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This story contains mild violence. If this disturbs you, you may wish to read something else. Then again, how do you stand to watch the show?

Spoiler Warning! This story takes place during the fourth season, after "Family Affair" and before "Crusader." If you have not seen through these episodes, you may want to discontinue reading.

I would love to hear from you. Write to me OfcrRipley@aol.com and let me know what you think about the story, or just chat about Xena stuff in general. I can never talk too much about my favorite show!

Continues from here.

 

Twist of Fates

By Ripley

 

BOOK II

~~ Chapter XIII ~~

 

 

Gabrielle sat on the balustrade that ran around the back of the Temple of Mnemosyne. Far below, she could hear the roar of a raging river that raced through a gorge that she had seen in the daylight. She stared up at the stars and sighed, then turned back to the shadows below her.

If I jumped, it just might kill me. Iobates did die. Maybe he just didnít try hard enough before.

"Such thoughts are not worthy of you, Gabrielle."

She nearly fell off the banister at the sound of the voice behind her. She hopped down onto the stone balcony and faced the priestess.

"You shouldnít sneak up on the people like that."

"I called your name twice, but you were lost in your own thoughts."

"Priestess, what am I going to do? I canít help people or travel anymore. My life with Xena is over."

"And youíre feeling sorry for yourself, arenít you?"

"Wouldnít you?" Gabrielle turned her back towards the woman and shook her head. When she spoke again, her voice was full of tension. "Oh, no, I forget. You would just go right on living and serving others. It wouldnít affect a noble person like you one bit. Youíd be a servant of mankind. Never mind the fact that one touch of your fingertip will sap them of life."

"I donít know what I would do, Gabrielle," replied the priestess quietly. "But I do know what you have done in the past."

"What do you mean?" the young bard asked somewhat indifferently.

"When you realized that your daughter Hope was the embodiment of evil, you poisoned her."

There was no response, but the priestess saw Gabrielle grasp the banister so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

"You thought about using the poison on yourself, but you stopped. Why?"

"I thought it was the easy way out. Xena had chosen to live with her grief in the loss of Solan. I didnít want to do any less."

"Neither can you do any less here."

Gabrielle turned and walked toward her. "But that was different. I thought I could still help people. Help Xena. I had a purpose."

Now it was the priestessís turn to walk to the rail and lean on it. "Gabrielle, why did you follow Xena when you first met her?"

"I wanted adventure, and I wanted to be like her."

"Is that all, Bard?" She emphasized the last word.

Gabrielle tilted her head. "Well, yes, of course, I wanted to tell stories, and I thought watching Xena was a prime opportunity."

"Gabrielle, do you know why Xenaís candle is so much larger than yours?"

"I guess itís because sheís met more people, done more things, and influenced a lot more lives."

The priestess shook her head. "Not really." Gabrielle could just see her hand move in a beckoning gesture. "Come here."

She moved again to the rail, but kept a safe distance between the two of them. The priestess turned towards the temple and pointed towards her right. As Gabrielle looked, she noticed several windows and could just make out hundreds of glowing candles within.

"Which ones do you notice?"

"The taller, larger ones obviously."

"They belong to heroes."

"Of course." Her reply sounded bitter, even to her own ears.

"And thieves. And murderers."

"What?"

"And cowards. Kings, queens, fools . . . and gods." The priestess took a breath and glanced sidelong at her.

"What do you mean?"

"Gabrielle, they belong to those who are remembered through storytelling. One of the reasons Xenaís candle burns so brightly is because of you and the stories that you tell about her. They spread her reputationóand her memoryófar and wide. And theyíll be around long after the warrior princess is gone."

The bard stared at the candles until they became a blur through the tears gathering in her eyes.

"You started telling others about Xena because you thought they should know. Many people already knew about the dark part of her life, but the strong good part has been spread because of you."

"So I have helped," Gabrielle whispered.

"And you can help again."

Gabrielle turned towards the priestess.

"You donít have to touch people with your hands to touch their hearts, Gabrielle. As a poet and a storyteller, you already knew that. Youíve just forgotten it briefly in all this ugliness. Itís up to you to decide if you still want to help people, including Xena, by doing what you do best."

Gabrielle wiped her eyes and sniffed. "But how?"

"We have scrolls and quills here. And thereís a village nearby full of people who would just love a good tale. I can send a guard with you to make sure they keep their distance, or the guard can go himself with your writings. Either way your voice will be heardóand your life will not be a waste."

"Thank you, Priestess," was all she could finally get out.

"It is my job to help people remember things, Gabrielle. Especially their duty."

 

 

 

It was late afternoon when Xena heard Bellerophon ride up.

"Have a good visit?" She barely looked up from the pile of ropes, bridles, and other bits of equipment she was checking for tonightís watch for Pegasus.

The young man leaped lightly off his horse and ran up to her. In his hands he held the blade and hilt of a sword that had obviously been separated by great force.

Xena stood. "You didnít get into any fights in town did you?" Her eyes narrowed in displeasure.

"No! No," he stammered. He held up the two objects. "Look, Xena! Itís Deliadesís sword. The one I knocked out of his hand the last time we fought. I couldnít believe I found it. The current was so strong that it had rolled it a ways, and even smashed it against a few big rocks. That would account for its condition."

"Iím glad you found it. Now, I want you to look over these pieces of equipment tható"

"Xena, donít you think thatís lucky? I know itís broken, but with a good blacksmith, I couldó"

The warrior princess shook her head. "You could do nothing."

"What do you mean? I intended to use this to fight the Chimaera. I think Del wanted me to have it. I think somehow he helped me find it."

Xena put her hand on his. "Look, Bellerophon, I know it means a lot to you. And if you want to, pack it in your saddlebag and save it to put in your castle one day. But that sword will never be any good for fighting."

Bellerophonís nostrils flared. "How do you know?"

"Because Iíve dealt a lot with weapons, believe me." She gently took the two pieces from his hands. "Do you see how itís made a clean break here? They were meant to work together as one piece. If you try pushing them back, it may look good, but there will be a weakness at that point. The minute it hits anything remotely solid, the weak part will give way."

He stared at the two pieces for a minute, then tossed them to the ground and proceeded to take care of his horse.

After a moment, Xena picked them up and carried them to him.

"I know itís hard to face, but a blade and a hilt are definitely two things that are meant to be together. If youíve got one or the other, or theyíre separated, they become uselessóat least as a weapon. However," she added, pressing the two pieces into his hands, "That doesnít mean they canít mean something to you. Keep them with youóin remembrance of your brother. Use another weapon to fight the Chimaera." She smiled at him until he finally returned the grin, then went back to her equipment check.

 

Xena held her breath as she watched the magnificent winged horse lower his head and drink from the Fountain of Pirene. It was the second night he had come, but she felt just as awed as when she had first seen him. The moonlight bounced off his white flanks, and his wings made a soft rustling as he folded them inward and settled down to graze.

They had watched him most of the previous night, but she had told Bellerophon to make no move until the following evening at least. She felt they needed to know more about his movements, particularly his takeoffs and landings. Besides, the more comfortable he felt at the fountain, the better chance they would have of capturing him. She made a soft owl call. Pegasus looked up momentarily, but then went back to grazing. Good. She did it again and the horse didnít even flinch.

Third timeís the charm. The sound echoed across the valley and across the water of the flowing fountain. She checked the end of her long rope to make sure it was securely tied around a nearby cedar tree. Once this was established, she grabbed the unsecured coils and crouched behind a large boulder. Because she was facing the horse, the plan was for Bellerophon to make the first move. He too had a rope that was secured to a tree. The idea was to take the other end, throw it around some part of Pegasus, and let him wear himself out trying to uproot two trees. Once he calmed down, theyíd work on getting him used to human company. Xena strained her eyes to their utmost, trying to distinguish her partner in the gloom, but at this point, she saw no movement. She gave the call again. Nothing.

The winged stallion began to paw at the earth and toss his head. Xena knew time was running out, but she couldnít risk trying to catch him with one rope. If she missed or it didnít hold him, theyíd never see him at this spot again, and all of their chances would be gone. After awhile, the horse gently spread his wings to their full width, flapped them two times, and trotted away. Within moments, he had reached a full gallop, and with a great pounding, his hooves left the ground and he glided into the cool night air and out of sight.

That kid had better be severely injured, thought Xena. Because heís gonna be when I find him. She stalked around the fountain and reached the grove of trees that served as Bellerophonís hiding place. In a moment, she saw his body on the ground, his head resting against the base of a trunk.

"Bellerophon!" She rushed up to him, and was relieved to see him sit up quickly. "Whatís the matter? Are you injured?"

He rubbed his head. "Uh, no."

Xena sighed. "Then what have you been doing for the past half hour while I called?"

"You called? Maybe you werenít loud enough. Because you see. . ."

She kicked him none too lightly in the ribs.

"Ow!"

"Youíve been asleep, havenít you? You stupid idiot! Iím over there hooting like a barn owl, and youíre taking naps."

"Is he gone?"

She whirled away and headed back towards her hideout. "Of course heís gone. Get your gear. The huntís over for tonight!"

They gathered their things and began to make the long walk to where they had left the horses. There was silence for a long time, and then Bellerophon cleared his throat.

"Iím sorry Xena. Itís just that. . . well,. . . you see, I was thinking about Philonoe, andó"

He cried out as a pop was heard and he felt a terrible sting on his backside. Xena recoiled her rope and continued to walk. "What did you do that for?" he asked as he rubbed his posterior.

"I told you that thinking about the people we love when weíve got something to do is not a good idea. They just serve to distract us from what needs to be done. And many times, an enemy can use them against you."

Bellerophon smiled. "What? You think Pegasus might somehow find out about Philonoe and take her hostage just to threaten me?"

"You know exactly what I mean," she grumbled. Then she added, "I can always leave you here with your father and continue on my way."

The young man grew very serious. "Now, look, Xena, I was just tired from seeing my parents today. Iím glad I did it, but it was tiring. And I do miss Philonoe."

By this time, they had reached the horses and Xena quickly got up on Argo. Her voice softened just a bit. "I know, but thinking about other people doesnít serve our purpose right now. Believe me, if our friend Pegasus back there had someone to distract him, heíd be a lot easier toó" She stopped and tilted her head slightly.

Bellerophon mounted his mare. "What? Do you hear something?"

She guided Argo next to him and he could see her white teeth in the moonís glow.

"Yes, Bellerophon. I hear the whisper of love in the airóand the angry snorts of a winged horse thatís about to be caughtóby us."

 

~~ Chapter XIV ~~

 

Gabrielle sighed and tentatively touched the quill in front of her. Then she gently brushed her fingertips across the scroll. Nothing happened, and she inched her chair closer to the small table. Of course, nothing should have happened, but after refraining from touching anything for days, it was a great relief to know here was something that she couldnít kill. And these objects were things that were as familiar to her as weapons were to Xena.

She thought for a moment, reviewing all of the adventures they had had together. Now what do I want to write about? If only I had all my other scrolls . . .

By the gods!

Knocking back her chair, she rushed quickly through the elaborate temple until she located the priestess.

"Yes?" The woman turned calmly around.

"My scrollsóall the ones Iíve written. Did they disappear when I blew out my candle?"

"No, Gabrielle. I told you that all of the things you accomplished and made would still exist."

Gabrielleís eyes widened in horror and her throat went dry. "Xenaís got my scrolls. I keep them in one of her saddlebags!"

For the first time, Gabrielle noticed that the priestess looked disturbed "I had not thought of this."

"So this has never happened before."

"Mementos are always left, of course, but not such an extensive record as you would leave behind."

"What could happen?" Gabrielle almost didnít want to ask the question.

For a long moment, the priestess was silent. She pursed her lips and frowned. "I canít honestly say. But there is nothing to be done about it now."

Gabrielle threw both hands into the air. "Great! Just great!"

"Gabrielle, more than likely Xena will find them and attribute them to Joxer or someone else she has traveled with."

"Joxer! There is no way that anyone could mistake my writings for something that Joxer came up with! I canít believe tható"

"Gabrielle!" The priestessís voice was sharp. It reminded Gabrielle of her motherís when she had done something terribly wrong. Gabrielle placed her hands on her hips and screwed up her mouth, but she did shut it.

"As Iíve told you before, this is not about you anymore. Itís about others, and it is impossible to rekindle the flame on a Candle of Remembrance. I have never seen it happen."

Gabrielle blinked in embarrassment. "Iím sorry," she murmured and wandered back to her table in the other room.

Well, Gabrielle, I guess you get to start from the very beginning.

 

 

 

Xena watched carefully from behind her boulder as Argo calmly grazed near the gushing fountain. This was their second night to leave the horse there, and hopefully it would be a repeat of last night. Pegasus had comeóand had taken a liking to the pretty mare. Neither had Argo seemed to have any problem taking up with the winged stallion.

The little tramp, Xena grinned to herself.

Hopefully, this equine love affair was going to pay off. Xena had forbidden Bellerophon to interfere last night. She knew that they were taking chances enough introducing a new horse into the fountainís environment, and she decided that Pegasus might be jumpy. Tonight, however, she felt they had to move. Days were passing by. Days in which the Chimaera was wreaking havoc in Lycia. And they still had to pick up Polyeidus near the Temple of Mnemosyne because she had sent him there for the gods knew what reason.

She jerked her head up as she heard the beat of mighty wings. She could only hope that Bellerophon was listening and alert as well. The horse alighted softly not far from Argo, and the mare whinnied. After drinking from the fountain, he sidled near her and began to graze. Every once in a while, one of them would nip the other or whicker. After what seemed an eternity, Xena gave the call of the owl. This was to be the signal. If Bellerophon was sleeping tonight, then she was definitely going to leave him with his father for good.

It looked as if that wouldnít be necessary, however. After a moment, she heard the call of a hawkóhis signal that he was ready. She was farther downwind of the horses, so she would have to make the first move. Creeping out from the rock on bent knees, she checked her rope to make sure the loop was ready to swing, and slowly began to move across the ground. Both horses were still grazing, and their backs were towards her. When she was about twenty paces away, she bent her knees and gave a mighty spring. Somersaulting through the air, she let out a whistle to let Argo know she was on her way. Landing squarely on the mareís back, she immediately threw the loop of her rope toward Pegasusís head. The winged animal had already spun at the sound of her whistle, but now he let out a scream of fury.

Xena jerked the rope and was relieved to find that there was tension on the other end. She had hit her mark. Grabbing Argoís mane, she kicked the horse into a gallop and headed to her right, where there was a sturdy cedar tree near the edge of the fountain. "Now, Bellerophon!" she called, only hoping the young man was already acting out their plan.

It turned out that he was. Pounding out from a grove of trees, Bellerophon and his mount found themselves next to the galloping stallion, who had already spread his wings and was about to hit full stride as he headed away from the fountain. His front feet were already leaving the ground. Whirling the rope around his head, Bellerophon tossed it just as Pegasus dove by him. "All set, Xena?" he yelled as they galloped back toward his grove of trees.

Xena guided Argo around the cedar tree once. It was none too soon. Immediately, the rope went taut and she heard an enraged neigh from Pegasus.

"Set!" she called back.

On the other side of Pegasus, Bellerophon executed the same move around a large oak. He wrapped an extra loop of rope around the pommel of his saddle for added support, knowing that Xena would have no such advantage on the unsaddled Argo. Placing his feet in the stirrups, he gritted his teeth and waited.

When the great steed of the gods realized that he could not go up or forward, he reared in anger. Ducking his head, he turned back toward the fountain and galloped hard for it. Racing past on Bellerophonís side, it only took a few strides for him to realize that he could go no farther in that direction. Meanwhile, Xena and Bellerophon were tightening the ropes every chance they could get. The less room the horse had to move, the easier their job would be.

Although from the looks of it, thought Xena, this isnít going to be easy no matter what.

Snorting and screaming in derision, Pegasus flapped his wings and threw out his back legs violently. This went on without end for some time.

"Heís a fighter!" called Bellerophon from the woods.

"Letís hope so!" she replied. "Heís going to face the Chimaera, remember?"

The moon had made much progress in the night sky before the horse finally became completely still. His sides were wet with foam, and heaved up and down as he blew the air in and out noisily.

Poor thing, thought Xena. It always pained her to see some wild creature trapped, and for a moment she felt guilty about what they were doing. Then she shook her head.

Getting soft, Xena? You do what you have to to get the job done. He wonít be facing anything the rest of you wonít be.

In a few more minutes, she hopped off Argo and sent the mare over to him with a slap. He snorted again and pawed the ground.

Feels betrayed, Xena noted. But like her rider, Argo wasnít one to give up. She nuzzled and bumped the stallion until he finally seemed to relent somewhat and nipped at her.

"Should I try to get near him now?" called Bellerophon.

"No!" she called back. "Make sure your rope is secured and then walk in front of him over to my side."

While Bellerophon followed these orders, Xena tied her rope around the cedar tree. They certainly didnít want to lose their prize at this stage of the game.

When the young man passed by Pegasus, the horse began to buck and neigh all over again. Bellerophon hurried over to Xena.

"Now what?"

"We wait."

"But itís been four days andó"

"We wait!"

He plopped down on the ground and began angrily plucking blades of grass.

Xena sat next to him, never taking her eyes off the horses. "Youíre right. Itís been four days, so one or two more wonít make any difference."

"What are we doing anyway?" He sounded like he was eight years old.

"Letting him get used to not having his own way. A lesson many of us have to learn in life." She cut her eyes at him and his lip came out. "The first step in taming him is letting him understand the feeling of being controlled by something else. He canít leave now, and he canít move all that far. It may not seem like much to us, but to a creature thatís never known anything but freedom, itís a huge step."

Throughout what was left of the night and the beginning of the new day, Xena forced Bellerophon to take many of these steps as she guided him towards taming the winged horse. The young man was brave, but also gentle, and she was relieved to find that he had a way about him when it came to actually dealing with animals. By late afternoon, Pegasus was allowing himself to be touched by the youth. By the time Xena hunted them up some supper, Bellerophon had gotten Pegasus to take a bridle, and by sundown, he was sitting astride the magnificent beast. Of course, this step hadnít come without much bucking and screaming again, and Bellerophon had the cuts and bruises to prove it.

The moon was overhead once more when Xena took a rope and tied it around the withers of Pegasus. She made it fairly snug, but left enough room to slide her arm under it.

"Whatís that for?"

"Wrap your ankles under that on either side."

"Itís a little tight," he grimaced.

"You wonít be thinking that when he tries to throw you off over the sea."

Bellerophon did as he was told, then gulped. Xena looked up at him.

"We have to set him free at one point or another. Youíve got to be able to ride him in any situation in order to face the Chimaera." She checked the rope again. "You ready?"

He clenched his jaws and nodded.

"All right. Remember the rope here. That bridleís not going to hold you on him once heís airborne."

"Right." His voice was tense and she almost felt sorry for him, but she untied the ropes at the horseís neck anyway. For a moment nothing happened. Pegasus had been held immobile for so long that he couldnít believe he was free. But this didnít last long. Springing forward, he took off at a lightning pace and spread his wings. Bellerophon leaned against his neck, one hand wrapped in the horseís bridle and mane, and the other under the rope she had tied around the shoulders. Within moments, they were off the ground and climbing through the sky at an unbelievable rate.

 

Xena sat down to wait. Either theyíd come back together and theyíd be that much closer to fighting the Chimaera, or sheíd never see either one of them again. She could only hope it would be the former.

 

~~ Chapter XV ~~

 

Polyeidus jumped as a strong hand grasped his shoulder. Turning around with a slight gasp, his look of surprise changed to one of delight.

"Xena!"

The tall warrior smiled at him, then grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the midst of the crowd he was in. It was only when they had moved several paces away from everyone that she stopped to speak with him.

"We just arrived. Weíll be leaving in the morning. That should put us in Xanthos by late tomorrow. Weíll spend the next day watching the Chimaera and making our plans."

"The Chimaera! So you succeeded inó"

"Yes!" She glanced around a bit nervously. "Yes, we caught him. But believe me, it wasnít easy."

"Where is he now?"

"She lowered her voice even further. "Bellerophon has him a good bit outside of town. Itís not like a winged horse wouldnít attract a lot of unwanted attention."

He nodded eagerly. "Right."

Xena glanced around them. "Especially in this spot. Whatís going on here? A town meeting?"

Polyeidus smiled. "Oh no, nothing that serious. Actually itís quite pleasant. A storyteller comes from the Temple and entertains every night. Itís only begun just recently, but she is very good. Extroardinary, actually. I think you would find her tales very . . . um. . . interesting."

Xena glanced around them again. "Hmm."

Polyeidus could tell she had barely heard what he had said. He decided to go ahead and get his unpleasant business over with.

"Xena, I know I probably should have been doing more important things than listening to stories, but to be honest, I couldnít remember exactly what you sent me here for. I suppose it comes from being an old man, but I know itís still no excuse."

Xena shifted her feet and wiped her hand on her thigh as if to rid it of sweat.

"Yeah, right. Well, look. Bellerophon succeeded in Cenchreae, so I think all weíll need to do now is get to Xanthos and get ready to fight the Chimaera. Back-up plans arenít necessary at this point. So donít worry about it." She slapped his shoulder good-naturedly. "Iím going to pick up a few supplies here. Then weíll head out to camp."

The old man looked behind him, towards the far end of a clearing in the village where a large bonfire burned. The space was empty, and the group of people he had just left were gathered about twenty paces away from it.

"Xena, would it be all right if I listen to , uh. . ."

"The storyteller while I get what I need?" She smiled again. "Sure. Iíll be back in a few minutes."

She hurriedly walked away, quite happy to have gotten around the embarrassing subject of why Polyeidus was here in the first place. She made it quite easily to the stables. It seemed that most people in this small village had turned out for the paltry entertainment near the bonfire. As she walked, she went over and over her orders to Polyeidus to go to Mnemosyne, and why she might have sent him there. Unlike the servant, she couldnít use age as an excuse for her absent-mindedness, and it frustrated her to no end.

Once inside the stables, she finally found a young man who was able to sell her some tack and a few bags of grain for a special snack for their mounts. The way she saw it, the animals should enjoy every little pleasure possible before they were asked to face the incredible monster in Lycia. This went for Polyeidus as well, so she took her time walking back toward the crowd in the village and even decided sheíd let the storyteller finish before she would fetch the old man. As she neared the people, she was struck by the absolute stillness of the crowd. It was almost as if every one of them were holding their breaths.

She leaned up against a tree on the outskirts of the circle and began to think about how to kill the Chimaera. The voice of the bard rang clear across the opening and even above the roaring fire.

A pleasant voice, that, she noted absently. Almost like Iíve heard it beforeóa lot. It makes me feel . . . calm. She shook her head as if to clear it. Now about this monster. If weó

Xena looked up. She had distinctly heard her name mentioned. Suddenly she focused in on the familiar voice that had already mesmerized everyone else there.

". . . to fight for the townspeople who had already been so cruel to her. But this didnít matter to Xena. She was determined to do what was right, whether it was appreciated or not.

Draco had chosen staffs as the fighting weapons, but Xena had retained the right to choose the conditions. And do you know what she chose?" The woman paused for just the briefest of moments and Xena could feel the dramatic tension in the crowd stretch tighter. By the gods, she herself was almost holding her breath, and she had been there. She smiled as the girl continued.

"She chose a shaky scaffolding that was behind Draco. Draco ordered his men to kill the first person that touched the ground, and then he flipped up onto the scaffolding with a push from one of his men. Xena flipped up there too, of course, but she used the backs of Dracoís own men to do it after she had made them double over with a good blow from her staff."

Several people in the crowd laughed with delight, and the storyteller continued, her voice wafting through the night air like a magic song. Xena began to slowly pace around the perimeter of the trees, her dark figure blending in with the shadows cast by the bonfire. Even if she hadnít been so wraithlike, it wouldnít have mattered. Everyone there was determined to catch every phrase uttered by the storyteller.

Who is that? It seems as though weíve met. How does she know all those details? Iíll get a good look at her and thenó

Xena stopped and stared in shock when she was finally able to get a full view of the source of all this knowledge.

About twenty paces from the crowd stood two figures, both of whom were cloaked. The taller of the two stood behind the other, almost in the shadows, and never moved at all. His hood remained down, but the face it revealed was completely passionless. His eyes slowly surveyed the crowd.

A guardian, she thought. And of the Temple of Mnemosyne, from his robe.

The other figure was hooded and cloaked, but it stood in the glow of the fire and threw its arms up wildly as a fountain of words gushed forth from it.

The storyteller.

Xena noticed that every inch of the woman was covered, including her hands. She could also tell even from here that the bard was small. And fairly young, too, from her voice.

Xena stopped and focused on her words again.

"But she didnít kill Draco because she was trying to get away from that dark part of her past. She simply made him promise to leave the valley and not return. And he kept his word. Honor among thieves, you might say. Plus, he knew Xena would tear him limb from limb if he didnít do what she said."

Xena crossed her arms and smiled.

"And of course all that was important, but the most important thing was the change that had come over the people of Amphipolis, especially Cyrene, Xenaís mother. They had rejected her and mistrusted her the entire time because of all the evil and selfish things she had embraced in the past, but this time she had saved them without shedding the blood of the village men or seeking to lead an army to glory. When the great warrior princess felt her mother embrace her and tell her that she loved her, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off of her heart."

Xena dropped her arms and crept closer. She was starting to feel unnerved. How could the storyteller know about feelings like that? Why would she? Bards were supposed to recount deeds, not crawl around inside peopleís heads.

"So Xena travels the country now helping people, as Hercules does. Yet she knows that every blow she strikes for good is balanced by one in the past that destroyed innocent people and changed countless lives. But then again, thatís what makes her a truly great hero. Sheís overcome her mistakes. She doesnít let them overcome her. And in that one way, at least, we can all be heroes just like her."

"Even me?" came the sincere voice of a very young boy at the front of the crowd. Everyone laughed good-naturedly, including the bard.

"Even you," came the reply.

The people clapped and began to disperse. The storyteller quickly turned and began to follow the tall guardian into the shadow of the woods behind her. Xena knew she should go get Polyeidus, but she couldnít resist an urge to speak to this person who had such strange insight into her past. Walking quickly, she got within a few paces of the two, and then called out. The storyteller simply froze in her tracks, her back still to the warrior princess. The tall man stepped between them.

"Stop!" he called out and held up his hand. "Donít you know that no one is to speak to the storyteller once she leaves the village? Neither is anyone to get closer than a stoneís toss."

"Iím sorry," Xena muttered. "Iím new in town. Didnít know she was such the celebrity." She took another step and the guardian moved forward with a threatening look on his face. Blinking lazily, she backed up a few paces and threw out a comment to the bard.

"Your story was . . . interesting. Whereíd you hear it in the first place?"

For what seemed an eternity, there was no answer. Xena had finally decided sheíd better stop wasting her time when the hooded figure turned around slowly. Her voice shook as she spoke.

"UmóIóuh, heard it from a man that had been living in Amphipolis at the time."

"Well, you tell it well."

"Really?" Although she couldnít see her face, Xena just knew the storyteller was smiling with self-satisfaction.

She felt glad to have given her a compliment, although she didnít really know why.

Well, enough of this. She had things to get on with. It would have been interesting to find out the story behind this tale teller, but it was really none of her business. Besides, she didnít want to have to rough up a priest of Mnemosyne. That would come a little too close to the old Xena.

She turned back toward the village, but called out by way of parting.

"Keep up the good work, but donít make too much of your heroesóespecially Xena. Theyíre just people with faults like you and me."

"But thatís what makes them heroes, isnít it? Theyíre people with problems, and yet they try to help everyone else with theirs."

Xena thought for moment, then quirked the corner of her mouth and bowed her head towards the young bard, conceding the point. She turned and headed back towards the village, never noticing that the hooded figure didnít move a muscle until she was out of sight.

When she reached Polyeidus, she plied him with questions about the storyteller, but found that he knew as little of her as she herself did.

Oh, well. Itís not my concern.

 

 

 

Gabrielle paced back and forth in her room at the Temple. She was trembling from head to toe with fear, joy, and heartache as well.

Great gods of Olympus! I never expected to see her again. What is she doing here? She heard movement behind her and turned to see the priestess enter.

"What is she doing here?" she voiced out loud.

"I do not know," came the soft answer. "But you limited your contact with her?"

"We just exchanged a few words," Gabrielle replied shakily. And she never recognized my voice.

Gabrielle hadnít really believed the candle would work until tonight, but Xena had truly forgotten her. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat.

"Then I think it will be all right."

"She didnít recognize my voice, but she was suspicious about my stories." There was a momentís pause.

"She said I told them well."

"Iím glad you are pleased. Hopefully she will be leaving soon. In the meantime, I believe it will be best if you stop telling your stories in town for a few days."

Gabrielle looked disappointed, but nodded in agreement. As the priestess turned to go, she heard the girl give a quick intake of breath.

"What is it?"

"My scrolls! I need to get them."

"Gabrielle, we already discussed this. It is a shame that Xena has your scrolls, but they will be dismissed along with all the other aspects of your past life. It would be far more dangerous for you to risk another encounter with her. I do not like the fact that you two have met already. Now stay here until she is gone."

"All right." Gabrielle plopped down in a chair and the priestess left.

She just doesnít understand. Xena is going to find those scrolls, if she hasnít already, and sheís not going to just dismiss them. Besides, those things represent years of hard work, and they could help me out with what Iím doing now.

Iíve already been cursed and erased from everyoneís memory. It seems as though to me I should get at least one thing I want.

She grabbed her cloak and wrapped her hands tightly before tiptoeing down the hall and out a side door of the Temple.

Anyway, when have I ever felt the need to do as I was told?

 

~~ Chapter XVI ~~

 

Creeping through the dark woods, Gabrielle caught her breath when she noticed a fire not far ahead.

It must belong to Xena.

It had taken quite a bit of asking outside some of the livelier taverns for her to get some general directions as to where the tall warrior woman had last been seen. From their discussions, Gabrielle had also decided that Xena was in the company of Polyeidus. She wondered what the old man was doing traveling with her, but it was really none of her business.

Xena none of my business. I donít think Iíll ever get used to that, she thought sadly.

As she drew nearer to the fire, she lifted her cloak so as not to rustle any leaves underfoot. She made sure to stay well into the woods, not letting even the slightest hint of campfire glow touch her figure. As she circled through the trees and moved slightly closer, she was able to make out three figures on the ground.

Three? I wonder who the other one is?

After observing for several minutes and noticing that none of them moved, she squinted at the wooded area on the other side and saw what she had hoped.

Argo. Yep, this was definitely the right camp.

Backing deeper into the forest, she began to painstakingly creep around the camp in a circular pattern, until she found herself directly behind the horses. She had barely glanced at them until now as she eased up near them, having kept her eyes on the three sleeping people near the fire. Looking up completely for the first time, she nearly cried out as she spied two enormous white wings on the huge horse next to Argo.

By Zeus, that canít be anything but Pegasus! What in the world is Xena doing with Pegasus?

Gabrielle felt the weight on her heart grow even heavier. What a story was here! What adventures Xena must be up to! And she was part of them no longer.

"Is this about you or Xena, Gabrielle?" It was almost as if the priestess were right next to her. Goaded by her own thoughts, she concentrated on getting near the camp without startling the mare or the other two mounts. It definitely wouldnít do to upset that winged creature.

Just ahead of Argo, and within close reach of the sleeping Xena, Gabrielle could make out the saddlebags.

Still keeps them in the same place. Although why she wouldnít, I donít know, she thought somewhat foolishly. Itís not as if her whole life has changed, Gabrielle, just because she doesnít remember you.

Still, she was different. There was a look Iíve seen before, yet canít quite place. She looked . . . lost.

The thought made her pause for just a moment and sigh. Within a heartbeat, though, she was moving again. She crept nearer and nearer, her heart beating so wildly that she felt sure Xena would hear it. Every step was agony, because it took an eternity to move. She didnít want to rustle a leaf or even touch a twig. Finally, she found herself standing over the saddlebags. She glanced at Xena. No movement, heavy breathing. Good. Kneeling down and slowly lifting up the flap, she reached inside and was relieved to feel the smooth texture of parchment. One at a time, she began to pull them out, making sure not to rattle the paper as she did so. Taking a sack from her shoulder, she began to carefully place them inside. She was more than halfway done, and still no movement from any of the sleepers.

I must have learned a thing or two from Xena. Wouldnít she be surprised? Of course why wouldnít I be able to sneak up on the warrior princess? If anybody could, it would be me. After all, I know her like the back of my--

"Eeeeeiya!"

Gabrielle dropped everything as a piercing war cry rang out in the night air. She felt a heavy blow to her back and collapsed face first in the dirt. Almost immediately, she felt the pressure of a booted foot at her neck.

She could only think of one thing.

"Please donít touch me!" she cried out.

"And why shouldnít I?í she heard a familiar voice growl. "I donít take kindly to people getting into my things."

"Xena! Whatís going on?" It was the voice of a young man that Gabrielle didnít recognize.

Then there was some huffing and puffing and the sound of heavy footsteps.

"Great heavens above, Xena! I believe itís the storyteller!" This came from Polyeidus.

The boot pressed more firmly into her neck.

"Well, she had better tell a pretty good story as to why sheís here or it just might be her last."

"Is it all right if I sit up?"

It was quiet for a moment, then Gabrielle felt the foot come off her neck.

Thank the gods! She certainly didnít want Xena touching her and taking a risk. Placing her hands slowly above her head, she rolled onto her back. Then she sat up.

"What were you doing, Bard?" asked old Polyeidus.

Gabrielle risked a glance at Xena. Fortunately the hood on her cloak had not revealed her face, or everything they had done might be for nothing. She had no idea how that candle thing worked.

Think Gabrielle. Think fast. She risked a glance at the scrolls, which were scattered between her satchel and the saddlebag. Got it! She changed her voice to a tone of deep discomfort.

"Well, you see, itís kind of embarrassing, and a little arrogant. Iím almost ashamed to mention it . . ."

"Out with it!" Xena said, and took a threatening step toward her.

"Okay, okay! I decided that if I put some of my stories in your bag, youíd find them later and read them. I thought it might be a good way to get them spread around the country, and also to check their accuracy, if they traveled off with the great warrior princess herself."

"Why didnít you just ask?" Xena questioned in an annoyed tone.

"Would you have listened?"

Xena opened her mouth for a reply, then raised her eyebrow and remained silent.

"Thatís what I thought. It was a stupid idea, and Iím sorry. Now if youíll just let me gather my things, Iíll be on my way, never to trouble you good people again." She leaned down and began to slowly gather the parchments, placing them in her satchel. As she reached for the last one, her sleeve moved up slightly, exposing her wrist for the merest of seconds. She felt the rough scrape of bark against her skin, and stared in horror as a thick root beneath her began to change to black. She jerked her hand back and covered the wrist, but it was too late. The flow of death traveled slowly up the root towards the base of a large oak tree. The other thick roots soon turned the same shade and then the massive trunk began to undergo the change. As the creeping death moved up the body of the tree and spread to the branches, black leaves began to flutter to the ground. Risking a glance at the three people around her, Gabrielle saw surprise on the faces of Xena and the young man, but absolute terror on the face of Polyeidus. Terror and understanding.

"Whatís the matter with you?" whispered the boy.

"I wonít hurt you," Gabrielle said, standing slowly. "At least not on purpose. Thatís why I have to get back to the Temple."

"And thatís why youíre covered from head to toe," said Xena.

"Yes. May I go now? Iím sorry for all of this." She glanced nervously at the now dead tree. Fortunately, the disease did not look as though it was going to hit anything else. The tree and its roots were free from entanglements with other plants. There were a few weeds at the bottom that turned black, but everything else appeared fine.

"Yes," replied the warrior princess quietly. "Go on."

Gabrielle stumbled out of the cleared area, anxious to get away as quickly as possible.

That was the stupidest idea Iíve ever had. She thought back over her life for a moment. Well, okay, one of the stupidest. What did you think you were doing?

Well, it did get me the scrolls, didnít it?

As Gabrielle made her way through the woods, mentally arguing with herself, Xena turned to her companions.

"Well, they might do better to keep our storytelling friend inside the Temple all the time. Now, you two try to go back to sleep. Youíre going to need your rest."

Bellerophon shook his head in amazement, then headed back to his bed roll, but Polyeidus just stood there in apparent shock.

Xena gently prodded him. "Go on, Polyeidus. Everythingís all right."

"Xena, Iíve seen this before."

"What? That?" She indicated the dead tree.

"Yes. Iobates had it."

"Youíre saying itís the same curse that the king had?"

"Yes." He sat down shakily on a log.

Xena slowly eased herself to the ground as well. "Tell me all about it," she said with a sudden glint in her eye.

 

 

 

"Alalalalalalala!"

Gabrielle slowly stirred in her bed.

Dreaming about Xenaís battles, she thought without opening her eyes.

Then she heard another yell and the sound of the temple door crashing open and hitting the stone wall.

Iím not dreaming.

Grabbing her cloak, she quickly threw it on and began tightly wrapping her hands as she crept out into the hall.

"Xena! How dare you disturb the peace of this temple!" The priestessís voice was filled with anger and a little fear.

"Iím sorry, but we need to see the storyteller," came the calm reply.

"Iím afraid that is not possible."

"Itís not only possible, itís inevitable. It just depends on whether you choose the easy way or the hard one."

"Xena, we will not give in toó"

"Wait!" Gabrielle stepped out from behind a pillar. From this view she could see that Xena was accompanied by the young man and Polyeidus. "What do you want?"

Xena stepped back. "Polyeidus?"

The old man came toward Gabrielle. "My dear, I couldnít help but notice what you did to that tree last night."

She made no response, so he continued. "I once knew someone who was affected in a similar way. Did you happen to receive this curse from Bacchus?"

Gabrielle hesitated for just a moment. What should she do? She certainly couldnít tell them the truth. Finally she just nodded.

"Everything you touch dies, and you yourself cannot be killed?"

"I canít touch anything, thatís right. As far as the dying thing, I canít say that Iíve tried to kill myself yet, so I donít know."

Xena stepped forward again. "Look, weíre going to the kingdom of Lycia to slay a dangerous creature called the Chimaera. Have you heard of it?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"We could sure use this ability you have."

Gabrielle said nothing, but turned towards the priestess. The woman bit her lip and shook her head negatively.

Polyeidus came even nearer. "My child, if Iobates had used his curse to help others in this way, perhaps his life wouldnít have been as wasteful as it was. I donít know what kind of deal you made with Bacchus, but this could be your chance at redemption."

I donít need redemption, thought Gabrielle. I didnít make a deal with Bacchus. I just got stuck with this. Why shouldnít I get on with my life the best I can?

"And of course youíd get first crack at any story that comes from this," added the obviously clever young man.

Xena moved forward again. "Look, I donít care about your redemption, and I donít care about any stories. Weíve got a job to do. The sooner we get on with it, the more lives that might be spared. You can go or not, but make a decision quickly. Weíve wasted enough time already." She turned and stalked out of the temple. The youth followed her, but Polyeidus stood with his hands clasped and a hopeful look on his face.

Gabrielle walked over to the priestess, and they moved out of earshot of the old man.

"This isnít exactly like the Xena I know," she whispered. " She seems a little . . ." She searched for the right word. "Harsh." For a moment she thought of Xena as she had been when she battled the primitive warriors known simply as the Horde.

The priestess snorted in exasperation. "Thatís because you donít know her. And sheís never known you. Gabrielle, I cannot recommend this under any circumstances."

"But if I can helpó"

"You can hurt more than you can help. Itís not just the curse anymore. These people knew you. Every moment you spend with them could mean dangerous consequences."

Gabrielle bit her lip in thought. "Like what?"

"Like frustration, the reversal of everything you hoped to accomplish when you blew out the candle--even madness for them. As usual, you are focusing on yourself again. You want to be the hero, to overshadow Xena."

"Thatís not true!" Gabrielle felt the blood rushing to her face. "Everything Iíve done has been for Xena!"

"Nothing but hurt can come from deceiving yourself. Remember your last visit here."

That cinched it. "Look, Iím going," Gabrielle said through clenched teeth.

The priestess gasped.

"If I can kill this thing with one touch, then I donít see any reason why I shouldnít try. Iobates should have done more things like that. And when I come backóand I willóIíll have a great story to share with others."

The priestess sighed and turned away.

"Iíll never leave again!" Gabrielle called out. "I promise!"

"You must find peace with yourself, Gabrielle, before your promises can mean anything to others." With that, she disappeared through the far door.

Gabrielle looked up to see Polyeidus smiling nervously at her.

"Well, letís go," she said, not without a feeling of uneasiness.

This is the right thing, she thought as they headed into the sunlight.

Yeah, Gabrielle. Just keep telling yourself that.

 

~~ Chapter XVII ~~

 

 

Gabrielle looked at her scrolls by the light of the flickering campfire. She was in the process of deleting any references to herself. It was turning into quite a job. She didnít realize how often she had focused on herself in many of the stories. Maybe the priestess had been right.

Not too far away, Xena, Polyeidus, and the young man Bellerophon were at their own campfire. Gabrielle had insisted on separation while they traveled, and none of the others had argued. They had reached Xanthos earlier in the evening, but Xena had decided to camp outside town, not wanting to draw attention to their strange band. Besides, this would put them closer to the lair of the Chimaera in the morning. The warrior princess had stated that it would be a good idea to observe th as Polyeidus and Bellerophon discussed the coming adventure.

Gabrielle glanced across the gloom and firelight at the warrior.

How she had missed that sound! How many times had she gone to sleep with the rhythmic scrape of stone on metal and felt completely secure in the knowledge that Xena would be prepared for whatever came their way?

She saw movement, and within moments, old Polyeidus was standing nearby. He held out a rough wooden bowl with something steaming inside.

"How about some stew, my dear?"

"No thanks."

"But you have to be hungry. You havenít eaten since youíve been with us."

"But I evidently donít have to eat, Polyeidus. At least it would seem that way. You of all people should know that."

"We can guess that you wonít starve to death, if thatís what you mean, but you could surely get weak and tired from hunger. You still feel the effects, my child. I know that from being with Iobates."

"Heís right!" Xena called. "Eat that. We need you alert and strong for the fight with this thing."

Still bossing me around, Gabrielle, thought, but not without a smile of affection.

"All right. Iíll eat it as soon as I finish."

Polyeidus craned his neck and stared at the storyteller.

"What are you doing, if you donít mind my asking?"

She hesitated for a moment. "Iíve decided to go back and take some unnecessary things out. It makes the story better." At this point she reached the end of the scroll. Without hesitation, she took her quill and blackened out the signature at the bottom.

Polyeidus frowned. "You just marked out the signature!"

Gabrielle hurriedly rolled up the scroll. The old man had better eyesight than she had given him credit for. Hopefully, he hadnít actually seen the name.

"Yes," she said, reaching for the soup. She took a sip. "This is delicious!" she called across the night air. "Who made it?"

Her attempt at changing the subject didnít work.

"But why did you do that?" asked the old man. "I see no reasoning for it."

Gabrielle tapped her fingers nervously against the sides of her bowl. "A wise woman once said that it didnít matter who received the credit as long as knowledge was passed on. It doesnít matter who wrote the stories, just what theyíre about."

Several paces away, Xenaís head jerked up.

Lao Ma. Xena had heard those same words from one of her mentors in a faraway kingdom many, many years ago.

She stood up and looked suspiciously across the distance at the hooded figure. How did the girl know that?

She began to pace around the fire.

"Whatís the matter, Xena?" asked Bellerophon.

"Nothing," she lied. There was no need starting anything tonight.

But if they survived the Chimaera, she had every intention of learning all there was to know about the bard, whether the girl wanted her to or not.

 

 

 

They heard the monster before they ever saw it. So did the sheep in the Kinik Plain below them. Xena had insisted on bringing the animals and setting them loose in the valley below.

"If we see how this thing hunts, then weíll know better how itís going to react to us," she had said, and no one had disagreed with her. In addition to Xena, Gabrielle, and Polyeidus, two farmers-- Telion and Acheus-- had joined them in their quest. They were stationed behind the many boulders that lined the upper hill above Xanthos.

Looking far across the valley, Gabrielle could see light reflecting off a mirror carried by Bellerophon. It was the young manís signal that he and Pegasus were in place. Xena had told them to go farther down and closer, realizing that the winged horse would have to get used to the sight, sound, and smell of the Chimaera if he were going to be of any use fighting it.

At first, Gabrielle hadnít realized what they were listening to, thinking perhaps a storm was on the way. But there wasnít a cloud in the sky, and Xena had whispered to them that it was the creature, drawn to the valley by the bleating of the sheep. The poor animals began to make even more noise and trot restlessly in different directions. The sound of the Chimaera grew louder, and Xena flashed a mirror back at Bellerophon to let him know that he and Pegasus must be ready to take flight at any moment to avoid danger. After a few moments more, the three sheep turned as one and began to run the length of the valley, towards the east. It was then that the Chimaera slunk into view. Even Xena gasped as it rounded a rock at the western end of the plain and moved into plain sight.

It was at least the length of three horses, and its head was definitely that of a male lion, itís scraggly mane hanging down and clotted in places with what appeared to be blood. Its lips were drawn back slightly, revealing long yellow fangs that were glistening with saliva. The front legs matched the head, with thick lionís paws and sharp claws on each foot. Behind this the golden coat of the lion blended into the white hair of a goat, with hind legs and hooves to match. As the creature came to a set of rough boulders, it used its front paws to grasp the rock before scrambling over the top with the agile hooves at the rear. The most fearsome part of its anatomy, however, was its long tail. Measuring almost the entire length of its body, the tail gave the appearance of being a perfectly formed snake, with a triangular head at the end that watched everything on all sides and flicked a forked tongue out at intervals. It could move in any direction, and seemed to be even more alert than the lionís head at the front.

Trotting down the valley quite easily, the Chimaera continued to rumble and growl as it grew closer to the sheep. Meanwhile, those poor creatures had reached the end of the plain and run up against some jagged rocks that were impassable. They turned and began to bleat frantically. The Chimaera padded to within fifty paces of them, and then suddenly let out a horrendous roar that shook the valley and almost made Gabrielle cry out loud.

This proved to be too much for the sheep. They bolted towards the east, running straight towards the monster. With a snarl, the lion opened its mouth and belched out a stream of fire that came within two paces of the sheep and sent them running back towards the boulders. One of the animals, however, turned to its left and tried to get around the Chimaera the other way. Moving like lightning, the snakeís head flew down, snapping its powerful jaws and grabbing the poor animal by the throat. Picking the sheep up off the ground, the snake shook it once and then dropped it. Flailing around helplessly, the animal cried out for a few seconds, then suddenly became very still. From all appearances, it was dead.

"Poison," Xena whispered, more to herself than to her comrades.

Meanwhile, the other two sheep tried once again to run down the length of the valley, but were stopped by the flames from the awful lionís head. This time, the monster reached out a great hairy paw and slapped one of the animals as if it had been a leaf blown by the wind. It rolled end over end, and when it stopped it was nothing but a bloody mass, torn to shreds by those great sharp claws. Blowing fire at the remaining sheep, the Chimaera got it to run back towards the rock wall.

"Why doesnít it just roast that poor creature?" asked Telion.

"Because, like most animals, it likes its meat raw," muttered Xena, and Gabrielle felt a shiver run down her spine.

Within a few moments, the third sheep was also dead too with a blow from one of the claws, and the Chimaera was contentedly feeding on the remains of all three animals. Gabrielle and the others watched in horrified fascination, knowing that tomorrow, they might meet the same fate.

 

 

 

The sun was going down in the west when Polyeidus approached Gabrielle at her fire and offered her some roasted rabbit. She had been looking at Hadaraís card and she put it away quickly as he walked up.

"Thank you," she said as the old man set the plate on a nearby log. He hesitated a moment.

"Is something the matter, Polyeidus?"

"Forgive me, my dear. Iím sure itís none of my business, but was that a fortune-tellerís card you had in your hand just now?"

Gabrielle thought about lying, but decided it was unnecessary. Besides, her whole life right now was full of lies. She hated to keep adding more to the list.

"Yes. Kind of silly, isnít it?"

"Not at all, my child. I used to read those myself, you know."

"Really?" Gabrielle was genuinely interested.

"Do you mind if I see yours?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I donít think that would be a good idea."

"You think Iím a foolish old man," he said smiling.

"No, itís not that! Itís just that . . . well. . ." She looked cautiously around. Telion and Acheus were at the other fire, eating heartily, and Xena and Bellerophon had not returned from their supply trip to Xanthos yet.

"Okay," she said reluctantly and tossed the card at his feet.

"This looks like Hadaraís work," he said, and looked at her with raised brows.

"Who?" she stammered, hoping it sounded as though she had never heard the name in her life. "I got it in Athens. I decided to go to Mnemosyne soon afterward."

"Hmm, I find that interesting. Did the seer tell you that?"

"Well, no. I just got it from some of the images in the card."

"Well, to each his own, my dear, and I told you I had not done this in years. I guess that proves it."

"What does?"

"Well, I would have thought this indicated the Temple of the Fates."

Gabrielle leaned forward in excitement.

"What makes you think that?"

"Well, the three bridges are one strong indication, but the main thing is that those mountains are the exact image of a range located near their temple."

Gabrielle leaned back and shook her head in amazement. "Huh," was all that issued from her mouth. She had been to the temple, but had not made the connection with the mountains. Polyeidus picked up the card, glanced at it again, and then dropped it in front of her with a shrug.

"Like I said, my dear, itís been a long time since I read any cards. Iím sure you did the best thing." He wandered back to the other campfire and began to talk with the two villagers. Gabrielle picked up the card and looked at it closely. She suddenly remembered the Priestess of Mnemosyne mentioning that only the Fates could erase her existence.

Perhaps thatís the key, she was thinking, when she heard the sound of loud voices coming down the road. It was Xena and Bellerophon, and they sounded as if they were arguing. When they reached the light of the other campfire, she was able to see that this was exactly what they were doing, and that they were also accompanied by a beautiful young woman.

That must be Philonoe, his love. She had picked up this information over the past two days.

"Sit down and eat!" said Xena, as she tied Argo to a nearby tree and removed her saddle.

"I donít see what the big deal is," said the youth as he plopped down cross-legged on the ground and began to pull angrily at tufts of grass. Philonoe sat down next to him, but she said nothing.

"What is it?" asked Polyeidus anxiously.

"It seems our would-be hero hasnít learned anything over the past few days." Xena stalked across the campsite and began to slap rabbit on a crude wooden plate.

"I told you that those arrows would do the job," snorted Bellerophon.

"Oh really." Xenaís voice was dripping with disgust, and Gabrielle knew from experience that the young man would be better off admitting that he was wrong. Stepping over towards Bellerophonís things, Xena picked up a huge bow and an arrow that was in a nearby quiver. She readied the weapon, then turned to search for a target. Turning slowly in a half-circle, she suddenly fired the weapon straight towards Bellerophon. He yelped and grabbed his shoulder, while Philonoe let out a shocked scream. The arrow kept going, zinging its way into a tree about three paces away. The tip pierced the bark, but the arrow only stayed there a few seconds before dropping weakly to the ground below.

Bellerophon carefully lifted his hand and stared at the trickle of blood there.

"Youíve hurt him!" cried Philonoe. She tore off a strip of her dress and pressed it to the wound.

"Be glad I hurt him," Xena said. She threw the bow to the ground and grabbed her plate once more. After taking a few angry bites of meat, she looked at the young lovers and sighed.

"Bellerophon," she said, and her voice was softer, "I was aiming for above your shoulder. Way above. And you see where it hit you. The balance on the back is all wrong. Even the best archer would have trouble with those arrows. And if you happen to hit your mark, you see what would happen." She indicated the arrow on the ground. "The points are blunt. They wonít pierce a bladder of water, much less a Chimaeraís hide."

"But I spent all my money on the bow," the young man groused.

"And itís a fine bow." She finally smiled. "Itís excellent, but if you donít have arrows to match, then the finest bow in the world wonít help you tomorrow."

The young man still didnít look quite convinced.

"Itís like my scrolls." Gabrielle was standing just outside the circle of their fire. Everyone jerked their heads up in surprise. "I can have the finest parchment in the world, but if I have no quill, nothingís going to get written. Oneís no good without the other."

Xena smiled again. "Thatís right. Remember the sword and the hilt?"

Bellerophon was quiet for a few more seconds. "Do you two always work together this well?" he finally asked. "Itís like you planned it." He grinned impishly at them, and Xena smiled at Gabrielle.

"Oh we did. We all have to work together to get anything through that hard head of yours."

He stood up. "What should I do, Xena? I know Iíve got to have those arrows for tomorrow." She nodded towards Acheus. "Whoís the best armoror in town?"

"Lemnos," he replied without hesitation.

"Bellerophon, get on Pegasus. Take Acheus with you. Go to this man and buy as many arrows as heís got." She tossed him a sack of dinars. "Lemnos can wait just outside of town with the horse. Then get back here soon and weíll go over our plans." The young man nodded amiably and headed off with Acheus.

Gabrielle walked back towards her fire.

"Hey storyteller!" It was Xena.

Gabrielle turned.

"Thanks!" Even from here, she could see the flash of Xenaís white teeth.

She nodded and sat down, feeling hungry for the first time in a long while. Itíd been ages since sheíd had rabbit.

 

~~ Chapter XVIII ~~

 

Later that evening, Xena went over her plan to kill the Chimaera. It was very simple. They were to use more sheep as bait to draw the creature into a ravine she had found that afternoon. Telion was to stand above on the rock face and taunt the creature with a long lance she had purchased. On the end of the lance was a lump of lead that Xena had had forged at the blacksmithís in Xanthos.

"Whatís that supposed to do?" asked Telion.

"Iím hoping that the heat of the Chimaeraís flame will slowly melt the lead. Enough of that stuff drips down its throat, and it might stop belching so much of that fire."

After some of this, Bellerophon and Pegasus were to start an air attack, with the young man firing as many arrows into the creature as he could.

"Aim mostly for that goat body," Xena had told him. "Itís got to have a heart in there somewhere. Pierce that, and weíre home free."

"What about that snake?" This came from Philonoe, who had evidently heard about the creature from Bellerophon. "It could knock Bellerophon and Pegasus out of the sky."

"Theyíre not going to come low enough for that. Thatís why we got Pegasus. You shoot from way above. You got that straight?" she said, eyeing the boy.

"Yeah, yeah," he nodded.

"Iíll take care of the snakeís head," continued Xena. If we can get the Chimaera incapacitated and barely moving, then the storyteller will finish it off. Can you do that?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I could come out right away, if you want me to. I mean, I donít think it can kill me."

"But you donít know that for sure." Xena shook her head. "No, weíre not taking any chances with anyone. This might take all day, but itís much safer. Everyone will be out of reach, and if that thing tries to run back down the ravine, Iíve got a nice rock slide ready for Polyeidus and Acheus to set off with one touch of a staff."

The old man grinned at the villager nervously, not sure whether he was excited or terrified to be a part of all this.

"Now, we had better get some rest. Weíve got a long day tomorrow."

Everyone headed to their blankets and settled in to sleep, but the tension in the air was palpable. Gabrielle wondered if they all felt the same way she did. After a few moments, Bellerophon called across to her.

"Hey, storyteller, will you tell us a tale?"

She sat up and thought for a moment. "Sure. Once, in the . . . "

"Nothing about me," Xena yelled into the night.

"Oh, all right," she muttered back. Going to make this difficult, isnít she? I didnít realize how hard it is to tell a story that doesnít include Xena now. She was so quiet that the people around the other campfire decided that perhaps she had changed her mind, but suddenly they heard her soft voice floating across the warm night air.

"Once, a long time ago, a wise and noble king found that his kingdom was being terrorized by an evil giant. He decided that they would have to find a champion to defeat the monster, so he dressed in peasantís clothing, took his most trusted servant, and headed out into his kingdom to find a brave warrior.

"Listening to people along the way, they soon found themselves at a beautiful palace, the home of a fearless fighter. Upon meeting the man, who was dark and muscular, they told him of their plight.

"ĎI will fight this giant,í he replied. ĎI am sure that the people of this kingdom will be so grateful that they will shower me with gifts. That is how I have been able to provide my family with such a fine place to live and so many things. They want for nothing.í

"The king explained that the people of the country were poor, but the warrior paid no attention.

"ĎThey will give me anything I want when I slay this awesome monster.í

"As they went to sleep in the barn that night, the servant thought to himself, ĎSurely my master will hire this champion no matter what the cost. He is strong and brave.í But the king awakened him early the next morning and they quietly left.

"The next giant killer they visited lived in a mighty fortress, able to withstand the most dangerous attack. This man was even darker and bigger than the last, and was dressed in heavy armor.

"ĎI have slain many monsters and many giants,í he said. ĎSome of their heads even decorate my walls. But I have heard about this brute, and to kill him will make me more famous than ever. I will accept this challenge.í

"ĎHere is the man to take up our cause,í thought the servant, but the king thanked the warrior and left the fortress the next morning.

When they found the next champion, he was living in a tent. He had a wife and child, and many men living in tents around him. When he greeted the king, who looked no different than his servant, he bid them sit down and eat. Then he took them to a large tent and made them as comfortable as he could.

"ĎYou must rest first,í he said. ĎYou look weary. We will discuss your business in the morning.í

The servant awoke the next day fully expecting to leave again, but the king went to the warrior and explained their problem.

"ĎI will fight this giant, and I will do my best to slay him, or die trying,í said the man.

"The king revealed his identity and went home quite satisfied that he had found the right person.

"As they traveled home, the servant asked him, "Master, why did you choose the last man? He is neither the most fearsome or the most experienced in battle.í

"ĎBecause,í replied the king, Ďthe first two men fought entirely for themselves, for money and for fame, but the last man will fight for the people.í

"ĎHow can you be so sure?í asked the servant.

"ĎHe saw our hunger and our fatigue when he met us. He fed us and made us rest, knowing nothing about who we were or what we wanted. True heroes care for others first--not themselves.í

"And so," Gabrielle concluded, "You can be assured of success tomorrow because you all fight for the good of Lycia and her people, and not for yourselves. You are true heroes."

It was quiet for several moments, and then Bellerophon called out, "Thank you, Bard."

Not another word was said, and everyone, including Gabrielle, settled onto their blankets to try and sleep.

But the young woman found that she couldnít sleep. As she thought more and more about the story, which she hadnít told in years, she became very disturbed.

"Is this about you or about Xena, Gabrielle?" The priestessís words were floating through her head, as well as some of her own. "You want to be the hero, to overshadow Xena."

"Iíll have a great story to tell." A story with me in it. Gabrielle rolled over and sighed. Suddenly she jumped at the sight of a figure standing next to her.

"That was a fine story you told." It was Xenaís voice.

Gabrielle bolted upright.

"It was exactly what they needed to hear."

"Thanks," Gabrielle muttered, then sighed again.

"Is something bothering you?"

How does she always know? And she doesnít even know me now, for Zeusís sake. She decided to be truthful, for once.

"Xena," she said, lowering her voice, "Iím not sure if I should go with you tomorrow." The warrior princess sat down on a log not far away.

"Are you afraid?" she finally asked.

"A little," came the reply. " But thatís not it. Itís just that, well, telling that story reminded me. . ." She trailed off. "Well, you see . . ." She stopped again. The wind whispered gently in the trees high above. "Xena," she finally said softly, "I didnít come on this journey with the right motives. Iím not like the last champion in the story. Besides," she added as casually as she could, "Polyeidus seems to think the three Fates might be able to help me with my condition."

Xena stirred the dirt with one booted foot.

"Look," she finally stated, "Whether you go with us or not tomorrow is your decision. But itís a decision you make in the morning. What you do when you see the Chimaera will be a choice you make right then, too. One thing at a time. Do you understand?"

Gabrielle nodded her head up and down vigorously. "Yes." It was quiet for a moment, and then she began to shake her head from side to side. "Well, no, not really."

"You made a decision two days ago to come with us. Maybe it was based on good reasons, maybe not. I donít know. All I know is that tomorrow we go to face something pretty scary and we donít know what may happen. If you end up fighting this thing with us, youíll have had to overcome a lot of fears and insecurities to do it.

" I had a person tell me once that it didnít matter how you started a race, but how you finished. My race in life didnít start very well. Iíve hurt a lot of people along the way. But maybe I can finish up doing an okay job. Your race isnít over yet either. You started one way in Mnemosyne; but you can finish any way you want." She stood up. "Now try to get some rest, okay?"

As she walked back towards her blanket, Gabrielle spoke. "Xena?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks a lot."

"No problem."

Xena lay down on her blanket and stared at the night sky. She had no idea where any of that had come from, and she certainly had no idea how she knew that the bard was troubled. It was very odd, these feelings of connection she kept feeling to that storyteller.

"Xena." It was Polyeidus, his voice a barely audible whisper above the breeze.

"What is it?í

"She has a strange affect on you, my friend."

Was the old man reading minds now?

"What do you mean?"

"I donít know exactly. Iím just a silly old man. Never mind what I say. Good night."

"Good night."

It was quiet for several minutes, when suddenly the old servant spoke again.

"Balance. You two seem to balance each other."

Temperance. The word was floating in Xenaís mind as she finally drifted off to sleep.

 

~~ Chapter XIX ~~

 

The crew was up early the next morning, preparing for the coming battle. Gabrielle had volunteered to get a bucket of water from the Esen River, and this had been enough to let them know that she obviously intended to stay and help. Xena had tossed her the pail with a nod of approval, and Gabrielle headed through the woods, glad to be of use. Much to her delight, she had discovered that her curse did not travel through liquid, and that she could touch the water to her heartís content without harming anything in it. It made her feel just a little bit more . . . alive.

When she reached the banks of the slow-moving river, she dipped the bucket and lost herself in the sound and feel of the water. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the glow of the orb on the riverís surface was beautiful. She was beginning to notice the warmth of it on her cloak. Feeling a strange impulse, she glanced around. No one was there. They were all back at camp. Not even a breeze stirred in the trees.

Oh, just to step into that water. Just to have something touch me. Quickly, she removed the cloak and waded out into the current, not caring about her boots and skirt. The water was cold, but she found it invigorating.

At least this is one thing I can look forward to doing, no matter what happens with this curse. Even if I have it for the rest of my life, I mightó

Her thoughts were interrupted by a piercing scream that sent chills up and down her spine that had nothing to do with the frigid river.

It was Xenaís war cry, but it was more primal and frightening than Gabrielle had ever heard.

Except once--the day Xenaís son had been killed.

Looking up, she saw the warrior princess rushing down the hill from the woods, her sword drawn and her chakram ready to throw.

One word became audible to Gabrielle as the other woman drew closer.

"Hope!"

By the gods! Gabrielle began to scramble deeper into the river, knowing that her cloak would do her no good now.

She thinks Iím Hope!

She saw Xena throw the silver chakram and ducked under the water.

And sheís going to kill me.

Even under the water, she heard the zing of the weapon as it flew overhead. Staying under the surface, she turned and began to swim toward the far bank. She knew there was no way to outswim Xena, but maybe it would buy her a few seconds.

When she thought her lungs would burst, she exploded to the surface and turned to see what was happening behind her. Xena had tossed her sword to the ground and was already swimming furiously through the water, the chakram gripped tightly in one fist. On the far shore, Bellerophon, Philonoe, and Pegasus had just alighted, obviously drawn there by Xenaís screams.

Gabrielle felt gravel churn beneath her feet and began to stumble through the water to the bank, falling twice and cutting her knees and hands. Still scrambling, she ran up the bank and made it to a thick oak tree near the riverís edge. The noise behind her let her know that Xena was coming up out of the river as well. She leaned around the tree and heard a frightening scream and a thunk as the chakram buried itself in the bark next to her cheek.

"Xena, wait just a minuteó" She held her hand out from the tree, her fingers outspread in a halting gesture.

"Iím gonna kill you." The throaty voice of the warrior was almost unfamiliar, and as she stalked up the bank, dripping from head to toe, Gabrielle thought she was one of the most frightening images she had ever seenThe younger woman began to back slowly away. She knew running was out of the question. It would just hasten Xenaís wrath.

Talk, Gabrielle, talk. Get yourself out of this.

"Xena, I donít know why youíre doing this."

"Stop playing games, Hope. I knew there was something odd about you from the first moment I heard your voice."

"Xena, you must have me mixed up with somebody else. My name is not Hope."

"Stop lying, you monster!" Xena reached the chakram and yanked it from the tree. "I thought you were dead, but Iím gonna make sure of it now!" She drew back her arm for another throw, and Gabrielle prepared for the pain of having that thing buried in her flesh, but there was a great sound of thumping overhead, and suddenly Bellerophon and Pegasus were hovering in between the two women.

"Get out of my way!" yelled Xena.

"Just a minute Xena! What are you doing?"

"Get outta my way, Bellerophon, or Iíll kill you too!"

"No." His voice was nervous, but quiet. Gabrielle continued to back slowly away.

"You donít understand," Xena said as she took a step forward. "That thing killed my son!"

"No, I donít understand, Xena. How could that be?"

"I donít have time to explain it now. Just believe me when I say I know what Iím doing." With a mighty push from her legs, she rolled to her right and came up with a clear shot at the storyteller.

Gabrielle prepared for the worst.

"Xena, wait!" It was Polyeidusís voice from across the river.

The secondís distraction this caused gave the winged horse and rider enough time to block her shot again.

"Heís right, Xena!" Bellerophon called breathlessly. "You canít just go around killing part of our band without telling the rest of us why!"

"Watch me!" she said, baring her teeth.

"Xena!" This time it was Gabrielle. "At least tell me what Iíve done before you do this!"

"You know what youíve done," she said. Her voice was full of absolute anguish as she stalked around the horse and rider.

Gabrielle put up both hands this time. "No, no, I donít. I donít know who youíre talking about." The gods forgive me for lying to her like this! I never wanted to do this again.

"How can you say that? You look just like that creature that killed my son, and tried to bring eternal darkness into the world."

"I canít help how I look."

"Thatís why you wore that cloak. So you could worm your way into our plans." Xena edged closer.

"I wore the cloak so I wouldnít harm anyone with my touch."

"You expect me to believe that? Youíre the exact image of her!"

"Well, from what Iíve heard, youíre the exact image of about half of Greece and weíre all supposed to believe that!"

Gabrielle could tell that this had hit home. Xena had always been the one most amazed by the appearance of any of the many females that could pass for her twin. And there had definitely been quite a few over the years.

The warrior princess shook her head and continued forward. Bellerophon guided Pegasus closer to Gabrielle.

"And thatís another thing," Xena continued. "How do you know all of these things about me? Thereís something not right about that."

At least sheís talking, Gabrielle thought. I might just be able to get out of this. Think, Gabrielle.

"That was my deal." The other people looked at her quizzically. "My deal with Bacchus. I wanted to live forever and be the greatest storyteller, so he gave me great insight into the deeds and thoughts of humans and gods. But it came with a price." She touched a small tree next to her, and it immediately turned to black.

"Is that supposed to frighten me?" asked Xena. "You know Iíd gladly die to rid the world of you."

"Maybe so, Xena, but make sure you know that youíre ridding it of Muriel, the storyteller--not this other monster you speak of."

Muriel. Where in Hades had that come from? Gabrielle thought awkwardly.

Bellerophon spoke up. "Xena, you said yourself you thought this Hope was dead. How could they be the same?"

Xena stood tensely for some time. Slowly, her hand, and the chakram, dropped to her side.

"Get out of my sight!" she said throatily.

Gabrielle looked in disbelief at Bellerophon, then slowly began to head back to the river.

It canít end this way. Not after all this time and all weíve been through, to be back into that void of hatred that Solan helped us get out of!

She turned. "Xena, please donít make me go. I can help you with the Chimaera. Let me finish my race well."

Xena walked towards her, and Gabrielle noticed for the first time in her life that the warrior looked tired.

"Do you actually think that I would let you be involved with us now? That I would let a wolf like you run freely amongst us while we fight that monster?"

"But I can help. I canít even die."

Xena came to within inches of the girl, and Gabrielle backed up in fear that they might accidentally touch.

"Then live forever with the knowledge that you are a monster. Even if you arenít Hope, you couldnít look like her and have made a deal with that devil Bacchus and not have a heart as black as Tartarus." She stumbled down to the waterís edge and began to swim across, leaving Gabrielle standing forlornly on the shore. She felt the rush of air above her, and Bellerophon leaned down to whisper quietly, "Donít leave. Iíll speak to her." He and Pegasus flew across to the other side.

Gabrielle simply sat down on the bank, her head in her hands. She could hear frightened voices across the river, and she knew without looking that Telion and Acheus had also rushed down to see what was going on.

Xena crawled wearily up the other side and ignored the cries of the two villagers and the stares of Philonoe and Polyeidus.

What a fool she had been! To think there was something special about that storyteller.

She heard a thump as Bellerophon leaped off of his mount and ran towards her. He grabbed her arm. Jerking free, Xena instinctively hit him with the back of her hand. He fell to the ground, and Philonoe rushed forward with a cry.

"Xena!" Polyeidus rushed forward and his voice was shaking with rage. "What do you think youíre doing? Have you gone mad?"

"Leave me alone!" she replied, continuing to stalk back towards the camp.

"Youíre letting your hatred get the best of you, Xena!" called Bellerophon. Are you a bigger fool than a young boy looking to be a hero?"

She stopped and turned towards Bellerophon, who was slowly rising to his feet and rubbing his chin.

"Remember what you told me about my parents and my hatred getting in the way. Or is the advice you give just good for others and not for the mighty warrior princess herself?"

Seeing her sword on the ground, she slowly walked down to retrieve it. "And what would you have me do?" she asked as she wiped the dirt off of it and onto her skirt. "Let that thing walk among us? Polyeidus, even you said she must have made some horrible deal with Bacchus to be in the condition sheí s in."

"I donít know what to think, Xena," the old man muttered. "I do know, however," he continued, "that if we based everything on our pasts, none of us would be worthy of trust. Especially you." He lifted his chin in defiance, though he was clearly afraid that he might have spoken his last words.

Xena glared at all of them. Then, sheathing her sword, she glanced across the river at the bard, who was still sitting with her head buried in her arms.

"Hey you!"

The young womanís head flew up.

"Get over here now!"

Everyone held their breath as the storyteller slowly made her way across the Esen.

When she had reached the bank and crawled up, Xena began to speak again.

"These people seem to think you deserve another chance. I for one, do not care about your chances, but I am the leader of this group, and theyíre all risking their lives today, not just me. Out of respect for them, and with the slight possibility that you might prove useful and save lives, Iíll let you go with us."

Gabrielle wiped some water from her brow and looked at them gratefully. "Thank you. Thank you all."

Xena stepped forward in a threatening manner. "Know however, that I still donít trust you, and that I am in charge of this mission." She turned towards Bellerophon. "You should learn that you never ever let an enemy get behind you. Once you do, youíve lost the battle." Turning back towards Gabrielle, she took yet another step near the girl. "And I consider you an enemy. Therefore you will go in front of us. That way we can see both you and the Chimaera."

Gabrielle nodded, relieved to be a part of the group again, although she didnít really comprehend what Xena was saying.

It was Bellerophon who voiced her thoughts. "What do you mean, Xena? You mean you want her to go with the sheep?" His voice was incredulous.

"No." Xenaís eyes were cold and icy blue. She narrowed them at Gabrielle. "I want her to go in place of the sheep. Sheís the bait. Weíll have more control over where the creature winds up that way."

"What!" Polyeidus stepped forward. "Xena you canít do this. Itís suicidal."

"How?" Xena replied, never taking those cold blue eyes off Gabrielle. "Supposedly she canít die. Itís this or sheís not part of it. I canít risk her being anywhere else."

Gabrielle swallowed and tried to return Xenaís gaze as bravely as possible. "Iíll do it."

"Good! And one more thingó" Xena fingered the chakram at her side. "If you try anything, anything at all, I may not be able to kill you, but Iíll sure make you wish I had. Do you understand?"

Gabrielle nodded slowly. She understood perfectly. More than Xena could know.

 

~~ Chapter XX ~~

 

Gabrielle waved her arms and yelled as she wandered around the boulders that littered the Kinik Plain. A few sheep grazed nearby, paying little attention to this display since it had now been going on most of the morning. Xena had decided to leave the creatures in the plan, feeling that their smell might draw the Chimaera more quickly. After it arrived, however, it was Gabrielleís job to get the beastís complete attention and lead it through the ravine that she knew was down the valley and off to her right.

How did this happen? she asked herself incredulously as she continued her noisy parade. Her heart felt as if it was actually going to break in two. I canít believe I removed my cloak. I knew it would be dangerous for me to be seen, but I never thought about Xena mistaking me for Hope. Of course, thatís the only image of me she can remember.

This is what hurt Gabrielle the most. To think that her best friend in all the world could only see her now as some kind of murderous monster.

I should never have come. I should have stayed at the Temple.

Of course, it was too late for should havesóespecially now. For towards the eastern end of the valley came the mighty roar of a lion. The Chimaera was on its way.

Gabrielle glanced up to where she knew Xena was, high up behind some rocks near the entrance to the ravine. Although she couldnít see her friend, she glimpsed a reflection of sun on metal. It gave her just the courageóor stubbornnessóshe needed to yell and jump even harder. That is, until the creature actually came into full view.

Gabrielle stopped making her noise, and the Chimaera sat back on its haunches and licked its lips as they stared at one another. Then it started to run.

Great shades of Hades! The bard scrambled off her perch and began to dash towards the entrance to the canyon. For one split second, she thought about how glad she was that she didnít have that constricting cloak on anymore, and the feel of her old staff in her hand was good. She had grabbed it just as they left, having never gotten rid of it during any of her bizarre journey these past few weeks. The sheep bleated and scattered in all directions, and the Chimaera let out a low growl. Reaching the entrance to the ravine, Gabrielle turned and saw that the monster was stalking one of them.

"Hey!" she yelled, and waved her staff.

The lionís head came up with a snarl.

"Come and get me, you big oaf! You son of a hydra!" She jumped up and down. "You spawn ofó"

With a mighty roar, the Chimaera pushed off with its hind hooves and sprang towards her.

"Whoa!" Gabrielle turned and ran as hard as she could. She veered towards her right, and felt the heat of flames as the Chimaera spat at her back, trying to herd her back towards the middle.

"Donít let it herd you, Muriel! It wonít roast you if itís planning on eating you!" This came from Bellerophon, who had appeared on Pegasus high above.

Somehow this bit of advice did not comfort her in the least.

The Chimaera stopped abruptly and shot a line of flame at the winged horse. Deftly dodging it, Bellerophon guided Pegasus higher into the sky.

Gabrielle turned and yelled again, to gain the attention of the easily distracted beast. Within moments, it was after her again, saliva dripping from its yellowed fangs.

"Thereís a hole in the rock behind that biggest boulder. Get in there fast!" It was Bellerophon again. Gabrielle looked doubtfully at the rock. From where she was, she could see nothing behind it but the wall of the ravine, which was about to abruptly end. Soon, though, as she scrambled nearer, she saw a shallow cave of sorts dug out of the rock. She climbed over the boulders, using her staff as support, and threw her back against the far wall of the cave. Looking out, she couldnít even see the Chimaera. The huge boulder in front of her blocked her view. Hopefully, it was blocking the monsterís view of her as well. Of course, that big snout of his was going to sniff her out no matter what.

Above, on the edge of a rocky ledge, Telion yelled as loudly as he could and dangled a long lance with a heavy block of lead on the end. Sneering and thrashing its snake tail, the Chimaera ran up to the rock wall and tried to scamble up towards him. Fortunately, however, just as Xena had predicted, its legs werenít powerful enough to have it clear the sheer ravine, and the creature fell back, knocking pieces of the wall loose as it did so. It roared in frustration, then spewed flames towards the farmer and his weapon. Telion felt the heat from the fire, but nothing else came close to him. Far below, a few drops of the lead began to bubble and fall, landing directly on the creatureís head. Roaring in frustration, it spewed even more flame, and the hot lead poured down its throat in a small rivulet, dampening the stream of flame and causing the animal to scream in agony and roll on its back, rubbing at its face with its two front paws.

"Now, Bellerophon!" This came from Xena, who was running down the ravine on the opposite side from Telionís flow of lead, her sword drawn and chakram ready.

Swooping low into the gorge, Bellerophon began to fire arrows with his bow, gripping Pegasus tightly with his legs. His feet were wrapped around the same rope that Xena had first used to help him tame the horse. Man and beast had become one now, however, and he found that he hardly needed anything at all to stay astride the winged stallion, even when both hands were occupied with firing his weapon. The first two arrows hit the Chimaera in the side, piercing its soft goat belly and causing a flow of black blood to stream down.

The animal screamed again and rolled over, scrambling to its feet. Flinging her chakram, Xena was able to nick the long neck of the animalís tail, which caused the serpentís head on the end to narrow its eyes at her and hover high above, ready to strike. In fact, the monster was so flustered now that the snakeís head struck immediately, without waiting to check its aim.

This thoughtlessness helped Xena, who gave a mighty push with her legs and flipped backwards, landing several paces away from where the snake literally bit into the dirt. Rushing forward, she slashed at the creature with her sword, and was pleased to feel the soft give of flesh beneath her blade. The lionís head roared and turned to look at Xena as the snake raised up with a hiss, but Bellerophon shot an arrow into the neck of the beast. It spewed a wall of flame into the air indiscriminately, causing another flow of hot lead to run into its right eye. Pawing madly, the creature backed away from the ravine wall, evidently tired of having its face burned away.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the main head seemed to be tiring, the tail showed no sign of this. It hovered in the air high above Xena, and this time, she could tell that it was waiting for the right moment to strike. Bellerophon fired three more arrows, two of which hit home, and the lion spat flame at him, but the lead had already begun to work wonders with the inside of the boiling mouth, and the dangerous wall of fire came nowhere near the young man.

Xenaís eyes never left the snake, her knees bent and ready to move her in any direction, her sword ready to strike.

Suddenly, with a mighty thrust, the snakeís head darted at lightning speed to her left, going past her down the ravine. It turned completely at the last minute, hoping to strike the warrior in the back with its poisonous bite, but spinning her sword on both sides of her body, Xena thrust it under her arm backwards on her left. Once again , she felt the firmness of bone and flesh as her weapon struck home in the creatureís nose, nothing but its protruding tongue coming close to her skin. The lion roared and the snake drew back quickly, hissing and flicking its tongue. Blood poured from just above its flaring nostrils, and it began to jerk madly back and forth in the sky. Bellerophon fired two more arrows, hitting his mark both times on the body of the Chimaera, but the young boy was so intent upon this that he did not see the snakeís head as it rushed headlong through the air at him. Pegasus whinnied and beat his wings furiously, but the neck of the snake fell headlong across the right wing of the mount, causing both horse and rider to tumble towards the ravine. Far down the canyon, near the rock slide area, Xena heard Philonoe scream in terror. The two landed on the large boulder that the storyteller had scrambled behind not long before.

It was just the encouragement that the creature needed. Struggling to its feet, the lion gave a low growl, blood and gore dripping from its eye and mouth. It let out a mighty breath, and a small line of flame shot out, but it wasnít enough to reach the two inert bodies on the rock..

Xena knew that this didnít matter, though. It was that poisonous tail that was the problem. The part of the animal she was supposed to have been responsible for. Giving her most frantic war cry, she threw her chakram as hard she could at the head of the beast as it flew down to srike a deadly blow to Bellerophon. At the same time, she jumped forward, landing just at the foot of the huge rock. One more jump would do it.

But even at that she knew she was going to be too late. The chakram had hit home, but the snake wasnít dead. In fact, the pain it was experiencing seemed to be fueling it to make one last strike. With fangs bared, it prepared to sink them into the young man.

And then something extroardinary happened. Having no idea how she could be there, Xena saw the storyteller standing in front of the young man and his horse. Hissing in rage, the creature sank its fangs into her neck and shoulder, knocking her to the ground in front of Pegasus as she threw her hands around its neck. For a split second, they grappled, giving Xena the time she needed to flip up onto the rock and thrust her sword into the center of the creatureís head. Without hesitation, Xena gave a yell and leaped down to where the Chimaeraís body was writhing around in the canyon. She plunged her sword into the chest of the goat, and then watched in amazement as the wound and the white fur of the animal began to turn completely black. Looking up, she saw that the snake and the hindquarters of the animal were already dark, and within moments, the head matched the rest of the body. One small flame shot out from the lionís head, its good eye rolling back to reveal the white before turning the color of pitch.

Gabrielle didnít let go of the snake, even when she felt the searing pain in her neck and shoulder as the creature buried its poisonous fangs there.

Gods! She hadnít ever felt such pain. And nausea. Her head reeled and she gagged as her body hit the rock underneath. Then came the numbness, spreading from her neck and shoulder towards her hands, stomach, head, and legs, but somehow she managed to keep her hands on the creature. It didnít seem to be moving as much.

She squinted into the sunlight, even loosening her grip. She saw the flash of a sword. Ah, Xenaís there. She must have killed it.

Still, she didnít let go. I wonder if I saved that boy and Pegasus? I wonder if I might be able to die after all? As her throat began to tighten and her tongue swell inside her mouth, she thought it might be a possibility. Then as her vision blurred and darkened, she decided it was a certainty.

Somehow, she found that she didnít care. She only wished that she had not died with Xena hating her.

What a waste . . . what a waste . . . I love you, Xena.

The last thing she felt was the tremendous weight of the snakeís head crushing the breath out of her as she loosened her grip and let her unfeeling arms fall to her side.

 

Continues here...


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