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Two If By Sea

by melodier

Two If By Sea is a sequel to my earlier story, Xena and the Viking.

Disclaimers and such: Of course, the characters of Xena WP and Gabrielle belong to Universal. The character of Lena the Viking is mine.

©Copyright M.E. Romeo Feb. 15, 1997

In days gone by, at a time when Hera was angry with Zeus, she walked the earth and met a handsome nobleman named Achropello. She was so taken by his gentle strength and his incomparable beauty, that she married him. But Achropello did not know who she was. She had a son with him, but as soon as Zeus found out, he became jealous because the child favored the fair Achropello. He struck the infant with a curse that turned him into a hideous man-beast. As the boy grew to be a man, he was driven mad by his tortured state of being and ran away into the forests. Meanwhile, Hera returned to Mt. Olympus and thought nothing more about the child until one night . . .

Xena and Gabrielle sat beside the glowing embers of their campfire that night, enjoying the young pheasant they had cooked. "I can't wait 'till we get to Athens!" Gabrielle's green eyes sparkled. "The theater of Dionysus - it will be so great. Xena, can you imagine, just being there where Socretes, Europides, and Plato lived!"

Xena smiled at her companion's excitement. This trip was strictly for Gabrielle's benefit for Xena had little interest in Athens. But it was worth the journey to see her dear friend so happy. "I'm sure it will be fascinating," she replied, trying to sound enthused.

"I know, Xena," her blond haired friend understood. "But thank you for bringing me. I have dreamed of seeing Athens since I was a child."

Xena smiled mystically, feeling the joy in Gabrielle's heart. "Well, if you don't get some sleep, you won't be able to travel tomorrow, so let's hit the sack." The warrior knew that they had traveled far and had many more miles to cover to reach their destination.

"I'll try to get some sleep," she consented.

Suddenly, Xena's keen senses were awakened by a sound in the bushes and the awareness of another presence near them. "What is it?" Gabrielle asked, seeing the response in her companion.

"Someone, or something's, out there," she said softly as she picked up her sword and rose to her feet. Gabrielle followed Xena's lead and with staff in hand, she crept around the fire.

"Who's there?" Xena called. "Speak up or you're a dead man." No one replied, but Xena heard footsteps on dry leaves dash around them just beyond the light of the fire. She only saw what appeared to be a shadow.

"I don't like this," said Gabrielle nervously as she peered into the dark. "Is it gone?"

"I don't think so." Then an unearthly growling roar was heard from the darkness. It almost sounded like it said, "Free me." A tortured shriek followed and a dark creature rushed past behind them in the forest. Without warning, from a tree branch above them, the creature sprang down onto Xena's back, scratching her shoulders with it's claws. She grabbed the beast by its forearm and flung it over her shoulder to the ground. Engaged in battle, she had no time to study the beast or determine what it was, though it somewhat resembled a black lion. The eyes, though; there was something about it's eyes.

It sprang towards her with a growl. Xena thrust forward her sword, striking the creature in its chest. It now appeared to be standing on its hind legs as it let out the most mortified shriek they had ever heard. It clasped what looked like clawed hands over the gaping hole as Xena withdrew her sword. It looked her in the eyes, tilting it's black head to one side. "Thank you," it sighed and crumbled to the ground. Before their very eyes, the monster was transformed back into the figure of a handsome man as he lay dead at the warrior's feet.

They both looked on astonished and did not know what to think or do next. "Who is he? Where did he come from?" Gabrielle began with questions for which Xena had no answers.

There was a rumble on Mt. Olympus as Hera discovered that her son had been killed. In a fit of rage, she declared, "Xena, the Warrior Princess, must die for this outrage!"

"Why should she die?" thundered Zeus. "For putting a poor creature out of his misery?"

"He was my son," the hot tempered goddess glared. "You turned him into that detestable beast. No, she will pay for taking his life."

"You may not kill her," ordered Zeus. "I will not allow your petty revenge to interfere with the life of this mortal. She has not yet walked out the road that destiny has put before her."

Hera steamed. "Then I shall merely torture and torment her and when I have broken her spirit and her will, you may have her back. Then we'll see if she can complete her destiny."

Xena and Gabrielle were still standing by the fallen man. Xena kneeled down to get a better look at him. At that moment, a violent wind blew through the camp. Gabrielle raised her hands to block its force from her face. "Xena," spoke a cold voice. "That was my son." A misty image of Hera's face appeared before them. "As I shall never again gaze on the face of one I loved, then shall you never again gaze on the faces of those you love." In a flash, Xena was gone, along with the fierce wind and Hera's image.

"Xena!" cried Gabrielle. "Where are you?" The young bard was struck with terror as she realized her best friend was gone and she was left alone in the darkness, miles from anyone. Her heart pounded in her chest as she panicked, not knowing if Xena was alive or dead. "No!" she screamed. "Bring her back!" she shouted, defying even the goddess Hera if she must to keep from loosing the one person that meant the most to her in all the world. "Bring her back," she repeated quietly as she fell to her knees sobbing.

In that instant, the Warrior Princess was transported to a strange and desolate island of stones. Bewildered and disoriented, Xena looked around her and had no idea where she was or how she got there. She still held her sword in her hand and that gave her some comfort, but Hera seemed to know her thoughts. "Here your sword will not be able to save you. You will meet the three greatest enemies of the mortal realm. If you survive, I will be back."

"I didn't know," she called at the sky. "It is not fair to punish me!" Xena looked around her. There was the merciless sea pounding the jagged shore and reddish brown rocks, stones, and boulders. Xena was not sure what to expect or who these three titans may be, so she began to climb to find the highest point on the island so she could see and know what she was facing.

Gabrielle had spent a sleepless night alone by the fire, but morning meant going somewhere to do something to find her friend, only she was totally clueless. Despondent yet determined to never give up, she climbed onto Argo's back. "Come on," she said. "We'll try this; I don't have any choice." She held on tightly and nervously, but was determined to make the fastest time to Athens. "We're still going to Athens. That's where we were headed. If she gets away, she may go there. If not, then perhaps I can find an oracle to help me." She turned the horse onto the road and clicked for him to run. She wanted to waste no time in reaching her destination.

The midday sun beat down relentlessly on the Warrior Princess as she stood at the top of the rock heap with no shade in sight. She could see the general outline of the barren island, but the many hills and caves left numerous hiding places for monsters. Recalling Hera's words, she wondered what three enemies would await her. "Thirst must surely be one," she thought wiping sweat from her brow. Then she caught sight of a small patch of green over in a valley. "Maybe there's water," she thought and scampered down the rocks with sure feet.

Thinking this to be a good place for a trap, Xena was especially cautious. She withdrew her sword as she circled the small pool with its meager border of foliage. No sign of a monster here. Kneeling down by the pool, she cupped her hand and dipped up some of the cool water. She smelled it first, then tasted just a drop. It seemed to be sweet and clean, so driven by thirst, the warrior poured the refreshment into her mouth. As she reach down to the pool for another scoop of water, she saw the sparkling reflection of Gabrielle, cheerful and smiling. She spun around, but no one was there. Looking back at the water, she saw that the reflection was gone. "My mind must be playing tricks on me," she said to herself and scooped up another handful of water.

As she drank from the pool, a strange talking crow flew over her head. "You'll never escape; you'll never escape," it screeched. The bird made Xena angry and she jumped to her feet. "You'll never escape," it called, circling her again. Determined to silence the bird, Xena reached for her chakram and hurled it at the crow, knocking it from the sky. She caught her weapon as it returned to her hand and watched the black bird hit the ground.

"That'll shut you up," she said, but the words lodged in her mind and she could not shake them.

After a few days of vigorous riding, Gabrielle finally reached Athens. The city was as magnificent as she had imagined, yet the thrill and joy of this long anticipated day were gone. Her only purpose in being there now was to get help to find the friend she loved and was lost without. In the large and crowded city of Athens, Gabrielle felt very alone. It was hard to remember having ever been alone, but after three days and nights with only Argo for company, she was at least glad to see other people.

"What now?" she thought. She stabled the Palomino at a barn near the edge of town and began to walk the streets. At the focal point of the city was the temple of Athena, guardian of Athens. Gabrielle looked on the place with contempt. "Why are the gods so cruel? Here is someone who has changed for the better and does nothing but help the weak and punish the wicked and because of one honest mistake she is taken away? It isn't fair!" She sat down on the temple steps and buried her face in her hands, crying.

An old man in a white tunic and robes saw her there and stopped. Placing a shaky hand on her shoulder, he asked, "What is wrong, my child?" She looked up at him through moist, teary eyes. He had a kind, rosy face and white hair circling the bald spot on his head. "Has Athena wronged you?"

"No," she sniffed, wiping her eyes. "It was Hera. My friend is gone and I don't even know where to look for her."

"Take courage, my dear. Hera's anger seldom triumphs. Look within your heart, what you know to be true."

"I know she is still alive," she answered confidently.

"Then hold on to that; make it your weapon to fight despair. Our greatest enemies, you know, are not those that attack our fleshly bodies, but those that attack our souls." He patted her on the shoulder and smiled. "I hope you find your friend."

"Thank you," she said, grateful for a bit of encouragement.

The old man walked on and soon Gabrielle heard another voice, but saw no one. It was a woman's voice that called to her. "You are right, friend of the Warrior Princess. Hera was not playing fairly." The young woman looked about but saw no one. She began to climb the steps to the temple because the voice seemed to come from within it.

"Who's there?" she asked.

"Athena, and I will show you where Xena is. The rest is up to you." Suddenly, Gabrielle began to see a vision of sea charts and islands. One arose like a giant rock from under the sea that was not on the chart; it took its place with the others. "There," Athena spoke. "Remember." Instantly, the map in her vision began to sparkle, then fade away. But Gabrielle had committed it to memory.

"I need a chart; I need a ship!" She began excitedly skipping down the steps. Then she stopped and looked up with new hope. "Thank you, Athena." She resumed skipping down the steps, talking to herself. "I need . . . I need - Lena! She has a ship. I've got to find her." The excited girl rushed off toward the port to find out where the Viking traders were last seen.

Back on the rock, Xena had yet to meet a monster, but each day she fell deeper and deeper into despair. There was no way off the island, no way to send a message, and not even an enemy to fight. Life simply revolved around the pool. "You'll never escape, you'll never escape," raced through her mind constantly. The warrior looked into the pool. This time she saw herself as old. She disturbed the water with her hand, taking a sip. As the ripples cleared, she saw Gabrielle happily surrounded by all their friends. It seemed they had forgotten all about her. Her spirit began to sink deeper into despair. "You know, I'm never going to get off this rock," she heard herself say.

All at once, something inside of her rose up. Her overcoming spirit began to fight. "What did I just say?" she uttered in disbelief. That is when she realized what was happening. It was a pool of despair and it was trying to drown her. "No," she voiced resolutely, standing to her feet. "I'll not give up this easily. There is a way out of here, but I'll have to leave this pool to find it." With that, she marched off towards a new part of the island, sporting a fresh and strong spirit of determination.

At the port of Athens, Gabrielle spent the day interviewing merchants and sailors and at last found someone who remembered the Vikings.

"Yes," the old sea captain replied. "They were here only a week ago, headed for Delos, as I recall."

"It is vital that I catch up with them," she explained hastily. "It is a matter of life and death."

"Well, we are headed that way ourselves. I'm sailing for Ephesus tomorrow and Delos would only be a small detour. Of course, I can't promise they'll still be there," he cautioned.

"Yes, yes, but please take me with you. I can pay," she offered, reaching for her small money pouch.

"No need," the seaman said, raising his hand. "Just stay out of sight of my crew. I cannot vouch for all of their characters." Gabrielle promised and made ready for the voyage.

As Xena trekked across the rugged, barren island, she came to a low place where steam seeped up through cracks. It was as hot as Hades. Parched skeletons lay scattered among the rocks. The warrior cautiously passed this place of death and continued on. Although the air and ground were hot, she felt a certain coldness lingering with her even after the area was out of sight. Where ever she looked, Xena could find no living thing. Many days had passed and the woman could feel the heavy shadow of loneliness covering her very being. However, she fought this with her memories of Gabrielle and their commitment to one another. "I am not alone," she said to herself. "I'll never be alone again."

As darkness began to close in, Xena had become wearied and bored from walking the rock. There was nothing to do and no one to do it with. "What kind of living nightmare is this?" she cried aloud, assuming that no one would hear her.

She was startled with a weak, scratchy voice which uttered the words, "Who's there? Are you real?"

"I'm real, all right," she answered searching for the one who had spoken. "Come out and show yourself."

A little, old, hunched back man crept out from a small crevice between two large rocks. His arms and fingers looked like bones with skin stretched over them but his eyes shone brightly as they came to rest on Xena.

"Are you real, or just another demon sent to torture me?" he asked again as he crept closer.

"I'm Xena, and I'm real enough. I was marooned on this rock by Hera and will not rest until I have defeated three enemies of the mortal realm and can get out of here. Now, who are you?"

"Falstaff," he answered, trying to straighten up. "I was left here as well, many years ago when I was still young. But you are the first living soul I have seen in all that time," he gleamed joyfully. "Come, enjoy my food," he invited, leading the way. "Clams, oysters, crabs. Come, come."

Xena was hungry and very glad to have human company, so she followed him, yet with a watchful eye open for she was suspicious of everything in this place.

"I once thought as you do," he sighed as they sat down to eat. "But now I know escape is impossible."

"Surely a ship will pass by eventually," she wagered.

The old man shook his head. "The island appears on no charts and even if a ship did pass near here, there is a giant sea monster that guards the island. I saw it destroy a ship once and eat all on board."

Xena was disturbed by his story, but would not let herself give up hope. "My friends will come for me and I'm not afraid of any sea monster," she declared.

"How will they know where you are?"

Xena thought for a moment. "Gabrielle is smart. She will find a way. Besides, Hera said if I defeat these three enemies she may let me go back. The problem is, I can't find anyone - or anything - to fight. I am a great warrior and I know I could defeat these challengers if I could just find them." Xena poured out her frustrations on the only set of ears she had found to listen, even though she doubted he could help her plight.

"I have been here for your lifetime and have not until this day seen another living soul. Perhaps Hera lied to you. As for your friends," he sighed shaking his head. "How long will they search? No heart is true; no love is real. It is only for a time and a season. Each passing day takes you farther away from their lives. In time, even the most dedicated will give up. It is inevitable."

Xena sat in silence and ate her shellfish. Doubt began to worm its way into her mind and cause her to question everything that she believed in. Would all things come to an end? Was this the time? Would Gabrielle continue to search for her? What if it took years? Would time change everything that was in their hearts? Did the world really want or need her? She looked at her host and began to wish she had never met him. He continued to talk, telling stories of his youth, but Xena lay down in silence and tried to sleep.

After several days of sailing, the sea captain came below to inform Gabrielle that Delos had been sighted. She accompanied him to the helm where they watched intently for any sign of the Viking ship. As they entered the bay, Gabrielle spotted the distinctive design and red and white striped mainsail of Lena's ship. "There!" she cried. "That's it!"

"Make for the ship," called the captain. "Slow our speed."

Gabrielle ran to the highest place on the bow of the merchant ship and waved wildly. "Hey! Over here! Stop!"

A tall, fair haired young man wearing, a blue wool tunic and boots and cape of fur, saw this strange girl jumping about. "Captain," he called to the tall woman standing by the rudder man. "Take a look at this," he said pointing.

The lady Viking walked to the rail and raised her hand to her brow to block the western sun from her eyes. She was tall and strong with the air of a leader. Thick, wavy brown hair hung to her shoulders and shone with red highlights in the sun. Her tan chamois garment was skirted with heavy brown leather flaps around her hips and thighs. A red wool cape hung from her shoulders almost to the deck. In a moment she recognized Gabrielle. "Crew!" she shouted. "Lower that sail, slow our speed, ready the hooks and gang plank. Bring her about and we'll join with that ship."

Once the ships were joined, Gabrielle hurried across the plank to meet Lena who waited to greet her. Gabrielle gave her a quick hug in greeting then wasted no time in making her request. "Xena's in trouble and she needs your help - I need your help."

"No matter the cost, I am with you," she said clasping the young woman's hands. "Now, tell me," she said as they began to walk toward Lena's cabin.

"Xena killed a mortal son of Hera's by mistake and has been marooned on an uncharted island. I know where it is - Athena showed me. But I need a ship_"

"You've got it," she heartily agreed. "Now, show me this island." Lena spread the charts out on her table and pointed to Delos. "Here we are now. There's Crete."

"Yes, yes," Gabrielle said as her bright green eyes surveyed the map. She traced a triangle between three of the Adrianic islands with her finger, then pointed to a spot in the center of the triangle. "There," she said with certainty. "It's there."

"Then we shall go and get her back." Gabrielle's and Lena's eyes met. Lena admired the Warrior Princess and was honored to have the privilege to call her friend. She also knew how close this young friend was to the mighty Xena and that nothing would turn her back from her quest.

Gabrielle gave her a satisfied smile and replied, "Thanks."

The two went back on deck so that Lena could issue orders to her crew. The two ships had just finished disengaging and Gabrielle waved fondly to the old sea captain who had brought her there. "All hands, make ready to sail," Lena shouted to the men. "Make the heading west by southwest, full sail. Make all haste and," she added, "be ready for anything."

Gabrielle stood leaning on the rail overlooking the sea while Lena went about her task of supervising her crew. The tall, broad shouldered blond Viking, who had first spotted Gabrielle, walked up to her with an inviting smile. "Hi," he greeted warmly. "I'm Olan, and as first mate on this ship, it is my duty to see that you are comfortable and lack for nothing. I want you to rest assured that while I am around, no harm will come to you," he boasted playfully.

Gabrielle looked him over. He was fair and handsome with a powerful physique and yet a boyish face and manner. If she had not had so much on her mind, she might have been attracted to him. "I'm pretty good at taking care of myself, but feel free to defend me from danger if it makes you happy," she joshed with a playful smile.

"Olan," Lena said as she walked up beside Gabrielle. "Take the helm. The current is getting strong here."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. He smiled and winked at Gabrielle then went straight to his task.

"I see you've met Olan," Lena smiled at her little friend.

"He must be quite one with the ladies," she replied.

"Don't let his playful flirting fool you. That young man is an awesome fighter, even if I am a little bit prejudiced," she smiled. Gabrielle looked at her questioningly and Lena explained. "He is my nephew, my older sister's son. I'd trust him with my life; that's why he's first mate on this ship," she grinned with pride in the lad.

Gabrielle lifted her gaze to the man gripping the huge rudder of the ship who turned and steadied the massive vessel as if it was no task at all. His muscles bulged from the strain, yet his expression remained relaxed. "We are fortunate to have him in case we run into trouble on the way. And, knowing Xena, and everything we've been through, and how nothing is ever as simple as it seems," she expounded.

The two adventurous women looked at each other and voiced as one, "There'll be trouble."

One day into the voyage, the wind ceased completely, not even a whisper. So the men had to take to the oars to pull the ship through the great sea. It was tiring labor and Lena held the rudder straight as they rowed. Gabrielle assisted by bringing drinks of water to the men. When she came to Olan, he smiled at her charmingly. "Pour it in my mouth for me so I don't have to stop rowing."

Gabrielle tried to oblige, but his rocking motion made it impossible for her to do anything but spill water on him. "Hold still. This is not working."

"All right." He took one hand off the oar to hold the cup and continued stroking with the other, staying in tempo with the drummer. "Thank you, my dear," he said after gulping down the refreshment. "Although a smile from your sweet face is worth more than a hundred cups of water," he said poetically.

"Now stop that," Gabrielle blushed, trying not to smile. "We're on serious business here."

"Oh, most serious," Olan agreed, then added, "but that doesn't mean we can't have fun." He winked at the lovely Gabrielle who looked at him in unbelief and shook her head.

"I've got to get water for the others," and she left him.

By the second day of no wind, Lena and Gabrielle were taking turns at the oars as well to spell the men from their toils. Gabrielle strained at her oar, putting all she had into the task. But her hands were not accustomed to the constant friction of the rough wood against them. Soon she had blisters. Then they popped. After a few hours, her hands began to bleed, but she pressed on ignoring the pain, thinking only of the moment they would reach their destination.

As Lena paced the center of the vessel checking on each sailor, she noticed the red stains on the handle of Gabrielle's oar. "O.K., let me see your hands."

"I'm fine, really," the determined young woman replied. "I can go on."

"Gabrielle," the lady Viking directed with firm authority. "Get off that oar." Gabrielle looked up at her in frustration, but decided that there was no point in arguing. As she pulled in the oar, Lena said to her, "Now get to my cabin and take care of your hands."

"I guess," she mumbled downheartedly.

As she stood, Lena put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a word of encouragement. "We'll get there; don't worry."

Xena spent her days scouting for some way off of the barren island but returned to the old man's camp each night. After so much solitude, she found she needed what ever human company she could find. Still, the old man depressed her, a living symbol that resistance was futile.

That night around the campfire, the old man pried Xena to talk. "Now, young woman, you have told me nothing about yourself. Come now, speak up."

"There isn't much to tell," she rather lied to him. "My life has been one war, or tragedy, or adventure, or amazing discovery after another - until everything has reached a stand still here." She became agitated once more. "One more boring, eventless day and I'm going to scream!"

"Well, at least it is peaceful, quiet, restful. No need to war or labor here," he explained.

"Yeah, and no reason to live, either."

"Why do you protest so?" he inquired. "It is a waste of your energy. Just accept your fate." Xena turned her face from him and covered her eyes. "Hera has left you here forever and no mortal or god will come to your aid. Your friends will get on with their lives and forget about you. All you have is this island and me. Come, let us play a game of dice," he suggested.

Xena rose to her feet resolutely. "I'm out of here."

"Wait," he cried, following after her. "You'll be alone with out me."

"I refuse to give up hope. I will not sit here and die on the inside. And I cannot listen to another word of this defeatism!" She turned and ran away.

"But you'll be alone!" he called after her.

"Alone," she thought, "alone." As she ran across the stony ground through the blackness of the night, the battle raged within her. She began to understand that the enemies of which Hera spoke were indeed the most dangerous of foes. They could not be conquered with a sword and they never seemed to leave her. Then, like the refreshing of a soft spring rain, the words of Lena the Viking returned to her heart. "You are not alone; you are never alone in this world when you have a friend like that." Gabrielle's face was as clear in her mind as if she were beholding her countenance. Xena slowed down and stopped running. Moments of joy and images of loved ones, living and dead, joined her in the solitude of that forsaken place; the incomparable assurance of being loved by another, which she had only recently truly come to understand and appreciate, filled the warrior with more strength than a legion of fighters. Lena was right - she was not alone.

The next day, the wind had picked up and the Viking vessel was clipping along at a good pace. Spirits on board rose when a sailor called out, "Land! I see land."

Lena and Gabrielle made their way to the bow of the ship, which rocked up and down as it cut through the salty waves. "We shouldn't be there yet," said Lena. "But this island wasn't on my chart."

Gabrielle studied the form barely visible in the distance. "No," she hesitated. "My intuition is telling me that's not it."

"Could we be off course? Olan," she called and swiftly the young man was at her side.

"What's wrong?" he asked, seriously for once.

"What's our current position?"

"Latitude 36 degrees 52 minutes north by longitude 25 degrees 15 minutes east. I'm certain; I checked it just an hour ago."

"I've never sailed this way before, but that island shouldn't be there."

"Wait!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she had a sudden thought. "It must be the land of the sirens. I've heard of them being in this part of the sea - women who lure in sailors with their songs, crashing their ships on the rocks. It is said that no man can resist their voices."

"Then we must stuff up the men's ears with wax so they can't hear. Men," she called. "Hold steady. There is something we must do." She and Gabrielle walked to the stern and brought candles out of Lena's Cabin. Then they went around to the men dropping melted wax in their ears to block out the siren's song.

"Is this really necessary?" Olan asked when Gabrielle told him to sit down.

"Yes," she said impatiently. "Now, turn your head."

"Ow!" he cried as hot wax landed in his ear.

"Don't be such a baby."

"Hey, but I like good music, and I'm sure I could resist their spell," he boasted.

"Yeah, right!" Gabrielle answered sarcastically. "Even Odysseus could not; what makes you think you can? Now, give me your other ear."

"Well, maybe you could sing a lullaby for me tonight then, as a consolation," he suggested with a grin.

She gave him a look as if to say, forget it, then dropped hot, melted wax into his ear.

"You love to torture me, don't you?" he replied.

Gabrielle stood beside Lena at the helm as she steered the mighty vessel past the island, well away from its rocky shore. They heard the eiry, haunting voices of the enchantresses as they stood on the cliffs above sending out their intoxicating song. As celestial as their voices sounded, the luring spell did not work on the two women, and with the men's ears closed, they passed the danger safely.

The Warrior Princess had now reached the far side of the island. Everything was quiet and still; there was no living thing in sight. "All right, Hera, here I am; give it your best shot!" she cried in defiance of the goddess, ready to get this ordeal over with. Without warning, the sky became black and the ground began to rock and shake violently. A loud noise like the roar of thunder filled Xena's ears. She balanced her feet on the two shifting rocks beneath them, watching and waiting. Her stand remained as determined as granite, and she did not run nor try to hide from this powerful force of nature. A mighty wind arose as if to blow her from the surface of the rock into the sea, but leaning into the wind, she stood firm.

After a time, the earthquake subsided with one, last, fiery crack opening in the ground near where the Warrior Princess stood. From out of the depths of the earth, there arose a massive figure of power, and scales, and wings, and fire - a dragon. It towered above Xena as it climbed from the pit and looked down at her with fiery eyes. Billows of smoke puffed from its nostrils, as it twisted and turned its reptilian body toward her. Xena drew her sword and faced the dragon with resignation. This is what she had been waiting for.

The vicious creature cracked its spiked tail at its prey like a huge whip of cedar, but the agile warrior sprang into the air and flipped safely out of its reach. She faced the dragon once more as it looked at her with malicious fury. It opened its jaws and spit flames from between its razor like teeth. The fire formed a circle completely surrounding her. She could hear the crackle and feel the heat radiating from the flames as they began to close in on her from all sides. She looked about quickly and spotted a high boulder just beyond the circle of flame. Using her special skill, she leapt up and flipped through the highest points of the flames to land safely atop the boulder.

The ground shook as the mammoth dragon stepped towards her, snapping its fierce jaws and wriggling its formidable tail. Xena knew that the time had come for her to go on the offensive, but how would she get close enough to strike the beast, and would her sword penetrate its scaly armor? Then she had a thought. She clutched the chakram, and with mighty force hurled the spinning weapon at the monster. The disk hit upon the dragon's chest, cutting a gash that began to bleed. It shrieked in anger as the weapon returned to its mistress's hand.

Xena's blue eyes were sparked with encouragement as she threw out the chakram once more. This time, the dragon reacted quickly and caught the flying disk in its steely teeth. Xena was caught off guard by this and her first thoughts were on how she would get it back. At that moment, the massive dragon inhaled, and instinctively the warrior knelt down and covered her face with her arms. Fire spewed out of its mouth, along with the chakram which landed at Xena's feet. She discovered at once that most of the flames had hit the rock and she had been spared. Her gauntlets and boots had been scorched and part of her arms burnt, but nothing serious. She lifted her throwing disk and secured it back on her belt. There was only one thing left to do.

The Warrior Princess rose to her feet among the puffs of smoke and faced the terrible monster eye to eye. She grasped her sword by the handle and the tip and sprang through the air, flipping onto the dragon's scaly back. She gripped its body firmly with her powerful thighs, and with both hands on the hilt, jabbed her sword into the creature's back.

It screamed and wriggled and began thrashing about. Xena pulled out the sword and slammed it in again and again. It was hard to stay on the flailing beast, and at one point her legs gave way and she began to slip. But holding tight to the sword embedded in the dragon's body, she pulled herself back on top.

At long last, the defeated agent of destruction could stand no longer, and it crumbled to the ground. Xena climbed off, her bloody sword in her hand. She stepped back from the creature, breathing heavily from the struggle, and watched it exhale its final breath.

The cloud over head began to lift and the last of the fires died out. "There!" Xena called up at the sky. "I killed your dragon. I have won. You cannot make me afraid. I will get off this island." Receiving no response from the gods, the Warrior Princess slowly walked away from the battle ground.

She had not been walking long, when she heard a familiar voice calling her name. "Xena, there you are!"

She spun around to see Gabrielle walking toward her. "Gabrielle!" Her eyes lit up with joy and excitement as she rushed to hold her friend.

"Now before you go getting all sentimental on me," the smaller blond haired girl said as she pulled away. "I'm glad you're all right, and all, but we have to talk."

Xena was taken back by this lack of warmth and waited uneasily to hear what she had to say.

"While you were gone, I've been thinking. All this trekking around the country, battling warlords, this just isn't for me. I loved Athens, and I've been offered a job in a thespian troop. I am happier than I ever was with you. In fact, I know this sounds awful, but I didn't really miss you that much." A sick feeling flooded Xena's soul as she listened to the words of the bard. "It isn't that I don't like you or anything, it's just that for the past year I've been living your dream, not mine. Besides, you don't need me slowing you down. The bottom line is, I don't want to be with you anymore, so I've come to say good-bye."

The warrior's spirit was crushed and she felt like she was dying on the inside. All this time, while her thought of Gabrielle kept her going, her "trusted" friend was forgetting about her. "She doesn't love me," she thought. "Maybe she never did - it was just all in my mind. How could she do this to me? Here, now, like this?" Xena found herself face to face with her greatest fear. This wasn't just rejection; it was more like betrayal. Not only was it breaking her heart, but it was stealing her will to live. "Why?" she thought s she stood there speechless before Gabrielle. "What has it all been for? I would have been better off to have never learned to love than to be made to suffer this way. It would have been better had I died." Thoughts of suicide raced into her mind. "Maybe I should just end it all right here, right now." She slowly withdrew her blade and studied its simple beauty. It still was stained with the dragon's blood - the simple dragon who had never been betrayed by "love." "The old man was right," she thought. "Love, trust, commitment, friendship - they were all just an illusion."

As Xena stroked the smooth, flat blade of her sword deciding how she would do it, a still, small voice struggled to be heard inside her soul. "But you know Gabrielle," the voice said. "She wouldn't do this - not here, not now, not like this." Xena paused to consider that new thought. "Do I really know her?" she pondered. Then a peaceful, calming presence swept over her like a gentle summer breeze. It warmed her heart, steadied her mind, assured her spirit. The blackness began to be pushed away as the warrior realized her enemy. From a tiny well within her, love sprang forth and flooded her entire being.

"No," she spoke aloud with confidence. "This is not real - you are not real. You are not Gabrielle and I do not believe your words. I do not accept you; I do not believe in you. You cannot defeat me; do you hear?" she shouted. "I know the truth and the truth has freed me from this deception!"

Instantly, the figure assumed to be Gabrielle vanished, and Xena sighed a sigh of relief.

A few nights later, the Viking vessel spotted an island in the distance under the glowing light of the full moon. "That must be it," Lena declared when she and Gabrielle came on deck.

All at once, something hit the boat and the crew struggled to stay on their feet. "Was that a rock?" Gabrielle asked.

"Can't be," Olan answered. "We're too far out."

"Then what was it?" another sailor asked.

As all eyes searched the black surface of the deep for an object, a long, dark tentacle, covered with blood sucking cups, reached it's way over the railing and grabbed a sailor in its coil. He let out a horrified scream and cried, "Help! Somebody help me!"

Lena drew her sword and Olan reached for his ax. Many of the crewmen shrank back in terror, but others rushed to their comrade's aide. Before anyone could reach the man, the sea monster had raised him high above the deck. He struggled in vain, kicking and straining against the creature's tight grasp.

Just then, a second tentacle reached over the side of the ship, and the sailor nearest stabbed it with his sword. The tentacle drew back and flailed wildly in the air, then popped out like a whip, knocking the man into the water below.

"We've got to do something!" Lena stated the obvious.

A third tentacle arose and coiled itself around Olan's leg. In a flash, he was lying on the deck being drug by the slimy appendage. With fierce determination, he raised his massive battle ax and slammed it down onto the creature's arm, severing it completely in two. The part around his ankle fell limp and the other half waved wildly, dripping from its stump.

Lena had disappeared from deck and returned with a bow and quiver of arrows just in time to see the huge sea creature surface beside the ship. They had never seen anything like it. One of its mighty arms hit the main mast, snapping it in half like a twig. Gabrielle and Lena had to move to avoid being hit as it crashed to the deck. The monster had two large eyes that rolled about oddly and a treacherous beak that popped open and closed as the tentacle pulled the trapped sailor closer. It's body appeared to be oval in shape and protected by a thick covering. Floating in the dark water, it was nearly the size of the ship.

Lena aimed her bow at the body, but the arrow was deflected. She shot again, this time hitting the base of a tentacle where it lodged but seemed to cause no effect on the monster. She continued to fire the shafts while Olan rushed to the women's side. The sailors swung at the tentacles with axes and swords, but they could not stop the monster from tearing their fellow limb from limb and devouring him right before their eyes.

"This isn't working!" Gabrielle said frantically. She couldn't bear the thought that they were so close and now success may be lost in the jaws of defeat. She felt guilty over the life of the sailor who she had brought there to meet so horrible an end.

In an inspired moment, Olan exclaimed, "Gabrielle, give me your quarter staff - Lena, your sword!"

"Here," she said handing him her staff. "But I don't see_"

"You will." He looked at Lena for her sword. She handed it to him with reservation mixed with trust. She had come to rely on that sword and derive safety from the skill with which she mastered it. But now she must put her trust in the strength of her young nephew. He slashed the sword to the staff with his belt while the crew battled the beast. As he almost had the make shift spear ready, a waving tentacle knocked him down.

"Look out!" cried Gabrielle. The women jumped back in time to not be hit as well, and waited anxiously as he rose to his feet. The fearless warrior took his stance and raised the lance in his powerful right hand.

"The soft spot between the eyes," Lena called to him.

Olan knew he only had one chance at this. He focused all his strength into that one motion as he hurled the deadly projectile through the night and into the beast. The sword sunk deep into the creature's brain, only the staff remaining visible. A horrible shriek sounded loudly about them, and the monster rolled back its eyes. Then it slowly began to sink out of view, waving its last tentacles before it was claimed by the deep from whence it came.

"You did it, Olan, you did it!" Gabrielle burst forth with excitement. She hugged the victor and kissed him on the cheek.

"Way to go, my man," Lena smiled with satisfaction and relief as she took her turn to embrace him.

Olan was still a little bit in shock as it hit him that he really had killed the sea monster. A smile crossed his face and his eyes lit up as the whole crew gathered around to cheer their hero. He blushed a bit, not used to so much attention. Then he put his strong arm around Gabrielle and smiled at her admiring and grateful eyes. Their hero was speechless for once.

The next morning, the battered vessel floated slowly up to the island, pushed by only the small sail and a few rowers. Gabrielle stood at the bow scanning the shoreline. "Look," she pointed. "Those light colored stones make a pointing arrow. It's Xena - she's giving us a sign!" she exclaimed.

Xena sat on a rock at the top of a hill where she could see both the north and south shores of the island. As if in a dream, she beheld the figure of her dearest friend rising from the side of the hill. "Xena!" she cried and began to run toward her.

The Warrior Princess slid down from the rock and took a few cautious steps toward the young lady. "Is it you? Is it really you?"

Gabrielle rushed into her arms, embracing her tightly. "You know it's me." She closed her eyes and waited. Xena now could see the Viking vessel and Lena walking up the hill as well and knew that it was real.

She sighed with genuine joy and release and held her beloved tightly. "It's really you."

They loosened their embrace and looked into each other's faces. Gabrielle wiped a tear of joy from her own eye. Of course the Warrior Princess doesn't cry (at least not when anyone else is around), but she did get misty eyed in the emotion of the moment.

Xena hugged her Viking friend as well when she had scaled the height. "I am sure glad to see you."

"I'll bet you're ready to get off this rock."

"You better believe it!"

The three women started down the hill toward the ship with Xena in the middle, her arms resting over the shoulders of her friends. "So, how'd you find me, anyway?" They exchanged adventure stories s the craft started off toward the nearest port for repairs.

Later that evening, the two soul mates sat alone on a bench at the table in Lena's cabin. It was dimly lit with candles that flickered with the gentle rocking motion of the waves. "You know, Xena," Gabrielle confided. "When you disappeared that night, I went crazy. I mean, look - I rode Argo all the way to Athens." Xena laughed quietly. "I just couldn't imagine a life with out you in it and I was driven to do what ever I had to do to get you back."

"Your love is what saved me, you know," she replied. "On that chunk of hell, despair, doubt, loneliness stalked me and attacked me where ever I went. Thinking of you kept me going. Death was all around, but I wasn't afraid of dying - I've done that before. And I wasn't even afraid of being left there forever. The only moment I felt fear," she confessed, "was when I thought I had lost you. And just as I was about to end it all, your love burst through and brought me back. Before I met you, I would never have believed that by allowing my heart to become soft I would gain the greatest strength I could ever know."

There was nothing else to say. It was not a time for words. Gabrielle reached over and took her friend by the hand as they gazed lovingly into each other's eyes.

About that time, Lena and Olan entered the cabin bearing refreshments. Reluctantly, Gabrielle released Xena's hand and turned to their hosts. "I've been saving this bottle of wine for a special occasion, and this is it," Lena said.

Olan set four goblets on the table and took a seat by Gabrielle. Lena poured the wine and sat beside Xena. "I'd like to propose a toast," Gabrielle said with a smile. "To Lena, who at great cost and peril, brought me here to get Xena back."

"Here, here," agreed the Warrior Princess and they all sipped from their glasses.

"Well, I'd like to give a toast to Olan, for saving us all from the sea monster," Lena said cheerfully.

"Here, here," seconded Gabrielle s her sparkling green eyes smiled at the fair you man who sat blushing once again.

"It's my turn," he voiced heartily. "I shall propose a toast to Xena. Had she not gotten herself into trouble, we would have missed out on this entire adventure, and I may never have gotten to know this fair beauty who sits beside me now." It was Gabrielle's turn to blush.

"Thanks a lot," Xena replied sarcastically.

Then all eyes fell upon the Warrior Princess as it was her turn to make a toast. She paused for a moment thoughtfully. "Here's to the mightiest of weapons and the most ardent defense: to love and friendship."

"To love and friendship," they all echoed. Their raised glasses tingled as they touched in the center of the circle under the candlelight's glow.

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