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Fan fiction, ©Copyright 1996 Quest, based on characters that are the property of MCA/Universal. This story is for personal entertainment only, and no infringement on their copyrights is intended. Also, for those of you that know the work of the band 'Silly Wizard'... The song is sung to the tune of a traditional British piece called The Blackbird, that S.W. often performed... Just so's ya know ;-)
Xena came from the bar carrying a platter of roast lamb, bread, and cheese, balancing two mugs of ale on the rim. She gently set her load down next to Gabrielle, who'd come inside earlier, and had been sitting, listening to the house Bard. A tiny woman with bronze skin and darker bronze hair, her mouth was wide and generous, her nose a little to crooked for traditional beauty... Still, the over all effect was certainly pleasing. And her dusky, dark eyes were ringed with gold; they seemed bottomless. Xena smiled appreciatively as she leaned over to Gabrielle to ask, "Is she any good?"
"Sshhh," Gabrielle held a finger to her lips. "She's magnificent. Listen, she's just about to start another set."
Xena sat back on the bench, gnawing on a chunk of bread, as the Bard began to sing in a rich, clear, pure voice.
I am a young farmer, like my father before,
As was my brother, ere he went off to war.
Never in anger had he harmed any man,
'Till Xena's army laid claim to our land.
And he swore he would learn the ways of the sword.
He would use them to free us from our bloodthirsty lord.
He'd raise up an army from the youth of the land,
Saying, "Man nor god shall stay my hand."
He rode out of town on our broken down horse.
We begged him to stay, but he held to his course.
He turned around once, at the edge of the glen;
Saying, "Tell my mother I'll come home again."
Oh the years passed away, they brought little word,
Except for one letter, and the stories we'd heard.
He wrote us of glory, and of increasing skill;
Saying, "Tell my mother I'm learning to kill."
The sky, it was dark on that one summer's night,
When I woke to the burning, and the sounds of a fight.
And there at the heart of that murdering band,
All proudly he rode: banner in hand.
So I drew out an arrow, and knocked it to bow,
And with trembling hands, laid my brother so low.
I don't think he knew me 'till the very end;
Saying, "Tell my mother I've come home again."
By the end of the song, Xena was staring blankly off into space... her hand clenched so tightly around the handle of her mug that Gabrielle was certain she'd bent the thing completely beyond recognition.
"Xena?" She asked tentatively.
Attempting to move casually, Xena set the mug down... but her gestures were a little too stiff, a little too controlled. Everything about her screamed tension, and Gabrielle long to reach out, to comfort her, to ease the bleakness from her eyes...
"I'll be back in a little while, Gabrielle. I'm going for a walk. Go ahead and get a room, I'll be back."
Gabrielle sighed as she watched her friend blow through the door of the tavern. Picking up the mug, she returned it to the bar. She flipped an extra dinar onto the scarred and pitted surface, shrugging at the inn keeper and smiling a small, wry smile.
"Keep the change, for damages..."
After the house Bard finished her set, Gabrielle made her way over to the fire, tossing three coins into the battered lyre case that sat at her feet.
"Thank you, you are most generous." The woman scooped her meager earnings out of the lyre case, dropping them into a pouch around her neck, and put her lyre away.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, generally I wouldn't give away so much, but it's rare to find another bard on the road. I know how difficult it is to make a living with your art, and since I had a little extra..."
"You're a bard then?"
"Yes. I tell stories, mostly. I've never been very good with music..."
The woman laughed appreciatively. "It's an acquired skill, believe me. The first time I picked up a lyre, I thought my teacher was going to pass out. I tried to play it without tuning it first, so..."
"You made a sound like twelve cats fighting?"
"You should have seen Xena's face the first time I tried to play my pan pipes. I only practice when I'm alone these days."
Gabrielle trailed off as all warmth left her new friend's face.
The woman shook her head. "Nothing. I have to be going now." With that, she grabbed her pack and lyre, and tried to step around Gabrielle.
"Now wait just a minute. If I did something, I think I at least deserve to know what it was!"
The woman paused, looking at Gabrielle appraisingly.
"It isn't you. It's your choice of company."
"You mean Xena." It wasn't a question, it was a statement.
"Yes. I do."
"Look, she may have done a lot of horrible things in the past, but she's a different person now."
"Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. One way or another, it doesn't really matter. She destroyed my life, however indirectly. I won it back, and I'm not about to let it slip away again."
With that, she slid around Gabrielle and headed up the back stairs, leaving the bard to stare confusedly after her.
Sighing, Gabrielle eventually made her way to the inn keeper, looking to get a room for herself and Xena.
"I only have a small room left, and it's in the attic. Five dinars, take it or leave it."
"Highway robber," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
"What was that?"
"I said, I'll take it. Thank you." She handed him the money from her ever lightening pouch and turned away, but then she had another thought.
"She doesn't do 'privat performances'."
Gabrielle blushed. "No, that's not... what I meant was, what's her name?"
"Neskaya, huh? Thanks. Listen, if Xena comes back..."
"I'll tell her what room you're in."
Gabrielle spent a wakeful night, waiting for her friend to return, worrying. Every time the old inn creaked, settling, she tensed, hoping that the door would swing open. But each time, nothing. Finally, exhausted, she slipped into heavy slumber just before dawn.
As the rising sun crested the horizon, Xena slid into the room, looking down at the sleeping bard. Gently she pulled the covers up around her shoulders, smiling as Gabrielle snuggled deeper into the pillow and sighed.
Settling herself in a chair by the door, Xena leaned her head back on the wall to catch a few moments of sleep, unwilling to wake the bard by climbing in next to her. She'd let her sleep in, they had time before they had to continue their journey.
If they *could* continue... The temperature had dropped outside rapidly, and the clouds on the horizon promised rain, or maybe snow. The last thing she wanted was to get stuck out in the middle of a blizzard...
Gabrielle woke slowly, savoring the warmth and softness of a real bed that cradled her like the arms of... No, best head off that train of thought entirely. It was too damn inviting. Too dangerous.
Sighing she opened her eyes, shivering as the blanket slipped down off her shoulder and the chill air traced it's way along her spine.
Looking around the room she was surprised to see Xena, propped in a chair, sleeping. A slight draft raised gooseflesh on the warrior's bare skin, and tisking, Gabrielle got up to drape her blanket carefully around her friend.
Suddenly Xena's hand shot out, catching Gabrielle's wrist in an iron grip.
"Whoa! Hey, I'm just trying to make sure you don't freeze to death here. No need to get violent..."
"Sorry Gabrielle. You startled me, that's all."
Looking at her friend, Gabrielle slowly shook her head.
"Where were you last night? I was worried..."
"I just needed to be alone for a little while. I'm sorry you worried. But I told you I'd be back..."
"Yeah well, next time you should at least take a blanket with you, if you mean to spend all night out in the cold."
"I'll do that. Thank you."
Stretching, Xena slid out of the chair and walked over to the window. Fiddling with the latch for a moment, she threw open the shutters, shivering at the blast of cold air that rushed in. Outside, a light snow carpeted the ground, and big fluffy flakes drifted lazily down from a white sky.
"I was afraid of that. We'll have to stay here until it stops, there's no way I want to travel in *that*."
Gabrielle nodded vigorously. "You don't have to tell me twice..." She glanced longingly over at the bed.
"Does that mean I can go back to sleep?"
Chuckling, Xena shrugged.
"If you want... personally, I'm going to go downstairs and get some breakfast."
Eyes lighting, Gabrielle beat Xena to the door.
After breakfast the two women went back up to their room, settling in for a long day. Xena pulled out a few things she'd been meaning to mend, and Gabrielle got out her parchment and quills, intending to play the dutiful bard. But it seemed as though her eyes would not stay on the paper, straying instead to the warrior's hands, hypnotized by the gracefully flashing needle. Every time she tried to tear her eyes away, she drifted, finally finding herslef just staring blankly into space again.
Eventually Gabrielle began to write again, not of battles, nor even less violent adventure, but instead of the hands that moved before her. The hands that had saved her so often, the hands that kept her heart...
Dreaming, breathing softly:
Her arms enfold my waking.
Running, cries around me:
Her hands leap, and breaking -
Keep me safe.
Falling, thought beyond me:
Her strength supports, preserving.
Calling, dark before me:
Her eyes search, and finding -
Keep me warm.
Hoping, trusting blindly:
Her courage sets me moving.
Raging, mourning darkly:
Her will binds, and trusting -
Keeps me true.
A tear dripped gently onto the page, softly blurring the pen's crisp lines, and Gabrielle came back to herself with a start. She glanced up, almost guilty, hoping that Xena had not seen her tears... to find piercing blue eyes watching her from across the room.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
Gabrielle dashed a quick hand across her face, scrubbing away the traces of her tears.
"Uh, nothing. I guess I just got a little too involved in the poem." She crumpled the paper in her hand.
"Funny, it wasn't that good anyway"
Xena rose smoothly, setting down her mending.
"May I?" She gestured towards the paper.
Gabrielle held it in her hand, trying desperately to figure out how to gracefully keep it away from Xena. But her mind was a total blank. Mutely, she allowed the warrior to take the crumpled paper away from her. She swallowed thickly as Xena smoothed it out with careful hands.
Just as the warrior would have begun to read, squinting in the dim evening twilight and flickering candle flame, the door shivered under a massive blow. There, and again, someone was pounding on the door as though their life depended on it. Tucking the paper into her bodice, Xena pulled open the door.
The door swung open just as a meaty fist was descending towards it again, and Xena caught the hand a breath away from her face. Everyone froze in surprise for a moment, silence enveloping the room. Facing them was a large woman, obviously the inn's cook. Wearing a food stained apron, hair back under a kerchief, she looked like the kind of cook to put the fear of the gods into any lazy kitchen worker. She had a large wooden spoon in her hand, and Xena didn't doubt that she was liberal in it's application.
Taking a deep breath, Xena was about to ask what she wanted when the woman came to her senses.
"Oh, great lady, please. Ya must come down ta the hall. There's a great bunch o' them with weapons that's come in from the cold, and they've got my husband. He knows better than ta make trouble wi' them, but they've started drinking, and I'm afraid they may do him harm..."
Xena nodded curtly.
"Go back down to the kitchen, and give them whatever they want. I'll be down in a moment, just as soon as I get my armor on."
The cook bobbed her head and headed back down the stairs, surprisingly light on her feet. Xena smiled, pitying any man who got on her bad side...
Whirling quickly around the room she picked up pieces of armor, slapping them on with amazing speed. Gabrielle helped her finish lacing in, and, mere heartbeats later, she was ready to go.
Glancing at Gabrielle she considered telling the Bard to stay in the room, but a fierce shake of the head persuaded her that compliance was unlikely at best.
"Staff's no good in a crowded room, so stay back, all right?"
Gabrielle nodded, just happy she wasn't going to get left behind, *again*.
As they came down the stairs, the raucous noise from the taproom washed over them like a wave. The could hear what seemed to be some kind of game going on.
"Here Jamis, hand me another. I've run out." THUNK.
"Yeah! That's the way of it, Cap'n. Here Stalys, pay up. You owe me twelve. . ." THWAP.
"Aw bugger, I've skinned him... Is that a miss?"
Stepping into the room, Xena took in the scene. The inn keeper was standing against the back wall, his shirt nailed to the wall in four places with daggers. His arm's splayed out, and face flushed and sweaty, she had to admit, he did look rather amusing... Shaking her head she decided to intervene before one of the drunken soldiers that were ranged in front of him really did miss.
"Hey boys, aren't you tired of that game yet? I've got another for you... wanna play?"
The eyed the newest arrival appreciatively. One, a little bolder than his companions, or perhaps just more drunk, swaggered forward.
"What kind of game did you have in mind, pretty?"
Xena smiled sweetly, and sauntered towards him, running a finger along his chin. In a sultry voice she said,
"The kind that involves you leaving the rest of these people alone, big boy...and going back wherever you came from. Now you can go peacefully, or not. Your choice."
He pulled back, looking slightly confused, and more than a little offended.
"Are you threatening me?"
Xena shook her head. "Not a threat. I'm just telling you the rules."
He puffed out his chest.
"Listen here, you don't make rules for us. The only rule I follow is the order of my Captain. And he told us we could have some fun here. If you don't like it, you can take it up with him. Otherwise, I do what I please. Now clear out, you're ruining our game."
He turned his back on her, readying another dagger to throw at the frightened inn keeper. Sighing, Xena waited till his arm was at full extension. Then, lightning fast, she plucked the dagger from his hand, so that he unbalanced himself when he threw... putting his strength into a throw that contained nothing.
Growling in rage he swung around, intending to knock the troublesome wench into next week. Calmly she dodged, flipping his knife over and over in her hand. Three more times he swung, and three times she moved cleanly out of his way. His companions were laughing uproariously, betting now on the fight, instead of the knife throwing. When Gabrielle thought Xena wasn't looking, she went up to one of the less threatening looking soldiers, and several dinars changed hands...
Finally he rushed her, and she stepped out of the way, planting a boot firmly into his back side and shoving him headfirst into a heavy table.
When he stood, blood poured from a broken nose, and he had a flat look in his eye. Drawing his sword, he advanced on Xena.
"Uh oh, little lady. Now you've made him angry. He don't handle his own blood too well, always has to kill who ever's spilt it. Maybe you'd better be the one ta leave, eh?" His companions called out helpful suggestions from the bar.
Xena sighed, parrying his first slash with the dagger. Then, stepping in close, she nailed him in the temple with the pommel. He fell to the ground like a sack of stones, and his comrades stood silent, unsure how to react.
Xena swung around, grinning, and tossed the dagger to his friend.
"Now you see, that wasn't so bad, was it? Did you like my little game?"
They nodded uncertainly, and she smiled even more broadly.
"Gabrielle, why don't you collect our money from the gentleman. Then we'll buy them all a drink before they leave. How does that sound, boys?"
They all cheered, and the inn keeper, who had freed himself from the wall in the mean time, went behind the bar and started pouring.
Three rounds later, the last of the soldiers staggered out the door, dragging their still unconscious knife thrower behind them.
The cook swept her husband up in a tight embrace and kissed him soundly. "Look at ya, you bloody fool. Didn't I tell ya to just give them what'er they wanted?? But no, you had to go and try to charge them... You could have been killed, ya great lummox."
She turned and bobbed an awkward curtsy to Xena.
"Thank you, lady. You saved his sorry hide, and ya didn't even break up my establishment in the process. We owe you, more than you know."
Xena shook her head, a small smile playing around the edge of her mouth.
"I know how hard it is to get by. So I though I'd give diplomacy a try first. What do you know, it works."
Cook shook her head in wonder.
"Diplomacy? But you..."
Gabrielle stepped in, taking over the conversation.
"Oh believe me, for Xena, that *was* diplomatic. *VERY* diplomatic. Why, I remember this time..."
Gabrielle went on, and on, while they helped clean up the mess of the evening. Tables overturned, chairs broken. Xena fixed several of them, binding twine around fractured chair leg to hold it in place until the glue dried.
Finally they finished up, and all sat down in front of the fire to have a bowl of hot soup and a mug of mulled cider.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in appreciation.
"Mmmm mmm, this soup is wonderful. You're an amazing cook..."
Cook smiled. "It's my mother's recipe, been in the family for generations. Broth, Lemon, eggs, very simple. But it sure is satisfying on a cold night. I put bits of chicken in it sometimes, to make it more filling.
"I'll have to get the recipe from you, it sounds simple enough that I could make it on the road... Goodness knows we could stand a change from bread and cheese."
Gabrielle glanced guiltily over at Xena.
"I mean, Xena hunts, and that's always nice. But I could do something a bit fancier with those rabbits..."
Time passed then, in companionable silence, until they finished their meal and stood, ready to head up to bed.
"Thank you again, Xena, for dealing with that... problem. Usually Neskaya keeps the crowds under control, she has a gift for keeping them entertained. But this evening, when I went up to fetch her down for the dinner crowd, she wasn't in her room."
The inn keeper looked concerned, eyeing the snow that fell ever heavier outside the small windows of the tap room.
"I don't know why she left. Not even a note... She's been here for almost six months, you'd think she'd give some kind of warning. But all her things were gone, and no sign of her."
"I guess it's time to start looking for a new bard. Things get crazy around here when we don't have any entertainment..."
With that he headed up the back stairs, shaking his head as he went.
Gabrielle stared after him, sadness written clearly across her face.
"What's the matter, Gabrielle?"
"Oh, Xena. It's my fault."
"What's your fault? What are you talking about?"
The bard sighed, and settled heavily back down onto her stool.
"Neskaya, the bard that was in here earlier?"
"I went to talk to her, after you, after you left."
"We were getting along fine, and then, like an idiot, I had to go and bring up your name. I should have known that you would be an uncomfortable subject... I mean, what with the song and all. But I just forgot. And then she just closed up, and said 'I have to leave'. I thought she meant she was going back up to her room. I had no idea she would head out into the storm..."
Xena was silent for a long moment.
"So she left because of me."
Gabrielle shook her head.
"No. I mean, yes, but... That's not what I meant. It isn't your fault. I just wasn't thinking."
Xena stood suddenly.
"It's getting worse by the minute out there. And there isn't any place to stay, not for miles around here. Even if she left at first light, she's going to be sleeping in the open tonight. And this is a bad time for that.
Not only that, but that band of mercenaries has to be camped around here somewhere. The woods aren't safe tonight. I have to go find her. Then, if she can't stay in the same inn as us, we'll leave."
Gabrielle tried to talk Xena out of going, but to no avail. Half an hour later, wrapped in a heavy cloak, Xena strode out of the inn door. She carried a pack of supplies from the inn keeper, and an extra blanket that she intended to strap onto Argo's saddle.
Turning back towards Gabrielle, she smiled, a mere ghost in the driving snow.
"See, this time I'm taking a blanket..."
Gabrielle sat alone in her room, staring out into the swirling darkness. She couldn't sleep. Memory kept her mind ablaze, memory and dream.
She hadn't had a chance to get the crumpled scrap of paper back from Xena. There hadn't been time after the fight, in the hustle and bustle of Xena's preparations. She'd forgotten, and she was sure that Xena had, as well. But that wouldn't last. She had the thing with her, and when she returned she would have read that hastily scrawled poem, and everything would change.
Then again, maybe not...
Gabrielle didn't know which would be worse, rejection, or silence. And she hardly dared hope, dared dream, that she might be met with something else. It seemed too fanciful, too good to be true. She doubted the gods would be that kind...
And so, as the night progressed into infinite distance, she stared, and wondered, mind ablaze with memory, and dream.
Xena shivered under the heavy cloak, chilled to the bone as the night wind howled down the pass. The snow was beginning to drift high, obscuring the road and making progress difficult. She would have to stop soon, and wait for sunrise, or risk laming Argo on an unseen hazard. Fortunately sunrise was not that far away.
Turning off the road she struggled up hill towards a stand of trees that were the closest thing to shelter up here. Small, scrubby things, they were the last real foliage before the tree line. Luckily the pass turned back downhill from here on, so it wouldn't get much worse.
Tethering Argo to the innermost tree, Xena settled the spare blanket over her withers, making sure that she'd be warm, and incidentally making a bit of a windbreak.
Then she cut a swath of branches from the leeward side, and settled down on the ground using them for a seat. That way her backside would stay a little drier, and maybe she could avoid freezing her ass off, so to speak.
It was perhaps three hours until sunrise, and Xena had nothing to do but think...
She was fairly certain she was on the right track as far as finding Neskaya went. There was only the one road, anywhere in this deserted territory. And there wouldn't have even been that, except that on either end of said road were two very wealthy trading towns. And during the winter, when sea travel was inadvisable, this road was the only route for all the travel going from city to city.
That meant several things. First, the road never lacked for traffic, and it also never lacked for brigands. Second, there was no reason to go anywhere off the road, there was nothing to see. Which made things very handy for the brigands, by the way, since their camps would likely remain secret. And third, that meant the bard had no reason to leave the road either. She was either heading back the way Xena had come, or forward along the trade route. Which meant, if she had neither frozen to death nor been captured by brigands, she was less than a day's journey down the road, one way or another. The only question was which way.
A discrete inquiry to the stable boy assured Xena that Neskaya had no mount. Afoot, it took two days to reach Parthenium in the West, or six days to reach Belias in the East.
Simple logic dictated that Parthenium would be the more practical destination. The climate got milder in that direction, there were fewer hazards, and best of all, the distance was much shorter.
*But*, most traffic this time of year was also headed towards Parthenium, from Belias. Neskaya would have known that. And since she was trying to avoid Xena, who would also likely have been traveling towards Parthenium... Xena was willing to bet good money that Neskaya's destination was Belias. And Xena had not made her name as a warlord by failing to second guess her opponent's motives and actions. No, Neskaya was on this road. Now all Xena had to do was find her.
Xena shifted on her seat of pine boughs, and something wedged in her armor poked her painfully. Swearing, she plucked out the offending object, a much crumpled and abused sheet of parchment.
Ah yes, this was the poem that Gabrielle had not wanted to show her. Smiling, she smoothed it open and began to read.
Gabrielle woke in the late afternoon, to the crash of breaking crockery. A few minutes later the knocking on her door confirmed her suspicions.
"Gabrielle, I heard ya tell Neskaya tha you were a bard. Is tha true?"
She nodded cautiously. The inn keeper mumbled a small prayer of thanks to the gods.
"Then ya must come downstairs now. The customers are getting so rowdy, soon they're goin' ta start with the knife games again. They don't like being snowed in, and they like it much less when there's no entertainment..."
"All right. I'll come right down. Just let me get myself together..."
Once she got downstairs, the chaos was evident. Patrons were arguing, and what a appeared to be the tail end of a food fight was in progress. She picked her way through the debris, and mounted the hearthstone so she had a better command of the room. Setting her staff against the wall, she drew herself up to her full height. Then, using her best 'command voice', she shouted them all down.
"ALL RIGHT! CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE!"
A few bits of food were flung her way, which she easily dodged, but other than that, no one paid her any attention at all. Sighing, she made her way into the kitchen and grabbed the biggest kettle not currently in use. She trudged it out to the fire place, and hung it on it's hook. Staff in hand once more, she dealt the kettle a resounding blow, and then covered her ears.
When the ringing died down a bit, there was utter silence in the room. Clearing her throat, Gabrielle surveyed the crowd once more.
"There, that's better. Now, I'm going to be your bard for the evening. So sit back, and I'll tell you about....."
As the sun crested the crystal skyline, Xena kicked Argo's flanks, spurring her up over the ridge. The scrap of color flashed again, as her prey dodged behind a small stand of bushes. Grinning madly, Xena freed her chackram, sending it dancing through the air, an extension of her will... Moments later she was rewarded with a satisfying thunk and a yell of surprise.
Before the ragged brigand could get over the shock of having his arm pinned to a shrub, Xena had dismounted and slammed rigid fingers into the side of his neck.
"Hurts, doesn't it?"
His face was quickly turning red, and his eyes bulged.
"That's because I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You've got about thirty seconds to live, unless you tell me what I need to know."
"What?" His strained whisper was barely audible.
"There was a woman, smallish, blonde, traveling alone. A bard. Do you know where she is?"
He mutely shook his head, refusing to answer.
Xena grinned, and stepped back.
"Well then, I guess you're not much use to me anyway, are you?"
She turned to walk away, but she didn't get more than two steps before his strangled cry brought her bounding back.
"All RIGHT! We captured her. She's prisoner at the camp."
Xena lashed out, lightning fast, and the brigand hit the ground, gasping. As he turned to scramble away Xena caught him by the collar and lifted him off the ground so she could stare him in the face.
"Little man, you aren't going anywhere. You and I are going to have a nice, long talk..."
Sighing, Gabrielle staggered up the back stairs. The customers had kept her talking until sunrise. She was so hoarse she could barely whisper, and too tired to even be hungry. She hoped Xena came back soon, because at this rate she was going to run out of stories. And she *never* thought that would happen....
Xena held her breath as a sentry stamped by, bitterly complaining about watching in the snow without so much as a mug of ale to keep him warm. Of course he didn't see her. She could have walked right along behind him, making silly faces and waggling her fingers at his back and he wouldn't have noticed her. But then, that would have been unprofessional...
After he was gone she moved up to actual camp itself, careful not to trip over guy wires and careless piles of armor that were now covered in snow. She shook her head. Whoever commanded this troupe had a lot to learn about keeping order. She would have had anyone who left his equipment like that flogged and put on stable shoveling duty until she felt he'd learned better. If she was feeling generous, of course. If not...
Soon she was deep into the camp, fairly safe from discovery because the entire camp was gathered around the mess tent, where something resembling lunch was being served.
Finally she located the largest, warmest looking living arrangement, which she assumed would belong to the Captain of the brigands. Listening for a long moment to be sure that there was no movement inside, she slipped out her breast dagger and made a neat slit up the back. She quitely slid in, blinking in the relative darkness.
There was no one inside, and she muttered a short curse. She'd figured that someone as appealing as Neskaya would have spent the night in the leader's tent, and would still be there for his pleasure. That she was NOT could many any number of things, most of them unpleasant....
She took a quick turn around the tent, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing worthy of note.
She'd learned a lot from the silly little man who'd tried to ambush her on the road. This particular group was called Toveshni's Hounds, and their leader, not surprisingly, was named Toveshni. Or Captain, SIR!... Depending on whether you valued your life or not.
Xena though she might call him Tovie, just to see how he felt about that.
They had laid claim to this portion of the road just recently, having deposed the last band, Retarculus' Raiders.
Xena didn't expect them to hold it long, from the look of the camp they were a bit short on organization and discipline. But for the moment she was not concerned with their future plans. Her only worry was what they'd done to Neskaya, and where she was now.
Careful scouting of the camp turned up no signs of her, nor any other prisoners. Apparently the ransom business had been a bit slow lately. Finally she made her way closer to the lunch mess. She'd been trying to do this quietly, and avoid being noticed. But obviously, that just wasn't going to work.
She could hear scraps of conversation beginning to come together as she crawled behind the mess tent itself, inching closer the officer's table. She jumped as someone slammed a mug down on the table hard enough to send splinters flying. As she eased up to the edge of the tent, intending to peek around the corner, flesh connected with flesh in a meaty thud, and a woman's voice cut off abruptly.
Giving up on secrecy, Xena sprang out, her battle cry ringing in the cold air like a bell.
Neskaya was sprawled in the snow, on hand to her bleeding lip. She started at Xena's arrival, and then began to laugh, a slightly hysterical edge evident in her throaty chuckle.
"Oh this is priceless. What a picture. Xena, how nice of you to drop in. Do let me perform the introductions. Xena, destroyer of nations, conqueror of my homeland... meet Toveshni Farmerson, Captain of the Hounds, kinslayer, and my only brother. You may recall him from a certain work of mine. I believe it moved you much you had to leave the room... or maybe you just didn't care for my singing."
Toveshni, a huge blonde bear of a man, laughed from deep in his belly, so loudly that it seemed to shake the air.
"Have you been singing that piece of drivel again, little sister? You must forgive her, Xena. She has a taste for revisionist history. As you can see, I'm very much alive."
Neskaya hissed, coming up into a crouch that was at once feral and graceful.
"I may not have had the heart to kill you then, brother, but I should have. I should have shot you where you stood, like the dog that you are. Kinslayer." She spat on the ground, and where her body heat hit the snow a small trail of steam wafted towards the sky.
Toveshni came around the table in a rush, hefting Neskaya off the ground like a rag doll.
"Listen little sister, don't try my patience, or I shall slay the last of my kin and have done with it."
Xena's voice, chill as the ever falling snow, cut into the little family party.
"Tovie, put the lady down. You and I have something to discuss..."
He tossed Neskaya aside, waving to his men. "Yes, we certainly do. I raised an army to fight yours, but you deprived me of the pleasure by getting out of the warlord business. Still, I knew they'd come in handy anyway. And now that you don't have your mighty host to do your bully work, I think I have you at a disadvantage."
While he spoke, his men circled around, surrounding Xena. Then, at his order, they charged together, hoping to overwhelm her with numbers.
Letting the first few skewer each other in the rush, Xena flipped over their heads, landing next to Neskaya. A sharp whistle brought Argo thundering in while Xena occupied the few men who'd found their way out of the pile with some entertaining sword tricks and shenanigans.
Then, tossing Neskaya up into the saddle in front of her, Xena headed at full gallop towards Toveshni. He dove out of the way, yelling something about his idiot men and centaurs...
Xena spurred Argo towards their picket line, slashing the horses' leads and slapping them on their rumps with the flat of her sword. Trilling with joy she stampeded the whole herd off into the forest and then steered down the road, confident that none of the men would be following them for quite some time.
They rode in silence for the rest of the afternoon, each lost in their own thoughts, neither feeling the need for conversation. Finally, as dusk fell, Xena headed towards a small sheltered clearing on the hillside. A tiny cave, just barely big enough for Argo and the two of them, was tucked behind a weather beaten oak, hidden from the road and practically invisible.
Neskaya whistled long and low as it popped into view.
"How did you DO that?"
"Find this cave?"
Xena shook her head, shrugging.
"It's a talent I've always had. Served me well when I needed to shelter my army. I just seem to be able to find one, whenever I need it. Gabrielle thinks it's some kind of affinity with Hades and the Underworld. Me, I just think it's good scouting. What matters is that it's here, and we need shelter. Unless you'd prefer to sleep under the snowy sky tonight?"
Neskaya shook her head vigorously.
"Not on your life, warrior woman. I have no taste for frozen toes and fingers. I've seen what the frost giant's breath can do... I've a ken to keep on playing my instruments, gods willing. Can't do that if you've lost your fingers to the cold death..."
They set up camp, Xena building a small fire in the back of the cave. It was smoky and burned low, all the wood was too wet and green to do any better, but at least it warmed the cave enough for some level of comfort.
A meal of cold road food was quickly consumed, and then the silence grew and grew, till it filled the space between them.
Finally Neskaya pulled out her lyre, plucking a haunting tune that reminded Xena of hearth fires and mulling cider, and the quiet of banked embers and sleeping houses. It made her homesick, and it made her think also of Gabrielle.
When the bard finished her song, Xena plucked out a the much worn piece of paper, covered with Gabrielle's handwriting, and handed it to Neskaya.
"You're a bard. If you wrote something like that, what would it mean to you?"
Neskaya read the poem through once, and then read it again. Softness in her eyes like a warm summer wind, she looked at Xena from those bottomless wells of dark gold, searching for something...
"Gabrielle wrote this, didn't she?"
Xena sighed, nodding her head.
"She's always writing all sorts of fanciful stories about adventure, and bravery... and love. But that, somehow, seems... different."
Neskaya handed the parchment back, watching as Xena folded it carefully and tucked it away.
"It's not my place to interpret someone else's work, or read meanings into something. I can't tell you what she was thinking, what she was feeling. But I CAN see what you're feeling. What you're denying to yourself. Don't you feel that you owe it to her to be honest?"
Xena glared, eyes ice against the stars.
"What would you know of honesty, you who rewrite history so blithely?"
Neskaya winced, seeming to shrink in on herself.
"We each have our burdens to bear, o' destroyer of nations. You are not who you were. You work to rectify the errors you have made. Well... so do I. I may not have killed him when I should, but I can..."
She trailed off, and then shook her head, making a helpless little gesture.
"You know, I left that inn to avoid this conversation. I had worked so hard to gain back my peace... I spent years hating him, hating you, *knowing* that hating you was what put him exactly on the road he travels today. He was gentle, kind, fiercely protective of us all. He was a farmer's son, linked to the land, bound to the cycles of the seasons. Hatred twisted him away from his heart, his living breath. When I knew how much I hated him, I tried to find ways to exorcise that hatred from my breast.
With that song, I let him go. Let him find the peace that he should have had. Let him come home...
I don't hate you any more. It's just that you remind me of things that need never have been."
After that the silence grew again, claiming Neskaya as she slid down into sleep and the dreams of things long past.
Xena could not sleep, but she did dream. She dreamed of night, and darkness, of small fires and bright eyes. And all the dawns spent with another bard, never knowing what was in her heart, afraid to know. Somewhere between sunset and sunrise, she began to sing, ever so softly, and the words were her guide against the blank night sky...
Bright the dancing fire that shines,
No brighter than her smile.
Bright the laughter in her eyes,
Mile by weary mile.
Bright the sunrise as it falls
Across her sleeping form,
Awake I stare
And danger ware,
Into the silent morn.
Dark the time that went before,
And darker yet the soul.
Dark the heart before the song,
The broken shards now whole.
Dark the eyes that could not see,
Across the battlefield,
Beyond the night,
Her laughter bright,
My conscience and my shield.
Xena stabled Argo, neatly hanging up saddle and tack, and putting feed into the trough. While she worked, she continued her discussion with Neskaya.
"Your brother, you know him better than I. Is he likely to follow you?"
"Yes, I think he will. Or at least, he'll have to make a good show of it... You shamed his army, stole me out from under his nose. *And*, all his men know about his vow to kill you. But I don't think he really cares about that any more. He's comfortable in his life of banditry. He won't really want to disturb the status quo. I think if I can get out of sight, somewhere down the road, and you get far enough away, he'll let it rest. But as long as we're around here, he'll have to make the effort, or loose face."
"I thought so. In that case, our first priority is to get you to Parthenium. You can lose yourself there in seconds, and now that you know where he is, you can avoid this area. Then you won't have to worry about him any more."
"Yeah. No problem. But what about everyone else...?"
The Innkeeper was overjoyed to see them safe and sound, and his wife promptly set in to scolding Neskaya. Laughing she doled out hugs, and then held up her hand.
"Jarvis, Bel, I'm sorry. I should never have skipped out on you like that. It's just that, I was trying to run away from something in my head. That can make a person a little crazy, I guess. But now I've run straight into real trouble, of a relative kind. I can't stay for long, or I'll put you all in danger."
Bel threw up her hands, scowling fiercely. "If someone is chasin you, we'll give him a good thrashing. There's no reason for you to go hieing off into the brush again, girl. You're safer here with people..."
Neskaya shook her head.
"No Bel. Not this time. My brother has an army at his back, and he'll be coming soon. When he gets here, just tell him anything he wants to know. He should leave you alone."
"But I thought yer brother was dead?"
Neskaya sighed and sat down. Just as she was about to launch into an explanation, Gabrielle came down the stairs.
"Hey what's all the commotion ab- . . . Xena!"
She threw herself across the room towards her friend, intending to hug her. But at the last moment, self conscious, she stopped. Studying Xena's face, she looked for a sign... wondering. After a moment she took a deep breath, clearing her throat.
"Hey, I'm glad you found Neskaya. Not that I had any doubts that you would, of course. After all, you always get what you set out for..."
Smiling, Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"And I see you kept things quiet here. Good. Now if you'll go upstairs and get our things, we have to be going."
"Going? But you just..."
"I'll explain later, Gabrielle. Right now, we have to get moving."
By the time Gabrielle came back down with their bags, Argo was re-saddled and waiting at the door. Neskaya was explaining the rest of the situation to Jarvis and Bel, and Xena was tucking away food from a cold lunch platter.
"So you see, I had the opportunity to kill him, but I didn't. I knew what had to be done... but I, I just couldn't. So now he's more of a threat than ever, and he's after us. Can you see why we can't just stay?"
Bel nodded sadly.
"Aye child, I see. He'll come after you, sure enough. And we don't have an army to stand against him. But you did what you felt was right..."
As the sun fell close to the horizon, shadows reached along the ground, stretching cold fingers towards the night. Xena pulled up short suddenly, and Neskaya and Gabrielle staggered to halt behind her.
"As much as we need to keep moving, Argo is too tired to go any further. And you two are practically dead on your feet. Besides, it's starting to smell like snow again. With any luck, if we hole up off the road, the fresh snowfall will cover our tracks."
She lead them into the trees, afoot now to avoid the low hanging branches that were bent low by their heavy load of snow. Though no cave was readily available, Xena soon showed them what she intended to do about that.
They reached a place where a huge old tree had fallen, opening space to the sky. In that clearing, dozens of saplings had sprung up, taking advantage of the newly cleared territory.
Still young enough to be springy and resilient, the trees shed their loads of snow as Xena bent them together, forming a tent like structure of evergreens. A few loops of her whip bound them together, and a spare branch worked to sweep the loose fluffy snow out from between their trunks. Xena packed this into walls, and in mere minutes, a small but practical shelter stood before them.
"This sort of thing has the advantage of getting warmer, the more snow falls on it. The snow piles up, keeping out the wind and cold. It can actually be quite cozy, relatively speaking."
Duly impressed, the two bards worked quickly to unload Argo and set up camp inside. The ground covers Xena and Gabrielle usually slept on formed a neat floor, and they had enough blankets between them to keep warm.
After a cold diner, preparations for bed only involved rolling into a blanket and snuggling in. However, as Xena and Gabrielle got comfortable, Neskaya stood up and wrapped her blanket around thin shoulders, stepping out into the night.
"I'm restless, after resting a bit. I think I'm going to go for a walk. Don't worry, I won't stray out of shouting distance..."
Before the others could object, she was out of sight.
Gabrielle, confusion plain on her face, looked to Xena for clarification.
"What was THAT? She can't possibly be in better shape than me, and I'm completely exhausted!"
Xena shrugged, unwilling to meet Gabrielle's eyes. She had an idea what Neskaya was up to, but...
"Maybe she needed some time alone. Reuniting with family members you want to kill can be traumatic, I guess."
Gabrielle looked doubtful.
Xena sighed, sitting up and looking at her best friend.
"Or maybe she thought we needed some time."
"Time for what?"
"Time to talk..."
Gabrielle sat up, drawing her blankets around her, a ball of chilled lead settling firmly in her stomach. In a small voice she asked,
"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
Looking into her friends face, reading the fear there, Xena almost denied it. Nothing was worth seeing that fear, that dread, and knowing that she must be it's cause. But Gabrielle deserved nothing less than the truth, no matter what the consequences.
Slowly, painfully, Xena drew out the folded sheet of parchment, now so battered and worn. Holding it in her hand, she took comfort in the love expressed on it's surface. Whatever it meant, she had a piece of courage to hold on to.
Gabrielle's face went sheet white at the sight of Xena holding that tattered page. Desperately she tried to cover the trail...
"Hey, you know, I can explain that. Really. It's just -"
Xena cut her off midsentence.
"Gabrielle. Please. Look, this... this is a great poem. I don't know what you were thinking about, when you wrote it. But it set me to thinking, too. About something I've been meaning to tell you. I just, never got around to it, I guess."
Sighing she shook her head.
"No, that's not precisely true. I was afraid to tell you. Because I wasn't sure, especially after Perdicus... Because, somewhere deep down, I guess I still feel like, with all my past, I don't deserve... I guess what I'm trying to say is that I care about you,"
Gabrielle cut in,
Xena shook her head, confused.
"But what? I just wanted to tell you. You're, you're family to me. I told you I just wanted you to be happy, when you went off with Perdicus. And it was true. I do want you to be happy. But I had hoped, that,"
"That what, Xena?"
"Gabrielle. . . I love you."
Xena fell silent, the words said, the fateful step taken. Outside, gentle snow fell, blanketing the world once more in white.
Gabrielle's eyes grew round, as she absorbed Xena's meaning. The opposite of what she had expected to hear, it took a moment to seep in.
The silence stretched on, Xena growing ever more certain that she'd made a mistake. A single tear trickled down her cheek, and she opened her mouth to tell Gabrielle that she would leave as soon as they got Neskaya to safety. But before the words could escape her lips, Gabrielle placed a gentle finger across them, keeping her silent.
"By the gods, that is the last thing I expected to hear you say. Ever since the first time I saw you, I've been thinking, hoping, following you... But you were always so distant. I thought,"
Gabrielle trailed off, hands in her lap once more.
"I guess it doesn't really matter what I thought. Gods, I'm such an idiot." Never breaking eye contact with Xena, Gabrielle leaned forward, closing the space between them slowly.
Now it was Xena's turn to be wide eyed, but she didn't break away. Finally, after an eternity, they kissed.
Moments later Argo whinnied, and they heard footsteps crunching in the snow outside.
"Hey you two, are you still awake? It's getting awfully cold out here...."
In the dark and silence, Xena snapped awake. No noise had woken her, nor even a sixth sense. Rather, it was the lack of a presence. Neskaya was gone.
Xena remembered that Neskaya had gotten up, motioning that she was going out to relieve herself. Satisfied, Xena had allowed herself to drift back to sleep. But her internal clock said that Neskaya had been gone too long. Quietly she rolled to her feet and stepped out into the snow, scanning for signs of danger. Nothing moved except the softly drifting snow.
Quickly Xena scouted around the edge of the clearing, but Neskaya was nowhere to be found. Scowling, Xena returned to check something.
Sure enough, Neskaya's lyre case and bag were gone. In their place, a small note fluttered at the end of a length of ribbon, looped neatly over Argo's saddle.
I know that you risked much to save me from my brother. And for that, I am truly grateful. But I realize now that I cannot go on running, waiting for him to catch up to me. How many others will he kill, while I let him ravage on?
I'm also fairly sure that you saw this coming, but I hope that I at least left to do this sooner than you expected. I don't want to put the two of you in any more danger, and I can't stand the thought of him manhandling Bel and Jarvis...
Please, perhaps it's futile to ask, but I beg you not to follow me. I go to do what I should have done so long ago.
Peace be with you both, and the gods' blessing...
Cursing, Xena went to rouse Gabrielle. They would have to ride hard, if they were to catch up to Neskaya before she met the Hounds on the road.
The gray twilight before dawn whited out the world, and the silent trees kept watch on her still form. Bowstring sheltered under her cloak, she knelt in the snow, oblivious to cold and the passage of time. When Tovie came through with his men, she would have only one shot, and she could not afford to waste it. What happened after did not matter, as long as she did not miss her mark.
Finally she heard the jingling of horse tack, muted by snow and distance. As she prepared herself, poised to stand and fire in one smooth motion, the chill kiss of steel touched the back of her neck, tracing gently down her spine.
"Hello little one. No, no, don't turn around. Time enough for that later. For now, set your bow down, gently."
When she hesitated, her captor's breath hissed out in a menacing snarl.
"Don't make me hurt you! The Captain wouldn't like that at all, he has plans for you... Put it DOWN."
Numb, Neskaya let the bow fall lifelessly from her fingers.
"That's better, bitch. Don't want to have to cut the bait before we put you on the hook, it looks bad. Now, stand up. We have a ways to go before sunrise."
Mentally cursing the snow, Gabrielle crabbed up to the crest of the hill, settling in next to Xena.
"Do they have her down there?"
Xena nodded, pointing down into the camp.
"There she is, in plain view. They have her muffled in a cloak, but there's no mistaking who she is, tied to that stake. What other short, blonde person would they have so prominently displayed?"
Gabrielle looked over at Xena quizzically.
"Displayed? You think she's out there for our benefit?"
"Tovie isn't much into subtlety, his trap is about the most obvious I've ever seen. I saved her once, so he figures I'll try again. And he thinks he'll have a better chance of getting the drop on me this time."
Xena chuckled, and Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.
"Aren't you going to? Save her, I mean..."
"Oh sure. But in my own time. And in my own way."
She slithered back down the hill, careful to keep low until she was out of sight of the encampment below.
"As long as they don't do anything to her, we haven't got any reason to rush in. She won't freeze to death, bundled up the way she is. She'll be uncomfortable, but that's just too bad. She should have known better than to run off on her own..."
Xena shook her head, frustrated with impetuous bards.
"In the mean time, we need to find a place to hole up where we can keep an eye on these jokers. I want to see what their routines are like..."
About four hours later, Xena had the perfect place staked out. On the opposite side of the camp from where they had been, three trees had fallen towards each other, their roots eroded by run off from the hills. Their back side blocked by an accumulation of brush and snow, they formed a sheltered spot out of the wind.
Up until recently it had obviously been occupied by some large predator, the accumulation of cracked bones at the mouth of the shelter was mute testament to that. But whatever had lived here, it was also obvious that it hadn't been back since the snows started to fall.
It gave a clear view of the camp below, but their own movements would be masked by brush and trees... they stood no danger of silhouetting themselves against the bright sky.
Gabrielle's only complaint was that they couldn't start a fire. But then again, she'd spent enough cold nights with Xena to get used to the chill. And of course, after last night, perhaps she was not so far off to hope that there might be some other way for the two of them to generate a little warmth...
Once Argo was tethered outside, and the two of them wrapped in warm furs, there was nothing much to do but watch, and wait.
"How long are we going to sit here, Xena?"
"Until they get tired of watching for me to come riding out of the brush."
Gabrielle sighed to herself, frustrated with uncommunicative warriors. Sidling a bit closer to Xena, she casually let their thighs touch, resting a hand across her knee and coincidentally, across Xena's knee as well. Rewarded by a slight twitch, she carefully didn't look over at her friend.
"What do you think made her decide to go back? I mean, you would've taken care of Tovie and his Hounds..."
Xena shook her head.
"I don't think that matters much to her. What matters is that she didn't act when she could have, and she's never come to grips with that mistake. Toveshni is a symbol of her weakness in her eyes, just as I am a symbol of torment for him. None of it has anything to do with the way things stand now. And until we can all look at each other without seeing our own demons, nothing can really change."
Sighing, Xena rested her chin on her knee, and Gabrielle reached out to stroke the dark hair she'd been longing to touch for so long. Surprised, Xena jumped, almost pulling away. But then, muscle by muscle, she consciously relaxed, allowing this closer contact as if by force of will.
Time passed, and they never noticed, sitting close, watching gentle snow fall on the camp below. Eventually, fear crouching in her stomach like it never had before a battle, Xena turned towards Gabrielle with a question on her lips. A question that she never got to finish.
Instead, the gentlest of kisses silenced her tongue. After that, no words would have sufficed.
Gabrielle shivered, struck by a chill as the blanket around her shoulders slipped away. Quick reflexes not dulled in any way, Xena caught the blanket as it fell. She placed it back around Gabrielle's shoulders, and her touch trailed ice and fire down the bards arm when she pulled her hand away.
In the blanket of falling white, Neskaya stared out into the blinding sky. And the chains that bound her wrists were not as cold as those that bound her heart.
The crack of a whip echoed across the vale, and Xena jerked her head back, breaking the kiss that had held all her attention a moment before. Scrambling apart, the two watchers slithered to the entrance of their shelter... trying to make out what was going on through the thickly falling snow.
The whiteness could not quite conceal Neskaya's form kneeling in the snow, nor the tall shape looming over her. A violent motion, and the whip cracked again.
"Xeeeeeeenaaaaa!" Toveshni's voice thundered out, shocking in the pale silence.
"I know you're out there! Come down and face me, you coward!"
He staggered away from Neskaya, turning suddenly and lashing out with his whip again.
Swearing, Xena slammed her fist into the nearest tree, scuttling back as a heavy load of snow thumped down from the branches. Caught between laughing and tears, Gabrielle looked at Xena helplessly.
"What can we do?"
"I . . . I don't know. He's drunk. I never thought he would stoop to this, beating his own sister to get a rise out of me."
Xena put her head in her hands.
"Leaving her down there to get a little chilled is one thing, but..."
Gabrielle rested a hand on her friend's shoulder.
"You're going to go down?" It wasn't really a question.
Getting to her feet, Xena nodded.
"Here's what I want you to do. Take Argo, and wait for me over behind the . . ."
Neskaya winced as her brother swung the lash wide and snapped it towards her again. So far he hadn't done more than tatter her cloak, maybe bruise her ribs a bit. But if he aimed that thing at her face... She shuddered.
Then, before the lash could land again, the very air seemed to sing. With a bright flash and a strange whine, something screamed around and skipped off into the distance again. Toveshni stood, arm upraised, and gaped at the clean cut stump. Even as she watched, the truncated end of his arm began to gush bright blood onto the crisp snow.
"Let her go, Toveshni! I could have killed you with that shot. I did not. Now show that you have some sense, and release her!"
Bellowing for his men, the warlord overcame his shock and slapped a hand on the end of his bleeding stump. A viscous kick sent Neskaya sprawling on the end of her chain, and then he whirled and fled.
Men came boiling out of every tent, half armored, struggling with clothes and weapons as they came. None of them were a match for the warrior princess, but they almost overwhelmed her with sheer numbers before they started backing off, tired of dying. She was hampered by her need to stay with Neskaya, still chained to the post.
Every few exchanges, when she's get a bit of breathing space, she'd swing her sword in a viscous arc, trying to sever the chains. But they were thick, and Xena didn't have the time to devote proper attention to the task. At least Neskaya had the sense to stay still. If she'd moved she could've tripped Xena with the chain, and that would've been fatal to them both.
The dead and dying lay in a loose circle around the warrior, snow now churned to crimson mud. The few men that remained had backed off a bit, giving her a bit of breathing space, when she heard Toveshni's voice shouting orders again.
Suddenly, the men pulled back, and a dozen archers stepped through their ranks.
"Lay your sword down, Xena. Even you can't catch that many arrows, and Neskaya will die at your feet."
Toveshni shouldered his way forward, arm wrapped in a bloody rag, the smell of seared flesh a strong stench about him.
"Lay down your sword! Do it, and I'll let the bitch live."
Slowly Xena knelt down, as if preparing to lay her sword on the ground. Then, just as her blade touched the slushy snow, she sprang into the air, trilling her war cry. Just as she expected, none of the archers waited for the order to fire, they tracked up and released. None of the arrows touched her, and as she hurtled earthward she freed her chakram once more. It sang around the circle, severing bow strings and (mostly) missing the fingers of the archers.
On solid ground once more, she swept her sword around to strike at Toveshni. He blocked her blow with a below, and the archers scattered in fear. The few swordsmen left took the scene in at a glance, and melted towards the woods, hoping to live to pillage another day.
"Cowards! Come back! We can take her . . ." He trailed off. Xena stared at him like a cat, ready to pounce. Finally, he broke the silence.
"Listen, Xena, I... I'm sure we can reach an agreement. After all, this doesn't have to be a total loss..."
Xena shook her head.
"Tovie, you've got exactly ten seconds to head for the woods. Because there is *nothing* that you have that could possibly interest me."
Eyes dark as a thunderhead, Toveshni shook his head.
"You'll kill me as soon as I turn my back. You can't afford to leave me loose. Fine. But if I must go..."
As Xena drew breath to deny his claim, he lunged towards Neskaya, sword whistling towards her head. Xena acted instinctively, stopping his blade the only way she could.
After the clash, a moment of utter silence as Toveshni looked at his other hand, still gripping the sword, lying in the snow. Then, a wrenching sob tore his frame. Jamming his arm into the snowbank to staunch the bleeding, he stared disbelievingly up at Xena.
"I knew you were cruel, but this..."
"Toveshni, I would have let you leave. I didn't intend to..."
Growling he shook his head.
"It doesn't matter. What matters now is that you kill me cleanly. Don't leave me like this, Xena."
Xena backed away, shaking her head.
"I can't kill you, in cold blood..."
Xena looked at her sword, slick with the blood of fallen men. As she watched, blood dripped slowly off the blade, running onto the sodden ground.
Then, with a rattling of chains, Neskaya stood up.
"Xena, leave him."
Startled, Xena swiveled around to look at the bard.
"I thought you wanted him dead?"
"I did. But... I've been thinking. Xena, I should have killed him years ago. But I didn't. Now is not the time to compound one mistake with another. What harm can he do, now?"
Toveshni staggered to his feet, waving his bloody stump in Xena's face.
"Oh yes, what harm can I do now? With no hands, I won't even be able to feed myself, change my clothes, go to the bathroom. That's compassion for you! What happened to your much vaunted humanity Xena? Your newfound mercy?"
Swinging wildly he advanced towards the women.
"Kill me, damn you!!!"
Great sorrow in her eyes, Xena sidestepped his thrashing and planted a firm blow behind his ear, knocking him unconscious. He fell like a stone, sprawling at Neskaya's feet.
Xena shrugged, unsure what to say. Finally she cleaned her blade on a fallen man's shirt and resheathed it.
"What will you do?"
Neskaya unclipped the keys to her shackles from her brother's belt, and released herself. Then, tenderly, she brushed the hair back from his forehead.
"I think I'll go back to Jarvis' place. Its a good place to be. He... he won't like it there at first. But I think, someday, perhaps he..."
A single tear trickled down her face.
"I don't know. Perhaps he will get used to this, someday. Perhaps he can be healed. I have to try."
"I'll go get Gabrielle."
Thankful to be clean and warm once more, Xena was still toweling her hair as she entered their room. It was dark, except for a single candle, and at first she thought that Gabrielle was asleep. But as she eased the door shut, the Bard sat up in bed, the covers up around her shoulders for warmth.
"Are you coming to bed?"
"Sure. I didn't think you'd wait up . . ."
Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, smiling her quirky little smile.
"Oh no, I'm not asleep yet. We have some unfinished business to attend to."
Raising an eyebrow as she blew out the candle, Xena climbed in on her side of the bed.
"Oh really? And what might that . . . be . . .?" She faltered as she felt bare skin under her hand.
Chuckling, Gabrielle drew Xena in for a long, slow kiss.
"We were discussing my poetry, I think, and that's where we left off. But we keep getting interrupted..."
Xena caught her breath as soft hands trailed in places they had previously feared to go. Her voice harsh and ragged in her own ears, Xena answered.
"This time, I promise. . . I won't answer the door."
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