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(Note: This story takes place very shortly after Gabrielle's induction as an Amazon princess.)
Xena made a wide circle around her opponent, a grim smile on her face. She looked over at the steely eyes across from her as she wielded her sword slowly from side to side. She loved the way the heavy blade felt in her hand, the low hum it gave when slicing through the air. But she loved even more the heady sense of confidence that rose up inside of her whenever she came face-to-face with an enemy. It was as if all thinking stopped and instinct took over. She was like a finely-tuned instrument and the realization of that never failed to give her a shot of pleasure. With graceful precision, she jumped in a high arc as her adversary lunged and swung the weapon at her legs. "Yes!" the voice in her head cried with morbid delight as she saw her opening. She could have easily landed a crushing blow to her opponent's neck, but this was, after all, only practice and she didn't really want to hurt Gabrielle.
"Okay," Xena said, leaning on her sword, "that wasn't bad, but when you went down for my legs, you left yourself wide open for a strike from above."
"Well, what can I do about that?", Gabrielle asked, a hint of a whine seeping into her voice. "I mean, how can I hit you from below and still stay in position to protect myself. And anyway, most people aren't as good as you. Most people wouldn't be able to jump and swing a sword at the same time."
"Gabrielle, it only takes one good blow and that's it. You're dead. How are you going to know who can or can't jump and swing at the same time? I don't think you'll have time to take a survey. You've got to be prepared. You've got to know how to deal with each and every situation that you come up against. That's why we're doing this, isn't it? You want to learn how to handle yourself, don't you?"
Xena slid her sword back in its sheath and wiped the sweat off her forehead
"Yes, I want to learn," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head, "but, gods, there's so much to remember. Swing here, block there, look here, don't open yourself there, go in here, stay back there. It's got me tied up in knots. I'm afraid that if I ever do need to fight, I'll have so many things going through my head, I'll just end up standing there, paralyzed."
Xena walked over to her friend and put her arm around her shoulder. "You've got to learn to act not react. Let it flow from here," she nudged Gabrielle in the stomach, "not here," she laid her hand on top of Gabrielle's head and gave it a slight shake, bending a little to look her directly in the eyes.
Gabrielle let out a big sigh and gave Xena an exasperated stare.
Xena matched her look, but then smiled. "Come on. That's enough for today. Let's take a break and find some dinner. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
"Well," Gabrielle shot Xena an embarrassed grin, "you should know about me by now. I'm always starving."
"Oh, yeah, what was I thinking?" Xena said with a wink, one side of her mouth edging up slightly.
Luckily, they were camped by a creek teeming with fish and within the hour, several fat filets were frying nicely over the campfire.
After they'd eaten, Xena leaned back against a tree and watched Gabrielle practicing with her staff against an invisible foe. She had tenacity, Xena would give her that, and she wasn't bad, just inexperienced. Why, then, did watching Gabrielle swing her staff around make her feel so uncomfortable? Xena knew that being in control of a situation wasn't just a matter of being proficient with a weapon. It was a mind-set, an ability to pull out all the stops and not be especially concerned with the consequences for your opponent. Often, she had seen Gabrielle wince just before killing a rabbit for dinner. How would she react in a situation where she might have to hurt or, worse yet, possibly kill another human being, even if it were in self-defense or in the defense of someone else? Of course, Xena knew that the true test of that would only come in the form of a confrontation with a real-life, honest-to-the-gods threat, and she was determined to stave that off as long as she could. It was bad enough that her own life was constantly on the line. That was her lot, all part and parcel of the somewhat dubious honor of being Xena, Warrior Princess. But what was Gabrielle's lot? Obviously, for now at any rate, it was to march after Xena and hopefully not get caught in the middle when new enemies showed up, or old ones reared their ugly heads.
Xena chewed on the end of a pine needle. If she could as least be sure that Gabrielle could handle herself well enough to keep from getting killed, that would be some comfort. After all, it was because she traveled with Xena that the possibility was there in the first place. On the other hand, she hadn't forced Gabrielle to come with her, and it wasn't that she'd ever hidden the fact that life for her was a rough-and-tumble, take-whatever-comes kind of affair. She threw the pine needle down and stood up. Gabrielle had told her many times that it was that very reason she loved traveling with her. It was a lot more exciting than life in Poteidaia. And, unlikely as it might have been to look at her, Gabrielle seemed to thrive on excitement.
Xena stretched as a sweet exhaustion began to creep through her body. She made one final check on Argo, then unrolled her bedroll near the fire and laid down. Gabrielle had already settled into hers and was staring up at the stars, her arms crossed behind her head.
"Do you ever wonder why we're here?"
Xena looked around. "Well, probably because the ground's pretty level and there's a nice stream nearby with lots of fish," she replied, arching one eyebrow.
"I don't mean here, I mean here. You know, HERE." Gabrielle spread out her arms in a wide, sweeping motion.
"What ARE you talking about?"
"Well, just look at all those stars. There's so many of them. Sometimes when I look at them, I feel so small and insignificant."
"Then don't look at them."
"Oh Xena, you're funny. But I don't suppose you ever have to wonder who you are or what you're here for. After all, you're Xena, Warrior Princess, champion to all in need. Boy, it must be nice to have it all figured out like that."
Xena closed her eyes and sighed. Actually, she had tried unsuccessfully to figure it all out more times than she cared to admit, but she was just too tired to get into it with Gabrielle right then.
"Go to sleep, Gabrielle. Maybe it will all become clear to you in the morning." Xena turned away from Gabrielle and pulled the bedroll up around her shoulders.
"Yeah, maybe." There was a slight pause. "Xena?"
Another sigh. "Muh-huh?"
"Thanks for practicing with me today. I'm going to be better. I can just feel it."
Xena had taken a quick, cold bath, fed Argo, stoked the fire and started breakfast long before Gabrielle poked her head sleepily out from under her bedroll. She sat up slowly, stretched and rubbed her eyes.
"You better head down to the creek if you want to wash up before breakfast," Xena said with a slight smile on her face. This was a familiar routine.
"All right. I'm going."
Gabrielle had barely gotten to her feet, when Xena turned suddenly, her head cocked.
Gabrielle looked around. "What is it?" Xena merely held out her hand for her to be quiet. A few seconds later, she had drawn her sword, motioning Gabrielle to get behind her. Moments after that, a black horse with an armored rider came barreling into the camp, pulling up in front of Xena as a cloud of dust swirled around him.
"I'm looking for the warrior Xena," he said, breathing heavily. "We heard that she's somewhere in this region and I saw the smoke from your fire."
"Who's looking for her?" Xena looked calm on the outside, but as she stood behind her, Gabrielle could see the muscles begin to tense in her arms and back.
"My name's Eustace, from Hellenia, it's a small village, past that ridge..." he pointed over his left shoulder.
"I know where it is. What do you want with Xena?"
"I'm part of a small militia of local men from the area. We were out on a two day training mission. When we got back to the village this morning, everyone was gone. The women, the children, the old folks. We think it may be the Kraebius." He leaned down in the saddle and looked at her steadily, as if trying to remember something. "If you're Xena, we need your help."
Xena relaxed a little and resheathed her sword. "I'm Xena," she said brusquely, "but I doubt that the Kraebius have anything to do with it. They were destroyed years ago. I know. I was there." Gabrielle was startled by the hardness that had suddenly come over Xena's features.
"That's what we thought, too," the man replied, "but yesterday, while on our maneuvers, we heard a report of a small band of travelers that was terrorized several nights ago, just south of here. It seems that three members of the group disappeared and every eye-witness described seeing the same thing. Large, bony creatures, almost insect like."
"How many?" Xena's eyes became slits and her features got even harder.
"Three, maybe four. And that's not all," Eustace continued as he slid off the saddle. "We found these." He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out several long, thin, shiny objects. "A lot of them, laying around the village." He handed one to Xena.
Xena examined the object and shook her head slowly.
"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Something I hoped I'd never see again," she replied as she handed it back to Eustace. "Come on, Gabrielle, we've got to break camp. There's no time to waste." She looked back at Eustace. "If we don't find these people soon it will be too late. Now, go back to your village and try to find out in which direction they were taken. I'll meet you there shortly."
Eustace nodded and jumped on his horse. One quick kick and he was gone.
"Gabrielle, I..." Xena started.
"'*I'll* meet you there shortly'? What's that about? It better not mean what I think it does."
"Look, you don't understand, and I don't have time to explain it to you. You just have to trust me. I want you to go back to the last town we stayed in and wait for me at the inn." Xena was saddling Argo as she spoke, and Gabrielle was right beside her.
"Oh, no you don't," she said, grabbing Xena's arm and spinning her around with surprising force. "This time you have to trust ME. I know I don't have much experience, but I can take care of myself and I might be able to help. I'm coming with you and if you don't let me, then it's over between us. I'm either your partner or I'm nothing. It's up to you. And if you think I'm kidding, just try and go off without me."
Xena had never seen as fierce a look in Gabrielle's eyes as she did now and, for an instant, it caught her unaware. But almost without thinking, she put her hands on her hips and began to narrow her eyes. She could be just as stubborn as Gabrielle, if not more so.
"You're not ready, Gabrielle. That's all there is to it."
"No, that's not all there is, Xena, because no matter how much I practice, how hard I try, you'll never think I'm ready."
Xena thought for a moment and had to admit that she was probably right.
"But I am ready," Gabrielle continued, "and the real issue here is, do you trust me?"
'Gabrielle, Gabrielle,' Xena thought as she looked into her friend's determined eyes, 'the real issue is that I never want you to have to face anything more dangerous or threatening than whatever furry or finned creature you might need to find for dinner.' Even as the words found form in her mind, Xena realized that no matter how nice and safe that all sounded, the reality of their lives would keep crashing in. Gabrielle was right. If they were partners, she had to start treating her like one. Protect her, yes, if she could, but more importantly, trust her, and let her make her own decisions, no matter what the outcome.
"Do you?" Gabrielle demanded again.
Every fiber in her being resisted the decision she was about to make, but in the end, Xena relented.
"Yes," she said, taking hold of Gabrielle's shoulders, "I trust you. Come on, let's go."
Gabrielle smiled and grabbed Xena's arms.
"But first, where's your staff? Bring it here."
Gabrielle dutifully got her staff and held it up to Xena. Xena covered Gabrielle's hands with her own. "Look, this thing may still feel a little awkward and unfamiliar, but you're good with it and you've got good instincts. Just remember, you've got to act, not..."
"...react," Gabrielle finished her sentence. "I know."
Within minutes, they had packed their belongings and doused the fire. Xena jumped onto Argo and reached down for Gabrielle. As she landed on the horse behind Xena, Gabrielle could feel her heart pounding and hoped to every god that Xena couldn't feel it as well. Anxiety, excitement, fear and anticipation were all wrapped up into one big emotional bundle inside of her as they made their way across the creek and upward toward the ridge. She would remind herself to be calm later. Right now, she wanted to enjoy the total exhilaration of the adventure. As they cleared the ridge, Argo began to run hard and fast, and Gabrielle had to press herself tightly against Xena to keep from falling off. She closed her eyes. She could feel Xena's hair whipping about her face and her agreeably musky smell filled Gabrielle's nostrils. Everything about Xena excited her; her beauty, her strength, her confidence. But most of all, it was her heart, her determination to help the innocent, the defenseless, the needy, that reached in and touched Gabrielle deeply. It didn't matter that Xena was motivated, at least in part, by a driving desire to atone for past sins. What did matter was that Xena would do whatever was necessary to help these people. And now, she was a part of it, too. Poteidaia, and her life there, seemed so far away, so mundane, so boring compared to what she was about to experience. Gabrielle almost laughed out loud for the sheer glory of it.
They'd been riding for almost an hour when, at last, they came into the center of a small village. Xena pulled Argo to a halt and looked around. Eustace and several other men ran up to them.
"It looks like they were taken in the night. There is a trail that leads out of the village toward the mountains, but it disappears at the river. We'll have to get to the other side to see if we can pick it up from there."
Xena jumped off Argo and gave her arm to Gabrielle. "All right. I want you to send five or six men to the other side of the river. Tell them to look for any of those long, sharp objects you found here in the village. The Kraebius have a ridge of these spiny growths along their tail and they lose them easily. It may be our only way to follow their trail."
Eustace slapped one of the men on the shoulder and sent him off running.
"Okay, now what?"
"Well, I'm certain they've been taken to the mountains. There's a system of caves and caverns that run for miles in all directions. It's going to be very difficult to find them once they're inside, but I know a few things about the Kraebius that should help us."
Xena stood in the middle of the village, shouting orders to the men who had assembled around her. Within an hour, the search party was formed and provisions were secured. Several scouts had been sent on ahead and plans were made to meet them at the river. Gabrielle watched Xena closely and marveled at the way she had quickly organized the rag-tag group into a cohesive unit. This, of course, was the result of years of experience as the leader of an army. 'Now, at least,' Gabrielle thought, 'she can put all that know-how to work for a better purpose.'
As they neared the river, shouts could be heard from the men who had found where the Kraebius had crossed with the villagers. It was where the river was most shallow and definite tracks could be seen on the muddy banks. Just as Xena had predicted, the trail turned toward the mountains. As Xena knelt beside the river, she knew that time was running out. She had seen what the creatures did to their victims - a fate she wouldn't wish on her worst enemy. It was possible they were already too late, but she couldn't bring herself to think about it. Hope didn't need to be lost until one was faced with the reality of despair.
The small troop marched on, following the telltale signs of the Kraebius. Xena looked around at the men. They were mostly farmers and craftsmen, certainly no match for what they were about to face. But she saw raw determination on their faces. Something that can only come from a desire to recover that which is most precious. These were wives and children they were after and she knew that the men would do everything in their power to save their families, or die trying.
Xena watched as the mountains grew larger. She was very familiar with these mountains and most of the small villages that lay nestled in the valleys around them. Her army had once had unlimited passage rights when the area was under the control of the warlord Tantus. She found a small measure of relief knowing that she wasn't the one who had oppressed the region for years, though she and Tantus had been allies and it was the contingent from her army that had finally gotten victory over the Kraebius. 'Some victory,' she thought ruefully. Still, she found it strange that no one in this band of men had shown even the slightest hesitation in having her lead the rescue attempt. She wasn't exactly unknown in the area and usually visits to old stomping grounds were met with icy distrust, if not out-and-out hostility.
It was hours before they reached the foothills and just as the sun settled below the rocky peaks, the trail disappeared. Xena knew that every minute lost was a minute less of hope, but there was nothing to do but make camp and wait for morning.
"We'll have to stay here tonight," Xena called to Eustace. "We'll never find the trail again in the dark. Have fires made there, there, there and there," she mapped out four corners with her finger, "and put a guard at each one. We're in Kraebius territory now, and we've got to stay alert."
"Won't the fires let them know we're here?" Eustace asked.
"Don't worry," Xena replied grimly, "they know we're here."
Eustace fanned out his men and told them to sleep in shifts. Before long, ghostly shadows danced around the perimeter of the camp as huge bonfires blazed at each corner. Xena and Gabrielle sat at the central fire, eating the rations they had collected at the village. In time, an exhausted Eustace joined them.
"Listen, Eustace," Xena began when he had finished his dinner, "I think you should know what we're dealing with here. The Kraebius are unlike anything else you've ever faced."
Eustace looked up and stared at Xena. "I know exactly what we're dealing with. I was at Sophades."
"You were at Sophades?" Xena asked, a look of slight confusion crossing her face.
"Most of us here were. You seemed surprised."
"I am," Xena replied. "I thought it was only Tantus' army that was at Sophades."
"We were part of his army. Tantus conscripted all the village men in the area between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five. We didn't have a choice. We either joined his army or faced the consequences. The punishment for any act of disobedience was death."
"Well, that's certainly an incentive," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah, it was incentive, all right," he said with rancor. "You see, he didn't threaten to kill the men. That would have been too easy. If any man disobeyed, then either his wife, his child, his mother or some other family member was killed. If he didn't have a family, then he was forced to choose someone who did in his place. Needless to say, we were model soldiers."
"That was a fairly common practice with warlords who used villagers to increase the size of their armies," Xena said as she threw a twig into the fire. "But I always thought Tantus used mercenaries like - " she paused for a second, "like I did."
"Mercenaries were too costly. All he had to do was feed us and keep our families fed, if you want to call it that. Dry bread and thin soup isn't much of a meal. But things always got better when his fellow warlords would make a visit. This may surprise you as well, but we looked forward to whenever you were in the area. For some reason, Tantus was especially interested in impressing you. We always got meat and ale when you were around."
Xena shook her head and let out a long, low breath. "Well, I had no idea that I was so... useful...back then. Is that why the men don't seem to mind my being here? It's not the usual reaction I get from people who've only known me as a warlord."
Eustace shrugged. "You weren't the one who held us in bondage, so we have no quarrel with you. And we've heard the stories of your change of heart. But I suppose the real reason is that we've all done things we're not proud of. Tantus was a brutal man, to his own men as well as his enemies. We were all called upon to do things that were...distasteful."
"But you had no choice," Gabrielle suddenly spoke up. "What man in his right mind would allow his family to be killed. Of course you were going to do what Tantus wanted."
Eustace looked at Gabrielle with the saddest eyes she thought she'd ever seen. "Easy words to say, not so easy to live with."
"So you were at Sophades?" Xena turned to Eustace with a new sense of camaraderie. "Then you know all about the Kraebius."
"Well, I don't," Gabrielle ventured, "and I think it might be a good idea to know what we're up against. What happened at Sophades?"
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle and then back at Eustace and the difference between their two faces almost made her smile. Everything she saw in Gabrielle's eyes, her innocence, anticipation, excitement, was missing from Eustace's. His eyes were hollow, like those of a man who's been forced to see too much blood and destruction. She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and began.
"About ten years ago, a religious group called the Zareds settled in the area around Sophades. They were loyal to Zeus, but refused to acknowledge even the existence of Hera. This infuriated her so much that she created the Kraebius to punish them for their insolence. The Kraebius are large, monstrous and deadly. When Eustace said they were like insects, he was right. After they capture their prey, they do one of two things with them. They either kill them right away, or wrap them up in a tight, sticky cocoon, and save them for later."
At that point, Gabrielle shuddered so violently, that Xena stopped and gave her a long look.
"I'm okay," she replied to Xena's unspoken concern. "My imagination just got a little too active for a minute. Go on. I need to know this."
"Well, it wasn't long before the Kraebius had destroyed all of the Zareds. Unfortunately, Hera had, by that time, conveniently forgotten about her handiwork, leaving them free to roam the mountains around Sophades. Mostly, they preyed on solitary travelers or some of the smaller tribes of nomads. When Tantus took control of the region he didn't mind at first that the Kraebius kept the area free of strangers. It actually worked to his advantage. But when they started raiding his camps and carrying off horses and guards, that's when he started to mind. And that's when he called in a few of his friends to help him deal with the problem. I brought along my best combat unit, and for three days we joined with Tantus' army to fight the creatures in and among the caves where they lived. They were practically indestructible. I remember thinking that Hephaestus himself couldn't make a weapon that could kill them. Then we found their weak spot, an area just at the base of their necks, and after that, it was just a matter of battling it out. We all had heavy losses, but eventually, we defeated them. We piled their bodies in one large cavern and sealed off all the entrances with a little help from some Chinese exploding powder. I examined that cavern myself. There was no other way in or out except the two entrances that were sealed. Either Hera has intervened for some unknown reason, or the Kraebius are a lot more indestructible than we all thought."
Gabrielle listened to Xena's description with a mixture of wonder and disgust. What really fascinated her, though, was that she couldn't remember when she had heard Xena string so many words together at one time. She was actually telling a story, a horrifying one, granted, but still telling it quite well. Maybe that's why she could listen to the all the terrifying details and still not feel any personal fear. It was still just a story to Gabrielle. She watched as Xena would glance at Eustace every now and then. An understanding seemed to pass between them and it dawned on Gabrielle that Xena had found a kindred spirit, of sorts, in this man. In many ways, he was like Xena, profoundly affected by circumstances which had been beyond his control. Well, maybe it was a little different. Eustace, at least, had been forced to commit his atrocities, whatever they were. Xena had made the choice. But the results were the same. They both had been left to somehow deal with the unwanted legacy of remorse and guilt. Gabrielle wondered if he, too, was driven to redeem his life, as Xena was, or if he had merely given up and learned to exist in the dark world of bitterness and regret. From the look in his eyes, she suspected the latter.
The fires burned brightly throughout the night as sentries kept their posts. The camp was already packed when the first few rays of sun shot over the horizon. As soon as it was light enough to see, Xena sent off several groups to try to relocate the trail. Less than an hour later, one of the scouts came running back.
"We've found it," he said breathlessly, "we've found the trail. It leads into a cave just beyond that first strip of pines." He pointed to a grove of tall pine trees which stood not more than a mile and a half from the camp. "And, we found this." He handed her a child's leather moccasin.
Xena looked at the tiny shoe in her hand and her shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly. She tucked it in her belt as she jumped up on a rock and turned to address the group of men around her.
"I've heard that most of you were at Sophades, so you have an idea of what we're up against. For those who don't, there's not much I can tell you except to stay on your toes. When we do meet the Kraebius, and we will, aim your blows for the back of their necks, just at the base of their heads. It's the only place that they're vulnerable. I wish I could give you more to go on. All I can say is that this won't be easy, but if we're going to save your families, we've got to do it now."
With that, the troop moved out, Eustace taking the lead. Xena mounted Argo and gave her hand to Gabrielle.
"You've been pretty quiet all morning," Xena noted after they'd ridden for a while, "are you okay?"
"I'm all right. This all just seems so unreal, that's all, though I suppose it will all become real soon enough."
Xena twisted in the saddle and looked at Gabrielle over her shoulder .
"This isn't a game, you know. These men, you, me, we're all going into an extremely dangerous situation. The Kraebius are ferocious and unpredictable, exactly what Hera had in mind when she created them. One misstep, one distracted moment and it could be over for any one of us. Some of us here will die today, I know that for a fact. I just don't want you to be among them." She threw her head back and exhaled loudly through her mouth. "This isn't even your fight."
"Well, it's not yours, either," Gabrielle rejoined.
"Maybe not, but at least I know what I'm getting into. I've been here before, I know what to expect." She turned to face the front again and said bluntly, "I know how to handle myself."
Gabrielle stiffened a little. "So, what exactly do you expect me to do? We're less than a mile away from the cave. I can't go back to the last inn we were at, or some other safe place. It's too late."
"No it isn't. You could get off now and wait for me here, you could run back to the camp, you could do, oh, I don't know, just about anything else besides what we're about to do." Her voice was distant and harsh, but out of worry, Gabrielle knew, not anger.
"Xena, I promise, I won't take any chances. You know, I rely on you for so many things, for once, just once, I'd like to think that you felt you could rely on me."
"Gabrielle, I know I can," Xena said, barely above a whisper. "And whether you believe it or not, I *do* rely on you, for much more than you can ever know. You don't get it, do you? That's what this is all about. You're becoming important to me, very important, and I don't - I don't want to lose you." Xena swallowed hard and Gabrielle realized, to her amazement, that her voice had caught in her throat. She felt Xena's hand cover her own, which was resting lightly on Xena's waist. She'd always thought that Xena's over-protectiveness stemmed from a fear of the guilt she might feel if anything happened to the younger woman. To know that there were deeper, more personal reasons took her by complete surprise. Speechless, she inched her arm farther around Xena's waist and laid her head against her back.
Before either of them could speak again, they had reached the mouth of the cave. Eustace waved the men to a halt as Xena joined him at the front.
As Argo turned, Gabrielle caught sight of the gaping hole in the side of the mountain. The cave's entrance was not very big, but it exuded an almost tangible darkness and Gabrielle felt a chill run down her spine as she realized that within minutes, they would enter that blackness to face - what? Monsters from a nightmare? She'd had her share of nightmares as a child; vivid dreams of green, slimy creatures, crawling out from under her bed to bite her toes. They were frightened away easily enough by a nice bright torch and a good snuggle with her sister, Lilla. But she knew that these monsters, the Kraebius, were not figments of a child's overactive imagination and as the reality hit her, her heart began to sink. She would not, she began to repeat to herself, could not lose her courage now. Not when lives depended on it and certainly not after the stand she had taken with Xena. She gripped her staff more tightly and jumped down off the horse.
Xena began to organize the men into units and send them off into the cave with torches lit and swords drawn. Had it not been for the bony spines that the Kraebius seemed to shed with complete abandon, they might have been impossible to track, but as it was, the party found a virtual trail to follow, just as they had from the village.
Xena had given Gabrielle strict instructions to stay close, and she had no desire to do otherwise. As they snaked deeper and deeper into the rocky fortress, the air became colder and more stale and Gabrielle could feel the flesh on her bare arms begin to rise into bumps. At regular intervals, the spines could be found scattered across the floor of the tunnel.
"There's something not quite right here," Eustace said to Xena at length. "It's too easy. I don't have a good feeling about this. It could be a trap."
"Yeah, you might be right. I've never seen the Kraebius leave a trail quite this obvious. But it doesn't matter. Either we find your friends and families soon or we all might just as well turn around and go home. The important thing now is to stay alert and be ready for anything."
Just then, shouting could be heard from the end of the line. Xena and Eustace made their way back with Gabrielle close behind.
Several of the men had made a side trip down one of the smaller tunnels and had quickly discovered signs of a struggle. As more torches piled into the area, blood could be seen splattered on the walls, and several sandals and a good number of spines were littered around the ground. Xena instructed four of the men to station themselves at the main juncture while the rest of the party followed the new trail.
The farther down the tunnel they got, the higher and wider the area became, until, suddenly, they found themselves in a large cavernous room, so large that the light from their torches did not reach the farthest wall. Gabrielle had been holding onto Xena's belt, and when she stepped into the room, a horrific stench hit her. It was all she could do to keep from retching as a wave of nausea roiled in her stomach. Xena edged forward and put her hand on Eustace's shoulder.
He glanced back quickly at her and nodded.
"Gabrielle," Xena said as she reached around and loosened the young woman's grip on her belt, "stay here. And keep your staff ready. We're just going to have a look at what's on the other side of this room."
Gabrielle swallowed hard against the queasiness as several men slipped past her to follow Xena. The light from the torches never really illuminated the room, they just gave it an eerie glow which, in Gabrielle's mind, only heightened her sense of terror and suspense.
Suddenly, cries echoed around the cavern.
"Quick, over here!...By the gods!...Hurry, they're still alive..." With that, the rest of the party began to run to the other side of the cavern, sweeping Gabrielle along with them. As she got closer, she could see large, shiny masses attached to the far wall, hanging about five to six feet above the ground. They were bodies, wrapped cocoon-like in a pale, thick, almost translucent substance. Gabrielle shuddered as she realized that only their mouths and noses were exposed.
"Use your swords to cut them down," Xena shouted above the noise. Gabrielle stood at the back of the group and looked blankly at her hands. She had no sword with which to help and even if she had, she wasn't sure she could have moved. Her feet felt like stone and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't bring her mind into focus. The shouting, the shadows, the surge of nausea that continually swept over her were the only things pounding in her brain. She didn't notice the slight movement behind her until it was too late. In a flash, a long, bony arm knocked her off her feet and began pulling her along the ground into the darkness, away from the torches, away from the others, away from Xena. It was only by luck that she was still holding tightly to her staff. Without thinking, she began to kick at her unseen assailant with her one free foot.
"Xena! Help me!" she screamed in desperation. In an instant, she heard the familiar clink of the chakram against cold hardness. With an unearthly screech, the creature released Gabrielle's leg and before she realized what was happening, she was on her feet and scrambling back toward the light. Almost before Gabrielle saw her, Xena's hand had grabbed her arm and pulled her behind her.
Not more than a second later, the room broke into a cacophony of bone-chilling sounds, shrill screams and shrieks, as three other creatures slithered into the room, their heads and torsos hovering in the near darkness like spectral apparitions. Gabrielle, in her worst nightmare, had never imagined such a beast. Even Hercules' description of the Echidna paled in comparison to the repulsive vision which now stood before her. Although they stayed in the shadows, Gabrielle could clearly see their eyes, shining an ominous green almost ten feet above the ground. The light from the torches reflected on long, sharp, glistening teeth which dripped with the same viscous ooze they had used to bind up their prey.
"Steady," Xena said in a low, commanding tone. "Remember, bring their heads down and aim for the back of their necks."
As Gabrielle watch in horror, the largest of the creatures struck, charging blindly into the middle of the group. It caught one of the men in its jaws and swung him high above the heads of the others. Eustace and two men beside him fell on it with their swords while another jumped on the long, bony neck, trying to force its head down with his weight. With one quick jerk, the Kraebius unseated the man on its neck, sending him violently into the wall of the cavern.
It was then that the scene erupted into chaos as the other creatures came alive. There was confusion everywhere; swords flashing, tails sweeping, chakram flying, teeth shining, eyes glowing and the constant screeching, screaming, shouting. Gabrielle mostly stayed toward the back and now and then would help a man to his feet who had been thrown aside by one of the creatures. Out of the corner of her eye she could see that one of the Kraebius was down, a group of men around its head stabbing and jabbing their swords into the vulnerable area at the base of its neck. More than a few men were down as well, slumped against the side of the cave, several in grotesque positions, their eyes staring blankly into nothingness.
Xena was at the front, engaged in fierce battle with the largest of the creatures. She, Eustace and four or five other men had it backed into a recess in the wall of the cavern. At one point, the Kraebius was able to fling its tail in a wide arc, hitting several of the men and effectively maneuvering out of the tight position into which they had forced it. When that happened, Xena ran directly into the beast's line of vision and waved her sword back and forth in front of its face. Taking the bait, the creature dipped its head several times and snapped at her, at which point Eustace tried to make the fatal blow to its neck. But each time the creature would jerk upward again, deflecting Eustace's sword. Suddenly, the creature dipped again toward Xena, coming within inches of her face and throwing her off balance just as its tail caught her behind the legs. At the same moment, its head hit Eustace full force, knocking him to the ground. Before Xena could get to her feet, the Kraebius sank its deadly teeth into Eustace, drew itself up full height and smashed his body to the ground in a bloody heap. The danger to Xena and utter heartlessness of that action spurred something inside of Gabrielle. She found herself running toward the creature, her staff swinging wildly and a piercing scream emanating from her lips. She stopped in front of the Kraebius, holding her staff defiantly above her head, and let out another scream.
"Gabrielle! No!" she heard Xena shout, muted almost, as if from a distance. In one quick movement, the Kraebius swung its head to silence the audacious form in front of it. Just as quickly, Gabrielle took a long step backward and as the head missed its mark, her staff hit the back of its neck with a sharp crack. The blow was not enough to kill the beast, but it was stunned, dropping down on one leg. Seeing the advantage, Xena immediately made her move, and in one savage slice, her sword struck the creature at the precise point, severing its spinal cord and very nearly lopping off its head.
Xena and Gabrielle, both fueled by adrenaline, turned at the same time to assess the ongoing battle. The third creature was dead and the men had the last one down. A number of men were already working to free the villagers from their hideous prisons.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle and was surprised to see her looking relatively calm. "I'm going to help over there," she inclined her head toward the villagers. "The best thing you can do is to take care of the wounded," she paused for a split second, "if that's okay with you."
Gabrielle stared back at her and nodded gravely. She took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. Most of the torches were either out or laying on the floor of the cavern, but even in the faint light, she could see that many of the men had been killed or seriously wounded. As she made her way from body to body, she came to Eustace. His death had been immediate, and, she hoped, painless. He had fought bravely, they all had. A terrific sadness began to wash over her as she realized the price that these men had paid to save their families. Families that would now be bereft of a father, a brother, a son. But families that nevertheless wouldn't have survived without their sacrifice.
When she had come full circle around the cavern, she met Xena. They had been able to release all of the villagers who still were alive, and Xena was covered with sweat and slime. But Gabrielle didn't care. Just as the men were embracing their wives and children, Gabrielle fell into Xena's arms and held her as tightly as she could, but not as tightly as she wanted to. Xena wrapped her arms around her friend and buried her face in the golden hair. After a while, Xena pulled back slightly and looked down at the tear-stained features in front of her.
"Thank you. You saved my life, you know."
"I - I don't know how. I didn't even think, it just happened."
"Exactly." Xena brushed a strand of hair from Gabrielle's eyes. "Exactly."
"Oh," Gabrielle smiled faintly as she realized she had just passed her first important test. "Of course."
Fourteen out of fifty-eight men had been killed by the Kraebius and three villagers had perished. All bodies had been accounted for and for that Xena was grateful. She knew that in any kind of conflict, the pain of loss was lessened, at least a little, if death was certain and good-byes could be said. Of the wounded, only five were serious enough to warrant extended treatment, the others hobbled about with their canes or slings or bandages.
Xena and Gabrielle were both surprised to find out that of all the dead, only Eustace had no family.
"No brother or sister or aunt or uncle or anything," Gabrielle asked one of Eustace's friends over the dinner to which she and Xena had been invited.
"No. No one. Well, he did have a younger brother, but - he died," was the hesitant answer.
"Oh," she said as her eyebrows formed a furrow. "What happened? That is, if you don't mind my asking."
"I don't imagine it will hurt to talk about it now. When we were first conscripted into Tantus' army, we didn't realize that our families would be treated so harshly. Eustace had been his brother's sole provider and when he found out that Tantus was allowing only the smallest portion of bread and broth for them to eat, he smuggled some of his rations to him. Tantus found out about it and decided to make Eustace a, ah, what do you call it - an example, for the rest of us. He brought his brother into the camp one morning and with not even so much as a 'fare-thee-well', tied him to a stake and had two of his archers make quick work of him."
Gabrielle clamped her hand over her mouth and tears began to stream down her face. Xena sat in stony silence.
"I'm sorry, miss, maybe I shouldn't have said anything."
"No, no, it's all right," Gabrielle tried to assured the man, " I'm glad I know. It explains a few things."
"Poor fellow. He never forgave himself. He became as hard as a rock after that, just shut himself off from everything and everyone. Didn't want to rely on anybody or have anybody rely on him in any way. We all tried to take him in, you know, make him part of our families, but it never was a go. He was a good man who got a bum deal. I hope he's finding some peace now."
"So do I," Gabrielle said as her eyes wandered over to Xena. She made eye contact with her and held her in her gaze for a long moment. So Eustace had been even more of a kindred spirit to Xena than she'd realized. With one difference...
Later that night as they laid on their beds in the comfortable little room the villagers had so gracious provided, Gabrielle looked over at her friend.
"You know, I think I may have figured it out."
Xena propped herself up on one elbow and looked back at Gabrielle.
"Figured what out?"
"Why I'm here. You know, HERE," she made a familiar wide gesture with her arms.
"Oh, and what is that?"
Gabrielle suddenly sat up and turned toward Xena.
"Well, to save your life, for one thing."
Xena nodded and looked deeply into the eyes of her friend.
"And," Gabrielle leaned forward and cupped Xena's face in her hand, "so you'll always have someone to rely on and who relies on you."
Xena smiled a sad smile and pulled Gabrielle into a warm embrace.
"I never want it any other way."