DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, et al. are owned by the big guys at MCA/Universal, Renaissance Pictures, or whoever happens to own them right now. Any not owned by them are mine. This endeavor falls into the realm of fan fiction. I donít anticipate any money from this; itís for fun, not profit. In other words, free, free, free. Enjoy it!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Gee, I donít know. This story takes place at some time in the later part of their career, but before Xena had her quarrel with the gods and "went medieval" on them. Other than that, you decide. Now, get ready for mystery and adventure! Our girls have a mystery to unravel, a guilt trip to unload, Amazons to rescue and a really evil bad guy to vanquish. In other words, a typical day for them! Here we go! Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi Sheeeee-yah!! (Somehow, it just sounds so much better when Xena does it.)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By D.J. Belt
The inn was typical of Greek inns, a mixture of conversation, the smell of food and drink and the feel of worn wooden tables and seats. A large hearth's fire burned in a corner, and occasional laughter and the strains of pleasant conversation filled the background as the two oddly-matched female travelers sat at a corner table, sharing a pottery pitcher of weak wine and awaiting their meals. No one much gave them second notice; the inn was just off a well-traveled major road and the locals were used to a variety of strange pilgrims passing through.
The innkeeper, a slender, pleasant woman of indeterminate age with the remnants of a pretty youthfulness about her, approached the table and placed down two bowls of stew and a round loaf of bread. Her practiced eye glanced from one woman to the other. She smiled slightly as she reached out and hefted the wine pitcher. "Still got some? All right then, I'll leave you be for a while."
The darker-haired traveler just nodded, but the lighter-haired one cast a polite smile toward her and crinkled her nose. "It smells delightful. Thank you."
The innkeeper wiped her hands on her apron and gave a pleasant nod. As she walked back toward the kitchen, one traveler looked to the other. "Delightful, Gabrielle? It rather smells like a goat's butt."
The blonde chuckled at the remark, shaking her head slightly. "Xena, you have a way with words." She cast a sly glance toward the darker-haired woman and continued, "And how do you know what a goat's butt smells like, anyway?" She held up a hand before Xena could answer. "Never mind. I don't want to know." That elicited a twinkle of the eye and a crooked grin from her companion. Gabrielle lifted a spoonful of stew to her mouth. "You really must try it. It's good, honestly."
"Yeah, well . . . " Xena tasted the stew, her eyebrows arching in approval.
Gabrielle watched her reaction and chided gently, "Now, see? It's not so bad, is it?"
"The meat tastes very fresh, for an inn's cooking."
Xena chewed for a minute and nodded. "Deer. Good taste buds, Gab."
They ate in relative silence, occasional blurbs of conversation emerging in between efforts at consuming their meal. Xena mostly watched Gabrielle, marveling at how she could eat with such total gusto. As Gabrielle reached out to tear off a second hunk of the round bread, she noticed her companion's quizzical stare and stopped. "What?"
Xena's impassive expression relaxed and she allowed herself a broad smile. "It's nothing. I just always am amazed at how a sprite like you can eat enough for an army."
Gabrielle just laughed. "What's this? A crack about my size again?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "I can't help it if you're short."
Gabrielle pointed her spoon toward her friend. "I'm not short, Xena. I'm petite. You, you're......."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I'm.......what?"
Gabrielle was searching for just the right descriptors. "Well, stretched. I mean, look at those legs. They go on forever!"
Xena affected a hurt expression, and teased, "I thought you liked my legs."
Gabrielle hastened to correct herself. "Oh, I do. I do." She then glanced down at Xena's booted feet, sprawled under the table. "And they'd be even longer if so much of them wasn't turned under!"
Xena reached under the table and drilled a long finger into her friend's ribs. Gabrielle sputtered a bit and jumped slightly, coughing once or twice in her wine. "Xena!" Resting her cup on the table, she squinted at the tall warrior. "What's that for?"
"Watch it, bard. I know pressure points."
Gabrielle again waved her spoon at Xena and was about to speak when the strains of pleasant flute music began wafting through the inn, interrupting the conversation and attracting her attention. She followed the sounds with her eyes and saw its origin. A man was walking slowly among the tables, offering a melody from a long wooden flute. Some of the patrons raised a cup to him or volunteered pleasant shouts of encouragement and the occasional coin as he slowly walked past the various tables. Gabrielle watched, entranced, and listened as the soulful, warbling melodies seemed to sooth and quiet the occupants of the room. As she watched, she leaned slightly toward Xena.
"Isn't that magnificent? He can play wonderfully, Xena. I don't believe that I've ever heard such beautiful tunes, have you?" Xena said nothing; after a moment, Gabrielle took her eyes away from the flute-player to look at her companion. Xena was staring straight ahead, her eyes distant, her expression solemn, her form unmoving. Gabrielle gently placed a hand on Xena's arm, the touch causing her to start. "Love? Did you hear me? What's wrong?"
"Huh? Oh, nothing." Xena looked down at the table and quickly lifted the wine mug toward her lips, her gaze avoiding Gabrielle's.
"Don't give me that, Xena. I know that look. Something's wrong." She spoke more softly now. "What is it?"
Xena shook her head. "Nothing. It's nothing."
Gabrielle eyed her companion knowingly. "Okay. You'll tell me when you're ready." She sat silently for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "Or maybe you won't."
"It's just something from a long time ago, Gab. I....don't really want to talk about it right now."
"Sure." Gabrielle looked down and dabbed a bit of her bread into the stew in a gesture of understanding that the conversation was over for the present, at least about whatever bothered her friend. As she did so, she noticed that the flute-player had wandered closer to their table and she reached out with a coin for him, as she had seen the other inn's customers do. He walked toward them, playing, and when he got very close, cast his eyes upon Xena. The flute music stopped and the man stood frozen for a moment, staring at her profile. He then turned his gaze to Gabrielle and bowed gracefully as he accepted the coin from her hand. Turning away, he resumed playing, strolling toward the kitchen. In a moment he had disappeared, but not before he turned toward the inn's main room and bowed again, smiling in response to their cheers and applause. Gabrielle watched him leave and then cast an eye toward a brooding Xena. "Want to talk about it?"
Gabrielle studied her companion's face very closely. She could see the distant, pained look deep in the blue eyes, the lines around the corners contracted. Xena avoided her gaze and stared at the table. Unsure of what else to do, she simply reached out a hand and covered Xena's, which was spread out on the table in front of her. "I love you, Xena."
The warrior looked up and into her friend's face. Softly, almost sadly, she said, "I love you, too." Then, she added, "It's not about you."
Another voice emanated from behind Xena's back. "Well, look at what the cat dragged in. Hello, Xena." After a pause, it continued. "It's been a long, long time."
Xena kept her eyes straight ahead as she replied, "Yes, it has."
Gabrielle looked up to see the flute-player standing behind her friend. He gazed down, an enigmatic expression on his face. "May I join you?"
Xena gestured to the free seat. "It's your inn." The man walked slowly around the table and sat in the seat across from Xena. He said nothing for a moment but just leaned forward, placing his forearms on the table and looking intently at her. Gabrielle watched the strange exchange, not quite sure of what to do. She found her hand slowly reaching beneath the table to one of the sai protruding from her boot-tops, as she took the opportunity to study the flute-player closely.
He was a man beginning to approach middle age, dark hair prematurely speckled with slight dabs of gray. His clean-shaven face was lined and weathered, and she could perceive a deep scar upon one temple. Dark, liquid eyes blazed out from the lined features. She could see that he still retained a handsome appearance in spite of the subtle signs upon him of a hard life. Gabrielle noted that his short stature approximated her own and although he was only slightly taller than herself, he seemed fit and actually slightly muscular. His arms were bare to the shoulders and she felt a twinge of curiosity at the notice of a distinctly eastern tattoo upon his nearest shoulder next to an old scar appearing very much like a battle wound. A warrior at one time, she guessed silently. After what seemed an eternal silence, he spoke.
"I have something that belongs to you." He reached beneath his tunic and slowly drew out a small dagger, laying it on the table in front of her. "I had always hoped for the chance to return it."
Xena looked at the dagger. "I'm surprised that it's not in my neck."
The man's features relaxed and he smiled gently. "At one time, perhaps. Not now." He lifted his arm and extended it across the table toward Xena. "It is good to see you again, old friend." Gabrielle's eyes darted toward Xena, and she could see that her friend's pained gaze eased into one of question and gratitude.
"I wasn't sure that you would feel that way." After a second, she reached out and grasped the arm tightly, forearm to forearm, a warrior's greeting. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, lifting her hand away from the sai at her boot and returning it to the table in front of her.
He smiled a genuinely warm smile, his piercing dark eyes seeming to dance just slightly. "I do." He looked at her intently. "What's it been now, ten or twelve years or more?"
Xena nodded. "Something like that."
"Different times, Xena. Darker days." He paused, studying her deeply for just a moment before he next spoke. "I don't blame you for anything. Quit blaming yourself."
Xena's expression softened. "You always were perceptive."
He shrugged. "I'm just getting older now." He looked intently at her. "You're not, though. You look hardly a day older than when I saw you last. How have you managed that?" He pointed a finger at her from across the table. "I always suspected that you were partly god. I know it now."
Xena smiled tightly. "Nah. I just eat right."
The man chuckled. "Yeah. Sure." He looked over toward Gabrielle and his eyes caught hers. When the two pairs of eyes connected, she felt as if she had literally been struck with a fist. The eyes were deep and dark and contained a knowing beyond understanding. They seemed to drill into her very soul and read the contents written there. She did not feel afraid or perceive evil emanating from the dark orbs within the lined face. Instead, she saw something otherworldly, an almost instant understanding of whom and what she was. In the brief moment of contact she wondered where she had seen such a gaze before. The answer came to her in a flash: Eli. Only there had she ever seen another human being exhibit the ability to strip bare her soul with a look. She felt herself blush slightly and lowered her eyes to the table. He smiled a pleasant smile and extended his arm to her in greeting. "Forgive me. I am called Sionides."
"Gabrielle." She grasped the offered arm and found the grip strong and sincere. He released her arm and looked back to Xena.
"Are you two traveling far? You will stay tonight?"
"No. We eat and travel on, I'm afraid."
"In this weather? It will storm, you know." He raised a quizzical eyebrow toward Xena.
She shrugged. "Can't be helped."
"Of course it can. I think that you are more broke than in a hurry." Xena looked at him, her jaw dropping in surprise. She looked over at Gabrielle, who just watched the exchange with a curious interest and said nothing. Xena tapped Gabrielle's knee with her own under the table, almost as if asking to be rescued. Gabrielle caught the unspoken plea and cleared her throat, attracting Sionides' attention.
"Xena was right. You are perceptive."
He laughed, a pleasant laugh. "Been there myself. You may stay as long as you wish, both of you. My guests."
Gabrielle was cautious. "We don't want to impose. Take up space in your inn that others can pay for."
"No imposition. It's not my inn, by the way. Belongs to her." He indicated the pleasant female innkeeper with a nod of his head. "She owes me money. She will be happy to offer hospitality and food to the two of you in exchange for that debt."
Xena was hesitant. "Really, we don't . . . "
He held up a hand. "No problem. I know her well. She and I are, ah, quite friendly. She won't object, trust me. She will be happy to comply." He looked at Xena and Gabrielle, each in turn, and detected a hesitation from them. "Would you not do the same for me, if you could?"
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle, who raised an eyebrow at her friend. Turning back to Sionides, she nodded reluctantly.
"Well then, it's settled. I assume that the two horses outside are yours. I will have the boy see to them in the stable and put your things in your room." He rose to leave, casting a look over the table. Xena's bowl was half-full, but Gabrielle's was empty and the bread was gone. He reached out and jiggled the wine pitcher slightly, placing it back down on the table. "I will be back shortly." He rose and left, walking to the kitchen.
The two women sat silently at the table for a moment, neither saying anything. Finally, Gabrielle could contain her curiosity no longer and placed a hand on Xena's. "Is this all right?"
Xena answered with a squeeze of the fingers and nodded. "It's just that........."
"I know. Let me guess. You knew him from long ago. As he said, darker days. Knowing a bit of who you were back then, you probably used him badly and now you ache for it." She said nothing in response. "Xena, is this going to keep happening for our entire lives? Are you constantly going to torture yourself over what you were instead of being proud of who you are now? Can you not forgive yourself? He has forgiven you for..... " Her voice became somewhat exasperated. "Whatever in Hades it was that you did." She studied her companion for a moment. "What did you do, anyway? Who was he?"
Xena's voice seemed far away. "He was a faithful lieutenant of mine. I repaid him by toying with him and then selling him into slavery."
"Oh." Gabrielle was dumbfounded. She sat quietly for a bit, digesting the revelation, then attempted to sooth her friend. "Well, he seems to hold no grudge."
"That's because he's a good man. He always was. Not like the others I gathered around myself. He was different."
"A lieutenant in a warlord's army, a good man? That's a switch."
Xena nodded. "He shouldn't have been with us. I guess I always knew that he was somehow better than us. That he would rise above it all." She looked over at Gabrielle. "It's a long story."
Gabrielle replied, "I'm a bard. I love long stories. Besides, I've got nowhere to go."
A hand reached down and placed another bowl of stew in front of Gabrielle. Another round bread followed it and the old wine pitcher was replaced with a full one. Sionides' voice accompanied it. "You two are all set up. Last room on the left, down the hall. Bath is being prepared. Your horses are heading toward the stable and your stuff is in your room."
They both turned their eyes to him. Xena said softly, "Thank you." Gabrielle was a bit more eloquent.
"Sionides, we are in your debt. If we can do anything for you, just say."
He waved a dismissive hand. "You owe me nothing. It is the Way of Friendship." He placed a hand on Xena's shoulder. "Sleep well, old friend. I will see you tomorrow." With that, he left them alone.
That night, Gabrielle was awakened repeatedly by Xena's fitful sleep. As she lay in the dimly-lit room, her form pressed tightly against the taller woman's, she could feel the agitation and occasionally hear mumbling from Xena. She attempted to sooth her friend with caresses and soft words of reassurance, but it was to no avail. It only seemed to help for a short while. Once, she woke to notice that Xena was not in the bed with her. She could hear the distant roll of thunder and the drum of rain upon the ground and the roof and lifted her head from the pillow. Xena sat in the darkness, staring out the window. Gabrielle called softly, "Xena?"
"Go to sleep, love."
"I can't sleep without you anymore. You know that."
"You can't sleep with me, either. I keep awakening you."
Gabrielle sat up in the bed. Her voice was remonstrative, but gentle. "I don't mind. Now come to bed. You'll catch a sickness, sitting at the window like that."
No answer came from Xena. Gabrielle rose and wrapped a blanket around her body, walking over to the window. She stood next to the seated figure at the window and looked down. "Aren't you cold?" She stood behind Xena and wrapped the blanket around both of them. "Now stop this and come to bed. Don't argue with me." Xena said nothing, just looked up. Gabrielle was a bit taken aback to see the mist of tears in her friend's eyes. "Come on, love." She stood and the two walked away from the window and crawled back into the covers, pulling them up. Xena turned her back to Gabrielle, who snuggled against her and draped an arm over her companion's shoulders. "You know, Xena, this has to stop. You're torturing yourself. I've a feeling that this self-inflicted punishment of yours is worse than the offence. Sionides doesn't seem tortured over whatever happened so long ago; why does it affect you so badly? Why?"
"I....can't tell you."
"What does that mean? You don't know, or you won't tell?" No answer. "This is just not right. Look, you trust me, don't you? Tell me the story, Xena. Let me decide if you should crucify yourself like this."
"It's a long story."
"That's okay. Neither of us can sleep, it appears."
Xena gave a deep, ragged sigh and held Gabrielle's hand to her lips for a moment, kissing the fingers softly. Grasping the hand, she began to speak in a quiet voice. "It was before I met you. I was young and full of spit and vinegar, attracting an army around me and gathering victories over the other warlords in the Macedonian area. My fame was spreading into mainland Greece, it seemed. We were always testing new recruits and one day a young fellow appears, bow in hand, asking a place among us. He couldn't have been much more than twenty or so, I guess. He was bright-eyed and small, dressed like a shepherd. We just laughed at him. What a rube, we thought. He'll never do. Too short. Even had a shorter sword than the others. We quit laughing, though, when he strung that bow and showed us what he could do with it. I had never seen such expert marksmanship in my life, even among professional soldiers. Still haven't. It was almost magic, the way he could put an arrow where he wanted it."
"So you took him in?"
"Yeah. He caught on quickly. Bought a soldier's clothing with his first pay and assumed the swagger and manner of one. I figured he wouldn't last too long in a close fight, though. Small. Boy, was I wrong. He was a survivor, like you. He got a fair number of wounds but always bounced back. Took out his share of opponents, as well. He made up for being small by being quick and furious."
"He became a mercenary?"
"Oh, yeah. I put him in charge of training archers. Made him lieutenant of them."
"Is that when you gave him that dagger?"
"No." She paused for a bit, and then continued the story. "Like I said, he was an incredible shot with that bow of his. He was also possessed of stealth that an Amazon would envy. I saw in him opportunities to, ah, eliminate certain of my enemies from a distance and without the general clash of arms that the meeting of our armies would demand."
"You made . . . that is, he became an assassin for you?"
"You were right the first time. I made him one. I convinced him to assassinate people for me by befriending him."
"'Befriending' him? Just what do you mean by that?"
Xena instantly regretted the admission, feeling the quiet 'burn' which seemed to emanate from Gabrielle's body just behind her. She decided to be careful with the next portion of the tale. "I mean just that. I befriended him. He often spent early evenings in my tent. He wasn't like those others. I actually found him quite well read and intelligent for the son of shepherds. Seemed he liked such things. We could discuss and argue about poetry, politics, philosophy, religions, just about anything that I could suggest. After being surrounded by scoundrels and ruffians, I actually found it great fun. And that flute of his! No one else played quite like that."
"You recognized his music tonight, didn't you? You knew it was him without even looking in his direction?"
"And you fell for him back then?" Those words were spoken very quietly.
"No." Xena had hoped that would end that portion of the night's revelation, but it did not.
"He fell for you?"
Xena turned over, facing Gabrielle. "Look, do you want to hear this, or not?"
Her eyes deflected slightly, suddenly embarrassed at her display of jealousy. "Sorry. Go on."
"Well, the other lieutenants assumed the same thing that you just did. It created some disaccord between them all. I kept having to quell arguments and such. When he once got beaten rather badly by one of the others, I knew that he would have to go."
"Is that when . . . ?"
"No. At about the same time, I became, ah, associated with a young Roman of some potential. Sionides attempted an assassination of him, but it went awry. He was betrayed by another lieutenant and the Romans were waiting for him. They were going to crucify him."
Gabrielle's mind was awhirl with the pace of the story, attempting to stay one step ahead of its unfolding. "So you sold him into slavery?"
"Yup. Seemed like the thing to do at the time. Made Caesar and my lieutenants happy and gave me some money."
Gabrielle considered what her friend had said and attempted to offer some solace to her ache. "Well, I'm sure that you did what you thought was proper at the time."
"I did what I thought was expedient at the time. Proper never entered my mind, I'm sure." Xena placed a hand over her mouth, stifling a huge yawn, and her eyelids flickered in an effort to stay open.
"Are you tired? Do you wish to sleep? Tell me the rest some other time, if you do."
Xena was quiet for a moment. Then, she turned and faced away from the hazel eyes which studied her in the dim light, but retained hold of the hand and draped the arm over her. "Thanks. Talking does help. I might try some sleep."
"'Night." Xena breathed deeply and Gabrielle could feel her friend's body relax a bit. She allowed her eyes to close as well, remembering nothing more until the morning birds awoke them.
For once, Gabrielle had risen before Xena. She dressed quietly and slipped from the room, intent on heading toward the stables to check on their horses. As she descended the stairs and entered the large inn's main room, she noted no one about. She found the back door and walked outside, squinting slightly in the pleasant morning sun. A voice greeted her. "Good morning,........ Gabrielle, isn't it? You must forgive me. I'm awful with names."
She looked up to see Sionides at the chopping block, finishing the stacking of some split firewood. "Yes, that's right."
He wiped his hands together and approached her. "You wish some breakfast? I feel sure that we can offer something."
"No thank you. Some water, perhaps?"
He gestured to the well nearby. "Just raised the bucket. There's a cup inside it."
She filled the cup and as she sipped, she studied the man as he finished his chores. He pulled the axe from the chopping block and leaned it against the edge of the wall by the back door. Hesitantly, she approached him and cleared her throat. "Um, Sionides, may I ask you something?"
He regarded her with what she perceived as a slight twinkle in his dark eyes. "Of course. Sit." He gestured to a wooden bench and she took a place on it, occasionally sipping the fresh, cool water. He wiped his face with a cloth and draping it over one shoulder, joined her at her seat. "To tell the truth, I've rather been expecting you to seek me out."
She cocked her head in question. "You have?"
"Oh, yes. I could see the question in your eyes. You've come to speak to me of Xena, haven't you?"
She couldn't help a slight laugh. "Xena was right. You are perceptive."
"Usually, it's my curse. Today it may be a blessing. Why don't you tell me what's on your mind?"
She regarded him for a moment. "You probably already know."
He smiled. "Tell me anyway. It helps to talk."
She sighed, then awkwardly offered out a thought. "I....something's wrong with Xena. I don't know where to begin."
"When did you first notice it?"
"Last evening, when you entered the main room to play your flute. By the way, you play wonderfully. Where did you learn that?"
"Thank you. I was a shepherd, as a lad. We often play instruments. Passes the long hours upon the hillsides and soothes the animals. But, back to Xena. Something's wrong. What, do you think?"
"She's . . . extremely distraught over something." Gabrielle looked at Sionides. "If I may say, I believe that it has something to do with you."
His eyes widened just a bit at that. "With me? No, I think not. Rather, it probably has to do with the memories that my unexpected appearance invoked in her own mind and heart."
Gabrielle leaned forward and looked at him intently. "What . . . memories?"
"Have you asked her?"
Her eyes fell. "Yes. She doesn't much want to tell me the whole story."
He rubbed his chin. "I suppose not. We don't like to offer our terrible secrets to those whom we love so dearly." Gabrielle blushed slightly. "I can feel the love between the two of you." He considered her questioning eyes for a moment, then continued. "She does not wish to disappoint you."
"She could never disappoint me. I know who she was and who she is now. Why is this so different? I have seen her ache in regret over her past brutality before, but not this badly. What can I do for her?"
Sionides sighed. "Her Way is that of the Warrior. To walk that path, she must be convinced that she represents what is right and good. She must see herself as truly noble. I fear that the sight of me has convinced her otherwise. She hurts because she now perceives herself as something that she finds evil."
"You know of the Way?" She looked at the eastern tattoo on his shoulder. "The Mendi. You've been to India, then?"
"Yes. Ah, circumstances took me there when I was younger. I spent a few years in study there in an ashram. I saw new worlds, learned things that would strike dumb the hearts of most people." His deep eyes studied her intently and she once again blushed slightly, feeling as if he were again reading her soul. He sat back and smiled. "I must apologize. I have a habit of doing that."
She leaned forward and peered at him attentively. His eyes met hers and did not flinch from the examination. Gabrielle thought that she could almost perceive another world within the dark pupils. Finally, she softly said, "You can read my soul, can't you?"
"My gift or my curse. I find it the latter with most people. Not with you, though."
"Sionides, is your way the Way of Love?"
He chuckled. "No. I'm not that strong or pure. I know of only one person who was able to walk that path."
"I see that you know him, as well."
"He tried to teach it to me. I...failed, I'm afraid."
"No. It was not your way. Yours is the Way of Friendship, as is mine. You exist as Xena's friend. You are all things to her that sustain her. Her conscience, her guide, her example of what is good and right. Her lover, her companion who would unselfishly sacrifice herself to her friend in a moment. You have truly learned that path and you walk it nobly."
"Sometimes I don't feel very noble. I have shameful memories as well."
"We all do. Right now, it is Xena's memories that undermine her."
Gabrielle nodded. "Tell me, what can we do? I hurt for her."
"Me too." He looked away, studying the distant hillsides silently for a couple of minutes. Gabrielle just sat, sipping her water and occasionally glancing up at him. Finally, he looked back at her and spoke. "I hunt today. Why don't the two of you accompany me?"
"Do you think that will help?"
He offered a twinkling expression toward Gabrielle. "Oh, I think it will be essential. I will wait upon you two." With that, he rose and walked to the barn. Before he disappeared inside, he looked back at the young woman. "No hurry. Let her sleep as much as she wants. We'll go whenever she is ready, eh?" Gabrielle just nodded. He smiled slightly in response, then turned and entered the barn. She sat still for a moment, considering what she had learned, then rose to awaken Xena.
The three odd companions trod the dusty road out of town, a donkey and small cart behind them. Not much conversation punctuated the walk, Xena being solemn and Gabrielle occasionally offering a touch or smile in effort to lighten her friend's mood. Sionides would sometimes speak briefly on some pleasant subject or cajole the donkey gently with a word or treat when it became willful. Finally, Xena spoke to Sionides as she watched him tend the sometimes recalcitrant beast.
"You seem to have a way with animals."
"It is all in the approach. They have simple hearts. They are easily assuaged, if one speaks to that." Xena said nothing, just continued the trek in silence until they entered the forests near the town. "Here. It will wait for us here." He left the donkey and cart just off the road near some grassy ground and brush. "We go alone from now on." He hefted the bows and arrow quivers from the back of the wagon and slung a water skin's strap over his shoulder. "That way. Good hunting here." The two women each slung a quiver across their backs and followed the slight man as he led them through the forest. They walked in single file, not speaking, for some time and stopped when he held a hand up. He slowly lifted an arrow from his quiver and notched it in his bow. Xena and Gabrielle did the same, then crept softly forward to stand near him. He pointed at some slight sound emanating from the thick brush and Xena could see a wild boar rooting and occasionally snorting.
Sionides turned his head to Xena and whispered, "Yours." At that, Xena nodded and raised the bow. She drew the weapon back and after a moment, her arrow flew and found its mark. The boar squealed and ran into the brush, the arrow protruding from its flank. Xena cursed slightly under her breath and Sionides laughed pleasantly. "Not bad, Xena. Now we pursue it. We will conquer it eventually. Gabrielle, your arrow will be next. Come, this way. We follow the blood trail. Spread out slightly."
The three fanned out in a line somewhat apart but still within sight of each other, and walked forward carefully. Sionides pointed to the telltale dabs of blood on the ground and looked over to Gabrielle, who nodded in understanding. It was unnecessary to do the same for Xena, as she had her eyes fixed upon the signs. She drew another arrow and notched it as they advanced carefully, slowly through the forest. After a bit, they again heard the sounds of rustling coming from brush ahead. They all three aimed their bows and approached slowly. Sionides whispered, "Gabrielle, shoot when you see it. I will flush it out." He crept around behind her and made his way in a circular, roundabout path to a place just behind the brush. In a moment, a sharp grunt and squeal resounded, and the boar charged out of the brush. Gabrielle loosed her arrow and it struck the animal in the chest. It fell momentarily, thrashing a bit on the forest floor, and then struggled to its feet and bounded into the forest at an angle away from the two women. Sionides emerged from the brush. "Nice shot. Now, the kill." They followed, Gabrielle notching another arrow. It wasn't too long before the signs of the blood trail took them to the boar, who was fiercely grunting and had turned to face them.
It was badly injured, but extremely angry and appeared still capable of fight. The three stood in a semicircle around it and Sionides raised his bow to make the kill. As he strained at the bow, aiming his arrow, it charged him. Gabrielle cried out a warning and Xena lifted the chakram from her waist, but Sionides did not move. He waited until the animal had commenced its charge before releasing his arrow. It found its mark; the beast dropped in its tracks and did not move. Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other with a relieved expression. Sionides simply lowered his bow and approached the animal. It lay, breathing heavily but not moving. He stood over it, reaching behind him to grasp the handle of the short, curved sword which was slung across his back upside down. A metallic click and a flick of the wrist brought the blade forth and with a swift motion, he swept it across the boar's neck. As he stood and returned the sword to its scabbard, he smiled at the two other hunters. "Not bad. That will offer some change to venison. My innkeeper friend will be quite pleased." They tied the feet together and hefted the carcass on a long, slender tree branch cut from nearby. As Sionides lifted one end, he motioned to the petite blonde. "Gabrielle, get the other end, if you would." She stepped forward to comply and they lifted the branch up and onto their shoulders, the dead animal swinging slightly between them. Xena nodded toward the boar, then directed her comment to Sionides.
"Good shot. I've a feeling that it would have been felled with one arrow instead of three, if you had gone first."
Sionides offered a pleasant laugh. "Where's the friendship in that? We were all three hunting today. Lead us out of here, will you, old friend?"
The three began their walk back to the wagon, Xena and Sionides in front, Gabrielle following with her end of the burden. For a bit, no sound was heard except the sound of the forest and the tread of their feet upon the ground's blanket of leaves. Finally, Xena looked over to Sionides.
"You always were a great shot. I never could best you in a contest, you know."
"That's just because you were having a bad day when you tried."
"I tried several times."
He shrugged. "You had a lot of bad days, back then."
She nodded. "Bad days came with the territory. They never seemed to affect you."
"You were the leader. You had no one to blame but yourself. Us, we could always pass the dinar to you if things went wrong or if we suffered a wound."
"You suffered many."
"And you always tended my wounds personally. Tell me, Xena, why did you do that?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "I knew a bit of healing."
He looked over to her and smiled knowingly. "We had a healer. It was more than that, I suspect."
"The healer was a drunken quack. He would have butchered you."
"He was good enough for the others, but not for me?"
Xena was quiet for a bit. When she finally answered, her voice was soft. "Not for you. I....you were different from the others. You deserved better."
"In other words, the fierce Xena had compassion for her lieutenant?" She said nothing in response. He continued, "You always were protective of me." He laughed brightly. "The ferocious Warrior Princess, feeling so toward her underling? How very uncharacteristic of the most fearsome warlord ever known. If I didn't know better, I would have said that you were tender." Xena just snorted. "So, what was it about me that rendered you so toward me? It couldn't have been that I was bigger than you."
Xena actually allowed herself to smile at the jest. "You weren't like the others. There was something in you that I found likeable. Your . . . wide-eyed innocence, your freshness."
"Xena, I'm surprised. Are you telling me that you found that quality admirable in me?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. Odd, isn't it?"
"Not at all. Is it not the same quality that you found so irresistible in Gabrielle?" Xena just stared at him as they walked along, her mouth slightly open. Sionides' eyes twinkled at her and he said, "Careful, Xena. You'll catch a fly." At that, she shut her mouth and blushed slightly. She looked back over her shoulder to her companion, who trudged along behind them, the end of the tree branch resting on her shoulder. Gabrielle just raised an eyebrow at her lover and smiled a quizzical, knowing little smile, as if to say, 'Right, isn't he?'. Xena looked back at Sionides and nodded.
"So we could say that you were attracted to goodness even then? Doesn't sound very much like an evil heart to me."
Xena placed a hand on Sionides' shoulder. "I was evil then." After a pause, she added, "Still am."
"Nah. You weren't evil. Just misguided. If you were evil, you wouldn't have been so attracted to the qualities that you perceived in me and Gabrielle. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you were always drawn to goodness. A moth to a candle, that was you."
"And you? What were you doing with us, anyway? You're right. You weren't like the others. What did you seek?"
"Adventure. I certainly got it with you."
Xena nodded. "I'll say." She pointed ahead, seemingly somewhat relieved that she could change the conversation. "The wagon." The trio placed their kill into the back of the small vehicle and led the donkey out and onto the road. Sionides gestured away from the town.
"This way. We go home by a different route."
The three walked, shoulder to shoulder, leading the cart and passing the water skin back and forth as their travels progressed toward the top of a slight rise. The morning was extremely pleasant and the sounds of nature's buzzing and chirping delighted Gabrielle. She commented upon it and her enthusiasm drew a smile from the enigmatic Xena. Gabrielle noticed the expression.
"It is lovely, isn't it, Xena? Come on, admit it now. You love it in spite of yourself."
"Yeah, it's nice. You always had a deeper feel for such things, though."
Gabrielle just cast exasperated eyes toward Sionides. "See what I deal with? I just keep trying to get her to lighten up a bit."
He laughed. "I have the notion that Xena can be extremely light-hearted when she's of a mind to be. I remember a woman who loved to put snakes in bedrolls. That fellow, what was his name? Draco. Yeah, that was it. He hated snakes. She pulled that one on him a couple of times."
Xena looked over. "I had forgotten about that. He thought you did it. Almost beat the crap out of you for it, too."
"He knew that you did it. He was afraid of you, though. He wasn't afraid of me."
Gabrielle's face twisted into an amused smile. "Draco, afraid of snakes? That's rich!"
"Oh, you've met him?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Oh, yes. I've met him."
Xena joined in. "So has Aphrodite. She cast a spell on him, making him fall for Gabrielle. He was a drooling lunatic for her affections. He sat around, mooning like a schoolboy, picking flowers and such."
Sionides snickered as he constructed a mental picture of the sight. "A fitting end to a swaggering bully. You see, Xena, there is justice in the world. We all get what we deserve in the end."
Her reply was quietly poignant. "I fear that is true."
Sionides and Gabrielle cast each other a glance at that, then allowed their eyes to travel to Xena. She walked, bow in hand, eyes squinted and straight ahead, her expression unreadable. Sionides pointed toward a spot off the road. "Here. We must stop here."
At his gesture, the two women stared toward a building just off the road. It was somewhat small but very neatly kept, and shaded by trees where it sat at the edge of the woods. Xena looked over to Sionides.
"A temple? Artemis, if I'm not mistaken."
He nodded agreement. "Correct. The goddess of the hunt. Come on." Xena was hesitant.
"I dunno. You know how I feel about the gods, Gabrielle."
She laid a hand on Xena's forearm, attempting to reassure her. "It's okay, love. It's Artemis, not Ares. After all, she is the goddess of the hunt, and we did have luck today."
With a grunt, Xena consented and the trio left their cart outside the door. Still bearing their weapons, they entered the coolness of the stone building. Oil lamps lit the interior and a small raised altar was evident on one side, its stonework covered with offerings. A priestess appeared from the back rooms, her expression beaming when she recognized Sionides.
"Ah, good to see you. You have brought friends?"
"Yes. Is this a bad time?"
"Not at all. I suspect that Artemis will be pleased to see you here. I will leave you alone. Call if you have need of me." Sionides nodded. As the priestess left the room, Xena looked over at him.
"What are we doing here?" She studied the man suspiciously, but his reply was silence. "What's this about?"
Gabrielle chided, "Xena! Be nice."
"Nice, my ass! Something's going on. Come on, Sionides, I can smell it!"
He held up a hand. "Have patience, Xena. It will be obvious to you very soon." Gabrielle listened to the exchange, then turned toward Sionides herself.
"What is this about?"
"Wait a bit. You will see." He approached the altar and removed an arrow from his quiver. He rested it on the stone and knelt, raising his arms toward the stone likeness of the goddess and closing his eyes. Xena crossed her arms in front of her and tapped her foot, eyeing the man with mistrust. After a few moments, she stopped and turned to look behind her. Gabrielle followed with her eyes and detected a fourth figure in the temple. She immediately suspected its identity, but Xena's voice confirmed it.
The goddess stepped out of the shadows and approached the two women. "Hello, Xena. It's been a while."
"I don't usually frequent temples."
The goddess smiled. "That's true." She looked over at Gabrielle. "One of my Chosen, an Amazon. Welcome."
Gabrielle nodded deferentially. As Sionides joined them, Artemis' gaze fell upon the slight man. "My favorite hunter. You have done well. As always, you have my gratitude."
Xena studied the goddess with suspicion. "What do you want with us? Come on, out with it!"
Artemis laughed. "That's Xena. So distrustful of the gods, aren't you?"
"Do you blame me?"
"I can't say that I do. Xena, how would you like to right a wrong?"
"What in Hades are you talking about?"
Artemis approached them. "You live to make right what is terribly wrong. I ask that now."
Xena narrowed her eyes toward the goddess. "I'm listening."
"It's an odd story, I'm afraid."
"I'm still listening."
Artemis' gaze fixed all three mortals. "Then know this. I seek the greatest champions of right in all Greece to rescue the remnant of my Chosen. They are in grave danger, I fear."
Gabrielle felt her breath catch. "The Amazons?"
"Yes, Gabrielle. The Amazons."
Xena was unconvinced. "You're a goddess. Why don't you just zap 'em, or something?"
Artemis look was pained. "Because the gods cannot do for mortals what they can do for themselves. You three have the power to right this wrong. Will you do it?" Her eyes flitted to each face in turn. Sionides spoke first.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena. She could see that her expression was one of indecision, of doubt. She laid a hand on Xena's arm looking up into her eyes questioningly. The tall warrior avoided her gaze. Gabrielle sighed, then spoke to Artemis.
"I'm in, as well." She looked back at Xena. "You don't have to do this, if you don't feel right about it."
Xena looked down at her friend and saw that her hazel eyes were imploring, searching. She turned to Artemis and asked softly, "May I have a moment with my friend?" Artemis nodded and motioned to Sionides. They left the main room, disappearing into the back halls. After they left, Xena faced Gabrielle and placed her hands upon the smaller blonde's shoulders. "Are you sure about this, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle nodded. "It's Artemis, Xena. It's about the Amazons. I feel that I have to do whatever I must." She added, "But if you don't feel right about this, I'll . . . understand."
"Will you? Will you, really?"
"I don't know. I'd like to think that I would. Xena, why are you so hesitant? I've never seen you balk at something like this before."
"I can't explain it. I have a feeling of dread about this. I.......don't know why."
Gabrielle placed her hands on the sides of Xena's face and looked deeply into the blue eyes. "Is it the mission, or is it the fact that you feel that you've fallen from your way?"
Xena's eyes widened. She attempted to avert her head, but Gabrielle's hands were firm. Their eyes locked again and Xena attempted a weak smile. "Gabrielle, I'm not noble. I'm ugly. The Way of the Warrior doesn't allow such doubt. I don't feel worthy of it, of the way. I'm not what you think I am."
"I know you better than you think. I know that you are noble. I know that you stand for what is right and good. Why do you think that I love you so? If you don't feel worthy, then make yourself worthy. Right this wrong with us. If you feel that you are ugly because of . . . whatever happened with him so long ago, then make it right with him. Stand by his side in a noble cause." They stood that way for some time, grasping each other by face and shoulders, looking and not speaking. Finally, Xena just leaned down and kissed Gabrielle, a kiss which seemed to them to last minutes. When they parted, Xena smiled.
"So when do we start?"
"Huh? Start what?"
"The mission, Gab. Get hold of yourself."
"Oh. That. Now, I guess. Let's talk to Artemis." They walked toward the back hallway, arm in arm. As they did, Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "Love?"
"Has anyone ever told you that you're a terrific kisser?"
Xena smiled. "You just did."
"No one else?"
Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's waist. "I've never loved anyone else enough to kiss them like that."
Gabrielle nodded. "Good answer, Warrior Princess."
"It's the truth, honestly."
They both looked up when Artemis' voice addressed them. "I feel assured that we will have a good answer, as well."
Xena stood before Artemis, a proud stance. "I stand ready. What needs to be done?"
Artemis beamed. "It's like this . . . "
Xena, Gabrielle and Sionides sat astride their horses atop a grassy hill breaking the forest's shady canopy. They peered down into the slight valley, studying the Amazon village in the distance. No one spoke for several moments; all squinted against the sun, shielding their faces with their hands and assessing the uncharacteristic quiet of the panorama before them. Finally, Xena began thinking aloud to her two companions.
"Not a movement. Not a sound, except for the animals. No sentries. No challenge to us, when we entered their lands. It's just as Artemis described."
Gabrielle concurred, and motioned down to the village. "Shall we?"
Xena nudged her horse forward. "No time like now. Watch yourselves." She led the trio, the other two falling into single file behind her, and all keeping some distance between each other. As they slowly rode down toward the village, they kept their eyes in constant motion, scanning the patches of woodland and brush for a sign of anything which would herald danger or warning. Nothing was evident. The woods sounded pleasant enough, the sounds of insect and birds offering a pleasant music in sharp contrast to the eerie quiet of the Amazon dwellings ahead.
As they rode into the village itself, they were silent. Xena stopped her horse just inside the perimeter of the village and dismounted. She slowly paced forward, leaving the horse next to the well. It leaned its head down over the shallow stone rim and began to drink. Sionides and Gabrielle dismounted as well, and took their places on either side of the warrior. The three of them walked slowly through the street between the huts, heads constantly moving, eyes roving, but saw no signs of human life. Finally, Xena placed her hands on her hips. "Nothing."
Sionides agreed. "No sign of struggle here. No chaos, no disorder, no bodies. It's as if they went on picnic."
Gabrielle pointed toward a hut which was somewhat larger than the others. "That must be the common hut. Let's try there." They approached the building, and Xena nudged the door open with her foot, her sword drawn. It creaked open and thumped as it hit the wall. She entered cautiously, her eyes blinking a time or two in adjustment to the dimmer light inside. Sionides and Gabrielle slipped inside behind her, and they walked between stools arranged in a large semicircle. The fire pit in the center of the room, just underneath the smoke vent in the center of the sloping roof, was out. Xena scraped the tip of her sword through the ashes, and grunted.
"Fire's been out for some time."
Gabrielle looked about the room. "Xena, their ceremonial and fighting masks are still on the walls. They wouldn't have left them behind if they were away at war. Look." She pointed to the javelins and fighting staffs lined against one wall. "Weapons and shields are here. This just doesn't make sense."
Sionides was standing at a table in one corner of the large common room. "Food out. Wine cups still half full, some of them. Personal items all over. It's as if they suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth." At his comment, Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. Their eyes met, and both pairs of eyes flashed with an identical thought. Gabrielle spoke first.
"The God of War?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "My first suspicion exactly. Let's look around some more. There might be something here that offers us some idea of what happened and where they went."
Sionides approached some shelves and ran a finger over the layers of papyrus scrolls arranged in neat rows. "What's this? Library?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Amazons are very serious about their own traditions and history. They keep detailed records. They have a complex law code as well, all written down for future generations."
Sionides picked up a scroll and opened it. "Oh, that's right. Artemis said that you were an Amazon, Gabrielle."
Xena chuckled. "An Amazon queen, to be exact."
Gabrielle eyed Xena. "Glad you find that amusing, Xena."
She shrugged. "Sorry, love. I just can't help but remember the time they had you painted colors and howling like a wolf at the full moon."
Sionides grinned as he scanned the scroll. "I would have loved to have seen that. I've run into Amazons before, during my travels. Seemed a good bunch, once they got past their burning distrust of my being a man."
Xena nodded, adding, "They don't quite trust me either, sometimes. They're a very tight society." She sheathed her sword and strode to the door. "Let's check out some of these huts. Got to be something here to give us a hint of what happened. Meet you back here in a bit?" The other two nodded, and Xena walked out and into the street. Sionides turned to Gabrielle, still reading the scroll.
"Here's a scroll about Xena. It seems to chronicle her travels in Thessaly."
Gabrielle's head jerked around. "What? Let me see that." She reached out for the scroll, and Sionides placed it in her hand with a quizzical look. She perused the writing, and then smiled. "One of mine."
"You wrote that?"
"Yeah. I used to be quite a bard." She looked over at Sionides. "I remember this one. Wrote it by the campfire, as Xena and I rested in the evenings. She would sharpen her sword, and I would scribble away." She smiled as the nostalgia of the image forming in her memory tugged at her.
He pointed at the top of the scroll. "There's a hunk missing there." She had noted the missing portion, and the memory flashed through her mind: a much younger Gabrielle, standing in the path and staring incredulously at the warrior as she emerged from the bushes. She could almost hear the voices ringing inside her head.
"Xena, you . . . used . . . my scroll?"
"Well, there were no good leaves on that bush. I used a piece that didn't have much writing on it!"
"You . . . USED . . . MY SCROLL?"
Gabrielle rolled the scroll up and handed it back to Sionides. "Trust me. You don't want to know."
Sionides studied her intently for a moment, and then offered an amused smile as he returned the scroll to its place on the shelf. "If you say so. Why do I have an odd feeling that Xena was at the bottom of that?"
"More like, it was at Xena's bottom," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Nothing. Let's go and search the other huts, shall we?" They turned toward the door and strode out into the sun. Gabrielle pointed down the street. "I'll go that way. Why don't you go down there?" He nodded, and they parted company, heading in opposite directions.
For some time, the three searched through the village. Each hut into which one poked his or her nose revealed the same scene: tranquility, fires' ashes cold, personal effects and weapons untouched, sometimes food out and half-consumed. The only thing out of the ordinary was that there was not one Amazon to be found anywhere.
When Gabrielle returned to the common hut, she saw that their horses had been tethered outside. She entered to see Xena sitting at the table and Sionides poking through the scrolls at the library shelves.
Xena looked up. "Oh hey, Gab. Did you find anything of interest?" She shook her head. "Neither did I. Horses are even in the corral at the end of the village. Just no Amazons."
"Xena, this doesn't make sense. Where could they have gone? What could have happened to a whole tribe?"
"A whole nation, Gabrielle. Artemis said that this was all that remained of the remnants of the Amazon nation."
Sionides stood, and approached the table. "Gabrielle, are there Amazons outside of Greece?"
"Yeah. Northern Amazons. They reside outside Artemis' domain, as she is a Greek goddess."
"So she wouldn't be, ah, involved with those?"
"Not until they enter Greece. Then, they are under her protection." Gabrielle and Xena both raised an eyebrow toward the small man. Xena spoke next.
"What's on your mind, Sionides?"
He sat at the table. "Just trying to understand Amazonia. Are the northern Amazons a large nation?"
Xena crunched into an apple. "Nah," she said, around a mouthful. "Small, scattered bands. Been there."
"So as far as the Greek gods are concerned, this is all of Amazonia?"
"Yeah." Xena stopped in mid-chew, and looked over at Sionides. "You suspect a god, as well?"
"Well, you must admit that this smacks of something outside of the normal realm of human experience. No tracks, no struggle, everything left in order. It's as if they all just vanished. People don't do that."
Xena nodded. "I saw no tracks leading out of the village, either. Of course, Amazons are adept hunters. They don't leave lots of tracks."
Gabrielle poured herself a bit of wine. "They weren't captured and taken away. No sign of a fight."
Sionides nodded. "They're brutal warriors. They wouldn't have been taken without one very violent struggle. We would have found blood and bodies everywhere. No, we're dealing with something beyond mortals here." He looked over at Gabrielle. "They are the favored of Artemis?"
"Yes. They enjoy her protection."
He directed his next question to Xena. "Old friend, you probably know the gods as well as anyone. Does Artemis have any particular enemies among her fellow gods? One that would effect something like this in order to take revenge on her or coerce her in some way?"
Xena shrugged as she chewed another bite of the apple. "The gods fight like cats and dogs. They're always into intrigues against each other. They're worse than siblings."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "They are siblings."
Xena threw the apple core out the door and into the street. "Comes of all that inbreeding." She studied her two friends for a moment. "Why don't we just ask them? Sionides, you're buddies with Artemis. There's got to be a temple to her in this village. Maybe she can tell us something more." Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Aphrodite seems sweet on you. There's a temple of hers near the next city to the north. We'll pay her a visit." Xena then stood, and headed toward the door.
"What about you, Xena?"
"Me?" Xena cracked a lopsided grin. "I think I'll have a little chat with the God of War."
Sionides rubbed his chin. "Will he appear if you call him?"
She stopped at the door and looked back over her shoulder. "Sure. He's hot for me, y'know."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Don't remind me, Xena." She softened her expression and added, "Be careful, will you?"
Xena offered Gabrielle her most engaging smile. "Don't worry, love. You know me. I'm the essence of caution and diplomacy." She then disappeared out the door.
Sionides rose. "I saw the temple at the end of the street. Care to join me?"
"I wouldn't be intruding?"
"No. You're an Amazon. She favors you. Besides, it will keep your mind off Xena and Ares."
Gabrielle blushed slightly. "Was it that obvious?"
Sionides laughed. "I could feel the horns growing out of your head from across the room. You are capable of great jealousy. Only natural. It comes with the territory."
"I suppose so. I don't trust Ares."
"More likely, it's the two of them together that you don't trust."
She blushed again, and offered, "They do have a history of sorts, you know."
Sionides did not reply. Gabrielle was silent for a bit, as they left the common hut and walked down the street. Finally, she glanced over at the man as they walked together. He allowed a bright twinkle to flash from his eyes and simply said, "Go ahead. Ask me."
"I beg your pardon?" Gabrielle assumed a cautious look.
"You're dying to ask me. Go ahead. It's all right."
"It's absolutely unnerving how you can do that, you know. Okay. Do you and Xena have . . . a history, as well?"
He stopped and faced Gabrielle. She eyed him uncomfortably, wishing she hadn't given in to her curiosity and voiced the question. As she opened her mouth to speak, he raised a finger to silence her protest. "Gabrielle, that was a long time ago. Different times, different Xena. She is devoted to you. I can feel it. You have nothing to fear from me."
She lowered her eyes to her feet, embarrassed, and scratched her head. Then, looking back up, she said, "Fair enough. Thank you." He nodded in satisfaction and clapped her on the back, a friendly little slap, and they resumed their walk toward Artemis' temple.
The meeting with Artemis had been largely unproductive. The goddess had appeared promptly in response to their supplications but was unable to offer any insight into the current scheming and arguing on Mount Olympus which might suggest a culprit or motive for seemingly erasing an entire nation of Amazons. At the suggestion that Ares might be behind the mystery, she seemed truly puzzled and denied any recent conflict with him. That left Sionides and Gabrielle scratching their heads in wonder as they trod back to the common hut.
On the way, they heard Xena's call. She stepped out from between two huts and joined the pair as they made their way down the dusty, deserted street. "Any luck with Artemis?"
Gabrielle answered for them both. "No, Xena. She has no idea who would do this. How about Ares?"
Xena shrugged. "Oh, you know him. Can't get a straight answer out of him. I believe he's not behind this, though. He seemed genuinely surprised at the situation. Gleeful, but surprised. I think I piqued his curiosity, though. He'll probably go back to Olympus and nose around, seeing if he can use this turn of events to manipulate some mischief. I'll try him again later."
Gabrielle scowled a bit. "Watch him, Xena. He always wants something from you. Tell me, did he proposition you again?"
Xena laughed. "He always propositions me. You know that. I always say no. By Zeus, you'd think that he'd get the message already."
"You just keep on saying no, Xena."
Xena laughed brightly and swept out an arm to hug Gabrielle close to her side as they walked. "Yes, mommy."
Sionides chuckled aloud. "Watch it, Gabrielle. Your horns are showing again." She said nothing, just blushed slightly and slapped him on the arm. Xena watched the exchange from the corner of her eye, and squeezed Gabrielle in a bit tighter to her side. They rounded the corner of the street, and were once again in front of the common hut. Xena took command.
"Off to Aphrodite, I suppose. The temple is not far. We can speak with her and be back well before dusk. Let's stay here tonight, and keep poking around. Something's got to come up."
The trio of warriors dismounted at the door of Aphrodite's temple. They approached the building slowly, quiet until Sionides broke the silence. "I've never been in Aphrodite's presence before. Tell me, is there anything.......... special that I should know of her before I meet her?"
Xena and Gabrielle just exchanged glances, and shared a mutual grin. Xena spoke for them both. "Just keep your eyes in your head, Sionides."
"That good-looking, eh?"
The two women answered in unison, "Oh, yeah."
"Well. Ahem. In we go." He swung the door open, and stood aside. Xena and Gabrielle entered, Sionides trailing them and studying the interior of the building as they walked into the gaudy temple, their footsteps echoing across the stone floor. They stopped in the center of the floor, and Gabrielle called out. "Aphrodite?" She waited a bit, and repeated her call. "Aphrodite?"
A flash of light followed by a delighted squeal lit the corner of the temple. "Oooh, it's my favorite bard-cutie and her big, bad warrior-babe! Howzit goin', you two lovebirds?" The three travelers turned to face the voice greeting them from the dimmer recesses of the temple. Xena just folded her arms across her chest, but Gabrielle smiled and allowed a hug from the goddess.
"Thanks for coming to us."
Aphrodite waved her hand. "Anything for my favorite two kick-ass girls." She eyed Sionides. "Well. I must say that putting on some mortal years has done wonders for you, ah..... Joxstrap, isn't it?"
Gabrielle coughed, and suppressed a grin. "Joxer no longer travels with us much." She offered an introduction. "Sionides, meet Aphrodite, goddess of . . . "
"Goddess of va-va-voom!" Aphrodite finished the introduction herself with a shake and a flourish, and then winked at Xena and Gabrielle. "I see that your taste in guy traveling companions has changed considerably. Oh, yeah!"
Sionides grinned widely and bowed his head for a moment to hide his mirth. He then fixed his eyes upon Aphrodite, gave a polite, deferential bow, and spoke. "I'll take that as a compliment. Honored, Goddess." His eyes absolutely sparkled at the unrestrained immortal, and he finished, "Quite honored, indeed. You are even more ravishing that I had anticipated."
Aphrodite approached him, and shook a finger in his direction. "Manners, too. This one's housebroken. Unlike most men." She held a hand to one side of her mouth, and directed a loud stage whisper toward Xena and Gabrielle. "He flirts wonderfully. I like him, even if he is short." Her hand demurely covered her mouth, and her eyes went to Gabrielle. "Sorry, Gabrielle."
Xena snickered, and Gabrielle just smiled painfully. "That's okay. I get a lot of 'short' jokes from Xena."
The goddess perched on the edge of a stone bench and crossed one incredibly perfect leg over the other. "Now, how can I help you two girls?" She clucked her tongue, and squinted her eyes at the two women. "You two having marriage troubles? Need advice? Things getting boring in the loooove department, if you know what I mean? Well, you've come to the right place. Just tell Auntie Aphrodite all about it!" She offered a raised eyebrow, and waited expectantly.
Gabrielle elbowed a grinning Xena in the ribs and whispered out of the side of her mouth, "Well, now that she mentions it...."
Xena's grin collapsed into a look of confused shock, and she parried the comment with an indignant one of her own. "What?? I haven't heard you complaining lately!"
Gabrielle placed a hand on the side of her face, attempting to speak secretively. "Well, you do have that little, um, weirdness . . . "
Xena was dumbfounded. "Me? How about you, little Miss 'I'm-not-as-innocent-as-I-look'?"
Sionides cleared his throat. "Ahem, do I need to wait outside?" He turned and started toward the door, but Xena reached out a long arm and snagged him by the back of his tunic.
"Oh, no ya don't. I'll be outnumbered in here for sure." She glowered down at Gabrielle, who answered with an innocent bat of her eyelashes. As Xena dragged a recalcitrant Sionides back into the group, she turned to Aphrodite. "Actually, we need your help on something else."
Aphrodite eyed the three curiously, and then her eyebrows shot up toward her hairline. "Not all three of you? Kinky, warrior-babes! I got some good advice for ya!"
Xena sputtered several times, and turned scarlet. "No, not that. We don't have any problems with that! I mean, we're not doing that. I mean........" Sionides' amused glance took in Xena from within the confines of his tunic neckline, upon which she still had an iron grasp and by which she almost held him up from the floor. Gabrielle took one look at her exasperated, speechless mate and collapsed in mirth, staggering over toward Aphrodite and plunking herself down upon the stone bench next to the goddess, rocking in laughter and wiping her eyes. Aphrodite herself just sat unperturbed, smiling sweetly and nodding. Finally, Gabrielle composed herself enough to speak.
"Um, why don't you two wait outside, and let Aphrodite and I speak privately?" Xena nodded, still nonplused, and turned on her heels. She marched toward the temple door, Sionides still in her grasp and being dragged along by the scruff of his tunic's neck like a naughty schoolboy. She stopped at the doorjamb, whirled about, and simply pulled herself to her full height with as much dignity as she could muster.
"I do not have a. . . . weirdness!" She then disappeared through the doors, pulling the diminutive hunter with her. Gabrielle and Aphrodite sat for a moment, and then each held up a hand and slapped their palms together, grinning evilly. When they had shared their mischievous moment to its full delight, Gabrielle grew more serious.
"Aphrodite? We are on a mission of great import, and need your insight."
"Sweet pea, if I can help my favorite bard, I will. What can I do?"
Outside, Sionides reclined on the steps of the temple, eyes closed, and basked in the sun. Xena paced back and forth like a tiger in a cage. After what seemed an endless interlude, Sionides spoke, not opening his eyes. "Xena, if you pace any more, you'll wear a hole straight through to Tartarus. Relax."
Xena stopped pacing, and reluctantly allowed a lopsided grin to break through. "Right. Wouldn't want to do that. Been there."
"Sit down. Enjoy the sun. Let Gabrielle do what she does best."
Xena sat down on the steps next to Sionides. "You mean talk?"
"Yeah. She's really quite insightful. She'll discover what we need to know."
"She is great, isn't she? Sometimes I don't give her enough credit."
Sionides opened an eye and fixed it on Xena. "An admission of a shortcoming from the Warrior Princess? You have come a long way, Xena. You have finally learned to let your fantastic humanity shine through."
"Anything good you see in me, Gabrielle did it."
"It was always there. She just made it blossom."
There was a strained silence from Xena, and then she placed a hand gently on Sionides' arm. "There's something else I've been meaning to say to you. Look, about what happened so long ago . . . " Her voice became soft, hoarse. "I'm just so sorry for all of it."
Sionides looked over at her. "I know you ache for it, Xena. Don't. It was the greatest favor you ever did for me."
Xena's jaw dropped. "How in Hades can that be? I........sold you into slavery. How is that a favor?"
"You were just hard in those days. Didn't allow yourself to care for anyone or anything except your own ambition. When you felt yourself getting attached to me, you got rid of me. Saw it as softness, a trait undesirable in a warlord."
"But . . . slavery?"
"An alternative to killing me, which is what the Romans wanted to do. You knew that I wouldn't stay in captivity very long. You even made sure of it by slipping me that dagger. By that act, you delivered me from the life of a mercenary and got me to India. The two best things that ever happened to me, they were. You did that for me. Thank you, old friend."
Xena studied him for a long moment. She could feel herself almost light-headed as a millstone burden seemed to evaporate from her soul, a burden which she had borne for so long that it seemed a perpetual part of her. Wiping at an eye, she blinked a few times, then extended her arm. He reached up to clasp it, warrior to warrior, friend to friend. "No. Thank you."
Sionides fixed his deep, black eyes on her. "Honored. It is the Way of Friendship."
A voice cleared its throat behind them, and they looked around to see Gabrielle standing in the doorway. "I, ah . . . have had a most productive chat with Aphrodite. Let's get back to the village. I'll tell you about it on the way."
They rode three abreast through the tall summer grasses, allowing their mounts an easy canter. After a bit, Xena looked over to Gabrielle. "So, tell me about it."
"You're right, Xena. Ares is not behind this. Artemis is stumped, as well."
"Yeah. Productive, all right."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena. "She gave me a thumbnail sketch of the immortal realms, Xena. It seems that the Greek gods that we all know and love to distrust are not the only immortals in existence. Each civilization has its own. Some are more powerful than others. They have always respected each others' territories, though."
"She doesn't think that is the case. She suspects another realm of powers."
Xena was puzzled. "I'm not sure that I'm following you."
Sionides spoke. "The Dark Arts, Xena. A realm in between purely mortal and totally immortal. A realm within the grasp of mortals who thirst for power and are willing to sell their humanity for it."
Gabrielle nodded. "We've seen a taste of that, Xena."
A cold chill ran down Xena's spine. "Alti? I thought that we contained her."
Gabrielle continued, "She's an example. It may not be her."
"Well, it's someone like her, then. Great. What's this got to do with the Amazons?"
"She doesn't know."
Xena was becoming irritated. "Well, what does she know?"
"She knows where the Amazons are."
They reined their horses to a stop on a hilltop overlooking the Amazon village. Xena gazed down at the dwellings for a moment, and then turned toward her friend. "So tell me."
Gabrielle pointed down to the village. "They're still there."
Xena poked at the fire in the center of the common hut, its crackling roar brightening just a bit. Gabrielle sat down next to her and offered her a mug of wine. She accepted it absentmindedly, still staring at the fire. Sionides came in from the dusk and closed the door. He walked past the stools, and joined the two. "Horses are fed."
"Thanks." Xena looked over at Gabrielle and shook her head. "I just don't get it. They're here, but they're not here. Are you sure that you trust her, Gabrielle? I always thought that she was a bit nutty, if you ask me."
"She is the goddess of love. The Amazons are distrustful of outsiders, but among themselves they form deep bonds of friendship and romantic love. She focused on that, and could feel them here. Their love is here, Xena. They are here."
"I dunno. Still seems weak."
Sionides, who had been listening quietly, spoke now. "Not weak at all." The two women looked across the fire at him, and both were brought up short by his expression. His eyes, normally piercing enough, seemed to reflect the fire's intensity and offer an energy of their own. "I could feel a vague uneasiness in the village this afternoon. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something, someone, some energy was permeating the very ground we tread, it seemed. As night falls, it seems to me to become more apparent."
Xena just eyed him skeptically, but Gabrielle leaned forward. "Can you feel them here, Sionides?"
He nodded. "Someone's here. All about us, right now. I can feel the life pulsing in the room." The three cast uneasy glances about the large dwelling. The shadows of the central fire cast deep, flickering shadows on the walls. Gabrielle swallowed uneasily as she noticed the ceremonial and war masks on the walls. Their hollow eyes seemed to sparkle with their own life. She pulled a blanket about her shoulders and clutched it at her neck.
"Is it the Amazons?"
He closed his eyes and tilted his head slightly back, concentrating. "Question. Fear. Confusion. Great passion. Not the type of emotions I would associate with evil. It's the Amazons, I'll wager."
Xena leaned forward and rested her forearms on her knees. Her eyes narrowed at the man, and she regarded him with earnest seriousness. "Sionides, you can actually feel that?"
He looked down into the fire for a few silent moments, and then back up at Xena. "When I was in India, I didn't remain a slave for very long. I escaped quickly and took refuge, half-starving, in an ashram. I remained there for a few years, immersing myself in an intense study and discipline of mystic arts. I learned to force into blossom many talents which just lay dormant in most people, talents of which most Greeks have no grasp. Talents which are suppressed in the physical realm, because we don't usually look beyond what our five senses discern. I did, and found worlds that would strike blind and dumb the average person." He fell silent for a moment, and then continued. "I was lucky. I survived the journey. Some did not." A long silence followed, and then Sionides rose. "You two try to get some sleep. I need total concentration for what comes next."
Xena stood and grasped his arm. "What are you going to do?" She looked at his face and was slightly taken aback at his burning eyes.
"I journey tonight. Where I go, you can't follow. I will return before first light." He placed a reassuring hand on her arm. "Don't worry. I will be back. Just keep Gabrielle in your sight at all times."
"Gabrielle?" Xena looked down at her companion, and then back at Sionides. "Is she in danger?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. She is Amazon, and she is in this village. Just take care, old friend." With that, he picked up his blanket and walked to the door. "I'll use the hut just across the way. You know the one. Sleep now. I will return." He slipped through the door and closed it behind him. Xena stood still for a moment, considering his words, and then looked down at her friend. Gabrielle sat still, her blanket clutched about her body, her face peering up at Xena with a questioning look. She seemed pale and small suddenly, a reflection of that farm girl that Xena had first welcomed to her campfire so many years before. She leaned down and kissed Gabrielle softly on the forehead.
"Don't worry, love. I won't let anything happen to you. I'd die first."
Gabrielle stood, the blanket still around her. "I know. Let's get some sleep, Xena."
They arranged their bedding by the fire and lay down together, their heads on their extra blankets. As they pulled a blanket over them, Xena wrapped her arms around her friend. She could feel the body wiggle closer to her and shiver slightly. Xena responded with a squeeze and soft words. "I'm here."
Gabrielle's head nodded slightly. "Just keep holding me, Xena. I don't feel good about all this."
"I'll protect you."
"You always do. You are my courage, Xena. You are my way, my path."
"And you illumine that path for me. I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you too, Xena. Promise me something."
"Promise me that you won't just run berserk if . . . something happens to me. Promise that you will be guided by Sionides."
"Nothing's going to happen. Go to sleep now."
"'Kay." Gabrielle allowed herself a long, ragged sigh, and settled in against Xena, who lay behind her and enveloped her in her arms. She could feel the smaller woman's lips on her hand, a soft kiss. "'Night."
"'Night." Soon, Gabrielle's breathing became shallower and more even, indicating that she was in a slumber. Xena, however, could not close her eyes. She watched the flicker of the fire and her mind raced with a million memories and thoughts. For what seemed an eternity to her, she lay still but could not find the sleep which she craved. Finally the soft, pleasant scent of Gabrielle's hair lulled her into a slower pace of thought and her eyes flickered, then shut.
In the early dawn, Xena awoke. As she groped for a conscious state, she became vaguely aware that something was not quite in order. A thrill of alarm ran through her and her eyes popped open, instantly awake. She sat up and noticed that Gabrielle was not with her. Fear gripped her chest so tightly she could not breathe for a moment. Then she found her voice. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle?"
No answer. Xena looked down and saw Gabrielle's two sai lying on the wooden floor next to the bedding. She flung the blanket back and was on her feet in an instant, her sword and chakram in hand. Fighting down the sick feel of panic, she strode to the door and flung it open. She looked up and down the street, gray in the early dawn's light. There was no sign of motion. She took a step out and called, "Gabrielle?" No answer. Louder, she called again. "Gabrielle?"
Still no answer. Xena felt a wave of terror grip her chest, taking her breath. She shook her head to dissipate it, and then focused her eyes on the hut across the street. "Sionides!"
The door opened and he emerged, a blanket still around his shoulders. They met in the center of the street. As she looked at his face, she saw that he was somewhat haggard of expression, and his eyes puffed from weariness. He studied her for an instant and then asked, "She's gone?"
Xena looked away. "Yeah."
"I told you to watch her."
"I did. She slept in my arms. When I awoke, she . . . "
"Her weapons are here?"
Xena looked back at him. "Yes."
"It is as I feared, then."
"What? Just what did you fear? Do you know where she went? Do you know who is responsible for this?" She reached out and gripped the front of Sionides' tunic. "Where is she?"
Sionides just looked at Xena. "Can't you feel her presence?"
Xena's grip on Sionides' tunic relaxed, and she felt her eyes water. She turned her head to look away, and softly whispered, "No."
"Try. Relax, and try. I'll get our things. We have no time to waste."
"Is she.........all right?"
"For the time being. The one responsible for all this doesn't want to kill any Amazons..... yet, that is."
Xena's expression became hard. "Who is responsible for this?"
Sionides laid a hand on her forearm. "I'm not sure exactly who, but I know where." He pointed to some nearby hills. "There. They have to be close." He led her by her arm back into the common hut. "Gather your things. Bring Gabrielle's weapons. We go to free them all right now."
Xena waved a hand in the air. "Look, enough. Just talk to me. What's going on here?"
Sionides considered Xena for a moment, and relented. "Right. Here's the situation. Someone versed in the Dark Arts has constructed a......chamber, if you will, in between realms. They imprison the Amazons there."
"I thought they were here."
"They are. Here is there, and there is here. It's hard to explain."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Try."
Sionides sighed. "Okay. There are many realms of reality, Xena. The physical world in which we travel is only one of them. They intertwine, and lay one atop another much like......... layers of water cold upon hot, which touch, but remain separate entities. Someone has meddled with that, and effected a.............chamber, for lack of better description, which imprisons the Amazons. The Amazons are all around us, but separate from us. It takes considerable energy to do that. Distance makes it more difficult, so I suspected that the author of all this is very close by. That's where I searched for him."
"And you found him?"
"I found him. We stop him, and we free the Amazons."
"And where does Gabrielle fit into all of this?"
"I told you. She's Amazon, and she was in this village. The Dark Arts are often more powerful at night. That's why I told you to keep her in sight. He must have perceived her here, and taken her."
"Can you feel her?"
"No, but you can. Look. The one constant in all these realms is love. It can penetrate the boundaries of all the realms. You and she......share a common soul. Use that to track her, Xena. Concentrate. Try."
Gabrielle stirred uneasily, her eyes still closed. She felt for the familiar arms which were always around her, but when she could not detect them, she opened her eyes. She sat up and attempted to rub the mist from them, but to no avail. The mist remained. She shook her head to chase away the remains of sleep, and looked around her. "Xena?"
"Who are you?"
The voice within the mist was not familiar to Gabrielle. She peered into the mist, and replied, "That depends. Who are you?"
A young woman slowly stepped out of the mists, and approached her. She was dressed in Amazon garb, but bore no weapons. Even the dagger so ever-present on Amazons was missing. "Are you Amazon?"
"Yes. My name is Gabrielle."
"The queen of legend? Queen Gabrielle? We know of your stories. Are you dead as well?"
Gabrielle cocked her head quizzically. "Dead?" Her mind flashed back to Sionides' warning of the evening before, and a sudden understanding of her situation hit her like a hammer.
The young Amazon looked around her. "Isn't that what's happened to us?"
"Us? There are others of you? Take me to them." Gabrielle stood, and wavered slightly. Her knees almost buckled, and she felt extremely weary. The young Amazon reached out to support her. "What's wrong with me?"
"We're all like that, so tired. We have hardly enough strength to walk." They leaned against each other as the young woman guided Gabrielle into the mist. "Is it because we're dead?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth as she took the arm of the young Amazon over her shoulders, helping to bear her weight. "We're not dead. It's a long story. Show me the others."
"This way, I think." The young woman pointed, and they struggled into the mists, stopping several times to rest. Very shortly they passed under an arch and entered what appeared to be a large stone room. The mists were slightly less within the walls, and Gabrielle took in her breath at the sight which met her. There, in front of her, sitting or lying in groups, were the remnants of the Amazon nation. They aroused themselves as the two women entered their midst, and began slowly gathering around the pair. Questioning voices assailed Gabrielle's ears.
"Who are you?"
"Do you know where we are?"
"What's happened to us?"
Gabrielle and the young Amazon collapsed to the floor, surrounded by pale, weary faces. The young Amazon looked up and around at her companions and said, "This is Queen Gabrielle."
At those words, the assembled Amazons dropped slowly, awkwardly to one knee and offered her a show of deference. Gabrielle shook her head and spoke as loudly as she could. "No time for formalities. Talk to me. Tell me what happened to all of you."
"Are you here to lead us out?" The question came from the young Amazon.
"If I can. Now talk to me."
One of the other Amazons spoke, her voice sounding small in the eerie mist. "We found ourselves here upon waking one morning. We thought ourselves dead at first, but now we have doubts. Do you know where we are?"
"Yes and no. We're not dead, I know that much. I found your village. There are no bodies, no evidence of any Amazons within it. I suspect sorcery of some sort."
"Sorcery? Who would do such a thing? Why?"
"I intend to find out." A pleading voice began whispering in her head, her chest, and she gasped as it spoke.
'Gabrielle? Are you here?'
'Listen to me. I'm coming for you. Hang on, love. I will find you.'
She looked around at the questioning faces. "Xena, I can't see you, but I can feel you. We're all here . . . wherever here is."
'No time to explain. Just believe in me. I'll find you.'
"Xena, hurry. We're all so weary, so tired."
'Weary? Look, just hold on. We'll free you. Just keep thinking of me so I can track you.'
"I will, Xena. I love you."
'I love you, too.'
A wave of heat suddenly washed over Gabrielle. As the Amazons watched, she fell backwards, her body jerking a bit, and then disappeared from their sight in a shimmering flash.
Xena and Sionides cautiously tread a narrow footpath up the side of a hill overlooking the Amazon village. As they approached the top of the hill, she held up a hand and stopped. Sionides froze in his tracks, just behind her. Xena knelt, and Sionides followed her example. She turned around very slowly; her eyes flashed as she held up two fingers and then pointed ahead. He indicated understanding, tapped himself on the chest, and pointed off to their left. Xena nodded and Sionides slung his bow over one shoulder. Grasping onto handfuls of damp grass, he pulled himself up the hillside and disappeared from sight. Xena waited for a short time and then crept forward until she could peer around the side of the hill. A stone's throw away, two men in light leather armor stood at the entrance to a cave in the hillside. She kept her eyes fixed upon them silently as her hand grasped the chakram by her side and lifted it from the hook on her waist. To herself, she muttered, "Come on, Sionides. Where are you?"
Her question was answered by a whiz-thump of an arrow impaling itself into the chest of one of the two men. As he fell backwards against the side of the cave entrance and slid to the dirt, Xena stepped out on the path and flung the weapon. It caught the other man before he could utter an alarm, and severed his head from his torso. As the head rolled off the man's shoulders, his legs buckled and he collapsed at the entrance of the cave in a heap. The chakram ricocheted off the bluff wall and returned to her. She was already halfway up the path to the cave entrance before she caught it and deftly returned it to its place at her hip. Sionides met her at the cave entrance. He looked down at the severed head and scratched his chin.
"Damn, Xena. You're better with that thing than I remember."
"Yeah? Well, I've had lots of practice. Come on." She drew her sword, and began to enter the cave's mouth. Sionides reached behind him and clicked the release on the short, single-bladed sword slung diagonally across his back, hilt down. The blade flashed out and he looked over at Xena.
"Right with you." He then put a hand on Xena's shoulder. She stopped and looked back at him. "Listen. Whoever is doing this is powerful. Don't underestimate him. Let me engage him."
Xena offered a low, guttural growl. "Get in line. He's mine. Gabrielle's in there. If she's hurt, he's going to die a miserable death."
Sionides' expression registered surprise. "She's in there? I thought that you felt her with the other Amazons."
"I can feel her here. She's ahead. Are you coming or not?"
"What's your plan, Xena? Do you know what you're going to do?"
She looked at him. "Plan? Do? Yeah. I'm going to bust some heads."
Sionides grinned. "Now that's the Xena I remember. Lead on, Warrior Princess." They proceeded forward into the dim light of the cave, swords at ready, treading silently and offering every sense, every nerve at an intense pitch as they determined to meet whatever lay ahead.
Gabrielle coughed a couple of times and groaned as she found herself regaining consciousness. Her face was pressed against cold stone, and she willed herself to gather her senses and her strength. She pushed herself up into a kneeling position and her head swam a bit. At that moment, her stomach knotted and she took a couple of deep breaths to relax it. Groaning softly, she swallowed hard and shook her head.
The cold stone was hard against her knees, and she shifted her weight and attempted to stand. Her legs wobbled and she collapsed again, sitting with a hard thud on the stone floor. As she propped herself up in a sitting position, she heard the tread of a pair of feet behind her. Two hard hands grasped her by the upper arms and lifted her. She felt herself dragged across the room and thrown roughly into a large wooden chair. Her head struck the high back of the chair, and she saw stars for a moment. Blinking, she attempted to focus and finally brought her eyes to rest upon the figure of a large man dressed in light leather armor of rather poor quality. A sword hung by his left hip, the hilt wrapped in worn leather. He stood silently, watching her with a mixture of question and distrust, arms folded across his chest. She regarded him coldly for a moment and then muttered aloud, "You ass-hole." As she was thinking, 'Did I just say that?', the man's face twisted into a sneering grin.
"Yup. Amazons. Tough bunch of broads, eh? What're you, a queen or something?"
"Something. Who are you, and where am I?"
"The Master will answer your questions. Until then, shut up. Here, you're supposed to eat and drink something. Get your strength up." He gestured at a table by the chair and she looked over to see a table with fresh fruit, bread, and a pitcher of drink. She inspected the offerings for a bit and sniffed at the pitcher. Pouring a little into the waiting cup, she held it to her nose. Water. She took a mouthful and swallowed. It was quite refreshing, and she finished the cup. As she placed it down on the table, she regarded the man again.
"Just what is your job here?"
"I do what the Master says. He told me to watch you. I'm watching you."
"Obviously. So who is this 'Master'?"
"Shut up and eat."
She considered the man for a second, and then grunted, "Right." Turning her attention back to the table, she inspected the fruit and bread. She picked up an apple and turned it over in her hand. It looked to be in good condition, and fairly clean. Still feeling the effects of her recent weariness and deciding that she would be of no use weak, she decided to accept the present circumstances for the moment and indulge in some food. She crunched into the fruit, and surprised herself by finishing it in record time. Nodding in satisfaction, she tossed the core behind her, and heard it hit something with a splat. A voice, deep and with a strange accent, resonated from behind her.
"Good throw. I knew that you Amazons wouldn't disappoint me."
She glanced at the large guard. He straightened up and stood deferentially. Not looking behind her, she replied, "Let me guess. The Master, right?"
A man appeared from behind the chair and walked around to stand in front of her. "Smart." He brushed the remnants of an apple core from the robe covering his chest, and then leveled hollow, dark eyes at her. They caught hers, and she swallowed involuntarily at the smoky, malevolent depths contained in them. A strange fear welled up inside of her as the hair stood up on the back of her neck and a prickling sensation ran along the base of her spine. This man, she decided right then, was evil. Pure evil. She could almost see it emanate from his form as she studied him. He wore robes of foreign design and had a swarthy skin which heralded from lands other than Greece. His beard was slight and wispy, his hands slender, his hair thin and stringy.
He turned to the guard and muttered something which caused the man to retreat to the far wall and stand near what appeared to be the entrance to the room. As she watched him silently, he turned back to her and regarded her quizzically. Finally, he spoke to her.
"So. Queen Gabrielle, I believe the others called you." She said nothing. "Not the Gabrielle who travels with Xena, is it?"
"It might be."
"It is." He chuckled slightly, and began to pace to and fro as he spoke. "And where, might I ask, is your illustrious friend?" Again she remained silent, and he narrowed his eyes at her. "Oh, excuse me. Girlfriend."
"She's probably coming to separate your head from your shoulders right now. She's very protective of me, you know."
He smiled slightly. "Threats? Empty ones." He peered intently at her. "You're afraid of me, aren't you? You should be, you know."
"I'm cautious of evil wherever I see it. I see it now in front of me. Pure evil."
"And you see that as bad?" He continued to pace. "It is power. It is the ability to manipulate the different realms of reality. I have that. If it is evil, then so be it. I embrace it."
"What do you want with the Amazons?"
"Ah, yes. What, indeed? I was wondering when you would voice your concerns. You see, they are a nation small in numbers but strong in ferocity, in passion, in pride. All that energy going untapped. Wasted. Spent on military drills, on ritual, on hunts, on the quest for romantic love. I have a better use for it."
Gabrielle felt stunned. The answers to her questions all unfolded in front of her in a moment. She stared at him. He noticed the change of expression, and nodded. "You see, don't you? You are smart."
She spoke slowly and softly. "You are a parasite. You feed off their energy. You sap it, drain it to strengthen your own designs."
"Parasite? Interesting analogy. I must admit, I never thought of it that way."
"The Amazons will not tolerate your efforts. They will rise against you."
"They are exhausted, confused. They cannot oppose me. They have no clue as to what's happening to them." He laughed. "Some of them thought that they were dead, and in....... wherever it is that your backward culture thinks that the essence of the dead populate."
"They will." She leaned forward. "I will lead them."
"You shall not. You will not live to lead them." His eyes pierced her.
Gabrielle felt a knot of dread tighten her stomach. "You gain nothing by killing me."
"Don't I? As you said, Xena is very protective of you. She is formidable, indeed. Greece's finest warrior. Fiery, passionate, driven. As you have guessed, she is even now approaching us. What do you think that she will feel when she arrives to see your lifeless body hanging here in the hall? She will burn with a passion for revenge. What a fountain for me to tap into! And I thought that I would have to be content with Amazon energy. With hers added to the total, I could dominate even the Greeks!"
Gabrielle focused her thoughts, willing her courage to rise. She summoned Xena's image in her mind and drew herself up tall in her chair. "Don't count on it."
He grinned, fingering the amulet around his neck. "Such misplaced faith." He approached her and leaned forward slightly to burn his gaze into her. She did not flinch, but met his stare evenly, willing herself to summon the courage that Xena's image in her mind offered her. "But there is one thing that I need to know from you."
"You will tell me. I feel another presence near. Someone is involved who can tap into the power I seek. Someone who has knowledge beyond your pitiful Greek teachings. Someone who is a capable wanderer in realms unknown to most." He stood silent for a moment. "Someone who probed my kingdom of influence last night. Who is that?"
Gabrielle concentrated all her thoughts on Xena, willing herself not to reveal the name or image of Sionides in her mind's eye. She dwelt on the image, the form of her lover. As she did so, he leaned slightly toward her. She could feel his tendrils of thought invade her mind but fought it with all her strength. A fear gradually permeated her soul, a fear that she would lapse just for a second, long enough to betray her knowledge to his probing mind. At that moment, a thought flashed before her. Love. Her greatest passion, her greatest energy and animation was her unyielding love for Xena. His essence was evil. He is unfamiliar with love. She could block his probing mind's energy with an overwhelming expression of love.
She dwelt on the mental image of blue eyes, dark hair, lopsided grin. More than that, however, she focused on the passion. That was pure light energy and the opposite of his power. It just might work, she thought, as she consumed herself with her expression of love. She felt a hand suddenly grab her throat and shake her. The fingers were incredibly tight, and she could not breathe.
"Enough! You are smart, aren't you? I don't know how you're blocking me, but you are." He released the throat, and stepped back. "No matter. He comes, as well. I will destroy him when he arrives. In the meantime . . . " He motioned to the large guard, and then gestured toward Gabrielle. "Let us set the stage for Xena's arrival." He turned and walked away from the chair. Just before he left the room, he looked at the guard. "She is all yours." He then cast a smoky gaze in Gabrielle's direction and shrugged. "A bit like casting pearls before swine, I am afraid, but it can't be helped. Your end must be brutal and ugly. It will arouse Xena's passion for revenge like nothing else." As he gathered his robes around him and exited, the guard approached Gabrielle. She sat still in the chair, watching him and concentrating on gathering her strength. She gave him a withering stare, but it did not faze him. His expression was one of eager anticipation. He stopped in front of the chair and reached out a large hand toward her throat. At that instant, she kicked out with a foot and caught him squarely in the face. She heard an audible crack, and felt the blow jar her leg all the way to her hip. He staggered backwards, holding one hand over his face. Blood poured out from under his fingers, and he dropped to his knees.
Gabrielle pulled herself up and out of the chair and stood. She found that her legs felt stronger now and could hold her up. She walked forward to the large man and kicked again. He fell over backwards, rolling on the stone floor. The impact of the kick caused Gabrielle to fall as well, and she rolled as she hit the floor. Crawling over to the injured man, she grasped the hilt of his sword and pulled it from his scabbard. One hand still over his face, he reached out with his free hand and grabbed a fistful of her hair, pulling hard. Her head bent backwards and she cried out, but ignored the pain as she concentrated all her strength on lifting the heavy sword. She swung it clumsily and felt the hand release her as the sword contacted something. He screamed, and she opened her eyes and saw that she had partially severed his arm. Staggering back and away from him, she grasped the sword in both hands and lifted the blade to rest on her shoulder. The will to fight had left her opponent; he crawled across the floor, leaving a smeared trail of blood where he had been, and called out an alarm. After a couple of shouts, several more guards responded to the noise. They trotted into the room, eying the situation first with curiosity, then with determined malice as they saw their comrade injured and Gabrielle wielding his sword. They drew their own weapons and spread out in a semicircle around her. She backed up and away from them, her eyes flickering back and forth in an attempt to keep all her opponents in sight. Her knees shook as she slowly paced backwards, and one guard among them approached her. He held his sword out cautiously in front of him and spoke to her.
"Come on, missy. Don't make this hard on yourself. Let go of the weapon, and we might go easy on you."
Gabrielle felt herself begin to sweat profusely and her knees shook. She pulled herself to her full height and watched as he inched ever nearer to her. As the tip of his blade approached her chest, she concentrated on gathering her strength. After what seemed a small eternity, she decided that the time was right for attack. She dropped to her knees and swung her sword with all her strength. As if in slow motion, she saw the blade bite into the side of his knee and felt the crunch resonate up her arms. He roared a curse and dropped his sword as he collapsed to the floor. The other guards rushed her. She attempted to lift the sword again, but her arms would not cooperate swiftly enough to offer her any defense. A sweep of a guard's weapon knocked the blade from her hands and a booted foot caught her in the side of the head. Her vision exploded in stars momentarily, and she found herself on the cold stones of the floor. Hands reached down and roughly picked her up. The one who seemed their leader stood in front of her and looked at her coldly. He sheathed his sword and grasped her face with one hand, tilting it up to his own. Looking around at his comrades, he spoke.
"I told you guys not to underestimate these Amazons." He then curled his free hand into a fist and drove it into Gabrielle's mid section. The impact took her breath away, and she collapsed to the floor as the others let go of her. "That'll hold her for a minute." He stood, looking down at her as she knelt on the stones at his feet and retched. "That's it, honey. Show us what you had for breakfast." He looked at the other guards. "Get the rope ready."
As Gabrielle knelt, she frantically looked about her for some escape. A sword lay on the stones just behind the boots in front of her, and the exit was beyond that. If she summoned all her strength, she thought that she just might be able to get to the exit. All she had to do, she felt, was get past the feet in front of her. 'Xena,' she felt herself thinking, 'if I ever needed you, now is the time.' A voice echoed through her head.
'I'm almost to you. Hang on, love.' The words seemed to infuse Gabrielle with a strength borne of desperation, and she lunged forward. Her head butted the figure in front of her directly in the lower abdomen and he doubled over and backed up. She staggered toward the exit, attempting to grasp the hilt of the sword with a hand as she passed it. As her fingers curled around the handle, a foot came down upon the blade. It pressed her fingers in between the sword's handle and the stones and she uttered a cry of pain. A hand grasped her by the hair and pulled her up somewhat, her fingers still trapped under the weapon and foot.
"Bad move." The hand holding her hair and the foot standing on her fingers belonged to the one she had just head-butted. He was angry, and winced in pain as he looked at her. "Really bad move." His other hand withdrew a dagger and held it at her throat. Gabrielle fixed her eyes on his, fighting down a rising feel of panic and attempting to soften his anger, but she could see no trace of compassion or softness in the gaze. He was going to kill her, and they both knew it. He was going to enjoy it. She knew that, as well. She felt the blade touch the skin of her neck, and she drilled her eyes into his.
"Then what are you waiting for? Do it."
Their eyes were burning into each other for a long moment, and then she felt the knife begin to press against her neck. She closed her eyes and thought, 'Xena.' The blade suddenly eased away from her neck and she felt the hand grasping her hair release her. She opened her eyes and saw only confusion and pain in her assailant's expression. A slight glance downward told the rest of the story. An arrowhead protruded from the front of his neck, a rivulet of blood coursing its way down his chest. His knees buckled and he fell to the floor in front of her. She felt the pressure on her fingers ease away, and she fell on top of his legs. Reaching out with one hand, she pried the dagger from his fingers and rolled away, attempting to stand. Her legs would not sustain her; she fell, and began crawling away from the still form. Looking toward the exit, she saw movement in the shadows. A second arrow whizzed past her, and another guard grunted and fell backwards. A dark form sprinted from the exit and was across the room in a flash. The two remaining guards offered their swords out and met the form but were both dead in seconds. Gabrielle smiled slightly, closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the cool stones. 'Xena.'
"Here, love." Strong hands lifted her gently and smoothed the sweat-matted hair from her forehead. "Are you quite all right?" She could feel fingers touch the side of her head where she had been kicked. She winced, and the fingers withdrew. "Quite a mark there. I think you'll live, though." Then, a pair of lips placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. Gabrielle opened her eyes, and perceived a very worried Xena above her.
"We really must work on our timing, Xena." The warrior's face offered a lopsided grin at the comment.
"I thought that it was perfect."
"Oh, yeah. Almost too perfect. Another second, and . . . "
"Shh. Enough. I'm here now."
Another voice broke the stillness. "Yes, you are. How touching. Hello, Xena . . . am I right?"
Xena stood, brandishing her sword, and narrowed her eyes at the intruder. "Who in Tartarus are you?"
Gabrielle painfully sat erect. "It's him, Xena. Be wary."
The man slowly walked toward the two women. "Good advice. You've been looking for me. I could feel it." He squinted at Xena and then continued, "Strong. Much energy, and some of it quite dark. You're a real prize. You're not the one, though. There's another here." He studied Xena for a moment, and then his eyes widened. "Sionides? Ah, yes. I remember him. Where is he now?"
Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's leg. "He can read your thoughts. Don't think anything that you don't wish him to know. Xena, concentrate on me."
"Tell me where he is." The Master walked toward Xena, fingering the amulet on his chest. "Tell me." Xena shook her head and squinted her eyes shut as she attempted to fight the fingers of energy probing her mind. Gabrielle struggled to pull herself to her feet and then wrapped both arms around Xena's waist, leaning in against her.
"Think of me, Xena. Think of us. He can't get through that." Xena looked down and focused her eyes into the hazel ones looking up to her. As their eyes locked and Xena offered an arm around her friend, The Master growled. "You learn quickly. As I told your little friend, though, it does not matter. I will find him and crush him. I still have the energy of the Amazons at my call. That makes me very powerful." He extended his arm toward them and invisible fingers tightened around both their throats. Both women began gasping and held tightly to each other as their vision began to turn red. Gabrielle grasped both arms around Xena and began sliding toward the floor. She struggled to hold them both erect but felt her body begin to shake with the effort, and they collapsed to the floor together. Wide blue eyes met imploring hazel ones yet again and locked together. Gabrielle attempted to speak, but could not. She could only point two fingers towards her own eyes, gesturing frantically. Xena nodded understanding, and they focused all their concentration, all their souls' passion, on each other. The fingers eased off their throats and they gasped for air, coughing a bit.
A new voice joined the others in the room. "I'm here."
The Master whirled, and faced the source of the voice. His hand went to the amulet around his neck and he held it loosely in one hand as he looked at Sionides. "Well, fellow student. You surprise me."
"Cut the crap. Release the Amazons."
"Then you leave me no choice." He reached behind him and, flicking the sharp blade from the scabbard across his back, slowly approached The Master. They began circling the room much like two predatory cats, eyes fixed upon each other.
"You can't win."
"That won't stop me from trying."
"Ah, yes. The Way of Friendship, hey? Do or die for the love of others? Comrades to the death? Then let it be so." He extended an arm, and Sionides ducked and rolled quickly to one side. He rose on one knee, and flashed his hand out. The Master staggered back slightly, but recovered quickly. His hand went to his amulet once again, and his other arm waved through the air. Sionides grunted as he flew backwards and skidded across the stone floor on his back. He kicked his legs out, and was up and upon his feet in an instant. His hand swept past his boot, and then flashed out toward his opponent. A dagger spun through the air, whirling. Sionides ran forward, his sword cutting arcs in the air before him. The Master grunted and staggered backwards, the dagger's handle jutting from his shoulder. He grasped the amulet once again with his uninjured arm, and waved the hand before him. At the same instant, Sionides' sword stopped short of The Master's head. A sparkle of energy crackled about the robed enemy and Sionides backed away a step or two.
The Master grasped the dagger's handle and pulled it out. It hit the floor with a clatter as the man tore open the shoulder of his robes. A wound was evident, but healed almost instantly as the three others watched in shock. As the healing was completed, the Master laughed derisively. "Congratulations, Sionides. You have just killed an Amazon."
Xena and Gabrielle watched Sionides' reaction. His face fell as he instantly intuited the source of the energy required for his opponent to heal himself. Xena growled and lifted her chakram from her waist. Gabrielle's hand placed itself on Xena's forearm. She whispered, "You can't. You'll kill an Amazon."
"Not if I kill him immediately." She jerked her arm free and prepared to throw. Gabrielle became frantic. "No, Xena. There has to be another way."
Xena looked at her imploringly. "What way? He's evil, Gabrielle. He has to die." They both returned their attention to the combat resuming in front of them.
Sionides had closed the distance between himself and his opponent as the healing had transpired. They now grasped each other's necks, and crackles of energy flowed between them, lighting the dim chamber in bluish light. The contest seemed evenly matched at first, but Gabrielle noted the Master's free hand once again grasp his amulet. At that instant, Sionides' legs gave out from under him and he fell to his knees. The Master maintained the pressure on his neck and it appeared to be having its effect. Sionides dropped his sword.
Xena stood. "This stops here. If an Amazon dies, then so be it."
Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's knee. "No, Xena. The amulet. It's his power somehow. Take it off of him."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle, her mouth slightly open, and then glanced back at the uneven combat. She gauged the distance to the walls on the inside of the chamber, whirled, and threw the chakram. It whizzed and warbled through the air, passing the Master just behind his back. He was concentrating on his stranglehold upon Sionides' neck and seemed not to notice the weapon as it spun past him. Sparks flew as it bounced off the far wall and headed directly toward the two men. It flashed between them, and a high-pitched scream echoed within the chamber. Xena reached out and caught the weapon, holding it up in front of her face. It was bloody.
Sionides broke free of the crushing hold that The Master had upon his neck. He fell, coughing, to the floor, and then swept out a hand. Something rolled across the stones of the floor, and came to rest about halfway between the two men and the two women. Xena and Gabrielle both stared at it, and then at each other. It was a hand, still grasping the amulet, the broken chain wrapped around the fingers. Their eyes riveted upon the Master; he was staggering and looking frantically about him. His wide eyes searched the floor and came to rest on his severed hand and his amulet. He staggered toward it, and fell to the floor. His remaining hand reached out in the amulet's direction and he inched his way toward the diadem. As he neared it, he was dragged backwards by strong arms. Sionides was on top of him. They rolled over and over, leaving a trail of bloody spots across the floor. Sionides' voice was strained, but loud.
"Destroy it, Xena. Crush it." The Master twisted around and flung up a knee, catching Sionides in the side of the head. He fell momentarily, and then rose to drive his elbow directly into The Master's lower back. A loud pop resounded, and the Master opened his mouth to utter a cry, but no sound came forth. His legs went limp, and he dragged himself slowly toward the amulet with his one uninjured arm. His hand reached out to the object just in time to see Xena's booted foot kick the severed hand away. The amulet popped out and tinkled across the floor, Xena's feet following.
Gabrielle sat exhausted, watching the proceedings with horror. She summoned all her remaining strength and crawled toward the scene of the combat. As she did so, she saw Xena reach down and pick the amulet up. Xena immediately gasped, and her head tilted back slightly.
The Master's voice was weak, but still echoed in the chamber. "Powerful, isn't it, Xena? Power that intoxicates. Power that addicts. Feel it. Use it. Help me, and I will teach you its secrets."
Xena looked over at the Master, and then at Sionides. She offered a feral grin and nodded. "Oh, yeah. Power." She knelt, and dangled it in front of The Master's face. "Too much for you."
He looked intently into Xena's eyes. "You like it, don't you? You want it for yourself. Embrace it, Xena. I can feel the darkness in you respond to it."
Gabrielle was near the combat now, and a cold chill covered her as she noted Xena's expression. "Don't, Xena. Destroy it."
Xena regarded her with a cold expression and said nothing, just grasped the amulet in her fist. Gabrielle could see the struggle in her face, the twisted expression as the power in the amulet attempted to seduce her. Xena stood, still grasping the object. She backed away and stared hard at the Master. "This is not for you anymore."
Sionides again crawled on top of the Master and looped an arm around his neck. The muscles of his arm bulged as he squeezed tightly and the man choked, his mouth opening and his eyes bulging. They stayed that way for some few moments, neither moving. Gabrielle crawled closer and Sionides saw her near.
"Don't get near us, Gabrielle. He will drain you to fight me." The warning came too late, however, as the Master's uninjured hand swept out and grasped Gabrielle's arm. She instantly felt a wave of pain and weariness overcome her, and her vision turned spotty in front of her eyes. Sionides increased the pressure on the man's neck, and groaned as he did so. Every sinew in his arms, his shoulders, his entire body tensed as he poured his efforts into the grip he maintained on his enemy. Gabrielle's head lolled, and she found that she had no power to hold it up. She rolled her eyes away from the mortal combat in front of her and looked toward Xena.
The expression in Xena's face was dark and twisted, as she stood frozen and stared at the amulet. Gabrielle gasped and opened her mouth in an attempt to cry out. Her voice was weak and squeaky. "Xena." The tall warrior did not respond; she stood as if made of stone, unmoving, hard.
"Xena." Again, no movement, no response came from Xena. Gabrielle summoned her last remaining strength and took as deep a breath as she could. The voice which emerged from her seemed distant, almost as if belonging to another body. "Xena!.........Help.......me......my.....love!"
Gabrielle's vision blurred, and her eyelids half closed. Tears burned in her eyes, and began trailing down her cheeks as she felt the life draining out of her body. Her head fell to one side, and rested on the cool stone floor. As if in a dream, she watched the death struggle in front of her continue. Sionides was dripping sweat, and his body was shaking as he maintained his grip on the Master's neck. The fingers of his enemy still grasped Gabrielle's wrist and burned into her flesh. It seemed to her as if the whole scene was moving in some slow, surreal moment which was endlessly playing out in front of her. She was dying, and she knew it. She wanted to weep, but could not summon the release or stamina to do so. As her eyes clouded, a tremendous clang and a shower of sparks erupted in front of her face. Something shiny flashed past her face and the hand which had hold of her released its pressure upon her arm. Gabrielle wondered at the explosion of sparks which, like tiny stars, showered around her. When they cleared, she saw a booted foot kick the severed, swarthy hand away from her own. Her vision began clearing, and she found strength to turn her head slightly. The amulet dropped to the floor near her face, tinkling as it danced across the stones. As it came to rest, the heel of the same booted foot came down upon it and ground it into the floor. It sparkled, smoked and then erupted in a tiny puff of flame. The foot lifted and came to rest on the floor near her body. Gabrielle turned her eyes back toward the two men locked in combat and saw Sionides utter a grunt as he twisted the head locked in his embrace. A loud crack sounded and the head twisted grotesquely around at a bizarre angle. The dark eyes in the head immediately paled and the lids drooped. He released the head and it hit the stones with a soft thud. He then fell away from his position atop the robed form and collapsed back on the floor, breathing heavily.
The young Amazon opened her eyes and blinked wearily a couple of times, expecting the constant haze which had surrounded her and her sisters to offer itself to her sight yet again. It was not there. Instead, she gradually perceived the warmth and brightness of the morning sun, and could hear the sound of birds in the distance. As she lifted her head, she looked down at herself. The leaves and grass of the cool ground around her small hut surrounded her. She rolled painfully, cautiously to one side and lifted herself up on one elbow. Her entire body ached, but she reckoned herself to be alive and softly laughed at the flood of joyous relief which coursed through her. Summoning her strength, she lifted herself to her hands and knees and crawled towards her hut's door. It was open. She looked inside, and called out the name of her companion. A voice answered her, and when it did, she almost wept with relief. Holding fast to the door-jamb, she pulled herself erect and found that her legs held enough strength to allow her to walk. As she staggered into the dimmer light of the hut, she felt familiar arms around her. They stood that way for some few moments, leaning upon each other, drawing strength from the feel of the welcome touch, and then slowly walked out and into the street. They could see other Amazons beginning to stir throughout the village, and the sight was, to them, sweeter than anything that they could remember in their young lives.
Xena knelt by Gabrielle, reaching out a hand and feeling the pulse in her neck. It was weak and rapid, but evident. At the assurance of life, Xena's whole form seemed to slacken; her shoulders slumped and she covered her face with a hand as she wept openly. She wasn't sure why she wept so loudly and with such lack of restraint, or where the tears originated. Was it relief? Shame? Self-reproach? She seemed unable to control herself; the tears coursed down her face, and her cries echoed in the chamber. She sat down on the floor next to Gabrielle's still form and allowed herself to become lost in the overwhelming release of emotion which consumed her. She covered her face in her hands and bent forward slightly, as if ashamed that she was allowing herself such purging of her soul in front of others. As she wept bitterly, she felt a hand place itself gently over her own. It caressed the side of her face, then wrapped itself around her own hand and pulled it away from her eyes. Gabrielle's voice accompanied it, soft and hoarse.
"Love? Don't cry. It's all right. I'm here."
Xena wiped her eyes with her free hand and looked down at her knee. Gabrielle's face stared up at her. The hazel eyes were worried, relieved, exhausted and affectionate all at once. She saw the touches of a slight smile twitch at the edges of Gabrielle's mouth and leaned down towards the face. Their lips touched, and that touch seemed to Xena to pour her own life's force into her friend. They remained that way for what seemed to them to be a long time and when they parted, they just sat still, the remnants of Xena's tears spotting Gabrielle's cheek. Xena opened her mouth and attempted to speak, but could not find words. Finally she just whispered, "I'm . . . so sorry."
Gabrielle placed a finger across Xena's lips, silencing any further attempt at speech. She shook her head slightly and whispered, "Don't. Not sorry. Glad. You are noble, my love. The Way of the Warrior.......is safe in you."
"Yes, it is." Sionides' voice echoed the sentiment from nearby. Xena turned her head to see him as he fell wearily to his knees next to her. He looked at Xena for a moment, and then down at Gabrielle. "You okay?"
She nodded. "I am now." He smiled slightly at that and then slowly picked Xena's sword up from the floor, its metal scraping along the stones. He lifted it and slid it into the scabbard on her back. He then offered his arm to Xena, who grasped it in the warrior's grasp of friendship.
"Thank you, old friend."
Xena smiled through puffy eyes. "No. Thank you."
"I think that our job here is done. Can you walk?"
Xena nodded and then looked down at Gabrielle. "Can you?"
"I'm so weary, Xena. Help me up."
"I'll do better than that." She slipped one arm under her friend's shoulders and the other under her knees. With a grunt she stood, cradling the limp form in her arms and hugging it to her chest. She felt Gabrielle's arms snake around her and the blonde head nestle itself into her neck. With an effort, Sionides stood as well, and the trio turned and slowly began walking through the exit and into the caves leading to the world outside. As they emerged into the sunshine, Gabrielle found the strength to laugh quietly.
Xena felt the laugh and purred, "What's so funny?"
"You're carrying me. I feel four years old again."
"It's the least I can do. You carry me every day of my life." She felt the arms around her neck tighten slightly at that. The whispering voice that accompanied it seemed exquisite music to Xena's ear.
"It is the Way of Friendship, Xena."
They cautiously made their way down the path, back to where they had left their horses. Xena mounted first and Sionides handed Gabrielle's limp body up to her. She sat the petite woman crossways on the saddle in front of her, holding her tightly. As Xena waited for Sionides to reclaim his own horse and mount it, she reached behind her with her free hand and pulled out Gabrielle's two sai from the belt at her back. Leaning down towards Gabrielle's boots, she shoved one into each boot-top. "There. You look incomplete without them."
Gabrielle did not open her eyes, but simply whispered, "You brought them? You knew that you would find me?"
"Yeah. I knew. Now let's go and check on those Amazons of yours, shall we?"
Gabrielle sat in the bed at their room in the inn, propped up with a couple of pillows at her back. She listened to the exquisite, soft warble of a flute in the yard outside and her thoughts wandered back to their return trip. Xena had carried her the whole way, even bearing her up and into the room as the innkeeper fussed and scurried about, showing great concern and offering every possible amenity for her comfort. Her memories were patchy, however, as she had drifted in and out of consciousness during the ride and the return to the inn.
She remembered snatches of consciousness during which Xena had carefully bathed her and smoothed salve over the abrasion on the side of her head. She also remembered her friend sitting by her side on the bed, offering soft exhortations to drink some broth or to roll to one side as she fluffed pillows or smoothed the bedclothes. Yes, Xena had tended her well.
And what of the Amazons? Gabrielle couldn't remember much in the way of details of their visit back to the village, but she thought that she recalled some snatches of conversation while in a semi-conscious state, still in Xena's arms and upon her horse. She seemed to remember female voices offering shelter and Xena demurring. Other than that, the return trip was mostly blur and empty time to her. Well, no matter, she thought. We're here now.
She looked down at her own body and noted the soft white robe. It was worn but very comfortable and smelled faintly of pleasant fragrance. She had no idea where it came from, but surmised that Xena had scrounged it from somewhere for her. She smiled slightly when she guessed that the innkeeper had offered it. A good woman, Gabrielle reflected. Kind. I could see it in her eyes, her manner. Just like Sionides. What a pair. He can really see into a heart, can't he?
The door thumped open and Xena entered with a tray containing a large cup. She placed it down on a stool next to the bed and flashed a wide grin to see her friend up and awake. "Hey, good-lookin'! Glad to see you up. I was starting to worry about you." She offered the cup of broth. Gabrielle took it from her hand and lifted it to her nose, inhaling its fragrance as Xena sat on the bed beside her.
"I don't mean to be a worry to you, love. In fact, sometimes I think that you fuss over me too much." As she drank the hot liquid, Xena shook her head in disagreement.
"I don't fuss over you enough." Xena's expression suddenly became more serious. She reached out a hand and smoothed the hair away from Gabrielle's forehead. "I, ah, .........."
Gabrielle cocked an eyebrow up and puzzled at the suddenly melancholy face in front of her. "What?"
"I almost got you killed. How many more times will you suffer because of my darkness?"
"You fought it and you conquered it yet again. You always come through, Xena. You always choose the light. It is part of you, your nature. I'm not sure that I could have resisted being seduced by what must have been an incredible power contained in that amulet. You did."
"I almost didn't." Her words were soft, a hesitant confession offered in shameful countenance.
"But you did. You always will. That is a great part of why I love you so much."
Xena's expression eased into one of profound gratitude, of deep affection. She said nothing, just sat at Gabrielle's side on the edge of the bed as she drank the broth. Several moments of silence passed and then Xena cracked a mischievous smile. Gabrielle noted it and looked up.
"Only part? What's the rest of the reason that you love me so much?"
Gabrielle rested the cup in her lap and gave a wry little smile. "You're a great kisser."
Xena stood, lifting the empty cup from her friend's hands. "Damn right, Gab, and don't you forget it."
"Oh, trust me. I don't." She watched Xena collect the tray and head for the door. "So why do you love me?"
"Hmm?" Xena turned around and looked quizzically at Gabrielle.
"Yeah, Xena. Why? I'm a constant worry to you, after all. I've almost gotten you killed several times. You've had to rescue me more times than I can count. Why do you love me?"
Xena turned serious. "You are my light. My guide, on an uncertain and difficult path. My constant reassurance that there is much good in this world. And........." Her mouth twitched up at the corners.
Xena shrugged. "You appreciate a good kisser." She laughed and deftly ducked as a pillow flew across the room and hit the wall behind her. "Besides, you're a natural bard. You tell good jokes."
"Good jokes? Just when have I told you good jokes?"
Xena paused at the door, looking back. "Don't you remember that time you had far too much wine at my mother's inn?"
Gabrielle crinkled her nose and concentrated. "No, I honestly don't."
"It's no wonder. You were as drunk as Dionysus." Xena affected the posture of a heavily inebriated bard, staggering slightly and offered a squeaky voice. "A guy rips his pants. He walks into a tailor's shop and the tailor sees the rip. He says, 'Euripides?' The guy answers, 'Yeah. Eumenides?'"
Gabrielle winced. "Ooh, that's bad."
"You wowed the whole crowd with the next one." Xena resumed her drunken bard's imitation, and continued, "Did ya hear about the centaur who was 'hung like a horse'?"
"Xena!!!" Gabrielle covered her face with a hand. "Did I really tell that joke?"
"Oh, yeah." She snickered at the recollection. "Mom never looked at you quite the same after that. Your joke about the happy Roman really got her, though."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow cautiously. "The happy Roman?"
Xena grinned evilly. "Yeah, don't you remember? He was gladiator."
She waved a hand in the air. "You know, Gab. Glad.....he.....aw, never mind."
Gabrielle slid down a bit in the bed as the full import of the joke's punch-line hit her. "Oh, by the gods! I am so embarrassed."
"Aha. Finally got you back for mentioning my 'little weirdness' to Aphrodite."
"Xena, I'm sorry about that. I don't think that it's weird, really. I think it's rather sweet."
Xena paused, halfway out the door, her expression guarded. "You.....you do?"
Xena muttered under her breath, "Thank you, Aphrodite. I owe ya." She then ducked through the door and danced slightly in the hallway.
Gabrielle watched her go and couldn't resist the urge to have just a bit more fun. She called out, "Oh, Xena?"
The tall warrior's face reappeared through the door, one eyebrow raised in question. Gabrielle just eyed her impishly, stuck her bare feet out of the covers and wiggled her toes towards the door. Xena's face blushed a deep, burning crimson color. "Gabrielle, you're in trouble now! When you get your strength back, you're really gonna get it."
Gabrielle watched her friend beat a hasty retreat through the door and heard the footsteps echo down the wooden floor of the hallway. She leaned back, laced her fingers behind her head, and smiled ruminatively as she gazed out the window. Softly, she spoke to no one in particular. "I'm counting on it, love, and for many years yet to pass."
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