Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
by Cobra II
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Cyrene and Argo belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The other characters are mine and mine, alone, and I retain the rights to them.
This is a G-rated story -- no sex or extreme violence.
I want to thank my two wonderful editors, GabTBard and BatMorda, who have made some fantastic suggestions to make this story more palatable. If you spot errors, or if you just want to make a comment or two, I would be most appreciative.
And now, "Woman-Child":
Argo's feet raised a small cloud of dust as she plodded along the road. Xena pulled back on the reins and dismounted, patting her golden steed on the neck.
"Is something wrong?" Gabrielle asked.
The taller woman shook her head. "No. I just want to walk for a while. Too much riding and a warrior gets soft," she smiled. "Besides, I want to give Argo a break."
"Well, gods forbid that Xena the Warrior Princess should go soft." Gabrielle took the strap of the water skin from around the saddlehorn, opened it and took a long drink. "That's good," she said as she offered the skin to her companion. Xena shook her head no. Gabrielle took another drink, then put the skin back. "Aren't we near Amphipolis?" She asked. "Maybe we could stay at your mother's inn?"
"A mile or two. We're not going there, though. This is mother's busy season, and she won't have time to spend with us, or any beds to give away."
"So where are we going?"
"There's a small lake about a mile from town. I know a very nice place we can camp, and relax. You might even take the time to write down some of the tales you've entertained me with, recently. We'll take a shopping trip into town so you can get parchment and ink then, and at least say hello to mother, and maybe get some of her lamb stew." Xena stopped and listened, then pulled Gabrielle over to the side of the road. Less than a minute later, a horse and rider appeared coming from the direction of town, travelling very fast. When the rider saw Xena, he reined in quickly.
"Xena!" he shouted.
"Altus! How are you? What's the hurry?" Xena stepped forward with a smile on her face.
The boy was trying to catch his breath. "Slavers! In Amphipolis!" Xena didn't need to hear any more. She vaulted onto Argo's back and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. "Hold on tight, Gabrielle!" Argo lurched forward, Barcus close behind her.
The two horses covered the distance to Amphipolis in very short order. Xena swung a leg over Argo's neck as she came to a stop, pulling her sword from its scabbard as she ran toward a large soldier driving a townsman to the dirt. Xena's kick to the soldier's knee and a punch to his throat caused the slaver to fall to the ground, writhing in pain. Gabrielle slid off Argo's rump and landed unceremoniously on her behind. She scrambled to her feet, grabbed her staff, and ran into the fray. She quickly dispatched two of the attackers into unconsciousness. With her sword flashing in the sunlight, Xena parried with the last of the slavers, deflecting blow after blow from his sword. The sound of steel on steel was becoming tiresome to the former warlord. Quickly, she rolled away from the descending blade and rose to her feet. Her opponent charged at Xena holding his sword at arm's length, aiming for her midsection. She easily sidestepped the clumsy charge, tripped the man, and gave him a blow on the back of his head with the hilt of her sword. He fell in a heap at her feet. The warrior lowered her sword and looked around.
Cyrene emerged from the inn, holding her left arm. "Xena!" she called.
"Mother!" Xena resheathed her sword as she ran to the inn. "What's wrong with your arm?"
"I think one of these ruffians broke it." Xena led her mother to a chair by the door.
"Do you want me to set it for you?" her daughter asked. Cyrene nodded. Xena looked around and found a couple of small sticks. She took her breast dagger and cut a long strip of fabric from Cyrene's underskirt, then cut it into several smaller strips. She went back to her mother. "I'm going to deaden the pain so that I can do this without hurting you." Again Cyrene nodded. Xena pinched the nerve at the base her mother's neck. "Are you all right?"
"The pain is gone."
"Unfortunately, it won't be that way after I release you." Xena took her mother's arm, held it on both sides of the break, and pulled the bones back into alignment. Then she began splinting the arm. Gabrielle came up as Xena was tying the first knot. "What's the situation, Gabrielle?"
"Five of the townspeople were taken. Four men and one woman. One of the men we captured said he took this off the woman before she was taken away." Gabrielle held out a crudely made necklace. It was a well-worn strip of leather with a wooden symbol dangling from it. Xena glanced at it, looked back at her mother's arm, then grabbed the necklace from Gabrielle's hand.
"Shiron..." Xena whispered. "Gabrielle, which slaver did you take this from?"
Gabrielle pointed to a group of men in the middle of the town square. All the men were tied together and being guarded by a couple of the townsmen. "The one with the dirty red tunic. Why?"
Xena began striding away, calling back over her shoulder, "Finish splinting mother's arm. I'll be right back." Since the town square was so small, she reached the prisoners quickly. Xena grabbed the front of the man's tunic and pushed him back against a wagon. "I want some answers, and I want them now. Where are these people being taken?"
The slaver spit at Xena's feet. "I'm not telling you nothing, whore." Xena brought her hands up as though to place them around the man's neck, then three quick, hard jabs and the man was on his knees.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. And if I don't release you, you're going to die. Now, do I need to repeat the question?"
Gasping, he shook his head no. "They're going to the mines at Adrian, about a half day's ride east of here. Barcon needed four men to increase production."
"And what about the woman?"
"She's going to be breeding stock. One of his breeders died in childbirth last week."
Xena clenched her teeth.
"Barcon had already broken camp when we got here. They've probably already arrived at the mines."
She released the man and he fell on his face, gasping. "You'd better pray to whatever gods you believe in that I get those people back. Because if I don't, I will kill you, and you don't want me to do that." Xena walked back over to her mother. Gabrielle was finishing the last strip. Xena inspected her work and nodded her approval. "Mother, I'm going to release the nerves, now, and it's going to hurt." Cyrene nodded and Xena reversed the numbing process. Gabrielle caught Cyrene as she pitched forward when the pain returned.
"I'm all right, now, Gabrielle," Cyrene gasped. "What did that man say, Xena?"
Xena sighed. "They're probably already at the mines. They took Shiron for breeding stock." There was a sadness in her voice that Gabrielle had never heard before.
"Shiron?" Gabrielle asked. "Who's Shiron?"
Cyrene looked at Xena, who was staring off to the east, then began to speak. "Xena and Shiron grew up together. But Shiron was different from the other children. She was slow. She was born with something wrong with her brain. While the rest of the children grew up, she stayed five years old in her mind. Xena became her protector. When the other children tormented Shiron, Xena stood up for her." Cyrene took a deep breath. "Xena made that necklace for Shiron before she left to fight Cortese. Shiron has never taken it off, since."
"When I gave her the necklace, I told her that no matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, if someone brought me this necklace, I would come because it meant she was in trouble and needed me." Xena turned back toward Gabrielle. "She was the one person who never stopped loving me, even when I was a warlord, until you came along." Cyrene looked away from her daughter. "One night, my army and I were camped several miles from here. Shiron walked five miles in the rain to see me, even though someone had stolen her shoes and the ground was really rocky. Just to tell me that she loved me. Just because she had heard I was nearby."
"She washed dishes for me in the inn. It was something she could do, and it helped me out. Whenever a soldier would come into the tavern and start telling of some of the things Xena was doing, she'd get mad and defend her. Shiron got herself into trouble a few times over that...black eyes and bloody noses."
Xena looked at her mother. "I never knew that."
"When Shiron started growing up and the boys began to notice, Xena kept them from taking advantage of her."
Xena smiled. "I remember trying to explain the facts of life to her so she'd know why she shouldn't play with the boys. That's a story and a half." She paused and a look of concern crossed her face. "Mother, I have to go get her back before she 'gets bred' as they put it."
"Go, Xena. I'll be fine," her mother answered.
"You're not going anywhere without me!" Gabrielle picked up her staff as Xena looked at her. "Hey, Xena, if she's a friend of yours, she's a friend of mine, OK?" Gabrielle disassembled her staff and put it in its sling on Argo's saddle.
Xena took Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Gabrielle, you don't have to go if you don't want to. I really could use your help on this one, but you're under no obligation to go."
Gabrielle nodded. "OK." She walked over to Argo and patted her on the neck. "Be gentle with me, horse." Xena smiled.
"Mother, we'll be back as soon as we can," Xena said as she gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. She walked over, mounted Argo and gave Gabrielle a hand up behind her. "Hold on tight, Gabrielle." Gabrielle tightened her arms around Xena's waist as Argo took off.
"The gods be with you, daughter," Cyrene whispered.
Argo picked her way up a rocky trail, making certain each step was secure. Loose pebbles made the going tricky. When they reached the top of the hill, Xena stopped the horse and looked down into the valley below. On the mountain opposite, Xena saw an opening to a mine shaft. The area in front of the black hole was littered with small huts, several corrals, and an ornate tent.
"The tent is Barcon's," Xena said to Gabrielle. "The larger huts are where the breeding stock is kept."
"Why are they called breeding stock, Xena?"
Xena took a deep breath before answering. "Breeding stock are those female slaves the owner feels will produce strong healthy babies. They're bred by any of the mine owner's men who want. The idea is to produce more slaves. The children are put to work in the mines at about the age of four--the little ones can crawl into places the grownups can't."
"Four years old? That's so little!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "So that's why Barcon wanted Shiron--so she'd have babies?"
"Yes. The problem is, I'm not sure how much of what I told her Shiron remembers. And Barcon will be the first to do her if he holds to what other slavers do. Gods know what that will do to her. I don't know if she can handle it mentally, Gabrielle."
"So what's the plan?" Xena swung her leg over Argo's neck, jumped down, and helped Gabrielle down.
"First thing, we've got to get Shiron out of there. I'm going to go down there and scout things out. You stay here and find us a place to camp where we can rest until nightfall. Some place where we won't be seen from down there." She handed her friend Argo's reins. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Be careful." Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's arm and gave her an affectionate look, then turned and made her way down to the mining camp. Gabrielle watched her back for a while, then turned to Argo. "Let's go find someplace to set up, Argo. With lots of nice grass for you." She began looking for a good spot.
Xena crouched down behind some barrels beside one of the smaller huts. This was something that would have better been done under cover of darkness, but she had to know what she was up against. Carefully, she peeked over the windowsill. A worker was sleeping on a cot. She looked around to make sure the coast was clear, then scurried over to another hut. Another window. Another hut, another window. After she had checked all the small huts, she carefully made her way to one of the larger huts. As she started to look over the window sill, she heard voices approaching and ducked back out of sight.
"I tell ya old Barcon was disappointed with the wench we captured today." The slaver took a swig from the bottle he was carrying.
"What was wrong with her?" his companion asked.
"She ain't right in the head. Talks like a little kid." Another drink. "We hafta get him another one by tomorrow night. He refuses to breed this one."
Thank the gods, Xena thought.
"What's he gonna do with her, then?" the second slaver asked grabbing the bottle from his friend. "It's not like we have time to ask every woman if she's tetched in the haid."
"He's sending her in the mine, tomorrow. One of those unfortunate accidents that happen to troublesome slaves, don't cha know?"
"Hey, if Barcon don't want her, why don't we go breed her?"
"I may be drunk but I'm not crazy. You know the rules. If Barcon don't breed 'em, we don't breed 'em. And I prefer to keep my private parts attached to my body."
"Okay, okay. I just figured as long as we were here..." Their voices faded as they walked away. Xena watched them until they were out of sight, then walked carefully to the door. Checking one more time, Xena slipped inside the building.
A guard was sitting at a table by the door, dozing. Xena quietly walked up behind him and gave him a chop to the back of the head. He tumbled forward onto the table, unconscious.
The building was lined on either side with three cells, each containing no fewer than six women. There was straw on the floor to provide the rudiments of bedding and a large pot in one corner served as a toilet. A bucket with a dipper sat on the floor outside each cell. Xena went over to the closest cell. A pregnant woman, wearing little more than rags spoke to her. "Are you here to get us out?"
Xena nodded. "Yes, but it will be later tonight. Right now, I need some information."
"Anything to get out of here. Not even Hades, himself would want to live like this."
"When do they change guard shifts?"
"After dinner. At night, there are three of them here. One at each end and one in the middle."
"What about guards outside?"
"I don't know. We never see them."
"How many of you are there?"
"With the new one they brought in today, thirty-six." She anticipated Xena's next question. "Twelve of us are with child."
"Have you seen a woman about my age but with the mind of a child?"
"Yes. She's in the cell on the end on the other side." Xena glanced over but couldn't see anything. "What's wrong with that one?"
Xena looked at her. "What do you mean?"
"She's in some kind of trance or something. She just keeps saying 'I lost my necklace' over and over again."
Xena nodded, looked around, picked up the keys that were lying on the table by the unconscious guard, and went over to the cell the woman had indicated. She unlocked the door and went in. Shiron was sitting in a corner, her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking back and forth. "I'm going to get all of you out after dark," she explained to the other women in the cell, "but I need to talk to Shiron."
"That's more than we knew before," one answered. "We couldn't even get her to say her name." Xena gave the woman an understanding smile, then went over to her friend and knelt beside her.
"Shiron?" she said softly. She took Shiron's chin in her hand and turned the tear-stained face toward her so Shiron would have to look at her. "Shiron, it's me."
"Xena!!!!" Shiron started to squeal but Xena put her hand over Shiron's mouth.
"Be a mouse, Shiron. OK?" Shiron nodded and Xena took her hand away. Shiron jumped up and grabbed Xena in a big hug, which Xena returned. When they parted, Xena put her hands on Shiron's upper arms. "Are you all right?"
Shiron nodded half-heartedly. "I'm scared, Xena." She dropped her head in shame. "I was a bad girl."
"Why do you say that?"
"I lost the necklace you made me." Xena reached into the belt on her leathers, brought the necklace out, and showed it to Shiron. "You found it!!!" Xena put her finger to her lips to shush Shiron. "You found it," Shiron whispered. Xena put it back around Shiron's neck.
"I told you when I gave it to you that if you were in trouble to get it to me somehow and I'd be back. It came to me, and here I am."
"Thank you, Xena. I love you."
"I love you, too, Shiron."
"Xena, can we go home, now? I don't like it here."
Xena looked at Shiron. "I'm going to have to go away for a little while, but I'll be back when it's dark outside."
The woman Xena had spoken to when she first entered the cell came over to her. "You're Xena?" Xena nodded. "Xena, if you DO love her, take her out of here, now, and forget the rest of us. I don't know that we'd be able to protect her if one of the paid miners came in and wanted to breed her." Xena sighed and nodded.
Xena answered, "But I give you my word I WILL be back for the rest of you. Can you cover for her until I return?"
"No problem. We can say she's in being bred by someone else, if they ask. One thing that the miners don't want to do is share the women. Those who have tried have been killed."
Xena turned to Shiron. "OK. I'm going to take you with me, now. But you're going to have to do exactly what I say, and be as quiet as you possibly can. Will you do that, Shiron?"
"Quiet as a mouse?"
"Even quieter than that. Will you do that for me?" Shiron nodded. Xena took Shiron out the cell door and turned to relock it. "I WILL be back after dark. It will be safer then. Just do whatever you normally do until I return."
"The gods be with you until you return, Xena," one prisoner said. The other captives echoed the sentiment as Xena and Shiron walked to the door. Xena cracked the door and looked out to see if the coast was clear. When it was, she and Shiron slipped out.
The guard sat up very suddenly. "Oh, my head."
"That's what you get for drinking before you come on duty," the woman Xena had first spoken to said. "You passed out. Anyone could have come in here, and you wouldn't have known it."
"Shut up, wench!" he snarled. She turned away from him and smiled to her compatriot. Their spirits had been lifted knowing they would soon be out of their prisons. In the cell where Shiron had been incarcerated, one woman sat by herself watching the guard, trying to catch his attention without being observed. When he finally looked at her, the prisoner gave him a signal and he nodded. Xena quietly shut the door and led Shiron away, thinking about what she had just witnessed.
Xena and Shiron stopped to rest on their way up the mountain. Shiron hadn't spoken a word since they'd left the mining camp, maintaining her promise to the warrior she loved so well. Xena looked back toward the camp, trying to figure out how she was going to get around the traitorous behavior she had witnessed before they left.
"Xena," Shiron whispered softly. Xena jumped at the slight noise and reached for her sword, then looked at her companion and smiled.
"Shiron, you can talk now. You were a good little mouse." She put her hand on the woman's cheek.
"Xena, I gotta go potty."
"Oh, um, all right." Xena looked around and spotted a small thicket of bushes. "Over there. Can you go by yourself?"
"What if one of those bad men come again?"
"I'll be right here, standing guard." Shiron nodded and went over to the bushes Xena had pointed to. She smiled as Shiron tried to find a place that was private, then sat on a stump to wait. Xena let her thoughts wander back to a time when Shiron was ten and Xena was twelve years old.
The two children were walking through the village square, Xena's taller figure striding forcefully as Shiron was running to keep up. Xena had a look of rage on her face.
"Xena," the young Shiron asked. "Why are you so mad at me?" Xena didn't answer her. "XENA!!!" she yelled. Xena stopped and looked back at her.
"Come, on, Shiron. We have to talk." Xena took her hand and led her into the inn and up to the bedroom they shared whenever Shiron stayed with them. Shiron sat on her cot, her hands folded in her lap, eyes on the floor, afraid to look at her idol. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. All she knew was that her only friend was very mad at her and had been ever since she had found Shiron and Cyrus in the hayloft of the livery stable.
Xena was pacing back and forth in the small space of their room, trying to calm down, but also trying to find the right words to say so that Shiron would understand why it was wrong to take her shift off around boys their own age. Xena stopped pacing when she heard a muffled sob from Shiron. She sat on the cot and took Shiron's hands in hers.
"Shiron, you did a bad thing," Xena began gently, "but it wasn't really your fault." Shiron snuffled and Xena handed her a rag. "Blow your nose." Shiron did as she was told and handed the rag back to Xena, who tossed it on the floor.
"We were just playing house, and Cyrus said that's what his mommy does for his daddy is take her clothes off," Shiron explained.
"That's just it, Shiron. It's a mommy and daddy thing, not a kid thing."
"But what about Andian? She takes her clothes off for men and she's not a mommy." Xena was surprised that Shiron knew about the village prostitute.
"How do you know that?" Xena asked.
"I was sitting on the hill behind her house and a man went in and her curtains were open."
"You WATCHED them?!?!?!?" Xena was incredulous. "When was this?"
Xena sighed. "Tell me about what you saw." Shiron told her friend what she had seen the day before. Xena realized she was going to have to ask Cyrene to have a talk with Andian about leaving the curtains open in the back of the hut she lived in. When Shiron finished her narration, Xena sighed again. "Shiron, do you know what they were doing?"
"Cyrus said that's how a mommy and a daddy make babies. They take their clothes off and lie in bed together. If only one of them takes their clothes off, there's no baby."
"Well, that's kind of it." Xena explained the procreation process to her friend, wondering just how much she understood. Shiron listened very carefully, interrupting once or twice to ask questions. When she was done, Xena asked Shiron if she understood.
"Don't you love me no more, Xena?"
"Oh, Shiron," Xena said as she gathered the younger girl in her arms. "Of course I still love you. But you have to stop letting the boys touch you and look at you. And unless you're with me, or mother, or one of the other women in the village, or with the healer, you leave your clothes on, do you understand?"
"Yes, Xena," Shiron answered. "Just please don't ever stop loving me."
"Shiron, I will love you forever." Xena took Shiron's chin in her hand, bent the girl's face up to hers, and gently kissed her. They lay down on the cot and Shiron fell asleep in Xena's arms.
"Xena." Shiron's voice brought her back to reality and she stood up.
"Are you ready to go?" Xena asked. Shiron nodded. "We have to go find my friend Gabrielle. She's making camp for us."
"Is Gabrielle nice?" Shiron asked as they started back on their journey.
"Gabrielle is very nice," Xena said, thinking of how much the young bard had changed her life. "You'll like her--she tells stories, and she knows a lot of them." They rounded a bend in the path and saw Argo.
Gabrielle had built a fire, caught some fish in a nearby stream and had them cooking. She smiled when she saw the warrior striding into camp.
"Hi!" She stood up. "What did you find?" It was then that she noticed the woman behind her friend. "Shiron?" she looked at Xena quizzically.
Xena nodded. "Shiron, come here." Shiron ran to catch up with Xena, saw Gabrielle, and shyly hid behind the leather-clad warrior. Xena pulled her out to face Gabrielle. "She gets a little shy around people she doesn't know," she explained to Gabrielle, who nodded. "Shiron, this is my friend Gabrielle. The one I told you about."
Shiron looked at the ground, not wanting to face the stranger. "H'lo," she whispered. She tugged on Xena's shoulder to whisper to her. Gabrielle looked at Xena questioningly as a smile spread across Xena's face.
"No," Xena said. "You have to ask her. That's the only way you two are going to be friends." She gave Shiron a little push toward Gabrielle. "Go on..."
"Gabr'el, will you tell me a story?"
"Please," Xena whispered as Gabrielle let a smile creep across her face.
"Please tell me a story," Shiron corrected.
Gabrielle held her hand out to Shiron. "Come over here and sit down, and I'll tell you a story about Xena and Sintaclees."
"Sintaclees? REALLY?" Shiron was warming up to Gabrielle. She turned to Xena. "Xena, do you REALLY know Sintaclees?"
"I sure do, and Gabrielle does, too. She'll tell you all about it while I go check on Argo." Shiron followed Gabrielle to a log where they both sat down. Xena smiled at the two of them, then walked over to the palomino and began brushing her glossy coat..
"We met Sintaclees on Solstice Eve when an orphan boy stole Xena's chakram..."
"The round sharp thing," Shiron explained to no one.
Gabrielle nodded and went on. Xena listened as she took care of Argo, then sat and tried to formulate a plan to rescue the men and other women who were being held captive.
Night had enveloped the mountain like a blanket. Tendrils of fog began forming among the trees in the forest. A small area was illuminated by the fire Gabrielle had built. The three women had eaten their fill and were sitting on logs. Xena had spread out their bedrolls, using part of hers to make a place for Shiron. Gabrielle was finishing yet another story for Shiron.
"And so after I read the chant the right way, the Titans went back to being stone and everyone was saved."
Shiron had hung on every word Gabrielle had spoken. "Wow!" she whispered. She was quiet for a moment, squirmed, and then turned to Xena. "Xena, do you still have your meddies?"
"Of course, Shiron. What's wrong?" Xena picked up her bag of herbs and knelt between Shiron and Gabrielle.
"My back hurts. It feels like it's on fire." Xena loosened the laces on Shiron's shirt and removed it, then turned Shiron. Her back was criss-crossed with welts that could only have been made by a whip. Gabrielle gasped and Xena became very angry. Finding the herbs she was looking for, she handed them to the bard.
"Gabrielle, put these leaves in some water and make some tea out of them." Gabrielle took the leaves. Turning back to Shiron, Xena dressed the welts with some salve. Shiron whimpered every once in a while, but didn't cry despite the obvious pain she was in. "Shiron," Xena said softly after she regained control of her anger, "Who did this to you?"
"The man that lives in the big tent where we were today."
"Did he say why?"
"He got mad because of something I told him."
"What did you tell him?" Xena asked.
"That you said that what he wanted to do was a bad thing." She lowered her head and said very softly, "He wanted to do the mommy and daddy thing." She began crying softly. "You said it was bad and I didn't want to make you mad." She whimpered again.
"I'm sorry, Shiron. You know I don't mean to hurt you."
"I know, Xena." Xena moved to put Shiron's shirt back on her. "Xena, can I leave it off? It feels gooder without it."
"All right, Shiron, but just until the tea takes effect. I don't want you to catch a cold." Gabrielle brought a cup of the herbal tea to Shiron.
"I cooled it so you could drink it easier," Gabrielle said as she handed her the cup. Shiron sniffed it and wrinkled her nose. "I know. It smells pretty bad, doesn't it? But you know, if you drink it all gone, it will make the pain go away. Will you do that for me?" Shiron nodded and began drinking. After stopping a couple of times to get her breath, she drained the cup and handed it to Gabrielle.
Xena had put her medicines away and was sitting on Shiron's blanket. Shiron snuggled in next to her hero and before long was asleep. Xena carefully untangled herself from Shiron's embrace, covered her with a blanket, then went to sit by Gabrielle. "You're very good with her, Gabrielle," Xena said in a soft voice.
"Thank you. Of course this is a side of you that I've never seen. Not many people would believe it's really you. Xena, how did she end up that way?"
Xena picked up a stick and played in the fire with it. "She was born that way. Her mother died in childbirth, and Shiron's father did a lot of travelling for his business. Whenever he left, she stayed at the inn with us." She threw the stick into the fire in disgust. "Gods, Gabrielle, he didn't have to beat her just because she's different." Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's shoulder. "By the gods, he will pay."
"I think she worships you."
Xena turned and kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "But only the gods know why." She let out a big sigh. "I've never let her see that other side of me, because she wouldn't understand. She's always been a chink in my armor--the one soft spot I've allowed myself. I've always been afraid one of my enemies would find out about her and try to use her to get to me, much like Callisto uses you to get to me." She sat quietly for a moment. "Well, I guess it's time to go." Both women stood up. "Gabrielle, if you don't hear from me by noon, take Shiron back to Amphipolis, and both of you stay there."
"But Xena..." Gabrielle protested.
"STAY there. That's an order. If I succeed, Barcon's going to be out for revenge and to re-claim his property. And I don't want you in the way of a marauding army."
"How will you contact me?"
"I'll send Argo. She can bring you back to the place we're hiding. I have it picked out, but I'm not going to tell you, just in case..." Her voice trailed off.
"Just in case we get caught, we can't tell them anything."
"Xena, promise me you'll be careful."
Xena nodded and smiled.
"And I'll do everything in my power to protect Shiron, if need be."
"I know." Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder then mounted Argo. "Try to get some sleep." Xena turned and rode out of camp.
"The Gods be with you, Xena." Gabrielle turned, pulled the blanket up over Shiron's shoulders, then lay down on her own bedroll and fell into a fitful sleep.
Xena moved stealthily from shadow to shadow through the camp to the mine entrance. She knew it had been too easy, that the guards had been pulled back from the compound, and that somewhere a trap had been laid, but she also knew that she had to try to get the enslaved men out of the dark hole in the ground. She slipped inside the mouth of the mine and took one of the torches from its holder.
As she moved deeper into the darkness, she began hearing the sounds of picks being swung against rock. She stopped a moment and realized that she hadn't seen any tailings from the mine and wondered where they were going. A mine this size should have produced a mountain of slag. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and just barely had time to react, throwing a foot out sideways and catching the guard in the solar plexus, knocking the breath out of him. Three sharp jabs with her fingers and he was in excruciating pain. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in less than a minute if you don't answer my questions. How many slaves are working?"
"F-F-Fifteen total," he stammered.
"Are all of them in the mine, tonight?"
"How many guards?"
"T-T-Two, b-b-besides m-me," he answered. Xena jabbed his neck again and he sagged to the ground.
"When you're able to move, get out of here and get as far away as you can. Do you understand?" He nodded, gasping, and Xena picked up the torch and went deeper into the mine.
Xena rounded a curve in the tunnel and saw light ahead of her. The clanging of the picks had gotten louder and almost hypnotic in their rhythms. She surveyed the area, then stole quietly forward, being careful not to dislodge any of the loose stones beneath her feet that might create a noise that the picks and shovels could not cover. She stayed close to the mine wall, hiding deep in the shadows, moving closer to the source of the light so she could see what she was up against.
Fifteen men in various states of emaciation were working the mine. Some, the stronger ones, were swinging the picks. The others were carrying buckets of rock to the weakest ones who were sifting through the broken rock, looking for any flecks of gold, then throwing the rejects into a pit in the middle of the cavern. Xena listened for the sound of one of the rejects hitting the bottom of the pit--it was a long time in coming. She then turned her attention to the two guards. They were rather relaxed, laughing and joking, not really paying as close attention as they should have been. Xena was watching them intently and did not hear the quiet footsteps come up behind her. She saw a movement from the corner of her eye and turned in time to see the club just before it hit her, sending her into unconsciousness.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when the sound of a limb being stepped on woke Gabrielle suddenly. She sat up and looked around, quietly reaching for her staff. Shiron came bouncing into the campsite.
"Mornin', Gab'relle," she chirped, a big smile on her face. Gabrielle relaxed and put the staff down.
"Good morning, Shiron. Are you hungry?"
"Yes," she answered as she enthusiastically nodded her head. "Gab'relle, where's Xena?"
"She went to get the men from Amphipolis who are working in that mine." She dug through the saddlebags and found some bread and cheese. She broke off a piece of each and handed them to Shiron, then took some for herself. Shiron sat on a rock and began to eat.
"Gabr'lle, why would that mean man want to keep those men like that?"
"If he keeps them like that, then he doesn't have to pay them."
"In dinars? I know what a dinar is."
"Do you? "
"A dinar is what Cyrene charges everyone else for a mug of cider," Shiron explained. "But she doesn't charge me anything because she likes me."
"That's good. There's nothing worse than being thirsty and not being able to buy something to drink and there's no water around."
Shiron nodded and took another bite of bread. Gabrielle started rolling up the blankets. "G'brielle, what if those men tie Xena up?"
"They can try, but she always has a way of getting out of jams."
"But what if she needs out help and we're not there?"
Gabrielle moved over beside Shiron. "She'll be all right, Shiron. Xena's very good at protecting herself. She'll be back soon." Shiron nodded and took a bite of cheese. Gabrielle finished packing up the bedrolls. "Shiron, will you be all right for a few minutes? I'm going to go get some more firewood."
"I'll be fine," the woman answered. Gabrielle nodded and went into the woods. Shiron sat on the ground for a few minutes, her face screwed up as she thought. Suddenly she stood up, the remainder of her breakfast falling to the ground. She looked in the direction Gabrielle had disappeared, then began walking back the way she and Xena had come in.
The pounding drums in Xena's head grew louder as she began to regain consciousness. While her eyes refused to focus at first, she knew it was just after daybreak because the brightness created a different kind of pain. As her senses began to return, she took stock of her situation.
She was tied to a pole in the middle of the mining camp, her hands bound over her head with stout rope running through a large iron ring attached to the pole.. Her legs were also bound to the pole. Her sword and chakram were gone. She looked around her. She was in the midst of an open space which allowed her to be observed from any point in the camp. The nearest cover was at least 50 meters away. If she was to try to get away, it would have to be under cover of darkness.
As she was thinking, a dark swarthy man exited the large tent across the compound from her and walked over to the captive warrior. "Ah, Xena. We meet again."
"Barcon," Xena answered with a sneer. "I thought I drove you away from this region."
"After I heard you disbanded your army, or rather that they deserted you, I figured this would be a good time to replenish my slave population."
"Perhaps, but I'm going to stop you."
Barcon laughed. "Of course you are," he said derisively. "You're in a really great position to stop me, now aren't you?"
"Don't underestimate me, Barcon. I have a score to settle with you."
"Oh? And what would that be?"
"A beating you gave someone very close to me. You hurt someone I love, and you're going to pay for that with your life."
"You can't possibly mean the imbecile, can you?" Xena nodded. "The mind of a child in the beautiful body of a woman. She should have been put out of her misery long ago. She's not even good breeding stock. I wondered how she managed to escape."
"That was no reason for whipping her. She didn't hurt you. but then, that's your way, isn't it? Hurt people just for the pleasure of hurting them, working them to death in the mines or killing them outright because they serve no purpose for you. You're worse than Cortese or Krykus ever thought to be."
He gallantly bowed to her. "I thank you for the compliment."
"Make no mistake, Barcon, before all this is over and done with, you're going to be dead at my sword."
The warlord laughed heartily. "An empty boast if I ever heard one." He turned to leave, then turned back. "You're in no position to make threats, Xena. But I would like to see you follow through." He again turned away, laughing.
Xena tugged at the ropes binding her hands, then began studying the knots holding the ends together.
Shiron walked quietly along the path she and Xena had trod the day before, trying hard to remember every step the two had taken. Because Xena had asked her to be quiet, she had been able to really watch where they had been walking. After almost three hours, she stopped in a small clearing they had visited the day before. A cool spring provided her with some much needed water. When she had slaked her thirst, she leaned back against a moss-covered tree to rest her weary feet. The air in front of her began to shimmer and the form of a woman dressed in long flowing robes and carrying a bow and quiver of arrows appeared in the bright light.
"Hello, Shiron," the woman said, smiling.
"You're...you're Artemis, aren't you?" Shiron asked in wonder.
"You know me, then?" The goddess sat beside the woman-child.
Shiron nodded. "Xena told me all about you. You're the goddess of the hunt, and you take care of all the little animals in the forest, and you take care of young people. I never thought I'd ever get to meet a real live goddess!!!"
Artemis smiled. "Here I am! Shiron, I need to talk with you about something."
"You want to help your friend Xena, don't you?" Shiron nodded vigorously. "Do you know how you're going to do it.?"
"No. But I have to help her because she never makes fun of me for ..."
"For being different?"
"Yeh, for being different. It really hurts when all the kids make fun of me 'cause I'm not like all the other grown-ups."
"Well, Shiron, because Xena's one of my favorites, too, I'm going to help you help her. I'm going to give you everything you need to help you save Xena from Barcon." The goddess reached out and placed her hand on Shiron's cheek. Shiron felt a tingling sensation course through her body and she began to experience a new strength she had never had. Artemis pulled her hand away.
"Goddess!," Shiron exclaimed. "I've never felt anything like that, before!"
"Shiron, you now have the mind and strength of an adult. You have all the wisdom you need to free Xena and the slaves and defeat Barcon. These gifts will only last for two days, though, and then you will return to your previous state."
"I understand, Artemis. Thank you for these gifts."
"I wish I could make them permanent, Shiron, but I can't. I know, though, that you will make good use of them while they are yours."
"I will, and thank you." Shiron rose to leave.
"Shiron, one more thing..."
"You will see me again." Shiron reached down and helped Artemis to her feet, watched as the goddess disappeared in a shimmering light, then continued her journey toward the mining camp.
Darkness was falling as Shiron watched the scene below her. The aroma of the food the guards were cooking for their supper reminded her that she had not eaten since the breakfast Gabrielle had given her. Gabrielle! she suddenly remembered. I imagine she's worried about me, but I think she'll understand. A twig snapped behind her. Shiron pulled the sword Artemis had given her from its scabbard and held it at the ready as she turned to see the bard emerging from between two bushes. Gabrielle stopped short.
"Uh, Shiron, what are you doing with that sword? Where did you get it?"
"It's you, Gabrielle," Shiron said as she sighed in relief. "I thought maybe I'd been caught by one of Barcon's men." Gabrielle looked at her as she replaced the sword. "come over here. I have something to tell you that's going to make a great story for you."
"Shiron, you seem...different. What's going on?"
"On my way here, I was visited by Artemis. She's given me the mind and abilities of an adult for two days in order to get Xena freed, but then I go back to the old Shiron."
"Will you be able to handle that? Going back to the old Shiron, I mean?"
"I'll have to, Gabrielle. Two days is all Artemis could give me, so I'm going to make the best of it that I can. And the first order of business is to get Xena and the Amphipolans out of the mine."
Gabrielle looked at Shiron, wondering what Xena was going to think when she met the new Shiron. "What do you have in mind?"
"First thing we're going to do is wait for darkness. I'll sneak in and free Xena. I'd like you to work your way to the mine and be ready to go in when Xena and I get there to get the men." Gabrielle nodded and started around toward the entrance to the mine. Shiron looked at the sky. A clear day had begun to cloud up and thunder could be heard in the distance. This is good, she thought. The clouds will obscure the full moon, but lightning will provide any intermittent light we may need. The moon was disappearing as Shiron began to make her way into the compound.
The only sounds in the darkened camp were the revelries of the off duty guards as they drank themselves into oblivion. Music and laughter came from the make-shift tavern. Occasionally on or two of the men would leave the tavern tent and head for the building where the women were being kept.
Xena glanced up at the gathering storm clouds. Maybe I'll be able to catch some rain in my mouth to ease my dehydration. Gods, if only Barcon hadn't taken my breast dagger, I'd be out of here. Xena had been trying to work herself free since the conversation with Barcon but to no avail. Whoever had tied her had used knots she'd never seen before. She knew what she would do if she got loose -- head to Barcon's tent to get her weapons and kill him, free the captive women, then go to the mine to get the men from Amphipolis. But first she had to get free.
She felt a tug on the ropes that were binding her ankles and suddenly they were free. Xena tried to turn to see who had freed her, but the person was no longer there, but standing in front of her, cutting the ropes holding her hands above her head. Her eyes opened wide in recognition. "Shiron?" she whispered incredulously.
Shiron smiled at her as the ropes gave way and Xena's hands fell. "I thought you could use a little assistance." Shiron pointed to a place they could hide. "Over here," she whispered. "We need to talk."
When they had secreted themselves behind some barrels and crates, Xena took Shiron's chin in her hand and looked carefully at the woman's face. "You look like Shiron, but you sure don't sound like Shiron," she said softly. "Who are you?"
"I AM Shiron, but I'm not your Shiron. I was unhappy when I woke up and you were gone -- especially after Gabrielle told me you'd come back here. She went to find more firewood, so I left to come find you. On my way here..." Shiron looked through an opening and saw a guard heading straight for them. She motioned for Xena to be quiet. The guard rummaged through a couple of crates until he found what he was looking for, then left without discovering the two women.
Xena let out the breath she had been holding, then turned back to Shiron. "On your way here, what? What happened?"
"On my way, I stopped at the clearing with the spring we visited on our way to meet Gabrielle. As I was resting, Artemis appeared to me. She said she wanted to help me help you, so she's made me an adult for two days and given me the knowledge and physical ability to help you defeat Barcon and free the captives."
"What happens after two days?"
"Then I go back to being the old Shiron." She saw the disappointment in Xena's eyes. "Xena, if I have to give all this up in order to save you, then I will. I like this being an adult, I like the look of respect I'm getting from you. But I also know that this is just a temporary gift from Artemis, her way of helping you without direct interference." She looked over Xena's shoulder. "We need to get your weapons, then free the women. That should give Gabrielle enough time to get around to the entrance of the mine."
Xena looked up at the sky. "I've never seen a night sky so dark. Even though we're only 15 feet from the pole, I can't see it. Another gift from Artemis?"
Shiron nodded. "Let's head over to the tent. Barcon's probably hung up your sword and chakram as souvenirs." Shiron went straight to the tent flap as though it were daylight, drawing her sword and handing it to Xena. Xena looked through the opening between the tent and tent flap. Barcon was lying on some pillows, asleep, a wine skin dangling from his hand and spilling the remaining wine on the ground. Xena slipped silently inside the tent and made her way to the table where her sword, chakram and breast dagger lay. She was putting her weapons in their respective places when Shiron snuck in and joined her. Xena handed Shiron her sword.
"I'm going to take care of Barcon. You go free the women. Then we'll join Gabrielle at the mine," she whispered. Shiron nodded and went back outside. Xena looked after her friend and shook her head in wonderment at the changes. If only she could stay this way forever! Xena thought. With a sigh, she turned to the task at hand.
Gabrielle had made her way to the mouth of the cave before the heavy darkness had set in. She found a hiding spot that would allow her to see both the compound and the mine entrance, but keep her hidden from the guards entering or exiting the mine. I wonder what Xena's going to think of the new Shiron? Will she be able to deal with it easily or will she be bothered when Artemis comes to change her back? I guess that all depends on whether or not Shiron lives through this adventure. If she does, how will I tell the story? Gabrielle sat back to work the kinks out of her story so far as she watched for some sort of signal from Xena and Shiron.
Shiron quietly worked her way through the darkness, seeing as though the sun was up. She managed to avoid several soldiers who walked past her in the darkness, not seeing her standing five feet away. When she reached the building where the women were being held, she looked in the window. There was one guard who was dozing in his chair. Quietly, she drew her sword from its scabbard and opened the door just enough to slip inside.
Most of the women in the cells were asleep, although one or two sat waiting for the arms of Morpheus to claim them. Shiron quietly moved to behind the guard, raised the sword in her hand, and brought its hilt quickly down, knocking the dozing man unconscious. She took the shackles that were hanging on the wall and fastened them around his wrists, pulling his wrists behind him, then stuffed a dirty rag in his mouth to keep him from calling out if he awoke.
One of the women was watching her intently as she grabbed the keys and headed for the cell door. "Wake everyone up, quietly," Shiron said to her in a soft voice. Go out the door quietly and head for the road to Amphipolis. About five leagues down the road, there is a cave where all of you can hide until Xena and I get there."
"You're the woman-child that Xena freed yesterday!"
Shiron nodded. "She told you she'd be back, and she is. I'm just helping her out."
"But you were so different when you were here." The woman took the keys Shiron held out to her.
"Yes, but sometimes the gods really act in mysterious ways."
"Whoever did it, I thank them for sending you to help us."
"I do, too. Now, please, you must go quickly and quietly. Xena and I will see you soon." Shiron blew out the candle providing light inside the building so it would not be seen when the door opened. Without making much noise, the cell doors were opened, the women released and the plan passed from woman to woman. One by one, with Shiron standing guard, each woman left the building and headed for the cave. When the last woman had left, Shiron dragged the still-unconscious guard into one of the cells, took his weapons, and locked the cell door as she left.
The last of the freed women were half a league down the road when Shiron left the building. Almost immediately, she came upon two guards in the darkness. She stole quietly behind them, gave each a quick blow to the back of his head, knocking the two into oblivion. Quickly, she bound their arms and covered their mouths, then moved on toward Barcon's tent. Each guard she encountered was dispatched in similar manner until the compound was littered with a dozen guards all trussed in the same manner by the time she reached the tent.
Barcon was still unconscious, but now his hands and feet were bound the same way Xena had been bound, arms above him as the center post of the tent supported him. Xena was just finishing tying the knot in the gag around the warlord's mouth when Shiron entered the tent. "The women are all headed for the caves three leagues up the road. I told them to wait there for us," Shiron whispered. Xena nodded.
"Good. I know there are some women who had been taken out of the jail building by some of the guards. We'll have to find them and free them, too." Shiron nodded in agreement. "I'd thought about trying to bring him around," Xena motioned toward Barcon, "but I think we'll just leave him all tied up like this. By the time he comes around, we'll be long gone and he'll have the humiliation of explaining how two women caused him to lose his slaves and breeding stock."
Shiron smiled. "Three women," she corrected. "Gabrielle's waiting for us by the entrance to the mine. I took out a couple of Barcon's guards as I was making my way back here, so the odds should be a little better." A loud clap of thunder boomed almost directly overhead.
"We'd better hurry so Gabrielle doesn't get soaked to the skin," Xena said as she headed outside.
Shiron stopped and looked at their prisoner. I wonder what he'd think of me now? Probably just consider me good breeding stock. She sighed and followed her friend.
Xena and Shiron easily found Gabrielle and headed into the mine. Xena stopped them to have a conference.
"One guard told me there were only two of them, and about fifteen slaves working. That means there have to be some more slaves some place else in the compound."
"I saw some guards bringing men in from the building over there," Gabrielle said as she pointed to a building close by. "And there's more than two guards -- I saw at least half a dozen go into the mine and not come out."
"Xena?" Shiron began.
"I bet if we free the slaves in the building, they'd be happy to help us free the others. I'm sure one or two of them have grudges with the guards."
Xena nodded. "Good point, and good idea. Let's go." She moved toward the mine entrance, then stopped as a bolt of lightning illuminated the entire compound. When the light had subsided, she turned to her companions. "Now!" They all ran toward the building. Silently, Xena lept in the air and flew into the door, kicking it open with a resounding crash.
The three guards who had been sleeping groggily jumped to their feet, trying to draw their swords. Xena kicked the first one she met in the groin and he doubled over in pain. Another swift punch to the back of the head and he was out. Swords clanged as Shiron fought the second man to his knees, then hit him with its hilt. Gabrielle's staff flew, hitting its mark and rendering the third guard unconscious. As he fell, Xena and Shiron were freeing the emaciated men who were chained to their cots. They gathered around Xena.
"Xena!" one of the freed men exclaimed. "Are we glad to see you guys friends! We were sure our only means of escape would be to the Other Side." He looked at Shiron. "Are you," he stammered, "are you Shiron, the woman-child?"
Shiron nodded. "By the grace of the goddess Artemis, I am an adult in order to free all of you."
"Then when we return to Amphipolis, we shall have a festival to thank Artemis for her generosity and kindness." He turned back to Xena. "What about those who are working in the mine? And the women?"
"The women are already free and waiting for us up the road. We thought maybe you men would like to help us free your comrades." They all nodded their assent. One thing I want to know before we go in -- where are the tailings from the mine?"
"There's a deep pit in one of the side tunnels. The tailings are dumped in there."
"All right. Show us which tunnel when we get in there so we can avoid it. Let's go get the rest of the men." Xena and Shiron led the way into the mine.
The men were all silent as they went deeper into the mountain, following the sides of the tunnel until they saw light ahead of them. The man who had spoken earlier stopped Xena and pointed to a side tunnel. "That's where the pit is," he whispered. Xena nodded and moved forward. Just outside the circle of light, she paused and looked back at the group following her.
Saying a quick, silent prayer to Artemis, she shouted one word -- "FREEDOM!!!!" The men all rushed forward and began attacking the guards. Using sticks, rocks, and tools, they fought their captors who began running in all directions. Xena and Gabrielle kept any of the guards from escaping past them. Shiron was battling one guard when she saw another run down the side tunnel. She quickly dispatched the one she was fighting and ran after the one that was escaping. Xena saw her out of the corner of her eye. "No, Shiron! Let him go!" she yelled. Shiron didn't hear her. "Oh, Zeus!" she exclaimed as she followed Shiron.
Shiron slowed down as she entered the dimly lit tunnel, cautiously inspecting the shadows deep enough to hide a man. "Come on, you coward," she called. "I know you're in here!" She caught movement out of the corner of her eye as the guard began running farther into the tunnel. Shiron took off after him.
"Shiron, wait!" She didn't hear Xena calling her, but did hear a blood-curdling scream from in front of her. Sword drawn, she began running again. Too late, she saw the opening in the tunnel floor and fell down into the blackness. She didn't make a sound until she landed on top of the dead guard.
Xena had rounded a curve in the tunnel just in time to see Shiron fall into the pit. Cautiously, on hands and knees, she approached the lip of the pit and peeered into the darkness. Gabrielle came up behind her, out of breath. "The guards have all been taken care of and the rest of the men are free. What's going on?"
"Shiron! Can you hear me?" She called into the blackness. There was no answer. Xena stood up. "Shiron fell into the pit where they dump the tailings. We need to get as much rope as we possibly can. And light." She started back to the main tunnel. Gabrielle grabbed her arm.
"Xena, we don't know how deep the pit is. She's probably already dead."
"We don't know that, Gabrielle. I'm going down there, with or without your help." She went into the main tunnel and began gathering up everything she thought she might need to descend into the pit. The men saw what she was doing and followed her back to the edge of the abyss.
"Xena, at least drop the light down there on the rope to try to find out how deep it is, first? Please?" Gabrielle asked. Xena hesitated, then nodded. She tied a lantern to the end of the rope and began lowering it.
"As we get close to the end of the rope, tie another one on. I don't know how many it's going to take." Gabrielle and the men nodded and began joining the ropes together.
Shiron lay in the dark silence, taking stock of her situation. She knew she was lying on the dead guard, but every time she attempted to move off him, sharp pains shot through her back and left leg. This is a heck of a way to spend your last day as a normal adult. I think I would have preferred dying to this pain, though.
"But it's not your time to die, Shiron," a voice declared. The pit was filled with shimmering light.
"Artemis! Glad to see you!" Shiron smiled. "I kind of got myself in a mess, here."
"So I see," the goddess replied as she moved toward the prone woman. She ran her hands over Shiron's body. "You've broken your back and your leg."
"Well, that explains the pain. I guess I should start praying that Celeste will come and give me relief, shouldn't I?"
"Not necessarily. I'mbeen very impressed with the person you are -- with the adult that you are. I've heard your thoughts and listened in on your conversations. You held no animosity toward Barcon for what he did to you, nor did you express the desire to kill him for having beaten you and ridiculed you."
"He'll get his just rewards -- if not from the men he enslaved, then from the gods he angered by his actions. It was not my place to punish him."
"I have spoken with my father..."
"Zeus? Zeus knows about me?"
Artemis smiled. "Yes, he knows about you." She looked up at the light from the lantern which was slowly getting closer, then back at Shiron. She leaned down and touched Shiron on the head. Immediately, Shiron's pain was gone. Slowly, carefully, she stood up.
"You've repaired my injuries! Thank you, goddess!"
"You're welcome. Shiron, with the blessings of Zeus, I am leaving you in your present form with one condition. You will never go back to being the woman-child that you were unless you take the life of another human. Once that happens, you will go back to your original state. And you can never tell anyone of the condition -- not even Xena."
"I agree. I won't disappoint you, Artemis."
"Very well. I will move your so you're in reach of those trying to rescue you." The air around Artemis shimmered as she disappeared and Shiron felt herself moving closer to the lantern.
Xena was growing worried. They'd tied four lengths of rope together and the lantern still only showed darkness. By the gods! How far down can she be? She sighed and began feeding more rope into the pit when she thought she felt a tug. She gave the rope a quick yank.
"HEY!" a voice came from the blackness. "How am I supposed to climb up if you pull it away?" A cheer rose up from the men behind Xena.
"Shiron, are you all right?" Xena called down.
"Yeh. I knocked myself out for a few minutes, but otherwise I'm fine. Drop the rope back down and pull me up." Xena released the rope and fed a few more feet into the pit. Shiron tied the end around her waist. "Pull me up!"
Xena pulled Shiron up from the pit.
The happy group was on the outskirts of Amphipolis when Shiron stopped and let the men walk on, their prisoners being led by ropes tied around their necks. Xena noticed her friend standing by the side of the road and walked back to join her.
"Why did you stop?" she asked.
Shiron smiled. "I guess I'm a little nervous about how everyone's going to react to the new me."
"Well if they don't like it, just tell them to see me," Xena smiled. "I like the new you." She gave Shiron a hug.
Shiron nodded and began walking again. As they reached the top of the hill at the outskirts of Amphipolis, they saw a crowd of townspeople cheering. Xena saw that Cyrene was in the front of the group and led Shiron over to her.
"Mother, how are you?"
"Well, thank you. The arm no longer hurts although it is a bit awkward. Is everyone well? Where's Shiron?"
"This is Shiron," Xena smiled, pushing the woman toward her mother. Cyrene looked surprized. "Artemis gave Shiron the gift of a normal adulthood for two days so that she could help me rescue the captives."
"I always knew you were blessed by the gods, Shiron!" Cyrene smiled. "Come to the inn and we'll have some food and drink to celebrate!" She turned and led everyone back into town.
The celebration had been going on for hours. Gabrielle was telling the story for perhaps the dozenth time, each time to a different, very appreciative audience. Cyrene and Shiron were busy replenishing the food and drink for the revelers, while Xena sat in a corner observing all that was going on and slowly sipping her port.
"Every time I look over here, you appear to be a million leagues away." The voice beside her startled Xena. She turned to see Gabrielle sitting down, a cup of cider in her hand.
"Yeh, I guess I am," Xena nodded.
"Need to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'm just wondering how Shiron will handle it when Artemis comes to change her back. Look at her, Gabrielle." Gabrielle turned to look at Shiron in a group of townspeople. "They're treating her with a respect she's never received before. Before, she was ridiculed, berated, and sometimes even stoned, simply because she was born different. She never cried or complained, because she never understood it. Now they're acting like she's always been their best friend and she's not holding any animosity toward them for what they've done to her."
"She risked her life to save them, Xena."
"But that doesn't excuse what they did to her in the past. And when Artemis changes her back, will they go back to treating her badly?"
"I don't know. I'll be back in a little while. I have something I need to do." Xena stood up.
"Want me to go with you?" Gabrielle started to rise.
"No. This is something I have to do something by myself. Stay here and enjoy the party." Xena touched Gabrielle on the cheek before she turned and left.
Xena placed the freshly killed rabbit on the altar, stepped back, and knelt on the stone floor. The temple was well-maintained by the Amphipolitans who were convinced that Artemis was resoonsible for much of their good fortune.
"Artmeis, you know I'm not much for asking for favors from the gods, but I'm not asking for myself, but for Shiron." Xena looked around for some sign that the goddess would appear before her, but none was forthcoming. Xena sighed and tried again. "Please, Artemis, come talk with me." The air around her grew heavy and the wind picked up.
The voice came from behind her. "Stand up, Xena. I'm here."
Xena stood and turned to face the goddess of the hunt. "Nice rabbit. Thanks."
Xena smiled. "You're welcome. Can we talk about Shiron?" Artemis walked over and sat in the chair that was reserved for her exclusive use.
"Sure. She's one of my favorites. What do you want to talk about?"
"You're supposed to change her back to what she used to be in a few candlemarks. I'm asking you not to do it. Leave her as she is." The goddess looked at the warrior with a little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "I'll give you whatever sacrifice you ask for, if you'll just grant me this one thing."
"Xena, I know you've been her 'protector' ever since you two were small, and I've always heard your thoughts when it comes to Shiron. You've only wanted the best for her, wanted others to stop treating her badly. I gave her the gift of being a so-called normal adult so she could help you and as my way of repaying you for taking good care of her whenever you've been in Amphipolis. But I don't know about leaving her that way."
Xena sighed. "Artemis, as she is now, the people of Amphipolis are treating her the way they always should have -- with dignity and respect. Once she goes back to being different, they'll revert back to the way they were treating before the change. I don't think that's fair to Shiron."
"She'll accept it."
"Yes, she'll accept it and not fight back, but she shouldn't have to."
Artemis was quiet for a minute. "All right, Xena," she finally said. "I'll leave Shiron as she is for the rest of her life. She does deserve the respect and dignity she's earned."
Xena knelt again. "Thank you, Artemis. And if there's ever a favor I can do for you, please feel free to ask."
"I will," Artemis replied as she disappeared from sight. Xena rose and started for the door. She stopped and looked back at the altar. The rabbit was gone. Xena smiled and started back toward town.
Disclaimer as before.
The morning sky was bright and clear. The sun was just starting to peek over the hills of Amphipolis when Xena walked out toward the stables. Once inside, she gave Argo a scoop of grain and an armful of hay, then picked up a brush and began going over the mare's golden coat. The door to the stable squeaked as it was opened. The warrior looked up to see Shiron. "Good morning, Shiron," Xena smiled.
Shiron picked up another brush and began working on Argo's mane. "Good morning. I had a visitor last night after I went to bed." Xena looked at her, puzzled. "It was Artemis." Shiron paused.
"And she told me what you did, last night. I just wanted to thank you. You've always been the only one who has ever stood up for me, and to have you ask her to leave me the way I am now really means a lot to me. Especially since I know how you feel about gods and goddesses."
"Oh?" Xena raised her left eyebrow.
"I remember the things you said when we were kids. Actually, I remember everything from when we were kids. Even the abuse I took from other people."
"Doesn't that bother you? That those people who are praising you and giving you gifts and thanks now are the same ones who treated you so badly when we were growing up?"
Shiron sighed. "It does, a little. But I also realize that people attack things they don't understand, and I was one of those things they didn't understand. In some cases, stupidity and ignorance should be pardonable offenses."
"You're a lot more forgiving than I am, Shiron."
"Yes, but don't forget how much different my past is from yours. And the people of this town have forgiven you. So why shouldn't I forgive them?"
"You're right," Xena sighed. "So what are you going to do, now?"
"Stick around here. Cyrene has said I'm always welcome to work in the inn, but I need to find out what I can do, now."
"Well, whatever it is, I'm sure you'll be very good at it."
"One thing will never change, Xena."
"You'll always be a hero to me."
The two women smiled at each other and went back to brushing down Argo.
Xena and Gabrielle waved to Cyrene and Shiron one last time as they headed out of Amphipolis.
"Xena, which Shiron do you prefer?" Gabrielle asked as they settled into a comfortable pace.
"That's a toss up, Gabrielle. The first Shiron was fun because she saw everything with an innocence that can't be duplicated. But the new Shiron is intelligent and articulate, and a lot of fun to talk with. What about you?"
"I don't know, either. Both Shirons liked my stories, but I think I like the old one better."
"Because no matter what it took, she was going to try to save you."
Xena nodded. "True. But I'm looking forward to trips back to Amphipolis, to spending time with the new Shiron."
"You're not going to replace me, are you?"
"Never! You're irreplaceable, Gabrielle!" Xena reached down and ruffled the bard's hair. "You're one of a kind, thank the gods!"
"Hey!" Gabrielle said with mock indignation. She was quiet for a few minutes and then began the now familiar tale. "I sing a song of Shiron, the woman-child who was blessed by the gods."
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