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16-17 : PART I |
In Search Of
A Greater Cause
~ PART I ~
"Xena…I think…" The serious tone was broken by an eruption of giggles as a large lump under the sleeping fur moved into another position displacing the smaller lump. "Eeeyowww. That tickles!"
Inaudible sounds came from under the fur, as bodies shifted. The fire in the nearby stone ringed pit snapped, releasing sparks into the predawn darkness of the protective envelop the cave provided. Saddle bags that were neatly lying against a long log used for sitting on, or leaning against, threw interesting shadows on the cave’s walls, as a smaller log thrown on the embers earlier, finally caught, sending up hungry flames to devour it’s new meal.
The muffled voice began again, trying to take on the deep tone of a thoughtful observer. "That’s not quite the right place." Another set of giggles followed by another yelp, then a tousled blond head of hair poked out from under the warm covers.
The breath from the mumbling form, still under the covers, tickled the blond's side, which made her breath catch. Try as she might, she wasn't able to resist the need to squirm away from the warm tickling breath of her partner.
"I didn’t quite get that." She murmured lifting the fur to watch the action under the shadows of the covers. "Xena!" She yelped again.
Bright blue eyes amidst a dark head of hair that was looking wildly out of place peered up at her from under the fur.
"I said…I made a very close and careful inspection of the ground underneath you. No offending rock…pebble…or bump." A long tanned muscular arm wrapped around the smaller woman’s bare waist, and as the taller woman turned on her back, she pulled the shorter woman onto her, tossing the constricting covers back. The cooler air in the cave settled around their heated bodies with little effect, as the cause of their temperature had nothing to do with what was outside of themselves.
"Let me see this injury." The voice purred in the laughing Bard’s ear. "Maybe I’m looking for the wrong size…rock."
Xena easily lifted the lighter body; firmly laying Gabrielle on her stomach with her own body partially covering hers. She ran her hands from bare shoulders to the back of a tasty neck that was good enough to bite…and bite she did...then continued on with her close inspection down the back. Her hands slid along the warm skin that she was intimately knowledgeable of; enjoying the dips and curves of muscles and natural contours of the woman's body below her. She knew where the ticklish spots were, the spots prone to tenseness, spots that relaxed her and spots that would elicit a nice special type of moan…which was where she was at the moment.
Gabrielle groaned and pushed her body against Xena’s. Breathlessly, she tried to redirect the taller woman. "Hmmm…not…that….high…Xena…" She sighed, as a nibble along her neck and up to her ear started another heat wave through her body, as familiar callused hands that knew every sensitive spot on her caressed, and stroked each location. It didn’t really matter where the dark haired warrior lavished her attentions; the effect had the same overall incendiary effects: her face gets hot, then the rest of her body quickly follows, becoming flushed with the same sweat heat of desire, accompanied by a warm flow of liquid that coats her engorged flower. Then, whatever cover is over them, gets tossed aside, as it becomes too uncomfortable to stay under covers. So, a part of her mind was grateful Xena had removed the warm fur-cover from over them, for her body was generating enough heat to start an Amazon bonfire.
Xena groaned with her own pleasure in reaction to the body that was moving seductively beneath her, while continuing her very careful inspection across the muscular back, shoulder blades, her spine, to the small of her back…making sure Gabrielle was attentive by nipping her every now and then.
"How about here?" Xena voice floated up to her.
"Hmmm…oh…you mean for the rock?" She sighed. "Yea. Somewhere …around …there …but…hmmmm." Her voice trailed off as she luxuriated in another hot rush of sensations that Xena's exploring gave her.
"We.l.l.l.l.l…" Xena began softly, placing her hands on either side of the lithe body beneath her, then slowly dragging her own body up the smaller torso until she reached her target. She placed her mouth against Gabrielle’s ear letting her breath tickle the sensitive skin. The feel of the firm muscular body beneath her, especially when it rubbed against her with desire, smearing her juices across the taught round cheeks that she pressed herself against, was almost undermining her resolve.
"I didn’t find any marks that have been from a recent attack by a pebble…but…I did find some marks…hmmm," she murmured in the ear her lips were only a breath away from. She bit the ear lobe that was too temptingly near her lips and sucked on it for good measure, tugging on the golden earring that was hanging in the ear lobe, "that looked like someone has been biting you." She whispered in the groaning Bard's ear.
"Hey…" Gabrielle giggled for a moment taking her mind off her body sensations, "I…know where those came from….hmmmmm.…" Xena had Gabrielle pinned down so she couldn't use her hands to show her appreciation to her ardent lover so she used her body, sliding against the wet hairy mound pressed against her. She could feel heat coming from Xena's brown pelt that tickled her buttocks, and it excited her as another flow of liquid from her own hot core coated her inner thighs.
"Hmmmm." Gabrielle tried to find her voice. "Thanks for…" She sighed as Xena's mouth moved back to her bare neck. "Hmmm….looking." she whispered softly, hoping Xena would forget the extra few moments she said she would give them before getting up to get ready to start out on the road again, because those few were up.
She had thought to trick Xena's innate sense of time by distracting her, but what she had chosen to use to distract her with, was playing havoc with her own sensibilities. She had originally only wanted to stay under the covers of their warm fur for a little longer, enjoying the company of her lover, and the Dream State, that light sleeping evoked. Instead, restless Xena needed something to distract her, since she was impatient to start out on the road again while the weather held. Gabrielle thought by wrapping herself around her, and nuzzling her neck…well…it did go further than what she had planned… which she actually hadn't planned anything. That was the problem. She should have thought this particular delaying tactic out more. Then there was the rock she rolled on… she was sure it was a rock.
Xena knew when the allotted time was up. Laughing she rolled off a thoroughly aroused Gabrielle who attempted to grab her as she rose from their sleeping furs.
"Ahhh…ahh…ahhhh. You squeeze me like that again, and I’ll wet myself…I don't mean that way. It's too late for that." She smirked at the giggling Bard. "C'mon, I need to visit a pit and we need to clean up before we go." Her smile grew wider as she thought about Gabrielle's failed attempts to distract her.
She reached down for the hand that was extended to her and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. "We have to reach Crometh before they start the week long winter solstice celebrations. That’s tomorrow." She reminded Gabrielle giving her bare bottom a light pat and finding it difficult to remove her hand, as a tattooed one was placed over hers, and held in place. "I want you to know that by delaying us, we may not find a…" her breath caught as Gabrielle shifted her body’s position. "nice…warm…safe…and dry…place…in town." She whispered in a hoarse voice, as Gabrielle guided her hands to places that promised more delays to their departure time, and her lips echoed the message, as they covered her lover’s erect nipple. Xena was thinking that she should not count on the game being at an end just yet, for Gabrielle was still playing with every intention of winning.
"I have a nice…warm…and…safe…place." She mumbled as she bit what she held in her mouth. "I got her…right here." She whispered letting the nipple go while sliding a hand up behind Xena’s neck and pulled her face down for a kiss. Xena could feel Gabrielle's hard nipples pressed against her rib cage. Her hands that were still on Gabrielle's buttocks couldn't resist gripping them firmer and pulling the smaller woman tighter against her strong frame.
"I’m glad you didn’t say dry…because…that’s not what I got here." Xena's low voice rumbled as their lips parted for a brief moment.
"Hmmmm." Gabrielle’s tongue silenced her as she once more took possession of her lips, then sweeping her quivering tongue around the interior of a willing mouth.
Sighing after moments of Gabrielle’s languorous and thorough explorations, Xena reluctantly started to pull away, gently touching her cheek.
"C'mon." She told her in a husky voice. "I want to stay ahead of those soldiers."
Sighing Gabrielle reluctantly released Xena letting her hands slowly slide down the muscular figure, relishing the curves the muscles created, then dropping at the strong thighs that were trembling ever so slightly. It wasn't just lustful thoughts that Gabrielle felt, but an appreciation for the athletic prowess, and beauty of the body her hands lovingly caressed. Both women stood still for a few moments gazing into each other's eyes, wishing they didn't have to be in Crometh so soon. In that moment the familiar and profound affection that vibrated on the invisible line that connected the two, filled them both with a warmth that brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes and tightened Xena's throat. Xena pulled Gabrielle closer and held her silently, the only way she knew how to handle this overwhelming feeling they were sharing.
Reluctantly, they parted, and dressed in silence, and quickly. Gabrielle's rush was more to ward off the chill that breezed in through the cave entrance. Xena grabbed their bag that contained soap, clean undergarments, and linen to dry off with. Gabrielle picked up the empty water skins and took the bag from Xena. Smiling Xena used her sword to part the vines that covered their natural shelter while draping the other arm over Gabrielle’s shoulder as they stepped out into a dawning forest. Both women followed a path they had created from their two-day camp, which led to the water’s edge. Two days earlier they had taken refuge in the cave from a relentless rain, that had overflowed the nearby creek and only abated the previous day in the late afternoon, which was now dawning to a blue cloudless sky.
The early morning sunbeams, that streamed through parts of the forest treetops of crisscrossing bare branches, and trees that remained clothed in their green cover, gave a contrasting appearance of brightness and darkness, side by side; while on the ground interesting light and dark patterns lay against the mixed bare tree trunks and evergreen vegetation. Both enjoyed the morning noises in the forest, and their shared companionship; breathing in the brisk clean air that was for a change not raining, or snowing on them. For a few moments Gabrielle played with her vapored breath sending out puffs.
"Look, Xena. Hydra's breath."
"If you say so." Xena drawled. "Is that anything like morning breath?" She asked after a slight pause.
Gabrielle did not bother looking at her, but she could feel the older woman's body that was against hers, vibrating with a chuckle. Instead she bumped her with her hip, enjoying the feel of the long dangling fingers from her companion tickling her arm in response.
Xena’s acute sense of smell picked up the various fragrances of vegetation separate from the damp earth, including crushed raspberry vines, which warranted checking out for a few berries that might be left, various wet animals, one of which was Argo, and something not of the forest…a campfire. Xena knew the campfire was from the soldiers they had passed days ago under the cover of wind and rain, while looking for the cave they knew was here. Xena had kept track of the soldiers, even in the bad weather, making sure they were staying in their own cave. The soldiers sought cover a good two candlemarks from them, and closer to the trail that wound through the mountains and through the forest thicket. Only the smell from their fire reminded them that they were sharing the forest with others or their own kind.
"I’ll meet you at the water." Xena told Gabrielle as she turned off to the side where Argo had wandered. Gabrielle continued her way to the water, careful not to step where her tracks would be noticeable and looking for any edible roots or herbs she may have missed in the last two days. Grubbing in the rain or mud was miserable, but they were low on supplies. From long practice, Gabrielle also looked around her for any noticeable changes in the environment that might show they were not alone or someone else had passed by without Xena’s knowledge….as if that could happen, Gabrielle thought with a grin.
It had been about thirteen months, a lunar year, since they had last been here. It was after a journey they had made with a group of women to an old temple. Details of the journey and the reason for it were no longer clear to Gabrielle so she had been reading one of her scrolls to refresh her memory. Friendships they had formed had been forgotten, but the cave they had taken shelter in after they parted from the group was not forgotten, nor the fact that they had missed the winter solstice competitions, so Xena had promised they would come by the next year. But…that wasn't the only reason why they were headed to Crometh.
Athena had appeared to Xena and indirectly had warned her that something was amiss in Crometh. Xena was not one to do favors for the gods after her many run-ins with Ares and his assorted siblings, but Athena must have made a good presentation, for Xena who already had set their destination to the City of the Muses, set a faster pace to reach it. Artemis had like-wise appeared to Gabrielle and asked her a favor. Athena hadn't said if there was a problem but Artemis hinted something was wrong with some of her people, the Amazons, and asked if Gabrielle could lend them a hand. To identify herself with the priestess of her temple in Crometh she had given Gabrielle a ritual fan made of eagle feathers, that was used for passing over the burning incense to spread it essence during a ceremony. Artemis had given her a plain flat box to carry it, fitting perfectly at the bottom of her travel bag. Gabrielle at the time thought it was funny that she had, just days earlier, dreamed that Artemis was going to give her a box that was very important to be delivered to a Temple in Crometh. Artemis had said nothing about the premonition, only looked surprised. Xena was her usual noncommittal self…but Gabrielle was very good at reading her companion, and really, other half. Xena sensed something was not right about the dream and their visit to Crometh. But, Xena was good at puzzles. She liked them and would probably be able to tell her, what was going on with the gods and Crometh.
Where the rule originally came from, that gods were not to interfere with the affairs of mortals wasn't known, but Zeus, when he wasn't distracted with his own tampering, kept his fellow gods, as much as he could, to that stricture. However, all mortals knew those on Mount Olympus interfered, and interceded, in their lesser affairs when the gods had a mind to, so Xena was wary but curious.
They had spent so many days and nights taking shelter from the bad weather that Gabrielle was wondering if maybe another god was opposed to their visit to Crometh. However, Xena would have none of that, and argued that this was the usual winter weather.
* * * *
Xena took care of her bladder first then tracked Argo to where she was happily munching on a berry bush, ignoring the prickly leaves. Chuckling Xena patted her damp hindquarters, then gave a firm push to the mare to give her room to see if there were any edible berries left.
"Hmmm. Looks like no more berries. You didn't happen to eat them all up, did ya, Girl?" Xena gave the big innocent brown eyes that swung her way, a playful glare.
Xena’s hand suddenly dropped from Argo’s withers. Her body became taught with suppressed energy and her senses leaped up to a higher awareness. A cool breeze whisked by, carrying with it the scent of damp heavy coarse hairs, a different body scent than man or beast. Her hearing picked up the hesitant movement of cloven hooves…two legged. Their movements were muffled in the wet fallen leaves of the forest. Argo’s head had risen also, with her ears pointed stiffly forward. Both fixed their eyes on the same point. Xena was gone from Argo’s side as she quickly made her way to the creek bed to find Gabrielle. The hairs on the back of her neck were sticking up.
* * * *
Pools of water trapped in naturally formed containers of vegetation gave off a rich smell of dampness and rot. Gabrielle stopped short of where there was a break in the forest caused by rocks and other debris that had coursed down the rain-swollen creek from the previous two day's of bad weather. She looked around with only half-seeing eyes as she enjoyed the sounds and peacefulness she felt from this kinship with what was about her. The sounds of 'click click curoo click' came from somewhere out of her vision. The notes were from a small brown bird that was hopping amongst the damp leaves looking for a worm or bug, she imagined. Her head turned in that direction smiling as she could hear it's wings flap as rose back into the air. Must have found breakfast. The sudden squawk of a bird followed by a squirrel that flew from one branch to another, as it was chased by the diving bird had her chuckling. Closing her eyes she could hear the trickling of the creek water over rocks, the sound of a bird pecking at the damp tree bark, a small animal moving through some wet leaves with its pungent smell of damp fur was carried to her on a chilly breeze. A nice warm feeling spread though her as she thought about her tall vigilant friend, whose sharp senses would find more life around them, and after pointing this out, it all would seem so obvious.
One of the most precious gifts she received from Xena was the world she had opened up to her. When she relished these moments of acute attentiveness of the life that abounded around her, and the connection she felt that made her feel a part of it, she thanked whatever lucky star she had wished on, that she had met Xena. In these moments she didn’t think about the difficult times, or adventures she would rather had not happened. She understood on some level that they were all part of something so much bigger…and it didn’t matter if she didn’t understand it fully, but the profound connection and sensitivity to…everything…that she could feel was beyond explaining and just had to be experienced. Even her clever tongue could not do justice to explaining the expansive feeling of being, that it gave her.
Her bond with Xena was another of the precious gifts. Sometimes, that unseeable link between them hummed with an undescribeable power that brought tears to her eyes even right now, just thinking about it. And the good part of it was that Xena didn’t have to be standing next to her for her to feel it. She released her breath to let the feeling of contentment flow through her and out into the environment wanting to share it. She thanked all the gods that were responsible for the area's ambiance, old deities and new, so as to leave no one out, and not due to fear…but of heartfelt gratefulness.
Turning her head to the side she smiled, thinking about the previous night. In the late afternoon when the rains finally abated, Xena had suggested they climb the small hill their shelter was in so she could see what was going on around them. By then, Xena and Argo were getting restless from spending two days cooped up in the small cave, though it was warm and dry. Finding something to entertain Argo with was not her worry…Xena was another story. She wouldn’t have minded it so much if Xena’s sword practices and throwing her chakrum about in the cave hadn’t gotten too close for comfort. Gabrielle’s creative mind on what games to play or invent to keep her ever-active friend occupied was over ridden by Xena’s impatience to reach Crometh before the winter solstice celebrations started. Entertaining a distracted warrior, whose hair trigger reflexes were legendary, if not plain infamous, was nerve racking, to say the least.
Xena had said she wanted to look for campfire smoke and perhaps the city's lights that might be seen from that particular rock outcropping when darkness fell. When someone as tall as Xena stood on a portion of the hill, a precarious position at that, she or he could see above the forest covering and the lands all around. But Gabrielle was gratefully too short and didn’t mind for she would have gotten dizzy noticing the height and how she had to dangle over treetops to see anything.
There was a flat space of rock, flat enough that two people, if sitting close together, had a clear view of the sky with a sturdy back rest. So, after Xena satisfied her curiosity about what was about them, she went back to their shelter and retrieved a fur so they could watch Selene's white moon rise to its zenith surrounded by white glittering jewels set in a dark background in relative warmth. Gabrielle had dozed off for a short time and had awakened in an amorous mood, which Xena was attentive to, before they settled back into the fur to star gaze.
They did their usual clear night thing, and studied the star blanketed sky looking for recognizable shapes in the patterns. There were so many white pinpricks of light, that Gabrielle was amazed the night wasn’t as bright as the day. They both identified different animals and monsters in the swirl of night-lamps, and made up stories to entertain each other. When Xena put her thoughts to it, she could come up with some funny stories. Gabrielle’s smile widened at the thought of somehow adding some of the whimsical stories of her companion to her own bard tales. Now, wouldn't that put a rise to Xena's eyebrow, Gabrielle giggled to herself.
Carefully, Gabrielle stepped around, and climbed over rocks and the battered remains of trees and brush that were blocking a direct passage to the water. The creek disappeared under an upturned tree with half of its roots still firmly entrenched in the rock strewn ground about it. It looked like it had been in that position for many seasons. Carefully, she fit herself between two rock slabs and leaned over to fill the skins with the creek's icy substance. The water was for her to heat up and clean with, while Xena, impervious to the cold, washed off in the creek where the water came up to her knees. Xena preferred to immerse herself when she washed, rather than taking a wet linen over her body until ideal conditions presented themselves to soak. Their differences in tolerance to bathing water temperatures amused them both, and were often used to tease one or the other.
"Brrrrr. This is cold. It was cold yesterday and the day before…so why shouldn’t it be cold today?" She mumbled to herself, wondering for the umpteenth time, how Xena could ignore the cold, and jump in to bathe. After just getting her hand wet she wished she brought a cloak.
Abruptly, the forest became silent. Gabrielle’s head came up, with one hand pulling the water bag out of the trickling creek, and the other gripping the rock, aiding in her balance. Birds no longer sang their morning songs, and the squirrels stopped their chattering and movement. The slight breeze that moved through the trees and brush, came to a standstill, but since it was chilly, Gabrielle didn't mind. Quickly and quietly she picked up their belongings and hoped she wasn't going to twist an ankle, as she scurried over the rocks and debris to where she was spied a good hiding place, back in the dark forest cover.
The only sounds she could hear were her own breathing and heartbeats. She hoped she was the only one near enough to hear them.
A prickly feeling that started at the base of her spine and moved its way up her back, gave her unpleasant shivers. She could feel her mouth go dry and the hairs on her arms rise. Xena? Gabrielle silently called. She nearly jumped out of her skin until she realized the presence of the person she was silently calling for was the one next to her putting a hand over her mouth for silence and steering her to a better place of concealment.
Xena wore a look that was all business, as she silently stared toward the creek where Gabrielle had just been. Both women silently waited in the shadows, with Gabrielle holding her breath until bright blue eyes looked down at her, reminding her to breathe.
A tall dark and hairy form finally emerged from the cover of foliage on the other side of the creek bed. The satyr lazily brushed the dangling vine that was caught on one of his horns off, as he leaned forward sniffing the air. His bearded mouth seemed to be pulled into a frown as he gazed around him then hopped across the expanse of water. It wasn't very wide now that the rains stopped. He rocked on his cloven feet for balance on the uneven rock, then tested the air once more. In one hand he held a blow tube Xena was familiar with. The dark head bent down to study the traces of water splashes Gabrielle left. He appeared uncertain, as he again tested the air and seemed to pick up a scent he was not happy with. Turning around the satyr jumped back across the creek and near the bent tree’s trunk, his form disappeared back into the forest thicket.
"What do you think scared him?" Gabrielle whispered.
"I don't think anything did. He just wasn't looking for trouble." Xena returned grimly. Xena was uncomfortable that a satyr was near by and with a blow tube. He wasn't a follower of Dionysus. He was more than likely a follower of Bacchae, who had once been close to Dionysus. There had to be a den nearby…and by the appearance of the blow tube, it meant they were looking for unwilling recruits for their Bacchae festival that was to take place after the solstice festival.
"You got what you came for?" She asked Gabrielle as she scanned the area around them.
The noise in the environment resumed, accompanied with the scolding chatter of a suspicious squirrel, as it peered down at the two women who were too close to his winter hoard of food.
"Hmmm. Do you mind waiting here while I take a quick rinse?"
Gabrielle's surprise must have showed.
"I don't want to leave you alone with that satyr wandering the forest…and I’m not going into the city smelling like I’ve spent a week in a temple orgy, as much as I like our smell." She teased.
"Xena, I…" Gabrielle paused. She was going to sound the usual refrain that she could take care of herself, however… "Sure. A satyr with darts isn’t the usual grungy, wanna-be-tough guy or malcontent that I’m use to handling. Nor have I gotten past the first class in catching darts." She conceded with a smile and a half-hearted joke.
Xena lifted one of Gabrielle’s tattooed hands and studied the design for a moment. "No. I don't think catching darts is in your repertoire of skills, and sneaking into their den and putting Joxer’s gravy in their water bags…" She added as a quip and a raised eyebrow, "is not recommended."
Without conscious awareness, Xena's thumb rubbed over part of the design on the back of Gabrielle's hand. "I think any handling of these satyrs should be…left to someone with a…different approach." She finished awkwardly, then let the hand drop.
Some satyrs weren't reasoning beings. They reacted from the grosser elements of desire and were Bacchus' pets, so-to-speak. Gabrielle knew, for sometimes she retold the story of how Bacchus had taken some of these creatures of the forest and enslaved them with their own weakness. He had promised to take care of their needs if they willingly broke affiliation with the forest nymphs whose liaison quelled the more fanatical passions of the satyr's behavior. The agreement created a rift between the forest nymphs and the satyrs who had been willing servants to Dionysus' as had been Bacchus. But not all satyrs broke trust with Dionysus and his nymphs, just like not all followers of Dionysus carried his gift of the vine to the extreme as Bacchus inflamed his followers to.
Xena effortlessly hopped onto a flat rock. Disrobing quickly she stepped into the creek as if it were a lukewarm pool of water, dunking her head under the clear liquid and letting her senses jump up to a higher form of awareness. Her washing motions were mechanical. She wasn't aware of things like her body adjusting to the temperature of the frigid water, nor of her feet finding balance on the slippery creek bottom. Her heightened awareness was focused on the forest life, what scent rode on the breeze, what was in the shadowed parts of the forest around them, and the green eyes that returned often to her bathing form, from periodic scans about them.
From a wrapped oilskin, she pulled out the herb soap Gabrielle had bought her in the last town they had stayed in, since she had lost hers in one of their never ending little misadventures. It had her favorite scent in it and unwrapping it in its cloth released the strong fragrance in the air.
Well, if the Satyr or any of his friends return, finding me will be easy. Her eyes narrowed and her lips curled into a predatory smile at the thought of the surprise that awaited them. If they thought she was an easy mark for drafting her into sexual labor for their celebrations, they would certainly have a rude awakening.
Xena rose from the snow-chilled water, letting the cold air bring her to even a higher state of alertness. Her eyes rested on the pulse point on the pale neck that was beating faster than a heart at rest. Dark centers surrounded with a thin band of green malachite were set in white orbs that gazed up into her blues. The sound of a bird cleaning it's beak on a branch, came from the left of them, breaking the spell, then the rustling of a small rodent moving through damp leaves carried softly to her ears. An almost inaudible sigh, that was loud to Xena's ears, came from Gabrielle who released her held breath.
Xena dried herself off quickly taking from Gabrielle clean undergarments, then her leathers that Gabrielle was kind enough to keep warm while standing at her sentry position.
Gabrielle heaved a heavy sigh inwardly, and decided she might as well bathe in the creek too. After watching Xena she decided she needed something cold to distract her. All this just to spend a little more time underneath the warm fur with Xena. Was it worth it? Hmmm. As sure as Aphrodite’s charms would be in Hestia’s virginal rooms on a solstice night!
"Might as well…" she rolled her eyes at her tall bemused sentry, as she braced herself for her own dip in the cold pool.
Xena had finished blotting her long dark hair, wrapping the linen like a turban around her head then took her turn as sentry. Her eyes flickered on the bathing woman between her vigilant scans around them. Gabrielle's brown tan from exposure to the summer sun had faded to winter paleness. The winter clothing she was wearing only left her tattoos on her hands exposed. Xena studied the tattoos across her abdomen, as the muscles beneath them moved. They looked different in daylight. She blinked her eyes then moved her sight away to keep her mind less distracted.
When Gabrielle got to her hair, Xena moved off her rock and sat on the rock next to Gabrielle’s partially submerged shivering figure. She loved running her hands through the short hair, especially when it was wet and soapy.
Gabrielle placed both of her hands on Xena's leathered waist to steady herself, closing her eyes and trying to relax into the sure feel of Xena's strong hands that stroked her scalp and then hair to cleanliness. The heat that came through Xena's leathers took the chill out of her hands.
"Hmmm. Xena, I like it when you wash my hair."
"Hmm." The taller woman responded only half listening, but attentive enough to catch the chattering teeth and the attempt at being seductive. "Rinse." She let her hands slide down the chilled skin before breaking contact.
"Brrr. I can't see how you do this without your teeth clacking." Gabrielle chattered giving the small squirrel that was still watching them suspiciously from his perch a quick glance. Did he just toss something at us? Gabrielle looked around her for what she thought the little creature had tossed their way, while briskly rubbing her body dry. Do squirrels throw things?
Noise from across the creek, deep in the forest, held Xena’s major attention. It wasn’t close to them, but near enough for Xena to feel the need to leave the area. A forest with this much activity in winter means trouble, especially if it's near a satyr’s den.
Back in the cave, Xena laced up her boots, put her armor on, packed the last of their supplies and saddled Argo. Gabrielle made sure their fire was out, and the cave was left clean for the next person, and interfered with Xena as much as she could. Gabrielle was laughing and breathing heavily from the physical exertion, while Xena was chuckling at the determination of her companion to get a solid tag on her.
"So, what do you think the satyrs up to?" Gabrielle breathlessly asked Xena. Her last attempt to tickle the tall woman, as she bent over to pick up their saddlebags, resulted in her being tossed into a corner, proceeded by a grin, and raised eyebrows from Xena. She was lucky Xena tossed her into places where the dirt was soft, though it was defeating the purpose of bathing, as she had to keep brushing dirt off her cloths and exposed body parts. Xena, whose conversation level was almost nothing, seemed to be listening to something other than her companion, though defending herself quite well, much to Gabrielle’s rueful chagrin. Gabrielle figured it had something to do with the satyr. She knew that if Xena thought they were in present danger she would not let their game continue.
"Trouble." Xena murmured, as she fastened the saddlebags in front of Argo's saddle. She attached her scabbard also to the side of the saddle, and tugged her warm coat about her as she turned to look at her smaller companion expecting another try from Gabrielle to tag her. Gabrielle drew her hand back, quickly giving the Warrior Princess a look of innocence. Smiling, Xena wagged a finger at her in warning, then picked up Argo's dangling reins. She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's neck, pulling her toward her for a hug. "Let’s hit the road, shall we?" She brushed her cheek against the damp blond head then pulled the hood to Gabrielle’s coat over her head to keep her warm. Gabrielle’s raised eyebrows reminded her to do the same for herself. Catching cold from damp hair wasn't a smart thing to do on the trail.
Once out of the protection of their camp Gabrielle let Xena concentrate and kept quiet, knowing from experience, that Xena would explain in her own detailed way, what 'trouble' meant when they were out of danger. There was nothing she could do to help, or Xena would have told her.
They had traveled for half a candlemark, weaving in and out of winter foliage, which was difficult to pass through as there was a lot of unyielding dead wood, when Xena pulled Argo into a particularly thick clump of brush and indicated that Gabrielle was to wait with Argo. She pressed a finger to her lips and then was about to disappear into the forest cover when Gabrielle put a restraining hand on her arm.
A sudden almost paralyzing fear covered her heart. She won't come back. With all that they had experienced together, Gabrielle felt this premonition to be absolutely true. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's elbow as she turned to leave.
"No!" She implored in a soft whisper and with her eyes and heart. A long moment passed as the warrior's dark eyes went from distant to recognizable sky blue softness.
"Then…we better get out of here…fast." She whispered back. She led them out of the brush and searched for the road that wound through the forest and out.
The sound of the soldiers they had passed a few days ago drew them to the road they wanted and from Xena's reluctance to join them, Gabrielle guessed that they probably were between a rock and a hard place. As they drew closer Gabrielle could distinguish the words to the songs they were singing. Her faced reddened at the colorful and descriptive marching song they were singing. Now, would not be a good time to interrupt their male bonding type of mood, she thought nervously.
A horrible feeling sent a shiver up Gabrielle's spine as she grabbed the leathered wrist of her companion in fear. It was the same feeling she had by the river earlier.
Xena was on Argo's back in a blur and had grabbed Gabrielle around the wrist hauling her up behind her as she kicked the war-horse into a run. Argo’s exploding golden form through the dense forest brush and onto the path the singing soldiers occupied, scattered the soldiers before they could pull their weapons out. What they saw was a big dusty gold horse descending upon them. The two fur clad figures leaning close against the horses back weren’t as noticeable as the soldiers tried to regroup and face the more alarming sounds coming from the brush above them in the direction the horse had burst through.
Xena kept Argo running until they had plenty of distance between them and the bewildered soldiers.
"Hades in a flaming chariot, Xena!" Gabrielle finally got out when her heart was beating a little back to normal.
"Well, those soldiers at least got a warning that something was coming their way." Xena chuckled. She moved Argo into an easy canter trying to put as much distance from that part of forest as she could.
"Just what was that…ugh! I’ve never felt that horrible feeling before." Gabrielle’s body shuddered against Xena’s back. The strong hands of her partner patted the clasped tattooed hands that were intertwined into a locked embrace around her waist.
"It's near the Bacchae festival…after winter solstice. It’s sometimes called satyr's rutting season." Xena smirked. "By the sounds and looks of those soldiers, they've been on the road for a while." Xena was silent for a moment, then added, "There's going to be a lot of soldiers with grins on their faces before too long."
"Xena!" Gabrielle pulled one of her hands loose and playfully slapped one of the armored shoulders. "Ouch!" It hurt even when she had a thick coat over the armor.
"Whaaat did I say?" Xena asked in mock innocence.
It was mid afternoon, without any stops only slow walks to give Argo a breather, when Gabrielle roused herself from a nap leaning against Xena’s back. Sleepily she patted Xena's comfortable back as if it were a pillow. It was so much more comfortable when her pillow wasn't sharing space with a scabbard.
"Xena, I don't remember the forest being that dangerous the last time we passed through." Gabrielle yawned, rubbing her cheek against the furred pillow.
"Danger comes in many forms…maybe last year we were lucky." She turned and peered over her shoulder to look into the sleepy eyes that never failed to cause her to catch her breath at the profound sense of belonging she found there.
"You think this is what the merchants were referring to? If not, I know we'll be back here to find out what all that was about. After all, that's the way of the warrior…helping people out when they're in all sorts of trouble. And satyr's preying on travelers…that would be a new adventure. She paused a moment. Xena always seems clear on what her purpose in life is…helping others or lending her energy to another’s goal…even when she has doubts of her importance…she has this underlying strong sense of purpose. So , it takes us from one adventure to another. It really is in her nature to seek out adventure. But…is it mine? Sometimes I’m so sure that my purpose is writing, storytelling and helping Xena help others…but sometimes…I get a feeling that, I should be doing something more. She hugged the comforting body that provided something solid to hold onto when nothing else around her looked secure. The thought of leaving Xena to find a purpose to her life no longer filled her with dread, as she realized how close in heart and spirit they had become. She knew she would find her purpose beside Xena. But what it was…
I just wish I knew what else I should be doing. Just writing and story telling can't be all there is to my life. For a moment, Gabrielle wondered if she was jealous that Xena was so sure of her purpose. Would Xena stay with me if…if I found my purpose and it goes in another direction from hers? No. Niema said our karma was intertwined. Gabrielle tightened her arms around the warmly cloaked figure in front of her, and rested her cheek against the soft animal skin coat Xena was wearing. Xena responded by tightening her hand around one of the cold hands that was holding onto her securely. Xena would go wherever I asked her to. This she knew as an absolute. But…would I ask her to follow me if I knew she would be miserable? Gabrielle sighed. That was the real question. I know I would follow her eventually…wherever she went…no matter how much I hated it and no matter if I promised her I wouldn't follow. If I felt her life in danger…I would go to her. So…would I give her the choice…or would I just… Gabrielle's heart tightened at the thought of leaving Xena without giving her a truthful reason. No, I would give Xena the choice even if I knew it would…hurt her.
Gabrielle's thoughts returned to their present journey. What is happening around Crometh, a city dedicated to the Muses, that has Artemis' attention? She's the patroness of the Amazons, not of Muses, Gabrielle sighed inwardly. What danger does the City of the Muses have for an Amazon? And what did she mean, there are some thing's more important than self-sacrifice? Did this trouble in the woods have anything to do with it?
"Once we're in Crometh we can learn what's going on." A smile formed on Xena's face as she added, "I hear the bards there can make up stories just from hearing a bit of news." Xena felt a chuckle vibrate in the smaller form that was pressed closely against hers.
"Hmmm. Is that a challenge, my Warrior Princess, or is that a challenge?" Gabrielle returned. Xena could hear the smile in her voice and her mind filled in the familiar face lit up in mischief with sparkling green eyes flecked with brown.
"I think you're getting out of practice because you don't have much competition." She returned with a grin that Gabrielle couldn't see but could picture by the light tone of her voice. "You were a bit slow on star stories last night." The grin turned into a big smile as she remembered how she had won.
Gabrielle laughed, and in a mock outrageous tone retorted, "Hey! You distracted me! That was not fair!"
"Ahhh, ahh. You didn't lay down any rules. And I seem to remember that you started it…besides, my hands were cold."
"Xena, your hands were warm." Gabrielle laughed hugging the tall woman in front of her then butting her head against what had been a comfortable pillow. Gabrielle smiled remembering that she did start it.
Xena reached back and slid her hand under Gabrielle's warm coat to tickle her.
"Hmm. I'm certainly not complaining." Gabrielle giggled. "I want to warn you though…I am studying all these…war tactics of yours." She told her dark haired companion as she swung her leg over Xena's. Xena's tickling turned to a soft caress along the leg that moved to cover hers.
"Nice to hear." Xena purred. "Just be careful who you try them on." Xena removed her roaming hand and returned it to the hands that were still intertwined around her waist. She needed to pay attention to the road. She didn't have an army around her to let her get away with pleasant distractions in the open as she had with Borias; of course she was a lot wilder and brash then, and the riders of his tribe did just about everything on horseback. She smirked at the memory. She took a deep breath and released it. The pain she use to feel when she thought about Borias and her inability at the time to appreciate what a more trusting relationship could have brought them, no longer weighed on her. Any change in her past would change the present…with Gabrielle…and that is something she was not willing to tamper with even if it meant opening herself up emotionally to past lovers. She already found out what one life altering change had done to Gabrielle when she was at the temple of the Fates.
"I don't want too much excitement in every town we visit, to say nothing of me having to fight off wanna-be suitors." She growled in a low voice.
"Ohhh. I like that tone of voice." Gabrielle hugged her hard.
Xena patted Gabrielle’s hands again, returning her thoughts to their destination. Athena had given her no information at all about Crometh. She had merely inquired if she and Gabrielle were going there as they had planned. Xena ignored the minor annoyance that the goddess was in their business and responded instead to her inner warning signal that something was amiss. Athena did not ask for favors...not from her anyway. However, it had the smell of god tampering in mortal’s lives. It also had her curiosity for Athena was careful about her approach with her and how it might be construed…but by whom? She grinned to herself as she remembered that she was not the most approachable mortal when it came to dealings with the gods. So, Xena considered herself forewarned that something was not right in Crometh, City of the Muses…and…rumored to be well visited by three goddess of which Athena was one and Artemis was another, which explained why Artemis got involved. What was so important that two goddesses wanted them in Crometh? She sighed. She wondered just how Aphrodite was going to get into the picture somewhere on this trip.
A week from their destination they had taken shelter from a snow storm in a comfortable inn that was full of others that had likewise sought shelter from the bad weather. While Gabrielle plied her trade, entertaining the tavern patrons with her stories, Xena gathered news from the best sources of information on roads, towns and people…the traveling merchants and traders. What she heard further aroused her curiosity. Caravans no longer visited the city due to a problem in the surrounding hills and forests, which none of the traders could say what it was. However, they mentioned that Crometh had merchants that did leave the city and traded with her surrounding neighbors. Odd for a city that makes their primary living from visitors to suddenly change their income base, Xena thought.
The trio came to an end of the forest but not due to a normal ending. Stubs of blackened tree trunks sitting in a dirty gray ash, covered one side of a hill with rows of felled trees neatly laid out along side of the road waiting for pickup. It appeared that someone was doing some serious building nearby and getting the hill ready for farmland. They had one more hill to climb before they would get to the city. Xena dismounted and reached up for Gabrielle whose legs she knew would be stiff from the riding. Since they were near their destination they could both use a break and Argo certainly could use one. Argo quickly found some sweet grass growing along the side of the road.
Gabrielle stretched her legs as she studied the blackened hill that had the appearance of being prepared for farming yet lacked some of the essentials for preparation, like timely turning the ash and dirt under for enrichment of the soil. She moved off to the side of the road to relieve herself. Xena waited keeping an eye out for company until Gabrielle was finished, then she took her turn. Both shared sips from the water skin listening to the wind moving through the bare trees further behind them, an occasional call of a bird, the flutter of wings, the chattering of squirrels and a comfortable silence between them. Xena walked over to Argo and reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a small pouch tossing it to Gabrielle. Delighted, Gabrielle untied it and reached in for a handful of dried fruits mixed with nuts to snack on, putting two handfuls into a smiling Xena's one cupped hand, then reaching in for her share.
"I had forgotten we still had some trail mix." Gabrielle told her smiling companion.
The two women sat comfortably shoulder to shoulder on the stacked logs nestled up against the slope of the hill just off the road. Argo moved across the road where there were no logs stacked to find more grass, after accepting a rather dried apple from her mistress. While munching on their snack in silence Xena studied the scorched ground around them. In the soggy ash, she could see prints of people, various four legged creatures, and a set of cloven prints. The cloven prints seemed to be the most recent for they were imposed over a few of the people prints. It was the biggest set of cloven prints she had seen since Bacchus, whom had the misfortune of threatening them. Finishing her snack Xena turned to her friend who was letting her eyes dreamily drift over the tree stubs. Xena moved to Argo's side and unlaced her scabbard from the saddle, fastening it to her side, then chastised her four footed friend for not letting her secure her reins.
Wordlessly Gabrielle had moved to a less muddied part of the road waiting while Xena attempted to collect Argo who playfully evaded Xena's grab for her reins. She couldn't help laughing at Xena's murmuring to the prankish mare that she would give her a better tasting apple when they reached the city if she would behave herself and get back on the road.
Xena leaped onto Argo's back then nudged her over to the waiting Bard. Normally they would walk the rest of the way into the city but the road was too muddy with pools of water collected in the ruts thereby making footing for Gabrielle treacherous if not messy. She didn't always pay attention to her footing on the road because her attention was divided on either creating a new story for their next town, or on practicing one on her silent and vigilant companion. That required hand gestures, voice and eye contact, and sometimes leaps forward or to the side to emphasize a point or two…and all of which were not good for watching where she placed her feet, for the images in her head were not mindful of her present.
Once Gabrielle was comfortably seated behind her, Xena signaled Argo with a slight thigh squeeze, to continue their progress to Crometh. Gabrielle remained silent behind Xena but occasionally she touched her tall partner to point out small creatures that were peering out at them from the bare hillside, as Argo plodded through the muddied road that began to climb around a hill that was denuded of trees seasons ago.
Spotting wildlife around them was another game Xena played with Gabrielle to deepen her awareness of what was around her. The rules were that Xena had to spot ten creatures to Gabrielle’s one before she could get a point. It had once been a higher number, but Gabrielle was getting better. At one time it was also a way to get Gabrielle to stop chattering for it drove Xena crazy. Now Xena didn’t mind whether she chatted or played one of their many games. She turned to peer at her quiet friend with fondness. She watched the green eyes shaded under blond lashes flicker over the land around them then track to hers where they were held captive for a few moments. Both enjoyed the feeling that passed between them.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and unconsciously took a deep breath. "A lot of this has been cleared seasons ago. I wonder why they haven’t used it yet?" Gabrielle broke the silence in a soft voice.
Xena nodded thoughtfully at the remark, returning her own gaze to the landscape. Xena let the warmth that had built up between them in the exchange subside, grateful that Gabrielle had broke the contact for she was loath to at that moment. You need to pay attention to your surroundings; especially since you know there are satyrs around, and they are using darts, Xena chastised herself, but not being able to take herself seriously. The way the land was bare all around them, the chance of someone sneaking up on her was as less likely as Ares showing up without her knowing. Xena cursed under her breath at the thought of him.
Gabrielle listened to the body language of the woman she was holding onto, knowing she was deep in thought about something that disgusted her, but as the body relaxed again, knew she had worked whatever it was out.
Both women turned their thoughts to the wildlife, and useful herbs that were lost because industrious people whom harvested the trees and scorched the land for farming, didn't appear to have replanted anything on the land they stripped. It was typical of most towns growing beyond their first settlements to harvest the trees around them then burn the remains of whatever was left. If they turned the ash under mixed with human and animal waste, and waited a few months they would be able to prepare it for farming that same season. It didn't make sense that they left so much unused land for what looked like two seasons and without even preparing it for any use. They were destroying useful resources, perhaps thinking that with enough prayers to their gods the forests would simply replenish in time, or that they could always trade for whatever they lost with someone else, Xena thought with distaste. Was this part of the problem or was this the result of the problem, Xena wondered. Citizens that were too busy working on defenses had little time for anything else.
Crometh started out as a farming and sheep community. A group of people, mixed in age and gender, left their own communities for various reasons and settled in this area that at the time was far enough away from other cities and towns to not be bothered with challenges to their settling on the land. Years later a family, fleeing battling warlords from Epirus, wandered into the growing community and opened up an inn. The Golden Ram soon became the place for socializing and entertainment with competitions of various skills being wagered. By the time the innkeeper’s children were old enough to start their own businesses, the community was a regular stop-over for traders and big enough to support four inns. Then the real competitions began as each inn sponsored competitors that were pitted against visitors or each other. When the citizens speak of it today, they say the family had purposely started the rivalry knowing that everyone would want to come and see which inn would win the huge yellow-gold dyed sheep skin each month. The skin was from the Pyrrhic breed that only grew large in Epirus, supposedly from where the family had originally migrated. The monthly competitions were monthly fairs.
Five temples were located in the city, with the largest and most detailed being dedicated to the Muses. All cities had a portia, that is a patroness…or a patron. How the Muses were selected as the Patronesses was determined by the decision not to upset any of the gods. The Muses were the least interfering, so they were chosen. However, when the three sister goddesses started to visit regularly, it was decided to honor them…and quite wisely. A fourth temple to Zeus was added to give some sort of male representation, and after all, he was their sire.
Today the city spread out widely covering the entire flat grassland that nestled between rolling hills that had once been covered with trees. By the time they climbed the last hill that overlooked the city Argo was acting irritated from the condition of the road.
Xena halted Argo at the top of the last hill to give her a breather, and so that they could view the city that spread out below them. There was farmland neatly laid out on three sides of the city. The city appeared to be extending it's own boundaries as square towers that were part wood and part stone rose far from the original wall. A new wall could be seen raising from around stone work that was in progress, with people strung out in long lines hard at work. There were some dogs playing to one side and others curled up asleep, while guards, either on horse back or walking about looked toward the two women that stood out as silhouettes against the blue sky. The land to the east of the city wasn't cleared for farming, as the forest was allowed to grow.
They must have a stone quarry near by. Xena studied the amount of stone that had already been used.
As they moved onto the lower road they passed through farm fields whose walls at closer inspection, were falling into disrepair. Nearing the new stone works around the city, Xena studied the deep trench being filled in, which was for the foundation of the enceinte, the new thick outer walls. They had raised the wall in some places six cubits, almost twice her height with the thickness being a good eight cubits. Their progress into the city was slowed as they moved carefully around men, women and children working in long lines passing baskets of materials.
They finally dismounted as they waited for a young girl who had a bucket of water for the workers to lift her burden and move to another line waiting for refreshment.
Some of the workers nodded to them as they passed. A few suggestions were tossed to them as where they could stay when they reached the city and where to buy goods.
"Xena, it doesn’t look like they’re preparing for war." Gabrielle spoke softly, "They’re too calm. Do you think maybe they’re just expanding their city?"
"Could be…" Except it wouldn't explain the land that had the appearance of being fallow for a season of planting. They could be taking precautions from something in the surrounding forests… but from the satyrs? She gave a casual look over the crowd. I've never heard of satyrs taking on a city of people. There aren't enough of them to wage even a small battle. For a brief moment she wished Athena had given her a bigger hint at what she was concerned about.
They passed through the original gates of the city eyeing the two guards on either side of the gateposts. The guards stood with their hands casually draped over their sword belts chatting, however, Xena could feel them being examined as they passed. Xena did her own scrutinizing, noticing the uncleaned leathers, dirty metal and the unfinished noon meal lying half eaten in a basket nearby, surrounded by flies. Her eyes moved to the original walls, thick enough for a wallwalk with a turret where soldiers could be seen looking out in four directions.
"Xena, look at the art work on these gates." Gabrielle had paused before the gates to study the impressive detailed artwork that was fastened on the inside of the massive gates. They were ornate metal-pounded impressions with stones to enhance the effect of the nine Muses in posses representing their muse.
"Ya…nice." A thoughtful Xena glanced at the gates letting her eyes note more than the decorative covering. Her mind registered thickness of the wood behind the pounded metal, the soundness of the walls for keeping out attackers, the placement of the guards, the buildings that lined the inside of the wall, and how many people were about the entrance and what they were doing. There was something not right about this city that should be full of people ready for the weeklong celebration for Winter Solstice that it was so well known for. And the soldiers posed an additional puzzle. They looked like new recruits who wouldn't last a quarter candlemark in a light workout. Where were Crometh's hearty soldiers keeping themselves? Xena’s thoughtful gaze returned to her companion who was smiling at…she moved her gaze to where Gabrielle’s eyes were fastened.
A couple of cats were sleeping in the sun on top of a row of neatly lined barrels that were still damp from the previous day's rain. A dog was sniffing around the bottom of one, where a pair of small eyes was peeking out. Xena watched amused as a tiny claw reached out between the barrels and smacked the sniffing nose that got too close to its hiding place. The dog backed up surprised and shook himself, then barked at the hiding kitten who was joined by her litter mates, as more tiny eyes peered out at the larger four-legged creature that wanted them to play with him.
Odd, Xena thought.
"Awwww. That's cute, Xena." Gabrielle laughed.
As they entered the outer yard most of the merchant stalls were empty and the market place that they had heard boasted as being always crowded with customer’s even in the winter, had few people about. However, there was plenty of wandering chickens, as well as goats and sheep in a pen that were tended by young children and yawning dogs. All seemed placid and very quiet. Normally the goats and sheep would be wandering the open lands finding available grass, trailed by their herders and dogs. Xena looked up at the winter sun and noted there was about a candlemark of light left. Did the people fear the surrounding area enough to bring in their wandering herds early and keep them within the city's original walls? And where are the rest of the herds?
Xena led Argo to an inn, The Bard’s Hall, where they were going to stay.
"It looks like most of the citizens are out working the walls." Gabrielle observed. She was hopping the celebrations for winter solstice would liven the place up. She was getting weary just looking around.
Xena kept her eyes scanning the area as she pulled the saddlebags from Argo’s withers. She loosened the saddle girth, then patted Argo’s neck, making a mental note to brush the thick dull winter coat after they settled in their room.
"I'll be back to take care of you, Girl. And I'll find you an apple, just like I promised. That sound good to you, Argo?" Xena asked in a low voice. The mare turned her head to her mistress and extended her head toward her letting out a whiff of air from her whiskered nose. "I take that as a yes." She moved her hand behind an ear and gave a brief rub before joining Gabrielle, who was smiling from the inn’s porch.
There were two people in the common room with a set of nicely crafted stairs to the right leading up into the area where the rooms for rent were. Darts, dice and other gaming supplies were neatly arranged on all of the tables, waiting for patrons to take them up. Bowls of fruit, dried and fresh, were on the front counter. Xena's sharp eyes spotted two nice looking green apples waiting for the asking. The two figures looked up at them as Xena closed the door, shutting out the day glare from behind them.
One of the women was tall with bright curly red hair, bound with a thin leather strip and ribbon, tied into a single braid that was pulled forward and laid across one shoulder, with loose bits of curly hair ends all about, giving the impression she had just finished some sort of strenuous physical activity. She wore a dark green winter cloak over her black mud stained trews. It appeared she had recently returned from riding for the mud on the sides of her boots and breeches was still noticeably wet. Her sword was creating a noticeable break in the flow of the cloak down her long frame.
"Welcome." The pleasant voice behind the bar greeted them. "Need rooms, food, drink, a place for y’er horses?" She asked as if it were the usual offer made to potential customers.
"We’ll take them all." Gabrielle told her smiling. Her breath caught as she looked at the red head that was studying her openly. She looked vaguely familiar.
Xena nodded to the two women.
"Alala." She told Gabrielle under her breath.
For a moment Gabrielle didn’t know what she was talking about. The redhead, of course. She’s Alala. Gabrielle had a mental image of herself slapping her forehead. Birds, horses, Athena’s animal warden at the Athen’s temple. Gabrielle’s memory supplied her. What is she doing here, I wonder? This must be Athena's connection to whatever the problem is here.
"Ala, will show y'er w'ere y'er can stable y'er horses." The women behind the bar told them. "Most is doin' time on the wall so's e’res short of 'elp these days." The barmaid apologized. "But ere's story tellin' during meal time, bout sundown." She reassured her guests. "T'is a Bard's Inn, y’er know." She smiled and nodded to Xena and then Gabrielle.
Xena laid the saddlebags on the floor next to Gabrielle's feet giving her a discreet wink, then followed Alala out. Gabrielle hid her grin at Xena’s removal of two green apples and her nod to the Innkeeper to add it to their tab.
"Will y'er be needin' one er two rooms?" The woman asked as Gabrielle pulled her coin purse out and paid for one room for two nights in advance, with a morning and night meal for two people and board and feed for one horse.
The woman checked her coinage and dropped them into what Gabrielle could imagine as a locked box behind her counter. She could hear the money roll around as if the box were near empty. Gabrielle had picked up her own bag and the woman picked up the saddlebags before Gabrielle could and led the way up the staircase.
"So…you’re expanding your city?" Gabrielle ventured.
"Hmmm." The woman responded noncommittally.
Gabrielle thought about how to reword her comment to get more information.
"I noticed the walls are pretty thick. If you ever had trouble you’d be pretty safe." She tried again.
"Trouble alright." The woman muttered in a dark tone.
"From who?" She asked not batting an eye at her jumping to the heart of the problem so quickly.
The woman shook her head. "Now wouldn't t'at be nice if'n were known…" She sighed.
Gabrielle’s eyes lit up at the wealth of information she was managing to gather so quickly. "You've already had people looking about, no doubt."
"Yeeaaa." The old woman grunted in reply as she walked ahead of Gabrielle. "Didn' find nothin'. Hmmmp. Them idiots couldn' find 'eir boots even by smell." She glanced back at Gabrielle's concerned look. "No need ta w'ery. Few moons ago word was sent ta ‘ercules."
"So you don’t know if he’s received word or…" Gabrielle guessed. She smiled to herself. I wonder if Xena was able to get as much from Alala. Warrior types. She thought smugly, as she imagined the two warriors trying to carry on a conversation. Won't happen. However, Gabrielle also knew that Xena's method of gathering information was usually not through conversation, though when she did use it, she could be quite persuasive. Well, whatever is bothering them…it was enough for them to send for Hercules. She smiled at the thought of maybe running across Hercules and Iolaus…but, after they had solved Crometh's problem, she smirked thinking of Iolaus' and her small competition.
"Or if the messengers ever got through." She finished Gabrielle’s sentence as she regarded Gabrielle. Gabrielle passed her to enter the room as the woman held open the door, gesturing her forward. The woman laid the saddlebags near the bed and Gabrielle laid her own bag next to the table near a balcony door. She looked about the spacious room and noted the amenities of bath, latrine, running water for drinking and washing, a fireplace with a stack of wood and a very wide bed. The room smelled fresh and the bedding looked clean. Gabrielle nodded as she looked around.
The woman's eyes followed Gabrielle's. "Water's warmed from cook's fire. If y'er have a mind for testin the springs…Crometh's built round natural springs an e're mineral pool. Y'er got y'er pick as 'ere's one near each temple. Y'er should ave no w'ery about bathin with them soldiers, none of 'em know what a regular bath is. Fer two of y'er it'll be eitght dinar with an extra dinar fer linen 'n two for an assistant."
"Great. That sounds nice…" Gabrielle paused for moment wondering how much more information she could get out of this woman before she deemed her too nosey for a stranger. "We passed some soldiers heading this way in the woods and something else…" Gabrielle offered hoping the woman would supply what she thought the something else was, or information on the soldiers.
"Hmm. Soldiers y’er say? Like ere's not enough already." She gave a sound of disapproval. "Ere’s satyrs in the woods bout this time. Travelers use ta be safe from 'em …but …times change. Y'ere lucky y'er made it through without some fuss."
"What’s happening?" Gabrielle asked bluntly. This was really pushing her luck.
There was a moment of silence as the women’s face took on a thoughtful look. She rested against the door jam. "We thought t’wer some warlord trying ta scare us ta payin tribute. But t'wern't no demands." Sighing heavily she shook her head. "Ala 'n a few of 'er friends had cleared a group of thugs and satyrs out of the forest bout year ago n' things quieted down fer a bit. Then it started happen’n agin bout a moon after'n they left. The priestess told us t'was the same warlord as last time but…no one's seen proof…'n we don't take counsel on matters that aren't dealin with the gods from a priestesses…" Instead of giving a firm nod of affirmation at what she declared she shook her head doubtfully. "Now…" She shrugged her shoulders.
"So…now, you’re building walls." Hmm, we'll have to visit this priestess.
"Ya. We ‘ave General Gigantes leadin us. Seems smart ta do n' these times." Her voice didn't sound like she believed it. "But we're still loyal ta da Muses 'n have e’er celebrations…I'm hope'n ‘ercules gets here n' time to help us though." She added in a lower tone. "Before business is nothin."
Gabrielle was silent as she studied the woman.
"We've winter provisions…plenty e're food. We've had a good nough harvest even with General Gigantes taking charge er' the surplus." The woman told Gabrielle as she took her leave. "So, y’er ta get a good fare. I’ll put some warm food up fer the two of y'er. If y'er athinkin ta leave soon, there's a merchant's caravan leavin 'n two days. Best ta travel with ther caravan, then by y'er selves. No use pushin' the Fates. Though, it would be a shame fer y'er ta have made the trip ‘ere 'n miss the solstice celebrations."
"Great. Thanks. Ya, we are here for the celebrations…and, we are really hungry."
The door was closed firmly behind the disappearing innkeeper’s form.
Gabrielle went to the second door in their room leading out to a balcony and opened it. She wrapped her arms about herself as the cold breeze set her coat ends flapping. Their second floor balcony looked out onto an alley and a row of residences across from them, which had similar styled balconies and pipes for water dropping from the side of the rooms down into the ground below. Gabrielle didn’t step out onto the balcony, she merely leaned against the doorframe and checked out the size of the balcony. It had a cistern for catching rainwater in one corner and in the other long thin bare branches from a climbing tree reached out to touch the railing of the balcony. During spring it probably was dripping with blossoms and carrying into the rooms the heavy scent of its flowers.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the city’s sounds. She could hear some children talking in their high pitched voices, dogs barking, a cat’s meow, chickens clucking, an occasional bleat of a lamb, and some banging from what sounded like a metal smith at work. The echoes from this lone hammering sounded haunting to her. Usually a city of this size had a lot of noise, from animals, hawkers for their wares, and a mixture of people’s voices arguing over this or that. Even the workers outside the city’s gates were quiet, except for a few that gave suggestions on where to stay or spend their money. Maybe because it’s late in the day and they’re just tired, she thought pursing her lips.
She breathed in deeply, picking out the more favorable smells of baking goods for evening meal over the usual city smells. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the some of the stronger odors that mixed with the baking smells. It was nice to visit a city now and again, but already she missed the smell of the rich damp earth, scents from fresh vegetation, sounds of the wildlife, the wind in the trees, and most of all, listening to an occasional song from her dark haired warrior companion.
This city has an uncomfortable feel to it, and I don’t know if it’s because I like the open space outside of the city’s walls or if it’s from the city itself. Hmmm. A city that is preparing for a war it doesn't know who with, and whose inhabitants are abnormally quiet…that certainly poses an interesting picture.
She and Xena had been to plenty of cities that were preparing for war, or in the midst of a war, and she couldn't remember any of them feeling like this…but then…all cities have a different feel to them. What is so different about this city? Gabrielle was lost in thought and didn’t notice when Xena’s tall frame quietly entered into the room.
Xena closed the door softly and studied the thoughtful face that was lit from the last of the daylight that came though the balcony door she was leaning against. Her cheeks were red from the cold but she seemed to be oblivious of it as her gaze appeared to be focused inward, with her arms wrapped around her and her hands tucked in the sleeves of her coat for warmth. Normally Gabrielle could sense when Xena was close by and would spot her in a matter of seconds, so Xena knew she was too far away in her thoughts to take notice of her presence. She took that time to go over what she had observed and overheard from the few people that were not working on the city's fortifications while leaning against the closed door and idly watching the reflective figure before her.
The stable was a short walk from the inn, located against the eastern wall of the city. Conversation between the two women was nil but neither seemed to find it uncomfortable. Alala didn’t appear to remember Xena or Gabrielle, but there was a noticeable hesitation when she spotted Argo. Argo had no problem with her memory as she took time on their walk to the stable to lip the pocket on the cloak of the woman to remind her that she was interested in the little treats of carrots and slices of green apples she use to carry for her own mount. As Xena unsaddled her Argo settled for letting Alala scratch behind her ears. Xena suspected she was still looking for the treats she had once been given by Alala. Argo had a very good memory of who treated her well.
Xena didn’t see any trace of Alala’s feathered friends. Maybe the falcon was out hunting and the owl sleeping in a dark corner. Yori, her horse was in his stall, contently munching on fresh hay in his feedbox. She spotted his tact and noticed it was still wet with sweat though it had been wiped. She also noticed that Yori had a bucket of water to himself and his water trough that shared water from the common source was empty, plugged closed as a matter of fact. Xena striped Argo of her gear and brushed her down, chuckling when a golden nose pushed its way into the pocket of her coat that held the two apples that had been snagged off the inn's table.
So, now you ask me, huh Girl?
Argo knew the apples in her mistress’ pocket were going to her, so she was just pushing her luck by checking with Alala for remembered treats the woman seemed to always have in her pockets. Her own mistress did not have pockets for snacks…or for that matter, when she wore her leather uniform, had no pockets to speak of.
As Alala pulled hay down from the rafters, and poured some oats into the feedbox for Argo, Xena covertly studied her, knowing Alala was doing the same to her. She could feel the tall animal warden's uncertainty. She didn’t expect her to remember them for even Gabrielle needed to be reminded. Xena took the cue from Alala’s attention to her horse and poured water from one of their water skins into a bucket for Argo. Alala didn’t offer any suggestions or comments but her body language indicated she had made a note of Xena's choice.
Alala offered little conversation and Xena asked few questions on the way back. Xena chose a different route back to the inn walking through the alley that was behind the inn they were staying at. Her observations in silence gave her more information than if she had tried to pump Alala, who didn’t look like she would be very forthcoming with any information. Xena overheard a few people that were standing around chatting; spotted someone watching her; caught sight of another person glancing at her before hurrying off.
Yep…there’s certainly a lot going on here.
A knock on their door brought both women back from their thoughts. Gabrielle was startled that Xena was leaning up against the closed door. Xena opened the door after winking at Gabrielle.
"Yer foods ready. Woud'ya like it 'ere er ya be wantin’ ta cume down ta the common?"
"We’ll be down." Xena told her. She nodded to Gabrielle who responded by moving toward the door. Both women exchanged their warm outdoor coats for lighter indoor cloaks that Xena pulled out of their bags. Winter was winter and no matter how many bodies or big a fire, it was best to take something warm to wrap around you.
"How long were you there?" Gabrielle asked softy as she stood in front of the tall warrior, resting a hand on the leathered waist.
"Long enough to see that you really were thinking hard." She teased leaning down with her lips close to Gabrielle’s ears as she fastened her cloak around her. "Must have been about the competition you’ll be facing. But I have faith in you, O’Bard of mine."
Gabrielle attempted to give the tall woman a poke with her elbow, but a warm palm trapped her elbow firmly and guided her down the staircase.
In the common room a small group of people had gathered and by their appearance they had been working on the wall. Some surrounded a playing board sipping their drinks as they watched the two players while others played in pairs. Casual glances were sent their way as they entered, but no one seemed to take any particular interest in their presence. The room was abnormally quiet for an inn with games in progress.
Xena took her usual place with her back to the wall and in an area where she could watch the comings and goings and not be easily seen…in other words…the darkest corner.
Their food was delivered along with ale for Xena and a mug of cider for Gabrielle. The bread was warm and they were given the choice of flat bread or raised bread. Xena chose the flat bread, stuffing the vegetable stew from her plate into the center of the bread. Gabrielle liked fresh raised bread. She tore a piece off, dunking it in the olive oil and herb mixture that was set near them, chewing and giving a casual look around her as her spoon dipped in the thick stew with her other hand.
"Xena?" She asked as her eyes fell on the dark shadowed face that was silently eating next to her. Gabrielle watched the shadows move on the high cheekbones as her jaw chewed, eyes moving around as the expression on the dark face remained impassive.
"Hmmm." Xena turned her head slightly to regard the smaller woman who had a pensive look on her face. The blue eyes were bright in contrast to the shadows they sat in.
"They’ve sent a messenger to Hercules."
"They don't know what’s going on, but the walls are to keep someone out."
"Hmmhmm." Xena nodded as she continued with her meal. She bit back her usual caustic reply of 'usually that's what high thick walls were for'.
"Did Alala recognize you?" Gabrielle continued, use to the reticent warrior's short answers and sparse information sharing.
"Nope. She recognized Argo, though." Xena smiled inwardly at the Bard's persistence, and patience in gathering information from her, though she wasn’t comfortable with talking in the open. Too many people seemed to be interested in their conversation.
"Figures." Gabrielle responded with an inward sigh. At last she got more than a short response. "Xena?"
"What are we going to do?"
Xena stopped chewing and looked at her blond haired partner. For a moment she merely regarded the round face with green eyes that sparked from the light a torch across the room gave off. Her blond hair curled around her face giving her a maturer look, but not by much. She watched a trail of gravy drip down the side of her chin, which was unconsciously wiped by Gabrielle with the back of her hand.
"Find out what’s in the woods besides satyrs," was her practical response returning her attention back to her own meal. Her voice was soft and didn't carry past Gabrielle.
Gabrielle paused in her chewing, not missing the momentary light in the slited darkened eyes. She nodded and resumed her eating thinking of the nice hot bath she was planning on soaking in with a willing bathing partner.
As the women were finishing their meal more people trickled in and the somber mood was lifted somewhat. Some of the customers were bards who began the practice of their skills. Gabrielle listened but didn’t volunteer to tell any of her tales. The content of the stories was informative of what was happening in the fabled city of the Muses. Xena was right; they were able to make up interesting stories from bits of happenings around the city. What was odd was that there were no tales of life outside of Crometh or the customary winter solstice tales. It could have been like listening to the local crier announcing the daily news of the city and palace, if they had one.
The winter darkness left a lot of shadows in the inn and someone was going about lighting more lamps. Xena’s cloak covered her armor and in the darkness her features. Not many could get a good view of her. However, Xena knew that Alala had noticed her armor and if she didn’t recognize her from their once long journey together, she would recognize her trademark dress and weapons. Alala was in conference with a small group of women and men in another dark corner. Xena’s sharp eyes could see them sipping their drinks, nibbling on some bread and looking their way. Her sharp hearing picked up their conversation and she was the subject. Nothing new in that. Two Amazons, one that was tall with long blond hair tied back like Alala and a shorter dark haired one stood on the other side of Alala. Interesting combination. Xena recognized five more of the women amongst the group. Mercenaries. She said nothing to Gabrielle who was listening to the bard tales while with her fingertip was idly drawing circles on her knee under the table.
Two candlemarks after sunset customers started to leave the inn in small groups, saying their good-byes to the those remaining. Xena quietly watched wondering if there was a curfew or a meeting the others were off to. From the conversations around her the people didn’t seem to be bothered with having to interrupt their drinks or games. A few of the members in Alala’s group had left and now the remaining were leaving with only Alala and Hildreth left sipping from their mugs.
"Xena, I’m kinda of tired…" Gabrielle spoke after the last group of bards left.
Xena glanced around noting there were but a handful of customers left, and some of them Xena had noticed kept a sharp eye on her and Gabrielle. Xena rose and nodded to Gabrielle. "Me too." A brief smile hidden in the dark touched her face, as she remembered why they didn’t get much sleep the previous night. Too much star gazing and playing, she smirked to herself.
Gabrielle didn’t miss the glittering bright blue eyes in the torchlight and poked her as she walked by her. Xena is probably really tired since she didn't get to take a nap, she thought as she returned the smirk.
Eyes from other tables followed the two women as they made their way up the stairs to their room.
Either we’re going to have visitors later or they’ll wait for tomorrow, Xena sighed as she held the door open for Gabrielle. She pursed her lips as she wondered if maybe because the citizens worked all day on the walls that they felt it was wise to get to bed early. I think I'll take a look around a little later tonight.
Gabrielle's mind was on a warm bath, sweet smelling soap and a nice massage that she was going to wheedle out of her pensive partner…and a discussion as to why the city didn't look like it was preparing for the famous week long celebrations for winter solstice.
Xena put off her night skulking until Gabrielle fell contently to sleep.
"Thanks." A soft whisper came from the drowsy bard before her breathing deepened into sleep.
Gabrielle had a smile on her lips as she whispered a thanks to any or all who were responsible for this evening, then drifted into Morpheus’ realm. She not only got a chance to soak in hot oiled water, great for winter dry skin, but she and Xena exchanged massages which left her so relaxed she didn't argue with Xena about accompanying her on her night exploration of the city.
Gabrielle's dream started with the soft click of the balcony door that was closed behind Xena’s dark figure that dropped silently to the ground below.
Gabrielle found herself standing in darkness with a soft light coming from above the right of her. A stone staircase led down to where she was with the last four stairs at the bottom disappearing into the darkness that surrounded her. Gabrielle cocked her head to the side wondering about the source of the light for it…felt…yes...felt…nice. Sighing deeply, she thought about climbing the stairs to the see where the light was coming from.
Gabrielle's pounding heart filled her ears as she realized that she could not move. The previous warm feelings were forgotten quickly. For some unknown reason this filled her with despair as she looked upward at the stairs and her exit out of this darkness which suddenly was threatening. Her eyes were drawn to the pictographs that were on the wall leading up the stairs. She hadn't noticed them when she had first looked up the staircase but now they were obvious. Some of the drawings were faded and looking very old while the newer ones looked out of place and crowded around the older ones. Swirls going one way and then another, stick people inside one of the circles and…she leaned closer…was that a hand with a seed in the center. In India she had seen the hand of Buddha, or was it his feet. She shook her head then tried to move in for a closer look.
Her vision blurred as she tried to focus on the newer drawing with the stick people. Images of people she knew in the past, present and people she didn't know flashed by her so quickly, it was like being on the back of the fleet footed Argo and watching the landscape rush by.
In her sleep, Gabrielle groaned from the motion sickness that was threatening to unsettle the contents of her stomach and turned over trying to find a comforting embrace or warmth from her favorite pillow. Sighing softly at only finding empty space she opened one eye to look at what she was hugging. Muttering, she snuggled into the pillow deeper and went back to sleep.
Gabrielle became partially awake later to stumble to the chamber pot to relieve herself. She made her way back to the bed while listening to the water rush down the pipes, clearing the pot and keeping it fresh. Her sluggish mind was grateful for the more modern conveniences found in larger cities. As she fell back into the bed she turned half-opened lids toward the balcony door, wistfully looking for the timely return of her bed-warmer. She nearly leaped up in fright as she saw the shadow of a bird with an expansive wingspan move across the floor toward her. Lifting her eyes she almost giggled realizing that the origin of the shadow wasn’t quite so large. The fright had her giddy and she put a hand over her mouth to regain some composure. The door to the balcony was open, letting in a mixture of the night's fresh crisp air and city smells.
Gabrielle and the large owl both regarded each other for a moment, then the owl flapped its partially extended wings, as if trying to get her attention.
"Are you expecting someone else?" Gabrielle asked softly, thinking of her missing friend. "She’s off inspecting the city." An idea occurred to her. "But…if you can’t wait…maybe I can help." Did Alala send Chia to get Xena?
The owl turned its head completely upside down, as if to get another view of Gabrielle, nearly causing Gabrielle to fall off the bed with smothered giggles. It was the funniest thing she had seen since Xena had fallen into a mud puddle dressed in leathers, armor and all…of course what had distracted also was funny…but that’s another story.
The owl righted it's head, turned and hopped onto the railing, out of sight from Gabrielle who tossed aside the covers and was hurriedly sliding out of a warm bed into a chilly room. She grabbed her long winter pants and tunic pulling her outer clothing over her sleeping shift, and laced up her boots remembering Xena’s warning to lace them properly rather than later regret it. She pulled her warm coat from the hook wrapping it around her in one movement as she quickly stepped out onto the balcony. The owl was waiting for her. The dark shadow that was darker than its surroundings became larger as wings were lifted and without effort sailed down the alley.
Gabrielle watched the disappearing shape with some envy. "Wouldn’t you know it has to be something with heights!" Gabrielle muttered to herself as she forced herself to climb over the railing. "I can do this…I can do this…" she whispered to herself as she moved over the balcony whose dark outline was all she could see. From memory she knew there was a climbing tree against the balcony…great for thieves and night skulkers, so she leaned over the railing reaching out for an expected branch. Her hand grasp the nearly leaf barren branch nearest her and gingerly pulled herself toward it, muttering her favorite mantra for times like these…"I can do this…I can do this…"
Her feet fumbled around in dead air before her shin found what she was looking for…a somewhat solid footrest. She closed her eyes for a moment letting out a silent scream from the pain. "Shin guards. Gotta get myself some greaves." She grunted through clinched teeth. "Greaves are definitely something all night skulkers should have." Finally she had both feet firmly planted on the branch which she could feel bending under her weight. Frantically her hands reached out with a foot looking for another place to put her foot further down the tree. Then things started to happen fast. The branch she was standing on bowed downward and her eyes opened wide as her feet slid toward the end of the branch with only her hand grip on another branch saving her from sliding out of the tree, but when her feet reached the end of the branch, they slid completely off. The upper one bowed from her added weight and the lower one sprang back up slapping her between the legs. Gabrielle lost her grip on the upper limb and she sat abruptly on the lower limb that had just accosted her, her eyes watered as she whimpered. Her body then started to topple over sideways. She wrapped both arms around the lower branch that was almost perpendicular to it’s trunk, still unable to move as she was trying to get over her shock of the painful experience, and adding to it as she leaned forward against the bruised body part to hang on to her tormenter. Her weight dragged her underneath the branch, and somehow she ended up hanging upside down, where she lost her grip around the thin branch and was dropped to the alley floor at the foot of her unwilling ladder, thankfully not on her head. For a few moments Gabrielle laid where she was on her back, unceremoniously discarded, trying to gather her wits together, while the pain, lost dignity and the resolve to finish this night business settled in their proper places of priority.
"All right. Just pull yourself together." She muttered to herself breathlessly, as a small part of her mind, that was still able to function, directed her. Gabrielle didn’t realize she had her eyes closed until she blinked the tears away a few times and found a pair of big yellow eyes regarding her from what looked like the balcony railing she had just awkwardly left.
"I hope you don’t have any more of this type activity planned." She muttered more to herself than the owl gently rubbing her pubic bone. She was going to have some pretty interesting bruises to explain to Xena. The shin bruise would be easier to explain about than the one her blond thatch of hair was covering…but Gabrielle knew the soreness would give her away. Oh, joy. I’m going to be hearing about this for a long time, she groaned inwardly. Then a smile appeared on her face as she thought about Xena’s healing skills that would be needed to…she shook her head. Gabrielle, keep your mind on the flapping bird and off lecherous thoughts, she told herself firmly.
The owl spread its wings and again sailed down the alley and from where Gabrielle could see, led to the main city street. Getting to her feet she painfully followed wondering if there was something Xena wore to protect herself from such mishaps…The woman probably doesn’t even have these types of mishaps! She grumbled to herself, pausing near the edge of one of the corner buildings and peeked out cautiously. The city was lit with a few scattered torches giving off wavy light in the occasional breeze. The voices of guards as they met each other on their rounds drifted to her without her being able to recognize what was said
Now where did Chia go? Ahh. By Artemis’ feathers, she’s waiting for me! Okay, let’s get moving here. Where are the guards? Gabrielle looked both ways before limping to the next building's shadow.
General Gigantes was reclining comfortably on his couch studying a map of the land around them and the natural underground tunnels that ran though the hills surrounding Crometh that his own men had made from their explorations. His dinner having been finished he was relaxed and content for the moment.
The noise outside his doors had him partially rising from his couch pulling his tunic into order and brushing off bits of food that had deposited themselves in the convenient folds of his tunic. He was expecting a message but not this soon. Unconsciously he adjusted the gold ring on his left hand.
The door opened and Captain Herodes came striding in with a worried frown on his face. Irritation passed over Gigantes's face for whenever he had an unexpected visit from the captain it meant trouble.
The captain made a salute that Gigantes had to control his delight in receiving. He hid his smirk by turning to the table that had various tasty tidbits sitting on a plate.
"Well, what is?" He asked him picking out a stuffed date.
"We have trouble."
"I know its trouble when you come in here unannounced." He stated irritably. "What kind of trouble." It's so difficult to run a city especially when your talents and interests lay elsewhere, he lamented to himself.
There was silence as Gigantes' mental image of the tall dark haired woman's beauty, poise, and the wild animal power she radiated came back to him. He had seen her in Troy, just before King Piram had taken her prisoner. Her eyes were scanning the city's battlements as she strode with such purpose and confidence beside one of the generals. Those bright blue gems had but rested on him briefly, yet they had changed his mind about beauty that day. Before her he had thought Queen Penthesileia, the Amazon Warrior Queen in her golden armor gifted from her father Ares, with flashing gray eyes full of death, was the perfect example of beauty and strength. Just as she was light and golden, making it easy to follow her on the battlefield, Xena was dark…and rumored to be Ares chosen. She certainly fared better than Ares daughter did. At the time he wondered if Xena, the Warrior Princess had a death wish like Queen Penthesileia and was offering her services to the doomed King Piram, who seemed to draw beautiful and powerful women to him that had a dark cloud of death over their head.
Idly he tapped his ring finger on the table edge while thoughtfully chewing on his stuffed date. He plucked a grape from its bunch turning it in his fingers then plopped it in his mouth, as if unconcerned, not noticing the change in tastes, as his mind was busy processing this bit of news.
"You know, the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess." The captain hinted, not getting a response on his first announcement.
"I know who Xena is!" Gigantes spat out a seed, as he let his legs swing to the floor and take his weight.
He and his master had left right after the treacherous Horse had been rolled in. His master knew the Horse held Spartan troops. Gigantes had wanted to stay and see King Piram, arrogant in his use of the Amazon and her twelve loyal followers, fall with such a shyster’s slight of hand trick. Now the dark warrior, whom he heard rumors had also escaped, was here. Those beautiful blue eyes. It excited him to think that she was in his game now and he had the power to…have her. A dangerous thought to be tempted by, his more practical side whispered.
"Did she say why she's here?" He asked suddenly. What if she heard what’s happening to the city? We’re not yet finished! He was torn between wanting her within his power or the safer move of getting out before she got involved. He knew he didn't have the caliber of soldiers to take her. He was at the moment regretting that because he didn't want to spend the extra money on better-qualified soldiers he was going to lose everything. But then, he would have had to live for a year of worrying about those he hired who may try to muscle him out of his own operation, he argued with himself. He hated the bloody part of the power game where he might be hurt and therefore let others do the actual dirty work, making sure he was far enough out of that part of the operation to be effected. In this case it was the Captain who was to handle that part or his partner, Yerik.
The Captain shook his head and hesitated, "She's traveling with that Bard that she usually travels with." Captain Herodes added.
"So, you think they've come to participate in the fabled celebrations for winter solstice, huh?" There isn’t going to be any. He had finally got the spirit of the city down to such a low point in energy that no one any longer openly practiced festivals. The proof he had was that even though it was seven days before solstice they hadn't even started to prepare for the weeklong celebrations. He felt he had them finally under his power. He sighed to himself. He had mixed feelings at the moment. Xena will certainly figure out that there is something wrong with that. The business of extending the city's wall will distract her for a while, though…How did she get through the forest without being…well, she is Xena, of course. Hades! We have seven more days to finish with the bet and still to find two more of the dead Queen’s belongings!
It had taken them over a year to get to this point…they had been lucky…or maybe it was as Yerik said, the stone and drawings protected them from the gods interference. But, would the drawings protect them from the likes of Xena? Gods or men hadn’t been able to do her much harm…according to the tales, he thought worried.
"Ares balls!" He finally muttered. "Get word to Yerik. I take it you have someone watching her?"
"She'd know something was going on if we had someone watching her." Captain Herodes warned him. "I think we should first find out if she’s here for the celebrations."
General Gigantes nodded. Her instinctive powers were legendary, which was why he was nervous. Captain Herodes was right; it was best not to go rushing into things concerning her until they had more information.
"We need her out of here before the meeting in three days and for sure before solstice ….or neutralized by then." He muttered to himself, impatiently gesturing for the captain to leave. "Leave me. I’ll let ya know when I’ve thought about it some. Meanwhile, tell our contact at whichever inn she’s staying at to fix her drinks and that bard that’s with her."
He wanted to think alone. He rolled another grape between his thumb and forefinger. He didn't want to get her annoyed with him, that was for certain, for she always got her licks in….even with Caesar. Winning his bet was his real interest for it was just a trial run for what he wanted to eventually do…it was Yerik who had picked Crometh to try his experiment in first. Yerik was also his backers insurance that he played by the rules. Normally to try something new, it was best tried on a small village first but…Yerik had…Hades… had talked him into Crometh because he had heard of a reward offered by Caesar for three ritual objects that once belonged to the Amazon Queen Penthesileia. Yerik knew he had a weakness for the dead Queen. Three of the objects were reputed to be at Crometh, or so a Seer had informed Caesar. One was the golden girdle of the Amazon Queen given to her by Artemis when she became Queen. Another was the sacred feathered fan for sweeping across the sacred bowl as it burned incense to sanctify offerings to Artemis. The third was a gold ring…and it may be the one he wore. He had stolen it from one of the officers of Troy that had removed it from the belongings of the dead Queen. The girdle, feathered fan and the ring they had originally suspected were being hidden in the Muses sacred cavern, held in memorial trust of the tragic Queen. But, after finding the girdle, or the chest where they thought the girdle was in and not the other two objects, both his partner and him were separately thinking the other two objects were somewhere else in the city.
He looked down at the ring that he wore on his left hand, idly turning it around without studying the design that he was very familiar with. The cream white stone glinted as it twisted in the light. When Yerik first mentioned a ring they both thought it referred to another ring the Queen owned while she ruled her Nation, but the way Yerik was starting to look at his ring when they had their meetings….after all, when the Seer had seen the three objects, the ring was in his possession, so how could the Seer say the three objects would be located in the city, he argued with himself?
Gigantes stared at the marble head in the center of his table. It had been so easy to take over this city that he was already thinking of taking Pella next. And then…maybe Athens. He could cut a deal with Caesar…no…the Caesar Clan sailed to a multitude of political winds and he didn't want to be bothered worrying about when he would be betrayed, especially if Julius Agustus Casear found out that the ring he had was the ring the Seer had seen. If this ring were the one, then it meant the other objects weren't to be found together. Thoughts like that confused the search for the treasures. Gigantes bit his lip in consternation. He was here only to win a bet, which would insure more backers for his next venture, and prove his theory…the reward from Caesar was a secondary bonus. It was also Yerik’s greatest passion, he reminded himself.
General Gigantes sat down on his couch with his head in his hand, pursing his lips thoughtfully. His thoughts returned to a more immediate problem….Xena. Why not just let the natural course of events take her? If she proved a threat before she fell under the same influence as the city, he needed something to slow her down while he got away. First of all, he didn't want her to see him. She was relentless. He could fade into the crowds if she didn't recognize him. Next…he had to plan on leaving early just in case. What did he care about Yerik or…Alfonso? He shook his head. Alfonso he would work on later. He was a power broker that he would need to bring in more backers to his next scheme. Now…Yerik may be another matter. Yerik had become too focused on Caesar's reward. But he had a plan for him if he threatened him. He always worked better alone and had contingencies for when he took on partners.
"We can grab the Bard, young Perdicas' girl." He muttered to himself. Perdicas. Gigantes paused as he remembered the young soldier's eyes that lit up seeing his childhood betrothed run through the Trojan gates before the tall warrior with arrows from the surrounding army raining all around them. Trust Xena to come through unharmed. He sighed again. It was tempting to play his game on her, to possess her, but he really did fear her. It took two days for the drug to began to slow down a person, unless given a stronger dose and if Xena suspected…too many chances taken with her would certainly lessen his chances of succeeding. Now, the Bard, that was something else. He shook his head. To harm her would bring Xena's wrath on him. His interest in life was too strong. Though Xena was rumored to no longer be Ares chosen, she led too charmed a life for him to take her on. He shook his head again. He didn't believe the gods as powerful as they put on, or Ares would not have let the golden Penthesileia die at Achilles hands, even if Achilles was his mother, Hera's champion. Then there was the matter of Crometh for all it's protectorates he had been able to slowly squeeze the life out of the citizens. He did not mind admitting to himself when he was afraid of someone. It kept him living longer. Gigantes popped a grape in his mouth as he thought about his chances, suddenly spitting out the rotten grape.
"Gaaaa." He choked and spat. He grabbed his wine goblet and gulped down something that would be more pleasing to his taste. He could have sworn that there weren't any bad grapes in the bunch. He would have to teach the server to select better.
He rang the bell for his servant. He needed a warm soak and a rub down. His lips curled up as he thought of his choices for the evening…before his meeting with Yerik.
16-17 : PART I |
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