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The Cold Light of Day
Dawn was just a pale smudge on the horizon when Xena wakened and rolled over to find Gabrielle watching her intently. "Good morning." The bard merely nodded grimly. Xena propped herself up on one elbow, yawned and gave the girl a critical appraisal. "Did you sleep?" she asked as she stood and stretched her long limbs.
"Like a babe," replied Gabrielle. "I made breakfast." She tossed Xena half an apple. "Sorry. I didnt feel much like cooking."
"No, no. This is fine," replied Xena, tucking the apple between her teeth. "Hows the head?" she asked, rolling up her blanket.
"Its all right...better."
"Good, because if youre up to it, we really need to get on the road," said Xena stalking across the grass to where Argo stood tethered to a green tree limb. Gabrielle, intrigued, followed her.
"Uh huh, " replied Xena, saddling up and feeding the last of the apple to Argo.
Gabrielle folded her arms and said, "Can you be more specific?"
Xena exhaled, signaling the beginnings of impatience. "Theres a village, about a half days ride east of here."
Xena grunted as she tightened the cinch. "You need to rest. I need to see Elkton."
"Elkton? The old mystic?"
"You wanna get your things together..." suggested Xena as she strode back into the camp and kicked dirt over the coals of the fire. She looked back to see Gabrielle still standing at the tree. "What is it?"
You owe her no explanations. "Nothing," replied the bard curtly. "You dont have to know my every thought, Xena."
Xena briefly checked a molar with her tongue. "Okay." She snatched up the pouch and staff, breaking the latter down as she moved towards her horse. She passed them both to Gabrielle and as the bard stowed the staff in her pouch, Xena swung into the saddle. "Come on," she said, offering her hand. "You're in no condition to be walking."
Gabrielle slung her pack over her shoulder. "If it's all the same to you..."
Xena cut her off quickly. "Well, it isnt," she replied and with one strong arm hauled the bard up into the saddle behind her. "Well make better time this way."
"Xena," began Gabrielle tentatively. "Are you mad at me?"
Xena paused a moment before turning around in the saddle; suppressing her instincts, she chose clarification and tact over brute truth. "Im worried about you, Gabrielle, thats all. If I poke and pry its because I care."
Gabrielle smiled and shifted in the saddle. "I know that," she said, wrapping one arm around Xena's waist. "Why can't they make these things closer to the ground?"
"Hey, leave me some room to breathe!" chuckled Xena, forcing her thumb between Gabrielles arm and her own leathers.
A smiled played at the corners of Xenas lips as the bards mood changed yet again. She put it down to the trauma of the attack and vowed not to broach the subject again unless Gabrielle initiated the conversation. She applied pressure to Argos withers with her knees and moved the horse out onto the main road. "Why don't you try to doze back there?"
"I dont see dozing on the back of your horse in my future," muttered Gabrielle into Xenas back. "How long did you say to this village?"
"We should be there by midday. Sit back and enjoy the ride." Xena clucked her tongue and Argo moved effortlessly from walk to canter, a pace she sustained for nearly three hours before pulling up lame favoring her left foreleg. "Whoa, girl," crooned Xena, pulling Argo to a complete stop.
Gabrielle slid unassisted from the animals back. "Whats wrong with Argo?
Xena dismounted. "Probably just picked up a stone." She ran a practiced hand down the animals foreleg, picked up the hoof and confirmed her suspicions. "Gabrielle, get the hoof pick out of my saddlebags."
Gabrielle complied and stood back, watching Xena tend the injured horse. "Will this hold us up long?"
Without looking up from her work, Xena replied, "No, just a few minutes."
Youre parched and dry...Gabrielle removed the empty waterskin and her satchel from the saddle horn. "I saw a river just over that rise. Im gonna go refill the skin."
Xena grunted noncommittally as she worked to pry loose the stubborn flat stone wedged beneath Argos shoe. She emitted a low whistle and rolled the stone between her fingers. "Will you look at the size of that." She looked up to see Gabrielles retreating figure vanish behind a stand of trees. "Wonder where shes off to..." She tossed the stone away and patted the horses shoulder. "Easy, girl." She went to her saddlebags and rummaged around for her light hammer, and some loose nails, the latter of which she found the hard way. "Ouch!" She jerked her hand back quickly and gazed at the shining crimson pearl on her fingertip. "Nice move, Warrior Princess... catch an arrow in midflight, but let a nail draw your blood..." she muttered self-consciously. Argo nickered softly. "Okay, okay, youre next." Xena wasted no time tacking down the loose shoe. She was stowing the hammer when she heard what sounded like combat emanating from the rise over which Gabrielle had disappeared not two minutes earlier. Xenas long legs closed the distance. Topping the hill, she was stunned to see Gabrielle, staff in hand, engaged in heated battle with a burly peasant, while another man sat slumped on the banks of a meandering river, cradling one arm to his chest in obvious pain. A gifted battlefield tactician, Xena assessed the situation in an instant -- two attackers, one injured, the other struggling to keep his feet beneath him while Gabrielle acquitted herself with a speed and ferocity that Xena had never before seen in the young bard. Seeing Gabrielle was in no immediate danger, Xena slowed to a fast walk. She watched with appreciation and surprise as two sound blows, one to the head, the second to the knee, dropped the big man to the ground in a graceless heap. He lay clutching his knee, writhing in pain and begging for mercy. From where she stood, Xena could see Gabrielles eyes blazing with a hatred that she had previously reserved only for Callisto.
Kill him! Bury your staff in his throat and kill him! Reason and chaos warred on the foggy battlefield of Gabrielles mind, and in it, Manus walked among the dead. Kill him! Send him to Tartarus and have peace at last... Gabrielles staff parted the air, rushing for the mans unprotected windpipe when a hand shot out, stilling its whistling descent just a hairsbreadth from contact.
"Enough!" Xena grappled with the girl for the staff. "Gabrielle, thats enough!" Xenas eyes fixed on the bards and held her whole.
Bitch! Manus couldnt believe his luck. Of all the ill-timed intrusions...
"Xena," said Gabrielle, as if she had only just seen her. "Great timing...as always." She sighed in relief and relinquished her staff.
"Pyramus?! called the injured man on the creek bank. "Pyramus, are you all right?" He drew his wobbly legs beneath him, attempting to stand.
"You!" Xena pointed the staff at him, an extension of her hand. "So much as twitch a muscle, and you die."
Pyramus, grimacing in agony, shouted, "Im allright, father! Stay where you are!" His wary eyes shifted from the leather-clad warrior towering above him to the slight, fair-haired child who had so soundly thrashed him; he didnt know whom to fear most. "Please, dont kill us," he stammered.
Xena crooked a well-defined eyebrow. "Dont gimme cause. Okay, what happened?"
"She attacked us without reason!" replied the old man in the water.
Gabrielle shot back, "Thats a lie!"
"No!" countered Pyramus. "We just came down to the river to check our traps and --"
Xena put her foot on Pyramus chest, effectively silencing him. "Ah, ah!" she said, wagging a finger at him for emphasis. "Ladies first." To Gabrielle: "Talk to me, Gabrielle...what happened here?"
"I came down to fill the waterskin and...and the next thing I knew, this one was holding a knife to my throat..."
Pyramus made an attempt to counter; Xena applied pressure with the heel of her boot and quipped, "Dont interrupt. Your turn will come soon enough."
The old man who was not currently suffering under Xenas boot exclaimed, "Were not even carrying knives!"
Xena observed the old mans statement to be true enough; there were nets on the bank, ropes, and a string of lines trickling off downriver...but no weapons. An old man and his son...peasants making a meager living on the river, no threat to anyone but the fish. Xena didnt care for the implications at all. "Gabrielle..."
"Xena, he had a knife," retorted Gabrielle. "Look, he cut me --" she gaped in unabashed surprise at her uninjured hand where only a minute before, the peasants knife had drawn a burning line across her palm. "I...I dont understand..." She looked up at Xena in utter confusion, her jaw working convulsively, word seeking. "Xena, I was...I was so sure..."
"Please," the old man pleaded. "Cant I tend my son?"
"What? Oh. Yeah," replied Xena, stepping away from Pyramus and over to Gabrielle who by this time, had sunk to the grass in abject horror of her actions. "Gabrielle," she said, placing a hand on the girls shoulder and dropping her voice. "Whatever happened here, Im sure you felt you had cause to defend yourself..."
Gabrielle looked up, squinting against the midday sun, her face miserable. "Xena, I swear by the gods, I..."
Xena dropped her voice another octave and her hand instinctively sought the cool comfort of her chakram as she asked, "Do you recognize them? Is that it?" Her keen eyes moved carefully over the two men. "Are they part of the group that attacked you?" She waited beats, poised to react.
"I...no...no, theyre not..." Gabrielle was crying openly now. "Ive never seen them before today."
"Please...are we free to go?"
Xena turned. The old man, himself injured, was supporting his crippled son on one of his own shoulders. "Ive got some medical supplies in my saddlebags. Im no healer, but --"
Pyramus shook his head vehemently. "No, we just want to go. I suggest you put some space between yourself and that young woman, if you know whats good for you!"
"Pyramus, shut up." The old man rummaged through his emotions, found a pitiful smile and addressed Xena. "Thanks for your offer, but our wagon is just over the hill."
Xena watched father and son hobble away; periodically one or the other would turn to see if they were being followed. When they were gone, Xena turned and found Gabrielle kneeling at the riverbank, elbow deep in the frigid water, losing what little she had eaten for breakfast that morning. Xena could do nothing but sit at her side, rubbing her back in a circular motion until at last the painful heaves subsided, leaving the bard weak and miserable, her face bathed in perspiration.
Gabrielle cupped a handful of water in her palm and brought it to her mouth; she held it there, savoring the icy chill before swallowing. "Sweet Athena..." she sobbed, eyes closed. "Xena, what did I do?" Without care, she ripped the bandage from her head and slung it aside in frustration. "If you hadnt stopped me, I wouldve killed him. I wanted to kill him."
Xena pulled the girl up beside her on the riverbank, but unable to say anything of comfort or explanation, she said nothing at all.
"I was just so angry..." she said through clenched teeth before regarding the warrior. "Is this what it feels like to be you?"
Xena paused, her mouth open, a half-formed thought on her lips. "Trust me. We dont want to go there," she said simply, and got to her feet. "We should get moving." She offered her hand. "Come on."
"Oh, gods," moaned Gabrielle, as she took the warriors beckoning hand. "My head is pounding..."
Xena pulled her gently to her feet. "Well be at the temple in a couple of hours. You can rest there."
The young bard nodded and with her eyes squeezed shut against the pain, allowed herself to be escorted up the hillside. "I never did refill the skin..." she muttered.
"Dont worry about it." The bard swayed alarmingly and Xena felt compelled to sling an arm around her waist for support. Gabrielles sudden incapacitation, coupled with her strange behavior had Xena more worried than ever. Moments later, she clambered into the saddle and settled Gabrielle behind her. "You okay back there?"
Gabrielle encircled the older womans waist with one arm and, eyes closed, nodded her head against Xenas back. "Uh hmmm," she murmured sluggishly, fighting the overwhelming urge to lean over the side and vomit. "But go slow, okay..."
"Let me know if you feel like getting sick again..." Again, the moist nod at her upper back. Gathering the reins in one hand and locking the other firmly over the clammy arm at her waist, Xena moved Argo on at a fast walk.
You were so close, yet once again, she has interfered. Peace would be yours if not for her...all I asked was proof of your commitment, a blood sacrifice...if you do not kill when your own life is in jeopardy, what am I left with? If you do not kill when you have every justification to kill, you will never find peace...silence...and peace...her silence, your peace. Perform as directed, and you will have peace...its a simple equation. And I have faith in you...and you trust me implicitly. Sleep and surrender your mind to my will. I will be your strength. I have shown you your true path, and your true enemies. Sleep now and think on this, child.
The Temple of Nod
When the sun was at its zenith, the trio of road-weary travelers entered the Valley of the Dream Gods, an imposing landscape of sheer cliffs, black trees and dense greenery. Nestled in the dark heart of the valley, beside a fast-moving river, lay the small village of Thesilena -- a dozen or so thatched-roofed homes, two public houses, an open-air market and a livery and blacksmiths, all spread at the feet of the temple du jour. It was an architectural scenario Xena had seen repeated a thousand times before, with one notable exception: at a time of day when the street should have been bustling with activity and life, it was empty.
"So youre awake back there at last..." Xena turned in the saddle and greeted the pale bard with a wry smile. "Howre you feeling?"
"Xena, where is everyone?"
"I dont know..." As she moved Argo forward at a cautious walk, Xenas sharp eyes traveled over the buildings, strained for a look inside darkened homes, marveled at the empty taverns, the childs doll lying lifeless against a fence post. "I dont think anyones been here for a while..."
"How can you tell?"
"No cook fires, not even a whiff of food...its been days since anyones lived here. The temples just ahead. Im sure Elkton will have some answers."
"Good," replied Gabrielle with a bit of her old spunk. "I got questions."
The Temple of Morpheus came into view, dark stone blocks rising in a neat, if uninspired square, spider-webbed by leafy vines. Xena felt Gabrielle's grip on her tighten and a slight shudder passed between them. "Yeah, its a bit melodramatic, isnt it?"
"Why are we here?" asked Gabrielle.
"I told you. Elkton sent for me. I'm not sure why yet." Xena reigned in Argo as two young men, dressed in the unmistakable garb of novitiates, emerged from the temple and stood, one to each side of the main entrance. Elkton, High Priest of Morpheus, clad in a voluminous and ornately-decorated plum-colored robe bustled, as much as a man of his age and carriage could bustle, through the temple threshold and down the stone steps to greet his guests. His face, older than Xena remembered, wore a look of pleased, but subdued surprise.
"Xena. I didnt expect you until sunset."
Xena slung a leg gracefully over Argos head and slid down the mares withers. "Yeah, well, somewhere in the world its sunset, Elkton. Besides, I got the impression it was urgent." She and the mystic clasped arms. "New robes," she quipped, raising an eyebrow.
"Hand-me-downs," he said with a wink of studied benevolence. "More on that later. You and your friend must be tired indeed." Elkton approached and his old eyes squinted up at Gabrielle. "By Zeus! What happened to you, little one?"
"Gabrielle had a mishap on the road..." interjected Xena.
"Xena hit me."
The warrior and the priest both managed the same look of astonishment. "What?"
Elkton turned on Xena. "You hit her?"
"Now wait a minute..." stammered Xena, defensively.
"Did you hit her or not?"
"Elkton, shes confused," said Xena with pronounced patience. "I did hit her...once. But that was a long time ago under very difficult circumstances." Xena gave the bard a pained look and muttered pointedly, "And I thought we were even on that score..."
"Well," puffed Elkton, patting Gabrielles knee. "Theres obviously more to this story, but, for the mean time, lets get the pair of you settled and fed, eh?" He turned to address the temple guards. "Phineas, water and grain for Xenas horse."
Xena touched the young man on the arm as he moved past her. "Easy on the grain," she said, slinging her saddlebags over one shoulder. "Shell make a pig of herself given the opportunity."
Elkton turned and reached up for Gabrielle; looking into those troubled green eyes, those eyes which slanted into secrets at the corners, he saw something, some vague and fleeting image, and then it was gone. "Let me help you, my dear."
Not a sign, my child...dont give it away...
Gabrielle allowed herself to be assisted from Argos back. "Thank you," she murmured, reaching for her pouch and staff. She felt the old mystics arm slide around her shoulder as he escorted her and Xena inside the temple.
"I hope youre hungry. I have a pot of the most excellent lamb stew over the fire and a jug of port," he said, smiling at Xena with a twinkle in his eye. He led them through the maze of tunnels with the unerring certainty of a homing pigeon and babbled on about the fall harvest,
the scarcity of temple offerings and other matters as remote as the moon.
"Elkton," said Xena. "You got us here under some urgent pretext -- unspeakable evil, Lysandra said, or was that just a catchy phrase?"
"Maybe Elkton just doesnt want to talk catastrophe on an empty stomach," piped Gabrielle, emboldened by the thought of a hot meal.
Elkton squeezed the girls shoulder. "You have the gifts of an oracle, my child," he said with laughing eyes. "Thats it exactly. Cant we make small talk first?"
"Xena doesnt do small talk..." said Gabrielle conspiratorially. "Straight to the heart of the matter, isnt that right, Xena?"
Xena managed a quirky, patient smile. "Speaking of the heart of the matter," she said, one pace behind Elkton, "Maybe youd care to tell me what happened to the population of the village we passed through on our way here."
Elktons bushy eyebrows came together in a thoughtful frown. "The two are interestingly enough very much connected, Xena," he said, diverting from the main hallway down a narrow corridor. "Im afraid what Im about to show you offers no answers, and will only inspire more questions." They walked in silence for a few minutes, occasionally passing pairs of temple priests, stationed at intervals along the passageway. The trio rounded a corner as the corridor emptied into a large cul du sac. Sunlight filtered through a bank of high windows and spilled down onto the stone floor illuminating the bodies of children, women and men, prone on straw palettes, and the temple priests who moved among them. Gabrielle tried, and failed, to suppress a gasp of horror.
Xena asked, "Are they ill?"
"Theyre asleep," replied the old mystic, his eyes roaming over the room, appreciating the way his fellow priests went about their duties, moving from one patient to the next, gently bathing them in arcama oil. "It happened over the course of a week...one by one they succumbed."
"Succumbed...succumbed to what?"
Elkton shrugged and rubbed at tired, red-rimmed eyes. "By the gods, I do not know, Xena, how a thing like this happens...a mother kisses her children goodnight and is unable to rouse them in the morning...a tired blacksmith naps under a shade tree and never awakens..."
"But youre sure its not sickness. What does the village healer say?"
"Xena, he sleeps," replied Elkton, gesturing with his arm. "Somewhere in this room, he sleeps. He was consulted at first, but honestly admitted he could find no physical cause for the comas. I was sent for four days ago, but by then, more than three quarters of the villagers had been affected. I decided to move everyone here, where they could be more easily tended."
Gabrielle lips moved in a soundless head count. "So many children..." she said at last. "Whatre you doing for them?"
"The only thing I know to do..."
"Arcama oil?" interjected Xena, and the old man nodded. "You suspect Morpheus."
Elkton was quick to dismiss her suggestion. "No!" he exclaimed, and a number of his priests looked up from their work; Elkton adjusted his volume accordingly. "I could not continue to serve Morpheus if I suspected his involvement."
"Elkton," began Xena. "We both know that nothing happens in the dreamscape without Morpheus knowledge."
"Oh, I didnt say he didnt know about it. But knowing about something, and giving sanction, are two very different things."
"So this is why you and your priests look like Tartarus itself."
"We dont dare sleep, Xena. To sleep is to surrender...and I wont do that," replied the mystic firmly. "I regret involving you and Gabrielle, but I really saw no other way."
"If youre wary of involving others, why use Lysandra? Why not contact me yourself?"
"I tried on my own, but I couldnt clarify the message. No. I could only succeed in planting the seeds of unrest and unease."
"I see," said Xena, nodding. "I have you to thank for my nightmares..."
"Guilty, as charged. Though they didnt exactly bring you rushing to my door. So, when I discovered you were in Amphipolis, I sent Lysandra for you."
"Elkton, scuse me..." said a young priest as he nudged between the mystic and the warrior, supporting the slight frame of a sleeping child in his arms.
"Sweet gods!" exclaimed the mystic, the flat of his hand over his heart. "Silvus, dont do that!"
"Sorry. I thought you heard me come in," replied the priest sheepishly.
"Whered she come from?" asked Xena, giving the sleeping child a professional glance.
To Elkton. "I thought you said the village was empty."
"It is," interjected Silvus, shifting the child in his arms. "Lias and I found this one and three others at the crossroads not two leagues from here. We were returning from Thebes with supplies and nearly ran them over with the wagons. They were just...lying there in the middle of the road...as if theyd dropped in their tracks. A man and a woman, the parents, I suppose, are dead. Lias stayed to bury them while I came ahead with the children. Theres a twin to this one in my wagon."
"Here," volunteered Gabrielle. "Why dont you let me take her?" She passed Xena her pouch and relieved the young man of his tiny burden.
"Thank you, miss," said Silvus. Then, to Elkton, "By your leave?"
Elkton snorted and waved him off. "By all means, dont stand on ceremony, boy. Go! Go!" And the young man scurried away down the corridor while Gabrielle proceeded with the child into the makeshift infirmary. "Two leagues..." murmured Elkton. "This thing is as insidious as the plague." Elkton followed Xenas gaze to Gabrielle. "Youre concerned about your friend."
Without taking her eyes from the bard, Xena responded, "Elkton, does she seem the same to you? Does she seem...alright?"
"My dear Xena, you would know that better than I." There was a weighty pause as warrior and mystic watched the bards ministrations from across the room. Finally, drumming his fingers thoughtfully on his lips, Elkton spoke. "What does she say about this, mishap, as you call it?"
"She wont talk to me, Elkton...sketchy details at best. If I had gone with my instincts and pressed for information that first night, when she stumbled into camp, I might know a lot more about what happened." As she watched Gabrielle tending the comatose child, she punctuated her own confusion with, "But now...shes moody, guarded, hostile. I cant tell what shes gonna do or say from one moment to the next."
"What do you mean?"
"There was an incident on the road," she said, fixing the old man with a troubled gaze. "Elkton, she nearly beat a man half to death, and for the life of me, I dont know why. She doesnt know why. At least thats what she says."
"You think shes lying to you?"
"No!" Xena countered passionately; from across the room, Gabrielle looked up just then, meeting Xenas eyes briefly before returning to her work. Xena let Elkton steer her down the corridor, and out of earshot. "No," she repeated, almost thoughtfully.
"No, of course shes not being consciously deceptive," Elkton interjected. "This is Gabrielle were talking about after all. But," he concluded tantalizing. "There may be other forces at work here."
Elkton felt her stiffen beside him. "Walk with me. Hear me out." Elkton threaded his arm through Xenas as they walked. "Tell me...how long were the two of you separated?"
"Ten days. Why?
"And she has no memory of that period?"
"None." Xena brought their progress to a halt beneath a statue of Morpheus, supine on an altar, supported by nameless minions; the irony did not escape her. "Elkton," she said, swallowing her annoyance. "Whatre you getting at?"
"Ten days...I suppose it could be done..." His gaze centered on some principle invisible in the air before him while the fingers of one hand fretted thoughtfully with the stubble at his chin. "Ten days... constant psychic bombardment...under the right conditions...it could be done..."
Individual eccentricity was all well and good, but Elktons proclivity for the cryptic was testing Xenas patience. Irritation crept into her voice as she shook the priest from his musings. "Elkton!"
Elkton snapped to, regarding Xena gravely. "We need to talk."
"Talk? You mean where I ask questions and you actually answer them?" Xena snorted.
Elkton laughed mirthlessly and squeezed her arm. "My apologies, Xena. Come, we have much to discuss."
"Hey! Hey, wait up!" called Gabrielle, emerging from the dark end of the corridor.
"Yes, my dear, please, join us." Despite the tone of his words, Elktons entreaty lacked his innate sincerity, but the normally perceptive bard either didnt notice, or chose to ignore it. "We were just on our way to the kitchens," elaborated Elkton, exchanging Xenas arm for Gabrielles. "Are you hungry, my child?"
"After what Ive just seen, I dont think I could eat a bite," replied Gabrielle, allowing herself to be drawn down a well-lit passage. "What were the two of you talking about?"
"Elkton was just saying what a capable nurse you are," countered Xena; the lie lay flinty and dry on her tongue.
"Thats right. You have a natural gift," echoed the mystic, re-enforcing the lie with disturbing ease, although there had been nothing in Elktons character that suggested a propensity for deception. "Its generous of you to spell my priests in their labors. Theyre very close to exhaustion themselves."
Gabrielle nodded, apparently sated by the performance. "I can see that." The scent of freshly-baked bread wafted up from the flight of stone steps leading to the kitchens and for once, it was Xenas stomach, and not Gabrielles, that was heard to complain.
Elkton seized on the moment, using it to deflect further inquiries. "Thats Hesperos nutbread...best eaten while its hot. Kitchens just down these steps, mind how you go." He inhaled deeply and smiled. "You like nutbread, Xena?"
"I like it well enough," conceded Xena, a little irritated at so obvious a diversionary tactic. "Gabrielles the real connoisseur," she said with a concealed glimmer of humor.
"Oh, ha, ha, Xena. You know Ive sworn off nutbread for Solstice," replied Gabrielle with commendable flippancy.
"Hesperos!" called Elkton as they entered the kitchen proper.
Hesperos, the cook, dusted in a fine layer of flour, looked up from the fat lump of dough he was kneading. His face, lighting on Elkton, registered a mixture of undisguised irritation and contempt. "Yes. Elkton."
"Food for a famished warrior and her companion," ordered the mystic, stepping aside to reveal his guests. "You may remember --"
"Xena..." Hesperos met Xenas unflinching gaze, then nodded towards Gabrielle, "And Gabrielle...yes, I remember."
Gabrielle advanced a step on the cook. "I know you," she breathed.
A riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a puzzle
"Youre Manus assistant..."
"Was his assistant..." corrected Hesperos, chafing his hands together rather deliberately; little ropes of raw dough fell through his fingers to the stone floor. "Now a humble cook..."
Xena clasped her companions shoulder, moving her aside as she stepped up to Hesperos. Her sharp eyes appraised him critically. "From temple priest to cook...how does that happen?" She turned to Elkton. "Elkton, this man is partially responsible for the deaths of a half dozen girls; he should be in jail, at the least."
"Xena, Xena," soothed Elkton, taking the warrior by the elbow and steering her towards a chair.
"The poorest use of a man is to kill him; the second poorest is to label him unsalvageable.
Hesperos has seen the folly of his alliance with Manus and has repented." Elkton graciously seated Gabrielle at the table. "Today, the most he can be accused of is letting the tea steep too long." He gave a sideways glance to Hesperos. "He may, at some point in the distant future, regain his title and privileges as a temple priest, but for now, he is working to prove himself. Isnt that right, Hesperos?"
Hesperos, far from contrite, merely countered, "My tea...is always perfect."
Elkton, to his credit, was unflappable. "I think you might check on the others in the infirmary; theres every chance the sweet aroma of your wonderful nutbread has roused the sleepers."
"I doubt it, old man," retorted Hesperos, invulnerable to the old mystics brand of flattery, but before leaving, the conscienscous cook took a moment to cover the rising dough with a cloth.
"Rehabilitation through better baking," quipped Gabrielle once Hesperos had left the room.
"Yeah. Original idea," said Xena, setting her saddle bags and Gabrielles pouch aside. "How does that work, Elkton?"
"I must confess, Xena, that while my stomach has reaped the rewards of Hesperos redemption, my spirit has yet to feel the impact." Elkton ladled generous amounts of thick stew into wooden bowls. "You dont have to trust him, Xena, to enjoy the fruits of his labor."
"It might make it go down a little easier," Xena replied, turning her attention to the food being set before her; the stew -- a concoction of fresh vegetables, thick gravy and a generous amount of lamb did smell wonderful.
Elkton set a mug down in front of her. "Eat," he ordered, placing a spoon into her hand. "And then well talk." He set a knife and a loaf of piping hot bread down on the table between the women.
"Nutbread...mmm..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "Its been a long time..." she said as she sliced into the bread. Xena allowed herself a smile at the bards enthusiastic attack on the hot nutbread while bringing a spoonful of the rich stew to her own lips.
His guests served, Elkton sat down heavily in a chair and rubbed his tired eyes. When he looked up, he found himself the object of Xenas scrutiny. "Im sorry. Did you say something, Xena?"
Xena swallowed. "I said the stew is good, and you look like Tartarus warmed over."
Elkton feigned interest in the dirty floor. "Talk to me, Elkton. Whats happening with the villagers?"
"The villagers are just a symptom of something bigger...something...malevolent," replied the mystic, running a hand over his face. "Were not sure exactly what, but whatever it is, has taken hold of the dreamscape."
Xena crooked an eyebrow. "Manus?" She remembered that not only had the mystic been very powerful, but that he had been among Morpheus most favored until his fall from grace.
"You remember that Manus was banished into his own dreamscape," said Elkton, pulling a stray thread from his robe. "His body, what had been the vessel for that pitiful black soul, lays in the crypt beneath the temple, under guard night and day."
"Why under guard? I thought he would be dead by now," Xena said.
"Ordinarily, yes, the body would dehydrate and die within a matter of hours. The councils view was Wheres the punishment in that? so special conditions were devised to apply to members of the order who are banished to the Dreamscape."
Youre transparent, old man! Sanitizing your deeds with clinicisms.
"Special conditions..." murmured Gabrielle, her fingers beating a frenetic tattoo on the tabletop. "Set down by you?"
Elkton greeted her deprecation with an innocuous smile. "I was among those who set the conditions, yes," he admitted, turning his eyes once again to the floor. "The banishment ritual commends the body to an altered state in the hopes they will someday see the error of their ways and return to us, forgiven and again favored by the Dream God Brothers."
"What happens if they don't repent?" asked Xena, noting Gabrielles agitation. "Do you just let them linger in that state?"
"If at the end of the High Priest's time the condemned has not repented, then the Sword of Psyche is used to destroy the body, severing the condemneds last tie with the flesh." He noted, with interest, Gabrielle watching him from her place at the table. "What is it, child?"
"Nothing," she replied, turning her attentions back to the bowl of stew before her. "Its nothing."
"Oh," countered Elkton, "but it must be something. Youve denied it twice."
Inside Gabrielles head, Manus soft, terrible voice played out a self-serving monologue, alternately comforting and threatening, coaxing and cajoling. It held her in a stranglehold. It assaulted barriers, scaled walls and breached dams she had constructed to delay him. Surrender, much to Manus surprise came in the form of an impassioned defense of him. "Its just..." she stammered, word seeking. "You keep referring to him as the condemned." She looked up and regarded Elkton with undisguised contempt. "Yet, you havent granted Manus the release of death. His torment is without end."
"Only so long as he remains unrepentant, child," countered Elkton.
Xena was quietly astounded. "Gabrielle, Manus was responsible for the death of a half dozen young girls. Do I have to remind you that you were nearly number seven?"
"Im not defending him or what he did, Xena..."
Silence! Be silent now! I am not ready to be revealed!
"It was justice, child," argued Elkton calmly.
Gabrielle shook her head in disgust. "I wouldnt wish your justice on my worst enemy."
Oh, child...crooned Manus, clucking his tongue. Subtlety is not your gift...continue and she would play upon you like a lyre.
"Even Callisto was shown more mercy than that." She picked up the knife and stabbed at the loaf of bread cooling before her. "At least her death was quick."
Xena ground her fingernails into her palms; Gabrielle couldnt have chosen a more unfortunate analogy. She fought back the acid rejoinder knocking at her teeth and moved instead to change the subject. "Elkton," she said sharply. "What is it you need me to do?"
Elkton was slow to respond, his gaze fixed on the troubled young woman seated at the end of the table. "Xena, yes, I...your duty here would depend on a number of things..."
In her state of agitation, Gabrielle was keenly aware of two pairs of eyes on her as she picked disconsolately at her food. Presently, she pushed her bowl away and said, "Oh, for Gaias sake, Xena, now youve got Elkton doing it!"
Chewing thoughtfully on her food, Xena made no attempt to defend herself. She merely paused, spoon in midflight, and regarded her companion with quiet irritation. "Doing what?"
"Watching me!" Gabrielle sputtered, pushing away from the table. "Its like youre waiting for me to come apart!"
"Well, admit it. Youve hardly been the epitome of consistent behavior."
Elkton, at that moment, chose to play the unpopular role of peacemaker. "Ladies, please.
Let us not forget that you are the very best of friends and --"
"My memory is perfect!" argued Gabrielle. "Ask her if she remembers leaving me at the crossroads? Ask her if she remembers me begging her to come back with me so I wouldnt have to face Perdicus family alone?!"
Tread softly now, child, cautioned Manus. Think. Step back and let me in...this is not the route I would have you pursue...
Gabrielle leaned over the table, fingers splayed on its rough surface and leveled her gaze at Xena. "Youre a coward." Three calculated words which had a visible effect on Xena. She reacted as if struck, her eyes narrowing into the steely gaze that made enemies tremble.
Elkton couldnt help but notice that Gabrielle seemed delighted by the response. "Thats enough, child," he said, taking hold of her arm. "Sit down before the damage becomes irreparable."
Meddling old fool!
Gabrielle shook loose Elktons grasp. "Stay out of this!" she threatened evenly before turning back towards Xena. "Whats wrong, Xena? Afraid you cant win a battle of words?" Xena wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and pushed away from the table. But she offered no verbal defense. Gabrielle sneered. "You wear the sword and the chakram and you are almighty in battle, that I have to give you. But when it comes to words, you are a clumsy warrior wielding unfamiliar weapons."
Oh, said Manus appreciatively. I am impressed.
Like a boulder rolling down a steep hill, Gabrielles verbal assault had momentum, an advantage she was determined to press. "Come on, Warrior Princess..." she spat, her voice heavy with contempt. "Hit me." She offered her chin. "Show me Im not wrong about you!"
Elkton renewed his efforts to bring civility to the proceedings. "Xena, if you will not stop this,
Xena stilled him with an upraised hand and when she spoke, her voice was even and controlled. "Elkton, this is between Gabrielle and me."
"Oh, you are so right, Xena," retorted Gabrielle.
Child...I tire...I need you to stop this...now. Manus voice, faint and fading, but laced with desperation, too. Step back, find your still point as I taught you.
There was a weighty pause before Gabrielle spoke again. "Its been a long time coming."
Xena stood up and advanced on the bard in purposeful strides. It gave her no satisfaction at all to see her friend recoil at her approach. "You know, Gabrielle, Ive overlooked a few things because I figured youd been through a lot, but Ive never claimed to have bottomless patience with things that annoy me."
"Why do you sound so defensive, Xena?"
"Why are you baiting me?" retorted the warrior.
"Only a guilty conscience would see the truth as provocation."
"Excuse me!" said Elkton, placing his considerable bulk between the two women. "May
I say something?"
Xena merely blinked passively at Elkton. Gabrielle exhaled impatiently and barked, "What!?"
Elkton turned to Gabrielle with a smile on his lips. "You have a smudge, my dear..." He said, running his thumb across her brow. "...just there..." Before his thumb had completed its passage, Gabrielle buckled at the knees and collapsed into his waiting arms.
"Gabrielle!" Xena raced to her friends side and helped Elkton deposit her on a bench against the wall. Alarmed, Xena rolled back Gabrielles eyelids with the ball of her thumb, felt the racing pulse at her throat. "Elkton, what did you do to her?"
"My dear, Xena, its what I am attempting to un-do." He drew a three-legged stool up beside the bench and adopted a soft, sibilant whisper. "Gabrielle, do you hear me?"
She nodded slow comprehension. Master! Are you there?
"Sit up, child," instructed Elkton and Gabrielle obeyed without delay, rising to a seated position, her eyes closed. "Its just as I thought," he marveled. "Youve been here before. Xena, pass me that candle."
Xena retrieved a short votive from the table; she felt the spatter of hot melted wax on the webbing between thumb and forefinger and only then did she realize she was trembling. She was visibly unsettled, even as she crouched at Gabrielles knees and regarded her companion, quietly awed. "Im impressed, Elkton. Ive never seen anyone go under so quickly before. Is she asleep?"
Elkton relieved Xena of the candle. "In a manner of speaking...in some ways, shes more fully aware that she has ever been."
"I thought you said --"
"Yes, to sleep is dangerous, unless one has liberty to come and go from the dreamscape at will."
Xena pursed her lips into a quirky smile and said, "Hesperos appears well rested."
Elkton grinned. "I was wondering if youd notice." He cleared his throat and adopted a professional, almost clinical tone of voice. "Gabrielle, open your eyes." The bard complied immediately. Elkton passed the flame before her, mere inches from her face; her green eyes stared vacant, aimless and unaware of the flame. "Raise your right hand." Gabrielles small hand rose and hovered at chest height. Elkton smiled in satisfaction as the bard was his to command. Trading the candle for a knife from the table, he took her outstretched hand in his and as Xena watched, he lightly ran the razor sharp blade the length of Gabrielles palm. Even as the blood rose in tiny crimson beads, the girl showed no reaction. "Thats very good, my dear," he crooned, pleased to see the cut was already clotting. "You can put your hand down now." Elkton looked sideways at Xena, his tone and manner apologetic. "I had to make absolutely certain," he said, setting the knife on the bench.
"Certain of what?"
"Certain of the extent of the conditioning. Its an impressive accomplishment," said Elkton thoughtfully, his voice simultaneously edged with wonder and disgust. "Hes taken what was a form of healing and turned it into something pervasive and self-serving."
"You mean Manus."
"Hes the logical suspect, yes. He excelled at the art of directed dreaming. Now, lets see what sort of information we can glean from your friend here." Coolly professional, he inquired of the bard, "Gabrielle, what is your reward?"
"Peace," she answered in a monotone.
On the heels of her reply, he spoke from the well-worn script in his head. "Peace in what form?"
"Peace in the Masters arms."
"The Master," echoed Xena, seizing on the word. "Ask her if its Manus."
"Gabrielle...whom do you serve?"
The bards countenance, formerly blank, gave just the slightest signs of cracking. Master! her mind screamed. Help me! "Help me..." came a minimal, plaintive response.
Xena squeezed Gabrielles knee in relief. "Gabrielle, I want to help you," she said passionately. "Tell me how." Gabrielle regained her composure and again fixed her eyes blankly forward.
Elkton sighed. "Manus hold is strong."
"Gabrielles in there somewhere, Elkton. Ask again."
Elkton reacted with weary patience. "Xena, please..." he admonished. "This job is best left to a professional." In deference to her wounded expression, he said, "I simply mean that youre too close to it...a successful bridge requires a cool head, and a trained voice. And if were to get anything at all useful from her, a certain procedure must be followed. I know I might be taking my life in my hands here but, please...shut up."
Xenas chiseled features fretted themselves into a look of vague surprise. She moved to a corner of the table and with an airy wave of her hand, relegated herself to the position of bystander.
Though the warrior gave no outward sign, Elkton knew that his request had galled her, but there was no time for lesser casualties. Slowly, using his skills as a facilitator, he pushed deeper into Gabrielles subconscious. "Gabrielle, do you hear me?" She nodded. "I'm your friend, and you can trust me. Xena's here, too." He took note of the tremble of her hands, how they alternately clenched and unclenched in her lap, but whether it arose from anger or fear, he didnt know. "We want to help you, but you must answer my questions as theyre put to you, do you understand?" Again, a compliant nod. "And so, if I ask you again, whom do you serve, you will speak the name." Nod. "Say it for me, Gabrielle. Yes, or no."
Manus voice, not much more than a faint whisper, still found the strength to berate his enemy. Why must you hear it from her lips, old man? I know you suspect. Do you think the admission will free her? You are simple indeed if thats your game.
"Y--yes..." murmured the bard, her face slick with perspiration from the utterance. "Yes."
"Now, child," said Elkton, leaning forward in his seat. "Whom do you serve?"
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