Xena responded as a tear trickled onto her cheek.
"Solari explained everything to me. We'll find her, Xena." Ephiny reached again toward Xena's arm and this time the warrior allowed the regent to touch her. Xena watched her hand approach and raised an eyebrow in surprise that she felt no pain from the contact. Although her arms and legs still hurt from the swelling, her body felt like one big bruise, and her head ached, most of the excruciating pain was gone.
"I'm going to send scouts to follow Elisa and Gwynna. You know Gwynna is our best tracker and if anyone can locate Gabrielle, she can," Ephiny explained to Xena. "In the meantime, you need to rest and recuperate so you can get back on the trail, too." Ephiny neglected to tell Xena that Claris thought it would be several weeks before the Warrior Princess was strong enough to travel, and even longer before she could wield her heavy sword.
"When are the scouts leaving?" Xena inquired.
"I'll have Eponin and Solari pick twelve to go with them and they will leave first thing tomorrow morning," Ephiny answered.
"Do you think you could get someone to clean my leathers and armor for me before tomorrow morning?" Xena wiped the tear from her cheek and swept her intense blue eyes to Ephiny.
The regent, disturbed by the power of those eyes to fluster her, glanced down. "Xena, you can't go with them. You need to get your strength back, first. What good can you do Gabrielle in your weakened condition?" Xena just kept looking at Ephiny who shook the warrior's arm. "You can't be seriously thinking of going with them." Then she met the gaze of those electric eyes and her own faltered. "You are serious."
A slight smile turned up one corner of the Warrior Princess' mouth. She always knew exactly the effect she had on Ephiny at close range and this time she took advantage of it. "Well, what do you say, Eph? Do I wear them dirty or do I wear them clean?"
The regent stood up. Knowing that Xena was aware of her discomfort only made it worse. "I'll have them cleaned for you but if you can get dressed, walk out of here under your own power and climb onto Argo, I will kiss your boot!" Ephiny turned and hurried out.
Claris looked down at the Warrior Princess. She was lying there with her eyes closed and a small grin on her face. She opened her eyes and saw Claris watching her. The grin got even bigger. "Tell Ephiny she better get my boots cleaned, too." The two women laughed together with Xena grabbing her stomach to hold down the pain.
I'll be very surprised, Princess, if you can even get out of bed on your own tomorrow morning, thought Claris, as she laughed with the warrior. I think Ephiny will win this round.
Gabrielle and Mara had been untied, dragged into a tent and forced onto their knees in front of an evil looking man. "Here you are, Kirtis, two just like I promised." Kirtis handed him some coins in payment for the two women.
The leader of the kidnappers was leering at Gabrielle and grabbed her arm. "Though maybe I should have kept this one a while longer," he smirked. Gabrielle jerked away from him with such force that she pulled him over into the dirt.
The man jumped up in a rage and kicked her in the stomach, doubling her over. Mara rolled over onto her side and swung her legs at him, knocking him down once again. The man got up, snarling. "These two need a little softening up, don't you think?" He kicked Mara under the chin, dazing her.
Kirtis snickered and handed him a whip. "Be my guest, Merdios," he offered. "Just don't maim them. I don't get paid for them if they can't work."
Merdios backed away from Gabrielle and snapped the whip so it cracked against her exposed skin. The bard would have screamed if she could have, but the kick had knocked the wind out of her. Enraged further that she had not yelled, Merdios hit her again, leaving a second welt across her back, both of them oozing blood.
He raised the whip again. Mara had shaken off her stupor. As the whip descended the third time, she threw herself across Gabrielle, taking the blow on her own back. Now Merdios was in a frenzy. He raised the whip over and over beating Mara until Kirtis made him stop, fearing that he would injure the woman beyond use.
"Take your money and get out of here, Merdios. And you better hope that big Amazon never catches up to you. She looked at you with eyes of death just before she covered up the little one."
"Bah," Merdios jeered. "I'm not afraid of her or any other woman." He spat toward the women and left.
Gabrielle had rolled Mara off of her and was trying to tend to the severe cuts on her back. "Can't you get me something for her?" she asked Kirtis. "By the gods, have some mercy."
Kirtis walked over to a table and threw a bag at Gabrielle. "Put some salt in the cuts. That makes them heal faster," he sneered.
Gabrielle knew that he spoke the truth but she also knew it was a very painful solution. Since Mara was unconscious, the bard rubbed her wounds with the salt, hoping it would do her some good and wear off before she revived. But she didn't put any in her own stripes, knowing it would be too painful. Two guards were called in and told to put the two women with the other prisoners. They were taken and thrown into a large, temporary corral. The enclosure was patrolled through the night by men with whips and quirts, in addition to their swords.
Gabrielle sat on the ground and held Mara, trying to keep her oozing wounds from touching the dirt. By morning, the Amazon was conscious and in pain, but she was able to stand with Gabrielle's help.
The enclosure was taken down and the prisoners were chained together and set to walking as the caravan moved on. Gabrielle was in pain, too, from the two strikes she had taken on her bare skin, but she tried not to think of it. She knew Mara had to be suffering a lot worse than she was.
"Mara," Gabrielle said, "thank you for helping me. I'm really sorry you took such a beating."
"Don't worry about it," Mara answered softly. "He would have beaten me anyway; I could see it in his face. But he really made me mad when he hit you. I couldn't just lie there and watch it." The tall Amazon leaned heavily on the smaller woman as they walked, but she needed the help. The beating had robbed her of some of her strength and left her in pain. "Sorry about having to lean on you. I know I'm heavy for you."
"Oh, Mara, don't worry about it. I'm glad I can help you," the bard said with sorrowful eyes.
Mara's voice got nasty for a moment. "I'm gonna remember that name, Merdios, and when we get out of here, I'll make him pay."
"But how are we going to get out of here?" Gabrielle asked.
"Remember, my sister is the Queen of our tribe of Amazons. She knows I am missing and will send help, I'm sure of it."
"That's wonderful news!" For the first time since being captured, Gabrielle started to feel some hope. "But then you always seem to find a solution for the trouble we get into. It's one of your many skills," she said as she smiled.
Mara looked down at her new friend and wondered what had put that idea in her head. She must be getting me mixed up with someone she used to know. Mara shrugged mentally and answered, "Not a bad skill to have, in this situation."
The two women plodded on with the other prisoners, each mulling over the possibility of rescue.
The next morning, the top rim of the sun's saucer edged over the horizon and dispersed the last clinging vapors of the night's mist. A young Amazon quietly stole into the healer's hut and placed Xena's leathers, boots and pieces of armor next to her pallet. Next to them she laid the warrior's sheathed sword and chakram. She tiptoed out just as Xena's eyes opened to greet the dawn.
The Warrior Princess lay still for a few moments of meditation, taking inventory of the aches and pains in her body. As each one entered her mind, she exerted a powerful command to her body to ignore it. When she was finished, she attempted to sit up, but her first try was unsuccessful. The effects of being buried under a landslide plus being poisoned had left her not only full of pain, but also weak and shaky. I've had a lot of pain before, but I don't know when I've ever been this weak. C'mon, Xena, you can't find Gabrielle lying here on your back. Pull yourself together and MOVE!
The warrior summoned strength from reserves she had feared might be depleted. She thrust herself upwards as hard as she could and her upper body came up, twisted, and fell toward the floor, pulling the rest of her body with it. The pain hit her, hard, but her earlier meditations kept it from overwhelming her. Xena lay there sucking great gulps of air into her lungs.
The thud of Xena hitting the floor jerked Claris awake and she jumped off of her pallet. She ran to Xena's side and reached down to help her. "No, Claris, I have to do this myself," Xena mumbled. "If you want to help, send someone to saddle Argo for me. Tell them to put her reins across the saddle and leave her standing outside the stable gate." Although she thought it was a wasted effort, Claris woke her assistant, Rhea, and sent her to take care of Xena's instructions concerning Argo.
Xena reached for her leathers and slowly managed to get the shift off and the leathers on, still lying on the floor. Claris, returning to watch her, shook her head. "Give up, why don't you, Princess? You'll never make it."
Xena's jaw was clamped and she gritted her teeth, but a ghost of a smile still managed to steal across her lips. "Just keep telling me that, Claris," she growled. "It gets my juices going."
The warrior struggled to sit up and pull on her boots, then, lastly, loaded on her armor. She laid her scabbard and chakram on the pallet and, with painful effort, raised herself from the floor onto its edge. She sat there for a short rest. The perspiration that had first started as beads of sweat across her upper lip and along her hairline had now escalated to rivulets running down her face and body. Claris approached her with a long cloth and Xena welcomed the toweling off of her body. "You're a good person, Claris," she declared.
"So are you, Princess no matter what they say," Claris grinned.
Xena laughed out loud, a little surprised that the healer had been brave enough to poke fun at her reputation. "Be careful, Claris, I won't be this weak forever," she mock-threatened.
Claris, now looking a bit uncomfortable about her own audacity, grabbed a waterbag and offered it to the warrior. Xena accepted it gratefully and swallowed its entire contents. Seeing that the healer was having second thoughts about teasing her, Xena relented. "I'm only kidding, Claris. Relax. You gave me a good laugh." Visible relief swept across Claris' face.
The Warrior Princess strapped the scabbard to her back and hooked the chakram to her belt. Just being clothed in her usual gear gave her a small sense of accomplishment. "Do you think you could find me an extra Amazon staff around here someplace?" she asked the healer. Claris brought one to her and the warrior walked her hands up the staff, pulling her body upright.
Again, Xena closed her eyes and meditated, willing the pain to be subdued. If only I could will this weakness away! Shuffling her feet, she slowly labored her way across the hut and out onto the porch.
The sun's face was half-visible, peeking across the tops of the trees. The resplendent colors of dawn were fading away, gradually revealing the azure mantle hidden behind them. In the stable yard, the Amazon party was preparing their horses for the journey they were about to undertake. Xena could see Ephiny standing in one corner of the yard, talking and gesturing to Eponin. Outside of the stable gate stood Argo, saddled and ready.
Xena raised two fingers to her lips and let out a piercing whistle. All the Amazons turned in her direction and stared in disbelief. Ephiny's face was a study in expressions: surprise, incredulity, wonderment, respect and admiration all passed across her countenance as she watched Argo gallop to her mistress then saw the mistress struggle from the porch onto the big palomino.
The final expression on Ephiny's face brought a smile to Xena's face even through her pain. Ephiny's lips had pursed and twisted up in chagrin. The dark-haired warrior, unobtrusively hanging on tightly to the saddle horn, guided Argo into a prance as they approached the regent. Xena brought Argo right in front of her and halted. "Ephiny," the warrior grinned down at her.
By this time, all the Amazons in the stable yard had heard of Ephiny's challenge and were trying to suppress their own grins. The regent shook her head, gave a snorting laugh and, leaning forward, kissed Xena's boot. The Amazons whistled and clapped their hands and, when they saw Ephiny laugh, they laughed, too. "After all the things I've seen you recover from, Xena, I should have known better," the regent admitted, making a show of wiping off her mouth.
Xena reached down with her arm for a warrior handshake and as Ephiny took it, the Warrior Princess pulled her closer and whispered, "I am recovering to find Gabrielle. And I will, I promise."
Sudden moisture appeared in the regent's eyes as she witnessed the depth of Xena's devotion to their Queen. All this agony she is putting herself through has been for Gabrielle. I wish I had such a friend. She reached up her free hand and touched the warrior's cheek. "I count on that, Xena. Take care."
The Amazons said their goodbyes and the party rode off. When they were out of sight of the village, Xena steered Argo to the front of the column next to Eponin, who was leading them. "Pony, will you stop a minute?" she called in lowered tones.
Eponin raised her hand to stop the group then asked quietly, "What is it, Princess?"
"Do you think you could ride double behind me? If not, I'm going to fall off and I don't think that will look too good to the younger Amazons," Xena half-whispered with a wry quirk of her mouth.
For the first time, Eponin looked closely at the warrior. By the gods, she does look awful and she must be in really bad shape if she's asking for help. Eponin climbed down off her horse and picked up one of its hooves. She examined it as though finding something wrong then announced, "Looks like a bad stone bruise. How about if I ride with you for awhile, Princess, until it's cleared up?"
"Sure, Pony, no problem," Xena answered and Eponin climbed up behind her. "Hold on tight," Xena warned, although she was actually directing Eponin. One of the other Amazons took the reins of Eponin's horse and led it behind her.
The weapons master could feel Xena's body shaking and needed no prompting. She clasped her arms around the warrior and pulled her toward her, whispering in her ear, "Lean back against me and relax; I'll hold you up." Xena sank back gratefully against the weapons master's solid body, knowing that she, of all the Amazons in the group, was the only one strong enough to support the tall warrior's greater weight.
Nothing much slipped past Solari and she saw that Xena needed Eponin's help to stay on her horse. She determined that she would do everything possible to make the journey easier for the Warrior Princess. When it was nearing time to make camp, Solari pulled her horse up next to Argo. She addressed her friend, the weapons master. "Pony, how about if I take several of the group on ahead and set up camp, build a fire, fix some food? With you and Xena riding double, you can take your time getting there, give Argo a break?"
"Good idea, Solari," Eponin agreed.
"I'll get your bedroll, too, from your horse. Hand me over Xena's and we can have everything set up." Solari grinned and nodded at the warrior as she took the bedroll from Eponin.
Xena winked at the head scout and softly said, "Thanks, Solari. I appreciate the help."
"Anytime, Xena, you know that," Solari pledged.
True to her word, Solari had all the camp chores taken care of when Xena and Eponin arrived, and a steaming rabbit stew was ready to eat. The head scout had even had the foresight to pull a log against a large tree for the Warrior Princess to sit on and have some support for her back. Eponin guided Argo over behind the tree, turned the horse to screen her dismount then reached up to help Xena as the warrior half slid, half fell from the saddle. It was all Eponin could do to keep the two of them from falling onto the ground. Being a head shorter than the tall warrior added to her difficulty.
"Hades' horsecakes, Xena, how much do you weigh?" Eponin gasped.
"It must be the armor, Pony," the warrior whispered, one corner of her mouth turning up. She grabbed onto the weapons master to keep her balance.
"Right!" snorted Eponin. I know she has to be in pain. How can she stand it? Eponin turned Xena and helped her to a seat on the log. Solari had walked up to the side of the tree, helping to shield the dismount from the others. The weapons master looked up and saw Solari trying to suppress a huge grin.
"All right, Solari," Eponin hissed. "Next time, YOU help Xena dismount!" Then Eponin saw the humor of the situation and grinned, too. "On second thought, next time, how about we let the armor dismount first?"
All three of the women chuckled. "You did a good job, Pony," Xena approved.
Mollified, Eponin offered to get the warrior a bowl of stew. She and Solari returned with the stew, some bread, and several mugs of wine and the three women ate in comfortable silence. Because of the pain she still experienced, Xena didn't have much appetite. But she realized that, to search for Gabrielle, she had to build up her strength, so she finished every bite.
Solari had laid out Xena's bedroll right next to the log, so she hadn't far to move, other than for personal needs. Because of her weakened condition, Xena climbed into her bedroll shortly after eating, pulled the top fur up to her chin and promptly fell asleep. Her last thought was for her friend. "I'm coming, Gabrielle "
Eponin and Solari moved closer to the campfire and joined the other Amazons. The current topic of conversation was the Warrior Princess and the episode at the stable. Several of the Amazons were laughing that the regent got caught out in her challenge to Xena, but a couple of them weren't too happy about it.
"I wouldn't have kissed her boot for anything, and I don't think it's right that Ephiny did," Terresta argued. The Amazon was sturdy and strong looking, her brown hair framing a long, blunt-featured face. "After all, she's our regent and who the heck is Xena except a friend of the Queen's? She used to be a warlord, by Tartarus. She had no right to humiliate Ephiny that way."
"She didn't humiliate Ephiny, Terresta. Ephiny was the one who challenged her and set the stakes. Ephiny lost and paid up. It's as simple as that," Solari offered.
"I don't like the idea of the regent kissing the boot of a murdering warlord, either," said Renta. Medium sized and fair-haired, Renta was one of the better archers. "Why do you all stick up for her? You talk like she's a friend, but everyone in the village is afraid of her." She looked at each of the women sitting around the fire, seeing by the reluctant nods that she was right. Then she turned to Solari, "Aren't you?"
"I think we're all afraid of what she might do if she gets out of her mind with rage, yes. But I know she holds a pretty tight rein on her emotions and I count on her not to turn that anger on her friends. I think she's learned not to do that," Solari answered. "You can't judge her now by what she used to be. By the gods, the woman is in extreme pain and still she's here with us searching for Gabrielle. That takes guts."
Most of the Amazons agreed. They had seen at the stable what kind of pain the warrior was undergoing and knew she was pushing it aside in her determination to find their Queen.
Eponin stepped forward out of the shadows. "Two things I know for sure. One, Xena would lay down her life for Gabrielle. And, two, in any battle, I'd rather have the Warrior Princess on our side than on the other side. And she has fought for us, several times. A couple of those times, she was the difference between winning and losing."
The weapons master looked hard at Terresta and Renta. "And, for those of you who may not be aware of it, Ephiny's son is named Xenon because Xena saved his life, and Ephiny's, too. So, you may be upset that Ephiny kissed Xena's boot, but Ephiny wasn't. She'd do almost anything Xena asked her to." Eponin took a deep breath. "And so would I."
Solari nodded her head. "And me, too. And, so would Gabrielle."
"Right," Eponin agreed. "Now, let's all get to sleep so we can get an early start on finding our Queen."
The Amazon party followed the signs that Elisa and Gwynna had left along the trail. At each camping stop, Xena and Eponin dismounted from Argo and remounted in a way that allowed Eponin to continue to secretly help the weakened warrior. And each morning for the next two days, Eponin made a show of looking at her horse's hoof and pronouncing it still bruised. By the third morning, Xena had regained enough strength to sit on Argo by herself and mount and dismount without assistance.
In a moment alone, the warrior clapped Eponin on the back. "Thanks, Pony. I won't forget how you helped me."
The weapons master's face reddened. "No problem, Princess. I just hope I never have to do it again. Er... I mean..."
"I know what you mean, Pony, and I hope not, too," Xena smiled. "I just hope I get stronger in time to do Gabrielle some good, if need be."
Eponin's countenance darkened. "Yeah, well, me too, but let's hope that 'need be' doesn't happen."
"My world was dim and cheerless
Up until the day we met;
I am reminded every time
The sun begins to set."
Shalene's party of Amazons had come upon the scene of the first attack on Mara and Gabrielle and read that two women were involved. When one of the party found a small beaded bag that belonged to Mara, Shalene knew they were on the right track. They found the second area of attack and followed the trail farther north, finding that the trail ended where it joined the caravan.
"Slavers!" Shalene spit out. "They've been sold to slavers."
One of the Amazons pointed out that another set of prints seemed to have followed the kidnappers. "Two people on horseback," the woman said. "Then they split up. One is following down the valley behind the caravan and the other headed south."
"Well, we don't know who that might be. All I know is we have about two days to find Mara and get started back. That warlord isn't going to wait for us. We have to get back to the village before he attacks." The weapons master was determined that she would not return without the Queen's sister. "Let's get moving, FAST."
The group galloped after the caravan. They rode for several hours until they could see the line of horses, camels and various wagons ahead of them. The Amazons rode into the forest and got ahead of the caravan's progress. Scouts crept to the edge of the trees, choosing a site that allowed them to get a close look at the procession. One section was comprised of a large group of people under guard who obviously were prisoners. Their wrists were chained together and the guards carried whips and swords.
One sharp-eyed scout found Mara in the crowd. She seemed to be leaning against a smaller woman with golden hair who was helping her to walk. The tall, dark-haired Amazon was limping and in pain.
Xena announced, "Leese is coming like the wind, on Viktor." Sure enough, a minute later, Elisa came barreling down the trail and slowed Viktor to a trot when she recognized the other Amazons. She broke into a wide smile when she saw the Warrior Princess was with them. Eponin called a halt.
The young Amazon pulled up between Xena and Eponin who were riding next to each other. Solari moved her horse up to within earshot. With her smoke-gray eyes bouncing from one to the other, Elisa explained. "Gwynna found Gabrielle's trail. It looks like she joined up with another woman and they were attacked. They must have fought them off but further down the trail they were attacked again, this time with nets. They were led off on foot, with the kidnappers on horseback. Then two of the horsemen led them to a caravan, and the horsemen rode back without them. We think they were sold or given to someone in the caravan. Gwynna's following the caravan, now. We found Gabrielle's staff and bag. I have them with me," Elisa said, patting the staff she had tied to her horse. The young Amazon finished her tale then looked closely at Xena, her mentor and friend.
Xena's face had gone chalk white. "Slavers," she groaned. "She's been sold to slavers. This time of year a slave dealers' caravan passes through to the north of here. My army used to sell some of our captives to them." Her haunted look came partly from remembering what she had been like in those days and partly from imagining what could be happening to her bard.
She handed the youngster a waterbag. "How long have you been riding, Leese?"
"Two days," Elisa answered. She tipped the waterbag up and drank half of it. Solari handed her a couple of biscuits, which she gratefully ate.
"Caravans, by their nature, move slowly. You came back down the trail you went up, but we can cut across country and meet it sooner, maybe by tomorrow afternoon, if we hurry."
The warrior looked at Eponin's fiercely frowning face. The weapons master was nominally in charge of the scouting party and Xena deferred to her to give the order. "Let's move out," Eponin shouted and they galloped away with Eponin and Xena in the lead, followed by Elisa and Solari, then the others.
Gwynna sat in the top of a tall tree overlooking the valley that the slavers' caravan was moving through. Earlier, she had spied Gabrielle in the crowd of prisoners in the middle of the caravan. Another, taller woman had been leaning against the Queen, who was helping her to walk. She was dressed like she was an Amazon, too, but Gwynna didn't know her.
Then, Gwynna had moved well ahead of the caravan into the tree, waiting for the other Amazons to join her. She had been watching for about an hour from her vantagepoint when she heard movement coming toward her. Peering through the leaves, she could make out the leathers and feathers of the Amazons. She scrambled down the tree, dropping the last 20 feet to the ground.
She had landed right in front of two horses bearing women she did not recognize. Well, they're Amazons, but I sure as Hades don't know them! The women drew their swords. "Who are you?" demanded one of them. Gwynna raised her clasped hands in the Amazon peace sign and made no attempt to draw a weapon. "My name is Gwynna. I'm an Amazon."
Shalene looked her up and down. "And what are you doing here?"
"I think a friend of mine has been kidnapped by the slavers. I was trying to catch sight of her," Gwynna answered, lowering her arms. She wasn't sure whether these were renegade Amazons and felt it best not to mention that Gabrielle was the Queen.
Shalene sheathed her sword and motioned to the other Amazon to put hers away. "One of our people has been kidnapped, also. We saw the tracks back on the trail," the weapons master waved her hand behind her, "where she and another woman had been captured with nets."
"That was my friend," Gwynna nodded. "I saw the tracks, too. Are you from a nearby tribe?"
"Our village is a couple days away from here. We saw tracks of two other people following them. You had another person with you," Shalene pointed out. "Where is she?"
"She's gone to get help," Gwynna stated. I might as well tell her about the others. They might be showing up here at any minute. "There's a band of Amazons from my tribe on their way here to rescue our friend. They should be here soon. Maybe we can join forces and save both of the women."
Shalene gazed at the young Amazon thoughtfully. We sure could use the help. The more hands we have, the better our chance of success. "Where's your horse?"
"A little ways farther into the forest." Gwynna pointed in the general direction.
"Well, suppose you get your horse and ride after your group of Amazons." Shalene looked up toward the sky. "We can wait only a couple hours. If you haven't shown up by then, we'll go ahead with our attempt to rescue our friend. But I can't promise we can get yours, too. We'll try."
"I'll be back," Gwynna pledged and took off running through the trees. She vaulted aboard her black mount, Nightmare, and galloped to the trail, then back down it. With a sigh of relief, she soon came upon Xena and the others.
"Xena, Eponin," she called. "There's another group of Amazons bent on rescuing the woman who was with Gabrielle. I suggested we join forces and rescue both of them. They're just up the trail, waiting for you. Said they would wait two hours."
Xena's face lit up and some of her pain softened. "Did you see Gabrielle?" she demanded.
"Yes, I did, Xena. She's chained next to the other Amazon and she's helping her to walk. They both have whip stripes on their backs." Gwynna heard Elisa suck in her breath and saw Xena's face twist into an ugly mask. I don't want to be the one who did that when Xena catches up to him. Though he deserves whatever she might do to him.
"What do you think, Xena, should we join them?" Eponin asked the warrior's opinion.
"I think so, Pony. We'll stand a better chance with more fighters," Xena answered. "But if we're banking on making it to them in time, we better get moving faster." Xena looked away for a moment then turned back toward her listeners. "You might want to keep my name as quiet as possible. I did a lot of terrible things in this area in the past and people have long memories." She saw each one nod her head in understanding.
"And one more thing," Xena added. She pulled her sword from its scabbard, hefted it, slowly swung it a few times and put it back. Sweat beaded on her upper lip. "I think I better fight with a staff."
With a shock, the other women realized that Xena was either too weak or in too much pain to wield her heavy sword. That knowledge, more than anything else, told them what effort the Warrior Princess was making in pursuit of her friend, their Queen. Elisa untied Gabrielle's staff that she had found and handed it to Xena.
Xena pulled the staff close to her body and closed her eyes. I'm coming, Gabrielle. She opened her eyes to see Elisa looking at her with a soft smile. She flicked a smile back and in her low, throaty voice murmured, "Thank you, Leese."
"All right, everyone, listen up," Eponin called. "We'll soon be joining another band of Amazons from another tribe. One of their people is in the same caravan as Gabrielle, chained to her side. We're going to rescue both of them. So, let's go."
The band rode swiftly ahead and soon came upon the second group of Amazons. They all dismounted and Gwynna moved forward, taking Eponin to meet Shalene.
Shalene had been watching their advance and, though she didn't show it, she was a little surprised when Gwynna brought Eponin forward. The woman in the armor looks like the commander. Wonder why she is sending the other to meet me? And seventeen Amazons in a search party? Who is this "friend" they're looking for? I'd guess somebody important.
"My name is Eponin. I'm the weapons master of our village." Eponin reached her arm out for the warrior handshake.
Shalene took her arm saying, "Welcome. I, too, am the weapons master for my village. I'm called Shalene. Are you the one in charge?" Eponin saw Shalene's eyes flit to Xena and back.
"Yes, I'm in charge of the Amazons," Eponin answered. And this Shalene is no dummy.
"Very well," Shalene said. "We've been watching the caravan for awhile, now. They have just stopped for their meal and I think this is a good time to attack. Most of the caravan guards are dismounted. They'll be sitting ducks for our archers. Once they are taken out, I don't expect a whole lot of resistance. Whatever comes can be taken care of by both groups. Send some of your women to beef up my group and we will attack from above the prisoners and you attack from below. That will give us a clear space to send people to get Mara and your friend. They will release some of the other prisoners as a diversion, and get right out again. Sound good to you?"
"Sounds like a solid plan. I'll send some of my group to join yours and several to help with the release. What will you do after the rescue?" Eponin queried.
"There's a place about half hour's ride up the trail from here, where two rivers meet," Shalene explained. "Seems like an ideal spot to stop and tend to the wounds both women have and any the rest of us get in the fighting. The caravan leaders will be too busy rounding up the other prisoners to waste time chasing after us. The archers are getting into place now. Can you be ready to go as soon as they start shooting?"
"We'll be ready," Eponin promised. She turned and walked swiftly back to her group. Shalene noticed that she spoke first to the tall warrior in the armor who said something back to her. Then, when the warrior nodded, Eponin spoke to the rest.
All the Amazons mounted their horses. Xena, Elisa, and Gwynna joined the Amazons who were designated to release the prisoners and Eponin and Solari led the rest.
Arrows arched through the air signaling the start of the skirmish. The guards who weren't skewered at once broke and ran toward the caravan to defend it. The two Amazon forces made their advance just as planned. They engaged the caravan guards and other defenders who heard the noise of battle and came running.
While the two main groups of women battled on, the rescuing group headed for the prisoners. Elisa and Gwynna rode on either side of the Warrior Princess. Quickly getting ahead of the other three Amazons, they swept up to those guarding the prisoners. Xena, forgetting her weakness in the zeal for battle, jumped from Argo and fell to her knees. She raised Gabrielle's staff just in time to block a sword descending toward her head.
Elisa, startled by Xena's obvious unsteadiness, flipped from Viktor and landed next to her idol. Without a second's hesitation, she swung her sword at the neck of the guard who was attacking the Warrior Princess. His blood showered the warrior as he fell next to her. Xena struggled upright, using the staff for support. The sweat from her pores mingled with the enemy's blood, washing it off of her. She grasped the end of the staff and swung it at another guard who ran at them from behind, taking him right off of his feet.
Xena sank the point of the staff into the stomach of a third man. When he doubled over, she planted the staff on the ground for balance and kicked him under the chin, flipping him six feet away on his back.
Elisa rapidly pulled a dagger from one of her back scabbards and threw it, hitting a man who was charging with sword raised to impale her. Gwynna, still mounted, accounted for two of the guards by cracking their heads with the staff she held in one hand like a hammer. The three trailing Amazons circled the last two guards who threw down their swords in surrender. The women tied the men together and left them lying on the ground.
The evident weakness of the Warrior Princess had surprised Elisa. She's always been so strong, protecting everyone else. Now she needs help and I will see that she gets it. I will stick to her like a burr.
Elisa grabbed Argo's reins and pulled the mare to Xena. "Let's get Gabrielle," she urged. Holding her hands together for a panting Xena to step into, she thrust the grateful Warrior Princess up into Argo's saddle, then vaulted onto Viktor.
Mara had straightened as much as possible when she saw the attacking force and pulled on Gabrielle's arm. "Amazons! Amazons are coming!" She was excited about their imminent release but puzzled that she didn't recognize the women who were thundering toward the guards, two on matching palominos and one on a black mare. She did see three familiar faces following behind them.
Mara and Gabrielle watched, fascinated, as the unfamiliar Amazons battled the guards. Both women gasped as they saw the dark-haired woman in armor stumble and fall to her knees. They watched as another dark-haired Amazon came to her assistance. It looked to them as though the first woman was laboring just to get to her feet. But she did manage to account for two guards while the rest of the Amazons finished the others. At last, the two dark-haired ones remounted and all three rode toward them.
Xena pulled Argo to a halt right in front of them. She slid off the big mare and staggered, almost falling again. "Gabrielle, I told you I was coming," she said and ran to the smaller woman. Her face grimaced in pain as she pulled a great sword from the scabbard on her back. With a mighty blow, she sliced through the chains holding the two women.
Elisa and Gwynna had dismounted and were cutting the chains off some of the other prisoners with their swords. When the other three Amazons came to assist them, Elisa noticed that something was going on where Xena and Gabrielle were. A change in the warrior's stance didn't look right to the vigilant youngster. Elisa hurried toward the Warrior Princess, as her self-appointed guardian.
Xena's look of pain changed to joy as her cobalt-blue eyes met the mist-green eyes of her friend. She pulled the golden-haired woman into an embrace, forgetting the whip marks on her back. Gabrielle's body stiffened and her expression became frightened as she pushed the startled warrior away. "No. Keep away from me!"
"Wha .what's wrong?" Xena stammered, reaching out again.
Gabrielle backed away, staring confusedly at the woman in front of her. Suddenly in a panic, Gabrielle ducked behind Mara, peeking around her. The Amazon examined the rebuffed warrior woman whose brilliant blue eyes were narrowed with pain and whose face was a study in hurt bewilderment. Elisa had moved up beside Xena and was as startled by Gabrielle's reaction as the Warrior Princess was.
"She doesn't know you," Mara informed her. "She's lost her memory."
"What do you mean she doesn't know me? Gabrielle, what's going on? What's wrong?" Xena repeated, trying hard to get her emotions back under control. That's why she didn't try to rescue me from the landslide. She must have hit her head and that made her forget. While Xena's mind accepted these facts, it fought against accepting the more agonizing one of Gabrielle's forgetting her.
"She doesn't remember much of anything from her past," the Amazon declared. "She was wandering around the forest when I found her. I was taking her back to my village when we got kidnapped. All she can remember is the last few days we have traveled together. It's only been a short time but we've become good friends. My name is Mara."
Xena couldn't take her eyes off of her beloved bard. For days she had waged an exhausting battle against constant pain and debilitating weakness. Being reunited with Gabrielle was the one thought that had kept her going. Now she finally had found her and Gabrielle didn't even know her. Xena was devastated.
"We were caught in a landslide, remember? I threw you clear but you must have hit your head and it's confused you. We've been travelling together for four years. We're best friends," the warrior pleaded. "You can't have just 'forgotten' all that. Don't I even look familiar to you?"
Although the fear had left Gabrielle's eyes, the baffled look that replaced it tore Xena's heart. Gabrielle's head slowly moved from side to side.
Xena wanted to shake somebody. This can't be happening. Gabrielle, you're my light, the one who keeps me on the right path. You're my family! I need you; I'm lost without you.
The bard could see that the woman warrior was distressed. She felt badly that she was the cause of the distress, but she didn't recognize the woman and didn't know what she could do to help her. Do I know her? She reminds me just a little of Mara. Tall, dark-haired, strong looking. "You say I'm your best friend but I I just don't remember. I'm sorry." Gabrielle's face reflected the suffering she was undergoing, both from the beating and from this disturbing confrontation.
In the midst of her tumultuous emotions, Xena remembered that both Gabrielle and Mara had whip marks across their backs and bruised and cut faces. Her face froze and her jaw set at the idea that anyone would lay a whip on Gabrielle. "Who beat you like this?" Xena demanded.
"Merdios. His name is Merdios," Gabrielle answered.
Mara's pride was forcing her to try desperately to stand erect in front of this imposing woman. "And I'm going to make him pay for it, too," she vowed. "Just wait till I catch up with him."
Xena, getting steadily angrier, looked more closely at the injured Amazon. She was taking Gabrielle under her protection; I owe her for that. "I appreciate that you tried to help Gabrielle. Thank you," she said through clenched teeth.
Mara nodded her acceptance. "She's an Amazon. I couldn't abandon her." This woman seems ready to explode. Would Gabrielle be best friends with someone so dangerous looking?
Gwynna and the other Amazons had finished freeing some of the other prisoners. One of the Amazons had found a key ring on the belt of a fallen guard and was using it. Finally, she threw the ring to the rest of the still-chained prisoners, who immediately set about freeing themselves, then she and the others joined the rescuers.
Elisa noticed Xena's mood deteriorating and spoke to her. "I think we better get going. How about if I take Gabrielle with me and Gwynna can take Mara?" She knew that Xena could barely hold herself on Argo. Gabrielle and Mara nodded agreement.
Xena slowly pulled herself back onto Argo while Elisa helped Gabrielle onto Viktor and climbed into the saddle in front of her. Following Elisa's suggestion, Gwynna came forward and gingerly helped Mara up onto Nightmare then climbed up in front of her and they headed back to the trees.
Drat it, I can't take my eyes off that warrior for two seconds! The goddess Discord had been stirring up some trouble with some other mortals and had just turned her attention back to Xena. Ares was right, she is relentless. Who would have thought that she would have been able to even move with that poison in her system, let alone find her friend? The one good thing about all this is that Gabrielle has amnesia and doesn't recognize her. Maybe I should cast a spell on that protective Amazon who befriended her, make her believe that Xena will hurt Gabrielle if she returns to her. The goddess laughed with glee. That should help keep them apart and make Xena even madder at Ares! I'll do it!
Shalene was correct in her assumption that there would be little resistance from the caravan. Once it became clear that the attackers were only freeing prisoners and not trying to steal any of the caravan's precious cargo of goods, opposition was only token and was easily brought under control.
The other two forces saw that the rescue had been successful and turned back, too. Shalene had kept an eye on the rescuing party and had seen that Xena had fallen once as she dismounted and then had stumbled a second time during the actual rescue. Something wrong there? She looks too formidable to be clumsy. More likely something has weakened her. Maybe she's sick.
Everyone rode hard up the trail until they neared the place where two rivers came together that Shalene had designated as a rendezvous. Leaving the trail, they congregated at an open spot along one river's bank, and dismounted.
Shalene came over to Mara and Gabrielle. "Let the healer take a look at your back, Mara. And your friend's back, too." She turned to Xena who was holding Argo's reins, leaning against the golden mare and breathing deeply. "Would you like the healer to take a look at you, too?"
Xena jerked upright and stuck out her chin. "No, I'm fine." Shalene stared at her for a moment, then thought better of what she had been going to say and turned away, following Mara and Gabrielle.
Eponin, Solari and Gwynna started quickly toward Gabrielle but Xena stepped in front of them and held up her hands. "Gabrielle doesn't know any of us. She's lost her memory," she said harshly.
"What? What are you saying? She doesn't know us?" Eponin put their questions into words. "She doesn't know you?"
"No, Pony, she doesn't know me, either," Xena's voice hardened even as she spoke to these women, her friends, who knew better than any others how much their Queen meant to the warrior. They all looked at Xena with worried frowns. Eponin and Solari exchanged concerned glances. They could see that frustration and anger were building in Xena and knew that a frustrated and angry Warrior Princess could be a dangerous development.
"But she's our Queen!" Solari protested. "What's going to happen?"
Xena turned and stared toward Gabrielle. Her arms ached with wanting to hug her friend and tell her how much she had missed her; how glad she was that she hadn't been hurt in the landslide; how happy she was to be near her. But her friend wasn't there, just a stranger. Discouragement and rage joined together into an oppressive weight that seemed to drag down her already reduced strength.
Elisa saw the bruised look in Xena's eyes and moved quickly to the warrior's side. She slipped an arm around Xena's waist and felt the trembling caused in part by her weakness and in part by her anger. That the Warrior Princess draped an arm over her shoulders for support doubled the young Amazon's concern. "Xena, we can talk about this later. Gabrielle and this woman need attention from the healer. Come on over here with me and relax for a few minutes."
The Warrior Princess knew Elisa was right, they did need attention and she needed a chance to collect herself. She dragged her eyes from Gabrielle and focused on Elisa. "Let's get away from here, Leese. I want time to think."
Elisa walked with Xena a short distance into the forest and helped her sit down on a fallen log. The will power that had sustained the warrior fell victim to the stunning revelation that her partner had forgotten her, had no memory of their past together. She sat on the log, her head in her hands, trying to pull herself together. For fifteen minutes she sat there, Elisa beside her, neither of them saying a word.
Xena was fighting the darkness that wanted to envelop her, the darkness that always lurked below the surface, the darkness that only Gabrielle had been able to help her overcome. And the anger. The anger that the gods had allowed this to happen. She needed a focus for this anger; needed to take some kind of action; needed to do something, anything, to satisfy this urge for revenge.
Xena's head snapped up. She sat up straight, took three deep breaths, and turned to Elisa. "What did you think of the beating those two women took?" her voice grated the question.
"Gabrielle's back looked bad, maybe infected. But Mara's is worse. She'll have scars like mine." Elisa's face twisted as she recalled the beating she had received with a cat-o'-nine-tails. A beating that had left her scarred for life.
"Merdios. Gabrielle said his name is Merdios." Xena's cobalt-blue eyes locked onto Elisa's smoke-gray ones. The two women who looked so much alike sat there staring at each other and, slowly, a nasty smile started in one corner of Elisa's mouth. Gradually, it grew to a full smile as she saw it echoed on Xena's lips.
"What are we waiting for?" the youngster asked.
"Only two big palominos," the Warrior Princess answered. She stood up and her body wavered a bit; then she sucked in another deep breath and walked with Elisa back to the gathering place.
Gwynna had just approached Eponin and Solari to see if Elisa had returned, when Xena and her friend emerged from the forest. Xena addressed them all. Her eyes, face and voice were flat and unemotional. "Leese and I are going back to the caravan. We're going to bring back the slimy piece of dung who beat Gabrielle and Mara and see that he gets what he deserves." Her eyes swiveled to Eponin. "If you need us, send Gwynna after us."
"Sure, Xena," Eponin agreed. With that dead look on the warrior's face, no one would have dared to disagree.
Shalene had come back across the clearing to fetch something from her horse's saddlebag. Xena and Elisa started to pass her as they were leaving and the woman stepped into their path. "Where are you off to?" she questioned irritably. "We wouldn't want anyone riding around stirring up trouble near that warlord. We're too small a party to stand up to him."
Xena straightened to her full height and looked down sternly at the weapons master. Elisa moved to her side and assumed the same look. The two women who so resembled each other made a doubly formidable combination. "Don't worry about it. The warlord will never know we are anywhere around." Xena pushed past the blonde woman, who offered no more protest. She continued to look after the two until they mounted and left. Here, we're outnumbered, warrior. When we get home, it will be a different story. Such arrogance won't sit well with Queen Fidalia.
The other five Amazons in Shalene's party had watched alertly as their leader opposed the two tall women. They muttered among themselves as they realized she had been forced by sheer numbers to back down from the confrontation.
Eponin watched this exchange with her heart in her throat, and her forehead creased into a frown. Don't tread on Xena's toes, Shalene. You don't know the risk you are taking. Then another thought occurred to the weapons master. I should warn Shalene about who she's trying to face down. Who knows what Xena's frustration might drive her to do?
Solari was more concerned with Gabrielle. "What do you think we should do, Pony? Just tell Shalene that Gabrielle is our Queen and take her home? What if she doesn't want to come with us?"
Eponin looked across the clearing to where Gabrielle and Mara were being attended to. "I'm not sure, Solari. I guess the first thing to do is let them know who Gabrielle is, then go from there. If she doesn't want to come with us, we can't force her to."
Gwynna spoke up. "We can't just leave our Queen with strangers."
"Gwynna, we're the strangers right now," Eponin pointed out. "But we're not leaving Gabrielle. If she won't come with us, we'll go with her." The weapons master stood up. "C'mon you two, let's go see where we stand." She and Solari and Gwynna walked across the clearing. Eponin strode up to Shalene who was just directing her people to put together two litters for the patients. Mara and Gabrielle were seated on some stones next to her, waiting for their transportation to be completed.
"Shalene, there's something about Gabrielle that we neglected to tell you," Eponin said.
Well, here it comes. Shalene thought. I knew seventeen warriors were way too many to send after a nobody. Hades, our Queen's sister only merited six. "She's your Queen's special friend, right?"
Eponin was taken aback for a moment then stammered, "Er ah no she IS our Queen."
Shalene's jaw dropped open and Mara gasped.
Gabrielle, shaking her head and looking even more confused, asked, "How can I be an Amazon Queen?" Then, almost to herself, "I can't even climb trees."
"It's a long story, Gabrielle. Believe me, you are our Queen. You were almost caught in a landslide and you hit your head on a rock. It made you lose your memory. We've been searching all over for you. We love and respect you and we want you to come back to our village with us," Eponin explained earnestly.
"NO!" exclaimed Mara in agitation. The Amazon shrunk from the thought of losing Gabrielle to these people and she suddenly suspected that they might have abused her. "She doesn't know any of you, she knows only me. How do we even know you are telling the truth? Look at her head; it doesn't look like she hit a rock. It looks like someone hit her. She's not going with you until she recognizes one of you!"
Eponin stepped forward to retort when Gabrielle's voice stopped her. "She's right, you know. I can't really be sure how I got this head wound. And I have no reason to take your word that I am your Queen. Even if I am, I'm no good to you like this. Mara's my friend now, and until I recognize somebody, I'd rather stay here with the one I know."
Solari touched Eponin's arm. "Pony, don't argue. We can't make her come with us. Leave it be for now."
Eponin paused for a moment, her forehead wrinkled in thought. Then she addressed Shalene. "You said your village was in danger of attack by a warlord, right?" Shalene nodded.
"We can't leave our Queen is such danger without some protection from us. How about if we go with you to your village and help you in the fight?" Eponin continued. "That will give Gabrielle protection and afford her some time to get adjusted to the idea that she IS our Queen. Maybe she will feel differently after she gets to know us."
"Sounds fair to me," Shalene answered. "And I'm pretty sure our Queen will welcome a few more fighters in our defense."
"There's something else I think we should discuss," Eponin said. "I want to talk to you about one of the women who just left camp, Gabrielle's friend, Xena."
Shalene looked startled. "Xena? The Warrior Princess? Destroyer of Nations? Is that who that warrior is?" No wonder I felt that she was the leader of this group. She certainly has the commanding presence of a warlord! But what about the story we heard last month about her part in the massacre of the northern tribe's leaders? I think I might be wise to keep quiet about that until we get back to the village.
Gabrielle looked toward Mara whose face had twisted into a hateful expression. "Who's the Warrior Princess?" the bard asked quietly.
Mara spit out the information in a lowered voice. "She's a warlord who conquered half of Greece before she lost her army. No wonder my instincts told me that she was trouble. Who knows how she has been treating you if you have been traveling with her?" The Amazon shivered. "She's infamous for her violent nature."
"Yes, she's the Warrior Princess and we're worried about her," the weapons master admitted. "Xena and Queen Gabrielle have been best friends for a long time. Xena has tried to change her life to one of doing good and Gabrielle has played a big part in Xena's reform. Her influence has helped to keep Xena on the right path." Eponin took a deep breath. She wasn't sure just how much she should tell Shalene, but the thought of the Warrior Princess losing her temper without Gabrielle here to calm her was pretty frightening and Shalene's group could be endangered if they made the wrong moves.
"Xena is Gabrielle's protector. She would go to Tartarus and back on her hands and knees if Gabrielle asked her to. But, this current situation is traumatic for her and, without Gabrielle to guide her, we're afraid her emotions might be unstable. She could get out of control if she is antagonized. You'll want Xena on your side when we meet the warlord, there's no better warrior anywhere, but we strongly suggest that you ask your scouts to steer clear of angering her, OK?" Eponin looked beseechingly at Shalene.
"I'll speak to my people. We'll stay out of Xena's way. Just make sure she stays out of ours," Shalene spoke bluntly. Maybe I was smart to back down a minute ago.
"We'll do our best," Eponin promised. "Thank you."
"How about getting your people ready? We're pulling out as soon as we get these two on their litters," Shalene nodded toward the two injured women. "We're running out of time and need to move all night."
"Right," Eponin replied. She and Solari and Gwynna returned to their group and Eponin filled the other Amazons in on what she had said to Shalene.
Eponin turned to Gwynna. "Go after Elisa and Xena. Tell them what's going on. We'll be on the road with Shalene and the others." Gwynna got Nightmare, mounted and left.
Solari was concerned about the expression on the weapons master's face. "We almost have to go with them, Pony. There wasn't much else you could do. Don't look so worried."
"Thanks, Solari, but it's not us I'm worried about," Eponin replied. "I'm worried about how the Warrior Princess is going to react to this. And there's no Gabrielle to calm her down."
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