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Again, I am very grateful to my faithful friend, Karen Surtees, for her unselfishly generous and unflagging support. No matter how much I complain, she keeps smiling and nudging until I do it right!
And, finally, thank you to all of you wonderful readers who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I deeply appreciate your marvelous encouragement.
A ROYAL PAIN
© Copyright 1999
|Chapter 1 - 6||Chapters 7 - 12|
The soldiers had stopped for a midday break and Gabrielle was supremely worried. Her father and Autolycus were seated at some distance from the soldiers. Pacing back and forth next to the two men, she marked every step with an angry stab of her staff into the soil. All the while she kept muttering to herself. Where is she? I know she keeps going off into the forest, checking to make sure the way is clear. But this is the longest she has been gone. She said another bunch of outlaws has been trailing us. What if they have caught her? What will they do with her? What will they do TO her?
Argo was tied to the wagon, which meant Xena was afoot. The bard ordinarily wouldn't have been so worried, but she knew that the sickness Xena was struggling with was gradually weakening her. Of all times to commit herself to assuring the safe arrival of this darn treasure. What is she going to do? Xena, where ARE you? And why didn't you take Argo?
Herodotus saw that his daughter was distraught and guessed that she was worked up over the warrior's absence. "I don't know why you are so worried. Your friend seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself."
Gabrielle whirled around. "You know, Father, if Xena only cared about taking care of herself, I wouldn't worry. But she's trying to take care of all of us and a treasure, too. She's the only one standing between us and those 30 or 40 outlaws out there. And besides that, she's sick."
Herodotus frowned as he contemplated the words he had just heard. One sick woman protecting us from that many outlaws? Impossible! Even Xena has her limitations. And what good are eight soldiers going to be against such a force? Herodotus started to be concerned about his daughter and himself.
"Gabrielle," Autolycus spoke up. "You can stop your worrying. Look over there."
The bard whirled around, looking in the direction the King of Thieves had indicated. Thank the gods! Xena... on Argo? Puzzled, Gabrielle's head swept from the mounted Xena to the tied Argo and back. Before her mind could get straight, Nightmare came out of the trees, carrying Elisa and Gwynna.
With a wide, wide grin, Gabrielle breathed, "Praise the gods!" Now Xena will have some help. And so will I.
The riders came to where she stood. Elisa and Gwynna slipped off of Nightmare and knelt on one knee in front of their queen. Gabrielle motioned them up then gave each a fervent hug. "What a welcome sight you two are! I am so happy to see you. What are you doing here?"
Herodotus looked on in surprise. So there really are Amazons that Gabrielle is queen of. I thought it was just an honorary title. Two more women warriors. Hummph. Though these two aren't much more than kids. That dark-haired one looks something like Xena, same arrogant look and all.
"You know Leese. She got restless," Gwynna laughed. "So here we are." They would wait to speak privately with Gabrielle before they revealed the real reason for their arrival.
Xena had dismounted and gone to sit next to Autolycus. "You remember the force of bandits who were following us? They aren't there anymore."
Autolycus turned to the warrior, wide-eyed. He twirled his finger, encompassing Xena and the young Amazons. "You three...?"
"Yep. Those girls are good." A weary smile graced her face.
"Why didn't you get me to help?" he asked.
"Well, I was only going to check on the outlaws, make sure they weren't readying an attack. Then out or nowhere come these two Amazons just rarin' for a fight and I thought, 'Why not?' So we did."
"And I missed all the fun!" Autolycus said with a happy grin.
"Yeeaaahh," the warrior chuckled. "Tell Prince Hamlon to send a couple soldiers to round up what's left of the outlaws and take them to the nearest village jail."
"I'll do that." Autolycus wasn't bothered by the fact that Xena ordered rather than asking. When she was in charge, she seldom asked. And he knew better than to refuse her. In fact, he was more than happy to have her in charge. He trusted no one's abilities more than he trusted Xena's. He had just spent the last hour trying to explain that to Herodotus who, in spite of seeing Xena in action, still had doubts about her. Funny, but I have the distinct feeling that he will get to see more of the Warrior Princess in action before this job is over.
Early the next day, the travelers neared the area where the second group of outlaws had camped. Xena, assuming nothing, now rode at the front of the party, next to Prince Hamlon, ever alert. The presence of Elisa and Gwynna allowed Xena to alternate reconnaissance duties, allowing fresh eyes to be constantly on the watch for trouble. The young Amazons had left several hours before dawn to check on the forward area.
Because she had taken the time to dispose of the outlaws preying on the party from the rear, Xena had been unable to meet the force sent out by King Philomaros to deal with the second group ahead of them. Anxious to hear from either Elisa or Gwynna, the Warrior Princess fidgeted with a building restlessness. If someone doesn't show up soon, I'm going out there myself. That's the heart of Draco's army the king's forces are going against; I just hope they haven't underestimated that.
From her vantage point on the wagon seat, Gabrielle could tell Xena was restless. Her partner's head swiveled constantly back and forth and her shoulders stayed tight. Even Argo felt her tension. The golden warhorse flipped her head periodically, reacting to the pressure of Xena's hands unconsciously tightening on the reins.
As the bard watched, she saw Gwynna come rushing full tilt on Nightmare. The blonde Amazon swung her mount around and rode right next to Xena, shouting something to her and Prince Hamlon. Xena turned her head to the rear, yelling, "Autolycus!"
The King of Thieves spurred his horse past the wagon and steered to the other side of the Warrior Princess as the prince moved to make room for him.
"Autolycus, the king's force is in trouble. Draco's army is beating them. You and Gabrielle stay here and help the Guard with the treasure in case some of those renegades break away and try to attack. And Autolycus..." Intense blue eyes bored into him and sent a clearly demanding message. "Keep an eye on Gabrielle and her father."
"I'll do that, Xena, I promise. And you be careful."
Xena's usual crooked grin pulled up the side of her mouth. "I'm always careful." She and Gwynna bolted off along the trail.
Autolycus snorted. Yeah, she's always careful. Wonder how Gabrielle puts up with watching her go off into danger time after time? That's gotta be heart-thudding for anyone who cares about her. I know it is for me!
"I'll ride next to the wagon," Autolycus told Prince Hamlon, understanding that the bard would be anxious to hear what was going on.
Xena eased Argo back just a trifle to let Gwynna come even with her. "You say the king's men are surrounded? Where's Leese?"
"Yeah, Xena. It looks like they were sucked right into a trap. Rivers on two sides, a bluff on the third, and Draco's army advancing on them from the fourth." Gwynna's warm brown eyes crinkled in worry. "Last I saw Leese, she had climbed into the trees and was headed toward the action."
"I hope she has sense enough to wait for us."
"Yeah, me too," Gwynna prayed.
Finally, the two came close enough to hear the sounds of battle. Xena slowed Argo down and walked her carefully forward until she could see movement through the trees. She slipped off of Argo and threw the reins over a bush. Gwynna dismounted and followed her as the warrior crept closer.
Xena threw up her hand and stopped, listening. Other than the battle, Gwynna couldn't discern anything, but a few moments later Elisa dropped from a tree beside them. Gwynna reached out and squeezed her shoulder and was rewarded with a quick smile.
"Glad you waited for reinforcements," Xena drawled.
Elisa grinned as she shook her head. "There's only one Warrior Princess and it's not me."
Xena grinned back. "What did you find out?" The three squatted down and Elisa drew in the dirt with a twig to show the positions of the two forces.
"About fifteen archers on the bluff are showering arrows down on the king's troops. The rest of Draco's army is forcing the soldiers back against the rivers and the bluff and soon they will be in a position to slaughter them." Elisa filled Xena in calmly and thoroughly. "The only way out is down either river and that's pretty chancy because of the surging rapids where the two rivers meet. In a choice between fighting or drowning, I think the king's troops will fight."
"I think you're right, there. Any ideas on how to stop Draco?" Xena liked to give the young Amazons a chance to learn to develop strategy for fighting. They both appreciated her tutelage and gave serious attention to the problem.
"The archers need to be put out of commission." Gwynna voiced the first piece of strategy. Xena pursed her lips and nodded, then raised an eyebrow toward Elisa.
"While one does that, the other two could open a path for the king's men to escape through." Elisa suggested the second piece. Xena waited but nothing more was forthcoming.
She looked from one to the other. They were waiting for her assessment. "You're both right, up to a point. Leese, you take out the archers and Gwynna and I will open a path. But once the path is opened, we need to get the soldiers to turn to the left and right and split Draco's forces in two. Then his army will have to run for their lives or be trapped against the rivers themselves." Xena closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
A quick look of alarm passed between Elisa and Gwynna. The warrior's eyes flew open, catching them, and she snorted. "Stop worrying, we can do this. Get moving, Leese. Gwynna you stick close to me." The Warrior Princess didn't realize the young Amazons weren't concerned about the success of the strategy, they were concerned about her. All three stood up. The two young friends hugged each other and murmured a few parting words, then Elisa climbed into the trees and Gwynna hurried to catch up to Xena.
Spaced about 30 yards apart, the archers concentrated their efforts on felling as many soldiers as possible with barrage after barrage of arrows. The first didn't even hear Elisa sneak up behind him through the treetops. He felt the thud when she dropped to the ground. As he turned around, she slit his throat with one of her razor-sharp throwing knives.
Sheathing the knife, she jumped for a low limb and swung herself back into the trees. Quickly and stealthily she picked them off, one by one. Most didn't even feel her presence, but were dropped without a warning.
Meanwhile, Xena ran back to Argo and leaped aboard the saddle. Gwynna rushed to mount Nightmare and the two women charged through the trees and out toward the fray. Gwynna slid from her horse as the Warrior Princess vaulted from Argo.
Xena's "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi," battlecry echoed against the bluff and soared through the air. For a split second, all fighting froze. As Xena plunged into a horde of bodies, swinging her sword like a reaper, a man some distance away listened half-admiringly to the sound.
A wide grin split his face. "Xena. Well, Princess, I'm afraid you've got your hands full this time. Today, I'm the winner." Draco's confident bragging drew a grin from his men. But the grins were short-lived. They couldn't pull their eyes from the unbelievable sight of the Warrior Princess cutting a swath through their fellows. And the blonde with her was doing her share, too.
The young Amazon and the warrior fought savagely, side-by-side, eliminating everyone near them. Gwynna preferred fighting with the staff, but they were so vastly outnumbered she knew they could ill afford to fight the same outlaw twice, so she used her sword. Pushed to the limit of her abilities, and beyond, she drew strength from the fact that the legendary Warrior Princess fought at her side.
Thrusting, slashing, head-butting, jumping, kicking, punching, Xena systematically fought her way through the crowd. Knowing that she did not have her usual strength or stamina, the warrior paced herself but still steadily eradicated anyone near her.
Then one swordsman struck a blow to her leg as she parried several others. Blood oozed out and trickled down the bronzed limb, but that was only a minimal effect compared to the reaction it released in the Warrior Princess. Throwing all caution to the winds, Xena stormed into battle fury. All her movements soared into even higher gear. The horde of soldiers began to back away from her furious attack. Slash! Thrust! Hack! Her sword seemed to have a life of its own, spraying death and destruction on all in its path.
Suddenly, Xena's energy gave out and she stumbled. Just as her knee hit the earth, another cry sounded across the battlefield. "EeeeeeeeeeeYahhhhhhh!" Elisa, flipping through the air, landed at Xena's right hand and parried a thrust meant to cut down the warrior. The dark-haired Amazon took over where Xena had left off. What she lacked in Xena's strength and speed, she made up for in ingenuity and agility.
Her timely arrival gave the warrior a much-needed respite. Though short, it provided Xena an essential moment to catch her breath, call on whatever reserve strength she still had and resume the battle, once more pacing herself. The three women, working in concert, opened a path for the surrounded royal soldiers. When they poured forth, Xena directed one group to fall against the enemy on one side while Elisa and Gwynna pointed another group to the other side.
As Xena had planned, Draco's army was divided by this strategy. One contingent, caught between the bluff and a river, fell to the royal onslaught led by the two young Amazons. The second, realizing the sudden switch in the precariousness of their position, hurriedly retreated with their disgruntled leader, Draco.
As he fled the battle, Draco turned and waved his sword threateningly toward the warrior. "We'll meet again, Xena!"
The imposing Warrior Princess drew herself to her full height, thrust up her own sword and shouted back, "You can count on that, Draco! And you better not hurt that boy!"
Draco shook his head in disbelief as he and his men mounted their waiting horses and hurried away. How does she know I have the boy? Or did have him. She'd have a good laugh at the trouble he's caused me!
Xena caught hold of the leader of the king's troops and suggested that he round up his men, wait for the treasure party to reach them and join the party for the rest of the trip.
The three women gathered their horses and headed back. "What did you mean by what you yelled to Draco, Xena?" Elisa looked inquiringly at the warrior. "You think he has the boy?"
The warrior's face was still hardened from battle intensity and her jaw muscles rippled, "Yeah, I do."
"But why would he try to steal the treasure? He could just wait till the ransom was delivered." Gwynna frowned, trying to sort the answer in her own mind.
Elisa's quick mind arrived there first. "If he stole the treasure and no one connected the theft with the kidnapping, he could continue to demand the ransom. He'd get paid twice."
"Exactly. But he's tried twice and both times he has failed. Now, he'll probably settle for the ransom." The Warrior Princess' lip curled up in derision. "But now he knows that I know he kidnapped the boy and he's going to worry that he might not collect the ransom, after all."
"But if you stop the ransom, he might kill the boy," Gwynna argued.
"Do you think I'm that stupid?" Xena snapped. She sensed, rather than saw, Gwynna's startled reaction to her nasty tone. Easy, Xena.
"I won't stop the ransom," Xena assured her. Then her cobalt-blue eyes took on silvery highlights and her voice lowered into a snarl. "I'll just take it back after he returns the boy."
Elisa looked at Gwynna uncomfortably. I doubt even Gabrielle will be able to persuade Xena to return to the Amazon territory until this boy is saved. But can Xena hold herself together long enough to do all that she plans?
The treasure party reached the battle site and joined the king's troops. A halt was called while Xena, Prince Hamlon, and the captain of the troops met to discuss continued guarding of the treasure for the balance of the journey.
Elisa and Gwynna took this opportunity to call Gabrielle aside to discuss the primary reason for their presence. They found a small clearing just out of sight of the others, sat on the ground and filled Gabrielle in on their worry about Xena. Elisa explained what she had told Claris and what the Amazon healer had suggested.
"So, Claris believes Xena should come back as soon as possible?" Gabrielle repeated. She looked at Elisa and frowned. I guess I've been too close to see just how serious Xena's illness is. Sounds like she's being too stoic for her own good. Not only that, but she could have some worse problems if the wrong people notice her weakness. How am I going to get her to listen?
"She said Xena's condition will continue to deteriorate and might even become life-threatening." Elisa spoke with heartfelt concern. She considered the Warrior Princess to be part of her family.
"Yeah, and we need you to convince her of that." Gwynna, too, was concerned. But she also worried about those around Xena. If the warrior's temper was as fractious as it seemed to be earlier, others could be in danger. Including my hardheaded friend who seems so certain that Xena would never hurt her. I wish I had her confidence.
Gabrielle listened thoughtfully to their message. "Xena and I both know she has problems. But admitting them and doing something to resolve them are two different things. She has committed herself to saving this boy and she won't be deterred by anything I say."
"I figured as much," Elisa remarked. "Gwynna thought maybe you could convince her to return right away, but Xena's the most focused person I know. That's probably what keeps her going at the moment. At least our being here might help. Maybe we can take some of the pressure off of her. That might make some small contribution to her well-being."
Gabrielle smiled wryly at the earnest young Amazon. "Her well-being doesn't seem to matter to her."
In annoyance, Gwynna jumped to her feet. "Well, maybe she should think a little more about other people's well-being. She just about took my head off today for a simple remark that I made. Are we all going to have to tiptoe around her constantly? What's she going to do when someone really antagonizes her?"
"You're about to find out!"
The other two women jumped to their feet as the Warrior Princess strode angrily through the trees, headed straight toward the astonished Gwynna.
Elisa stepped in front of her friend. "Don't you touch her, Xena," she said quietly.
"Get outta my way, Leese, you're not the one I want." The warrior swept an arm sideways to knock Elisa away. Instead, the swift Amazon ducked under the sweep, came up and stepped forward, right into Xena's face.
"We came here to help you, Xena, not to fight with you every other hour." Elisa's words were soft, but firm. "I love you like a sister. But if you insist on fighting Gwynna, you'll have to come through me, first. I will not let you, or anyone else, hurt her."
Gwynna's face was awash with mixed emotions. She knew that Elisa stood a better chance of reasoning with the Warrior Princess than she did, and she admired her friend's courage. At the same time, she feared for her safety. Standing solidly behind Elisa, she grasped her shoulder to show her support.
Gabrielle came alongside the agitated warrior. "Xena, please calm down. Don't do anything you will regret later." The bard wrapped her hand around Xena's upper arm. The soothing effect her touch usually had on the Warrior Princess took a bit longer than usual, but eventually had the desired result. No one said a word as Xena's tension gradually ebbed and her angry face cleared.
Still standing eye to eye with her mentor, Elisa witnessed the change in Xena's demeanor and a tremor of relief swept through her body. Gwynna saw the anger die, felt the relief coursing through Elisa, and bent her head in thanksgiving.
The strained voice of the Warrior Princess broke the uncomfortable silence. "Leese, Gwynna, I..." Xena's tortured expression revealed better than words the agony she was experiencing. Sweat broke out on her brow, and she shuddered with the difficulty of reining in her anger. The effort drained her already weakened body and she swayed, clutching Elisa's arm to steady herself. Her knees buckled. I can't believe this; I'm falling.
Gabrielle felt Xena sag and reached behind the warrior's back to grab her other arm. Elisa also reacted swiftly, grabbing Xena around the waist. The two women lowered the warrior gently until she sat cross-legged on the ground.
Shocked to see Xena falter, the women were speechless. Even Xena seemed stunned, but she was the first to recover. "First time I ever got knocked on my tail by words," the warrior stated dryly, shaking her head. What is wrong with me? I usually heal a lot faster than this.
Gabrielle knelt down in front of her friend, bringing their eyes level. "Xena, Claris thinks you have some kind of illness and should go back to the Amazon nation so she can treat it. You don't look good. Even your eyes look strange and your skin is losing its color. You're only a shadow of your usual self. And look what just happened. You couldn't even stand by yourself."
Gabrielle's voice half wheedled and half scolded. "And I haven't even touched on your miserable disposition. Several times now, you've been ready to clout the very people who care most about you."
Recognizing the harsh truth of these words, the Warrior Princess lowered her eyes toward the ground. "I wasn't going to clout Gwynna," she muttered, "just scare her." Sure, just keep telling yourself that, maybe you'll finally be convinced.
"Hummmph!" Gabrielle stood up. "The trouble with that thinking, Xena, is that no one knows just what you are about to do, scare them or skin them alive."
The two youngsters listened to this exchange with bated breath. The trepidation on their faces was painfully evident to the warrior as she raised her eyes to theirs. Elisa still stood partially in front of Gwynna, in protective mode.
"You can come out now, Gwynna," Xena said wearily. "I won't hurt you."
"Not this time, Xena, but what about the next time and the time after that?" The bard crossed her arms and paced back and forth in front of the seated warrior. "You NEED to go back to the Amazons and let Claris help you get rid of this... this... thing, that has hold of you." She stopped and met the stubborn blue eyes of her friend. "One minute you're fine and the next you want to take someone's head off. And it scares me."
The few moments of rest from the debilitating tension allowed some of Xena's energy to return. She stood up and the young Amazons backed away. The warrior's lips twisted as irritability also began to return. "It might help my 'miserable disposition' if you would stop nagging me and let me concentrate on getting this treasure to the king."
"There are 40-some men out there now. Let them worry about delivering the gems."
"Maybe it doesn't mean much to you, Gabrielle, but I'll tell you again. I gave my word." The warrior's lips pulled back against her teeth and she spit the words out. The bard reached to touch her arm, but Xena jerked it away and started to leave.
"Your health means more to me than your word to some stranger, Xena."
The Warrior Princess whirled back and spoke harshly. "I'm healthy enough to make sure that the boy gets home safely. Then, maybe I will listen to your arguments... but not before." Xena turned and strode away.
The bard's face was red from suppressed anger. She knew now was not the time to do the yelling she wanted to do. Grrrrrr. Just once I would like to be bigger and stronger than you, Xena!
Gwynna put a hand on her shoulder. "You tried, Gabrielle. But we all knew Xena would be hard to convince."
"Yeah," Elisa chimed in. "Looks like all we can do at this point is hang in here with her and try to help. The sooner this is taken care of, the sooner we can get her cured."
Gabrielle struggled a few moments to get her temper under control. "I sure can use your support and it's obvious that Xena can, too." Gabrielle patted Gwynna's hand and half smiled at Elisa. "Now, let's go deliver this darn treasure." And try to keep the Warrior Princess out of trouble... Right.
At last the treasure arrived safely at the castle. Surrounded by a moat and gray stone walls, the three-storied, turreted structure loomed over the enclosed village like a protective eagle.
The drawbridge lowered as soon as the gatekeeper recognized the king's troops. Xena's group was escorted by Prince Hamlon into the castle interior, straight to the king's reception room.
Much to Herodotus' surprise and delight, he, Autolycus and the four women were welcomed into the presence of the king. This, he soon realized, was due to the high esteem in which the king held Xena, the Warrior Princess. The warrior and the king had never met, but apparently King Philomaros knew her well by reputation and offered her the highly prized seat at his right hand.
King Philomaros quickly sent a message to the kidnappers' go-between in the village, and they awaited the messenger's return with instructions for the delivery of the ransom. The king was effusive in his commendation of Xena and her friends for saving the treasure. "I fear my grandson would never have been returned without the ransom. I owe you a debt of gratitude."
"How was your grandson kidnapped?" Gabrielle asked.
"He was in the forest on a hunt with three friends. The outlaws attacked them and Ricondo was fighting them off, but then they overpowered his friends and threatened to kill them unless he threw down his sword. Being the sensible boy that he is, he gave in."
"He is a remarkable swordsman in spite of his young age. I have had him trained by experts since he was a small boy and now he even out duels his teachers." Philomaros' pride in his grandson shone from his face and words. "No one in the kingdom is any better."
Gwynna was not in the king's or Xena's view at the moment. She looked at Elisa, nodded toward Xena, and rolled her eyes. That might have been true before Xena arrived, but not now! A small grin slipped across her friend's face and she wiggled her eyebrows as Gwynna put her hand to her mouth to smother a giggle. Xena swept her eyes toward them and the two immediately sobered.
The four women, Autolycus and Herodotus stayed with the king as Prince Hamlon and the Guard transported the chest to the kidnappers. Gabrielle had persuaded her father, without too much dissent on his part, to let someone else drive his wagon to the rendezvous. Now that Herodotus had seen, firsthand, the dangers of carrying valuables on the open trail, he wanted no parts of it.
Though he would be slow to admit it, Herodotus was becoming increasingly impressed with Xena's ability to take charge of dangerous situations and smother them with a minimum of assistance. So, when a wounded and disheveled Prince Hamlon showed up, reporting that the kidnappers had snatched the treasure from his men without returning his son, Herodotus, along with everyone else in the room, turned his eyes toward the Warrior Princess.
In answer to this summons, Xena rose and her magnificent blue eyes sought her partner's mist-green ones. With an almost apologetic expression on her face, she lifted one eyebrow and half shrugged. Then she turned to the distraught king and his son-in-law, the prince. "We'll find him," she promised and, beckoning the others, she walked outside.
"Gabrielle, you stay here with your father..."
"I will not, Xena. My father doesn't need a babysitter. You've already managed to keep me out of all the other fighting. This time I am going with you." Gabrielle's tone of voice left no room for objections. Xena smiled resignedly, reached a long arm out, and gave her a quick hug and a nod.
But the warrior was surprised at the next protesting voice. "I'm coming, too. You'll not leave me behind at the finish," Herodotus grumbled. "Besides they've got my horse and wagon!"
"He can ride with me, Xena," Autolycus offered.
One corner of Xena's sculpted lips twitched up and she half-nodded to the two men. Well, Herodotus, I knew Gabrielle's courage had to come from somewhere.
They all began to mount their horses. Xena reached down to hoist Gabrielle up behind her and saw Elise move quickly to give Gabrielle a boost. She gave the thoughtful young Amazon a quick smile. "Thanks, Leese!"
The bard settled down behind her friend and threw her arms around her waist. Oh, Xena, I wish I could hold you here, out of danger, forever... How many times has this same thought passed through my mind? Now it's not only an outer danger, it's an inner one, too. Gabrielle's arms tightened in a squeeze.
The Warrior Princess patted her arm and slanted a quick smile back toward her.
"OK, Gwynna, let's go find those tracks."
The blonde Amazon quickly found the tracks and they followed them for about an hour. Calling a halt, Xena sent Elisa and Gwynna into the trees. "We're getting pretty close, I can hear the wagon creaking." Elise nodded. She had heard it, too. "They should have a rear guard following the wagon. Bring one of them to me. Alive."
While waiting, they all dismounted to stretch their legs and grab a few dried biscuits and fruit. In about twenty minutes, the Amazons appeared with an outlaw trussed and gagged and brought him to Xena. The man's eyes bugged out when he saw whom he was facing. After the earlier battle, Draco's men knew the Warrior Princess on sight. And had learned the hard way just how formidable she was.
The warrior yanked the gag from his mouth. "Would you care to answer my questions with, or without, a neck pinch?"
"I'll tell you whatever you want to know," the outlaw hastened to assure her.
"Smart. Where is Draco holding the boy he kidnapped?"
"Draco doesn't have him at all." Xena sneered and raised her hands, fingers pointing toward the outlaw's neck.
"Wait! I'm telling you the truth. He did have him. But he was a right arrogant little bastard. Drove Draco crazy daring him to let him show what a terrific swordsman he was." Smiling now, Xena lowered her hands and the outlaw continued. "Said he had been training for years to be Ares' chosen one. Draco got so tired listening to him run off at the mouth that he took him to the Temple of Ares and dedicated him to the God of War."
"Dedicated him to Ares?" Now Xena frowned. Just what I need. Trying to "rescue" someone who doesn't want to be rescued. And from Ares!
"Which temple did Draco take the boy to?"
"It's about an hour's ride that way," the outlaw answered, pointing.
"Thanks." Xena tossed her head and Elisa swung him around and punched him in the jaw, knocking him unconscious. The warrior raised an eyebrow. "I thought you would tie him to a tree, Leese."
Grinning and shrugging, Elisa answered, "Well, this way, he can make his way toward his buddies when he comes to. If I tied him to a tree, he could starve before they found him."
"How thoughtful," Xena commented dryly, and waved the eyebrow. Trying unsuccessfully to swallow her answering grin, the warrior turned to Autolycus.
"Looks like we're going on a little side trip to the Temple of Ares, Autolycus. Why don't you and Herodotus keep on the trail of the treasure? Maybe we can come back for it after we get the boy."
Happy to stay near the chest full of gems, Autolycus smiled and bowed. "Your every wish is my command." He and Herodotus climbed back on their horse and moved on to follow the outlaws.
The women arrived at the Temple of Ares, dismounted and tied their horses to some bushes growing beside the building. Following Xena's lead, they marched up the marble steps, through large, carved double doors and into the temple vestibule.
An acolyte, seated at a table and writing on a parchment, looked up. When he saw that one woman was obviously a warrior and the other three appeared to be Amazons, he rose, smiling, and came forth to greet them. "Welcome! Disciples of Ares are always welcome here!"
"We're not disciples of Ares," Xena informed him curtly. "We're looking for a boy named Ricondo. We were told that he was here."
"Well, yes, he is here. But he's being prepared to be initiated into the priesthood of Ares and isn't allowed to have visitors."
"Your plans for him don't interest us. We want to see him, now." Xena stood taller and her eyes narrowed.
The acolyte pulled himself up taller, too. "He is NOT allowed to ha... " A hand tightened on the man's throat and he was lifted into the air and pinned to the wall.
Xena's lips twitched as Elisa snarled her words into the acolyte's ashen face. "She said we want to see him NOW! Which one of those words didn't you understand?"
"I'll see if I can get him for you," the man's words rushed out. Elisa let go of him and he stumbled away as fast as his legs would carry him.
"Nicely done, Leese." Though she felt terribly weary, Xena's laughter quietly bubbled up. "Thought you said there was only one Warrior Princess."
"Well, if I ever plan to be even half as good as you, I figure I better practice every chance I get." The young Amazon grinned as she basked in Xena's attention. Gabrielle, also smiling, patted Elisa's shoulder, doubling her pleasure.
Good girl, the bard thought. With Xena's tinderbox temper, that poor acolyte might be dead by now.
With each passing day in their presence, Gabrielle became more and more impressed with the two Amazons. Their deep devotion to each other and their unquestioned loyalty to their nation and their queen were endearing traits. But Elisa's obvious love and feeling of protectiveness for Xena gave her a special place in the bard's heart. Too many people saw only the Warrior Princess. Elisa saw her soul.
And Gwynna accepted her friend's love for Xena with understanding and support, just as Gabrielle did. They recognized that Elisa and the warrior were connected in a way that was unique to them. A way that didn't include Gwynna or Gabrielle, but didn't exclude them, either. There was room for all four of them. They were family.
The acolyte returned with the High Priest. He looked over the gathered women and walked up to Xena. "Who are you and what business do you have with Ricondo?" he demanded.
A slight change of stance, a small tilt of her chin, a curl of her lip and the warrior shifted into formidable mode. "My name is Xena. Who in Tartarus are you?"
The priest visibly paled. "Xena? The Warrior Princess? The Destroyer of Nations?"
"Some have called me that."
The priest bowed. "I am Kylos, High Priest of this Temple. I welcome Ares' chosen."
Xena raised both eyebrows and slanted her eyes down toward Gabrielle. The bard raised hers in return and shrugged. Where has this guy been for the last four years? Xena wondered. Maybe I'll get further if I don't disillusion him. "I asked to see Ricondo. Where is he?"
The high priest whispered something to the acolyte and sent him away. "He will be with us shortly. Come into the Hall of Worship. He will meet you there." The priest opened a door into the huge temple room and the women entered. He closed the door behind him.
A life-size statue of Ares stood as the centerpiece of a vast altar whose length covered one wall. Next to the statue stood a marble throne. The priest bowed to the statue and was somewhat uncomfortable that Xena and the others didn't bow.
Ricondo came in from a door on the left. He looked older than the women had expected, probably about seventeen. Taller than Xena, muscular and fair-haired, he had pale, cool-looking blue eyes and sported a small mustache over his thin lips. About ten priests followed him into the room. His eyes swept the room and settled on Xena. With that bearing, obviously the Warrior Princess. And remarkably gorgeous.
"I am Prince Ricondo. And you, I take it, are Xena."
The warrior slightly inclined her head. "I've come to take you back to your grandfather. He paid a huge ransom for your return and he is worried about your safety."
"I'm sorry he has suffered on my account." The young man's eyes flickered for a brief moment. "But I have no plans to return. All my life I have wanted to become Ares' chosen one, and I have worked hard toward that goal." His eyes lit with the passion he felt. "Now I have a chance to grasp it. A chance to conquer the world!"
Xena's eyes narrowed and her voice hardened. "You're looking at someone who's been there and done that, Ricondo. Believe me, it's not all it's cracked up to be."
"You were too weak to hang onto it, Xena, but that won't happen to me." Ricondo spoke with assurance.
Intent on persuading the boy peacefully, the warrior continued her argument. "Weakness didn't change me. Ares owns his chosen, body and soul. He casts a spell on them that leads them to commit horrible, unspeakable crimes against humanity that no decent person would dream of doing on their own. Direction from some special friends helped me to break that spell and reclaim my common sense and common decency."
Ricondo was unimpressed. "I've been trained for this since I was a small child. This is my destiny."
Xena fought her irritability, but her harsh voice betrayed her. "People make their own destiny. It's not forced upon them. It can be changed. Or stopped."
Ricondo's lip curled. "I don't want it changed. And, at this point, there isn't anyone who can stop me."
Xena's teeth clamped together so tightly it took great effort for her to separate them enough to talk. "Your grandfather sent us to take you home, Ricondo. Even if I have to drag you, you're going back." He's just a kid, Xena, don't let him get to you.
The struggle to contain her temper was draining Xena's strength and it worried her. If he's as good as Philomaros says, and he wants to fight, I might have a little problem here. Full strength, I would have no doubts, but I haven't been full strength for weeks. As these thoughts milled in her head, Xena sensed a movement near her side.
Elisa stepped forward. "I can stop you." The challenge was quietly delivered with no bravado, just a statement of a fact. Let me do this, Xena. You are in no shape to take this chance.
The high priest, Kylos, studied the girl, then turned and studied Xena. The warrior had a strange look on her face. She looks like she wants to say yes and no at the same time. And the girl is waiting for her to give her permission. There's some connection between them, I can feel it.
The prince, startled, eyed Elisa carefully. She looks and acts like a warrior, even has a look of Xena about her. She's as tall, but slighter than Xena and doesn't exude power the way the Warrior Princess does.
"Stand aside, girl, my fight is with the Warrior Princess." Ricondo laid his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Wait!" The high priest stepped forward. If there is going to be a fight to settle whether he stays or goes, better to fight the girl than the Warrior Princess. And I like her style. She'd make a great addition to our novices.
"I have a bargain to propose. Ricondo will fight the girl, for now. If he's forced to yield, he goes back to his grandfather, no strings attached. If she yields, she stays and becomes a disciple of Ares, too."
Xena's jaw rippled. Kylos saw it and grinned. Got you, Xena. You really care about this girl. If I get her as one of Ares' chosen, maybe you will come back, too. And wouldn't that look good for me with Ares? "What do you say, Xena? You game to see your friend try?"
"What do YOU say, Leese? You don't have to do this, you know." The Warrior Princess turned her head toward Elisa and engaged the girl's long, silver-gray eyes with her cobalt-blue ones.
"We're bringing this guy back to his family like we promised," Elisa answered. "I'll do it."
The warrior smiled encouragement and nodded agreement. I kinda like that "we" bit. She knows very well that I'm the one who made the promise, but she's ready to pick up the fallen flag and charge into battle in my place. Good girl.
Kylos looked at Ricondo. "Fight the girl. Beat her and settle that you will stay here. You can still fight Xena, later, if you feel a need to."
The boy considered the offer. He's right, I can beat the girl easily and assure my place here. Xena can wait. "All right, I'll fight her."
Kylos strode forward. "Then it's settled, Prince Ricondo will fight the girl. Both of you get ready."
"They're going to fight here, in the temple? Isn't that a desecration of a holy place?" the bard asked.
Kylos chuckled. "You forget whose temple this is. Ares is the God of War. A fight in here is like a prayer to him! Especially one that will gain him another disciple."
As Elisa rose from the bench, Xena reached forth a long arm and took hold of the girl's wrist. "Ricondo's bigger and stronger, Leese, but you are quicker and should have more stamina. Plus, he thinks he has more to prove, so will be more aggressive than is wise, rather than pacing himself. Try to stay on defense as much as you can until he tires. Then go get him. Remember Gabrielle's bout with Mepasa."
Leese nodded. Gwynna, who had stood up with her, gave her a hug. "Good luck, Leese. Beat the stuffing out of him."
Elisa turned back and knelt on one knee in front of Gabrielle. Tears sprung into the bard's eyes that the young woman should be so conscientious about seeking her queen's blessing. "May Artemis be with you," she prayed as she touched her hand to Elisa's bowed head. As she proclaimed the blessing, a seed sprouted in her mind that, in the excitement of the moment, she didn't examine.
Elisa strode out into the open area of the temple and awaited her opponent. Xena grinned as she saw the look of frustration on Kylos' face. The advice he was trying to give the boy was being shrugged off. That overconfidence will be your downfall, she thought. Leese is 10 years older than you in maturity.
Finally, Kylos led Ricondo to the center of the temple, opposite Elisa. "Go to it!" he shouted and stepped back to watch the slaughter.
Both combatants drew their swords. Ricondo swung his sword sideways four times and Elisa parried each swing. Then he tried two thrusts, squatted down and swung at her feet. Elisa pushed the thrusts aside and jumped over the swing. For ten minutes, Ricondo ran several sequences of maneuvers, slashing, thrusting, swinging--high, low and in between. Elisa managed to parry, sidestep, duck or jump over most of his efforts. A number of nicks and small slashes appeared on her body, attesting to the many close calls where her superior agility was the only thing that saved her. He was very good.
Gwynna and Gabrielle sat on the edge of their seats, holding each other's hands. Neither could have told how or when the other's hand had been clutched. The Warrior Princess looked interested but unworried, realizing that a show of doubt on her part could undermine Elisa's confidence in herself.
The boy was beginning to slow down a bit, sweat poured from his face and darkened his clothing. Also, frustration that he couldn't land a solid blow or separate Elisa from her sword clouded his face. He pushed himself even harder.
Xena saw Elisa's face change subtly. She's discovered his rhythm. Look out, Ricondo! Her barely audible, "Yes!" pulled Gabrielle's and Gwynna's intense attention from the fight to her face. When they saw Xena's triumphant expression, they partially relaxed. But not completely; after all, the fight was still going on.
Ricondo raised his arm to begin a down slash. Elisa stepped in close, blocked his descending arm with her left forearm and head butted him in the face. The prince staggered backward for several steps then recovered and charged toward the Amazon. As he was almost upon her, she moved her right foot out to the side, squatted down and swept her left leg against his shins. Ricondo fell flat on his face and skidded across the marble.
Seething, he jumped up, turned back around and charged again. This time he thought he would fool Elisa by stopping short before she could upset him and slashing down on her with his sword. But instead of side stepping, Elisa spun around, raised her leg and kicked sideways against Ricondo's head, taking him off his feet.
The next time, he got up and advanced more carefully. He went through several more maneuvers, with huge expenditure of effort on both their parts but little success. Then he raised his arm again for a down slash. Elisa again stepped in against him. He threw his head back, expecting a head butt. Instead, Elisa brought the hilt of her heavy sword down hard against his exposed jaw, dazing him.
Elisa hesitated a moment, then she turned her back on him. Sensing an opportunity to catch her unawares, the prince shook his head to rid it of its daze and ran at her back. The dark-haired Amazon ran toward a pillar, charged up its side and flipped out over Ricondo, coming down behind him. When he realized he had been tricked, he whirled around, swinging his sword in a blind rage.
Elisa bent to pull her midriff away from the blow. She yanked Ricondo's sword arm and used his momentum to continue his turn until he faced away from her. Grasping the back of his shirt, she slammed his body face-first up against the pillar. He managed to avoid hitting his head on the stone, but his feet were far enough away from it that he couldn't get enough leverage to push himself off and loosen Elisa's hold on him. Virtually helpless, he had an armed Amazon at his back.
"Yield," she growled. Instead of answering, Ricondo struggled to free himself. Elisa kept pressure against his back, pinning his sword arm to the pillar, too.
"Drop your sword, or lose your arm. I'll give you to the count of three. One... two... thr..." The sword clattered to the floor. "Now, yield."
"I... yield." Ricondo dragged the words from his mouth.
Gabrielle turned her head to smile at Gwynna and saw the ten priests rushing at Elisa with drawn swords. "Xena!" she yelled as she stood and ran to intercept them, staff in hand. Gwynna grabbed her staff and leaped into the fight.
Elisa pulled Ricondo off the pillar and marched him over to sit beside Xena who had remained on the bench. She turned to join the fight, but Xena grabbed her arm and shook her head. She and the Warrior Princess watched, smiling, as their blonde friends demolished the group of priests.
Gabrielle had dashed straight at the running men. She bent her knees nearly to the ground and, holding her staff crosswise, hit the first two in their lower legs, tripping them. Gwynna came up just in time to swat one, then the other, into unconsciousness. The bard raised one end of her staff to block a down slash, then brought the other end up and hit the priest in the chin, felling him. Having learned nothing from his friend's fate, the next priest was dispatched with the same maneuver.
Gwynna raised her staff like a pitchfork and stabbed a priest in the chest. As he staggered back into a fellow priest, she swung the end of the staff against his head, forcing it to collide with the other priest's head, getting rid of both of them.
Gabrielle ducked a swipe, then crashed her staff against the priest's face and he went down. Immediately, she swung her staff, point first, behind her and jabbed a priest in the stomach. Gwynna dispatched him with a two-fisted slam against his bent-over form.
Whirling around, Gabrielle pushed her staff against the ground and pivoted into the air, kicking the last two priests in their chins. As they fell, Gwynna made sure that they would stay down with a couple more well-placed slams. The two women looked around. Priests were lying everywhere. Kylos was the only one left and as Gabrielle took a step toward him, he raised his arms and shook his head.
"You'll get no more trouble from us. Take the prince and get out of here." This is one time I'm glad Ares wasn't here. Who would have expected that girl to beat Ricondo? He's a superb swordsman but she made him look foolish. Xena's influence, no doubt.
Gabrielle and Gwynna joined their friends. "Thanks for the help, you two," the bard said sarcastically. Xena and Elisa both raised their eyebrows and turned and looked behind themselves as if looking for the people she was addressing. Gabrielle and Gwynna laughed, amused more by the twin reaction than by the little joke itself.
"Hey," Xena's silky voice answered her. "You two did fine without us."
Gabrielle grinned at Gwynna. "We did, didn't we?" She reached her arm to the young Amazon who clasped it in the warrior handshake.
"Now, we have a treasure to reclaim." Xena swayed a little as she stood, causing a silent Ricondo to look at her curiously. "Do I have to tie you up, prince, or do I have your word that you will come with us without any trouble?"
"I made a deal, and I will stand by it," Ricondo muttered. If a young girl can beat me so badly, maybe I've been fooling myself. She is really good!
The group exited from the temple and moved toward their horses. "Gwynna's gonna double up with me and let the prince ride Nightmare," Elisa informed Xena.
"Thanks, Leese. I don't want to steal a horse from one of Ares' priests, he'd never let me live it down."
The party moved out, looking for Autolycus and Herodotus and the stolen treasure.
Xena's group caught up with the two men just in time to make camp for the evening. Autolycus told her the outlaws had stopped for the night several miles down the road. He already had a fire built and a couple pots of water heating. The men were introduced to Ricondo and made a place for him next to them.
Gabrielle made sure that Xena sat down on one of the fallen logs that Herodotus had placed near the fire. She noticed that Xena picked the one that was placed against the base of a tree. "Just sit here and relax, will you?" she murmured to her friend. "We'll take care of the meal."
"Oh, Tartarus, and I thought you were going to let me cook," the Warrior Princess joked.
Gabrielle slapped her lightly on the thigh and grinned. "Maybe next time." Xena looked terribly weary, but was obviously making an attempt to stay in a decent mood.
Gwynna and Elisa were just walking over and heard this conversation. "Warn us if that ever happens, Gabrielle, so we're sure not to eat it!" Gwynna couldn't resist the comment, but as soon as the words left her, she threw her hand over her mouth and paled.
Xena looked up at her and smiled wearily. "You've never even tasted my cooking, Gwynna."
"I guess that makes her one of the lucky ones," Gabrielle chuckled, and all of them laughed.
"Leese, maybe you could catch us some fish." Xena rolled her head toward the dark-haired Amazon. "The river runs close by over that way." The warrior nodded toward it. "And, while you're at it, better wash out those cuts you have."
"Sure, Xena." Elisa looked down at herself, surprised to see the number of small slashes in her skin. She shook her head and hurried off, with Gwynna accompanying her. Xena always came fishing with me, before. She must be getting worse. I'm sure glad this job is almost done.
Xena leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes. This keeping my temper is almost as big an energy drain as losing it. But at least I'm not scaring anyone. The Warrior Princess willed her body to relax. In a few moments she dozed off.
Gabrielle tiptoed away and gathered some herbs, tubers, and dried vegetables from one of Argo's saddlebags. She threw them into the larger pot and saw that Autolycus had already made tea in the smaller one. She walked over and told him that she had added some food to the larger pot and Elisa would bring some fish for a chowder. Then she moved off deeper into the forest.
Out of earshot of the others, she stopped in a small clearing. "Artemis," she called softly. "I hope you are not too busy to hear my prayer. I am calling to you on behalf of Xena. Some illness is sapping her strength and her condition is worsening. We really could use your help. As Queen of the Amazons, your chosen one, I beseech you to hear my words." Gabrielle bowed her head and waited, hoping she would receive some sort of message that would lead her in a direction to help her friend.
Gabrielle closed her eyes against a sudden burst of light. A stout brown-haired woman, dressed in Amazon leathers, appeared. Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and patron of the Amazons, had a bow slung over her shoulder, and a glowing aura shimmered from her body. Gabrielle raised her eyes in surprised relief.
The queen sank down on one knee but Artemis motioned her to rise. "Well, Gabrielle, I heard your call." The goddess smiled at her chosen one. "Just what is it you want me to do?" Gabrielle, above and beyond her queenship, was a special favorite. Artemis was pleased that she had chosen a courageous young woman with such a generous heart to lead her Amazons.
Gabrielle's troubled green eyes gazed imploringly into Artemis' questioning brown eyes. "My friend, Xena, is ill. And she won't admit it, or, at least, she won't give in and go for help for it. Claris seems to think it could be life threatening if not treated, and I'm not sure how much leeway that gives Xena. If she keeps pushing herself, as she is doing now, I'm afraid she might get to the point where nothing can be done. Is there anything you can do to help her?"
Artemis frowned. "You're asking me to help Xena, the Destroyer of Nations? The chosen of Ares?"
"You know those titles don't apply to her anymore, Artemis."
"That's true, she has changed her path. But I find it difficult, if not impossible, to overlook the fact that she has killed Amazons. She even killed Cyane, a sister queen of yours." Artemis slowly shook her head. She raised her arm, a signal of departure.
"Wait!" Gabrielle enjoined her. "Please. Let me speak further."
The Huntress lowered her arm and nodded.
"You seem to be overlooking how many times Xena has helped the very people you are patroness of. She saved Ephiny's life, twice. She led the Amazons against a warlord who would have overrun the village and slaughtered everyone, or worse. She made peace between the Amazons and the Centaurs. She got rid of Velasca when no one else could stand against her, preventing her from leading the Amazons back into war. And she stands ready to help again, whenever the Amazons need her."
Gabrielle could see her earnestness was making an impression on the goddess. "Not to mention how many times she has, literally, saved my life, the life of your chosen one. You know she has never asked anything of you in return. And she won't, not for herself. So, I am asking, in her stead. I think you owe her this much."
"You've made some very good points, Gabrielle." The goddess hesitated, though still unconvinced.
The bard stepped toward Artemis, reaching out a hand to touch her, then realized that this woman was a goddess and might consider the touch an affront. She stopped, beseeching arm still outstretched, mist-green eyes brimming with tears she had suppressed for days. Her low-pitched voice reverberated with intense emotion. "I love her, Artemis. If she dies... something inside of me will die, too."
The tortured look on the young queen's face meant more to Artemis than any threat to Xena's well-being could. "I will think about it, my dear. That's all I will promise right now." The Goddess of the Hunt raised her arm and disappeared in another blinding flash of light.
Gabrielle sank to the ground, tears streaming down her cheeks. Please, Artemis. I don't know where else to turn. Save her, please. Please. Please. The words marched, over and over, through her mind and across her heart, leaving painful footprints. Finally, the tears stopped. The bard sat for awhile, composing herself, then rose and returned to the campsite, feeling she had done everything she could for the moment. Now, it was up to Artemis.
She arrived at the site just as a soaking-wet Elisa and Gwynna got back from the river. Elisa held up a large leaf-wrapped package. "I caught three good-sized ones," she declared.
The arrival of the Amazons had awakened the Warrior Princess. "Looks like you caught one really big one, too." Xena's chuckling words floated across the campsite as she sat up and stretched.
The two young Amazons giggled self-consciously as the others laughed. Gwynna tried to explain. "Leese said if she was going to get wet, I was, too. She started splashing, I splashed back, and I guess we got carried away." This provoked even more laughter and Elisa turned red. She elbowed Gwynna in the side. "Shush," she admonished her.
"Why? What did I say?" Gwynna questioned her now grinning friend.
Gabrielle took pity on her and said, "Never mind, Gwynna. You two bring the fish over here and I'll help clean them." The two Amazons had already cleaned, filleted and chopped the fish while at the river. Seeing this, Gabrielle grinned to herself. Guess they really were just splashing in the water. She directed them to throw the chunks of flesh into the chowder pot.
After the meal, everyone settled around the campfire. The sun had set in the western sky and darkness surrounded them. Earlier, Autolycus had made several attempts to engage Ricondo in conversation, trying to find out about the boy's liberation, but he had been unsuccessful. Now, he decided to ask Xena. "So, Xena, how did you rescue the prince? Did you have to fight anyone?"
"Nooooo, as a matter of fact, I didn't." Xena's cobalt-blue eyes bored into the prince's pale blue ones. "Prince Ricondo fought."
"Who did he fight?" Autolycus asked in surprise.
"Leese," Xena answered laconically.
Autolycus looked totally puzzled. "Why would he fight Leese?" Herodotus had perked up at this information, eager to hear the story behind it.
"I think the prince will tell you that." Xena hadn't moved her eyes from his. Now, she aimed her feral smile at the boy. "Won't you?" she murmured in her silken voice.
"We fought because I didn't want to leave," the prince said fretfully. "I wanted to be Ares' chosen one. And this was my great chance."
Astonished, Autolycus gaped at the boy. "You, a prince, actually WANTED to be Ares' chosen? Are you crazy? Have you any idea what that means? Do you know what you would have to give up?"
"I want to conquer the world," the boy said obstinately. "That's more than I could do as a prince."
"Look, prince, you have a woman right here who had all that and gave it up. Maybe you should talk to her. And listen!"
Almost against his will, the boy's curiosity forced him to ask the Warrior Princess. "I've heard that you conquered half of Greece as Ares' chosen. Why did you leave?"
Xena picked up a stick and began to drag it back and forth across the ground, aimlessly. Watching the stick intently, she answered his question with another question. "I've met your father and grandfather. Do you have any other family?"
"No, my mother died when I was five and my grandmother, the queen, died when I was two years old. I don't remember my grandmother at all and I barely remember my mother."
"How do you feel about your father and grandfather? Do you love them? Do they love you?"
"Of course, I love them. And they both love me."
"What do they think about your wanting to be Ares' chosen?"
The boy fidgeted a moment before answering. "They don't know about it. I never told them."
"Oh? Why not?" Xena asked this softly, not as a challenge but rather for the sake of curiosity.
There was no answer. The prince was staring at Xena, his forehead creased in a frown. Xena swept her eyes up slowly, until they met and joined his. Ricondo's face twitched at the intensity of her gaze. Her eyes demanded an answer.
He wet his lips, but couldn't keep the words from being dragged from him. "Because they would have talked me out of it."
The Warrior Princess kept the power of her remarkable eyes trained on his.
He spoke as though a dam had broken. "Because they wouldn't want to let me go. They wanted me to be the next king. Nobody asked what I wanted. It was just taken for granted. Everything I was taught was aimed at someday making me a good king. Do it this way; do it that way. 'No, Ricondo, a king wouldn't do that.' 'Yes, Ricondo, that is how a king would act.' How do they even know if I want the responsibility of being king?"
The edges of Xena's eyelids tightened, giving the suggestion of narrowed eyes. "You don't want the responsibility of being king, yet you want the responsibility of ruling the world?"
"It's not that," the boy answered grumpily, dropping his eyes. "It's the way they've always controlled my life. I'm not allowed to have a mind of my own, everything is always decided for me."
Xena started playing with the stick again. "They gave you the training that turned you into such a good swordsman. Do you regret that?"
"No." The prince admitted. "And I am good! It was a fluke that this girl beat me!"
"I got news for you, prince. You think because you beat all the nobles at court that you are some super-duper swordsman." Xena wearily sighed and looked him in the eye again. "Did it ever occur to you that the grandson of their king would be ALLOWED to beat them? And those nobles weren't fighting for their lives. Almost anybody who has had to fight for his life could beat you. Autolycus could beat you."
Autolycus' eyebrows fought to lift off the top of his forehead and his mouth dropped open. He pointed at his own chest and his head swiveled back and forth so fast, he couldn't get his mouth in gear.
"Relax, Autolycus. He's not going to fight you." Xena could see from the crestfallen look on the young man's face that what she said had hit home. He hung his head.
The Warrior Princess stood up. She hesitated for a few seconds to let the dizziness pass then walked over to the boy. She placed a hand on his shoulder and waited till he looked up at her. "You are a good swordsman. You gave Leese a run for her money and she is no amateur when it comes to sword fighting. You tried to beat her with power and ability. But she used cunning and agility." Xena let go of his shoulder and firmly rapped him twice on the forehead with her knuckles. "She beat you here."
On the verge of collapsing, Xena sat down catercorner from the prince. "It would take you years of combat fighting to get as good as she is and years more to get good enough to conquer the world. So, unless you have a 20-year plan, I would suggest you do yourself and your grandfather and your subjects a favor and concentrate on learning to be the best king you can be."
Lifting a long stick, the bard stirred the fire. Gwynna reached behind her seat for a loose log and laid it on the coals. Flames spurted up and licked around it, throwing even more light on the circle of listeners.
The warrior took a couple long breaths and continued. "And, if you don't heed anything else I say, heed this: Don't swear allegiance to anyone else, and especially not to Ares. If you think your life is bad with your grandfather controlling it, it's a thousand times worse with Ares controlling it."
From his seat beside the boy, Autolycus studied Xena's pale face. The flickering firelight danced across her features, throwing moving shadows under her cheekbones, accentuating the intensity of her expression.
Prince Ricondo was mesmerized by Xena's eyes which, by a trick of the reflected flames, seemed to grow ever larger. "Yes, I was Ares' chosen. My mother hated me, my brother hated me, my village hated me. My lover was killed because of me."
The large, blue orbs closed, extinguishing their fire. That moment of respite only magnified the impact of their reopening and Ricondo's head jerked as he was struck again with their haunting power.
"Half of Greece hated me because I was a conscienceless killer, a monster. I killed people like you, people like your grandfather, people like my friends here, anyone who got in my way. And the other half of Greece was scared to death that I was coming after them next. Power, riches, property? I had more than anyone could ever want and what good did it do me?"
Elisa shifted and leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees. Her cloud-gray eyes stayed fastened on the Warrior Princess and her head barely moved as the remembrance of her own confrontation with Xena sent a small shiver down her spine. That could have been me if Xena hadn't straightened me out.
The eyes of the Warrior Princess turned somber and seemed to be looking inward. "All those people hated me and I wound up hating myself. And my soul belonged to Ares. With the help of Hercules, I decided to reclaim it and with Gabrielle's help, I am still working on that. It hasn't been an easy battle, but it is the one battle that we all must fight; the battle for our own souls. And I am determined to win." Xena's eyes swept her circle of friends and emotion lowered her voice. "Yes, I left Ares. I have more right here, than I ever had with him."
Xena sat silently. Past atrocities played on the screen of her memory, sending paroxysms of agony across her shadowed face. Tears welled in her eyes and overflowed.
When Gabrielle saw the torment in Xena's face, she rose and quietly walked over to sit beside her and take hold of her hand. She reached up and gently wiped the falling tears from Xena's cheeks.
Herodotus pulled a piece of cloth from his pocket and wiped his eyes, then blew his nose. When Autolycus turned to look at him, he muttered, "Dirt in my eye." Autolycus, his own eyes suspiciously damp, solemnly nodded his head.
Ricondo lowered his head into his hands. The sincerity and stark drama of Xena's story made him take a close look at his recent decision to join the Temple of Ares. And what that decision would mean to his father and his grandfather, his beloved king. He already regretted the look of betrayal he knew would appear on his grandfather's face when he heard the news of his favored grandson's attempt to become a disciple of the God of War. But he vowed to himself to make it up to him.
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand, then rose and suggested quietly, "It's late, and we have a treasure to rescue tomorrow. I think it's time to turn in."
She turned to the warrior. "Wait here, Xena, I'll get your bedroll."
"We'll need to share with your father and the prince. Autolycus probably has his own." As tired as she was, Xena still was in charge.
"Right. I'll give them the saddle blankets." Xena rolled her eyes. "OK, OK," Gabrielle acquiesced. "We'll use the saddle blankets. They can have our bedrolls."
Once the bedding arrangements had been settled, everyone slept.
With no patients at the moment, Claris sat in the healer's hut, taking her time pulverizing a few herbs to use for various medicines.
Suddenly, there was a blinding flash. Claris shut her eyes. Slowly opening them, she was not surprised to see Artemis standing there. Occasionally, the Goddess of the Hunt stopped by to find out if Claris had found any new herbs or treatments. This time, Artemis had a list in her hand.
Claris got off her stool and knelt down. Artemis waved impatiently. "Get up, get up, Claris. We have a lot of work to do."
Oh, great, just what I needed, a goddess in a mood. And I thought I would have some time to myself today.
"I have a list here of 10 herbs we need. Let's take a look and see what you have." Artemis brought the list to the table and laid it down. She started puttering through Claris' bottles and jars, moving them every which way. As she found one she was looking for she set it out to the side.
Claris took a look at the list. "What's this for?"
Artemis turned toward Claris, while still picking up bottles and holding them in front of her eyes to read the contents. "Would you believe this is a potion to heal the Warrior Princess?" The goddess' voice rose loudly, "Destroyer of Nations? I can't believe I'm doing this."
Claris felt a little bolder with the patroness of the Amazons than she would with a strange goddess. "Why ARE you doing it?"
"Only because your queen begged me to!"
"Gabrielle?" queried Claris.
"Of course, Gabrielle. You don't think I would do this for anyone else, do you?" The goddess looked perturbed. "Tell you the truth, if she weren't such a sweetheart, I wouldn't do it for her, either. A potion for the Destroyer of Nations. Humph! That woman KILLED Amazons."
"But she HAS changed, Artemis."
"So, I hear. But that doesn't bring them back, does it? And you don't have to stick up for her. Gabrielle did a good job of that. That golden-haired beauty could charm the birds out of the trees."
Claris raised an eyebrow. "Don't look at me like that, Claris. I just happen to like the girl. But her partner's another story. I don't relish having to help HER." The goddess pushed her lip out. "Not that I really HAVE to, you understand. But Gabrielle practically begged me to. And she's very hard to refuse."
On the pretense of looking for another bottle, Claris quickly turned away to hide the grin she couldn't seem to keep off of her face.
Artemis pushed some bottles over to the side. "There's six, see if you can find the other four."
"Which four?" Claris inquired. As Artemis read the names to her, she searched among the displaced bottles. Finally, they had all ten.
"Now put these in a pot, cover them with about this much water," Artemis indicated with her hands, "and boil them down to a syrup. I have to go get one more ingredient." The Huntress pulled her bow from her shoulder. "I'll be back." She left in another flash, still muttering, "Destroyer of Nations, I don't believe I'm doing this."
Claris stirred the fire and put the herbs and water to boil. She replaced all the bottles in their usual order. Glad these god types don't come around too often. Just make more work for us mortals. So, Artemis is making a potion for Xena, huh? Guess she really is sick. And our little Queen Gabrielle talked the Huntress into it?
Claris grinned. She had been on the receiving end of Gabrielle's charm, before. We all know our queen has Xena wrapped around her little finger. Now it looks like even Artemis isn't immune. Hmmm. Not a bad combination, the warrior and the huntress--as long as they aren't both in the same village! Claris laughed out loud.
Artemis returned hours later, just as the herbal combination had been reduced to the requisite syrup. She held an evil-smelling vial in her hand. "Mix this into the syrup, then put it all in a flask."
Wrinkling her nose at the smell, Claris did as directed. "Are you taking the flask to Xena?" she asked innocently.
"NO!" Artemis practically exploded. "I wouldn't hand anything helpful to the Destroyer of Nations. Don't even know why I'm doing this!"
Damn, she's still on the same kick. Sorry I asked. A wicked streak in Claris made her say, "I thought you said you were doing it because of Gabrielle."
Artemis sighed loudly. "I am. That girl is such a sweetheart! I just can't resist her. What she sees in that warrior... Ah, well, she asked me to help her and I'm going to help her. The queen, that is, not the warrior!"
Artemis pulled her roving thoughts back to the moment. "Claris, you are going to take the flask to... I can't even bring myself to say her name. But when you see her, tell her she has to drink the whole thing or it won't work." Artemis' voice changed and she quirked an odd smile. "She'll be cured... within a few minutes."
The Huntress pointed her finger at Claris and "whoooosh," Claris disappeared.
Xena had been half dozing, going in and out of light sleep when she suddenly got a really strange feeling. Some urge made her get up and stumble into the forest. Dizzy again, she was unsteady on her feet.
Elisa's eyes opened when Xena rose, but the young Amazon just watched as the Warrior Princess tottered into the trees. She would lie there, waiting to be sure that the warrior returned within a decent time interval.
Xena slowly walked some distance into the forest, to a small open space, and stopped. "What's going on?" she called. "Who's here?"
There was a flash of light and a woman appeared, holding a flask in her hand.
Xena squinted her eyes against the flash and reached for her sword, but her hand stopped when she recognized the woman. "Claris?" she inquired. "What are you doing here?" Xena lowered her shaky body to a seat on the ground and looked up incredulously at the Amazon healer.
"By the gods, Xena, you look like Tartarus! No, I take that back, you're not red enough to look like Tartarus. More like curdled cow's cud." Claris frowned at the warrior's condition. She looks even worse than I expected. Looks like I got here not a moment too soon. "And how much weight have you lost?"
"Haven't a clue, Claris. But if my leathers get any looser, I'm gonna have to nail them on." Xena grinned tiredly. "Curdled cow's cud? You've been hanging around Eponin too long. What brings you here and how...?"
Claris held up the flask. "Our patroness, Artemis, told me to give this to you and make sure you drank every drop and, whoooooosh! I was here."
"Artemis?" Xena looked skeptical. "Why would she be doing this for me?"
"Funny you should say that. Those were almost the exact words she kept mumbling off and on as she picked out the herbs: 'Why am I doing this for the Destroyer of Nations?' That sort of alternated with, 'Gabrielle, you sweetheart, you could charm the birds out of the trees.'"
"Ahhhhhh. Gabrielle. I should have guessed." A broad smile slowly spread across Xena's face. "She is a sweetheart, isn't she?"
"That she is," Claris agreed. And I can see why Ephiny gets skittish when she sees that smile of yours, Princess. "You going to drink this stuff or talk all night?"
Xena took the flask and, tilting her head back, took a large swallow. "Arrrggghhh. What IS this stuff?" The Warrior Princess' face was screwed up in distaste.
"I don't think you want to know," Claris chortled. "Of course, the vial Artemis gave me even smelled awful. Said she was adding it for flavor." Xena's eyes glared up at her. "I'm only kidding! But you have to drink all of it. She was particular about that."
Xena sat looking at the flask, her mouth twisting into about ten different expressions, none of them nice.
Claris grinned. "Wait till I tell the other Amazons that the mighty Warrior Princess acted like a little kid who didn't want to take her medicine."
Xena scowled up at her, made another face and upended the flask. She held it up until she drank it all. "I oughtta get some kind of award for this, instead of having to listen to your nagging."
"The goddess said you would feel better in just a few minutes." Claris, still chuckling, watched closely for some sign of the potion's effect.
Suddenly, Xena could feel it. Red-hot blood coursed through her body. And burned! She came to her knees, doubled over and grabbed her stomach. Pain wracked every ounce of her body. Sweat poured from her as she gritted her teeth and groaned.
Claris was flabbergasted. Artemis had given her no clue about how the warrior would react to the potion. The healer felt helpless. Not only didn't she have anything else with her to alleviate the pain, but also she was afraid even to attempt a soothing touch, knowing that Xena might turn on her.
After two long minutes of this agony, the groaning ceased and Xena fell, panting, onto her side in fetal position. Gradually, her breathing evened. She licked her lips and sat up. Then she stood up.
Distressed, Claris had watched the Warrior Princess through the whole time. When Xena stood up, she half-whispered, "How are you?"
Xena shook one leg, then the other; one arm, then the other. She twisted her body back and forth and stretched her arms to the sky. Bending her knees, she vaulted high into the air, somersaulted, and came back to the same spot of earth. Then she threw her head back and laughed out loud. "The Warrior Princess is back!"
She grabbed Claris in a big hug and, lifting her off her feet, danced around the clearing. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Setting a laughing Claris down, Xena looked to the heavens and shouted, "And thank you, too, Artemis!"
Elisa came running into the clearing. "Claris! What are you doing here? What's going on?" Claris turned to greet the young Amazon, but before she could take even one step, whoooosh! The healer disappeared in a flash of light.
Elisa stood there dumbfounded. "Close your mouth, Leese! Haven't you seen anyone disappear before?" Xena laughed again and ran up a tree, flipped and twisted back to the ground.
Elisa's eyes shone. "You're well again! Wonderful!" She strode over to the warrior and grabbed her in a bear hug. Xena hugged her back, then the two started back to the camp, with Xena explaining what had happened.
"Let's wake Gabrielle and tell her you're strong again," Elisa suggested happily.
"Nooooo, I don't think so. I'm never strong enough for that! When the bard's asleep, I let her sleep! At least till sunrise," Xena chuckled. "Besides, do you know how long it's been since I had a full night's sleep? I can't wait to hit that blanket, horse smell and all."
"OK," Elisa agreed, grinning.
Before the warrior climbed into the blanket, she turned to the young Amazon and gently gathered her into her arms. "Thanks for saving my butt at the temple today," she said softly. "Thanks for everything. Don't know what I would have done without you."
Elisa squeezed back. "Anytime, Xena, you know that."
Xena kissed her on the cheek and released her. "Now get to sleep, or Gwynna will be having my hide for keeping you up half the night."
Two dark-haired women fell asleep that night with smiles on their faces and the same thought prompting those smiles. The Warrior Princess is back!
Gabrielle woke the next morning at daybreak. Turning over, she gasped to see that Xena wasn't lying next to her. She sat up quickly, then, looking past the smoldering fire, she noticed with relief that Elisa's bedroll was empty, also. At least she has her shadow with her, wherever she is. Gabrielle relaxed, then mused that she was able to. Leese's being here sure makes a difference.
But, as she rose, her next thought brought the tension back. Xena is going downhill, fast. With a promise to herself to send some more prayers to Artemis after breakfast, the bard stirred up the fire, picked up the two pots and headed for the river.
When she got to the bank of the river, she saw two familiar scabbards, four knives and Xena's chakram lying on the shore. A movement upstream caught her eye. The Warrior Princess and Elisa were standing atop a huge boulder that jutted out into the river. The bard could see Xena gesticulating and Elisa nodding. With that sixth sense that always told her when Gabrielle was near, Xena turned and, seeing her, waved.
Gabrielle, puzzled that Xena would climb onto the boulder in her weakened state, nevertheless smiled and waved back. She drew her breath in sharply as Xena leaped into the air, rolled into a ball, and somersaulted twice. The startled bard watched her partner's long body open up, arms stretched forward in a "V," and cleave the water without so much as a splash.
Xena, what are you trying to prove? You going to keep pushing until you can't move? Irritated at her partner's carelessness, Gabrielle walked thigh-high into the water to meet the furiously swimming Warrior Princess. Xena popped up in front of her, grabbed a startled Gabrielle and swung her around and around.
"Gabrielle! I'm healed!" Xena's ability to swing the bard around in water that most people struggled to walk in dispelled any doubts Gabrielle may have had about the return of the warrior's strength.
At last, Xena stopped. Still holding the bard, she laughed, "I'm OK, Gabrielle!"
Chuckling through her tears of happiness, Gabrielle answered, "I figured. Praise Artemis!" The bard moved her hands to either side of Xena's face as if to assure herself that what she was seeing wasn't a mirage. "You look wonderful!"
Xena's magnificent blue eyes softened into the special look she had for her best friend and her voice lowered. "It was Artemis who cured me, but it was you who persuaded her. Thank you." The Warrior Princess kissed the bard's cheek.
Then, she jerked back her head and wrinkled her nose. "But you smell like a horse!" Quickly moving one arm behind the bard's knees, Xena picked her up in her arms.
"Tell me you are not going to throw me deeper into the river," Gabrielle warned.
"Weeellllll, I might have been persuaded not to, but I recall someone with a pitcher of water dousing me one morning."
"Uh-oh." The bard grabbed her nose and Xena, laughing, threw her further into the water.
Gabrielle came up spitting water and laughing, too. "Well, I can't argue with that. Besides, I do smell like a horse!" She ducked again beneath the water and came up rubbing it onto her skin and clothing in an effort to get rid of the odor.
Xena waded over to her, fishing in a small bag at her belt. "I have something I think might help that." She pulled out a small metal jar. Unscrewing the top, she held it under the bard's nose.
"Xena!" Gabrielle's whole face lit up. "Is this still some of the perfumed crystals from Athens?"
"No, we ran out of those awhile back. I got these in Ellaria, at the Festival. I was going to give them to you there, but... things changed." A cloud passed over the warrior's face, then she shook her head and smiled, burying the memory. She dumped a few crystals in her hand and shook it over Gabrielle's head.
Gabrielle reached up to work the crystals into her hair as Xena closed the jar and returned it to her bag. "Put some on your own hair, too," the bard urged.
The Warrior Princess grimaced. "Flower Garden? I don't think so. But I did wash the horse smell off." Xena looked toward the riverbank and saw Elisa picking up her scabbard and knives. "I think we better get back. We still need to get the treasure. And your father's horse and wagon."
While returning to camp, the three women had gathered some nuts and berries. Gabrielle added some hard biscuits from her saddlebag stores and threw some herbs in the small pot for tea. Xena murmured to Elisa, who grabbed some nuts and berries, mounted Viktor, and took off toward the outlaw encampment. While everyone else consumed breakfast, Xena related her encounter with Claris.
Discovering that the Warrior Princess had regained her health cheered everybody. A pall lifted from their spirits.
As they finished breakfast and broke camp, Elisa returned. "There are about 50 of them. They haven't moved, yet. They have four men out as guards, but I don't think they suspect that we are here. And just past where they are camped, the trail enters open fields for a long stretch."
Xena had planned to attack the outlaws while they were on the trail, taking them apart in small sections as she had with the other bunch. Now, since they would be entering a wide, open area, that plan wouldn't work.
"Is Draco with them?"
"I didn't see him anywhere."
"That's too bad," Xena grinned sardonically. "I would kinda enjoy seeing him lose."
Xena's eyes swept the group who were awaiting her instructions.
"Xena." Prince Ricondo stepped forward. "I want to be part of the fight. It's the least I can do to make up to my grandfather for the hurt I have caused him."
"All right, but you'll need a sword."
Autolycus spoke up. "It ah... just so happens that I have an extra sword." He loped over to his horse and pulled a sword from the scabbard hanging there. He brought it back and gave it to the prince.
Prince Ricondo looked at it curiously. "This looks just like one of mine that I left at the castle." He slipped it into the empty scabbard on his back.
Xena glared at Autolycus and twisted her lips. He raised an eyebrow, smiled like an innocent and shrugged.
"Gwynna, you and I will go ahead of the others on Argo and take out the rear guard. Prince Ricondo can ride Nightmare. Gabrielle, you and Elisa double up on Viktor and wait with the prince until we rejoin you. We will spread out and attack at the same time. Keep alert! If someone gets past Gwynna and me and sees you, you could have the whole bunch to fight before we can get back to you." Xena looked at each of them in turn, hesitating a split second as her eyes met Elisa's and the young Amazon nodded her understanding. I will stick to the queen like a burr.
"Autolycus, you and Herodotus are in charge of freeing the horse and wagon and getting the treasure on its way back to the castle. Wait until we attack; that should divert the attention of the guards."
They mounted the horses and moved out. When they neared the enemy camp, Xena called a halt. "You wait here. Gwynna and I will be back to join you." She and the blonde Amazon dismounted and swung up into the trees. In about 20 minutes, they both returned and Xena once more moved the group forward.
When they all could hear the movements of the men in the camp, they stopped. First, Xena had Autolycus give his horse to the prince and Gwynna reclaimed Nightmare. "I think our best bet will be to ride into the camp on horseback, do as much damage as we can, and then dismount and finish them off. We'll form a line about ten feet apart from each other and try to stay reasonably close. That way, we can help each other if needed." She looked at the expectant faces and smiled. "Ready? Let's go."
The small group charged from the trees, spreading out as directed. Xena's battlecry rang out over the camp, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" They rode swiftly through the surprised outlaws, taking down half of them in one sweep. Reaching the far side of the camp, they swerved their horses and started back.
The outlaws had quickly assembled themselves in some sort of order and dodged the riders on their second sweep. With another cry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" Xena slewed Argo to a stop and hurtled off of the warhorse in a flying somersault. The others followed her example, dismounted, and engaged the outlaws hand to hand.
Xena laughed out loud from the sheer enjoyment of fighting. She ducked under a sword swipe, shoved the off-balance outlaw onto the blade of the one behind him and buried her sword to the hilt in the chest of the second man. She crashed an elbow into the face of an outlaw on her left and kicked the chest of one coming at her from the right as she jerked her sword free.
Parrying the thrust of the next man, she head-butted him, then straight-arm punched him in jaw. She jumped in the air to kick the next two and saw Elisa skidding on a pool of gore. As Xena's feet hit the ground, she vaulted her body back up into the air and flipped to where Elisa was going down. An outlaw stood over the girl, his sword raised to strike her. Before Xena struck him, he fell forward, overtop Elisa.
Prince Ricondo stood behind him, sword dripping with the bandit's blood. Xena saluted him with her sword, flipped it over and jammed it backwards into the stomach of a man sneaking up behind her. Whirling on one foot, she took out two more. With her boot, she rolled the fallen outlaw off of Elisa, reached down, grabbed her arm and pulled her up. "Sometimes we burrs have to stick together!" Xena grinned.
"Yeah!" breathed the dark-haired Amazon. She reached behind her shoulder and flipped two knives in blinding succession at two men converging on Ricondo's back while he fought off another.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Gwynna were again working as a team, having rediscovered the remarkable efficiency of combining their efforts. Gabrielle would knock a couple down and Gwynna would slam them into unconsciousness. Then Gwynna would attack and the ones still conscious from her blows would be dispatched by Gabrielle.
The one big disadvantage they had was that the outlaws saw they used staffs and not swords, so, instead of attacking the sword fighters, many chose the supposedly lesser danger of fighting the two blondes.
Xena, Elisa and the prince soon laid low the ones they were fighting and joined Gabrielle and Gwynna. The battlecry of the Warrior Princess warned those still left that this awesome woman had arrived in their area, and most of them ran for their lives. The few who stayed were cut down.
As the attack had begun, Autolycus and Herodotus crept near the wagon. As expected, the four guards turned their attention to the battle area. Herodotus had managed to find a hefty piece of wood to use as a club and he sneaked up on the two men at the front of the wagon while Autolycus tiptoed toward the two at the back. When the King of Thieves saw Herodotus pull back the club, he tapped one outlaw on the shoulder. The man turned around and Autolycus punched him out. A loud thud sounded the knell of one of Herodotus' victims. When the first went down, Herodotus used the momentum of the bounce off of his skull to back swing into the second outlaw's head, laying him out next to his companion.
The second outlaw in the back saw Autolycus and drew his sword. The King of Thieves was a decent swordsman and was holding his own. He smiled in gratitude, however, when Herodotus came to his aid and clunked his opponent in the back of the head. "Three for you and one for me," he said, brushing his mustache with the side of his finger. "Good job!"
A beaming Herodotus climbed onto the wagon seat as Autolycus untied the horse and handed him the reins. Autolycus took hold of the horse's bridle and turned him around, then joined Herodotus. The battle still raged, but the men did as Xena had directed and started back toward the castle.
The fighting was finished. The Warrior Princess whistled for Argo and her face literally glowed from her joy at regaining full strength in time for this battle. She had seen Autolycus and Herodotus make off with the treasure wagon and she was doubly joyful at the success of the mission.
Prince Ricondo walked up to the warrior while Elisa and Gwynna rounded up the other horses. "I watched you in battle, Xena, and I see now what you meant about needing 20 years of experience. Even after 20 years, I would never be as good as you are. You are awesome." His earnest face then broke into a self-deprecating grin. "Besides, if I became a warlord, someday I might have to fight against you and I don't even want to think about what that would mean!"
Xena reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "I'm glad to see you have the good sense your grandfather said you had. You fought well, today. You even saved Elisa's life."
"I didn't really save her life; you were there, too."
"You were the one who struck the blow and there was no guarantee that I would make it there in time. You truly did save her life and all of us are very grateful. I mean to tell that to the king."
The boy looked disturbed. "Thank you, Xena. I will need all your good words. My father and grandfather will feel I have betrayed their trust when they find that I wanted to become a disciple of Ares."
"And how will they find that out?" Xena raised her eyebrows and looked at Gabrielle. "Do we have any reason to report that?" Gabrielle smiled at Ricondo and shook her head no. "No one else will have a reason to, either. They will leave that up to me and I seem to have forgotten it already."
"You really are a very special person, Xena. And I want you to know you will always be welcome in my kingdom." The prince reached out and when Xena extended her arm, instead of clasping it, he took her hand and raised it to his lips. "My eternal gratitude," he pledged.
The two Amazons had returned with the horses. Xena vaulted onto Argo, reached down and easily swung Gabrielle up behind her. The bard wrapped her arms tightly around the warrior's waist and, for a moment, laid her head against her. "It's so wonderful to have you back," she whispered.
Xena's acute hearing picked up the whisper, and it entered her mind and warmed her soul.
Xena's group joined the two men with the wagon and accompanied them back to the castle without incident. King Philomaros and Prince Hamlon were ecstatic over Prince Ricondo's return, hugging and pummeling the boy's back in turn.
A luncheon feast was put out for the travelers and they thoroughly enjoyed it. Gabrielle's eyes lit up when she saw a platter full of pastries and realized two of them were raspberry pastries, her favorite. She quickly seized them and set them on her plate. No sooner had she let go of them than Xena reached over and grabbed one.
The Warrior Princess stuck it in her mouth and took a huge bite. "Ummmmm. Raspberry!" She finished the pastry, accentuating each bite with another "ummmmm."
Gabrielle watched this performance, mystified. "What are you doing?" she queried. "You know that's my favorite."
Xena ostentatiously licked her lips. "Seems to me I recall a certain bard betting her next pastry that I wasn't ready to start a trip. I'm just collecting my winnings."
Gabrielle, remembering, had to grin. "I think Leese deserved the pastry. She's the one who saved the bet for you."
Xena looked toward the young Amazon who was sitting on Gabrielle's other side, listening delightedly to this banter. The warrior pointed to her. "OK, Leese, you get the other one!"
Before Gabrielle could move, Leese grabbed the other pastry and went through the same act as Xena had, "ummmmm"-ing with each bite, while everybody, even Gabrielle, laughed.
After lunch, King Philomaros offered Xena and her party their choice of any jewel they wanted from the recovered chest. "No, thanks, we came to save Prince Ricondo and want no reward for that," Xena assured him. "We are just thankful that he has been safely returned to his family."
The Warrior Princess walked over to Ricondo and put her hand on his shoulder. She looked into his eyes, then turned toward the king. "You have a young man here to be proud of," she declared. "He fought well against the outlaws who had kidnapped him and even saved Elisa's life. He showed the bravery and skill you have endeavored to teach him and will someday be a credit to his kingdom."
Turning back to the boy, her cobalt-blue eyes smiled into his. The look he gave back to her showed that the Warrior Princess had won another heart.
"Xena, perhaps you would be interested in accompanying the jewels back to my brother's keeping?" the king suggested.
"No, thank you," Xena protested. "But, I would recommend that you keep secret the time that you send them and perhaps break them into smaller shipments. A large chest being sent to, or from, a king draws all the wrong kind of attention. Am I right, Autolycus?"
"Ah... yes, Xena, you are absolutely right. Perhaps the king would like me to accompany the treasure... " Autolycus' eyes had brightened until a long, bronzed arm grabbed his shirt at the neck. "Er... on second thought, I withdraw my offer. Heh-heh." Xena twisted her mouth to keep from grinning, and let go of the shirt. Even King Philomaros smiled. The king reached into the chest and handed a large jewel to Autolycus. "I would feel better, Autolycus, if at least one person here would accept a small token of my gratitude."
Autolycus quirked an eyebrow at Xena, who pushed her lips together, but smiled and nodded. The happy King of Thieves bowed and accepted the jewel.
"We still have half a day left. I think we will get back on the road," Xena said.
Everyone made their goodbyes to the king and the two princes and left.
Xena's group exited through the gate and crossed the moat. The warrior pulled Argo to a stop and everyone else stopped, too. "Autolycus, would you be good enough to accompany Herodotus back to Poteidaia? Gabrielle and I have business elsewhere."
The two men looked at each other and nodded. "Sure, Xena, I'm going that way, anyhow. I'd be glad to."
The Warrior Princess moved Argo next to Autolycus' mount. She reached an arm toward him. "Thank you, Autolycus, for all your help. If you need me for anything... " Seeing his eyes light up, Xena decided she better reword her offer. "That is, if you need my help, just call." Autolycus pretended to be crestfallen.
The two friends smiled at each other and Autolycus, just as Ricondo had done, took Xena's hand and kissed it. "I'll see you around, Xena."
Gabrielle had ridden out of the village in the wagon with her father and they had said their goodbyes to each other. Now she stepped down from the wagon and waited beside it.
Guiding Argo over to the wagon, Xena reached down and hoisted Gabrielle up behind her. "Xena." Herodotus looked a trifle uncomfortable, but wanted to say something to this imposing woman. "I guess we'll never be good friends, that's just not in the cards. But, I've learned that you are not the monster I thought you were and, from now on, you will always be welcome in my home." He reached a tentative arm toward the Warrior Princess.
Xena reached down and clasped his arm. "Take good care of my daughter," he said gruffly, and, embarrassed, glanced away. He missed the look of pain that flitted across the sculpted face.
"I promise to do my best," Xena vowed.
The men went off and the women watched and waved until they disappeared into the trees.
Xena looked at the two young Amazons. They moved their horses nearer and Elisa addressed their queen. "Before we leave, Gabrielle, would you give us your blessing?"
Elisa and Gwynna dismounted and Gabrielle slid down from Argo as Xena threw her leg over the front of the saddle and jumped down, also.
The two Amazons knelt before their queen for her blessing, then Gabrielle hugged the girls and Xena walked over to them. She reached for Elisa and pulled her close and they embraced. "Goodbye, Leese. You know how glad I've been to have you here." She released the girl and clasped arms with Gwynna. "You, too, Gwynna. You and Gabrielle were quite a team with your staffs."
Elisa pushed her lips together, not trusting herself to talk. Leaving Xena always profoundly affected her. Knowing this, her friend spoke for them both.
"We sure are glad that you are well again, Xena," Gwynna said. "And we're going to miss you and Gabrielle. When do you think you might come back to see us?"
"We're going to Amphipolis; then, who knows, maybe we'll swing back your way again."
Xena climbed back on Argo and lifted the bard up behind her. Elisa managed to grin as she and Gwynna mounted their animals. "Lifted Gabrielle a little easier this time, huh?"
"Yep." The Warrior Princess smiled back. "But my shadow was there when I needed her." A special look of friendship and trust passed between the two. With a little nod, Elisa turned Viktor toward the trail home.
Xena and Gabrielle waved as the Amazons rode away.
Xena guided Argo toward Amphipolis and they moved at a steady pace, occasionally recounting the events of the past several days, but often just riding in silence, rejoicing in the quiet solitude.
Evening came and Xena searched out a cozy clearing by a small stream. They camped there, eating a fish caught by the warrior and cooked by the bard. They washed it down with tea brewed from Gabrielle's hoard of herbs, and found the familiarity of the routine soothing.
Finally, they settled down for the night in their bedrolls.
Xena had just begun to drift off when Gabrielle's voice broke the stillness. "It's cold tonight."
A few moments later, the bard's voice came again. "I'm freezing."
"Well, put another log on the fire," Xena mumbled, trying hard not to wake completely up.
"I don't think that's going to help. It's really, really cold."
The Warrior Princess gave up. "Are you hinting that you want to sleep with me?"
"No, I'm more like... begging." Gabrielle put on her best wheedling tone.
Xena grinned into her blanket. "OK, get over here, but no kicking!"
"I usually walk all day. I guess my legs still think they are walking." Gabrielle started to make excuses ahead of time.
But Xena wasn't going to let her get away with it. "You kick me one time..."
"OK, OK, noooo kicking." Gabrielle would have promised anything at this point. She really was freezing. She scrambled over to Xena's bedroll. The Warrior Princess opened her blanket and let the bard snuggle down against her side and lay her head on the warrior's shoulder. Ummmm. That flower garden does smell pretty good. She pulled the blanket over them both as Gabrielle laid an arm across her waist.
"Migosh, you're warm as Tartarus. Don't you ever get cold?"
Xena gazed down at the golden head tucked into her shoulder. Don't you ever get cold? Those carelessly spoken words climbed all over her heart.
Yeah, I get cold, my bard. The times you almost died, I was so cold and desolate, I despaired of ever feeling warm again. If we are in a battle and you are in trouble, for a split second my blood turns to ice, wondering if I can reach you in time. Whenever something hurts you or even threatens you, I get cold. That vision, that you so easily scoff at, freezes my whole being.
But knowing that we're here, together, and safe for the moment, keeps me warm.
Unconsciously, her arm tightened around Gabrielle and a soft smile turned up the edges of her lips.
Gabrielle tilted her head back and smiled up into her friend's magnificent eyes. Her breath caught, as it always did when she saw that tender look, reserved just for her. She returned the look with her own eyes, her smile broadened, and she dropped her head back into its resting place against Xena's shoulder. I love you, Xena, her heart whispered.
Xena brought her long fingers up along Gabrielle's cheek and kissed the top of her golden hair. "Goodnight, Gabrielle," she murmured. I love you.
|Chapter 1 - 6||Chapters 7 - 12|
I watched you struggle to regain
The strength that you had lost,
While you denied your battle wounds
Had made you pay that cost.
You focused on your promised word,
Ignored that you were weak;
You'd not admit you risked your life,
When cure you would not seek.
Your weakness so alarmed your friends,
They stepped into the breach;
Your courage set their own afire,
And stretched their normal reach.
When Huntress heard my desperate plea--
And saw how much I cared,
She feared despair would fill my soul
Unless your life was spared.
So Artemis worked on a cure
Though bluntly she confessed,
She would not help you for your past;
I was the one she blessed.
And now she's made you well again,
In answer to my prayer--
She saw your heart's a part of mine,
Two joined as one, for e'er.
Comments are welcome: PruferBlue@aol.com
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