by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
"Spring is in the air," Gabrielle continued, for Gabrielle was always in the midst of speaking. "Can't you feel it Xena? Something is going to happen - something exciting!"
Argo, Xena's beloved horse and sole companion before she met Gabrielle, turned her head away. //Here she goes again,// she thought. Just when she got a moment of silence it always seemed as if that woman had to chime in with some sort of comment. Now it was the weather. Tomorrow it would be something else. Of course something exciting would happen! Something exciting always happened with Xena! Why did this woman always insist on commenting? She puffed a sort protest through her lips - her version of giving humans the raspberries.
"I don't think Argo cares much for Spring," Gabrielle commented.
"She's been unusually testy lately," Xena observed. "Ever since that storm the other night - she's jittery."
There was a worried look on Xena's face, Gabrielle noted. Argo wasn't the only one feeling apprehensive. But what could possibly go wrong on such a pleasant day? Suddenly, Xena stopped. Argo stopped. Gabrielle sauntered on without a care. She began to comment on some aspect of the weather when a hand reached out and grabbed her back.
"Gabrielle," Xena said intently, "wait here." Firmly she placed her friend behind a bush, and with the same sweeping motion drew her broad sword.
Xena crept forward slowly, cocking her head to the side as she moved.
Gabrielle listened closely. She could barely hear it, but it was there. It was unmistakable - the sound of swords clinking together. She had heard it many times in her travels with Xena. The fight was a good way off in the distance, but Xena wasn't taking any chances. If there was trouble she would end it.
Gabrielle watched as Xena disappeared off into the underbrush. She couldn't really have meant what she said - "wait here." After all - Gabrielle was an Amazon princess now. Although she wasn't much good with a sword she certainly knew her way around a staff. And besides where there were two men with swords there were bound to be more men with swords. The fighting they overheard was probably part of a much larger battle. Xena could handle herself against an army, Gabrielle was sure, but hey... it never hurt to have friends. Quickly she withdrew from the bushes and followed what she thought was Xena's path through the woods. She turned to Argo.
"She might need me, you know."
Argo gave her the raspberries.
Xena reached the clearing and peered through the bushes at the sight. Two of the most extraordinary men she had ever seen were engaged in battle. The two men were evenly matched. They were both barbarians, each from different lands, and wore leather and fur -- but no armor. Both used outlandish blades, were of the same height and build, and looked to be about the same age. On further inspection, they weren't of the same age -- they just happened to be healthy and in their prime. One looked to be a young boy of 18 years -- at least -- and the other could have been in his 30s.
Both men's faces were masked in hatred, but they didn't scream, yell, or carry on the way most barbarians did. They were both silent -- almost reverently silent -- as they fought.
Instead of blindly hacking and clashing blades, it seemed to be almost a dance. The motions were smooth, and though blindingly fast, there seemed to be foreknowledge on the part of both men. Each move was countered while the first was still in motion.
What's more, the hits that did land were not trivial. Any normal warrior would have certainly been screaming in pain by now. Both men received knees and kicks to the groin, slashes to the face and jaws, a pommel slam to the eye, and numerous slashes and slams to the ribs. On several occasions, Xena could even hear ribs snap.
Nevertheless, they both accepted every blow without wincing. They each took their pain silently and with stoicism, and continued the fight. //That's either very admirable,// Xena thought, //or very foolhardy.// She crawled a little closer to the action. This was something she had to see.
Careful not to make a sound, Xena fell back behind a bush. She peered out between the branches. She was now not more than 70 yards from the action.
She could see the men's faces. Could it be so? It seemed as if the younger man did not even break a sweat! They were scarcely out of breath. But then, how was she to know that the fight had virtually just begun.
The pace of the fight began to quicken, like a steadily rising pulse. The blows became harder and harder, as each man knew it would be a fight to the death. And yet there was not a trace of desperation in their eyes. They remained cool and calm, unlike any warriors Xena had ever seen. //Someone always loses their cool.// Xena observed. That was how battles were lost and won. But not this time; not this battle.
Xena was riveted as she watched the seemingly endless fight. Would either of the men grow tired? Xena doubted it. They each had a reserve of strength unlike anything she had ever seen. //Something isn't right...// Xena thought. These men did not fight like mere mortals. This was a battle of the gods. It had to be!
In her life, Xena had seen many experienced warriors who could do more than hack and slash, but never had she seen anything like this, from ones so young. This couldn't be happening. And yet it was.
Xena found herself captivated by the fight. These barbarians somehow took battle to a form of art. Xena held her breath, fearful that the slightest sound might disturb the scene.
On closer inspection, Xena noted that one of the men was obviously an Egyptian. She knew this from his face as well as his manner of wearing Greek clothes. The other had fair skin and brown hair, but was not of any village or city-state she could place. Maybe he could of been Thracian, but while he shared the same looks, he didn't have the arrogant sneer.
The fur-clad barbarian was on the offensive now, pushing the Egyptian further and further back, until he came in for the kill, but the Egyptian recovered and thrust his blade through the barbarian's leg.
Xena winced as she saw the blade go through the other side. She rubbed an old wound, remembering a time when she nearly lost her life in battle.
//That's it. Its all over now.//
But it wasn't. The barbarian was certainly maimed. How did he ever stand a chance? //He shouldn't be able to stand, much less fight back!//
The barbarian's leg trapped the Egyptian's sword just long enough for him to make a move. As the dark one struggled to retrieve his blade the barbarian raised his sword. He shouted something in a strange language, and the Epytian closed his eyes.
Xena did not even see the sword, the movement was so swift. The only evidence that the blow had been struck was the Epytian's head falling to the grass. The barbarian did not gloat over the victory though. He merely paused for a few moments, panting in exhaustion, then pulled the blade from his own leg, hissing a little as he did so. He pulled out the sword blade with one hand, and held the other against the flesh around the wound. That was a trick that the veteran soldiers knew -- which said that this young one had survived harsh wounds before, and yet she could see none of the wear that most wounded soldiers had. What startled her even more was the fact that he did nothing to cover the wound.
"What's he doing?" Xena whispered to herself in shock. Some idiots pulled offending weapons out of themselves, only to die later from blood loss, as their life blood shot out of the wounds. But no blood shot out of this wound -- it just seeped, and then slowed down.
A few moments after that, the lighting struck.
Xena could not believe her eyes. The lightning wrapped around his body, enveloped him, yet it did not so much as harm the man. He looked like someone caught in an unexpected shower of rain. His outstretched arms soaked it in as it flowed across his body.
"Gods!" Xena whispered, although there was no one within hearing range.
Suddenly there was a crunch in the bushes behind her. Xena spun around - her sword outstretched, ready to slice the throat from her intruder.
"Ah!" Gabrielle yipped. Xena lowered her sword.
"Don't ever do that again."
"Sorry," the younger woman acquiesced. "What are you looking at?" She stretched her long neck over Xena's shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever had Xena so engrossed. It wasn't like the Warrior Princess to not hear her approach.
Xena spun back around so quickly that the air about her whooshed. The man was gone.
"Nothing," she said cautiously, not wanting to alarm Gabrielle.
"Oh," Gabrielle continued dismissively. "Well, good, because I'm really starting to get hungry."
She rubbed her stomach as Argo pushed her way through the bushes. The horse made a noise which Gabrielle could have sworn was a crack about her eating habits, but she decided that perhaps she was just being paranoid. After all, Argo was becoming her friend.
"I'm glad you decided to tag along," Xena addressed her horse. Then she leaned in closer and whispered, "Gabrielle might have gotten herself lost without you."
The horse nodded.
It was a meager meal, little more than cheese and bread, but to Gabrielle it was a feast. Travelling with Xena always made her famished. "So," she managed to speak in between bites, "are you going to eat that last chunk of bread?"
Xena shook her head.
"Mind if I finish it?" Xena absently tossed the bread to her friend.
"Thanks," Gabrielle's lips widened. "I'm starving." Her friend did not respond. The young girl turned towards her mentor.
Xena looked pensive. Something was troubling her. Gabrielle knew it had something to do with what she saw in the woods. Why wouldn't she just say what was on her mind? Well, if Xena wouldn't volunteer the information then Gabrielle would just have to talk it out of her.
"Once, when I was a little girl, back in our village..."
Xena sighed. This was going to be a long one... Still, the longer it took for Gabrielle to tell her story the longer she could put off telling her young friend just what was bothering her. As Gabrielle spoke Xena thought of ways to word it. But she could scarcely explain it herself. Had she really witnessed a war between two gods? Or was it sorcery? Either way it was not a pretty picture.
Stated simply, there was a man out there who posed a threat. He had the power of a god - or at least the very strong support of one. And Xena had no idea what his intentions might be. Was he good or evil? Was he a warlord or a savior? And why did she have this nagging feeling that he might be more than she could handle?
"And that's when I said, 'Tomalis!' - he always insisted that I call him
Xena put up her hand in an effort to tell Gabrielle to stop. "Gabrielle, haven't I heard this story before? Isn't this the one that ends with Tomalis' father telling him his dog died?"
"Uh," Gabrielle stalled, "yes. Why?"
"I hate that story," she stated simply. And with that she rose to her feet, and grabbed Argo's reins. "Come on. There's something I have to tell you... And I'm not sure how to begin."
"I've always found," Gabrielle offered, "that its best to start at the beginning... The very beginning."
Xena sighed again. This would definitely be a long trip.
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