Mountain Quest by Eva Allen--Part 3
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They broke camp in the gray light of dawn, Xena packing their gear while Gabrielle practiced with her staff. Then they set off, riding double on Argo, trying to make as much time as possible. Xena was afraid to push the mare too hard, though, especially as the road began to wind upwards, into the foothills of the Mystic Mountains. So after a while, they took turns riding, and part of the time both women walked.

When they took a break for lunch, Xena wandered off into a nearby meadow with her chakram in hand and returned a short time later with three headless partridges. "I thought we should take Elkton a little something for supper," she told Gabrielle with a grin. "I just hope he's a better cook than either of us!"

"I hope so, too," Gabrielle said. "Do I have time to practice with my staff before we get started again?"

"Just for a couple of minutes," Xena said, and sat down to eat a wedge of cheese.

"Do you think we'll run into some more bad guys?"

"I sincerely hope not."

"But I want to fight them! Do you think I'm good enough yet?"

"I think you could probably do a little damage." She crammed the rest of the cheese into her mouth and stood up. "Here. Let me show you how to block a blow from a sword." Then drawing her blade, she let the bard practice parrying different types of thrusts.

"Okay, that's enough," she said after a few minutes. "We've got to get going again. Do you want to ride or walk?"

"I'll walk, and that way I can go on practicing while I walk."

"All right, but you have to keep up. I don't want you lagging behind."Xena tied the partridges to the saddle, swung herself up, and headed Argo out onto the road.

Much to Xena's relief and Gabrielle's disappointment, there were no ruffians to battle that afternoon, and they reached Elkton's mountain village just before sundown.

"None of this looks familiar to you?" Xena asked, as they led Argo past the few shops in the center of town.


"See that shop over there?" Xena said, pointing. "That's where you bought my breast dagger." She pulled the weapon out and handed it to her companion.

"I bought you this? As a gift?" Gabrielle said, turning the knife over in her hands and testing the blade's sharpness with her thumb.

"Well, no, not exactly. You actually bought it for yourself because you thought you needed some kind of weapon for self defense." Xena reached over and took the dagger back. "Let's just say that I confiscated it from you," she added, tucking the blade back into her leathers. "And I have to admit that it's been a nice addition to my arsenal. It's definitely come in handy more than once."

"So you didn't want me to be able to defend myself?"

"At that time, I guess I thought you would be better off without a weapon--less likely to be attacked if you didn't look threatening. But when we met up with the Amazons, you chose to learn to use the staff. They're the ones who first taught you. And it's proved to be a very good weapon for you."

"The Amazons? Who are they?"

"They're a tribe of women warriors."

"Women warriors? Like you?"

"Sort of like me, yes."

"And they taught me to fight?"


"Why? Did they think I would make a good warrior?"

"It's kind of a long story, and I don't have time to tell it right now because we're almost to Elkton's house," Xena said, realizing that she had probably made a mistake in bringing up the topic.

"Will you tell me later?"

"Maybe. We'll see."

They soon came to the Mystic's farm on the outskirts of the village. The tiny thatched-roof house, the barn, the garden, and a couple of small fields of grain--everything looked just as Xena remembered it.

"Will Elkton notice that I'm different?" asked Gabrielle.

"Well, he never actually met you when we were here before," Xena responded "But he knows you made it through Morpheus' tests without shedding blood, so if you start talking about wanting to kill someone, he's definitely going to be surprised." She handed Argo's reins to Gabrielle. "The best thing would be if you could just try to be pleasant and not say too much until I get a chance to explain the situation. Can you do that?"

She didn't wait for an answer, but went to the door and rapped loudly.

"Who is there?" called Elkton.

Xena heard movements inside and then footsteps approaching. "It's a friend," she called back.

Opening the door, the Mystic lifted his candle so that its light fell on the warrior's face. "Xena!" he exclaimed with a warm smile. "I was hoping you'd come back someday to visit this lonely old man!"

"Yes, I should have been back long before this," Xena said, returning his smile.

"And is this Gabrielle?" Elkton asked, moving out into the yard and offering his hand to the younger woman. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last!"

"Uh, yeah," said Gabrielle uncertainly. "It's nice to meet you, too."

"Now, Elkton," Xena said quickly. "Your house is small and if you don't have room to put us up, we can just sleep in the barn or out here someplace. We've got all our gear--"

"No, no, no!" exclaimed the Mystic. "I won't hear of your sleeping outside! You must sleep in my bed--I insist! And stay for as long as you like." Then he grinned and added, "I'm afraid your horse will have to sleep in the barn, though."

Xena laughed. "That's fine. It's still better accomodations than she's used to." Then, moving to the saddle, she untied the partridges. "We brought you a little supper," she said.

Elkton's face lit up. "Partridges! What a special meal this is going to be, with such wonderful company to share it! I'll go clean these and get them on the spit while you put the mare in the barn."

"Thanks, Elkton," Xena said. "We'll be in shortly."

* * * * *

A delicious aroma greeted them when they entered the house, and Xena smiled at the thought of a hot, home-cooked meal.

"You can just put your things in the bedroom there," said Elkton, gesturing to a low doorway.

They had left most of their gear in the barn, but Xena carried the saddlebags to the doorway and pushed aside the curtain to reveal an alcove barely big enough for one bed.

"It's so little!" Gabrielle whispered, peering past the warrior. "How can both of us possibly sleep there? We'd be better off in the barn!"

"Shh!" Xena said, pulling Gabrielle into the alcove and dropping the curtain behind them. "We'll manage just fine. Elkton is offering the best hospitality he can, and we would be rude to refuse it." She laid the saddlebags on the floor, along with her weapons, and began unbuckling her armor. "Leave your staff in here, Gabrielle," she said.

"But what if we're attacked?"

"I think the chances of that are pretty slim at the moment," Xena said, laying her armor on the floor next to the other items. "But if it happens, I suppose you can always run in here and get the staff." Then she ducked through the doorway and back into the main room.

"Is there something we can do to help?" she asked.

"No, no. Just sit down and relax," Elkton said. "You must be tired. How long have you been travelling?"

"Two days from the last town," Xena said, seating herself at the table and motioning to Gabrielle to do the same.

"You must be thirsty, too," Elkton said, placing mugs on the table and filling them with dark red wine from a jug.

"Yes, thanks," said Xena, smiling. "Some wine would taste pretty good right about now."

"Thank you," Gabrielle echoed and lifted the mug to take a long drink.

"So what have you Mystics been up to lately?" Xena asked.

"Things have gone very well since you were here last," Elkton said and moved to the fireplace to turn the spit. He went on to talk about the festivals held each year in honor of Morpheus and his brothers, and his own role in organizing those festivals. After that, he spoke about the general prosperity of the town and its people.

Xena listened, nodding, sipping wine, and keeping a close eye on Gabrielle, who seemed bored with Elkton's narrative. Uncertain what her friend might say or do under these circumstances, Xena hoped she could keep the focus of the conversation on Elkton until after dinner. Then maybe she could talk to him about what had happened and ask for his help.

Soon the roasted meat was served up, along with a steaming dish of boiled cabbage, carrots, and leeks. There was bread, too, cut in thick slices, fragrant and dark, with plenty of fresh butter to spread on them.

"This is incredible!" Xena said with her mouth full. "Especially compared with what we had last night," she added, with a wink at Gabrielle.

"Yeah, Xena burned our supper. She might be a good warrior, but she's a terrible cook!"

Elkton laughed. "Well, it's a pleasure to have someone besides myself to cook for," he said, "and luckily, I baked bread this morning."

"Don't you have to be away sometimes, at Morpheus' fortress?" Xena asked. "Who takes care of your farm while you're gone?"

"My brother and his two sons live nearby. They've been very good about helping out," he said, taking a sip of wine. "But I've been doing all the talking. You two must have had some interesting adventures since you were here before."

"Oh, yes," said Xena quickly, before Gabrielle had a chance to say anything. "We've done quite a bit. Let's see . . . we averted a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, freed Prometheus, killed a couple of giants, got bitten by Bacchae, did away with several nasty warlords, helped Cecrops break Poseidon's curse, and probably a few other things I've forgotten about."

"Well, you do lead a busy life!" Elkton said with a grin.

"Oh, definitely," Xena agreed. "And that's just what we did in our spare time!"

"Do you know what happened to us yesterday?" Gabrielle interjected eagerly. "We were on our way here, just riding along the road, and we met these four men--they were horse thieves--and they wanted to steal Argo, so Xena fought them and they all got scared and ran away! You should see her fight! She's really good! She could have killed those guys easily, but she didn't. She let them get away. I think she should have killed them, though, because right after that we found this man--"

"Gabrielle," said Xena, stepping on her friend's foot under the table, "Why don't you eat your cabbage before it gets cold."

"I'm telling a story!"

"Yes, but it's not a story I want you to tell right now."

"Oh," said Gabrielle. Then she stared sullenly at her plate and began to poke at her food with a fork.

Xena glanced at Elkton in time to see a puzzled look on his face, but he quickly smiled and picked up one of the platters. "More bread?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah. Thanks," said Xena.

"Gabrielle?" said Elkton, holding out the platter.

But the younger woman just shook her head without looking up.

There were several moments of strained silence, and then Elkton said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Prometheus, if one of you wants to tell the story."

"Sure, I'll be glad to tell you," Xena said, with a quick glance at the still-sulking Gabrielle.

She told the tale as simply as she could, emphasizing Hercules' role and minimizing her own. "It's a good thing Hercules thought to deflect that sword with a rock," she concluded. "He saved his own life and mine, too, by breaking my fall."

"How wonderful, though, that you were both willing to sacrifice your lives for the good of the human race," said Elkton.

"Well, Prometheus had to be freed, and there was no other way to do it," Xena said quietly.

"I wish I had been there to help you fight those guys in the green eggs," Gabrielle said.

"You stayed with Iolaus, and probably kept him from dying," Xena said. "That was more important than helping me."

"Yeah, but--"

"Gabrielle," said Xena, laying a hand on her friend's arm, "we've been travelling all day and I know you must be tired. Why don't you go on to bed? I'll join you in a few minutes."

"I'm not tired," Gabrielle responded brightly.

"Yes, you are. Now please go to bed," Xena said firmly and gave her a meaningful look.

"I'm not tired," the bard repeated. "Why should I go to bed if I'm not tired?"

Xena sighed, noting that Elkton was watching their exchange with a certain amount of curiosity. "All right," she said. "If you don't want to go to bed, then go out and take a walk or something. I need to talk to Elkton."

"You're going to talk about me, aren't you?"


"Then why can't I stay?"

"Because I would feel better if you didn't. I promise to tell you what Elkton says. Now please, Gabrielle, give me some space here."

The younger woman sighed deeply and regarded the warrior for a few moments in silence. "Are you always so bossy and mean?" she asked.

"I suppose some people would think so," Xena said mildly.

"Well, I guess I'll go to bed now," Gabrielle announced. She shoved back her chair and stood up, then added "Good night" as something of an afterthought.

"Good night, Gabrielle," said Elkton. "If you need anything--extra blankets or pillows or whatever--just let me know."

"Okay," Gabrielle mumbled, and then disappeared into the alcove.

* * * * *

Xena leaned her head on her hand and stared at her plate for several moments. Finally, she looked up to meet the Mystic's gaze. "I'm sorry about that," she said. Then, reaching for Gabrielle's plate, she added, "Here, let me help you clean up these dishes."

Elkton took the plate from her and set it down. "No, Xena. I can do that later. I've known all along that this wasn't purely a social visit. Now tell me what's wrong. I'd like to help, if I can."

"I sincerely hope you can help me, because I don't know where else to turn."

"Tell me," he said gently. "It's about Gabrielle, isn't it?"

Xena nodded, then glanced at the curtained doorway.

"Would you rather go outside to talk?" Elkton asked.

"No, I think this will be fine if we keep our voices down." She paused for a moment, then took a deep breath and let it out again. "Two nights ago, we stayed at an inn," she began. "We met a young bard there, and Gabrielle was very happy to talk to him, since she is a bard, too. Did you know that?"

"No, I didn't."

"Anyway, I left the two of them together in the tavern and went to bed. Later, when I came back to check on Gabrielle, I found out that she had been drugged."

"Drugged?" Elkton asked, surprised. "By the bard?"

"Yes. He put something in her wine, but I couldn't figure out what kind of drug it was. When I caught up with him the next day, it turned out he wasn't a bard at all. He was Ares in disguise."

"Ares! Why in the world would he drug Gabrielle?"

"He did it to get to me," Xena said grimly, then took a sip from her mug. "I don't know how much you know about my past," she went on, "but I've done a lot of bad things--killed people, plundered their villages, burned their homes. I set out to kill Hercules at one point, but in the end, he helped me see that I could lead a different kind of life. Ever since I changed, though, Ares has been trying to lure me back. This is his worst scheme yet."

"I don't understand. How will drugging Gabrielle make you come back to him?"

"Because what the drug did," Xena said in a low, urgent voice, "was to wipe out all her memories and change her personality. Instead of being loving and gentle, like she was before, she's now aggressive and warlike. All she talks about is wanting to kill people." Xena stopped and picked up her mug again, swirled the remaining wine for a moment, and then quickly downed it. "Ares says that if I return to him, he will change Gabrielle back to the way she was before. But I don't want to be his warrior again. I just can't do that. I gave up that way of life. But I can't let Gabrielle lose her soul, either." She stared at Elkton in despair. "I don't know what to do. I'm just hoping there's some other way to break this spell, and I'm hoping you'll know what it is."

Elkton smiled and reached out to put a hand over hers. "I think there is a way," he said, "but it involves a lot of risk."

"I don't care about that," Xena said. "You know I would gladly risk my life to save Gabrielle."

"Yes, I know," he said. "Do you want some more wine?"

She nodded and he refilled their mugs.

"For the last two nights," he said then, "I've had a dream vision. I don't know which god gave it to me, and at first I didn't know why. But I felt that someone needed the information I'd been given, and would come to me to get it. I didn't know who it would be, but when you knocked on my door this evening, I knew you were the one."

Xena stared at him in amazement. "I came because I had a strong feeling that you could somehow help me," she said softly, "even though it made no sense that a priest of Morpheus would know how to deal with Ares. I wonder who is at work here."

"I don't know, but someone is watching out for you, Xena, and you can be grateful for that."

She nodded. "Tell me about the vision."

"It has to do with a plant which grows near the top of the closest mountain here. It's called the kaya plant. It was put there by Hera, and it grows in a sheltered niche among the rocks, up above the tree line. Its leaves, when eaten, have the power to break the spell of any god, even that of Hera herself."

"Why would Hera create a plant that can break her own spells?"

"I think she wanted to have it to use against other gods--the ones she doesn't like. But since it can also be used against her own spells, she has to guard it well."

"And being Ares' mother, Hera won't be too happy about my trying to outsmart her son," Xena commented.


"But this plant--you know how to find it?"

"Yes, the vision showed the path very clearly, and I've even drawn a map. I think that if you leave at first light tomorrow, you can reach the plant by mid-afternoon--assuming you don't run into too many of Hera's warriors along the way."

"I've fought her goons before. I don't think they'll be much of a problem."

Elkton nodded. "You can take your horse up part of the way, but you'll probably have to leave her somewhere below the tree line. The trail gets quite rough after that, and there may be snow. You'll have to spend at least one night on the mountain, but I have some extra furs and blankets you can take, and some extra food, too."

"Okay," Xena said. "So far this doesn't sound too hard. Is there more?"

The Mystic smiled a tight-lipped smile. "Unfortunately, yes," he said. "The kaya bush is guarded by a serpent--a rather large one. You must kill the serpent in order to get to the leaves."

"Kill the serpent. All right, I can do that."

"Yes, but here's the tricky part. You must kill it without shedding any of its blood."

Xena's eyebrows went up, but she said nothing.

"For each drop of the serpent's blood that is shed," Elkton went on, "ten more serpents will spring up, and you could never fight them all."

"How should I kill it, then?"

"You must strangle it--but without shedding any blood, remember. The best way would probably be to use your bare hands."

Xena was silent for a moment. "And if it bites me?" she said.

"The venom has a paralyzing effect, so if the serpent bites you on an arm or a leg, you will lose the use of that limb. I assume that if you are bitten elsewhere on your body--"

"I will die."

"Yes." He picked up his wine mug, peered into it for a moment, and drank deeply. Then, looking directly at her, he said, "Xena, I wouldn't let a lesser warrior go on a quest like this, if there was any way I could prevent it. Your task will not only be difficult, but also extremely dangerous. In fact, if you want to reconsider--"

"No. I have to go. I have to do this to save Gabrielle. I'm just relieved to know that there's a way to break the spell without going back to Ares."

They sat without speaking for a few minutes, then Xena said, "Elkton, I hate to ask another favor when you've done so much already, but I'm wondering if Gabrielle can stay here with you while I go up the mountain. I'd rather not risk her getting hurt."

"Oh. Well, I guess there's something I forgot to tell you," Elkton said. "As soon as the serpent dies, the kaya leaves begin to wilt. They must be used immediately or they'll lose their potency."

"So Gabrielle will have to be there when I kill the serpent," Xena said. "All right, then. I'll take her with me. She probably wouldn't have agreed to stay here anyway," she added with a grin, and then stood up. "Now let me help you clean up this mess."

"No, I can do it," Elkton said. "You go to bed and get some rest. You'll need all your strength tomorrow. I'll gather up those furs and pack some food for you to take." He smiled. "Sleep well, Xena. I'll call you in the morning."

"Thank you, Elkton," Xena said. "You don't know how much this means to me."

"The best way for you to thank me is by coming back safe and well--both of you," he said.

"I'll do my best," she responded, then turned and walked quickly to the bedroom.

It took her eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light that filtered through the curtain. Gabrielle lay sprawled across the narrow bed, asleep. Her clothes lay in a heap on the floor, and Xena realized with surprise that the bard must be naked under the blankets. Unlacing her leathers, Xena stepped out of them and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Gabrielle," she said softly, "move over, so I can get in."

The younger woman gave a sleepy moan as Xena slid in under the covers and put an arm around her. "What did he say?" she mumbled, snuggling closer to the warrior.

"He said there is a plant that grows on the mountain near here. It has the power to break Ares' spell. We leave first thing in the morning to go find it."

"More travelling?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so."

"Will it be dangerous?"

"A little."

"Will we have to fight?"

"Yes, I'd say you can count on it."

"Really?" said Gabrielle, raising up to look at Xena. "Will you let me fight?"

"Do I have any choice?" Xena asked with a small grin.

"Mmm, I can't wait!" said Gabrielle. With a happy sigh, she snuggled back down, but after a moment, she popped up again. "I forgot to practice with my staff tonight!" she exclaimed.

"It's all right," Xena said, touching the bard's face gently. "You still remember how to do it, and maybe you can practice a little in the morning. Now let's go to sleep; we need to be rested for our trip."

Gabrielle sank back down and was quiet. Xena lay holding her, thinking how good it was to feel her lover's bare skin against her own. This time tomorrow night they would be huddled together under furs and blankets up on the mountain. But if everything went as planned, the spell would be broken, and she would have her own sweet Gabrielle back in her arms once more.

From the other room came the quiet sounds of Elkton moving around, cleaning up the dishes and getting everything ready for their departure in the morning. What a good man he was, Xena thought, as she silently blessed him for all his kindness and help. In a short time, Gabrielle's breathing deepened and, attempting to follow her lover's example, the warrior closed her eyes and willed herself to relax. But thoughts of the next day's quest would not leave her mind. Could they really get all the way up the mountain by mid-afternoon? How many warriors would Hera send out against them? And most worrisome of all was the puzzle of how to strangle a serpent without shedding blood and without being bitten. It was a battle she dared not lose, for if she got killed before she could free Gabrielle, she would doom her friend to a life of murder and mayhem, and her soul to Tartarus.

A shiver ran through her and her arms tightened around the sleeping bard. Giving up the effort to sleep, she let her mind run free to wrestle with the problem of how to kill the serpent. After a while, she heard Elkton blow out the candles in the other room and settle down to sleep on a pallet in front of the fire. Then exhaustion overcame her at last and she slept.

Continue to Part 4

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