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Sacred Reward

by Debra Myatt
© September 1996

Part 1

A bright sun sparkled on recently showered, green woods surrounding Xena and Gabrielle, walking side by side up a well worn road with Argo behind them. Ahead, the dirt road curved out of sight, but Xena had traveled here before and knew the next village of this heavily forested mountain country was only a short distance. She was in no hurry this day, drinking in the peace of the moment, like a fine cup of sweet wine. Trouble found her often enough. The Warrior Princess was either a challenge to warlords and outlaws, or feared and hunted by bounty hunters or victims of her past life. Once she had revelled in everyone knowing her name. Today she felt content as a traveler on this quiet mountain road with her best friend. Gabrielle seemed a bit weary, but no more silent than was usual for Gabrielle, Xena noticed.

"This has got to be the most beautiful country I've ever seen, Xena. Have you ever seen such greenery, and breath in that mountain air," Gabrielle voiced with unhindered enthusiasm. "And look over there, Xena, strawberries! We've got to come back here when they're ripe."

Xena let a slight smile play across her face. On the surface, Gabrielle could seem annoying and noisy to others, but they knew nothing of Gabrielle's heart and soul. "Maybe," Xena teased, hesitating only a moment with a thoughtful expression aimed right at keeping Gabrielle in just a bit of suspense. "Maybe we could swing back this way in a few days."

As they rounded the turn in the road, Gabrielle's chatter ceased. Her attention, and Xena's, was drawn to an old woman seated on a large, flat stone near the road. The woman's face was weathered and ancient looking within a frame of snow-white hair. She hunched over slightly, leaning on a thin walking stick. "Who is there?" she called, staring blankly ahead, obviously blind.

"Two travelers," Gabrielle answered. "We travel in peace and mean no harm."

"Do you need any help?" Xena offered, wondering if the woman had wandered too far from town and needed assistance getting back.

"You are most kind, the old woman replied, holding up a hand in appreciation, "but I am waiting for someone. I'm waiting for Xena, the Warrior Princess."

Gabrielle and Xena looked to one another, taken aback by the old woman's statement.

"Why do you seek Xena?" Gabrielle queried, advancing toward the woman, stepping in with the kind of verbal protection Xena so often repaid with physical protection, and allowing Xena a moment to evaluate this situation. "How do you know Xena will come here?"

The old woman turned her head toward the direction of Gabrielle's voice, but stared right past Xena's companion, stretching out her gnarled hand. "It has been shown to me by the goddess. Xena may come to our aide in a matter most important to our village."

"What matter is that?" Xena asked with less awe for this soothsayer than Gabrielle displayed.

"I will speak only to Xena," the old woman declared.

"Then speak. I'm Xena."

"In truth, you say?" the woman doubted.

"Hey! I can assure you," Gabrielle volunteered with admiration for Xena bursting forth, "this is Xena. Believe me. I can tell you a dozen stories that will convince you."

"And who are you?" The old woman probed, unconvinced. "The goddess said nothing about Xena traveling with another."

"My name is Gabrielle, and Xena here is my friend, my best friend," Gabrielle replied in frustration, throwing up her hands at this woman's stubbornness and turning to Xena, who seemed amused at Gabrielle's predicament. "You try this."

Xena felt strangely entertained by this switch in rolls. Gabrielle had met her match. This blind old woman was just as head strong and not so taken in by Gabrielle's quick mind and gift for putting things into words and story. "Look," Xena reasoned, "a lot of people want my blood. If I wasn't Xena, don't you think it could be dangerous to go around telling people I was?"

The old woman nodded thoughtfully. There was certain truth in that logic.

"Gabrielle is my friend," Xena assured with an affectionate hand on Gabrielle's arm. " I trust her with my life. Whatever you have to say to me, you say to both of us."

"Gabrielle? Yes! Yes, Gabrielle, that name is known to me,' the old woman exclaimed, as the name seemed to connect with something in her mind.

"Now, we're getting somewhere." Gabrielle remarked.

"Gabrielle, the Amazon Princess, Gabrielle the bard," the old woman continued.

Gabrielle's pride took hold: "That's me all right," then her curiosity. "Where did you hear that?"

"It is fitting, most fitting indeed. Artemis will be most honored. Come closer," the woman beckoned, ignoring Gabrielle's question.

Xena approached and sat down on the rock next to the woman, while Gabrielle stood near, holding Argo's reins. The old woman's hands reached for Xena's face and explored it, seeing with her fingers, then moving down to Xena's shoulders and arms, feeling the armor, the leather and Xena's strong muscle. The woman nodded and smiled with satisfaction. "Yes, I believe you. You can be no one but the Warrior Princess, Xena."

"Now that we've got that cleared up, " Xena teased with a wry smile to Gabrielle, who rolled her eyes in response, "what sort of help do you want from us?"

"My name is Hyessna. Our village honors the great goddess, Artemis. We have constructed the sacred bow for her shrine. You must guard the bow and take it to the temple at the top of the mountain."

"I think we can handle that," Gabrielle commented almost laughing. This area was so sparsely populated and so out of the way, the chances of mishap seemed practically nonexistent.

"Why does the bow need guarding?" Xena asked. Gods were nothing to trifle with, but the same thoughts Gabrielle held also crossed Xena's mind.

"I know only that I was sent to this spot to wait for Xena and beg her do this deed. You are favored by Artemis this day. The honor of placing the sacred bow in the shrine of the goddess has been offered to the most worthy. Say you will honor her, honor our village and agree to this favor, and you shall be rewarded. The goddess promised this when she spoke to me."

"I don't want any reward, but we will help you. Show us where this bow is, Hyessna," Xena agreed, slipping a hand around the old woman's frail arm to assist and guide her into the village.

Part 2

“Over this way,” Hyessna directed, pointing with her walking stick toward a tall wooden building near the center of the village. Even with Xena’s guidance, the old woman poked her stick at the ground before them, taking in every sound, smell and vibration with her other senses.

Entering the building, the three women stopped. Gabrielle’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open. Xena studied the object before them with admiration for the workmanship and thoughts of how best to move it to its rightful place. The sacred bow of Artemis was half the height of the room, standing on end and had a thick cross piece made from alternating parts of gold, silver and deep, dark polished wood that wound around it. At each end of the cross piece were detailed carvings of an animal, a stag at the top and a boar at the bottom, both centered with fist sized, sparkling emeralds. The tight bow string was a good four feet from the cross piece and made of finely tanned and braided soft leather.

A workman, standing on a makeshift step ladder came down the moment Hyessna, Xena and Gabrielle appeared. He was middle aged, sported a well trimmed, graying beard and was obviously one of the craftsmen involved in the creation of this treasure. “You are Xena. Welcome, welcome,” he greeted excitedly. “You did come. Hyessna has never been wrong in her prophecies. I am Dalros.”

Gabrielle smiled cordially, then moved passed him, walking around the sacred bow slowly, examining it from different angles. “This is the most incredible work of art I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful,” she praised, but gave new consideration to the ornament’s dimensions, looking to Xena, who had joined her. Xena was far more physically and mechanically oriented, a gift and a strength Gabrielle never failed to appreciate. It had saved both their lives too often to think otherwise.

“We could make a sledge and pull it behind the horse,” Xena suggested, reading Gabrielle’s questioning eyes easily.

“No,” Dalros interrupted. “You must carry it yourselves. The path to the temple is not suited for horses.”

“You have to be kidding!” Gabrielle complained. “That thing’s ten feet tall! We can’t carry it like that. It could be damaged.”

“Not a problem,” Dalros assured. “Now that you have come, I can prepare it for the journey up the mountain. The bow of Artemis will be well protected, but it will take time. Go and rest from your travels. I’ll find you when all is ready.”

“Journey?” Xena questioned. “How far is it to the shrine?”

“Two days,” Dalros answered, grabbing a rung on his ladder, stepping up and waving them away. “Go now. I must prepare.”

Xena and Gabrielle turned to leave. “She’s gone!” Gabrielle announced, when they both noticed Hyessna was no longer with them.

“You will find her at the inn across the way,” Dalros instructed without taking his eyes from his task. At the top of his ladder, he had begun wrapping a layer of soft chamois around the cross piece of the bow.

Leaving the building, back on the main road through the village, Xena and Gabrielle headed for the inn.

“How are we going to get that thing up a mountain, Xena?”

“There’s not much choice, Gabrielle. You take an end; I’ll take an end and we carry it.”

“We don’t even know how heavy it is. Did you see all that metal work, Xena? Metal is not light to carry.”

“We’ll manage, Gabrielle,” Xena assured as they strolled into the inn.

Before Xena could glance around to locate Hyessna, she heard the old woman’s voice calling from a square table in a corner. “Come Xena and Gabrielle. I am here.”

Xena and her companion seated themselves on a bench across from the soothsayer, who pushed a pewter pitcher and goblets toward them. Gabrielle smiled at the courtesy and Xena helped herself, pouring wine into her cup and Gabrielle’s. “How do you know of me?” Gabrielle inquired again with burning curiosity.

The old woman sat back against the wall. “It was in the last growing season and every three seasons, a sacred number three, when Queen Malosa and the Amazons made a pilgrimage to the temple of Artemis. It is the oldest shrine to the goddess in the world."

"I didn't know that," Gabrielle remarked.

"We were told of Xena and the battle with Centaurs against the warlord Crycus that brought peace and prosperity to their land, and we were told of the bard who inherited the rite of an Amazon Princess."

"Wow!" Gabrielle sighed, smiling brightly, feeling proud and touched by the respect of her adopted Amazon sisters and pleased at gaining something of a reputation as a bard.

"I was not aware you traveled together," Hyessna explained. "The stories were told by different people."

Xena warmed to the pleasure in Gabrielle's smile. It was something Gabrielle wanted, something she had worked at and earned with little effort. She had a way with people, a gift for talking and the pure heart and soul of an artist.

In the same moment, dishes of fine foods were set in front of Xena and Gabrielle with a large crowd gathering around them. "What's this?" Xena asked, not entirely comfortable with so much attention.

"We offer you our hospitality. You are honored by the goddess. Whatever you wish will be yours and for the Amazon princess. "Thank you. You are most kind," Gabrielle beamed, having no difficulty with all the honors.

Hyessna rose slowly, reached out and took hold of a burly village man. "I must speak with you for a moment," she said and they moved off together with the crowd following.

Xena picked a grape from the bunch on a tray in front of her and toyed with it momentarily. "It feels like we're being fattened up for the kill, Gabrielle."

"Come on, Xena," Gabrielle replied, irritated with Xena's difficulty in accepting that she was worthy of so much honor and respect. "Okay, so getting a ten foot jeweled bow up a mountain is a bit of a challenge, but let's face it, we've been in a lot worse situations. Lighten up on yourself. Maybe it's one of those rewards from Artemis."

"Oh yeah," Xena said sarcastically, leaning back and popping a grape into her mouth. . "When it comes to the gods, Gabrielle, few things come that easy."

Hyessna returned with her burly escort, seating herself carefully in the same spot she had vacated. "Tell us what we need to know about getting up that mountain," Xena insisted. "I like to know what I'm up against."

"I was about to explain it to you," the old woman agreed, groping for her own wine cup, finding it and holding to it tightly with both hands. "There are three paths leading into the mountains. You must take the middle road to the temple of Artemis. The high priestess Migress will meet you when you reach the shrine. The bow of Artemis is to be placed in the hands of the goddess statue near the alter."

"Must be some statue," Gabrielle interjected, "considering the size of the bow."

"The climb is not easy, but it is not difficult," Hyessna continued. "You may not hunt in the forest of the mountain, or build a fire."

Gabrielle began to see that Xena was right. The pleasant cool mountain air Gabrielle had appreciated earlier could be very damp and very cold higher up. Without a fire to warm them, the night would be bitter cold indeed.

"You will pass through the tunnel caves of Artemis near the summit. Hidden in the tunnel caves are the three pools," Hyessna went on.

Gabrielle's eyes were riveted to the blind soothsayer's words. "Three pools?"

"The pool of the heart, and the pool of the soul are together. A path between them leads to a tunnel beyond and the pool of the future." Hyessna described. "It is said from ancient times, long ago, there is a fountain as well, the fountain of truth, which may only be seen when the heart and soul are joined through wisdom."

Gabrielle pondered the old woman's words. Surely the gods did not make this puzzle an easy one to comprehend. Gabrielle leaned closer to her friend, "Okay, I won't say you didn't warn me, Xena."

"Here comes the kicker," Xena replied. "The gods almost always have one."

"Because you are honored, the pools may be shown to you. I cannot tell you how to proceed if you choose to go to them. You must listen with your own hearts and souls. They will tell you what to do," Hyessna elaborated. You may seek the pools only if the way is revealed to you. To seek the pools when the way is not open is to lose yourselves in the depths of the mountain tunnels forever. Unless the way is opened, you must stay strictly on the main path."

Part 3

Dalros strolled into the inn, seating himself beside Hyessna. "The bow is prepared and ready for the journey."

"Then we better get started," Xena acknowledged, rising from the table. "Come on, Gabrielle," she urged. Gabrielle picked up her staff, grabbed a last piece of bread from a basket and followed her friend. At the door, villagers handed light weight packs to each of them. Xena checked the contents of hers. "Not bad," she approved.

"We hope it will help you on your way," the burly man who had spoken with Hyessna said. "Your horse will be tended to as well."

Gabrielle accompanied Xena and Dalros, still contemplating the riddle and mystery of the fountain of truth. Heart and soul are joined by wisdom. She shook her head, not comprehending any sense in the old Hyessna's words. No wonder the fountain hadn't been seen since ancient times, she thought. Who could possibly figure it out?"

Dalros went ahead of them and disappeared into his workshop, while Xena removed needed items from Argo's saddle, tightly rolled furs for warmth and sleeping and a coiled rope, which she was about to sling over her shoulder, until Gabrielle held out a hand to relieve her of it. "I'm well trained," Gabrielle jested.

Xena handed her rope to Gabrielle, then hung her pack from the saddle horn and proceeded to tie the rolled furs to the pack. "You've improved," Xena retorted, "But I don't think you'll ever be trained."

"Hey," Gabrielle came back, taking in Xena's smile. "I could say the same for you."

The light hearted moment was shattered when Dalros rushed out of the workshop toward them in a panic. "It's gone!"

"What?" Xena queried, taking hold of him to focus his thoughts. "What are you talking about?"

"The bow of Artemis. It's not there! I only left it for a minute. Now it's gone. Artemis, goddess, forgive me!" He implored to the skies.

"Calm down," Xena commanded, keeping a firm grip on the workman's arm and pulling him along into the building.

Gabrielle was already inside, giving the area a cursory inspection. "It's definitely not here," she confirmed. "Like a ten foot bow is something you can easily hide. How could anyone get something like that out of here without being noticed?" She wondered, looking toward Xena who now stood beside her.

Xena's eyebrows rose slightly at Gabrielle's comments. "The whole village is dedicated to this project and to Artemis, if the crowd at the inn is any indicator. There's no back door," she agreed, looking around carefully for some clue to what had happened. "It would take at least two people to move an object like that."

"What kind of fool would take on the wrath of a goddess like Artemis?" Gabrielle added.

"Parnom. This can only be the work of Parnom," Dalros concluded. "Yes, that's it. It must be Parnom."

"Who's Parnom?" Xena probed with respect for the sheer audacity and cleverness of anyone who could get so large and awkward an object out of the shop and village without notice. If she hadn't seen Autolycus a moon ago with Hercules and miles from here, she would almost believe he was nearby. He was clever enough, but she wasn't certain even the king of thieves would risk tangling with Artemis.

"A thief, a robber and a highway man who travels the mountain roads," Dalros revealed.

"Which mountain roads?' Xena questioned further."There are three roads. The middle road leads to the temple," Dalros began.

"We know about that one," Gabrielle interrupted, feeling frustrated with this turn of events, that hindered the objective of getting the bow to it's rightful place.

"The other roads lead through the mountains. That's where you'll find Parnom."

"We'll get the bow back," Xena declared, moving out the door with Gabrielle at her side.

At the edge of town opposite from where they had come in, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves at a crossroads. The center road from the village turned into a narrow foot trail leading up into dense forest and out of sight. To the left, the road stretched half a mile or more, then took a turn around a bend. On the right, a road curved slightly and wound down into a valley. "I don't think they went that way," Xena eliminated, looking below at dwellings and farms scattered along a winding creek, where the valley road was clearly visible. "We'll go this way," she decided, gesturing to the left, mounting Argo and reaching a hand down to her companion. "Come on Gabrielle. The day's not getting any longer."

Gabrielle didn't argue. This snag in the plan to take the bow to the shrine had a bad feel about it. She handed her staff up, locked her hand around Xena's strong forearm and was hoisted up, swinging her leg over Argo and seating herself.

"I'm not sure this Parnom is the one we're looking for," Xena admitted, while Argo moved up the winding road at a fast clip.

"What makes you say that?" Gabrielle questioned, forever fascinated by Xena's attention to details most people took for granted or overlooked.

"It's just a hunch, but misery loves company. He may know someone or something we don't. It's worth checking out and at the moment it's the only clue we have."

They road on for an hour, Gabrielle clinging to Xena's waist, not wanting to think about any of it. There were times when it was best to refrain from thinking too much and this seemed one of them. Nothing seemed to be working out and she had felt edgy from the moment they met the old woman on the road into the village.

Gabrielle's introspection vanished when she felt Xena's body go tense and Argo slowing to a stop. Xena had an uncanny sense about danger Gabrielle was too familiar with. Xena turned in the saddle. Communication between them was immediate and without words, when she took hold of Gabrielle's arm to lower her off the horse. Xena dismounted next to her friend, handed Gabrielle the staff and moved ahead with all her senses fine tuned to the slightest movement, the slightest sound, the slightest change in her surroundings.

Gabrielle moved with her own caution, listening, as Xena had told her, with her body, and what she felt was a sensation of being watched from behind. Gabrielle spun instantly and wheeled her staff low, tripping up the raider, who fell before she really got a good look at him. Swinging the staff back, the man was clipped on the side of the head and knocked unconscious. Xena stood back to back with Gabrielle as more men poured down from the forested hillside and onto the road. They were dressed cleanly in light leather leggings and boots, and sported fur-lined jackets of darker leather. Xena took down the first one throwing her powerful leg forward in a forceful front kick. She stepped to the side as another man rammed toward her with sword in hand, reached out, grabbed his wrist and snapped it backward, pressing her lips together to match the force of pressure she applied. The sword clattered on the ground as the robber groaned and dropped to his knees. A fourth man dropped when Gabrielle drove her staff into his midsection, knocking the wind out of him. Xena whirled and kicked out to the side, throwing another attacker backward, then picked up the loose sword, whipped it around and flung it forward, pinning the man to a tree by his coat.

The remaining 2 bandits backed off and put distance between themselves and these women who were not the easy marks they had taken them for. "Just take it easy," the tall dark haired man pinned to the tree surrendered.

"You must be Parnom," Xena guessed, approaching him, drawing her own sword from the scabbard on her back and laying the razor sharp tip at Parnom's ear as she stood over him.

"I don't know you," he tossed back. "What do you want?"

"The bow of Artemis. Someone stole it," she said, kneeling to be face to face with this low-life. " Now, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. It's your choice."

"The bow of ..." he repeated in a sputter. "You got the wrong man, lady. I may be a thief, but I'm not crazy."

"Well someone was crazy enough to take it. If you have some competition around here we don't know about, maybe you better make it known, real quick, before I decide to relieve your face of this ear," Xena threatened, pressing the sword point enough to break the skin.

"Look, I swear. I don't know anything about it," Parnom pleaded. "I stick to the roads. I don't know anyone else, but I swear, I don't know a thing about the bow."

Xena lowered her sword and stood up. "I believe you. You look like you do well enough praying on innocent travelers that you wouldn't risk doing something that stupid."

A short time later, Xena and Gabrielle walked into the village with Parnom and his gang tied together to hand them over for trial and were met by the crowd from the inn. Dalros led them. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm. "Is that what I think it is?" She said, pointing to the unmistakable bow completely wrapped in several inches of hide and fur and being carried by two village men.

Xena's blue eyes drilled into those of Daros. "Explain."

"I don't know how to. I came back to the shop and it was just there, leaning against the wall."

Part 4

"I don't understand it, but I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about it," Gabrielle grumbled, walking several feet behind Xena, who led the way over the narrow foot trail that would take them to the shrine of Artemis, each with a curved end of the well padded bow across one shoulder, as well as packs. Xena smiled at Gabrielle's confusion, no less puzzled about the reappearance of the bow, after its mysterious disappearance, but there were no obvious answers. The bow was in their hands now and that was the important thing. "Something good came out of it, Gabrielle. At least Parnom is in custody and off the mountain roads."

The first part of the trail climbed gently through dense forest, gradually growing steeper, then turned sharply and came to a stop at several stone steps built into a steeply inclined side of the mountain. The bow of Artemis rested on the lower path, while Xena climbed the steps. Gabrielle steadied the bow until Xena had reached the upper path, then lifted the middle of the cross piece. Xena caught hold of the end and hauled the bow up. When Gabrielle joined her on the upper path, both noticed a definite change in the trail ahead, which took them narrowly up along the edge of an overhanging precipice on one side , a wall of mountain rock and dirt on the other. Again the bow was rested on shoulders as Xena and Gabrielle carried it single file.

Xena walked carefully with every step. It was a balancing act with the bow & pack and nothing in between them and a dangerous fall. Gabrielle picked her way up with her fighting staff and kept as close as possible to the walled side of the trail.

From her vantage point, Xena could see how much altitude they had gained. Beyond the trail's edge, the drop, and the forest below, the village could be seen. Buildings looked like small toys from so high up, but the view was left behind when their climb curved away in a different direction.

It was nearly dark when the precipitous drop graduated to a steep hillside and the wall of rock widened out as a continuation of one long slope with only the narrow trail dividing it. Grass and forest reappeared around Xena and her companion and there was little thought of going any further this day. Xena glanced around for the most level spot and found it where a rock edged pocket held an almost flat section of earth, well blanketed by mountain wildflowers and grasses. "Over there," Xena indicated, pointing the way.

There was already a chill in the air spiked by a brisk wind with clouds hovering overhead and daylight fading. Xena and Gabrielle sat close together for warmth, while they rested and shared a meal from the villagers' packs. "I think we did well with the daylight we had left," Xena mentioned.

"Yeah, well, you know I don't like heights, Xena. That ledge was scary. Thank the gods it's not like that all the way to the top. Now this, " Gabrielle commented, picking a wild flower and sweeping with her hand to suggest the wooded hillside, "this is more like it, but it could be warmer. With that and the increasing darkness settling in, Xena untied the rolled furs from her pack and handed one to her friend. "Wrap it around you tightly," she instructed and flipped a second fur over her own shoulders.

Moments later, the nightfall was alight with a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. "Just what we needed." Gabrielle remarked, pulling her fur up to cover her head, when icy rain pelted down and slapped her cheeks.

Xena scanned the area quickly for shelter, but darkness and hard, cold rain made visibility difficult. With a new flash of lightening, she saw what she was looking for. "Come on, Gabrielle," she urged, helping her friend up from the ground and grabbing an end of the bow.

Gabrielle struggled to hold on to the bow, her staff and her fur around her against the wind, following Xena up the slope, ducking beneath dense branches of a sheltering tree.

The bow was laid out flat under the thickest boughs, safe from the down pour. Xena took hold of Gabrielle's arm and drew her down beside her where they sat, leaning against the wide, aged tree trunk. Xena rearranged the furs to blanket both of them as they huddled together. "Somehow this seems less and less like a great honor, Xena," Gabrielle complained. "Who would have thought we'd be shivering under a tree in the rain?"

"It's not so bad. No one's at our backs, no warlords, no assassins, no scum to deal with. Come on now. Try to get some sleep, Gabrielle," Xena suggested.

Gabrielle didn't argue that issue, resting her head against Xena's arm and closing her eyes, finding more comfort in the warmth of her own heart for this warrior friend than she could say. Their friendship had grown so much and feelings ran so deep. Xena wasn't the easiest person to get to know well, but that was half the enjoyment of being Xena's friend, discovering new sides to her. It was as much of an adventure as traveling with her and fighting at her side.

As Gabrielle drifted off to sleep, Xena drank in the closeness of having her best friend securely comfortable and safe. Xena was an expert at survival, but as much as people fight and struggle to survive, she thought, they fight just as hard to not survive alone, and after all this time together, Xena couldn't imagine how she would have gotten along without Gabrielle, and for the moment, as rain poured out of the sky and lightening flashed in bright bursts, a sense of tenderness welled up in Xena that she hadn't known before Gabrielle had come into her life. Gabrielle was a friend, and so much more, a sister, a confidant. She was clever, imaginative, a dreamer and philosopher. Every day was a grand adventure to Gabrielle, who lived it to the fullest and Xena had learned so much from her.

Xena smiled at her own thoughts, almost unconsciously, letting her fingers brush through Gabrielle's hair, contemplating how this young bard could be so outspoken. Who would have thought someone like Gabrielle could stand nose to nose with the warrior princess, insist on having her way and get not one word of argument, Xena mused. She could be an imp, a chatty, noisy pain in the neck at times and headstrong to the point of frustration, but Xena had come to love even those annoying aspects of Gabrielle for what they were, clear reminders, clear proof, clear evidence that she was not alone.

Somewhere in the night, the storm had cleared away. Xena woke with the dawn and the sounds of twittering birds, scolding squirrels and a sweetness of mountain air after a rain with Gabrielle's head across her knees, a fur wrapped tightly around her. Gabrielle loved the adventure of their travels, but it was the simple things, the little things Xena had come to love, like this moment. "Hey, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "Gabrielle, wake up." Gabrielle fussed and pulled the fur over her head. Xena chuckled at Gabrielle's habit of sleeping until the last possible second, a habit she knew so well in her friend. "Come on, Gabrielle," Xena urged, nudging her friend gently.

"Awe Xena," Gabrielle whined, slowly emerging from her warm fur cocoon and realizing where she was. Gabrielle sat up and glanced around to get her bearings.

"Let's get moving," Xena encouraged with a half smile on her face and a full one in her soul. This part of the story Gabrielle could make of the adventure would never be told, but Xena would remember it, remember those groggy blue eyes, the mussed blond hair and that oh so temporary scowl of annoyance at waking so early, and all the little things that lent a realness to their friendship, a realness to not feeling alone.

Over breakfast, beneath the tree and more prepared for the day, Gabrielle's thoughts returned to a subject that had hung in her mind since the previous day. "I thought I'd heard just about every legend of the gods, Xena, but I never heard of the pools of Artemis, or a fountain of truth."

"Nor have I," Xena agreed and it was something of a fascination even in Xena's mind, though not a priority. "If we're shown the way, we'll check it out, but don't get any notions about finding them," Xena warned with a stern eye to her friend. Gabrielle's curiosity led her into mischief too often for her own good, Xena thought, recalling the titans. "Let's not invite trouble, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle read Xena's expression like a familiar scroll. "It won't happen, Xena. Don't worry. I definitely want no trouble with the gods," Gabrielle assured. Moving the bow up a mountain had already proven troublesome enough.

A damp mist hovered above the rain soaked forest and few places were spared from the onslaught of the previous night's storm. Xena and Gabrielle discovered the trail had become a sloppy, muddy mess, when they took the bow of Artemis on their shoulders once again and began walking. The trail continued to climb and the slope grew steeper. Coming around a sharp turn, Gabrielle's boot sunk into a quagmire that wouldn't let go. She jerked her foot upward, an action that threw her off balance when the mud reluctantly released her, and brought her boot heel down on loose, wet earth, that gave way, sending her sliding down a steep grade.

Xena felt the bow jerk wildly from her shoulders, turned instantly and reached out to retrieve it, but she was too late. Gabrielle was sliding feet first on her stomach, arms reaching to grasp anything for a brake. The bow slid down the grade in front of her. "Xena!" She cried.

"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted at the same moment with a sense of helplessness to reach or stop her friend from being dragged away by the forces of water, earth and gravity.

Dampness seeped into Gabrielle's clothing. Mud, leaves and loose twigs carried her further downward, poking, scratching, and scraping her skin. Suddenly her boot connected with something solid behind her, bringing her to a hard stop, then flinging her over on her side. Gabrielle hooked her leg tightly on the slender tree trunk she had struck, then scrambled backward on her knees until her arms locked around the narrow pole. "Thank the gods," she breathed. The bow of Artemis bumped her roughly and came to a halt next to her.

At the top of the embankment, Xena had calculated the path of Gabrielle's slide, taking her toward a cluster of young trees and was already preparing to undo the situation, anchoring her rope to a tree nearby and tossing it down the grade. "Hold on Gabrielle," she called, taking firm hold of the rope and carefully backing down the incline. "I'm coming, Gabrielle."

"Watch your step, Xena. Be careful," Gabrielle yelled back, surveying the damage she had sustained, and offering some reassurance to her friend.

Quickly and steadily, Xena backed down the slope holding on to the rope to stay upright, though she felt the ground beneath her boots slip in places and made mental note of treacherous spots. Reaching Gabrielle, she knelt down to check her friend's condition. "Are you all right?"

"I'm wet, I'm muddy, and I'm not in the best mood, but I'm all right, Xena," Gabrielle confirmed.

"You look pretty banged up," Xena argued with concern, giving every scratch a thorough inspection. Nothing was bleeding severely. They were only surface scrapes and bruises.

"Nothing's broken, Xena. Just help me out of here."

Xena grabbed onto the rope and helped Gabrielle to her feet. "Hang on to the rope and don't let go," Xena instructed, lifting the bow of Artemis and positioning it to carry over their shoulders, but Xena stayed closer to her friend as they made their way up the steep grade, offering a steadying hand over the slick spots she had crossed coming down.

Part 5

Reaching the trail, Xena retrieved her rope and began to untie the rolled furs from her pack, preparing to wrap one around Gabrielle against the damp, chill, mountain air. Before she had loosened the first knot, a sense of danger coursed through her and Gabrielle's hand clinched Xena's arm tightly. Xena looked to Gabrielle then followed the focus of her friend's terrified, intense stare.

Ahead, rounding the next turn from up the mountain and bounding toward them was the largest bear Xena had ever seen. She drew her sword out of instinct, but lowered it, recalling it was forbidden to hunt in this wood. "Get behind me, Gabrielle," she ordered, raising her sword again with her mind racing to think of alternatives. A bear was not easy to escape and could climb a tree as easily as any human being. This was not hunting, Xena decided. It was self defense of the most dangerous sort. Fighting men was one thing, fighting teeth and claws was another, a skill for hunters, not warriors.

Gabrielle's thoughts ran close to Xena's as the huge creature came closer, but her initial fright took on a sense of awe at the animal's grace, its power and the magnificent silver tipped fur. Gabrielle reached over and took hold of Xena's sword wielding wrist. "Wait. Put the sword away, Xena."

Xena hesitated for only a moment before the meaning of Gabrielle's interference became clear, and Xena too was compelled by the aura of this beast, returning her sword to its sheath. "Artemis, " Xena confronted.

With the sound of her name, a bright silver-white glow blasted the air and greenery around them. The trail suddenly dried of mud and standing before them stood a magnificent woman bathed in silver light. She was clothed in fine, soft buckskin similar in fashion to Xena's heavier leather, cut short for easy mobility and embroidered completely with silver threaded images of wild creatures, deer, lion, boar and bear, matching her silver blond hair.

Gabrielle always thought Xena was beautiful, but Xena's beauty paled next to that of the moon goddess.

"Yes, Xena," Artemis confirmed. "You have done well and I am pleased."

"It was you who took the bow from the workshop," Xena theorized.

"Yes. Parnom was a nuisance. Besides, I've been impressed by your abilities for a long time. I enjoyed watching you defeat Parnom, as much as I enjoyed your dual with Queen Malosa of the Amazons. Hera and some others wagered against you, you know. Hera has a nasty habit of taking a contrary view with children of Zeus who aren't her own."

"So Hercules has told me," Xena concurred, wondering what Artemis wanted.

"I do love my Amazons," Artemis went on, pacing slowly, but restlessly. "You did well to stop the war with the centaurs and save their lives. It left me free to pursue other things, but now I have another problem and I want your help. There is a beast in the tunnel cave you must destroy."

"What sort of beast?" Xena probed. "I like to know what I'm up against."

"Yes, I know," Artemis replied. "It is not a creature of the forest, but a hindrance to my worshippers, blocking the way to the temple and sealing the way to the sacred pools, an evil thing sent by Hera. Beware of it's arms. They paralyze. The high priestess, Migress was lost to the monster. I do not know its weakness and it's not a creature worthy of a hunt, lurking in shadows as it does."

"Why Xena?" Gabrielle ventured. "Wouldn't Hercules be more suitable for the job? Monsters aren't really Xena's thing."

Artemis stepped forward, reached out a deerskin gloved hand and caressed Gabrielle's cheek. Gabrielle was dumbfounded. In all her life, she had never been touched by a god and the touch was mesmerizing, sending a thrilling warmth to every fiber, every nerve. Gabrielle's clothing dried immediately and her wounds disappeared. "My innocent, Amazon Princess," the goddess crooned, "you have won rare favor with me and I'm so pleased you travel with Xena. Ares is such a pain and so blind to your heart. You're the best weapon Xena has against him, you know," Artemis said, backing off with a wink, then taking on a slightly more serious expression. "Hera has Hercules busy elsewhere, just to make things more difficult. Besides, I prefer a woman for the task and I have great confidence in your skills Xena."

Truly, Xena thought, Gabrielle's innocence and good heartedness was totally foreign to Ares, who thought only in terms of conquest, power and blood lust. Xena looked on her friendship with Gabrielle with a renewed appreciation.

"About those pools," Gabrielle began, but a new burst of brightness flashed. The powerful she-bear lumbered down into the forest and out of sight.

Part 6

There was another half day of climbing and hauling the ornamental bow before the gaping hole in the rock face looming up before Xena and Gabrielle indicated they were approaching the tunnel caves.

Gabrielle had been conspicuously silent since the cave opening had come into view, and Xena had been lost in her own thoughts of what lie ahead, but also of what Artemis had said about Gabrielle. Xena had appreciated more than words could say, that Gabrielle had been there for her the times Ares attempted to lure her back to her old ways, when anyone else would have left her to her fate, but she had not considered it from the perspective Artemis had given her, a perspective that only added new depth to Xena's love for Gabrielle and a deeper sense of protectiveness. Gabrielle was innocent, but she was not a child, however, and disliked feeling over protected. It was a challenge to Xena's heart and mind to balance Gabrielle's wishes against her own emotions. "Gabrielle, what's wrong?" Xena finally asked, as the mouth of the cave drew closer, bringing Xena's focus to the present moment. "You've been too quiet."

Gabrielle's thoughts were not so far from Xena's, but with a different view and a sense of confidence about her place in the scheme of things, and her place was at Xena's side. In her own way, she knew, she protected Xena as much as Xena protected her. That thought alternated with trying to put description to the sensation of being touched by Artemis, and for once, Gabrielle could find no adequate words. "Nothing's wrong, Xena. It's just...I never felt anything like that,... like the touch of a god."

"Now you know," Xena replied.

"You have incredible strength, Xena. I understand now how difficult it must be to resist Ares."

"Artemis was right, you know. Ares can't deal with the bond we share, Gabrielle. He doesn't think in those terms," Xena commented, as they came to a halt at the cave entrance, and for a moment, Xena and Gabrielle's eyes met in unspoken exchange, broken by smiles and mutual comprehension.

The tender mood was put on hold with the more pressing matter of entering the cave. Both Xena and Gabrielle shifted mental and physical energies to defensive alertness. "Ready", Xena checked, after they secured the bow of Artemis and their packs between a tall bolder and the rock facing surrounding the mouth of the cave.

"Okay," Gabrielle nodded, as they moved beyond the entrance and into the dimness of the caverns. Only the light from the obvious exit, some distance away, offered meager assistance to seeing clearly. Shadows where the creature could hide were everywhere.

Walking, carefully, slowly, deliberately, like a cat ready to spring, Xena's eyes adjusted to the darkness as much as possible and one shadow became familiar, a sconce holding an unlit torch attached to the rocky cave wall. Finding flint and a striker on the rim of the sconce, and lighting the torch, Xena turned with the flaming light in her hand.

"By the gods!" Gabrielle breathed.

The paths in this cave fanned out in all directions, like spokes on a wheel, toward tunnel openings with the passage to the exit running across the center. Between each path was the blackness of some unfathomable pit below. At the hub, where all paths seemed to meet, sat the great beast Artemis had told them of, a huge mounding lump of coarse, rough looking fur with many long tentacle-like limbs splaying and wavering toward them, and a huge single eye that closed angrily against the torchlight.

Xena quickly surmised that the eye was likely the weakest point for this monster, but getting past the arms to take advantage of the weakness was another matter. A sword thrown ran the risk of being deflected by swift moving arms and lost. Her chakram might sever several limbs, but not all and it took only one limb to paralyze. Still, she thought, fewer limbs only increased the odds in her favor. "Take this," Xena instructed, handing the torch to her companion. "Hold it high."

Gabrielle obeyed and watched as Xena's chakram was let loose with a hard fling, bouncing with a spark of metal contacting rock between tunnel entrances, switching directions and spinning toward the bazaar creature blocking their path. When the first limb of the monster was struck, others retracted quickly, but not before the speedy, rotating blade had sliced through three more. The creature let out an ear piercing screech and the glaring eye opened. Xena drew her sword with one hand and caught the returning chakram with the other, whirled her sword preparing to throw it into the creature's eye, when the heavy lid snapped shut again. Xena felt frustration and impatience growing. This strategy could take all day.

Gabrielle was in complete agreement. She returned the torch to its place on the cave wall and moved toward the monster with her staff in hand. "It's going to take both of us to defeat that thing, Xena. I'll keep it busy with my staff, while you think of something else," Gabrielle decided.

"Be careful, Gabrielle,' Xena warned, never underestimating Gabrielle's boldness and courage. It was the first thing Xena had noticed about Gabrielle the day they met. Xena didn't like Gabrielle placing herself in harms way one bit, but Gabrielle was right. Distracting the creature was the best possible course of action, an obvious alternative Xena ignored in her own thoughts, simply because it did put Gabrielle in perilous circumstances, Xena realized, and Gabrielle knew it.

Gabrielle thrust the end of her fighting staff forward, giving the shaggy creature a hard hitting jab. The creature's eye opened to a slit and Gabrielle jumped back and out of reach, swinging her staff at the tentacle that unfolded and swept toward her.

Xena moved in and whacked off the menacing limb with her sword, but another took its place and second flew toward Xena, who moved to a distance, put her sword away and uncoiled the rope from her shoulder, set a wide lasso and tossed it out, catching up the monster's arm. She pulled the rope tight with all her strength. When a new arm appeared, Xena looped a portion of rope over it, pulling again. The monster rumbled with furious waves and ripples rolling over its mound shaped body and let out intermittent screeches.

Gabrielle prodded more limbs forward, whacking them aside and toward Xena, who soon had many arms tied up. When Xena ran out of rope, her sword came out, swinging left and right, hacking away remaining loose arms like a machete in a jungle of tentacles, until the huge beast began to back away in a waving, caterpillar-like motion.

Gabrielle drew her arms back and jabbed her staff forward with all her might, striking the monster just above the vulnerable eye. The eye opened wide. Xena saw her chance and hurled her sword to its mark, where it impaled to the hilt.

The monster suddenly screeched in deafening tones that echoed all around the cave tunnels for an eternity of a moment. Gabrielle covered her ears against the sound. Just as suddenly the cave went silent and the creature fell limp.

Xena rushed forward, pulled and yanked her sword from the dead creature's blinded eye and pushed, putting her shoulder and all her strength against the creature's side. Gabrielle joined her and the monster was dispatched over the edge of the closest path and into the black pit below.

"You did it!" Gabrielle exclaimed in victorious release of tension and adrenaline.

"We did it," Xena corrected, relaxing and catching her own breath. Yes, it was a challenge to balance her feelings with Gabrielle's wishes, Xena thought, and likely always would be. Ultimately it was Gabrielle's understanding of it that made the difference, and how could it be otherwise, Xena concluded. It was a balance born of friendship and of sharing the responsibility of fighting to not survive alone.

Part 7

With the passage clear, Xena and Gabrielle retrieved their gear, proceeded through the tunnel cave with the ornamental bow and up the last but very steep grade and stone steps of the temple of Artemis at the summit.

Dragging the bow through the arched doorway of the shrine, Gabrielle and Xena stopped to rest and take in the tall, stone, statue likeness of the goddess towering near an alter, but rest was brief, as they painstakingly removed layers of protective hides and chamois from around the bow, carried the ornament onto the dais and set it vertically upright and into the hands of the painted stone Artemis. "That's it," Xena said with a sense of finality and relief that the task was completed at last without further incident.

"Right," Gabrielle agreed, stepping off the dais, admiring the bow for a moment, turning and making for the doorway. "Thanks for the honor Artemis, but we are out of here." Xena wasted no time in catching up to her friend. "Look on the bright side, Gabrielle. We didn't have the honor of carrying that statue."

Gabrielle smiled at Xena's comment and mood, as she carefully made her way down the temple steps and trail back the way they had come with Xena right behind her.

When the trail leveled out near the tunnel caves, the endlessly hovering clouds opened up and rain poured down. "Come on, Gabrielle," Xena said with the first pelting, cold, wet drops, taking hold of Gabrielle's elbow and urging her friend into a fast jog toward the shelter of the cave.

Inside, they stopped to rest and catch their breaths again in the thin mountain air. "Remind me to ask you sometime why you chose to come up here in the rainy season," Gabrielle remarked.

Xena smiled, and chuckled, then broke into rare laughter. Gabrielle was drawn into it, laughing at herself acting like such a wet hen. Surely, Gabrielle thought, this moment alone, laughing heartily with Xena, who was all too serious too often, was a reward of the goddess.

As if her thoughts and the shared mirth had triggered something somewhere, torches along one path came alive, lighting the way into a tunnel cave opening. Xena and Gabrielle's laughter subsided with this sudden, incomprehensible event. "The pools!" Gabrielle guessed.

"Let's go," Xena encouraged with some curiosity of her own and knowing full well Gabrielle would never let her hear the end of it until they checked it out. She followed the way of the burning torches with Gabrielle along a tunneled path and into an adjoining room. Side by side, they stopped, taking in the pools and surroundings in wonderment. Two identical, perfectly round pools of liquid lay next to each other, individually surrounded by unbroken solid white edges, the liquid glowing with periodic changes in color from red to yellow to blue. A narrow bridge with an ivory fence-like rail separated the pools and led away to another adjoining room.

"The pool of the heart and the pool of the soul," Gabrielle reminded almost in a whisper.

"I wonder which one is which?" Xena added, moving toward the pool on the right and stooping down for a closer look. She dipped a finger into the liquid and tasted it. Her expression showed she recognized the flavor, but with some uncertainty of its purpose.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, heading to the pool on the left and doing the same.

"Salty", Xena said.

"Like..tears," Gabrielle described, but her eyes were drawn by the colors and the vision playing out in the pool's bright reflection, faces of people she knew well and loved, her parents, her sister, Iolis, and various relatives, aunts, uncles and cousins. "Look at this, Xena."

Xena joined her, but the faces she saw were of her own concerns, her mother, her brother Tores, Hercules, even Salmoneus, which brought a smile, but it was true, the huckster had endeared himself somehow, Flora and her mother.

When the visions faded, Xena returned to the other pool and the vision that had begun in one pool expanded in this. The faces of loved ones appeared again and with them faces of Marcus, Lyceus, her younger brother, her father, Petroclese, friends and family who inhabited the other side.

Gabrielle was at Xena's side and her own eyes beheld a similar sight of Talus, grandparents and long dead but familiar faces. Gabrielle turned away from the pool with more memories and emotions churning inside than she thought possible, joy and sorrow, love and longing. Then it donned on her, as she looked toward her best friend, that Xena was not among the faces.

Xena tore herself from the vision only when she felt Gabrielle's hand on her shoulder. As she stood up, the same question, of why Gabrielle's face was not among those in the pool, crossed her own mind. " I saw people, Gabrielle. People I know; people I care for, living and dead."

"So did I," Gabrielle revealed.

"But I didn't see you there," Xena stated with concern and questions in her blue eyes and her expression, not certain what it meant. It was a puzzle for philosophers.

"Because, our hearts and souls are together, Xena," Gabrielle explained. "The faces are reflections of those we don't see; those we think of at times, and those we remember. They all have a place in our hearts; in our souls. We don't have to look into memories or pools to see our own friendship. We only have to look at each other."

Xena smiled relieved of the uncertainty and at the sense of Gabrielle's wisdom. "Makes sense to me. I think you're right," she agreed, as they started over the bridge toward the path leading to the third pool. Reaching the end of the bridge, Xena and Gabrielle hesitated, stopped and both turned to each other at the same moment.

"The pool of the future," Gabrielle reminded.

"Maybe we should pass on that on, Gabrielle."

"I don't want to see it, Xena. I don't want to know the future. It's enough to live it out here and now.

"I don't want to know about what could happen to you, Gabrielle," Xena admitted.

"Or to you," Gabrielle agreed.

As they turned and retraced their steps, the two pools flanking them changed. The periodic color changes increased in a revolving motion, accelerating until a rainbow of hues spun by and exploded upward in a shower of brilliant colors above the bridge, where Xena and Gabrielle stood, arms linked together, watching in awe. The shower of liquid colors fell all around and over them, but no wetness, no dampness touched their skin or penetrated their clothing. "I think we made a wise choice," Gabrielle suggested.

"The fountain of truth," Xena surmised, looking at her friend through liquid lights of color. "The gods don't fool around," she added, letting go of Gabrielle and taking in the grandeur of it, but the moment her arm left Gabrielle's the colors in the pool spun faster, merging into brilliant silver white light. The fountain shower around them changed to match.

Gabrielle was suddenly flooded with intense feelings, so strong, she stepped backward, grabbed onto the rail to steady herself, then lowered herself to sit down.

Xena fell to her knees with the impact of incredible sorrow, grief and pain. A new vision played out against the white curtain of raining light. Before her eyes Gabrielle knelt over her body, shutdown by the effects of Callisto's poison dart. Xena watched with torment in her very soul as her best friend tore out of the building, grabbed her staff, and sought a solitary place in nearby wood, where she released her pain, beating her staff wildly on a strong tree, then collapsed to the ground seeking control over an aching sorrow.

The bright raining lights blocked out Gabrielle's view of Xena and threw a vision in front of her own eyes, a vision that matched the fear, the desperation and growing sense of loss and emptiness coursing through her very spirit, a vision of Xena in tears, frantically breathing life giving air into lungs and pounding on the chest of Gabrielle's own lifeless body, against all advice of those around her to give up. Gabrielle reached out toward the vision. "Xena!"

"Gabrielle!" Xena called in the same moment, reaching into the illusion before her.

Part 8

Xena's outstretched hand connected with Gabrielle's and she grasped tightly. The visions stopped. Xena and Gabrielle were face to face on their knees, holding on to one another's hand unwilling to let go. This was the truth that turned them away from the pool of the future.

Xena and Gabrielle sat back against the fenced guard rail, together. " I think we better talk about this, Xena," Gabrielle began.

"Don't grieve for me, Gabrielle. If something happens to me, I want you to remember the adventures, tell the stories and remember this place."

"And the good things, Xena. Let's decide to remember the happiness and the love," Gabrielle included.

"It's not just... you know...death. Anything could change; could separate us. You could meet someone, get married," Xena speculated with a warm smile and a secure comfort in the honesty and closeness of the moment.

"So could you," Gabrielle responded. Xena looked away skeptically. "It could happen," Gabrielle insisted. "You will find your tree in the forest one day, Xena."

"Maybe", Xena relented, "but the point is, we've made plenty of good memories."

"Yeah, a lot of great stories. I would miss you and think of you, but no matter how things might change, we've had some great times."

"That's the important thing," Xena agreed, getting to her feet and assisting Gabrielle to hers. Still bathed in white raining lights, their eyes met with an exchange of a myriad of feelings, until Xena stepped up and embraced Gabrielle. They held tightly to one another for a long moment. "Thank you." Xena said softly.

"For what?" Gabrielle asked, backing up slightly and looking up at her taller friend.

"For being so hardheaded and following me to Amphipolis," Xena replied with a loving grin.

Gabrielle hugged her briefly and backed off with a bright smile. "Let's go, Xena. I've had all the truth I can handle here. If we learn everything about each other at once, what would be the fun of getting to know each other?"

The colorful rainbow shower returned as Xena and Gabrielle walked off the bridge to leave the cave. They stopped, turned and watched the fountain subside and the pools return to their quiet states.

"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena urged. "Those strawberries won't stay ripe forever."

The End

Xena, Warrior Princess, Sacred reward © is the exclusive property of Debra Myatt
(screen name LaRin) and may not be reproduced without express written permission of the

Copyright September 7, 1996


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