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Chapter Seventeen ~~~

Gabrielle awoke to the steady, even rhythm of the warrior’s heartbeat under her ear. As she blinked away her sleepiness, she noticed first, that outside the window, it was still dark. Her next perception was the soft pressure of the slender hand resting on her hip. The warmth of the smooth palm radiated through the light-weight shift and spread across the bard’s skin.

After taking a moment to enjoy the sweetness of the gentle contact, the little blonde raised her head to focus on the beautiful, sleeping face framed by the long, raven hair. Her eyes traveled down over the sleek, bronze body beside her, the gold, silky skin accented against the clean, linen shift the warrior now wore. A loving smile traveled over the girl’s soft countenance.

At that moment, the warrior stirred, breathed deeply and the clear, blue eyes drifted open. Her first response was to the slender arm resting across her middle. She gently stroked the smooth limb as she met the bright, green eyes in the fresh face nestled against her. The lovely, chiseled features softened into a warm smile.

"Hello, there" the little bard said quietly.

"Hello, yourself," the warrior responded. She moved her hand from the bard’s hip to the girl’s slim shoulder. "How’s that knot?"

Gabrielle laid her head back down on the warrior’s chest and tightened her hug around the woman’s waist. "It’s all gone, thank you. I had an expert attend to it." She sneaked a quick look at the amused blue eyes, then laid her head down again. "She’s very ‘skilled’," the bard murmured as the warrior’s arm drew her closer. "Of course, she beats me, so I’m not sure I want to ...."

The teasing comment dissolved into a high-pitched giggle as the warrior’s probing fingers skipped quickly along the slim waist and tweaked the most ticklish spot, making the bard jump and squirm under the relentless attack. Soon the little blonde was wiggling in retreat, trying in vain to avoid the assault and begging for a reprieve from the inflexible digits.

Moments later, the girl was breathless and flushed, one small hand extended toward her attacker, the other holding onto the warrior’s threatening fingers in an attempt to foil another onslaught.

"OK, OK, I give," the little bard panted,. giggling happily. She cast pleading green eyes up at the menacing blue stare hovering above her.

The warrior chortled victoriously. She gazed down at her captive, then gently swept the tousled blonde strands away from the soft face. As she watched, the playfulness in the sweet expression was momentarily replaced by a distinct wave of fatigue.

For a long moment, the warrior battled her own emotions. Part of her wanted to indulge the bard’s desire to engage in the joyous exchange that had been absent from their time together recently, but the practical, sensible side of her noticed the slightly gray tinge to the soft skin under the luminous green eyes. Her cherished companion might be able to ignore the weariness that was fast consuming the brave spirit, but the warrior decided she could not. She clamped a steadfast control on her own enjoyment and chose instead a course of action that, she told herself bravely, was in the bard’s best interest.

Xena sat back away from the little blonde, smiling tenderly at the girl’s playful expression. She softened the abruptness of the move by casually repositioning the soft coverlet over the girl’s trim form. Gathering her courage, she met the annoyance in the emerald stare with a loving smile.

"You need your rest, my bard," she said quietly, chafing inwardly at the clear sparks of irritation in the green eyes. "It’s still a few candlemarks until dawn. Why don’t you ...?"

Gabrielle sat up impatiently, supporting her slim torso on her arms. The verdant pools took on an amber hue, another recognizable sign of impending fury which brought an unusual tremor to the warrior’s reserve. The tall woman blinked, slightly surprised at the bard’s irritated manner.

"I hate it when you do that!" the bard spat out. She roughly pushed the covers away and swung her muscled legs to the side of the bed. As she began to move off the pallet, Xena put a tentative hand on her arm.

"Do what?" the warrior asked, honestly confused.

The bard turned back. She met the clear blue eyes with a cold stare.

"Try to ‘manage’ me," the girl snapped, pulling her arm away. She slid off the bed, took a few brisk steps across the room, then whirled to confront her companion’s curious stare. "I especially hate it when you treat me like a child," the bard finished, defiantly, small hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.

"Listen, Xena!" the bard said, her voice rising angrily. "I can decide when I’m ‘too tired’, I don’t need you to tell me that. Understand? You’re not my mother." The green eyes locked with the blue crystals for a long moment. Then the young woman turned away, marched to the open window and stood, stiff-backed and furious, training a strained glare into the cool, dark night.

A heavy silence hung in the small room as the warrior’s mind smoothly returned to its normal readiness. She slowly came to recognize the underlying anxiety driving her companion’s uncharacteristic harshness, scolding herself for yielding to her own insecurities and being blinded to what now became perfectly clear; the bard was obviously very disturbed about something and it had nothing to do with the warrior’s so-called unwanted ‘mothering’ of her.

Xena quietly watched the stiff, little form shivering in front of the open window. She pulled the coverlet from the bed, crossed to the bard and draped the soft material over the girl’s shoulders. The bard’s attention was slowly drawn from the darkness outside the window to the tender attention of the tall, concerned woman next to her. As the warrior pulled the blanket closed in front of the slim form, her blue eyes settled on the tear-filled gaze of her most cherished companion. Her throat caught when the tears brimming in the green eyes spilled down over the soft face.

"I’m sorry," the bard said softly. "That was unfair of me." The girl gulped hard. "I’m sorry."

Xena gently brushed back the soft blonde hair with her fingers, looking directly into the moist, green eyes. "Even if I could, I would never try to ‘manage’ you," the warrior said evenly. She put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. "You know I respect you too much for that. You’re your own person, Gabrielle. It’s one of my most favorite things about you." The tall woman’s face warmed in a gentle smile. She waited as the little blonde wiped her face with the edges of the coverlet.

"Now," Xena began, her arms lying loosely on the girl’s shoulders. "You want to tell me what’s really bothering you? You’ve been on edge for days. What’s going on?"

Gabrielle grasped the edges of the coverlet in one hand and put the other to the back of her neck, rubbing the spot hard. "There," the tall woman said, a knowing glint in the blue gaze. "You’ve been doing that for days, too." The bard’s brows knit in light confusion. "You only rub your neck like that when something’s really bothering you. So, tell me. What is it?"

The girl’s worried scowl broke slightly as she reacted to the warrior’s insightful comment. She shook her head slightly, then the young face cleared in a tiny, grateful grin. She took a deep, shaky breath and pulled the blanket closely around herself. The little blonde slowly backed away from her friend’s comforting embrace and took a few tentative steps toward the dancing flames in the fireplace. She stared into the blaze for a moment, then turned again to face the blue pools.

"We’ve been repairing these scrolls for a week, now," she said, a new weariness in her voice.

"Eight days," the warrior interjected, almost without meaning to.

The girl’s expression softened as she stepped closer to her friend. "And, while I’m at it, I want to thank you for being so patient. Just hanging around here all this time must be about to drive you crazy."

"Don’t worry about it. I’ve kept busy," the warrior quipped, her mouth curling in a half-smile. "Stay on the subject. Right now I’m more concerned with what’s driving you crazy. What’s making you so ... grumpy?" the warrior asked, stepping closer to the slender form wrapped in the coverlet.

The bard threw an aggravated look at the ceiling and closed her tired eyes to the nagging feeling in her conscience. She stepped past the warrior and flounced down on the edge of the bed again. Xena sat down next to her friend, her expression expectant and concerned.

"Well today I started examining this particular scroll ... it was especially damaged. Some of the words were completely covered by stains and the edges just sort of fell away in my fingers. It was a real mess."

The warrior nodded, a spark of foreboding tightening her stomach.

"Well, I got it cleaned up pretty well, at least enough so that I could finally read the words. I told Musaeus I was going to have to start over, totally re-transcribe it and he agreed with me. So I started to copy it onto a new piece of parchment."

The bard’s narration stopped and the warrior’s frustration grew. Xena watched the strain contort her friend’s face. She could see the bard’s inward battle and she was fairly certain the primary cause was her friend’s unwavering sense of honor. She put a gentle hand on the girl’s hunched shoulder.

"Go on," she prompted the little blonde. "Problem?"

Gabrielle turned a desperate look toward the worried sapphire pools. She swallowed again and pulled the coverlet tighter. "Well ... it’s wrong. The story transcribed on the original scroll is wrong, Xena. Whoever wrote it down made some pretty serious mistakes in the translation." The bard turned an urgent gaze toward the warrior. "It’s the story of Echo and Narcissus," she said. "You know, I told it at the Harvest Festival last season, when we went to help Hercules?

Xena nodded. She remembered the way the audience had been mesmerized by the bard’s presentation and how proud she’d been of her best friend’s talents.

"Well, maybe it’s just a difference in the original dialect, or something like that," the warrior offered. "It’s got to be one that’s told by many bards, maybe it’s just a case of ...."

The bard shook her head impatiently. "No, it’s more than just a difference in interpretation," she said firmly. "It’s ... it had ... some of the important lines of the story itself are totally wrong. Like, the ending, for instance. The whole point of the story is that Narcissus was so in love with his own image that the Goddess Juno punished him by never letting him experience the joy of being loved."

"And the scroll doesn’t say that?" Xena pressed further. "What does it say?"

Gabrielle looked away for a moment, then turned back to the warrior’s questioning expression. "It says Narcissus regrets his ‘vain and cruel ways’ and that Juno brings him and Echo together. See what I mean? It’s not just ‘kind of different’, it’s totally wrong."

The warrior saw the deep conflict raging in her young friend. The girl’s sense of honor prevented her from randomly altering what was, to the people of the village, a valuable artifact, a treasured piece of their history. Yet, the inequities of the scroll were chafing roughly against the bard’s sense of justice and her regard for the relevance of truth.

"So, fix it," the warrior said cautiously. "When you re-transcribe it, you can correct the mistakes, can’t you? Wouldn’t that be all right?" She read the dilemma still troubling the bard.

"Can I?" the girl asked quietly. "Do I have the right to ‘fix it’, to change the ‘moral of the story’ just because I don’t agree with it?"

"But, if you said it’s wrong ...." the warrior persisted.

"How do I know my ending is the true ending? How do I know that all this time I haven’t been telling the tale wrong? Maybe the bards I listened to didn’t like the real ending so they decided to make it more appealing ... more instructive. Maybe there’s a reason the ancestors of these people changed the ending. And if I ‘fix it’, how do I know I’m not destroying something very important and very precious to their heritage?"

For a moment, the green eyes meeting the warrior’s vibrant blues were intense and determined. Then, a wave of exhaustion floated across the gentle face and the bard brought one small hand up to massage her forehead. She shook her head slowly and Xena could see the girl’s internal struggle had taken it’s toll on her. She wrapped a consoling arm around the slender shoulders.

After a moment, the warrior’s smooth voice sounded in the quiet room. "What does Musaeus have to say about all this?" The bard raised her head to meet the blue gaze and saw only sincerity gleaming in her friend’s expression.

"He is another ‘expert source’, isn’t he? What does he think you should do?"

Gabrielle dropped her eyes to the edges of the coverlet captured by her nervous fingers, then met the blue eyes again. "He thinks I should leave it ... transcribe it the way it is." The warrior’s internal warning quivered. "In fact, he’s been very determined that I shouldn’t change it," the bard continued. "I’ve been a little confused about that, too."

A clear and palatable tenseness sliced through Xena’s consciousness. Her sharply tuned senses were sounding a subtle alarm. For an instant, her jaw clamped tight and her natural instincts concerning the complete and total protection of the young blonde at her side produced a searing apprehension in the tall woman’s psyche. She submerged the primal reaction in order to attend to the bard’s visible anguish. Gradually she became aware of the sound of the bard’s quiet voice.

"I don’t know," the little blonde sighed tiredly. "Maybe I’m making too much of this. Maybe you’re right and it is just a difference in the translation, or something. In that case, it would be valuable as a kind of ‘novelty piece’." The bard dropped her head and rotated her chin, slowly stretching the knotted muscles at the base of her neck. "Either way, it’s definitely given me one beast of a headache," the girl joked weakly.

Xena pulled her attention back to the little room and the bard’s discomfort. She gathered the little form toward her, applying strategic pressure to the girl’s aching neck.

"Here, let me take care of that," she said. She massaged the tense muscles, then gently moved the bard back toward the pallet. "Lie down and try to relax," the warrior said, pulling the coverlet away and guiding her friend onto the mattress. "Right now, let’s work on that headache."

The bard complied, offering no protest to the warrior’s directions. She flopped down on her stomach and wrapped her arms around the soft, down-filled pillow. Xena replaced the covers over the slender form and began to knead the stiff area expertly.

"I’ll work it out somehow," the young woman said, her sleepy voice muffled by the pillow. "Thanks for putting up with my ranting ... ugh," she moaned as the warrior’s deft touch found an especially tight spot. " ... and raving."

"No problem. I owed you one," the warrior said, softly. Her little smile went unnoticed by the exhausted bard. Xena kept up the therapy until she recognized the return of the deep, steady pattern to the girl’s breathing. Fortunately the steely, gray tint that overcame the blue eyes was also missed by the bard.

‘Well, that tears it for sure,’ the warrior thought, ruefully. ‘Time to have another little talk with Musaeus. More than one thing is starting to smell around here.’


Chapter Eighteen ~~~

Xena watched the little bard scoop the last of the thick porridge from the earthen bowl, deposit the heaping spoonful in her open mouth, followed by a large wedge of bread. The warrior supported her chin with one hand and focused an amused gaze on the girl’s energetic activity. As the soft chin bounced rhythmically, chewing the food behind the puffed cheeks, the green eyes met the blue eyes trained on her face.

The bard swallowed once, chewed for a moment longer, then turned to the warrior’s soft grin, the wheat-hued brows disappearing under the soft, blonde bangs.

"What?" the bard mumbled, when she had cleared enough of the full mouthful to speak around it.

Xena laughed quietly and shook her head slightly. "Amazing," she said, smiling warmly at the bard’s fresh face. "I guess you feel a little better this morning, huh? Headache all gone?"

Gabrielle swallowed the rest of the food in her mouth and trained a warm smile at the warrior. "Yes, thanks to you," the little blonde said. "You really do have talented fingers, my warrior friend." She raised the mug of water to her lips and sent an impish gaze over the rim. Xena returned the smirk with a faintly disapproving scowl. She raised her own mug.

"Shh," she hissed at the bard’s grin. "Don’t let that get around, they’ll wonder what you really mean." The warrior took a slow drink of cider to cover her own suggestive smirk.

Gabrielle giggled softly as she lowered her mug. She rested her arms on the table, both small hands surrounding the vessel.

"So, what’s on your schedule for today?" she asked the warrior. "Fishing, maybe?"

Xena threw an astonished look at the bard’s teasing grin. "By the gods, woman. When do you NOT think of food?" Her warm smile undermined the mock seriousness of her tone. She gazed fondly at the young woman, pleased to notice most of the tenseness and disturbed agitation from the previous evening had faded from behind the soft green eyes. She studied the sweet face, carefully inspecting for any signs of returning fatigue.

A moment later, Xena’s quick senses were alerted. She turned toward the group of men advancing across the room toward their table. The warm smile was quickly replaced by her normal, stoic gaze. Xena lowered her mug and braced herself as the men continued toward them.

Gabrielle reacted to the change in the warrior’s attitude. She followed the steady gaze to the group of males, then glanced back to the tanned face. She noticed the warmth she had recently enjoyed was no longer present in the clear, sky-colored eyes. She turned to face the approaching group.

Three of the four men she recognized as the Elders of the Town Council. Musaeus had pointed them out to her the afternoon they had tried a short walk around the Town Square as a method for dispelling her male friend’s lack of concentration. The fourth man, she remembered, was the handsome blacksmith who had been so helpful with Argo’s sick foot.

One gray-haired man pushed to the front of the group, arriving first at the opposite side of the table. He drew himself up straight, one weathered hand laid flat across his ample middle, the other gripping a tall, carved walking stick. His mature, creased face showed a formal determination as he faced the little blonde, cleared his throat and spoke in a smooth, even voice.

"Miss Gabrielle?" he began, causing the bard’s green eyes to widen in surprise.

"Yes, I’m Gabrielle," she answered, favoring the elderly inquirer with a warm smile. "Can I help you, Elder?"

The aged official returned the girl’s smile. He glanced openly at the warrior sitting immobile at the young woman’s side, then returned his attention to the bard’s open expression. "We would like a word ...." The man looked directly at the leather-clad woman. "...with your friend, if you wouldn’t mind."

Gabrielle turned to the warrior, noticing the slight rise of the familiar eyebrow above the even gaze. She posed a silent question to her friend, interpreted the answer and turned back to the aged face across the table.

"No, I don’t mind," the bard said calmly, striving hard to conceal the amusement tickling her throat. "But you don’t need to ask permission, Elder. It’ll be our pleasure." She turned an innocent expression toward the stiff warrior. "Right ... ‘friend’?" the little blonde chirped, pursing her lips to meet the murderous look in the blue eyes. The bard turned back to the Elder. He nodded slightly, turning somewhat hesitantly to the tall woman’s crystal gaze.

He cleared his throat again.

"Well, ah ... warrior," he began in a business-like tone.

"She has a name, Hagen." Enoch spoke reproachfully, stepping to face the steady gaze. "Xena," he said, addressing a gentle apology to the ice-blue crystals. "This is Elder Hagen," he indicated the senior gentleman. The warrior’s focus floated to the mature face, then returned to the smithy’s. "And this is Elder Turnis and Elder Perdix." He motioned toward the other two men. Xena’s eyes traveled over the two worn expressions, the hardness in the blue pools easing slightly.

"They want to ...." He turned to acknowledge the older men. "We would like to ask your advice on something." The smithy’s gaze rested openly on the warrior’s. "Do you have a moment?"

Xena considered the man’s honest expression. The slender body relaxed slightly as the warrior glanced quickly at the bard’s curious grin. She sat back, casually resting against the wall behind her, crossed her long arms over her waist and met the gentle brown eyes of the smithy.

"Yes, I have a moment," she said smoothly. She returned the man’s open gaze.

Enoch motioned for the men to seat themselves. The two silent Elders slid onto the bench facing the bard while Enoch sat down on the edge of a nearly table, crossing his muscled arms over his chest. Hagen perched on the end of the bench nearest the warrior. He peered into the woman’s deep blue eyes then let his eyes travel over the sculpted face and the lean, sinewy body.

‘Such an exquisite woman,’ he thought ruefully. ‘This beautiful creature cannot be the barbarian others have said her to be.’ He gave his head a little shake. When he noticed the ice-blue pools were trained on his face, he cleared his throat, took a quick breath and addressed the woman in leather.

"Well then ... Xena," he began nervously. "It has come to our attention that there are several ... ah ...." The wizened gaze swept the table top. "Shall we say ‘undesirable types’ now occupying a camp in the small valley just to the east of town." Hagen paused to let the tall woman react. The blue eyes traveled over the three aged faces returning to meet the speaker’s gaze.

"Yes, I’ve seen them," Xena said finally, her tone emotionless. She glanced at the bard’s slightly surprised expression then refocused on the Elder’s face.

"You have?" the bard asked quietly only a beat before the smithy voiced the same question. Xena turned to Enoch’s curious gaze.

"Yes. The day I took my horse out on her new shoes?" she said meaningfully. "It was the same day I met a handsome, young ... colt," the warrior finished evenly, keeping her eyes on the smithy’s curious expression. "He’s solid black, with a white blaze down his face?" The handsome male face softened in a slow understanding. Xena turned back to the Elder. "I saw three of the men you’re talking about. They were at the edge of the clearing." Her eyes swept over the three mature faces. "So, what’s the problem?"

The two Elders across from the bard clustered in a muffled conference, then turned expectantly toward their leader. Hagen bent toward the warrior confidentially.

"Well, that’s just it you see?" he said in a low, conspiratorial voice. "We don’t know what they’re up to, but it’s obvious, they’re a rather unsavory lot, wouldn’t you agree?" He fixed a knowing gaze on the stoic face.

Xena glanced at the smithy sitting quietly on the edge of the table. The tanned face was attentive, yet the warrior could sense a degree of regret at the Elder’s snobbish attitude. She met the brown eyes a moment before turning to the bard’s green gaze. The coldness in the rigid face faded slightly as the blue eyes traveled quickly over the girl’s soft face. A tiny, subtle grin met the little blonde’s warm expression.

‘You’ve given me this, too,’ she thought, the blue gaze softening tenderly. ‘Now I get offended anytime I hear anyone being judged without cause, even if they do seem to deserve it.’ She turned away from her soulmate and back to the Elder across the table.

"Well, they seemed a little ‘road worn’, but otherwise, they looked pretty harmless." She met the mature gaze, her blue eyes returning to their steady intensity. "Just what do you want from me, exactly?" Her internal senses were wavering again, but the bronze face betrayed no emotion.

Hagen exchanged glances with the smithy and the other two members of the Council. He assumed an authoritative manner as he met the warrior’s blue eyes again. "Well, they’ve also been seen near the cave, you see?" The cobalt pools remained non-committal. Hagen leaned forward, compelled to explain the situation further. "The cave? The one in the clearing? The one where the scrolls were found. The ones your friend has been ...."

"I know which scrolls you mean," Xena said, a small degree of irritation in her tone. She became aware of a gnawing uneasiness; the conversation was heading in a distressing direction.

"Well, if those men should get their hands on them ... that is, any other scrolls that might still be discovered in the cave," Hagen continued. "I mean, their ‘sort’ would surely ... try to use them for their own ... distasteful means." He waited for the warrior to respond, but she appeared unaffected by his remarks. He tried another approach.

"Worse than that, they might decide to threaten to defile them in some way, ransom them back to us, extort funds in order to preserve them." The Elder ended his impassioned speech and fixed a solicitous gaze on the warrior’s stony gaze. For a long moment, there was silence at the crowded table. Then Xena’s even voice sounded.

"You haven’t answered my question, yet," she said quietly. "What is it you want from me?"

Hagen resumed his official attitude, sat back from the table and addressed the bronze face importantly.

"We want you ...." The Elder flinched slightly at the hard sheen that had invaded the blue eyes. He moistened his lips and reconsidered his approach. "We’d like you to find out what their intentions are ... precisely." The azure pools remained steady and non-committal. "And if you determine that they are as ... untrustworthy as we believe they are, then you can ... deal with them as you see fit." Hagen’s statement hung in the air for a moment. "We’d be willing to pay you for your efforts, of course," the man finished lamely, then fell silent when he saw the clear blue eyes take on a steel gray hue.

Xena’s gaze left the Elder’s face and settled on the smithy’s. The tanned countenance displayed a noticeable wave of regret. The brown eyes closed tightly for a moment, opened to focus on the floor then rose slowly to meet the warrior’s. She read a sincere apology in the soft gaze. It dispelled only a portion of the anger building in her chest. She turned coldly to the mature face across the table.

"I am not a hired sword, available to the highest bidder." The icy tones shook the aged official as he physically recoiled from the slender woman across the table. "If you have a problem with these men, I suggest you find a way to approach them on your own." Gabrielle saw the chiseled jaw ripple under the smooth face. "I’m only here because my friend decided to ..."

The warrior’s stilted words were interrupted by the bard’s noticeable, and very contrived, clearing of her throat. The sound silenced the woman’s tense comments as the blue eyes swiftly traveled to meet the green gaze of the young woman beside her. Xena read the reproach in the emerald pools. She tried to reject the entreaty in the bard’s steady glance, but the girl’s intent stare soon dispelled the rancor in the bronze face. After a moment, the tall woman’s expression slowly changed to one of resignation. The bard’s little smile portrayed her approval of the warrior’s change in perspective. Xena let out a long, yielding breath and turned to the Elder again.

"All right," she said evenly, "I guess I could at least ‘investigate’." She cast a conciliatory look at the little blonde, glaring in response to the girl’s satisfied smirk. "But," she said, looking back at the Elders. "I’m not promising anything. You’re still not certain what these men intend to do." Xena turned an abiding gaze to the smithy’s supportive expression. "No use upsetting anyone until you have the facts." She looked directly at Hagen, her face cool and direct. "Right?"

"Of course," the Elder agreed. "Whatever you think is best."

The warrior’s blue eyes left the Elder’s and traveled back to the smithy’s. The brown pools were soft on hers, the tanned face cordial and supportive. She turned again to the aged official.

"I’m going back out there today anyway," she said. She turned pointedly to the blonde’s questioning look. "I still have some herbs to find and I promised someone I’d catch them some fish." The bard felt her face warming slightly. Xena turned back to the Elder. "I’ll let you know what I find." She paused a moment, her eyes still on his face. "Anything else?"

The three elderly men consulted each other before Hagen responded to the warrior. "No, no," he said, nervously. "We’ll leave the matter to you, then." The Council members vacated the wooden seat and prepared to leave the tavern.

Hagen took a step away from the table, then turned to address the smithy again.

"Enoch?" he asked. "Are you coming?"

"I have to get back to the stable," the tradesman responded before meeting the warrior’s eyes again. "I’ll get your horse ready."

Xena nodded. "Thanks," she said returning the man’s gaze. The blacksmith smiled warmly, stood up and followed the three officials out of the Inn.

Gabrielle watched as the warrior’s blue pools fell from the retreating figures to focus vaguely on the notched surface of the wooden table. The bard sensed the tenseness returning to her friend’s slender form; she waited until she saw the woman draw a slow, careful breath.

"So," the little blonde said to the stoic face of her friend. "What do you think?"

Xena raised her eyes to the bard’s. She saw the interest, the confusion and the guarded

concern mixed within the green gaze. She also read the slight strain of irritation.

"Like I told them, I won’t know what to think until I ‘investigate’ further." She gave the young bard a tiny smile.

"Why didn’t you mention these men before?" the bard asked. She looked away, her face a study in self-reproach. "I guess I have been a little preoccupied the last few days, but ...."

"Gabrielle," the warrior said, laying a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder. "There wasn’t anything to mention. Like I said, they looked pretty harmless. I didn’t want to ...."

"Bother me?" the little blonde said, her gaze intent on the tall woman’s face. "Didn’t think I’d be interested, or what?"

"Didn’t think they were important," the warrior said firmly. "Just three ragged, scruffy men," she said, determined to ease the girl’s worry. "Like so many we’ve seen before." The blue eyes focused again on the wooden table top.

Gabrielle gazed intently at the bronze face of her best friend. She had grown accustomed to being patient when the warrior decided to mull something over in her mind privately, rather than share her impressions, or her impending plans, with the bard. She recognized the familiar signs in the woman’s expression; she knew her friend was considering various ways to proceed in the matter, weighing the virtues of one strategy against another. The young woman waited until she saw the signs of a decision reached and a method chosen.

"Well," Gabrielle said softly, "just be careful, all right?"

The warrior turned to meet the soft green gaze. She smiled warmly at the open face of her soulmate. "Always," she said, forcing a lightness into her voice. Her pulse skipped when she saw the look of dread behind the bard’s steady glance. She touched the girl’s slender arm. "I’ll be back before dark, no sweat."

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment as a wave of combined apprehension and fatigue swept through her. She sent an encouraging smile toward the golden face of the woman beside her, then took a deep, shaky breath herself.

"OK," she said haltingly, then smiled widely at the affection shining in the blue pools. "I guess I’ll see you later, then." The bard turned to gather the stack of materials that seemed to have become a regular part of her attire. The two women stood up and started toward the door of the tavern.

"Hey," the warrior said, "maybe I can bring those fish I’ve been promising you, huh?" She sent a teasing smirk at the bard.

"Just bring back you ... in one piece, if you don’t mind. All right?" the little bard said, the seriousness in her expression bringing a catch to the warrior’s throat. She let her eyes travel over the tanned face before turning toward the front door again.

Xena watched the little blonde’s small form pass through the open door. As the wooden panel thumped closed, the warrior swallowed hard against the tightness in her chest. ‘With you to come back to, how can I not?’ she said to herself. Then she turned and walked through the archway toward their room.


Chapter Nineteen ~~~

Xena slid her sword into its scabbard and neatly tied the lacings in place to secure the weapon to her back. She clipped the chakram on the hook on her belt and checked the placement of the leather cuff around her left arm. As she performed the rudimentary tasks, the warrior’s mind considered the unsettling facts that were beginning to gnaw at her more and more.

‘Why would he insist that she transcribe a story incorrectly?’ she mused. ‘What’s his plan? What does he gain by such an obvious mistake?’

The tall woman shifted the sheath on her back, repositioning the weight and alignment of the blade to her right hand. When she was satisfied she had returned the weapon to its familiar location, she tightened the leather gauntlet on her right arm and lifted her foot onto the wooden chair to check the lacings on her right boot. She continued the mental debate as she pulled at the leather thongs.

‘Surely he knows she’s smart enough to realize it’s wrong. What’s behind this little maneuver?’ She switched the foot on the chair and tightened the lacings on her other supple boot. As she tugged on the leather strips, she continued to sort and consider the specifics that had produced the nagging uneasiness that had plagued her since her conversation with the little bard the previous night.

‘And what do those creatures in the valley have to do with all of this?’ she wondered. ‘They seemed to be right at home in the clearing ... like they knew exactly what was there and where to find it.’ The warrior’s activity stopped momentarily while her mind considered her trip to the clearing. ‘Camber said Musaeus knew about them. Why would Musaeus have any use for scum like that?’

Slowly the lean form straightened as the vile nature of the young man’s plot became crystal clear to her keen intellect. The chiseled jaw tensed as the slender fingers tightened around the leather tie, snapping one side off in her hand.

Xena dropped her foot to the floor, her tall, muscled form trembling with rage. The blue eyes sparkled with impending fury, then slowly settled into a molten, steel-gray glare. The warrior’s mind bristled with the insidious conclusion now gleaming unfettered in her consciousness. A lethal calm settled slowly over the lean form.

After a moment, Xena became vaguely aware of the broken lacing dangling from her clenched fist. She turned a vacant stare toward the remaining bootstrap jutting from the side of her right boot. She pulled her foot back up onto the wooden chair, repaired the broken lacing, then returned her foot to the floor. The warrior took a slow, deep breath and forced the tenseness from her shoulders.

‘Very, very clever", the tall woman murmured, her blue eyes narrowing, the sculpted jaw clenching tightly around the bitter words. Xena stood very still for a few minutes, her rapier mind sorting and disseminating information. Finally, when she had settled on her planned strategy, she opened her fists and relaxed her jaw as a feral grin spread over the sculpted face.

"Not while I draw breath, you weasel," the warrior said to the empty room. "I’ll send you to Hades first."

Xena strode purposefully out of the sleeping room and walked down the hallway toward the tavern.

When she reached the dining area, she searched the room for Minerva. She found her, standing behind the bar, replacing ale mugs on the shelf along the wall from the tray cradled in her other arm. Almost as if she sensed the tall woman’s glance, the auburn-haired girl turned to meet the azure pools. The two women moved toward each other, their paths ending at the end of the long, wooden bar.

"Your friend just left," the waitress said.

"I know," Xena said. "I wanted to talk to you. Do you have a moment?"

"Talk to me?" Minerva asked, a nervous glaze behind her eyes.

Xena tried to relax the strident agitation in her stomach. She leaned casually against the wooden counter and gave the young woman a thin smile. She didn’t want Minerva to feel intimidated and, her familial relationship with Musaeus aside, the warrior respected the young woman’s straightforward manner and simple, honest attitude.

"I just need some information, Minerva," Xena began gently. "Maybe you can help me with some things that are ... confusing me, all right?"

The young waitress nodded, her eyes meeting the warrior’s honestly. "All right. What do you need to know?"

Xena took a short breath and focused on the wooden bar for a moment. When she raised her eyes to the girl’s, she saw a level of dread behind the hazel gaze. The warrior’s intuition sensed an uneasiness in the young woman’s stance. It made her hesitate, suddenly unwilling to cause the girl any further distress.

"It’s about Musaeus, isn’t it?" Minerva asked, her eyes level on the warrior’s. "He’s in some kind of trouble again." It was a statement, not a question. "I saw the Elders talking to you. Is he ...."

Xena’s smooth face was warm as she returned the young woman’s nervous stare. "I didn’t say that. In fact, I’m not sure that’s true at all." She saw the waitress relax somewhat. "I just want a little information, that’s all."

Minerva swallowed nervously and glanced at the bartender standing at the far end of the counter, tightening the corks on several jugs in front of him. When he turned to meet her gaze, his fleshy face showed he accepted the reason for the interruption in the girl’s duties; she was ‘tending to a customer’. He threw the warrior a solicitous smile and returned his attention to the corks. Xena turned back to Minerva. "Tell me about this cave everyone’s talking about. When did Musaeus find the scrolls there?"

Minerva’s gaze darted away from the blue eyes for a moment as the girl considered the warrior’s question. "About four moons ago," the girl said, returning her attention to Xena’s face. "I remember he came in here, all excited about his ‘find’. He told me he had been exploring the hills around the clearing, trying to see if there were any caves where there might be some kind of ... treasure." The young face showed an impatient scowl. "His word, not mine," she told the warrior. "Musaeus always was one to spend time looking for the ‘prize of the era’. The gods forbid he would ever look for decent work."

The warrior’s face remained open. She briefly felt sympathy for the young woman, but she turned her mind toward other pressing matters.

"Has he ever taken you there?" she asked Minerva. "Have you ever seen it?"

"No," the waitress said, sourly. "He’s made it very clear that he considers it ‘his’ cave and he gets very upset when anyone else even mentions going there." The girl’s face lit in a dimpled grin, the hazel eyes twinkling unexpectedly. "Besides, who wants to spend time in a damp, dingy old cave, anyway?"

The warrior grinned easily. She was glad to see the young face relax, for a change. But as Minerva studied the tall warrior’s clear blue eyes, she felt a palatable shiver when she saw the hard coldness sweep over the woman’s piercing gaze. The girl swallowed and glanced nervously at the pudgy bartender.

"Is there anything else you wanted?" she said, her eyes directing the warrior’s attention to the round Innkeeper. "Otherwise, I have to get back to work."

"No," Xena said, covering the girl’s hands with her own. "Thank you, Minerva. You’ve been a big help." She put a kind hand on the girl’s shoulder.

Minerva turned away from the tall woman, then looked back to capture the blue eyes again.

"If Musaeus is in trouble ..." she began, her voice wavering. She looked down at her hands, then back at the warrior. "He’s still my brother, you know? He’s all I’ve got."

Xena felt a wave of compassion for the young woman. Her loyalty to her brother touched the warrior’s honor; it made what she suspected even more uncomfortable. She met the girl’s concerned look with as much honesty as she could.

"I know, Minerva. I’ll let you know what I find out. OK?"

The girl nodded, then moved slowly away to resume her duties. The warrior’s jaw tensed as she drew a deep breath.

‘Why is it always the loyal ones who get hurt?’ she thought bitterly. ‘Sorry, Minerva.’

She strode out of the Inn toward the stables.

True to his word, Enoch had Argo saddled and ready when Xena entered the barn. She gathered the reins and led the mare outside. As she checked the girth strap, the smithy appeared beside her.

"Thanks for your trouble," she said without meeting the man’s gaze. "I should be back by dark. I’ll have more of an idea about things then."

"Xena," the man said and the warrior turned to meet the brown gaze. "About Camber ... and that black horse."

The warrior faced the smithy, reacting to the seriousness of his tone. She saw the fatherly concern in the handsome face, yet she recognized something else in the hesitant expression.

"Yes?" Xena asked. She studied the tanned countenance again, and felt a subtle grin warming her own face. "You ... don’t think he should try and catch it, do you?" The smithy’s

smile was part relief and part surprise. He met the warrior’s intent stare.

"How did you ... what made you come to that conclusion?" he asked her, his brown head tilted in scrutiny. The expression changed to one of proud challenge. "Don’t you think he could handle that colt?"

The warrior’s grin widened at the pride in the man’s voice. "Oh, I think he could handle any horse he set his mind on." She watched the resentment clear from the smithy’s face. "But the colt might have other ideas." She paused, trying to find the best way to express her opinion.

"That horse is a wild creature, born wild. He didn’t seem the type that would take to a bridle and tack easily." The smithy’s brown eyes were steady on hers. She turned back to the saddle on the mare.

"I think he has a right to stay ... free," Xena finished quietly, slightly unnerved by the passion she heard in her own voice. She turned back to Enoch. "Isn’t that what you really think, too? That maybe the colt shouldn’t be tamed, that he should be left to his freedom?"

The smithy’s handsome face turned sheepish under the warrior’s level stare. He focused his attention on the piece of leather he held in his fingers. After a moment, he met the clear blue eyes again and she heard his gentle laugh.

"You’re very intuitive," he told the tall woman.

"So I’ve been told," she admitted a trifle embarrassed herself. "Would you rather I don’t ... help him quite so much?"

Enoch thrust his big hands behind the bib of his leather apron. He concentrated on tracking a line in the dirt with his boot. "Well ... that is still your decision," he said, meeting the blue eyes again. "But, if it were up to Camber ...."

"If what’s up to me?" a young voice said behind them. Xena turned toward the sound as the smithy also focused on his son’s young face. The youngster’s expression lit in a smile when he noticed the warrior’s saddled horse, apparently ready for their planned trip to the clearing. Xena trained an apologetic look at the smithy, then turned to the boy’s eager expression.

"Ah, Camber," she began taking a step toward the youngster. "I’m afraid we’re going to have to postpone our trip. Something’s come up and I can’t ...."

The boy’s face fell as his disappointment became clearly apparent. "You promised!" he said, his little form stiffening in anger. "You gave me your word."

Xena glanced at the smithy, then addressed the boy again. "I know, but I have to do something for the Council and I’m afraid it can’t wait." She could tell the youngster was not impressed by her implied urgency. "We’ll have to try for tomorrow, all right?"

Camber’s eyes went from her face to his father’s and back again. He thrust his small fists onto his hips and glared at the warrior’s contrite expression, his mouth contorted in a willful pout.

"You’re just like every other grown-up!" he snapped at Xena. "Giving your word doesn’t mean anything!" And with that he stomped toward the barn, his pace brisk, his manner extremely angry. Xena watched the small form depart before turning to the smithy.

"He’ll be all right," Enoch said, putting a reassuring hand on the leather-clad shoulder. "I’ll talk to him." Abruptly the brown eyes swept over the sword laced to the warrior’s back, then traveled down to notice the round, metal disc hanging from the belt of her leathers.

"Looks like you’re expecting more trouble than you admitted to the Elders, huh?" The brown eyes became serious as he gazed at the piercing blues. Xena walked back to Argo, grasping the stirrup on the side of the saddle. She put her boot into the metal piece and swung herself onto the horse’s back.

"Just being careful," she said as she settled herself in the saddle. "Better to be prepared than to be caught unaware." She looked back to the smithy’s steady brown gaze. The look of concern made her slightly uneasy. The cobalt pools focused in the direction taken by the angry young boy. She looked down at the smithy again.

"Tell Camber I’ll make it up to him, all right? I’m sorry to have to disappoint him."

Enoch waved off her apology and stepped away from the mare. "Don’t worry about Camber. Just take care while you’re out there with those men." He smiled warmly at the warrior. "I’ll look for you before sundown, right?"

Xena nodded and touched her knees to Argo’s sides. The mare responded and the warrior sat forward in the saddle, settling herself into the tempo of the mare’s stride. Very soon they were headed toward the clearing and the confrontation she knew would not be pleasant.


When Gabrielle arrived at the little hut, she was a little surprised to see Musaeus already hard at work at the table. She tried to cover her reaction as she laid the scrolls and parchment she had carried from the Inn on the table. Musaeus’ boyish grin met her gaze as she moved to the other chair.

"Well, you certainly seem inspired today. What’s the occasion?" she joked, only partly sincere. She dismissed the young man’s wounded look.

"You said I should try and be more responsible, didn’t you? Well, I took your advice," Musaeus said, favoring the bard with his best ‘charming face’. "Besides," he grinned, "you’re a little later than usual, so I managed to get here before you." Gabrielle found herself laughing in spite of herself. She shook her head slightly as she sat down in the chair and selected a scroll to work on.

"How come?" Musaeus continued. "I mean, how come you’re so much later than usual, today? Everything OK?"

The little bard continued spreading the materials as she responded to the young man’s question.

"We had to wait until the Elders left." She glanced at Musaeus, then returned her attention to the scroll she had selected.

"The Elders?" the young man asked. "What were they doing at the Inn?"

"They came to talk to Xena about some men that have shown up near the cave. They wanted her to look into what they might be doing there." Gabrielle turned to the young bard, responding to the satisfied look she found on his face.

"Musaeus," she asked, "you look like you’ve just won the King’s Lottery." The young man’s smug grin widened. "Anything you want to tell me?"

Musaeus turned an appealing expression at the little bard’s curious glance. "I was just thinking about how lucky the town is to have both you and the warrior princess here. If anyone can handle those hoodlums, it’s Xena. Right?"

The little blonde nodded but her thin smile betrayed her conviction. "Right," she murmured quietly, then returned her attention to her work.

Musaeus waited until Gabrielle’s eyes left his face before giving in to his own private congratulations. ‘Not that she’ll ever find them, let alone discover anything about our little deal’, he gloated. ‘Not even the famous Xena is that good.’

After another silent smirk, he went back to making Gabrielle believe he was really working.


Chapter Twenty ~~~

As she and Argo entered the clearing, Xena let her gaze sweep the edge of the trees, trying to determine if any of the men she had seen on her previous visit were anywhere nearby. The little glen seemed peaceful and calm, the light breeze rustling the branches of the trees and the long, wavy grass across the field. She guided the mare along the line of foliage, her senses tight and aware. When she arrived at the base of the large mounds, she pulled the horse to a stop and prepared to dismount.

Xena slid down from Argo’s back, tied the reins to a slim tree limb and started toward the cave. She had located the cavern during her last trip to the clearing, but after a short, cursory inspection, hadn’t seen anything she considered unusually impressive, or even out of the ordinary, for that matter. But the concern of the Elders about the men she’d seen and her little talk with Minerva describing Musaeus’ insistence on the cave’s location remaining ‘off limits’ to everyone but him had raised the warrior’s curiosity and her sense of foreboding.

As Xena took a few steps toward the opening of the cave, her keen senses detected another presence heading toward her. She slipped back behind the wall of foliage and stroked Argo’s nose smoothly. The golden horse sensed the woman’s apprehension and became perfectly still. The warrior trained a discerning gaze in the direction of the noise that had alerted her. After a few moments, she saw the trio of men striding toward the cave.

They were the same three men she had seen during her previous visit to the clearing the day she had met Camber and ruined his plans for the black colt. At this closer range, she recognized two of the ruffians and the clearness of that identity caused the lean body to stiffen as the blue eyes turned hard and cold.

"Phantaos", the warrior murmured bitterly. "So, the snake slithers out from under his rock," the woman seethed quietly. "What in Tartarus could you want with this little cave?"

From her vantage point hidden within the greenery, Xena watched the men casually saunter toward the little cave then disappear through the opening. She waited cautiously, keeping her eyes trained on the clump of leafy bushes hiding the entrance. Her senses remained alert, but the feeling of dread was tightening her stomach again. She stroked the mare’s nose slowly and kept her attention focused on the scraggy bushes.

A short time later, the three men emerged from the cave. Two of them carried what looked like small, wrapped parcels, slung easily over one shoulder, while Phantaos, the largest and most offensive of the group, had one beefy arm wrapped around a slightly larger bundle. The three men strode away easily, totally unconcerned with being discovered and completely unaware that their mission had been witnessed by the warrior. Soon the trio disappeared from Xena’s line of vision, their progress hidden by the tall weeds at the edge of the clearing. She waited a few more minutes until she was sure she couldn’t hear the heavy footsteps any longer and, more importantly, that the men wouldn’t be able to hear hers. Then she left her leafy hiding place and carefully made her way toward the cave.

Xena located the opening again, pulled the scraggy bushes to one side and stepped into the cavern. She acknowledged the damp, earthy smell and the close, restrictive atmosphere. When her eyes had adjusted to the dim, musty light, she felt along the wall for the torch she remembered using the last time. The fingers of one hand found the long piece of tree root while her other hand found the two flint pieces next to it. She clamped the root between her knees and struck the two stone pieces against each other.

After the third strike, a spark from the flint jumped to the oil-soaked head of the root and, within seconds, the torch burst into flames, throwing bright illuminations over the walls and the floor of the cave. The warrior stepped forward cautiously, holding the torch in front of her. After a few steps, she raised the burning root and let the light from the flames create a wider pool of light. She took a few more careful steps.

Xena determined she had again come to the obvious center of the small cave. The ceiling was high enough to extend an arm’s length above her upright stance and the sides of the cave were three, perhaps four paces in any direction from where she stood. The earth had been cleared around the large, granite boulders along the edge of the open area, and the rocks appeared to have been moved to allow for the investigation of the earthen walls behind them.

It was a small, primitive shelter, the walls around her showing the effects of prudent digging and excavation. She scanned the interior, recognizing the same evidence she’d noticed the last time, the same indentations at random locations in the walls, the same small cloth flags displaying letters and numbers denoting where certain scrolls had been unearthed.

‘Nothing new here’, the warrior thought. ‘Same stuff as last time’. She scanned the walls and ceiling of the cavern again, looking for any evidence she may have missed. When she stood with her back to the opening, an odd occurrence caught her attention and raised the hair on the back of her neck.

Xena’s focus was pulled to the torch’s flame. It wavered and jumped, then bent to one side, away from the root. The warrior recognized the phenomenon; the flame was being affected by a draft of air somewhere in the cave. What raised the woman’s awareness was the flame was leaping toward the opening of the cave, not away from it. That meant there was air coming from in front of her, not from the mouth of the cavern, where one would assume it would be. The blue eyes narrowed as she studied the wall directly opposite the cave’s access.

She stepped toward the large cluster of boulders in the wall before her, running her free hand slowly along the edge of the rocks, her fingers exploring the crevices between the massive pieces. Suddenly she felt something with a consistency unlike anything that would have been a natural aspect of the cave. This something was clean, smooth and metal. It was a hidden latch, a spring-loaded trigger that had been cleverly concealed behind the pile of rocks.

"Hello," the warrior said, her voice sounding rather loud in the quiet of the cave. "What have we here?" she asked whatever creature resided within the earthen cavity. She carefully explored the latch and the mechanism attached to it. After taking several minutes to examine the device, searching for any attached contrivance, she made a decision. There was really only one way to see what the lever controlled and that was to activate the latch and watch what happened. She moved an arm’s length away from the cluster of rocks, turned her body perpendicular to the latch, raised the torch above her head and slowly pulled the lever.

A moment later, the cluster of boulders began to move toward her, scraping the earth into a mobile trough in front of the lower edge as it traveled along the cave floor. Xena stepped back, keeping out of the rocks’ path, as the rumbling movement echoed loudly off the sides of the cave. The granite pieces moved as one large section, the individual stones now resembling a solid, wide, rocky trapdoor. After a few moments, the large edifice stopped moving and the warrior stood quietly, waiting until the quiet shower of pebbles around her had ended. She dropped to one knee to peer into the opening now displayed behind the cluster of stones.

‘Quite a piece of work’, she thought. She carefully explored the aperture and the walls around it. The opening was large enough for her to step into it without having to bend to even half her height and wide enough to afford easy access to the area beyond. Xena ran her hands around the space, searching for any kind of apparatus that might trigger the closing of the trapdoor, thus preventing her exit, when she decided to leave. When she found nothing suspicious, she stepped tentatively onto the wooden track behind the boulder-door, thrust the burning torch ahead of her and moved slowly through the opening.

She had taken only a few steps when she realized she could stand upright without her back coming into contact with any surface above her. She straightened, raised the torch higher and found herself standing open-mouthed and totally amazed at the sight now before her eyes.

Xena took a few slow steps into the area. After a moment, she saw another set of torches mounted on the wall near her. She touched the tree root to the metal fixtures and they sprang to life, throwing a wide blaze of light into a large, crowded cavern. The warrior walked slowly into the room.

The area was enormous, occupying a space at least two dozen paces in any direction from where she stood. The earthen walls were braced and supported with heavy, wooden timbers, the beams forming a sturdy latticework around the walls of the room. Pairs of torches had been set into the thick wood poles at regular intervals around the space. Between the posts were flat, level surfaces, arranged in neat, sturdy shelf units. And on the shelves, and in tall, rugged boxes on the floor and against the wall were rows and rows of merchandise.

The warrior moved toward the rows of boxes, examining the contents of the wooden crates and open, rattan chests. They all contained the same cargo --- weapons, in all manner of shape and lethal capacity. She found bows, arrows, daggers, shields, staffs, swords, chobos and chain gauntlets. There were axes, spears, whips and coil after coil of heavy rope. In a corner near the opening stood a collection of tall barrels and earthen jugs. She lifted the lid of one of the barrels and dipped one finger into the liquid contained there. From the smell and the texture she could tell it was oil, the same substance in which the tips of the torches had been soaked, the same deadly substance used to set afire any structure or building desired.

Xena felt her fingernails digging into the palms of her hands but the painful sensation barely registered in her awareness. The sculpted jaw clenched bitterly as the slender, sinewy form trembled with fury and rage. For a moment, the warrior’s breath caught in her throat and she slowly became aware of the pounding under her leather bodice. She took several deep, calming breaths and blinked hard to regain her control.

"Those putrid bags of slime," she sputtered. "This place is a temple of evil. The only thing missing is an altar to Ares!"

The tall warrior’s eyes traveled over the room again, a rancid, nauseous bile hovering at the back of her throat. The lean form eventually grew tranquil, placid as the certainty of her intentions settled clearly in her mind. The bronze face glowered in a primal, feral scowl.

"Not in this lifetime, Phantaos" she whispered quietly to the flickering torches. "Never again. Never, never again."

Xena turned abruptly, covered the mounted torches with a metal shield and waited until she was sure the flames had been extinguished. She stepped back through the hidden opening, reactivated the secret latch and watched the fraudulent rock cluster slide back into its concealed placement. She dropped her root torch onto the cave floor and stamped out the flames with her foot. Then she left the cave.


Chapter Twenty-One ~~~

Musaeus slipped the large volume back into its place on the shelf and raised his arms above his head. He stretched his back, loudly proclaiming the necessity of such a move for the benefit of the little blonde seated at the table. She raised her eyes to focus on the young man’s contorting form.

Gabrielle sat back in the wooden chair and rested her elbows on its wooden arms. She sent a warm smile toward her young compatriot as he walked across the small room to stand at the other end of the table. She read the impending request in his handsome face.

"OK," the young woman said. "I guess it is time to break for lunch, huh?" She grinned impishly at Musaeus’ boyish smile.

"Don’t you ever get hungry?" the young man chirped, his hands sliding onto his hips.

Gabrielle’s easy laugh filled the little hut. "Boy, that’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that!" she said, then laughed heartily again. "Wait ‘til I tell Xena that one," the girl giggled. "She always says I can out-eat any wild creature in the known world."

Musaeus’ smile faded perceptibly at the mention of the warrior’s name. He dropped his eyes from the bard’s as the girl’s laughter subsided. When she noticed the slight scowl, the little blonde’s soft face reflected her curiosity.

"Something wrong?" she asked after a moment. She met the young man’s hesitant expression with a steady gaze.

"I asked you once before why you stay with her," Musaeus began, carefully shielding his resentment with a look of sincere support. "Sounds like she doesn’t really appreciate you ... if she says things like that."

Gabrielle felt her own irritation rising again, but the girl’s gentle nature tempered her reaction with a patient determination. She looked down at the new quill pen tip in her hands before meeting the young man’s eyes again.

"Musaeus," the girl said, "don’t you ever joke with your friends? That’s what friends do, they tease each other. Xena would never say anything to hurt me. We care about each other too much for that."

The young man shrugged, apparently accepting the girl’s remarks. He took another step toward the young woman, finally settling onto the edge of the table. "Yeah, I guess that’s true. You can only really joke around with your buddies." The brown eyes were earnest on the young blonde’s face. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply anything. But, like I also said, she seems so ...."

"Yeah, I remember. You said ‘dour and uninteresting’," the little bard said. "Oh, and I think you also used ‘rather imposing and formidable’. Did I forget anything?"

Musaeus’ blush was authentic. He was not accustomed to having his own words quoted back to him quite so exactly. He lifted himself away from the table top and stepped toward his own chair. "No, that’s pretty much what I said," he agreed sheepishly. He responded with relief to the little bard’s gracious laughter.

After a moment, Musaeus met the green eyes again. He knew he had to proceed carefully, but he needed the information that only this girl could provide. He took a short breath and sent a nervous glance toward the little blonde’s expectant expression.

"What did she tell the Elders? What does she plan to do about the men in the clearing?" The young man’s manner appeared casual, even though his senses were fine-tuned and alert.

"She didn’t say she was going to do anything," Gabrielle said. "As a matter of fact, she was very clear about not making any decisions until she could find out who they are and what they want." The girl’s tone depicted her loyalty. "Xena’s not one to jump to any conclusions; she always gets the facts before she takes any action."

Again, Musaeus displayed an accepting response. Gabrielle studied the handsome face for a moment longer, trying to decide what there was about the boyish expression that didn’t quite ring true.

"So," Gabrielle said finally. "I guess I’ll take a walk over to the Inn and see what the ‘special’ is today. You coming?" she said, slipping the quill pen into it’s pouch and rising from the chair.

"You go ahead, I’ll be right there," Musaeus said. "I want to finish up with this one first." He pointed to the scroll spread before him at the other end of the table. "It shouldn’t take too long. Tell Min’ I’ll be there shortly."

"OK," Gabrielle said and she walked out of the hut.

Musaeus smiled as Gabrielle left the hut, then he settled back into the chair, a pensive look invading his wary face.

‘All the facts, huh?’ the young man thought to himself. ‘Well, that’ll never happen ... at least not if I can help it.’ Musaeus considered his options, his mind measuring one course of action against another. Finally, he made a decision.

‘Maybe I should let everyone in on those facts ... make sure our friend the warrior princess doesn’t stick her nose in where it doesn’t belong.’ A hard, determined glare traveled over the young man’s face. In fact, so intent was he on his new course of action, he wasn’t aware of the entrance into the hut by the very person who now occupied those private thoughts. Had he been more attentive, he might have been able to prepare himself for the impending meeting with that same warrior princess.


When Xena led Argo into the stable, the hard determination in her expression caused Enoch to interrupt his work and follow her into the barn. She had no sooner loosened the girth strap on the saddle when he appeared at her side. The smithy studied the bronze face closely, noticing the rippling jaw and the steel gray glint to the crystal pools.

"We have to talk," Xena said stiffly, keeping her attention on the leather straps until the blacksmith relieved her of the saddle and turned to place it on the wooden rails of the stall. He turned back to the warrior, again reacting to the woman’s tense manner and the determined set to her mouth.

"OK," Enoch said quietly, his eyes steady on the tall woman’s face.

Xena raised her focus to meet the smithy’s gaze. "And you’d better get the Elders. They should hear this, too." She lowered her eyes to the earthen floor of the barn. "They’re not going to like it, but I can’t see any other way."

The blacksmith kept his eyes on the warrior’s face. He saw a look of deep regret travel over the sculpted features. He waited patiently when he sensed the woman had more to say.

"Gabrielle isn’t going to be happy with me, either," the warrior said, more to herself than to the man beside her. She trained the blue eyes on the tradesman’s tanned face. "But it has to be done," she said evenly. "Will you find the Elders? Tell them we’ll meet at the Inn in about a quarter candlemark."

Enoch nodded, took a step toward the door, then turned back to the quiet warrior.

"Xena?" he asked, an honest concern in his voice. "Are you all right?"

The leather-clad figure slowly responded to the soft question. "Yeah, I’m fine," she said, although not very convincingly. "I’ll see you at the Inn, all right?"

The smithy nodded again, turned and left the barn. The warrior relaxed her fists, squared her shoulders and put a gentle hand on the mare’s strong neck.

"Well, here we go," she said to the horse. "I hope she understands what I have to do."

Argo whinnied softly and swung her golden head to meet the warrior’s pained expression. The large brown eyes seemed to offer the woman support. Xena stroked the animal’s neck for a long moment, then turned and left the barn, heading for the little hut.

As she was about to leave the stable, Xena recognized the bard’s small form walking across the town square, heading for the Inn. For a moment, the warrior enjoyed a slight feeling of relief. At least now she knew the bard would not be there to witness the ‘little talk’ she had planned to have with Musaeus. Xena had been dreading the thought of her friend’s reaction to her now-certain opinion of the character of the girl’s fellow bard. It would make the impending confrontation only slightly less unpleasant. She waited until the little blonde disappeared through the door of the tavern before crossing the square on her way to her meeting with the young male bard.


Chapter Twenty-Two ~~~

Gabrielle sat down at what had become their ‘usual table’ at the back of the room. She gave Minerva a wide smile when she caught the girl’s eye. The young waitress’ expression said she would take her order momentarily, so the bard settled herself patiently. While she waited for Minerva to come to the table, Gabrielle remembered her conversation with Musaeus concerning his sister’s noble attempt to support them. The girl’s gentle heart went out to the young woman, not very many summers older than the little blonde herself, she thought sadly.

‘Musaeus is certainly right about one thing,’ Gabrielle contemplated. ‘Minerva surely deserves something more.’

The redheaded waitress gave the young blonde a warm smile as she arrived at the table. "Are you going to wait for your friend?" she asked, casting an absent gaze at the door.

"No, but Musaeus said he’d be right along," the bard told her. "In the meantime, I’ll have some of that sweet cider you brought me the last time." The two young women exchanged easy smiles.

"OK," Minerva said. "Be right back." She turned and made her way back to the bar.

Suddenly Gabrielle remembered she had forgotten to bring the volume of poems with her from the hut. She had planned to study the verses while she ate her lunch, since she assumed she would be eating the meal without the company of the warrior who had not yet returned from her trip to the clearing. Besides, the girl had determined, if Musaeus decided to join her, the book would provide an easy distraction from the young man’s constant tales of ‘fame and fortune’.

Just as Minerva returned to the table with the mug of cider, the little bard stood up, giving the other girl an apologetic grin.

"I’m sorry, Minerva," Gabrielle said. "I forgot something. I’ll be right back."

The waitress nodded agreeably and stepped aside to let the bard pass. The little blonde crossed the tavern again, strode through the front door and headed back across the town square.


Xena entered the little hut, blue eyes scanning the interior for Musaeus. The cobalt stare settled on the young man’s figure sitting in the chair lost in private contemplation, an annoying gloat covering his smirking face. The warrior’s stomach tightened in controlled fury, but the chiseled features displayed the usual hard, stoic, uncompromising expression. She took a controlled breath and knocked loudly on the wooden door, enjoying a grim satisfaction when the young man jumped at the unexpected noise. He bolted out of his chair and turned to face her.

"Xena," he said, obviously startled. It took only a moment for the youngster to regain his placid manner. "Gabrielle is at the Inn, having lunch. I’m just on my way to meet her. Perhaps you’d like to join us." The young bard had turned toward the tall warrior, an ingratiating smile covering his face. He sat down casually on the edge of the table. "Is there something I can do for you in the meantime?"

Xena fought against her inclination to rake the back of one hand across the fraudulent grin. She walked slowly toward the young man, stopping an arm’s length from him, her body deceptively calm and relaxed. She leveled a steady glare at the freckled face.

"Maybe it’s a good thing Gabrielle isn’t here," the warrior began evenly. "It gives me a chance to talk to you alone. You might not want her to hear what I have to say."

In a single moment, any semblance of the friendly, charming, gracious young bard vanished completely from Musaeus’ polite expression and any vestige of the false respect he’d shown the warrior was transformed into clear, unbridled reprehension. The smile gleaming from the handsome face displayed a palatable hostility as the young man met the warrior’s hard expression with a conceited smirk. The brown eyes traveled over the leather-clad form, returning to challenge the steely blue eyes with a self-satisfied grin.

"I just wanted to congratulate you on your very clever plan," the warrior began calmly. The young male face contorted in apparent confusion, then returned to its previous insolent smirk.

"Plan?" he said to the warrior, a slight tremor traveling across the confident grin. "I don’t think I know what you mean."

Xena’s eyes were cool and disgusted, but the smile she showed the young bard was deceptively smooth.

"Oh, really? Let’s see if I have it straight, shall we? The warrior took a step to the end of the table, turning to face the young man’s smug expression. He followed her movements, keeping his eyes on hers.

"For starters, you send for Gabrielle because you know she’s dedicated enough to the idea of preserving these scrolls to come here and because you know you can count on her to keep her word, whether you deserve her loyalty or not." She paused to let her contempt for the young man show clearly across her expression.

"So, you get Gabrielle here to restore the scrolls after you get the Council to finance the project. Of course she’s doing all the work, but that’s OK, because the Elders are only interested in the completion of the project, not necessarily in who’s really getting the job done."

Musaeus’ gaze remained locked on the warrior’s.

"Then you discredit Gabrielle by convincing her to transcribe a scroll that you both know is incorrect. That way, all her work will be dismissed and you can claim all the glory of the restoration for yourself." The warrior paused, focusing a grim, lethal glare at the male face. "So that way, Gabrielle leaves Almiros in disgrace but the Elders get their new scrolls, with your name notably assigned to the work, of course, and all the visitors that arrive to see the newly-discovered prize pay homage to the resident scholar responsible for this very distinguished enterprise."

The young man’s arrogant attitude incensed the warrior even more. She turned her back on the detestable grin.

"And if that part of your insidious little plot weren’t depraved enough ...." She turned back to level a cold stare at the contemptible leer. "There’s the cave to discuss."

The young face sobered slightly.

"I mean, the real cave, Musaeus. The one with all the crates and boxes in it? The one hidden behind the stones? That’s the cave I visited today. The cave with all the evil in it." Xena enjoyed the slight constriction she noticed in Musaeus’ throat. She kept her eyes focused on the deceitful face and waited.

"I really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, Xena. I honestly don’t. But, this tale of yours is getting better and better," Musaeus chuckled confidently. "Please, go on. I can’t wait to hear the end of this."

The warrior’s chuckle was as hollow as the young man’s had been. She threw him a contrived frown. "No, of course you don’t. And you don’t know anything about the band of thugs camped in the valley either, do you? The scum that seems to have complete access to that same cave and it’s very profitable contents?" Her face showed comical disbelief. "Of course, since you’re the one who supposedly discovered this famous cave, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that you maybe ... made a deal with them, would it?"

The young male face showed a sheen of pure loathing.

"Something like, you keep quiet about their little ‘collection of death and destruction’ as long as they stay away from the town and leave your precious scrolls alone?" Xena leaned casually on the end of the table.

"That way, the town enjoys all the new trade and commerce of the droves of visitors who come to see the new ‘Almiros scrolls’ and Phantaos and his slimy buddies ... yes, I recognized them ... have a steady stream of victims and they have a perfect cover for all the sleazy deals they make with other vile customers for the ‘items’ in the back of the cave. How’m I doin’ so far?" the warrior’s expression was deceptively amused.

"And Gabrielle says you have no imagination," Musaeus said, shaking his head in a blatant imitation of incredulity. Then he fixed a hard stare at his accuser. "But, you know, if you try to sell this ... fabrication to Gabrielle or even to the Elders," he chortled, bating the warrior, "are you all that sure they’ll believe you?" He fixed a confident glare on her face. "You’ve already made an incredible fool of yourself with Gabrielle twice. Do you really want to chance it again?"

Musaeus crossed his arms over his chest in an arrogant display. When the warrior didn’t react to his provocation, the young man smiled vainly. "I didn’t think so." A sarcastic grin contorted the rakish face. "And the Elders aren’t that convinced your new ‘warrior-for-good’ act is for real, either." The young face grew hard and defiant. "I doubt they’d take your word over a ‘native son’. Not very likely."

Xena moved a step closer to the contemptuous youngster, her blue eyes locked on the egotistical countenance. A noticeable tremor narrowed the brown eyes as the young male instinctively drew back from the sleek warrior’s nearness. Finally the woman spoke, her voice sounding with a lethal, deadly calm.

"Don’t ever underestimate Gabrielle, Musaeus," she told the self-satisfied face. "It may be one of the biggest mistakes you’ll ever make." She paused, her steely gaze provoking a wave of primal fear in the young man’s stare. "Gabrielle may seem gentle and forgiving, and in truth, she usually is." The warrior’s stony glare remained locked on the brown pools. She leaned forward slightly, bringing her face even closer to the young bard’s.

"But underneath all that sweetness and compassion, you’ll find a will of tempered steel. And she has more integrity and more pure, unquestioned decency in her smallest finger than you have in your whole, contemptible body." The warrior’s form straightened and she leveled her own smirk at the young man’s venomous glare. "Believe me, she takes a very dim view of anyone who uses lies and deceit for their own distorted purposes." Xena’s gaze swept lightly over the collection of scrolls at the end of the table.

"Gabrielle also treats her responsibility as a bard very seriously. If you try to compromise that principle," the warrior’s eyes grew hard and threatening, "dealing with me will be the least of your worry. She’ll take your head off and hand it back to you. So consider yourself warned."

Musaeus stared contemptuously at the tall warrior’s stiff form. After a moment, he regained some of his confident attitude. He slowly removed himself from the edge of the table and faced the leather-clad figure, meeting her piercing gaze with a prideful grin.

"And as for the Elders ... people like you always make the mistake of assuming the people they’re trying to trick are as stupid as they believe they are." She glared at the young man’s enraged scowl. "You may have another surprise coming when you find out they’re not as easily fooled as you think."

The warrior’s sleek body stood poised for a moment before she stepped back from the young man. After training a disgusted glance at the unresponsive male face, she turned and took a step toward the door of the hut. Then she slowly turned back to the loathsome face, the blue eyes sparkling with a feral gleam.

"By the way, the biggest mistake you could ever make is believing that there’s a rock or a tree or a hole in this whole country where you could hide from me if you ever hurt Gabrielle or threaten her integrity." The young man gulped convulsively. "You got that?" Her crystal gaze locked with his. Then the tall warrior turned and walked toward the doorway of the hut.

Just as she was about to pass through the opening, she came face to face with the small form of the bard. The girl’s green gaze lingered meaningfully on the warrior’s blue eyes and the soft face displayed a clear message. The tall woman blinked at the deep affection she read in the emerald pools as the young blonde laid a small hand on her friend’s muscled arm. For a moment, there was total silence in the room.

"So," the little bard said softly. "You two been getting better acquainted?" She looked first at the astonished male face, then back to the warrior’s stoic expression. "Good," the bard said, smiling. She leveled a steady gaze at the face of the young man, then turned to the tall woman standing stiffly in the open doorway.

"Since I don’t see any fish," she said gently, a teasing grin warming her young face, "I guess we’ll have to make do with another ‘special’ at the Inn." Gabrielle turned to Musaeus. "I’ll be back after lunch," she told him, a meaningful glint in the green eyes.

Musaeus’ eyebrows rose slightly as he gazed nervously at the little blonde’s open expression. He nodded wordlessly and walked back to the chair at the end of the table, his mind scrambling to restore order and control.

Gabrielle stepped closer to the warrior. "Shall we go?" she asked. The warrior met the emerald pools, the familiar dread returning to her stomach. She threw one last disdainful look at the shaken young man, then returned her attention to the young face of her friend.

"Yes," she said, moving through the open doorway as the bard followed. When they were a few paces away from the little hut, Xena turned regretfully to the little blonde. "But I’m afraid what I have to tell you may take away your appetite."

Gabrielle kept her eyes on the earth beneath their boots.

"No chance of that," she said softly. "I lost my appetite a few minutes ago." The warrior stopped stone still and faced the girl at her side. The bard looked up at her friend’s nervous expression. She touched the warrior’s arm.

"It’s all right," she said softly. "I trust your judgment. I always have."

The warrior swallowed hard around the tightness in her throat. She returned the bard’s gentle touch as a fragile smile warmed the sculpted face. The two women turned together and started toward the Inn. Gabrielle smiled, remembering the warrior’s words.


Chapter Twenty-Three ~~~~

Enoch and the three Elders were waiting when they entered the tavern. Their faces were tense, their manner nervous. Xena strode through the room, acknowledged the smithy and motioned toward the back table with her head. The warrior gently guided the bard to the bench behind the table, giving the girl one last remorseful look as the men seated themselves around the fixture. The smithy assumed the same place as before, the edge of the wooden table nearest where the warrior stood.

When they were all settled, Hagen and the other two Elders turned an expectant gaze toward the warrior. She focused on the blacksmith’s serious expression for a moment, then met the bard’s green eyes. After a moment, Hagen cleared his throat and sat forward, laying one fleshy hand on the table.

"Well, warr... Xena," he amended. "Enoch said you have some news for us?" The blue eyes left the bard’s emerald pools and met those of the aged official. "We were right, weren’t we? Those men are a threat to the scrolls, aren’t they?"

Xena took a deep breath. "No," she said simply. "Those men couldn’t care less about the scrolls." The Elders exchanged surprised looks. The smithy’s brows knit together. The bard watched the warrior’s tense expression. When the murmuring between the men ceased, the tall woman continued.

"Their leader is called Phantaos. I once ...." she hesitated, revising her thoughts. "We’ve met before," the warrior said quietly. "He leads a band of ... thieves, bandits. The worst kind of vagrant. They prey on innocent travelers or sell their services to any warlord who wants to increase his numbers. They’re ... garbage." The tall woman’s bitter tone silenced the men at the table. Xena straightened her shoulders, the rising dread within her tightening her stomach.

"But, if they’re not after the scrolls," Hagen began, his gaze darting to the smithy’s quiet face, then back to the warrior’s. "What do they want, then? Can you tell?"

The warrior’s blue eyes turned to granite as the little bard swallowed hard. The green eyes were locked on her friend’s face.

"They’re after the cave," Xena said stiffly. "Or rather, what’s in the cave."

"In the cave?" Hagen repeated. "But there’s only the ...."

"No," the warrior said, sternly. "There’s another room, behind where the scrolls were found. And it’s filled with weapons. Lots of weapons." She turned to the bard. "More weapons than I’ve seen in one place since ... in a long, long time." The blue eyes sent an entreaty to the girl’s green gaze.

Gabrielle’s mouth opened slightly as she concentrated on her friend’s anguished face. A nagging, unsettling dread had begun to constrict the sides of her stomach. She watched the warrior’s jaw quiver as the woman’s cobalt stare locked on hers.

"What do you think we should do, Xena?" It was the smithy’s quiet voice. The warrior turned slowly toward the handsome face. She blinked at the brown pools and strove to regain her composure. After a long moment of tense silence, the tall woman answered, her voice tense and hard.

"Seal it up," she said coldly. "Seal the cave. It’s the only way to keep Phantaos and others like him from getting to those weapons."

The warrior’s jaws slammed tightly together when she heard the small gasp emitted by the young woman beside her. She dismissed the Elders’ stunned reactions, as well as their exclamations of disbelief. Xena’s attention was totally focused on the young blonde’s horrified face.

"But, that would mean burying whatever scrolls might still be there!" Hagen blurted, outraged.

"Oh, Xena!" the little bard whispered, her stricken tone quieting even the flabbergasted Elder. "Seal it up? For good?"

Xena took the bard’s hand. "Gabrielle, there are enough weapons in that cave to destroy this whole section of the country." The blue eyes were fervent on the bard’s. "I can’t let Phantaos get to those weapons. I can’t." Gabrielle saw the urgency in the bronze face. "Please try to understand."

"Surely there must be another way," Hagen blustered. "Perhaps you could ...."

The warrior’s head swiveled back to the stammering Elder. "No, there is no other way!" she barked, silencing the old man’s objection. "It’s the only way to be sure that Phantaos and any others like him never get their hands on those weapons. Sealing it up is the most certain method for keeping him from using them, or worse, bartering or selling them outright to any other warlord or lowlife scum who might offer him a handful of dinars."

The three aged men around the table sat dazed and bewildered by the frightening possibility presented by the warrior’s passionate speech. They glanced at each other, shamefaced and contrite. After a long, stilted silence, Enoch addressed the warrior again.

"How, Xena?" he asked, his voice quiet and somber. "How do we do it?"

Xena’s attention was focused on the bard’s astonished expression. As she watched, she saw the soft face register disgust, regret and finally settle into sorry resignation. The girl dropped her eyes from the blue crystals, scanned the table top, then returned to meet the warrior’s tense gaze. The blonde head nodded slightly as the soft face showed silent, loyal support. Xena drew a long, labored breath.

"I’ll do it," she said quietly, turning to the smithy’s steady gaze. The lean form straightened purposefully as the slender fists relaxed on the front edge of the wooden bench. "The whole interior is a series of wooden beams, braced and wedged tight. It’s just a matter of unseating the supports, then burning it out. "There’s plenty of oil there, too, to provide enough ...."

"Now, wait a minute, here," Hagen blared. "We have to present this notion to the entire Council before you go any farther with your ... plans." He turned a stubborn glare at Enoch’s critical expression. "This is much too important an agenda for us to make this decision on our own ...." He turned a challenging glance at the warrior. " ... on just your opinion." The tall woman’s face remained stony and unyielding. "I’m sorry. But we must make the Council aware and then hold a vote on this idea."

The aged official slid his heavy form off the bench and waved a commanding hand toward the other two old men . They shuffled to their feet. Hagen turned to Enoch with an imperious glare. "We’ll need your vote, Enoch." With that, he turned to leave.

"Don’t take too long," Xena warned sternly. "Phantaos and his men aren’t going to be content to stay in the valley much longer. He could decide to go after those weapons at any time."

Hagen returned the warrior’s level stare nervously. "We’ll let you know what the Council decides, warrior," he told her, pulling himself up proudly. The three elderly officials bustled across the tavern, chattering nervously.

Enoch pulled himself off the table and trained a serious look at the warrior’s stoic face. "I’ll make sure the Council hears your concerns and not just what Hagen thinks they should hear, OK?" The slender woman nodded. "Where can I reach you?" the smithy asked.

Xena glanced at the quiet bard. "I’ll wait here for you." The smithy turned to leave.

"Enoch," the liquid voice summoned and the tanned face turned back. "Don’t let them stew too long. We really don’t have much time. Understand?"

The blacksmith nodded supportively, then strode across the room and out the front door of the tavern. Xena focused again on the little bard’s unhappy face. She waited until the green eyes floated up to meet hers. Her heart lurched at the look of faith in the emerald gaze.

"You know I wouldn’t suggest this if I knew anything else to try, don’t you?" The bard nodded mutely. "Are you going to be all right?"

Gabrielle studied the worried face of her best friend. She knew Xena’s actions were driven by the warrior’s honorable code, but it didn’t lighten the disappointment in her chest very much. At the moment, however, she was more concerned with the look of contrition in the lean warrior’s blue eyes. She laid a gentle hand on the woman’s sleek arm.

"Of course I know that," the bard said to her friend’s penitent look. "It just seems so ... final. And so ... irreversible." She glanced quickly at the warrior’s clenched fists. "I’ll be OK," the girl said, returning the apologetic gaze. "Just be careful, all right? Don’t take any chances you don’t have to. That’s what I really want."

The golden face softened as the cobalt eyes traveled over the soft, young face. The warrior smiled quietly. "Yes, mother," she quipped, fixing the bard with a characteristic raised eyebrow. "Try not to worry, all right?" She covered the little hand with her own.

"Right. Like, ‘try not to breathe’, you mean?" the bard said seriously and the warrior’s throat tightened. "OK," the girl said haltingly. "I’ll try." The girl took a deep breath and closed her eyes tightly for a moment. "Well," she said eventually, "I guess I’d better get back to the hut. At least we’ll have the scrolls that were already found. Right?" The green eyes drifted back to the warrior’s steady glance. Gabrielle patted the slender hand covering hers.

"I’ll be OK. Just make sure you come back in the same shape, you understand?" The bard’s gaze was steady on the warrior’s piercing blues. "I mean it, Xena. Just do what you have to do and get back here ... in one piece." One little hand yanked insistently at the side of the warrior’s leather tunic. "Don’t stick around to teach this Phantaos any lessons, all right?" The sweet face gathered in a meaningful frown. "Just seal the cave and get your skinny butt back to me." The warrior blinked in surprise. "Understand?" Gabrielle said, giving the leathers another firm tug.

Xena found herself chortling in spite of the gravity blazing across the sweet face. She took the small hand grasping her leather bodice into one hand and touched the girl’s face softly with the other. "Yes, ma’am," she said into the earnest green gaze. "In and out, I promise." A warm smile crossed the tanned face. "I’ll be back before you know it."

The emerald pools glistened brightly, a sudden glaze of tears radiating from the girl’s fond glance. "Wanna bet?" she whispered quietly. After a moment, the bard pulled her hand from the warrior’s palm and straightened her shoulders, blinking hard to turn back her tears. She laid both hands flat on the table, stood up and took a step away from the wooden bench.

"Well, I’ll be at the hut. Let me know when you take off, OK? Just so ... so I’ll know when to expect you back." She smiled bravely at the warrior’s steady gaze. "Right?"

"Right," the tall woman answered softly, returning the little smile. "I won’t leave without telling you first."

Gabrielle took a quick breath, turned and walked briskly toward the front door of the tavern. The small hands were clenched tightly, the soft chin raised high in a courageous tilt. The girl marched through the door, keeping her pace bright until she heard the wooden panel thump closed behind her. A second later, the rust-colored boots stopped abruptly as the small form came to a complete halt. The bard closed her eyes tightly, swallowing furiously to combat the large lump constricting her throat.

"Please! Artemis, protect her," the little bard whispered fervently. "Bring her back safe. Please!" The little blonde opened her eyes and slowly resumed walking. "Just bring her back safe, that’s all I ask," the girl chanted quietly.

Gabrielle was so engrossed in her quiet prayer she didn’t see Musaeus’ advancing form until she had nearly bumped into him. The young man took her arms to prevent her from bouncing backwards as he stepped into her path. The little bard looked up surprised. After a moment, she recognized her male friend.

"Oh, I’m sorry, Musaeus," she told him. "Guess I wasn’t looking where I was going."

Musaeus studied the girl’s nervous face. He could tell the blonde was upset and he had a very good idea why. He released her arms and moved to her side, one arm resting easily at the back of her waist.

"You OK?" he asked, feigning concern. "You look like you’ve just met Hades’ green harpies. What’s wrong?"

Gabrielle sent the young man a thin smile as she began to walk toward the little hut again. "Oh, I was just listening to Xena tell the Elders about what she found in the cave. It seems there’s another room behind the one where you found the scrolls," the girl said, noticing the ‘surprised look’ travel over the young male face. "Yes, isn’t that something?" Musaeus met the green gaze skeptically.

"Another cave?" he asked tentatively. "With more scrolls, you mean?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No. It’s filled with all kinds of weapons. All sorts of nasty things, Xena said. Things that could mean lots of pain and lots of people suffering." The bard continued toward the little hut.

Musaeus relaxed at the young blonde’s words. He was relieved that the warrior evidently hadn’t mentioned her suspicions of his involvement in the second cave, but he was still unsettled by the possibility of the woman’s further interference in his impending triumph. He pulled his arm from the girl’s waist and put a hand on her slender arm . "So, what’s Xena going to do?" he asked.

The little bard halted her progress and turned to face Musaeus’ curious face. She took a quick breath and met the brown eyes openly. "She’s going to seal it up ... seal the cave around the weapons, so that these men and others like him won’t be able to get to them." The girl winced slightly at the look of horror on the young man’s face. She put a small hand on his arm.

"Oh, I know, I was shocked when Xena first told me but, Musaeus, it’s really the only way, don’t you see?" The green gaze was sympathetic. "It’s the only sure way to keep this Phantaos and any other creeps from using the weapons to hurt people." Gabrielle studied the young man’s expression. She began to notice something else other than the regret of losing any future scrolls in the handsome face; she would later realize, what she saw there was venomous hate. "Musaeus?" the bard said, drawing the brown eyes back to her face. "What is it? Something else wrong?"

Musaeus’ face showed a stormy insistence as he took hold of the little bard’s arms. "She can’t!" he blurted firmly. "You have to tell her she can’t do that."

Gabrielle straightened her arms against the young man’s grip. "Musaeus!" she barked surprised. "Take it easy! Calm down!"

The young man released her, his eyes contrite and seemingly apologetic. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to ...." He patted the air with his outstretched palms. "Sorry. But you can’t let her seal the cave, Gabrielle. She’s going to ruin the whole thing. We’ll ... we’ll never be able to get to anything else that might be in that cave, if she does that." Musaeus’ mind was scrambling to provide a believable argument without exposing the true reasons for his concern. "Don’t you get it?? She’s going to ruin everything!"

Gabrielle saw the panic in the young man’s face. She pulled at the boy’s arm, speaking evenly, trying to calm the hysteria in the male face.

"Musaeus, she has to do it," the girl said firmly. The brown eyes floated down to the determined green pools. The little bard watched as the panic in the handsome face receded slowly to be replaced by a cool resolve. She remained convinced of the value of her friend’s plan.

"It’s a shame we’ll have to lose any scrolls that might be discovered in the future, but ..." Gabrielle tugged at the arm of her bard friend. "It has to be done. Try to understand, OK?"

The little blonde focused on the firm jaw of the tall, handsome young face in front of her. Her senses, also honed sharp by her winters at the warrior’s side, were whispering quiet warnings to her, but the sincerity of the girl’s spirit were directing her perceptions elsewhere. She saw only the young man’s worry; his blatant, primal rage unfortunately escaped her.

After a moment, Musaeus calmly extracted his arm from the little bard’s grasp. He focused at a vacant spot across the town square for a time, then turned a shielded glance down at the bard’s honest expression. He patted the little hand solicitously.

"Look, Gabrielle, it’ll all work out, I’m sure," he told her absently, his eyes empty of emotion. "But I’m afraid I won’t be able to continue our work this afternoon. I have something else to do." He set the girl away from him and turned toward the stable. "I’ll catch up with you later." He moved toward the stable with a determined stride. Gabrielle followed the retreating form, a heavy dose of confusion knitting the wheat-colored brows.

"Yeah, sure," she answered quietly, certain her voice hadn’t registered with the young man crossing the town square. She pulled her hands onto her hips and shook her head briskly. "It’s not like we have anything pressing to do here."

Gabrielle trained her eyes at the door of the Inn. Her thoughts settled briefly on the leather-clad warrior, whom she assumed was still awaiting the decision of the Council’s vote. For a moment, she found herself hoping the Elders would refuse their permission to let Xena fulfill her plan. It was not the preservation of the scrolls that completely influenced the bard’s fleeting wish; she had finally acknowledged the taut dread that had invaded her stomach when she thought about the likely danger to the warrior in the execution of her own plan. The bard gulped instinctively.

"Just be careful, Xena," the bard murmured to the vision of her friend. "Please be careful."

Gabrielle took a deep breath and opened the door to the little hut.



Chapter Twenty-Four ~~~

Musaeus jumped to the ground as the horse he’d ridden into the valley scraped to a halt. He threw the reins in the direction of the dark-clothed ruffian in front of him and scanned the camp for Phantaos. When he found him, the young man moved hurriedly in the brigand’s direction. The pitted face registered a slight annoyance when he recognized the young male face.

"Whatta you doin’ here?" he growled at the young face. "I thought you said it wasn’t a good idea for us ...."

"Xena’s going to seal up the cave," Musaeus blurted roughly. "Her little friend told me she plans to pull it down and bury the stuff, so that you and ‘others like you’ won’t be able to get to it. She knows you’re here, too. She saw you and some of your men going into the cave the other day."

Phantaos’ grisly face hardened in a grim mask. "Xena? She’s here?" He glared at the young man. "Why didn’t you warn us before now?"

"I didn’t think she’d be any problem. It seemed like she was glued to the blonde’s side at first." Musaeus’ face contorted in a disdainful smirk. "I figured she’d never leave the little broad long enough to discover anything."

The leering bandit in front of him didn’t seem appeased by his explanation. Musaeus swallowed nervously. "She might not do it after all. She still has to convince the Council that it’s a good idea and I don’t think they’re exactly all that much in favor of ...."

Phantaos grabbed the front of the young man’s tunic, pulling him roughly forward. The young bard grimaced at the stench of the man’s foul breath. "Well, you better make sure she doesn’t get their ‘approval’, you understand?" He shoved the boy back savagely. "If she collapses that cave, it’ll be the last thing she ever does." He glared harshly at the young bard.

"I’m sure as Hades not about to let the Warrior Princess ruin all my plans for the lovely profits I’m gonna make from the stash in that hole," the ruffian spat at the youngster. "Not to

mention how it would kick the dung out of your lovely plot, eh, Boy?" the man taunted the young man. "All that fame and glory, thrown right into the cow pile."

The young bard glared at the craggy face with open contempt. He righted his tunic and gathered himself up confidently. "Well, I can’t very well try to change her mind without making myself look suspicious, can I?" Musaeus’ clever mind began to function in its usual, cunning manner. He watched the robber’s lumbering form react to the value of his statement.

He decided to present his own suggestion.

"Why not just set a trap for her? If she does manage to get the Council to allow her to try this, you could take her out of your way for good. You’d really make people notice with a move like that, wouldn’t you?"

Phantaos’ eyes narrowed as an evil, vindictive smirk traveled over the dirty countenance. The brigand’s chest swelled pridefully as he considered the young man’s proposal. He let his eyes sweep over the camp, consulting his cohorts. A low, guttural chortle began to rumble from the big man’s mouth. It was soon transformed into a vicious, raging laugh. Phantaos threw back his filthy, matted head and roared in spiteful glee. He took a step toward the young bard, clapping a heavy hand onto the boy’s wincing shoulder.

"You might be right at that, Boy," the bully guffawed. "Yeah, I like that idea better." Another raucous laugh escaped the wide, muscled chest. He turned to the man holding Musaeus’ horse’s reins and waved the ruffian forward. The man advanced, handing Phantaos the leather strips.

"Get your carcass back to town," he told Musaeus, dropping the reins into the boy’s outstretched palm. "Just play innocent. In fact, you better stay clear of her all together." Phantaos threw a wicked smirk toward his second in command. "We’ll take care of the Warrior Princess, eh, Gawl?" he snickered. The other ragged thug returned the depraved grin as Musaeus climbed onto his horse. Phantaos’ dark gaze met the young man’s brown eyes.

"Keep your mouth shut, understand? Just wait quietly for the ‘sad news’." The ruffian slapped the horse’s rump and the animal bolted under the young bard. Musaeus rode away from the camp, the sound of Phantaos’ evil laughter still pounding in his ears.


At the last table in the tavern, Xena raised her eyes to meet Minerva’s sad gaze. The young woman noticed that the tall warrior’s attire now included the same metal armor she had seen the first day when she and the bard had arrived. The redhead gulped fearfully, a heavy sense of dread tightening her stomach.

A wave of regret swept over the blue crystals as Xena noticed the tankard the woman set quietly before her. For a moment, the two women silently studied each other. Finally Minerva’s wavering voice broke the uncomfortable silence in the back of the room.

"Musaeus is involved in this somehow, isn’t he?" the young waitress said. Her eyes were steady on the warrior’s azure pools. "He has something to do with what you found in that cave, I can feel it."

"Minerva ..." the warrior began, her voice even. "I can’t prove that he is." Xena met the girl’s hazel gaze openly. She felt a strong reluctance at causing the pain she saw in the young worker’s eyes, however inadvertent it might be. The stoic face softened minutely. "There isn’t anything I can find that ties him to those weapons, for sure."

Minerva’s eyes left the warrior’s to focus on the heavy wooden tabletop. "No," she said quietly. "There never is with Musaeus. He’s always very careful about that." She met the blue eyes again. "But, I want you to know. I agree with your plan." The warrior’s dark eyebrow floated upward. The waitress smiled sardonically. "You hear everything from behind that bar," she quipped bitterly. "I wasn’t really eavesdropping, I just couldn’t help it." The little smile faded quickly. "You just do what needs to be done and I’ll worry about Musaeus," she told the warrior, her tone quiet and firm. She favored the bronze face with another fleeting smile, turned and walked away.

Xena’s jaw tensed rigidly as her gaze followed the girl’s proud back. ‘Always the loyal ones,’ she thought bitterly. ‘Why do they always feel the pain for the trash?’

The warrior’s acrid contemplation was immediately dispelled when the front door of the tavern opened to reveal Enoch’s tall form. He strode purposefully toward the warrior, arriving at the table quickly. She sensed from his expression that the time had come to put her plan in motion and she stood up to meet his advancing figure.

"The Council wasn’t very happy about it, but ..." his brown eyes met the warrior’s evenly. "They gave their consent. They’ll stand behind whatever plan you have." Xena drew a deep, steady breath. The sculpted jaw rippled as the blue eyes left the smithy’s momentarily, then returned his steady gaze. "What do you need? I’ll help in any way I can."

Xena sent the tradesman a grateful look. "Everything I need is already there," she told him. "It shouldn’t be too difficult. I just need to get out there and get it done." The smithy moved slightly to allow her to move past him. They moved together toward the tavern’s entrance. As she passed the bar, Xena met the young waitress’ nervous gaze. She paused long enough to send the girl a confident look, then continued her progress toward the front door.

Once in the street, she quickened her pace. The tall smithy walked beside her, easily matching his stride to hers. After a few steps, the warrior’s eyes were drawn to the little, private hut across the square ... and the small, blonde form standing in the doorway. Xena slowed her steps and swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat.

"I’ll meet you at the stable," she said quietly to the smithy, her gaze still locked on the young woman walking towards her. Enoch looked quickly at the approaching bard, then back to the warrior’s pained expression.

"OK," he responded quietly, touching the woman’s sleek arm momentarily. He strode toward the barn as Xena altered her path toward her best friend.

"I’m leaving now," the tall woman said as the little bard’s eyes held hers. "The Council agreed to my plan." She clenched her fists to stop them from trembling.

"I figured they had," the bard said quietly, "since you’re wearing your armor." The warrior flinched inwardly at the fearful concern she saw in the deep, green pools. The two women exchanged a wordless stare, each pair of eyes locked desperately on those of the other. "Just be careful, OK?" the little blonde said finally. She took a deep breath and forced herself to smile bravely. "I’ll see you before dark, right?"

"Right," the warrior said evenly. She touched the girl’s shoulder and gently stroked a strand of the soft blonde hair. Then the tall, sleek frame straightened purposefully. She dropped her hand and gave her friend a confident smile. "See you then," she told the bard. She turned and strode briskly toward the stable.

‘Just remember your promise, Xena,’ the young blonde woman pleaded silently to her best friend’s back. ‘That’s all I ask.’ Gabrielle turned and walked back into the little hut.

When she arrived at the stable, Xena noticed that Argo stood patiently waiting for her. She took a moment to wordlessly thank the smithy for his foresight. The warrior’s grave expression pulled the smithy’s eyes to her face. He sensed her apprehension about the upcoming mission was only partly due to the men she expected to encounter. He waited until the blue eyes rose from the ground between them to meet his.

Finally, the liquid voice interrupted the stilted silence. "There is one thing you can do for me, if you would," she said to the smithy. She studied the warm, brown eyes closely.

"Name it," the man responded, his eyes on the woman’s bronze face. She swallowed quickly as she met the man’s gaze, an ardent plea clearly shining in the brilliant blue eyes.

"If something happens out there and I don’t ... I don’t get back here," the warrior began haltingly. Enoch kept his eyes trained on the woman’s hesitant face. "If you would help my friend get back to ... wherever she wants to go?" the warrior stammered, suddenly unsettled by the emotions churning in her stomach. "If you could do that ...." the smooth voice wavered as the tall woman trained her eyes on her boots.

The blacksmith touched the warrior’s shoulder gently. "You can count on me, Xena," he told her, his brown eyes warm and compassionate. "But, that’s a little premature, isn’t it?" he said as the warrior met the soft, brown pools again. A playful smile curled across the man’s handsome face.

"You just be careful, do what you need to do and when you get back, we’ll have a nice, quiet supper." The smithy’s quiet smile widened. "Right?" The warrior’s face softened in a little smile as the blue eyes returned the smithy’s gaze. Finally, the tall form straightened and the golden face sobered again.

"Right," the smooth voice announced. She turned and mounted the palomino mare. Xena cast one final look down at the blacksmith’s confident smile, laid the reins on the horse’s neck and headed for the road to the clearing. ‘Right, Gabrielle,’ the leather-clad woman thought as she pressed her heels to the mare’s sides. ‘I did make you a promise, didn’t I?’ Xena leaned forward as Argo’s hooves pounded the ground.


Continued in Chapter 25

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