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Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, and all other characters that have appeared in the Universal television program: ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole intellectual and copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.
All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole intellectual property of the author (me). This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the copyright of the original author (me again). These may not be republished without the author's (yep, still me) consent.
Violence Disclaimer: This story contains semi-graphical descriptions of violence as associated with warfare.
No-Sex Disclaimer: Sorry, there are no graphical descriptions of sex of any kind in this story. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not happening.
Thanks Disclaimer: I would like to thank Bat Morda and Eva Allen for being my test readers, and for the excellent input they gave me. Thank you both.
‘Come Play’ was originally a story idea I had many years ago but remained unfinished, that is until I adapted it to the XWP universe. I have watched Xena ever since she first appeared on Hercules, but was never moved to ‘do the bard thing’. This is my first fanfic attempt. I hope you enjoy it. Please send me some feedback and let me know what you think. All input is welcomed and appreciated.
Two armies rode at each other from opposite ridges of a valley. The imminent battle was the direct result of ‘negotiations’ gone awry. The valley, just outside the city of Sciros, was in a province along the northern edge of Greece. Each army was sure that Ares would bless them with victory, but only one had Ares’ blessing. Riding at the head of her army and leading it into battle, Xena thought back to how foolish the representatives of this army were to refuse her...
On a hot summer day, ten soldiers stood on a small hill in the middle of a wide field. Kasar, Sabador’s second in command, and four soldiers from the warlord’s army were facing Xena and her Lieutenants.
Kasar was the first to speak. "We have come to give you a message Xena, 'Leave or suffer the wrath of Sabador.'"
Her lieutenants chuckled as Xena sneered her reply, "Tell Sabador, I find that an empty threat, but a threat nonetheless. I do not like threats, but I will give him a choice. I need more men for my army. I also need the riches of this countryside to support it. Either he joins me as one of my lieutenants and his soldiers become part of my army, or he will not live to fight another day."
One of Sabador’s men stepped forward and began to pull his sword. He was stopped by Kasar’s hand on his arm. Xena took a step forward to answer the unspoken challenge. She raised her eyebrow and holding her hands out in front of her, smirked at the swordsman.
"No Cantori!" Kasar ordered the soldier and tightened the grip on his arm.
Cantori looked at Kasar, acknowledging his superior’s wishes with a nod before looking at the warrior princess. Hoping to see fear in the woman warrior’s eyes, he was utterly disappointed. He saw confidence, self-control, and an almost inhuman glee at the prospect of drawing blood. The depth of what he could see in those sapphire pools of fire unnerved him. He quickly averted his eyes from the mocking glare daring him to attack, and took a hasty step back returning his sword to its place.
Xena, remaining where she was, continued to stare at Cantori until he looked at her again. Unsure of what he saw in her eyes now, he looked at her with the defiance of youth, refusing to look away. Shortly however, the intensity of her eyes was too much for him. He tore his gaze from hers and moved it to the less threatening visage of the ground at his feet. With a wicked smile, Xena turned to Kasar. "Well, at least one soldier in this army has a little backbone."
Ignoring her remark, Kasar delivered his ultimatum for the last time, "We will do more than show you our strength if you do not leave. We will not negotiate with you Xena. This is your last chance. Leave, or we will destroy you."
"I doubt that," Xena sneered. "Sabador is so afraid of me after his last defeat that he will not face me himself. Instead," Pointing at Cantori, Xena added, "he sends children in his place. Ares’ army is no place for cowards. You will be the ones destroyed today!"
"Die!" Cantori drew his weapon and lunged at Xena. She spun and parried his thrust easily before drawing her own sword and cutting him down, sending him to meet Hades. Her lieutenants quickly cut down Kasar and the other three soldiers.
Xena pointed to the five broken bodies at her feet. "Wretched excuses for soldiers," she mumbled under her breath. Turning to her lieutenants behind her, she leveled her cool gaze on them.
With disgust, Xena admonished her men, "If you ever turn out to be like these five, I will kill you myself. Today we take Sciros, then we take the surrounding villages." She then looked to the young soldier lying at her feet, his life’s blood covering the grass and soaking into the dirt beneath him. The tumult rising from the far ridge of the valley informed Xena and her lieutenants that Sabador’s army had seen what they did to Kasar and his men. The cheers from the other ridge indicated the readiness of Xena’s men to join the fray. Keeping the features of her face hard and showing no emotion she commanded, "Return to your men quickly, and tell them to prepare for battle."
"Yes, Xena," her lieutenants answered in unison and scrambled to carry out her orders.
Xena lowered her hand to close the eyes of Cantori. He was only a boy, but a boy with potential and the heart of a warrior. For a split second she felt sorrow at having to kill him. Xena said a quick prayer to Ares to preserve the boys honor and allow him to enter that spot in Hades reserved for warriors. He was to be the first that would fall at her hand that day, but definitely not the last. She could feel it.
Xena’s acute hearing picked up on the familiar, although faint whine approaching. Not just one whine, but many. Xena sprung to her feet and sprinted away from the site of their palaver. Suddenly, the five bodies Xena left behind and the ground surrounding them were riddled with a fierce hailstorm of arrows. Diving into a roll, Xena stood and turned back to face Sabador’s army. She looked at the arrows that traveled farthest, a mere foot’s length from her feet. She just laughed and thrust her fist into the air, taunting them. The cheers of her army only fueled her desire to begin the battle.
Xena returned to her army and mounted her war stallion. She then rode the magnificent beast across the front of her army so all her men could see their leader before the battle began. She chose a long time ago not to make pretty speeches before battles. Her army did not need such inspiration. They were Ares’ army, her soldiers. She knew how to motivate her men. The sight of her was inspiration enough, not to mention the fact that the best soldiers got her ‘special’ attention.
Drawing her horse to a halt at the middle of the assemblage, she turned to face the army on the opposing ridge of the valley. Then, looking back at her own army, she saw the expectation in their eyes and the barely restrained anticipation in their movements. She knew that she would not be able to keep them in check much longer, their thirst for action almost overwhelming. The bloodlust emanated from her men in dizzying waves. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The scents of battle, the desire for war, it was all so very... intoxicating. She began to feel her soul fill with a deep hunger and fierce thirst for blood: battle rage. She felt rather than saw her men milling about her, ready to charge forward and destroy. She could feel their impatience, eager for the battle to commence. Her own barely restrained eagerness to start the conflict threatened to consume her.
All at once, Xena opened her eyes and looked at the opposing army across the valley. Emptying her lungs in a single breath, she turned and thrust her sword into the air yelling, "Kill 'em all!!"
The command given, her army once again charged into battle.
Rumbling thunder echoing through the clear sky brought Xena’s thoughts back to the present and the ensuing battle. She briefly looked up. "No clouds in sight. Ares is with us," she thought to herself and searched the battlefield for her first opponent.
"Ahhhh...The dogs of war have been loosed once more. My, she is a wonder to behold." Ares stood on a hill overlooking the valley and watched with enthusiasm as the battle unfolded below him.
"Look how effortlessly she cuts down any who approach her. She springs from her horse onto the enemy like a mountain lion pouncing on its prey. I should have had Sabador and his pathetic army eradicated long ago. How appropriate it is to have my chosen one, Xena do it for me. He doesn’t have a prayer. Even now his men are praying to me to help them defeat this demon-woman." Ares chuckled as he watched the battle continue, "They should just surrender, but then that wouldn't be as much fun, would it?"
Ares closed his eyes in ecstasy and breathed deeply of the aromatic pleasures of battle. He released his breath, and his deep laughter rumbled over the battlefield like thunder once again as he settled in for a glorious display.
Xena’s next challenger came at her from the right. Taunting him, she blocked his sword thrust, spun, and with the flat of her blade sent him sprawling toward the swordsman silently charging from her left. The swords found their mark as each soldier was impaled on the other’s weapon, and slumped to the ground as they gave in to Celesta’s touch.
A smirk crept across Xena’s face and she raised her sword into a defensive position. Another soldier, more mountain than man, approached her with grim determination. His thick arms and tree-like legs were the result of a hard life of even harder work. Standing more than seven feet tall, Xena recognized this warrior as Sabador, the leader and juggernaut of the opposing army.
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," Xena thought to herself and she grinned evilly. Her grin caused Sabador to hesitate for an instant before he swung his deadly mace at her face. The moment of hesitation was all Xena needed to flip backward and land in a low crouch just beyond the reach of Sabador’s weapon. The sharp spikes of the mace whistled through the air where Xena’s face was only a split second earlier. Not expecting his quarry to move so quickly, the warlord put too much force into his swing and found himself unable to stop the mace before the spikes tore into the flesh of his left arm. With a howl of frustration and rage, Sabador dropped the knife he was holding in that hand as the metal imbedded itself in the thick bone of his upper arm. Xena’s hand slipped to the chakram hanging at her side. Standing, she targeted the stunned warlord and with a flick of her wrist, released the weapon. It cut through the chain of the mace as Xena turned to face yet another attacker.
This soldier wielded a staff with blades on each end. After catching her chakram, they faced off and the soldier demonstrated his prowess with the staff. He proceeded to spin the staff through some intricate movements. After watching him twirl the staff over his head, behind his back, and through several other positions, Xena had seen enough. She took the chakram from her belt and threw it at her opponent’s head. There was a clang as the chakram collided with his helmet and sent it flying from his head to land on the ground behind him. Stunned, the soldier stopped and ducked. Slowly he put his hand to his head and looked to Xena. She only offered him a smirk and shrugged her shoulders before saying, "Enough play, let’s fight."
This only enraged the soldier and he charged her with his weapon. She raised her sword over her head to strike and smiled as he raised his staff to block her blow. As she started her swing, Xena dropped to one knee and changed the position of her sword to slash sideways from the left, effectively ducking under the staff and sweeping across the soldier's middle. Stunned, he remained standing with his staff above his head blocking the blow that never came. Slowly, the staff fell to the ground and the soldier moved his hands to cover the mortal wound he had received from the warrior princess. He began to panic as he saw the futility of his efforts to staunch the flow of his life’s essence and dropped to his knees. He looked up at the warrior princess in pleading silence, the forgotten staff on the ground in front of him, before falling face down in the dirt. Turning from the fallen soldier, she spit, "Pathetic" and raised her hand to catch her returning chakram before hooking it to her belt.
Xena returned her attention to the disoriented and bleeding giant holding half a mace. The burly man stared in astonishment at his hand and the handle with a short length of chain.
Fixing his gaze on her, he said, "Remember me Xena? I am Sabador. I am undefeated in battle, and a puny woman such as yourself will not be the one to defeat me today."
A laugh was the only retort Xena offered, and turned as if to walk away. Enraged, Sabador threw the destroyed weapon to the ground. Ignoring the pain of the spiked ball imbedded in his left arm, he looked at the insolent woman. A bloodcurdling cry of rage erupted from his lips as he charged Xena like a rabid bull, preparing to tear her apart with his hands. Spinning to face the furious leader, Xena jumped, and with a quick kick to his throat dropped him to his knees gasping for air. The force of his charge sent Xena flipping backwards. Like a cat, she landed on all fours, eyeing the warlord cautiously. Still on his knees and struggling to fill his lungs with air, he was helpless.
Xena rose slowly, never taking her eyes off the fallen leader. She approached him and stopped right in front of him. Since he was now on his knees she could look him in the eyes. She waited for the gasping warlord to look at her, and once she had locked his gaze within her own, she smiled. Moving her hands quick as a pair of vipers, she jabbed two fingers into both sides of his neck.
Curling her lip back in a sneer she said, "I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You’re going to be dead in thirty seconds."
Struggling in his last moments of life, Xena saw the fear in his eyes. It was the same fear she saw when she captured him the first time, almost three seasons before. She had seen the same in the eyes of many men. It was the fear of death, the fear of her, and Xena relished the power. This time Sabador did not have anything to offer Xena worth his life. She would not release him this time. He was no longer of any use to her, and he knew it. Laughing, she turned and rushed back into the battle leaving him to die.
Her bloodlust was at its peak now. With a god-like awareness, Xena felt the rhythm of the battle all around her. She sensed rather than saw the three swordsmen rushing at her desperately trying to close the distance and cut down the demon-woman who murdered their leader. Turning to her right to face them, she again released her chakram as one would a trained hawk. It cleanly severed all three blades and sped out of sight. Xena’s sword flashed, seemingly on its own, and with two quick slashes cut down all three attackers.
Xena saw her chakram returning to her and began to reach for it.
"Xena. Come play..."
She whirled and stepped to the left toward the voice to face her new attacker and confronted... no one.
A wet thud and the gurgle of life rushing from enemy lips replaced the whoosh of the forgotten chakram as it buried itself in the chest of a soldier silently stalking the warrior princess from the rear. She watched the would-be assassin fall to the ground with one hand wrapped around the chakram half-buried in his chest and the other clutching a rusty, wicked-looking dagger. Silently cursing herself for her lack of attentiveness, she turned to parry the charge of her next attacker, the opportunity to retrieve her chakram lost to her hesitation.
After Sabador’s army was defeated, Xena returned to the fallen assassin, and wondered why she couldn’t hear him approaching. While she was contemplating this, her men gathered around her. They were obviously happy with their enemy’s defeat, but stood waiting for confirmation from their leader. Xena, looked at the faces of her men, and inwardly smiled at their discipline. Satisfied with the outcome but aware of their desire to please her, she addressed her men.
"You fought well. But every victory has its price. Some of our comrades have fallen today. All were good men, good fighters that will be sorely missed. Now we must claim what we have won but honor their sacrifice as well. Gather our fallen comrades and prepare funeral pyres."
Pointing to a nearby hill, Xena told her men, "We will light the pyres there, on that hill, so that the winds can scatter their ashes throughout this countryside. That way, they will always be present here in this valley, the site of their last victory!"
Her men let out a cheer, and Xena saw the pride in their eyes at her words. She bent to take hold of her chakram. Placing a boot on the corpse she pulled on the weapon. The grinding sound of metal on bone was overpowering, and some of the men visibly winced at the sickening noise as she wrenched it free of the corpse’s chest spraying blood everywhere.
Holding the dripping weapon in front of her, Xena pointed it at Darphus, her second in command. After she caught his eyes she said adamantly, "Gather half the riches for me to distribute. Then, take whatever you want, but spare the innocents. Any man who kills a woman or a child will have to deal with me! Anyone who doesn’t know what happened to the last one who failed to follow my orders is welcome to come and ask me." Xena’s lips curled into an evil, humorless grin before she continued. "I would be happy to show you." She paused for a moment to be sure her words would be understood. Then, she thrust the bloody disc into the air and yelled, "Victory is ours!"
The tumult was deafening as her men began to chant, "Xena! Xena! Xena..."
The sound of Gabrielle's voice startled the warrior princess back to the present. She turned to look down at Gabrielle. Panic started to invade her warrior calm as she noticed Gabrielle was missing from her side.
Gabrielle called impatiently, "Xena!!"
Xena quickly turned in the saddle to look behind her, expecting to see Gabrielle in the clutches of some wandering cutthroat intent on besting Xena of Amphipolis. Instead she saw that a very indignant Gabrielle had stopped a few paces back on the road. Pulling Argo to a stop, Xena turned back to the bard who was standing with her hands on her hips. The look of annoyance very clear on the bard's face caused the warrior to snicker. Quickly regaining her composure to hide her amusement from her friend, Xena urged Argo into a trot and returned to Gabrielle’s side.
As Argo approached, Gabrielle asked, "Xena, did you even hear what I said?"
Not letting anything show through the mask of her warrior's calm, Xena slowly responded, "I’m sorry Gabrielle, I was... daydreaming."
Gabrielle looked at Xena and thought to herself, 'Always the warrior. After all we have been through, she still tries to mask her emotions from me.' Gabrielle was not fooled. Although there was no hint of emotion on Xena's face, she could see the traces of playfulness in her eyes. It was a side of Xena that she suspected only a very select few had ever seen. Lately though, her friend had been distracted, almost troubled. Gabrielle decided it was time to break through the mask once again. Not willing to give up her advantage outright, she decided to try and goad Xena out of her shell. Gabrielle looked at some flowers alongside the road, and almost as an after thought added, "Daydreaming? I didn’t think you knew how."
Silence. She expected anything except silence. There wasn't even a coy response offered in retaliation. Gabrielle turned to ask her friend what was troubling her so much and saw the warrior looking at her out of the corner of her eyes. Shortly, Xena rolled her eyes and a smile, ever so small, cracked through her mask. Success!
Gabrielle beamed one of her smiles at the warrior princess. Xena struggled, but once her friend started smiling, it was contagious. She had to give in.
"Very funny. Next time I’ll just leave you standing there and ride on without you." Both friends were smiling openly now, neither trying to hide it from the other. "Now, what did you say?"
"I said, it’s getting late." Gabrielle looked up at the sun which she was sure had passed through the meridian at least three leagues earlier. "Don’t you think we should stop and make camp soon?"
Xena's face brightened, finally realizing just how much her mind had been wandering. "I think that’s a good idea. We won’t make it to the next village until tomorrow afternoon." Looking around to get her bearings, Xena spotted a grove of trees that she recognized. "I think there’s a clearing just off the road ahead. We’ll stop there for the night. It’s near a stream, so we should be able to catch fish for dinner."
Gabrielle once again decided to poke at Xena and playfully said, "Ooh! Sounds good. I think I want trout this time."
Barely masking her amusement with a stern look, Xena managed a low growl, "Gabrielle..."
The bard laughed and raised her hands in front of her to signal a temporary truce, "I know, I know. Wrong type of stream, wrong season, I just couldn’t resist. Whatever you catch will be fine."
Gabrielle began setting up camp while Xena left to scout the area and catch their dinner. While unpacking the saddlebags, Gabrielle reflected on how relaxing the familiarity of the tasks for setting up camp had become. Not wanting things to get too routine, she briefly considered talking to Xena about shifting their chores. Gabrielle knew the warrior too well and laughed after thinking how Xena would react. She knew that Xena would probably let her scout the area if she really wanted to. She also knew Xena would never be able to sit in camp while Gabrielle was gone. She would either go with the bard, or follow behind undetected yet somehow getting back to camp in time to set out the necessary items, gather wood, and start a fire. Sometimes Gabrielle felt Xena was being over protective, but it was a trait that the bard had begun to admire, or at least live with.
After she finished unpacking their things, Gabrielle set out to gather wood for the campfire. A short while later, everything was ready and Gabrielle decided to brush Argo.
Unable to keep quiet for too long, Gabrielle began to talk to the horse while brushing her mane. "Well girl, it didn’t take me as long as usual to get things set up tonight. I think I’ll wait until Xena gets back to start the fire. I could go for a swim, but I would rather wait until she can join me, so I think I will try to catch up on my scrolls. What do you think?"
Argo nudged Gabrielle’s hand when she stopped brushing which elicited a laugh from the tired bard.
"Don’t worry Argo, I’m sure Xena will want to finish brushing you when we get back. Right now, my feet are killing me!"
Gabrielle put the brush back in the saddlebags and brought an apple back to Argo. After sniffing at Gabrielle’s hand and the prize it contained, the horse greedily accepted the treat. Gabrielle smiled as she watched Argo literally inhale the fruit.
"You know, it wasn't that long ago that we couldn't get along. I'm glad we're past that and able to be friends."
As if to add her agreement, and her thanks for the fruit, Argo ran her muzzle down Gabrielle's arm before returning to her snack of the sweet grass growing in the clearing.
With that done, Gabrielle took the saddlebags with her to a spot under a tree and sat down to remove her boots. She reached into the saddlebag that held her scrolls and pulled out an unfamiliar gray pouch, about twice the size of a coin purse, tied shut with a bit of cord.
Holding the pouch in her hand, Gabrielle said, "This is new. I wonder when Xena got this?"
She examined the pouch for a moment and considered opening it until she realized that it might be a surprise from Xena. Smiling at the prospect, Gabrielle removed her scroll pouch and returned the gray pouch to the saddlebag. With that done, she pulled out her quill and scrolls. She started to continue her work on her latest story when she noticed a weathered scroll secured with a worn black string. She untied the string, opened the scroll, and started to read the words before her scribed in her own handwriting.
On the parchment she saw her first tale about her friend and the beginning of their life together. It was about how she stopped the people of Xena’s home village, Amphipolis, from stoning the warrior when she came home after giving up the life of a warlord. The next section was about Xena saving Amphipolis from the warlord Draco. Gabrielle smiled as she recalled those adventures. Xena looked so graceful as she battled Draco on the scaffold with the entire village watching from below. If it wasn’t for Gabrielle tripping the soldier from Draco’s army that kept helping him, Xena might not have ever defeated him. Of course, that part was left out. After all, this was a story about Xena the Warrior Princess, not Gabrielle, the Bard from Poteidaia. Most good bards do not desire the fame and recognition of adventure but rather the experience of the adventure itself. Besides, their greatest wish is to be known for the quality of their tales. So, in order to avoid sounding self-centered they generally leave their contributions out of their stories. Besides, some things are best left unsaid, and it just makes for a better story. A quiet sigh of contentment escaped from Gabrielle before she continued with the last part of the scroll.
The final section was about their first night around the campfire. Gabrielle read how Xena threatened to send her home in the morning, to which she replied she wouldn’t stay home. She remembered thinking at the time as she caught the blanket the warrior threw to her that Xena gave up rather easily.
Gabrielle finished the scroll by reading about after they had lay down to sleep across the fire from each other. The sounds of Xena moving about caused Gabrielle to open one eye just slightly. She saw that Xena was moving her bedroll to be able to see the bard around the campfire. After that was accomplished, and satisfied that she would be able to keep an eye on her new traveling companion, only then had Xena settled down to sleep. Gabrielle chuckled at the memory.
"What’s so funny?" Xena asked as she entered the camp and dropped her latest catch in the grass by the firepit.
"Oh, nothing. Just working on my scrolls," Gabrielle replied as she put them back in the saddlebag and walked to where Xena was standing by the firepit.
Folding her arms, Xena said, "Oh, great! Now you’ll be reciting stories about our adventures all night!"
"These may be our adventures, but the stories are all about you. Besides, it’s not like I talk ALL the time!" Gabrielle flashed the warrior one of her disarming smiles as she playfully punched her on the arm. "Why don’t you get the fish ready to cook while I start the fire, and then we can go for a swim."
* * * * * * *
After they finished eating, Xena and Gabrielle prepared to settle down for the night and changed into their night shifts. Then, Xena brushed Argo while Gabrielle laid out their bedrolls. Gabrielle sat on a log by the fire and when Xena had put Argo’s brush back in the saddlebag, motioned for her to take a seat in front of the bard on the grass. When the warrior was seated comfortably she let the soft caress of Gabrielle’s hands drawing the comb through her hair begin to relax her as she thought back on the day. The daydream about Sciros and the memories it brought with it were foremost in her mind. Sciros was yet another regret of many and more destroyed lives to mourn. Privately, Xena wondered if she would ever be able to make up for everything she had done.
Xena's thoughts turned to today and the peaceful times she has been able to share with Gabrielle lately. No bandits for quite some time meant they hadn’t had to risk their lives defending themselves. Xena smiled as she thought back to the swim this afternoon. The cool water felt so good after a long day on the road. Plus, she couldn’t have asked for better company. Well, maybe a little quieter company. In fact, if it weren’t for Gabrielle’s constant talking, her life lately would be absolutely boring. Besides, who else could have splashed the warrior princess while she was bathing or challenged her to a water fight and come out of it alive? Noticing how quiet Gabrielle had become Xena turned to look at her and noticed the usually chatty bard was just staring into the flames.
"You’re awfully quiet tonight Gabrielle. Is something wrong?" With a crooked grin Xena added, "Did you forget all your stories?"
Gabrielle sat silently for awhile before answering. "Xena, do you ever have regrets that you didn’t send me home that first night?"
Xena sighed. "You’ve been reading your scrolls again, haven’t you?"
Slightly affronted, Gabrielle said, "Xena, I’m serious! You always seem to be saving me, or taking care of me, or..."
Xena stood and walked to the other side of the fire. She turned to face Gabrielle and tell her how she felt, but found it hard to begin. Expressing your feelings was what Gabrielle was good at. A warrior doesn’t need to be able to express their emotions. Why did Xena find it necessary to do so as often as she had lately? Taking a deep breath, Xena looked straight into the fire and began.
"Gabrielle, how many times have you taken care of me? If I remember correctly, I would be dead now if I had really sent you home. You are very important to me. Because of you I’m not having as many nightmares. You give me peace of mind. I’m not sure if I even remember how to remove my armor by myself anymore. Plus, you’ve gotten to be pretty good with your staff in a fight and I’ve almost come to rely on you fighting at my back. In all honesty Gabrielle, I can’t imagine life without you."
When Gabrielle didn’t say anything, Xena looked up and saw that the bard was crying. Xena started to move back around the fire.
"Xena, come play..."
Xena stopped. "Gabrielle, what did you just say?"
"Xena I didn’t..."
Gabrielle noticed Xena’s face tighten in fear. "Gabrielle! Get down!"
Xena ducked, narrowly avoiding an arrow that cut through the spot she just vacated and came to rest in a nearby tree. Xena then flew into Gabrielle. Xena knocked her backward off the log to the ground. The bard landed hard on her back uttering something under her breath and heard a ‘thunk’ as something hit the log she was sitting on. She looked up, and her eyes grew large as she saw an arrow imbedded in the log between her ankles where she was sitting only moments before listening to Xena. Still in motion, Xena rolled into a crouch by her bedroll where her leathers and weapons were waiting for her. Removing the chakram from its place on her armor, Xena listened for a second. Finally sensing her quarry, Xena released her chakram and let it fly into the forest with a powerful swing. A second later, a cry of pain was heard far into the forest. When the Chakram returned to Xena’s hand there was blood staining the edges. Stunned, disoriented, and still on her back, Gabrielle watched Xena disappear into the forest with her sword and chakram.
Quickly, Gabrielle regained her senses and scrambled to her feet. She grabbed her staff, dropped into a defensive crouch, and tried to look in every possible direction at once. Struggling to hear through the normal nighttime noises Gabrielle listened for something that might reveal if anyone was still near the campsite. Footsteps moving through the bushes caused Gabrielle’s muscles to tighten and she readied her staff to attack.
"That’s not for me is it?" Xena quipped, pointing to the upraised staff as she walked into the firelight. The sight of the warrior allowed Gabrielle to relax a little. She lowered her staff, but the look of unease on Xena’s face caused the bard to shiver.
"Whoever it was got away." Xena was all business as her warrior instincts took over. She proceeded to tell Gabrielle what she discovered in the forest. "I found where they were watching us about forty paces out. There was only evidence of one person, and that was hard to find. Whoever it was, they’re good. Judging from the blood on the branch and my chakram, I must have hit them. But, they’re not seriously injured, otherwise I would have caught them."
"Xena do you have any idea who it was?" the bard asked, still uneasy from the deadly interruption.
"No," Xena answered slowly and stared blankly into the fire.
Worried about her friend’s reaction, Gabrielle approached the warrior and asked, "Xena? What is it?"
"I’m not sure, Gabrielle. But I have a story for you." Xena paused and looked at the chakram in her slightly trembling hands while she tried to gather her thoughts. "I need to tell you what I was daydreaming about earlier today."
The women returned to the fire and Xena went to the log to remove the arrow. Gabrielle, still wound up from the attack, put a couple more logs on the fire before she sat down and waited for Xena to begin, this time choosing a different spot than before. Gabrielle’s eyes darted nervously from side to side looking for unseen predators stalking them from the shadows and wondered if this new log would be safe. She looked at Xena and saw the struggle the warrior was going through trying to figure out how to begin. Words were not Xena’s strong point, but she could always find the right ones when it was important. Realizing that Xena was about to confide in her something serious from the warrior’s dark past, the uneasy bard managed to control her fears somewhat and sat patiently so as not to upset the disturbed warrior.
Distracted, Xena walked to the other side of the fire and pulled the first arrow from the tree. She then turned to the fire, and crouching down, poked at the logs with one of the arrows. Holding it out in front of her, she could see something sizzling on the sharpened metal arrowhead. No doubt, it was a poison of some sort. It must be a powerful one judging from how little was on the arrow. Xena then held the tips of both arrows into the fire to burn the poisonous residue away. She stopped and looked at Gabrielle who was sitting quietly waiting for her to begin. Xena pondered how if she weren’t so troubled she might almost find the situation comical. Thinking to herself, ‘The bard waiting for the warrior to tell a tale, now that’s a switch,’ Xena prepared to relay her story.
Pointing the now sooty arrow at Gabrielle, Xena looked intently at her friend and asked, "When we were talking earlier, what did you say to me?"
The suddenness of the warrior’s movement caused the high-strung bard to jump. "Um... I said you always seem to be saving..."
Raising her hand, Xena said, "No Gabrielle. After that."
The bard paused trying to remember back to their conversation before they were interrupted by the attack. With a frown she answered, "After that you were telling me about all the stuff I do for you, and the next thing I knew you were telling me to get down, you knocked me off the log, and ran into the forest."
Still scrutinizing the bard, Xena asked, "So you never said, ‘Xena, come play’ to me?"
Cautiously, Gabrielle replied, "No... Zeus only knows why I would say something like that. We weren’t anywhere near the water, and..." Gabrielle stopped for a moment and her eyes narrowed before she stood and approached the warrior. Putting a shaky hand on Xena’s arm and looking directly into her eyes, Gabrielle said, "You wouldn’t ask that unless you heard something. Did you think I said that?"
"At first I did," Xena said to her friend and put a hand on her shoulder to try and calm the jumpy bard. "Now let me tell you what I was thinking about earlier. It might explain things a little better."
Gabrielle smiled and went back to her place on the log. Making herself comfortable she looked up at the warrior and waited expectantly. Xena couldn’t help but laugh.
"You always were one to love a good story. I don’t know how good it will be, but you can judge for yourself."
Pausing for a second, Xena remembered back to when she was just starting on the warrior’s path.
"You know about my experience with Julius Caesar and how he betrayed me. Shortly after that was when I succumbed to bloodlust, met Borias, and later became a ruthless warlord. Many times I conquered villages just to conquer them, or to make my army stronger. I would go into this battle rage before my army and I went into a fight. I would get so worked up and be so extremely aware of everything that went on around me, that I almost felt like a god. Sometimes, it was almost overwhelming. I could always tell who was coming for me.
"Before my army conquered the villages around Sciros, we had to fight the warlord Sabador and his army. Sciros was his home territory and he based his army there. I fought many men that day. I used my chakram to break the swords of some enemy soldiers approaching me. After I defeated them, I was reaching to catch it when I heard this voice say, ‘Xena. Come play.’ I thought it was someone taunting me, so I turned to face him, but there was nobody there. I forgot about my chakram and it flew past me right into a soldier that was sneaking up on me from behind. I never heard him coming. I didn’t even sense him. Had I not turned toward the voice and forgotten about the chakram, I would surely be dead. I thought the voice was either just my imagination or a result of my battle rage, so I cursed myself for my lack of focus and charged back into combat.
"I’ve heard the voice three other times. Once tonight with the arrows, and one other time during a battle shortly after Sciros when I didn’t see a spearman. The voice was always right before something that I was unaware of would have killed me, and it always said the same thing."
"You heard a voice say, ‘Xena. Come play’?"
Gabrielle sat quietly with a thoughtful look on her face for a moment before asking, "Xena, didn’t you say you thought it was because of your battle rage?"
Confused, Gabrielle stated, "But you weren’t in a battle rage this time. We were just talking."
"That’s why I think there must be more to it than heightened senses."
"Didn’t you say you’ve heard it four times?" Gabrielle paused to count. "You’ve only told me about three. When was the fourth time?"
"Remember some time ago outside Athens when I turned and fell sideways out of the saddle?"
The bard slowly remembered, "Sure. That was when you were holding an arrow in your hand and I thought you had been shot."
"Right." Xena pointed the arrows at Gabrielle for emphasis. "But remember, I wasn’t shot. That was after we had seen Hercules and Iolaus and were talking about how good it was to see them again. I had just turned to talk to you and was distracted for a moment. I wasn’t warned about the arrow in time to catch it outright. I had to fall back to give myself room to catch it."
Gabrielle asked, "Warned? Did you hear the voice then too?"
"That was the first time in almost seven winters, but I did hear the voice. It was the archer I didn’t hear. The voice came from the same direction as the arrow. I turned toward the voice and saw the archer just after it let loose of the arrow. I was so late in seeing it that I had to fall back off the side of the saddle just to have enough room to catch it. The archer must have figured that it needed the element of surprise because it disappeared without trying another shot. Gabrielle, do you remember what the arrow looked like?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment, "Sure. It was a pretty normal arrow, except it had black fletching." A look of shocked realization began to creep across Gabrielle’s features. "Xena, let me see the arrows from tonight!"
With a somber look, Xena raised her hand holding the arrows with black fletching and said, "I think the owner of this voice has either been looking out for me, or is toying with me."
"Do you think the gods are involved?"
"They might be, but it would have to be a god that would benefit by keeping me alive rather than dead."
"Or one that formulates very complex plans and has the patience to wait them out," Gabrielle interjected. "That would be Ares, on both counts."
"I thought of that. He may still want me to lead his army, but I don’t think it’s him. He prides himself in trying to seduce me back to the warlord's ways. He will either approach me directly or disguise himself as someone I would recognize, like that time he masqueraded as my father. This voice, it’s almost familiar. If Ares were behind this, there would be no question about the voice. It would be one I recognize."
"If not Ares, then who."
Exasperated, Xena answers, "That’s just it Gabrielle, I don’t know. It sounds different every time, yet the voice is the same. I know I’m not doing a very good job of describing this, but it’s confusing. Every time I think I have it figured out, more questions pop up. Have you heard of anything like this before?"
"I can’t say that I have, but I’m sure that we can figure this out together."
Gabrielle stood and walked to Xena to put her arm around her and comfort her. Before Gabrielle got beside her friend, her face lit up with a smile. With a sudden burst of energy and inspiration, she slapped Xena on the arm.
Taken aback by the bard’s actions, Xena gently rubbed the steadily reddening area on her upper arm and asked, "What was that for?"
"Don’t you see Xena? Ares is trying to out think you. You two have been at this for so long that each of you are getting very good at figuring out the other. He is doing things this way so you will think it couldn’t possibly be him. If it were anyone else, to confuse you they would have done things like Ares so you would think it wasn’t them. When, in fact, this time it is Ares and not someone else."
An uncertain smile crossed Xena’s face and she raised her eyebrow. "That is so strange and twisted that it almost has to be true. How did you get so smart?"
Beaming, Gabrielle patted her chest and says, "All in a days work for Gabrielle, bard extraordinaire, and friend to some of the greatest warriors of all time."
Xena lowered her eyes to the ground. With a timid smile she looked at Gabrielle and said quietly, "What would I do without you?"
Smiling, Gabrielle went to the warrior and said, "Let’s hope you don’t ever have to find out," as she pulled her into a hug.
Xena, stiffened at first, then relaxed and returned the hug. Gabrielle took Xena’s hand and led her back to the grass by the campfire.
"Now, sit down and let me finish combing your hair before we turn in for the night. We need to get some sleep, because we have another long road ahead of us tomorrow."
The warrior sat on the grass and leaned back against her bard’s legs, once again relaxing into the gentle caress.
"Gabrielle, I don’t think I will be getting much sleep tonight. I will probably be trying to figure out this voice all night."
"What you need is a story to get your mind off your problems and onto sleep. Hmm... I know a perfect bedtime story. Let me tell you about how a young bard was captured to be Morpheus’ bride..."
Gabrielle was interrupted by a groan from the warrior princess.
She tapped Xena on the head with the comb before continuing. "And how she was rescued by the valiant warrior princess who risked all by leaving her body behind to enter her dreamscape in order to reach her young, innocent friend in time."
"Xena, Come play..."
Xena abruptly awakened to darkness. She sat up quickly and her blanket fell away. She shivered slightly as she found that her nightshift was not quite enough to ward off the cool nighttime air of fall. Thanking the goddess Artemis for blessing this night with a full moon, Xena looked about her and noticed the eerie effect the moonlight from above was casting on the campsite. Everything seemed to be alive, but it was only the shadows of the leaves as they writhed in the cool breeze. The dying embers of the campfire added to the nightmarish feeling about her by casting fleeting shadows of dancing demons everywhere she turned. Gabrielle stirred beside her and adjusted to a more comfortable position, then settled back into her bardic dreams. Xena found the bard's presence beside her not only warm in the cool air, but comforting, and cautiously began to settle back into Morpheus' embrace.
Suddenly, Xena's senses were screaming as she realized that they were not alone in the campsite. She threw the blanket from her body and sprang to her feet. Clutching her sword and chakram she turned to face the intruder. On the edge of the campsite stood a figure in a hooded cloak made of a rough, unevenly woven black material. Gabrielle stirred and mumbled something incoherent before returning to the deep, rhythmic breathing of sleep.
Xena held her sword at the intruder and growled in a low, menacing voice, "Who are you, and why are you in our campsite?"
In response, the hooded figure slowly turned and walked into the woods. Xena, wanted answers yet she was afraid to leave Gabrielle unprotected. A sense of calm settled inside Xena and somehow she sensed Gabrielle would be in no danger. She made sure that Gabrielle was covered with the blankets before leaving the chakram with her armor, then followed the stranger into the woods clutching her sword. She followed him to the entrance of a cave about twenty paces from the campsite. She stopped outside to examine the cave and wondered how she could have possibly missed it while scouting the area earlier. Then she heard a low voice as it beckoned her from within the cave...
...and stepped inside the entrance with her sword ready. As she entered, the torches on either side of the entryway burst into blazing life. Xena reached for one and as her hand was about to grasp the torch nearest her, two more ignited farther down the passageway. She took the hint and decided she wouldn’t need to carry the torch after all. Xena left it in its brace and lowered her sword before walking further into the cave.
Every couple of paces, the unlit torches on each side burst into flames until she entered a dark cavern with a small fountain in the middle. She walked up to the fountain, and a torch directly above her ignited, bathing the fountain in its glow. She saw an empty glass vial and a leather drawstring pouch sitting on a stone beside her. Moving slowly, Xena took the vial and submerged it in the fountain. Once it was filled, she put the stopper in it, and placed the vial in the pouch. Holding the pouch up to her eyes, Xena examined it and muttered under her breath, "Why do the gods have to play games. Why can't they just come out and say what they want?"
"Because the gods don't always want their involvement known..."
Xena, temporarily focused on the vial, was taken aback by the sound. Turning toward the voice, she saw the cloaked figure she had followed at the far end of the cave. It was sitting in the shadows on what appeared to be a throne cut directly into the cave wall. She approached the figure, but let her warrior instincts take control and stopped well within the light falling from the torches.
"Are you the voice I have heard? Who are you?"
"Your protector or your enemy. Your friend or your foe. You know me, or you've never met me. That is for you to decide..."
The stranger’s words were confusing. Xena was sure that a clue to the identity of the voice was hidden in them. She only had to find it, so she listened intently. When the voice remained silent, Xena decided to ask some questions. "What do you mean, that is for me to decide?"
"It is not allowed of me to tell you the answers."
The voice offered no indications of identity. It was neither male nor female, yet it was almost both.
"You must find them for yourself... or with the help of a fair-haired bard..."
"Perhaps... Know that the Fates rule your destiny. The path you choose could mean death, and all those that travel the same path are destined for the same..."
Nervously, Xena asked, "Destined for the same fate? Is that fate death?"
" Death... Life... Oblivion... Ceaseless torture... Infinite bliss... You must decide, or the decision will be made for you..."
Steeling herself to the panic trying to rise up within her, Xena asked, "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Take the key and travel to the oracle's cave at Delphi. The water in the vial will aid in finding it, the key will gain entrance..."
Annoyed at the indifferent tone the voice had adopted, Xena demanded, "Why aren't you answering my questions? Where is this key?"
"I have already said too much, now go..."
"Can't you give me some clue to who you are?"
"I am not allowed to tell you my identity."
"Then show me. Just step into the light."
The hooded figure sat silently for a long time, unmoving. Xena, sure that it was finished and had given all the information it would to her, turned to go when finally it struggled to its feet and slowly walked to the edge of the light. Painfully slow it moved forward, and the light from the nearest torch played upon its feet revealing simple black leather boots. From there the figure took a slow step forward to allow the light to travel up its body to expose black trousers, a deep-black cloak, and a black leather belt. Hands, as bone white as if they've not ever felt Apollo's caress, clenched tightly into fists. Relaxing, the hands moved behind the figure. It then stepped forward fully into the light to reveal a white tunic and a hooded face concealed by the rough, black cloak. The white hands moved from behind and shook, as if struggling, as it reached for the hood. In one surging motion the hands grasped the rough cloth on either side of the covered face and pulled the hood back, but not before the cave was filled with darkness as all the torches went out at once.
"Noooo!!" Xena sat up and frantically looked around her. The fire had burned itself out and Gabrielle was sleeping gently next to her. The sky was changing from a dark blue-black to a light pink as Apollo began to appear in the eastern sky to relieve Artemis of her nightly vigil. Xena looked around the campsite and confirmed her suspicions that they were once again alone. Gabrielle began to stir.
"Xen... Xena? What's wrong, are you having another nightmare?" Gabrielle asked groggily.
Xena responded quietly, "You could say that."
As tired as she was, Gabrielle still picked up on her friend’s mood and shook the last of Morpheus’ embrace. Fully awake now, Gabrielle quickly sat up beside her friend and put a gentle arm around broad shoulders. She patiently waited for the warrior to elaborate.
"Gabrielle, I think I was just visited by whoever owns the voice."
"He... here? He was in our campsite?" Nervously looking around, Gabrielle asked, "Is he still here?"
"No Gabrielle, " Xena said, "Whoever it was, they came in my dreams."
"Well..." Gabrielle pushed excitedly, "Who is it? This will make such a great story: 'The Courageous Warrior Princess and Her Ghostly Protector'!"
"Gabrielle, I don't think this is a story you're going to be able to tell."
"And why not?" Gabrielle asked cautiously.
Turning to face her, Xena looked the bard in the eye and said, "Gabrielle, I want you to go visit your sister in Poteidaia. This dream..."
"Uh-uh! No way!" Irritated, Gabrielle interrupted the warrior. "You always do this. At the least hint of trouble, you want to send me away. Like it or not Warrior Princess we're in this together. I am not going home. I am sticking by you the same way you would stick by me, and that's the last I want to hear about me going home!"
Almost pleading Xena said, "Gabrielle, this dream scares me. I don't want you to get killed just because you want to stand by me."
Patiently, Gabrielle asked the warrior, "Since this dream scared you so much, why don't you tell me about it and then we can discuss it?"
Reluctantly giving in, Xena sighed. "Ok. I woke up in the middle of the night. The forest seemed alive, and then I realized that there was someone in our campsite..."
* * * * * * *
"... and just when it was about to pull its hood back and reveal its face, all the torches went out and I woke up here, beside you."
"So what's got you worried is this thing about the path and the Fates?"
"I don't think I could live with myself if I allowed you to come with me and you died."
Annoyed, Gabrielle’s lip curled as she sneered, "Listen to me Princess." Xena cringed slightly at the unusually sarcastic tone coming from Gabrielle. "You have never allowed me to do anything. You cannot tell me what I can and cannot do. You also cannot stop me from helping my best friend when she is in trouble or needs my help. If I die, it will be because of the choices that I make not the ones you make for me. Do I make myself clear?"
Xena couldn’t help but smirk after listening to the tirade coming from her friend. "Why is it, I don't seem to win all my arguments anymore? Until you came along, I never lost."
"Well, that will teach you to mess with someone from Poteidaia, " Gabrielle offered triumphantly, and looked at Xena with a smug, self-satisfied look on her face. They both burst out laughing, but before long the seriousness returned.
"Face it Xena, you're stuck with me. The person from your dream even said I would be able to help you."
"No. When I asked if you were the bard it spoke of, it said, 'Perhaps.' It never gave me anything definite besides the fact that I have to use the vial of water to find the Oracle's cave at Delphi, and use the key to gain entrance. I guess the first thing to do is find out what exactly this key is."
"Wait Xena!" Gabrielle beamed with an excited look of inspiration. "What is to say that this dream isn't just Ares' way of getting you to come back to him? You've said his plans are usually very subtle, and you don't realize it's him until late. Think about it. I’ll bet this dream was exactly that: just a dream. It's a way to spook you and get us separated to make it easier for Ares' to get you back. He’s said in the past, that it is my influence that’s keeping you away from him. Even if it’s not Ares, it sure sounds like someone wants to separate us. Besides, you said you need the vial and the key? Where is this vial of water and the key?"
Xena looked at her weapons lying on the ground by the bedrolls, but did not see the leather pouch. She ran her hands through the grass around the bedroll and found nothing but sticks. Meanwhile, Gabrielle gently shook out the blankets and folded them for travel without finding the elusive leather pouch.
"Xena?" She turned quickly to look at Gabrielle, "I haven't found any trace of a vial, have you?"
"No, I haven't. Maybe I left it in the cave."
After quickly dressing. Xena and Gabrielle set out to find the cave. When they reached the spot of the entrance, all they found was another clearing in a grove of trees.
"You know Gabrielle, I think you are right. It must just have been a dream. I know this is where the cave was. In my dream I thought it strange that I didn't find it when I scouted the area last night. Let's get cleaned up and get some breakfast. The day is getting brighter. Maybe we can get on the road a little earlier than usual today." Xena added with a wry grin, "Since you're already up."
Gabrielle, feigning indignation, punched the warrior on the arm. "That one's going to cost you. Let's see. I REALLY need practice reciting my stories of Xena, the Mighty Warrior Princess. How long did you say we would be on the road today?"
Smiling Xena raised her hands in front of her and said playfully, "No, please, anything but that."
Putting her arms around the warrior in a hug, Gabrielle said, "Then I don't ever again want to hear you tell me to go home when things get tough. Deal?"
Xena returned the hug and whispered, "Deal."
Breaking the hug Gabrielle took Xena’s hand and began pulling her in the direction of the stream, "C'mon! Let's get something to eat! I'm starving!"
Shaking her head in amazement at the bard’s constant appetite, Xena followed her to the stream.
Later, after they had cleaned up and eaten, Xena and Gabrielle began to break camp. Gabrielle was bringing their camp dishes back from washing them in the stream. After handing them to Xena to be tied to the saddle, Gabrielle turned to gather the stray items left about camp. Xena, while packing the saddlebags found a strange leather bag. She stopped and called to Gabrielle.
"What is it Xena?"
"When did you get this gray pouch? I don’t remember you buying anything like this in the last town."
With a quizzical look, Gabrielle answered, "Xena, I thought that was yours. I’ve been meaning to ask you when you got it."
Suddenly understanding, Xena and Gabrielle exchange a knowing glance as Xena began to untie the cord keeping the pouch closed. Handing the cord to Gabrielle, Xena reached into the bag. As her hands closed on the contents, Xena’s face paled slightly, then her eyes grew hard and cold.
Gabrielle saw the change in Xena’s features and asked, "Xena. What’s in the pouch?"
Xena removed her hand from the bag and showed Gabrielle what the pouch contained. In her outstretched hand was a leather drawstring pouch containing a glass vial full of a clear liquid, and a stone medallion with gold etchings.
To be continued...