Mountain Quest by Eva Allen--Part 4
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It was barely light when they left Elkton's yard the next morning, leading Argo, who carried a substantial load of bedding and other gear. The air was chilly and the sun would not clear the mountains for a couple of hours yet. The parchment map Elkton had drawn was tucked safely in the top of Xena's leathers. She did not expect to need it until they had passed the treeline, though, since the lower part of the track appeared to be fairly well marked.

They trudged on for some time in silence, as the trail gradually steepened. The warrior kept a sharp lookout for possible attackers and, aware of their time limitations, set as fast a pace as she dared. But eventually, she became aware that Gabrielle was breathing heavily and starting to lag behind.

"Is it all uphill like this?" panted the bard, stopping in the middle of the track.

"I'm afraid so," Xena said, smiling. "That's kind of what you have to expect when you climb a mountain. Shall we take a little breather?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle quickly sat down on a tree root beside the path. "I don't understand why we have to do this, anyway," she said, poking at some loose rocks with her staff.

"We have to do it," Xena said patiently, "because we need the kaya plant to help you get your memories back, and it only grows on the top of this mountain."

"Wouldn't it be a lot easier if you just went back to Ares?"

"That's not an option, Gabrielle. We've discussed this already." Xena turned to rub Argo's nose for a moment, then moved along the horse's side, checking to see that the load was secure. When she finished, she said, "Come on, let's start walking again. We'll go slower and maybe you won't get so tired." She led Argo forward and looked back to see Gabrielle getting reluctantly to her feet.

"Maybe I don't want my memories back," the bard said, when she had caught up with the long-legged warrior. "I happen to think I'm doing just fine without them."

"Well, I disagree."

"The thing is, Xena, you don't even like me anymore since Ares gave me a new personality. How do I know you're not just taking me up the mountain so you can poison me with that stupid plant?"

Xena stopped abruptly and grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders, forcing her to turn and face her. "Gabrielle," she said, "if I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead already. I certainly wouldn't go to all the trouble to climb a mountain before doing it!"

Gabrielle stared at her for a moment and then looked down. "Oh," she said.

Xena sighed and released her hold. "I could never kill you, Gabrielle," she said. "I love you too much for that." But she had no sooner spoken than the memory of the promise she had made in her dream two nights ago flashed in her mind, and a shiver ran through her. Turning away quickly, she tugged on Argo's reins and started walking again. "We need to keep going," she muttered. "We've got a lot of ground to cover today."

They walked for a few minutes in silence and then Gabrielle said hesitantly, "Xena, will you tell me the story about the Amazons?"

"Not right now, Gabrielle. I need to stay alert and be ready for an attack."

"Who's going to attack us?"

"Well, Elkton said that Hera would probably send out some warriors against us."

"Hera? The one who bound Prometheus? Why would her warriors fight us?"

"Because she's Ares' mother and it's her plant that we're after."

"She's Ares' mother?"

"Yes. She's the Queen of the gods."

"Well, wouldn't it be better not to make her angry?"

Xena laughed. "That's easier said than done, when it comes to Hera. Anyway, I'm not afraid of her, and this will be kind of like fighting those green egg men. You said you wished you had been there to do that, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," said Gabrielle, brightening. "I hadn't thought about that. When do you think--"

"Any time now," Xena said, putting out a hand to silence her companion. Her ears had caught a rustling sound among the trees along the mountain track, and she was sure that it meant danger. "Keep your staff ready," she said in a low voice, "and remember what you've learned about using it." Glancing sideways, she saw Gabrielle swallow hard and take a better grip on her staff. A look of determination and something that could only be described as bloodlust came into the bard's green eyes, and all at once Xena felt afraid. She rarely felt that way before a fight, but there was so much riding on this one, and on this whole expedition. Then, in an instant, the fear gave way to anger--anger at Ares, and at the thought that she might not be able to save Gabrielle, in spite of everything.

The heightened emotion seemed to sharpen her instincts. Every sense was alert and, turning suddenly in mid-stride, Xena reached out and caught a dagger as it came hurtling through the air from behind them. Then, in one smooth, automatic movement, she hurled it back at the warrior who had appeared from among the trees. It struck him in the chest and he staggered backwards, then fell, a look of surprise still on his dead face.

Too late, Xena realized what she had done. Gabrielle was staring at her, eyes full of wonder and admiration, and Xena looked away quickly. More warriors appeared and began advancing with swords drawn. Xena slapped Argo on the rump to send her out of harm's way. "You take those two in front of us," she said to Gabrielle. "I'll worry about the others. Stay as close to me as you can, and if you need help, yell."

"Okay," said Gabrielle and moved forward eagerly to meet her opponents.

Drawing her sword, Xena faced off against the other four. They proved to be tough fighters, but she had fought tougher. A few well-aimed kicks and punches soon knocked them all down. Glancing over to see how Gabrielle's fight was going, Xena barely had time to note that the bard seemed to be doing all right before her own four warriors scrambled to their feet and rushed her en masse. Uttering a war cry, she flipped up and over their heads. Two of the men crashed into each other with drawn swords and fell. One never got up again, but the other rose and staggered, bleeding, into the forest. The remaining two repeated their charge. A kick to the jaw of one of them sent him spinning backwards until his head struck a tree trunk, and he slumped, senseless, to the ground. The last warrior was quickly dispatched with a sword slash to the arm, followed by a kick to the groin. As he hobbled off among the trees, Xena turned to check on Gabrielle again.

One of the young woman's opponents had apparently left the scene, but the other lay cowering and whimpering on the ground, trying to protect himself from the deadly blows of the staff wielded by a grinning Gabrielle. Xena's blood ran cold at the sight.

"No! Don't!" she screamed, as she launched herself into a flip which landed her beside the bard. Grabbing the staff, she wrested it out of her companion's grip, then looked down at the warrior. "Get out of here!" she snarled, and the man scrambled to his feet and scurried away.

"What are you doing? Give me back my staff!" Gabrielle cried, reaching for the weapon.

Xena jerked it away again and fixed her friend in a smoldering gaze. "You were trying to kill that man, weren't you?" she said.

"Well, what's wrong with that? You killed one yourself!" Gabrielle responded hotly, and then catching sight of the other dead man, added, "In fact, it looks like you killed two of them!"

"That man died because he ran into his buddy's sword. I didn't kill him."

"You killed that first one, though. I saw you do it."

Xena's shoulders sagged slightly. "Yes, I killed him," she admitted, "but I shouldn't have done it. I acted without thinking."

"So if it's okay for you to kill, why isn't it okay for me?"

"It's not okay for me to kill. I try not to do it anymore--I told you that. The only thing that makes it different is that I've already got a lot of blood on my hands, and you haven't. I don't want you ending up in Tartarus because Ares changed your personality."

"I don't care where I end up! I want to be a warrior! I had a chance to kill that man and I could have done it, too, but you spoiled it for me!"

Xena sighed deeply and then turned away, feeling more keenly than ever the urgency of their quest. Glancing around, she spotted Argo and whistled for the mare to come. Gabrielle kicked viciously at a rock and sent it bouncing off the track, then she kicked a second one. Xena watched in silence for a few moments, then held out the staff. "Here," she said.

Glowering, Gabrielle snatched the weapon, turned, and began trudging up the trail. Xena sighed again, then gathered up Argo's reins and followed.

* * * * *

They encountered no more warriors, and two hours of steady hiking brought them to a place where the trees began to thin dramatically. There were large patches of snow on the ground, and sizable boulders lay scattered about, as if they had been carelessly dropped by the hand of some titan.

"Let's find a campsite and stash our gear," Xena said. "We'll have to go the rest of the way

without Argo."

Gabrielle remained silent, just as she had most of the time since their encounter with Hera's warriors. Xena glanced at her and then made her way to an area ringed with boulders and sheltered by a few stunted trees.

"This looks like as good a place as any," she said. "We can leave most of our things out of sight here behind these rocks and we won't have to carry much on up to the top."

"There's no water here," Gabrielle said.

"No, but we can melt snow. There's plenty of that around." Xena began working to untie the knots that held Argo's load of bedding and food. As long as they had kept walking, the two women had felt warm enough, but now the coolness of the air at this higher elevation was becoming apparent. Xena pulled their cloaks out from under the ropes and handed one to Gabrielle. "Here. Put this on, then come help me unload this stuff," she said.

The younger woman hesitated, then leaned her staff against a tree while she wrapped the heavy wool garment around her shoulders. "Xena," she said, moving closer to the warrior, "I don't want to go on up the mountain. I can just stay here at the campsite until you get back."

Xena, who was fastening her own cloak, looked up in surprise. "What are you talking about?" she said. "Why don't you want to go up there?"

"Because I'm tired and I don't really give a damn about that plant you're going up there to get," Gabrielle said flatly. "I don't want my memories back or my personality changed. I'm a perfectly good person already. Why can't you just love me the way I am instead of trying to change me?" She paused, waiting for a response from Xena, but when none came, she went on. "I want to be a warrior, like you. I want to serve Ares, and I think you should do the same."

Xena met the defiant gaze of her lover for several moments, then said quietly, "I see." She turned to Argo, pulled a stack of furs off the mare's back, and handed them to Gabrielle. "Put these behind that big rock over there, will you?" she said, nodding toward the spot.

Gabrielle cast a puzzled glance at the warrior, then took the furs and moved away.

Turning back to Argo, Xena began untying the cooking pot and food packs, making every effort to appear calm, even though her mind was racing. Gabrielle's refusal to continue the journey was a difficulty she hadn't anticipated, but one which clearly needed to be overcome. It was crucial that she get her lover to the kaya plant, even if she had to knock her unconscious and carry her up there. But that was an extreme solution. Surely, there was an easier way.

Opening one of the food packs, she took out some bread and dried fruit. "I think it's time we ate something," she said when Gabrielle returned. "We've had a hard morning."

"Yeah, I guess we have," the bard said guardedly.

They sat on a low, flat rock, divided up the food, and began to eat.

"You fought well today," Xena said, forcing a smile. "I can see why you would want to be a warrior."

Gabrielle beamed at the unexpected praise. "Do you really think that?" she asked.

"Yes, I do." Xena drank from the waterskin and then handed it to her companion. "What happened to that other guy you were fighting? I thought there were two."

"Oh, him? He got scared after I knocked him down a couple of times and he ran away. Guess that means I really am good, huh?"

"Yes, you're very good," Xena said softly. But she wasn't talking about fighting techniques.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Xena turned to the younger woman. "Gabrielle," she said, "I haven't really told you what's going to happen up on the mountain. Getting the kaya plant is going to be difficult . . . and possibly quite dangerous. I didn't tell you this before because I guess I didn't want to scare you."

"Will there be more warriors to fight?"

"I don't know. It's possible. But the hardest part will be fighting the serpent that guards the plant."

"Serpent? What kind of serpent?

Xena regarded her friend for a moment. "I don't know exactly what kind of serpent it is," she said slowly, "but I do know that its bite can be deadly. Elkton told me I need to kill it without shedding its blood, and I imagine that will be difficult to do because I'll have to try to strangle it." She stopped and saw that Gabrielle was listening with wide-eyed interest. "I've never fought anything like this before," she went on, "and frankly, I'm not sure how to do it. I guess I had been hoping that you would be there to help me out, if I need you to."

"You might need help? From me?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.

"Yes-- Well, it's possible, anyway. I don't want you to get hurt, but I'd feel better if you were there. . . just in case."

"Uh, okay. Sure. I can be there for you, Xena. I'd love to help you fight! You should have told me before that you needed me."

"Then you'll go on up the mountain with me?"

"Yes, of course! When do we start?"

Xena smiled. "Very soon." She took another swig from the waterskin and got up. Going to Argo, she unbuckled the mare's saddle and lifted it off, then took off the bridle, too, and stashed both behind a large boulder.

"Are you going to just let Argo loose?" asked Gabrielle.

"Yeah. That will give her a chance to find some grass. There's not much up here."

"But what if she wanders off?"

"She'll come back again. Won't you, girl?" Xena asked, as she pulled the horse's head down to scratch gently behind the ears for a minute. Argo snorted softly and nuzzled the warrior's neck in response. Laughing, Xena gave the mare a quick hug and let her go.

"There's one more thing I need to do," she said to Gabrielle, taking out her chakram and moving downhill a ways to where the trees grew more thickly. Spotting a slender, forked sapling, she hurled the disk and felled the tree, then used her sword to trim off the leaves and branches. When she finished, she had a rough staff with a fork at one end.

"What's that for?" Gabrielle asked, when Xena returned to the campsite.

"It's just something I thought might come in handy. Are you ready?"


Xena took a moment to double-check her gear--sword, chakram, breast dagger, a coil of rope, her whip, and the forked staff. Gabrielle, meanwhile, carried her own staff and the waterskin.

"I guess we've got everything we need," she said, then pulled out Elkton's map and studied it for a moment before tucking it away again. "Let's go." She led the way back to the trail and started the upward climb. The wind hit them in sharp gusts as they left the shelter of the trees, and the path rapidly became more difficult. Now, instead of merely walking uphill, they were forced to climb up over snow-covered boulders and across talus slopes, often with a solid rock wall on one side and a drop-off on the other.

Part of Xena's mind was occupied with finding their way and staying alert for possible attacks, but another part was busy thinking about other matters. She had solved the most immediate problem of Gabrielle's not wanting to climb to the top, and ironically, she had solved it in the best style of the bard herself--by talking. But she knew the temporary solution might lead to more problems later on. What she had said about not knowing how to fight the serpent was perfectly true, and it was also true that she would welcome help--but the last thing she wanted was to have a battle-crazed Gabrielle get in her way, or worse still, get bitten by the serpent. Xena would have to find some way to keep her friend far enough away to be safe, yet close enough to eat the kaya leaves as soon as the serpent was dead. If she had to, she could tie her up, she supposed, but she hoped it wouldn't come to that.

"Hey! Can we rest for a minute?" Gabrielle called from several paces back.

Xena stopped and looked behind her, noting that she was breathing a little hard herself. "Yeah. Good idea," she said, sitting down on a nearby rock. Her companion soon caught up and plopped down beside her. Then both of them drank deeply from the waterskin.

"This is hard work," panted Gabrielle. "I can't believe I agreed to climb all the way to the top with you."

"I can't believe you did either, but I really appreciate it."

Gabrielle smiled and wrapped her arms around herself under the cloak. "It gets kind of cold when you're sitting still, doesn't it?"

"Uh-huh. We probably shouldn't sit here very long." Xena took out the map again.

"Are we almost there?" Gabrielle asked, peering at the parchment.

"I think we're getting close," Xena said. "At least, I hope so." She glanced up the trail and then at the sun, which was just starting its journey down the western sky. "Think you can go on now?" she asked.

"I guess so." Gabrielle stood up reluctantly and started to climb again. Xena quickly tucked the map away and followed her.

* * * * *

In about half an hour's time, their trail emerged into a wide snowfield that sloped gradually upwards for a hundred paces or so towards a rock wall.

"What now?" asked Gabrielle, as they stopped to catch their breath and survey their surroundings.

"Now we look for a rock formation shaped like an eagle's head," said Xena. She pulled out the map and unfolded it. "Like this, see? Elkton drew a little picture of it."

Gabrielle glanced at the sketch and then at the rock wall. "It's over there," she said, pointing.

Xena narrowed her gaze, staring at the spot Gabrielle had indicated. "Yeah, I think you're right," she said. "Good eye! Now, just past the eagle's head, we should find an opening in the rocks. There's a little alcove there where the plant grows."

"Okay, let's go." They set off with Gabrielle in the lead and Xena close behind, their footsteps crunching loudly as their boots broke through the hard-crusted snow. The bard's new-found enthusiasm for their project worried Xena somewhat, but she decided to wait and see what happened once they reached their destination. If Gabrielle seemed likely to cause problems, Xena thought with a grim smile, there was still the option of tying her up.

A few minutes later they rounded the base of the eagle's-head outcrop and stopped when they came to an opening in the rock wall. In a sheltered space maybe three paces wide and four deep, a sturdy shrub grew. It was nearly as tall as Xena, and the sun, still high enough to cast its light within the stone alcove, revealed leaves of dark, shiny green. Around the base of the plant was a carpet of short grass, its presence every bit as amazing as that of the kaya shrub in this region where no other plants could survive.

"I don't see any serpent," said Gabrielle impatiently, as she pushed past Xena and walked toward the plant.

Xena grabbed her arm and yanked her back. "Don't go in there!" she exclaimed. "I told you I don't want you to get hurt!" She dropped the forked staff, wrapped one arm tightly around her friend's shoulders and pointed with her other hand. "Now, look closely," she said in a low voice. "Kind of halfway up, a little toward the right. Do you see it? That's its head. The eyes are yellow and the rest of the serpent is green. See how it's coiled among the branches?"

"Oh, yeah, there it is," Gabrielle breathed. "It kind of blends in and I didn't see it before."

"That's why you have to be careful. You could have been bitten." Xena released her hold on Gabrielle and turned the bard's face up so she could look into the green eyes. "Now, I want you to stay back here, where it's safe, but close enough so that you can help me if necessary," she said. "Can you do that?"

Gabrielle nodded, but Xena still felt uneasy.

"Promise me, Gabrielle," she said. "Promise me that you won't get involved in this fight unless I ask you to."

"But I thought I was going to get to help you fight the serpent! That's what I came up here for!"

"You can help if I need you to, but only then. Is that understood?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle said reluctantly.

"Good." Xena picked up her staff and leaned it against the wall, then took off her cloak and laid it in a sunny spot nearby, where the snow had melted.

"What are you taking that off for?" asked Gabrielle.

"I don't want it to get in my way," the warrior said, then removed her whip and the coil of rope she had been carrying hooked at her waist, and handed them to Gabrielle. "If you could hold these for me until I need them, that would be a big help," she added.

Then she turned to face her opponent. The serpent was moving now, the head gliding down out of the kaya shrub and the coils of the body following, sliding as swiftly and smoothly over the branches as water slides over stones. Xena watched, strangely fascinated, noting the vivid yellow-green of the creature's body, and the way its scales glistened as the sunlight struck them. The cold yellow eyes with their vertical black pupils regarded the warrior intruder steadily, with a look Xena could only describe as malicious. But the forked black tongue which flicked constantly in her direction was the only indication that the snake felt any alarm. It took a surprising amount of time for the full length of the serpent to slide down out of the branches and onto the ground below.

"Wow," whispered Gabrielle from a spot near Xena's left elbow, "it's a big one, isn't it?"

"Yeah, nearly three paces long, I think." Xena never took her eyes off the reptile, nor did its hard, unblinking gaze break from her own. The serpent's body was as big around as her upper arm, and its scaly head nearly as large as the palm of her hand. "Give me that staff with the fork in it," Xena said, and reached out to take it from Gabrielle. She glanced quickly at the size of the fork and then at the serpent. Yes, the staff would do, she decided--assuming she could lure the creature into a position where she could use the weapon to trap it.

The two opponents watched each other warily, while the serpent arranged its body into a loose coil from which Xena knew it could strike without warning. Holding its head up, and moving it slightly from side to side, the snake kept its eyes fixed on the warrior, the tongue darting in and out without ceasing. For a time, Xena stood immobile, silently sizing up this unusual antagonist. Then, in a quick movement, she thrust her staff at it. The serpent hissed loudly and slithered sideways a short distance. Xena made a second thrust, then a third, meanwhile edging cautiously forward into the alcove.

Suddenly, the serpent struck, lunging not at the staff, but directly at Xena. She leaped back instantly, but the deadly fangs still came close enough to graze her shinguard. Jabbing down with her staff, she attempted to pin the creature to the ground, but it recoiled so quickly that she captured only grass.

Xena glanced sideways at her companion. "Stand farther back, Gabrielle," she said. "This thing has a longer striking distance than I thought."

"How are you going to get ahold of it to strangle it?"

"I don't know yet, but don't worry. I'll think of something." She pondered for a moment, then held out her hand to Gabrielle. "Let me try the whip," she said. Then, shifting the staff to her left hand, she held the whip handle in her right and shook out the leather thong. She would have to be careful because a whip could draw blood, and if that happened, the game was definitely over. Working slowly, she began snaking the weapon back and forth, in and out of the alcove, gradually putting more and more of the braided length into motion. She kept her eyes on the serpent, watching its reaction, which seemed to be one of curiosity. The yellow eyes soon began following the movements of the whip, as the green head lifted higher for a better view. This was exactly what Xena wanted. She was working the whip now through its full length and, on her next cast into the alcove, she gave it a sharp flip in the direction of her opponent and watched the leather wrap itself around the serpent's neck.

In that moment, the snake struck at the warrior again, its mouth open and fangs bared, the speed of the strike once more causing her to jump back. This time, however, the reptile missed its target by a longer margin, and when Xena tried to capture it with the staff, it again eluded her. A quick slithering to one side and then back loosened the coils of the whip, and the serpent slid out of them easily.

Xena sighed in frustration and tapped the whip handle against her leg as she considered the situation. Her opponent had the advantage both of position and of time. Already the shadow of the western wall covered half the alcove, and as it deepened, it would become more difficult for the warrior to see the green snake in the green grass. If necessary, Xena knew they could go back to the campsite, spend the night, and return the next morning to continue the battle. But she would prefer not to do that. She wanted it to be over now, today, and to sleep with her own gentle lover in her arms tonight. Besides, with Gabrielle as unpredictable as she was currently, there was no guarantee that Xena could convince her to climb up here again another day. No, waiting was not a good option. There had to be a way to defeat the serpent now, and she was determined to find it.

Glancing up, she studied the walls of the rock alcove. They rose sheer and high, with no ledges or outcroppings. There was no place to which she could leap up, nothing over which she could even loop a rope. If the walls were closer together, she could jump up to a position above the serpent, bracing one foot on each side, but the walls were too far apart for that trick. She considered doing a flip over the serpent, but the kaya bush hugged the back wall and there would be no room for her to land except in the bush itself, where the branches weren't strong enough to support her weight.

She frowned, pressing her lips together. A full suit of metal armor would come in handy right now, she mused. Even a shield would have been useful, if she had just thought to buy or make one.

"Xena, how much longer is this going to take?"

Lost in thought as she had been, Xena started at the sudden sound of Gabrielle's voice. "It will take as long as it takes," she responded somewhat irritably. "This is not something I can rush. It's too dangerous."

"Well, I'm getting cold. Maybe I should just go back down to our camp and wait for you there."

"No!" Xena exclaimed. She stepped back from the alcove's opening, to a place where she knew she was out of the serpent's striking distance, then turned to face her friend. "I need you to stay here. You've been a big help already, and I want you to stay."

"You said I could help you fight, but all I've done is hand you stuff. What fun is that?"

"You really are helping me fight, Gabrielle. I know it's not a very active kind of fighting, but this isn't a normal kind of battle. And I never promised that you'd have fun," she added with a crooked grin.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and sighed.

"I just need to work on my timing," Xena said. "If I can get the serpent to keep striking, one of these times I'm going to be able to pin it with the staff."

"But every time it strikes, you risk being bitten."

"I know, but that's a risk I'll just have to take." Handing the whip to Gabrielle, Xena moved back into the alcove and began a series of thrusts with the staff which she hoped would provoke her opponent into striking. But although the reptile hissed and dodged from side to side, it did not strike. Xena moved forward as far as she dared and then back again in an effort to tempt the serpent, but in vain. "So, you're getting smart now, are you?" she muttered. "You're going to wait until I get so close that you can't possibly miss before you strike. Well, I'm not going to give you that satisfaction." Then, backing out of the alcove, she stood and wiped off the sweat which, even in this cool air, had formed on her brow.

"It's not as easy as you thought, is it?" Gabrielle said, in a taunting tone of voice that grated roughly on Xena's nerves. "Let's face it," the bard continued, "you don't have any idea how to defeat this serpent. Ares and Hera are too smart for you. You'll never get the kaya leaves, and even if you did, you couldn't make me eat them."

Gabrielle moved closer, but Xena did not respond or even look at her. Instead, she stared, unseeing, at the plant whose magic she so desperately needed.

"You might as well give up, Xena," Gabrielle said. "You might as well go back to Ares."

Xena turned then to look at her companion. The face was Gabrielle's and so was the voice, but the words, the taunts--she knew they came from Ares himself.

"I'm going to try again with the whip," Xena said quietly, reaching out to take it from Gabrielle's hand. "I'm going to keep trying until it's too dark in this alcove, and then I'm going to come back and try again tomorrow. I'm not giving up this fight until that serpent is dead . . . or I am."

Gabrielle stared at her without speaking, and Xena met her gaze for a few moments, then turned back to the alcove. She began to work the whip, slowly and methodically, with no particular plan in mind. Then, in a sudden movement, she sent the leather lashing into the alcove, above the serpent's head. The thong struck the kaya bush and wrapped around some of the branches, stripping off several leaves.

The serpent guardian reacted with loud hisses, darting its head excitedly at the whip.

Encouraged, Xena repeated the maneuver, then repeated it again. Her opponent, apparently disturbed by the loss of leaves from its shrub, became increasingly agitated. Its frenzy grew with each new shower of leaves, until finally, it struck at the whip, sinking its fangs into the braided leather. Giving a quick jerk, Xena brought the snake sliding across the grass towards her and jammed the forked staff down over its neck.

"Ha! I've got you now!" she said with a wicked grin. Then, as the serpent began to flail and twist in an effort to escape, she dropped the whip and used both hands to maintain her grip on the staff. The creature was surprisingly strong, but Xena was determined not to let it escape. Hissing, it thrashed her legs violently with its long body, wrapping itself around her ankles and then unwrapping itself again. But the warrior kept her footing, hanging onto the staff with a deathlike grip, knowing it was only a matter of time until her captive tired.

Behind her, she heard Gabrielle move closer. "Stay back," Xena warned. "This isn't over yet."

"Can I help you kill it?"

"No. It's too dangerous. Just stay back."

After some time, the movements of the serpent began to weaken. Slowly, Xena lowered herself to a crouch, working her hands down the staff while maintaining constant pressure. The hard yellow eyes were watching her, waiting, she knew, for her to make the smallest slip . . . waiting for a chance to attack. Well, it wouldn't happen. All she had to do now was get her hands around the serpent's throat and squeeze. She was almost there, her hands now near the bottom of the staff, right above the fork. But in that moment, just as she was letting go of the staff with her left hand in order to grab the serpent, Gabrielle yanked the sword out of the sheath on Xena's back.

"I'm going to kill it!" she exclaimed.

"No!" cried Xena, not daring to take her eyes off her captive. "Get back!"

"Yes! I'm going to hack it into little pieces!"

"No, don't! Don't use the sword!" And turning, she saw Gabrielle raise the blade with both hands and start to swing it downwards. Xena threw her left hand up and grabbed the bard's wrist to stop the swing. But as she did so, her hold on the staff slipped and she felt the serpent break free. Shoving Gabrielle back, she turned just in time to see the serpent strike, its fangs driving deep into her right arm, just above the elbow.

She screamed. She couldn't help herself; the pain was excruciating. It swept over her like a thick fog, blurring her vision and making her fight just to stay conscious. Xena shut her eyes tightly and then forced them open again, but at first she could see nothing. Slowly, though, the serpent's yellow eyes came into focus . . . the yellow eyes that regarded her now with a kind of triumphant ecstasy, while the deadly fangs pumped venom into her arm. Shaking her head sharply to clear it, Xena reached out with her left hand, grabbed the serpent's throat, and squeezed. Pouring every bit of strength she could summon up into that one act, she squeezed with all her might. Then, as she felt its bones begin to break within her grip, the serpent abruptly withdrew its fangs from her flesh. The long green body thrashed and writhed, but Xena hung on grimly. The yellow eyes began to bulge and the deadly mouth opened and closed spasmodically. It took only a couple of minutes for it all to be over, but it seemed like an eternity. Then there was one last spasm and the serpent lay limp and still.

When she was sure her opponent was dead, Xena shuddered slightly and let the scaly body drop. Only then did she become aware that the pain was almost gone from her right arm. She stared at the two fang marks and the greenish fluid that oozed from them. Touching the spot with her left hand, she felt nothing at all. Her arm lay, useless and leaden, across her thigh, like something that was no longer a part of her.

But she didn't have time to think about her arm now. The serpent was dead and the kaya leaves would soon wither. Turning, she saw Gabrielle standing a short distance behind her, the sword still clutched in both hands and pointed now at Xena.

"You think you've won because you killed the serpent," Gabrielle said in a low voice, "but you haven't. You've lost. You've been bitten, and for what? For nothing. You will never get me to eat those leaves!" Then, throwing the sword down, she whirled and ran.

"Gabrielle!" cried Xena, scrambling to her feet. "Wait!" But the younger woman was already out of sight. Following quickly, Xena rounded the eagle's-head outcropping and saw her friend running away across the snowfield in the direction of the trail.

"Come back, Gabrielle!" the warrior shouted. "I'm not going to hurt you!" But when the only response was a quickening of the bard's pace, Xena set out in pursuit.

Under ordinary circumstances, she could have easily outrun Gabrielle, but now, with her arm flopping uselessly at her side, she felt strangely awkward and off balance. The snow made running even more difficult, as each step she took broke through the crust. And doing the flips which might have increased her speed was out of the question under these circumstances.

So on she ran, trying to force as much speed as possible into her long legs. Then, just as she began to gain some ground, one of her feet slipped, and she sprawled face-first in the snow. Quickly pushing herself up with one arm to a kneeling position, she cursed when she saw Gabrielle reach the edge of the snowfield. The bard stopped briefly and glanced back, smiled at the sight of her fallen pursuer, then turned and started down the trail.

Xena reached with her left hand to unhook her chakram, took aim, and hurled it after the fleeing bard. Bouncing off a boulder on the right side of the trail, the disk thudded into the back of Gabrielle's head, ricocheted off a second boulder and returned to the warrior's hand. At the impact, Gabrielle pitched forward and lay still.

"I hope I didn't throw it too hard," murmured Xena as she returned the weapon to its place. Then, struggling to her feet, she hurried to the spot where her lover had fallen.

"Gabrielle," she called gently, as she crouched beside her friend. There was no blood on the back of the young woman's head, Xena noted with relief. She turned the bard over and touched her cheek. "Gabrielle, can you hear me? she asked.

There was a soft groan and Gabrielle opened her eyes, then closed them again.

"Good, you're just stunned," Xena said. She pulled Gabrielle partway up and, bending down, hoisted her over her left shoulder. "Sorry about this," she muttered, as she staggered to her feet. "If I had two good arms, I could carry you in a more comfortable position." Then she set off back across the snowfield toward the alcove.

* * * * *

By the time she reached her destination, Xena was out of breath and sweating again. Kicking the dead serpent unceremoniously out of the way, she lowered Gabrielle to the ground and propped her up so that she was sitting with her back against the rock wall next to the kaya bush. The leaves were already starting to wilt, Xena noted, as she plucked a handful of them and piled them in Gabrielle's lap. She sat down facing her lover, reached out to stroke her cheek and then shook her shoulder gently. "Gabrielle, open your eyes. It's time to wake up now," she said.

Gabrielle opened her eyes reluctantly, and seemed to have some trouble focussing. "Xena?" she mumbled.

"Yeah, it's me."

"What happened?"

"You got hit in the back of the head."

"Hit? With what?"

"I don't know. Maybe it was a rock."

"It hurts."

"I know, Sweetheart. Here, eat some of these herbs. They'll make you feel better." Then, crushing a couple of the kaya leaves in her fingers, she pushed them into Gabrielle's mouth. "Just chew them up and swallow. That's a good girl. Come on, chew."

Gabrielle stared at her and for a moment Xena thought she was going to refuse to eat, but then, slowly, her jaw began to move.

"That's the way!" Xena said. "Now just swallow." She stroked Gabrielle's throat gently until she felt the muscles ripple, then she looked deep into the green eyes, watching for any sign of change. But there was nothing.

"How do you feel?" she asked. "Do you feel any different?"

"No. It still hurts."

"Okay, let's try a little more." Xena crushed a few more leaves and again put them in Gabrielle's mouth. Her voice and actions were calm enough, but an icy fear was creeping into her heart. What if the plant didn't work, after all? Or what if they had wasted too much time and it had already lost its potency? She hadn't even thought to ask Elkton how many leaves Gabrielle needed to eat or how long it would take for them to work.

The bard slowly chewed and swallowed the second mouthful, sat staring for a few moments, and then suddenly gasped. Her eyes flew wide open in fear and she grabbed Xena's arm with both hands. Her breathing speeded up and her body began to tremble violently. "What's happening to me?" she whispered, and the look of terror in her eyes chilled Xena to the bone.

"You'll be all right. Really, you will," Xena said, not knowing if it was true or not.

But Gabrielle didn't seem to have heard her. The green eyes went blank, then her body jerked, stiffened, and at last went totally limp.

Xena stared at her in dismay, her mind flashing back to that horrible time in the Thessalian temple when Gabrielle had almost died. Maybe the bard had been right about the plant. Maybe it was poisonous after all. Maybe, in the end, Xena really had brought her lover all the way to the top of a mountain just to kill her. But no, that couldn't be! She laid her fingers on Gabrielle's throat and was relieved to feel a pulse still beating there, and looking closely, she could see the bard's chest gently falling and rising. Xena leaned forward, wrapped her arm around the younger woman's shoulders, and pulled her onto her lap. Cradling the blonde head on her shoulder, she pressed her mouth against the bard's forehead in a tender kiss.

"Gabrielle, come back to me," she pleaded. "Please come back! I love you! I need you! Come back! Please!" She held her lover tightly, rocking her gently, breathing in the fragrance of the golden hair.

And then, after what seemed like an eternity, there was a soft moan and Gabrielle stirred.

"Gabrielle," Xena said.

The bard's eyes opened, but she did not look up. Instead, she raised one hand and began to softly trace the design of Xena's breastplate with her fingers. It was a touch that pierced the armor and went straight to the warrior's soul. Then, after a few moments, Gabrielle looked at Xena's face and smiled. "I'm back," she said.

Xena's throat tightened and, unable to speak, she bent and kissed Gabrielle's lips. "I'm glad you're back," she whispered at last. "I missed you."

"How did you do it? How did you manage to get me back?" asked Gabrielle. Then, sitting up and looking around, she added, "And where in the world are we, anyway?"

Xena sighed. "Okay, let me see if I understand this. Now you don't remember anything that happened after Ares drugged you, right?"

"Well, nothing after that night when I came into your dream, anyway. After I got shut up in that cage, I couldn't tell what was going on anymore."

"But you got all your other memories back?"

"Yep! I remember everything! Except where we are right now and how we got here."

Xena smiled. "We're on top of a mountain near Elkton's village," she said. "We started out early this morning, climbed till we got all the way up here, then I killed a serpent, made you eat the leaves of that kaya bush there, you got your memories back, and that's pretty much the whole story."

Gabrielle frowned and stared at the kaya bush. "I ate some of those shriveled-up, dead-looking leaves?" she asked.

"Well, they weren't shriveled up at the time."

"And you killed a serpent? That big, ugly green one over there? How did you kill it?"

"That's a long story," said Xena, touching Gabrielle's cheek lightly. "I'll tell you on the way down to our campsite." She glanced up at the shadow on the high rock wall. "It's getting late, and we need to get going."

"Okay," said Gabrielle. She started to get up, but then she stopped, a puzzled look on her face. "Xena, why aren't you using your other arm? Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm fine-- I mean-- It doesn't really hurt, but-- The serpent bit me."

"Bit you? Let me see."

Xena hesitated for a second, then took ahold of her right arm with her left hand and pulled it forward.

"Can't you move it?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.

"No. It's paralyzed. Elkton told me that if I got bitten on an arm or a leg, I would lose the use of that limb."

Gabrielle slid off of Xena's lap and knelt beside her, taking the limp arm gently in her hands. "Where's the-- Oh, I see." She ran her fingers lightly over the wound. "It looks like those fangs went in deep," she said, glancing up at Xena's face. "But it doesn't hurt?"

"Well, it did at first, but not now."

Gabrielle studied the arm for a few moments, touching it here and there. "It doesn't seem to be swelling much," she said finally, "but don't you think we should take your bracers off . . . just in case it swells later?"

"Yeah. That's a good idea."

Gabrielle slipped the forearm bracer off over Xena's hand, then eased the upper arm band carefully down over the fang marks. "Am I hurting you?" she asked.

"No, Gabrielle. I can't feel anything in that arm."

"Nothing at all?"

"Nothing," Xena said softly.

Gabrielle finished removing the arm guard and then looked up, her concern written clearly on her face. "Did Elkton say the effect of the bite would be permanent?"

"Well, he didn't say that, exactly, but I think that's what he meant."

"But Xena, this is your right arm! How will you fight?"

"Oh, I'll manage. It will take a little getting used to, but I've always been able to use a sword and throw my chakram left-handed. In fact," Xena said, grinning, "When I threw my chakram at you a little while ago, I hit right on target. And if I'm not mistaken, you have a pretty big lump on the back of your head by now."

Gabrielle looked at her in surprise and gingerly felt the back of her head. "So that's why my head hurts," she said. "I thought it was just the drug wearing off. You know, like when I ate that nutbread, remember?"

"How could I forget?" Xena said, taking one of Gabrielle's hands in hers. "What's nice, though, is that you remember, too."

"But why did you hit me with your chakram?"

"Because you were running away."

"Running away? Why?"

"You thought I wanted to poison you with the kaya leaves."

Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "Why would I think that?" she asked.

"I'll tell you later. Right now we need to get off this mountain."

"Okay," said the bard as she stood up. "Are we going back to Elkton's house tonight?"

"No, we're just going back down past the treeline to where we left Argo and our gear." Xena got to her feet and brushed the grass and snow off her leathers.

"Xena," Gabrielle said, moving to stand in front of the warrior. "I think your not being able to use that arm is a bigger deal than you're letting on. There must be a way to heal it. Maybe Elkton knows how to reverse the power of the venom. Or if he doesn't, then maybe Nicklio--"

"Gabrielle, listen to me," Xena said quietly, and laid her hand on her friend's shoulder. "I was fully prepared to give up my life, if necessary, to save you. So, if the only thing I have to give up is one arm, then that's a small price to pay." She put her arm around Gabrielle and pulled her close. "I am just so glad to have you back. I hope you know how much I love you."

"I know," whispered Gabrielle against Xena's chest. Then she wrapped her arms around the warrior in a fierce hug.

Xena knew they should get started down the trail, but it felt so good to hold her lover again, even if she could only do it with one arm. She bent and kissed Gabrielle's cheek, and then their lips came together in a gentle kiss which soon deepened. It was hard to break away, but she did at last. "We really have to go," she said softly.

"Yeah, I know." They stepped apart and Gabrielle glanced down for a moment, then at Xena. "How come I'm wearing a cloak and you're not?" she said. "Aren't you cold?"

"Mine's over there," Xena said, nodding to where she had left the folded garment. "I took it off so it wouldn't get in the way while I was fighting the serpent."

"Okay, I'll get it for you."

Xena walked over, meanwhile, to the spot where her sword lay. As she bent to pick it up, her right arm swung forward, reminding her of its uselessness. She straightened up with a small sigh. She would just have to get used to it, that was all. Then, raising the sword, she tried to put it into the scabbard which had been rigged for right-handed use.

"Here, let me help you with that," Gabrielle said after watching for a few moments.

"Okay," Xena said reluctantly.

"We just need to fix this so you can use it with the other hand," the bard said cheerfully. She unhooked the scabbard, repositioned it, and fastened it on again with the opening behind Xena's left shoulder. "Now try it," she said.

It was still a little awkward, but after a couple of tries, Xena got her sword put away.

"See? That works," said Gabrielle. "We can move your chakram hook around to the other side, too. Want me to do that?"

"Not right now. But there is something else you can do for me before we start down the trail."

"What's that?"

"Take some of that rope and tie my arm."

"Tie your arm? What do you mean?"

"Like this," Xena said, using her left hand to hold her right arm across her abdomen. "That way it won't be flopping around all the time. It throws me off balance."

"Oh . . . right. I see." Gabrielle got the rope and began figuring out how to tie Xena's arm. "This is a little strange," she said with an attempt at a smile. "Tying you up, I mean."

"Yeah, it's kind of kinky, isn't it?" It was meant as a joke, but neither of them laughed. Their eyes met and held for a moment, and then Gabrielle quickly turned back to the knot she was tying. When she had finished, she put the cloak around Xena's shoulders and fastened it.

Then, walking over to where the dead serpent lay, she stood staring down at it. Xena, too, took a last look at her opponent, then bent to retrieve her whip.

"Here, I can carry that," Gabrielle said and quickly wound the leather thong around her waist.

Then she picked up her staff and the waterskin. "Okay, have we got everything?" she asked. "What about that forked thing? Is that yours?"

"Just leave it," Xena said, and moved over to stand in front of her lover. "Gabrielle, she said and then waited until the bard looked up at her. "I don't want your pity. I think I can take anything from you except that."

"I know," Gabrielle said, biting her lip. "It's just that I feel so . . . responsible."

"You're not responsible, and I don't want you thinking that you are. I knew what the risks were and I chose to take them. I'm the one who's responsible."

Gabrielle nodded and looked away. "We need to get going," she said. "And you need to tell me the story of how you killed the serpent."

"Okay, I will," Xena said with a smile. Then she led the way out of the alcove and they started across the snowfield together.

Continue to Part 5

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