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Disclaimers Xena Warrior Princess and all Characters of the Xenaverse are the property of Ren Pic and Universal. My deepest gratitude goes to them for the loan of these folks and I returned them none the worse for wear. Thanks for the Fertile fields.
BY APRIL MCKAIG
Melanie drove like the devil was on her tail. The long highways were deserted and she took advantage of it by trying to put as much distance between Hawks men and herself as possible. Gabrielle sat still in the seat, worry reflected in her features and posture. It wasnt until Melanie heard a soft groaning from the back that she eased off the accelerator a bit. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she knew it was Aven. Even in a drugged slumber, she couldnt escape Hawks influence. She caught Gabrielles questioning look, "Shes having nightmares." She explained.
Nodding, Gabrielle leaned over the seat and watched their sleeping companions. Another soft groan from the back and Gabrielle climbed over the seats, placing herself protectively between Xena and Aven. Resting a calming hand on Avens arm, she quieted immediately. Helpless, she could do nothing more but watch them sleep. Melanie kept her eyes on the road, every mile further from Navato, eased her fear.
Several hours later, Melanie was roused from her deep meditation by faint groans again floating from the back of the Bronco.
As a low moan escaped Xenas lips, Gabrielle placed a comforting hand on her friends shoulder. Xenas head rolled softly from side to side as she fought her way back to consciousness. It was unlike Xena to acknowledge pain and her moaning worried Gabrielle. Looking up, Gabrielle relayed that worry in Melanies direction, their eyes meeting in the rearview mirror. Seeing the concern and desperation in Gabrielles eyes, Melanie snapped out of her reverie.
"Theres a truck stop in Barstow. Well stop there." She said reassuring Gabrielle.
Relieved at the sound of anothers voice, Gabrielle nodded in agreement. With another moan, louder this time, Xena opened her eyes and struggled to sit up. She inched her shoulders up and instantly fell back into place. "Easy, were safe now." Gabrielle said soothingly, "You were shot with a dart that made you sleep."
Knowing Gabrielle would never lie to her, Xena relaxed and stopped her struggles for a few minutes, but the Warrior couldnt be quieted for long. With a huge effort, she heaved herself up into a sitting position, Gabrielle steading her as she leaned against the side of the Bronco wall. She merely stared at the passing countryside for awhile, trying to focus her eyes, then turned her neck, a loud cracking of bone rupturing the silence of the Bronco. Melanie smiled as the same sound was repeated again before Xena settled into a more comfortable position, returning to her study of the barren country they traveled. Somehow she found the sand covered, rolling hills comforting. Xena cleared her throat to speak, her throat so dry that the sound was more of a croak, "What happened?" She finally managed to whisper to Gabrielle.
"We got away from Hawks men with the help of Ram and his friends at the Faire." Gabrielle informed her friend. She continued the simple tale of how Xena had been knocked out like Aven and loaded into the Bronco. Melanie blushed as she heard Gabrielle describe the way she had come to their defense while Xena was down and held off the attackers until they were safely in the vehicle. "Weve been driving ever since." She finished, casting another look at Melanie.
Picking up on the cue, Melanie said, "Were on our way to our Grandmothers home in Utah. Its another state about a thousand miles away. Our grandmothers have been searching ancient sites for years and they may be able to help us get an exact fix on the Icon. At the very least its a safe place to go for a while." She finished thoughtfully.
Before Gabrielle could break out the questions, they were interrupted by Aven as she started moaning. Gabrielle thought it was another nightmare, but then realized that the final effects of the drugs were starting to wear off and Aven was fighting as hard as Xena had to come awake. Speaking softly, Gabrielle relayed to Aven that she was safe and it had only been dreams stalking her. This seemed to calm Aven slightly but she still struggled against the drugs effects. Soon she was sitting up, groggily looking around and rubbing her temples, trying to alleviate the monster headache she had acquired. "Im thirsty." She croaked.
Relived that Aven was awake, Melanie nodded knowingly, "Were almost at Barstow." True to her word, three minutes later she was taking the exit leading up to a sprawling truck stop beside the interstate. Slowing as gently as possible, Melanie turned on her blinker and turned into the parking lot. "You may want to put your old clothes back on." Melanie informed the two visitors as she eased to the back of the truck stop, "What were wearing is a little bloody and might draw police attention. Grab the backpacks and we can change in the restroom." She finished as she threw the Bronco into park.
She pulled the keys from the ignition and climbed out of the Bronco, her own bones creaking in protest from the extended still period. Stomping her feet to get the blood circulating, she walked around to the rear of the bronco and opened the door. "Come on." She said to her companions.
There was a moment of confusion as all tried to identify and grab their respective backpacks, and stumbled out of the truck, Xena and Aven taking a minute to still the dizziness that washed over them. Single file, Melanie led the way into the cool interior of the truck stop. Weaving through the aisles of souvenirs, she led them to the bathrooms in the back, thankful that the restrooms were a bit isolated from the busier areas of the stop.
A short time later all four emerged from the bathroom stalls. Aven and Melanie now wore khaki walking shorts, T-shirts and sturdy hiking boots. Gabrielle gave a sigh of relief to be back in her usual attire of skirt, top and boots. Xena made some final adjustments to her leather dress and knee length boots. All exchanged approving looks and left the restroom.
Once back in the store, Melanie grabbed several bottles of water, while Aven seized bags of chips, oreos, dried jerky, and a jumbo bottle of aspirin. Melanie wrinkled her nose in protest when she saw Avens choices.
"Well, we have to eat." Aven said defensively, "And theres not too many gourmet choices around here."
"You call that food?" Melanie snorted, "If Hawks doesnt get us, that stuff will."
Aven set the basket down and placed her hands on her hips, "What would you suggest?"
"Lets put this stuff in truck and eat at the restaurant." Melanie smiled sweetly, knowing that when Aven had a headache her disposition became impossible.
Concern crept into Avens eyes, "Do you think its safe to stop? Shouldnt we keep moving?"
Melanie gave an understanding nod. "Itll be okay. Ram is probably still running those guys. We can spare the time for a meal." She finished smugly.
Aven couldnt suppress the smile that Rams name and Melanies unconcealed interest brought. "You still got a thing for that macho ape?" She asked teasingly.
"Sure do." Melanie sighed wistfully.
Grinning, they paid for their purchases and shortly all four were seated in the restaurant. Xena and Gabrielle looked around apprehensively and Melanie could understand their unease. The last time they had been in such a place it had been shot to pieces.
This time their meal was uneventful. Conversation was kept to a minium as the smell of food made them all realize how hungry they were. Soon that hunger had been satiated with hamburgers and french fries, a modern delicacy that Gabrielle seemed particulary fond of. Melanie and Xena got their fill of coffee and Aven devoured several aspirin, trying to combat the after effects of the tranquilizer. With a fresh tank of gas in the Bronco, they were soon rolling down the freeway again.
Melanie and Aven rode in the front, while Xena and Gabrielle stretched out in the back. In no time the gentle sway of the road and monotonous hum of the engine soon lulled them into a deep restful sleep.
After a while, Melanie glimpsed in the rearview mirror to make sure her companions were sleeping. Reassured, she directed her gaze at Aven, "Hon, we need to talk about some things and make some decisions."
Surprised, Aven gave her a quizzical look, "What do you mean?"
"Well, we have two women from the past in the back. Not merely women, but our ancestors. We already know that this is deadly, serious stuff were involved in and ... well... if something happens to them, thats it. There will be no us. No Pappy. No Janice."
"No mother and no grandmothers." Aven said thoughtfully. As the full impact of the statement sank in, she fearfully stared at Melanie. "I hadnt given that much thought." She admitted after a few minutes.
Janice was Avens maternal grandmother and the person who had raised her after her mother died. She had gone to live with Janice when she was only eleven and stayed until she left for college at seventeen. Pappy, Melanies grandmother, was just as dear, and Aven shuddered to think how lost and lonely she would have been without the two warm and intelligent women in her life. "What can we do? Aven continued, "We cant take on Hawks alone. Hes got too many people with him."
Glancing at her, Melanie replied, "We dont have to defeat him, just keep him occupied long enough for Xena and Gabrielle to get the Icon and get back to their time."
"Do you think Pappy and Gram can help us?"
"I sure hope so." Melanie almost whispered.
Deep in thought, they both rode in silence as the miles passed beneath the wheels. Coming to a decision, Aven stated the obvious, "The only thing that counts is getting the Icon and getting them back to stop Dahok. No matter the cost. Deal?"
Understanding the implications fully, Melanie nodded acceptance, "Deal."
Silence once again fell between them. Aven stared out the window at the darkening desert, the dark cloud settling back in place over her. The motion and sound of the Bronco attempted to lull her into slumber, but she fought and only dozed occasionally. Melanie turned on the radio, keeping it low enough as not to disturb the others but loud enough to keep her company. Steadfast, she drove through the desert as the sun faded to darkness in her rearview mirror.
Bright lights and flashing neon signs finally woke Xena as they rolled into Las Vegas. Yawning, she sat up in and looked around in amazement. Never in her life had she seen such sights. Bright flashing lights were everywhere, even lining entire buildings. All colors of the rainbow announced the name of the establishments along the sides of the freeway. Darkness had been turned into daylight.
Turning and easing over the seat she startled Melanie by grabbing her shoulder. Rousing her self out of a trance Melanie looked in the rearview mirror, "Good morning, sleepy head." She greeted the rumpled warrior.
With a grunt, Xena turned to shake Gabrielle awake. Just as she suspected, Gabrielle was already stirring. In no time she was wide awake and enthralled with the fantastic light show. The activity in the back roused Aven as well.
Ignoring the gaudy show of Vegas she looked worriedly over at Melanie, stretching and yawning like a cat, "What time is it?"
"About two in the morning." She answered mechanically.
"You should have woke me up." Aven scolded, feeling remorse at the fatigue her friend was obviously feeling. "Pull over at the next station and Ill take over for awhile."
Gratefully Melanie assented and pulled off the next exit easily finding a gas station. Without a word Melanie got out and stiffly walked to the rear of the vehicle. Xena and Gabrielle wasted no time climbing out of the cramped quarters. Soon all four were stretching and looking around. Melanie walked to the restroom, her muscles protesting the sudden exercise after so long in one position. While Melanie and the others hit the bathrooms, Aven took charge of buying and pumping gas. Xena and Gabrielle quickly exited the restroom, anxious to get back to the enthralling skyline outside. The magic of the lights was almost overwhelming for the two ancients. As they stood staring at the light show, Xena glanced over at the building where they paid for fuel. Aven had been walking in, when a tall, lanky man had bumped into her. It was purely an accident and though the man had apologized Aven had glared at him with hatred. It was so strong Xena had seen him scurry away like an animal sensing a coming storm. It was another item she filed away in her memory. She watched Aven even more closely.
Soon they were underway again this time with Aven behind the wheel. Xena rode shotgun with Gabrielle tucked in between them, Melanie stretched out in the back and was sound asleep by the time Aven entered the freeway.
As the lights of Las Vegas faded, the moon, full and bright lit their way on the deserted interstate. Hanging high in the sky, it illuminated the sparse desert and stark mountain peaks which they now traveled through.
Gabrielle glanced over at Aven and smiled, "Tell us about the people were going to see. Do you think they will be willing to help us?"
Xena noticed Avens features relax and soften at the mention of Pappy and Janice. A gentle smile even played on her lips. Xena nodded approval at Gabrielle, her question obviously a good one. Both had been concerned by the tense, haunted look Aven had worn since recovering from the effects of the tranquilizer.
Clearing her throat Aven began, "They are two very special ladies. Pappys real name is Melinda but weve called her Pappy for as long as I can remember. Janice, my grandmother was my mothers mom. She took me in when my parents died and gave me a home." The smile again appeared on Avens face but was tinged with melancholy. Her voice full of warmth as she continued, "They met in the early 40's." Glancing at Gabrielle she added, "Thats about fifty years ago." She clarified and went on with her story. "They met on an archeological dig. Pappy is a linguist specializing in ancient writings. She is a true southern lady, courteous, proper and polite. Janice was a bit of a hell raiser and adventurer and as she tells it, thought Pappy was a useless wimp. That changed when they ran into some trouble at the dig. Neither of them have ever told the whole story. From what little they have said, I think they were attacked by some outlaws and barely escaped with their lives. Whatever happened in that cave sealed their friendship and they have been inseparable since. They even lived next door to one another when their husbands were alive. Mel used to visit during the summers but it wasnt until we got together as adults that our friendship really got tight. On our twenty-first birthday, Pappy and Gram held this solemn ceremony for us. Thats when she gave me the scrolls." Looking at Gabrielle she grinned, "Your diary."
Directing a look at Xenas chakram, "Thats when Pappy gave Mel her chakram coat of arms. They were both really serious and mysterious. They finished the presentation by saying in unison through our progeny, the work and our heritage continue."
Aven cut her eyes at her companions. She and Melanie had thought the whole ceremony was unusal, but then so were their grandmothers. Only now did it hit Aven that they had known. Known that there was a destiny that surrounded their families. Giving herself a shake, Aven added, "If anyone knows what we need to do, its them. They live in a little town in Utah called Bryce Canyon. Its supposed to be a mystical place and they are happy there." Taking a breath she fell into silence.
The silence remained as the Bronco continued down the highway. Each woman floated in their own thoughts. At some point Xena and Gabrielle drifted off to sleep. It was the faint glow of sunrise that awoke Xena several hours later. Gabrielles head rested on her shoulder and she was snoring softly.
Holding Gabrielles head steady, Xena struggled to sit up. She was surprised that she had dozed off again. But, then that was the warriors way. Sleep when you can you never know when youll get the next opportunity. Observing Aven, Xena softly asked, "How are you doing?"
Aven gave a tired smile and whispered back, "Fine. Just using the quiet time to think."
"About?" Xena asked.
Taking her eyes off the road for a second to look at Xena, she saw the expectant look on the warriors face. "Lots of things." She replied looking back at the road, "Anger, betrayal, fear. Just everyday things."
"For a bad day, maybe." Xena responded matter of factly.
Aven nodded, "Ive been having a bad day for the last six months."
Xena remained quiet, waiting. She didnt wait long as Aven continued, "Dammit, I feel so used. He used me to help him research this stuff and find a way to bring Dahok back. Im responsible for this mess."
Xena turned in the seat to face her, "You are not responsible for this. Yes, you were used. Dahok is a master manipulator, as is his line. You were a target because of who you are, but its not your fault. Self pity is a waste of time, energy and especially your life."
Anger colored Avens cheeks, "Self pity? You think thats what this is about?"
"Yes." Xena replied calmly, "Life isnt fair."
"I know that." Aven shot back, "I just dont understand how evil like Hawks can continue to flourish despite our best efforts to stop it. Maybe if Id been stronger at the cabin..." She stopped unwilling to revisit the ordeal.
Xena nodded in understanding, "Evil is strong. As long as there is good there will be evil. Together they make life worth living. Amid all the pain and trials are moments of true joy. Those moments make all the struggles worth it."
"I want it over. I want David dead. To feel his blood on my hands." She finished in an angry whisper.
Xena looked at her, compassion and understanding mirrored in her eyes. Leaning in, Xenas face darkened, "You like the way the killing makes you feel, dont you? You want to feel that way again. The rush and excitement. The release."
Aven was so startled she jerked the wheel causing the Bronco to swerve slightly. "Yes." She almost shouted, then remembering her sleeping companions, lowered her voice, "Yes, Xena. I -- the--knowing that I can release some of this anger and pain that way, makes me want to wipe out Hawks and all his minions."
Now they were getting to the heart of the conversation, and Xena watched her closely. "He hurt you Aven and at first you were terrified. When you told what hed done that fear turned into anger. Now you want to release that."
Aven nodded. Tears threatening to erupt as Xena pressed on, "But deep down you know that its wrong and thats tearing you up. Thats why you let Hawks men grab you at the Faire."
"I want to die." Aven whispered weakly. It shamed that those feelings were so apparent.
Xena arched a well formed eyebrow at the woman and rested a hand on Avens shoulder. "Hawks is like an oozing cloud of filth. Creeping in anywhere he can and try to destroy every thing he touches. That filth tried to destroy you at the cabin, but it didnt work. You are alive. Scarred and hurt but alive. What he did to you was terrible. But you will learn to deal with it in time. Life is worth living. It is what you make of it. If you let this destroy you, then Dahok and David have won. But, if you concentrate on what you love and the joys you have, then this other stuff is nothing but an adventure. A rocky stretch of road. Thats all."
Aven looked at Xena skeptically.
"There was something more important to you than what David did. You proved that by keeping it safe for six months."
Now Aven cut her eyes to look in the rearview mirror. Melanie was sleeping deeply and peacefully. She watched her for a few seconds and then smiled in acknowledgment, "It is our destiny, isnt it?"
Sensing Avens change of heart, Xena simply nodded, "The only way to lose is to quit." Xena said earnestly, "Please dont quit on us. On our line. On our Gods. On Melanie and on Gabrielle and me. We cannot do this without you. We need you and are counting on you. If you feel like the anger is overwhelming you just look at one of us. Remember that we are here for you. Were in this together."
Aven emitted a sigh of acceptance. With this acceptance came resolve. She cast a look at Xena, who looked at her with admiration, as a warrior. Again, she looked at Melanies sleeping figure and sat up a little straighter. Melanie had never given up on her and she would not let her friend down, any of them. Gripping the wheel with a new strength she smiled at Xena, "Youre very wise. Thank you."
Xena looked down at the sleeping Gabrielle, her own savior. It seemed only right to be able to repay the debt, "No problem." She said, her voice full of pride.
Hawks stepped out of the shower into the steaming bathroom, giving Barbaras rear a playful slap as he left. "Hurry up, minx. We have a mission to complete." He laughed.
Barbara grinned and gave her head a final dunk under the shower nozzle. Turning off the water she grabbed the towel Hawks held out to her. "Why thank you. Arent you the perfect gentleman?" She said wickedly.
"The prospect of murder and conquest bring that out in me." Hawks smiled confidently. Barbara laughed in agreement, then looked at him seriously, "You know, I could get jealous about you and the irritating blond."
Hawks stopped and looked at her. For a moment she thought she had overstepped their cautious threshold. She relaxed when he grabbed her and planted a long, hard kiss on her throat. "My little minx." He said in a smoldering voice, "I have to have her to continue the line. To ensure my Fathers Kingdom." He pulled her closer to him, squeezing her rear almost to the point of pain, "You are the one I want by my side to help me rule."
She knew he was lying but nodded in belief. They kissed once more and then dressed.
A short time later they emerged onto the roof of the Hawks building. There a Chinook helicopter was warming up its engines. While the crew was loading the last bit of equipment, twenty armed men settled into their seats along the walls of the craft. Hawks gave a curt nod of as he and Barbara boarded. Strapping into their seats, Hawks leaned forward, "Lets go to Utah." He shouted above the din of the rotor, to the pilot.
The pilot increased the speed of the rotor and the craft lifted off the building. They hovered for a moment before heading east.
Melanie woke up with her own splitting headache. The sun was midway up in the sky and it was another clear dry day in the desert. She eased into a sitting position and weakly whispered, "Coffee. Please Coffee and a restroom."
Aven chuckled at the pitiful display.
Melanie glared balefully at the back of her friends head, "You are merciless." She croaked.
No longer able to contain it, Aven burst out laughing. "Hey!" She yelped as Melanies hand made contact with the back of her skull. "Okay, okay, you wimp." Aven agreed, relenting to her friends pleading. "The next exit has a coffee shop and well get you some lifes blood." She ducked as she felt Melanies hand whiz harmlessly through her hair.
Xena and Gabrielle smiled at the exchange, noticing how light Avens mood had become.
An hour later a refreshed Melanie emerged from the restaurant caring a large Styrofoam cup.
"I cant believe you drank all that coffee with breakfast and still got one to go." Aven grumble, shaking her head in disbelief.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who was also carrying a cup, "Youre just as bad."
"Hey, dont interfere with our simple pleasures." Melanie retorted. She looked to Xena for support.
"I think the insolent blonds should ride in back." Xena responded.
Melanie nodded in agreement and she hopped into the drivers seat. Xena jumped into the passenger side and smiled at their companions.
"Well?" Xena said to the outraged blondes standing outside. They exchanged looks of disbelief at the treatment they were receiving. Shrugging in resignation, they climbed into the back.
Traffic had been light and they made good time, only hours from their final destination. Once they hit the highway again they spent the remaining time in chatter and light hearted banter. For a short time they were simply four women enjoying each others company and could almost forget their grim mission.
Melanie honked the horn as they pulled onto the long dusty driveway of Janice and Pappys sprawling Spanish style home.
Janice eased out into the courtyard and shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun. Squinting, she tried to figure out who was driving up the road but the Bronco was unfamiliar. Inconspicuously, she dropped her hand down to the butt of the gun she had holstered to her waist. Two women living alone in the middle of nowhere needed to be able to take care of themselves, Janice reasoned, and the .44 helped nicely. "Pappy! We have company." She shouted.
A woman close in age emerged from the back of the house. "Who is it?" She asked.
"Cant make them out." Janice answered, "But it has California plates." The two women looked at one another, smiling hugely. Both snapped their heads back toward the fast approaching vehicle.
Melanie stuck her hand out the window and waved. She looked at the two dear women standing in front of the house. Janice in her khaki slacks and white T-shirt, the outfit finished by a khaki head band tied around blonde, white hair. Pappy wearing her usual Indian style full skirt and matching shirt, her greying black hair tied in a neat braid and laying down her back. Melanie could see the sparkle of Pappys profuse silver and turquoise jewelry. Both women waved in unison as they recognized their visitors.
Sliding to a stop. Melanie cut the engine and jumped out of the Bronco. Once in range she flung herself at Pappy. Aven was repeating the motion with Janice. A few moments of joyous greeting and they changed partners, starting all over again. The grandmothers were clasping the younger womens faces in their hands and fussing about how tired they looked and how much they needed to have a home cooked meal. Then Xena and Gabrielle emerged from the vehicle.
Janice and Pappy saw the movement and stiffened. Melanie draped her arms around the grandmothers shoulders, "I want you to meet our friends."
Seeing the strangers for the first time, caused Janice to turn white. She looked at Pappy in shocked amazement. Pappy was having a similar reaction. Immediately Melanie went into action. She brought them out of their frozen state by introducing Xena and Gabrielle. Recognition flashed across Janices face as she met the tall, leather clad warrior and she quickly hid it. Cutting her eyes at Pappy, she looked back at their visitors, "Pleased to meet you. Come on in and let me get you some coffee. You must be exhausted and I know how you are about your caffeine, Mel."
At the mention of coffee, Melanie and Xena groaned in unison. "We need a restroom more than coffee at this point." Melanie said, Xena nodding agreement.
"Well come on in. Lets get you fixed up." Pappy said chucked. And led them into the house.
Later Xena and Melanie emerged from the bathroom. Refreshed and considerably lighter they accepted the cups of coffee Pappy offered them.
Gabrielle and Aven shook their heads in disbelief. "How can you drink so much of that stuff?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.
"They have twelve step programs for problems like yours." Aven directed to Melanie.
Janice laughed sympathetically, "It must be a genetic thing. Pappy drinks it nonstop too." She said glancing at her house-mate.
"Well," Pappy said in pure southern drawl, "We cant help it that your side of the family are coffee wimps."
Laughing, Aven mischievously asked, "Who were the wimps squirming in their seats earlier begging not to hit any bumps."
The room dissolved into laughter as Xena and Melanie blushed in embarrassment. The last half hour over the road had been uncomfortable and the road particularly bumpy.
"So, what brings you girls all the way out here?" Janice asked, sobering the merry mood, "Its not that were not glad you came but I get the feeling somethings up."
The four new arrivals exchanged nervous looks. None of them knew exactly where to start. Xena and Gabrielle looked to Aven and Melanie for direction. They didnt know how much information they were willing to share with the older women. Or if they would believe any of the events of the last few days.
A nervous silence descended over the kitchen. All six sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee and munching the sandwiches that Janice had made.
Aven cleared her throat, "It appears our destiny has slammed into us. Im sure youve already guessed that Xena and Gabrielle are our ancestors." She looked at Janice and Pappy for confirmation. At their nod she continued. Detailing the events of the last few days she explained how she had been involved with Hawks. She managed to lay out an informative summary of the adventure up to this point. "We need to find a religious artifact. It is referred to in the scrolls as an Icon. Weve managed to narrow the location to this area." She anxiously watched for the reaction of the grandmothers to the news.
All were surprised by the unexpected reaction of the older women. They huddled together, whispering and tossing quick, frightened looks at their visitors.
"Pappy?" Melanie whispered, reaching across the table to squeeze her grandmothers hand. "What is it? We did not mean to frighten you."
Xena quietly stared at their hostesses for a moment. "They know."
Aven and Melanie exchanged looks of comprehension as Xenas words sank in. The older women fell silent. "You do know dont you?" Aven asked with dawning realization, "You have always known?"
Suddenly, Janice clinched her hands on the table and studied the visitors intently. Pappys eyes darted from one of the young women to the other. A mixture of dread and uncertainty mirrored in her eyes. Flustered, she opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. Taking a deep breath she finally managed to stutter, "W...We did not want to damage the flow of time or the events themselves. We thought it best to keep what we knew a secret. We hoped that you might be spared. It is the destiny of our lines to battle evil. Each generation must face their trial, alone." She finished by bowing her head in embarrassment.
"We found the Icon while we were in Mesopotamia." Janice said coming to her friends rescue. "We knew it needed to be protected and that we could be targets. So we had a friend hide it for us. He didnt tell us where, only that when it was time for the battle it would be there." She said looking at Aven and Melanie earnestly.
"How can we find it? Can this guy be trusted?" Aven asked suspiciously.
"Weve trusted him with our lives before." Janice promised. "You need to go see our friend. He will test your fitness and then determine if youre worthy. It is in his hands, the secret to remain in his family. To be passed down to the eldest son of each generation. We wanted it safe and we had prayed that it might skip a generation. We knew his family couldnt be linked to ours." Janice quickly cutting her eyes from her granddaughter.
Aven clasped the womans hands and locked eyes with her. "They dont always survive the battle do they? My mother... it wasnt a car accident was it?"
Janice was a tough old bird. She rarely showed her true feelings, but now her green eyes misted up. Lowering her head, silence was the confirmation. Pappy scooted closer to Janice offering support. Across the table the same motion was provided by Melanie and Gabrielle.
"Im sorry, Honey." Janice sighed, "I should have told you when you were older. I had so hoped that it would pass you by."
Aven remained quiet for so long that it brought tension to the air. "Did she win?"
Janice looked in her face proudly, "Yes. She did."
"Im sorry, Aven." Gabrielle said. It was another burden she allowed on her conscience. Melanie looked at her friend, wanting to offer words of comfort. They eluded her. Xenas eyes clouded over with darkness, her own guilt trying to emerge from its hiding place.
Aven took a deep breath, a bittersweet expression on her face. "Its alright. A car accident is a senseless death. Now I know she died for a greater reason. Her death had meaning. That makes it easier to take."
Janice and Pappy nodded proudly. "John will help you." Pappy continued, "We met him shortly after World War two. He was a code talker for army intelligence. When we met it seemed as if we were supposed to come together. He was trustworthy and willing to accept responsibility of the Icon."
"Where can we find him?" Xena said rising from her chair abruptly.
Melanie and Aven exchanged uncertain looks, but rose to obey. They had begun sensing that time was getting short in this adventure. Even though frightened they wanted to get on with it.
Xena held a hand out stopping Gabrielle before she could stand. "You stay here. Keep an eye on Janice and Pappy. Im not so sure we wont be followed and we cant leave them defenseless." Xena locked eyes with Gabrielle to relay her meaning.
Gabrielle met Xenas gaze, reading her eyes and nodded, "Youre right. We do not want Hawks getting this information." Gabrielle said, settling back in her chair.
Janice stood up defensively, "We can take care of ourselves. We dont need a protector."
Pappy knowingly smiled at Xena and gently grasped Janices wrist, "Dont get you knickers in a twist. They know what theyre doing. Besides, Id like the chance to talk to this young woman. She lives in times we can only read about."
Janice grudgingly relented. "Fine." Directing her attention at her granddaughter she said, "When this is all over, were going to have a long talk. One thats past due. Now heres how to get to Johns."
A short time later Xena, Melanie and Aven pulled into a small Adobe village a few miles from their Grandmothers place. Easing out of the Bronco they waited as the nervous residents began to approach. "Janice and Pappy sent us to see John Littlehorse." Melanie stated in a friendly voice to the gathering.
The residents looked at each other, muttering under their breath. One of the younger men, a tall, handsome protector stepped forward, "Who wants him?"
Melanie quickly answered, "Pappys granddaughter, Melanie."
The answer seemed to appease the welcoming committee. A short older woman moved up beside the man. She observed them for a moment, "This way." She said, waving them toward the nearest Adobe building. Turning, she started waddling in that direction. Her long denim skirt swaying around her ankles. She turned to see if they were following. When she realized their hesitation she gave them a toothless smile as encouragement. The smile was all but lost in the deep wrinkles of her kind face and the three women followed her.
Aven hesitated at the doorway of the Adobe. Her companions huddled up behind her. The old woman continued across the room to a door on the far side. She stuck her head in the door and said something in her native language and a male voice responded. Bobbing her head in acknowledgment, she turned and waved the women into the hut, "Hell be with you shortly. Please have a seat." She motioned in the direction of a dilapidated couch.
Cautiously, the women entered the room and looked about. It was decorated simply, like someone had raided several rummage sales to furnish the place. They slowly walked to the sofa. As one they perched on the edge, all three nervously shoulder to shoulder.
"I could really get to like guard duty." Gabrielle muttered to herself easing into the steaming bath tub. The scented water enveloped her in its luxurious embrace. She let out a deep sigh of delight, closing her eyes and savoring the feeling. She knew that she shouldnt be doing this. Instead she should be talking to the older women and keeping an eye out. But when Pappy suggested it, she couldnt resist. Besides she reasoned, it would be rude to not accept their hospitality. The warm water was just starting to soothe the tension from her body and muscles, when Janice urgently called her name.
She recognized the sound of unease in the older womans voice. "What is it?" She called as she rose out of the tub. Not waiting for an answer she started throwing on her clothes. Then she grabbed her staff from its resting spot against the wall and ran into the hallway. She arrived in time to see a man grab Pappy by the shoulders and shake her, "Where are they?" He shouted.
"Get your hands off her." Gabrielle yelled and charged.
Suddenly, Janice appeared behind the man and delivered an iron skillet across the back of his head. He staggered and collapsed to the floor almost pulling Pappy down with him. Janice was unaware of the next man that appeared in the hallway. Gabrielle had him in her sights and cracked the newcomer squarely between his shoulder blades with her staff. Startled, the man gave up his target and turned on Gabrielle.
"Run!" Gabrielle ordered as she whirled the staff and hit the man right between the eyes. The mans eyes crossed and he dropped to the ground. She heard the sounds of another intruder coming from behind her. The resonating sound of the frying pan let her know that he had been dealt with.
From the side of her eye, Gabrielle saw another man entering the front door. As she tried to whirl and hit him, he grabbed the end of the staff and pulled it from her hands. Without hesitation, Gabrielle hit him in the nose with the open palm of her hand. The blow knocked the would be attackers head back and he dropped the staff. Gabrielle rescued it on its downward fall and turning she hit him behind the knees knocking him to the ground.
Spinning around she saw Pappy and Janice taking out another soldier. It was then she noticed the activity outside the house. Hawks men were swarming like insects. "I said run! Now!" Gabrielle ordered again. This time the women listened.
Gabrielle clobbered another man as he came in and was prepared to continue until David Hawks sauntered in the doorway. Slowly he clapped his hands in applause, "No wonder the master chose you." He said in mock admiration, "That was quite a show, Mother."
Gabrielle blanched in recognition. This was the man from her dream. The one who had been with Hope. The one that had tortured her descendant. "I am not you mother." Gabrielle said in distaste, as she assumed a defensive posture.
"Aw, Mom. Be a good girl and put the stick down." Hawks said mockingly, his eyes flickering to something behind her.
Gabrielle spun to defend her back. The movement was too late as she was tackled and brought to the ground. Before she could recover she was grabbed by the shoulders and roughly lifted to her feet. "Tie her up." Hawks roared. He moved closer standing right in front of her. Reaching out his hand he tried to caress her face but she pulled away in disgust. Meeting and holding his eyes Gabrielle knew the fear Aven had lived with. Hawks eyes radiated such cruelty and anger that it was tangible. "Gently." He smiled as the soldiers moved into the house and began tying up their prey, "We dont want to damage the Masters bride."
He threw back his head and laughed when he saw the terror in Gabrielles eyes. "Yesss." He hissed in her face, "Dahok has special plans for you and you will be his body and soul."
"In here." Pappy whispered urgently. Janice wasnt ready to leave Gabrielle yet. Pappy grabbed her arm and drug her into the pantry. "Let go you old bat. She needs our help." Janice argued.
"We can not help her if were dead or captured." Pappy shot back. Tilting the can of tomato juice on the shelf forward the wall shifted, revealing a secret passageway. Reluctantly, Janice followed Pappy and they slipped into their hidden escape route. Pushing gently, the wall slid back into place behind them.
"What are we going to do?" Pappy whispered, clutching Janice to her.
"We have to warn the girls." Janice answered. She located a match on the shelf in the dark. She lit two candles where they had been stationed in case of an emergency.
"What about Gabrielle?" Pappy asked.
Janice frowned in concentration and frustration. There was no way they could take on all the men that had invaded their home. Now one of their guest was a hostage. But there was something they could do. "I think I have a plan." She said looking at Pappy.
"Well?" Pappy asked agitated.
"You sneak out back and get the horse. Go to Johns and get the girls."
"What about you?" Pappy asked suspiciously.
"Ill climb up on the roof. Keep an eye on these bastards and find out where they take Gabrielle."
"What else can we do?" Janice finished.
Staring at her companion Pappy had to agree. "You keep your head down you old bag." Pappy snorted as she headed for the rear exit.
"You too, old woman." Janice smiled at her back.
Carefully Janice crawled out of the trap door and onto the roof. Lying flat against the tile, she studied the immediate area. Being an archeologist had taught Janice the importance of hidden passageways. She had utilized that knowledge when designing the house, including the ladder that led into the roof access chamber of the adobe house. Blowing the dust off the binoculars, she caught a quick glimpse of Pappy dashing from the tunnel entrance to the barn. Seeing no other movement near the barn, she was satisfied about Pappys safety and turned her attention back toward the activity out front.
"Forget the old women" Hawks yelled from under her, "They can deliver our message to the others."
A trio emerged from the house surrounding a bound and gaged Gabrielle. Janice felt her temper flair. Roughly they dragged her ancestor to the covered army truck and threw her in the back. "Bastards." Janice mumble under her breath. Desperately she wished to be ten years younger and have a fully loaded Gatling Gun at her disposal. The young men that had escorted Gabrielle climbed into the truck, disappearing from sight.
Hawks emerged from the house with his arm thrown casually around a strange woman. They climbed into the front of the vehicle. The engine was brought to life and slowly moved down the driveway.
Thank God for the flat desert. Janice thought as the dust trail began moving. Watching the vehicle, she saw it turn left and head toward the distant cliffs. She brought the binoculars to her eyes and watched them until they were only a speck in the distance. Satisfied she knew their destination, Janice reentered the trap door and climbed down the ladder. Pappy shouldnt be much longer she thought to herself. By horse Johns place was only across the field and on the other side of the hill.
The old chief suppressed a chuckle of amusement when he saw three stunning women perched nervously in his living room. Forcing a solemn look on his face, he shuffled to the chair strategically placed in front of the sofa. Easing into the chair, he calmly looked at the women until they began to fidget nervously.
When he finally spoke his voice deeply resonated in his chest. "You are the granddaughters of Pappy and Janice. I have been expecting you."
He held himself with calm dignity, allowing silence to descend in the room once more. Watching his visitors intently, he waited until he was sure their attention was riveted on him before continuing, "You seek the Icon?" It was said as a statement more than a question.
Aven swallowed nervously and shook her head yes.
The old man met her eyes and held them. His eyes seeming to bore into her soul. Happy with what he saw he turned the look on Melanie, then Xena. "You have your mothers heart." He directed at Melanie, then to Aven he stated, "And you have your mothers fire."
With a grunt he rose from the chair and shuffled over to a battered cabinet sitting in a corner of the room. Opening one of the small drawers, he rummaged around for a moment. He gave another grunt as he found what he was looking for and turned back to his guests. "The Icon chooses the warrior that will wield it. Neither you or I can determine who that is. That is why it stays hidden in a secret cavern. It will be used only when the time is right and by the right people." He leaned over to Aven and handed her an old piece of paper. "Follow this map. Only your wits and pure heart will guarantee success once you are in the cavern. If your are the chosen the Icon will lead you safely to it."
Aven nodded understanding and opened the piece of paper. "Listen to your intuitions, that is how the magic speaks to you." He added and stepped back, allowing them a moment to study the map. Aven bent her head to study the old scrape of paper, Xena and Melanie also leaning in to get a better look.
"I was chosen as a protector." He began anew, "I met your grandmothers right after the war. I dreamed about two women that would change my life. When I walked on that train, I almost turned and ran. They were on their way home just like me and something seemed to sing to my heart as I approached them. I was drawn to them. As a young man I thought it was merely lust for two beautiful women. Soon I realized it was much more. We struck up a conversation. It was apparent that they were worried and nervous about something. They didnt seem eager to share with a stranger so after a while I drifted off to sleep. There is no way to describe the dream I had or the things I saw. When I woke up I asked them to tell me about the Icon. They were terrified." He paused, lost in the memories.
"What happened next?" Melanie prompted, enraptured.
Shaking himself out of the reverie, he continued, "I think they sensed a feeling of safety from me and the story just spilled out. They talked and I listened well into the night. When they were out of words we sat in silence. Just as the sun was kissing the horizon, Janice asked me if I could help. Without hesitation, I said yes." Frowning for emphasis, John looked at the women across from him. His face revealed the awe and wonder he still felt at that contact. Sobering again he continued, "When I held the Icon in my hands, I knew what my destiny was. My tribe is from Arizona, so I went home to seek the council of my tribes Medicine man. The precious Icon was still in my possession then. For two weeks we prayed and meditated and at the end of that time my spirit guide showed himself to me. The Icon sang to both of us and told us what to do. The guide, a Coyote showed me the place on the map. Ive been here ever since." The old man stopped as his woman entered the room with four cups of steaming tea on a tray. She set the tray down on the table, squeezed Johns shoulder and turned to leave. Meeting her eyes, he smiled and mouthed a silent thank-you. Slowly and deliberately he picked up a cup and sipped it. In unison, the women did the same thing, almost as if they were hypnotized.
John closed his eyes savoring the warm liquid poing down his throat. When he opened them again he looked straight into Avens eyes. "The map will lead you to the beginning. That is all I can do for you."
Suddenly as if on cue, the sound of rushed hoof beats were heard outside. Then they heard someone calling Avens name.
Xena sprang to her feet, sword in hand and ran to the door. Aven and Melanie were not far behind her as she rushed outside. Seeing Pappy on the galloping horse, Xena sheathed the sword and grabbed the reins as the horse slid to a stop. Pappy jerked upright and flung herself from the horses back, "They have Gabrielle." She managed breathlessly.
Xenas eyes widened, "What?" Fiercely she grabbed the older woman by the shoulders. "Where is she? How many were there? Where were you?" Xena hissed. Unconsciously she shook Pappy harder with each question.
Stunned, Pappy looked blankly at Xena until she was shaken again. Anger replaced confusion and drawing herself up to her full height, Pappy glared at the younger version of herself. Wrapping the dignity of age around her, Pappy met Xenas frantic and angry stare. "Calm yourself young woman. I am not the enemy."
Xena released Pappy but the Warriors cry to battle to protect her friend would not be silenced, "Where were you? How did he find you? By the Gods if anything happens to her..."
"Hold it." Pappy interrupted, for the first time showing how much of a resemblance she bore to the Warrior, "We will rescue her but not by standing here arguing."
The two women glared at each other. Pappy felt falsely accused and Xena felt helpless, knowing that Gabrielle was in grave danger now that Hawks had her.
"We trusted you. All of you." Xena growled lowly, looking at all of them, "And you abandoned her."
"You think we betrayed that trust?" Pappy spat out in disbelief, "We wouldnt betray either of you or risk her life. We are here to help you and will. If youll let us."
"Look at what your help has done." The Warrior Princess shot back. Xena knew what Hawks was capable of. Her promise to Gabrielle that Dahok would never hurt her again drove all reason from Xena. Jerking the reins of the horse, the startled animal stumbled to her side. Xena stepped back to fling herself on the horse. Her flight was halted by a steel grip on her free arm.
Turning angrily, she was caught in the steady glare of Avens eyes. Fire seemed to dance from the ocean blue eyes, "We are in this together!" Aven said forcefully, "No time now for self pity!"
Xenas eyes widened and her nostrils flared in renewed anger. For a second, Aven thought she was about to be pummeled by the Warrior. Then sanity appeared to return to the ice blue eyes of the Warrior. Xena looked to the ground in embarrassment. Slowly she brought her eyes back up to met Avens. Smiling grimly she nodded. "Youre right. This is no time to indulge in emotions." Snatching a quick look at Pappy she added, "Im sorry."
With a curt nod, Aven smiled, "Then lets go get Gabrielle and kick some ass. The Bronco is faster, though." She added with a wry grin.
Melanie was already moving toward the vehicle with long strides. She kept her arm protectively around Pappy. Leaning her head toward her grandmother, she listened to the events that had transpired at the house. In minutes all four were in the Bronco and racing across the field bouncing roughly over the bumpy land. Pappy directed them to the gate and they were pulled up beside the house.
Janice was waiting impatiently, backpack and rifle slung over her shoulder. "I know where theyve taken her." She replied climbing into the Bronco. "That way." She directed, pointing toward the distant bluffs. "Im sure theyre hiding in the caves up there and I bet dollars to doughnuts I know which one hes staked out."
The Bronco tore down the driveway and followed the tread marks left by the army truck. Silence held sway in the Bronco for several minutes until Aven looked at Xena, a mixture of anger and pleasure radiating from her face, "Time to kill the bastard."