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The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and Toris are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story. All the other characters are mine. This story contains descriptions of violence along with some profanity and depicts the two main characters as lovers.
If there is a nicer person in the Xenaverse I haven't met 'em. My friend, your infectious enthusiasm has made this fun again.
The first rays of dawn peeked over the window sill and fell onto the face of the middle- aged woman curled up snugly in bed. Gabrielle winced and grudgingly cracked open one eye. Another day. She yawned and looked down at the arm girding her just above the waist. Lovingly and ever so gently she touched the hand. As she did she studied the back of it. The skin was not as smooth as it had once been. There were the first signs of what some called "age spots" forming on it and Gabrielle noted there was considerable dryness there too. Yet as far as she could tell this hand was just as strong as it had ever been.
Ten years ago this mundane little scene would have been unthinkable for the arm encircling Gabrielle was Xena's and there was no way in Tartarus she would have allowed Gabrielle to awaken before her. Back then Xena would have been up and about long before Gabrielle but now that their days on the road were over she did not seem so--what was the word Gabrielle thought--driven? Well, she thought, smiling to herself, it's only natural. After all she did turn fifty just a couple of months ago.
Gabrielle tapped the hand a couple of times. "Come on, sleepyhead," she said brightly. "Time to get up."
"Mmmm, already?" groaned Xena.
Gabrielle laid Xena's arm back and sat up on the side of the bed. She shucked the large shirt she used for a nightgown and slipped the plain peasant's dress down over her head. "So, Xena," she asked, "what would you like for breakfast?"
"Roast duck basted in honey," Xena murmured.
"Hah! That's a good one," laughed the bard. "How about eggs boiled in water instead?"
Gabrielle walked around to Xena's side of the bed and sat down. She then gazed into those so wondrously enchanting blue eyes. For over twenty years now she had been held captive by their magic. Even now, just staring into them never failed to thrill her. She leaned over and gently kissed her warrior. "You're not going to be a grump all day now, are you?"
Xena flashed one of her oh-so-familiar half smiles and replied, "No, not all day. Maybe just till noon. How's that sound?"
The searing pain shot through Xena's lower back like an electric shock. All Gabrielle saw was a slight narrowing of Xena's eyes and the faintest, faintest hint of a grimace on her face. To anyone but her it would have passed completely unobserved but to one as well versed in the subtle nuances of her lover's face it was as if Xena had screamed at the top of her lungs.
Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's arm. "It's your back again, isn't it?" she asked softly.
Xena knew it was no use to try to lie to the woman. Gabrielle knew her too well. "Yeah."
"That's the third time this week," observed Gabrielle. Actually it was merely the third one she had been witness to. In reality there was hardly a day that went by now when Xena didn't experience this at least two or three times. The pain didn't seem to be caused by any particular movement. It just more or less came and went at random.
"I'm all right now, Gabrielle," Xena assured her. "The pain's gone." She raised herself up and sat on the side of the bed.
Gabrielle then rose and made her way to the bedroom door. "I'll get breakfast started," she said.
Gabrielle exited the room and tried to give the impression she was on her way to the kitchen. Instead she ever so carefully crept back and peeked through the bedroom door she had deliberately left ajar. She watched Xena swell up her chest as it to gather herself for some, if one could be excused for saying it, "Herculean" effort. Slowly she stood up and took off her gown. It was blue and made of the finest Egyptian cloth-- a token of appreciation from the King of Crete for services long ago rendered. At the time Gabrielle had been shocked when Xena accepted it. Before this the warrioress had not shown any interest at all in such finery but the gown had somehow struck her fancy. Now Xena carefully folded it and placed it in the large chest adjacent to the bed.
Gabrielle marveled at the fact that, despite her fifty years, Xena still had the same trim, powerfully built, and yes, alluring body she'd always had. The bard smiled ruefully when she thought of the ten or so extra pounds she had put on since the two of them had quit the road. Gods! she thought as she watched her dress, she's as beautiful as she ever.
Xena had long since discarded the leather and armor of her warrior days. These days she preferred the loose pants and equally loose tunic she was now donning. This garb, when combined with her height and build, sometimes caused people to mistake her for a man but she did not care. To her, comfort and practicality were much more important.
Xena knew she was there. She always knew. They went through this little charade every morning. Gabrielle would pretend to be busy in the elsewhere and then return to peek through the door to make sure Xena was all right. The bard knew the morning was the roughest part of the day for her. It was as if Xena needed an hour or two to work all the knots and kinks out of her well-worn body. Gabrielle would always linger there until Xena was dressed just to make sure before tip-toeing off to the kitchen. Sometimes Xena wanted to come to the door and tell her to stop worrying so much but she knew it would only embarrass her lover.
After dressing and brushing her now-graying hair Xena joined Gabrielle in the kitchen. As always breakfast was barely just begun. With a playful smile Xena asked, "And just what have you been doing all this time anyway?"
"Mee?" the bard sputtered. "Oh, uh, I had to, uh, I had to gather some eggs."
"Ohhh," Xena said, tilting her head back slightly.
Gabrielle quickly strove to change the subject. "So, umm, what are you going to do today?"
Xena tore off a piece of last night's bread and popped it into her mouth. Between bites she said, "I'm hoping to finish up that problem for Philos."
Gabrielle furrowed her brow. "Philos? Oh, the one whose son had the little ah, liaison with that Etruscan princess?"
"That's the one," replied Xena, smacking her lips.
Philos was a rich and powerful merchant who happened to be good friends with king of Etruria. When the king's daughter, Rhysa, came to Greece to study music at the nearby academy he naturally invited her to stay at his large villa.
Unfortunately upon meeting his son the two of them had become instantly smitten with each other. Before you could say "Cupid's arrow" they had managed to circumvent her nurse and succeed in making her virginity a thing of the past. When poor Philos discovered his son and his best friend's daughter were now lovers the poor man nearly had an apoplexy. In itself their tryst was serious enough but matters were further complicated when Rhysa revealed she was betrothed to a Sicilian prince and was to marry him upon her return home. Naturally it was tacitly understood she was expected to return home the same way she had left--that is as a virgin.
And now to make matters worse her term at the academy was almost over and her father would soon be sending a company of courtiers to escort her home. This problem meant not only the probable demise of his friendship with the King of Etruria but almost certain financial ruin as well for Philos had considerable assets tied up in a new trading venture based there. If the king saw fit to kill the deal now it would be very bad indeed for Philos.
Nearly at his wits' end wondering what to do, Philos had at last called on Xena for help. This was how she made her living now. To be sure it wasn't as exciting as matching wits with Ares or battling some no-good warlord but then again she wasn't twenty-five years old anymore either. She was still a "problem solver"--it was just that now she relied more on her intellect that her muscles to get things done. Over the last five years her work had included everything from reorganizing the army of the kingdom of Euboea to settling a "nasty" dispute between two rival pig farmers. Hardly a week went by now without someone knocking on her door asking for help. If it happened to be some ordinary guy in need of her unique services she never allowed them to pay her when the job was finished. Her conscience would not allow her to accept money from these simple folk.
However she made up for it when she extracted her fee from all those kings and whining fat merchants who always seemed to be screwing up one thing or another. She had no qualms whatsoever about making them dig deep into their purses. To avoid any misunderstanding she always named her price up front and to her recollection only one man had balked at her fee. Most were only too glad to pay. They knew she had a reputation as a woman that could get things done. And Xena always delivered.
A byproduct of all her work was the fact that she was, by and large, a respected member of society now. She had outlived most of the enemies from her black past and she had by now learned that the younger generation simply did not care. She knew she would never be revered like the great Hercules but it was enough for her to know that she was not looked upon with fear and hatred anymore either.
For over fifteen years she and Gabrielle had roamed over most of the known world making a difference in people's lives. She loved it. To a warrior in the prime of her life it was like Mount Olympus on earth. Then came that fateful day she battled Jarvis. She thought him to be just another in a seemingly endless line of bullies who looted and pillaged defenseless villages. The people of Charla, afraid they were next on Jarvis' hit list, had asked Xena for help. Of course she had agreed and, on the day before the fall equinox, confronted Jarvis just outside the village. She had done this sort of thing many, many times before and she never knew how they were going to turn out. A good percentage of the time her name was enough to deter them. That was all right with her. If they chose to fight...well that was all right too.
But this Jarvis was unlike any enemy she had ever faced. He was big, almost seven feet tall. He was quick and unusually agile for his size and almost as strong as Hercules. And, as Xena would soon find out, he could fight. For almost an hour they clashed in the most brutal, vicious fight anyone had ever seen. Those who were there still spoke of it with awe. Twice Jarvis succeeded in knocking Xena to the ground with thunderous punches. The first time she went down he broke two of her ribs with a crushing kick. The second time she went down he kicked her so hard in the back Xena thought her spine was broken. In all her years of warfare she had never felt pain like that. However, by summoning up all her remarkable courage and determination, she managed to somehow ignore the excruciating pain and continue the fight.
In the end her experience was the difference. By falling back on the old soldier's philosophy of going for the opponent's legs in a sword fight, she at last was able to bring him to one knee. Almost blinded by her own pain, she called upon her last bit of strength and managed to ram her sword up to its hilt in his guts. The victory won, she collapsed on top of him and the next thing she knew she was lying in a soft bed and Gabrielle was telling her she had been unconscious for ten whole days.
It took many her weeks to recover sufficiently enough to travel again. By then Xena had made up her mind. She had decided it was time to call it quits. She had known for some time now that her once magnificent skills were slowly, almost imperceptibly, eroding. No one else could see the change yet but to her it was as plain as a sunrise. At the time she was forty-five years old and her hand was just a liiiittle slower, her eye not quite as keen, her remarkable hearing not quite as acute. And already her joints were beginning to experience the same soreness and stiffness that had plagued her mother so. To be sure she still in remarkable shape but she knew it was just a matter of time before her skills eroded to the point that she could no longer rely on them to aid her tread that fine line between life and death.
So she had lain there in that bed, staring up at the ceiling and made her decision. No more life on the road. No more living from hand to mouth. No more fighting. Alone she probably would have just continued on until she met the young foe who would, either through luck or skill, put an end to her remarkable life. But she was not alone. She had Gabrielle to think of. She knew fully well the bard was more than capable of taking care of herself but seeing to Gabrielle's well being had become so ingrained in Xena's psyche over the last two decades that it was just something she could not help. It would be like asking a fish not to swim or a lark not to sing. Gabrielle was hers and she had to take look out for her. For over twenty years now they had walked the same path and they were much, much more than mere lovers now. Their souls were irrevocably intertwined and their hearts beat as one. Even Xena's analytical mind conceded that one could probably could not live without the other now. They were just too much a part of each other.
So the Warrior Princess decided she had had enough. On a dark, cloudy day just after the winter solstice she made her decision known to Gabrielle. She had been a little concerned with how the bard would take the news but she need not have worried. Gabrielle had merely said, "Okay." Xena should have known. After all, it was not love of the road or even of adventure that had kept Gabrielle steadfastly at her side all those years. It had been her love for Xena. Gabrielle had merely followed where her warrior led.
Xena finished off the egg, her fourth, and washed it down with some herbal tea left over from the previous evening. "So," she asked, "are you coming?"
"Are you coming with me today?"
The bard's presence on these excursions with Xena was not an automatic thing anymore. Sometimes she just liked to stay home and maybe write or think or do nothing at all. After all, Gabrielle reasoned, if you've seen one king you've seen ‘em all. On this particular day, however, Gabrielle allowed she would go.
"Ohh. Uh, yeah. I'll go. Just let me bring in some wood first. It looks like it might rain today."
Xena walked to the window, opened it, and sniffed the air. "No rain today," she said. "More likely tomorrow."
This never ceased to amaze Gabrielle. Xena's ability to predict the weather was not just uncanny it was almost supernatural. In all their years together she had never known the warrioress to be wrong.
"Well, I'll get some anyway," said Gabrielle.
"Suit yourself," said Xena, shrugging her shoulders. "While you're doing that I'll fetch the horses."
Xena exited out the back door and leisurely made her way to the barn. As she opened the door the two horses, both mares, nickered softly. And, as it often did when she came here, Xena's thoughts turned to the lovely golden horse of an earlier time. Argo had been dead for many years now but even today Xena could rarely get near a horse without having the memories of that magnificent animal come flooding back to her. For a long time Argo had been her only true friend.
She lingered at the door for the briefest, briefest of moments remembering her beloved Argo. The warrioress allowed herself a faint smile of remembrance before entering. "Okay, girls," she cooed. "Vacation's over. Today you work."
"Owww!" Gabrielle dropped the stick of wood and popped a finger into her mouth. Damn splinters, she thought. She held up the offending digit and and squinted. "I know you're in there, you devil," she muttered. "I can feel you."
"What's the matter, Gabrielle?"
"Awww, I've got a splinter in my finger," Gabrielle replied.
"Here, let me see. You know, you really should be more careful," said Xena. She pulled out the small dagger she always carried and, in the wink of an eye, removed the splinter.
"Well," Gabrielle snorted, "it wouldn't kill you to help me every once in a while."
"Now, Gabrielle," said Xena, smiling in amusement, "we've been through all of this before."
"Yeah yeah, I know," the bard answered grumpily. "You bring in the dinars, I bring in the wood."
"You know you don't have to make it sound so... demeaning," smiled Xena.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle. "You do provide such a good living for us. It's just that sometimes..."
Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and softly kissed her on her forehead. "I know," she said quietly. "I know. Tell me something, Gabrielle, and be honest. Do you ever, you know, regret hitching your wagon to such a horse as me? You could have been the most famous bard in Greece by now. I mean, look at that Homer guy. Everybody thinks he's the greatest thing since heeled shoes and you are ten times the bard he is. Don't you ever...?"
Gabrielle touched a finger to Xena's lips. "No," she smiled. "No I don't. The life we've had together is something I wouldn't trade for all the glory in Greece. You've given me something much more important than all that--a happiness I didn't know was possible. And if my life were to end tomorrow my only thoughts would be of you and our life together."
"Gabrielle, it's no wonder I love you so. Now let's get started before I get all mushy on you. And don't worry about the wood. When we get back I'll fill the wood box for you. How's that?"
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and smiled. "Nah, I'll do it. You'd probably bust up my wood box or something. You know how you get carried away."
"Come on," said Xena.
They turned toward the horses when suddenly Xena stopped and put a hand to her ear.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Shhh." Damn it, thought Xena, cursing her hearing. "It's a horse," She said finally. "A horse and rider, coming this way--fast."
It was not until the rider topped the small rise in the road a couple of hundred paces away that Gabrielle at last was aware of them. The rider reined in his horse and stood up in his stirrups for a moment. Obviously he had seen them. In one motion he dropped back into the saddle and spurred his horse to life once again.
Xena watched the man approach, her hand shading her eyes from the sun now peeking through the clouds. She did not like the way the fellow was madly spurring his horse. "Gabrielle," she said quietly, "get my sword."
Without a word Gabrielle bolted the short distance to the house and almost immediately returned with the sword. The rider was now only about fifty paces or so away now. Now the man began shouting, "Xeeeena!"
"Who is it?" asked Gabrielle.
By now Xena knew who it was. That voice belonged to someone she had not seen in over ten years--not since the death of her beloved mother. His hair was mostly white now and he seemed smaller than she remembered but there was no mistaking the slope of his shoulders or the way he sat on the horse.
"It's my brother," said Xena, matter-of-factly. "It's Toris."
Toris greedily quaffed down another dipper of water, spilling some on his chest. "Thank you, Gabrielle," he gasped. "My throat was as dry as the great desert of Egypt."
The three of them sat at the large, round table that Xena had fashioned out of a large birch tree some years before. Toris had obviously driven himself and his horse to near exhaustion. After pulling up his sweat-soaked horse he had literally fallen off into Xena's arms. Ignoring the pain in her back she bore him into the house with the ease one carries a small child. With Gabrielle's aid she was soon able to revive him. Wisely Xena did not permit her brother to speak until she was sure he had gained some measure of his strength back. Toris had always been such an excitable individual.
"All right," she said finally. "What's this all about?"
"It's Sonia," Toris blurted out. "She's disappeared!" Sonia was Toris' daughter, the eldest of his three children. The last time--the only time Xena had ever seen the girl was at Xena's mother's death rite. Sonia was about seven years old at the time and Xena remembered her to be very level-headed for one so young.
"Was she kidnapped?" asked Gabrielle.
"What do you think I am, an oracle?" snapped Toris.
"Toris!" Xena barked. Brother or no, she was not about to tolerate him being curt with Gabrielle.
Toris sagged his shoulders and buried his face in his hands. "I'm... sorry, Gabrielle," he said, looking up at her. "The truth is I don't know. Not for sure anyway. All I know for certain is this is about to drive my wife and me crazy."
"It's okay," Gabrielle assured him.
"Tell us what happened," said Xena.
Toris ran the back of his hand across his forehead and blinked his eyes hard. "It was three days ago," he began. "Sonia and Sara, one of the neighbor girls, had gone to the temple of Paeon to pray for Sara's mother. She's been very ill lately and they thought an offering might cause Paeon to look upon their request with favor.
Hah! thought Xena. I'll bet that got results. If their was anything she had learned in the fifty years of her life it was to never count on the gods for anything. By and large every one of them was vain, cruel at worst, indifferent at best. Except for Hercules she had interacted with them more than anyone and she knew them for the shallow beings they were.
"Did they go to the temple alone?" she asked Toris.
"Yes. Sara said when they got there the line was very long and they had to wait for quite some time before they were able to make their offering. By the time they left the temple night had fallen."
Do you normally allow her out after dark?" Xena asked.
"We give her more leeway than we used to," replied Toris. "After all she is seventeen now."
"You shouldn't have allowed her to go," said Xena sternly.
"Don't you know there have been reports of slavers operating in Elis?"
"No, I didn't," Toris admitted. "I've been working very hard lately and I haven't been keeping up with what's going on."
"That is so typical of you, Toris," rasped Xena. "You never think anything through. You should have made them go earlier in the day."
"Umm, Xena?" To Gabrielle it looked as if Xena was on the verge of really lighting into Toris. She hoped not. Xena's wrath was enough to make even the strongest of men shrivel up and poor Toris was in no condition to withstand one of her fierce tongue lashings.
Xena shot an annoyed glance at Gabrielle but did not carry her verbal assault any further.
"It wouldn't have done any good to go earlier in the day," Gabrielle continued.
"And why not?" retorted Xena.
"'Cause offerings at a temple of Paeon are not accepted until the sun is a fist's width from setting," the bard explained.
For a moment Xena was slightly flustered. "Oh. I didn't know. Still, Toris, the times being what they are, you should have provided an escort for them."
"I suppose you're right," he said. "But I didn't come here to have you second guess me. I came to ask for your help. Besides, the temple is barely a discus throw from my house."
"Okay, okay, I didn't mean to come down on you so hard," said Xena. "So what happened next?"
"Sara said about halfway home Sonia stopped to look at the dresses in the needle worker's shop. Knowing they were already in trouble, Sara tried to convince Sonia to come on home but she said Sonia insisted on looking around some more." Toris chuckled weakly and added, "She is kind of stubborn."
"Big surprise there," said Xena dryly.
Boy, was that ever an understatement, thought Gabrielle. From her experiences with Xena's kinfolk she knew mulishness not only ran in her family--it practically stampeded!
At this point Toris gulped down another dipper of water. "Sara said she finally gave up and went home," said Toris, continuing. "The last she saw of Sonia she was still in the shop looking at the dresses." He lowered his chin and ran his hand through his hair. "She hasn't been heard from since. We've looked all over for her."
"Did you talk to the shopkeeper?" asked Xena.
"Of course," replied Toris dejectedly. "She said Sonia left a few minutes after Sara did. She did notice that she turned in the direction of our house."
"And how would she know where you live?" asked Xena suspiciously.
"Well," said Toris, clearing his throat softly, "I am somewhat well known in Tulis."
"Ohhhh, I see." Xena could not help but notice the slight hint of smugness in her brother's answer.
"Xena, do you really think she was taken by slavers?" asked Gabrielle.
"No," Xena answered. "No I don't."
"How can you be so sure?" demanded Toris. "Just a few minutes ago you were ready to bite my head..."
"A few minutes ago I didn't know you lived in a city as big as Tulis, either," snapped Xena.
"How could you know?" shouted Toris. "You never wrote, you never even bothered to ask where I live..."
"Well neither did you," retorted Xena in that menacingly slow, throaty voice of hers.
Here we go again, thought Gabrielle. What is it with these two anyway? Why can't they get along?
Xena closed her eyes and placed her thumb and index finger on the bridge of her nose. "As a rule slavers don't operate in well populated places. It's too risky."
And then she saw Toris compress his lips tightly together. Uhhh huh, she thought. Xena, you idiot, you should have known. She had just seen him do something that had been a habit of his since childhood. Xena had long, long ago learned that when he did that he was hiding something.
"Sorry, can't help you," Xena said bluntly. She abruptly stood up and jerked a thumb toward the door. "Come on, Gabrielle, let's go. We're wasting our time here."
"But, Xeeena!" the bard protested. "You can't just leave Toris here like this."
"Oh no? Watch me," she replied. "After all, why should I help someone who doesn't even have the common decency to be honest with his own sister?"
"I don't...know...what you're talking about," Toris sputtered.
"Yes you do," scowled Xena. Savagely yanking back its latch, she flung the door wide open.
"Wait!" Toris yelped.
Xena stopped dead in her tracks and slowly turned around. "Yeees?" she purred.
With a sigh of resignation Toris said, "Okay, Xena, you win. I ought to have known I couldn't put one over on you."
"Are you ready to tell me the real story now?"
She flashed him one of her rare, full smiles. "Good."
Gabrielle could only shake her head in wonder. Xena had played him like a lute.
Xena sat down on top of the table, letting her long legs dangle over the side. "Okay, Toris," she announced, "I'm waiting."
Summoning up what little dignity he had left, Toris began. "Let me start by telling you that Elis and my country, Arcadia, are having very strained relations right now. Very strained. Three weeks ago Draganis, the queen of Elis, sent a diplomatic mission to our country in a last ditch effort to settle our differences peacefully. As a token of her good faith she send her son, Felix, to deliver a personal message to our king.
Well, things went so well the first couple of days the king allowed me to invite Braxxus, their lead negotiator, to come to my house for supper. That's when the trouble seemed to have started.
"You're with the government?" Xena asked incredulously
Toris looked up at her with an odd smile on his face. "You see, Xena. You don't know a damn thing about what I've been doing the last ten years do you?"
"I guess not," she conceded. "So? Just what have you been doing?"
"Just working my way up to be the king's most trusted advisor on foreign affairs, that's all. You see, I promised mother on her death bed that I would improve my station in life. That's what she was always after me to do. It seemed to make her very happy when I told her." Toris eyed his sister sharply and added, "But you wouldn't know about that, would you? Since, of course, you weren't there."
Toris was right. And it was to Xena's eternal regret that she was not by her mother's side when she passed away.
"After mother passed away I went to Athens to study the law. It wasn't easy. By day I went to class and at night I worked in a slaughterhouse to provide for my family. I spent two long years in Athens doing this. Many was the time I was so tired I didn't even know what day it was. I wanted to quit and go home a hundred time but my family's love and support, and my promise to our mother, saw me through."
Xena reached over and touched him on the shoulder. "She would have been proud of you, Toris," she said softly.
Toris nodded and continued. "Soon after I returned home I received a summons from King Spiro. It seems one my instructors at the academy knew him well and when I finished my schooling he sent a note to the king recommending that he find a position for me."
"Wow, talk about rapid advancement," marveled Gabrielle.
"That's what I thought too," said Toris. "Anyway, it was the king's wish that I become an assistant to the minister on foreign affairs. To make a long story short they liked my work and when the minister died the king named me to his post. That was three years ago and I've been in that position ever since."
"Hmm, sister to a minister," said Xena, thinking out loud. "That might prove to be useful someday."
"Yeah right. So what do you think, Xena?"
"I think mother would be very proud," she replied.
"You already said that," said Toris. "I'm asking you what do you think."
Gabrielle noted Xena was remaining noncommittal on the subject. Nothing had really changed between them. As always their relationship centered on events now more than thirty years past. Gabrielle sat there silently monitoring their words and was again struck by how different they were. Yes, there was some family resemblance but that was about as far as it went. She knew it must be extremely difficult for Toris. For the rest of his life he would have to carry the guilt of abandoning his mother, Xena, and younger brother Lyceus in their darkest hour inside him. While on occasion Xena had stated she was no longer angry with him for what he did Gabrielle also noted that not once had she said she forgave him for it either. To Xena the cold fact remained--he ran, she stayed. Lyceus, their baby brother, had agonized over whom to follow. In the end he chose Xena and stayed. And he had died for it. Even now, more than thirty years later, if one looked close enough one could see the sadness in Toris' eyes. With a soft sigh Gabrielle lamented for a once- loving family forever changed by choices made and silently cursed Cortiz for forcing Xena and her family to make them.
"You did okay," Xena said finally. "Now what happened at this little get together of yours?"
"Well, as I said before, we have been in negotiations with Elis for the past few weeks."
"The border dispute?" asked Xena. She was aware it had been a bone of contention for almost two decades between the two countries.
"Yeah," replied Toris. "After two days of talks things were going so well I asked permission from the king to allow me to host a small party for Braxxus and the members of his delegation. Naturally this included the prince. During the course of the meal I happened to notice him staring at Sonia.
"You mean the prince, this Felix?" Xena asked.
"Yes. Obviously he was attracted to her. I suppose it should not have come as a surprise. She is very beautiful. As a matter of fact she looks very much like you, Xena." He added a quick qualifier, "I mean at the same age of course."
"Yeah right," Xena snorted. "You're talking about back when my joints didn't crack like dry sticks every time I got up in the morning. You know, Toris, a young man gawking at a pretty girl is not exactly unheard of."
"I know that," he replied. "But what surprised me was the fact that she seemed to be paying attention to him too. After we ate my wife and Sonia were about to sing for our guests when a messenger appeared at my door with a note for Braxxus. After reading it he announced he and his party would have to be leaving in a few minutes. He said he could stay for one song and then he would have to go. It was then that Sonia abruptly excused herself. She said something was on her dress and she wanted to change. She begged Braxxus to please remain until she got back. She said she really wanted to sing for them."
"And what was so unusual about that?" asked Xena.
"I didn't see anything on her dress," replied Toris.
"Maybe it was something personal," said Xena.
"You mean...?" Toris could not bring himself to say the word "menstruation." He shook his head. "That's not why she went to her room, Xena."
For a brief, luxurious moment Toris thought he had her stumped but by now Xena's remarkable intellect had ascertained the real reason for Sonia's actions. "She wrote him a note, didn't she?"
Toris dropped his jaw and stared wide-eyed at her. "You're scary sometimes, you know that? That's exactly what she did. After she came back down she and my wife sang one song. That done, Braxxus and his party rose to say their good-byes."
"And it was then she passed her note to Felix?"
"Yes. And she was very sly about it too," said Toris.
"Did you confront her about it?" asked Xena.
"No. I figured the two of them would never see each other again anyway," said Toris.
"Surely you knew the probable reason for the note was to arrange a meeting."
"I didn't think they would ever see each other again," said Toris. "The prince is forbidden to travel anywhere alone. Besides, I figured they would soon forget each other."
"But they didn't, right?"
"Evidently not," Toris said. "You see, they're gone."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Gone? When?"
"Three days ago. It turns out they were secretly seeing each other after all," said Toris.
"How do you know?" asked Xena.
"Braxxus showed me a note written by the prince saying so. It said also he and Sonia were going away together."
"And Sonia left no note to you?"
"Not a word," said Toris sadly. "He, ah, he must have been waiting for her that night."
At that moment Gabrielle didn't think she had ever felt as sorry for anyone as she did for him. She looked into Xena's face hoping to see some hint of sympathy there but her face was as blank as a slab of marble.
"We've been looking for them ever since," Toris continued. "And then last night we received a communication from Queen Draganis demanding the return of her son. Apparently she thinks his disappearance is our doing. She says we have three days to return him unharmed or there will be war."
"Did you answer her?" Xena asked.
"We sent a message," Toris said. "But she won't believe us. That's when I decided to come to you. I rode all night to get here. Xena, you've got to help us. We are not ready to fight a war at the present time. We--I need you."
"So what do you want me to do?" she asked him. "Organize a defense? Lead your army?"
"No. Nothing like that," said Toris. "It's too late for that. But it's not too late for you to find Felix and Sonia and bring them back. They couldn't have gotten far. We've looked all over but we don't have your...skills."
Xena stuck her tongue in her jaw as was her habit and slipped her behind off the table. She glanced over to Gabrielle. "Well," she said, "it looks like Philos and his daughter-in-law trouble will have to wait." Returning her gaze to Toris she said, "It will take us a day or so to reach Elis."
"What are you going to do?" asked Toris.
"Speak to the queen," Xena replied. "In the meantime you're welcome to stay here and rest for awhile."
"No, I have to get home right away."
"Then you'd better go to the village and get yourself a fresh horse," said Xena. "From the looks of that poor thing outside I'd say he was about done for."
Although he was the elder he nodded his agreement in much the same manner a little boy does when his mother tells him to do something. He knew he was, and would never be, anything like her equal. "You're right, Xena," he said quietly. "Damn it, you're always right."
"Not always," smiled Xena. "But I am right about this." She moved closer to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. "Toris, don't worry. We'll get to the bottom of this."
"I know you will."
"I'm sure everything will be all right," Gabrielle assured him.
"Get the bag."
"Oh, uh, right."
The bard circled the table and exited the kitchen. She quickly traversed the short hallway leading to their bedroom and planted herself beside the sturdy bed. She then placed both hands on one of the posts at the bed's foot and, with a soft grunt, pushed with all her might. The bed only moved about a foot's length sideways but for her purposes that was enough. She knelt down, reached up under the bed and extracted a small knife Xena had mounted there. Sticking it into a crack in the floor, she pried up a loose board. Laying the board aside she dropped to both knees and plunged her arm down into the hole. As always, she was struck by the coolness of the place. After a second or two her groping hand found what it was looking for. She wrapped her fingers around the top of a large leather bag making sure her grip was very firm and, with a sharp "uhhh," yanked it up out of the hole. Darn it, she thought, if this thing gets any heavier I'm gonna need a lever and fulcrum to get it out. Hefting up the bag with both hands, Gabrielle bore it back to the kitchen and set it down in front of Xena.
"What's this," Toris asked.
"Our nest egg," said Xena, patting the bag.
Toris whistled softly and said, "Judging from its size I'd say there must be twenty thousand dinars in there."
"More like forty," corrected Xena. She pulled loose the drawstring securing the top of the bag and ran her hand inside. She removed a fistful of coins and plunked them down of the table.
"How'd you get all this?" asked Toris, somewhat suspiciously.
Xena smiled faintly and said, "Don't worry, Toris, I didn't do anything bad. What you see here is the result of an obscure practice called saving."
This last remark by Xena made Gabrielle somewhat uncomfortable. The chief reason the "practice", as Xena called it, was obscure was because most people didn't make enough money to allow them to save anything. Everything went toward life's necessities.
Most, but not all, of their money had been amassed by Xena through hefty consultation fees and some very shrewd trading. However, every now and then Gabrielle was able to sell one of her stories to one of the big name bards from Athens or somewhere for a hundred dinars or so. While pleased to able to contribute to their household it nonetheless sometimes made her a little wistful because when these well-known bards bought a story they routinely claimed it as their own creation. While this was certainly not ethical Gabrielle knew there was little she could do about it. After all, whom would a judge believe--the big name bard from the big city or the nobody from out in the sticks? More than once she had heard some traveler just recently from Athens rave about some great new story or poem such-and-such had written only to find out it was actually hers. It was at a time like this she wanted to scream, "That's mine, damn it! I wrote that!"
Of course she never did. And despite all this Gabrielle was not touched by regret. Yes, maybe if she had went to Athens twenty years ago like she originally planned she would be one of those famous bards today. However, the way she looked at it, this what-might-have-been was an in infinitesimal weight on the scales compared to the life she had shared with Xena. In the course of their twenty-odd years together Gabrielle had seen and experienced things even the most brave adventurer could only dream of. She had met over two dozen kings. She could call the great Hercules her friend. She had seen many of the most powerful gods and goddesses--even Zeus himself.
And she had found love. Even today she sometimes wondered what the great Xena, the "Conqueror of Nations," had seen in the pushy, skinny and talkative young girl from Poteidaia. For her part Gabrielle had been enchanted by the tall, dark, incredibly beautiful Xena from the first time she had beheld her in those woods near her home. She could still see her, dressed in that ridiculous dress, making mince meat out of Draco's minions. Now, some twenty years later, Xena's hair was streaked with gray, crow's feet were beginning to creep around her eyes and she could probably no longer whip ten guys with one hand but to Gabrielle she was more lovely, more enticing, and more impressive than ever.
Xena had been Gabrielle's teacher, confidant, friend...lover for well over half her life. They were as one now and Gabrielle would not have traded her opportunity to grow old with Xena for all the accolades and prestige garnered by all the bards of Greece.
They were so attuned to each other they rarely disagreed on anything anymore but the one thing that did cause them to raise their hackles from time to time was the subject of money. During their life on the road money had never meant very much to Xena. What few dinars they did manage to pick up she generally let Gabrielle handle as she saw fit. And yes, the girl did tend to spend money on frivolous things but Xena didn't care. As long as she was able to provide food for Gabrielle what did a new scarf or a wooden turtle that stuck out its head when its tail was pulled matter? It had made Gabrielle happy so it had made Xena happy. But things were different now. Since her injury Xena had become determined to see to it that Gabrielle's future would be secure. She felt she owed to her.
When the two of them were so much younger their age difference had not seemed important. Now the stark reality that she would probably die before Gabrielle drove Xena to make certain the love of her life would not have to spend her last years being mocked in some filthy inn or tavern as she told her beautiful stories in the hope some clod would maybe take pity on her and toss a dinar her way so she could buy a crust of bread and thus stay alive another miserable day. Xena was not one for emotion but the mere thought of this scenario was almost too much for her to bear. She had sworn by every god she could think of that she would not allow this to come to pass. Although she would never tell Gabrielle it was the driving force in her life now. This caused the two of them to exchange words every now and then. What usually triggered these lively, though never bitter, arguments was the appearance of some ragged, half-starved wayfarer at their door looking for a hand out. Xena, of course, was more than willing to come across with a good meal and maybe a couple of dinars for the road but she often felt these guys were just a liiiitle too quick to take advantage of Gabrielle's boundless kindness.
To Xena's way of thinking there was a vast difference between the poor soul who was truly down on his luck and those con artists who were so adept at playing on the sympathy of others. She could always spot them. Their line was too smooth, their eyes were just a little too sincere. They knew all the right levers to pull on an immeasurably kind soul like Gabrielle.
But to Xena's frustration Gabrielle saw no difference. To her a hungry belly was a hungry belly and, anyway, what was wrong with slipping a few extra coins in someone's pocket to tide them over? After all, it wasn't like she and Xena were broke. Every time she did this Xena would set her jaw and shoot arrows at Gabrielle with her eyes but not once had she interfered. Invariably when the guy was gone Xena would say, "Gabrielle, did you have to give him that much?" And just as invariably her lover would answer, "Honestly, I don't see why you have to be so tight-fisted."
But to Xena it was like the guy was taking food out of Gabrielle's mouth. Not today, not tomorrow, not even next year, but someday when she was no longer...
Xena picked up some coins and idly began to stack them. "Do you need money for a fresh horse?" she asked Toris.
"No, I've got money."
Xena made two more stacks like the first and then retied the bag. "This ought be enough," she said. This was Gabrielle's cue to take the bag and return it to its hiding place. She heaved the bag up to her chest off she went.
"Toris, have you spoken to the king about coming to see me?"
"No," he answered. "To be honest, Xena, he doesn't think much of you."
"I see. Does he know I'm your sister?"
"No," Toris replied again, this time more softly.
In a minute Gabrielle was back and she began to drop the stacked coins into a leather pouch.
Toris rubbed the back of his neck and said, "Well, I have to go now. My poor Andrea is probably sick with worry."
As he made for the door Xena followed him. "I'll get in touch with you as soon as I learn something," she said.
Toris stopped in the doorway and turned to her. He looked deep into his sister's eyes and said, "Xena, I truly appreciate this. Not only for my family but my country as well. I--"
Xena held up a finger, "I'm glad you came, Toris. Now you go on home to your wife. Do what you can there and with any luck we'll get this mess cleaned up soon, okay?"
Gabrielle joined Xena at the door and together they watched as Toris mounted his horse.
"Good-bye, Xena," said Toris.
Xena smiled and lamely raised her hand in reply. Toris kicked the horse into a trot and soon he was over the rise in the road and out of sight. Xena stared up the road for a few seconds longer and then whispered, "Good-bye."
"Xena, I find it a little hard to believe Sonia would just up and leave her family for someone she barely knew, don't you?"
With a sly smile Xena replied, "Oh, I don't know. I seem to recall a certain girl, kid really, from Poteidaia who did just that some years back.
"Hmph," Gabrielle snorted. That was different.
Xena looked in amusement at her and merely said "Ooohhhhh." She and Gabrielle stood there by the road basking in that special warmth that only those who had shared love, and pain, and hope and sorrow together for as many years as they had could possibly know or understand.
Finally Xena said, "Well, let's lock up and get out of here."
The two of them walked to the horses and Gabrielle was just beginning to mount hers when Xena suddenly said, "Wait. I almost forgot something."
"Huh? What?" Gabrielle called out after her.
Not bothering to reply, Xena strode quickly to the house and entered. A few seconds later she emerged carrying an oilskin bag. Gabrielle knew very well what it contained.
"Yep. Never know, I might need it."
Gabrielle gently jerked her head to one side as she sometimes did when perplexed. "Gods, Xena, are you even sure you can still throw it? I mean, it's been so long since you used it."
With a wicked grin, Xena held the chakram up to her face. "Gee, I don't know, Gabrielle. That's a good question."
Suddenly she whirled and let the weapon fly. Sixty paces away it hit the ax stuck in the chopping block, caromed off and struck the weather vane on top of the barn. This altered its path to the rain barrel by the side of the house where it was re-directed back toward the two women. Gabrielle could hear its distinctive whine as it came hurtling back. The bard's eyes got as big as an Assyrian skillet when she realized the thing was heading directly toward her head! At the last second Xena, stifling a yawn, shot her hand up and stopped the chakram no more that a hand's width away from Gabrielle's neck.
"I, uh, heh heh, I uh see you haven't lost your eye," said Gabrielle, gulping hard.
"Gee, I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena replied nonchalantly. "I think I am slipping. You see, I was aiming for your nose."
"Oh you're a regular cutup, that's what you are!" huffed Gabrielle. "Well just for that there won't be any rolling in the hay for you tonight.
Xena responded by sticking out her lower lip in a pronounced pout but her eyes were sparkling like diamonds. She figured Gabrielle's intended retaliation for scaring her would be long forgotten by the time they nestled in together for the night. That night in an inn some ten leagues away, events would prove that Xena had figured correctly.
Xena awoke to the soothing tones of Gabrielle's soft humming. She was busily performing the painstaking task of trying to brush her hair with only a very small hand mirror to guide her. Xena watched in amusement as the bard repeated the process of brushing several strokes and then peering into the mirror to check the results. From the frown on her face it was clear she was not pleased with her efforts. As Gabrielle lay the mirror down to try again Xena reached up and pulled her back down on the bed.
"Bad hair day?" she asked.
"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed, "must be the rain." Outside a heavy mist was falling--Xena had been right again. She gently laid her cheek on Xena's stomach and stared at the far wall. "Xena?"
"I was thinking about what Toris said. How come you and he never, you know, kept in touch after your mother died?"
"I don't know," replied Xena. "I guess we were both too stubborn to go out of the way to try."
"But he's your brother."
"Gabrielle, even when we were kids Toris and I were never really that close. He was always hanging around with the older ones in our village. On the other had Lyceus and I were..." Xena crossed her middle finger over her index one, "like that."
She closed her eyes and for a brief, sweet moment was once again a skinny eight-year-old dutifully washing her squirming baby brother's face while their mother made supper over the hearth. She could still hear his giggles. Poor Lyceus, she thought, you never could keep your face clean. Xena opened her eyes and fixed them on one of the crossbeams running over head. "Gabrielle," she said softly, "it's been over thirty years now since he died and in all that time there's not been one day that I haven't thought of him. I still miss him so much."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle sighed, burrowing her face in Xena's shoulder. She could only imagine the pain Xena had suffered all these years. Lyceus' death, her long, dark years as a warlord and the crushing guilt resulting from it, the death of her beloved mother, all this grief for one person, even one so strong as Xena--well it just didn't seem fair.
Xena reached up to and began to gently stroke Gabrielle's cheek. "Gabrielle, if I had not found you I'd probably be dead by now," she said quietly.
Gabrielle tried not to show how stunned she was by this revelation. Never before had Xena said such a thing to her. "Awww, you know that's not true," said Gabrielle, looking up at her. "I don't think there was anything that couldn't be defeated by the 'Warrior Princess'."
"Oh yes there was," said Xena.
"Oh yeah? And what might be?"
"Something more terrifying than any warlord or monster or even a vengeful god," said Xena. "Loneliness."
For a few moments neither spoke. Then Xena grinned and nodded toward the door. "Why don't you go down and see about getting us something to eat? I'll be along in a minute."
Gabrielle looked at her quizzically but did not protest. "Okaaay. Just don't be too long. You know how crabby these innkeepers can be when the guests don't empty their rooms on time."
"Screw him," said Xena, smiling mischievously. "And if the truth were known he probably does have crabs."
Gabrielle giggled and said, "Now now, naughty naughty." With that she rolled off the bed and was gone.
Xena listened intently for a few moments to make sure Gabrielle was really gone and then slowly lifted herself up out of the bed. On this particular morning her back was killing her. Idiot! she reproached herself. You've got to remember not to stay on that damn horse so long. She made a mental note to stop and rest more often from now on.
An aching back would have been bad enough but her already miserable situation was compounded by the fact that the knuckles in her hands felt like rusty hinges. Xena held her slightly swollen hands up in front of her face and glared at them like they were a pair of despicable traitors. In truth that was the way she felt, betrayed. For most of her adult life she had able to make her body do wondrous things. The astounding fighting maneuvers and the amazing acrobatics had been as natural to her as breathing. But not anymore. To her regret her body was now what she considered insubordinate. It just simply would not obey her commands like it once did. Even when it did comply it would only do so grudgingly. Every now and then Xena would steal away to the woods behind their home and stubbornly try a back flip or some other move. Sometimes she could, sometimes she could not.
She stood up and put a hand to the small of her back. With a mirthless grin she said, "So this is what it's like to grow old, huh? Well, it stinks." She sighed and sat down on the side of the bed. After carefully pulling on her short boots she went to join Gabrielle.
The rest of the day proved to be an uneventful one and the next afternoon found them at the river that served as the western border of Elis.
"Well, there it is," Xena observed. She held her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun's rays and added, "Funny though. I don't remember it being that wide."
"It just looks wider, that's all," laughed Gabrielle.
They pointed their horses down the long, sloping hill that had served as their vantage point and soon reached the ferry. Luckily it was on their side of the river so Xena dismounted and walked up to the pimply-faced young man who seemed to be in charge. By Gabrielle's reckoning he seemed to be about twenty or so.
"How much?" Xena asked.
The young man was immediately joined by his two cohorts who had been on the ferry noisily pitching coins against a board propped up by two barrels. Now the three of them moved in close to Xena--so close she could smell their foul breath.
The pimply-faced one folded his arms and leered at her. "What was that?" he asked. He and his companions were not above strong-arming defenseless travelers to pick up a few extra dinars. He had taken one look at the tall, mostly gray-haired woman and the smaller one still on her horse and decided they were harmless enough.
Easy marks, he thought.
Of course, Xena's powerful mind had already sized up the situation. She swept her eyes over the three men and replied, "I said how much? How much to cross?"
Having been a witness to, or a participant in, countless numbers of little confrontations like these Gabrielle instinctively knew to wait for Xena to make the first move before reacting. And having been a lifelong pupil of such a warrior as Xena, Gabrielle no longer needed to rely on a weapon for her protection. She was now more dangerous with her hands and feet than she had ever been with the staff.
The pimply-faced one smirked and said, "Well, usually we charge five dinars each to cross but ahh, today we're running a special."
Xena's only reaction was to raise an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"That's right. You see, today it's gonna cost you all you've got."
"And your horses too!" crowed the fat one on her right. At once he was joined in his laughter by the other two.
Slowly, carefully, Gabrielle eased her right foot out of the stirrup and swung her leg over the head of her horse. "You bastards are in for a surprise," she chuckled softly.
Xena swiveled her head in a slow arc, briefly boring her eyes in on each one of them. "Tell me something, boys," she said, smiling thinly. "Do your mammas know you brainless piss-heads have escaped from your manure pile?"
The laughter stopped and for a moment the three men stood silently staring at the strange woman. There was a look on her face like none of them had ever seen before. It was as though her ice blue eyes were looking right through them. Like an adder before it strikes, the pimply-faced one thought. The three men were taken aback by the woman's defiance but they were not about to allow themselves to be intimidated by this old relic.
"Okay," the pimply-faced one sneered. "I tried to be nice but..."
He lunged at Xena but she deftly avoided him and he grabbed nothing but air. As he lurched past she punched him hard in the stomach causing him to fall to his knees gasping for air. Seeing this, the fat one roared and tried to wrap his arm around her neck but she caught the arm and flipped him head over heels and he landed hard on his back, knocking him unconscious.
Now the third one backed off and pulled out a rusty old sword from his belt. "Stay back or I'll cut you, old woman," the man shrieked.
"Why you miserable, snot-nosed little shit," rasped Xena. "Put that thing down before you hurt yourself."
By now the pimply-faced one had recovered sufficiently to rise to one knee. Seeing the devil- woman with his back to him, he drew his dagger and tried to stand up. Immediately a million colors seemed to explode inside his brain followed by a swift descent into blackness.
Xena heard the accompanying groan and took a peek over her shoulder. She saw Gabrielle standing over the pimply-faced one.
"Pivot kick?" she asked.
"Drop kick," answered Gabrielle, matter-of-factly.
Xena returned her attention to the one in front of her. "So, what's it going to be, boy?"
"I, I don't...know," he replied lamely.
"Tell you what," said Xena. "You chuck that sorry excuse for a sword and help us cross the river and I'll forget all about this little...," Xena looked at the two fallen men, "unpleasantness."
The young man was still too shaken by Xena's fury to be coherent.
"Awww come on," prodded Xena. "I don't want to hurt you. Besides, we're in kind of a hurry."
Despite the Xena's reassurance the fellow was still hesitant. He still couldn't believe what the woman had done to his comrades.
"Look," Xena said finally, "you pull the ferry across for us and you'll get the ten dinars and no lumps on your head. How's that?"
The prospect of having enough money to buy a couple of rounds at the tavern was too much for the fellow to pass up. "You've got yourself a deal, old woman," he said.
He took two steps forward when Xena held up her index finger and wagged it from side to side. "Ah, ah, ah."
The young man caught her meaning at once. He stopped and sheepishly looked down at the sword still in his hand. "Oh, sorry," he said meekly.
Twenty minutes later the ferry bumped up against the opposite riverbank. By the time they were across Gabrielle had gotten the guy's name, where he was from, his age, and half his life history out of him. As always Xena was amazed at how open people were around Gabrielle. She had a remarkable talent for making them feel so at ease.
The two women led their horses off the ferry and onto the bank. While Gabrielle held the horses Xena paid the man the promised dinars. As she plunked them into his hand she said, "Let me give you a piece of advice, boy. Being a ferryman is an honorable way to make a living but, if I were you, I'd forget about that side job. I don't think you're cut out to be a robber. After all, if an old thing like me can..." She let her words trail off.
The young fellow grinned and nodded. "I think maybe you're right, ma'am."
As Xena turned to leave the young man cleared his throat loudly.
"Yes?" Xena asked, looking back at him.
"I ah, I was just wondering," said the man. "What is your name?"
"My name is Xena," she answered.
The fellow's jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide. "Great Zeus!" he exclaimed. "Not the..."
Xena smiled in amusement and replied, "Yes the. Good-bye, son. And remember what I said."
Xena joined Gabrielle and together they watched the young man for a few moments as he pulled the ferry back across the river.
"Do you think he'll listen to what you said?" Gabrielle asked.
"Who knows?" Xena replied, shrugging her shoulders. "He might. If he doesn't I don't think he will be having many more birthdays."
She looked down at her hands and frowned as she flexed them a couple of times.
"You okay?" asked Gabrielle.
With a not very convincing smile Xena answered, "Yeah."
"How's your back?"
"I'm fine, Gabrielle," lied Xena. "Now come on. The capital is only a couple of leagues up the road. If we're lucky we can make it there before dark."
Xena was tired. She was really looking forward to a good bath and a nice, soft bed. She had long ago gotten her fill of sleeping on the cold, hard ground. No sir, she thought, there won't be any of that crap if I can help it.
After they had made a league or so Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Do you remember the last time we were here?" she asked.
Xena merely nodded her reply. It was when Ephiny died. Some ten years ago the Amazon had been on her way to mediate yet another round of peace talks between Elis and Arcadia. By that time she had built up quite a reputation not only as a wise leader but a skilled mediator as well. On several previous occasions Ephiny had been asked by various kingdoms to assist in talks and, her sense of duty being what it was, she had never refused.
But the day before she was due to arrive at the designated place for the talks she and her party were ambushed by Arcadian hard liners. They had been afraid Ephiny would be much too sympathetic to the opposite side's position because the ruler of Elis was a woman.
And so as her good and noble life ebbed away there on that muddy road, her sisters did their best to comfort her. Her oldest friend sat there in the mud and held her head to her breast and gently rocked her while the others softly chanted their "Death Hymn."
To the last Ephiny's loyalty and sense of duty were as strong as ever. The last words she ever spoke were, "Good-bye, my old friend. Tell Gabrielle that I'm sorry I won't be there for the Spring Festival."
And then she had closed her eyes and crossed over. That very day two Amazons were dispatched to inform Gabrielle of Ephiny's death. Although no longer considered even a titular queen Gabrielle was, nevertheless, still held in high esteem by the Amazon Nation. Ephiny had seen to it her name was not forgotten.
Gabrielle still remembered the deep sorrow and sense of loss she had felt as she watched the funeral pyre consume one of the very best friends she had ever had. And for several months after that these feelings would come rushing back to her forcing her to seek the solitude of the woods for an hour or two so she could mourn unobserved. Ever the considerate soul, she did this because it always made Xena so upset to see her weep. Xena did not like to see Gabrielle unhappy. Thus to avoid having both of them upset Gabrielle would steal off to the woods whenever she felt the sorrow welling up inside her, cry her eyes out for a hour or so, then compose herself and return home. Many was the time it had made her wonder. If it hurts this bad for Ephiny what's it going to be like when Xena...
For her part Xena would see Gabrielle's red, puffy eyes and act as if everything was normal. She knew it was something her love would have to deal with herself.
Gabrielle cast her eyes downward for a moment before again fixing them on Xena. "It doesn't seem like she's been dead ten years."
"She was a good person and a fine example of how an Amazon should live her life," said Xena. "Now try not to think about it anymore, okay? You'll only get upset."
"Don't worry," said Gabrielle. "I'm all right."
That night in the inn, as they lay in each other's arms, Gabrielle thoughts again returned to the Amazon woman with the unruly blonde curls. She lay there listening to the sleeping Xena's deep, rhythmic breathing and watched as her chest rose and fell in time. "Gods, Ephiny, I miss you," she whispered.
This time she allowed herself to shed one tear of sorrow before returning her cheek to Xena's shoulder. She closed her eyes but it would prove to be many hours before Hypnos came to give her peace.
The next morning Gabrielle awoke to find Xena gone. The bard sat upright in the bed and sleepily rubbed her eyes. "Hmmm. I wonder where she is," she murmured. Momentarily surprised, she had almost forgotten how back in the old days Xena used to do this sort of thing all the time. She was not in the least bit concerned
Gabrielle put on her boots and rose to her feet, sleepily scratching her buttocks and yawning so hard tears came to her eyes. Before going downstairs for breakfast she poured some water in a bowl and washed her face. She paused for a moment to look in the very good looking glass located by the bed. She put her hands to her face and gently pulled on the puffy bags beneath her eyes. Damn, she thought. Where did those come from? Gabrielle, she warned herself, the first thing you know you'll be an old woman. With a sight of resignation she whispered loudly, "Damn," and went downstairs.
A half hour later she was joined by Xena looking like the cat that had swallowed the canary.
"Good news?" Gabrielle asked her.
"Yep. The queen will see us," said Xena.
"Great," said Gabrielle. "When?"
"One turn of the glass."
"Do you want some of this?" Gabrielle asked, pointing to the bacon and corn cakes piled high on her plate.
Xena rubbed her hands together and said, "I thought you'd never ask."
At the appointed time two palace guards escorted Xena and Gabrielle down the long, well lit corridor that led to the throne room. Queen Draganis stood at a large table in the corner of the room. She and a man, obviously a soldier, were looking at a large map spread out on the table. Upon seeing Xena enter the room the queen folded up the map and gave it to the man. Taking his cue, the soldier bowed from the waist and departed.
As he brushed past Xena he gave her a cold, hard look. A look of recognition Gabrielle noted. "Who was that?" she whispered.
In a low voice Xena replied, "Arless, her top general."
"You know him?"
"Yeah, I know him."
"From where? I don't recall meeting him," Gabrielle said. "Was it before...?"
"Yeah, it was before I met you," said Xena. "He was one of my lieutenants."
Draganis walked over and extended her hand. "Xena, it's been a long time."
"Yes, it has," agreed Xena. "Queen Draganis, this is my friend, Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle," said the queen, nodding.
"It is an honor to meet you," said Gabrielle. She was somewhat embarrassed by her stiff attempt at a curtsy but by that time the queen had returned her attention to Xena.
"So, what brings the Warrior Princess to my country?"
"I'm here to stop a war," said Xena.
"How do you know about that?" Draganis asked suspiciously.
"It's not important," said Xena. "What is important is I think there's been a misunderstanding here.
"There's no misunderstanding. For whatever reason those Arcadian bastards have taken my boy and I'm going to have him back if I have to turn over every rock and pebble in that miserable piece of ground they call a country," said Draganis.
"So you don't believe the note then?"
Queen Draganis snorted and said, "I think that's rather obvious. No, my boy would not just suddenly elope with some slut daughter of a lowly civil servant." The queen took a deep breath and said, "You must forgive me, my old friend. I am not myself today."
"I understand," said Xena.
"So what is it you want from me?" the queen asked.
"Time," Xena replied. "Time to find out what really happened."
"Then you don't think he and this girl ran off either, then?"
"No," said Xena. "No I don't. But whatever happened I'm sure the Arcadians had nothing to do with it."
"You have a short memory," said the queen. "There is a faction in Arcadia that would stop at nothing to keep their country from settling the border dispute with us peacefully." Pausing for effect she added, "Or have you forgotten about Ephiny?"
Xena drew herself up to her full height and looked down her nose at the diminutive queen. "I never forget friends," she said laconically.
"Then you know what these people are capable of." Draganis walked over to a table and poured a cup of wine. "Would either of you like some?" she asked.
"No thank you," Xena replied, answering for both of them.
"I'm curious," the queen said. "What is your interest in all this? Do you live there now? Have they hired you to come here?"
"No. But that slut you spoke of? She's my niece. And she has in fact disappeared."
"I meant no disrespect," the queen said. After an awkward silence she continued, "If you don't think they eloped and you don't think they were abducted what do you think happened?"
"Oh they were abducted all right," said Xena. "I just don't know by whom...yet. As to what purpose, well I'm not sure if it was for ransom but I need time to get to the bottom of this." Softening her voice Xena said, "Draganis, I'm asking you to trust me."
For a moment the Queen of Elis stood there looking at Xena. Finally she said, "How can I not trust the one to whom I owe my very life?"
Out of the corner of her eye Xena saw Gabrielle shoot a puzzled glance up at her.
"As a favor to you, Xena, I'll give you three more days. If by that time you have not succeeded... there will be war."
"Thank you," said Xena. "Now if you don't mind, I have one more favor to ask for you."
"Do you mind if I see that note?"
"Of course not," said the queen. "Excuse me while I get it."
As the queen walked over to one of the palace guards posted by the door Gabrielle sidled up next to Xena and whispered, "I don't remember you saving her life. When did you do that?"
"Remember that time you went home for a month to take care of Lila during her sickness?" Xena whispered back.
"It was then."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
With a devilish smile Xena answered, "You never asked me."
Gabrielle frowned and gave her lover a gentle elbow to the ribs.
"Now now," snickered Xena. "The queen might take a dim view of someone assaulting the one that saved her life."
Gabrielle smiled through gritted teeth. "Perhaps there's other things you haven't told me about."
Xena glanced up and saw the queen was returning. "Shhh, here she comes."
"Here it is," said Draganis, handing the note to Xena.
Xena took the note and began to scrutinize its every detail. "You are positive this is his hand?"
"Yes," said the queen. "I've studied it very carefully. It's undoubtedly his hand although it is a little different."
"How so?" Xena asked.
Draganis pointed to the note. "Well mainly it's these betas," she said. "Normally he is much more precise forming them."
"You're sure of that?"
The queen smiled weakly and said, "I ought to be, I taught him the alphabet myself." She sighed and added, "I guess he was nervous."
Xena stared at the parchment for what, to Gabrielle, seemed an inordinate amount of time. Three times she saw Xena turn the note over and look intently at the back of it.
What is she doing? wondered Gabrielle.
Xena walked over to the window and held the parchment up to the light.
"What is it?" asked Draganis.
"Nothing," replied Xena, "just checking something." She handed the note back to the queen. "With your permission, I would like to speak to Braxxus."
"He is to report to me this evening," said Draganis. "You can speak with him then. If you tell me where you will be I will send a messenger to fetch you."
"That's very kind of you," said Xena. "We'll be at the Blue Star Inn." She turned toward the exit. "We've taken up enough of your time. Thank you for seeing us."
Draganis held three fingers up in front of her face. "Three days, Xena. Remember that."
Xena nodded once and without another word left the queen standing there by the window.
Once they were outside the palace Gabrielle took Xena by the elbow and squeezed. "You know something, don't you?" she asked excitedly.
Her face expressionless, Xena replied, "I might."
"C'mon, Xena," pleaded the bard. "Tell me."
"Can't. Not yet."
"Hmph," snorted Gabrielle, folding her arms. "You'd think after all this time you could trust me."
"Gabrielle, you know better than that," said Xena.
"Then why won't you tell me?"
"I will, when the time is right. In the meantime we've got work to do."
When Xena started off to where the horses were tied Gabrielle let her proceed about ten paces before following. Mimicking Xena's voice she said, "I'll tell ya when the time is right, Gabrielle. We've got work to do, Gabrielle. Hah!"
Xena suddenly halted and slowly turned to look back. "Gabrieeellle."
This very gentle admonishment was as familiar to Gabrielle as rain. If she had heard it once she had heard it a thousand times. "Whaaat?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Be nice."
"Oh all right."
Xena stretched out an arm and smiled that killer smile of hers and, just like that, the bard's frustration was gone. Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and the smaller woman instantly felt the warmth, the security...the love that was always there.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle. "I didn't mean to be snotty. I know you have your reasons for not telling me."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and said, "I promise you, before the day is out you'll know everything."
She knew she was supposed to leave it at that but Gabrielle just couldn't. "It's big, isn't it?"
Xena touched a finger to her lips for a moment and the replied, "It's big."
Arless refilled his cup and then drained its contents in three huge gulps. This was his third such cup and, to his dismay, the wine was not having any effect. He still felt like he had been hit between the eyes with a board. He slammed the cup down upon the table and was proceeding to fill it up again when from his right a hand shot out and covered the cup.
"That's enough, Arless," said Braxxus.
"I'll say when I've had enough, boy," snarled Arless. He pulled the cup out from under Braxxus' hand and quickly refilled it.
"For the love of the gods, what's wrong with you anyway?" Braxxus asked. "You look like you saw a ghost."
Arless looked at the man wildly and cackled, "A ghost you say? It's worse than a ghost."
"What are you talking about?"
Arless sat down his cup and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Xena," he said ominously. "She's here."
"Xena, the Warrior Princess. The conqueror of half of Greece."
"You must be delirious," said Braxxus. "I've never heard of this...Xena."
Arless stared open mouthed at Braxxus for a moment and then grinned. "I guess you are too young at that."
It was true. Despite occupying such a lofty position Braxxus was only in his late twenties.
"Xena," Arless continued, "it the smartest, bravest, meanest, trickiest, person I've ever known. You think Agamemnon was a great general? Hah! Compared to Xena he was a Wood Scout. You think Ulysses was tricky? Remember that's what he called himself--The Great Trickster? Well, who do you think dreamed up that little scheme to take Ithaca back? That's right, Xena did. Boy, I can't even begin to tell you how smart she is. Everything I know about soldiering I learned from her. And tough?" Arless laughed ruefully and said, "In the old days she would just as soon cut your throat as look at you. I once saw her disembowel a guy from twenty paces away with that chakram thing of hers. You know why? Because the poor bastard had the temerity to not obey her orders quickly enough to suit her. Yes sir, she made ruthlessness and cunning an art form."
"So what happened to this fearsome 'Warrior Princess'?" scoffed Braxxus. "If she was so great why hasn't she conquered all Greece by now?"
"Because she turned good," sneered Arless. "She ran into Hercules and somehow he got her to change her ways." He shook his head in wonder. "I still don't see how he did it."
"So, another thing we should be grateful to the great Hercules for, eh?"
"Well it wasn't all his doing" said Arless. "I still think she would have backslid soon enough if she had not met up with that kid from Poteidaia. Xena fell in love with her."
"Her? Another woman? Was she from Lesbos?"
"Naw, Xena wasn't one of those," said Arless. "No, she'd had her share of men before that--and then some. You know, I think I knew her about as well as was humanly possible in those days. I think it was simply a case of the one true love of her life happening to be a woman, not because she was a woman. Whatever it was, they've been together ever since."
"Whatever," said Braxxus, losing interest.
Arless however, was not about to let him. "It could mean trouble for us--her being here I mean."
"Oh come on, Arless. What's there to be afraid of? This woman's surely in her, what, early fifties by now? Now what threat could someone old enough to be my mother possibly be?"
Arless glared at him and poured himself another cup of wine. "Don't say you weren't warned, Braxxus. You can be sure Xena didn't come all this way just to soak herself in the waters at Midian."
"Oh, I don't know," replied Braxxus. "Maybe she did. No doubt her old bones could use it."
Arless narrowed his eyes until they were mere slits. "Braxxus, you hold quite a distinction. You're the first man in thirty years to underestimate her. Now listen to me, you young fool. If we don't do something, and fast, we might end up with a rope around our necks--or a sword in our guts."
Braxxus patted the old soldier on the shoulder and with a patronizing smile said, "All right, my friend. If this Xena scares you that much I'll have Burbus and his ah, 'associates', pay her a little visit. Okay? You know how efficient he is."
Arless nodded but was hardly put at ease.
"Now, to more important matters," said Braxxus. "Is your army ready?"
"They're ready. We'll sweep those dogs from Elis from the field before midday."
"Good. But remember, don't make it too quick. We have to give our friends time. As for me my preparations are also finished. Now all we need is the queen's word to attack."
"We already have it," said Arless. "I just left her. She said to attack at dawn."
"Excellent!" Braxxus smiled broadly and reached for the wine flask. Pouring himself a cup her said, "Just think, General, in as little as two days you and I could be sitting on a half a million dinars apiece."
"The sooner the better for me," said Arless. "I can't wait to be out of here."
"I know what you mean." Braxxus held up his cup. "I propose a toast," he said. "To traitors."
"To rich traitors," replied Arless.
The two men touched cups and eyed each other carefully. Having already betrayed their country and their queen, they now busily set their minds to betraying each other.
Gabrielle jabbed her fork into the last dumpling on her plate and held it up in front of her. "You know, I can't think of when I had a better meal," she said contentedly.
"My guess would be whenever it was you ate cooking other than your own," said Xena playfully.
With a grin Gabrielle shot back "Hey! My cooking's kept your ass alive all these year's hasn't it? It couldn't be that bad. She finished off the dumpling and pointed her fork at Xena. "You really should try some of these."
"I'm not hungry," said Xena. "Maybe later."
Gabrielle knew it was no use pushing it any farther. "Do you think this Braxxus knows something?"
"Possibly. In any case it won't hurt to talk to him."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair and, with a conspiratorial glance, looked about the inn. Satisfied nobody was listening, she leaned forward and whispered, "You've got a handle on what's going on here, don't you?"
Xena's only reply was a subtle furrowing of her brow.
I give up, thought Gabrielle. "It looks like we're going to have some time on our hands," she said aloud. "What do you want to do to kill it?"
"Take a nap," Xena said simply.
"You heard me. I'm going to take a nap, Gabrielle," Xena repeated. "I'm tired."
Gabrielle shot a hand out and said, "Well give me some money then. While you rest I want to do some looking around. You never know, I might see something I like."
Xena reached inside her tunic and pulled the leather pouch out from the specially sewn pocket. She counted out twenty-five dinars and placed them in Gabrielle's still outstretched hand. "Don't spend it all in one place."
"Thank you," said Gabrielle breezily. "I won't be gone over an hour or so."
Gabrielle dropped the coins in the pocket on her dress and started for the door.
"Don't get lost," Xena called out.
Xena watched her pass through the door and hesitate for a moment. She'll turn left, thought Xena. Sure enough, Gabrielle looked up the street to the right, frowned, and turned left. Xena smiled and shook her head. That's my girl, she thought.
She waited until she was sure Gabrielle was out of sight before standing up and laying five dinars down on the table for Gabrielle's meal. She then walked briskly to the door and exited into the street. She felt a little guilty about her deception but she figured it would be good for the bard to spend some time to herself just goofing off. She knew Gabrielle would never do it own her own. Besides, if all went well she would not be gone for very long.
As Xena worked her way up the street a pair of green eyes watched her every movement. "Uh huhhh, I thought so." Gabrielle stepped out of the shadows of the alley and gave a little smile of satisfaction. "Xena," she said, under her breath, "you should know by now I'm not the dumb little kid from Poteidaia anymore."
She waited until her love had turned the corner before daring to enter the street. "Now," she said, "let's see what you're up to."
Fifteen minutes later Gabrielle saw Xena stop in front of a huge barn-like structure and gape up at the sign above its large double doors. Gabrielle noted the sign simply read "BUY SELL TRADE."
This is it, thought Xena. She stepped through the big double doors which were chocked open by wooden wedges. The light level was low enough to make her stop for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust. That done, she began to take in all the sights around her. Over to her right there were bags of grain, stacked ten high, taking up almost an entire wall. On the opposite side there was just about every item one could imagine. Slowly moving from shelf to shelf, Xena saw everything from hammers to fine silk.
It seemed odd to her that no one was around. "Hellooo," she called out. "Huh, they must be around somewhere." Xena turned the corner and began walking down another long aisle. Here there were mostly household items. Plain, ordinary things used by people in their plain, ordinary lives.
Except for one item. It was a carving. It was small, about the size of one's thumb, and beautifully crafted. It was an image of someone dressed in a flowing robe. The hair was long and the face was beautiful but for some reason Xena could not ascertain whether the face was masculine or feminine. However, the thing that really got her attention was the wings. They were tucked in behind the back and looked much like those she had seen on Eros but were larger and more full. For some reason the carving intrigued Xena. It seemed to hint at...peace.
"It's beautiful, isn't it."
Xena had been so captivated by the figurine she had, for one of those very, very few times, been caught off guard. But not for long. She whirled to face the voice. "Zander!"
The man was older than Xena, older by at least ten years. She was relieved to see he still seemed to be in good health.
"Looks like business is good," she observed.
"Yeah, I'm doing all right. I've got six guys working for me now."
"Yeah, they're all up at the inn right now. Lunch time, you know."
"That carving, there's something about it isn't there?" he asked.
"Yes, there is," she admitted. "Where did you get it?"
"From one of those Egyptian rascals," he answered. "Cost me forty dinars too. He said it came from the land northeast of his country."
"The land of the Israelites," said Xena.
"Yep, that's it. He said the people there called it ah, what was the word...aww, I forget."
Xena returned the piece to the shelf. "Zander, I have to talk to you. It's important."
"The old man smiled and said, "Well, I didn't think my old commander had traveled all those leagues here just to get a good deal on a Persian carpet."
Thirty years ago Zander had been one of the best soldiers in Xena's army. He had never risen above the rank of sergeant but Xena had known him and even more--trusted him. Unlike most of those under her command she knew even then that Zander was not a bad man. An orphan since he was seven years old, Zander had managed to survive by begging and stealing until he was old enough to pick up a weapon. As a member of Xena's army it sometimes bothered him that he had to kill people but he felt he owed her. She had found him nearly dead and, for reasons still unknown to him, ordered that he be taken care of. But at the time Xena's perceived charity had held a cynical motive behind it. She knew the man would be beholden to her from then on and thus she would always have a loyal set of eyes and ears in an army where loyalties were not exactly carved into stone. However twisted her motives, Xena knew human behavior. No one ever had a more loyal underling and over time she came to genuinely like him. But when Xena left and the army disbanded Zander took the money he had managed to stash away and settle down in Elis. He opened a small shop there and ultimately built it into one of the largest trading houses in Greece.
Zander pointed to a pot hanging over an open fire. "Would you like some tea? It came all the way from the land of Chin."
"No thanks," Xena said.
Zander poured some for himself and sat down. "What can I do for you?" he asked.
"You know of course about the disappearance of Prince Felix," Xena said.
"It's the talk of the city," said Zander. He looked up at her and shook his head. "A bad business. And bad for business. There's gonna be war for sure."
"That's why I'm here," said Xena. "To stop it."
"What are you going to do?"
"Zander, what can you tell me about..." she reached in her pocket and extracted the fingernail-sized piece of parchment she had discreetly torn off the note, "this."
Taking the parchment, Zander stood up and walked over to a window. "It's Thracian," he said. "Very heavy, very expensive."
"Too expensive for most people?"
"Oh absolutely," he replied. "This type is only used by royalty and the very wealthy. Even they don't use it for everyday writing. It only comes in scrolls and it's mostly used for archival purposes. It's almost like having something written in stone."
"You mean, like record keeping?" asked Xena.
"Would that include treaties?"
"For most governments it's the preferred material," said Zander.
Zander, I knew you'd come through for me, thought Xena. You always have.
This was why she had come to him. From the very first Xena had known the parchment was unusual. At least once a year Zander made the rounds of all the various bazaars and trading meets of Greece--even to the great agora in Athens. This man traded on anything and everything and thus knew all there was to know about any and everything. If it could be bought, sold, or traded Zander was the person to see if one wanted to learn about it.
"Zander, you've been a big help. Thank you."
"Must you go so soon?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so," she replied. "Time could be very short."
The old man stood to attention and gave her the fist-to-the-heart salute. "As always, I'm yours to command."
"Cut that out," said Xena, genuinely embarrassed. "Those days are long gone."
"If you need me don't hesitate to call on me."
"I will," Xena promised him.
They gripped arms and Xena turned to leave. "Ahh, Xena?"
"Yes?" She turned back to see the Zander with the figurine in his hand.
"Here, take this," he said. "I know you like it."
"Zander, I couldn't--"
"Go on" he said, cutting her off. "I want you to have it."
Xena started to say something but the old man beat her to it. "Please?"
The warrioress took the carving from him and put it in her pocket. "You know something, you're one of the very few guys I commanded that I can say I'm truly proud of. You've really made a good life for yourself."
The old man grinned and replied, "No more proud than I am to have served under you. I knew even then that way down deep inside, you had a good heart."
"I'm just sorry it took so long to resurface," said Xena.
"Good luck, Xena. And remember what I said," said Zander.
Xena nodded and said, "Enjoy your tea. I can find my own way out."
She left the old man to his tea and retraced her steps. Back at the double-doored entrance she stopped and, still looking straight ahead, said, "Okay, Gabrielle, you can come out now."
Gabrielle sheepishly stepped out from her hiding place between two stacks of grain bags. "Xena, I swear. How did you know?"
Xena looked at her tenderly and smiled, "I felt you, Gabrielle."
Xena knew it would be useless to try to explain the glow, aura, whatever one wanted to call it, she always sensed whenever Gabrielle was near so she merely replied, "Nothing."
Gabrielle followed her through the doors and out into the street. "This Zander, do you know him? Did he tell you anything useful? Has that Arless guy got anything to do with all this? What's that in your pocket?"
Still walking, Xena said, "Gabrielle, your answers are yes, yes, maybe, and..." she dug her hand into her pocket, "this." She handed the carving to Gabrielle.
"It's beautiful," she remarked.
"It's for you," said Xena.
"What's it supposed to be, a god?" asked Gabrielle, noting the wings.
"Some people call it an angel," said Xena.
"Yeah. Remember the Israelites?"
"It's from their culture. In their religion an angel is a sort of messenger or servant of their god."
"Oh. Well whatever it is, someone sure put in a lot of effort to make this. Thank you, Xena"
"Okay, tough guy. Whatever you say," smiled the bard. Xena was always doing things like this. Starting with that toy lamb so long ago to the one she now held in her hand Gabrielle reckoned she had at least twenty-five of these little gifts. Of course most had come since they settled down. After all, there was only so much room in a saddle bag.
"So what do we do now?" asked Gabrielle
"I don't know about you," said Xena, yawning, "but I'm going back to the inn and take a nap."
"Hmph. You really don't think you can fool me with that again, do you?"
"No foolin' this time," said Xena. "I really am."
"Well before you do," said Gabrielle coyly, "maybe we out to, you know, make sure the bed is warm enough?"
"Warm enough huh?" asked Xena slyly.
"Yeah, I mean, what if you were to get sick from sleeping in a cold bed? What would we do then?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Gabrieeelle, what are you talkin' about?"
Gabrielle leaned close enough to whisper loudly, "All right, all right. So I'm horny. You satisfied?"
With a wicked smile Xena said, "Not yet." She gently took Gabrielle by the elbow and they began to walk quickly back toward the inn. "Now remember," she said to the bard, "we might have work to do tonight so we're just going to warm the bed up-- not burn it down, okay?"
"Just come on, will you?" replied Gabrielle. "We'll discuss semantics later."
"Xena, this is Braxxus." Queen Draganis shifted her gaze from the tall, stoic woman to the even taller, boyish-looking minister. A woman of short stature herself, she envied ones like these.
"Xena, I've heard so much about you," said Braxxus smoothly.
"Yes, it seems you have made quite an impression on my friend, Arless."
"I knew it, thought Xena. That spineless Arless is involved in this. "That was a very long time ago," she said aloud.
"Nevertheless your ah, exploits shall we say, must have been monumental indeed to have remained so vividly fixed in his mind for all these years."
You smug bastard, thought Xena. She began to entertain thoughts of breaking his nose. This one is too smart for his own good, she thought.
"Xena's twenty years of service to humanity have more than atoned for her dark past," the queen said sharply.
"It is as you say, my queen," said Braxxus, bowing. "How can I be of service to you?" he asked Xena.
"The note from Felix," she began, "where did you find it?"
Braxxus looked at her incredulously and turned to Draganis. "My queen, I--"
"Answer her," the queen said firmly.
"Very well. It was just before midnight, I had finished with my work for the day and I was on my way to bed. As usual I stopped to look in on the prince just to make sure all was well. However when I knocked on the door there was no answer."
"Weren't you afraid of waking him up?" asked Xena.
The boy is an insomniac," said the queen. "Most nights he stays up quite late. It's as if Hypnos forgets him."
"I see," said Xena. "So when Felix didn't answer you became concerned and opened the door, right?"
"That is correct," said Braxxus. "And, to my dismay, the prince was nowhere to be found. The note was on his pillow."
"Did you have any idea Felix was romantically involved with this girl?"
"Of course not," Braxxus replied brusquely. "What do you think I am? Had I know I would have put an end to it immediately. The prince was there to learn the art of diplomacy, not to fall prey to the wiles of a common slattern."
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena and saw the expression on her face. It was only there for a second but there was no mistaking its meaning. It was a look she had seen many, many times before and it usually preceded the death of whomever it was fixed upon. Braxxus, you're a lucky son of a bitch, Gabrielle thought.
The bard knew her well. It was all Xena could do to restrain herself from reaching out and snapping his neck like a chicken bone. She wasn't quite sure why his remark had made her so angry. Draganis had more or less said the same thing earlier in the day. Perhaps it was because of his haughty demeanor. No, the reason was simple enough, she decided. Sonia was the eldest child of her brother. She was blood of his blood, just as she and Toris were blood of their mother's blood. She felt something well up inside her from the very depths of her soul. Something powerful, and very ancient--even primordial. Although Xena could not have put it into words it was that drive, that force, that need to defend one's own. In many respects it was much the same force that had caused her to stand up to Cortiz oh so long ago. But again that was somehow...different.
Xena didn't know Sonia any better than she knew the arrogant son of a bitch standing in front of her but it was totally irrelevant. All that mattered was that she was her brother's child and was probably in danger. And then it finally dawned on her. All those years of laying the blame on Toris for Lyceus' death had been a terrible, tragic waste. She understood that, with kin, you don't have to agree with them, you don't even have to like them. All you have to do is...love them. Sonia was Toris' family and that made her Xena's family and, by the gods, she was going to return the girl safely to her family if it meant kicking the ass of a hundred scum bags like Braxxus.
All this raced through Xena's fertile mind in the split second that elapsed before she replied to Braxxus. Her voice as cold as the mountain snow, Xena said, "The girl might be common but I know her father well and he is a good man. No daughter of his could ever be a..." Xena dared not say the word lest she become so angry as to do something counterproductive to her cause.
Xena's countenance made even Gabrielle shudder.
"I'm sorry," said Braxxus, barely hiding his insincerity. "I meant no offense. It's just that this whole affair has unnerved me somewhat."
"Do you have any idea how long the boy had been gone before he was missed?" asked Xena.
"No more than two turns of the glass," said Braxxus.
"Where was he last seen?"
"In my office. He stopped in and we chatted for a few minutes. He then said he was going to retire to his room. That's the last anyone has seen of him."
"Braxxus, don't you find it hard to believe that a prince, trained since childhood to rule a kingdom, would just up and disappear like this.? Wouldn't you think his sense of duty, not only to his country but his mother as well, would be stronger than that? Why would he seemingly just throw his birthright away?"
"I wish I knew," said Braxxus. "However are praying that he will soon be returned to us."
"I hope you have a thick rug," said Xena.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the queen asked.
Xena nodded to Gabrielle and said, "You know more about this sort of thing than I do. You tell her."
"Well it seems that Sonia has incurred the wrath of Hera," said the bard.
"What's this got to do with my boy?" the queen inquired.
"Let me explain," said Gabrielle. "Sonia was pledged to serve a year in the temple of Hera at Olympia. In fact, she was due to begin serving her term there yesterday. Now as you know Hera is not likely to take a snub like this lying down. If she sends somebody from Mount Olympus to punish Sonia the chances are pretty good it'll be kill first and ask questions later."
As Gabrielle skillfully weaved her lie, Xena intently studied Braxxus' face. The two of them had concocted this little story back at the inn as a way of confirming Xena's suspicions. Naturally Xena had informed the queen of her intentions before their meeting with Braxxus. Although Gabrielle hated lying she had no illusions anymore about the fact that it was sometimes necessary. And on these rare occasions when she did have to lie her thirty years of storytelling experience served her well.
"Are you saying my boy could die because...?" The queen became so choked with emotion she could not finish the sentence.
Gabrielle replied by nodding mournfully. "Yes, I'm afraid so," she said sadly. "Anybody with her at the time will probably die also."
And there it was. Xena saw a faint, almost imperceptible, hint of panic in Braxxus' eyes. She knew for damn sure it wasn't because he was worried about the prince. Braxxus, she thought, I've got you. Out loud she said, "Of course, there still may be time. What do you think, Braxxus?"
Now Braxxus felt Xena's piercing eyes boring in and a shroud of uneasiness began to envelop him. Who is this woman? he wondered. He began to think maybe Arless wasn't just a paranoid fool after all. "I really couldn't say," he answered lamely.
"Thank you," Xena said abruptly.
The minister bowed to the queen and said, "With your permission I will return to my duties."
The queen nodded her approval and the three women watched him depart.
When he had gone Xena turned to the queen and said, "Draganis, you should have been an actress." She then cast a wary eye toward the two palace guards. "Is there someplace we can talk?"
"Follow me." The queen led them down the long corridor. Soon she reached a flight of steps bearing off to the right.
Xena felt a hand on her elbow. It was Gabrielle. "Xena, what is all this?"
Xena did not reply. She merely narrowed her eyes and silently "shushed" her.
The steps led up to the parapet on the castle wall. Situated at each end of the long wall was a watchtower with a lookout inside but they were well out of earshot.
Before the queen could say anything Xena whispered, "Act as if you're showing us the sights."
The queen raised her arm and pointed to the large temple in the center of the city. "Do you really think Braxxus kidnapped Felix?" she asked.
"Yes, I do," Xena answered. "And I'm afraid that's not all."
"What could be possibly worse?" asked the queen.
Xena looked at the temple with a fixed smile on her face. "Ma'am I have reason to believe there is a plot to overthrow your throne. I believe the disappearance of the prince was the first step of that plot."
"That's a very serious allegation, Xena," said the queen. "Do you have any proof?"
"Nothing definite as yet," said Xena. "Just a lot of loose threads."
Draganis swept her hand toward the string of lows hills off to the southwest. "I can't charge a man with kidnapping and treason based on 'loose threads'."
Xena licked her lips and said, "Queen Draganis, you know me. You know I'd never tell you this if I didn't think it was true."
"I know that," said the queen. "But still..."
Xena saw the queen was still not entirely convinced. She decided to play her trump card. "Sixteen years ago," began Xena, "I came across a party of travelers being attacked by bandits. They had already killed most of the party and had the last two trapped in a ditch and were just about to finish them off. Luckily for them I showed up and killed some of the bandits and drove the rest off. When I pulled this woman out of the ditch, badly injured and bleeding all over, she gasped that she was a queen. You know, I don't recall asking that woman for proof. I took her at her word and made sure she and her child got home safely."
Draganis dropped her chin and said, "I remember." She looked up at Xena and smiled thinly. "If it were anybody but you telling me this I'd have their ass thrown in the dungeon so fast they wouldn't even know when the cell doors were opened."
"So you believe me then?"
"I don't know so much that I believe you as I believe in you," said Draganis.
"Thank you," said Xena quietly.
"So what do we do?"
"For the moment, nothing," said Xena. "I have to go speak to Zander again."
"Why?" the queen asked, somewhat alarmed.
"To get an intelligence report," replied Xena. "And to maybe have him do a job for me. In the meantime I suggest you not let Braxxus or Arless leave the palace. Use any excuse you like but keep ‘em here. And don't say anything to them about the tomorrow's attack being delayed."
The queen nodded gravely as she watched the sun disappear below the horizon. "It will be as you ask."
At that very moment, in another part of the palace, Braxxus was tossing a bag of coins in the direction of a burly man looking at him from across the table. "I want this done tonight, Burbus, and no slip-ups," said Braxxus.
Burbus opened the bag and dumped the coins out into his huge hand.
"Don't worry, it's all there," said Braxxus. "Double your usual fee, just like I said."
Burbus scratched his head and returned the coins to the bag. "I don't get it," he said. "What's all the fuss about two women anyway?"
"Never mind that," snapped Braxxus. "It's enough for you to know that I'm paying you twice the normal fee to make sure that nosy bitch Xena and her little friend don't see another sunrise."
"Yeah. Why? Do you know her?" Braxxus asked.
Burbus tossed the bag of coins down on the table.
"This one's on the house, Braxxus."
"Huh? I don't understand."
"My brother, Thersides. Xena murdered him a long time ago. Now finally, after all these years, I get the chance to return the favor."
"Suit yourself," said Braxxus, shrugging his shoulders. "Just make sure she does die. And after you take care of that check in on the prince and the girl and report back to me."
"Why don't we just kill them?" asked Burbus, impatiently. "We don't need those two brats anymore, do we?"
"Ah, my uncouth friend, think of them as a safety net. If something were to go wrong tomorrow we can't use them as hostages to make good our escape if they're dead." He decided to leave out the part that there might be a good chance an agent of Hera could show up and kill them anyway. No use giving the buffoon too much to think about, he told himself.
"I guess you're right," said Burbus, scratching his head again. Braxxus sure likes to use big words, he thought. Maybe someday he would ask him what "uncouth" meant.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The night guard moved to the door. "The place is closed," he called out. Come back in the morning."
"I need to see Zander," came a voice back through the door. "It's urgent."
"Sorry, Zander's asleep," the guard said.
"Then get him up," replied the voice.
"What do you think I am, an idiot?" the guard retorted. "He'd fire my ass for sure."
"He might fire your ass if you do," said the voice, "but I'll kick your ass if you don't."
BAM! BAM! BAM!
"Stop that!" rasped the guard.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
"By the gods, that's enough!" The guard unlocked the door and flung it open. "Listen you son of a owww!" Through his tears of pain he saw two figures, a tall one and a much shorter one, standing in the darkened doorway. The tall one had caught him by the nose and was squeezing it so hard that it made him dizzy.
"Now," Xena purred, "you're gonna be a good boy and take me to your boss, ain't cha?"
"Uhh haww, nyea," the guard honked.
Xena released his nose and said, "See, Gabrielle, I knew he would see it our way. Now shut the door."
In short order Xena had Zander awake and sitting on the side of his bed. While she gave him some time to clear out the cobwebs Gabrielle searched around and found a candle. "There," she said, lighting it with her ever trusty flint. "That's better."
"What's happened, Xena?" Zander asked.
Before answering him Xena turned to the guard and said, "You can go now." When he hesitated she barked out, "Beat it!"
Needless to say the guard practically fell over himself in his attempt to remove himself from the presence of this frightening woman.
"I'm sorry to barge in on you like this," said Xena, "but I have something important to ask you."
"What do you want to know?"
"In the last couple of weeks have any of the traders coming in here mentioned anything to you about signs of unusual military activity anywhere?"
"What kind of activity?"
"You know, evidence of troop movements, heavier than normal patrolling, tighter security in border areas, that sort of thing," said Xena.
The old man sleepily rubbed his eyes and looked up at his old commander. "You mean like a buildup?"
Zander furrowed his brow and stood up. After a few thoughtful moments he spoke. "Excey was in here late last week complaining about not being able to get his horse shod up north. He said every blacksmith shop he went to was busy repairing chariots."
It was just as Xena figured. For her the whole thing was as clear now as if it were written up on one of Gabrielle's scrolls. Zander saw the concerned look on her face and tried to reassure her. "They always hold maneuvers up there this time of year, I don't think it's anything to worry about, Xena."
However she thought differently. What better way to disguise an invasion force? she asked herself. She thought for a moment and then put her hand on the old man's shoulder. "Zander, I need your help," she said. "What would you say if I told you I was drafting you?"
Eyes sparkling, he sprang to his feet. "I'd say I'm ready," he replied excitedly. "What do you want me to do? Is there going to be a fight? You want me to get my sword?"
Gabrielle saw Xena smile at the old man and then she heard her tell him in an unusually gentle voice, "No. No you don't have to do that. But I do have an important mission for you."
"I'm yours to command, Kondesah."
Gods! Xena thought. I'd forgotten that name!
Fifteen minutes later the three of them were standing in the dark street out in front of Zander's warehouse.
"Now you're sure you can pull this off by yourself?" asked Xena.
In the pale moonlight Gabrielle saw him smile. "Don't worry, he said, "I won't let you down. Remember what you used to call me?"
"Yeah, I remember," said Xena. "‘The Ghost‘. Just be careful."
The two women watched the old man start up the street disappear into the blackness.
"What was that he called you? Kansa?"
"What is that, another name for you?"
"Something like that," said Xena. "It originated with one of the northern tribes we used to battle with from time to time. None of my men ever dared call me that to my face, of course, but to tell you the truth I liked the name."
"What does it mean?" asked Gabrielle, almost afraid of the answer.
"It means 'dark warrior,' Gabrielle," said Xena.
"That's it? That's all it means?"
"Well what did you expect?" Xena asked. "Something like ‘The Great Slaughter‘ or maybe ‘Death's Mistress?"
"You see what you get for always expecting the worst?" teased Xena.
"I'm sorry," said the bard.
Xena patted her on the shoulder and, in a voice that just did hint of playfulness said, "Forget it. Actually it was the Assyrians that called me those other names."
With that Xena strode off down the street. For a moment Gabrielle just stood there gawking at her, not sure whether she was kidding or not. With Xena one could never be sure.
After walking a few paces Xena turned. "Are you coming?" she asked.
"Huh? Oh, ah, yeah."
As the darkness swallowed them Gabrielle said, "Xena, I have to know. Were you really called those horrible names?"
"Gabrielle, those were some of the nicer ones."
For what seemed like an eternity to him the old man led his horse through the darkened city streets. More than once he fought back the urge to just mount up and ride out but Xena's orders had been explicit on that point. "Be as inconspicuous as possible," she had told him. Zander smiled to himself, were they orders? Yeah, he thought, they were orders. No, she had not issued them with her old terrifying warlord snarl--Zander had seen more than one brave man piss down his leg in the face of her fury--but they were orders nonetheless. She had known well enough he could not refuse her. Now, upon reaching the outskirts of the city, he mounted his horse and pointed it up the north road.
The two women turned the corner and worked their way down the narrow street.
"Xena, why all this secrecy?"
"We don't know yet who are friends are," said Xena. "Anybody here could be a spy or some other disloyal bastard."
"Oh." Gabrielle knew if there was one thing that could be guaranteed to bring Xena's blood to a boil it was treachery. She hated a traitor no matter whose side he was on. Gabrielle wondered if perhaps it was because Xena herself had been betrayed so many times. She guessed it probably was.
"Remember your promise?"
"Yeah, you know. The one you made today."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, I guess I forgot."
"I know some of it now," said Gabrielle. "I mean, I heard what you told the queen and I know you think Elis is the verge of being invaded but my question is how did you know?"
"Okay," Xena began. "At first it was just bits and pieces--the note, Felix's apparent indiscretion- that sort of thing."
"Just what is it about that note anyway?" Gabrielle asked.
"That was really just a long shot but the moment the queen handed it to me I knew something was not quite right," said Xena. "I mean, it was obvious it had been cut from a much larger piece. Why do that? Why not just leave the whole sheet of parchment there on the pillow? Then when Zander identified the parchment type and what it was used for my suspicions naturally turned toward Braxxus. His office was the only likely source of Thracian parchment."
"So you're saying he kidnapped Felix and then made him write the note to cover himself?"
"But why didn't he just use regular parchment?" Gabrielle asked.
"You know how rainy it's been lately," Xena reminded her. "Remember what Zander said about Thracian parchment? That's it's almost like having something written in stone? You of all people should know what moisture does to ordinary parchment. He used it because he wanted to make sure the note stayed intact. He had to take the chance of using it because it was of utmost importance to him that the note not be damaged in transit. After all, for all intents and purposes, it was his alibi."
"How so?" the bard asked.
"You've got to remember the real purpose of the note," said Xena. "Braxxus knew the queen would never believe the boy's disappearance was an elopement. In fact he was counting on it. What the note did was shift the suspicion off his ass to the Arcadians. Without that note the blame for the prince's disappearance would have undoubtedly fallen on him. He averted that by wording the note in such a way as to give the impression that Sonia was the initiator of the relationship. This, naturally, implicated the Arcadians."
"Gods, Xena! gasped the bard in wonder. "You should have been a magistrate."
"Hey I have many skills, remember? However that wasn't the only thing that convinced me Braxxus was responsible. Remember the queen's observation about how Felix's betas were unusual? I think it was a subtle attempt by the prince to identify his abductors."
"Too subtle," Gabrielle snorted.
"I agree. But you have to look at it from his perspective. No doubt he was being scrutinized very closely as he wrote the note so I imagine he figured the altered betas were about as far as he dared go. The price took a big chance in doing that."
"But why Sonia?" Gabrielle asked. "Why take her and not someone else?"
"Think about it, Gabrielle. How many young ladies do you suppose Felix was exposed to in Arcadia? Not very many. I'm just guessing here but I'd say Toris wasn't the only one that saw Sonia pass that note to Felix. I bet Braxxus, or at least one of his staff, did too. That conveniently links her to Felix. And her being the daughter of a prominent government official only serves to further incriminate the Arcadian government."
"Xena, what do you think was in that note Sonia passed to Felix?"
"The gods only know," sighed Xena.
"They're coming!" Burbus' lookout ducked past him and into the blackness of the alleyway.
"Good," whispered Burbus. "Get ready, boys." In the alley were three other men. In the alley across the street lurked three more. Seven men, all experienced killers, waited in silence while Xena and Gabrielle drew nearer to the ambush site. Burbus had chosen his spot well. The street was particularly narrow here, barely enough for two carts to pass. That meant Xena would have very little time to react when he and his men made their move. As far as Burbus was concerned she was already dead. I'm gonna cut that slut's heart out and make her little friend eat it, he thought dreamily.
Burbus had decided he was not going to kill the little one--yet. He had seen Gabrielle upon her arrival at the palace earlier in the day and had been struck by how good looking she was. Conveniently, he had forgotten he had also been stirred by the tall, still very attractive woman with the graying hair that had accompanied her there. That, of course, was before he had learned that woman was Xena.
"Xena, how did you know about this invasion thing?"
"Be quiet, Gabrielle." The alarm bells were ringing in Xena's head. She had not seen or heard anything to even hint at danger but her instincts were screaming to her that something was not...right. For the first time in a very long time Xena drew her sword. When she had strapped it on her back earlier in the day she had been struck by how heavy it was.
"What is it?" Gabrielle whispered. "An ambush?"
Xena touched her on the shoulder and, in a barely audible whisper, said, "Stay here."
Gabrielle nodded and watched Xena ease her way ever so slowly down the street. For the first time the bard noticed how quiet it was, so quiet she could hear her ears ringing. People sure go to bed early around here, she thought.
What's keeping them? wondered Burbus. They should have been here by now.
Xena could almost smell them now. By her reckoning there were five, at the most six, men hidden in those two alleys up ahead. I ain't got time for this crap, she thought angrily. There was a time when her all senses would have been deliciously alive in anticipation of a good fight but not now. Now she was tired, frustrated, just a little mad. However the one thing she was not, nor would she ever be, was scared. I don't know who you bastards are, she thought, but your dog's pissing on the wrong leg. Ever so slowly she unhooked her chakram.
"What's that noise?" hissed Burbus' lookout.
"Shut--" The screams of the three men across the street drowned out Burbus' reproval. Had it been light enough he would have been able to look over just in time to see the deadly ring ricochet several times off the alley walls effectively slicing up his men like cooked beef in the process.
Now two of the men in his alley shoved their way past him and out into the street. They no sooner cleared the alley before Xena's sword caught the first one in the area where the neck meets the shoulder. His body sinking to the cobblestone caused his mate to stumble over him and fall right into Xena's arms.
"Sorry, asshole," she rasped. "I'm spoken for." She head-butted him and followed it up with a punch to the jaw, knocking him out. "Son of a bitch," she muttered, rubbing her aching hand. She still didn't know how many of them were but she knew it was imperative that none of their assailants escape.
Satisfied that all those in the opposite alley were dead or at least incapacitated, she slowly inched her way up to the corner of the alley. "Throw down your weapons and come on out and you won't get hurt," she called out.
"Go on," Burbus whispered to the lookout. The man started to protest but cut it short upon feeling the point of Burbus' sword in his ribs. Slowly, reluctantly, the now terrified man stepped out from the alley and into the street.
"I give up," said the lookout,
"Anybody else in there?" Xena asked him.
"No. I'm the last one."
"Come out here," said Xena, "out in the moonlight where I can see you."
The lookout put his hands on his head and slowly walked out into the moonlight.
"Who sent you?" asked Xena.
"I don't know," said the lookout. "I'm just a hired sword. Burbus takes care of the business end of things."
"And which one is this Burbus?" Xena asked him.
"That one," lied the lookout, pointing to the one with his head nearly cut off.
"Well pick up your buddy here," said Xena, motioning to the one she had knocked out. "We're goin‘ for a little walk."
The lookout bent over and, with great effort, hefted the man over his shoulder. Xena silently turned and gestured for Gabrielle to follow and fell in behind the lookout. In the old days she would not have believed the lookout. She would have checked out the alley herself but this one time, whether it was because of her fatigue or because she just plain forgot, she failed to do so.
While Xena was dealing with the lookout Burbus crept his way to the edge of the alley. He could not see Xena yet but he saw the lookout bend over and pick up one his men. Almost daring not to breathe he eased his sword up close to his chest. He knew the danger he faced. He would only get one chance. He waited on one knee while the lookout struggled to pick up his comrade. He saw him stagger a couple of steps under the load before finally getting the body balanced on his shoulder.
Burbus then saw the lookout pass by and continue down the street. And there she was. Huddled there in the darkness, he could sense her power as she silently passed by him much like a menacing warship at night on a black sea. For the first time since he was a little boy, Burbus prayed to the gods. He felt the pounding of his heart in his chest and feared it would give him away. Many, many men had died by his hand during his lifetime but he could never recall being this apprehensive--not even before his first kill.
Now he saw the lookout disappear from view and, to his great relief , he realized that Xena had not seen him. He gave her two more steps and then quietly stepped out of the alley. You stinking bitch, he thought as he raised his sword, this is for Thersides. Just before his sword started its downward arc a troubling thought came to him. Where's the little one? Almost immediately he got his answer.
Like Xena he had been so focused on what was in front of him he had forgotten to watch his back. He failed to see the little bard take two quick steps and make her leap. She caught him squarely between his shoulder blades with her right foot and the would-be assassin went down like a sack of corn. Xena heard the dull thump of Gabrielle's foot ramming into Burbus' back followed by a sharp "uhhhh." She whirled in time to see Burbus hit the street and roll over. Even before his momentum stopped Xena had her sword on his neck but she saw there was no need. The man was out cold.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?"
"Mee? Yeah. I'm good. How about you?"
"Fine, thanks to you," said Xena, kneeling down to check Burbus. She rolled him over to get a look at his face. She didn't actually know him but she realized there was something vaguely familiar about him. She correctly guessed he was probably the relation of someone she had once killed. It wouldn't be the first time, she thought ruefully.
Damn it, she raged silently. What the Tartarus were you thinking? You should have checked out the alley. If it hadn't been for Gabrielle...
Xena stood up and turned to the terrified lookout. "So the alley was empty, eh?"
The lookout began to panic. "He, he made me do it," he bleated. "He threatened to kill me if I didn't."
Slowly Xena began to advance on him. "Gee you're having a really bad day, aren't ya? Put your friend down."
"You're not going to...wait!"
"Put him down," Xena repeated, this time in a much more menacing voice.
Reluctantly the lookout laid down his burden. "What are you gonna do?" he asked.
"This." Xena backhanded him hard across the mouth and then followed that up with a crushing kick to the side of his knee. The lookout crashed headlong to the street, moaning in agony.
"I ought to kill you, you bastard," Xena hissed, leveling her sword.
She turned toward the soft voice. "Don't worry, Gabrielle," she said. "I'm not going to kill the lying shitbag. Besides, we're wasting time here." She reached down, grabbed a handful of the lookout's hair, and slammed his head against the cobblestone. "That ought to hold you for awhile," she muttered. She stood up and strode quickly over to a shop on the other side of the street which happened to have an awning out in front of it. Two swift hacks with the sword and the rope holding it up came tumbling down into her hands. In ten minutes she and Gabrielle had the surviving assailants bound hand and foot and heaped up against the back wall of the alley. All except Burbus. He had awakened and Xena had him lying face down in the street.
"That will keep those two of trouble until daylight anyway," said Xena as she secured her chakram. She then took Burbus by the collar and yanked him to his feet. "Now c‘mon, let's get this one back to the palace."
Braxxus sat in his chair watching Arless nervously pace up and down in front of him. "What do you think she wants?" Arless asked.
"She said something about going over the plan again," said Braxxus, yawning.
"Well why aren't we doing that? I should be at the border right now. Why make us wait like this?"
"How the Tartarus would I know?" replied Braxxus. "Maybe she's stuck on the pot or something. Arless, will you sit down? You're driving me crazy with your stupid pacing."
Arless looked at him as if he was a hydra but complied. "I don't like it," he said for perhaps the tenth time. "I don't like it at all."
"You know for a soldier and a conspirator you don't have much backbone, do you?"
"Why, you young whelp, I've got as much as the next man," said Arless, sharply. "I have killed my share of men." He then slumped into his chair and added, "It's that damn Xena. You don't know her like I do. I can't help thinking she's probably got this whole thing figured out by now."
"Even if she has it's not going to do us any harm," said Braxxus smoothly. "By now Burbus and his boys have sent her to Tartarus where she belongs."
"I hope you're right," said Arless. "I hope you're right."
Zander slid off his horse and quietly led it into a stand of poplar trees. After tying it up he patted it on the neck and murmured, "Now don't go anywhere, okay?" Just then the full moon broke through the clouds and the old man noticed how white his hands were. Oh shit, he thought. We can't have that. Quickly he crouched down and ran both hands along the wet ground. In short order he had coated his face and hands with the soft mud.
Yeah, that's better.
After silently working his way through the trees for about a half an hour he came to a line of gently sloping hills which marked the northern border of Elis. Well, old fellow, this is it, he thought.
He had done this more times than he could count. This was why Xena had named him "The Ghost." In his day he had been a master of infiltration. It was standard practice for him to to steal into an opposing camp on the eve of battle and gather intelligence for her. Not once had he ever been even close to getting caught. Sometimes, to his dismay, his commander had gone with him. While he recognized that Xena was even better at it than he was it just didn't seem right to him. Their irreplaceable leader should not be out there crawling on her belly through mud and over rocks and Zeus knows what else with an ordinary foot slogger like him. He saw, though, that she seemed to enjoy it.
He had known Xena respected him but he was never quite sure why. She looked upon most of her rank and file troops as so many insects. Perhaps it was because he had always told her the truth. If during one of his reconnaissance missions he found conditions to be unfavorable he told her so. He never tried to bullshit her. More significantly, under Xena's harsh and often ruthless command he had never been subjected to nothing more serious than a couple of tongue lashings by his chief
Having said that, he had no illusions about his position. He was not anywhere even close to being in the great Xena's inner circle. She had made him a sergeant and therefore entitled to higher pay but he knew she viewed him as just another sword-swinger; someone whom she would not have hesitated one second to hang for the slightest breach of discipline. Even so, when Darfus took Xena's army away from her Zander went off and sat in the middle of a grove of birch trees and cried like a baby. He was a good ten years older than Xena but he had always looked up the tall, fierce, stoic, and stunning woman as something of a big sister. She had always treated him fairly.
That very night he had taken his gold, his horse, his sword and abandoned all else. He had had enough of the army. Six months later he had a small shop in the capital of Elis and from there his life had been onward and upward. Now, twenty years later, he was a very rich man.
But standing there looking up at those low hills, knowing the potential danger that lay in them, his face covered with mud, he realized how much he had missed it all. Wealthy merchant-trader or not, he knew in his heart he would always be a soldier--one of the mighty Kondesah's fierce horde. Zander quietly spat out dirt that had somehow gotten into his mouth and, crouching low, began to work his way up the hill.
"Xena!" Queen Draganis whispered loudly, "I'm so glad you've returned. I was running out of excuses to keep Braxxus and Arless here."
"Where are they now?" Xena asked.
"In the war room," said the queen. She took Xena by the elbow and led her into a small anteroom. "What did you find out?"
"It's just as I feared," Xena answered. "Your son was kidnapped and it was made to look like the Arcadians did it. Those responsible knew you would send your army against them." Here Xena paused, "Queen Draganis, Braxxus and Arless are traitors but more importantly, I believe tomorrow morning there will be an attempt to invade your country from the north."
The queen was flabbergasted. "But..."
"It's all part of an elaborate plan," Xena explained. "They kidnap your son. They make you think the Arcadians did it. Your army is posted on the Elis-Arcadia border. Once the attack on Elis begins, the army from the north swoops down and take your lightly defended capital and effectively cut off your own army from its line of supply."
"Then the army must be recalled at once," said the queen.
"I agree," said Xena. "Send a message to your field commander and tell him to forget about the attack on Arcadia. Tell him to form his battalions at once and return to defend the capital. But I must tell you, Draganis, even if he force marches them it's gonna take some time for his infantry to get here."
The queen cast her eyes downward. "By then it will be too late, will it not?"
Xena touched the queen's arm and said, "Cheer up. I think we've caught a break here."
"What do you mean?" the queen asked.
"You've had a lot of rain around here lately, haven't you?"
"Yes. An unusual amount for this time of year," the queen replied.
"That is a very big plus for us," Xena said. "You see, their army relies heavily on chariots. Very big, heavy chariots. Now as soft as the ground is now those big old chariots are not going to be able to pass over open country. They will be forced to stay on roads and I know for a fact the only road capable of sustaining chariots is the main north-south artery. If we can cut that road we can bottle them up and make them halt their advance long enough for you to recall your forces."
"But how do we do that?" asked the queen.
Xena smiled slyly and said, "It's being taken care of as we speak. Just north of the border the main road runs through some hills. At several points there are some very steep cliffs overlooking the road. Now if by chance somebody was able to get up there and cause a rock slide... or two... or three...?
"I see what you mean," said the queen. "You said it's being taken care of. By whom?"
Xena smiled and said, "A good man." The smile disappeared and she jerked her head toward Burbus. "I think it's time to speak to our ahh, friends."
Zander eased up to the edge of the cliff and stuck his head out over it. This ought to do nicely, he thought. This spot marked his deepest penetration into the enemy's (Zander now thought of them as the enemy) territory. He was at least a league over the border and had already succeeded in eluding at three patrols. This had convinced him Xena was correct in her assessment of the situation. Elis was about to be invaded.
You dumb ass, he chided himself. Don't you know she's always right?
Now, per her instructions, he had chosen the three points where the road was to be blocked. Naturally he would start with the farthest one and work his way back toward the border. He knew the heavy rains of late would make his task easier to accomplish. With luck, a couple of well-placed rocks pushed over the edge would cause a fair sized landslide. After picking out the one he thought most likely to do the trick Zander stuck the flat plank he had brought along to use as a lever under it. Five minutes later he had sent not one, but two large rocks tumbling over the cliff. He didn't have to look to see the results, he could hear it. That loud rumble told him a good portion of the cliff had given away. Already loosened considerably by the heavy rains, it had only needed a well placed push to finish the job. Before the rumbling had even stopped the old man was on his way to the next site. He knew those patrols would not be long in discovering the slide and sounding the alarm. Moving along at a steady trot, his senses alert for signs of possible danger, the old man realized he had not felt this alive in a very long time.
Damn, he thought. This is fun.
"I tell you, Braxxus, I think the queen knows something."
"The queen knows nothing," replied Braxxus. He and Arless stood looking at a map on the war room table. While both men gave the appearance of being calm, in truth both were becoming worried.
"Then why does she contrive to keep us here?" asked Arless.
Braxxus had to admit he had a point. For a full turn of the glass she had kept the two of them there answering a myriad of mostly trivial questions about the plans for the impending attack on Arcadia. "Perhaps the queen is getting cold feet," said Braxxus, as much to convince himself as Arless. Why hasn't Burbus reported back to me yet? he wondered. You don't suppose...?
Braxxus began to make his way to the door.
"Where are you going?" Arless asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
"To speak to the queen," came the reply. Braxxus stepped out into the corridor. It was long, about forty paces, and had a flight of curved stairs connecting directly to a rather large reception room below. He walked to the flight of steps on his left and, nearing the corner, heard voices on the stairs. He peeked around the corner and saw the queen appear from around the steps immediately followed by four guards. He then saw a sight that made his blood run cold. For there was Xena and she had her sword pointed directly between the shoulder blades of Burbus! He knew that if Burbus had not yet sung like a canary, he soon would.
For a brief moment he considered trying to deny everything but after seeing the grim look on the queen's face he knew she wasn't coming to promote him. No, his only viable option now was to get to the prince and use him to guarantee his safe passage out of Elis. And so the young man with the irritating air of superiority and the carefully cultivated sense of dignity did a most undignified thing. He slowly backed away from the stairs, turned, and went tearing down the corridor like a bat out of Tartarus.
Xena heard the loud whap, whap whap, of Braxxus' sandals on the marble floor and instantly realized what was happening. "Let me through!" she yelled, pushing her way past the guards. She hit the top step and turned into the corridor in time to see Braxxus rush past the war room and start down the steps at the far end. One third of the way down the hall she saw Arless emerge from the war room and take one wild look in her direction before following his coconspirator down the stairs. He too had heard Braxxus and guessed the jig was up.
Xena reached the far steps where she suddenly stopped to avoid the chance of blindly rushing into an ambush. As she did she noticed that end of the corridor was slippery but was able to compensate for it and maintain her balance. Had she the time to investigate she would have found the cause to be water leaking onto the floor through a crack in the large planter standing nearby.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, was not as fortunate as Xena. Flying down the hall in a desperate attempt to keep up, she was taken completely by surprise by the wet floor. That, combined with slower reflexes and well-worn boots, caused her to lose her balance and go skidding hard into Xena's right leg. Xena's knee buckled and she went down like a rowboat in a hurricane. She tried frantically to get her hands under her to break her fall but her left hand hit the planter and her right one landed squarely on Gabrielle's knee.
Xena landed hard on her tail bone which, in itself, was painful enough but the resounding shock of her unbroken fall also caused her already tender back to feel like someone had thrust a red-hot sword into it. Gods be damned! she silently raged. For one very brief moment her anger got the best of her and that dark Xena still very much within her surfaced and turned all its fury on Gabrielle. The old Xena wanted to lash out and punish the unfortunate bard for her clumsiness but in less than a heart beat she was again banished to the depths of Xena's soul. And as always...always, this Xena's first concern was Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Poor Gabrielle. The only thing she had injured was her feelings. She saw the grimace on Xena's face and it was clear she was in great pain. It horrified her to know she was responsible--even if it had been an accident. "Yeah," she replied, almost with a whimper. "You?"
Pain was a very old acquaintance to Xena. It had visited her with varying degrees of intensity many, many times throughout her life. Over time she had learned to use her indomitable will to if not conquer pain, at least control it. Once again the great warrioress reached down into the depths of her magnificent heart and summoned forth her courage, her will, her spirit. With that wry look Gabrielle knew so well Xena answered, "Gee, Gabrielle, I think I've fallen for you."
She raised herself to a sitting position and then quickly scrambled to her feet. She sheathed her sword and then extended her arm down to the still ashen Gabrielle. "C‘mon," she said. Her lover took the hand and with one powerful yank Xena pulled her to her feet. Before Gabrielle could say she was sorry Xena was halfway down the steps. In reality this entire incident lasted a mere fifteen seconds but to Gabrielle it seemed like a very long time indeed. Now almost as if pulled along by some kind of invisible tether, Gabrielle followed after Xena. When she reached the bottom of the steps Gabrielle saw Xena was halfway across the large room and Braxxus and Arless were just reaching the door that led out to the palace courtyard.
Once outside Braxxus rushed up to the two guards manning the palace gate and shouted, "Stop that woman! She's trying to kill me!" He then burst through the gate and into the street. The heretofore drowsy guards snapped to attention and drew their swords to face the onrushing Xena.
"Halt!" one of them commanded.
Xena's knee was killing her. Her tail bone screamed in protest with every step she took and her back felt like it was on fire but, at the moment, Xena's only concern was catching Braxxus. "Sorry, guys," she called out. "Maybe some other time." With that she came to a hard jump stop and vaulted neatly over the astonished men. Their mouths were still agape when Gabrielle streaked by them.
Braxxus stole a peek over his shoulder and saw the devil-woman was gaining on her. Frantically he looked about for some means to escape. Got to reach the prince, he thought. Then I'll be safe. Another look behind him and he saw the woman had closed the distance even more.
Now a glimmer of hope offered itself to him for just down the street was a tavern and tied up out in front of it were several horses. Panting heavily, Braxxus rushed up to the horses and, taking out his dagger, cut one free. He then mounted up, pointed the horse up the street, and kicked to life.
Right behind him came Xena and, she too, did not bother to waste time by untieing the horse's reins but simply cut them. But all the sudden excitement had caused the horses to become somewhat skittish and it took Xena three tries to get her foot in the stirrup. By the time she was finally in the saddle Gabrielle had managed to join her.
"Xena!" she panted. "I saw Arless run down that alley back there."
Turning her horse in the direction Braxxus had taken, Xena said, "Forget him, Gabrielle. Braxxus is the son of a bitch we want."
The bright moonlight reflecting off Braxxus' white tunic made it very easy for Xena to keep him in sight. She could see she was slowly, but steadily, gaining on him. In truth Braxxus had selected the faster animal but his horsemanship was vastly inferior to Xena's and thus his horse's natural advantage in speed was negated. Just get me there first, he silently pleaded. All his hopes were now pinned to his use of the prince as a bargaining chip to secure his safety. After abducting the prince Braxxus had secretly transported him and the girl back to Elis and hidden them in an abandoned copper mine just outside of the capital. He had done this partly because of his mistrust of his fellow conspirators, especially Burbus, and partly because he had wanted the price handy in case something went awry. Well something had gone awry and he knew that without that shield of safety the price would provide he was as good as dead. Queen Draganis was not exactly known for turning the other cheek.
Fifteen minutes later Xena found herself only about ten horse lengths behind. She could see Braxxus was not used to such hard riding and was sure he was tiring.
Xena's body was now a veritable pool of pain and the pounding of the horse beneath her was very much causing that pain increase exponentially. The battle raging within her was as fierce as any she had ever experienced in war. It was a grim struggle between the nerve endings in her body, shrieking for help, and her matchless will, demanding that they shut up and let the muscles to their job. It was as if somewhere deep in her a voice was saying, "Pain, I know thee well. You are my enemy. Many times your power has sent me reeling but you have never defeated me. Once again I grapple with thee and though I am in years you shall not prevail. I will conquer thee." Xena rode on oblivious to this massive struggle raging inside her. All she knew was she was hurting like Tartarus...and that she would go on.
There it is! At last Braxxus saw two huge poplar trees standing side by side, their branches silhouetted against the moon. These trees marked the place where a small lane broke off from the main road and ran toward the old mine. It was only a short distance from there to the mine and Braxxus was able to beat Xena to it and enter first. Xena followed him in and saw the main shaft was not very long. Obviously it had not been a very productive mine. At the end of the main shaft she could see light, probably torches, emanating from what she guessed had been an aborted attempt to cut another shaft. Xena drew her sword and made for the light. She stuck her head around the corner and saw Braxxus jerk a young man to his feet and put a dagger to his throat.
"That's far enough, Xena! Braxxus shouted. "You try to be a hero and the prince gets another air hole."
Xena coolly stepped into the room and swept her eyes over the scene. Besides Braxxus and Felix there were two other very startled men and, sitting with her back against the wall bound hand and foot, was Sonia.
"Give it up, Braxxus," said Xena. "There's no way I'm gonna let you walk out of here."
"Oh no?" smirked Braxxus. With the point of his dagger he pricked the prince's neck. He then ran his finger over the small cut and held it up so Xena could see the blood. "Then he dies."
"Tell me something. What reason could a man possibly have to make him want to betray his country?" asked Xena.
"Not one reason, a million reasons," said Braxxus.
"Of course," purred Xena. "Money."
"You got it," said Braxxus. "You see, I'm a very good minister but a very poor gambler. I lost quite a large sum of money in Corinth some time back and, my paltry salary being what it is, I was unable to make good my losses. After keeping me locked up in a store room for two days I was taken to see the owner of the gambling house, a man named Ausmus. To my surprise, he knew me."
"And so he offered you a deal," said Xena.
"My dear Xena, you are as smart as Arless said you were. It turns out this Ausmus was an operative, a ‘spy‘ if you will, and he said he had been authorized by his government to make me an offer. I was promised a million dinars to create some ah, ‘incident‘, that would allow his country to invade Elis unopposed. At first I refused but then he waved my gambling receipts under my nose and said Queen Draganis would be seeing these within a week if I didn't cooperate. Well, faced with the choice of being a rich man or a disgraced public official I naturally chose the former."
"So you sold your country down the river," said Xena disgustedly.
"That's a crude way of saying it but, yes."
"How did you manage to convince a coward like Arless to throw in with you?" asked Xena.
"It was simple enough," replied Braxxus smugly. "Most of his life is behind him," Braxxus sneered at Xena and added, "as is yours, Xena. I was able to convince him that a half a million dinars would enable him to retire to some remote place quite comfortably."
"Of course," he sniffed, "once his participation in the plan was no longer needed his usefulness to me would have been at an end."
"And you would have double-crossed him and kept the money for yourself, right?"
"Oh absolutely," said Braxxus. "You see, once one has practiced treachery it becomes much easier the next time." He then wrapped an arm around the prince's neck. "It's been so very good to talk to you, Xena," he said sarcastically. "But I'm afraid I must go now. Maddux, Persiphedus, come on."
"What about the girl?" asked Persiphedus.
"Well I--" Braxxus' reply was cut short by a startling revelation. Fool! he thought. Why didn't I notice it before? For the first time he saw that the girl's face was really nothing more than a much younger version of the one glaring at him from across the room.
"Is the girl your daughter?" he asked.
With an mocking sigh he asked, "My my, this certainly adds more chips to my stack doesn't it? Take her, Maddux!"
Xena wrapped both hands around her sword and pointed it at Braxxus. "I can't let you do that," she said menacingly.
"I don't see where you have any choice in the matter if you want the girl to live. Now back off, Xena!"
Still holding the sword on him, Xena slowly backed away. As she did she bumped into one of the supporting timbers and felt it give. She swept her eyes over the room, made her calculations, and decided it was worth the risk. She turned and savagely kicked the timber with all her might.
There was a loud crack! as the timber gave way followed by the sound of rock grinding on rock.
"What have you done?" shrieked Braxxus. He tightened his grip on the prince's neck and snarled, "Let's go."
At this point a rock approximately the size of a man's fist broke loose from the ceiling and struck Braxxus in the head, causing him to lower his hand. Seeing her chance, Xena swung her sword in arc of blinding speed and cut off Braxxus' hand just above the wrist. Even before the dagger it still gripped was on the ground Xena had wrenched the prince free and was shoving him toward the exit.
"Run!" she screamed at him.
"You bitch!" Braxxus wailed. "You filthy, meddling bitch!"
Xena ignored him and started straight for Maddux and Persiphedus.
"Kill the girl" screamed Braxxus. "Killlll her!"
But the two men were not killers. In fact when they saw Xena cut Braxxus' hand off it had frightened them so badly they were unable to move. They were just a couple of not particularly bright guys.
Xena read their eyes and recognized they were not dangerous. "Get out of here!" she yelled at them.
Maddux and Persiphedus did not have to be told twice. Like two streaks of lightning they bolted out of the room and into the main tunnel. Xena rushed to Sonia and, as she cut the bindings on the girl's feet, another loud crack resounded through the room. Xena shot a glance at the ceiling and saw the whole thing buckle. She took Sonia by the arm and yelled, "Come on!"
Xena had figured she could take care of Braxxus and his henchmen and get everyone out before the roof came crashing down but she had not counted on Sonia's legs being numb from sitting in such an awkward position for so long. The girl simply could not walk. Xena wrapped her arm around Sonia's waist and deperately tried to drag her out. But it was too late.
Lying on his back, Braxxus good a very good look at the tons of rock and dirt descending upon him. He didn't even bother to scream.
The old man untied his horse and swung himself up into the saddle. "Well I guess you don't have one foot in the grave after all," he chuckled. In truth Zander was in very good physical condition for a man his age but, even so, the two leagues he had covered this night, much of it at a steady jog, had left him fatigued. But it was a good feeling. A feeling one gets when a worthwhile task had been completed. The old man knew he had done well. Back in those hills there were three places where the main road was covered with tons of dirt and rock. He guessed it would be at least three, maybe four, days before the road would again be passable. Kondesah will be well pleased, he thought. He eased his horse onto the road and pointed it south. Even his rumbling stomach felt good. "Boy could I go for some roast chicken right now," he murmured.
His pleasant reverie was broken by the sound of hoofbeats thundering up the road toward him. Zander pulled his horse off the road and dismounted. As he waited there in the shadows Zander turned over in his mind the possibilities. Nobody rides like that at night unless they're crazy, he reasoned. Or scared. The more he thought about it, the less he liked it. Somebody riding north. He knew that by now Xena had made her play. Maybe this is one of her "friends," he thought. Maybe it's another gods-be-damned spy going to warn the invasion force. Maybe. Maybe not. Whoever they were he decided they were not a friend--to him, to Xena, to his adopted country. Having reached this conclusion he reached down and picked up a large tree limb that had been broken off by the recent storms. No sense killing the guy, he thought. Xena might want to "talk" to him. The hoofbeats were coming very close now so Zander took his limb and crept out to the side of the road, making sure he stayed in the shadows. Yes, he could see him now. "Come on, pal," he whispered. "Just a little closer..."
Arless was sure he was riding the slowest horse in all Greece. "Come on, you nag," he rasped. As he fled north he silently cursed the woman that, once again, had caused him so much misery. For the second time in his life she had forced him to flee a most comfortable situation and run for his life. Damn her! And damn that Braxxus for talking me into this idiotic scheme. As usual Arless blamed everyone but himself. "I'll show them!" he railed at the blackness. Especially that cursed Xena, he thought. I'll cross the border and offer my services.
This was no idle threat. As a fixture in the Army of Elis for more than a dozen years Arless was well aware of its capabilities. He knew not only what it could to but, more importantly, what it could not do. He knew every weakness. What was more he was more than willing to show his new allies how to take advantage of those weaknesses ...for a price of course. Who knows? he thought. I might even be able to turn the tables on that putrid Xena for once. With that he began to fantasize on what would be the best way to make Xena suffer. Make her watch as her little Gabrielle was tortured to death, of course.
With his eyes locked in on the center of the road, Arless only saw what seemed to be a shadow move by the side of the road. He dismissed it as nothing and was therefore completely unprepared when Zander's tree limb found its mark. The last conscious thought he had was of a fierce pain in his chest and air rushing from his lungs. This was followed by a sense of falling and then a blinding white light in the back of his brain. And then....nothing.
Zander pitched the now broked limb away and knelf down beside fallen rider. In the moonlight he saw the man was lying on his back with his neck tilted at an odd angle. Recognizing the man as Arless, Zander placed his hand underneath his head to raise him upright and load him on the horse. It was then he felt something wet and warm oozing onto his fingers. Blood! he thought.
Zander now realized what had happened. After he struck Arless with the limb the man had fallen backward off the horse which, in turn, made the horse rear up. He figured that when the horse felt something hit his backside it had been a reflex action on its part to kick at it. That had to be it, Zander thought. The horse kicked him in the head. Zander put his ear to Arless' nose to listen for sounds of breathing but there was nothing. He then checked for a pulse. Again nothing. Shit, he thought. I didn't mean to kill him. In spite of his commitment to Elis and to Xena it made him a little sad to think of what he had done. It had been a very long time since he had taken a life.
Quietly he rounded up Arless' horse and laid the dead man across its back. A few minutes later the body was secure and Zander took the horse's reins in hand, mounted his own horse, and slowly made his way south.
"Look there! Someone's in the road!" shouted the guard. He was one of ten men hastily assembled by the captain of the palace guard to accompany the queen and Gabrielle in their pursuit of Xena and Braxxus.
Upon seeing the apparation the captain now rode forward to challenge it. "Who are you? What are you doing out her alone?"
A weak but very familiar voice replied, "It's me Delanos. It's Felix."
"Great Zeus!" the captain gasped, leaping from his horse. "It is you!"
"Your majesty!" the captain squalled, "it's the prince!"
A few seconds later the weary young man was in the happy arms of his tearful mother. "Oh, my boy," she repeatedly sobbed.
The guards gathered around to pat him on the back and all concerned were very much relieved. All except Gabrielle.
Still mounted on her horse, she asked, "Felix, where's Xena?"
"You mean the tall woman?"
Felix pointed down the narrow lane he had just traversed. "Down there. The old mine. I think she's--"
Gabrielle was no longer there to hear his words. Recklessly she drove her horse full speed down the dark lane. She soon entered a clearing and, to her utter dismay, saw a massive dust cloud billowing out of the mine.
Off the horse now and stumbling repeatedly over the rocky ground, she paused upon reaching the mine's entrance. With the strength people often have when placed in situations like this, she reached down and ripped off a large piece of her heavily woven dress with the ease she would a piece of parchment. Using the rag to cover her mouth and nose, she started forward into the mine.
Suddenly a strong hand caught her arm. It was Delanos, the captain of the guard. "Gabrielle, you can't go in there. It's too dangerous."
"Let me go!" howled Gabrielle. She broke away from him and again attempted to enter the dark mine. This time Delanos was not so polite. He dove forward and tackled the bard around the legs. Somehow he managed to avoid the vicious kicks aimed at his groin and succeed in wrapping his arms around each of her legs. While Gabrielle writhed and called him every name she could think of, Delanos slowly and as gently as he could dragged her out of the mine.
By this time Draganis and the rest of the party had arrived on the scene. After a minute or so the queen was able to calm Gabrielle down enough for Delanos to release her.
"Gabrielle," she said gently. "I promise you we're going to get her out of there. Delanos!"
"Organize a work detail at once and clear that mine!"
"Yes, ma'am!" The huge man turned and began barking orders. "All right, you heard her. Virdon, Prathius, go back to the city and bring more men. And bring digging equipment. You know what we need. Xylus, you and Darcineon build a fire so we can see what the Tartarus we're doing. Come on, damn it. This ain't the Festival of Luna here!"
Realizing his error, Delanos sheepishly turned to his queen. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. I didn't mean to be so crude."
If the situation had not been so somber Gabrielle might have thought the sight of the huge Delanos practically cowering before the diminutive Draganis humorous--but not now.
"It's all right, Delanos," the queen assured him. "You just do whatever is necessary to get that mine cleared as quickly as possible."
An obviously relieved Delanos saluted his queen and went to oversee his men. After an anxious wait for the dust to settle enough to allow him to see, Delanos made his initial inspection of the shaft. To his surprise he saw the damage wasn't as bad as he feared. The main shaft itself was clear except for that debris which had spilled out from the aborted shaft. Satisfied he knew where Xena was, Delanos unleashed his men.
Two hours later Gabrielle saw why the queen thougth so highly of Delanos. The man was a veritable whirlwind in action. In a very short time he had organized the men into a very efficient work force. Each man knew not only what his job was, but the best way to do it.
For the entire time Gabrielle had stood by the entrance, silently praying to every god she could think of to please spare Xena's life. At last she had run her hand into her pocket and fingered the little winged carving Xena had given her earlier. "If you really are a merciful god," she whispered, "you won't let her die."
Gabrielle swore to herself that if Xena survived she was not going to let her out of the house unless it was to take a crap. She knew it was a silly thought. One could no more confine Xena than they could the wind but it comforted her to be able to direct her anger at something.
It has often been said that as one dies, they see their life pass before them. Now Gabrielle's mind began to ponder the events of her life; joyous, sorrowful, silly...loving. No, it was not her life that hung in the balance there but as far as the little bard from Poteidaia was concerned it might as well have been. For she knew that if the only way Xena came out of that mine was in a broken and lifeless body her own life would effectively be over. Yes, she would go on. But to what purpose? What does one do when half their heart and half their soul has been ripped away? Faced with such a crushing loss one could surely never be whole again. For over twenty years practically every thought she'd had was in some way connected to Xena. She had without reservation devoted her life to the stoic, moody, playful, grouchy, sexy, brave, kind, fierce, generous, selfless and incredibly loving warrioress. Gabrielle had gladly given up her own potential greatness to walk in Xena's shadow. Now she faced with the very real possibility that shadow would be no more, Gabrielle's heart was more than being broken--it was being crushed into dust.
She felt a tear on her cheek and wiped it away with the piece of rag she, for some reason, still clung to. "My sweet warrior," she whispered sadly. "My sweet warrior."
For a moment the shout did not register on Gabrielle's brain. Almost as an afterthough she leaned in to look down the shaft.
Hey! the voice repeated. It was Delanos.
Breathlessly he tore up the shaft toward Gabrielle and the queen. "We've broken through!"
For a long time Gabrielle would be unable to remember more than bits and pieces of what happened next. Men pitching rocks away. Shovels plunging into the loose dirt. A hole. Someone, she later remembered it was Delanos, bravely squirming through first. Someone pulling her through. She had to see. Rocks. Dirt. Dust piled high. A body. Xena's? No, a man's. Braxxus, his head crushed. His right hand gone. A shout, "Here!" A sword, sticking out of the rubble. It is Xena's. Oh sweet gods no!
Hands. Bleeding hands frantically clawing at the sharp rocks. Her hands. She hears someone scream, "Xeeenaah!" She does not realize it is her own voice. Many hands, tearing at the mound. Someone's hand breaks through. Another hand, Xena's hand. The fingers move. She's alive! Five more minutes of digging that seem like eternity itself. Hair. Filthy, dusty hair. A face, black with dirt...and blood. Xena. Her lips moving. "Gabrielle," they whisper. A soft kiss...blackness.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" The bard's eyelids fluttered open and her unfocused eyes drifted toward the sweet voice. "Gabrielle."
"I'm here, Gabrielle." Gabrielle saw an indistinct face loom over her and she felt herself being hoisted into two strong arms. "Wake up, Gabrielle."
Xena sat on the floor of the mine with Gabrielle's head in her lap.
"Is she going to be all right?" asked Delanos.
"Yeah," replied Xena. "I guess all this was too much for her. Xena then slapped Gabrielle twice on the cheek, not hard--just enough to make it sting. At last Gabrielle's eyes began to focus in on the face. It was a beautiful face. It was covered with grime and streaked by sweat. It had a fair sized cut on the forehead which had bled down around the left eye forming a macabre circle. Yes, it was a beautiful face.
"Yes, Gabrielle. It's me." Xena took the offered water bag from one of the guards and put it to Gabrielle's lips.
"I, I should be taking care of you," said Gabrielle.
"Shhh. You just rest," cooed Xena. "I'll take care of both of us--of all of us."
The following day was filled with good news for Draganis. First, she learned that the northern road had indeed been cut. Soon after she was informed that the lead elements of her army would be in the capital by midnight. Her son was safe. Her realm was safe. Burbus had confessed all and the queen, to her relief, found the conspiracy to be confined to Braxxus and Arless. It pleased her to know the treacherous bastards were dead. It saved the kingdom the expense of hanging them.
Xena and Sonia were none the worse for wear despite almost being killed. Just before the ceiling gave way Xena had managed to throw Sonia into a shallow recess in the wall and cover her with her body. Xena's legs and torso were then pinned by the falling debris which had filled up around the depression in the wall forming a pocket. Though they were trapped there was little danger of suffocation. Xena had pretty well figured they would be rescued before they ran out of air. She had known Gabrielle and the others would not be far behind.
Sitting there in the dark, Xena had revealed herself to the girl and the two of them had gotten to talk. Xena found the girl to be smart, devoted to her family and still as serious as ever. She had even found out why Sonia had passed the note to Prince Felix. The girl had asked him to write a letter of recommendation that would allow her to apply to the fine art school Elis was famous for.
Queen Draganis extended her hand to the tall warrior and said, "Xena, once again you have preserved life. Not only my son's, but my kingdom's as well." She had not been surprised when Xena turned down her offer of reward.
"It wasn't just me," said Xena. "I had plenty of help."
"That reminds me," said the queen. She turned to Zander and said, "You have bravely given good service to your country in her time of need. Name your reward and you shall have it."
The old man blushed and said, "Ma'am for the last twenty years this country has given me all I ever wanted--a home."
"But surely there is some way I can show my appreciation," said Draganis.
"Well there is one thing."
"Name it," the queen said quickly.
"Well for twenty years now I've passed the palace and I've often wondered what it looked like on the inside. Do you suppose...?"
"I shall conduct the tour personally," said the queen, smiling. She turned to Xena and said, "I have already sent Arcadia a formal apology but I would like for you express to your brother my personal regret over this matter."
"I will," said Xena.
"Tell him I am ready to make some concessions regarding our border dispute," said Draganis. "I think it is time we settle old squabbles and go forward."
"He will be be happy to hear that," said Xena.
Draganis was not one to express emotion and she surprised Xena by hugging her and saying in an unusually warm voice, "You are always welcome here." The queen nodded to Gabrielle and Zander and disappeared through the palace gates.
Xena's back was still hurting but she had not felt this good for a long time. She watched Sonia as she chatted quietly with Gabrielle and already knew she loved the girl. For the first time since she was a teen the thought of being part of a true family again appealed to her. Yes, she thought, it's time.
"Xena?" It was Zander.
"I suppose there's no way I can talk you into staying an extra day or two, is there?"
Xena smiled at the old man. "No. I need to get Sonia home to her folks. Poor Toris is probably half nuts by now." She laid a hand on Zander's shoulder and said, "I just want you to know I am deeply grateful for your help. You did a brave thing."
The old man's eyes welled up and he said, "Kondesah, until the day I die I will be at your command." He stepped back and sniffed. "Look at me, acting like a little kid."
"Not a little kid," Xena corrected him, "a good man."
The old man nodded. "Ah, have you obtained a horse for the girl yet?"
"No as a matter of fact we haven't," replied Xena.
"Then allow me to take care of it for you," said Zander. Turning to Sonia, he asked, "Do you like horses?"
"I love horses," said Sonia.
"If it's all right with Xena you want to come with me and pick one out?"
Sonia looked up the tall woman she had heard so much about all her life. Her father had on many occasions told her Xena was a remarkable woman. From their short time together Sonia had already decided remarkable was a very inadequate description. "Is it all right with you, Aunt Xena?" she asked.
"Sure, go ahead," smiled Xena. Aunt Xena, I like that.
Xena and Gabrielle watched the young girl and the old man stroll leisurely down toward the stable. Already he was making her laugh.
"You know," said Gabrielle, "I still can't get over how much she looks like you."
"Ha, ha. Funny."
"Have I told you lately that I love you?"
"Weelll, actually it has been awhile," teased the bard.
"I love you."
Gabrielle gazed into the eyes that were still so captivating after all these years. "Xena, I love you so much. You know, sometimes I uh, I pray that I will die before you do. I don't think I'm going to able to bear losing you."
Xena pulled the precious little bard close to her. "Gabrielle," she cooed, "what have I told you time and time again? I'll always be here. No matter what. A little thing like death is not going to keep us apart."
She hugged Gabrielle and tenderly kissed her on top of the head. "My little one," she whispered, "our time together is just beginning."