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Xena, Gabrielle, and the rest of the Xena characters in this story belong to Universal Studios. Contains no spoilers, not much violence.
By Nicole Hazel
Gabrielle awoke to the smell of fish frying on the campfire. Through still groggy eyes, she could make out the outline of her best friend kneeling over the sizzling food. Groaning, she tossed off her blanket and pulled herself up into a sitting position.
"'Morning," she said, stretching.
"About time you woke up," commented Xena, not even bothering to turn around.
"About time you let me sleep in," Gabrielle retorted.
"Yeah, well, theres some pretty nasty-looking storm clouds heading this way. I thought you could use the extra rest."
"Oh, I hate storms!" Gabrielle groaned. "Don't get me wrong, they're just fine in the comfort of a nice, warm inn, but not here on the road." She shuddered exaggeratedly, her tangled reddish-blond hair going in all directions.
"If we hurry we might make it to an inn I know."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the idea of hurrying through the same rough terrain they had traveled though the day before, but knew enough not to say anything.
A half an hour later camp was packed up and they were on their way. The day was cool and pleasant. A breeze danced through the trees rustling the leaves and blowing Xenas dark hair in her face. A quick swipe across her face tamed the wild strands. For now.
"You know, I think well get lucky and the storm wont hit us," Gabrielle said. "Because I really dont see any storm clouds." Gabrielle paused and, squinting, tried to see through the canopy of leaves and branches to the sky above.
"Trust me, theyre there. We might want to start looking for some shelter," Xena said.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest the existence of these clouds, but decided against it. Instead she protested looking for shelter.
"I thought you were in a hurry to see Solan."
"Well, what about that inn you were talking about?"
"Are you going to be difficult today? I dont know about you but I dont want to get caught in a storm and I dont think were going to make to the inn."
"But you said--"
By early afternoon they still hadnt found any sort of shelter. Gabrielle was chattering away about some playwright or at least that was the topic the last time Xena had bothered to listen. It was then that Xena felt the first drop of rain. Xena stopped dead in her tracks. Gabrielle, not paying attention, ran right into her and smashed her nose on Xenas shoulder.
"Did you feel that?" Xena asked, ignoring the collision.
"Of course I felt that! I ran right into you," Gabrielle complained, rubbing her sore nose.
"No, not that -- the rain."
Just as Xena said that, several more drops came down, hitting both warrior and bard.
"Oh," said Gabrielle.
"Drats," said Xena. "I was hoping it would hold off for a little while longer. Come on, lets hurry."
An hour later they were in the midst of the worst part of the storm. Lightning flashed through the treetops and the once dusty path became a river of mud. A loud clap of thunder sounded through the woods, as Xena and Gabrielle, soaked to the bone, trudged through the mud, with Argo walking a few feet in front of them. An instant later lightning flashed again making everything bright for a split second and the thunder boomed immediately, a little too close for comfort.
"Its right on top of us," shouted Xena through the noise of the storm. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, a bolt of lightning struck a tall tree in front of them. The top of the tree caught fire, despite the wet conditions. It creaked and groaned as it started to fall in front of the two travels.
"Look out!" Xena cried, running forward but ready to reverse directions if it looked as though her friend was in danger. Gabrielle heard the warriors warning and ran the opposite direction.
The tree crashed to the ground in front of the two, putting Gabrielle on one side and Xena on the other. The tree had been a big one; it came up nearly to Gabrielles waist. It was then that Gabrielle realized that she had picked the wrong direction to run.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called.
"Im here," came the reply from the other side. With a quick leap in the air Xena sailed over the fallen tree and landed next to Gabrielle on a grassy patch.
"Show off," Gabrielle muttered under her breath. Gabrielle attempted to climb over the tree but kept sliding off the slick bark. Giving in, Gabrielle turned to Xena who was watching her, looking amused. "Xena, I cant get over it. Its too wet and slippery."
"Here, let me give you a boost," Xena said. She locked her hands together, and Gabrielle climbed up onto the tree, using Xenas shoulder to steady herself. Unfortunately, it was even trickier to get off the darn tree than it was to get on. Gabrielle pulled her feet out from under her and slid off and then slid again as her feet touched the slippery mud. She fell flat on her face, and her whole front of her outfit, where it was once just uncomfortably wet, now was covered from head to toe in mud. Gabrielle could even feel mud seeping into the tops of her boots.
"Oh!" Gabrielle groaned, pulling herself up before the mud could do any more damage.
"Gabrielle," Xena called. Gabrielle looked over to see Xena standing next to her, mud-free except for her boots. How does she do that, Gabrielle wondered.
"You dropped this," Xena said, holding out Gabrielles staff. Xena tossed it gently over to the bard, who barely caught it before it hit her.
It was then that Xena got her first good look at Gabrielle. She looked like a cross between a drowned rat and a swamp monster. Xena bit her lip and cleared her throat to keep from laughing. Gabrielle glared at her. The rain had already begun to wash off the mud but somehow it seemed to only make her look more ridiculous.
"Well, um, wed better get going," Xena said and finally had to turn her back so that Gabrielle wouldnt see the smile she was trying to hide.
Two hours later.
"Oh, for the love of the Gods, Xena," the exhausted bard exclaimed, stopping in the middle of the path. "I don't think I can walk another step."
Xena raised an eyebrow at the to the girl's sudden outburst and doubled back to where Gabrielle had stopped. She rose the other in surprise as Gabrielle leaned up against the warrior and rested her head on her friend's shoulders.
"You know," Gabrielle said, pointing weakly at a muddy patch by the path. "Maybe mud isn't so bad after all. It looks kinda soft." That said, the bard closed her eyes, still leaning up against her friend.
Exhaustion was obviously making her delirious, Xena thought with a grin. "Now, why would we want to sleep in the mud when there's a inn right over there?"
Gabrielle slowly opened one eye and looked down the path and then opened the other. Wide-eyed, Gabrielle stared at the inn. "Or we could sleep at the inn, whichever you prefer?"
With renewed energy, Gabrielle started down the path, with Xena following behind, biting her lip to keep from laughing.
It wasnt the inn Xena had been thinking of. In fact, she had been sure there wasnt one around here, but as long as it was dry, Xena wasnt going to question their good luck. As soon as they had a room, a good, hot meal and Argo cared for the two friends went to sleep.
Finally, thought Gabrielle and fell asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.
Xena awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn. She looked over and saw, just as she had suspected, that Gabrielle was still snoring away. Xena decided to let her sleep in for a while since they had such a rough day yesterday.
She headed toward the stairs to go tend to Argo, who, poor horse, was probably still a little muddy. She had done the best she could the night before but eventually she had to give in to the exhaustion and go to bed.
On the way there she ran into the innkeeper. He was a harmless old man who walked with a limp and used a cane to help him get around. His gray hair looked as if it needed to be cut. He wore an old, worn hat and his clothes were plain. The innkeeper was the kind of man who would gladly talk your ear off if given the chance, kind of like a certain bard she knew. His chattiness was more likely due to loneliness than anything else, Xena suspected. He probably didn't have too many people stay here. The inn wasn't very big and the floorboards creaked and groaned with every step. Thank goodness Gabrielle was such a deep sleeper or she definitely would have been woken when Xena got up. The location of the inn didnt help either, and Xena thought it was strange that he chose to build an inn so far from any well-used road.
"Youre Xena, arent you?" the innkeeper said, eyeing her one-of-a-kind chakrum at her hip and her uniquely styled armor.
"Yes," she said, bracing herself to hear about some awful deed she had done in the past.
"Is it true what they say about you turning from evil to good and fighting the warlords--"
"Yes," she interrupted. Being reminded of her past always put her in a bad mood and today was no exception.
"I heard that the warlord Kratus was planning to attack a centaur village not far from here."
Now he had her full attention. Solan, she thought. Aloud she said, "Go on."
"That's just about all I know. Someone came here recently who had just 'dropped out' of Kratus' army, though I suspect he had really been kicked out. He told me Kratus thought that if he could defeat the centaur village he could take its people for slaves. He thought he would get a good price for them, and maybe even have a few to fight in his army."
"Particularly the young boys," Xena mumbled to herself.
"Never mind. Thanks."
Xena was brushing the dirt out of Argo's golden coat, reflecting on her conversation with the innkeeper. How odd that she didn't recognize the name Kratus. As Gabrielle once said, she was a who's who of warlords, the warrior mused. This Kratus was probably 'new,' which was good for Xena; he'd be less experienced and easier to defeat. Xena was almost finished with Argo when she heard someone come up behind her. She spun around only to find herself looking into a very familiar, if not entirely pleasant, face.
"Joxer? How on earth do you manage to show up wherever we go?" Xena exclaimed.
"Well, you see, I know you, Xena. I heard that a warlord was about to attack some village. So, I've been hanging around looking for you so we can battle the evil-doers together."
"Together." Xena's mouth curved into a sarcastic smile. "Right. You're not coming with me." Xena pushed past him and headed back for the inn to wake Gabrielle up. She tuned out his protests as they climbed the stairs. Finally, she turned around and said, "Joxer, I'm not going to do anything until I find out who this Kratus is, and you are not coming with me into his camp."
Despite Xena's growing annoyance with the incompetent warrior-wanna-be and the danger of making the warrior princess mad, Joxer made one final attempt to sway her.
Gabrielle awoke in her bed in the inn. She looked over and saw, just as she had suspected, that Xenas bed was empty. Well, she can get up early if she wants, Gabrielle thought, snuggling under the covers, but Im going to sleep in.
Gabrielle had begun to drift off again when she heard voices out in the hall.
"Xena, let me go with you."
"No. Youll only get in my way."
"I could help you."
A pause. Gabrielle could just imagine the look Xena was giving the second speaker, Joxer.
"Hey! Im a great warrior."
"Joxer." Xena's tone was getting impatient.
"No. And besides," the voice grew softer, hinting, "someone needs to stay behind and protect Gabrielle."
"Right." Understanding came into his voice. "Joxer the Mighty to the rescue! Defender to the Death!"
"Quiet!" Xena said sharply, "before you wake her."
But Gabrielle wasnt listening anymore. She had stopped when she heard Xena tell Joxer to 'stay behind and protect Gabrielle.' The idea of Joxer actually protecting her was ridiculous. Gabrielle had practically effortlessly knocked him silly the first time they met even though he was trying his hardest to kidnap her. But that wasnt what shocked Gabrielle. It was the stay behind part. Does Xena actually plan on leaving her behind? With Joxer? Well, Gabrielle wasnt going to stay behind. Taking the blanket off the bed and wrapping it around her shoulders, Gabrielle marched out into the hallway.
"Xena, why would Joxer need to stay behind and protect me? What happened? Well, whatever it is you can't just leave me behind. You are taking me with you, aren't you? Xena?"
"I can't take you with me," Xena said calmly to the nearly hysterical bard.
"Why not? And dont tell me its too dangerous. I can handle danger. Goddess knows I been in plenty of dangerous situations. I must have learned something from traveling with you the last two years," Gabrielle said in a single breath.
"I know you can," Xena said in response to her comment about handling danger. "Look, there's a warlord about to attack Solan's village. I need to sneak into his camp and find out everything I can. Alone."
"Gabrielle, I want you to take Joxer and go to the village. I'll meet you there. Take as little-used roads as you can. Tell Kaleipus what has happened. Hopefully I'll be back by this evening, tomorrow at the latest."
"Take care of yourself. I was only trying to get Joxer off my back earlier. I know you don't need his protection. And I know you can take care of yourself."
"Xena, be careful," Gabrielle said, finally giving in.
"Always." Xena gave Gabrielle a quick hug and left. She stopped just outside the front door, where Joxer was waiting for her, having given Xena and Gabrielle their privacy by slipping out completely unnoticed by the two. Really, he could be quite thoughtful sometimes, Xena thought.
"Take care of her," she said.
"I will," Joxer replied solemnly.
"Joxer the Mighty. Da da-da da da," Joxer sang as he walked along, Gabrielle following behind him.
"Joxer, no singing!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
Meekly, Joxer obeyed, only to start humming the irritating song a minute later.
A twig snapped behind them. Gabrielle whirled around and caught sight of what she thought was a person in the bushes. She put her staff in a defensive position, ready to block off any attack, should it be necessary. She thought about the warning Xena had given them before she left. "Promise me that you'll be careful. Take little-used trails and get to Kaleipus' village as fast as you can. They need all the warning they can get."
"Joxer, I think there's someone following us."
"No, there isn't. Trust me. Besides, if there was, don't you think I would have noticed by now? You have nothing to fear with me by your side, fair maiden," Joxer said, acting like the mighty warrior he wasn't. Gabrielle decided to let him think what he wanted and keep an eye out herself. It's not as if he'll be any help to me anyway.
They resumed walking with Gabrielle still on her toes, never letting her guard down.
"You know, Xena said--" Joxer started to say.
"Shh!" Gabrielle silenced him, her eyes scanning the bushes. "I think there's someone out there."
"It's probably just a deer. Even Joxer the Mighty has been fooled by them." Somehow, Gabrielle was not surprised. "It was just after a bloody battle where I, of course, left the enemy begging for mercy..." Joxer continued with his tale of the daring and nonexistent feats of Joxer the Mighty, even though Gabrielle was no longer listening or even following him.
After Joxer's interruption, Gabrielle had lost the location of the person hiding off the trail. Whoever it was must realize he'd been discovered and would be making an appearance soon. Blocking out the slowly diminishing sound of Joxer's voice, Gabrielle listened intently for any sounds coming from the potential attacker. Unfortunately, she forgot to make sure no one could sneak up behind her and her error became apparent when a hand clamped down over her mouth and a strong arm encircled her waist. The attacker had taken her by surprise. Her eyes went wide with panic and she let out a small squeal. Gabrielle could practically hear Xena chiding her for not watching her back. She feigned compliance, keeping still. Fear coursed through her veins and she used that to her advantage, not trying to control the emotion. Gabrielle wanted him to think she was a weak and easy target.
After a moment, without warning, Gabrielle began to struggle violently. She bit the hand over her mouth, kicked at the legs behind her and wriggled down out of his grasp. She had just the effect she was looking for. He could no longer keep hold of her. She grabbed for her staff lying in the dust of the trail before he thought to take it away. A swift whack in the side and one across the back made the attacker back down momentarily. He then pulled out his sword and swung it at Gabrielle. Within moments, though, Gabrielle knocked it from his grasp. Without his weapon, he was no match for Gabrielle and her staff. Eventually he backed down and disappeared into the forest. Only then, when Gabrielle had a chance to think about it, did she realize that he must have been a part of the army Xena was fighting, probably a scout.
With a sigh, Gabrielle turned and looked down the trail to where Joxer was running toward her.
"Come on. Nothing left to do now," Gabrielle said, barely looking at him.
Xena quietly moved through the woods, her ears tuned in to the slightest sound, every inch of her on guard. A faint murmuring of voices captured her attention. The sound was coming from her left. A scan of the forest revealed two men on foot walking north towards Solan's village. Both carried a sword in a scabbard on their back. They were in soldier's clothing with a blue falcon shaped symbol on their right sleeve. They walked slowly as though they were tired, making far too much noise. Perhaps they were returning from a scouting assignment. Realizing these men would lead her right to the enemy's camp, Xena silently crept through the low underbrush, keeping a good distance between herself and the soldiers.
After a few minutes of following the inept soldiers, they came to a clearing filled with tents and men milling about. Bingo, thought Xena. A large tent a hundred feet away on the other side of the meadow captured the warrior's attention. Only someone important would have such a nice tent, especially one with two men standing guard outside it, or else it was headquarters for the army. Either way, she was sure to find Kratus there. Now she had only to get there without being seen.
Since the tent was on the other side of the camp, Xena stayed in the safety of the dense forest and made her way around in order to come up at it from behind. Two guards stood at what Xena assumed was attention at the back of the tent. Kratus' men obviously lacked discipline. Xena knew that if any of her men were caught whispering to each other while they were on guard duty, they would have seriously regretted it later.
Xena saw that some horses were left out to graze on the lush grass of the meadow on her right. On her left, some boys, no more than fourteen, were practicing swordplay, luckily far away enough that they wouldn't notice if, by some odd circumstance, the guards were no longer there.
Xena kept her eyes on the soldiers as she moved toward the horses. Slipping behind one of the larger animals, Xena peered around to make sure that the guards weren't paying any attention, especially when the horse sheltering her from their view nickered in protest. It wasn't long before the warrior princess got close enough to reach the guards. Her eyes darted to where the boys were playing before she made her move. Slipping behind them, unnoticed, she grabbed both of their heads and slammed them together, letting their unconscious bodies slid to the ground. Now for Kratus.
Xena was now right up against the tent, close enough to make out the hushed whispers coming from inside. Xena knelt on the ground and tilted her head so that her ear almost touched the side of the tent. There were two, maybe three, men inside.
". . . has arrived. Apparently he met some trouble on one of the roads. An Amazon and another warrior fought and beat Lucas."
Go Gabrielle, Xena thought, smiling to herself.
"We suspect the Amazon is the blond who is said to travel with Xena, warrior princess."
"And the other warrior?"
"He is nothing to worry about, sir."
"Which leaves us with the question of where Xena is, if that was truly her friend. Double the guards. We want to be prepared should she come here."
"Yes, sir. And the plans? Are they still unchanged?"
"Yes, we attack the centaur village tomorrow."
Xena listened for a while longer, but they said nothing of interest. Eventually, she moved away, back into the forest, so the new guards wouldn't come and discover her.
Gabrielle and Joxer arrived in town late that afternoon. They were warmly welcomed, but the smiles on the villager's faces quickly turned to worry as Gabrielle told them what Xena had heard. This was the first time they had heard anything about a warlord in the area, which Gabrielle thought was odd. Usually warlords send messengers telling the people to give them all their crops and livestock. Perhaps jewels and supplies weren't what this man was after. Which only left one thing. Slaves.
Later that evening, much to Gabrielle's relief, Xena arrived at the village--bringing bad news. The army would be here tomorrow, leaving them just this night and tomorrow morning to prepare. Not much time. Xena and Kaleipus immediately disappeared to discuss strategies. Meanwhile, Gabrielle and the rest of the villagers did what they could to gather weapons and anything they could use against the army. From her experiences with Xena, Gabrielle knew many different ways of setting up traps, like strings to trip the soldiers who aren't paying attention and heavy rocks to drop from high places, and anything that Gabrielle could think of to slow the army down. She just hoped, with whatever Xena was doing, it would be enough. Unlike most towns that they helped, these people she knew, they were friends, even family.
As it began to get dark, Gabrielle and her helpers had to stop for lack of light, with the promise to continue in the morning. She ate supper that evening with Xena in Kaleipus' hut. Xena told her that, in addition to discussing strategies with Kaleipus, she had met with the town's healer, Brena, and made sure she had all the supplies she needed.
The evening was pleasant and Gabrielle could tell that Xena really enjoyed spending time with her son. After they ate, Gabrielle entertained them all with stories, mostly about their adventures together, even though she knew Xena wasn't entirely comfortable with her being in them.
"Is everything ready?" Xena asked as Gabrielle walked up to her the next day.
"All ready," Gabrielle said. "The only thing left to do is wait."
"Good. I'm going to make sure the children are safe."
"Wait. Where are you going to put them?"
"There's a temple on the north end of town, near the woods. They should be safe there."
"Okay," Gabrielle said. She looked around her. The village had transformed overnight. Where once it had been bursting with life, with peddlers selling their goods and children playing in the streets, now there were only men with makeshift weapons and serious faces. Someone in the crowd caught her attention. He (or she, Gabrielle really couldn't tell) was slipping out of view into the alley, his cloaked head disappearing behind the nearby house. How odd. Gabrielle ran after the stranger, but as she got to the place she last saw him, Gabrielle found only an empty alleyway. Could he have been a spy sent by Kratus? Gabrielle shivered at the thought. She made a mental note to tell Xena about the possible spy next time she saw her, but she didn't think it would do much good now. The damage had been done.
Almost immediately after the spy disappeared, Gabrielle began hearing shouts of alarm. The army was here. Xena reappeared by her side. The army was bigger than Gabrielle had suspected but she was pleased to see that the traps that she had set up worked. The first line of men fell from the almost invisible string, and more were taken out by rocks dropped on their heads. Their preparation had paid off as the fighting began.
The sounds of swords clashing, blows being dealt, and men groaning filled Gabrielle's ears. The sounds of battle. A couple of men dropped from blows from her staff while a couple more were gaining consciousness again. Gabrielle was beginning to tire of this battle -- both physically and mentally. She wasn't like Xena; she didn't enjoy the fights they always seemed to be getting into. Gabrielle scanned the scene for her raven-haired friend. There! On the other side of that centaur. She seems kind of distracted, Gabrielle observed.
"No," Xena whispered and took off in the direction of the temple in which they had hidden the women and children of the village. After smacking a soldier who was trying to sneak up behind her in the head with her staff, Gabrielle ran after her.
Halfway there, Gabrielle saw what had caused Xena to leave so suddenly. Two soldiers were running away from the temple, dropping their flaming torches in the dust behind them. But it was too late to stop them; they had already done their dirty work. Two small fires were rapidly becoming larger, burning on each side of the temple.
"I'll find a bucket," Gabrielle called over the crackling of the fire and the noise of the battle.
"No," Xena yelled back. "It's too late. Help me get them out of there."
Inside, the women and children were just beginning to notice that something was wrong, and mothers were herding their children out of the building as it began to fill with smoke. Unfortunately, the children greatly outnumbered the adults and the fire was growing much too quickly. To make matters worse, the smoke, in an already dim room, made vision nearly impossible.
Gabrielle stood outside, making sure the children stayed well away from the temple and none wandered off. She also kept an eye out for any more troublesome soldiers heading this way.
"Ani? Ani?!" A woman's frantic call captured Gabrielle's attention. She ran to the woman's side.
"Are you missing someone?" Gabrielle asked.
"My daughter, Ani," the woman said, hugging her baby to her breast and keeping a firm grip on the boy at her side, as if she was afraid he would run away. "She must not have come out with me. I was sure she was right behind me. She's only three. Oh, please find my baby!" The woman's eyes searched the crowd behind Gabrielle even as she spoke.
"Don't worry," Gabrielle said, patting the woman's arm. "I'll find her."
Gabrielle ran back to the burning building in search of the missing child. At first, the smoke overwhelmed her, and Gabrielle stood coughing. But when she remembered the fear in Ani's mother's eyes, Gabrielle ignored the burning in her lungs and pressed on.
She was just a few steps inside the door when, almost out of nowhere, a figure appeared before her, carrying a small child in her arms. Ani! Gabrielle thought, with relief.
"Gabrielle? What are you doing here? The building is clear. This boy's the last."
"Boy? Oh, no, Xena, it's a girl I'm looking for. A little three-year-old named Ani."
"Here, get him out of here," Xena said, handing the small boy to her. "I'll find the girl."
"But, Xena, this building . . ."
"Just go!" Xena shoved her lightly toward the door.
For the sake of the child in her arms, Gabrielle rushed out of the blazing temple. She was worried for her friend, though. By the creaks and groans of the shifting wood above her head, Gabrielle didn't think the building would last much longer.
For the first time, in the sunlight, Gabrielle was able to examine the boy in her arms. Much to her relief, the child was coughing and was able to stand on his own two feet. A tearful woman ran out from the crowd and took the boy from her, murmuring her thanks while checking her son over from top to bottom to make sure he was really okay.
Gabrielle's smile began to fade as she looked behind her at the burning building. The roof, she saw, was starting to collapse; one side had even started to cave in. Xena didn't have much time, Gabrielle realized as panic began to fill her. The warrior may have gotten out of the stickiest of situations and may have the most luck of anyone she knew, but even Xena can't survive too long in a burning building.
"Xen--" Gabrielle started to call, but she was cut off by a loud, sharp crack followed by a deep groan of the wood. Oh, Xena, hurry! Her eyes filled with tears even thinking of the chance that Xena may never come out. So intend was her stare at the empty doorway, she didn't even notice the crowd behind her move away to find a safer place, leaving her all alone.
"Gabrielle? Gabby." Someone (Joxer?) came up behind her and put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but Gabrielle didn't even turn around. She pulled away, wanting to be alone.
Even as the support beams fell and the building collapsed, Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes still searched for a figure emerging from the smoke, as impossible as it was for anyone to survive that. She wanted to hold onto hope as long as she could. Oh, no, please. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. Xena?
Her thoughts were still fuzzy but she began to hear the sounds of battle above the noise of the now dying fire. Gabrielle, we're in the middle of a fight! a voice chided her. Gabrielle blinked and her vision started to clear as the tears trailed down her face. The centaurs were winning, she saw and she knew that was a good thing but she could not bring herself to be glad of it. Xena was dead. All hope vanished as reality set in and her vision blurred once more.
"Ares," a young woman called softly, fingering a silver thread.
A flash of light appeared in the corner of the room, solidifying into the form of a man. "Yes," the man said.
"Something has happened. We need your help," a little girl told him.
"Well, what happened?"
"A woman has died before her time. You must send someone back to rescue her before she dies."
Ares laughed in disbelief. "You interrupted me for this? Find someone else. I have wars that need starting."
"We thought the woman in question might be of particular interest to you. A raven-haired warrior, once one of your followers," an older woman told him.
Ares blinked "Xena? You're talking about Xena?"
Ares sighed and closed his eyes. "What do I do?"
Centaurs winning or not, she had to get out of here, Gabrielle realized as her common sense slowly began to return. She got up and ran away from the flaming building but the after image burned in her mind. It was not a sight she would soon forget. So careless was her escape that she tripped several times and did not find it at all strange when she ran into a man who seemed to have appeared out of thin air. Gabrielle mumbled an apology and started to move away, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"You look upset," said the man. "What's the matter?"
"M-my friend . . ." she said. "She, uh, died in-in a fire . . ." Only after saying those words did Gabrielle finally look up to see who she was talking to. Ares! Unlike most mortals, Gabrielle had seen, even spoken to the god of war several times before.
"Yeah, I heard," Ares said, as though he was commenting on the weather. "She got careless. How unlike her. And all for some dumb kid, too."
"You son of a Bacchae!" Gabrielle cried, running toward him, but all of a sudden he wasn't where he had been. Instead he was sitting on the roof of the house next to her, peering down at her. "Xena died doing something she believes in. How dare you belittle her, her--"
"Calm down," Ares said, reappearing beside her. "I didn't mean anything by it. I'll just never get this "good" trip she's on -- was on," Ares corrected himself. "I came here for a reason, though." Ares paused, waiting for the bard to ask what his reason was. She just glared at him, so he continued, "You lost your best friend; I lost my best warrior. But there's a way to get her back."
"What are you suggesting? We go storm the Underworld and drag her back with us?" Gabrielle said sarcastically.
"We would, if she was there."
That got her attention. "What do mean 'If she was there'? She's still alive?"
"Not quite. Look, it wasn't Xena's time to die. The fates want someone to go back in time and stop it from happening."
"Someone . . . meaning me?"
"What do I do?" Gabrielle said, unknowingly mimicking Ares' words to the fates.
"Pretty much just get Xena out of the building before it burns."
"Can't I stop it from ever getting set on fire? You know, stop the soldiers with the torches?"
"No! That's the last thing you should do," Ares said. "Whatever you do, you can not do anything to stop Xena from appearing to die."
"Okay, let me put it this way. If you go back and stop the temple from being set on fire then, in the reality that you will create, Gabrielle will never lose her best friend. She won't have any reason to go back in time. So then who stopped the fire? Certainly not Gabrielle. Therefore, the fire must never have been stopped. You must, at all costs, stay out of sight and do nothing to influence your other self. She must see the burning building and think that Xena is dead. She must go back as you did."
Gabrielle was confused. It was all happening too fast. What Ares was saying kind of made sense in a weird sort of way. An odd thought struck her. What if she was the other Gabrielle and another Gabrielle had already gone back and saved Xena. Then Xena would be alive right now. Yet she was still going to have to go back to save her. Oh, Gods, I'm confusing myself, Gabrielle thought.
"Okay," Gabrielle said. "Is that it? Am I going to go now?"
"That's it. That's all the fates told me. Are you ready?" Ares asked.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm ready."
All of a sudden, Gabrielle felt like she was being pulled in all different directions. Light flashed in her eyes, all the colors of the rainbow. Wind, was it wind? rushed by her face. She felt a big jolt and suddenly the ground was beneath her again. She fell on her hands and knees in the dirt. She looked around her. The woods. She recognized the place. It was just a little ways outside of town, near the temple. She glanced up at the sky--early afternoon, about an hour before the fatal fire. She still had time. But what to do?
First thing first, she would scout out the area, starting with the temple while it was still empty. There was really not much to see. A set of double doors in the front were the main entrance. The main room as filled with statues and paintings and had an altar in the back. Two small rooms were attached to the large one. The first was on the side and was used for Zeus knows what because it was presently lock. The room in the back was the one that caught Gabrielle's attention. It had a back entrance to it. Another way of getting into the temple. This could come in handy if she wants to get in and get Xena out without being seen. Next, she examined the structure of the temple itself. Looking at it, she could see why it burned so quickly. The building looked weak with age and the wood was very dry. They obviously didn't get any of the storm that hit us on the road, Gabrielle thought. There was really nothing more she could think to do so she headed back into town.
Everyone around here was preparing for Kratus and his men to come. She saw booby traps being set, ones that she remembered planning. All of a sudden, she realized that one of the traps wasn't being set right. It was a thin string that ran between two buildings. The centaur who was tying the ends to a pole wasn't tying them nearly tight enough. But as Gabrielle thought back on it, she could swear that the strings had tripped the first few men who came to it, until the rest finally caught on, but the way it was being set up now, it knot wouldn't be able to stand one person walking into it, let alone the dozen it will hopefully catch. Gabrielle debated going over and correcting the man. The gag had worked before, though, so someone must have caught the error. Unless that someone was her, which would prove her theory of before. She had been back here before.
Not knowing what else to do, Gabrielle walked up to the man and showed him that the knot needed to be stronger. He thanked her for her help and continued on with his work.
Gabrielle turned at the sound of her name being called. Solan was running up to her.
"Hey, I thought you were with Xena," he said.
"And I thought you were with the rest of the children, out of harm's way."
"I'm not a child. I can help you two."
"We don't need any help. And it'll make Xena feel a lot better if she knows you're safe."
"Xena said we're supposed to be heading to the temple."
A cold fear hit Gabrielle. How could she just send Solan someplace where she knew he would be in danger? "You know," she said. "You're right. You can help us. Why don't you go over to the healer's hut and maybe you can help her."
"Okay," Solan said.
Gabrielle ruffled his hair affectionately and sent him on his way. Of course, now she would have to tell Xena that Solan wouldn't be with the rest of the children. Otherwise, Xena would definitely be worried if she couldn't find Solan after the fire breaks out. Where would Xena be right now?
After a few minutes, Gabrielle located her friend talking to Kaleipus. She waited as patiently as she could while they finished what they were talking about. Finally, Xena turned to her.
"Xena, I sent Solan to help out Brena with the injuries. Is that okay? I thought it would keep him from getting too restless and let him feel like he's helping out."
"That's fine, Gabrielle. In fact, that's brilliant. He's been trying to find some way he could help out."
Gabrielle excused herself and left. She looked down at what she was wearing. She knew she stood out like a sore thumb in this Amazon outfit. Probably the only other one like it in town, and it wasn't really a good idea to have two Gabrielles running around. People would start to wonder. She needed something . . . Her eyes fell on a peddler's cart that sold blankets, shirts, and capes. Taking one of the latter, Gabrielle slipped it around her shoulders.
Only when she heard a very familiar pair of voices did she think of the possibility of actually running into her other self. Unfortunately, by then she was already in the middle of town, in plain view of the two.
". . . the children are safe."
"Wait. Where are you going to put them?"
"There's a temple on the north end of town . . ."
Gabrielle turned and hurried out of the street, slipping into a dark alleyway. Her heart was thumping against her chest as she leaned against the building. That was a close one. What would happen if her other self saw her? she wondered.
When she thought it was safe, Gabrielle came out of her hiding place. If she remembered right, after that last conversation with Xena, she had run off after that . . . spy? Oh, dear gods, this is not happening. . . Never mind. I don't care! I can think about the whys and hows later. Now I've got to focus, Gabrielle told herself sternly. She had already made one big error by almost being recognized. That could not happen again.
Gabrielle thought of what to do next. Her thoughts were interrupted by shouts coming from the edge of town. It had begun. For the first time, Gabrielle realized that her staff wasn't with her. In fact, the last time she remembered having it was when she was helping out after the fire broke out. She must have dropped it when she went inside the temple in search of Ani. Darn. Gabrielle could really use it right now, with the battle starting up.
Soon, battle was raging around her as Gabrielle searched the streets for any familiar face. Well there's one. Joxer came into view. We should have sent him in with the women and children, if only to stop him from getting himself killed, Gabrielle thought with a sigh. It was a miracle he was still alive. Or maybe just luck, luck that, from the looks of it, wouldn't last much longer. An archer had his arrow pointed at him, out of Joxer's view. Gabrielle was now faced with a dilemma. Ares had said not to change anything, or at least not change it so that Xena did not appear to die. Does that include saving someone who was very much alive at the time when she went back in time? Should she just let things run its course and let whoever or whatever had saved Joxer before, well, save Joxer? Unless that someone was her. All this raced though her mind in an instant. In the end, no matter how she looked at it, Gabrielle knew she could not stand there and watch Joxer be killed.
Right as the soldier was drawing the arrow back, Gabrielle started running to Joxer. The tips of his fingers started to slide off the string. Gabrielle dove at him and the two tumbled down in the dirt. The arrow whizzed past Gabrielle's head and hit the wooden post behind her.
Beneath her, Joxer's eyebrows drew together in pain as he reached back to rub his bruised head. Finally his eyes opened and he got his first look at his savior. Even with the hood of her cloak still in place, Joxer recognized her.
"Gabby . . .?" Joxer started to say. Then he looked behind him at the arrow stuck in the wood above his head. When he saw that that was right where he had been standing, Joxer's eyes rolled in the back of his head and he passed out.
"Take care," Gabrielle said, getting up.
At the edge of the forest, Gabrielle knelt in the soft ground watching two soldiers sneak up to the temple. One gestured to the other, who then went around to the other side of the temple. Gabrielle thought of how easy it would be to run over there and stop them. Even without her staff, she could take those two out. It was one of the hardest thing Gabrielle ever had to do -- just sit there and do nothing while with a flick of their wrists the burning torches hit the wall and doomed her best friend.
She waited a minute or two, then went up to the temple. Carefully, she walked around to the front, stopping when she could see just around the corner, enough to know what was going on.
"Ani? Ani?!" She heard the mother's cry once again.
"Are you missing someone?" the other Gabrielle asked.
"My daughter, Ani. She must not have come out with me. I was sure she was right behind me. She's only three. Oh, please find my baby!"
"Don't worry, I'll find her."
The other Gabrielle disappeared from view as she went inside the burning building.
It was now time for Gabrielle to put her plan into action. She hurried around to the back of the temple. All of a sudden she ran into someone. A little girl. She was hugging a doll to her chest, crying.
"I-I'm sorry," Gabrielle apologized, leaning down to the girl's level. "Are you okay?"
The girl nodded, but continued to cry.
"What's the matter?"
"I can't find my mommy." With those words, she started to sob.
"Oh. Well, maybe I can help you find her. What's your name?"
"Ani," she said.
Gabrielle's hand flew up to her mouth. Ani! Taking the frightened girl's hand, she lead her around to the front of the building and delivered her into her mother's thankful arms.
As soon as she could, Gabrielle hurried back around to the back of the temple, hoping she hadn't lost too much time. When she got there, she found she was not alone. Lucas, whom Gabrielle knew only as the man who attacked her on the road, was waiting for her, her staff in his hand.
"It would seem that you lost your weapon," he said with a vengeful grin, holding it out to show her.
"You're the one who took it."
"Yes, well, you did just leave it all alone."
"How did you know I was going to be back here?" she asked.
"I didn't. It was pure luck. Kind of like the luck you had when you beat me. But, sadly, your luck has run out. It won't happen again."
Gabrielle ducked as her own staff came flying at her. He was quick. A second later she had to jump to avoid having her legs knocked out from under her. She kicked him in the side, but he scarcely seemed to notice, and the next time he swung the staff at her head, she wasn't quite so lucky. The staff struck the side of her head. She shook her head to clear it, but already he hit her again. A burst of pain exploded in her stomach and she dropped to the ground. He hit her once more in the head, much harder than before, because this time she wasn't able to get out of the way. Blackness started to overpower her. No! Not now. Please, gods, not now!
Beyond them, in the shadows of the woods, the god of war drew an arrow back and let it fly. It struck Lucas in the middle of his back, ending his revenge. Now it was up to Gabrielle, as Ares slipped once more out of sight.
Gabrielle didn't notice that Lucas was no longer standing before her. She was too busy trying to stay awake. Blackness covered her eyes, with points of light flashing in her eyes, like the light she saw when Ares sent her back, only this time the light was taking her away from Xena. It would be so easy to give in, to let go. She could just slip away into the darkness . . . No! I can't Xena needs me. I have to stay awake. By sheer will, and perhaps the grace of the fates, Gabrielle was able to stay conscious, but the lost time scared her. Even as she pulled herself up from the ground, she heard the same sharp crack of the wood all over again. Fear raced though her as she ran back into the flaming temple.
"But, Xena, this building . . ." Gabrielle protested.
"Just go!" Xena gently shoved her friend toward the door. When Gabrielle was out of sight, Xena turned to the back of the building in search of the lost child. The room was filled completely with smoke but on her left and right the fire raged. She couldn't have allowed Gabrielle to stay in this dangerous place. She wanted the risked to be her own. Nor could she now leave that child to die. Even in the heat of the fire, Xena shivered.
Xena had thought for sure that that boy had been the last. Perhaps there was some corner she had left unsearched. Or maybe even a back room. Yes, now that she thought of it there was a back room. She had just never considered it because she couldn't think of any reason anyone would be in there.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice, as impossible as it seemed, drifted at her from the back of the temple, when she should be safely out of the building by now.
"Gabrielle? Why are you still here?" Xena said as Gabrielle came running up to her. "I thought you were going to take the little boy out of here. Where is he?"
"I really don't have time to explain. Ani and the boy are safe. Ani's with her mother, but, Xena, we've got to get out of here. This building's about to collapse. Come on."
Pushing all her questions aside for now, Xena heeded her friend's warning and headed for the door.
"No!" Gabrielle cried, pulling her back. "We can't go out that way."
"Gabrielle, you're not making any sense."
"Nothing has made much sense recently. Come on!" Gabrielle led her into a back room and out the door. Behind them, the support beams of the temple fell, and the building collapsed.
"What was all that in there? First you say there's a girl missing, then you're behind me saying the girl's safe and we have to leave now. The second we leave the building collapses. What--? How--? Gabrielle, explain."
"It's a really long story."
"A long story? It happened in two seconds!"
"Um, I think it was more like two hours." Off Xena's glare, "I promise, I will tell you the whole story. Later. Right now I think we ought to get back there and see how Kaleipus and the rest are doing."
When they got back, the battle was almost over. With Xena and Gabrielle's help, the centaurs drove the remaining soldiers out of their village. In the end there were very few casualties. Relief was on the faces of the villagers.
After a few days, the longest Xena could stand to stay in one place, the pair heading out again. By then Xena (and the rest of the village) had heard Gabrielle's story. Gabrielle suspected that more than a few didn't really believe her. It did seem a little far-fetched, but at least Xena believed her. How could she not with all that they've been through? A little time travel is nothing compared to titans, dead lovers coming back to life for a day, and being kidnapped by the dream god.
"You know, Xena," Gabrielle reflected. "You may have gotten out the building in time even without me, but think of everything else that happened because I went back. Joxer's life was spared again, Ani was reunited with her mother and got away from the building before it collapsed, Solan was safe in the healer's hut instead, and my little invisible string trick worked!"
"And on the bad side you now owe Ares a favor."
"I owe Ares a favor? It was your life that was saved, Miss Warrior Princess."
"We'll see about that."
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Finally Gabrielle spoke up once more, "Hey, did you ever catch which god that temple was for?"
"I believe it was a temple to the fates," Xena replied.
"The fates," Gabrielle said, chuckling. "Of course."
No trees or temples to mythological Gods were harmed in the production of this short story.
Send any comments to NkkiK@aol.com. Thanks.
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