PART II: THE ORDEAL
Gabrielle awakened slowly, the pounding in her head becoming worse each time she dared to move. She opened her eyes gently, willing the pain to a corner of her mind so that she might get a look at her surroundings. As she tried to focus her eyes, she became aware that her arms had been shackled above her head by thick chains attached to the wall. Her arms ached from the battle and lack of circulation, but she didn't think that anything was broken. Gabrielle turned her attention to the cell. She could see, but just barely, the only light emanating from a small, barred window high on the door. The only furnishings were a small bucket in one corner and various chains and manacles attached to the walls at odd intervals. Gabrielle shuddered to think what her captors would do with them.
The next sensation that assaulted her was the smell. Gabrielle had visited enough battlefields in her travels with Xena to know what death smelled like, and the small cell reeked of it. The smell of fear, blood, and death mingling together was enough to turn Gabrielle's stomach, and she desperately tried to put it out of her mind, afraid that the feelings of fear would overwhelm her. Her mind drifted to Xena, the last she had seen of the warrioress she had been battling three of the men who had attacked their camp. Now she had no idea where she was. The fact that Gabrielle was now in the hands of those men suggested that Xena had not been able to prevent it. That thought filled Gabrielle with sorrow. She knew Xena would never willingly let anyone take her so that left only two options, Xena was either wounded or dead.
A sudden noise in the hallway startled Gabrielle and she turned to see the door pushed ajar and a man of ominous size fill the doorway. He stood a good 3 inches taller than Xena and was dressed entirely in black. He wore a cold stare upon his face, his eyes hard. He carried little with him; in one hand a short whip, in the other a bucket. Gabrielle was filled with terror at just the sight of him, but found her voice and attempted to speak.
"Where am I? How dare you keep me here like this!" she spat, anger coloring her voice. Her jailer merely stared. He set the bucket down and then moved over to where she was chained and began to loosen the restraints. Gabrielle felt a wave of relief. Thank the gods, they're letting me go. She thought to herself. I knew it was all just a mistake. But her relief suddenly became horror when he hauled her unceremoniously to her feet and reached for the manacles dangling above her head. Her captor calmly secured Gabrielle's hands so that her feet barely touched the floor.
"Hey! What're you doing?!" Gabrielle demanded. The man merely regarded her silently before reaching up to rip her shirt in half. He then stepped out into the middle of the floor. As he drew back the whip, Gabrielle suddenly realized there would be no talking her way out of this one. As the whip made contact with her unprotected back Gabrielle stifled a cry, tears springing to her eyes. The whip was drawn back and then set loose upon her body time and time again until she could no longer remain silent. Her cries echoed down the long corridors, but there was no one to hear.
Gabrielle had no idea how long this went on, only that suddenly it was over, and she was being released from her bonds. She was in agony from the repeated lashings, her back criss crossed with the tell tale welts left by the whip, her tears still hot upon her cheeks. Once free of the restraints, she slid to the floor, her strength gone. Her jailer did not return her to the chains lower to the ground, but by now she no longer cared. Mercifully, her consciousness fled as the door to the cell closed with a resounding boom.
Xena awakened shortly before dawn. As her eyes slowly came open, she at first did not remember where she was. Xena raised her head to get her bearings, as she did, her gaze fell upon the two men she killed the night before. Suddenly the events of the past night came back to her in a rush.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called futilely, knowing even as she spoke her name, there could be no response. Xena painfully regained her feet, searching for any sign as to where they may have taken Gabrielle. Fear tickled at the corners of her mind, but Xena roughly pushed it away. No, she thought to herself, I'll find her! I must.
Xena shook her head to clear it and began a methodical search of the camp and surrounding trees. When she returned to the remnants of the campfire, she had found four distinct trails leading away from the clearing, each traveling in a different direction. Xena began to pack up their belongings moving quickly and efficiently, frustration etched into her features. She knew the abductors were deliberately trying to confuse their trail, and they were doing a good job of it. Xena could easily distinguish the separate tracks, but the ground was too hard to tell which of the four may have been carrying an extra person.
Xena knew she had lost precious time during the night, but she also knew blindly charging into the forest would do Gabrielle no good. Xena finished packing her belongings and turned to where Gabrielle's sleeping place had been. Her bedroll lay in disarray, her staff disgarded on the ground nearby. Xena stooped to pick up the Amazon staff, guilt threatening to overwhelm her as she ran her hands over its smooth surface.
"I'm coming Gabrielle, just hold on." Xena vowed quietly, not allowing herself to even imagine that Gabrielle may already be dead. Xena shook herself, fear and guilt replaced by rock hard determination. She finished packing Argo's saddlebags and quickly mounted the mare. Xena chose one of the trails at random and spurred Argo to a slow trot as the sun began to break above the horizon.
Gabrielle awakened to a splash of cold water being thrown into her face. She coughed and sputtered as she slowly opened her eyes, her gaze meeting the man in black she had come to know so well the night before. Fear overwhelmed her and her heart began to beat wildly as he reached down to haul her to her feet. With a fierce grip on her arms, the guard turned Gabrielle to face the door to her cell. It was then that she realized another was there, standing in the doorway, seemingly unwilling to enter any further. He was not dressed as a soldier or guard but rather as nobility, his violet robes covered in an ornate gold pattern.
"Well, well, young one. Enjoying your stay?" He asked sarcastically, his manner and voice belying years of education and priviledge.
At first Gabrielle found it difficult to find her voice, when she did her response was barely more than a whisper. "What do you want with me?"
"With you? Not much really. It's the Warrior Princess I'm interested in." the nobleman replied. Seeing the questioning look on Gabrielle's face he continued, "Six years ago her army tore through this land, burning, looting, destroying."
Gabrielle had heard similar tales before and she thought she knew the end to this one.
"So you want to pay her back for what she did to your land, right?" Gabrielle asked, finding her strength.
"No, no, little one. You see, I could care less. No the Warrior Princess is going to pay for what she did to my son. He led our army against Xena and her band of murderers. But Xena's spys betrayed my son and he was captured. We found his body several days later. He had been tortured to death." Gabrielle could see the sadness briefly reflected in the kings eyes, only to be replaced by a coldness that frightened her.
"I have been waiting these six long years for this opportunity. When I heard the warrior woman no longer traveled with her army, I knew my chance had come. But when she arrived in our lands with you, I couldn't believe my luck!" the king exclaimed, evil manifested in his face. "Now, finally! I have my chance to repay the Warrior Princess in kind. I'm sorry you are made to suffer this way, but that's the price you will have to pay for travelling with that woman." the king spat, his hatred for Xena coloring his voice.
The reality of her situation hit Gabrielle hard. This man before her intended to have her tortured to death, and then no doubt would leave her body somewhere Xena would be sure to find it. The thought of what was to come made Gabrielle sick with fear. She didn't want to die. Not here, not like this.
"You may continue, Dioclese." the King said simply and with that, turned on his heel and strode down the corridor, his footfalls echoing through the deserted hallways. Dioclese pulled Gabrielle toward the manacles, and once again shackled her wrists above her head.
"Please, you don't have to do this!" Gabrielle pleaded. Dioclese simply stared in response, never uttering a sound. He slowly stepped away from her and uncurled the whip at his waist.
"No! Please!" Gabrielle cried as he drew back his arm and set loose the whip upon her body yet again.
The king paused at the foot of the staircase leading to the upper levels of the castle. Upon hearing the screams of the girl's torture, a smile slowly crept over his features. He was going to enjoy this immensely, he thought as he continued up the stairs, savoring the sounds of agony echoing in his ears.
Xena had exhausted two of the paths leading away from the camp, realizing after a time that they lead nowhere, merely meandering through the dense forest. It had taken the better part of a day and a half before she struck out on the third course leading north. Xena was spent, her strength nearing its limits, but she refused to stop her search to rest, even for an hour; fear driving her relentlessly forward.
It wasn't long before Xena recognized there was something familiar about the country in which she now traveled. She knew she had been there before, and problably with her army. As she finally broke through the trees, she found herself in the outskirts of a simple village. It was nearing mid-day and the town was alive with activity. Xena allowed herself to look about the village, taking in its sights and sounds; as she did so she noticed the castle for the first time. Set high upon a hill, overlooking the valley, the castle appeared formidable. Looking upon its weathered stone walls and parapets, Xena suddenly remembered the castle and the village.
Six years was a long time, and time heals all wounds. But Xena knew all too well, some wounds never heal. Her eyes narrowed as the realization of just who had captured Gabrielle hit her. Without a backward glance, Xena retreated back into the cloak of the trees, knowing what she had to do, praying it wasn't already too late.