Winter's Ending - Part 5
For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.
The wind had died down, leaving the dark mountainside an eerily silent place, as day creatures slumbered, and the night creatures sensed the passing of two humans and horses and held their peace. Even the owls were quiet, their round, solemn eyes following the steady pace of the forest intruders with a stolid disinterest.
Xena took a deep breath, and stretched in her saddle, relaxing back into Argo's comfortable pace with easy familiarity. The forest gave up it's scent of pine and dirt into the cold air, and she could now detect a hint of moisture. With a sigh, she glanced up, to see the clouds covering the star strewn sky, and nudged Argo closer to Iolaus's gray. "Looks like we've got bad weather rolling in again."
Iolaus looked up, and groaned. "Great.. just great." He gave her a sideways look. "You know, when we get through all this, he's gonna owe me big time."
Xena chuckled. "I'd say a weeks vacation somewhere nice, right?" She registered the darting glance with a vaguely puzzled expression. "I mean.. you guys like to.. " Her mind searched for a likely entertainment. "Go.. tavern crawling in Athens, or whatever." She paused, aware of some kind of strange undercurrent coming from Iolaus. "Right?"
"Uh.. right." Iolaus agreed quickly. "We love that.. you know, a few drinks.. a few dances..."
The warrior hid a grin. "A few girls.." She drawled, cocking her eyebrow at him.
"Well.. no.. I mean.. uh.. not really... uh.. not usually.. " He ran out of protests, and just looked at her. "Ok.. sometimes."
She chuckled, and shook her head. "C'mon, Iolaus - I used to run an army, remember? Just a thousand guys and me." She pointed a finger at her chest. "I bet I’ve been in more alehouses than you have."
The blond man gave her a curious look. "So.. what was that like? Must have been kind of...I don't know.. exciting?"
The warrior leaned back in her saddle, and crossed her arms on the fur wrapped leather tree. "Mostly it was.." A light shrug, almost unseen in the darkness. "Hard work.. strategy.. planning.. administrating.. keeping discipline.." Xena paused, and thought. "Parts were really boring, parts were really frightening.. mostly it was in between."
"Do you miss it?" The words were out before he could censor them, and he bit his lip. Dumb.. very dumb... But the answer was fast in coming.
"No." Xena replied. "Leading men into battle.. that was.. the part I liked best. " She admitted frankly. "But the screams of the wounded men after a battle...I still hear them."
"Oh." Iolaus muttered. "I didn't think you'd have to deal with that part."
Xena turned her eyes on him, and he saw the deep shadows there. "Where do you think I learned my healing skills, Iolaus?"
They rode on in silence for a short time, immersed in thought.
Y'know, I really don't miss it. The warrior mused. I found something that fills me in all the places that never did.. but I was always hoping it would.
Suddenly her hearing picked up one...no two sounds out of place, and she stiffened, reaching out to Iolaus with one hand. "Trouble." She muttered, in a low, sibilant voice.
"How.. who.. where.." Iolaus whipped his head around, searching the dark underbrush.
"Eight men... in front of us and to the left." The warrior replied, sitting forward and tightening her knees around Argo's warm sides. The mare reacted to her alertness, and sidestepped, as Xena focused her senses around them. "Not mounted.. crossbows.. swords... and a mace."
Iolaus goggled at her. "You can tell all that?"
"Yeah." She spared him a brief glance. "You up for a fight?" She drew in a sharp breath as she heard the distinctive rising whine of a crossbow gut under pressure. "Don't answer that." She whipped a hand out and caught the quarrel in front of his nose. "Just move."
She drove Argo forward, towards the now dimly seen figures running towards them, and drew her sword, letting out her wild yell and swinging down, slamming her hilts on top of the closest man’s head. The second unlucky enough to reach her got a boot in the face, which snapped his head back and sent him down without a word, and she then slid off Argo’s back, and faced the third and fourth with a grin and a swinging blade.
Iolaus jumped off his gelding immediately, and caught a rushing raider with a quick jab, then grabbed his arm and tossed him to the side, against a nearby tree. Then he grappled with his next opponent, as the man swung a mace at him, and ducked as the weapon skimmed over his head. He heard a solid thunk, and glanced to his right to see one of the attackers physically lifted in mid air and tossed across the path, and heard a low laugh follow him.
Xena was having.. fun. Actually. She kept her sword more as a battering device than a slashing one, using it to put additional weight behind her blows, and giving the occasional hard whack with the flat of it. She had just slammed her elbow into the nose of one of the few remaining raiders when a sudden wave of chilling panic took her.
Confused, she stepped back, and glanced around, shaking her head hard to clear it, then felt it intensify, then just as abruptly as it came, it disappeared. Her opponent took advantage of the momentary lapse, and hurled his body on top of her, bearing them both to the ground. Xena let her automatic reflexes take over, as she felt her heart begin to calm, almost absentmindedly dislocating the raider’s arm, and slamming his body over hers to the hard ground.
Damn.. what was that? She surged up into a half crouch, and caught the last raider in the gut with a knee, eliciting a high whine from the man, and putting him out of action.
A hand on her elbow almost got a similar response, but she recognized Iolaus’ touch before she decked him, and just let her hands drop. "Don’t do that." She cautioned him. "Not in the middle of a fight."
"Sorry." The blond man grimaced. "Are you all right? Did that last guy tag you or something.. I thought.."
"I’m fine." Xena cut him off. "Just caught my foot on a root." She dusted her hands off and looked around, mentally counting. Yep. .got them all. She tentatively let her guard down, waiting for a repeat of the panic surge, and relaxed a little when it didn’t come. That.. almost felt like Gabrielle. Her mind gingerly probed the thought. But it’s gone now.. maybe she just got scared.. or .. whatever.
This time of night, the bard would have been safely in Amphipolis, either finishing up a bardic session at the inn, or snuggling down to sleep, neither of which activity would cause that kind of… She paused, and let a slow breath out. Unless she was having nightmares.
A scene flashed into her memory, of a night a week or so back, when she’d been out late checking out a report of scavengers around the edges of the village. She’d left the sleepy bard tucked into bed, brushing the soft fair hair out of her face and receiving a gentle kiss on her fingertips in return. "Be right back." She’d promised, as Gabrielle wrapped her hand around the fastening belt of her leathers, and tugged.
"You’d better." The bard had warned. "Don’t let them talk you into spending hours out there telling gory stories, OK?"
Xena had laughed. "No chance… " She twitched the blankets into place, snuggling them up under the bard’s chin. "Not in this weather."
And that had been true - she’d examined the evidence, and given terse advice, and headed back home, Argo as willing as she to return to the warmth of a snug bed. After settling the mare, she’d moved through the fitful moonlight, stepping up into the cabin and sliding the door shut in total silence, trying not to wake her partner up.
Three steps in, and she’d heard Gabrielle cry out, though.. and all thoughts of stealth vanished as she bounded to the bedside, and settled on it’s edge, reaching for the restlessly twitching bard.
"No.. no… " Gabrielle whispered, in a broken mumble, then woke as she felt Xena’s hand on her shoulder. "No… " Her eyes popped wide open, and fastened on the warrior’s concerned face, going from anguished to utterly relieved in less than a breath. "Gods." She got out, untangling her hands from the covers and reaching for Xena, who pulled her into a secure embrace.
"It’s all right.. I’ve got you." Xena had felt the body in her arms shaking. "Just a dream, love… it’s all right now." She stroked the bard’s hair gently, and felt her hands tighten, bringing them closer together. "Shh.. it’s all right."
Gradually, she had felt Gabrielle stop shaking, and her breathing calm. "That was a bad one, huh?"
"Yeah." The bard mumbled against her chest. "Something from a long time ago."
Xena had felt a tiny relief that this wasn’t something she’d caused for a change. "Your father?" She asked gently.
The bard nodded. "Don’t know why that got dredged up.. I was… " She nestled closer. "Some of the kids decided to.. they didn’t like something I’d said, and…"
"Shh." Xena hugged her. "You don’t have to tell me."
"No.. it’s OK." Gabrielle settled her head onto Xena’s chest, and sighed. "They started to beat me up.. and then Father walked in and saw ." She stopped, and closed her eyes against the remembered pain of the moment. "He let them finish."
Xena had felt an upwelling of rage so stark and so fierce that it forced a low growl from her unwilling throat.
Gabrielle had looked up, with a tiny smile. "My protector of puppies… and other helpless things…take it easy, OK? It was a long time ago." She sighed. "I haven’t thought about that in a long time.. I think it was more the feeling of.. " She shook her head a little. "Disappointment.. betrayal.. I don’t know… " Her eyes had found Xena’s. "It hurt more than the actual beating."
Xena had swallowed a few times before she answered. "It always does." She’d rubbed the bard’s back gently. "You all right now?"
Gabrielle had gazed up at her and smiled. "I’m always all right when you’re here."
Damn. Forgot about that. She wakes up in a panic, I know…that would account for that.. though.. damn… didn’t think it would be so strong.. I guess we got more sensitive to each other over the last few months. A tiny smile crossed her face. Wish I was back there. She sighed, and continued flipping over the raiders, tying them loosely with bits of their clothing she ripped off. "That’ll keep em for a while." She commented to Iolaus, who was following her lead.
"Right." The blond man agreed. "Well, that was fun."
Xena looked up at him. "Yeah, it was." And gave him the barest ghost of a wink.
They remounted, and continued on their way, passing into the darkening night under the rising sound of the fitful wind.
Cyrene stood at the window of the inn, staring out with unseeing eyes. "Where in Hades are they." She whispered, mindful of the straggling patrons around her. It wasn’t like Gabrielle, to leave them worrying like this.. especially with Xena gone.
"What’s wrong?’ Johan said, slipping up next to her and peering out the window.
"Gabrielle and those girls haven’t gotten back yet." The innkeeper murmured. "I’m getting.. a little concerned."
"Which way did they go?" The stocky ex merchant asked. "I’ll send some of the watchers out."
Cyrene slowly nodded. "I’m.. not sure. Maybe that Amazon knows." She turned on her heel, and strode across the inn, pushing the small door open and slipping inside.
The Amazon was sleeping, but half woke on her entrance, warrior’s instincts struggling to respond even when her body was obviously incapable of it. "Uh.." She mumbled, blinking foggily at Cyrene.
The innkeeper seated herself on the low stool next to the bed, and studied her drawn face. "Ephiny… "
"Wha’s wrong?" The blond woman asked, forcing herself to alertness. "Where…"
"Shh." Cyrene put a hand on her arm. "It’s… probably nothing. But.. did Gabrielle say where she was taking the girls out to?"
Ephiny’s already pale face blanched white. "Gods.. not back?" She half rolled over onto her side, and groaned. "Knew I should have… " She broke into a rattling cough. "Damn." She sighed. "They were going to the river." She looked up at the window. "Time?"
Cyrene gave her an unhappy look. "Fair to midnight."
Ephiny cursed in a steady, hoarse voice for a minute. "Damn woman attracts trouble like bees to honey." She looked up. "Gotta find her."
"We will." Cyrene assured her, pressing her shoulder back down on the bed. "You lie down… we’ll find her, don’t you worry." She stood, and hurried out the door.
"Little late for that." Ephiny muttered, staring at the ceiling and running through a series of calming mantras. Oh… gods… Gabrielle… please.. just be caught up doing something… telling some wild story, or stopping to help some damn sheep give birth to a lamb.. I know you’d do that, right? Lose track of time… all those kids cooing over some little scrap of white wool…
Her gut told her otherwise. That Gabrielle, highly conscious of her responsibility with the young girls, would have rather have carried the damn sheep home on her shoulders than send everyone into a panic. Especially in chancy, unsettled weather, when her main source of security was days away from here, and headed in the wrong direction.
"Damn it." Ephiny closed her eyes, then opened them again, and with a grimly determined look, pulled herself upright, and held on, as a wave of vertigo washed over her. "Teach me to just laze around, right?" She waited for her head to stop spinning, then swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and let her feet rest on the floor. Then she slowly, cautiously stood up, holding onto the bed rails for support, and paused there, swaying slightly until the dizzy feeling subsided again.
"Right." She borrowed Gabrielle’s fluffy shawl, and wrapped it around her, then walked slowly and unsteadily to the door and peeked out.
"Psst.. Cait.." A grubby hand shook her shoulder, stirring her to wakefulness. She let her eyes crack open, and saw Sharra’s worried face above hers. "You awake now?"
The slim blond winced, then rolled over onto an elbow, and felt her skull. "Ow."
"Shh.. " Elianas hissed, from next to her. "They’ll hear. Be quiet."
Cait blinked her eyes, and forced them to focus, staring at their surroundings with a sinking dismay. They were in a cage, of sorts. Hefty wooden supports bound with thick vines, to form a roofed enclosure about three of her body lengths square. The cage was to one side of an open area, that had low roofed huts around it, and a campfire lit in the very center. A low murmur of voices told of extensive occupation, and she could see dim forms moving about, and rough horseplay going on. "We’re in trouble, right?" She whispered to Sharra. "Where’s the queen?"
Sharra put her hand over the Cait’s mouth. "Shut up.. I don’t think they know who she is.. she’s over in that corner. She’s been out cold since they brought us here. .she’s got a horrible bump on her head and looks very pale."
Cait cursed softly, startling them. "I didn't see what happened.. they knocked me out." She slowly sat up, and took a deep breath. "Who are they?"
Megan slid closer. "They grabbed all of us.. but you and the queen were the only ones they clobbered.. I think.." She hesitated, glancing around. "I think they're slavers… there are more cages like this in the trees there."
"Ares balls." Cait groaned. "That's bad news…"
Sharra peered at her. "Wherever did you learn that one?" She peered off into the gloom. "What are we going to do?"
Cait carefully pushed the hair back off her forehead, avoiding the painful lump. "First off, let's see how Gabrielle is." She crawled across the leaf-strewn floor, and settled herself at the bard's side, putting slightly shaking fingertips at her pulse point. Then she sighed in relief. "That's all right then… I think she just took a bad hit." She gently lifted an eyelid, exposing a lightly glazed pale green eye, which reacted to the low torchlight. "That's good." Then she did the other, and sighed again. "That's bad." She glanced up. "Looks like she's gotten a concussion."
Megan scrambled over to her. "Where did you learn all that? I haven't seen you hanging around the healer's hut." She looked at Cait curiously.
The blond girl gave her a brief smile. "From watching Xena.. I got to see quite a bit of her when she was home.. she knows an awful lot about all sorts of things."
They both turned as Gabrielle moved, and let out a hissing groan. "Shhh." Cait said, putting a hand on the older woman's arm. "Gabrielle.. we're in trouble here."
The green eyes fluttered, then blinked open, and Gabrielle's brow contracted in pain. "Gods." She muttered, raising a hand to her head. "What fell on me?"
"Lay still." Cait cautioned. "I think they gave you a concussion." She looked around. "We're in a cage kind of thing.. in what we think is a slaver's camp." She saw a handful of emotions cross Gabrielle's expressive face, then it went grim.
So this is what a concussion feels like. The bard mused. Ok.. ok.. my respect for Xena just jumped another several notches.. she just carries on when she gets one. It feels like my head's going to explode. She moved her neck slightly, and felt an uncomfortable popping as her vertebrae slid back into place. Ugh. Fuzzy feeling, she said, right? Xena, you idiot.. this does not feel fuzzy. This feels like death warmed over.
Slaver's camp.. gods. We're in real trouble here love.. and there's no chance of you bailing me out of this one… what am I going to do? These kids are depending on me. On me. The weight of that responsibility settled on her, and she forced her foggy mind to start thinking.
Then footsteps came close, and she turned her head a little, sensing the sudden fear around her.
"Well, well… little queen's awake then, eh?" The voice was smoothly satisfied, and deeply male.
Rurik. Gabrielle's mind identified it immediately. I should have realized he was.. not what he seemed. Oh Xena.. I should have let you… Her mind cut that thought off. "Hello Rurik." She said calmly, not looking at him.
"So you remember me then lass.. that's good." Rurik laughed. "Fondly, I hope. Then you'll make this little interlude a nice one.. don't worry.. you won't be here for long." He crouched down, and put his hands on the cage supports. "You'll be on a boat soon, my lass, on your way to a new life as someone's scuttle then… won't you?" He reached through the bars, and tugged a lock of her hair. "And we saw your cousin ride off.. no rescue for you, little queen. Not in time.. and you'll draw me enough to last this damned winter out. I thank you for that…"
"You'd get more if you ransomed me to the Amazons." Gabrielle said quietly, glancing over at him, letting him feel her gaze. She kept her expression gentle.
He laughed. "Oh no.. you lovely thing." He waggled a finger at her. "And have those wild women descend on us? No thank you. " He shook his head. "Same for your family there.. I don't want your cousins riding up on me, no thanks… we've got a man coming night after tomorrow, he'll take you out then. And pay me, and then…" He tugged her hair again. "You'll be going where that smart mouth of yours will get you what it should."
My cousins. Gabrielle caught that again. So he doesn't…know. "Maybe." She said softly. "But when my family.. " she paused and smiled. "finds out, they'll come after you anyway." She looked up at him and spoke with all the conviction she could muster. "There won't be anyplace you can hide that she won't find you." She, not them.
Rurik laughed again, and stood. "I'm not worried, lambkin. We've been foresters all our lives.. and this be our home. She won't find us." He glanced at the girls. "And what a nice bounty you brought me too.. such lovely girls.. ah, lass.. you've made my fortune, you have."
Then he was gone, and a long silence settled over them. "Gosh." Cait said finally, letting out a long held breath. "We are in trouble."
Gabrielle rolled very slowly over, and rested her weight on her elbow, forcing down the nausea from her injury. "We'll get out of this." She said quietly. "We have to get away from here."
A whine interrupted her thoughts, and she looked over to see Ares trying to get his head between the bars. She sat all the way up and put a hand to him, scratching his nose. Then her eyes fell on the glint of gold on her hand, and she bit her lip.
What if we don't? I don't want… Oh, Xena.. as soon as they get a good look at this thing, they'll take it, and I can't.. stand that thought. And they'll hurt Ares. Forgive me for this, love. .I hope it’s just a precaution. Closing her eyes, she reached up, and unclasped the silver necklace she was wearing, and took it off, gazing at the crystal for a long time. It’s just a symbol, Gabrielle. What it represents you can’t ever take off. Just remember that.
It was harder to remove the ring, not because it fit tightly, but because removing it… made her face the possibility that she might never put it on again. That this situation could end badly, with her ending up headed for who knew where, or dead. It hurt, that taking off, in a way she hadn't expected.
She threaded the ring onto the silver chain, and moved closer to the bars, letting Ares’ nose press close against her chest. "Here boy.." She said softly into one dark ear, carefully fastening the chain around his thick, furry neck.
Gabrielle let the pendant and ring rest in the palm of her hand for a long moment, then she closed her fingers around them, and felt her jaw clench hard. "Find her, Ares." She whispered, hearing the break in her own voice. "Find Xena, OK? "
Golden eyes gazed up into her own, ears pricking up on the familiar sound of Xena's name. A pink tongue caressed her face, removing the moisture leaking from her eyes with delicate precision. Then she released the chain, and he backed away, giving them one last long look, and disappeared into the darkness, his midnight coat blending into the gloom like a ghost in fog.
Gabrielle stared after him, taking a moment to compose herself before turning and facing the girls, who were watching her with intent expressions. "All right." She said with quiet determination. "How far did they take us?"
Silence from the girls, then Sharra cleared her throat. "Not that far.. I think we're just north of Amphipolis." She looked around. "We went through the forest quite a ways, though." She hugged herself then. "It's almost dawn."
In the old forest, then. Gabrielle sighed to herself. Not an area she knew well at all, though Xena surely did. She leaned stiffly back against the cage bars, and slowly stretched her legs out in front of her. "Let's see what the place looks like in daylight then… and what kind of chance we have to escape."
"Looks like a mess." Xena muttered low, into Iolaus's nearby ear. They'd made it to the outskirts of the castle with hours to spare before dawn, and were perched in an escarpment, looking down at the shabby village that nestled below the stone structure.
"Well, it's not a vacation village on the Aegean, that's for sure." Iolaus muttered back, adjusting his belt for the sixth or seventh time. They had left all their weapons and Xena's armor back amongst the trees, where they'd also picketed the horses against their return. He glanced around and sighed, as the wind picked up and blew it's cold, wetness against his face. "Great. Rain. Again."
Xena sighed, and settled back against the rock, folding her arms across her wool covered chest. Looking down into the village had started a vague uneasiness in her gut, and she probed it, trying to figure out why. It looked like an ordinary, if somewhat run down village… maybe it was the specter of something there affecting Hercules?
The gnawing grew as she considered that, and she took a deep breath to settle herself. What's the matter, Xena? Don't think you can handle this or something? Damn.. I haven't felt like this since… Her thoughts trailed off. Since Gabrielle was with the Amazons.
Then the feeling came full force, and made her nauseous, as she focused on it. Her heart started pounding, and the cold wind receded in her awareness as she turned her attention to that part of herself she knew was also part of Gabrielle.
It took every ounce of self-control she had not to just get up and leave, right then. Instead, she concentrated on the vague apprehension, and felt it lessen, and calm.. and subside to a low uneasiness. So.. she guessed. Something was wrong. Ephiny? Possibly?…Probably. Gabrielle's close to her. The Amazon could have taken a turn for the worse.. with this kind of sickness, that was always possible, and the reason Xena had sent Toris when she did. Damn…
Two days and more from there… she'd never be able to get back in time to do anything if that was the case. And their healer, while a trifle unimaginative, was more than competent. Quietly, she cursed their connection, which gave her this reason to worry without explanation. She studied the feeling intently, ignoring Iolaus's curious stare. No.. the sharp fear wasn't there.. so Gabrielle could handle whatever was happening.. she was just very worried.
All right then.. Xena decided. She'd finish up here, and then get back. The bard wouldn't want her to stop in a mission this critical.. that she was sure of. Not unless it was a dire emergency, and it didn't feel like that. Yet.
"Xena?" Iolaus touched her arm. "Something wrong?"
She looked up at him. "Nope. Just thinking." She took a deep breath. "Let's get down there.. it'll be less windy to wait."
Xena scrambled over the edge of the rock, and started down, feeling a sudden lightness without the weight of her armor on. Guess I got used to it again.. she mused, with a rueful smile. But there's no chance they'll take us in with me wearing that.. even the leathers are a stretch. Maybe they won't look too close. She resettled her belt pouch before she took another step, feeling the gentle curves of the remaining three packets she'd patiently dug out of her saddlebags, ignoring Iolaus' curious stare. Hang in there love.. this won't take long. I won't let it..
They got to the bottom of the hill, and crept close to the slumbering village, find a sheltered spot outside a rundown barn to settle in and wait for the dawn.
Xena snugged her cloak more firmly around her throat, and sighed, gazing up at the fast racing clouds overhead. She leaned her shoulders against the rough wood of the barn, and chewed absently on a trail bar, more because she knew she should then because hunger drove her, that vague anxiety in her gut ruined any chance at that. A glance towards the huddled Iolaus told her he had fallen easily asleep, and she wished she could too.. but her mind was busily racing, chasing itself around in circles with worry about Hercules, about Gabrielle…
That's what happens when you let yourself care about people, remember? She reminded herself with a wry thought. It gets you in ALL kinds of trouble. She smiled ruefully to herself, letting her head rest against the barn wall and allowing her thoughts to drift a little.
She'd never intended on falling in love again. Nope.. not after that last time, after Marcus, whose passing had left her devastated. She'd stay safely aloof, and if that meant she was lonely a lot, well, that's the breaks. Better than being in pain.
Then she found Hercules, and that.. made a chink in that armor. Not a big one, because their relationship had been mostly superficial.. mostly a physical attraction more than anything. But that chink had been widened by her own mental state after her army rejected her.
Then she'd met Gabrielle. Oh.. gods. If she'd only known what trouble that was going to cause.. she laughed helplessly. Unknowingly, unintentionally, that girl had found every single crack and chink in her defenses and just..
It had been like water running over limestone. Until one day, she'd been sitting there across the campfire from the girl, and looked up.. and their eyes had met.. and she'd felt.. something give. Something shatter, in the depths of her heart which had given a little lurch.
And it hadn't been like any other time, she'd long since realized. Every other time she'd been in control. Had allowed herself the luxury. Had a plan for it.. had a reason for it.. but not this time. This time it had hit her in a place so deep, it went far beyond her defenses.
So she'd tried to fight it - scared out of good sense by the thought of losing control of this, because this young girl was in no way a fit person for her to feel like that about. She told Gabrielle more about who she really was.. intending to scare her off.. push her away.
Instead, that bound them closer. That night after meeting Callisto.. she'd admitted to torching an entire village.. and Gabrielle had just.. accepted that. Had comforted her.. gods, she could still feel the warmth of the bard's chin resting on her shoulder as they'd gazed into the fire together. She'd told Gabrielle more than she'd intended that night… "If anything ever happened to Hercules.. or mother.. or you.." She wondered if Gabrielle had guessed.. then… just how important she was to her.
Then there was the night she'd thought she'd lost her for good. After that long, lonely ride away from Potadeia, leaving her in Perdicus' loving arms. Letting go of her hurt so bad, it was like taking a sword in the gut.. but she'd done it.. knowing in her heart that the bard was better off there.. she'd be safe, and loved.. and… Xena had swallowed, and tried to think about something else.
She'd made a small camp, just a picket for Argo, and a tiny fire, hadn't unpacked her gear, hadn't eaten.. just sat down, and pulled her knees up to her chest, and hugged them. And let the emotion she'd been damming up all day out.
She'd cursed her heart that night. Cursed it's weakness, and the way she'd let the bard into it. Grieved the loss of that close friendship more than anything else.. because despite her protests to the contrary, she knew she'd never go back there.. never visit… she'd disappear from Gabrielle's life like the morning fog under the sun.
Gods.. she’d forgotten just how lonely she’d been.. just how large a hole there was now without Gabrielle there. Knowing she’d never look up across a campfire again and see twinkling green eyes looking back at her. Or hear the bard’s voice practicing a story.. or asking a question.. or feel her familiar presence just being there.
She'd spent that night remembering all the times they'd had, good and not so good. And by morning, had decided to ride back by Potadeia, to say a quiet goodbye to the bard, because she deserved that. Deserved not to be waiting for a visit from a friend that would never come.
And because she wanted to look into those eyes one last time, now that it was safe, and speak the words her heart had been saying to her for a while now.
Could she have stopped Callisto? The question had sounded in her mind since. She'd never made the conscious decision not to… that she knew. But her skills were part honing, and part instinct, equal halves training and natural ability. Her reactions were fueled partly from her subconscious.. and that subconscious had been in deep turmoil that day.
No. She’d drive herself crazy thinking like that. She’d miscalculated Callisto, that was the problem.. who had seen the opportunity to destroy the two of them from within. Which would have been a lot more satisfying to her.
But they’d survived that, somehow. It had taken time, but there was something between them, even then, that fiercely resisted their parting, and that something held them bound together long enough for their minds to start on the journey their hearts had begun long before.
Some things were just meant to happen. It had been a turning point in both of their lives, one that they were still feeling the repercussions from, but she couldn't honestly look back at it, and wish it had happened differently. Not then, and especially not now.
An owl hooted, jerking her attention away from her memories, and she cast a cautious glance around, lifting her head and scenting the wind, detecting the distinctive smell of the barnyard, and the rain on the wind, and the rich scent of the earth she was sitting on. Almost dawn.. and once they got into the mining camp.. misbehaving shouldn't be a problem.
Then what? She wondered. Ok.. so we get taken into Hercules' little playroom. If he didn't recognize Iolaus, he surely wasn't going to recognize her. Guess I'll play it by ear. She sighed silently. I just hope I can do something.
The clouds cleared the full moon for a short time, sending a cascade of light across her face, and she bit off a grin, taking one of the remaining packets from her pouch. Mushball. She unwrapped it, and raised the piece of stone to her lips, then smiled when the sandstone gave off a gentle scent of leather and ink. Gabrielle must have stored the things in her scroll pouch, she mused, as her eyes traced the letters on the paper.
This isn't a poem.. it's just a note.. cause by now you're probably sick of the poems, and wish I'd send along something useful. Like helpful hints on the weather, or how to get stains out of leather, or the best way to cook trout. But no.. instead you get mushy poems. Just be glad I didn't put in the ones about your eyes, OK? Oh.. I can see you rolling them right now. Just for that, if you turn this over, you'll get a poem anyway.
I love you.
Xena smiled, and idly reread the note a few times, hearing it in the bard's voice effortlessly, then she turned the paper over in gentle fingertips, and tilted it to the moonlight
If I could ask for anything on earth,
And have it granted just for my wishing,
I'd ask that my wish be given to someone else.
Because there is nothing I could want,
That I don’t already have.
What in Hades does she see in me? Xena shook her head in wonder. Gods.. love must be blind.. just how did I get off being this lucky? She resettled her shoulders with a sigh, and let her fingers idly play with the pendant hanging from her neck, and waited for the dawn to come.
Toris yawned, as he led his amiable chestnut along the road, sensing the beginnings of home. "Not far now." He commented, to the mostly silent Granella who walked beside him. The rest of the Amazons were spread out along the path, watching for trouble. The weather had held, luckily, and they'd made good time back towards home, but it had been a long walk and he'd be glad to see the end of it.
Granella had sent a runner back to the Amazon Village, so by now, he knew they would have their news, and be relieved of worrying about their queen and the girls. He was glad for that.. he knew from the expressions on their faces when they'd met him that they'd been very worried.. something he could understand.
The crossroads home fell under his steps, and he let out a sigh of relief, and he grinned at his silent companion. "Bet you'll be glad to get under a roof."
Granella spared him a glance, and smiled. "Yeah.. and I'll be glad to see Ephiny.. she had us really worried for a while." She looked ahead. "Are those your fields? "
"Amphipolis' yes." Toris answered, now hearing the first signals from the guard post, and he stiffened. "Hold on.. " Hearing the warning notes. He sent back a query with pursed lips, and then a trotting figure broke cover, and headed in his direction. "Uh oh."
Granella looked at him. "What?" She felt a chill of fear travel down her, and sensed the other Amazons moving up on either side of her.
"What's up?" Lida whispered, watching the villager approach.
"I don't know." Granella answered softly.
"Ebris.. what's wrong?" Toris questioned the man, who came up and set a hand on his arm. "Is it our guest?"
Ebris shook his head, out of breath. "No.. it's.. Gabrielle."
Toris turned white so fast Granella grabbed his arm. "What happened?' The Amazon asked crisply.
The villager sighed. "We don’t know - she took that bunch of girls out before sundown to the river.. hasn't been back, and we've got searchers out."
"Where's my sister?" Toris asked quietly, staring intently at him. "Why isn't she here?" Gods.. no.. don't tell me she was that sick after all, and never…
Ebris took a breath. "She got word a friend needed help up to the north.. been gone for two days.. left the morning after you did." He hesitated. "A rider came in that night.. little fellow, a friend of Hercules, they say."
Toris closed his blue eyes. Hercules.. of course. If he was in trouble Xena would have gone without question.. but what… "All right.. so they can't find any sign of Gabrielle or the girls? They must not be looking hard enough.. they'd have no reason to cover their trail."
"Damn.. damn.. damn.." Granella cursed. "Just when I think things are getting better.. well, we'd better help look."
Toris shook his head. "Let's go to the inn first. We'll get the latest news there, then we can spread out. "
They all turned abruptly, as hoofbeats sounded on the road behind them. The darkness broke as the moon shone briefly through, and reflected off the new traveler, an odd silhouette to be sure. Man's body and horses back, who was trotting briskly in their direction.
"Centaur." Lida breathed. "Now what??"
"Ho.. " Granella stepped to the center of the road and held up a hand. "Hail, traveler."
The Centaur stopped, and bent his head to see her better in the pale silvery light. "Ah.. I believe I know you. Is it the scout Granella?"
She stepped closer. "Yes.. it is. You were at the Village the other day. " She cocked her head, thinking. "Kaleipus, right?"
The centaur nodded. "Yes.. " Then his eyes caught Toris' and he stared. "I beg your pardon.. but.. who are you?" In typical centaur bluntness, as he arched his back, and sidestepped closer to the tall man.
"My name is Toris." Came the slow answer. "And if you're Kaleipus.. I think you know my sister Xena."
"Your sister." Kaleipus shook his handsome head slowly. "Gods." He sighed. "Am I going in the right direction then.. because it's Xena I'm looking for."
Toris studied him quietly. "In the right direction for her home, yes. But she's away right now, apparently. Is there something.. " He stopped, and gestured to himself. "What can we do for you?"
Kaleipus sighed. "It's my son, Solon. He's gone missing.. and I thought he might be headed this way.. he wanted to visit."
They all looked at each other in consternation. "Can this possibly, in any way, get more complicated?" Granella complained. "Let's all go back there, and take stock of what's going on, then we can decide what to do. " And I can talk to Ephiny, and we can try to make sense of all this. Gods.. Gabrielle missing, and Xena not there.. Ephiny must be going mad.
Toris started walking, and found himself next to the centaur, who trotted along and gave him side glances. He'd never seen a centaur before.. and he would have been intrigued if he wasn't so worried about Gabrielle.. how could she just go off.. no. He was sure the bard was just late.. they'd find her. They had to..
"So.." Kaleipus murmured. "You're Xena's brother, are you? I didn't know she had any family."
Toris sighed distractedly. "Yeah, she never tells people about mother and I.. mostly so we don't become targets of old enemies of hers. Of which there are apparently legions."
The centaur hid an amused smile, having been one of the legions. "Well, that sounds like her." He paused. "You look like her." And I guess that's what my Solon will look like in twenty years or so.. I would think.
"Thanks." Came the absent minded answer. "Why was your son coming here?"
Complicated question, unless he gave a very simple answer, and he didn't know just how honest Xena had been with her family. "He's very fond of your sister, and of Gabrielle." He answered carefully. "He heard they were wintering here.. and was bugging me to come visit." He pondered a moment. "I don’t know if Xena ever told you.. she saved him from a bad place once upon a time." And he never forgot that.. or her. So much so that I've wondered.. if he suspects the truth. He's not a stupid lad.
The tall dark haired man smiled. "She's made a habit of that lately.. but no, I haven't heard that one specifically." He glanced ahead, seeing the lights of the inn, far brighter than the should be at this time of night and grimaced. "Looks like everyone's up."
They headed into the courtyard, getting the attention of a small group standing on the porch. Toris recognized Cyrene among them, her strong voice carrying out over the darkened ground. Alongside her were Johan, and a group of the most proficient of Gabrielle's students, who were garbed for travel.
"Toris!" Cyrene called, seeing him. "Get over here, we've…" her voice stopped, as she took in the group surrounding him. "What in .." She strode forward.
"Mother." Toris said, then took a breath. "We've heard the news.. this is Granella, who was out looking for Ephiny.. I found her partway to the Village. And this is.. Kaleipus, a centaur who's looking for Xena."
Cyrene looked from one to the other. "Hello." She gazed at Granella. "Your queen is, against my better judgment, sitting up near the fire inside." She gave the Amazon a jerk of her head. "I guess you want to go say hello." She watched the Amazons file past her and up the stairs, then turned her attention to the centaur. "What do you want with my daughter?"
Kaleipus smiled his gentle smile, and bit a bearded lip. "Actually, I was hoping I'd find my son here… he's also missing, and he wanted to come see her, and Gabrielle, very badly. But I can see he isn't… I have to search elsewhere."
Cyrene sighed. "We've got groups out searching the entire river area. If he's here, they'll find him too. " She paused. "Would you like some.." Unsure of whether to offer ale or hay. "thing?"
Kaleipus shifted his weight and let out a breath. "A drink would be nice.. thanks.. and I'll wait for your hunters to come back.. so I don't have to duplicate their efforts." He paused. "Did I understand right.. that the Amazon queen Ephiny is also here?"
"Long story." Cyrene and Toris said in concert. They looked at each other. "But yes." Cyrene added, with a little smile. "Why don't you come.. inside?"
Kaleipus regarded the door thoughtfully. "I think I'll fit." He gave them a strained smile. "I know you must be worried about your missing friends."
Cyrene glanced at him. "Gabrielle is a second daughter to me… you bet your centaur tail I'm worried." She looked off into the darkness. "I just wish Xena were here."
They moved up onto the porch, and entered the inn.
The morning sun woke Gabrielle, and she opened her eyes reluctantly, hoping what she was remembering was a bad dream. The bars inches before her face dashed that hope, however, and she groaned softly. Her head pounded dully, and she still felt sick to her stomach, but she knew she had to get moving, and be a good example to the girls. Who were probably scared to death, never having been held captive before. Well, she had. More times than she really wanted to think about.. only this time, she knew she had to get out all on her own. There would be no miraculous last minute rescues by her partner.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself up, wincing at the sudden throbbing in her skull, then leaned her head against the bars, and looked out over the compound.
A hunter's camp, she realized, and rougher than she'd first thought last night. Tiny wattle huts covered with thatch for shelter, and five or six of the crudely made cages scattered on the far side. In the center, the dully glowing firepit, and the lumps of sleeping inhabitants clustered around it. The stench was… She wrinkled her nose. Impressive.
She rolled over and sat up straight, running her fingers through her hair to straighten it, and regarded the sleeping girls. They were huddled in one corner, giving her some space by herself at this end. She couldn’t help but smile a bit at that, but continued her sweep and let her eyes catch the short, bandy legged figure who was going from cage to cage with something in a dirty looking pot. "Oh.. great." She muttered, then called out to her companions softly. "Hey.. "
Cait's head came up first, her pale gray eyes blinking open and darting around the cage, then settling on her with unnerving brightness. "Gosh." She sighed, and shook her mates. "Come on.. " A glance towards Gabrielle. "You're looking better."
"I feel like centaur poop." Gabrielle confessed. "But they're bringing around what passes for breakfast, and I think we'd better have some if we can." She turned her head, and watched the little man go to the cage next to theirs, and bang on the wooden bars. Dark forms within stirred, and stumbled forward, standing before the bars with small bowls held out. Gabrielle's hackles rose at the sight, and she was about to turn her head, when one of the small forms caught her attention.
She studied it, then blinked, then grabbed the bars next to her, and pulled herself to her feet, ignoring the nausea and dizziness to walk to the very far edge of her prison and peer out. No. It can't be.
He turned, and saw her, and his mouth dropped open. "Gabrielle!" He yelled out, a smile crossing his dirty face. "Boy am I glad to see you!"
"Ah.. you know him then?" Rurik's voice floated over to her, as the man neared their cage. "Noisy brat.. always causing trouble." He stood and regarded the now scowling boy. "I was going to have him killed this morning.. think you can keep him quiet? I'd rather get my price of him." He looked at her. "Hey, little queen.. did you hear me?"
"I can keep him quiet." Gabrielle said in a toneless voice, not looking at him. "Bring him here."
"That's my little lass." Rurik laughed, and patted her head through the bars. "Hey.. Kefric! Bring that brat over here and put him in with this lot." He gave Gabrielle an approving look. "There, I knew you were going to be a cooperative one. So sensible."
They watched as Kefric drew the struggling boy from his prison, and pulled him over to where Rurik was standing. The tall trader grabbed the boy's jaw, and forced him to look up. "Here, now you little bastard…you've got a second chance, see? You be nice to this pretty lass here, and maybe I'll let you play with my boots later, get me?"
The boy glared at him, unrepentant, pale eyes boring through the trader. Rurik laughed, and opened the cage door, shoving him in, and closing it roughly behind him. "There… and you're all nice looking lasses too.. he should be thanking me, I'm thinking."
Gabrielle grabbed the boy as he hurtled past, and pulled him close. He abandoned his tough attitude, and wrapped his arms around her. "Solon.. what in the name of Hades are you doing here?" She whispered fiercely into his ear.
Embarrassed, he released her, and backed away a little, blinking, and casting a shy look at the Amazons who now clustered around both of them.
Gabrielle took the opportunity to study the boy, having not seen him for over a year. Eph was right.. he is growing up. She mused, seeing the added inches of height. His hair was now darkening, though she doubted it would ever be as dark as Xena's, and his face was lengthening, and acquiring those high planed cheekbones that, along with his pale blue eyes brought her partner strongly to mind. Now she understood Ephiny's veiled comments - Solon was becoming his mother's son, and in a very short time, a look in the mirror would render moot any further attempts at disguising his parentage. She couldn't help but smile at him.
"I was.. coming to visit you." He answered softly, glancing at the Amazon girls. "And I guess I got lost… I thought I knew the way but.. I ended up in this forest, and then these guys found me."
Gabrielle sighed in vexation. "Kaleipus let you come by yourself?"
A long pause, then he shrugged a little, and gave her a very, very familiar sheepish look. "I didn't ask him." He spread his hands out. "He never lets me do anything… and when we found out you guys were.. " Here he blushed. "You know.. then I thought it would be great if I could just.. come and say hello."
"Excuse me." Cait's soft voice interrupted them. She stuck a hand out. "Hello, I'm Cait."
Gabrielle gave them all a look. "I was going to introduce you." She admonished them. "This is Solon.. his father is Kaleipus, of the Centaurs." She indicated the girls with a hand. "This is Cait, whom you've met." The girl blushed. "And Sharra, Megan, Lista, and Elianas. They're Amazons."
"Well, almost." Sharra grinned, and stuck her hand out as well. "But any friend of our queen is a friend of ours." She paused and glanced around. "Right?"
"Right." Came the answer.
"Queen?" Solon turned and gave Gabrielle a look. "You are? Nobody tells me nothin." He scowled. "I feel like I live in a stable out in nowhere sometimes."
Gabrielle laughed wearily. "Don't worry, Solon.. we all feel like that sometimes." She glanced over, to where the bandy legged man was standing, watching them and licking his lips. Her nape lifted again, a curious feeling that she suspected she'd caught from Xena. "Well, let's get some breakfast, right?"
She walked over to the edge of the cage, and looked out at the man, pinning him with a sea ice cold gaze. "Are you going to give that to us, or just stand there?" She asked quietly.
"Oh.. you're a nasty one, are you?" The man cackled, shaking his ladle at her. "Careful, missy… or you'll end up with nothing from me."
Gabrielle kept her stare up, until he looked away, and fidgeted nervously. "Alright.. get em up here."
The bard called them over, and passed them filled bowls, watching them back away before she took one of her own. "Thank you." She said politely, meeting his eyes. He took one long look at her, then scuttled off.
They all sat down in a circle, and ate the tasteless cereal in silence. Gabrielle mostly played with hers, only taking a mouthful when she could no longer avoid it.
Solon leaned closer to her, and whispered in her ear. "Where's Xena?" He glanced around. "An.. what are YOU doing here?"
Gabrielle sighed. "She's away north.. helping out an old friend of ours. We were just out taking a walk when these guys jumped us."
"So.. she doesn't know?" Solon questioned, getting to the heart of the matter.
"No." Gabrielle answered softly. Well.. by now she might know something.. but even if she does feel.. this.. it would still take her too long to get here. "We're on our own, unfortunately."
"Are we gonna escape?" The boy asked, glancing bright eyed at the listening circle of girls.
"We're going to try." Gabrielle answered. Then she gave up on her cereal and handed it to Cait. "Here.. you divide this." Then she stood up and walked over to the bars, putting a hand on them and looking out. Oh Xena.. now what? I've got your son here, love. Now the stakes just got even higher.. because I gotta get him out of here along with us. I don't know how to do this, Xena.. I can't even begin to know.. I usually depend on your brilliant tactical mind for this sort of thing. Gods… I wish you were here.
The rising wind brought no answer, just a heavy wet coldness that ate away into her very soul.
"Iolaus." Xena called softly, as the sun's first rays trickled across the sad looking village. Would have looked better in a rainstorm. Xena mused, as she checked the clouds above. Whoops.. shouldn't have said that. Someday, Xena, you'll learn not to tempt the Fates that way.
Iolaus' eyes blinked open, and he yawned. "Morning." He sighed and looked around. "Nice place…I think I liked it better in the dark."
That got a snort of laughter from the warrior, who stood up, and offered him a hand up. "Yeah…I was thinking that myself." She smiled inwardly as Iolaus grabbed her hand without hesitation, and she hauled him to his feet. "Won't be sunny long, though."
"Hey.." Iolaus brushed himself off and grinned at her. "You have the same kind of tug as Herc does… what, do they issue that to you hero types or something?"
Xena moved forward, heading towards the central area of the village, where several people were assembling. "Oh.. yeah.. right along with our etiquette manuals."
Iolaus glanced at her, and raised an eyebrow.
"Threw mine away." Xena deadpanned, giving him an eyebrow right back. She studied the small group forming, apparently local inhabitants who were grumbling to themselves. She gave the nearest one a quiet nod, not missing the not so subtle once over she was getting from the rest of them. Ok.. so maybe it isn't the leather. She sighed to herself. "What's going on here?"
The older villager spat on the ground. "New here?"
She nodded, and so did Iolaus. "Just passing through, really." Iolaus said, with a friendly smile. "Thought we might be able to pick up some supplies."
The man snorted. "No extra here, bucko. And if ye're not wanting to stay here for a spell, ye'd best be on your way." He gave Xena a long look. "They won't turn down likely looking folks such as yourselves."
"They?" Xena quietly asked, feeling a trepidation start deep in her gut. Mine? Or hers… "Turn us down for what?"
The thunder of hooves interrupted their discussion, and they turned to watch a small group of horsemen enter the square, spreading out and surrounding the gathered villagers. The riders were dressed in leather and bronze half armor, and carried pikes, maces, and short swords.
"All right.. all right.. we lost three last night, so we need replacements." The man in front called, uncoiling a long whip and snaking it around his horse's nervously moving legs. "Not that there's much to choo…" His eyes fell on the newcomers, and a gap tooth grin appeared. "Ho ho ho.. what do we have here? Some visitors, I see.. "
He nudged his mount closer and peered down at Xena, who met his gaze with as unintimidating a look as she could muster under the circumstances. Iolaus nudged her in the ribs, so she supposed it wasn't very effective. She sighed and dropped her eyes. "Well well.. we'll take these two, and that oldster - you've got some life left in you, right?"
"Where are you taking us?" Iolaus interrupted. "We're just passing through.. what do you think you're doing???"
A boot caught him in the head, and Xena caught his falling body with a little sigh. She glanced up at the horseman, who was grinning down at her. "What's the work?" She asked in a civil tone.
"Mining." The man tapped her head with his whip. "And that's a reasonable thing you are, eh?? More than your little friend there." Never knowing just how close to dying he was at that very instant, when all of Xena's considerable instincts were screaming to pull him down off that horse and break his ugly, stinking body in half.
"We get fed?" Xena pursued, getting Iolaus' arm around her shoulders and supporting him, shoving her intense desire to do damage down very deep. Oh.. Hercules… you owe me BIG time for this one, my friend…this will be twice I pulled your butt out of the flames, and that first time, all I had to do was trick Ares.
The man laughed. "A practical sort…I like you!!!!" He cracked his whip and motioned to his soldiers. "That you do.. though it's nothing like mama makes." He reversed the whip in his hands, and put the edge of it under Xena's chin, forcing her head up. "But you won't be complaining now, will you my lovely?"
Xena felt all of her muscles jerk hard, as her body fought against her mind's control. "Complain?" She laughed gently. "Nope." She started reciting the different ways she could kill this animal in her head, mostly to distract herself. "What're we mining?"
"Oohh.." The man leaned close to her, studying her face intently. "Gems, it is… though I haven't seen any to rival those eyes.. maybe I'll ask Croton if I can borrow you after work, eh??"
Oh yeah. Xena cheerfully drew and quartered him in her imagination, giving him a fond look as she pictured pulling his arm off with him still alive to feel it. "Looks like I'm gonna like it here." She wondered briefly if she could make him scream by breaking every bone in his body first.
The captain laughed in delight, and motioned for his troops to get moving. "Let's go then.. Croton'll be giving me a bonus for bringing you in, he will… and maybe a little thrown in for your little buddy there."
The riders clustered around, and herded the three of them towards the north end of the town square, giving them the occasional prod with a pikestaff. Xena strode along, trying to remember if it was appropriate to kill someone first, and then pull their backbone out of their throat, or was it better to do it the other way around. "Xena?" Iolaus' whispered voice reached her.
"Huh?" She said, gave him a distracted look.
"I can walk now. Thanks." The blond man replied, as she released his arm, and he used that hand to rub his head. "I'm not gonna ask what's going through your mind right now."
"Good." Xena muttered, concentrating on not reacting when the pike hit her shoulder blades. Gods.. this was harder than she'd thought.. she felt like she was in a constant battle with herself… keeping a clamp down tight on reflexes she usually didn't have to think about. And to top it off, the uneasiness in her belly was growing, and taking on a darker tone. Gabrielle… her mind fretted, almost causing her to lose control of her tightly wound body. I need to cut this short. She decided, then peered ahead of them, seeing the entrance to what must be the mining shafts.
Uh oh. Now her guts tightened for a totally different reason.
"Xena?" Iolaus touched her arm, causing her to start. "Sorry."
"What?" She hissed, giving him a look.
"You ok? You just turned white as a sheet." Iolaus' voice was low, but there was a true note of concern in it.
"Fine, thanks." The warrior replied, through clenched teeth. "Just trying to keep my temper."
"Oh." Iolaus grimaced. "Right.. sorry."
They got to the tiny entrance, and the captain dismounted, then went to a small shelter near the opening, and came back with three collars.
Oh.. gods. I'm gonna lose it. Xena tried to grab hold of her reactions, and the roiling nervousness from the impending tunnel entrance and lock them down. All right.. breathe. Calm down.
The barrel chested captain fastened the collars first on the villager, then on an uneasy Iolaus. "Gotta keep these on, children.. find ye without them down there, they'll cut ye down like lambs at the slaughter.. so you be good, all right?" He stopped in front of Xena, and smiled as he reached up to fasten the leather strapping around her neck. "Ah.. and what's this? A little something I can relieve you…"
He never got any further. A hand clasped his wrist, and tightened on it like a band of iron, making his fingers numb, and stopping his questing touch. He looked up, frowning, and found himself pinned in place by a very feral ice blue stare.
"Uh oh." Iolaus muttered under his breath.
But Xena got herself back under control with a visible effort. "That's not part of the deal." She said softly, not releasing him. "It means a lot to me, and I'm not parting with it." She leaned forward slightly and let the wolf surface, just a little. "Got me?" That last was almost whispered.
Iolaus found himself holding his breath, watching Xena suddenly become the warlord he remembered with seemingly little effort. The danger that she was surrounded them all like a dark pall, a tickling at the edge of his senses like the charged atmosphere before a cleansing storm.
"Sure.. sure..' The captain opened his hand, and tried to back away. "Family heirloom.. I understand.. " He tried to laugh. "Better keep that well hidden then." His voice had a nervous ring to it.
Xena released him, and backed off, finishing the buckling of her collar herself. Then she faced the entrance, and squared her shoulders, waiting for the captain to lead the way. She spared Iolaus a quick glance, catching his concerned look, and giving him back a bare wink.
That got a tiny smile from him, and he turned to follow the captain into the depths of the mountain.
Breathe. Xena forced calm on herself, using the years of tedious discipline to do so. Breathe.. it's just a cave.. you've done this before. She put her hand on the edge of the opening, and ducked inside, letting the first wave of fear crash over her and go past. Breathe. You can do this.
She thought of the open sky, and the gently waving fields of grain outside Amphipolis. And the endless depths of Gabrielle's remarkable eyes. Breathe. And so she did, quiet, controlled breaths that moved her past the panic, and into the mountain, straining her eyes against the darkness, and feeling the remembered scent of rock dust enter her lungs once again.
"I hate caves." Iolaus muttered, from a few steps before her. "I hate dark, cramped, nasty smelling places." He sighed heavily. "Herc's gonna owe me BIG time for this." He felt a hand pat his back, and rest there, and, oddly, it did make him feel a lot better. At least I'm in this with someone… even if it is Xena, who can be the friendliest homicidal maniac I know. "You had me worried for a minute out there." He whispered, casting a look back over his shoulder as they made their way down the long, winding tunnel, the darkness broken by the occasional pool of torchlight.
"I should have had him worried." Xena replied in a grim tone. "Sorry.. didn't expect him to grab at me like that." She touched the walls, feeling the faint vibrations from ringing pickaxes, which she could hear as high, rhythmic pinging.
"You're really scary sometimes, did you know that?" The blond man commented, running an idle hand against the rough hewn tunnel wall.
"Yes." Came her terse reply. "I practice really hard at it."
"Oh." Iolaus answered, then decided to keep his mouth shut for a while.
They wound through the passageway, and came out into a large open area inside the mountain. The pickaxes rang much louder here, and the stench was compounded of unwashed bodies, rock dust, and somewhere upwind, bad water. Xena's stomach turned, and she sighed, adding that to the already unsettled feeling she had from being inside the mountain, and from whatever was bothering her partner. This wasn't going to be pleasant.
She looked around, seeing the nearest villagers swinging picks at the grudging stone, chipping out small chunks, then lifting them and dropping them into roughly hewn carts that were then trundled to a long table, where other villagers bent over the rocks and split them into smaller pieces, exposing their hidden treasures. A stable of guards stood watch over the table, and made sure no gems got sidetracked into someone's pockets, and occasionally the ones closest would uncoil the long whips all of them wore, and snake it around the working men and women, stinging a cheek or an upper arm with a light lash.
For a long moment, she forgot completely about Hercules, and found her mind figuring out ways to free the villagers from their enslavement. And that brought a tiny smile to her face, and a shake of her midnight dark head. Damn if it isn't a reflex now.. just like breathing.. Sweet Aphrodite.. something really has changed. Then she sighed and focused on the problem at hand. First, get Hercules. Then HE could help free the villagers.
The captain was motioning them over now, and she and Iolaus edged closer. "Here.. it's simple enough." He pointed at the stack of pickaxes. "You take these, you hit that." He pointed at the wall. "Get it?"
Xena sniffed reflectively, and picked up an ax, hefting it experimentally. I could kill every single person in this cavern with this. Her mind mused. However.. "I think I can do that." She muttered, and moved off towards a likely section of wall, followed by a grumbling Iolaus. "Stand clear, OK?" She advised the blond man. "I have some energy I need to work off."
Xena studied the wall, then shifted the wool across her shoulders. It was warm down here, and she knew she'd be sweating in minutes if she kept the overtunic on. "Oh well.. not like they're going to throw me out now. " She turned to a nervous looking Iolaus. "Here.. hold this a minute." She handed him her pickaxe, then unbelted her tunic and pulled it over her head, leaving her dressed in only her leathers, which got several appreciative whistles from the watching guards. She rolled her eyes, and took the ax back, eyeing the wall then swinging the tool with stunning force against the rock.
Rock pieces shattered everywhere, sending an explosion of chips scattering halfway across the alcove she and Iolaus were in, and making the him dive for cover with a yelp. Xena grinned, and swung again, tearing chunks from the wall with ruthless efficiency, ignoring the sting of the chips splattering against her body.
She kept it up until she'd worked the tight, tense pressure out of her, and her body was again under her control. Now was the time for the next phase.. she mused, stopping and leaning on her pickaxe, watching Iolaus chip away at his section of the wall. And as she stood there, the uneasy feeling she'd had inside her suddenly blossomed, and started her heart pounding. No doubt now.. Gabrielle needed her.
Question was.. should she finish here.. or just leave? Could she just leave here.. leave Iolaus, and Hercules to get themselves out of this mess.. when she could already feel the danger.. the evil lurking here? Could she? Her heart spoke clearly.. yes, she could. Gabrielle was.. everything to her.
But would Gabrielle want her to do that? Her bard.. her better half.. who threw her body over strange Amazon queens, and stood up for small centaur children in the face of a crossbow?
No. She wouldn't.
All right then. Xena sighed heavily. No time to waste. She'd get to Hercules, and find out just what in Tartarus was going on, do what she could to fix it, then go home, and see just how much time she could shave off her ride out here. Dropping the pickaxe, she walked over to the water cistern, and took a dipper, sipping the metallic tasting water with a grimace.
A guard wandered over and stood staring at her with undisguised interest, and she let a glint form in her eyes. Ah.. there's a likely enough target. "You want something?" She growled at the guard, giving him a surly glare.
He let his small eyes travel over her form, covered with rock dust and sweat. "Maybe.. " He moved closer and tapped his whip butt against her upper arm. "Better get some respect, woman."
Xena carefully laid the dipper down, and smiled. "Respect this." She said sweetly, and took him out with a short, savage jab right from the shoulder. Oh.. gods.. that felt good. She caught the next guard with a roundhouse right, and sent him flying against the rock wall, then caught the third on her boot, and kicked him back against the worktable. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Iolaus tackling one of her opponents and smiled.
Now several ganged up on her, and she sighed a little at having to cut the fun short. She let them pile up on her, and felt a heavy blow on her head that she went limp at, and just lay still in their hands. I hate this.. I hate this…. Oh, Hercules, do I have a damn bone to pick with you. Resolutely, she kept her eyes closed as they carried her out, and down a long passageway filled with the smell of bad air and stagnant water. It got colder again, and the air got wetter, as they passed near what she knew must be an underground stream.
Longer and longer, through darkened hallways only skimpily supplied with sluggishly guttering torches, until she felt them stop, and heard the rasp of a key in a lock.
Agonized creaking of hinges followed, and she felt a gust of warmer air come through the doorway they were entering. Inside, she could smell straw, and dirt, and blood, and the distinct tang of rusty iron. Another protest of hinges, and she was being dumped on a bed of filthy straw, and heard a thump as Iolaus was deposited next to her.
"There.. you scum." A loud voice spat. "Let the adjuster take care of ye." The iron door clanged shut, and their footsteps faded down the hallway again, after the booming thud of the wooden door closing behind them.
Xena waited to make sure they'd really left, and rolled over and up onto her feet. She brushed the dirty straw off her with a disgusted look, then gazed around.
They were in a large square.. cell, was the only word for it. Around the edges were low benches, which were occupied by shadowy figures who didn't meet her gaze. The smell of blood and illness was strong here, and she wrinkled her nose at it, then she turned her eyes towards the outside of the cage, which bordered a hallway. On the other side of the hallway was a large chamber, lit with reddish torches, which held an uncomfortable assortment of torture tools. Most of them she recognized, but some.. escaped even her experience. Hanging from the roof was a rusty cage.. no.. she realized it wasn't rust staining the iron..
"He usually stays over on that side." Came Iolaus' quiet voice at her side. She turned and looked at him, as he stood at the bars, hands curled around them, knuckles white. "He does go in and out a little.. mostly to get food, or whatever."
Xena nodded slowly, letting the horror of the place filter through her warlord's senses, which muted the shock. "All right.. I guess we wait, then."
Gabrielle let her head rest against the cool, damp wood, hoping to ease some of the throbbing ache that still plagued her. Along with the nausea, of course.. which combined to make her miserable and wish she was anywhere but here.
She watched quietly as the raiders went about their business, which seemed to consist of pushing and shoving each other around, and drinking. She was in favor of that.. the more they kept themselves amused, the less attention they would pay to their prisoners.
Already she’d noted that the guard on the cages wasn’t overly stringent, mostly because the raiders though their captives were either too weak or too stupid to try and escape.
Well, I’m neither weak nor stupid. Gabrielle told herself. And these girls with me are Amazons, and that kid.. if that kid’s got an ounce of his mother’s feisty attitude, we’ll be fine.
His mother. That thought brought a wistful twinge to her heart, and not only because she was in a tight spot. There was part of her now that just missed her partner’s presence, a gentle ache deep inside her that made her close her eyes and indulge herself in a long moment of wishing.
No time for that. She straightened up, and peered around the camp again. No sign of Rurik so far again.. and she was glad. She hated his condescending attitude.. and was mad with herself for not seeing through him in the first place and guessing his dangerous nature.
Should have known when he made me lose my temper, back at the inn.. she swore at herself. Damn it, Gabrielle.. start listening to yourself, all right?
On the other hand, Xena hadn’t figured him for such a louse either, so she didn’t feel so bad. Not nearly as bad as Rurik was going to feel when, not if, they got out of here and got back home, and she let Xena in on his little camp secret.
For a minute, she felt bad about feeling good about that, then she looked around, and saw the shivering, frightened looking kids in the next cage over, and decided he’d get what was coming to him. After all, she could have easily been in their place, two and a half years ago.
What would that have been like? She wondered, letting her eyes travel over her companions, who were huddled loosely around her. What would my life be like right now if Xena hadn’t happened to wander by and decide, for who knows what reason, to interfere in Draco’s plans? Would I be the same person, only in worse circumstances, or would I be an entirely different person all together?….oh well. Moot question. Gabrielle reflected. But.. now I can do for these kids here what Xena did for me. And damned if I’m not going to try.
"Well, well. Good morning, little lass.’ Rurik’s voice grated on her. "Did you sleep well? No? Too bad." He laughed. "But I have a little surprise for you.. my men hear have been hearing me tell of you being the fierce Amazon and all.. and they want a little demonstration. So… be a sweet and get up there, all right?"
Gabrielle studied him for a long moment, not moving. "What kind of demonstration?"
He laughed again. "Oh no, my lass, you’ll not be getting your hands on a blade. Just with your little stick then." He opened the cage, and reached down, grabbing her by the hair and pulling. "Come on now."
Gabrielle grimaced, and started to rise, then was startled by a small form dashing past her and throwing itself against Rurik’s chest, knocking the man off balance and causing him to lose his grip on her.
"Leave her be, you centaur dropping." Solon yelled, before Rurik’s fist caught him on the side of the head and sent him flying into Cait’s arms. The girl had also stood, and was moving towards the trader.
"Bastard." Rurik spat, then glanced at Gabrielle’s face. "You think that was funny?"
She did, but not for the reason he thought. "You sure are tough beating up little kids." The bard observed. "Cait, you keep an eye on things here, OK?" She moved past Rurik and waited for him to lock the cage door again. "I should tell you some stories I know about what happens to bullies."
The trader circled around her, and put out a hand to lift her chin up. "Oh.. really? Why don’t we go to my hut, and you can tell them to me in private then, eh lassie?"
Gabrielle felt her heart skip. Humor… maybe that would.. distract him. "I'd love to Rurik, but you’re really not my type." Oh boy.. was that ever the truth.
That got a round of muffled giggles from the girls.
"Oh?" Rurik, spared the girls a confused look, then focused on her again. "And what type would that be?" He lifted her hand. "I see you doffed your pretty ring there… was your betrothed not your type.. either?"
"Gosh.." Cait whispered to Sharra. "She’s ever brave.. and whatever did she do with that ring?"
"Shh." The other girl hushed her. "She fastened it round that dog’s neck before she sent him away."
"It’s a wolf." Cait corrected her. "And I bet I know where she sent him."
Gabrielle let him wait for a bit before she answered. "No.. just your luck, Rurik.. I took it off before we went out into the woods. " She paused, and took a breath. "What about this.. demonstration you wanted?" I feel like death warmed over.. but no point in telling him that.. maybe I can get out of this without getting too banged up.
"Anxious, are you." The man laughed, his good humor restored. "All right, come on." He grabbed the back of her tunic, and shoved her towards the firepit, where a group of laughing men were standing. Gabrielle studied them as she got closer, and sighed inwardly. So much for getting let off easy.
Rurik tossed her staff to her, which she caught automatically, and motioned one of the larger of the men out. "Come on then, here she is."
The man studied her, then laughed, and picked up a long stave lying near the firepit. "So.. ye’re an Amazon, huh? Bitty thing… "
Gabrielle rocked her head back and forth, trying to ease the stiffness in her neck, and pushed the discomfort of the her still throbbing head out of her mind. Remember what Xena does.. .right? She can fight with.. oh.. probably half the bones in her body broken. And a hangnail. The thought of her partner’s familiar, determined expression made her feel better, and she worked her staff through a few warm up passes to loosen herself up. "Size isn’t everything." She replied to the raider.
The man didn’t answer, but instead rushed her, swinging his staff with a tolerable level of skill. She caught his weapon with her own, and deflected the force of the blow upward and outward, throwing him off balance, and allowing her the opportunity to reverse her motion, and catch him smartly in the ribs with the other end of her staff. Heh heh. Her mind quietly applauded. Jerk.
That got him mad, though, and he charged back at her, slamming against her defenses with his superior weight and size. But Gabrielle was used to that, and she let her legs absorb the force of his thrust, then she crouched slightly, and pushed back, glad of all those hours of sparring against Xena, who was about this guy’s size. She then went on the offensive, darting swift blows at his head and neck, which he barely deflected, then dropping suddenly to one knee and sweeping her staff in a backhanded motion that caught him in the legs and dropped him on his backside with a thump.
When he came back up, there was the glitter of a blade in one hand, and she barely had time to register that fact before her newly honed instincts took over and the next thing she knew, he was lying on his side holding his head, and the knife was halfway across the camp, having been caught by one side of her staff, while the other swung around and caught him on the side of the head.
Her eyes traveled over the circle of men. No one was laughing now.
I think I overdid it. Her mind reflected. Xena says.. never let people know just how good you are.. keep something back for a surprise when you need it. That’s kind of a scary thought, when it comes to her, you know? She backed off, and let one end of her staff drop, leaning against it and waiting.
"Damned if you aren’t an Amazon." One of the older men snorted. "All right, Rurik.. here’s your three dinars." The men gathered around Rurik, and grudgingly paid up, making the trader smirk.
He sauntered over to where Gabrielle was still standing quietly. "Ah.. now that was lovely, little lass." He wrapped a lock of her hair around one finger. "Now.. I don’t know.. it’s a pity you won’t be with us long… you could make me a pretty fortune, you could. So nice and sweet looking." He chuckled. "And underneath what a tiger."
Green eyes pinned him. "Rurik you’re not going to get away with this. You should let us all go now, before it’s too late."
He moved towards her, pushing her back against the tree they were standing under. "Threats? No no… little lass.. you don’t seem to understand here… who’s going to stop me, your warrior friend?" He chuckled. "That one’s all stories, and nothing else… we both know that.. right?" He traced her chin lightly. "Else she wouldn’t be out to pasture in that backwater."
Gabrielle’s eyebrows both rose in surprise, a reaction she didn’t bother to hide. "You’re nuts." The bard said bluntly. "She lives there because it’s where she was born. And those stories are real."
Rurik laughed. "If it makes you feel better to think so, little one, mores the better. If you think a grand rescue is coming, then you’ll behave, right? Because you know, if I think for a minute you’re going to deprive me of my fortune, I’ll take a spear and make shish kebab of your little friends over there."
Gabrielle sighed. O.K. can say I tried. She put a hand on Rurik’s shoulder. "Look, I’m only telling you this for your own good, all right? Xena is going to find us. And when she does, she’s not going to be really happy. Rurik, you don’t want to see her when she’s not happy, all right? Do you have any idea of who she really is?"
The man shrugged. "Nah, lass.. I’m not from here, as you know. Your local legends don’t impress me. I saw your cousin riding off to the north two days gone - and you’ll be out of here before she’ll get back.. it’s as simple as that. She’ll never find you, never know where you went…. Maybe she can console your betrothed for you." He seemed to find this amusing.
You know what? Gabrielle mused. I gotta start thinking that guys are just clueless. First Ares, then Iolaus, now him. Even Callisto got it on the first try. "Rurik, I don’t have a betrothed. That ring is Xena’s." She sighed. "And it doesn’t matter where you send us. She’ll follow."
Rurik stared at her in silence. Then he burst out laughing. "Oh.. that’s good. You’ll say anything to put me off then, won’t you?" He tugged her hair. "So.. what’s she got that I don’t? Hmm???"
Manners, class, looks, my heart and soul… "That’s not your business." The bard responded. "But if you ignore that warning, you’re dumber than I think you are."
He swung, she moved. His hand hit the tree with stunning force, knocking a large chunk of bark free, and showering Gabrielle’s body with fibrous shreds. Her hands moved in an automatic defensive motion and slammed her staff against his chest, knocking him backwards.
"Bitch." He snarled, and threw himself at her. Which proved her point, as she dodged out of his way, and ducked past him, letting him slam head on full into the tree. He slumped to the ground without a sound, and after a moment of stunned silence, the men loosely gathered near started to laugh. Wisps of the campfire’s sloppy smoke passed among them, bringing the scent of old cooking, and the smell of the hot stones that ringed it.
Three of them took hold of Rurik’s body and carried it to a nearby hut, two others drew swords, and glanced at her warily. "Put the stick down now, OK?" He poked at her with the weapon, and if the whole situation hadn’t been so grave, the bard would have collapsed in a fit of the giggles. Experimentally, she gave him a look. He backed off. "Put it down now, or the kids get it." He warned her, moving towards the cage.
"All right." Gabrielle agreed soberly, laying the staff down on the ground, and walking quietly over the cage, waiting for him to let her back in. Nervously, he did so, standing well back from her as she entered the enclosure, then slamming the door behind her.
Solon ran over and hugged her, and the girls gathered round, with grinning faces. "That was just super." Cait enthused, patting her arm.
Gabrielle ran her fingers through her pale hair, and sighed, walking over to the bars and sliding down them. Now that the excitement was over, she felt sick, the throbbing in her head had gotten worse, and her stomach was twisted in knots. She felt a hand on her arm, and looked up into several pairs of concerned eyes.
"Are you all right?" Sharra asked softly.
What would Xena do? Ok.. one I’m too tough for my Amazon War staff attitude coming up. "Yeah, I’m fine." The bard mustered a smile for them. "My head just still hurts." She glanced around the cage. "OK.. so.. I think it’s time for some stories, right?" She took a deep breath, and tried to settle her thoughts. "Right… have I told you the one where Xena defeats Poseidon.. twice?"
Xena turned her back on the bars, and walked around the perimeter of the cell, watching the silent inhabitants huddle away from her. She stopped, as one tried to move out of her way but couldn't, and knelt down.
"What's wrong with you?" She asked, with polite bluntness.
For an answer, the figure held out one arm, which they were holding with the other. Xena lifted the sleeve over it with gentle fingers, and looked beneath. Her eyes closed briefly. Fractured, just above the elbow. "How did this happen?" She asked quietly, taking hold of the arm, and reaching to the figure's neck. "Hold still…" Two swift jabs, and the arm was numbed, and she could straightened it.
"Iolaus, get me two pieces of wood off that plank over there." She waited for Iolaus to bring the wood over, then set the pieces gently against the arm. "I'm going to bind this up… then release the pressure points. It'll hurt.. but you'll be able to move it, OK?" She did so. "What happened?" She asked again, when she finished tying up the arm.
"Adjuster… decided I was slacking off." The muffled voice responded, and Xena realized it was a woman.
"He did this to you?" Xena's voice went dangerous. "For no reason?"
"Aye." Came the simple answer.
This can’t be. Her mind refused to believe Hercules was capable of this thing.. Hades, even in her worst days as a warlord.. this.. would have been beyond her. To have killed someone.. yes. She was capable of that. To injure one who had done her harm.. yes. But to maliciously maim a harmless innocent? No. And if I couldn’t have, me the Destroyer of Nations… her mental eyes rolled, as they always did on thinking of that particular little title, then this gentle giant, this man who had taken a chance and given her one.. surely couldn’t have done this. She turned and found Iolaus’ bleak eyes. "Are you sure…"
The blond man’s eyes closed, and Xena could see the pain on his face. She sighed, and stood. "All right.. anyone else need tending? Come on.. I haven’t got any supplies, but I’ll do what I can."
A supreme irony, she later thought, after working for several candlemarks setting fractures, and easing what pains she could. Their faces when Iolaus had looked over from where he was settling a man with a broken leg and called her name. Silence had fell, and all eyes had focused on her in startled surprise. "The Warrior Princess??" Had come one, quiet, shocked voice from a dark corner.
"Some call me that." Xena had answered, not looking up from the dislocated finger she was putting back into place.
"But her friends just call her Xena." Iolaus had chirped up from his corner, earning himself a wry look from glinting blue eyes. He grinned at her unrepentantly, no longer quite so intimidated.
"To think I would have lived to see this." The old woman she was working on said softly. "To have my body crippled by a man I always heard was a hero, and be healed by one the stories name… " She hesitated.
Xena patted her hand. "A ruthless warlord and killer." She sighed. "It’s all right. The stories are true. " She paused. "Both sets." She stood and dusted her hands off, and went to the edge of the cage, staring out across the hallway, lost in thought a moment. Finally she turned and faced them, putting her hands on her hips and nodding a little. "He won’t hurt you anymore. " A long pause, while she studied them, and they here. "One way or another."
Iolaus captured the picture before him, of this dark, damp and stinking dungeon, with it’s oily sputtering torches outlining Xena’s tall, muscular from in red highlights and inky shadows, the menace she exuded with effortless nonchalance in incredible balance against the fact that she was taking the part of the light in this.
Xena sighed, and sat down with her back against the bars, trying to ignore the stench and the draft of the place. She probed gently at the anxiety coming from Gabrielle, mildly relieved that it had gotten no worse. Worried, yes. Scared.. the bard was that, too. Hang in there.. she closed her eyes and thought hard in her partner’s direction.
Footsteps coming down the long hall, heavy boots that rang against the stone flooring with unhurried power. Xena turned slowly, and leaned up against the bars with one shoulder, crossing her legs at the ankles and focusing her eyes on the door. She felt her breathing quicken, and her battle nerves shiver into wakefulness, making her nape hairs prickle, and sending a rolling tension through her body.
The door opened with a negligent shove, and a tall, broad shouldered muscular man swaggered in, his body draped in black leather and furs, his hair unkempt, and a three days growth of beard gracing his face. He glanced into the dungeons holding cell with uninterested eyes, then stopped, and gazed at the leather clad woman looking guardedly at him.
For a moment, his brow creased, as though in thought, then his expression cleared, and he felt his chin, and let a smirk shape his mouth. "Where the Hades did they dig up something like you?"
The world was blacks, and whites, and clear shades of gray, but Ares didn’t pay much attention to what he saw anyway. His reality was bounded by a whirlwind of sounds, and an explosion of smells that told him far more than his eyes could ever hope to.
He had loped through the forest, reveling in the rich, many layered scent of the leaves, and trees, and animals, then knowing as he passed into cultivated land, where the dry, wispy smell of hay, and wheat stubble, and dried grasses mingled with the overwhelming evidence of humans.
He circled around their den, picking up the recent scents of the Leaders, crossing with that of the other humans who lived there. Several called him, but he ignored them, searching for one particular strand. Ah.. he had it. He trotted behind the inn, and lifted his head, finding the scent again, stale, but there on the wind.
With a determined sigh, he put his head down, and started down the rock strewn road, shaking his head a little to hear the odd, strange jingling, and feeling the unaccustomed pressure of the thin chain around his neck.
The cold rising wind riffled through his fur, and brought the water scent to him, beading cold moisture around his muzzle. The wet air also brought the Leader’s scent, and he broke into a rolling gait that ate up the miles. Find. His mind pictured the face that went with the Name that had been spoken, that was tied to the scent he was following. Find.
"Nothing." Lida slumped down into the chair next to where Ephiny was huddled. "Not a damn sign, nothing." She looked up at the Queen, who was looking more miserable every minute. "Look.. Ephiny.. why don’t you go lie down?"
"No." She sighed hoarsely. "I’d just be there staring at the ceiling.. at least here I have something else to think about." She looked up as the rest of the Amazons, and a few villagers straggled in, moving over to warm themselves by the fire.
It was mid morning, and they’d had parties out all night searching with no results. Not a twig, not a branch out of place. Ephiny wracked her mind uselessly. What did Gabrielle think she was doing? She was a careful traveler, sure.. but to make her trail invisible from other Amazons? No.. she didn’t have that kind of skill, no matter how long she’d been traveling with Xena, who could, and sometimes had covered her tracks successfully from them.
That brought a bleak smile.. remembering half the nation chasing around the forest searching for the elusive warrior, who’d been asked by the one of the teaching instructors to provide a challenge for a group of students.
Challenge.. oh yes. So much so that half the warrior core of the village had joined in, their pride stung at the ease with which Xena had disappeared from view. Gabrielle had sat at her ease outside Ephiny’s quarters, and watched the activity with a barely concealed smile. It had been her last day with them this past visit, before the banquet they’d planned, and the bard was in a great mood, despite the problems the day before.
Ephiny had called her on it. "Are you making fun of us?" She’d asked the woman, who had looked up with all innocence in her sea mist eyes.
"Of course not, Eph." Gabrielle had said with a laugh. "I know I’d have no chance of finding her, so.. ." She grinned. "At least this makes me feel a little better."
Ephiny had sat down next to her, with a disgruntled look. "Now I get to hear about this for the next six lunar cycles, I bet." She put her chin in her hands. "You know she’s not going to let us forget this."
Gabrielle had cast her a sidelong look. "Come on, Eph… she’s really not like that." She smiled. "Besides, you asked her to do it, remember?"
The blond woman covered her face with her hands. "Yeah..don’t remind me. I must have been momentarily driven insane. " Someone handed a steaming mug of tea to her over her shoulder, and she took it absently. "Thanks."
"No problem." Xena’s low, amused voice floated over her shoulder.
"Yahhh!!!" Ephiny yelled, recognizing it, and jumping up. "How did you ge…" She glared at the warrior, who was lounging against the back of Gabrielle’s chair, with that insufferable, lazy smile on her face.
Gabrielle was biting her lip, trying not to laugh, and she gave Xena a little slap. "That wasn’t nice."
The warrior gave her an injured look. "What? I even brought tea. It’s not my fault half the village is going deaf." She paused. "And blind."
"Xena…" Gabrielle scolded her. "Don’t be mean." She leaned back in her chair and gazed up at the warrior. "Besides, I knew you were there, so you’re not that sneaky."
That got a quiet smile from Xena. "Did you?" Then she laughed. "Yeah, you did.. didn’t you? I saw you look my way."
"Sure.." Ephiny gave them both an insulted look. "Make ME feel great, why don’t you???" She leaned back in her chair and sipped her tea, watching them as Gabrielle laughed gently, and Xena just gave her one of those raised eyebrow looks. Like always. But the bard couldn’t prevent her eyes from drifting dreamily up to the tall warrior’s face and Xena’s casually draped hand was unconsciously tangling itself in Gabrielle’s fair hair, which caused Ephiny to smile to herself. Gods.. would you look at them? "How's your back?"
Xena's brow creased for a minute, then she laughed. "Oh that.. it's fine, thanks"
Gabrielle hitched herself up in her chair, and peered at the warrior's exposed shoulder. "You're disgusting." She clucked, and slumped back down again.
"Well, I’m going to go see who else I can sneak up on." Xena finally commented, straightening up and slipping out from behind the pole support for Ephiny’s quarters. "See ya."
Ephiny snorted. "Gods.. she’s in a good mood." A darting glance at the bard’s face, which had a quiet glow about it as her eyes followed Xena's movements. "So are you, I see." She teased gently, watching the soft blush crawl up Gabrielle’s neck and smiling. They both watched as Xena went very still next to a tall tree, having spotted Eponin approaching. "Oh.. she won’t get past Pony." Ephiny chuckled.
"5 dinars." Gabrielle replied immediately.
"You’re on." Ephiny shot back.
It seemed impossible - Xena didn’t hide, didn’t even try to disguise herself. She just became part of her surroundings, only the glinting blue eyes moving as Eponin passed within an arms reach of her unaware. Xena reached out as she went by, and removed a feather from her hair, then deliberately met Ephiny’s eyes and poked the tip of her tongue out.
"Pay up." Gabrielle smiled. "Come on, I know you made out like a bandit yesterday."
"I don’t believe it." Ephiny had muttered, dragging a 5-dinar piece from her belt pouch and slapping it into the bard’s hand. "And Eponin won’t either."
And, Ephiny now recalled, telling Eponin had been a dumb mistake on her part, which caused the proud warrior to bristle, and challenge Xena to a sparring match, which Gabrielle, in her queenly wisdom had simply forbade, citing Xena’s knife wound as an excuse.
Not that anyone had any illusions of exactly how much that would slow the warrior down, but to everyone’s surprise, Xena submitted meekly to the order, gracefully handing Eponin back her feather without even so much as a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Because, Ephiny realized, she had nothing to prove. To anyone. She could back down from a mock challenge because she'd fought real ones, for real stakes, and she could submit to Gabrielle's gentle commands because she had half the world bow to her own. A strange, and very complicated woman, was Xena.
Now, as the sun passed mid day, and yet another group of exhausted looking searchers entered, Ephiny rolled her head to one side, and regarded Lida and Granella, who had just arrived. "We gotta find them." She looked up as Cyrene padded over, collapsing in a seat and handing her a cup of broth. "Cyrene.. you should get some rest. You look terrible."
"Look who’s talking." The older woman shot back, giving her a familiar raised eyebrowed look. "How can I rest when those children are out there?"
"Gabrielle can take care of herself, you know." Granella spoke up quietly. "I’m sure they’re fine." She settled her elbows on her knees, and rested her head in her hands. "I just can’t figure out why we haven’t found a sign of them anywhere."
The door opened, and Toris stumbled in. "I just saw Ares." He scrubbed his face with one hand, and they could hear the rasp of his hand against the dark stubble of his burgeoning beard.
Ephiny felt her heart clench. "What? What was HE doing here?" Her mind started spinning, adding interference from Olympus into her calculations.
"No no no no no.. " Toris waved a hand. "Our Ares.. the wolf." He pointed north. "He took off that way."
Everyone looked at him. "The way Xena went?" Cyrene asked, her face going very still. "He went with Gabrielle when she left with the girls. I saw him go."
"Gods." That was Lida’s quiet voice. "She sent him, I’ll bet anything."
"For help?" Ephiny wondered. That would be like Gabrielle.. if she was in trouble, the first person she’d think of was Xena. "Now.. we’ve gotta find her. It’s going to take days for Xena to get back here, even if Ares can catch up with her." She took a breath, and that brought on a coughing spell. Hands gripped her, and rubbed her back gently and she gave Granella and Lida grateful looks. "Thanks." She took a sip of her broth, and welcomed the heat down her sore throat. "If I ever think about going out again in this weather, I want to be tied down and gagged." She looked at them severely. "Understand?"
Granella smiled, and rubbed her arm lightly. "We got you."
Ephiny sighed. "All right.. everyone should get a little rest, then we’ll start expanding our search area. " She took another sip, then gazed at Cyrene. "This is great.. thanks."
The dark haired woman smiled wearily. "We’d better make our rest fast - the weather’s going to Tartarus again."
Xena searched every inch of the man’s face before answering. Her heart sunk as she let the evidence of her eyes and ears convince her of the fact that this person, however unlikely, was indeed Hercules. "Right place, right time." She finally answered, in a quiet voice.
"Oh. Great. Yet another smartass." Hercules rolled his eyes. "So what’d you do?"
"Punched a guard." Came the laconic answer.
"Why?" Hercules asked, crossing his huge arms over his chest.
"He looked at me funny." Xena answered, letting a challenging little smile cross her face. I can't believe this is the same person.. what could have happened? A head injury? The poison?
Hercules’ pale eyes slitted. "Oh.. I’m gonna enjoy ripping you apart, you smart mouthed little brat." He unlocked the cell door. "Get over here."
Xena pushed off from her spot on the bars, and sauntered over, giving Iolaus a glance as she passed him and a wry little smile. "Wish me luck" She muttered, and saw him grimace.
"You back again, you little stinking squirt?" Hercules noticed Iolaus pressed against the wall. "All right.. you next then.."
He waited for Xena’s body to clear the door, then he slammed it behind her, taking a moment to walk all the way around her, then he hooked one finger in the collar she still had fastened around her neck and pulled her behind him to his lair.
She let the anger start to build, reaching down deep into that part of her that belonged to Ares, and stirring it. "You look like Tartarus, Hercules." She commented, as he let the collar go and spun around.
"I don’t know you." He said, with a snort. "Don’t pretend I do. Everyone seems to do that." He put a hand on her chest, and shoved her backwards, then went still when she didn’t move under his hand. Slowly, she backed up a step, and leaned against his favorite torture rack.
"You’re wrong." The warrior said softly. "You do know me. And I know you… I don’t know why, or how you’ve forgotten.. but it’s true." Easy..easy now…maybe I can try a little talking… never hurts to try, right?
"Oh yeah?" He uncoiled a whip from his table, and turned suddenly, cracking it at her with frightening speed.
She caught the edge of it, and jerked hard, surprising him, and pulling the leather whip out of his hands. Guess not. "Hercules, don’t do this." Xena could feel the wolf starting to uncoil within her, and she pushed it down temporarily. "I don't want to fight with you."
Suddenly, her eyes caught on an odd necklace the tall man was wearing. It was.. she concentrated A ruby stone in a golden setting, but she could have sworn there was more light coming from the stone than reflection could account for. What in Tartarus is that?
"You don't have a choice." He swung at her, and she ducked, sliding around him and moving to a cleared space in the center of the floor. "Bitch.. " He growled, and swung again, reaching for a grip on her, and slamming her hard against one shoulder.
She went with the blow, and rolled, coming up onto her feet near the fur covered platform she supposed he used for a bed. It stank. "We all have a choice… why are you doing this?"
He slammed a fist against her head, and tried to grab her arm, but she evaded him again, and danced out of his grasp. Well, he’s stronger than I am.. but I'm faster than he is.. he knows how to fight.. but he's not what I am. "Hercules, can we just stop a minute?" .
"Not when I'm having this much fun." He laughed. "They haven't sent me anyone that's even remotely been a challenge for weeks."
A punch thrown at her. She blocked it, then slid under his arm and gave him a jolt in the ribs with her elbow. "Hercules.. you really don’t want to do this." He looked startled at the blow, and gave her a crack against her side, which she took, then returned with a roundhouse kick that sent him crashing against the torture rack. "Still having fun? Wanna keep going?
"Oh, yes I do." He ground out, picking up a spiked club, and swinging, catching her in the upper arm as she rolled out of the way. He swung the club again, smashing it down on her back, and that.. snapped something.
Xena felt it go. All right. Playtime's over.. Gabrielle, I tried talking. You'd have been proud of me. She went with the force of the blow, and took a dive for the floor, falling into a forward somersault and coming back up onto her feet. When she turned and looked at him, he should have seen the difference, in the now icy glitter of her eyes, and the sudden, dark, feral smile.
"I’m gonna squash you like a bug, you miserable piece of… " Hercules leaped toward her, swinging his club at her head.
A low laugh answered him, and this time Xena didn’t duck out of the way. She waited until his hands were on her, then grabbed his leather harness, and dropped onto her back, getting her feet up into his ribcage, and shoving hard, sending him flying over her head against the torture rack. "I don't squash easy." She warned, flipping easily up to her feet. Her side hurt from where he'd hit her, but she ignored it.
He was up, and that club was whistling towards her. She ducked it, then stepped in and slammed into his chest with both elbows, knocking him over backwards. Leverage. Her mind chuckled. Bigger they are… well, you know the rest.
The scrape of steel against leather, and then the whole scene changed, as he faced her with bared steel. "Oh.. you made me mad, lady.. let me put you right in your place.. maybe if I cut your tongue out, you’ll be nice and quiet, like a woman should be."
"What’s the matter, can’t take strong women??" Xena taunted, bouncing out of his reach with a low flip, then ducking around him and kicking him hard in the pants, sending him stumbling forward.
"You think you're tough?" He rasped, now really mad, as he turned, and glared at her. "I'm gonna break every bone in your body."
Xena stopped, and looked at him. "Guess we’ll find out, huh?" Whatever this is certainly brought out the worst in him… "As hard as you're breathing, I hope you don't pass out first."
He laughed. "You’re gonna find out something, all right." He swept his sword up, and came at her.
"Amateur." Xena spat, then moved, and this time it was with all the power and all the anger she’d been holding back. She stepped in, and blocked his sword arm with her own, deflecting the weapon away from her. "Lemme show you how we do this." She wrenched the sword out of his hands, and twirled it in one of her own, letting out a low laugh.
Then saw an opening, and hurled herself forward, whipping her fist around with all the strength she had, feeling the sharp jolt as she made contact with his jaw.
Expecting… to maybe slow him down a bit. Not expecting him to drop in his tracks like a felled sheep, his head making a sodden thunk as it impacted the floor. She stood in shock for a long minute, feeling a guilty grin shaping her face. Just like THAT??? She flexed her hand, and examined it. No way. Whatever is wrong with him must be affecting his strength. Right.
She knelt, and peered at the necklace, now seeing clearly the inner glow in the gem. That's the strangest thing I've seen in a long time…One hand reached out and touched it.
Darkness. A roiling rage that surged up in her so strongly, it washed everything else out of her conscious mind. With a gasp, she jerked her hand back, sitting down hard on the ground and grabbing her head in her hands. Gods.. what is that?
"Xena!!" Iolaus’ voice sounded from far away, and she took several deep breaths before she looked up. He was standing, with the rest of the cell’s occupants, at the bars, staring anxiously at her.
She raised a shaking hand. "Think I found the problem." Slowly, she stood up, and moved over to the cell door, unlocking it and swinging it open. "Hurry." She pointed towards the hallway door. "Out.. all of you."
They hobbled past her, most turning their heads to make eye contact with her.. a few braver ones actually reaching out to touch her arm or her hand as they went by. When the last one left, she turned and caught Iolaus’ eye. "You too."
He jerked, surprised. "What? No way.. Xena, I’m not leaving.. I belong here." He had no idea why this statement drew a sweet, wistful smile from the warrior but he hurried on. "What did you find out.. and by the way, that’s quite a punch you’ve got there."
"Iolaus.." Xena walked him over, and knelt down again by the fallen Hercules. "This necklace.. it’s evil. I can feel it reaching.. out. When I touch it." She looked up at him. "I’m going to try and take it off.. but when I… " She faltered, then went on. "Look… I don’t know what it’s going to do to me.. if I’m going to be.. " She hesitated. "I don’t want to have to worry about hurting you.. if it goes bad, all right?"
"But.." Iolaus started to object.
"It did this to him, and he’s a good person, Iolaus.. " Xena’s voice took on a harsh tone. "You know.. there’s a very dark part of me.. now.. hurry. Go out that door, and lock it."
The blond man knelt down next to her. "I can’t let you do that." He said quietly. "Let me take it off."
"You can’t afford me not to." The warrior replied. "Out, Iolaus.. hurry.. he’ll be coming around any second. " She gave him a look and pointed. "It’s not going to fit over his head, Iolaus… I’ll have to break that chain. Do you think you can do that?"
"Out, or I pick you up and throw you out." Xena snapped.
With a curse, he stood and stormed through the door, slamming it closed after him.
Xena sat quietly for a second, regarding the necklace. Then she closed her eyes and looked inside. Gabrielle.. I hope you don’t feel this.. I know you’re out there, and something’s wrong.. and I’m coming, love - as fast as I ever can.. but I have to do this thing first.. and I don’t know what it’s going to do to me. Unconsciously, she reached up and closed her hand around Gabrielle's pendant.
I think.. if I can just hold on to what we have between us, I can beat this. If I don’t.. and they have to cut me down like a wild animal.. don’t hate me for it, please? I can’t leave him here like this.. if it hadn’t been for him, I never would have met you.. I hope you understand.. And I remember my promise… whenever.. it’s your time, I’ll be there waiting for you. I swear it.
Then she took a deep breath, and opened her eyes, and reached out a steady hand and grabbed the necklace.
Feeling a dark need reach out for her, searching for and finding a familiarity in that part of her that lived for fighting and killing. She felt herself responding, and fought it frantically. I am not that person. She tightened her grip on the necklace and pulled, feeling the links under her hands begin to give.
But the warm rich hunger was so.. enticing. It would feel so good to wallow in that.. to indulge in the wonderful satisfaction of shedding blood. Her free hand reached for his sword, feeling the steel beneath her fingertips. What was the point in resisting? This was her true nature.. she knew it.. and so did everyone else. The feel of her blade slicing through bone and flesh..
She pulled harder, trying to keep the seductive desire from swallowing her up.. only half resisting now as the blood urge seeped into her, familiar and at some level, welcome. No.. her mind desperately denied.. but her resolve was wavering.. she could feel it as a dull roaring started in her head, and she felt her heart speed up out of control. I’m not that person.. not anymore… but now she was having trouble even believing that… if she’d ever believed it at all.
No.. she never really had believed it.. she hadn’t really changed.. this was what she truly still was. It would be so.. easy to just let it take over…. One stroke, and she could take off Hercules’ head, and claim this necklace.. A good person, her? What a laugh. Stop kidding yourself, Xena.. and just… give in to this.. you loved it, you reveled in it.. you know that’s the truth. You never believed for one second you’d become a good person.
The only one who ever believed that was Gabrielle. Who saw.. something in you that you.. don’t think is really there.. it's just that she wants it to be there so much that somehow you just.. end up being.. what she sees. An image formed in her mind.
Gabrielle. Who is, truly, a good person. Who deserves better, but loves you anyway. With all her heart.
And Gabrielle was in trouble somewhere, and needed her. Needed… her.
What could be more important than that? Xena felt the trembling balance she was poised over, between the darkness she knew, and the light she feared, and closed her eyes, bowing to her heart with quiet certainty. Nothing was more important than that. Nothing.
She turned her back, and walked out of that dark place, and closed the door behind her, and chose to believe, not in herself, but in Gabrielle’s belief in her.
She steeled herself, and wrapped the chain around her hand, and pulled. A sudden surge, and the chain broke in her hand, and she was flinging the necklace across the chamber, hearing it shatter against the far wall.
A dark flash.. and a smell of rotting meat followed, as she let herself collapse on the floor next to the feebly stirring Hercules. The cold stone felt wonderful against her pounding head, and she pressed her body against the surface, as her heart slowly returned to its normal rhythm.
Tentatively, she gently felt for that part of her mind she’d come to associate with the connection between her and Gabrielle, and almost felt tears start when she sensed the warmth still there. Saved me again, didn’t you? She just let herself experience that for a long moment, clung to it as thought she was drowning and that a bit of floating wood. That was too close…way too close… if it hadn’t been for Gabrielle… I don’t want to think about what would have happened. What would I do without her? Gods.. I hope I never have to find out.
Slowly, she sat up, pushing her body off the stones with still shaking arms. Hercules was still out cold, more from hitting his head when falling than from her blow, she decided, so she sat there quietly for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. She spent a long aching moment just wishing Gabrielle was there… needing the bard's gentle touch to chase away the horror still clinging around the fringes of her thoughts. It was silly, she knew, but right now, what she craved more than anything else was to feel the bard's arms around her, and hear her gentle voice.
Hesitantly, she reached inside her small belt pouch, and felt the smoothness of one of the remaining packets she'd dug out, and removed it, feeling the parchment warm under her fingers. Almost hypnotically, she unwrapped it, and felt a tiny smile forming at the speckled blue stone it contained. She knew where that one came from.. their favorite swimming spot. She tucked the stone inside her hand, and studied the small bit of paper. .
In life there is nothing constant.
Everything always shifting.. always changing,
As we walk along the road of experience.
But on my road there is a constant,
That lines the edges of my path for all my days,
and all my gentle, starry nights.
Because I know, whatever length my road might be,
I will always share my journey with you.
The words went suddenly blurry, and Xena had to blink a few times to clear her vision. She drew in breath, then turned the sheet over, and smiled.
Hope you haven't killed Iolaus yet. He's really a nice guy, Xena, and you should really make an effort to get to know him. I know you guys didn't start out the best, but…
I bet right now.. I miss you. I guess that's why I'm writing these silly poems.. driving myself nuts thinking about it. I hope you like this one, because I wrote it when we were at Potadeia.. when you were really there for me. I'm not sure I ever said how much that meant… you really came through for me.
Like you always do, right? But that was special.. because it wasn't just some guy that needed bashing. I tried to think of something I could give you for that… I haven't quite thought of it yet. .but don't worry. You have a birthday coming up.
Thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? Never.
Good luck, and I hope things are going well.
Try not to go out in the rain too much, OK? Save that for me when you get home.
Xena folded up the parchment gently, and closed it in her hand, then propped her elbows on her knees, and rested her head against her closed fists for a moment, feeling her balance returning. What can you give me, Gabrielle? Gods… she shook her head.
She raised her head, as she heard the faint snick of the door lock working, and gazed at the portal as it inched open, revealing a pair of pale, worried eyes. "It’s all right." She called. "Come on in."
Iolaus pushed the door open cautiously and entered, walking on hesitant feet towards her. "Are you…" His eyes searched hers anxiously. "All right?"
Xena took a deep breath, and nodded. "Yeah." She jerked her chin towards the wall. "I got..rid of that thing." She looked down at Hercules’ neck, which had a red, angry ring around it where the necklace had lain, almost a burn. She touched it with one fingertip, and winced. "We gotta get him out of here." Her eyes roamed around the room. "I don’t suppose there’s a back way out..I really don’t want to have to fight my way out of here through all those goons."
Iolaus gave her a tentative smile. "Now that you mention it… I just happened to find a tunnel leading down when I was loitering out there in the hallway." He touched Hercules’ face, where a large bruise was forming. "Hey.. don’t ever let me get you mad, all right?"
Xena gazed quietly at him, still feeling the effects of her fight with the dark. "Thought I told you to get out of here." She smiled. "You and Gabrielle must be related."
The blond man grinned. "I’ll take that as a compliment." Then his expression sobered. "Do you think.. he’ll be… um.. all right?"
The warrior shrugged. "I don’t know.. I’ve never seen anything like that before… " Abruptly, she stopped speaking, and glanced swiftly around. "All right… get out here." Her voice was rough and impatient.
A flash of blue light, and a quiet laugh followed. "Well..well.. well… if it’s not one of my favorite people.. helping two of my unfavorite ones." Ares kneeled down, and regarded his half brother with a grin. Then he reached up and patted Xena’s cheek. "That’s my girl."
Xena gave him a look, put one booted foot against his knee and pushed. Ares lost his balance, and fell back on his rear with a grunt. "Temper temper…" But it didn’t diminish his good mood, and he just settled himself cross-legged next to her. "Listen… you just did me two big, big favors, so I’m going to return one."
"Ares, I really don’t…" Xena started, then sighed. "Was that necklace one of your little tricks?"
The God of War shook his dark head. "Nope.. that’s one of the big favors. That showed up around here not long ago.. it’s… something outside our experience."
"That’s a first." Iolaus muttered.
"Quiet, shorty." Ares shot back. "Just be glad you’re with her, OK?" He turned his pale gaze back to Xena. "Anyway, it’s strong enough to affect us.. as you’ve seen." He nodded at Hercules’ form. "Not that he’s anything but a demi.. but you don’t want to be taking chances, you know?"
"Right." Xena replied sarcastically. "What’s the point, Ares?"
"Ooo..you’re in a mood." Ares patted her knee. "So thanks.. for getting rid of it for us." He chuckled. "Not that it hasn’t been fun watching old Mr. Light and Sunshine here break arms, but I suppose I’ll live." He paused. "You did all right with it… but then you’ve got a strong will, don’t you." He chuckled, and patted her cheek again. "Much stronger than his."
"You’re sick." Xena snorted, shaking her head. "Look.. I’d love to sit around in this stinking dungeon chatting with you, but we gotta get out of here." She pushed herself to her feet, and dusted herself off.
Ares looked up at her, then quirked an eyebrow. Xena sighed, and offered him a hand up, which he took cheerfully and stood. "Thanks." He glanced around. "Yeah, it is a pit, isn’t it? I thought he’d have more class.. oh well." He sighed. "As shorty there says, there’s a door outside, leads down to a cavern that opens up onto the forest. I.. " He grinned. "Took the liberty of transporting your lovely horses and gear there." He buffed his nails. "And I cleared the guards out of this part of the stronghold.
That got a grudging smile from Xena. "Thanks." Then she peered at him. "You said I did you two favors?"
The God of War chuckled deep in his throat, and leaned close to her, his beard brushing her ear. "I just won big off Old Musclebrain’s daddy on that little fight of yours…good work." He bit her earlobe and made her jump. "Not that I had any doubts." He gave her a pat on the side, and winked.
She slapped his chest. "Ares, that wasn’t for your benefit." Then she stopped and gazed at him. "You didn’t want me to let that thing win, did you?" Her eyes narrowed. "Would what I would have become been too much for you?"
Ares backed off, and tugged his beard, letting his eyes run over her several times. "You look good, Xena. I think retirement’s agreeing with you." Then he laughed, and was gone.
Xena shook her head, and sighed. "I hate it when he does that." She studied the prone form with a grimace. "Well, let’s get going." Between them, they hoisted Hercules to his feet, and slung one huge arm over each of their shoulders, and maneuvered out the door.
Continued in Part 6
Return to Part 4
Return to my Fan Fiction Page