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MOUNTAIN QUEST by Eva Allen
DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Their use in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, March 1998.
They broke camp in the gray light of dawn, Xena packing their gear while Gabrielle practiced with her staff. Then they set off, riding double on Argo, trying to make as much time as possible. Xena was afraid to push the mare too hard, though, especially as the road began to wind upwards, into the foothills of the Mystic Mountains. So after a while, they took turns riding, and part of the time both women walked.
When they took a break for lunch, Xena wandered off into a nearby meadow with her chakram in hand and returned a short time later with three headless partridges. "I thought we should take Elkton a little something for supper," she told Gabrielle with a grin. "I just hope he's a better cook than either of us!"
"I hope so, too," Gabrielle said. "Do I have time to practice with my staff before we get started again?"
"Just for a couple of minutes," Xena said, and sat down to eat a wedge of cheese.
"Do you think we'll run into some more bad guys?"
"I sincerely hope not."
"But I want to fight them! Do you think I'm good enough yet?"
"I think you could probably do a little damage." She crammed the rest of the cheese into her mouth and stood up. "Here. Let me show you how to block a blow from a sword." Then drawing her blade, she let the bard practice parrying different types of thrusts.
"Okay, that's enough," she said after a few minutes. "We've got to get going again. Do you want to ride or walk?"
"I'll walk, and that way I can go on practicing while I walk."
"All right, but you have to keep up. I don't want you lagging behind." Xena tied the partridges to the saddle, swung herself up, and headed Argo out onto the road.
Much to Xena's relief and Gabrielle's disappointment, there were no ruffians to battle that afternoon, and they reached Elkton's mountain village just before sundown.
"None of this looks familiar to you?" Xena asked, as they led Argo past the few shops in the center of town.
"See that shop over there?" Xena said, pointing. "That's where you bought my breast dagger." She pulled the weapon out and handed it to her companion.
"I bought you this? As a gift?" Gabrielle said, turning the knife over in her hands and testing the blade's sharpness with her thumb.
"Well, no, not exactly. You actually bought it for yourself because you thought you needed some kind of weapon for self defense." Xena reached over and took the dagger back. "Let's just say that I confiscated it from you," she added, tucking the blade back into her leathers. "And I have to admit that it's been a nice addition to my arsenal. It's definitely come in handy more than once."
"So you didn't want me to be able to defend myself?"
"At that time, I guess I thought you would be better off without a weapon--less likely to be attacked if you didn't look threatening. But when we met up with the Amazons, you chose to learn to use the staff. They're the ones who first taught you. And it's proved to be a very good weapon for you."
"The Amazons? Who are they?"
"They're a tribe of women warriors."
"Women warriors? Like you?"
"Sort of like me, yes."
"And they taught me to fight?"
"Why? Did they think I would make a good warrior?"
"It's kind of a long story, and I don't have time to tell it right now because we're almost to Elkton's house," Xena said, realizing that she had probably made a mistake in bringing up the topic.
"Will you tell me later?"
"Maybe. We'll see."
They soon came to the Mystic's farm on the outskirts of the village. The tiny thatched-roof house, the barn, the garden, and a couple of small fields of grain--everything looked just as Xena remembered it.
"Will Elkton notice that I'm different?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, he never actually met you when we were here before," Xena responded "But he knows you made it through Morpheus' tests without shedding blood, so if you start talking about wanting to kill someone, he's definitely going to be surprised." She handed Argo's reins to Gabrielle. "The best thing would be if you could just try to be pleasant and not say too much until I get a chance to explain the situation. Can you do that?"
She didn't wait for an answer, but went to the door and rapped loudly.
"Who is there?" called Elkton.
Xena heard movements inside and then footsteps approaching. "It's a friend," she called back.
Opening the door, the Mystic lifted his candle so that its light fell on the warrior's face. "Xena!" he exclaimed with a warm smile. "I was hoping you'd come back someday to visit this lonely old man!"
"Yes, I should have been back long before this," Xena said, returning his smile.
"And is this Gabrielle?" Elkton asked, moving out into the yard and offering his hand to the younger woman. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last!"
"Uh, yeah," said Gabrielle uncertainly. "It's nice to meet you, too."
"Now, Elkton," Xena said quickly. "Your house is small and if you don't have room to put us up, we can just sleep in the barn or out here someplace. We've got all our gear--"
"No, no, no!" exclaimed the Mystic. "I won't hear of your sleeping outside! You must sleep in my bed--I insist! And stay for as long as you like." Then he grinned and added, "I'm afraid your horse will have to sleep in the barn, though."
Xena laughed. "That's fine. It's still better accomodations than she's used to." Then, moving to the saddle, she untied the partridges. "We brought you a little supper," she said.
Elkton's face lit up. "Partridges! What a special meal this is going to be, with such wonderful company to share it! I'll go clean these and get them on the spit while you put the mare in the barn."
"Thanks, Elkton," Xena said. "We'll be in shortly."
* * *
A delicious aroma greeted them when they entered the house, and Xena smiled at the thought of a hot, home-cooked meal.
"You can just put your things in the bedroom there," said Elkton, gesturing to a low doorway.
They had left most of their gear in the barn, but Xena carried the saddlebags to the doorway and pushed aside the curtain to reveal an alcove barely big enough for one bed.
"It's so little!" Gabrielle whispered, peering past the warrior. "How can both of us possibly sleep there? We'd be better off in the barn!"
"Shh!" Xena said, pulling Gabrielle into the alcove and dropping the curtain behind them. "We'll manage just fine. Elkton is offering the best hospitality he can, and we would be rude to refuse it." She laid the saddlebags on the floor, along with her weapons, and began unbuckling her armor. "Leave your staff in here, Gabrielle," she said.
"But what if we're attacked?"
"I think the chances of that are pretty slim at the moment," Xena said, laying her armor on the floor next to the other items. "But if it happens, I suppose you can always run in here and get the staff." Then she ducked through the doorway and back into the main room.
"Is there something we can do to help?" she asked.
"No, no. Just sit down and relax," Elkton said. "You must be tired. How long have you been travelling?"
"Two days from the last town," Xena said, seating herself at the table and motioning to Gabrielle to do the same.
"You must be thirsty, too," Elkton said, placing mugs on the table and filling them with dark red wine from a jug.
"Yes, thanks," said Xena, smiling. "Some wine would taste pretty good right about now."
"Thank you," Gabrielle echoed and lifted the mug to take a long drink.
"So what have you Mystics been up to lately?" Xena asked.
"Things have gone very well since you were here last," Elkton said and moved to the fireplace to turn the spit. He went on to talk about the festivals held each year in honor of Morpheus and his brothers, and his own role in organizing those festivals. After that, he spoke about the general prosperity of the town and its people.
Xena listened, nodding, sipping wine, and keeping a close eye on Gabrielle, who seemed bored with Elkton's narrative. Uncertain what her friend might say or do under these circumstances, Xena hoped she could keep the focus of the conversation on Elkton until after dinner. Then maybe she could talk to him about what had happened and ask for his help.
Soon the roasted meat was served up, along with a steaming dish of boiled cabbage, carrots, and leeks. There was bread, too, cut in thick slices, fragrant and dark, with plenty of fresh butter to spread on them.
"This is incredible!" Xena said with her mouth full. "Especially compared with what we had last night," she added, with a wink at Gabrielle.
"Yeah, Xena burned our supper. She might be a good warrior, but she's a terrible cook!"
Elkton laughed. "Well, it's a pleasure to have someone besides myself to cook for," he said, "and luckily, I baked bread this morning."
"Don't you have to be away sometimes, at Morpheus' fortress?" Xena asked. "Who takes care of your farm while you're gone?"
"My brother and his two sons live nearby. They've been very good about helping out," he said, taking a sip of wine. "But I've been doing all the talking. You two must have had some interesting adventures since you were here before."
"Oh, yes," said Xena quickly, before Gabrielle had a chance to say anything. "We've done quite a bit. Let's see . . . we averted a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, freed Prometheus, killed a couple of giants, got bitten by Bacchae, did away with several nasty warlords, helped Cecrops break Poseidon's curse, and probably a few other things I've forgotten about."
"Well, you do lead a busy life!" Elkton said with a grin.
"Oh, definitely," Xena agreed. "And that's just what we did in our spare time!"
"Do you know what happened to us yesterday?" Gabrielle interjected eagerly. "We were on our way here, just riding along the road, and we met these four men--they were horse thieves--and they wanted to steal Argo, so Xena fought them and they all got scared and ran away! You should see her fight! She's really good! She could have killed those guys easily, but she didn't. She let them get away. I think she should have killed them, though, because right after that we found this man--"
"Gabrielle," said Xena, stepping on her friend's foot under the table, "Why don't you eat your cabbage before it gets cold."
"I'm telling a story!"
"Yes, but it's not a story I want you to tell right now."
"Oh," said Gabrielle. Then she stared sullenly at her plate and began to poke at her food with a fork.
Xena glanced at Elkton in time to see a puzzled look on his face, but he quickly smiled and picked up one of the platters. "More bread?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah. Thanks," said Xena.
"Gabrielle?" said Elkton, holding out the platter.
But the younger woman just shook her head without looking up.
There were several moments of strained silence, and then Elkton said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Prometheus, if one of you wants to tell the story."
"Sure, I'll be glad to tell you," Xena said, with a quick glance at the still-sulking Gabrielle.
She told the tale as simply as she could, emphasizing Hercules' role and minimizing her own. "It's a good thing Hercules thought to deflect that sword with a rock," she concluded. "He saved his own life and mine, too, by breaking my fall."
"How wonderful, though, that you were both willing to sacrifice your lives for the good of the human race," said Elkton.
"Well, Prometheus had to be freed, and there was no other way to do it," Xena said quietly.
"I wish I had been there to help you fight those guys in the green eggs," Gabrielle said.
"You stayed with Iolaus, and probably kept him from dying," Xena said. "That was more important than helping me."
"Gabrielle," said Xena, laying a hand on her friend's arm, "we've been travelling all day and I know you must be tired. Why don't you go on to bed? I'll join you in a few minutes."
"I'm not tired," Gabrielle responded brightly.
"Yes, you are. Now please go to bed," Xena said firmly and gave her a meaningful look.
"I'm not tired," the bard repeated. "Why should I go to bed if I'm not tired?"
Xena sighed, noting that Elkton was watching their exchange with a certain amount of curiosity. "All right," she said. "If you don't want to go to bed, then go out and take a walk or something. I need to talk to Elkton."
"You're going to talk about me, aren't you?"
"Then why can't I stay?"
"Because I would feel better if you didn't. I promise to tell you what Elkton says. Now please, Gabrielle, give me some space here."
The younger woman sighed deeply and regarded the warrior for a few moments in silence. "Are you always so bossy and mean?" she asked.
"I suppose some people would think so," Xena said mildly.
"Well, I guess I'll go to bed now," Gabrielle announced. She shoved back her chair and stood up, then added "Good night" as something of an afterthought.
"Good night, Gabrielle," said Elkton. "If you need anything--extra blankets or pillows or whatever--just let me know."
"Okay," Gabrielle mumbled, and then disappeared into the alcove.
* * *
Xena leaned her head on her hand and stared at her plate for several moments. Finally, she looked up to meet the Mystic's gaze. "I'm sorry about that," she said. Then, reaching for Gabrielle's plate, she added, "Here, let me help you clean up these dishes."
Elkton took the plate from her and set it down. "No, Xena. I can do that later. I've known all along that this wasn't purely a social visit. Now tell me what's wrong. I'd like to help, if I can."
"I sincerely hope you can help me, because I don't know where else to turn."
"Tell me," he said gently. "It's about Gabrielle, isn't it?"
Xena nodded, then glanced at the curtained doorway.
"Would you rather go outside to talk?" Elkton asked.
"No, I think this will be fine if we keep our voices down." She paused for a moment, then took a deep breath and let it out again. "Two nights ago, we stayed at an inn," she began. "We met a young bard there, and Gabrielle was very happy to talk to him, since she is a bard, too. Did you know that?"
"No, I didn't."
"Anyway, I left the two of them together in the tavern and went to bed. Later, when I came back to check on Gabrielle, I found out that she had been drugged."
"Drugged?" Elkton asked, surprised. "By the bard?"
"Yes. He put something in her wine, but I couldn't figure out what kind of drug it was. When I caught up with him the next day, it turned out he wasn't a bard at all. He was Ares in disguise."
"Ares! Why in the world would he drug Gabrielle?"
"He did it to get to me," Xena said grimly, then took a sip from her mug. "I don't know how much you know about my past," she went on, "but I've done a lot of bad things--killed people, plundered their villages, burned their homes. I set out to kill Hercules at one point, but in the end, he helped me see that I could lead a different kind of life. Ever since I changed, though, Ares has been trying to lure me back. This is his worst scheme yet."
"I don't understand. How will drugging Gabrielle make you come back to him?"
"Because what the drug did," Xena said in a low, urgent voice, "was to wipe out all her memories and change her personality. Instead of being loving and gentle, like she was before, she's now aggressive and warlike. All she talks about is wanting to kill people." Xena stopped and picked up her mug again, swirled the remaining wine for a moment, and then quickly downed it. "Ares says that if I return to him, he will change Gabrielle back to the way she was before. But I don't want to be his warrior again. I just can't do that. I gave up that way of life. But I can't let Gabrielle lose her soul, either." She stared at Elkton in despair. "I don't know what to do. I'm just hoping there's some other way to break this spell, and I'm hoping you'll know what it is."
Elkton smiled and reached out to put a hand over hers. "I think there is a way," he said, "but it involves a lot of risk."
"I don't care about that," Xena said. "You know I would gladly risk my life to save Gabrielle."
"Yes, I know," he said. "Do you want some more wine?"
She nodded and he refilled their mugs.
"For the last two nights," he said then, "I've had a dream vision. I don't know which god gave it to me, and at first I didn't know why. But I felt that someone needed the information I'd been given, and would come to me to get it. I didn't know who it would be, but when you knocked on my door this evening, I knew you were the one."
Xena stared at him in amazement. "I came because I had a strong feeling that you could somehow help me," she said softly, "even though it made no sense that a priest of Morpheus would know how to deal with Ares. I wonder who is at work here."
"I don't know, but someone is watching out for you, Xena, and you can be grateful for that."
She nodded. "Tell me about the vision."
"It has to do with a plant which grows near the top of the closest mountain here. It's called the kaya plant. It was put there by Hera, and it grows in a sheltered niche among the rocks, up above the tree line. Its leaves, when eaten, have the power to break the spell of any god, even that of Hera herself."
"Why would Hera create a plant that can break her own spells?"
"I think she wanted to have it to use against other gods--the ones she doesn't like. But since it can also be used against her own spells, she has to guard it well."
"And being Ares' mother, Hera won't be too happy about my trying to outsmart her son," Xena commented.
"But this plant--you know how to find it?"
"Yes, the vision showed the path very clearly, and I've even drawn a map. I think that if you leave at first light tomorrow, you can reach the plant by mid-afternoon--assuming you don't run into too many of Hera's warriors along the way."
"I've fought her goons before. I don't think they'll be much of a problem."
Elkton nodded. "You can take your horse up part of the way, but you'll probably have to leave her somewhere below the tree line. The trail gets quite rough after that, and there may be snow. You'll have to spend at least one night on the mountain, but I have some extra furs and blankets you can take, and some extra food, too."
"Okay," Xena said. "So far this doesn't sound too hard. Is there more?"
The Mystic smiled a tight-lipped smile. "Unfortunately, yes," he said. "The kaya bush is guarded by a serpent--a rather large one. You must kill the serpent in order to get to the leaves."
"Kill the serpent. All right, I can do that."
"Yes, but here's the tricky part. You must kill it without shedding any of its blood."
Xena's eyebrows went up, but she said nothing.
"For each drop of the serpent's blood that is shed," Elkton went on, "ten more serpents will spring up, and you could never fight them all."
"How should I kill it, then?"
"You must strangle it--but without shedding any blood, remember. The best way would probably be to use your bare hands."
Xena was silent for a moment. "And if it bites me?" she said.
"The venom has a paralyzing effect, so if the serpent bites you on an arm or a leg, you will lose the use of that limb. I assume that if you are bitten elsewhere on your body--"
"I will die."
"Yes." He picked up his wine mug, peered into it for a moment, and drank deeply. Then, looking directly at her, he said, "Xena, I wouldn't let a lesser warrior go on a quest like this, if there was any way I could prevent it. Your task will not only be difficult, but also extremely dangerous. In fact, if you want to reconsider--"
"No. I have to go. I have to do this to save Gabrielle. I'm just relieved to know that there's a way to break the spell without going back to Ares."
They sat without speaking for a few minutes, then Xena said, "Elkton, I hate to ask another favor when you've done so much already, but I'm wondering if Gabrielle can stay here with you while I go up the mountain. I'd rather not risk her getting hurt."
"Oh. Well, I guess there's something I forgot to tell you," Elkton said. "As soon as the serpent dies, the kaya leaves begin to wilt. They must be used immediately or they'll lose their potency."
"So Gabrielle will have to be there when I kill the serpent," Xena said. "All right, then. I'll take her with me. She probably wouldn't have agreed to stay here anyway," she added with a grin, and then stood up. "Now let me help you clean up this mess."
"No, I can do it," Elkton said. "You go to bed and get some rest. You'll need all your strength tomorrow. I'll gather up those furs and pack some food for you to take." He smiled. "Sleep well, Xena. I'll call you in the morning."
"Thank you, Elkton," Xena said. "You don't know how much this means to me."
"The best way for you to thank me is by coming back safe and well--both of you," he said.
"I'll do my best," she responded, then turned and walked quickly to the bedroom.
It took her eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light that filtered through the curtain. Gabrielle lay sprawled across the narrow bed, asleep. Her clothes lay in a heap on the floor, and Xena realized with surprise that the bard must be naked under the blankets. Unlacing her leathers, Xena stepped out of them and sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Gabrielle," she said softly, "move over, so I can get in."
The younger woman gave a sleepy moan as Xena slid in under the covers and put an arm around her. "What did he say?" she mumbled, snuggling closer to the warrior.
"He said there is a plant that grows on the mountain near here. It has the power to break Ares' spell. We leave first thing in the morning to go find it."
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
"Will it be dangerous?"
"Will we have to fight?"
"Yes, I'd say you can count on it."
"Really?" said Gabrielle, raising up to look at Xena. "Will you let me fight?"
"Do I have any choice?" Xena asked with a small grin.
"Mmm, I can't wait!" said Gabrielle. With a happy sigh, she snuggled back down, but after a moment, she popped up again. "I forgot to practice with my staff tonight!" she exclaimed.
"It's all right," Xena said, touching the bard's face gently. "You still remember how to do it, and maybe you can practice a little in the morning. Now let's go to sleep; we need to be rested for our trip."
Gabrielle sank back down and was quiet. Xena lay holding her, thinking how good it was to feel her lover's bare skin against her own. This time tomorrow night they would be huddled together under furs and blankets up on the mountain. But if everything went as planned, the spell would be broken, and she would have her own sweet Gabrielle back in her arms once more.
From the other room came the quiet sounds of Elkton moving around, cleaning up the dishes and getting everything ready for their departure in the morning. What a good man he was, Xena thought, as she silently blessed him for all his kindness and help. In a short time, Gabrielle's breathing deepened and, attempting to follow her lover's example, the warrior closed her eyes and willed herself to relax. But thoughts of the next day's quest would not leave her mind. Could they really get all the way up the mountain by mid-afternoon? How many warriors would Hera send out against them? And most worrisome of all was the puzzle of how to strangle a serpent without shedding blood and without being bitten. It was a battle she dared not lose, for if she got killed before she could free Gabrielle, she would doom her friend to a life of murder and mayhem, and her soul to Tartarus.
A shiver ran through her and her arms tightened around the sleeping bard. Giving up the effort to sleep, she let her mind run free to wrestle with the problem of how to kill the serpent. After a while, she heard Elkton blow out the candles in the other room and settle down to sleep on a pallet in front of the fire. Then exhaustion overcame her at last and she slept.
It was barely light when they left Elkton's yard the next morning, leading Argo, who carried a substantial load of bedding and other gear. The air was chilly and the sun would not clear the mountains for a couple of hours yet. The parchment map Elkton had drawn was tucked safely in the top of Xena's leathers. She did not expect to need it until they had passed the treeline, though, since the lower part of the track appeared to be fairly well marked.
They trudged on for some time in silence, as the trail gradually steepened. The warrior kept a sharp lookout for possible attackers and, aware of their time limitations, set as fast a pace as she dared. But eventually, she became aware that Gabrielle was breathing heavily and starting to lag behind.
"Is it all uphill like this?" panted the bard, stopping in the middle of the track.
"I'm afraid so," Xena said, smiling. "That's kind of what you have to expect when you climb a mountain. Shall we take a little breather?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle quickly sat down on a tree root beside the path. "I don't understand why we have to do this, anyway," she said, poking at some loose rocks with her staff.
"We have to do it," Xena said patiently, "because we need the kaya plant to help you get your memories back, and it only grows on the top of this mountain."
"Wouldn't it be a lot easier if you just went back to Ares?"
"That's not an option, Gabrielle. We've discussed this already." Xena turned to rub Argo's nose for a moment, then moved along the horse's side, checking to see that the load was secure. When she finished, she said, "Come on, let's start walking again. We'll go slower and maybe you won't get so tired." She led Argo forward and looked back to see Gabrielle getting reluctantly to her feet.
"Maybe I don't want my memories back," the bard said, when she had caught up with the long-legged warrior. "I happen to think I'm doing just fine without them."
"Well, I disagree."
"The thing is, Xena, you don't even like me anymore since Ares gave me a new personality. How do I know you're not just taking me up the mountain so you can poison me with that stupid plant?"
Xena stopped abruptly and grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders, forcing her to turn and face her. "Gabrielle," she said, "if I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead already. I certainly wouldn't go to all the trouble to climb a mountain before doing it!"
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment and then looked down. "Oh," she said.
Xena sighed and released her hold. "I could never kill you, Gabrielle," she said. "I love you too much for that." But she had no sooner spoken than the memory of the promise she had made in her dream two nights ago flashed in her mind, and a shiver ran through her. Turning away quickly, she tugged on Argo's reins and started walking again. "We need to keep going," she muttered. "We've got a lot of ground to cover today."
They walked for a few minutes in silence and then Gabrielle said hesitantly, "Xena, will you tell me the story about the Amazons?"
"Not right now, Gabrielle. I need to stay alert and be ready for an attack."
"Who's going to attack us?"
"Well, Elkton said that Hera would probably send out some warriors against us."
"Hera? The one who bound Prometheus? Why would her warriors fight us?"
"Because she's Ares' mother and it's her plant that we're after."
"She's Ares' mother?"
"Yes. She's the Queen of the gods."
"Well, wouldn't it be better not to make her angry?"
Xena laughed. "That's easier said than done, when it comes to Hera. Anyway, I'm not afraid of her, and this will be kind of like fighting those green egg men. You said you wished you had been there to do that, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," said Gabrielle, brightening. "I hadn't thought about that. When do you think--"
"Any time now," Xena said, putting out a hand to silence her companion. Her ears had caught a rustling sound among the trees along the mountain track, and she was sure that it meant danger. "Keep your staff ready," she said in a low voice, "and remember what you've learned about using it." Glancing sideways, she saw Gabrielle swallow hard and take a better grip on her staff. A look of determination and something that could only be described as bloodlust came into the bard's green eyes, and all at once Xena felt afraid. She rarely felt that way before a fight, but there was so much riding on this one, and on this whole expedition. Then, in an instant, the fear gave way to anger--anger at Ares, and at the thought that she might not be able to save Gabrielle, in spite of everything.
The heightened emotion seemed to sharpen her instincts. Every sense was alert and, turning suddenly in mid-stride, Xena reached out and caught a dagger as it came hurtling through the air from behind them. Then, in one smooth, automatic movement, she hurled it back at the warrior who had appeared from among the trees. It struck him in the chest and he staggered backwards, then fell, a look of surprise still on his dead face.
Too late, Xena realized what she had done. Gabrielle was staring at her, eyes full of wonder and admiration, and Xena looked away quickly. More warriors appeared and began advancing with swords drawn. Xena slapped Argo on the rump to send her out of harm's way. "You take those two in front of us," she said to Gabrielle. "I'll worry about the others. Stay as close to me as you can, and if you need help, yell."
"Okay," said Gabrielle and moved forward eagerly to meet her opponents.
Drawing her sword, Xena faced off against the other four. They proved to be tough fighters, but she had fought tougher. A few well-aimed kicks and punches soon knocked them all down. Glancing over to see how Gabrielle's fight was going, Xena barely had time to note that the bard seemed to be doing all right before her own four warriors scrambled to their feet and rushed her en masse. Uttering a war cry, she flipped up and over their heads. Two of the men crashed into each other with drawn swords and fell. One never got up again, but the other rose and staggered, bleeding, into the forest. The remaining two repeated their charge. A kick to the jaw of one of them sent him spinning backwards until his head struck a tree trunk, and he slumped, senseless, to the ground. The last warrior was quickly dispatched with a sword slash to the arm, followed by a kick to the groin. As he hobbled off among the trees, Xena turned to check on Gabrielle again.
One of the young woman's opponents had apparently left the scene, but the other lay cowering and whimpering on the ground, trying to protect himself from the deadly blows of the staff wielded by a grinning Gabrielle. Xena's blood ran cold at the sight.
"No! Don't!" she screamed, as she launched herself into a flip which landed her beside the bard. Grabbing the staff, she wrested it out of her companion's grip, then looked down at the warrior. "Get out of here!" she snarled, and the man scrambled to his feet and scurried away.
"What are you doing? Give me back my staff!" Gabrielle cried, reaching for the weapon.
Xena jerked it away again and fixed her friend in a smoldering gaze. "You were trying to kill that man, weren't you?" she said.
"Well, what's wrong with that? You killed one yourself!" Gabrielle responded hotly, and then catching sight of the other dead man, added, "In fact, it looks like you killed two of them!"
"That man died because he ran into his buddy's sword. I didn't kill him."
"You killed that first one, though. I saw you do it."
Xena's shoulders sagged slightly. "Yes, I killed him," she admitted, "but I shouldn't have done it. I acted without thinking."
"So if it's okay for you to kill, why isn't it okay for me?"
"It's not okay for me to kill. I try not to do it anymore--I told you that. The only thing that makes it different is that I've already got a lot of blood on my hands, and you haven't. I don't want you ending up in Tartarus because Ares changed your personality."
"I don't care where I end up! I want to be a warrior! I had a chance to kill that man and I could have done it, too, but you spoiled it for me!"
Xena sighed deeply and then turned away, feeling more keenly than ever the urgency of their quest. Glancing around, she spotted Argo and whistled for the mare to come. Gabrielle kicked viciously at a rock and sent it bouncing off the track, then she kicked a second one. Xena watched in silence for a few moments, then held out the staff. "Here," she said.
Glowering, Gabrielle snatched the weapon, turned, and began trudging up the trail. Xena sighed again, then gathered up Argo's reins and followed.
* * *
They encountered no more warriors, and two hours of steady hiking brought them to a place where the trees began to thin dramatically. There were large patches of snow on the ground, and sizable boulders lay scattered about, as if they had been carelessly dropped by the hand of some titan.
"Let's find a campsite and stash our gear," Xena said. "We'll have to go the rest of the way without Argo."
Gabrielle remained silent, just as she had most of the time since their encounter with Hera's warriors. Xena glanced at her and then made her way to an area ringed with boulders and sheltered by a few stunted trees.
"This looks like as good a place as any," she said. "We can leave most of our things out of sight here behind these rocks and we won't have to carry much on up to the top."
"There's no water here," Gabrielle said.
"No, but we can melt snow. There's plenty of that around." Xena began working to untie the knots that held Argo's load of bedding and food. As long as they had kept walking, the two women had felt warm enough, but now the coolness of the air at this higher elevation was becoming apparent. Xena pulled their cloaks out from under the ropes and handed one to Gabrielle. "Here. Put this on, then come help me unload this stuff," she said.
The younger woman hesitated, then leaned her staff against a tree while she wrapped the heavy wool garment around her shoulders. "Xena," she said, moving closer to the warrior, "I don't want to go on up the mountain. I can just stay here at the campsite until you get back."
Xena, who was fastening her own cloak, looked up in surprise. "What are you talking about?" she said. "Why don't you want to go up there?"
"Because I'm tired and I don't really give a damn about that plant you're going up there to get," Gabrielle said flatly. "I don't want my memories back or my personality changed. I'm a perfectly good person already. Why can't you just love me the way I am instead of trying to change me?" She paused, waiting for a response from Xena, but when none came, she went on. "I want to be a warrior, like you. I want to serve Ares, and I think you should do the same."
Xena met the defiant gaze of her lover for several moments, then said quietly, "I see." She turned to Argo, pulled a stack of furs off the mare's back, and handed them to Gabrielle. "Put these behind that big rock over there, will you?" she said, nodding toward the spot.
Gabrielle cast a puzzled glance at the warrior, then took the furs and moved away.
Turning back to Argo, Xena began untying the cooking pot and food packs, making every effort to appear calm, even though her mind was racing. Gabrielle's refusal to continue the journey was a difficulty she hadn't anticipated, but one which clearly needed to be overcome. It was crucial that she get her lover to the kaya plant, even if she had to knock her unconscious and carry her up there. But that was an extreme solution. Surely, there was an easier way.
Opening one of the food packs, she took out some bread and dried fruit. "I think it's time we ate something," she said when Gabrielle returned. "We've had a hard morning."
"Yeah, I guess we have," the bard said guardedly.
They sat on a low, flat rock, divided up the food, and began to eat.
"You fought well today," Xena said, forcing a smile. "I can see why you would want to be a warrior."
Gabrielle beamed at the unexpected praise. "Do you really think that?" she asked.
"Yes, I do." Xena drank from the waterskin and then handed it to her companion. "What happened to that other guy you were fighting? I thought there were two."
"Oh, him? He got scared after I knocked him down a couple of times and he ran away. Guess that means I really am good, huh?"
"Yes, you're very good," Xena said softly. But she wasn't talking about fighting techniques.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Xena turned to the younger woman. "Gabrielle," she said, "I haven't really told you what's going to happen up on the mountain. Getting the kaya plant is going to be difficult . . . and possibly quite dangerous. I didn't tell you this before because I guess I didn't want to scare you."
"Will there be more warriors to fight?"
"I don't know. It's possible. But the hardest part will be fighting the serpent that guards the plant."
"Serpent? What kind of serpent?
Xena regarded her friend for a moment. "I don't know exactly what kind of serpent it is," she said slowly, "but I do know that its bite can be deadly. Elkton told me I need to kill it without shedding its blood, and I imagine that will be difficult to do because I'll have to try to strangle it." She stopped and saw that Gabrielle was listening with wide-eyed interest. "I've never fought anything like this before," she went on, "and frankly, I'm not sure how to do it. I guess I had been hoping that you would be there to help me out, if I need you to."
"You might need help? From me?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.
"Yes-- Well, it's possible, anyway. I don't want you to get hurt, but I'd feel better if you were there. . . just in case."
"Uh, okay. Sure. I can be there for you, Xena. I'd love to help you fight! You should have told me before that you needed me."
"Then you'll go on up the mountain with me?"
"Yes, of course! When do we start?"
Xena smiled. "Very soon." She took another swig from the waterskin and got up. Going to Argo, she unbuckled the mare's saddle and lifted it off, then took off the bridle, too, and stashed both behind a large boulder.
"Are you going to just let Argo loose?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah. That will give her a chance to find some grass. There's not much up here."
"But what if she wanders off?"
"She'll come back again. Won't you, girl?" Xena asked, as she pulled the horse's head down to scratch gently behind the ears for a minute. Argo snorted softly and nuzzled the warrior's neck in response. Laughing, Xena gave the mare a quick hug and let her go.
"There's one more thing I need to do," she said to Gabrielle, taking out her chakram and moving downhill a ways to where the trees grew more thickly. Spotting a slender, forked sapling, she hurled the disk and felled the tree, then used her sword to trim off the leaves and branches. When she finished, she had a rough staff with a fork at one end.
"What's that for?" Gabrielle asked, when Xena returned to the campsite.
"It's just something I thought might come in handy. Are you ready?"
Xena took a moment to double-check her gear--sword, chakram, breast dagger, a coil of rope, her whip, and the forked staff. Gabrielle, meanwhile, carried her own staff and the waterskin.
"I guess we've got everything we need," she said, then pulled out Elkton's map and studied it for a moment before tucking it away again. "Let's go." She led the way back to the trail and started the upward climb. The wind hit them in sharp gusts as they left the shelter of the trees, and the path rapidly became more difficult. Now, instead of merely walking uphill, they were forced to climb up over snow-covered boulders and across talus slopes, often with a solid rock wall on one side and a drop-off on the other.
Part of Xena's mind was occupied with finding their way and staying alert for possible attacks, but another part was busy thinking about other matt ers. She had solved the most immediate problem of Gabrielle's not wanting to climb to the top, and ironically, she had solved it in the best style of the bard herself--by talking. But she knew the temporary solution might lead to more problems later on. What she had said about not knowing how to fight the serpent was perfectly true, and it was also true that she would welcome help--but the last thing she wanted was to have a battle-crazed Gabrielle get in her way, or worse still, get bitten by the serpent. Xena would have to find some way to keep her friend far enough away to be safe, yet close enough to eat the kaya leaves as soon as the serpent was dead. If she had to, she could tie her up, she supposed, but she hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"Hey! Can we rest for a minute?" Gabrielle called from several paces back.
Xena stopped and looked behind her, noting that she was breathing a little hard herself. "Yeah. Good idea," she said, sitting down on a nearby rock. Her companion soon caught up and plopped down beside her. Then both of them drank deeply from the waterskin.
"This is hard work," panted Gabrielle. "I can't believe I agreed to climb all the way to the top with you."
"I can't believe you did either, but I really appreciate it."
Gabrielle smiled and wrapped her arms around herself under the cloak. "It gets kind of cold when you're sitting still, doesn't it?"
"Uh-huh. We probably shouldn't sit here very long." Xena took out the map again.
"Are we almost there?" Gabrielle asked, peering at the parchment.
"I think we're getting close," Xena said. "At least, I hope so." She glanced up the trail and then at the sun, which was just starting its journey down the western sky. "Think you can go on now?" she asked.
"I guess so." Gabrielle stood up reluctantly and started to climb again. Xena quickly tucked the map away and followed her.
* * *
In about half an hour's time, their trail emerged into a wide snowfield that sloped gradually upwards for a hundred paces or so towards a rock wall.
"What now?" asked Gabrielle, as they stopped to catch their breath and survey their surroundings.
"Now we look for a rock formation shaped like an eagle's head," said Xena. She pulled out the map and unfolded it. "Like this, see? Elkton drew a little picture of it."
Gabrielle glanced at the sketch and then at the rock wall. "It's over there," she said, pointing.
Xena narrowed her gaze, staring at the spot Gabrielle had indicated. "Yeah, I think you're right," she said. "Good eye! Now, just past the eagle's head, we should find an opening in the rocks. There's a little alcove there where the plant grows."
"Okay, let's go." They set off with Gabrielle in the lead and Xena close behind, their footsteps crunching loudly as their boots broke through the hard-crusted snow. The bard's new-found enthusiasm for their project worried Xena somewhat, but she decided to wait and see what happened once they reached their destination. If Gabrielle seemed likely to cause problems, Xena thought with a grim smile, there was still the option of tying her up.
A few minutes later they rounded the base of the eagle's-head outcrop and stopped when they came to an opening in the rock wall. In a sheltered space maybe three paces wide and four deep, a sturdy shrub grew. It was nearly as tall as Xena, and the sun, still high enough to cast its light within the stone alcove, revealed leaves of dark, shiny green. Around the base of the plant was a carpet of short grass, its presence every bit as amazing as that of the kaya shrub in this region where no other plants could survive.
"I don't see any serpent," said Gabrielle impatiently, as she pushed past Xena and walked toward the plant.
Xena grabbed her arm and yanked her back. "Don't go in there!" she exclaimed. "I told you I don't want you to get hurt!" She dropped the forked staff, wrapped one arm tightly around herfriend's shoulders and pointed with her other hand. "Now, look closely," she said in a low voice. "Kind of halfway up, a little toward the right. Do you see it? That's its head. The eyes are yellow and the rest of the serpent is green. See how it's coiled among the branches?"
"Oh, yeah, there it is," Gabrielle breathed. "It kind of blends in and I didn't see it before."
"That's why you have to be careful. You could have been bitten." Xena released her hold on Gabrielle and turned the bard's face up so she could look into the green eyes. "Now, I want you to stay back here, where it's safe, but close enough so that you can help me if necessary," she said. "Can you do that?"
Gabrielle nodded, but Xena still felt uneasy.
"Promise me, Gabrielle," she said. "Promise me that you won't get involved in this fight unless I ask you to."
"But I thought I was going to get to help you fight the serpent! That's what I came up here for!"
"You can help if I need you to, but only then. Is that understood?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said reluctantly.
"Good." Xena picked up her staff and leaned it against the wall, then took off her cloak and laid it in a sunny spot nearby, where the snow had melted.
"What are you taking that off for?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't want it to get in my way," the warrior said, then removed her whip and the coil of rope she had been carrying hooked at her waist, and handed them to Gabrielle. "If you could hold these for me until I need them, that would be a big help," she added.
Then she turned to face her opponent. The serpent was moving now, the head gliding down out of the kaya shrub and the coils of the body following, sliding as swiftly and smoothly over the branches as water slides over stones. Xena watched, strangely fascinated, noting the vivid yellow-green of the creature's body, and the way its scales glistened as the sunlight struck them. The cold yellow eyes with their vertical black pupils regarded the warrior intruder steadily, with a look Xena could only describe as malicious. But the forked black tongue which flicked constantly in her direction was the only indication that the snake felt any alarm. It took a surprising amount of time for the full length of the serpent to slide down out of the branches and onto the ground below.
"Wow," whispered Gabrielle from a spot near Xena's left elbow, "it's a big one, isn't it?"
"Yeah, nearly three paces long, I think." Xena never took her eyes off the reptile, nor did its hard, unblinking gaze break from her own. The serpent's body was as big around as her upper arm, and its scaly head nearly as large as the palm of her hand. "Give me that staff with the fork in it," Xena said, and reached out to take it from Gabrielle. She glanced quickly at the size of the fork and then at the serpent. Yes, the staff would do, she decided--assuming she could lure the creature into a position where she could use the weapon to trap it.
The two opponents watched each other warily, while the serpent arranged its body into a loose coil from which Xena knew it could strike without warning. Holding its head up, and moving it slightly from side to side, the snake kept its eyes fixed on the warrior, the tongue darting in and out without ceasing. For a time, Xena stood immobile, silently sizing up this unusual antagonist. Then, in a quick movement, she thrust her staff at it. The serpent hissed loudly and slithered sideways a short distance. Xena made a second thrust, then a third, meanwhile edging cautiously forward into the alcove.
Suddenly, the serpent struck, lunging not at the staff, but directly at Xena. She leaped back instantly, but the deadly fangs still came close enough to graze her shinguard. Jabbing down with her staff, she attempted to pin the creature to the ground, but it recoiled so quickly that she captured only grass.
Xena glanced sideways at her companion. "Stand farther back, Gabrielle," she said. "This thing has a longer striking distance than I thought."
"How are you going to get ahold of it to strangle it?"
"I don't know yet, but don't worry. I'll think of something." She pondered for a moment, then held out her hand to Gabrielle. "Let me try the whip," she said. Then, shifting the staff to her left hand, she held the whip handle in her right and shook out the leather thong. She would have to be careful because a whip could draw blood, and if that happened, the game was definitely over. Working slowly, she began snaking the weapon back and forth, in and out of the alcove, gradually putting more and more of the braided length into motion. She kept her eyes on the serpent, watching its reaction, which seemed to be one of curiosity. The yellow eyes soon began following the movements of the whip, as the green head lifted higher for a better view. This was exactly what Xena wanted. She was working the whip now through its full length and, on her next cast into the alcove, she gave it a sharp flip in the direction of her opponent and watched the leather wrap itself around the serpent's neck.
In that moment, the snake struck at the warrior again, its mouth open and fangs bared, the speed of the strike once more causing her to jump back. This time, however, the reptile missed its target by a longer margin, and when Xena tried to capture it with the staff, it again eluded her. A quick slithering to one side and then back loosened the coils of the whip, and the serpent slid out of them easily.
Xena sighed in frustration and tapped the whip handle against her leg as she considered the situation. Her opponent had the advantage both of position and of time. Already the shadow of the western wall covered half the alcove, and as it deepened, it would become more difficult for the warrior to see the green snake in the green grass. If necessary, Xena knew they could go back to the campsite, spend the night, and return the next morning to continue the battle. But she would prefer not to do that. She wanted it to be over now, today, and to sleep with her own gentle lover in her arms tonight. Besides, with Gabrielle as unpredictable as she was currently, there was no guarantee that Xena could convince her to climb up here again another day. No, waiting was not a good option. There had to be a way to defeat the serpent now, and she was determined to find it.
Glancing up, she studied the walls of the rock alcove. They rose sheer and high, with no ledges or outcroppings. There was no place to which she could leap up, nothing over which she could even loop a rope. If the walls were closer together, she could jump up to a position above the serpent, bracing one foot on each side, but the walls were too far apart for that trick. She considered doing a flip over the serpent, but the kaya bush hugged the back wall and there would be no room for her to land except in the bush itself, where the branches weren't strong enough to support her weight.
She frowned, pressing her lips together. A full suit of metal armor would come in handy right now, she mused. Even a shield would have been useful, if she had just thought to buy or make one.
"Xena, how much longer is this going to take?"
Lost in thought as she had been, Xena started at the sudden sound of Gabrielle's voice. "It will take as long as it takes," she responded somewhat irritably. "This is not something I can rush. It's too dangerous."
"Well, I'm getting cold. Maybe I should just go back down to our camp and wait for you there."
"No!" Xena exclaimed. She stepped back from the alcove's opening, to a place where she knew she was out of the serpent's striking distance, then turned to face her friend. "I need you to stay here. You've been a big help already, and I want you to stay."
"You said I could help you fight, but all I've done is hand you stuff. What fun is that?"
"You really are helping me fight, Gabrielle. I know it's not a very active kind of fighting, but this isn't a normal kind of battle. And I never promised that you'd have fun," she added with a crooked grin.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and sighed.
"I just need to work on my timing," Xena said. "If I can get the serpent to keep striking, one of these times I'm going to be able to pin it with the staff."
"But every time it strikes, you risk being bitten."
"I know, but that's a risk I'll just have to take." Handing the whip to Gabrielle, Xena moved back into the alcove and began a series of thrusts with the staff which she hoped would provoke her opponent into striking. But although the reptile hissed and dodged from side to side, it did not strike. Xena moved forward as far as she dared and then back again in an effort to tempt the serpent, but in vain. "So, you're getting smart now, are you?" she muttered. "You're going to wait until I get so close that you can't possibly miss before you strike. Well, I'm not going to give you that satisfaction." Then, backing out of the alcove, she stood and wiped off the sweat which, even in this cool air, had formed on her brow.
"It's not as easy as you thought, is it?" Gabrielle said, in a taunting tone of voice that grated roughly on Xena's nerves. "Let's face it," the bard continued, "you don't have any idea how to defeat this serpent. Ares and Hera are too smart for you. You'll never get the kaya leaves, and even if you did, you couldn't make me eat them."
Gabrielle moved closer, but Xena did not respond or even look at her. Instead, she stared, unseeing, at the plant whose magic she so desperately needed.
"You might as well give up, Xena," Gabrielle said. "You might as well go back to Ares."
Xena turned then to look at her companion. The face was Gabrielle's and so was the voice, but the words, the taunts--she knew they came from Ares himself.
"I'm going to try again with the whip," Xena said quietly, reaching out to take it from Gabrielle's hand. "I'm going to keep trying until it's too dark in this alcove, and then I'm going to come back and try again tomorrow. I'm not giving up this fight until that serpent is dead . . . or I am."
Gabrielle stared at her without speaking, and Xena met her gaze for a few moments, then turned back to the alcove. She began to work the whip, slowly and methodically, with no particular plan in mind. Then, in a sudden movement, she sent the leather lashing into the alcove, above the serpent's head. The thong struck the kaya bush and wrapped around some of the branches, stripping off several leaves.
The serpent guardian reacted with loud hisses, darting its head excitedly at the whip.
Encouraged, Xena repeated the maneuver, then repeated it again. Her opponent, apparently disturbed by the loss of leaves from its shrub, became increasingly agitated. Its frenzy grew with each new shower of leaves, until finally, it struck at the whip, sinking its fangs into the braided leather. Giving a quick jerk, Xena brought the snake sliding across the grass towards her and jammed the forked staff down over its neck.
"Ha! I've got you now!" she said with a wicked grin. Then, as the serpent began to flail and twist in an effort to escape, she dropped the whip and used both hands to maintain her grip on the staff. The creature was surprisingly strong, but Xena was determined not to let it escape. Hissing, it thrashed her legs violently with its long body, wrapping itself around her ankles and then unwrapping itself again. But the warrior kept her footing, hanging onto the staff with a deathlike grip, knowing it was only a matter of time until her captive tired.
Behind her, she heard Gabrielle move closer. "Stay back," Xena warned. "This isn't over yet."
"Can I help you kill it?"
"No. It's too dangerous. Just stay back."
After some time, the movements of the serpent began to weaken. Slowly, Xena lowered herself to a crouch, working her hands down the staff while maintaining constant pressure. The hard yellow eyes were watching her, waiting, she knew, for her to make the smallest slip . . . waiting for a chance to attack. Well, it wouldn't happen. All she had to do nowwas get her hands around the serpent's throat and squeeze. She was almost there, her hands now near the bottom of the staff, right above the fork. But in that moment, just as she was letting go of the staff with her left hand in order to grab the serpent, Gabrielle yanked the sword out of the sheath on Xena's back.
"I'm going to kill it!" she exclaimed.
"No!" cried Xena, not daring to take her eyes off her captive. "Get back!"
"Yes! I'm going to hack it into little pieces!"
"No, don't! Don't use the sword!" And turning, she saw Gabrielle raise the blade with both hands and start to swing it downwards. Xena threw her left hand up and grabbed the bard's wrist to stop the swing. But as she did so, her hold on the staff slipped and she felt the serpent break free. Shoving Gabrielle back, she turned just in time to see the serpent strike, its fangs driving deep into her right arm, just above the elbow.
She screamed. She couldn't help herself; the pain was excruciating. It swept over her like a thick fog, blurring her vision and making her fight just to stay conscious. Xena shut her eyes tightly and then forced them open again, but at first she could see nothing. Slowly, though, the serpent's yellow eyes came into focus . . . the yellow eyes that regarded her now with a kind of triumphant ecstasy, while the deadly fangs pumped venom into her arm. Shaking her head sharply to clear it, Xena reached out with her left hand, grabbed the serpent's throat, and squeezed. Pouring every bit of strength she could summon up into that one act, she squeezed with all her might. Then, as she felt its bones begin to break within her grip, the serpent abruptly withdrew its fangs from her flesh. The long green body thrashed and writhed, but Xena hung on grimly. The yellow eyes began to bulge and the deadly mouth opened and closed spasmodically. It took only a couple of minutes for it all to be over, but it seemed like an eternity. Then there was one last spasm and the serpent lay limp and still.
When she was sure her opponent was dead, Xena shuddered slightly and let the scaly body drop. Only then did she become aware that the pain was almost gone from her right arm. She stared at the two fang marks and the greenish fluid that oozed from them. Touching the spot with her left hand, she felt nothing at all. Her arm lay, useless and leaden, across her thigh, like something that was no longer a part of her.
But she didn't have time to think about her arm now. The serpent was dead and the kaya leaves would soon wither. Turning, she saw Gabrielle standing a short distance behind her, the sword still clutched in both hands and pointed now at Xena.
"You think you've won because you killed the serpent," Gabrielle said in a low voice, "but you haven't. You've lost. You've been bitten, and for what? For nothing. You will never get me to eat those leaves!" Then, throwing the sword down, she whirled and ran.
"Gabrielle!" cried Xena, scrambling to her feet. "Wait!" But the younger woman was already out of sight. Following quickly, Xena rounded the eagle's-head outcropping and saw her friend running away across the snowfield in the direction of the trail.
"Come back, Gabrielle!" the warrior shouted. "I'm not going to hurt you!" But when the only response was a quickening of the bard's pace, Xena set out in pursuit.
Under ordinary circumstances, she could have easily outrun Gabrielle, but now, with her arm flopping uselessly at her side, she felt strangely awkward and off balance. The snow made running even more difficult, as each step she took broke through the crust. And doing the flips which might have increased her speed was out of the question under these circumstances.
So on she ran, trying to force as much speed as possible into her long legs. Then, just as she began to gain some ground, one of her feet slipped, and she sprawled face-first in the snow. Quickly pushing herself up with one arm to a kneeling position, she cursed when she saw Gabrielle reach the edge of the snowfield. The bard stopped briefly and glanced back, smiled at the sight of her fallen pursuer, then turned and started down the trail.
Xena reached with her left hand to unhook her chakram, took aim, and hurled it after the fleeing bard. Bouncing off a boulder on the right side of the trail, the disk thudded into the back of Gabrielle's head, ricocheted off a second boulder and returned to the warrior's hand. At the impact, Gabrielle pitched forward and lay still.
"I hope I didn't throw it too hard," murmured Xena as she returned the weapon to its place. Then, struggling to her feet, she hurried to the spot where her lover had fallen.
"Gabrielle," she called gently, as she crouched beside her friend. There was no blood on the back of the young woman's head, Xena noted with relief. She turned the bard over and touched her cheek. "Gabrielle, can you hear me? she asked.
There was a soft groan and Gabrielle opened her eyes, then closed them again.
"Good, you're just stunned," Xena said. She pulled Gabrielle partway up and, bending down, hoisted her over her left shoulder. "Sorry about this," she muttered, as she staggered to her feet. "If I had two good arms, I could carry you in a more comfortable position." Then she set off back across the snowfield toward the alcove.
* * *
By the time she reached her destination, Xena was out of breath and sweating again. Kicking the dead serpent unceremoniously out of the way, she lowered Gabrielle to the ground and propped her up so that she was sitting with her back against the rock wall next to the kaya bush. The leaves were already starting to wilt, Xena noted, as she plucked a handful of them and piled them in Gabrielle's lap. She sat down facing her lover, reached out to stroke her cheek and then shook her shoulder gently. "Gabrielle, open your eyes. It's time to wake up now," she said.
Gabrielle opened her eyes reluctantly, and seemed to have some trouble focussing. "Xena?" she mumbled.
"Yeah, it's me."
"You got hit in the back of the head."
"Hit? With what?"
"I don't know. Maybe it was a rock."
"I know, Sweetheart. Here, eat some of these herbs. They'll make you feel better." Then, crushing a couple of the kaya leaves in her fingers, she pushed them into Gabrielle's mouth. "Just chew them up and swallow. That's a good girl. Come on, chew."
Gabrielle stared at her and for a moment Xena thought she was going to refuse to eat, but then, slowly, her jaw began to move.
"That's the way!" Xena said. "Now just swallow." She stroked Gabrielle's throat gently until she felt the muscles ripple, then she looked deep into the green eyes, watching for any sign of change. But there was nothing.
"How do you feel?" she asked. "Do you feel any different?"
"No. It still hurts."
"Okay, let's try a little more." Xena crushed a few more leaves and again put them in Gabrielle's mouth. Her voice and actions were calm enough, but an icy fear was creeping into her heart. What if the plant didn't work, after all? Or what if they had wasted too much time and it had already lost its potency? She hadn't even thought to ask Elkton how many leaves Gabrielle needed to eat or how long it would take for them to work.
The bard slowly chewed and swallowed the second mouthful, sat staring for a few moments, and then suddenly gasped. Her eyes flew wide open in fear and she grabbed Xena's arm with both hands. Her breathing speeded up and her body began to tremble violently. "What's happening to me?" she whispered, and the look of terror in her eyes chilled Xena to the bone.
"You'll be all right. Really, you will," Xena said, not knowing if it was true or not.
But Gabrielle didn't seem to have heard her. The green eyes went blank, then her body jerked, stiffened, and at last went totally limp.
Xena stared at her in dismay, her mind flashing back to that horrible time in the Thessalian temple when Gabrielle had almost died. Maybe the bard had been right about the plant. Maybe it was poisonous after all. Maybe, in the end, Xena really had brought her lover all the way to the top of a mountain just to kill her. But no, that couldn't be! She laid her fingers on Gabrielle's throat and was relieved to feel a pulse still beating there, and looking closely, she could see the bard's chest gently falling and rising. Xena leaned forward, wrapped her arm around the younger woman's shoulders, and pulled her onto her lap. Cradling the blonde head on her shoulder, she pressed her mouth against the bard's forehead in a tender kiss.
"Gabrielle, come back to me," she pleaded. "Please come back! I love you! I need you! Come back! Please!" She held her lover tightly, rocking her gently, breathing in the fragrance of the golden hair.
And then, after what seemed like an eternity, there was a soft moan and Gabrielle stirred.
"Gabrielle," Xena said.
The bard's eyes opened, but she did not look up. Instead, she raised one hand and began to softly trace the design of Xena's breastplate with her fingers. It was a touch that pierced the armor and went straight to the warrior's soul. Then, after a few moments, Gabrielle looked at Xena's face and smiled. "I'm back," she said.
Xena's throat tightened and, unable to speak, she bent and kissed Gabrielle's lips. "I'm glad you're back," she whispered at last. "I missed you."
"How did you do it? How did you manage to get me back?" asked Gabrielle. Then, sitting up and looking around, she added, "And where in the world are we, anyway?"
Xena sighed. "Okay, let me see if I understand this. Now you don't remember anything that happened after Ares drugged you, right?"
"Well, nothing after that night when I came into your dream, anyway. After I got shut up in that cage, I couldn't tell what was going on anymore."
"But you got all your other memories back?"
"Yep! I remember everything! Except where we are right now and how we got here."
Xena smiled. "We're on top of a mountain near Elkton's village," she said. "We started out early this morning, climbed till we got all the way up here, then I killed a serpent, made you eat the leaves of that kaya bush there, you got your memories back, and that's pretty much the whole story."
Gabrielle frowned and stared at the kaya bush. "I ate some of those shriveled-up, dead-looking leaves?" she asked.
"Well, they weren't shriveled up at the time."
"And you killed a serpent? That big, ugly green one over there? How did you kill it?"
"That's a long story," said Xena, touching Gabrielle's cheek lightly. "I'll tell you on the way down to our campsite." She glanced up at the shadow on the high rock wall. "It's getting late, and we need to get going."
"Okay," said Gabrielle. She started to get up, but then she stopped, a puzzled look on her face. "Xena, why aren't you using your other arm? Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine-- I mean-- It doesn't really hurt, but-- The serpent bit me."
"Bit you? Let me see."
Xena hesitated for a second, then took ahold of her right arm with her left hand and pulled it forward.
"Can't you move it?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.
"No. It's paralyzed. Elkton told me that if I got bitten on an arm or a leg, I would lose the use of that limb."
Gabrielle slid off of Xena's lap and knelt beside her, taking the limp arm gently in her hands. "Where's the-- Oh, I see." She ran her fingers lightly over the wound. "It looks like those fangs went in deep," she said, glancing up at Xena's face. "But it doesn't hurt?"
"Well, it did at first, but not now."
Gabrielle studied the arm for a few moments, touching it here and there. "It doesn't seem to be swelling much," she said finally, "but don't you think we should take your bracers off . . . just in case it swells later?"
"Yeah. That's a good idea."
Gabrielle slipped the forearm bracer off over Xena's hand, then eased the upper arm band carefully down over the fang marks. "Am I hurting you?" she asked.
"No, Gabrielle. I can't feel anything in that arm."
"Nothing at all?"
"Nothing," Xena said softly.
Gabrielle finished removing the arm guard and then looked up, her concern written clearly on her face. "Did Elkton say the effect of the bite would be permanent?"
"Well, he didn't say that, exactly, but I think that's what he meant."
"But Xena, this is your right arm! How will you fight?"
"Oh, I'll manage. It will take a little getting used to, but I've always been able to use a sword and throw my chakram left-handed. In fact," Xena said, grinning, "When I threw my chakram at you a little while ago, I hit right on target. And if I'm not mistaken, you have a pretty big lump on the back of your head by now."
Gabrielle looked at her in surprise and gingerly felt the back of her head. "So that's why my head hurts," she said. "I thought it was just the drug wearing off. You know, like when I ate that nutbread, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Xena said, taking one of Gabrielle's hands in hers. "What's nice, though, is that you remember, too."
"But why did you hit me with your chakram?"
"Because you were running away."
"Running away? Why?"
"You thought I wanted to poison you with the kaya leaves."
Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "Why would I think that?" she asked.
"I'll tell you later. Right now we need to get off this mountain."
"Okay," said the bard as she stood up. "Are we going back to Elkton's house tonight?"
"No, we're just going back down past the treeline to where we left Argo and our gear." Xena got to her feet and brushed the grass and snow off her leathers.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, moving to stand in front of the warrior. "I think your not being able to use that arm is a bigger deal than you're letting on. There must be a way to heal it. Maybe Elkton knows how to reverse the power of the venom. Or if he doesn't, then maybe Nicklio--"
"Gabrielle, listen to me," Xena said quietly, and laid her hand on her friend's shoulder. "I was fully prepared to give up my life, if necessary, to save you. So, if the only thing I have to give up is one arm, then that's a small price to pay." She put her arm around Gabrielle and pulled her close. "I am just so glad to have you back. I hope you know how much I love you."
"I know," whispered Gabrielle against Xena's chest. Then she wrapped her arms around the warrior in a fierce hug.
Xena knew they should get started down the trail, but it felt so good to hold her lover again, even if she could only do it with one arm. She bent and kissed Gabrielle's cheek, and then their lips came together in a gentle kiss which soon deepened. It was hard to break away, but she did at last. "We really have to go," she said softly.
"Yeah, I know." They stepped apart and Gabrielle glanced down for a moment, then at Xena. "How come I'm wearing a cloak and you're not?" she said. "Aren't you cold?"
"Mine's over there," Xena said, nodding to where she had left the folded garment. "I took it off so it wouldn't get in the way while I was fighting the serpent."
"Okay, I'll get it for you."
Xena walked over, meanwhile, to the spot where her sword lay. As she bent to pick it up, her right arm swung forward, reminding her of its uselessness. She straightened up with a small sigh. She would just have to get used to it, that was all. Then, raising the sword, she tried to put it into the scabbard which had been rigged for right-handed use.
"Here, let me help you with that," Gabrielle said after watching for a few moments.
"Okay," Xena said reluctantly.
"We just need to fix this so you can use it with the other hand," the bard said cheerfully. She unhooked the scabbard, repositioned it, and fastened it on again with the opening behind Xena's left shoulder. "Now try it," she said.
It was still a little awkward, but after a couple of tries, Xena got her sword put away.
"See? That works," said Gabrielle. "We can move your chakram hook around to the other side, too. Want me to do that?"
"Not right now. But there is something else you can do for me before we start down the trail."
"Take some of that rope and tie my arm."
"Tie your arm? What do you mean?"
"Like this," Xena said, using her left hand to hold her right arm across her abdomen. "That way it won't be flopping around all the time. It throws me off balance."
"Oh . . . right. I see." Gabrielle got the rope and began figuring out how to tie Xena's arm. "This is a little strange," she said with an attempt at a smile. "Tying you up, I mean."
"Yeah, it's kind of kinky, isn't it?" It was meant as a joke, but neither of them laughed. Their eyes met and held for a moment, and then Gabrielle quickly turned back to the knot she was tying. When she had finished, she put the cloak around Xena's shoulders and fastened it. Then, walking over to where the dead serpent lay, she stood staring down at it. Xena, too, took a last look at her opponent, then bent to retrieve her whip.
"Here, I can carry that," Gabrielle said and quickly wound the leather thong around her waist. Then she picked up her staff and the waterskin. "Okay, have we got everything?" she asked. "What about that forked thing? Is that yours?"
"Just leave it," Xena said, and moved over to stand in front of her lover. "Gabrielle, she said and then waited until the bard looked up at her. "I don't want your pity. I think I can take anything from you except that."
"I know," Gabrielle said, biting her lip. "It's just that I feel so . . . responsible."
"You're not responsible, and I don't want you thinking that you are. I knew what the risks were and I chose to take them. I'm the one who's responsible."
Gabrielle nodded and looked away. "We need to get going," she said. "And you need to tell me the story of how you killed the serpent."
"Okay, I will," Xena said with a smile. Then she led the way out of the alcove and they started across the snowfield together.