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The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo belong to MCA/Universal . The characters of Arianna and D'Lara are original. No intent to infringe on MCA/Universal's copyright was made during the process of writing this story.
Her footsteps kicked up the dust as they wearily trudged up the broad inclining road. A few paces behind, her companion was silently amusing herself by playfully kicking at each loose rock she came upon.
"Gabrielle" Xena said rhetorically, in a low, gruff voice. That was the last rock that she wanted to see launched past her.
"Oh, huh uh, sorry" Gabrielle laughingly replied. Then she quickly adjusted her stride so that she was now side by side with her warrior friend.
Together, they marched in and out of lock step with each other as they pushed on to the village that was just over the next hill. Xena had promised Gabrielle that they would find a bed for the night. The last few days had been rough.
Xena and Gabrielle had been the recipients of quite a few random attacks lately. The attacks were centered on Xena, but Gabrielle was brought into the fray simply by virtue of being around the warrior princess. Although, in each case, the attackers had been dispatched rather easily, the physical toll was starting to wear on the two.
As Xena inconspicuously eyed her friend, she could see the fatigue that was evident in the bard's face and demeanor. She silently promised herself that they would stop for the night at the next village. There was still plenty of daylight to get to the next village after this one, but she would be pushing Gabrielle unnecessarily. That was not acceptable to her. Gabrielle's safety and well being were always a priority with her.
"There's a tavern just over the hill with an inn that's known for its cleanliness and hospitality. We'll have an early dinner then get a room for the night. Is that ok with you?" Xena asked politely.
"Sounds great Xena. I can't wait to take off these boots. I think I've managed to get a couple of rocks in them. In fact, I can't wait to......."
Gabrielle's voice trailed off in Xena's mind. Her renewed vigor at the mere mention of food and sleep made Xena chuckle inside. However, she was still disturbed by the attacks. Why had they been happening? It was obvious that the attacks were personally geared towards her. But who? And why? Xena couldn't begin to assess the amounts of people that she had hurt in her warlord past. Any number of them would have plenty of reason to go after her. The wheels in Xena's mind kept turning as she tried to piece together the events of the last few days to see if she had missed something, a clue, anything.
The attackers weren't trained especially well. In each case Xena and Gabrielle had managed to defend themselves rather easily. But one thing kept bothering Xena. The men had seemed to only want to injure her, not kill her. That was peculiar, but Xena knew that it was intentional, not just the bad training that many of the men had exuded. As Xena replayed the events in her mind over and over again, she became more determined than ever to figure out who was behind the attacks and why.
"They're on their way. They should be here any time now. You know what to do right?"
The bartender nodded at the man in front of him. He was a small man. Unassuming and looked less than threatening. In fact, there was a bit of a slimy nature about him. His smile revealed some badly kept teeth. Those that were left, and his thin structure made his cheeks look hollow and his face gaunt. However, the man positioned behind the bar, acting as the barback was a definite threat A small dagger, hidden in the sleeve of the faux barback was incentive enough to follow through with the plan.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the tavern and sat at one of the few clear tables left. The town seemed unusually busy and Xena was now concerned about finding a vacancy at the inn.
No one seemed to be in any hurry to take their order, so Xena got up and went to the bar.
"I'll have a port, and a Ginger Beer for my friend" Xena said
The bartender hesitated slightly, but was snapped out of his stupor by the barbacks throat clearing tactic. He shakily placed the drinks in the appropriate goblet and mug, handed them to Xena and took payment.
Xena noticed the hesitation by the bartender and eyed him curiously. Narrowing her eyes, she let her stare linger for just a second too long in order to drive her point home that she was wary of him. Then she took the drinks to the table and sat down with Gabrielle.
"Something doesn't feel right about this place Gabrielle"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you feel it? It's like they know us. Like they were expecting us. I don't know, but I don't like it." Xena said as she sipped her wine.
Gabrielle looked around. She did sense a heaviness in the air, but she was alerted to it by Xena's magical sixth sense, otherwise she might have subconsciously ignored her own intuition. She surveyed the room and caught a glimpse of the scrawny man near the door, suspiciously eyeing the two of them. Suddenly, the door to the tavern swung open and two women entered. One instantly reminded her of Xena. Smaller, but still carrying herself with an extreme air of confidence. The weapons in her possession indicated that she too was of the warrior personality type. Her dark hair framed her face in such a complimentary manner that Gabrielle found herself staring intently until she realized the rudeness of her actions. The other woman, slightly taller, with blonde hair and brown eyes donned a bow and arrows. Her features were much softer, but she looked like she could hold her own in a fight if she had to.
As the two entered the tavern the warrior stopped and stared at the man standing at the door. He caught her stare and made a hasty retreat from the bar.
"Hey, HEY!" The warrior pronounced as she ran out the tavern after him. The other woman was just about to go out the door after them when she spied Gabrielle and Xena. She stopped only momentarily then headed out the door.
"Arianna, Arianna STOP!" she yelled.
Arianna stopped chasing the man, turned to look at her friend and in frustration yelled "That was one of Telenares' men D'Lara why did you want me to stop?"
D'Lara motioned her to the tavern, "You have to see who's inside, you're not gonna believe it."
The two headed back to the tavern and Arianna stopped in her tracks when she saw Xena at the table across the bar. Her eyes narrowed as if burning a hole in the woman's skin across the bar. At a quick pace, with sword in hand, Arianna approached the table.
"Xena! Warrior Princess! Imagine that." Arianna said in a low, deliberate voice.
Xena seemed unimpressed and started to reach for the rest of her port when a sword came crashing down on the goblet. Instinctually Xena pushed her chair back, stood up and with the graceful and fluid motion she was known for, she pulled her sword out of its scabbard and whirled around to face her opponent. Gabrielle was also standing at the ready with her staff in hand, but was quickly coherced into letting it down when she saw D'Lara's arrow pointed right at her.
"This is their fight, let them settle this" D'Lara said
Gabrielle stared at her in confusion, but decided it would be wise to do as she said. Xena and Arianna matched each other blow for blow. Neither giving or taking an advantage over the other. The tavern was filled with the sound of metal against metal. Xena jumped on top of the table and blocked a thrust from Arianna. Arianna swept her sword at Xena's legs, but Xena leaped, avoiding the blow. Then, with her trademark war cry she somersaulted over Arianna's head landing behind her. As Arianna turned to face her enemy she was greeted by a boot to the jaw. Xena's spin kick had a lot of power behind it and Arianna could taste the blood in her mouth. Xena sensed the advantage and started towards Arianna. She raised her sword, but stopped short as her eyes went in and out of focus. At the same time she started becoming dizzy.
Arianna had placed her arm up to her mouth to wipe away the blood. She saw Xena stall and whirled around with a swift kick of her own to the midsection. Xena bent over as she absorbed the blow, but then, as her eyes started to focus again, she saw the back of Arianna's hand as it returned the favor to her jaw. That blow along with the accompanying vertigo were enough to cause Xena to drop her sword.
Gabrielle just watched, helplessly, as her friend started to lose her composure.
'What's wrong with her' she thought to herself. Everything in her wanted to come to her friend's aid, but D' Lara still had her arrow trained on her. Gabrielle wouldn't be able to take two steps before she would be felled. Instead, she watched as Xena started to falter and give way to an invisible enemy.
'What's wrong with her?' Arianna thought to herself. 'It's not supposed to happen like this.' She continued her assault on an obviously ailing Xena. Xena blocked the blows as best as she could with her remaining strength, but it was just too much for her. Then, she could only watch as Arianna's hand came down upon her jaw one more time in what seemed like the slowest of slow motions. Xena fell backwards and spun around onto the table top. Her cheek embracing the smooth wood that felt cool on her face. She felt a tight grip on her shoulder as Arianna swung her around on her back and raised her sword over her head with both hands.
"NO!" Gabrielle yelled. She started to run towards Xena, no longer caring about the woman with the arrows. Her friend was about to die. She couldn't just stand by and let that happen. D'Lara just watched. Her eyes widened at the sight of her friend standing over Xena, ready to strike a fatal blow. She'd never seen Arianna so filled with rage and it scared her.
Xena couldn't move. Her limbs felt like iron, her head was spinning and she hurt. Oh how she hurt. But she was determined that if she was going to die, she wouldn't crawl. She would accept her fate with the dignity of a warrior. She saw the silver of the blade above her reflecting from the sun beaming through the windows of the tavern. And slowly, very slowly, she watched as the blade descended upon her.
Arianna's sword was raised above Xena and she thrust it down with everything in her. She heard the cry coming from Gabrielle and the footsteps behind her. So she reached into her left wrist guard and withdrew a small but formidable dagger. Then she swung her right arm around so that the dagger greeted Gabrielle with a stern warning.
Gabrielle stopped in her tracks. She was almost in tears as she stared into Arianna's eyes. There was a burning in Arianna's eyes that Gabrielle had only seen in Xena before. It was angry, pained, and sad, all at the same time. Arianna stared at Gabrielle for a few more moments, dropped her arm and turned towards Xena. Her sword was embedded in the table next to Xena's neck. It had slightly cut Xena's right shoulder. Then she leaned in towards Xena and said "I don't know what's wrong with you, but I won't end it like this. I want you at full strength when we face off. No excuses. You see Xena, there are still some people left in this world with a little integrity and honor. Something you know nothing about.
Then Arianna yanked her sword upward, freeing it from the table. She re-sheathed it and turned around to walk away. But before she took one full stride, she turned back to a dazed Xena and said "Oh, by the way! Let me introduce myself. I'm Arianna of Cirra. Callisto was my best friend in childhood." and she walked away.
"Xena?" Gabrielle cried with concern as she pushed past Arianna on the way to her friend. "Xena, are you alright? What happened?"
Xena was still dazed. Gabrielle helped her into a chair and started to brush back the hair out of Xena's eyes, gently tucking the loose strands behind Xena's ears. "Xena, talk to me." she said.
Xena looked up trying to focus on Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, I can hardly move." Xena said weakly.
"Can you get up? Can you walk?" Gabrielle replied
Xena waited, took a deep breath and knodded approvingly.
With that, Gabrielle helped Xena up by sliding her arm around Xena's waist and pulling Xena's arm around her shoulder. The two slowly exited the bar, past Arianna and D'Lara who kept their stares on the pair until they left.
After the scene was over, the faux barback, who watched all the events with interest, retreated hastily from the tavern. He had seen enough and needed to report back to camp.
Xena and Gabrielle walked very gingerly until Xena felt that she could walk under her own strength.
"Xena, what happened back there?" Gabrielle asked with concern.
"Gabrielle, I think my drink was poisoned." Xena surmised. "I'm not sure what exactly it was. The symptoms aren't familiar to me."
"What exactly are the symptoms" Gabrielle asked, still giving her friend a concerned glance.
"I seem to become weak and disoriented when I exert a lot of energy. My head just pounds and my limbs feel extemely heavy. Yet at the same time, the symptoms seem to diminish when I relax for a while." Xena said
"Then you should ride Argo. We need to get you to a healer to see if there's an antidote for this poison. Where's the nearest one?" Gabrielle asked
"In the last town we just came from, but I want to go back and talk to the bartender and find out if my hunch is correct. At the very least, we can find out what exactly it was that he put in there."
"XENA THAT'S CRAZY" Gabrielle yelled. She was upset at her friends continual lack of concern for her own well being. "let's get you to the healer first. We can always come back. Besides, have you forgotten about your latest enemy who's still sitting in the tavern? She might forget about her 'integrity' if she sees you again. No, you need to be well before you face her. So stop with this need to interrogate and think about yourself for a change.
Xena listened to Gabrielle thoughtfully. She knew that Gabrielle was right, but she really wanted to know what was going on. Something inside told her that this incident was somehow related to the random attacks they'd been experiencing lately.
"Gabrielle" Xena said in her usual low voice. "You know that if we're attacked on the road again, I might not be able to defend us."
"I want you to promise me that you won't stick around. They want me and there's no reason for you to get hurt just because of me. I don't know if I'll be able to protect us."
Gabrielle furrowed her brows at Xena's request, then took Xena's hand and said "Xena, I'm not going anywhere without you. Whatever happens, we're in this together. I won't leave you."
"Gabrielle..." Xena started, but she was abruptly cut off
"I mean it Xena. I won't run. If I die by your side, then so be it, because if I ran and you were to die, I might as well die too. I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
Xena and Gabrielle stared at each other for a moment. Then Xena gave Gabrielle a crooked smile, put her arm around her and said "You can be so stubborn sometimes."
"You should talk" came the reply
"Come on, let's go" Xena said. Then she turned to Argo and mounted her.
Xena was feeling better already. The relaxing nature of the ride had restored her to her natural vigor. Gabrielle was feeling better too. The sun was still out and a gentle breeze had started cooking through the valley. The pleasantry was soon forgotten, however, when Xena pulled Argo to a stop. Up ahead, another band of would-be attackers awaited. Xena dismounted Argo and looked ahead at the small band of men, sizing up the situation.
"Gabrielle, please. If the symptoms come back, we could both end up dead."
"I meant what I said earlier Xena. I'm with you to the end"
Gabrielle's heart was beating furiously with that statement. She was so scared that her adrenaline was transcending her body, but she wasn't about to leave Xena.
"ATTACK!" Came the cry from the band of men. Immediately Xena unsheathed her sword and started slashing. Gabrielle met her first attacker with a quick jab from her staff to his stomach. Then she swung the staff around until it found the thugs temple. He crumbled to the ground in a heap. Xena was busy thrusting and parrying with her attackers. Three men had descended upon her at once. She gave her famous battle cry and somersaulted above the cluster of men. Upon landing, Xena laugh out loud and struck the first man with a thrust to the heart. The other two were momentarily stunned at Xena's acrobatics. They'd never encountered a warrior such as this. But they were snapped out of their stupor by a rushing Xena. With another battle cry Xena lunged at the second man, blocked a blow from the third, spun around in the air and delivered a swift kick to the jaws of both men. The men were sent sprawling to the ground. Then Xena looked up and saw Gabrielle handling herself quite well. However, three men were set to ambush Gabrielle. Xena was too far away to physically interfere so she unhooked her chakram and threw it at the oncoming group. The chakram ricochet off of the men's helmets and one by one they fell.
Gabrielle was swinging her staff and defending herself with a vigor she'd never felt before. Never before had their lives depended so much on her ability to hold her own. She didn't know if or when Xena might give in to the poison again.
Xena had easily dispatched of the rest of the men around her, and none too soon. The poison was just starting to affect her again. Although ever so slightly, she still was relieved that she didn't have to fight through the ill effects of it again. That's when she turned around and was greeted by a smug looking man. Greatly overdressed in his armor for the occasion.
"Xena! Warrior Princess! What a pleasure it's going to be to kill you today."
The tavern was still littered with broken chairs, tables and bottles. Arianna and D'Lara sat down and took a moment to breath. Arianna put her elbows on the table and propped her head on the palms of her hands. Then she pushed her fingers through her hair, bowed her head and sighed in frustration.
"Are you alright?" D'Lara asked. She was concerned about Arianna. She'd never quite seen her like this before.
"To tell you the truth," replied Arianna " I don't know what I feel. I hate her D'Lara. I really do, but I won't allow it to consume me like Callisto did. I just wish I could've found Callisto before she found Xena. I think I could've reached her somehow. Maybe everything would be different now. Maybe Callisto would still be alive, and Xena would just be a bad memory. I don't know what happened to Xena today. I feel a little cheated, but I want to beat her at her best. I don't want people saying I took advantage of a weakened Xena. When I beat her, I want it to be because I'm better than her, not because she was sick or injured before hand."
D'Lara put her hand on Arianna's shoulder. "I understand, and I stand by you, as always."
Arianna smiled and placed her hand over the hand on her shoulder. Then she gave it a gentle squeeze before releasing. D'Lara removed her hand and smiled back at Arianna.
"Wow, I guess that stuff we put in Xena's drink really worked." the bartender said in hushed tones to the young man with the broom.
"What do you mean 'WE'?!" said the young man. "You did it. I had nothing to do with it. You should have stood up to those men. If Xena survives and figures out what happened, you're gonna be in a world of hurt."
"How could I stand up to them. They work for Talinares. You know how he's come into so much power lately. He would've destroyed this place and taken the plunder for his army." said the bartender exasperatedly. Then he glanced to his right only to see Arianna seething at him.
Arianna grabbed the bartender by the collar and threw him up against the bar. "You're gonna tell me what you put in Xena's drink and why Telenares wanted you to put it there. If you lie to me, I'm gonna slice you into a hundred pieces and use you as a garnish in one of those nasty drinks you make - GOT IT?!" She said in a low, deliberate tone.
The bartender was shaking with fear, but nodded his head in acknowledgment. Arianna released her grip. Bartender, now sweating profusely, rubbed his neck and cleared his throat.
"TALK!" Arianna demanded
The bartender put his hands out in front of him, palms down as if to soothe Arianna into a more complacent demeanor.
"Telenares struck a deal with Strife. Strife is desperate to prove to Ares that he's a God to be reckoned with. It's matter of respect you could say. So Strife gave Talinares the poison. In return, Telenares would kill Xena, gain instant respect from the other Warlords for being the one who finally took down the Warrior Princess, and make a bundle of money to build his army by producing Xena's dead body."
"Isn't Strife worried that he'll fall out of favor with Ares for having Xena killed?" D'Lara butted in. "Everyone knows of Ares fondness for Xena's .......abilities."
"No, if Talinares succeeds, he'll have the most powerful army in the world. The other warlords would acquiesce to his needs and he would pledge his allegiance to Ares. Ares would have his all powerful warrior and an army to rule the world."
Arianna was furious. "Where's the antidote for the poison?"
"Talinares has it. He's the only one who has it and it's only in case he accidently ingests the poison himself. He keeps it hidden at his camp."
"Do you have anymore of the poison?" Arianna asked, an idea suddenly brewing in her head.
"I only have a small portion of the powder left. It's not enough to do any damage." said the bartender.
"Give it to me" Arianna demanded.
D'Lara looked at Arianna quizically. She didn't know what she had in mind, but she'd been with her long enough to know not to ask questions. Just trust what Arianna had planned and that she'd fill her in when it was time.
The bartender complied with Arianna's demand. Then he offered some more information voluntarily. "Talinares knows that the only healer in the area is in the next town, due west of here. He's planning on ambushing Xena when she goes that way. By then she should be fairly incapacitated by the drug."
Arianna and D'Lara looked at each other. Without saying a word they ran out the door and mounted their horses. Each road at a full gallop. They were headed west. The sun was just starting to come down. At full stride Arianna looked at the sunset. Gods, when was the last time I took in the pleasure of a sunset, she thought. Still she rode. Fast and furiously. The need to personally extract her revenge on Xena pulsated through her and she wasn't about to be cheated out of that right.
Xena stared at the armored man. She didn't say a word, just glared.
"Allow me the pleasure of introducing myself. Afterall, it's only polite that you know my name before I kill you. I am Talinares."
"You're responsible for the attacks lately!" Xena said flatly. "Your men are in need of training. I find that a lack of good training usually stems from bad leadership."
"Oh, touche Xena! But you can insult me all you like. You see, the poison that's in you is all the advantage I need to take you down. I'm sure you're starting to feel the effects by now."
Xena couldn't hide the fact that he was right. She was already sweating and feeling light- headed. But she wasn't about to back down. Time was of the essence. If she was going to defeat Talinares she had to attack now while she still could.
"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi" she yelled, gave a wicked smile and started the assault on a stunned Telenares.
Gabrielle in the meantime had her hands full holding off all of her attackers. Everytime she defeated one man, another would appear. They just kept coming, ceaselessly and she was becoming fatigued. Yet each time she felt her strength wavering, she found a new determination with the thought that Xena depended on her. Once again sweeping and thrusting, jabbing and clubbing, she put man after man out. When finally, the last man had been felled, she looked over to see Xena battling with Talinares. What she saw concerned her.
Xena had expended all her energies. She could no longer mount an offensive. All she could do was parry Talinares' thrusts.
Gabrielle started running towards Xena as quickly as she could.
Talinares was coming at Xena with everything he had. He was becoming frustrated with her ability to continually parry his thrusts. Then he saw what he was looking for. Xena was now visibly suffering from the effects of the poison. She backed up and staggered to one knee.
'Get there Gabrielle, get there' Gabrielle said to herself as she continued running. How did she ever end up so far away from Xena.
Talinares slammed his sword down on Xena's then hit her with a backhand to the cheek. Xena was stunned and feeling leaden again. Talinares withdrew a knife from his belt. Xena tried to grab at it, but Talinares grabbed her arm instead and pushed the knife straight into Xena's left side, well below her ribs.
"NOOOooooo!" Gabrielle cried. Her eyes were wide with horror.
Xena, on both knees, clutched at the knife embedded in her side with both hands. Talinares gave Xena a smug grin, then laughed out loud. Xena wouldn't give him the satisfaction, even now. She stood up slowly, much to Talinares surprise and gave him a swift backhand to the jaw. Talinares staggered back. His eyes were watering from the pain in his jaw. Then he looked back at Xena, hand gingerly placed on his jaw. He turned around again and went for his sword.
Xena clutched the knife again, gritted her teeth and pulled it out with a pained scream. She looked down at her hands. They were soaked with blood and dripping. The knife seemed to mock her as she let it fall to the ground. Gabrielle had gathered herself enough to run the rest of the way to her friend and she was there to catch Xena as she began to fall backwards into unconsciousness. Gabrielle grabbed Xena from behind and braced her fall, gently laying her down on the grass. Lying next to Xena, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her and stroked her hair. "don't you die on me Xena. Remember your promise. Don't you die on me again!" Gabrielle said with tears streaming down her face.
"Oh very touching, now move aside woman or you'll die too." Talinares said as he approached with his sword raised.
"Don't you touch her. I mean it!" Gabrielle said sternly.
"And what are you going to do?" Talinares said, not even believing the audacity of the young woman.
"I'll do what I have to, and I will stop you" said Gabrielle in commanding tones.
"Oh really. You and who else." he replied
"Hello Talinares!" came a voice behind him. His eyes grew wide with recognition and he swung around to see his enemy.
"Arianna!" he said. He never even heard her approach.
"I see you haven't changed your cowardly ways." Arianna replied. "You know you can't beat Xena on your own, so you enlisted the help of the Gods. You're pathetic."
"You should be thanking me lady. I've taken down the enemy of your childhood. The woman who destroyed your village and watched your best friend die."
"I won't thank you for stealing the satisfaction from me. Besides, I know of your plan and I'm here to stop you. The last thing the world needs is a cowardly warlord running the show."
"Well then, prepare to be buried next to Xena!" He shouted as he charged Arianna.
Continued - Part 2
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