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Learning to Sing in Sparta
by Lisa Grandstaff
The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo, Perdicas, Herodotus, Senticles and any other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, along with the backstory, are the sole copyright of MCA/Universal Television and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by writing this fan fiction story. The characters of Melodion, Stephon, Aurianna, and Solemnaestra, as well as the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of myself, Lisa Grandstaff/WarriorScholar. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for the readers own use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
In addition: The story contains some scenes of violence, (although not graphic in nature) so be forewarned if you dont care for it. This is an adventure story which follows the general trend of the series; in other words, it can be considered mildly alt., romantic friendship, or nothing at all if you dont see anything in the passages contained herein. The events that take place in this story follow on the heels of the episode Crusader. Thank You.
Xena stirred on her blanket, laid carefully on the hard cavern floor, then opened her eyes to take in everything before her. Same as last night. Large, plenty of space for Argo near the back, and lots of "furniture" in the form of rocks. Evenly spaced braziers provided enough light to carry on normal tasks in the otherwise unrelenting underground gloom. She stretched, enjoying the feeling of her muscles releasing their pent up tension, then rolled to her feet in one swift movement.
"Something tells me I not going to like this...." she said softly. She turned to look at the sleeping form beside the now cold hearthstone. A soft snore was all she heard. A careful examination of their "room" revealed little in the way of clues about where they were, or their hosts. This place was given to them to use, because she had insisted on having Argo with her, not "where the other horses are kept." Melodion insisted they had better accommodations than this area, but....
It immediately occurred to Xena that she had chosen a place where Argo could be safe and comfortable, and that her own concerns took a back seat in that decision. Naturally, the decision affected Gabrielle, too. She never stopped to think that her companion might have wanted something other than a cold, hard, cave floor. Damn, she thought. Ive done it again! It was alot easier when I didnt have to keep second-guessing myself about what Gabrielle wants. Supposing each one of their needs was taken into account, the cave was still the best choice, and it wasnt as if Gabrielle hadnt endured much worse than a cavern roof over her head, instead of the night sky. Still....
"Hmm?" a sleepy voice croaked out.
"Oh, Im sorry...I didnt realize that last... had come out loud." Xena reached Gabrielles side in two smooth strides, and knelt beside her. She touched the younger womans face lightly, and saw the small smile, the closed, sleepy eyes that she had grown so used to. Not willing to disturb her sleep further, Xena stood once more, and decided to get on with the days routines.
A hour later, Gabrielle had risen, and set about tidying her bedroll and other loose articles. Xena had already attended to grooming Argo and cleaning up the back of the cavern floor. She waited patiently for her partner to come to full clear-headedness.
"Gods, what I wouldnt do for a good, hot cup of hemlock tea!" Gabrielle snorted indignantly. Xena smiled.
"Be careful what you ask for!" she replied. "You know my cooking isnt the best! Besides, Melodion said they would provide our meals."
"Thats fine by me. I could eat a Spartan polecat right now!" Gabrielle rubbed her stomach in sympathy, then looked around the "room" again.
"Ive been thinking. Listen, if you want a place other than this to stay, Id understand. I just cant leave Argo where I cant be sure of her safety. Id have to remain here."
Gabrielle looked directly at Xena. "No, this is fine." She paused, then added "What is this all about? I mean, whats so different about a stable back in a village, or Melodions stable? Or is this about something else?"
Xena stared back. "Nooo, I simply.... Okay, look. I havent seen Melodions stable, Im sure after I see it, Ill feel better. Im only worried that you might have gotten the wrong idea about my decision last night."
"And that wrong idea would be...?"
"That you thought I was more concerned with Argo than with you!" Xena retorted hotly. She stopped, then reconsidered. "You know, Gabrielle, there was a time when I would have cut you loose in a single heartbeat if it meant your happiness, your comfort, and the possibility of a better life than the one you would find with me. Its different, now. You have become a part of me, one that I cant be so quick to toss away. Ive always prided myself on that skill, but with you, I just cant do that. Do you think that youre the only one that has changed?" She stood, and began to walk toward the east wall.
"No, Xena, I dont think Im the only one that has changed. I know you have, too. I was so sure, I guess almost arrogant, that I could change you for the better. But I know the truth, now."
Xena whirled around to face her. "What in Hades are you talking about?"
"Im talking about the fact that you were safer when you didnt always worry about me, about my happiness, and my comfort. But my future is my own making, not yours! I chose this path, so quit trying to be responsible for that, too! I know, when you were taunting Najara, that you were just trying to distract her, but alot of what you said had a small kernel of truth to it. As much as you worry about me, about my welfare and safety, dont you think I feel the same about yours? If Im a liability, then Im doing as much harm to you, as you are to me! Some change for the good." She hung her head, the reddish-blond hair covering her face. "I guess were even, huh?" came the muffled voice .
Xena went to her side at once. "Im so sorry for having to say that crap to Najara, but I needed to shake her up. I dont feel that way, and havent for a very long time." She lowered her voice, and went on soothingly. "I suppose, in the very beginning, I did, but you quickly changed my mind. How many times have I told you that you are what you are... a strong, valuable woman in your own right; someone I am proud to be with, to fight with, to know? Weve had this discussion already. I see that what I said to Najara really hurt you, and even if it accomplished my goal, it may not have been the best choice."
"No!" Gabrielle cried. "Thats just what I mean! There you go, doubting your instincts. Xena, you were in a fight for your life! I saw what she did to you in that tavern. Your warrior instincts are too important to your survival, for you to be second-guessing yourself!"
Xena flinched at Gabrielles remembrance of the tavern fight.
"Hey, hey...there you go...blaming yourself for what Najara did to me. It was my own fault for turning my back on her. I deserved what I got for being careless." She rubbed her jaw in unconscious remembrance. "Look, were getting nowhere, fast. Were even, if thats what you want to call it. You have caused changes in me, and Ive caused changes in you. If theyre for the better, then lets get on with our lives, okay?"
"Are they for the better?" Gabrielle asked softly.
The conversation was interrupted by a fair-haired man carrying a tray full of food. "Pardon me!" he called cheerfully, as he entered the room, and sat the tray down with a natural flair.
"Good Morning! I'm Stephon. Since it's my day off, Melodion asked me to bring your breakfast to you, and to answer any questions you have. I'm the man to ask!" He smiled warmly at Gabrielle.
She liked the way his goatee followed his wide smile, and returned his smile with equal warmth. "Why you? Do you know Aurianna?"
"As a matter of fact, I work for her mother-in-law."
Gabrielle stiffened. "What...oh. Your day off, okay. Then you do know my cousin."
"Not only do I know her, but I have worked beside her, until her recent troubles." He drew his bushy eyebrows together in concern.
"I see. When did you see her last?"
"Why, just yesterday. She is fine, her children are fine. Solemnaestra is... shall we say...herself?"
Between bites of grain cakes and honey, Gabrielle managed to prompt Stephon to divulge the entire tale of Aurianna, Klianthes, the children, and her eventual fall from Solemnaestras graces.
"Aurianna had grown bored with her 'domestication' in Solemnaestras house. She had never dreamed that a life of love with her perfect Klianthes would involve living under her mother-in-laws roof. It wasnt that the house was more than shed ever known... or that, when the babies came, their grandmother wasnt marvelously loving...that much had gone perfectly. She simply had no idea that, when Klianthes reached a certain age, all of his military schooling and training as a young boy would lead directly to his conscription in the Spartan military as an officer. As he gained rank and wealth, and age, only then would he have his own household. It seemed Aurianna had lead herself directly to the kind of marriage she had never wanted. She still loved her husband dearly, but that just wasnt enough for a woman like her."
Gabrielle noted the obvious admiration in Stephon's eyes when he spoke Aurianna's name. "She never mentioned anything about Klianthes having to join the Spartan army in her letters. She always said he was so busy making a life for the family and all...."
"I'm sure she must have been a little embarrassed, don't you think? Otherwise, she'd have had to write 'Life here is awful, and I made a huge mistake. Other than that, life's just wonderful'" Xena said sarcastically.
"I don't know. If not embarrassed, maybe afraid her parents might be worried about her...." Gabrielle answered. She looked up at their host, then added "Oh, sorry Stephon. Please go on."
He cleared his throat and resumed his story. "At first, the arrival of her children assuaged her loneliness, but the lack of adult companionship and conversation began to take their toll. Without other women to spend time with, except for Solemnaestra, she began to feel her isolation intensely. Apart from the various members of the household staff, she was reliant on her mother-in-laws company and caustic charm. There were no early morning meetings at the village well, no impromptu festivals, dances, or visits with relatives."
"That stinks!" Gabrielle offered. "I mean, even crummy little Poteidaia had that much!"
"Well, in Sparta, very little is spontaneous. All socialization is carefully structured, especially when it comes to the interaction between the sexes. Not only are women repressed by their own family structure and Spartan culture, but by each other, as well! That last realization nearly drove Aurianna insane. How many times she had reached out, subtly, in friendship, to other young women, and been rebuffed with horror?"
"The other young women, too? She must've been so unhappy."
"I told you what their women were like... the one that badgered me for hours in the holding cell, remember?" Xena added.
"Still! I can't imagine leading that kind of isolated lifestyle. I've never not had a friend, not even for one day!"
"Lucky you. I can't say the same...." Xena said. "So what changed things for Aurianna?" she asked Stephon.
"Only a chance occurrence within the household, on a day Solemnaestra was away on business... on this particular occasion, many of the regular household staff had been granted a rare half-days liberty, and fled the grounds immediately. I sought out Aurianna, on the pretense of a special meal for the twins upcoming birthday. I'm nothing more than an assistant to the head cook, but I'd always taken the time to inquire about Auriannas preferences and tastes when the occasion arose."
"How sweet!" Gabrielle interjected.
"At each opportunity, I engaged in forbidden small talk with her. Aurianna began to look forward to my random visits, cherishing the chance for quick snippets of witty repartee. She never felt out of place conversing with the assistant cook-- after all, wasnt she just another commoner?"
"Our conversation was warm, inspiring, and open. At last, Aurianna had no choice but to air her anguish over her life in Sparta. She was shocked to find that I was, indeed, a Spartan man, though only a helot, a sort of servant found all over the provinces of the city-state. I tried to be kind and sympathetic to her dilemma. Throughout the following weeks, furtive conversation evolved into a sort of initiation into the group I belong to, the Ring of Brass. In the ensuing months, Aurianna was pledged a full member, and swore to work towards the freedom of all Spartan citizens, men and women. She was quite astonished to find that most men in Sparta felt repressed and directed in their lives, too. She was not alone!"
"So how did she get 'in' to The Brass Ring?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Our group was not long in operation; only a small handful of years had gone by since Melodion formed the idea, with myself and another friend. Each new 'convert' is celebrated with a ceremony held in the secret network of caverns outside the city walls. A few passages and tunnels, formed naturally, and with some human work, lead directly under the walls of the city, and into a tiny number of dwellings. Solemnaestras is one of them, and by design."
"This arrangement worked out wonderfully for Aurianna. She became a full-fledged member of the Ring of Brass in spirit, as well as oath. She began to believe there was hope for some change, and it lifted her heart dramatically. Gone were her long, silent days, filled with despair and longing for home. She had a new reason for going on."
"What was it she did to get in trouble, Stephon?" Xena asked impatiently. Gabrielle frowned at her, dismayed that her companion would try to hurry a storyteller deep within his craft-work.
"During last month's formal meeting of the Spartan officers wives, Aurianna suggested that something more could be accomplished during the regular gatherings, besides exchanging gossip heard from the men while on conjugal visits. Perhaps, she said, we women could exchange some ideas and information of our own? Let us talk among ourselves, she exclaimed, and not only of our husbands and children! Many astounded eyes were turned upon her face, and many with a look of interest and eagerness. Needless to say, the news of her outburst reached Solemnaestra forthwith, and, last month, Aurianna was put under 'house arrest.' Censure by her mother-in-law is the least of her worries; when Klianthes returns home next week, he will be forced, by custom, to punish his wife." Stephon paused for dramatic effect, and stroked his goatee thoughtfully.
"Punishment involves several things; mostly, the humiliating interrogation he will be forced to conduct in front of a tribunal body, assigned to such matters by the Ephors. What follows from there is not pre-determined."
Gabrielle could barely contain her outrage as the story came to an end. When Stephon finished, Gabrielle spoke up immediately.
"Okay, I have too many questions, but I must know one thing right away. How is Aurianna? I have to see her, to let her know I got her message."
"I will relay your concern to her tomorrow. You cannot risk seeing her; it would put you, her, and all of us, in great jeopardy. We cannot be exposed."
"So then, what is the plan?" Gabrielle asked.
"I will propose to Solemnaestra that we hire a fabulous traveling musician and storyteller, through the appropriate channels, of course. There is to be a dinner-fest for the twins birthday again this year. If Solemnaestra has any weakness, thank the gods it is her love for her grandchildren. During this event, it will be necessary to liberate Aurianna. Unfortunately, this means the end of her marriage."
Gabrielle looked at him soberly. "Thats going to hurt her so much.... To consciously let go of her dreams of happiness with Klianthes and her children. I wonder if she was ever being realistic about where this path would take her? She can remain, and be something she is not. That is a certain death, one way or another... or she can go, be free to become what she needs to be, and sacrifice all those dreams, and betray her commitment to Klianthes. Who would enjoy a choice like that one?"
Stephon nodded. "I, too, have thought on this very matter. It does not bode well for my friend-- your cousin. She would do well to see you, but all in good time."
The immaculately uniformed man entered the room, crisply saluting his commander, then lowering his eyes. A clearing of the mans throat signaled Lykonos his permission to look up.
"Speak to me, lieutenant. What have you to report, today?"
Lykonos steeled himself for his commanders inevitably harsh response to new information. "My Lord Periphetes, the spies have reported sightings of two women with a locally known minstrel, a man by the name of Melodion."
"Some several days ago, outside a small village north of the main road."
"What of it? Does he plan to sell them without the proper paperwork?"
"No, my Lord. They are warrior women. At least one obviously is. The other looks less threatening. Also, their demeanor was not that of slave women."
Periphetes scraped his chair back in agitation. "It has been a long time since weve had a problem like this. But women pose no threat, girded or not. Who are we to tremble at the sight of a warrior woman?" he spat out.
"My Lord Periphetes, one of the spies claims he saw the great Warrior Princess herself, Xena, I believe he called her. Of the companion, he knew nothing. He is older than the other spies we employ; perhaps he wasnt ...."
"Enough!" Periphetes roared. "Do not mention this to anyone without my permission!"
"I do not understand, my Lord... who is this Xena?"
"Keep in mind, my young lieutenant, that Xena is a warrior, but never use the word great in connection with her. I once heard a much more appropriate description of her: Scourge of Nations! I will not have her given respect on the hallowed ground of Sparta, do you understand?"
"Yes, my Lord. Understood!"
Periphetes stood and smoothed his uniform. "I will have you know, she is a wanted criminal in Sparta, and the man or men who bring her in, dead or alive, will be well rewarded by the Ephors themselves! I want all three of these scum captured alive, if possible. The man who brings Xenas scalp back to the council will have a special place of honor, and that man will be me."
Lykonos saluted his superior once more, waiting for his dismissal. When it came, he left with more haste than usual.
Later in the afternoon, when the few daily chores had been tended to, and a formal tour of the caverns had been taken, the two women returned to their own accommodations.
"What do you think of the stables, Xena?"
"Does that mean Argo can stay there?"
"I suppose so."
"Well, did you see the other rooms we could have? Some of them were really nice!"
"Yeah, and they kinda lacked privacy, too!"
"Hmmm. You do have a point. But, for fresh airs sake, cant Argo spend some time at the stables? I think youre being over-sensitive to her since the Scythian thing. Shes forgiven you!"
Xena looked closely at Gabrielles face, and knew she was going to have to give in on this matter. It couldnt hurt to have fun with it, though.... "Over sensitive? I only worry, because I know you two have grown so close, after all, and you might miss a chance to spend quality time with each other." She grinned wickedly.
"Ha-Ha." Gabrielle snorted, hands on her hips. "Id like to have a word with her about you! She may have forgiven you, but she still thinks you were responsible for that case of equine tail-lice she had a couple of weeks ago!"
Xena raised her eyebrows at the suggestion. "How would YOU know?" she retorted.
Gabrielle spun around gracefully on one heel, and began walking toward Argo, giving it her best slinky walk. "Lets just say....she and I have an understanding. Dont we, girl?"
The mare flipped her head up, stamped one hoof, then nickered loudly. Positive that Xena couldnt see her hands, Gabrielle shook the concealed grain cake at Argo once more, and winked. Argo complied with a beseeching whicker, then blew out loudly through her nostrils. Gabrielle carefully made a great show of affection for the mare, feeding her the treat, while positioning her back to block Xenas line of sight.
"I dont believe this!" Xena said indignantly. "I knew I wasnt imagining things when I thought she wasnt acting right!" She began to approach them.
Gabrielle stepped aside, confident that only she and Argo knew of the trick they had just played. "Go right ahead. Youll see, shes never been more herself!" She chuckled smugly and watched the warrior handle the horses muzzle, searching for clues.
"She is fine! What did you do to her?"
"I told you, we made our peace a long time ago." Gabrielle continued to smile in satisfaction.
Xena raised her eyes to Gabrielles face, then narrowed them in mock suspicion. With a shock, she realized that Gabrielle was looser and calmer than she had been in some time. At that thought, she broke into a smile of her own. The bards green eyes twinkled mischievously, and her cheeks flushed. As Xena moved toward her, she spun around again, one finger to her chin in a thoughtful manner.
"Maybe now we can have Argo properly situated...."
Xena tilted her head back and laughed, knowing shed been had again, somehow. She wasnt going let this go so easily, however....
"Just what do you have in mind, my friend?" she asked mischievously.
After a warm, delightful meal in the group dining hall, the guests were regaled with praise and abbreviated versions of Melodions "Tales of the Warrior." While Gabrielle soaked up every word, Xena became more restless, her thoughts roving back to the conversation with Stephon that morning. She did not notice Gabrielle call her name until she felt a hand on her forearm. At the familiar touch, she focused herself in the present instantly.
"Sorry, I was just thinking...."
"I know. I was saying, why dont you go ahead back, anyway? I cant pass this chance up, but theres no reason for you to stay here if youve got other things to do. Ill come back as soon as everyone else is ready for bed. Besides, weve got to do some serious thinking about what our little performance number is going to be for the birthday dinner."
Xena caught her gaze and held it. She had seen that look in Gabrielles eyes too many times. "What are you up to? You cant be thinking what I think you are!"
Gabrielle affected a look of exasperation. "Why cant you relax, and trust me?"
When she received no reply, she went on. "I told you, Ill be back, soon. I cant pass up this chance. Im not about to do anything foolish."
Xena stared at her a minute longer, but her companion did not waver in the least.
"Okay, whatever." she said doubtfully. She squeezed the bards hand, then stood up, taking her leave amidst the protests of the of exhilarated bunch.
Through the tired, but happy, mingling people, Gabrielle picked her way carefully toward the direction of her section of the underground complex. She stopped well shy of the passage leading back to her own bedroll, but her staff had been carefully placed in a crevice along the cave wall. She grasped it firmly, then headed back to the main nexus of tunnels, taking care to avoid being seen. She had a pretty good picture in her head of exactly how to navigate the system of passageways, both from Stephons brief description, and the more detailed information shed gotten from other members of the Ring. It never failed to work; her charm, and the magical atmosphere of storytelling and singing that surrounded a gathering, loosened tongues as well as any drink ever did.
After at least thirty minutes of following her mental map, and thanking various members of the garrulous group silently for mentioning the torches stationed periodically in the hallways, she arrived at a rough door. No more torch light from here, she thought. It shouldnt be too much of a problem, though, since the kitchens were close by, and the rest of the common areas beyond it would be lit.
It seemed like a thousand tiny lifetimes spent in agony before she reached the other end of the huge kitchen, and saw a guttering oil lamp ensconced on the wall. Not even pausing to allow herself a sigh of relief, she proceeded as rapidly as she dared, on to Auriannas chambers.
Already reckoning for the presence of a guard, Gabrielle took out of her pouch a round, puffy mushroom. Shed spent an entire dinar on the thing at the apothecary hut back at the last village, but it would have to do for a distraction. The dinar was well-spent, even if it wasnt originally meant for this occasion. She focused on her task, eyeing the guards sleepy expression, the direction of his gaze, and how the room was fortuitously located on an outside corner. All she had to do was toss the mushroom missile past the guard without him noticing, bank it off the wall in front of him, slightly to his left, and hope for the best.
When he declined into his next drooping-head cycle, she pitched the fungi forward, watching it smack into the wall, then roll just past the corner, trailing a cloud of pale yellow dust. For a brief moment, there was no movement from the nodding soldier, then he snapped awake, stumbling. He noticed the dust immediately, and disappeared around the bend.
She rushed forward, keeping her eye on the corner; she could hear him, no further than three feet behind the wall, muttering and cursing quietly in confusion. She tried the door, and found it unlocked. Sneaking in, she closed the door softly, listening to it snick shut. There was no movement from the sleeping form beyond.
Within a few seconds, Gabrielle had put her hand over Auriannas mouth, and gently shook her cousin. Auriannas eyes sprung open in alarm, then filled with a look of utter astonishment. She blinked several times, as if clearing her sight of Gabrielles face, then tears began to roll down her cheeks. Gabrielle lifted her hand away, and the two women hugged tightly, exchanging soft words of greeting between the tears of their reunion.
A moment later, Gabrielle drew back, and motioned toward the door. Aurianna nodded in comprehension.
"I dont have much time, Auri, but I had to let you know Im here, and I got your message. Im sure glad this wasnt your mother-in-laws bedchamber!" she smiled broadly.
"Oh, by the Graces, Gabrielle! I never expected to see you here! How did you get in? Did Melodion or Stephon come with you?" She began to look about the darkened room anxiously. "Where is the guard?"
"Stephon made me promise not to come here, but, like I said...I had to. Dont worry about the guard; hes busy at the moment. You needed to know about the special entertainment weve arranged for the twins birthday fest. Let me explain...."
Aurianna shook her head, trying to take everything in as quickly as she could. Her cousin, here, so soon? And against Stephons wishes? The twins birthday? No time to reflect...she forced her attention on every word from Gabrielles mouth.
Xena stirred in her bedroll. Without a second thought, she sat up, noting the absolute silence of the still air. No voices, no singing.... Her armor lay where she had left it, after making several small repairs to the chain links. The leather, similarly, draped upon the rock she had used while stitching a few seams anew, lay undisturbed. The other bedroll was unused. Suppressing a groan, she hastily dressed herself, grabbed her weapons, and took off down the hallway toward the main aula.
Gabrielle, with some help from Aurianna, managed to escape the guards attention yet again, and made it back to the kitchen without incident. Determined not to struggle through the dark, she removed the short coil of oiled twine she carried in her pouch, and held one end up to the oil lamp. The time and energy it took to ignite the end of the rope in a soft, phosphorescent flicker without making any noise was worth avoiding the experience of journeying through the pitch black kitchen one more time. Proud of herself, she slowly made her way to the entrance from the tunnel beyond, and did allow a sigh to escape this time. Almost home free. Now to open the door.... It would not budge! In despair she realized, belatedly, that it was probably a one-way mechanism! She moved in the direction of the closest window, examining it for an escape route.
Dont panic, she thought. Use your head-- you came all this way, so far, in one piece. Think! She felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and quickly pinched the end of the rope in her fingers to douse the tiny glow. A soft noise from where she had just stood caused her to freeze in place. She turned to see, her eyes already adapting to the darkness.
It was Xena! By the Gods! What was she doing here?
Before Gabrielle had time to react, Xena whirled toward her, one hand slashing viciously at her head. Only Gabrielles better adjusted night vision enabled her to sidestep the stunning stroke; that, and her training: she knew, from experience, that Xena would react first through her heightened senses, then, assess the danger on another level afterward. As she spun away, her own hand snaked out to grab Xenas wrist, hoping to stall her blow. At the moment contact was made, Xena relaxed perceptibly, realizing who shed been aiming for.
"Xena, did you close the door just now?" she whispered.
"Yes." came the answer through clenched teeth.
"I think it only opens one way...in!"
"Well find out for sure." came the hushed reply.
After several fruitless minutes, both women gave up on the door.
"Lets try the window."
With Xenas help, Gabrielle scrambled through the high-set window, then cleared the opening to allow her companion through unhindered. Both jumped to the ground outside together. Only four steps shy of reaching the gate of the courtyard, a hound began baying loudly from somewhere in the compound. With every rousing howl, he sounded closer.
"Lets go! Follow me!" Xena cried.
She hurdled the gate easily, and waited momentarily for Gabrielle to finish climbing over it. They broke into an all out run down the cobblestone alleyway, then turned a sharp corner into a larger street. Xena did not slow down until she had come to the next intersection of avenues. Pausing to motion Gabrielle toward a dusky archway, she hissed "Hide in there! There are three sentries coming this way!"
With Gabrielle safely hidden in the shadows, she realized there was no room leftover. She looked up, and noticed a dark line about ten feet above her head. Assuming it was some kind of rigging, she leapt into the air, somersaulting twice, but foregoing her usual spirit yell. If the sentries passed by them, it would be better for all concerned. Her hands found the rope where she had calculated, and instantly locked around it. She adjusted her grip on the cordage, then locked her ankles together over it.
Within thirty seconds, the three men had entered the intersection, but stopped directly beneath the dangling warrior. Each one looked frantically back and forth in the square, but saw nothing.
"Which way did those two go?" snarled one.
"I dont know! You go that way, and Ill go...."
At that moment, the roped creaked loudly. Xena instantly let go, swinging her long legs down into two of the men, knocking them backwards several feet. Their swords skittered away from them at impact. As her feet made contact with the ground, she shifted to her right foot and unleashed a powerful kick into the abdomen of the remaining man. The force of the impact sent him tumbling to the ground in front of Gabrielles hiding place. The other two, upon seeing that their assailant was a woman, spurned retrieving their swords for a headlong rush toward her. She was already facing them in anticipation, a grim smile set on her face in a time-worn style all her own.
"Cmon, boys!" she taunted them, wiggling her fingers invitingly.
A snarl of fury erupted from one as he foolishly dove for her legs. The other stayed upright, instead, lunging for her shoulders. She had plenty of time to notice the look of arrogant presumption on both their faces. She burst into a loud yell, sprung off her toes, and timed her kick into the back of the diving man to make contact at the precise moment her fist struck the other mans jaw. The satisfying crack of a breaking bone accompanied him to the ground. Before their stunned compatriot was able to come to their aid, Gabrielle had knocked him unconscious with a measured blow to his head.
By this time, several lights had come on in windows facing the square. Xena grabbed the helmet and jerkin of one sentry, indicating to Gabrielle the man lying on his face in front of the archway. Both women donned the Spartan garb promptly, and ran from the intersection, after scattering whatever weapons they found on each inert form.
"At least I know what you were talking about when you said you werent going to pass up a chance like this one!"
"Well, I couldnt. I didnt lie to you. Besides, Aurianna needed to see me. We got out of there without causing much trouble."
"We got lucky, thats all."
"Yeah, but no one followed us, so I guess thats something to consider. Climbing the wall had nothing to do with luck, though! We did that pretty well, huh?" Gabrielle shook her hair loose from the helmet, then clamped it back down on her head.
"How much longer do we have to wear these stupid things, anyway? Mine keeps pulling at my hair, and sliding down my forehead."
"Not much longer. Once we leave the road up there, we can find a place to hide them, or else we carry them back to the cave. Im not leaving any clues for those clods to find. Our footprints will be hidden by the merchants horses and wagons by sunrise, at any rate."
"Which brings me back to my original question. How do we find our way to the cave?"
"Which brings me back to my original answer: Follow me."
"Okay, I get it. Youre trying to teach me something, right? But we were blindfolded!"
"Uh huh." They walked on in silence a while.
"Remember how hot the suns last rays felt, when Melodion led us to the caves? Blindfolded or not, it was my left shoulder that was facing the horizon that evening. Are you getting the idea?"
Gabrielle considered. "All right. Okay...it stunk. Very badly."
"Good! Yes, there was a strong odor of slaughtered animals, perhaps a state-run farm doing their daily dirty work for the maintenance of the armed forces. What else?"
"Theres more?" Gabrielle looked at Xena in mock anguish.
"Do you remember hearing the sound of crunching leaves, right before we entered the caverns?"
"No, not really. Im sorry, I wasnt paying attention. I was caught up in the excitement of the trip, thinking of the songs and stories Id be hearing, and worrying about Aurianna." She shrugged.
"Then follow me, like I said...."
"How dare you jeopardize all we have worked for?" Melodion asked in a voice filled with anger. His tightly controlled pacing was irritating Xena at last, though she didnt bother to let it show.
"I simply did what I had to do."
"Hey, I told all of you once already that it was my fault!" Gabrielle insisted forcefully. "I had to see Aurianna! She asked for me, remember?"
"Shell do you no good, dead!" Melodion shouted.
"By the Fates, Ive told you Im sorry, but Id do it again if I had to! We couldnt just go in there, cold, with her not knowing anything. I know my cousin, and what shes got to be feeling right now... with no choices left to her! A surprise rescue? Come on!" Gabrielle kicked a stone at the wall with her foot, then added "Besides, we caused no trouble in Solemnaestras house."
"That may be true, but our sources reported the disturbance you two created as being only three blocks from there! With clear descriptions of a warrior woman, and a shadowy female companion."
"So what else is new?" Gabrielle remarked sardonically.
"The point is, whatever we know, Periphetes will know!" Stephon interjected.
"Periphetes? That scum? Hes nothing but a cruel-faced, chicken-hearted hypocrite!"
"Yes, Periphetes, and hes the new commandant of the city guard. Would you like to tell us how you really feel about him, Xena?" Stephon chuckled, trying to ease the tension.
"You know him?" Melodion prompted.
"Do I ever!" Xena snapped. "Even Hera wouldnt spit on him."
Gabrielle, intentionally circumventing Melodions new line of questioning, spoke up abruptly. "Xena really has a way with words, doesnt she?"
Her comment was met with several moments of surprised laughter, which Melodion cut off with an impatient wave of his hand.
"Enough! I must ask you to swear to me, this very instant, that you will not do such a thing again. Do so, or leave this place directly."
Gabrielle met his stare. "I am sorry, Melodion. I want you to understand that. But I feel better knowing Aurianna is safe and aware of our plans."
"Swear by anything you hold dear, but do it at once!" he demanded, ignoring her apology.
Gabrielle stood still for several long moments, then slowly faced Xena. She looked at those blue eyes, still so striking even now, so deep and mysterious, both comforting and dangerous.
"Lets break it up, then. We dont need to waste whats left of this night. Its almost dawn as it is!" Melodion proclaimed.
"Agreed." Xena eyed Melodion steadily, returning his furious gaze. As his people dispersed, he broke away from her stare, and departed, his ire an obvious contrast to the gloom of the early morning somnolence.