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© Copyright 1997 by F.S.
This story may not be sold and may be archived at public sites only with direct permission from the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
See Childhood's End (Parts 1-2) for the complete disclaimer statement and other notes from the author.
"Halt, who goes there?" A rough-looking man with a spear addressed her.
"I'm Homer," Gabrielle said in the deepest voice she could manage. "I'm on leave from Captain Sylian's division."
"On leave, eh?" The soldier relaxed. "Wish I were, too, instead of watching the road for that bi*** Xena. Commander Vervain's been making us pull full duty shifts ever since Falceus got wind that she may be heading here. In fact, there's a rumor that she's here already. The back watch was found tied up yesterday, apparently by a woman and some kid," the soldier sneered. "If you ask me, Corvin just got careless. Anyway, I bet things are picking up in the south though, with the Centaurs and everything. Ol' Falceus will have his hands full if the warrior woman shows up now, eh?" His eyes shifted. "Not that it wouldn't be a good thing ..." he muttered softly to himself. Gabrielle looked up in surprise, but quickly stifled it as the soldier gave her a warning look.
"Can I pass now?" she asked instead.
"Yeah, enjoy you're time off, buddy. 'Cause if Xena does show up, we'll be in for quite a ride, let me tell you. I smell war in the air. Keep your eyes peeled for some big muscled woman. If you see her, give a shout."
"I will." Gabrielle saluted the soldier and proceeded onwards. Once she reached the temple gate, she dismounted Argo, took her staff out of the saddle, and tied the horse to a tree. Mustering her courage, the bard slowly walked up the steps.
Once inside, she was greeted with the smell of incense and burning candles. A tripod filled with some unknown liquid stood upon a large altar in the center of the room.
"May I help you with something?" Someone tapped her on the shoulder. Gabrielle turned to face a silver-robed priestess.
"Yes. I've come here to find an answer," the bard said quietly.
"Perhaps you will receive it, if you ask the right question." The woman led her toward the altar. "But are you willing to pay the price?"
Gabrielle gulped but nodded resolutely. "Sure."
The woman studied her for a minute. "You are not what you seem to be. A bard, a warrior, a woman are you. But do you have enough courage to take a challenge from the gods and prove that you are worthy of the knowledge you seek?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said firmly. "If that's what it's going to take."
"So a challenge it will be." The woman gazed into the tripod. "A test of fire." She nodded. "Fitting, for one with a soul that burns as bright as yours." She took Gabrielle's hand and led her into a room off to the left of the main chamber. As the priestess opened the heavy wooden door, Gabrielle gasped and shielded her face from the intensity of the heat and the flames that emerged from within. It was as if the whole room was ablaze! The priestess turned to the bard.
"You will find what you are looking for in the center of the flames," she said, nonplused by the conflagration before her. She bowed once to the astounded bard and made her way back to the main altar room.
Gabrielle watched as the flames reached even higher toward the ceiling. Yet, curiously enough, none of the walls seemed to burn. Reaching out a hesitant hand, Gabrielle yelped as she felt the heat singe her skin. She immediately pulled it back. The flames were real enough. Sighing, she stared at the fire. How in the name of Hades was she going to pass through all that and not come out a crisped cinder? It seemed hopeless. The bard was not ready to give up without a fight, though. Watching the flames dance reminded her of the last peaceful night she had spent with the Warrior Princess, carving near a cheerful campfire. Thinking about Xena, Gabrielle wondered how her young friend was doing. The bard grinned wryly. Kala was probably having a hard time keeping up with the child, especially with all the games and tricks the young Xena liked to pull. Wait a minute, Gabrielle thought excitedly. Children's games ... that was it! Suddenly, she saw a pattern in the flames, much like one of the hop rope games that she had played when she was very young. One flame would flicker down for a moment, creating enough space to allow safe passage, before flaring up again. However, if she misjudged the timing or the rhythm, she would be in for a serious roasting. Putting her staff down and taking a deep breath, Gabrielle steeled herself as she waited for the first of the flames near her to die down.
When the moment came, she leaped over the fire, landing squarely in a small open space between the flames. To keep her rhythm, she began to recite the children's rhyme she had used so long ago.
"One, two, going through three, four, out the door five, six, past the river Styx seven, eight, round Hade's gate nine, ten, past Cerebus again."
She let the pattern of the words take her carry her along and tried not to think about what would happen if she took a single misstep. Slowly, she neared the center of the room. When she finally reached the last wall of flames, Gabrielle felt almost hot enough to faint. Matters did not improve any when she realized that the fire in the middle would not die down according to the pattern. Staring at the roaring wall, Gabrielle knew that she would have to charge through the flames if she wanted to reach the middle. Taking a deep breath, the bard started her flight. As soon as she hit the first firewall, pain began to lance though her body. Gabrielle ignored it and continued to push on. The air around her grew hotter and hotter, and she could feel herself begin to stumble in the heat. Gabrielle yelped in dismay as she felt herself trip and fall towards the hungry flames ... then abruptly, the air cooled around her, leaving her breathless with relief. Gabrielle collapsed thankfully onto a cold stone floor, which was suddenly devoid of any fire. As she sucked air into her aching lungs, Gabrielle saw a golden light appear to her left. Through tear-blurred eyes, she watched as the glow formed itself into a man, who offered out a hand to help her up. At his touch, all the pain from her burns disappeared. The bard trembled as she looked at the handsome man who stood before her. He could only be one person ...
"Apollo ..." she whispered in awe.
"The one and the same." The golden-haired man gave Gabrielle a dazzling smile. "And I must say, you came through that test with flying colors. I knew there was a reason why Artemis chose you to be a princess to her bunch of Amazons. I really need to discuss that with her ... you belong to me, too, being that you're a bard, and I'm the god of bards. It's not fair that she should get all of you!"
Gabrielle knelt at his feet. "I've come to beg for a favor from you, great and mighty Apollo, and to ask you a question."
Apollo looked at her amused. "You don't need to speak like that unless we're in public. Anyway, I know what you want to ask ... well, actually, I know everything, but before I give you the answer, think carefully. Your friend Xena is a lot happier now than she ever was before. Do you really want to bring her back?"
Gabrielle hung her head. "I just don't know! She is very happy but ... the world still needs her ... I still need her," she sighed. "I know it sounds selfish, but we really do need Xena the Warrior Princess. I wish there was another way."
"Well, that's too bad, because there isn't any. You can either have Xena the innocent, or Xena the warrior. You can't have both." Apollo shrugged. "In any case, you must decide."
"But it's not my decision!" Gabrielle twisted her hands in agony. "How can I possibly make a choice like that?"
"Is that not what you came to ask me? To undo the spell?"
"I just wanted to know if she could change back. I'm not so sure that I want her to, now. I need some time to think ..."
"She will lose her innocence one day, Gabrielle, no matter what you do."
"I know. I just wish Pan hadn't ..." Gabrielle trailed off. "Can it be done? Can the old Xena be brought back?"
"Just so that you'll know, Pan meant the transformation as a gift. He admires your friend greatly, an affliction that seems to plague many around Mt. Olympus. He was impressed that she was bold enough to challenge him and wanted to show his appreciation of her courage. Pan only hoped to make her happy. He did not consider the impact on mortal affairs ... indeed, why should he? He is a god. However, if you seek to undo what he has done, then take your wee friend to the spring of eternal truth." Apollo waved a hand in the air, and instantly a map appeared. "It's a pretty place, long unknown to mortals. You'll find a couple of my priestesses there, and they'll help you as much as they can. Anyway, if Xena bathes in the water, the spell will wear off, and she'll be restored to her true self. I'd be a little cautious if I were you; the true Xena may or may not be all that great."
"If it comes to that, I'll take my chances. I believe in her," Gabrielle said faithfully. Apollo chuckled.
"What fools these mortals be! Always so certain of themselves," the god snorted. "Anyway, please do not tell anyone where my spring is, if you can help it. Good luck to you bard, whatever you decide. You amuse me ... I'll be watching you." There was a brief flash of light, and when it faded, the god was gone.
When the dawn came to the farmhouse, Xena was already up and wide awake, ready to greet the rising sun. She never understood how people could waste a perfectly good day by sleeping all the time. Putting on her slippers, the girl quietly sneaked out of the bedroom she had been sharing with Shaya and tiptoed out the door. Once outside, she grinned at Lightning.
"I bet we can find some adventure," she said as she skipped across the farmyard, scattering the chickens as she went. Xena wished she could leave the farm to climb some of the trees she saw in the distance, but she had made a promise to Gabrielle, on a warrior's oath no less, that she would remain where she was. Thinking of the bard, the girl stroked Lightning's wooden mane fondly. Her friend was probably having a big adventure now, with lots of fun and excitement, while she was stuck here guarding a bunch of clucking fowls. Xena stomped a foot. Sometimes, life was just not fair.
However, the sudden sound of pounding hoofbeats made her pause from her game of spooking the chickens. Climbing swiftly up into the hayloft of the barn, Xena watched through slitted eyes as two soldiers galloped up towards the farm. Their uniforms bore the same colors as those of the soldiers that had attacked Gabrielle yesterday. Xena frowned. That would mean that they were on the bad guy's side. Arming herself with a couple of stones and all the eggs she could find from the frightened hens, Xena scrambled back up to her post overlooking the barnyard. She was not a minute too late. The soldiers rode up to the house and started banging on the door rudely.
Kala answered quickly. "Hello, what may I do for you gentlemen?" she asked politely. The man just brushed her aside as he stormed into the house. Xena's eyes narrowed. The other soldier grabbed Kala roughly.
"Have you seen a little blond-haired woman, traveling with a grubby-looking kid? Falceus wants to see them," he grunted. Kala twisted out of his grip.
"No, I don't know who you're talking about. I haven't seen any blond-haired women, or any grubby-looking children," Kala replied evenly.
"Corvin, the house is clean, except for these two." The other soldier shuffled Shaya and Janya outside.
"Check the barn," Corvin growled. "Now, be honest with me. People saw your daughters with the two in question."
"I really do not know what you're talking about," Kala said innocently. Shaya just sniffled, while Janya looked angry. Xena gulped as the other soldier came near her hiding place. There was no way to escape ... the hayloft had become a trap. Well, she was a warrior-in-training, right? She would not go down without a fight! Xena stuck the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she took careful aim with her ammunition. Splat! The hen's egg made a satisfying noise as it hit the soldier squarely in the face. He yelled and said some things that did not sound nice. Xena giggled as she pelted him again. But her attack soon came to an abrupt halt when a pair of strong arms grabbed her and hauled her off the hayloft.
"Hey, Corvin, I found this brat in the barn." The other soldier returned holding a squirming Xena. "Damn kid beaned me with three stones and four eggs."
"Now what did you say about not seeing any children?" Corvin sneered.
"That's just X ... Zima. She's my niece," Janya spoke up suddenly. "Oh, I know what you're talking about now! The people must have seen Aunt Gabby yesterday. We were escorting her to our house. Her husband was killed in the Cretan Campaign just last Autumn, and she wanted to drop her daughter off to live with us. I don't remember seeing anyone else on our route here. We never left Aunt Gabby's side all day, poor thing. She's never been quite right in the head after my brother's death."
"And where is your poor Aunt now?" Corvin asked, still suspicious.
"Well, she uh, ..." Janya spluttered.
"You see, it's kind of embarrassing," Kala filled in smoothly. "Since my dear son's death, she wanted to share her uhh ... gifts with the world, if you know what I mean, so she decided to visit Dionysus' temple and become one of his faithful followers."
"Hey, aren't those the women who run around buck naked?" the second soldier asked. Corvin silenced him with a glare.
"If that's so, then why was the brat hiding in the barn?"
"I wasn't hiding!" Xena exclaimed. Kala immediately clapped a hand over her mouth.
"Of course you weren't, dear. Zima likes to get up early so she can gather the hens' eggs." Kala looked apologetically at the yolk-covered officer. "Which I can see you found out first hand."
"Oh, c'mon Corvin, we're not going to find anything here," the second soldier said as he wiped off the yolk good-naturedly. "She looks too old to lie. She reminds me of my mother, for Zeus' sake!" He walked back toward his horse. "I'm NOT going to harass a bunch of women who don't have anything to do with our attackers yesterday. We're just wasting our time. Look at them! Do they actually look like they're the warrior women we're after?
"I still don't trust them." Corvin narrowed his eyes. "I'll be watching you very closely," he threatened as he followed his friend. "If you even so much as look suspicious, I'll be on you."
The group watched as the two left the yard. Letting out the breath she had been holding, Kala turned to Xena and gave her a wry smile. "Quite an adventure, eh? But next time, please don't waste the eggs on those buffoons. Go for the big, sharp rocks or the wonderful cow pies."
"Mother!" Shaya wailed. "How could you say things like that?"
"Oh, quit being such a baby," Janya said coolly.
"But if they find out ..."
"Their heads are thicker than molasses. I doubt they will," Kala said quietly. "Now, get you things ready, we're going into town."
"Why?" Shaya whined.
"Because there, we won't be so alone and vulnerable. I need to talk to some people and arrange some things." The old woman drew herself up. "Now go and get prepared." The three girls rushed to obey.
The marketplace was a feast of sounds and sights to Xena's young eyes, as vendors hawked their colorful wares, and shoppers pushed their way through the streets. Xena wiggled around in her seat, trying to take in all the spectacles at one time. The old donkey that was straining at the harness did not move fast enough for her liking, though, and Xena longed to get out and run beside the slow-moving vehicle. But Kala gave her a sharp glance, so she stayed seated. She couldn't help squirming a little more as the cart moved deeper into the settlement. Oh, how she wished she could run around! Having to sit so still made her legs itch, as if there were a thousand fire ants crawling on them. Xena sighed. She had to content herself with sightseeing. Xena loved watching the people around her and kept a sharp lookout for some potential playmates.
However, even to her inexperienced eyes, Xena could tell something was wrong. All the people outside seemed either to be very old or very young. The only in-between age people were Shaya and Janya. Also, the children of Cyanthus did not laugh or play like they did in her own village of Amphipolis. Instead, they worked silently by the old grownups. Xena gripped Lightning more tightly. As the cart slowly plodded on, Xena began to wonder if anyone in the town knew the meaning of fun. She watched as Kala parked the cart in a stall outside a tavern and tied up the tired donkey. As Janya and Shaya moved off toward the marketplace, Kala motioned for Xena to follow her into the tavern, which the girl eagerly did, glad to be finally out of the restricting cart. The bar was empty except for one old man tending the counter. He looked up in surprise as Kala entered.
"Kala, it's a pleasure to see you," he said, his wrinkled face creasing into a warm smile. "What brings you out today? I thought that you would be tending your fields."
"Fair morn to you, too, Jalen," Kala replied cheerfully as she pulled up a bar stool. "I was wondering, what was the talk on the town last night?"
Jalen looked slyly at her, a knowing gleam stealing into his eyes. "The soldiers said that a certain someone was breezing through the town. Anyway, you look parched. I have something in the back you just might want to try, if you would come with me ..." He gestured to a door leading to the back room of the tavern, tucked safely away from any prying eyes or ears.
Kala nodded. "I could use a nice drink, come to think about it. X-Zima, ..."
"Who's this?" The old man leaned down over the bar counter.
"She's my granddaughter, ZIMA ... you remember her, don't you?" Kala said. Jalen looked at her slowly, before nodding.
"Of course. How could I forget? Zima, why don't you go play with Jilly? She's about the same age as you ... Jilly, come out now!" Jalen called. A child, about six years old, peered across the counter and smiled shyly when she saw Xena. She put down the glass she had been polishing and went to stand behind her grandfather's leg. Laughing, the old man pushed the child to the front. "You two go play nicely now and don't get into any trouble. Now, Kala, what about that drink?"
Xena watched as the two grownups disappeared into the back room. She turned to Jilly.
"Hi. My name's Xena, but the adults want to say it funny. Do you want to have an adventure?"
"Mmm...I don't know," Jilly replied quietly as she ducked behind a chair.
"C'mon, it'll be fun. We'll find cool stuff, and treasures even!" Xena declared, digging into her pocket. She brought out a handful of glowing fungus. "Hey, do you want to see something neat?"
Jilly came over to look at it curiously, her fear of the new stranger forgotten. "That's will-o-wisp fingers," she said softly. "My granda says it glows 'cause ..." she shivered. "It points the way to Hades."
Both the girls regarded the glowing matter with renewed reverence. Xena could tell that Jilly was beginning to get a little scared, so she stuffed the mushrooms back into her pocket, and brought out Lightening instead.
Jilly's eyes widened when she saw the figure. "Nice horse," she breathed enviously.
"She's a warhorse. Her name's Lightning. She was trained to be one of the Warrior Princesses' horses!" Xena eyes brightened. "I know, let's play warriors! I can be Xena, 'cause that's already my name, and you can be my faithful sidekicker."
"I don't know how to play warriors." Jilly sounded uncertain.
"It's lots of fun," Xena coaxed. "Even better than treasure hunting!"
Jilly squirmed as she seemed to consider. "Oh, okay. What does a sidekicker do?"
Xena thought hard for a moment. "I think they kick sideways, like this." She demonstrated, kicking a barstool powerfully. Jilly tried to do the same, but ended up falling over instead.
"No, like this." Xena showed her patiently. "You can't throw yourself, otherwise, you tip over." Jilly tried again, this time succeeding, although her landing was a bit wobbly. "That's better," Xena told her approvingly. "Now we have to look for some swords."
Jilly bit her lip. She wanted to impress her new friend so very much. "I know where we can get some sticks. Dylan has some in his store, 'cause his family makes wood stuff." Following Jilly out the door, Xena wondered if she should have told Kala where she was going and thought about her promise to Gabrielle. But Gabrielle had not said anything about not leaving the bar ... all she had said was not to leave the farm. And Kala had not said she couldn't go. Xena shrugged and followed Jilly through the winding street paths.
Dylan did have some swords, as it turned out, but he would let them use the wood only on the condition that he may join their warrior party. Xena readily agreed. Then they were off to find some shields and other basic warrior needs. After about a half hour of scrounging around, they were armed and ready to take on the world. Xena had now gathered a following of seven other children, most of whom were older than her. However, she was the unmistakable leader of the pack. The only boy who tried to contest that right got a bruised knee for his troubles. Xena was immediately sorry after she had hit him, but he had threatened to bop her and Jilly on the head. Plus, she couldn't let the bigger kids think that she wasn't in control. In consolation, though, she made him fourth in command. Brandishing her "chakrum" which was, in reality, an old tin saucer, Xena led her troops onward in search of adventure.
Their first "adventure" dealt with a cat who had gotten stuck on top of a narrow roof. Xena quickly solved the problem by climbing up herself, despite the daunting height, and hauling the spitting, ungrateful creature down. Although the cat may have been less than happy, Xena herself was thrilled. It was her first brave act as a Warrior Princess! The others in her group were properly impressed by the show of bravado and kept chanting her name over and over in a loud cheer. Xena glowed in their praise. In their eyes, there was nothing she could not do. The war band proceeded to rescue a chicken from its packing crate and liberated a plate of oppressed cookies from the baker's window. After munching on their "freed" goodies, Xena reflected that being a Warrior Princess was not a bad life to live.
"I need to go home," Dylan said suddenly, looking at the sun. "My grand daddy needs me to help make dinner soon."
Sighing, the rest of the children knew that their chores also called. Before leaving Xena, they promised to play with her again real soon. Thoroughly satisfied with her day, Xena walked back towards the bar with Jilly in tow and Dylan following behind. The older girl looked at Xena's wooden horse wistfully.
"I wish I could ride a real war horse, just once," she said dreamily.
"I have. Her name was Argo. She was great!" Xena exclaimed.
"You have not!" Dylan looked at her disbelievingly.
"Have too! I rode her here with Gabrielle. We whacked a bunch of soldiers on the roads, too," Xena declared loudly, sticking her tongue out.
"Is that so?" A booming voice made the children spin around in fright. Xena's eyes widened as she recognized Corvin.
"Run!" she screeched, but the soldier was too fast. Grabbing Jilly, he picked her up and held her in a tight hand lock.
"If you don't want me to hurt your little friend, then I suggest you stop where you are," he spat nastily. Xena stopped and glared at him, defiance sparking in her clear blue eyes. Dylan just kept running. The second soldier looked at Corvin uncertainly.
"Let the boy go. It's her we want." Corvin gestured to Xena. "Pick her up. And if any of you make a sound, I'll bite your fingers off."
"Corvin, I never wanted to hurt no kids," the second soldier said uneasily.
"Shut your trap and do as you're told," Corvin snarled as he threw Jilly over his saddle and mounted his horse. The second soldier looked at Xena apologetically before taking her into his arms. She did not struggle but the look she gave him was one of pure hatred.
Watching from a hidden alley, Dylan gulped as he watched the soldiers ride off with Xena and Jilly firmly in hand. Then he took off in the direction of Jalen's bar, as fast as his little legs could take him.
Kala had been worried about Xena when she and Jalen found that both girls had disappeared. However, she was not too concerned. How much trouble could one five-year-old get into anyway? She found out when Dylan came running into the bar, a panicked expression on his face.
"They took Xena and Jilly!" he spluttered.
"Soldiers," the boy panted, his eyes wide with fear. "Xena was talking about how she and her friend had whacked a bunch of soldiers, then two of 'em stepped out and grabbed them."
Alarmed, Kala turned to Jalen. "They must have wanted her for questioning. There isn't much time. We have to gather the town council. Something must be done immediately."
Jalen nodded. "Go home and get your mother. She should be in from the fields now," he instructed Dylan. "I'll go and inform the others."
Kala moved toward the marketplace. "I'll get Janya to go warn Gabrielle. Gods, I hope nothing happens to them. Otherwise, I'll never forgive myself."
Meanwhile, Xena and Jilly huddled together in the small iron cage that Corvin had tossed them into when they had arrived at the soldiers' camp.
"You two are in for a shock," Corvin sneered at them. Then he turned to his companion. "Guard these two. I'm going to get Commander Vervain."
"Can't we let the other girl go? She's not involved," the soldier said nervously as he gazed into the cage.
"Of course not, you fool. Now do as your told," Corvin grinned evilly. "I have a feeling that there's going to be a promotion tonight, Martis! You'll be calling me Commander soon. Now stand here and look sharp!"
A reluctant Martis turned back to the cage to find an angry five-year-old glaring at him. Instead of cowering and crying like her friend was, she fixed her icy blue eyes on him and stuck her tongue out.
"Just you wait until my big sister gets her hands on you," she said confidently. "She'll make you sorry that you're being a big stinkhead!"
"Look, kid, if I were you, I wouldn't show that much spunk when Captain Corvin and Commander Vervain get back," Martis told her. "Just tell them what they want, and they'll let you go. You don't want to get hurt, do you?"
"Why do you care?" Xena demanded. "You're just a big mean soldier!"
"Not because I want to be, but because I have to be," Martis murmured softly to himself.
"You always have a choice ... Gabrielle said so," Xena told him primly.
"You don't understand. You're just a brat." Martis turned roughly away. "Just take my advice, whelp, and don't put up that much of a fight. It'll be better for you." Xena's reply came in the form of a heavy metal plate that struck the soldier square in the helmet. Martis just shrugged and walked to a safer distance. "Kids these days."
"If that was my big sister's chakrum, it would have cut your head off," Xena growled as she bent to comfort Jilly, who had began to hiccup. Martis just ignored her.
"Don't worry," she said gently to her friend. "We'll get out of here." Xena sat down beside the wailing girl. "Gabrielle will come and rescue us. Maybe she'll bring the real Warrior Princess, too. Then they'll all be sorry," she said darkly. "While we wait, we can look for ways to escape! After all, we are warriors-in-training. Don't cry, Jilly. Warriors don't ever cry. Never ever. I bet Xena the Warrior Princess doesn't."
"But I don't wanna be a warrior no more. I just wanta go hoooome," Jilly
moaned. Xena began to feel tears forming in her own eyes. Fighting them
back, she put her arms around Jilly, and both girls held each other in
a frightened embrace. As the sobbing of her friend rang loud in her ears,
Xena felt the anger and determination in her grow. She scanned the camp
with her sharp eyes and listened to what the soldiers around her were saying.
Somehow, there had to be a way to escape. Xena vowed that she would find