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DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
VIOLENCE AND SEX WARNING: This is a dark story. It contains torture, very definite violence and serious bloodletting, angst, but no sex. Though love between women is present, there is very little romance this time, sorry. © April 1998 MythMaker (Story #5)
NOTE TO FANS: This story is dedicated to the 60 plus fans who wrote urging me not to stop writing. Especially the following who took the time to really analyse and make good suggestions: Carolyn, Daysparrow, Debbie (p.s. no scars from this story either, the BB is intact), Beth, Garnet, Inga, Jacquee, Jan, Janet, Jeff, Laura, Nicole, Patricia, ptmartin, Roxana, Sarah, Steph, Teleri, and Trina. Thanks folks, I really appreciated that feedback.
FINAL NOTE: Eponin has asked that I list her expressions and some explanations as an addendum.
This story is for sisters everywhere, especially my favorite sister, Morgaine the bard, and my newest sister, Sue.
Once again on their way to Larissa, Xena and Gabrielle rode out of the Amazon Village headed southwest. Since they had sold Gregori's chestnut mare to Solari, Argo carried them both. A respectable purchase price sat in Gabrielle's bag for the horse trader. The warrior looked sleek and fit and happy. She and her bard were well rested from their time spent with the Amazons. All Xena's wounds and injuries had healed except her broken left hand which would still need a few more weeks to return to full strength. Xena had locked away the bad memories of her whipping and slavery into the dark recesses of her mind where so much crouched ready to spring forth in unguarded moments or into her dreams. Her dreams lately had been sweet though, as she lay comforted in the arms of her bard. At last the two women had come to an understanding of how two bodies could share a single soul.
Gabrielle looked well too. Even though she was on the back of Xena's great war horse the young bard was content as they chatted and laughed gaily. The ride this morning had been calm. The weather was still warm despite the coming winter and the sun shone on the happy couple. Maybe it was her happiness that caused Xena to let down her guard. Whatever the reason, they were suddenly caught unaware. A dart slammed into Xena's chest, then another into her neck. She fell back against Gabrielle who did not immediately know what had happened.
"Xena? What is it?"
"Gabrielle. Watch ow. . ." Xena cried out as they both fell off Argo.
Xena struggled to rise and draw her sword as Gabrielle immediately scrambled to her feet and turned to face a team of thugs who rushed out of the surrounding woods. The slaver, Stephanos, stepped out of the covering forest last. Gabrielle held off two thugs bravely. Xena twirled her sword keeping them at bay as she fought to remain standing. She could barely focus as she looked over at the corpulent merchant and at the dark figure standing with him.
"One more dart ought to do it, take her out, Celeus," Stephanos said.
Gabrielle watched horrified as another dart buried its tainted point in Xena's left breast. The warrior winced and collapsed. Due to the distraction the two thugs she had so successfully held off earlier grabbed Gabrielle and subdued her.
Stephanos waddled over to the recumbent Warrior Princess. He rubbed his hands together with glee, and said "Celeus, bring over the restraints."
The dark, little man put his dart thrower into his bag of tricks and drew out some hard leather bracelets, ankle cuffs, and a wicked looking collar. Before putting them on Xena, he dusted the interior surfaces with a powder from a mysteriously dark jar. Then two of the thugs pulled off Xena's armor, bracers, her boots and arm bands. Gabrielle hated to see her warrior so vulnerable. The bard fought against the two who held her. Stephanos squatted next to the warrior as they worked and lovingly stroked her hair and face. Gabrielle was reminded of what Penelope had told her about this horrid man. As she watched them open the collar before locking it around Xena's neck, she saw that the inside surface was dotted with tiny, needle-sharp points.
"No! What are you doing to her?" Gabrielle cried out as she struggled desperately against her captors.
Stephanos directed his attention to the bard and with a sneer said, "No sound, little girl. Lucky for you I am no longer in the slave business. If you keep quiet, I might let you go." As he spoke he nodded to Celeus who locked the collar firmly around Xena's neck. Even in her unconscious state, Xena moaned briefly as the collar snapped shut. Within moments threads of crimson crept from beneath the collar. Gabrielle turned her head as tears slid down her cheeks echoing the warrior's blood.
The wicked merchant grinned at Gabrielle's reaction and said, "Don't cry, little one, I am not going to kill her. I am going to turn her into the most vicious and berserk gladiator Rome has ever seen. She will be what Caesar had envisioned when he called for gladiators. She is going to make me rich and repay me for all she has cost me. And when I am through with her, I have seven eager purchasers lined up to buy her favors. Well not really her favors, they each want a pound of her flesh." As he drew his hand down Xena's chest he continued, "Ah, such lovely flesh. I may have to have her for myself first, before she gets too wild." He plucked the dart from her neck, her chest, and then lastly the one from her breast. A large bead of blood welled up from this last. The vile man wiped the blood off and licked his fingers, smiling wickedly at Gabrielle as he did so. She shivered with revulsion. He laughed.
The last of the restraints were secured and Xena's hands and feet dripped red as well. Celeus attached the chains. The thugs placed the warrior's unconscious body into a cage on wheels. They pulled her arms and legs apart and secured each limb to a corner of the cage.
Turning to Gabrielle Stephanos said, "Goodbye, little girl, go home, your days with Xena are over." He then nodded to the two men holding her. One struck her from behind rendering her unconscious. They slung her limp body over Argo's back and secured her with a rope, slapping the mare's rump. Argo galloped off back the way they had come.
"Ephiny, come quickly, I think it is our queen, Gabrielle." Eponin yelled sticking her head in the regent's dwelling before loping away. Ephiny followed her. They ran out the gates to find the bard crumpled on the ground at Argo's feet. The faithful steed had carried her back to the Amazons. Shortly the Amazon healer, Ama with her new assistant, Frieda were attending the Queen. After a brief examination, Ama told Ephiny that Gabrielle had a concussion and it might be a day before she regained consciousness.
"Tartarus! Solari, send two scouts to back track Argo's trail." Ephiny ordered. "We need to know what happened. I fear it is a bad sign that Xena is not with Gabrielle."
Solari replied, "Right away, Ephiny. I will send Eponin and Delia; they are both available."
"Delia? Is that a good idea?" Ephiny asked.
"Ephiny, she is one of our best trackers."
"So command them then."
Xena first felt the vibrations of the carriage rumbling through the forest. Pain stabbed her head worse than any hangover she had ever experienced. She wondered where she was. What had happened? Xena cautiously opened her eyes. The sunlight daggered her sight. She slammed her eyelids shut and waited several heartbeats before carefully slitting open her eyes again. Her thick, dark eyelashes filtered the light. She found herself in a cage shackled neck, hands, and feet. 'Tartarus,' she thought, 'Stephanos has me again,' as she remembered finally. Her neck was on fire. She tried to reach it but her hands were tethered too securely. She squinted down at them. The cuffs irritated her wrists and ankles. They itched and burned, and she could see that she had bled. She tried to reach under the cuffs to relieve the burning, but her chains were just too short to allow her to touch her other hand, much less her neck. Her hands were not chained together but to opposite poles of the cage. It was maddening. Her arms were spread wide. Her mouth was very dry, and her throat was raging. 'How long has it been?' she wondered. She tried to judge by the sun's location in the sky, but realized it could be a day later. She looked at her bloody wrists again and tried to gauge how recent her wounds were. Her eyesight wavered; she had two hands, then four. 'Tartarus.' She could not even focus as sudden waves of nausea griped her. She held it at bay, but her stomach burned. Then as she struggled to bend down to see her hands she bled anew and knew this method would not help. Her thoughts suddenly turned to Gabrielle. 'What has happened to Gabrielle?' She looked around frantically for her companion but her vision was blurred. If only she could see better. 'Tartarus, what is wrong with my eyes?' she thought angrily.
Her thrashing about drew the attention of the guard who alerted Stephanos. "Ah, Xena," Stephanos said as he strode up to the cage, "how is my magnificent Warrior Princess now?" he purred as he rattled the bars of her cage. "I had no idea you were such an accomplished fighter. Poor Pathetus seemed to have underestimated you to his own demise. Thanks for killing him; you saved me the bother." Stephanos paused and then said, "I hate incompetents. If I were not so angry with you, I would love you, Xena. You are so good." He reached into the cage and stroked her cheek. She tried to pull out of his reach, but she was on such a short tether, she had nowhere to go. So she bared her teeth and threatened to bite his hand. He pulled back quickly. "Not nice, my dear. Don't bite me, or I will not feed you."
"Gabrielle, what happened? Where is Xena?" the worried regent asked her queen when she regained consciousness the next afternoon.
"Oh, Ephiny," Gabrielle cried, "it was horrible; that slaver, Stephanos, has her. He is taking her to fight in the gladiator ring, but he is going to do terrible things to her first. They put a collar with spikes on the inside around her neck. Some evil man put something on it first, and ..." She stopped as Frieda let out a cry. "Frieda, what is it?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Gabrielle, I am so sorry." Frieda said. "I know what he is doing. I have seen him do this before when I was his healer. He did this to strong men who wouldn't fight. He would use these torturous collars and cuffs. There are spines inside them which are coated with an irritant that constantly annoys the wearer. The wounds from the spikes refuse to heal and they will itch madly, but the victims can't scratch because their hands are secured. Stephanos drugs them with mind-altering herbs, then they are teased and tortured like baited bears. Soon these men will attack anything that comes near them. Most men go mad within a month."
Gabrielle turned to Ephiny in a panic, "No! Ephiny, we have to save her. Now! We have to leave now!" Ephiny caught her queen to her chest, held her, and made soothing noises as Gabrielle cried.
When the young queen finally calmed, Ephiny said, "We will, Gabrielle. Eponin and Delia have been tracking them since you arrived. We'll leave at first light."
Eponin and Delia watched silently from the trees. They had successfully tracked Argo's trail back to the clearing where it was evident a group of men had encountered the bard. There were wagon wheel tracks as well as those of many horses. The two women continued to follow these tracks until they came upon the encampment late that night. After half a candle mark of observation, they knew that Xena was a captive of the slave merchant Stephanos. Guards were posted at the four corners of the Xena's cage. A comfortable tent was pitched near the cage and, from the sounds, it was evident that Stephanos was dining elegantly. Torches lit the camp brightly. The Amazon trackers could see that the warrior was pegged out like a tanned hide. Every few minutes one of the men would poke Xena with a hand or a sword tip. Eponin could see that Xena made a concerted effort not to react. In fact she had her eyes closed. If it were not for the occasional grimace on her face, the Amazon would have thought the Warrior Princess was unconscious. Xena wore only a shift, and it was torn and bloody. Eponin looked over at Delia who gasped at the last sword thrust from the guard on the left who seemed to really enjoy tormenting the warrior. His thrust was too forceful. A spreading stain blossomed on Xena's left thigh, soaking her shift quickly.
A tear slid silently down Delia's cheek. She turned imploringly to her commander, "Eponin, we must do something."
"Hush, Delia, wait," Eponin warned, "We are gravely outnumbered. We won't help her if we are captured. I hate to do this to you, but I need you to stay and keep them in sight while I return to the village to tell Ephiny what is going on. I'd send you, but I know the way better and can go faster. If you have to move off, leave me a sign. Whatever you do, do not get caught. I'll leave your horse where we tied him."
"I'll keep watch then, Eponin. Will you do me a favor please?"
"Sure, what is it?"
"I did not get a chance to talk to Penelope before we left. Will you tell her where I am, and if anything happens to me, will you tell her I loved her?"
"Alecto's Alchemy! Delia, I know you and Penelope have come to an understanding. She does not need me to tell her how you feel. Besides, you will be back in no time. We are going to get Xena out of this as soon as I get back with reinforcements. Knowing Xena she might beat me back." Eponin squeezed Delia's shoulder and silently moved off, leaving a quite frightened Amazon behind.
Shortly after she left, Stephanos came out of his tent. Delia watched the corpulent merchant with hate-filled eyes. This was the man who had tormented her Penelope. Somehow she would pay him back for defiling her love, and for whatever he had done to Xena.
"Xena," Stephanos cooed, "I love saying that name. Xena. So musical yet earthy. You must sing for me this evening. Would you like some dinner?" The warrior did not answer. Stephanos came closer and peered into the cage. When he saw the sodden shift and the blood pooling in the straw under Xena's leg, he turned on the closest guard.
"What have you done, you idiots?" He demanded, "I told you to tease her not kill her! Celeus, come here at once." The little man came running. "Open the cage." The guard did so.
Cautiously Celeus entered the cage. He was not too worried; he knew Xena could hardly move. She was also dosed heavily with deadly nightshade. Just enough to control her and disorient her, but not enough to kill her. This wound would give him another avenue to introduce more drugs into her system. He lifted her bloody shift to inspect the wound. Her thigh was awash with blood. Taking a cloth from his bag, he roughly wiped off the blood. More blood pulsed out. He asked one of the guards to come in and help him. The perpetrator eagerly complied, and held the cloth tightly against the wound to staunch the flow. Celeus opened a vial and then as the guard pulled the cloth off, he poured some solution onto the wound. Xena's fresh blood bubbled black for a moment before Celeus once again pressed a cloth to the wound. Then he tied a bandage in place. Meanwhile the guard continued to torment the Warrior Princess by caressing her other thigh, before slowly sliding his hands up to cover her breasts with his meaty paws. Xena continued to deny them the satisfaction of a reaction; her eyes remained shut, yet Delia could see the clenching of her jaw muscles.
"Enough!" Stephanos roared, startling everyone including the watching
"I will have Xena first! Get out of the cage immediately!" Celeus and the guard hustled out. "Leave us." Stephanos commanded. The guards hesitated. "Go!" he roared.
Finally Stephanos was alone with his Warrior Princess, save the tensely watching Amazon. "Ah, Xena, I've dreamt of this moment. You are at my mercy." He knelt beside the woman and began caressing her face. "Open your eyes, I want to see the depths of the Aegean looking into my eyes when I take you." The warrior continued to deny him that pleasure. He viciously slapped her face. "Open them, you bitch!" No response. He leaned closer and lifted an eyelid. The blue eye was practically black, her pupil was so dilated. "Tartarus, he drugged her too much!" He stood up in disgust and stalked out of the cage and into his tent, leaving the cage door open.
Instantly Delia dropped from the tree and entered the cage. "Xena, it's me, Delia." The Warrior Princess slowly cracked her eyelids to look at the Amazon. "Ah, Xena, what have they done to you?"
"Drugs." Xena whispered. The warrior was too debilitated to respond more. Delia quickly examined the restraints and realized she needed a key. Instead she drew her dagger and began sawing at the first leather cuff. She managed to get through one and had moved to the next when the cage door suddenly slammed shut.
"Ooh, look, we caught another one!" Stephanos' slimy voice snickered.
Eponin had made her way back to the horses when she heard those words of Stephanos ring out clearly through the forest's quiet night air. "Hades Helmet! I told her not to get caught. Poseidon's Prod! What has she done now!" The angry Amazon quickly made her way back to the trees above the camp. She was in time to hear the next words of the corpulent commander.
"An Amazon. Xena, what interesting friends you have." Celeus joined the merchant, his dart thrower armed and ready. "Amazon, will you please throw your weapons out of the cage? Or do you want my friend here to dart you as he did Xena? If she could, I am sure she would tell you it is not pleasant." Delia quickly complied. She threw out her dagger; she took the bow and her quiver from her back, and it joined her dagger outside the cage.
"Surely that is not all, Amazon, what else do you have hidden away?" Stephanos asked.
"Nothing!" spat Delia.
'Oh Delia, how could you get yourself in this mess?' thought the watching, arboreal Amazon.
Stephanos ran his eyes over the tall, young Amazon. She was dressed more modestly than most Amazons who seemed to revel in teasingly baring their muscled bodies. This Amazon wore a hip-length leather vest laced up to her neck, long leather leggings, and boots to mid-calf. Like Xena, she sported cuffs on her upper arms and bracers the length of her forearms.
"Take off your bracers and boots," Stephanos demanded. From the narrowing of her eyes, Stephanos knew he had guessed right. The reluctant Amazon sat down to remove her boots, and soon these items and the daggers they had concealed also lay outside the cage. Stephanos looked critically at her chest. The vest fit tightly; he did not think she could have more weapons concealed there, but then this was not only about weapons. "Unlace your vest." Delia's hands went to the closure protectively. "Do it or my men will do it for you. You can keep the vest; I just want the lacings."
Eponin watched tensely as her young friend was humiliated by the slaver. She gritted her teeth and trembled from her suppressed rage.
Slowly, the Amazon undid the leather strips and pulled them from the eyelets. These too she thrust out of the cage, holding the vest tightly closed with her left hand. Throughout this procedure Xena had been carefully watching through slited eyes. She hated this man. Somehow she would get out of this and humiliate this monster thoroughly.
"Now open the vest and show me you are free of weapons." Delia could not take much more. Tears began to slip down her cheeks. Xena had been working hard on the partially severed remaining cuff. All eyes were on Delia's chest, the guards had moved closer to better see the beautiful Amazon. "Do it or we will take it from you and you will be without for the duration of your stay with us! Now, Amazon! Open your vest!"
As Delia opened her vest, Xena let out her battle cry, somewhat hoarsely through her parched throat, but still intimidating to all the distracted men. Eponin almost fell out of her tree. The Warrior Princess wrenched her second restraint free and reached through the bars to grab the weapon of an inattentive guard. He died on his own sword; and stumbled against the next guard who also suffered a maiming blow as the raging Warrior Princess did the most damage she could, hampered by the bars of the cage and her still tethered ankles. Delia jumped into the fray, reaching out as well for a weapon. Eponin wanted desperately to join them, but she could see it was a hopeless case. She had to remain free to get word back to the village.
Stephanos and Celeus were as slow to react as their men. Finally Celeus brought his dart thrower up and hit Xena once more in the neck. She was too enraged to notice. One more and the poor woman went down, her system already tainted with the soporific Celeus liked to use. He aimed a third dart at Delia but saw the Amazon's arm grabbed by the fourth guard, who twisted it and relieved her of the sword she held. He thrust her back toward the center of the cage.
"Celeus, we need more cuffs."
"Sorry Stephanos, I have no other. "
"Well find something, we have to secure this mad woman again. Use regular slave bracelets, I know there are plenty in the supply drawer under the cage."
As the guards held Delia at bay with long pikes thrust through the cage, Celeus reached in to lock the Warrior Princess securely. Delia briefly glimpsed Xena's raw and bloody wrists before the wicked little man locked the new slave cuffs in place, first dusting her wrists with more irritant. "Back off," Celeus commanded the guards. Turning to Delia he said, "I can't reach the darts, pull them out and hand them to me. Don't let the tips touch your skin." Delia immediately went to her knees next to her fellow warrior. She gently withdrew the darts from Xena's neck and chest. Handling them carefully, she took them over to where Celeus waited. As he reached out she deliberately stabbed his palm. "You bitch!" He yelled as he recoiled in anger, then slowly keeled over. The stunned guards stood around for a few minutes and gawked.
Stephanos roared, "Move, you idiots! Punish the woman." Confused at first they did not know which woman he meant. Then they all reacted at once, clubbing Delia and Xena both with the butts of their spears. Eponin groaned and then melted into the night.
Eponin made no sound but a perimeter guard came upon the Amazon horses and raised the alarm before she could get to him. "Are's Ass! Just when speed was of the essence!" the angry Amazon swore savagely to herself. She took to the trees once more.
"Well, it is obvious the Amazon was not alone. We better move out to put some distance between us and those wild women. I wonder if Xena is an Amazon?" Stephanos discussed things with Celeus, his second. "Get the tent folded up and get my wagon ready; we will travel through the night. I want to be well on the way to Corinth by dawn. It is unfortunate that we had to knock out the women; a night's walk would help get them under control. Too bad they get to ride. Maybe something will occur to me."
The wagons and soldiers were barely a league from their evening's encampment when the skies opened as if Poseidon's sea was let loose from the heavens. Stephanos and Celeus traveled in a comfortable, covered wagon. The cage containing the women was just that, bars open to the elements. Within moments both warrior's were soaked and shivering. The rain revived Delia almost immediately. Xena suffered from a drug induced unconsciousness, though her body reacted to the cold and wet, she did not awaken till the morning. Delia huddled next to the Warrior Princess and tried to shield her friend with her body and to also share some of her warmth.
The raging river stopped Eponin in her retreat to the Amazon village. Cursing loudly to herself in the rain throughout the night as she hurried toward home, the exhausted warrior was not up to this latest complication. "Tisiphone's Tantrums! Now I have to swim the furious flow. I am beginning to understand how Hercules felt about his labors." Eponin sat on the bank of the river for a few moments to catch her breath. She realized she would fall asleep if she did not get on with it. She thought maybe the swim would wake her up. Though tired, she was still thinking clearly. Knowing her strength was not at its peak, she knotted her rope around a stout tree branch to make a grappling hook, twirled it in the air over her head, then threw it across the river with all her might. It landed safely on the other side but made no purchase. It slide at once into the river. Eponin recoiled the rope and tried again. This time it fell behind an old tree and held. Triumphantly Eponin tied the bitter end around her waist and slipped into the water. She was able to wade for a few lengths before the depth and the swift current swept her feet out from under her. She was washed downstream until the rope burning through her hands yanked to a stop and held. She resumed control and stood up. Suddenly her rope pulled free as the rotted tree trunk to which she had secured her tether disintegrated. Eponin was swept away.
Stephanos relented due to the wicked weather and allowed the troupe to stop a few candle marks before dawn. The first rose light of Helios drifted along the floor of the cage and illuminated the faces of the fallen warriors. Sometime in the night Delia had fallen asleep, despite the rain and cold. Now Delia groaned as she opened her eyes. Her right cheekbone throbbed; she reached up to touch it and felt the crust of blood. Then remembering what had transpired the previous evening, she sat up swiftly. Immediately she regretted that action as her fuzzy brain refocused. The pain intensified to a stabbing throb before leveling off once more. Gingerly now, Delia looked at the warrior in her arms. Her first love was painful to behold. Her heart contracted when she looked at the beautiful warrior. Xena lay stiffly on the floor of the cage, the chains once more securing her in her constrained position. Her dark hair tumbled over her face, her throat encircled by the wicked leather collar. Her long neck was striated with dark streaks of dried blood. Looking at Xena's wrists and ankles in the early light Delia could better see what she had only glimpsed in the evening's false light. The young Amazon reached a shaking hand to clear the tumbled mane from Xena's face. The dear face was marked by trailing blood from a blow to her left brow, her nose had pumped blood in the night, coating her lips and chin. Delia moaned at the sight.
The sound registered with the Warrior Princess who likewise moaned and stirred. She slowly opened her eyes, then cringed and closed them again. Still, her brain maintained the image of the young Amazon warrior. "Delia?" Xena whispered.
"I'm here, Xena." Her companion answered. She crawled behind the warrior and gently lifted her head into her lap. "I'm so sorry. I did not mean for this to happen."
"No, Delia." Though Xena's throat was dry and her mind confused, she managed to hoarsely whisper words to reassure the Amazon. She had to keep focused on the positive. She continued with one word questions. "Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle is safe at the village. Eponin and I trailed you here, and she has gone back for help." Delia likewise tried to reassure Xena.
"How ... long?"
"I don't know how long they have had you. But probably not more than two days. Gabrielle arrived at the village yesterday morning. She was unconscious so we could not question her before Ephiny sent us to backtrack."
"Unconscious? What?" The frantic warrior tried to get up.
"Hush, Xena, they only hit her on the head and apparently threw her on the back of Argo. Your brave horse brought her home to us." Delia caressed Xena's head as she spoke. "Ama said she will be fine; it is a concussion." Delia noticed a bucket of water and some bread had been pushed though the bars in the night. "Xena, let me clean the blood off your face, and there is water and bread. You must be thirsty."
"Water . . . drugged."
"Do you think I could use it to wash?"
"Some , umm, ... drugs work. . . through . . . skin. Don't know." Delia got up to check the water. "Wait!"
"Yes, Xena?" she paused and looked back at the ravaged warrior.
"Keep away . . . ," Delia could almost feel the pain as Xena tried to force the words through her ravaged throat. Delia swallowed. Xena gasped out the last word, "from me."
"Please? Danger . . . ous. I . . . am . . . not," she struggled to get the words out, to keep focused on what she wanted to say to the young Amazon so she would realize what she faced. "I . . . have no con . . . trol."
"If that's what you want, Xena." Delia said as she went to get the water and bread. She came back and said, "The bread smells safe, but I can't tell about the water. I guess I won't wash my face, but what about yours? All that blood must be bothering you."
"Some. . . . you . . . cut?"
"No, I am fine." Then Delia proceeded to wash the face of the Warrior Princess. As she worked, her vest fell open. Xena closed her eyes again and looked away. Delia looked down and flushed red. She pulled her vest closed and finished her task. Then she took a moment to pull a few strands of straw from Xena's nest to thread through her vest eyelets and knot a few places to keep her vest closed. Setting aside her own modesty for a moment, she realized Xena's shift left little to the imagination. The rain had molded it to her body. One shoulder was torn, the skirt rent as well, three cornered tears in many places allowed the pale, smooth skin to show through. It was quite snug around the breasts and stiff in places from dried blood. Looking down at the warrior's thighs, Delia suddenly remembered the sword wound that so upset her the night before.
"Oh, Xena, your leg. How is it this morning?" She asked as she slid down to examine the bandaged leg.
"Throbs," the warrior choked out.
Delia carefully unwrapped the bandage. The wound was small but deep. About three fingers wide and black. But not the black of dried blood. The area around the cut was red and swollen. The leg felt hot to the touch near the wound. "Xena, it does not look right," Delia began, as she described it to the Warrior princess. Delia's training as a healer had never covered this kind of thing.
"Make . . . bleed . . . poisons. . ." Xena paused and swallowed painfully. Delia hated to see her like this. Her heart hurt just waiting for each word to squeak forth. "... must come . . . out," Xena finally managed to say.
"But Xena, despite the way it looks, it is dry, and I have nothing sharp to reopen it." Delia desperately scanned the surrounding area for something for the job. Delia suddenly noticed a loose bit of iron near the cage door. She managed to work it free.
"Look, Xena." She said triumphantly. She had no other way to sterilize it, so she rubbed it aggressively against another bit of metal till it shone sharply and as clean as she could make it. Then she looked at Xena. The warrior, sensing her attention opened her eyes and met those of Delia.
"Do it." The young Amazon healer ascertained the sharpest edge and then suddenly slashed down. Xena grunted but remained calm. Dark blood welled out. "Bleed till red," the warrior said.
"It's red now, Xena."
Soon the warrior's wound was rebandaged.
"Stephanos, how much longer are you going to leave those two alone? Shouldn't we start tormenting them again?"
"Celeus, Celeus, I thought you were good at this. Don't you know that part of the technique of torture is to allow them time to remember how good life can be, to make friends and allow a closeness to develop. Then when we start tormenting them again, they will worry about each other. You need the contrast to make it work effectively."
When Stephanos and his men finally joined the two warrior women, they found Xena once more resting with her head on Delia's lap. Stephanos was not sure how Xena felt about the Amazon, but it was very clear how the Amazon felt. Stephanos decided it did not matter how Xena felt, he knew from past experience she always supported the underdog. They were both ready for the next step.
Gabrielle stood at the lookout tower at the east gate. She scanned the horizon for sight of Eponin or Delia, or, Artemis help her, Xena. The bard had stood there since dawn. Ephiny joined her queen at her vigil. "Ephiny, we can't wait any longer, we need to get going."
"I think you are right, Gabrielle. I had hoped that Eponin would have been back by now with word. That storm last night has made matters worse. The tracks have been washed out. However, we know Stephanos is based out of Corinth, he has to be heading that way. Judging by your description, we need a pretty large force with us. Solari is getting the archers and warriors ready. Frieda has volunteered to go with us as our healer. She will be bringing some drugs to counteract the deadly nightshade and other drugs she knows Stephanos uses on warriors. The only volunteer I turned down was Penelope. We don't need a lovesick weaver with us. But would you mind having a word with her before we go though, please?"
"Of course, Ephiny." The bard turned to go.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny's use of her name turned the young woman back to face her regent, who continued, "Can't I persuade you to stay and rest here. You can trust us to bring Xena back safely." The curly-haired blond Amazon appealed to her queen.
Gabrielle smiled sadly at her friend. "Ephiny. I need to go with you. I need to be there for Xena right away. I understand and appreciate your concern, but I am fine, really."
A bucket of cold water shocked the Warrior Princess back to a moment of sanity and consciousness. She lay in the mud next to her cage. Her left ankle was tethered firmly to the ground by a short length of chain attached to a deep stake. It was mid-day. The wagon train had taken the group seven leagues off the main road to a sheltered glade where it had stopped and Stephanos had Xena get some exercise. Delia remained in the cage this time, watching with a sinking heart as Xena battled five men continuously for two candle marks. Delia had endured her own sparring with Xena earlier, she trembled periodically in memory of it. She saw now that the men were dropping with fatigue, so she imagined the Warrior Princess must also be drained. Well, true, she had been knocked unconscious by lucky blows from two thugs as she fought off three more at her front, but before that she had successfully parried all comers. It was when they had ganged up on her and discovered the limits of her reach when tethered that they were able to finally get through her defense. Two other thugs lay by the side, one seriously wounded, one dead.
Xena slowly climbed to her full height. She wore a new gladiator outfit cunningly designed by Stephanos. It was a black leather bodice which left her midriff bare, her cleavage and neck open, her shoulders were covered but not much more. A silver necklace depicting a huge roc in flight, offered a measure of protection to her upper chest. Her costume continued again at her waist. Short, black leather breeches reached to her knees, and were slit at the sides to show her strong, tanned thighs. Her boots had been returned to her. As much as Stephanos enjoyed looking at her lovely flesh, he wanted her to have a chance. It would not do to have her killed before she made it to Rome. He had provided a sheer veil of chain mail to hang from her bodice to her waist. Chain mail to match made sleeves to her wrists. Her gauntlets were gone, but her slave bracelets allowed a measure of protection and strength to parry blows. He even provided the warrior with a helmet. A hard, black, leather cap with a crest and a nose piece and mask made an intriguing disguise. Delia had been made to plait Xena's hair into a single braid finished with a three-spiked tip which discouraged any soldier from grabbing it. As much as she hated Stephanos, Delia had to admit Xena looked awesome in this get-up.
Well she looked awesome before the battle began. Now she looked truly dangerous in her desperation. When she rose she faced the lead guard, a man called Hector. He stood tall before her, defying her to attack. It was he who had revived her with the water. She wrenched off the helmet, glad to be rid of its confinement. It limited her peripheral and already impaired vision. She felt she had been bested for that reason.
Xena grunted loudly as she hurled it at Hector. It hit his broad chest. He let it fall away from him and did not react. He knew she did not have much energy left and he hated what Stephanos was doing to her. He had always regretted it when Stephanos drove men crazy with drugs, only to let them die in the ring. He was furious with Stephanos for making him a part of the destruction of this beautiful warrior woman. Still, he waited. Xena struggled to focus on Hector. He knew her vision was blurred and sometimes double. The sunlight beat down on them and he knew she must be in great pain with her pupils so dilated. The thin circle of light blue that showed around those enormous black centers awed him. Her strength and skill was impressive. She stood before him with a nasty wound on her leg and bloody and raw neck and wrists. She had sustained a blow to her cheekbone that was darkening as he looked at her. But she favored nothing; she stood strong and ready. He decided she no longer had it in her to attack, but she would never admit defeat. She would stand there till she had to defend herself or he gave up. He wanted to stop now. He looked around to see if Stephanos was watching. He was.
"Continue, Hector. What are you waiting for?" said the master.
Hector turned back to Xena. She somehow sensed he was ready to attack, that slight twitch of muscle as it prepared for movement. Whatever it was, she saw him coming. Forgetting her limitations, she sprang in the air to perform one of her accustomed somersaults over his head, only to come up short as the leg chain snapped her back. She cried out in agony, unable to suppress it. She was jerked back and landed in a heap, like a badly handled puppet. Hector noted the stake had been wrenched half way out of the ground from the thrust of her leap. He ran to her and dropped by her side. She grabbed at her hip. Her thigh bone had been dislocated. "Daniel, come here!" Hector ordered another guard to come over. "Hold her hips absolutely still and straight. I am going to jerk her leg down and back into the socket. Be sure you hold on tightly." Daniel sat behind the Warrior Princess and locked his hands on her pelvic girdle. Xena grimaced up at Hector and nodded. He took a firm grip on her leg and yanked down. It slide neatly back into place. Hector looked up smugly to see the warrior passed out from the pain. His smile vanished. The two men picked Xena up and carried her back to the cage.
"I want the necklace and the chain mail off her and back in my wagon," said the querulous Stephanos, disappointed in his interrupted entertainment. "Hades, she gets out of walking yet again. Well tomorrow she will march all day. Let's move out. Remember we have a pack of angry women following us." He thought for a moment and then yelled, "Don't forget that hair spike, I don't want to leave her or that Amazon armed." Knowing what was expected of her, Delia acted the handmaiden and relieved Xena of her finery. She handed it out to Hector, who collected the warrior's helmet and sword and secured all in the wagon.
As the men prepared to travel, Delia scrambled over to Xena who lay
like the dead. Xena was right, she was no longer herself, nor in control.
Delia wished there were something she could do to counteract all the drugs
they were pumping into Xena's bloodstream. Nothing in her training had
prepared her for this. She decided if they ever got out of this she would
devote many hours to studying plants and their uses.
She looked up as a shadow fell across Xena's face. It was Celeus.
"Get back you bitch," he said. He no longer trusted Delia near him. Knowing it would not make things easier for Xena if she resisted, she moved to the other side of the cage. She watched with a resigned sigh as the little man jabbed Xena with the drug administering tool he used. It was like a sharply pointed little tube which contained the drug he was currently trying on Xena. A little of the tainted stuff flowed into the small cut it made in her arm. He cuffed her on the chin for fun and walked away. Then he turned and came back. "You won't like her when she wakes up. I'd try not to make her angry if I were you."
"Wait," said Delia, "Please, what was that you stuck in her arm?"
The evil little man looked at her for a few moments and then shrugged. "It's wormwood. It will mess her up nicely. She will have nightmares while she rests. Hah! And when she wakes, she will be bad tempered, probably dizzy, and she may even have the shakes, our fierce strong warrior who hates to show her weakness. Ha ha ha. She will be very vulnerable soon. As I said, try to keep away from her. Ha ha hah ha ha ha . . . " he laughed cruelly as he walked away.
Delia shivered and moved over to Xena. Gently she raised the warrior's head and rested it on her lap, smoothing the damp hair away from her brow. Delia knew Xena was unconscious, but she also knew the body responded to kind stroking even when unaware. She hoped her caring touch might help to counteract the wickedness that man had put into Xena's system. 'How much longer can Xena withstand this torture they are putting her through?' thought Delia, 'What are they trying to do? She is already the best fighter I have ever seen, why are they trying to drive her crazy as well?' Soon the wagon train and soldiers were on the road again.
Eponin had fought the current far longer than she had the strength. The Amazon tracker surrendered at last and the current carried her many leagues down stream. She was barely conscious when she was washed up on shore at a bend in the river. She agonizingly climbed as far up the bank as her trembling muscles would allow before collapsing. When Eponin opened her eyes to full sunlight overhead, she exclaimed, "Sphincter of a Sphinx! I have failed my queen." The depressed tracker raised her weary body and stumbled up the bank. At least she was on the Amazon side of the river. She stood for a few moments marshaling her reserves, took a deep breath, and then began a very slow trot in the direction of the village. She knew she needed to follow a diagonal to bring her back to the path. She maintained a steady pace for almost two candle marks before exhaustion took her once more. She crumpled not twenty paces from Gabrielle and Ephiny's rescue team.
"My Queen," yelled out the advance scout, "It's Eponin." Soon the unconscious tracker was surrounded by Amazons. Ephiny reached her first, lifted her up and gave her a sip from a wine skin. The regent examined Eponin for wounds but found none beyond a scrape on her cheek that could have come from a fall or branch. Slowly Eponin came back to full consciousness. She opened her eyes warily.
"Eph . . .," she puffed.
"I'm here Eponin, what happened? Take it easy and tell us," Ephiny coaxed.
With many pauses Eponin told her story. Finally she reached the self-pitying stage. "I am so sorry, my queen, I have failed you."
Shortly after her discovery Gabrielle was by her side. Now she reassured the tired Amazon, "No Eponin, you did well. The storm and the river were against you. I am grateful you are safe. Delia is with Xena, together they will manage. And we will be there to help them soon. Rest now."
A rematch at last. Xena swung her mighty sword and lopped off the head of Callisto. She watched it bounce and roll, revolving like a cleverly kicked ball. Finally it came to rest by her feet, face up. The blond hair had wrapped around the face. Xena bent down and carefully peeled back the golden tresses. Blue eyes stared back at her, wide, as if in shock at Xena's brutality. Not the devilish dark eyes of Callisto, but the gentle light eyes of her bard. Horrified Xena backed up stumbling in her haste to get away from that accusing stare, her mouth open wide with her own screams.
The screaming brought Delia to her feet in one bound. She looked around in confusion and realized the screams were Xena's. Delia stumbled and fell to her knees as the moving carriage hit a rut. She crawled over to the screaming woman, whose eyes were scrunched tightly shut, as if closing eyes all ready closed. The tethered woman tried desperately with trembling hands to hide her face from the nightmare image of Gabrielle's death-locked gaze. The chains held her vibrating palms a hand's breadth away from her face. Suddenly one of the chains snapped under the pressure and Xena slapped herself awake with the freed hand. The broken chain followed the slap and hit the warrior, gouging a furrow in her brow. Blood dripped into her eyes and reinforced the gory horror of her nightmares. Her screaming increased. Delia bravely waded in to this stream of terrors. She said over and over to Xena in a gentle warm tone, "Dreams, only dreams."
The Amazon gingerly reached out to take the warrior's free hand away from her bloody face. Xena pulled back and cried in her rasping distressed voice, "No! . . . No! I have killed Gabrielle!" and buried her face in her hands.
"Ah, our lovely warrior is awake, I hear." Stephanos crowed. "Come, Xena, time for a walk." Stephanos delighted in the screams and came to torment his latest plaything.
"No! Are you crazy? She has to recover from her dislocated hip," pleaded Delia.
Stephanos gave the order and the carriage stopped. The guards opened the cage, unlocked Xena's remaining chains and dragged her roughly out.
"I disagree with this plan, Stephanos," said Hector as he rode up on his horse. "You will cripple her, not make her more controllable."
"Enough! I will do with the bitch as I wish. Do as I ordered." Stephanos growled and nodded to the two guards holding the warrior.
She was taken to the back of the cage and chained to the bars. When they left her she was on her knees in the mud. The wagon started up before she had time to stand. It lurched and dragged the Warrior Princess through the mud. Xena struggled to stand. Each time she almost gained her footing, the wagon jerked her off her feet. Delia clung to the bars inside the cage and watched in horror as Xena furiously fought to gain control of the situation. The screams and tears were gone, on her face now was a quiet desperation and determination. The warrior grabbed her chains and pulled herself toward the bars of the cage. When Delia saw what Xena was trying to do, she reached out and helped Xena to grasp the bars. Then with superhuman strength, Xena climbed the bars with her arms until her legs dangled above the surface of the road. She rested for a moment then lowered her feet to the ground and began to walk. The first step on her left leg evinced a tremendous grimace as the weight went full on that recently dislocated hip. As she walked the slashed opening of her trousers revealed her outer thighs with each upraised step.
Delia gasped when she saw the dark purple discoloration on the left hip. 'How can she be walking?' Delia asked herself in amazement.
Xena was not walking, she was riding into battle, over and over in a repeating loop of horror and pain. As her feet concentrated on plodding a furrow behind the cage, her mind played with her, displacing her in time. The wound in her leg and her dislocated hip were not the result of torture at the command of Stephanos, but injuries sustained during a battle with the centaurs. A lucky arrow had burrowed its head in her thigh. Her belly and back were on fire, the baby was coming. 'Not now, not now. I have to win this battle first.' She slumped over the saddle to shield the babe and try to gain some relief from the contractions. 'Where is Borias when I need him.' More intense pain ripped through her, this time in her heart. 'Right, Borias has gone over to the other side. I am alone in this.' She tripped in reality and in trying to shield her belly with her manacled hands, lost all stability. She fell forward and hit her head on the edge of the cage's floor where it extended beyond the bars. The wagon continued to lurch forwards, dragging Xena brutally through the mud. Both Hector and Delia screamed for the wagon to halt.
Following closely behind Hector had kept an eye on the Warrior Princess. He admired her courage and stamina, but this was more than she should have to endure. He thought that Stephanos must stop this farce before he crippled the warrior completely. When she stumbled, he could not understand why she had not protected her face instead of her belly. It made no sense. Hector leaped off his horse and joined Celeus at the warrior's side, and unlocked the manacles.
"What are you doing, Hector?" Stephanos asked gruffly as he came up beside them.
Hector glanced up and replied, "I am preparing to put her in the cage to recuperate."
"No!" Stephanos bellowed and then smirked as he said, "I am not ready for that yet. She has barely begun to walk. I want her tired and ready to give me whatever I want tonight." Hector glared at him, hate painting his features. Stephanos ignored him as he called, "Daniel, bring a bucket of water." A guard toting a bucket appeared and Stephanos pointed at the unconscious woman, "Wake her, Daniel." Snarling at Hector he ordered, "Stand back."
The bucket of cold water rudely awakened the warrior. She shuddered and flung her wet hair back. She tried to stand but the chains hampered her progress and her injured hip sent waves of pain jolting through her body. She focused and growled at Stephanos. He laughed.
"Delightful. I love it. Okay, everyone, let's get going." Stephanos said as he walked off and climbed back into his comfortable wagon.
As soon as he left Hector helped Xena to stand. He stood by her as the wagon began to move, and helped her along as she stumbled and struggled. The troop progressed for another two candle marks. Hector remained by the warrior the whole time until Stephanos called for him.
Xena welcomed the helping hands, realizing she was at the end of her strength and sanity. She knew she had been confused. Her moments of sanity made the moments of madness worse for the warrior. It was almost like nausea. The fear of the convulsions of the stomach were almost worse than the actual upheaval. The niggling threats and moments of almost losing her sanity made the fears greater and became the entire focus of her being. Then the drugs would engulf her, like recurring ripples in a stream, and she would lose herself in some nightmare. Yet sometimes the illusions were wonderful. When not reliving moments of rage in vile battle, she relished moments of calm with her bard. Those moments became a challenge to hold on to. She resisted the urge to become the dark warrior Stephanos wanted her to be. She kept the light that was Gabrielle before her like a beacon.
Riding in the cage, Delia looked out at the wounded warrior with longing. She wanted to take the place Hector had left, helping her Warrior Princess. As had happened so often during this trial, tears threatened as she watched Xena's face. The handsome woman had her eyes closed. Every once in a while she took a wrong step which evinced a pain-filled grimace. At other times a smile would take her mouth and Delia wondered what was happening in the warrior's mind. Then Xena's lips would move. She seemed to be saying the same thing over and over. Delia finally recognized the silent word, 'Gabrielle.'
Hector called a halt for the midday meal. The wagon stopped, but the determined, unaware warrior continued walking. She slammed into the back of the cage. Staggering, she opened her eyes as she regained possession of her balance and her awareness. She looked around for a bit, then looked at Delia whom she could feel staring into her face. She looked long and hard into the Amazon's eyes. These were not the eyes she wanted to see. She looked away and Delia felt bereft. Realizing they were stopping for a meal, Xena turned her back on Delia and sat down. Her chains were not quite long enough for her to be comfortable. Her arms hung from the end of her chains just about waist height.
Trying hard not to think about those haunting images, Xena looked around. Just missed by the wagon a little clump of greenery kissed the edge of the wooden wheel. Peeking almost shyly from its midst was a single buttercup. Xena smiled at the sunny flower. Her mind carried her back to an earlier, happy time spent with Gabrielle in a sloping field filled with these friendly flowers. In a carefree afternoon, they had rolled down the flowered hill like children, laughing all the way. They had ended up together in a jumble at the bottom, Gabrielle on top of her beloved warrior. She had pushed herself up, looked down into Xena's laughing eyes and became lost in their blueness. Then she had tentatively leaned down and kissed her warrior lightly, bravely, on the lips. This was before they had come to their understanding. Afraid to do more than smile, Xena had done only that, yet cherished that memory ever after.
The Warrior Princess subdued her dark side for the bard. That flower's bright color reminded her of her beautiful, innocent Gabrielle, her light. So when a large dirty-toed sandaled foot entered her field of vision and crushed the flower beneath its filthy tread, her light went out. Stephanos had won, she went over the edge. Her bloodcurdling battle cry filled the camp, striking terror in all within earshot. She leaped to her feet, wrenched both hands loose of their tether and launched herself at the offender. It was Stephanos. As she wrapped her mighty grip around his neck she was attacked by four guards. It took all four of them to crush the raging warrior.
Hector picked her up himself and gently laid her down once more on the floor of the cage. When Celeus moved to lock the warrior in the spread eagle position Hector stopped him. "Leave her unmanacled. Give the poor woman some peace."
"Stephanos does not want her to be left unchained."
"Leave it, I will be responsible. Clean up her face and bandage her wounds." Hector and Delia watched carefully as Celeus worked. He attended to her most recent injuries and then worked on her face.
When the malevolent little man went to add some powder on her forehead where the snapped chain had gouged it earlier Delia exclaimed, "What are you putting on her? It better be something to make it better, not worse." Both Celeus and Hector looked at the Amazon. Delia appealed to her new ally, Hector, "He has been putting irritants on her wounds to make them more painful and slower to heal."
Hector looked at Celeus, "Is this true?"
Celeus shrugged, "I don't answer to you."
Hector grabbed the little man by his shirt and lifted him up to look him in the eye. "Answer me now!"
"Yes. All right, yes!"
"Well no more, do you hear me? No more!" He threw the man down and then dragged him out of the cage. Hector stopped and looked back at Delia, "Please help her. Tell me if there is something you need."
Delia smiled at him and said, "Some untainted, cool water and a blanket would be good." Both were soon provided.
Delia bathed Xena's forehead. Xena moaned and reached up with a trembling hand, covering Delia's. When she made contact with another hand, she became confused and slowly opened her eyes. She saw a kind, young face with concerned gray eyes looking at her. "Are you the midwife?" asked the bewildered warrior woman. Lost totally now, her mind revisited the long ago memory of the battle and birthing nightmare.
"Midwife?" Now Delia was the perplexed one. 'What could Xena mean?' It was not common knowledge in the Amazon camp that Xena had borne a son. "No. Xena, I am your friend, Delia. You were beaten by the soldiers." The young Amazon healer tried to clarify things for the warrior.
Still unsure of where she was in time, Xena's thoughts tried to reconcile the here and now with a time long ago. 'Hmm.' she thought, 'the pain is now gone from my back and belly. Maybe I have had the babe all ready. Maybe this woman does not know about my son. Must not tell her, he is safe with the centaurs now.' Xena made to get up, still reflexively holding her belly.
"Xena, what is wrong with your stomach?" Delia asked with concern. She did not remember seeing an injury occur there.
"Nothing," the warrior said and slapped her abdomen as if to belie the notion of weakness. She surprised herself to feel strong, taut muscles, not the softer belly of a new mother. On her knees in an effort to stand, the warrior looked down and tested her flesh again. Her shaking hands and mud begrimed body spoke to Delia.
The Amazon watched her with wonder. 'What is going on in Xena's head?' Delia wanted to cry at the look on Xena's face. It was a face filled with mystification. Fear was also reflected there. Delia was sure her warrior friend was trying not to cry. Xena looked up into Delia's face, searching for answers. 'Oh goddess Artemis, I want to hold her and make her feel safe. She looks so lost.' Delia thought.
Xena saw that look of compassion and hardened her features. The cold warrior facade took hold; the vulnerable woman vanished. Delia's impulse to reach out and comfort was checked immediately. Gabrielle's complex warrior was back. Only this time the drugs and abuse contributed so much more to reasons behind the mask. Stephanos came up to prod Xena with his whip and his tongue, "I can't forgive you this time, Xena. You've earned a whipping." The confusion on Xena's face became transformed to rage. That coldness became an inferno as the Warrior Princess tried to stand in the cramped cage. The tall, beautiful, warrior woman could only crouch like a caged bear, head bowed by her confinement. Bowed but not yet broken. She grabbed the bars with hands possessing the power of her anger. They pulled and, incredibly, managed to bend the bars in, not by much, but by enough to make them looser in their anchoring.
"Celeus!" roared Stephanos. He need not have said anything. The terrified little man already had his dart thrower in action. The first dart hit Xena in the right hand that twisted the bar loose. She shook the dart off. The second took her in the face. She let go of the bar and ripped the dart from her cheek. She spat blood and immediately threw the dart back at her assailant. It was a direct hit. Celeus screamed and clutched his chest, frantically dislodging the dart. Two darts should have taken Xena down, but the adrenaline rushing in her blood and the overuse of drugs created the kind of mix one finds engendering superhuman strength in the insane. Xena let go of the bars and attacked the cage door. No room to run, yet she somehow managed a kick powerful enough to break the lock with her right boot. The door burst open and Xena followed her boot out. Delia was close behind. On the way out of the cage the Amazon tangled her ankle in one of the chains. Her ankle snapped and she cried out, Xena stopped, swung around and seemed to notice Delia for the first time. She knelt and rendered Delia unconscious with two fingers to the carotid artery. Then she swung back to face her tormentors.
The dark Warrior Princess took over. What followed was a nightmare for three, death for the rest. The rage that had sprung this dark virago from the cage had chilled. She was even more frightening in her coldness. She stepped up to the first soldier and took his weapon from him with so little effort he cringed. She calmly relieved him of his head. As his life's fluids spurted out of his neck, the other thugs backed up and evaded his blood in horror. Xena stepped into the fray, laying about her with her borrowed sword, whacking and hacking her way to the last soldier. Some of her thrusts were clean and the head lopped off evenly; occasionally the angle was wrong or her sword lodged in a vertebra and her rhythm would be put off. The thugs fought back but were no match for the demon woman. Xena was a warrior who fought bravely and with her whole body, this included screaming and grunting with her thrusts, to intimidate and to allow the full engagement of her strength. But this time she fought in silence, with an almost dispassionate display of skill. It was eerie, Xena's essence was not present, pure drug-induced evil reigned.
This evil warrior now confronted one of her earlier tormentors, the guard who had delighted in prodding Xena with his sword and later fondled her crudely as she was treated for his abuse. He was three inches taller than Xena, and outweighed her by more than a hundred pounds, yet he quaked in his boots as she approached him. His breeches sprung a leak and his eyes threatened to do the same as he pleaded with the warrior to spare him. She looked at him coldly, shook her head slightly to indicate the negative, reached up and grabbed his tunic, forcing him down to his knees. When his neck was low enough for her to swing, she removed his head. The thwack of her swing hitting this man's thick neck, followed by the dull thud as his solid head hit the ground sounded in the silent clearing. His warm blood bathed her arm and chest. She calmly stood there and took it till his corpse toppled over. She then looked around at who was left.
Hector had watched this exhibition of execution with interest. He had hated Stephanos' technique of torture. He now saw the results when pitted against a force as powerful as the Warrior Princess. Despite the horror he was exhilarated to witness this slaughter. No thoughts yet for his own safety, he was actually smiling when Xena handed him the head of Stephanos, before she knocked him cold with the butt of her sword. She turned then to survey the camp. All were dead and beheaded save Delia, Hector, and, ah yes, Celeus. The cowering Celeus, awake now and terrified. He faced the monster he had created. The carnage that surrounded him did not reassure him. In truth, his brain was even now creating its own destruction. Xena took only one step in his direction and his mind snapped. He ran screaming from the camp. She let him go.
When the field was once more quiet, the last echoes of clashing swords and the screams of the dying and mad dissipated, the panting warrior picked up Delia. Slinging the insensible woman over her shoulder, Xena made off into the woods.
Still trailing their prey, the Amazons were surprised when Celeus ran into their troupe. They had heard the screams and sounds of his headlong flight, and were poised and ready, but not for this. The gibbering idiot ran right into Ephiny before stopping. The regent righted the man and tried to get sense out of him.
"Murmuring Medea." Eponin mumbled to herself.
His eyes were wild and staring, hugely open. His mouth spewed spittle and meaningless words. At last he became aware of other humans and tried to communicate. He grabbed Ephiny's arms and shouted loudly, even though she was right in front of him. "The Warrior's Untamed!" he said as he turned and pointed after him. "Demon woman! Help, headless horrors! Help me!" He swung to face Gabrielle who watched this mad display, in fear of to whom he might be referring. "Don't let her get me! She's Mad!" Before Ephiny could stop him he ran off. Ephiny looked at Gabrielle and then Eponin and they and the rest hurried in the direction from whence he came.
"Great Suffering Sisyphus!" breathed Eponin, first to arrive on the scene. She was followed shortly by the rest of the Amazon contingent. Suddenly realizing that Gabrielle should be spared this till they could determine what had happened to Xena, Eponin tried to block her queen's view. It was too late. Gabrielle stood in the center of the camp, looking around in distress. What they found stunned them all. Every corpse in the camp had been beheaded but one. A lone man was propped up against a tree, in his hands rested he head of Stephanos, the slave merchant and cause of this debacle.
The stupefied bard focused on this man and walked over to the tree. He was not dead, but unconscious. Gabrielle approached him carefully. Ephiny joined her. The bard reached up and swept the hair out of his eyes. At that moment they opened. His confusion was short as he focused on Gabrielle and recognized her as Xena's little companion. He smiled at her briefly and said, "I am glad you have come to save your friend." Then he looked down to see what was leaking all over his hands. Horrified by what he held, the guard flung his hands free of the hideous head.
It flew through the air and was involuntarily caught by the approaching
"Galloping Gorgons!" she screamed as she realized what she had caught. She dropped the head hastily and backed up. Ephiny held her breath, fearful the head might make the rounds of the camp as each terrified Amazon caught and rejected the head in a macabre game of ball. Finally Ephiny stood up and issued orders.
Gabrielle questioned the guard. "Please tell me where Xena is and what has happened here."
"My name is Hector. I am ashamed to say I was the head guard of this troop. I greatly regret what Stephanos had us do. I resisted all I could. I think Xena realized that or it would have been my own head I was holding."
"Fine, Hector, but where is she? And the Amazon woman she had with her?"
"I am sorry, lady. I do not know. When Xena broke out of the cage, she was in full rage, just as Stephanos had planned. He had been torturing her to make her a gladiator who would fight without reason. She was a superb warrior already; I saw that right away. And such a handsome woman. I could not bear what she was put through. And when she dislocated her own hip with that leap while tethered to the ground, I just wanted to cry. Me, a hardened warrior. The pain on that beautiful face . . . and "
"Please stop, I don't want to hear this now. Tell me where she is. Is all right?"
"Forgive me." Hector said. "I was not thinking of you, only of my own suffering. After she destroyed this camp, where would she go but to you? She probably has the Amazon too." As Gabrielle turned to leave he continued, "But, miss, wait. Please be careful. She is no longer sane."
As Delia regained consciousness, she realized the world was upside down. She could feel the pressure of gravity. Next she registered the pain in her left ankle and the hard hand gripping her right ankle and left hand, holding her securely on an unknown back. Finally she noticed the horrible smell. It was the smell of stale human blood. Whoever was carrying her was covered in it. The glint of a large sword flashed in her eye. Slowly she became aware of where she was and remembered some of what had happened. 'It must be Xena who was carrying me, we escaped," she thought. The Warrior Princess felt her stirring and stopped. Slowly, most gently, Xena lowered Delia to the ground. Delia tried to sit up. Xena helped her lean against a tree. Then lay down next to the Amazon, panting, her eyes closed.
Delia looked her over. Still wearing the gladiator outfit, Xena was a vision of savagery. Her right arm, chest and stomach were red with gore, her face splashed with it. Her hair was wild. Any exposed flesh not covered in blood was bruised. Around her neck was that vicious collar, a mark of inhumanity even worse than slavery itself. Her chest rose and fell as the exhausted warrior heaved mightily. It was then that Delia noticed the tears washing her face. 'Hades, Xena was crying!'
Delia had known Xena for less than half the seasons' cycle. In that short time the young Amazon had been awed by this woman's beauty, her courage, her strength and skill, her honesty and the harsh code of honor to which she made herself adhere. Delia had once comforted Xena as she cried cathartic tears over regaining the trust of her bard. But tears after battle? No, this was not the Warrior Princess Delia knew. 'What had this last battle cost the warrior?' Delia wished she remembered more. She suddenly recalled that it had been Xena herself who had put her out. 'What was it the Warrior Princess did not want me witnessing?' Delia asked herself.
Delia reached over to touch Xena's shoulder, "Xena."
The Warrior Princess jumped in reaction and rolled away from the Amazon. She stood up and turned away from Delia, leaning against a different tree.
Delia tried again, "Xena, please let me help you."
Xena wiped her face and slowly turned back to Delia. The look on that beautiful but ravaged face struck Delia's heart cold. The eyes were dead. Yes, they focused on the young Amazon, but they did not see her. Delia had seen that look only once before, on a mortally wounded Amazon just before she died. It was a look of utter defeat and resignation. Xena looked down and then came over to Delia. She took Delia's broken ankle in her hand and slowly, carefully examined it. Then she picked up her sword, wiped the blade twice against her thigh to remove most of the blood and then skillfully cut a few strips of leather from the Amazon's vest. She then put down the sword. She held the strips in her hand and looked at them as if she had never seen them before. She sat that way for a while, until Delia touched her arm. The warrior, startled back to the moment, looked at Delia. She shook her head as if to clear it, then bound the ankle firmly, but not so tightly as to restrict circulation. Though her movements were sure, Delia noticed her hands shook now. The Amazon wondered how much longer the drugs would linger in Xena's body before the Warrior Princess was herself again. She had to remove that collar.
"Xena. Let me get this thing off you," Delia said as she pointed to the hard leather contraption. It was held closed with a padlock. Of course, they had no key. But they did have a sword. Xena reached up and dug her fingers behind the collar. Immediately fresh blood spurted as her fingers encountered the needles. She wrenched at the thing, succeeding in gouging fresh scratches in her neck. Delia's contorted face stopped the warrior. Her befuddled mind could not understand why Delia was crying and carrying on when it was Xena's neck that was being savaged. The warrior let go of the collar and reached over to lightly brush the tears off Delia's cheeks. Her blood streaked the Amazon's face. At the sight, Xena whimpered and pulled back. She buried her face in her hands and began rocking from the waist. Delia crawled over to Xena and took her into her arms to make her stop rocking. Xena let her. "Xena, lie down and let me pry this open with the sword. Lie still. Don't move. Trust me."
Delia was scared, but this had to be done. She picked up the sword and tried to figure the best way to do this without cutting Xena's throat. She looked at the various angles, seeking one that would thrust away from the warrior's face. Finally she chose an angle of attack. "Alright, Xena, here we go, please do not move." Hmm, she would have to adjust the collar first. "I need to move the collar a little bit to the left, so I can cut safely." She looked at the Warrior Princess in inquiry.
"Do it, Delia. Nothing more can hurt me," came the hoarse answer. The Warrior Princess looked her in the eye as she spoke. Delia swallowed and tried to move the collar. It was stuck, the spines embedded in the warrior's neck. Xena reached up and shifted it to the left. Fresh blood streamed down. Delia winced but set to the task. She inserted the sword's tip between the collar and the lock. The resistance was impressive, but Delia persisted. It gave a little and she moved the sword lower. Finally the catch broke and the sword thrust up. The angle was just right. Any more to the left and the warrior would have lost her ear as the sword flew up. Delia reached to take the collar off. Her hands were blocked by the Warrior Princess. "No, Delia, if you get cut, we are both lost." Xena held the collar by its edges and eased it open. It stuck a little as her flesh slowly let go of its tormentor. The tortured woman had closed her eyes as she released herself, but those eyes flew open at Delia's gasp.
Xena's neck looked like her head had been severed and badly reattached. The skin was scored and scratched in mad patterns like wild red sea grass. The blood dripped down her neck evoking images of weaving scarlet serpents. Delia's gaze had been fixed on that bloody neck, but now she felt the warrior's eyes draw hers up to meet them. The women stared at each other, sharing a long moment of sadness as they reflected on their enforced captivity. Xena threw the collar to the ground.
This done with, the Warrior Princess needed to move on. She had Delia stand on her good foot while she turned her back to the Amazon, crouched down and pulled her onto her back, grabbing her under her thighs so Delia rode on Xena's hips. Xena leaned forward to keep the young warrior on her back, picked up the sword again, and handed it to Delia to hold. Together the women traveled many leagues before dark.
At last Xena found a place to her liking to camp for the night. It was near a stream. Xena put down her burden and walked fully clothed into the water. Delia watched as the troubled warrior scrubbed herself of the day's death and destruction. After a while the hated gladiator outfit flew out of the stream and landed on the bank near Delia. It was dark before Xena came out of the water. The moon was not yet full, but the light was enough for Delia to see the pale warrior rise gleaming out of the stream. Her body was so marked with bruises and wounds that in the half light she almost looked clothed, her skin dappled like a wild beast's coat. She could blend into the forest and disappear. She looked like she wanted to. Ignoring her nakedness, Xena gathered wood and kindled a fire. Having no gear but the sword, Xena carved some bark from a tree to fashion a vessel for water. She offered it to Delia for drinking and washing. Then she spread out her clothes to dry, for lack of anything else to wear in the morning. She disappeared back into the stream. Delia could think of no reason for the warrior to go back into the cold water and wondered what she was she up to. It seemed to the Amazon that maybe Xena did not know why either until her still form moved suddenly. She stood up and emerged again with a small trout. Xena quickly cooked the fish over the fire and handed it to Delia to eat.
"Xena, you must eat too," Delia said. The Warrior Princess ignored her. She stretched out by the fire, stoked it up for the night, and turned her back to sleep. Delia ate, watching Xena's back as she did. The Amazon could see that Xena was cold. She was shivering, the magnificent muscles on her back rippled like a disturbed forest stream. Delia thought she also detected a chattering of teeth. When she finished her fish, Delia decided this had gone far enough. She had to get through to Xena. She crawled over to the warrior on her hands and knees. She knew the warrior would resist, but she had to get her warm.
"Xena, I know you don't want me to touch you, but I am cold and you are colder. We must share our body heat. Why don't you turn over and face the fire. I will lie down against your back. Come on, Xena, we have to help each other, please."
In answer Xena rolled over, Delia lay down and pressed her back against the Warrior Princess. It was like leaning against a wall of ice. So hard and cold, yet Xena shook quite violently. Delia wanted to turn over and put her arms around the warrior but she did not dare. Finally, after what seemed like many candle marks, the warrior stopped shaking. Together the two weary warrior women rested.
The cold she felt was like her first few moments of death. Xena remembered the creeping chill as it slowly dominated her body. No, that was not true; she had felt nothing. Why was she so cold now? What made her think of death? Ah, Hades was looking down at her, that was it. She was dead and her time for judgment was here at last. She knew without his speaking that she had earned her place in Tartarus. No more second chances. She was relieved; her punishment was at hand. She could give up the struggle. Xena turned her uncaring gaze around the chamber. The room was deathly silent. She could see the flames and thought she should be able to hear the roar as they crackled and rose around the throne. Hades said nothing; he looked like a statue. His eyes never wavered from Xena's face. Beyond him the warrior saw a small figure approaching out of the dark. 'Gabrielle, but why is she here?' Xena wondered in her dream, 'Gabrielle is alive; she could not be here.' Xena knew Gabrielle was alive because her bard's face was bright and smiling, shining golden in the reflected flames. Xena wondered if she herself was really dead. But then why was she so cold? 'So confusing.' Xena shook her head again to clear it. As her head swiveled rapidly from side to side, so did Gabrielle's image. The bard was caught up in the vortex of Xena's ocean-blue eyes. The vortex coalesced into a giant whirlpool and the bard slipped under the water. In shock Xena jumped up and dove into the maelstrom, screaming as she sought her lost love.
The screaming woke Delia first. Then she was grabbed roughly by the shoulders and pulled tightly to the warrior's chest. Xena was on her knees, Delia forced to hers as well as Xena held her so tightly against her nude form. Delia's vest gaped open and she felt the cold but precious warrior press against her own flesh. Xena muttered and cried into her neck, her fingers buried in the Amazon's hair. Delia began stroking Xena's back to comfort her. But as she spoke Xena's name, the warrior suddenly ceased all movement and listened intently. The sounds of the night rushed into the silence. An owl hooted and a lingering cricket rubbed its legs. But the warriors were as still as monuments in a graveyard. The warmth and compassion Delia had felt changed to terror. She was suddenly very afraid of the woman in her arms. She remembered too late that Xena was not hers, but Gabrielle's and that Xena was not really sane either. The moments ticked slowly by. Xena began to shake. Delia shivered too; neither were cold.
The petrified Delia sought to save them both, she spoke, "Xena, you were dreaming. I am Delia; I am your friend." She tried to move one of her hands to pat Xena's back to reassure her she was in the arms of a friend, but Delia was too frightened to move. Her hands could only tremble in response. Xena moved at last.
The Warrior Princess took her arms from around the young woman, pulled out of the embrace, and put one hand on each of Delia's shoulders. Her head had been turned away. She slowly straightened her neck and looked directly into Delia's eyes. 'Oh, goddess, please let her see something she is looking for,' thought the desperate Amazon. Those amazing blue eyes looked deeply, questioningly into Delia's. Delia shivered from the intensity of that look. She felt as if her very soul was being probed. Then Xena pulled out of the depths and looked at Delia's face, like she was seeing her for the first time. As if released from a Gorgon's stare, Delia calmed down enough to return the warrior's stare. The muscles rippled on Xena's face, emotions vying for possession. She tightened her lips and jaw, as if denying the silent tears that fell. The stoic warrior took control. She reached down and closed Delia's vest. Then she gently helped the young woman lie down again. Delia once more assumed the position they had first negotiated, with her back to the fire. She was surprised as Xena let her arm become trapped under the Amazon and found the Warrior Princess now lying spoon fashion against her back, her free arm draped over Delia's waist. Surprised, but pleased, Delia composed herself to sleep.
Xena knew now where she was and whom she was with. She silently apologized to Delia and held her closely, taking comfort from another soul in the night. Not her bard, but another human being to help her stay with the living. She inhaled the Amazon's scent and transformed it in her mind to that remembered fragrance of her bard. Flowers and summer sunshine.
"Gabrielle, we have found their trail. Tiptoes of Terpsichore, I think they are headed home." Eponin joyfully told her queen. Despite her worry, Gabrielle had to smile at Eponin's colorful language. It sometimes helped, sometimes drove her crazy.
Gabrielle had been searching for Xena's clothes and gear; she had to find the chakram. Hector told her the warrior had been relieved of her weapons and clothing the first day. Her gear was hidden in Stephanos' wagon. In the absence of her warrior, that chakram was Gabrielle's lifeline to her love. The Amazons had efficiently cleaned the camp, piled the bodies in the hated cage, and placed anything salvageable into the wagon which they decided to take with them. When at last all was done, the cage and its morbid contents were torched. The troupe headed out. Part of the team would take the wagon back by the road. Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin and two other scouts, and Frieda cut through the forest, trailing the two lost women.
When Delia awoke, she was alone. The air was cool, the frosted ground cover glistened with the morning's light. The campfire crackled merrily, belying the depression and fear that settled over the young woman as she looked around for the Warrior Princess. The clothes were gone. She neither saw nor heard anything. Delia was an experienced tracker; so despite her weariness, she should have seen a sign of Xena. She sat up and examined her ankle. She unwrapped the luckless limb and saw it was doing well. The swelling had diminished. She knew she needed to keep off it for another day at least, and truly a moon and a half was the usual recommendation for a break like this, but she needed to get home. She worried about Penelope and what she might be thinking. Delia rebound her ankle and crawled closer to the fire. Fresh water was there in last night's cleverly crafted vessel of tree bark. Delia took this token of Xena's thoughtfulness as a sign of returning sanity. She drank and then splashed her face. She sat a while longer, waiting, hoping. Finally she decided she needed to get going. Her feet were bare, her boots gone the first night. She needed a crutch if she hoped to get anywhere. The sun was still low enough in the sky to tell her where east was. Delia threw dirt on the fire and began crawling home. As she left the clearing for the woods, she pulled herself up to look for a dead branch or something on which to lean. Abruptly she was joined by Xena who dropped out of a tree. She passed Delia a handful of nuts.
"Ah, Xena!" said the startled young woman as she swung around to look at the warrior. This morning, if possible, Xena looked worse than Delia had ever seen her. Her skin was perhaps paler than when Delia had first met Xena, many moons ago. At that time the warrior had been very weak from loss of blood, her skin like alabaster, those fine features reminiscent of beautiful temple statuary. Now her face was ravaged by grief, self-loathing, and marked by the hands of men dead one day. Her right cheek and eye twitched. She raised her left eyebrow briefly at the Amazon's scrutiny.
"Eat, Delia," was all Xena said. She bent down in front of the young woman and took her onto her back once more. The two began the day's trek. Tirelessly Xena carried Delia. After three candle marks Delia asked her if she did not want to rest. Xena ignored her and kept going.
When five candle marks had elapsed, Delia insisted. "Xena, I have to get down. Please stop." The Warrior Princess did. She sank to her knees and Delia crawled off. Xena slumped further down and lay on her side, exactly where she had dropped. Her exhaustion was evident, but her will determined. Delia crawled behind a clump of bushes to relieve herself. She came back and lay down next to the warrior. Her ankle was swollen again. She propped her leg up to allow the pressure to diminish. As her own movements stopped, Delia became aware of Xena's panting. 'Goddess, she has been carrying me for five candle marks and never said a thing; she might have gone on till she dropped. I need to watch out for her. She is no longer thinking of herself.' Delia leaned over and put her hand on Xena's shoulder to speak to her. Xena sat up at the touch, her eyes wild, and reacted violently. She punched Delia in the face. Delia fell over, cursing silently to herself as the pain blossomed out from the impact. Xena rose, pulled Delia up with her and flung the Amazon over her shoulder. 'Hera help me, save me from this mad woman,' thought Delia when the pain worsened as the blood rushed to her head.
Xena carried the hapless Amazon further along their journey. To the warrior Delia was just a burden to be laid down at the end of the day, at the closest reaches of the Amazon territory. Then Xena's work would be done. She thought briefly of the lake near the cliffs bordering their land. Her mind was still fogged, but each time the confusion lifted, the warrior knew she had reached the end of her struggle for redemption. She had lost, irrevocably. That hateful merchant had traded Xena's sanity for her soul. Sometimes the warrior thought her Gabrielle was dead, crushed under the boots of her tormentor. Other times she was a beacon guiding Xena home. Yet each glorious thought of this kind was followed by an anguished realization she could never go back to Gabrielle. Her bard would never forgive her for the blood bath she had perpetrated this time. The dark warrior extinguished that beacon. The sound calling her was not the voice of a loving friend, but the rasping murmurs of headless corpses condemning her. If she could not go back to her bard, she did not care where she went. She sought simply cessation of existence.
Delia fought to gain Xena's attention. She wanted to change her position to one she could tolerate. This was becoming too painful. Xena ignored her as she moved swiftly through the forest. Occasionally they brushed a tree or Xena stumbled in her weariness. Delia fought for consciousness as the blood pooled in her brain. One candle mark more and it no longer mattered. Xena walked full into a tree, and soon both women lay in oblivion under the sky, the dust settled softly around them.
"Polyhymnia's Poetry, Gabrielle, I think this was the collar you told us about," Eponin called to her queen. Gabrielle was soon by her side, she picked up the hated collar and examined it. "Hestia's Herpes, Gabrielle, that looks vicious." Attracted by their conversation Frieda soon joined them. When she saw the little bard examining the collar she rushed up to them. Gabrielle had just opened the catch to show Eponin the needles inside the collar. Xena's blood covered the evil invention.
"Don't!" In her enthusiasm to protect the Amazon queen, she knocked the device out of her hand. The collar slipped from Gabrielle's hand and grazed her thigh. A score of scratches marked her upper leg. Gabrielle cried out and clutched her leg.
"Oh, Hades," Frieda moaned. "Eponin, get some water or wine , NOW!" The tracker ran to do her bidding. "Oh goddess, Gabrielle, I am so sorry. I was trying to protect you and now I have caused the very thing I hoped to avoid. Maybe there is not much left on the spines. How do you feel?" She knelt next to the young woman.
The bard lay on the ground, held her leg and grimaced. "Oh Frieda," Gabrielle moaned, "Xena had this around her neck, and she had bands on her wrists and ankles. It is burning so much. How could she stand it?" As the fast-acting drug entered her bloodstream, Gabrielle started to feel sick. Her head felt heavy, and she became weak. Her hands shook.
"Epo..." The tracker ran up just as Frieda yelled her name. The healer grabbed the wine skin and spurted it over Gabrielle's leg, the blood and wine ran together. "Eponin, squeeze her leg to make it bleed; we need to get out as much of the poison as we can." Ephiny joined the trio to see Eponin's hands awash with red. She looked aghast at Gabrielle, trying to discover the cause of the gore. "Ephiny, we need a fire and hot water, I want to make some valerian tea for Gabrielle. She has been tainted by that monster's drugs. " Ephiny's mouth had been hanging open. She shut it, moistened her lips, and issued orders to make it so. Trackers were sent ahead as the rest set up camp for the night. Gabrielle was made comfortable and was soon drinking the tea.
After careful consideration, Frieda decided it was safe to put a small amount of a sleeping potion into the tea, yet not too much to cause an interaction with the wormwood or nightshade that might have been on the collar. Judging from the bard's reactions, Frieda thought both drugs were on the spines. Her hope was the bard might sleep through the worst of the symptoms. Frieda's hopes were in vain. Before the night was long, Gabrielle cried out in her nightmares.
Prior to leaving the Amazons, Hector had filled in Gabrielle and the others on the various tortures Xena had endured. His words now became a hideous dreaming reality for the bard. Gabrielle found herself in a tree looking down on the cage, inside was a screaming feral beast. At first Gabrielle thought it was a lion, such as she had once seen caged in Athens. Its long black mane whipped around its head as it snarled and fought to free itself from the chains which held it. It was a magnificent animal, its muscles rippled and strained for release, but its wild actions only caused it grief, blood ran from its manacled limbs. Gabrielle's heart bled for the poor creature, humbled in its captivity. In her sorrow she cried out to it. The beast looked up into the trees searching for its empathic companion in pain. As it looked up, Gabrielle saw its face. The compelling blue eyes which met her own were Xena's. They screamed together in anguished harmony.
Gabrielle had been sleeping with her head pillowed on Ephiny's lap as the Amazon regent and Frieda discussed the bard and the warrior. They had been sharing their feelings of pride, awe, and compassion for the ill-fated pair. When Gabrielle began thrashing about, Ephiny asked the healer if she should wake the bard. When Gabrielle started screaming, it became a moot point. The bard's eyes snapped open and fastened on Ephiny's. She continued screaming. Ephiny stroked Gabrielle's face and strove to calm her. "Gabrielle, you are safe. I'm here. We are all here for you. Shh. You are safe."
Gabrielle's screams became desperate pleading, "No, Ephiny, Xena. Xena is an animal! We need to get her out of the cage!"
"Hush, Gabrielle. It was a dream, a nightmare," her friend reassured her. Ephiny ran her fingers through the bard's soft hair, calming and caressing the distressed young woman.
"Ephiny, it is real." Gabrielle insisted, "I know it. Xena needs us now, before it is too late for her."
Delia once more woke with her head pounding. She lay on her back, a heavy weight against her chest. She pushed it off and saw that it was Xena. The warrior was unconscious. Delia looked around and realized what had happened, the weary warrior had walked into a tree. The young Amazon was not surprised. Xena had not eaten for a day and a half, and she had been carrying Delia for almost the same amount of time. Delia crawled out from under the Warrior Princess and surveyed their position. Being carried upside down prior to their crash, Delia had not paid much attention to where they were going. Now she recognized various landmarks. They were very near Amazon territory. It amazed Delia how good Xena was. No matter what shape she was in, she always knew where she was going. Turning back to her companion, the Amazon healer felt her forehead. No fever, in fact her brow was almost too cool. It was damp as well. Tartarus, she was ill. Knowing there was nothing Delia could do for her except get help, the Amazon started crawling.
Xena regained consciousness less than half a candle mark after the Amazon left. Not seeing Delia, the delirious and confused warrior assumed she must have gotten her home by now, and she was free to deal with her own situation. She rose groggily to her feet, swayed and held herself up by leaning against the killer tree. In a few moments she became as steady on her feet as she would likely be and set out toward a distant shining. It was the lake.
Despite her shaky state, Gabrielle convinced the Amazons to get on the road at first light. Checca, sent ahead with a team of trackers the night before, returned to tell them the trail was fresh and they had traced the two women to the edge of Amazon territory. Gabrielle sat atop Argo. Ephiny rode behind her and held the bard securely in the saddle. They made good time. Before the sun was full overhead, they had found the tree that had rudely halted the warriors. There the trail split.
"Atropos' Antics, Gabrielle. They have separated, "Eponin reported to her queen. Eponin's invoking of the name of the third fate who makes the cut of lifelines did not reassure the bard.
"Eponin, which trail is Xena's?" Gabrielle asked.
The tracker thought briefly, but knew she was right. "This trail headed for the village is Delia's. She was crawling at first, then found herself a crutch and hobbled after that. We knew she had a leg injury. Xena carried her most of the way. Looks like Xena crashed into this tree. You can see a little blood on the bark around head height." Eponin pointed to the ground, "Then here you can see the shape of their bodies where they hit the dirt. My guess would be that Delia woke up first and crawled off for help."
"But why would she leave Xena?" Gabrielle asked, looking first at Eponin and then Ephiny.
"Gabrielle, she probably knew she could not do anything for Xena," Ephiny kindly put her hand on the bard's shoulder before continuing, "or she wanted to get away from Xena. We know Xena is not quite herself." She regretted her words the minute they hit her queen. Gabrielle's face crumpled. She did not cry, but the deep sadness was reflected there. "Ah, Gab, I am sorry. But Xena will be herself again as soon as all these drugs get out of her blood."
"Ephiny, I am very worried about Xena." Gabrielle said. "This is worse than the butchery of the Horde. I know she is not a wild warrior, but she does not know that. She had such a hard time getting over our encounter with the Horde, and this is so much worse. I have never seen savagery such as this from Xena."
"But Gabrielle, surely you know it was the drugs and torture which made her go berserk. Can't you forgive her this?" Ephiny asked, unable to hide her concern.
"Oh, Ephiny, it is not me who needs to forgive, it is Xena herself. She will never believe in herself after this. She is so sure she is beyond redemption now. I am so worried about what she may be thinking."
Xena barely thought at all. Her brain had ceased rational thought. One step at a time, her goal was the lake. She no longer thought in the present. The past held her captive. She cried internally, moaned and wailed, beat her breast and tore at her hair in grief and horror at her lost soul's vile actions. Externally, her face was frozen, as the alabaster statue marched down to the water's edge, dropped the sword, and walked into the lake. A small island in the middle of the lake beckoned her. Three young trees rose awkwardly from the scrubby undergrowth. To the warrior's confused vision, these three called. She walked out to meet them. The cold water rose to her knees, then she waded in up to her waist. The chills from earlier now ravaged her body, making it hard for her to walk. The resistance of the water, its depth and the soft silt tugging at her, slowed her down. "Come, Xena, it is time," they called to her. Who they were, she did not know. Why they called, this she knew. Soon it was too deep for her to walk. She floated and then began to swim.
"There! She's swimming out to the island." Eponin said as she and Checca ran for the water. They dropped their weapons, shucked their shoes and outer clothing and dived into the frigid water. They swam heartily after the warrior.
"Xena! Xena, come back. It's me, Gabrielle!" The bard called frantically.
'Gabrielle? No, it can't be my bard. I killed her myself. Her head I left on the trail and ran away in my cowardice.' Xena refused to believe her ears. She kept swimming. She heard the splashes and felt the ripples of the pursuing Amazons but no longer cared. Her strength was ready to abandon her as she drifted for a little bit, then sank beneath the murky surface.
"Clio's Crotch! She's gone under, Checca." Eponin sputtered. The women frantically searched the shadowy water for the Warrior Princess. This was no game; the warrior was going to die if they did not find her within the next few moments. As Eponin shot to the surface for air, she brushed against something. She immediately submerged again, and blindly groped for the warrior. There she was, Xena's long hair wrapped around Eponin's hand. She pulled and brought the warrior up. Swiftly the women towed the warrior to shore. Ephiny and Gabrielle ran into the water to help them bring her out.
"Streams of Styx, she is not breathing!" Eponin cried. She flipped the warrior over and pounded her back. "Checca, help me lift her up. Ephiny, pound her back while we hold her upside down." Eponin wished she had her cohorts Solari and Petra with her to help. Xena was not a small woman. However, between the four of them they managed to hold her up while the bard pounded her back. A cascade of lake water finally erupted from Xena's lungs and she coughed in her unconsciousness. They put her down gently as Frieda came running up with a blanket and her bag of herbal remedies. Though they were near the village, Xena was too cold to make the trek. The trackers built up a large fire swiftly, eager to dry themselves as well as the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle worked with Ephiny and Frieda to strip her warrior of her
strange outfit. It was quite revealing, showing off Xena's well-toned muscles.
Yet as the black leather was removed, more bruises and wounds were uncovered.
Gabrielle cried out when she saw the huge, dark discoloration around Xena's
hip. From the moment her body was pulled from the lake, Gabrielle's eyes
kept returning to Xena's throat. The hideous wound encircling her neck
was like a badge of dishonor, a cankerous circle from the collar of captivity.
Despite Xena's labored breathing and shivering, her body looked like a
corpse of war. As soon as the water was warm, Frieda and Gabrielle began
bathing the warrior's skin. Then they wrapped her in a heated blanket and
rubbed her body and limbs vigorously. Eponin and Checca, chilled from their
swim, donned their dry outerwear and danced around the fire to warm up
while Xena was treated. As soon as the Warrior Princess was deemed warm
enough for travel, the troupe hurried to the village.
Delia was found by scouts within half a candle mark of leaving Xena in the forest. Word traveled ahead and Penelope and two bearers met the lame Amazon very quickly. After Delia's ankle and other wounds were attended to she and Penelope we are last alone to talk. The sight of Xena being carried in and after talking to Eponin, Delia and Penelope's topic of conversation had to be Xena. They had much to say to each other before Delia's ordeal with Xena came up. Penelope had shared her own experiences of slavery and harrowing time spent with Xena. Delia began to share a little with Penelope. Some parts of Xena's torture and humiliation she would never share with anyone. She owed that to the Warrior Princess. For the most part she had nothing but awe and hero worship to share anyway. "Penelope, she never ceases to amaze me. In the depths of her madness, caused by these horrible herbs Celeus was giving her, she always knew it was me with her, trying to help her. She would not let them use me against her. She refused to fight me. So one time they tried to fool her. It was frightening. I have sparred with Xena many times here at home, but I have never been her opponent, she is terrifying to behold. This one time they had her fighting the men for a few hours, then Celeus darted her again as she began to beat all of them. When she was unconscious they dressed me as one of themselves, including a helmet which hid my face. They gave me a sword and told me to fight Xena or else they would dart her, strip her and whip her. The way Stephanos had been doing things I thought they would do just that if I didn't, so I agreed. They had me stand in front of her, and had two others on either side of me. Then Hector doused her with a bucket of water."
"Oh goddess, Delia, I would have been terrified. "Penelope put in, her hand resting on Delia's arm.
"Penelope, that is exactly how I felt." Delia agreed, "I stood trembling before her as she shook her head to clear it and to remove the water from her eyes. She looked up at us assessing her opponents. I desperately wanted to give her a sign or something, but I could not think. She was in no hurry. Her hair was wild about her face, and her eyes were very black. I could see she was under the influence of some drug. As she climbed from her knees to her full height, she seemed to inhale deeply as if smelling her prey. I wondered later if that was how she knew. Then I looked into her eyes. They seemed to bore right into my helmet. I am only a little shorter than Xena, in fact, taller than most of the men there. This might be another way she could have known. I raised my sword and the two others did as well. She flicked her sword around her head, and began screaming. The three of us flinched from her voice. Then snicker snack, she swung across her chest and hit the man on my left in the face, knocking him down with one backhand blow. Before he even began to fall, the second man on my right was done the same way with her forward thrust. Then it was just Xena and I, face to face. I tried not to back up. I had let my sword arm fall as I saw her deal with the two soldiers, but now I raised it again. I still did not know she knew it was me. My only thought was to save her from a humiliating beating. I made a weak thrust at her chest, knowing she could sweep it aside with ease. Instead she grabbed my sword arm and pulled me to stand behind her and face the rest of the soldiers. 'Stand with me, Delia,' she said. Then for a brief time I actually thought we had a chance as the two of us fought the men. But we kept forgetting Xena was tethered to the ground, a deep stake driven in and chained to her leg. And of course, whenever Xena got the upper hand they simply used the sleep drugs to knock her out. It was so unfair." Delia hung her head for a moment remembering the day and her sadness and fear. Penelope put her arm around the young warrior.
"Delia, you were so brave, I don't know how you managed to survive, but I am so glad you did. So Xena never even hit you once?"
"Oh , Penelope, she did hit me once, right at the end when she destroyed them all. They had been trying to drive her mad, and they finally succeeded. I am still not sure what happened. She suddenly went berserk and ripped open the cage and leaped out to kill every last one of them. But before she did she jabbed me with her two fingers to my neck and put me out. I think that even in her madness she still did not want to me to see her that way. You heard what Eponin said the camp looked like when they found it. I had not seen any of that happen. She did not want me to remember that horror. For that I will always be grateful. Not that I could not have stood seeing it, but because I will always see her as the most honorable and brave warrior, not a monster of gore."
"Delia, I wish you had never been sent on that mission." Penelope looked at her love with tears in her eyes.
"Penelope, I am glad I was there, I think I helped Xena. I think my being there gave her a little edge, it gave her an extra incentive to stay sane longer. I hope so anyway, maybe some day I can ask her."
It was the second day and Xena had not yet regained consciousness. With Ama's permission, Frieda had become Xena's personal healer. The bard and the healer sat on either side of Xena's bed. Exhaustion, inadequate nutrition, and the toll of the drugs on Xena's body were complicated by the swim in the wintry lake and the water that had entered Xena's lungs. The warrior struggled to breathe as the fever raged and was followed alternately by chills. Her body battled these ills as her mind fought to regain its senses. Her will waned. In her delirium, Xena cried out her pain, her lost hopes, and her lost love. Frieda began to feel uncomfortable, thinking she was hearing things not hers to hear. She looked at Gabrielle, whose tears washed her face. The bard felt her eyes upon her and met Frieda's gaze.
"Gabrielle, I will be near by if you need me. There is not much we can do right now. I will be back in a few candle marks." She was acknowledged and left the room.
As chills ravaged the Warrior Princess once more, her words and shivering called the bard into bed with her. Gabrielle settled in behind her warrior, held and soothed the shaking woman. With her eyes closed, Xena spoke, "So cold. My heart and my body. So cold. Too late for me now. No, never take me back. " Tears slid from under her closed lids.
Gabrielle's heart clenched and her own tears flowed. She tightened her hug around the warrior and tried to reach Xena in her fevered dreams. "Xena, I love you. You may always come back. It was not you. Please come back to me now."
Her words seemed to calm the moaning woman temporarily. Then Xena started again, angry now. "NO! I will not become a monster! I promised." Her anger fled and her remorse returned. "I promised my bard. . . . Gabrielle, I promised. How could I have done this?" Her words became soft, spoken only to herself, her voice choked and husky. "Blood, how can there be this blood?" Her shaking hands began a frantic rubbing against each other. Then she stopped, held her hands open, palms up and seemed to examine them, yet her eyes were shut. Then she brought her hands to her face and buried her head in them. In her delirium she felt her hair writhing in her grasp, her tortured self-vision beheld a medusa head. The snakes whipped and snarled around her like a viscous school of serpents, each viper a vile deed remembered. There were too many snakes. The warrior screamed and tore at her hair, trying to rip out each odious beast and cast away her serpents of sin. Alarmed, Gabrielle called out for help.
The guard outside the door looked in, sent the other guard for Frieda and came in to help the bard control the now fighting Warrior Princess. What began as an eradication of personal atrocities now became a battle to allow her own self-destruction. Xena fought the two women holding her arms. Frieda and the other guard as well as Ephiny entered the room. Fighting like the madwoman she was, Xena, eyes now open but not in clarity, hurled the first guard across the room. Ephiny and the second guard landed on the warrior and tried to hold her down. Gabrielle still held the left arm firm. Xena ignored her left side and joined battle with the two Amazons on her right. Her seemingly superhuman strength, enhanced by her visions, allowed the warrior to dash both Amazons away. She turned now to Gabrielle. Aware at last of the clinging on her left arm, she grabbed it with her right and started to twist the hand loose. Then for the first time she really looked at who she was holding in her painful grip. She saw the tortured look on Gabrielle's face and her own became a twin facade. Just as Xena's features crumpled in remorse once more, Frieda, lacking any fast-acting drug used the time-honored soporific. She smashed her fist into the warrior's jaw. Xena collapsed.
"Quickly, before she wakes up. Let's get her back on the bed and tied down," Frieda commanded. The Amazon's lifted the unconscious woman and placed her on the bed. Gabrielle stepped in as ropes were brought to tie her warrior down.
"Wait, Frieda, is this really necessary?" the bard asked the healer.
"Yes, Gabrielle, she will either do herself an injury or harm someone else. She is not in control of her senses and so very strong. We need to confine her. I am sorry."
"Alright," Gabrielle acquiesced, "but please, look at her arms and legs. She is already so badly hurt from previous restraints. Can't you be kinder. What kind of message are we sending her by doing the same as Stephanos?" Gabrielle said as she lifted up Xena's right arm to show Frieda what she meant. The bruised and lacerated flesh evidenced the cruelty. Allowing her caring heart to step in, Frieda paused in her efficiency. This wounded woman had once freed her from slavery, had fought and risked her life for so many. How could Frieda treat her so? She called for bandages. Directing her helpers, they firmly but gently secured the warrior to the bed, with soft bandages around her upper arms, just above the elbows, around her upper calves and finally around her waist. It would have to do. Finally cool water was brought and Gabrielle sat down next to the bed and bathed the fevered sweat from Xena's forehead.
Her tender care woke Xena gently. The fever seemed to have broken for the moment. The bard and the warrior looked into each other's eyes. The bard looked for clarity, but alas saw confusion. The warrior looked for truth, but saw an illusion, her dead bard was gazing lovingly into her eyes. She wanted to believe it was her Gabrielle, but she did not see how it could be possible. If the bard were not dead, then Gabrielle would surely not be here. 'Is it Ares tormenting me again?' she wondered. She ventured the identity question, "Ares?" Of all the things Xena could have said, that was not one Gabrielle would have thought of.
"Xena, it's me, Gabrielle," the bard smiled at her dearest friend.
"Gabrielle? How could it be you? I killed you," the confused warrior asked.
"No, Xena, you never touched me. You have been very ill."
"Ill? No, Gabrielle, surely I killed and beheaded Stephanos and all of his men."
"Well, yes, but you did not hurt me. And you were full of drugs which made you act that way."
"That did not hurt you? Gabrielle, I am a monster. I can't be trusted. You are not safe. Get away from me. Please. Save yourself," the warrior said as anxiety rose in her voice.
"Xena, I am safe. Please, calm down and see. You are tied down because you were trying to hurt yourself. So I am safe." The bard smiled encouragingly at her warrior.
At this the warrior looked down at herself. She saw that she was once more restrained. Suddenly it made her angry beyond belief. She pulled hard against the bandages and growled. Before Gabrielle's eyes, her beloved warrior transformed herself into the wild animal of her nightmare. Xena snarled and fought. She wrenched her arms and legs in twisting moves to release herself from the bandages. The bandages pulled tighter, angering her more. She arched her back and gathered all her strength and drew her limbs up and away from the bed. First the left ankle restraint ripped loose, then the right arm restraint. In alarm Gabrielle ran to the door. The guard had already sent for help when she heard the growling. As the bard turned back into the room she saw Xena leap from the bed, trailing bandages. She charged past Gabrielle, knocked the guard down and bounded off into the forest.
"Xena, no! Come back," Gabrielle cried out in vain. The warrior was lost in the woods. Ephiny came up with Solari and Eponin.
"Hera's Hemicranias, Gabrielle, she has escaped."
Unable to contain her annoyance at Eponin's original language, Gabrielle exploded, "Oh, shut up, Eponin and go catch her before she kills herself."
For once Eponin was at a loss for words, never having been spoken to in anger by her queen. Eponin and Solari looked at each other and then at Ephiny.
"Go. I will send more trackers as well," said Ephiny in approval to the two warriors. They ran off in pursuit. Ephiny guided Gabrielle back into the hut.
"Hades, Eponin, why don't you ever think before you come out with those dumb swearings of yours? What the Hades is a hemicrania anyway?" Solari asked her friend as they ran after Xena.
"That's the whole point, Solari, I am using my thinking to calm myself down. It takes me a moment to come up with the phrases and to come up with two words that start with the same sound. I used to say even worse things and go charging in without thinking. This is a technique for control. Don't tell Gabrielle, but it was Xena who thought this up for me."
"That woman never ceases to amaze me. Too bad she is such a mess right now. Oh, and hemicranias?" Solari reminded Eponin.
"Very bad headaches."
They ran on. It was growing dark and harder to follow Xena's trail. Neither wanted to admit to the other how afraid they each were of the Warrior Princess. When they heard running footfalls behind them, they both spun around in alarm. It was Checca and Phaedra. They spread out to improve their chances. Phaedra was the unlucky Amazon to find Xena first, or rather, to be found by Xena. One moment Phaedra was running under a tree; the next she was suspended by her ankles, held by the incredibly strong Warrior Princess. The third moment found her head colliding with the next tree. She was dazed, but came back to full awareness to discover her tormentor had her tied to the tree, her wrists wrapped behind her and the tree, tied by something soft. "I remember you," said the escaped warrior, her deep voice sending chills down the older warrior's spine. "You are the one who tried to kill me with your battle ax, what was it called?"
"A labrys, Xena, but you forgave me, remember," Phaedra tried to remind the warrior to save her skin.
"Ah, yes, I did say that, didn't I? Did you believe me?"
"Yes, Xena, we all know you are an honorable warrior. Besides, I taught you how to use it afterwards, remember?" Phaedra said hoping her words were reaching Xena's clouded mind.
"Afterwards, yes, when my scalp was still itching from the seven stitches Ama had to put in my forehead to keep my brains from spilling out. Oh, don't look so scared. I forgive you," she said and smashed her fist into the woman's jaw.
Checca was the next unfortunate Amazon. One of the better trackers, she was close on Xena's trail. Maybe too close. As she passed a large tree, her wrist was grabbed and her arm twisted behind her. A strong arm held her across the chest and up against the Warrior Princess who whispered into her ear, "I don't know you, do I?"
"I'm Checca, Xena. Eponin and I pulled you from the lake." The Amazon tracker tried to please the warrior with her answer. She could feel the power and menace in the body pressed against hers.
"Why did you do that?" Xena asked annoyed. "I did not ask for help. I was going somewhere."
"Where? Tartarus?" said the suddenly emboldened tracker.
"Yes, Hades take you!" Xena hissed and pushed a pressure point on Checca's neck, rendering her unconscious. She gently laid her down and continued on.
Solari silently came upon this scene. She followed, thinking maybe she should find Eponin first. She should have done that. Xena did not even bother to talk to her. She threw a rock accurately that effectively put Solari out of the race.
"Miserable Minotaurs," mumbled Eponin, feeling lost and afraid in the labyrinth of the forest. No, she was too good of a tracker to be lost, but she felt that way anyway. She knew the forest was too silent. She could feel the presence of the Warrior Princess. She had found all her cohorts, subdued by their prey. She decided to try reasoning with her friend Xena.
"Aphrodite's Arrows, Xena, we want to help you. Please come back with me to the village. Gabrielle is so upset that you are tormenting yourself this way. She loves you," Eponin called out to the listening forest. No sound returned in reply. She tried again. "Thalia's Tears, Xena, you know I am on your side. I have always been." Silence, but a heavier silence. She could almost hear baited breath. Her own heart was thudding too loudly to be sure. One more time, "Lachrymose Lachesis, Xena, please come out." She was rewarded by laughter. It started as one loud guffaw, then some giggles, and then full-blown laughter. Xena fell out of the tree above Eponin's head, using Eponin's body as a cushion. She rolled off the crumpled tracker and kept laughing until tears stopped her. Eponin and Xena sat up at the same time. They looked at each other. Eponin smiled. Xena rose to her knees, snarled and punched Eponin's face.
"I do not want to laugh, Eponin. Life is no longer funny." She hit the tracker in the gut, then behind the ear. The last of the Amazon trackers lost out. Xena escaped.
It was late when the four trackers limped back to the village. Gabrielle met them at the gate. She could tell they had each seen Xena.
"I am sorry, my Queen, we could not bring her back. We will go out again early tomorrow and take more warriors. One positive thought, I think she is feeling better. She was too strong to be ill," Eponin ventured apologetically to Gabrielle.
"I will be with you, at first light. Do you know where she is headed?"
"Vulcan's Vertigo, Gabrielle, I think she is headed for the cliffs."
Gabrielle questioned them each about their encounter with the Warrior Princess and then went to Ephiny's hut. The regent glanced up at her entrance. The look on her queen 's face prompted her to rise and take the poor woman into her arms. She hugged her and asked, "Did they not find her?"
"Oh, they found her, or rather she found them. She attacked each one of them and left them unconscious. Eponin says she is too strong to be ill."
"Yes, well, Eponin does not like to be bested, especially by Xena."
"But Ephiny, they said she was heading for the cliffs. I am so afraid she might throw herself off."
"Gabrielle, she is not going to kill herself. That is not Xena's way. She is a fighter, not a quitter."
"Ephiny, what about the lake?"
"But Gabrielle, she was hardly lucid and very confused. I believe she is thinking more clearly now."
"Ephiny, you did not hear her in her delirium. It is just as I told you before. She can not face her savagery. She is convinced she cannot be trusted. She is afraid she is a danger to me and to all of us. She is thinking that she needs to destroy the beast that is in her. To do that, she must destroy herself."
The tall, beautiful woman with the dark hair and brilliant blue eyes stood at the base of the cliffs and sought her passage up to redemption. No, not redemption, it was too late for that. That she would never achieve. Her goal must now be to save Gabrielle from the beast she had become. She could no longer lie to herself; it was a foolish fantasy to think she could change. She was in too deep. Xena wore a tattered night tunic, her leathers and armor left behind. She would have preferred to die in her armor, but then, maybe it was better this way. That armor and leather outfit had been her garb of destruction. She would leave this world as she had entered it. As it was cold, she decided to leave the tunic on till she reached the top. No point in being uncomfortable till she died. Ha, she laughed at herself. 'I am not dead yet if I can still laugh.' She sought her first footholds and began the ascent. She was weary, but more of life than from lack of food or shelter, or her recent lung fever.
Xena was almost to the top when Gabrielle and the Amazon warriors reached the bottom of the cliffs. Gabrielle called out, but Xena kept climbing. As they watched, the Warrior Princess crested the edge and stood tall at the apex of the cliff. She was more than 40 cubits over their heads. They could not see her face well, but they saw her actions. The warrior pulled the tunic off over her head and stood in her glory like a newborn. She looked down, assessed where she might land, and backed up to give her the momentum to carry her over the Amazons, not wishing to hurt anyone. She had hoped for privacy but knew her time was running out. Suddenly the Amazons and Gabrielle witnessed a strange phenomenon. One moment the warrior was naked in the wind, the next she was fully clothed in a dazzling white tunic, golden armor and a golden circlet around her forehead. Then by her side, Ares appeared.
His voice carried down to them. "Xena, that's no way to go. If I can't talk you out of this, let me at least let you die in an outfit worthy of my finest warrior. HA ha ha ha ha ha." His deep laugh rumbled over the edge. Xena neither spoke nor looked at him. She once again lined her way up for the plunge. He stepped in her way. She ran straight for him, then leaped in the air and performed a somersault over his head. She landed on the edge and would have gone over if Artemis had not appeared and caught her in her arms.
"Ares, you have failed to sway her; it's my turn now." Ares raised his arm and dissolved into the ether. Artemis guided Xena back from the edge and sat her down for a talk.
"Artemis, please forgive me, but I am a danger to your queen and the Amazons. Please let me go. I can no longer fight this battle," pleaded the Warrior Princess.
"Xena, you are fighting it this very moment. Don't you realize that by trying to destroy yourself you are performing the ultimate act of redemption? But you do not need to do this. When you destroyed Stephanos, you were not yourself. Even Hades would agree and judge you accordingly."
"Artemis, with respect, which you know I do not have for you gods, I was very much myself. I was avenging the death of my Gabrielle. I knew just what I was doing. They had gone too far. I was pure evil, destroying pure evil. I was no better than they were. And I enjoyed it."
"But, Xena, Gabrielle is not dead. She climbs the cliffs even now to save you from yourself."
"If that is true, Artemis, and with you and Ares around I do not believe anything I see, if that is true, then it is all the more reason why my evil deeds should be punished."
"Xena, are you placing yourself above the gods in deciding on justice? That is not for mere mortals to decide."
"Artemis, when the gods neither exact nor demand justice, then it is indeed ours to perform. Step aside."
"Xena, would you do me one more favor before you self-destruct? Would you look over the cliff and see how Gabrielle is doing? I think she needs your help."
"Tartarus take you, Artemis, stop interfering." Yet the warrior ran to the edge and looked over. Her heart leaped to her throat at what she saw. "Artemis, save her," she said and swung around to implore the goddess. Artemis had vanished. "Abominations, Artemis, why now?" She looked again at Gabrielle's situation. The bard's blouse was snagged on a thick root. It looked as if she had lost her grip and slipped down to be caught by the back of her shirt. She frantically grabbed for a hand or foot hold. Her shirt, which was long overdue for a replacement, was beginning to tear from her weight. Eponin and a few others were climbing up after her, but Xena was closer.
Swearing worriedly, Xena swung her legs over the edge and found a place to put her feet. She backed down the cliff, feeling her way carefully over to the bard. "I'm coming, Gabrielle, hold on," she called. For a moment all the warrior's weight relied on her unhealed broken left hand, still not fully trustworthy. 'Don't fail me now,' Xena asked her tired body. Her waning strength betrayed her now when she needed it most. She almost had her right hand in a new spot when her grip failed her. The Warrior Princess slid down the cliff's face, scraping the skin off her palms as she desperately sought traction or a way to stop. As she fell past Gabrielle, she smiled and said, "I'll be back." A small ledge halted her fall down the cliff. Everyone below had been holding their breaths. They watched now to see if Xena was all right. They had heard the loud exhalation of breath when the warrior impacted with the rock ledge. They watched her hanging arm and hand for movement, all they could see of her from their vantage point. Finally, the fingers twitched and then the hand disappeared from view. Ephiny and the other Amazons sighed.
Realizing her movements were adding to the stress on her shirt, Gabrielle tried to remain still. She watched Xena slide by her and heard her hit the ledge. She wanted to turn and look, but was afraid to move. "Xena?" she called.
"I'm coming, Gabrielle. Don't worry, my love. Hold on," came the reply.
'My love, she called me,' the bard smiled to herself, suddenly feeling so very loved and safe, even thought she hung so high above the earth it made riding Argo laughable to worry about. The sounds of Xena's rescue came gradually closer. Gabrielle could not take it any longer; she had to turn to see her Warrior Princess.
"Don't move, Gabrielle. I am almost there." Xena's deep voice was calm and reassuring. The bard heard her heavy breathing and then felt it on her neck as strong arms gripped her waist. The warrior lifted her up and off the root. "Hold on to me, Gabrielle, around my neck." Slowly, carefully, Xena guided them back to the ledge. Then she rested. Gabrielle hugged her warrior with all her love. Xena smiled wearily, then passed out.
"Tartarus!" exclaimed Gabrielle, in dismay. She rested Xena's head in her lap and examined her friend for injuries. Beyond her bloody palms and scraped knees, there was nothing but old bruises and the hideous marks from the restraints. The bard so rarely saw her warrior bowed by exhaustion, then she remembered Xena had not eaten for several days and had recently had a fever. Part of her god-given costume was a silken scarf around her neck, to add flair to the ensemble. The bard untied it to wipe the sweat from Xena's brow and the blood from her hands. They were quite raw, so the young woman ripped the cloth to make two bandages. She bound Xena's hands. That done she just sat and waited for her warrior to revive. Gabrielle brushed Xena's hair off her forehead. Such a noble brow. Her whole face was so wonderfully sculpted. Her nose, her high cheek bones, and those amazing blue eyes, which opened now and looked up at her.
Xena stared at Gabrielle, without speaking. Her eyes were troubled; her look seemed confused. She reached up and touched Gabrielle's cheek, as if to see if she were warm and alive. Afraid to break the spell, the bard did not speak either. She let her warrior take her time. Xena's fingertips ran down Gabrielle's face till she hit the edge of her jaw, then she pulled away. Her open hand came to her own face and the tips of her fingers rested on her own lips. She continued to look at her bard, contemplating and seemingly preoccupied. Gabrielle wished she knew what Xena was thinking. Then the warrior pulled her fingers from her face and curled her hand into a fist. For a moment Gabrielle was worried, but there had been no change in the warrior's face, no hardening, no anger. Just that lost look. Then Xena came to her knees, reached out with both hands to either side of Gabrielle's face and drew their faces together. She kissed the bard so very tenderly. She then sat back on her heels, took both Gabrielle's hands in her own and spoke at last. "Gabrielle, I have loved you for a very long time. Longer than you know. You have been my salvation, my guiding light, and the window to my soul. But it was not enough, I found you too late. You cannot forgive me now. I cannot allow it. Please let me go." She gathered the bard in for one last long and deep kiss which left the bard breathless. Then she pulled away and said, "Eponin is almost here. She will get you down, good bye, my love."
Xena stood up, reached above her and began the ascent for the last time. She ignored her bard's pleading voice as she left her behind. With each stretch of her tired and aching body, she felt a year of hate and anger drop away. She had given up the battle and now was at peace within her soul. She climbed back up to her point of departure from this mortal world. She continued to release her angst and the horrors of her life as she climbed. By the time she reached the last ledge she needed to circumvent, she was drained of energy, of feeling, even of self-hate. Faintly below she heard crying. It saddened her, but it was over for her. Gabrielle would be better off. She pushed her right hand into a crevice above her head, not even looking, but feeling her way, and touched something soft. Her almost numb fingers still registered the texture. She looked up and saw a little yellow flower, a buttercup. She began to cry.
Her face crumpled and large hot tears fell from her eyes. She pulled herself over the top, the buttercup between her teeth. She raised herself onto her knees and sat back on her heels. Xena tenderly cradled the buttercup between her hands like a baby bird. As she wept quietly over it, the pain in her heart grew and grew till she felt it would burst from her chest. She raised her face to the heavens and opened her throat to release the agony. The heart-rending cry clutched the heart of every woman there. They all stopped and looked up. Eponin climbed over the edge of the small precipice to find Gabrielle climbing up to her warrior. The bard's fear of heights had been forgotten in her anguished need to reach her beloved Warrior Princess. Then she was over the top and gathered Xena into her arms. Eponin looked away to allow them a moment of privacy.
Xena held on to her bard like a drowning woman. Gabrielle's heart wrung with their shared pain, yet she felt there was hope now. Xena had never cried like this before. Such open anguish and heavy sobs had to be releasing some of her life's long suppressed misery. The bard held on tightly. The strength in their embrace would have made diamonds of coal. Xena surrendered completely, trusting at last in another person to help her. Not another person -- her Gabrielle.
Ephiny looked up and smiled. She felt a great hope swell in her heart.
Eponin smiled too, knowing now that their queen and her warrior would be all right. "Clotho's Connections, the Fates are smiling on them at last. Xena's lifeline will not be severed now; her intertwining with the bard's will grow ever stronger. I just know it!"
Foot and a half note: A cubit is about a foot and a half.
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