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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction.
Continued from here.
"Drop your weapons!" Valerian called out to his slaves. However, his brown eyes were fixed on the small red head in front of him. It was a hard battle and the fact that Gabrielle was a good fighter didnt surprise Valerian at all. Although fighting for their freedom and their lives, poorly equipped, poorly trained and caught by surprise, the slaves were doomed to lose.
Gabrielle dropped her staff to the ground. It was hopeless. Although Valerian didnt have many guards, every one of them was first rate fighter. Most if not all the slaves would die if they resist. Knowing the slaves would be willing to fight till death for her, Gabrielle couldnt let it happen.
Valerian could read shame as well as disappointment in Gabrielles green eyes, and the sight satisfied him. He knew that the bard was trying to live up to Xenas image. And the failure would no doubt damage her self-esteem. She would not be given the chance to lead the slaves again. Even if she were allowed the chance, her influence to the slaves would not be nearly as well as it was before. Valerian knew that, for the slaves, when they had dropped their weapons they had given up their last dream for freedom as well.
Gabrielle was rethinking what had happened. They broke out of the dungeon just as planned. And they were running toward the west gate. Then, suddenly, Valerian and his guards appeared out of nowhere and surrounded the slaves. A fight ensued but the slaves were eventually defeated. Gabrielle remembered fighting Valerian, who just played with her. Cutting her limbs here and there and careful not to make any fatal wounds, Valerian was clearly enjoying himself. Gabrielle, however, hated herself. The fact that she couldnt bring the slaves to freedom, the fact that she had caused death to the slaves, and the fact that she might have broken the slaves last hope for freedom all weighted heavily against the bards mind. Back in the dungeon, which the slaves had just left not long ago, the profound melancholy that settled on some of the slaves faces made Gabrielles heart bleed. All these, were what Valerian wanted, which she involuntarily helped to carry out.
Every slave was chained to place when Valerian walked into the dungeon with a bag of gold hanging from his belt. Stopped in front of Gabrielle, Valerian regarded her with a curiosity of that of a cat to a mouse. Gabrielle held her head high, intense defiance in her steady gaze.
"Youve lost, Gabrielle." Valerians brown eyes were kind and still. Gabrielle shivered at the devil that danced behind them. Valerians firm lips cured up at one side showing a grin that strongly resembled Xenas devious smirk.
"No I have not lost. You have frustrated my plan to free the slaves, but you have not injure my desire for freedom." was Gabrielles calm answer.
Yet, Valerian read anything but calmness in Gabrielles eyes. Good self control, she is afraid, but she doesnt show.
"Well, one at a time, Gabrielle. First, I destroy your plan, then I conquer you. I knew everything. What goes on during your bed time story telling, your secret communications methods and your pathetic little plan to escape were all in my observation. But knowing these, I ALLOWED them to happen. I have given you, all of you slaves, a chance. And you have all lost. From now on, we will be on a ship to Egypt, and you will all be punished for what you have done. Starting with you, Gabrielle, you will have to pay up for your rebellious heart." Valerian gazed steadily at Gabrielle, but there was no fear in her eyes. With a devious grin, Valerian decided to break the young bards heart a bit further. "And do you know who tipped me off of your plan, Gabrielle? It was a slave."
Gabrielle could barely control her tears. Valerians public announcement of a slaves betrayal made it harder for the rest of the slaves to trust and believe in themselves. Although knowing it already, Gabrielle was still hurt to realize that Valerian was aiming at not only the slaves' physical bodies, but also their souls as his target of conquest. Valerian, however, went on. "It was Dolon."
The slaves gasped. Even Gabrielle felt dumbfounded, as if someone had just whacked her head with a club. Dolon was the strongest slave of all. He was always up against the guards or the slave trader himself despite the whipping that always ensued. It was impossible to imaging Dolon as a traitor.
"I know you think its impossible, but it is true. Look around you, Dolon is not here. He is a strong man, but he has one weakness. He loves his wife. And when I told him he could be free to go to his wife and kids if he talks, he talked. The hero in your fairy tale is, in real life, a traitor. I have told you, Gabrielle, that life is very ironic, as it tuned out to be. If you are still not convinced, Ill prove the point to you in the days ahead. From now on, you will be locked in an individual cell, and there will be no more stories. No one will believe in your stories after this fight anyway." After that, Valerian turned to leave, but stopped in front of the door. "By the way," Valerian showed Gabrielle the bag of gold. "Two thousand dinars for todays trade, made it a very good day indeed." Then he walked away with a satisfied look.
The next morning, Xena found the forest suddenly stopped, and she was facing a strange desert. Three candle-marks walk into the desert was a cliff that erected directly into the cloud covered sky. The cloud only covered the cliffs top. Outside of that rage, there was sunshine. The scorched yellow sand formed a sharp contrast with the dark cliff, which stood like a giant and blocked the view. Xena felt as if she had walked to the edge of the earth. And the cliff was the wall that separates the sphere of life and death.
The warrior walked into the desert with the confidence of a commander and the pride of a princess. Just by the look, no one could tell that she was suffering from intense heat and a wounded leg. The spring on her feet and the strength in her walk silently announced to the world that she was simply unstoppable.
For candle-marks Xena walked, the sight of the forest had receded into the horizon, but he cliff was not any nearer than when she had started. The desert seamed to have stretched itself and the cliff seamed to be a place one can never approach. In her mind, Xena knew that there was no big desert in the vicinity. And the desert in front of her, at least part of it, should be an illusion. She also knew that no matter how powerful a witch was, she could only camouflage the actual object. That means, the limbo cliff, if it exist, must be ahead, and regardless of her vision, if she kept walking, she would eventually get to the cliff. Consequently, Xena walked on.
Gradually, Xenas thirst built on. She hadnt been drinking anything ever since she had left the village. And the heat of her surrounding intensified the thirst until it started to torture the warriors mind. The warrior stopped and thrust her sword into the sand. If the sand were an illusion, there should be something else beneath it. However, it was only sand that the sword dug into. Xena was confused. What is this place? Her warriors sense told her that she should be close to the cliff then, but she wondered why did the desert seamed so real.
Xena walked on, and the desert kept stretching, Xena's mind was raising for a solution, then understanding hit her. While holding the hilt of her sword, Xena dug the tip of her sword into the ever-lasting sand. After walking straight toward where the limbo cliff were, Xena looked back at the trace left by her sword, it was an arc, not a straight line. She was walking circles! The image of the cliff was only an illusion, which the witch rotates constantly to misdirect Xena. Using her well-polished sword as a mirror, Xena could see the image of another cliff. She knew the reflected image in her sword was the right one, and walked toward it. Although she was as thirsty as ever, her mind was excited by the prospect of arriving at the cliff soon.
Suddenly, Xena heard footstep coming from behind her. She turned and found a wolf was walking out of the fussy horizon of sand. It was a black wolf that looked just like the one she had killed not long ago. The wolf looked thirsty and desperate. He walked steadily toward Xena and regarded her with his dismal red eyes. Behind those eyes, Xena could read a primeval power mingled with an utter most respect. The wolf wanted to kill Xena to live, but at the same time, he knew that he could be killed as well. He stopped just before entering Xenas fighting distance and watched Xena with absolute concentration, waiting for the right moment to attack.
Xena drew her sword and confronted the dangerous animal. Her face was a mask of marble. Her eyes only showed keen focus. Her body was rigid yet flexible. While her body could move and twist in anyway she wanted it to, her mussels were ready to contract at any moment and deliver the killing blow.
The pair faced each other in the middle of the desert, watching, waiting. A gust of wind blew by, carrying with it the hot sand. The wind bypassed the wolf and directly traveled toward Xena. Xena was caught by surprise, and turned her head just a little to avoid the sand been blow into her eyes. The wolf charged at the same time.
Sensing rather than seeing the wolfs position, Xena turned her head to avoid the bite to her neck. Her sword was knocked off from her and she was pushed down. With one leg in a keeling position, Xena kicked with the other leg into the wolfs stomach. The wolf rolled away, but was instantly on his feet and jumped onto Xena again. This time, Xena was able to block the wolfs paw with her arms. Controlling the wolfs hind legs with her feet and the wolfs head with her hands, Xena managed to turn around and climbed on the wolf's back. The wolf struggled, but was pushed into the hot, suffocating sand by powerful hands. Even before the wolfs death, Xena had already sunk her teeth into his vein for the precious blood.
Gabrielle was in a restless sleep when she felt a sharp slap on her face. She woke up to find the jail guard looking down at her. Another guard had opened the jail door for his boss. Valerian came into the cell with a kind smile. Not knowing his character, one might mistake him with a trustworthy friend. And trusting people was something that Gabrielle felt naturally inclined to do. Never the less, Gabrielle could read the abysmal cruelty behind those calm brown eyes.
"Tomorrow morning, you will be shipped to Egypt," Valerian informed her, "and on the boat, you will have no chance to cause any trouble." The slave trader looked at Gabrielle with a smile. "I often find the sea a fascinating place. Before I have meet Xena, I was once a mate on a slave trading ship just like the one I now own. Of course, the ship I own is much faster. Xena had sunk the one I used to work on. There was a fight and we lost. She liked my skill, thats why she kept me around, but she had never trusted me. She knew I am too cleaver for her. And it didnt surprise me at all that she eventually wanted me killed."
"How did you escape?" The bard asked with half an air of sincerity.
"Well, lets just say when I have been preparing for something for years, I am generally ready when it eventually comes. I knew she never intended to keep me for long. I am as good a warrior as Xena herself, which was the reason that she had to kill me. Xena wanted to conquer this part of the coast, and I can sail a ship in and out of any harbor with my eyes closed. That was the only reason she kept me alive"
Gabrielle had to admit that Valerian was a good fighter.
"But, enough about me, I am here to talk about you," Valerian changed the subject as well as his tone. His voice turned soft, as if that of a mentor to his pupil, "life is going to be hard for you."
"I have never thought otherwise."
"Why? Gabrielle, why do you care so much about the people who do not care for you."
"How do you know they do not care for me."
"I have been a slave trader for good part of my life. I know what slaves are thinking. And I can tell that all the slaves who rebelled yesterday were doing it for themselves. Only you did it for the good of others. Investment without handsome payment is not worthwhile. You have so generously invested so much on the hearts of these slaves, but I will prove to you how cold and unfeeling the hearts of slaves can be." Valerians eyes were still kind, but there was an edge in his voice.
"You might be right, Valerian, that I am a dreamer, a hopelessly idealistic bard. But once you bluer the boundary between ideality and reality, you will be surprised by what dreams can inspire." Gabrielles tone was soft as if she were telling a story to a kid, but the strength behind her green eyes was unmistakable. "The power of hope that I always talk about is not an idle thing. And the knowledge that all humans are equal can be a potent force. You might not realize the power of the knowledge when it washes over you like water. But you will definitely not be able to withstand it when that force rushes toward you like the raging flood."
"You are, Gabrielle, most like water, pure, soft and yet boundless," Valerian was still smiling, the admiration was genuine, "But dont forget that I excel at conquering water. It is my expertise to ride the waves, to survive the storms and to challenge even Poseidon himself." Then Valerians face turned into the most threatening look, and he howled with a deep ringing voice. "Your hope will be crashed mercilessly by my hand and you will bow submissively in front of my feet!" With that Valerian walked outside of the dark cell, leaving the helpless Gabrielle pondering what Xena would do in her situation.
Xena picked up her sword after had consumed the wolf. Turning around, she found that twelve monsters had appeared out of nowhere. Bull headed men, winged serpents, and dual headed dogs surrounded Xena and were coming closer. Without a word the warrior charged. It was a hard battle, the winged serpents charged Xena from the head to divide her attention; the two headed dogs assaulted her legs to get her off balance; and the Bull headed men attacked her from the front to kill her. However, danger excited Xena and she fought with vigor. Her body was in a fluid harmony; her eyes were constantly tracking seven or eight targets at once; her ears were hearing every movement her opponents made; and her sword was an natural extension of her arm. Each precise and deadly strike ensured Xena one less enemy, until twelve blood covered bodies lied motionless on the hot yellow desert.
Xena walked forward felling a power, the power of the conqueror, surging through her. Knowing that all the creatures were the creation of the witch, and each killing she made weakened the power of the witch, Xena was pleased at her progress. However, Xena also knew that the fighting she had been through was just small skirmish comparing to the battles to come, therefore, she was not surprised at all to find herself surrounded by twelve well armed professional killers. The killers were all top-rated fighters, and they were trained to fight together. But Xena was just in the mood for slaughter and excelled at the fight ensued, the crashing of her sword sent rattles through the bulky warriors' bodies, and the pitch of her war cry hammered fear into their hearts.
Although Xena didn't know it, far at the top of the limbo cliff, a dark figure watched the fight intensely. It was the witch. Her blue eyes glistened at the spectacle. The witch could imagine herself fighting Xena, paralleling her strike, dodging her kicks, and blocking her thrusts. Wanting to extend her vision, the witch called again to the power of the dark magic. Instantly, through the eyes of one of the killers, the witch met with Xena's glare. The witch could feel an intense power flashing out from Xena's electric blue eyes. At a brief moment, when the relentless Warrior Princess' focus was concentrated on the killer whom the witch was residing on, the witch felt, as the killer did, an unmistakable tough of death. The witch withdrew her power and shivered, while watching the killer, who had been her eyes just a moment ago, dying in his own blood. 'Powerful woman!,' the witch thought to herself, then the end of her lip cured into a grin. 'Once her soul is mine, so is her power, I wonder what is inside her soul.'
One last killer was left to confront the excited Warrior Princess. The killer stood fully half a foot taller than Xena and weight no less than two hundred and sixty pounds. That was, two hundred and sixty pounds of pure mussel. A scare on his right face, which run from the corner of his right eye all the way to the end of his jar, cured his lip up to an eternal snare, showing his yellow, smoke colored tooth. His eyes flashed the courage that was draw from the fear he felt, and his eyebrows frowned to intensify his stare. Xena could read in his eyes, an empty soul. He, like many other killers she used to employ in the battlefields, knew only slaughter. The cruelty of the killing served only to intensify the delight he took to commit the act and the emptiness he would feel afterwards. He would rather stab himself than show mercy in front of his victims. In Xena's eyes, the person in front of her was not much different than the monsters and wolves she had destroyed. The person was only a beast who lived to kill, and he had to be slain. Although knowing, in the bottom of her heart, that Gabrielle would probably find something good about him, Xena was too preoccupied to analysis the faint feeling.
The killer attacked. Xena stepped away, and at the same time, thrust her sword into the big guy's heart. However, the killer didn't fall like the others, instead, smoke came from his breeding wound. And when the smoke had dissipated, two more fighters appeared and charged toward Xena.
Gabrielle was shoved out of her cell and pushed on board a big ship. It was a clear day. Golden sun shined on a blue sky. White waves were surfing on the azure sea under warm spring breeze. Sea birds were flying about, now diving into the waves for a swim, now flying up against the blue sky, and now, grew tired, resting on the sandy sore, picking invisible food from the wet sand. Gabrielle felt that she could shout poems toward the scene. She loved the water, the air, the birds, and the sunlight. She loved life. Yet she knew that freedom alone gave life its essence, and she could bestow everything she had to earn the slaves' freedom.
Although Gabrielle was chained on one of the canvas poles, majority of the slaves were locked in two big cabins under the deck. Slaves with sailing experiences were forced to work on deck. After had watched Gabrielle intensely for some time, Valerian choose three strong male slaves and took them into his private cabin. And the mate had already started the routine of sailing the ship out of the harbor.
Almost half of Valerian's men were left on the land to recruit soldiers. Valerian wanted to have a decent sized army by the time he returned from Egypt. Because Valerian was confident that controlling the deprived slaves on a ship was easier than controlling them on land, he usually leave half of his men on land to capture new slaves while he himself transport the original group of slaves over sea. By so doing, Valerian could shorten the time needed for each business cycle. This time, however, Valerian felt that he had already had enough money to build an army, therefore no more slave trading was necessary.
Before long, the land had receded into the horizon. Although it was a clear day, Gabrielle had already started to feel mild discomfort in her stomach. However, her concentration was drawn back to Valerian as the slave trader walked out of his cabin with a grin.
Gabrielle watched the slave trader walking closer. The devious light from his eyes and especially the twisted grin on the slave trader's otherwise impassive face scared her. Gabrielle felt that her back began to sweet at the slave trader's look, which she knew only too well. It was the very same look Xena gave her when she dragged her from her amazon hut all the way to the Illusia field.
For the first time, Valerian read fear from Gabrielle's eyes, and that pleased him. He walked closer to Gabrielle, softly brushed aside a strain of her golden red hair so he could have a better look at her beautiful face. Gabrielle turned her head away. Valerian gripped her chin firmly and made sure they were making eye contacts, then said in an intensely kind tone "You will be punished by three slaves."
The simple words carved into Gabrielle's heart like knives. Closing her eyes to gather herself, She couldn't, for the moment, form a clear thought. When she opened her amazing green eyes again, however, Valerian could read no fear, no hatred, nor sorrow. He had expected Gabrielle to either burst into tears, claps into despair or curse at him wildly. Yet, when Gabrielle spoke, the calmness in her voice shocked the slave trader. The girl said simply, "I forgave them."
Valerian's face was cold. Gabrielle could not read any emotion behind the warrior's mask. But she knew that the slave trader was, to say the least, frustrated. "You risked your life for them. All they can do is to repay you with violence. And you forgave them?" Valerian's tone was as cold as his appearance.
"Whatever they are going to do, they are compelled to do so."
"What difference does it make? They still hurt you," Valerian's face softened, his brown eyes were curiously searching for an answer, "it is not worth it, Gabrielle, to risk your life for those stupid slaves. I can make them do what ever I want them to do, even if it means to betray their own friends, even if it means to kill you. You, Gabrielle, are made of infinitely finer material. You are such a wonderful human being that even I am reluctant to see you hurt by the filthy hands of the slaves," Valerian's voice was compassionate, his tone was sincere, "I never meant to destroy such an outstanding person as you. If you would just renounce your believes, I'll set you free." Valerian put a hand on Gabrielle's solder and spoke with the kindness of a father to his daughter, "I now how you love the simple things around you. By feeling the breath of the spring, hearing the singing of the birds, and seeing flowers budding from the fragrant soil, your spirit mingles with nature. By a simple tough, a friendly hug and an encouraging smile, your soul dances with others, and you rejoice such moments. I know how much you want to return to your friends and family."
Gabrielle looked into Valerian's brown eyes, and knew he was right. She longed to return to her family and her best friend, even if momentarily, ever since the slave trader took her freedom.
"Don't you want to celebrate your sister's next birthday? Don't you want to perform your wonderful story telling to your town's people around peaceful campfires under star filled sky? Don't you want to give Xena the first hug when she returns from her victory?"
Realization sank into Gabrielle's heart that she might never be able to do anything that. And she didn't even have a chance to say goodbye to her beloved warrior.
"You still have so much life to live, Gabrielle. PLEASE, do not risk all these just to be a slave in bondage and in pain." Valerian concluded sadly with a pleading, which warriors do not use unless in extreme circumstances.
It was a long silence during which million thoughts went through Gabrielle's mind. Finally, with a deep sigh, Gabrielle spoke with a soft but steady voice. "I'll have to insist on my course of action. Yes, I cherish life. That is why I cannot let lives be destroyed by slavery."
The slave trader's benevolent countenance dissolved once again into the cold warrior's mask. He turned and was about to walk away, but was stopped midway by Gabrielle's words.
"Now I know why Dolon told you about my plan and why the three poor brothers agreed to inflict harm upon me, and I can forgave them with all my heart."
Unable to contain himself any longer, Valerian looked at Gabrielle with the most threatening snare while gripped her neck with his powerful hand. "Beware, Gabrielle, by the end of this day, you will curse the moment you were born!" With a squeeze, Valerian walked away from the choking bard.
Xena was fighting fourteen men at the same time. It was midday, and the sun was scorching. For the past candle mark, Xena had stricken down many enemies, but for everyone she killed there would be two more coming toward her. Xena had been fighting constantly, knowing that she would weaken the power of the witch by defeating her creations. However, Xena was tiring, because she was never allowed a break for the good part of the day. Xena let her instinct took over. Her hard-trained body reacted to the dangers automatically.
Simultaneously blocking a spear with the left hand and driving her sword into her opponent's heart with her right arm, Xena's body never allowed her enemies a chance to recover. One soldier swung his axe toward Xena's leg, her leg coiled up against her chest, then snapped out to deliver a head high kick to the soldier's temple, broke his skill, all before the soldier's axe had a chance to traveled half its way down. Yet the dead soldier vanished into the sand where he had fallen, and two more soldiers stood up and charged. Xena's mind was raising. While focusing on every movement around her, she was thinking a way out of the situation.
In a short time, the opponents around Xena doubled, and quadrupled. Although not showing it, Xena was tired. From the outside, her proud head was still halt high and dominant; her flexible body was still straight and alert; and her flashing blue eyes were still threatening. But a causal observer would realize that her breathing had grown heavy and irregular; her stance had become shorter; and her feral grin had disappeared. Yes, Xena was desperate for a way out, and she didn't notice the subtle changes of her opponent's identity until a peasant looking man was charging her with a farmer's fork. Xena could have killed him with a single stoke, yet the fork reminded her all too strongly of her nightmares.
The scenes of mercilessly killing farmers who were desperately protecting their families and processions hunted the Warrior Princess for many winters. The very same scene that appeared in front of the warrior's eyes choked her into stillness, and her mind snapped just in time to avoid a killing brow. Although Xena's instinctive reaction when turning her body to avoid a weapon was to drive her own weapon into her opponent, she mastered her instinct, and only knocked the peasant down unconscious with a backhand. Determined not to kill a single person anymore, Xena let her sword fall from her hand and fought empty-handedly. Yet, just when her sword had fallen, all her opponents disappeared. Following that, a clear, mocking laughter echoed in the air.
Picking up her sword, Xena found that a dark-haired warrior was walking out of the mystic horizon of the desert. Xena turned toward the figure, knowing that the witch had finally decided to confront her. It was indeed the witch who had walked out from the sandy wind and faced Xena, careful to stand outside of her attacking range. Xena regarded the face she knew. She had seen the face in the dark forest, on the head of the statue. She had known the face for a long time. It was the face of her own.
The witch smiled at the person she had been admiring for many winters. "Xena, I am honored to meet you."
"When the villagers saw me, they thought it was you."
The witch nodded. "Fair is fair. Ten winters ago, before I have got my power, people shun away from me just as quick because of you."
"And you made all these up, the wolfs, the monsters, the killers, the bandits, the soldiers, and, eventually, the peasants." Xena recalled, in sequence, the kinds of people who had attacked her.
"What does it matter?" The witch smirked, "they all wanted to hurt and to kill you, and your warrior's instinct demands them to be slaughtered. When you are coming to get me, Xena, you are coming toward me in every way." There is a long pause after the word when both warriors were lost in their own thoughts. The witch spoke again "I have been admiring you for a long time, Xena. I want to befriend you. With your power and my magic, we will be invincible."
"How dare you training me to be a killer again!" Xena yelled.
"What is a tiger if it will not slaughter a fawn, what is a wolf if it refuses to devour a rabbit, and what is a warrior if you have to resist your intrinsic desire to conquer. Xena, it is your natural instinct to fight and to conquer. What does it matter if your opponent is a peasant or a wolf? They all wanted to see you dead. It is your soul's calling to fight and relish the exaltation of the conqueror."
"I do not wrong myself by doing the wrong." Xena snapped.
"Who cares what is right and what is wrong," the witch could barely control her temper now, "the gods kill indiscriminately, and so shall we!"
Xena found herself in no mood to argue. "Killing is justified only if it brings out the greater good. And that's what I'm here for, to kill you."
The witch nodded with a smirk, "or be killed." With that the two fighters crashed swords.
The three slaves carried out their jobs thoroughly. Chained to the canvas post and unable to protect herself, Gabrielle could only tighten her mussel and twist her body in that little room her chains allowed to minimize the damage. Before long, blood marked her sad face, and nausea filled her troubled mind. Very soon after, her feet couldn't support her any longer, and her weight was hung entirely on the chains. Eventually, a hard knock to the back of her head rendered her unconscious.
A bucket of seawater brought Gabrielle reluctantly back into the harsh world. Valerian was standing in front of her chained body and regarding her with his cold eyes. His face expressionless, Valerian roughly grabbed Gabrielle's chin and inspected her bruised face. Then, he nodded to the soldiers behind him, who immediately grabbed the three slaves and locked them into the cabins with the other slaves.
"They have done their jobs well." Valerian said evenly.
"You have promised their freedom." Gabrielle mastered enough strength to speak out.
"And you will keep your promise."
"Of course, I am a man of my words," Valerian answered, now, with a half grin. "I'll not sell them, and I will not kill them. If they live long enough, they will be set free."
"Live long enough?"
"The slaves working up here moments ago had witnessed their heroic deeds, and by now all the other slaves should know the story of the trio. Although you have forgiven these three idiots, I doubt the other slave will be as forgiving as you."
For a moment Gabrielle was speechless. Although knowing Valerian's devious nature, the slave trader's fiendish thought process still sent shivers up her spin. She felt a silent rage, an icy fire burning inside her chest.
The slave trader continued. "The real world is a strange place, Gabrielle. If you insist on the notion of good and evil, then you'll find that good people do bad things and vise versa. The more you think, the more you'll realize that the live you cherish so much is actually a sordid existence. And for some nameless, purposeless individuals, the sooner life ends the better, both for others around them and for themselves." With that, Valerian turned and walked away, hoping the seed of despair was planed and would grow in time.
Gabrielle realized then that the slave trader planned all that she went through. The three slave's beating, as well as Dolon's betrayal, would make the slaves believe that no matter what they do, they would not be able to stand up against Valerian, who, like a demon, could maneuver whoever he had chosen to do what ever he willed. Valerian's goal was to force into the slaves' minds that they are naturally inferior, therefore, the slaves would think that they dont deserve, nor should they have, freedom. Gabrielle knew that she couldn't give up and give in to the slave trader. She had failed to free the slaves, but at least she could show them the spirit of freedom could never be dominated.
In the afternoon, Valerian came to check on Gabrielle again. Seeing, in the bard's amazing green eyes, not a single trace of depression, the slave trader decided that further torture was needed. The first thing he asked was "have you ever been whipped?"
"No." Gabrielle answered, trying to keep her voice even.
"Being a rebellious slave, you'll be whipped many times." Valerian said in a kind voice, as if offering an advice, or words of wisdom, "the pain is intense. Anyone being whipped would eventually want to do anything to stop the pain."
"I told you before that I can only be conquered with my own consent. I am not a slave and I don't want to be treated as one. Whipping will do little to change that."
Warrior's mask firmly in place, Valerian was hiding his frustration. He had plenty experiences dealing with slave-rebellions before. And Valerian had always been successful in driving the leaders of the rebellions into despair. Their plans of escape defeated, betrayed and beaten by friends they trust, the leaders of slave rebellions would eventually come to accept the slave trader's position as the master. And once the leaders had surrendered their will, the rest of the slaves would follow the example. But Gabrielle was different. She was almost as smart as Xena and definitely as determinate as Xena. When she had set her mind on doing something, she just never gave up.
Valerian wondered, for the second time in his life, how was it possible that a single person could harbor such boundless energy and determinations. Valerian remembered the first time when he felt such genuine admiration toward another person was when he was still a general in Xena's army.
In order to preserve their main force, Xena and him had to lead a small portion of their army to lure their enemies into another channel. Xena knew, as well as him, that it was a suicide mission. Even if they had survived their enemies' on slaughter, they would have to walk days before they could find the rest of their army. Xena was leading the suicide pack because she knew Valerian would surrender, and her near arrogant confidence told her that she could survive.
For days they run, and fought, and fought, and run. Xena had been leading the way, and she never stop to wait for the weak and the wounded. Valerian followed the best he could. There had been minimal food and no rest. For days, sweat, blood and toil had been the only constant companion. But, with commanding stride and relentless determination, Xena moved on, until Valerian was the only soldier following her, until even their enemies cannot catch up with them, until they have eventually got all the way back to their own army. Valerian had never known how did he get into his own tent. At the first sight of his army, Valerian had fallen to the ground near Xena's feet and lost his conscious. Xena had told him, later on, that she had to drag his useless ass into their compound. That was when he had fully comprehended the meaning of the Warrior Princess. And Valerian had felt defeated. Valerian determined not to be defeated again, by Xena's SIDEKICK.
At the same time when Valerian was lost in his thoughts, Gabrielle was thinking exactly the same person, Xena. Gabrielle had learned, shortly after her traveling with Xena, what it was like to do things she was not capable of. Gabrielle remembered her early days of traveling with the Warrior Princess. Once, in order to stop a warlord's attack, they had to run with full speed over a mountain to get to a village in three days. At the end of the first day Gabrielle had already been so tired that she could hardly cook dinner. After dinner, Gabrielle had barely closed her eyes before it was dawn again. She was dragged to her feet by powerful hand and resumed the walking with her sore legs. Holding Argo's reins, Xena had been leading the way. Gabrielle had known that even with Argo on tow, Xena could walk much faster. But the speed that they had been traveling was already pushing the young bard's limit. Clenching her teeth and digging her staff deeper into the road, Gabrielle had forced her legs to move as fast as they could. "Each move stronger and faster than the one before." She had remembered the warrior's words.
The very afternoon, Xena told the poor bard that they had been traveling too slowly. To save time, Xena had to move ahead to find a place for the night, and the bard could catch up later. All the afternoon, the bard had been worried about herself. She had been afraid that Xena might feel that she was too much a trouble to keep around and might ask her to go home. When Gabrielle finally drag her fatigued body into the campsite that Xena had chosen, she was surprised to find that a simple dinner had already been cooked. Gabrielle felt so useless that she couldn't look at Xena in her eyes. Xena had handed her a brow of beans and said simply "Good determination." In her exhausted state, the bard looked up to the warrior's impassive face and amazing blue eyes and smiled. It was the best complement she had ever received.
They made it to the village the third day and stopped the warlord due largely in part to the renewed energy from the very tenacious bard. In the years of traveling with Xena, Gabrielle had done many things she did think she was capable of doing. Gabrielle could imagine, in her mind's ears, what Xena would say if she could somehow lead the slaves to freedom -- good job, Gabrielle.
The bard was brought back to the present when the slave trader finally spoke.
"The slaves will be watching you. And you will see, from their expressionless faces, how cowardly they really are. They want to stop me, but they fear death much more than they desire this idealistic freedom. And they will watch on, until you surrender to me."
The witch was exhausted. Being a good fighter herself, the witch couldnt understand how was it possible that Xena still have so much power left after had fought so many enemies for so long. The left arm of the witch was badly cut and was bleeding profusely, both of her legs were wounded, and her noise was broken. The witch looked into the unfeeling eyes of her opponent and shivered at their power. It was the power that she had been admiring for many winters. It was the power she wanted to possess. Fear filled her heart when the witch realized that her life could end at any minute.
Xena wanted to kill the witch as quickly as possible, but she was surprised to find that the witch was an outstanding fighter. Already tired from the early battles, Xena was frustrated to see the witch escaping once and again from her assault. However, after one candle mark's fighting, Xena was pleased knowing that the witch had been pushed to her physical limit. Xena struck with her sword. The witch blocked hurriedly, only to realize it was a setup. She looked at Xena's feral grin and felt, again, the unmistakable feeling of death.
Xena drove her sword toward the heart of the witch with full speed. To her surprise, the witch disappeared at the point of contact, and her sword drove into solid stone. Suddenly, the landscape had been changed. Xena found herself facing the Limbo Cliff. The boundless desert had disappeared, and Xena could see the edge of the forest three candle mark's walk away from her.
It appeared that the witch had retreated into her home, and withdrew all her illusions. Now, all that's left for Xena to do was to climb up the cliff and confront the witch in her home. Climbing up the cliff appeared to be simple enough. Yet, just when Xena was about to limb the cliff, she heard the witch's voice "Xena, I am warning you. If you can climb up the cliff, you will be weakened and I'll kill you. If you can not climb up the cliff, all for the better, your soul will be mine, and so will your power." Xena smirked, and shouted up the cliff, "Don't worry about me, worry about digging a grave for yourself." Although tired and having a mild headache, Xena was confident that she could climb on top of the cliff and confront the witch before sunset.
Knowing that the witch had no were else to go, Xena was not in a hurry. She took her time, alternating between different muscle groups and relaxing the muscles not in use so that her body would not be tired. Yet the headache intensified quickly, followed by a sudden unset of fever. Xena felt her body burning, and her face had turned red. The rock, although heated by sunlight for the good part of the day, felt cool and foreign under her hands. Xena clinched her teeth with the realization that the witch had made her sick. It was then that Xena fully comprehended the witch's words. If she could climb up the cliff, she would be weakened by the sickness so much that even the witch could defeat her in a combat, and if she die, the witch could collect her soul. 'Every problem has its solution.' Xena told herself while thinking what could she do to defeat the witch's last and most potent weapon.
Gabrielle was taken to the center of the deck and her arms were hung on a rope over her head. The young bard looked into the eyes of her captors and saw no emotions. She looked around, and found that dark cloud had covered the southern sky. A storm would come soon. 'Every problem has its solution.' The bard told herself and prepared, mentally, for the whipping.
Like cattle, the slaves were forced on deck by guards with swords. Valerian walked in front of the slaves and announced his plan. "This here is your impotent leader," he pointed to Gabrielle, "She will be punished for her foolishness. In this world, some are destined to rule and some were cut to be the subject of the rulers. Anyone who tries to change the order of such nature is doomed to failure. This slave here is an example, and you will watch her as she surrenders to me." With pompous steps, Valerian walked to Gabrielle. With his unfeeling brown eyes, the slave trader challenged the dauntless green eyes. "At any time, just say my name, and the unpleasantness will stop." Valerian said while staring straight at the bard as if he could injure the girl's spirit just by staring alone.
Gabrielle met the gaze evenly. "I am not a slave and I'll never be one." She declared loudly so everyone else could hear her.
The slave trader pulled out his sword. Gabrielle gave a quick glance to the slaves and saw numbness. It was the very emotion she was worried about. Valerian waved his sword in fluid motions. Three quick cuts, Gabrielle's green top failed down to the deck, but her skin was intact. Valerian shelled his sword and pulled the girl's long hair to the front to expose her bare back. Seeing no fear in the girl's eyes, Valerian decided to cut the period of intimidation and go straight to the point. With a nod to the soldier holding the whip, Valerian took a step back so that others could have a better view of Gabrielle's pain.
'Breath through your nose, Gabrielle.' In her mind, Gabrielle heard her warrior's voice. 'Focus on your breathing, Gabrielle.' The bard's eyes were open, but she couldnt see anything. There was only pain and other sensations were blocked out. 'A warrior, Gabrielle, has complete control over her body and her mind.' It was indeed a mental struggle. Gabrielle forced herself to focus on her breathing and the warrior's words. While Gabrielle was struggling with herself, the slaves, too, were struggling with their inner emotions.
As many other slaves, Orithyia was weeping opening. She knew what was going to happen when she was brought on deck, and the anticipation of such a whipping almost crushed her into tears. She had become good friend with Gabrielle in their short time together. Gabrielle was funny, full of wonder and stories, and Orithyia felt that she could identify with Gabrielle. Although Gabrielle was responsible for the entire rebellion movement, Orithyia had never felt been put off by her. Orithyia always wondered how could Gabrielle carry such profound power and yet still behave much like the village friend next door. It broke Orithyia's heart to know that Gabrielle had to go through such torture. Although a part of Orithyia hoped that Gabrielle would not give in to Valerian, the other part of her hoped that she would. The first few lashes were all Orithyia could stand to watch. She prayed fervently for Gabrielle to say the word and end the torture, but the only sound he heard was whip against flesh.
Antemion had given up all hopes after the attempted escape. He had lost all interest and had been actually looking forward to be sold in Egypt so he could get as far away from the demonic slave trader as possible. When he was taken on deck, he had knew that he was about to witness the brave girl gave in to the slave trader. And with it, Antemion knew that the last bit of light in his soul would die. He was tired of fighting and was ready, and even eager, for the last moment of surrender. But the light just refused to die.
Baerius could feel each lash on Gabrielle, Been whipped once before, he knew that it felt like. He remembered the whipping he had was so painful that he had been kneeling in front of the guard and begging him to stop. But now, Baerius would rather be the one who was whipped to spare the pain of the person he loved. Yes, he loved Gabrielle's strength, her lively spirit, her story telling skill, and her femininity. He could do anything to spare Gabrielle from her agony, but there was nothing he could do. He hated his cowardliness and wondered if it was better to die fighting for an ideal than it was to live in shame and regret.
Valerian watched Gabrielle's muscular body sweat under the tension of her physical and mental struggle. The sight didn't please him. He needed a break through very soon. Turning his head, the slave trader looked at his slaves. The sight didn't please him either. He watched as the faces of the slaves' turned from fear or disinterest into sympathies, then admiration, then grim determinations. The sight worried him. It was supposed to be another show of the slave's inferiority. The slaves knew it as well as him. And they came accepting their defeat already. But the damned bard never gave up. Now, without words, she was inspiring the slaves with her deeds. Valerian looked at the slaves and then his own guards and felt how vulnerable his guards were. They were out numbered almost seven to one. For the first time in his slave trading experience, Valerian felt insecurity.
Finally, the slave trader's attention returned back to the blood covered body hanging in the middle of the deck. Gabrielle had stopped struggling and was unconscious, if not dead. Valerian put a hand on her neck, and was relieved to fell her strong pulse. With a node of head, a soldier followed his boss' instruction and poured a bucket of seawater on the girl's torn skin.
It took Gabrielle a while to regain her focus. She looked at the slaves and what she saw made the whipping all worthwhile. Then cloudiness threatened to overtake the bard. She felt that someone had grasped her chin roughly and heard Valerian's voice. "What do you say?" The slave trader barked.
Valerian saw the girl's amazing green eyes focused and was shocked by the energy that was radiating from them. The bard didn't shout, but her voice was loud enough for everyone to hear. "Freedom!" was the only word uttered.
The bard watched the slave trader's face turning into a stone mask. She hopped it would be the victory she was waiting for. Her green eyes were flashing intensely; her head was halt high and defiant; and her pain was forgotten.
"You give me no other choices." The slave trader finally responded evenly. "I'll kill one slave for each candle mark you refuse to acknowledge me as your master."
Gabrielle felt her blood draining from her head, and the pain on her body intensified ten folds. As the weight of Valerian's words crushed onto her heart, Gabrielle surrendered herself once again to unconsciousness.
Valerian watched as the red head bard was finally broken in front of him. He couldn't help but smile. After the excitement of a hard fought victory, Valerian felt rain drop on his hand, and realized that a storm was coming. 'The rain will cool her down,' he mused, 'and tomorrow, darkness will prevail!''
With blood dripping swords in both her hands and a feral grin, Xena was cutting down soldiers like chopping woods. Kicking, punching, cutting and thrusting, the warrior brought death wherever she walked. She was dyed in red, but not a single drop of blood was from her own body. However, there were just simply too many enemies. Her army was out numbered four to one. The soldiers she was fighting were protecting their homelands, and they would rather die than backup.
The King of the realm was overlooking the battlefield on a small hill. He had used most of his men. He had been watching with complete disbelieve while one platoon after another of his own soldiers was put into the battle and was killed. However, in the afternoon, the King saw that Xena only had less than one quarter of her soldiers left. The brave king led the last attack personally with the remains of his army. He knew that Xena's soldiers were very tired and there might just be a chance they could get rid of the Destroyer of Nations for good.
Seeing another on slaughter, the blood covered Warrior Princess yelled to her men, "SOLDIERS!"
"YES!" they cried in unison.
"ARE YOU TIRED?" She asked savagely with eyes glistening, knowing their trained reply.
"NOOOOOOO!" The solders cried again in unison. They were tired, but by denying the fact, their animal savageness was brought up, and they felt that they could fight again with renewed vigor.
"YAYIYIYIYIYI!" With her piercing war cry, the Warrior Princess led her men to meet the coming assault. All the sensation of war surrounded Xena and she enjoyed it. The sight of her victim's blood pouring out from their throat like fountains, the sound of ambulated soldiers crying in agony and the smell of blood mingled with sweat all excited the Destroyer of Nations. After another candle mark's cutting and killing, Xena found herself holding the head of the young King with a wild grin.
"NOOOOOOO!" Xena yelled into the darkening sky. The sweat on her skin did nothing to reduce the fever in her body. Her mouth and throat were dry and hot, and her hands were red as if from killing. She coughed violently and her body convulsed. Digging her fingers deeper into the rock, Xena managed to hold on to the cold cliff. Her eyes were blurred and her head was pounding. For the past candle mark, nightmarish visions of her past deeds were constantly plaguing her mind. And the witch's voice would always follow each vision.
"Good job Xena, nice strategy, the timing was impeccable, and the cry: SOLDIERS! ARE YOU TIRED? That was just wonderful. Xena, you were the best warlord. And once I have you, I'll be the best."
Xena was coughing so badly that she couldn't even reply. She was coughing up blood.
"Before you die though, think about how wasted all your recent years were. Fighting for peace, the phrase itself is contradictory in terms. I have shown you that violence always was and always will be a part of human existence. We have to be able to fend ourselves against the animals, the monsters and sometimes, each other. It is the survival that matters, not the means to survive. For years you not only survived but also lived as no mortal had ever lived before. Your first mistake was to give all those up and follow the way of good. And your second mistake was to come and fight me. I am destined to conquer the world, Xena, and your life only served as a warning sign for me. No good deeds goes unpunished, and I will not be reduced to your level of existence."
Xena struggled to climb up. She had thought that she could reach the top before sunset. But the sun was setting and she was no where near the top. Her skin was full of red rashes and they were extremely itchy. And where she scratched, Xena drew blood. Trying to hang on to the cliff was increasingly difficult. Xena felt that she could lose her grip at any moment. With all her warrior's control, to struggle to remain calm under high fever, violent cough and intense internal pain was next to impossible. Xena had never knew sickness before, and this one was definitely devastating. There was only one thing certain in Xena's mind, which was that she had to keep climbing up. It was a struggle of time, either she would climb on top of the cliff and kill the witch before the disease would kill her, or the disease would kill her before she could accomplish her mission. Although every motion was a struggle for live, Xena forced her limbs to move.
Another nightmare seized Xena's mind. She saw herself ridding into a small village, cutting off the head of a farmer and watched as the head rolling toward the farmer's small daughter ......
Woke up inside darkness, Gabrielle hung her head down. Freezing rain slapped her torn skin. Raindrop mingled with her blood run down her naked body onto the deck. Her limps had long been numbed. She could feel her energy depleting, her warmth escaping, and her consciousness blurring. This is hopeless. She thought to herself. The longer I fight, the more everyone suffer. Oh, Gods, What am I going to do? For a moment, pain, darkness and bitterness overwhelmed the young bard. She felt like crying, but there was no energy left in her to cry. She looked into the darkness of the night, enveloped by the gloominess. Gabrielle found herself pondering Valerians words. What is this life but a sordid and cheep thing? And for that matter, the sooner it is over the better. In the rattling ship under the relentless downpour of the icy rain, Gabrielle was left to suffer an intense physical and mental throe that she had never experienced before.
Suddenly, a dark figure appeared in front of the bards eyes. Gabrielle blinked hard. My eyes are playing tricks on me, it cant be. The figure walked out of the mist of the rain. It was no mistake, the confident stride, the comforting, crooked little grin and the electric blue eyes. The Gods, Xena! Gabrielle wanted to yell, but couldnt utter a word. Only her eyes conveyed her excitement.
Xena walked closer. Her strong hand softly caressed Gabrielles battered face. She smiled down to her brave friend. Her blue eyes, now tender and loving, sent strength into the small womans heart. "I am proud of you."
"Xena." Gabrielle forgot all other feeling but the warmth and strength of the warriors hand. "Xena, I ... I."
"Gabrielle, you will be fine, you will break through this just like you did the wooden board."
Gabrielle smiled. Oh Xena, if the fates cease to weave their silver threads of lives and Apollo refuse to drive his golden carriage of light, you alone would be enough to bring life into my body and warmth into my heart. The bard was surprised to find herself in a poetic mood. Life, as Gabrielle felt then, was flowing through her again, splendid and indomitable. "Xena, what can I...."
"Just have faith in you, youll be fine."
"Thank you Xena."
"You are a brave warrior, Gabrielle." The tall warrior kissed the young woman on her forehead. Gabrielle closed her eyes and felt her warriors touch, transfixed in it. A long time had passed before she reopened her eyes. The warrior had gone. "Xena?" Gabrielle cried out, almost in panic. "Gabrielle, I am always here with you." The warriors deep voice echoed in Gabrielles head. Gabrielle realized then that it had not been the warriors physical body that visited her. It had been the reflection of the warrior in her heart. Gabrielle realized that as long as she was still alive, the warrior would be a perpetual source of energy that shelters, protects and inspires her. She looked up to the dark sky through the cascade of rain and smiled.
Although Gabrielle didn't know it, under the deck that she was standing on, Baerius was whispering a story to the young slaves next to him. It was a story about two rams.
They were brothers. The older ram was called Pheidon. And the other one, Phidias, was two winters younger. The heard the two rams belonged was not large, but they lived in a beautiful forest. There were trees to shade them from the sun, sweet brook to drink from, and tender green grasses to eat. However, there were also lions and wolves to threat their lives. Pheidon, been a strong beast, protected the heard from danger and harm. Phidias was younger and more inexperienced. He was scared of the carnivorous animals, and was hesitant to fight.
The wolves, which lived in the same forest, wanted Pheidon dead. Without Pheidon, where would be no one to defend against the wolves attack. They had a plot to destroy the brave ram.
In one clear summer day, the wolves rushed from their hiding place and run into the heard like the rascals they were, and took away one young lamb. Without hesitation Pheidon run after the wolves. The intruding wolves had scared Phidias, but Phidias was determined to follow his brother when he run off with the wolves into the depth of the forest.
After a hard chase, Pheidon found himself surrounded. There were wolves everywhere. Without a word, Pheidon attacked, but there was nothing he could do to save the poor lamb, which was killed in front of him deliberately. The wolves knew that attacking the ram from the front was not wise, so they came at all angles. The strong ram was quickly buried inside the wolves.
Phidias witnessed the fight from a distance. He was horrified. He had never seen so many wolves before, and was sure that if he tried to rescue his brother, he himself will be killed and eaten. But, as strong as his fear, there was an emotion equally strong in Phidias. And that was the love he felt toward his brother. Phidias decided that if he and his brother were to die, at least they should die together. Without a word, the young beast rammed into the wolves and joined the fury.
The wolves were surprised. Never had they thought there could be another ram fighting aside the hated Pheidon. The brothers rammed, kicked and stamped. One after another, the wolves was injured, but the rams still fought on. Finally, the brothers alone occupied the blood stained battleground. All the wolves were gone.
Therefore, the wolves attempt to kill Pheidon and to control the sheep heard resulted only in creating another potent fighter, Phidias. Consequently, raiding and killing will not destroy peoples will to fight. On the contrary, it will only inspire more and more people to join the force of the good to fight against evil and oppression.
"It sounds like one of Gabrielle's stories." One young slave remarked quietly.
"She inspired the story." The young bard said.
"Are you willing to fight against Valerian?" an older slave chained further from the group asked seriously.
"I thought about it today," the bard murmured louder this time, "I will not allow myself to stay put when someone else is dying for my freedom. If freedom can be find only through death, then so be it. I'll follow Gabrielle and fight for our dignity and our soul."
The night was dark. There were no moon or stars. Not that it mattered much. Xena couldn't concentrate enough to see anything. Using her hands and legs, Xena was feeling her way up the cliff. Her skin was torn from scratching, and blood was coming out from the wounds. Pain overshadowed the senses from her hands and feet. Other than that, the coughing intensified and she coughed up more blood each time. Steadied herself after another violent convulsion, Xena painfully reached up her hand to feel for another protrusion on the cliff. Had found it, she moved her weight onto the hand. Another coughing ensued, and she lost her grip.
Xena's face and body were scratched against the rough surface of the cliff as she fell. The warrior waved her arms desperately for anything to hold onto. Suddenly, a small hand shot out and grabbed hold of Xena's right hand. Dangling on the hold, Xena looked up and recognized the face of Gabrielle.
Xena shook her head. It was just not possible. Not letting go of the hand that's holding her, Xena climbed up and stabled herself just beside her dear friend. She wanted to say something, but no word came out. At the moment all her pains were forgotten, and her concentration was completely focused on the glowing image beside her. She could have sworn that, like a halo, there were faint golden lights radiating from Gabrielle's body. The light made Gabrielle's red hair looked so much more beautiful against the darkness of the night. Gabrielle was smiling, like she usually did. Her green eyes flashed the innocent light of genuine merriment.
"And you were suppose to teach me rock climbing." The bard said teasingly.
"Gabrielle." The warrior murmured with a light smile. Her heart, however, was pounding at the excitement.
"You WILL teach me rock climbing won't you?" The bard asked again, now looking intensely at the warrior.
"Gabrielle, it is ..."the warrior struggled for the right words. "I might ..."
"Xena, I believe in you. I know that you will triumph eventually, you always do." The bard smiled reassuringly at her warrior. Gabrielle's shiny green eyes were like two bright stars that adorned the dark sky. The light from her eyes was exceedingly lovely, and at the same time penetrating.
Xena looked at the best friend she could ever have, unable to say a word. Her eyes, now blue and clear, were the only sign of her inner emotional uproar.
The small woman smiled again. Still holding on the warrior, Gabrielle reached over with her free hand and caressed the warrior's torn face. "Besides, you'll always have my hands to hold on to."
Closing her eyes and resting her head on the soft hand, Xena smiled. Gabrielle, you are always my guiding angle.
When she opened her eyes, Xena found that Gabrielle had gone, and she was once again enveloped by darkness. She realized then that she was holding onto the root of a pine tree, which had grown stubbornly out from the barren cliff. Her sickness was still persistent, but this time, her mind was clear.
'Another vision,' Xena thought, 'but this one is my own.' Looking up the cliff and grinning savagely, Xena resumed her climbing but suddenly stopped. A thought came into her mind. How did the witch get up and down the cliff so quickly without the flying tiger? She could have climbed down the cliff to confront Xena when Xena was still fighting her creatures. Yet, she couldn't have had the ability to fly up the cliff just before Xena was about to strike her. Athena said that the witch couldn't fly. The only possibility was that the witch had merely vanished from Xena's eyes, but her physical body was still down in the desert. She misled Xena to limb up the cliff.
'Stupid!' Xena cursed herself. There was only one thing she could do.
Keeping a watchful eye on Xena, the witch had been nursing her wounds from the earlier battle. Wanting Xena to die as soon as possible, the witch had already speeded up the progress of Xena's sickness. Yet with all her power, the witch had not been able to kill Xena as fast as she could like to. Therefore, she had figured out another torture. With the sickness, the witch could extend her power to take hold of Xena's mind. Therefore, she could use Xena's past memory to frustrate her progress. But with all the nightmares, the warrior still kept climbing. Eventually, exhausted by calling upon the power of darkness, the witch sat done on the sand to rest and hoped fervently that Xena would loose her grip on the cliff and fall down. As soon as Xena was dead, the witch could gather the soul of the Warrior Princess, the best warrior and commander in the known world.
Eventually, as the night had rolled on, the witch's impatience settled down. With the reassurance that Xena would die before sunrise, the witch tried to get some rest. She thought smugly at her strategy of luring the warrior to climb the cliff, while she herself resting down in the desert. "Xena, even if you did climb up the cliff, you will die from the exhaustion, and I am not even there." The witch said to herself.
Although she couldn't see clearly, the witch could sense Xena's position on the cliff. Her heart leaped when Xena lost her grip and fell, but she was solely dismayed when the warrior had caught something and was beginning to climb up again. "It is a good start," the witch said to herself, "she is getting further away from the top and she should be tired. All I need is one more fall, and she will be mine."
Another high-pitched cry came from the cliff. The witch sensed the warrior's body falling again, this time, the warrior didn't stop until she had hit the sand. The witch jumped on her feet from a sitting position and, with a torch in her hand, run toward where the body was. Xena's body was lying face down on the sand. Judging by the height where Xena had been fallen from, the witch knew that Xena had no chance of survival. She walked closer to the body and turned it around to have a good look at the disease smitten face.
The next thing the witch felt was a blur of motion and then a sword was stuck into her heart. Then it was Xena's face, grinning wildly in the torchlight. The witch cursed herself at her neglect. If Xena were truly dead, the witch would have felt the warrior's soul joining into her own. But the moment of regret was soon replaced by darkness.
Xena felt her body restoring. Her strength was back. The itching, the fever and other sick feelings were all gone. Xena felt herself again, alive and healthy. She watched, with delight, the witch dying in front of her. Then, to Xena's surprise, thousands of lights flied out from the witch's body, whirled around the witch and then upward toward the night sky. They were the thousands of souls the witch had gathered. Now they were free to go to where they belong, and there will be no more victim of the horrible disease. Xena watched the lights flew away and smiled. It was the way it should be. The warrior closed her eyes and popped down onto the sand with sheer exhortation.
In her half sleeping stage, Gabrielle's eyes caught a glimpse of light. Her deemed concentration snapped back. The light grew in strength, until the side of the ship was illuminated. Then the light faded to reveal Athena's confident form. The goddess dressed in her warrior's armor, with her glistening spear in one hand and golden shell in the other. Under her shinny helmet, the goddess of war's blue eyes flashed the light of kindness, wisdom, and courage.
Athena walked toward Gabrielle with a smile. "My sister have chosen the right queen for her people."
Gabrielle was somewhat surprised. She was too involved in helping the slaves to remember that Athena was supposed to be watching out for her. Gabrielle mused, 'One thing you get from traveling with Xena is that you stop to count on the gods to help you.' Looking around, Gabrielle found that the night shift sailors didn't seem to notice the goddess.
"Athena, how is Xena?" The bard asked with all sincerity.
"I would worry more about yourself, Gabrielle." Athena looked at the redhead with disbelieve. Beaten, whipped, left in the rain to die, and the first thing she's worried about was still the warrior's well being. "Valerian might kill you tomorrow. You have provoked the slaves to a point where Valerian had started to get worried. He might forgo the profit he could make from you just to make sure this round of slave trading goes smoothly."
"You think he'll kill me tomorrow instead of someone else," the bard was somewhat excited.
"He will kill enough others before killing you," the goddess looked in the bard's dauntless green eyes, couldn't help admiring her power, "but I can get you out of here tonight. You will go back to your amazon village and wait for Xena."
"What about the rest of the people?"
"They have their own fates, Gabrielle, and I am not to intervene with their lives. But you, Gabrielle, the day you have followed Xena, your fate had already been mingled with some of us gods. I can save you, but not them."
"Then I cannot not go." The bard said without a moment of hesitation.
"Athena, please, I cannot just disappear. The people chained down in the cold, wet and rotten cabins need to know that they still have their future in their hands. As long as they don't give up the will to fight, they will eventually regain their freedom. I have to go against Valerian by myself, without divine intervention. If you help me, the people will never believe the strength that I know is in them. They will see me as an exception, a god's favorite, and they will never see themselves as anything other than slaves."
Athena walked up to the bard and kissed her on the forehead. "My fearless bard, if you will not go with me, it is also fine. Because of you, your people will sail the ship of freedom back to their homeland. I can see it plane as day. Your soul will rise up like the sun and lighten the spirits of the ones you touch, chase away each shadow and spread your golden rays into even the darkest corners of human hearts. Now sleep, tomorrow, you'll need to die well." The goddess gently placed her hand on the bard's eyes and closed them, and Gabrielle went immediately into a dreamless sleep.
Gabrielle woke up late in the morning and found the storm was over. She felt happy for no apparent reason. She felt relieved as if an assiduous chore was done and over with. Then, when reality sank in, she thought about her situation and pondered for a solution. There was only one way.
Valerian came to check on Gabrielle once more. Gabrielle's pale face was emotionless, she didn't seem to notice Valerian. Her green eyes were staring at the southern horizon.
"Good morning, Gabrielle," Valerian greeted the bard courteously, "How are you feeling today?"
"You will kill one person for every candle mark I dont call you master." The bard spoke coldly without looking at the slave trader.
"That is right."
"I cannot cause more death than I already had."
"Of course not."
"Very well, call all my friends here like you did yesterday. If I have to surrender, I'll do it my way -- the Amazon way." Gabrielle said evenly.
The cold words were music to Valerian's ears. He couldn't help grinning ear to ear. "They will be assembled."
In minutes, all the slaves were dragged on deck by the guards. Valerian was in his full armor when he stood beside the chained Gabrielle. "Your leader wants to have a word with you." He announced.
The slaves' heads were hung low, for they knew what the woman was going to say. Some of them were disappointed, some relieved, but most accepted it with understanding.
"My friends," Gabrielle began with clearly enunciated voice. "For the time we have been together I have found enormous strength, intelligence and love among you. You have humbled and inspired me. Now, no matter what I'll do and what the consequences of my decisions are, I implore you to believe in yourselves. As long as you retain your spirits for freedom, you will never truly be enslaved."
'Pathetic sentimentalist!' Valerian cursed in his mind. 'when you utter your words of surrender, these ideals will be worthless.'
"Now, Valerian." For the first time, the bard turned her face and looked into the Slave trader's brown eyes, which lit up with anticipation. "I challenge you to a fight to the death," were the bard's calm words.
Valerian's mind was spinning. He realized, then, Gabrielle's meaning of the "Amazon way." Amazons never surrender, because they fight to the death. It was a clever act. If Valerian declines the challenge, he would lose face in front of all the slaves. He would look inferior to the slaves. If he accepts the challenge, Gabrielle would die without accepting her position as a slave. And either way, Gabrielle had stopped him from killing other slaves. Valerian couldn't help admiring the small woman who would give up her life for the lives of others.
The slaves were likewise shocked. They looked at Gabrielle's small, naked and torn form and then Valerian, who stood half foot taller and was many times stronger. It was hopeless. Then realization sank in to the slaves that Gabrielle was giving up her own life to save theirs.
"You are such a liar, Gabrielle," Valerian answered finally, "I see no strength, intelligence or love in anyone except you."
"We all have it, Valerian, only I had the opportunity to show it." Gabrielle had to defend the slaves, knowing Valerian was trying to single her out.
"That's another lie! You know as well as I do that they are cut to be slaves. If they have strength why do they stand there like puppies yesterday when you are whipped? If they are intelligent why didn't THEY figure out any plan to escape? And if they knew love why was it their own hands that had beaten you to unconscious!"
"Because they too love life!"
"Then it is better to be a living slave than a dead rebel!" Valerian was yelling the words more to the slaves than to Gabrielle.
"No! Without freedom life is a meaningless act!" Gabrielle's green eyes were flashing. She was supposed to be good at arguing. "Now do you accept my challenge or not?"
"I accept it." Valerian answered grimly.
'Xena, keep your promise, dont become a monster.' Gabrielle thought when she was cut loose from her bondage. Without the support of the chains, Gabrielle fell onto the deck. She struggled to get circulation back into her numbed limbs and to stand up.
When she was able to make a stand, her amazon staff was hand over to her. She waved the staff in easy patterns, getting the feel of it. She was ready for her last battle. Valerian was standing in front of the bard, sword drown. Gabrielle made a stance and focused on her target. Valerian didn't make any attempt to charge. Defense was the best attack.
With a war cry Gabrielle charged. Valerian easily sidestepped and thrust his sword into the young woman's chest. Gabrielle felt her staff fall and remembered her fight with Xena in the Illusia fields. That fight ended just as quick. Valerian pulled his sword out from Gabrielle and waved to two guards beside him. "Throw this over board." He pointed at the girl's dead body
Thousands of voices roared. It was like sunder, only greater. The slaves, each and every one of them, were rushing toward Valerian. Their hands and feet were chained, and their bodies were whipped by the guards, but it didnt' matter. Nothing mattered anymore. Something was very wrong, and their innate righteousness called upon them to right the wrong, no matter what the cause was.
"Kill them all!" Valerian yelled. He waved his sword into deadly arcs toward the slaves. He was determined to kill every last one of the slaves if he had to. Yet it was too late. The slaves were not afraid of dying. It was cacophony and chaos everywhere on the ship. Fighting broke out through every corner of the deck. The guards were struggling to carry out Valerian's order, but it was hopeless. Although the slaves had no weapons, they used their bodies as shells. Even it meant that they had to take in sword with their open chest, the slaves would never back up. For every slave the guards killed, there would be two more coming toward them.
Valerian was backed up to a cabin door. With a deadly thrust he drove his sword once again into the heart of a strong slave. Before he could pull his sword back, it was knocked out from his hand by another slave's sheer body weight. Then, a third slave was at his throat, and more slaves where on top of him. Despite his struggle, Valerian's hands and feet were pined to the deck. The last sight Valerian saw was his own sword, stained by blood, thrusting toward him by chained hands.
Who could withstand the raging flood.
Xena woke up at the first ray of the rising sun. The body of the witch was still beside her. She looked up the cliff and spotted the tree, which had saved her life. Her whip was still hanging from the root of the tree. The warrior resumed her climbing of the cliff to retrieve her precious whip.
The tree was not very far from the bottom of the cliff, but was far enough. One who falls from the tree directly to the ground would no doubt die. But Xena had tied her whip to the root of the tree. The witch had thought that Xena was free falling, but she had actually been sliding down from her whip. The warrior did, however, suffer a free fall after the whip had run out. But that fall did only minimum damage.
Before long, the warrior had recovered her weapon and was on her way out of the horrible cliff, where she had almost lost her life. She felt very light and happy. Not only because she had had another triumph, but also because she had done a good deed. The warrior was eager to get back to her bard and resume their daily traveling.
With light gaits, Xena walked through the desert and then the forest, which was free of poison and wolves. Xena had known that the wolves were the witch's creations because there were no games for the wolves to hunt in the forest. Therefore, they couldnt have survived without magic. It was wonderful to enjoy a forest free of dark powers. The sun was shinny and the air was sweet, there were even birds singing between tree branches. Xena had been inwardly very happy. She knew the happy feeling very well. She had seen this kind of happiness many times before, but had seldom experienced it herself. It was the kind of suppressed joy that one felt after had narrowly escaped an untimely death.
After a pleasant walk in the forest, Xena called upon Argo and rode toward the direction of the Amazon village. Passing the same villages she had been through when she was coming to kill the witch, Xena's mood was further alleviated by the happy faces she found. The villagers, returning from the torture of the horrible disease and pending death, were thankful and cheerful. The communities were enveloped in the moods of festivals. Xena was sure that they could make a yearly festival for the return of lives and laughter. And they would no doubt attribute the reason behind the sudden restore of lifes order to divine interventions.
Xena thought about how Gabrielle would have enjoyed the merriment. The happiness the villagers felt would definitely make Gabrielles green eyes flash and her beautiful face would light up in the spirit of the celebration. Gabrielle always loved happy endings. For a while, Xena was lost in the thought of what life would have been if Gabrielle were with her in this mission. Xenas thought didnt last long. Soon she realized the panic she bought to the villagers when they had noticed her present. She shook her head and kicked Argo forward. She wanted to get back to Gabrielle as soon as possible and share the merriment of success with her.
With a light heart, renewed vigor and great expectation, Xena rode Argo toward the Amazon village.
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