DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of these characters. Rob Tapert, Renaissance, etc, these are their babies, I'm just borrowing them.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Kirk Baldridge
PART III: Family Ties
Cyrene had a feeling the warrior would be trouble from the moment he entered her tavern. First, he still had on his full body armor, and even though he had grudgingly turned over his sword at the door she guessed that he was probably still carrying others. She allowed him to come in nonetheless, knowing to refuse him entry would be a sure way to incite the very sort of violence she was trying to avoid. Despite her best efforts, over the past few minutes, what started out as discussion had soon become a heated argument, and now threatened to erupt into an all-out brawl. It was only a matter of time now.
Sure enough, the tavern owner's brow furrowed as the warrior--who was downing his fourth mug of hard ale--kicked back his chair and stood up, his face a drunken mask of rage. Three other large and equally drunken men gathered followed his lead, all of them grumbling and shouting at one another. Normally, she had someone here to deal with this sort of thing; but her son Torus was in Corinth picking up supplies, and Keern--her bartender/ bouncer was home with his wife, helping deliver their fourth child. Maybe I can...too late.
The warrior suddenly grabbed the nearest of the men by his collar, dragged him close and punched him in the face so hard they could practically hear his nose break . He slumped to the ground, blood pouring out between his fingers, and the other patrons in the tavern moved to get out of the way as the other two men knocked over more furniture to get at him. They jumped the warrior and began drunkenly swinging their fists, but he grabbed one and tossed him across the room, where he landed on a table hard enough to break it in two. The big warrior started to smile, until a third man shattered a chair across his back. "So...you wanna play rough eh?" His words were slurred, angry, and the warrior drew a nasty-looking dagger from his belt. "Come on!"
Cyrene shook her head. He was drunk enough to try and make good on his threat too, even though the other men now held up his hands and backed off. NO! Not in MY tavern. She crouched down and picked up the staff she kept behind the bar for such an emergency. It was the only weapon she permitted in her tavern, though she had only been given cause to draw it once or twice since invoking the no weapons policy. Even now she didn't actually intend to use it--there was certainly no way she could hope to stop such a massive man--but, given his drunken state she was hoping she could talk or bully him into leaving. "Hey you!" The warrior turned, he had a crazed look in his eyes, and she was hard-pressed to continue. "I told you before weapons are NOT welcome in my tavern. And neither are you, so get out!"
"Or what?" He looked at her and laughed. "You'll hit me with your little stick?!"
Cyrene nodded. "If I have to." She held her breath, hoping to Hades her bluff would work.
"Get real!" The warrior turned to face the tavern owner fully now, and drew back his arm as if he was prepared to really throw the dagger at her. "Interfering b..."
His words were cut off in mid-sentence when two strong hands darted over his shoulders, the fingers jabbing select points along his exposed neck. All of the strength appeared to drain from his massive body at once as he fell to his knees--gasping for air and unable to move. His bloodshot eyes widened in fear as his attacker walked into his line of sight.
"Just so you know..." The raven-haired woman in bronze and leather armor put her hands on her hips. "I have cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in thirty seconds, unless..."
"Unless...what...?" he gasped.
Xena gritted her teeth. "You aplogize. For starting a fight, threatening my mother, trashing her tavern and just being a general nuisance. Oh, and you've got fifteen seconds."
"I-I..." A stream of blood came from his nose as he turned his eyes to Cyrene. "I'm sorry lady."
Sternly, the tavern owner nodded. "Accepted." Xena waited a moment more, until the warrior's eyes began to roll back in his head and he seemed about ready to pass out, then she jabbed her fingers against certain nerves in his neck--releasing him.
Xena grabbed the man's collar and hoisted him to his feet. "Now, pay for the damage you caused, then gather up your little friend's and get out of here!" She watched--one hand poised over her chakram--until she was sure they had left the area. Only then did she seem to relax, slightly, and turn to her mother. "Are you all right?" she asked as they embraced.
"I'm fine Xena. Thank the Gods you arrived when you did." Cyrene took a step back, something was different about her daughter's appearance, and it took her a moment to realize what it was. "Xena, what has happened to your sword?"
Xena's face tightened. "I lost it in battle." The tone of the warrior's voice seemed to indicate she wasn't going to say anything further, and Cyrene nodded in understanding. She tensed up as the tavern door opened again, only to admit a hesitant Gabrielle. The bard had her staff in one hand, a small wrapped package in the other and a concerned look on her face.
"Is everyone all right?"
"We're fine, Gabrielle. It's okay." Xena put out her hand and the bard passed her the package, which she then turned and gave to Cyrene. "Here, we got these for you in Milano."
"Oh, you two, you didn't have to get me anything." She unwrapped the package, and found it to be two small framed portraits; one of Xena alone, the other of Xena and Gabrielle. "Gods, they're beautiful." She hugged her daughter, and the bard as well. "Thank you."
Gabrielle slipped her arm through Xena's--a gesture which didn't escape Cyrene's notice--and smiled. "After I mentioned having our portrait done, Xena told me how you had so few renderings of her. I thought it would be the perfect gift for you, though it took some convincing, let me tell you."
"I know what you mean." Cyrene motioned for them to join her at the bar, where she placed the portraits on a shelf and just stared at them for a few moments. She was smiling when she turned back. "Lyceus loved to have his picture drawn. He was usually a bundle of energy most of the time, but if he was having a rendering done it could keep him still for hours at a time. Torus didn't seem to care one way or the other, he just knew better than to argue with his mother." She looked at Xena, who lowered her eyes and seemed to find something fascinating about the top of the bar. "My daughter, on the other hand, was as stubborn as Hades. She whined and cried so much I finally gave up trying." She touched the bard's hand lightly and they both smiled. "I'm so glad someone was able to talk some sense into her."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Believe me, it wasn't easy. In fact..."
Xena stood up and cleared her throat. "If you two are going to start swapping embarrassing stories about me, I'm going to go somewhere else. Mother, I trust our usual room's available?" Her mother nodded. "Good. I'll see you there later, Gabrielle."
The bard watched her go, and then burst out laughing. "Gods, she's going to kill me for teasing her."
"Just be glad you CAN." Cyrene picked up a mug and began to clean it. "Not so long ago, Xena would never have allowed anyone to get close enough to tease her. She had few friends. If not for her brothers, Xena would have had a very lonely childhood."
Gabrielle was surprised. "Lonely? Xena's so beautiful, didn't she have boyfriends?"
Cyrene shook her head. "Not so you might think. Oh, don't get me wrong, she certainly had more than her fair share of admirers. In fact, nearly eligible man in Amphipolis was after her at one time or another. But, she wasn't interested in dating, she spent all her free time sparring with Lyceus and Torus. In fact I can honestly say Xena is happier now than I have ever seen her." She smiled. "It makes my heart swell with pride to see how she looks at you, Gabrielle. The love in her eyes is wonderful to behold."
The bard lowered her head. "I just wish I could get her to SAY it."
"My dear, this may be hard for you--as a bard--to understand, but I don't think the words are that important. I know Xena loves you, and you obviously love her, isn't that enough?"
"I suppose so. One thing's for sure, I thank the Fates for the day I met her."
"So do I. You are, without a doubt, the best thing that's ever happened to my daughter, Gabrielle."
The bard blushed. "Thank you. Does this mean we have your blessing?"
"Absolutely." Cyrene reached across the bar and took Gabrielle's hand. They both smiled. "May the Fates be with you both. Now and forever."
"Xena? Sorry I took so..." Gabrielle stuck her head in the door and peered around, frowning when she realized the warrior was nowhere in sight. "Xena?" She and Cyrene had talked for several hours, from everything about Xena's childhood to what kind of foods she was allergic to; and by the time she got back to their room the bard half-expected to find Xena asleep. "How odd." She came inside and put her hands on her hips. "I didn't see her come through the tavern, so where could she have...?" A strong hand grasped the bard's shoulders and, before she could react, sent her twirling helplessly toward the bed. "Hey!" By the time she landed on the bed, gasping for air, Gabrielle was so dizzy, she could barely see straight. As a result, she was not able to stop a heavy figure from leaping on the bed and straddling her waist, pinning her arms to her sides. "Stop it! What's going on?! Get off me you...you..."
"Warrior Princess, perhaps?" a familiar voice asked.
Gabrielle's glazed green eyes opened to see Xena--wearing only her shift, looking down at her. "Oh, it's you. I wish you'd warn me before you're going to do something like that."
Xena shrugged. "Now, where's the fun in that?"
"Oh you!" The bard twisted and writhed, struggling to get loose, but they both knew Xena would not release her until she was good and ready. "Come on Xena, I can't touch you like this!"
Without saying a word, Xena gently pulled Gabrielle's arms up and pinned them over her head with one hand, while using the other to remove all of the bard's clothes. "That's the idea..." she whispered while she teased the sensitive skin between Gabrielle's breasts with her fingers, and watched her full pink nipples harden. The bard's back arched at the delicious contact, and she let out a low moan. "I can play too."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, her body was on fire already, and Xena had barely begun.
"Oh, is the pretty little bard tongue-tied?" Xena released her lover's hands, and moved her own to caress and knead Gabrielle's full breasts. "Perhaps THIS will encourage you to talk."
"Gods, YES!" The bard's head turned to one side. "Oh, please!" Her back arched again. "Xena!" Sensing that her lover was already approaching her peak, the warrior slid down and started to caress Gabrielle's inner thighs with her lips and tongue. "Oh, yes! Please!" Needing no further prompting, Xena turned her head, and plunged her tongue deep into Gabrielle's sex, mercilessly probing every inch of her core until she found and centered on the hard bundle of nerves. "XENA!" Gabrielle's hips bucked--seemingly of their own accord--as the sensations of pleasure grew until they were almost unbearable. Finally the climax washed over her, leaving the bard's much smaller frame still shuddering as Xena rolled to one side and snuggled beside her.
Gabrielle barely found the strength to put her arm's around her lover. "Gods, you're incredible."
"Yeah." Xena smiled. "I AM, aren't I?"
The bard playfully slapped her hip. "You're full of surprises today." Her face became a little more serious for a moment. "Before...you know, in the tavern? I hope I didn't hurt your feelings too much. I mean, I know how you don't like to talk about yourself, or to have others..."
Xena stopped Gabrielle with a finger to her lips. "That's not it." She sighed. "What you and mother talk about is really none of my business. And you don't have to worry about hurting my feelings; since people have been talking about ME for years. Most of the time it's horror stories about the Warrior Princess, things in my past I'm not proud of, but which I can't deny either. So believe me...there is NOTHING you or my mother could possibly say about me that could really bother me."
"Oh really?" Gabrielle made a silly face. "Then it wouldn't bother you if I wrote down the story about you and a big bucket of horse..."
Xena lashed out and clamped her hand over the bard's mouth. "On second thought, maybe there IS a thing or two." She took her hand away and frowned. "I can't believe she told you THAT story."
Gabrielle smiled. "I can be very persuasive when I want to be." She laughed. "You know your mother is VERY proud of you, Xena." The warrior's face grew taut, disbelieving, and the bard caressed her cheek. "No Xena, I'm serious. Not for everything mind you. I mean sure...all the years between fighting Corteze and meeting Hercules are sort of a dark spot, but SINCE then? Did you know she's followed your exploits?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Oh yes. Apparently bards come through here regularly and keep Cyrene up to date on the adventures of her heroic daughter."
"Come on, I'm no hero." Xena lay back on the bed, and Gabrielle snuggled beside her. "I just do what I can to help people. Now you, on the other hand, ARE a hero."
"Me? How do you figure that, Xena?"
"I'll give you an example." Her brow furrowed. "Remember the Horde? All I wanted to do was fight, to kill, and I practically gave myself back to Ares in order to try and stop them."
"But you didn't. Xena, you resisted your dark urges, and in the end you figured out how to win."
Xena shook her head. "Thanks to you. It's only because you were willing to view the Horde as more than just a bunch of mindless savages. You made an stand Gabrielle, you tried to communicate with them and you risked your life to save me and those Athenian soldiers. It was YOU, not me."
"I guess." Gabrielle lay put her head and Xena's shoulder. "But, I'd rather think of it as a team effort. I mean...I might have given you the idea, but YOU figured out how to use it."
"Okay. If it makes you feel better, let's call it even, all right?"
"Oh no." Gabrielle rolled over and straddled the warrior's hips. "We're not even Xena, not by a long shot. See I still owe you."
Xena frowned. "Owe me? For what?"
The bard ran her finger's between Xena's breasts, smiling as the warrior trembled. "Just lay back and relax. Let ME take care of everything. Fair..." She lowered her head, and kissed Xena's neck. "...is fair." Gabrielle removed Xena's shift so it wouldn't be in the way later, and then began to slowly knead her soft, full breasts. The warrior arched her back slightly and moaned, her nipples hardening against the bard's palms. "You love it when I touch you, don't you?" Xena nodded. "What do you want, Xena? Tell me."
After a moment of staring into her lover's eyes, the warrior reached up and pulled Gabrielle down for a hungry kiss. "Make love to me..." she whispered into the bard's ear. "Please."
Gabrielle smiled. "I think I can do that." She shifted around, so her body was positioned between Xena's legs, and they both gasped when she pressed the wetness of her own sex against that of the warrior's. For a moment they lay there, reveling in the sensation's racing through their bodies, and then the bard began to push against her lover. Back and forth, harder and harder, and the friction between them built to a fever pitch. Xena lifted her legs and clutched her knees tight around Gabrielle's thrusting hips, while she dug her fingernails into the bard's bare shoulders. They gasped and moaned, sweat covering their writhing bodies, bringing each other closer and closer to the edge, until the pressure within grew too intense to contain. Warrior and bard clung to one another as the mutual climaxes washed over them both with incredible force.
Momentarily exhausted--Gabrielle rolled off and snuggled up beside her lover--breasts heaving as she tried to catch her breath. Xena gave an uncharacteristic smile as she kissed the bard's forehead. "You know I'm starting to think I'm TOO good a teacher. You're insatiable. And, if we keep going at this pace, chances are, I won't have to worry about dieing in battle any more." It was meant as a joke, but Xena regretted her words the moment she said them. At once there was a noticeable change in Gabrielle's demeanor; the way her eyes narrowed, the lines of her face went taut and she'd begun absently chewing on her lower lip. The last was a sure sign that her mind was working overtime, debating whether or not to say something. The warrior settled into place and waited, the words would come sooner or later.
"Xena...?" Her voice was quiet, almost hesitant.
"Yes, Gabrielle?" The warrior tried to keep her voice even. "What is it?"
"D-Do you everything think about...US? You know, what our future holds?"
Xena was quiet a moment. The question surprised her, but the answer--for once in her life--was simple. "Yes I do as a matter of fact. I know we can't keep this life up forever. Sooner or later, either I'm going to get too old to fight any longer or more likely, I'll just get in one fight too many and it'll all be over." She stopped the bard from interrupting with a kiss. "Don't get me wrong, I don't WANT to die. In fact, not so long ago, the idea of getting old was little more than wishful thinking. I'm a warrior Gabrielle, and I have been for most of my life. Most of the time I never looked any further ahead than the next battle, the death and destruction I could cause was the only thing that mattered to me. But then I met YOU, and everything changed. I saw there was more to life to fighting and killing, and now I still don't know what's in store for me, but I DO know this. As long as you are by my side Gabrielle, I can take anything the gods, the Fates or the future care to throw at me!"
Tear's filled Gabrielle's eyes as she turned to kiss her beloved.
Miles away from Amphipolis, a swirling doorway of darkness took shape out of the very air itself. For several moments it floated innocuously, then there was a sudden flash of black light and heat, as two figures were tossed helplessly out of it.
One was tall and lean, wearing long pants and a khaki shirt, locks of her raven-hair hanging in her face as she gasped for air. The second was short and muscular, had strawberry-blond hair spilling out all over her shoulders. She wore leather and khaki, and a fedora with a bullet hole in it. Though she was clearly unconscious, the smaller of the two was also clutching a sword in her hand, so tightly that her knuckles had turned white.
"Oh...my head..." Melinda got to her hands and knees--though it was no easy task since her body was on fire and her skull threatened to explode from within--and groaned. "What happened?" The past few days were sort of a blur to her; Ares's temple, the Nightstone, Martyr. He had said he was using the artifact to create a 'portal', but a portal to...where? She heard a strange sound, like all the air being let out of a balloon, and looked over her shoulder in time to see the mystic doorway collpasing in on itself. "Oh my."
Someone moaned. No, she realized, not just someone. "Janice!" Melinda struggled to her feet and raced to the archeologist's side, where she was relieved to find her pulse strong and steady. "Thank goodness." As she put her mind to it, she recalled seeing them fight--Martyr even threw Janice into the Nightstone at one point--and it had hit her with that strange black lightning as a result. But from what she could see of Janice's body she didn't appear to have been injured too badly. I need to get her to a doctor, but how?
"N-No...can't..." Janice began to stir, her head snapping from side to side, her face red. "...can't let you...!" She was still unconscious, but her eyelids fluttered, and she moved her hands as if she was trying to push, or keep, someone away. "Too much...it's too..." Her back arched, and she began to scream.
"Janice?! Janice?!" Fear gripped Melinda's heart, and she in turn grabbed the archeologist's shoulders, trying to ease her convulsions. "What do I do?"
"NOOO!" Abruptly, Janice sat bolt upright, her eyes wide-open but glassy, and all the color draining from her face. She shuddered and gasped, trying to catch her breath. "H-How...where...?"
Melinda licked her lips, and put a hand on the archeologist's arm. "Janice, are you all right?"
Janice glanced down at the southerner's hand first, and then up to her face, before her eyes seemed to lighten in recognition. "You...Mel? I...we...alive?" She put a hand to her forehead and groaned. "Oh damn, it feels like a cannon going off in my head. What happened?"
"I'm not exactly sure." Melinda stood up, and helped Janice do the same. "Martyr opened some kind of portal and we were pulled inside. Now we are here...wherever HERE is."
"Hey, where's our stuff?!" Janice looked around. "The tent, the scrolls, where'd everything go?" The archeol- ogist was understandably confused, angry, their surroundings were nothing like they remembered. More grass and trees, a dirt road some distance to the northeast. "Mel, what is going on here?"
"I don't know, Janice. I don't know."
Eventually they both started to get hungry and thirsty, and decided to follow the dirt road in the hopes that it would lead to civilization. Janice knew it was a well-used path, there were numerous foot and hoof-prints going in both directions. Finally after almost an hour of walking--and still with no end in sight--they stopped to take a break. Melinda plopped right to the ground, while Janice leaned against a tree.
The arcehologist was frowning. "Something doesn't fit, Mel. I scouted this area before we set up camp, and it has some familiar landmarks." She pointed. "Those mountains in the distance, some of those bigger trees, they are still the same. But there's a lot more grass, trees, it's so much wilder than I remember."
Melinda shrugged. "I know." She stood up. "It's almost as if we're still in the same part of Greece, but a whole lot younger. Or..." Her eyes widened as she saw something behind the archeologist. "Oh my goodness? Janice, do you see what I see?"
Janice turned, and her eyes--like Melinda's--widened. "What the hell?"
A wagon was approaching from down the road, loaded with barrels, not an unusual sight in and of itself. The big and burly bearded man holding the reins was wearing old leathers and a turban-like hat, which again wasn't so unusual. Even the young blond woman seated beside him, wearing colored robes that looked like something out of an old movie, was not enough to really draw their attention. But, the massive being walking ahead of the wagon--who was in fact pulling it single-handedly, was nearly impossible to believe.
From the waist up he looked like any other man, albeit one with a particularly impressive physique. Muscular, he had leathery skin darkened by the sun, narrow eyes that scanned the treeline around him, and straight black hair that flowed upon his broad shoulders. A makeshift leather harness across his barrel chest was part of what allowed him to tow this wagon behind him so easily. The rest--the real power--came from the fact that below the waist was the body of a horse; strong legs and sleek black fur.
Even though she knew it was rude, Melinda couldn't help but stare. "I-Is that what I think it is?"
"Yeah." Janice was just as stunned as the southerner. "A Centaur."
Centaurs, horse-men of the ancient world, were largely considered a myth in the archeological community. No proof of their existence had ever been uncovered, yet there was mention of them throughout the scrolls. Xena's travel had led her into numerous encounters with Centaurs over the years--both with and against them--and by all accounts she considered them, in general, to be a brave and noble people. Still, to actually see a Centaur live and in-person was something of a shock, even to the usually jaded archeologist.
This Centaur seemed equally surprised to see them. His eyes narrowed as he stopped the wagon nearby, one hand drifting down to the battle-axe on his belt. "You two have a problem?"
Janice--to her credit--recovered quickly. "N-No, no problem." She took a deep breath. "I just have never seen a Centaur pulling a wagon before, that's all."
The Centaur shifted from hoof to hoof and grunted. "Don't mind Eryk, ladies..." The wagon-driver handed the reins to the young woman beside him, and climbed out of the wagon. "He always gets a bit testy on the last leg of a long haul." He approached them warily. "Name's Danus. That's my daughter Sarah."
"I'm Janice, and this is Melinda."
Danus nodded. Their clothes looked odd, but neither woman appeared to be a threat, especially not with Eryk there. "Pleased to meet you." He glanced around. "You know, there's been reports of robbers in this area, and it ain't safe for two ladies on their own. If you want, we could give you a ride."
Eryk grunted. "Oh great, more weight."
Ignoring him, Janice nodded. "Actually, that would be great. Where are you headed?"
"This trail leads to only one place." Danus pointed up the road. "Amphipolis."
"...and with one final gasp, the creature that had once been Dagnon the warlord fell to the ground, impaled on the shaft of the mighty crossbow. And so it was the crowd of men, women and Centaurs rose to cheer the great warrior princess who had saved them all." Gabrielle got to her feet and bowed, as patrons and employees of the tavern alike applauded, and several placed donations in the cup. "Thank you."
At a table near the back of the tavern, it's owner--Cyrene--shook her head. "Gods, is that true?"
Xena finished what was in her mug before answering. "More or less." She was thankful for the less, however, as Gabrielle had deliberately left out one important fact; Solan's birthright. While the bard had in fact mentioned the boy in her story, she was careful not to say anything about his being Xena's son. Even after all these years, the warrior still felt it was in Solan's best interest that no one know his true parentage, and though Gabrielle had openly disagreed with her hiding the truth from him, she relented to the request. "She still has a tendency to be a little overdramatic about certain things."
"Oh, don't me so modest, Xena. She's proud of you." Cyrene patted her daughter's hand. "And so am I. Truth be told, I'm delighted at how much you've changed in these last two years." She nodded towards the bard, who was still on-stage shaking hands, and smiled. "And it is--in no small part--thanks to Gabrielle. I thank the Fates, and any gods who might be listening, for the day they brought her into your life."
Xena nodded. "So do I mother." She stood up as Gabrielle approached the table. "You were wonderful. When you tell that story, I almost feel like I was there."
The bard shook her head as she dropped into a chair beside the warrior. "Xena, you WERE there."
"Oh yeah. I always forget that part. Guess I was too busy trying to stay alive." Gabrielle and Cyrene looked at eachother, confused, until the warrior broke into a smile. "It was a joke. Even I am allowed to make one every so often you know."
"Of course you are, Xena." Gabrielle smiled. "It's just so hard to tell when you do."
The warrior raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying I have no sense of humor?"
"Not at all. Merely that no one else seems to understand it but you." The three women laughed.
Cyrene raised her head as the tavern door burst open. "Oh, it appears I have a customer. Excuse me." She got up and approached the newcomer, who Gabrielle could not see because her back was to the door. Xena looked him over, categorized him as not being a threat, and turned her eyes back to Gabrielle.
"You're not the only one who can be funny you know."
The bard shrugged. "Maybe, but between the two of us I'm the only one who does it very well." It was good- natured teasing of course, and Gabrielle always marveled at the fact that she was one of the few people around who could play with Xena this way. She thought about their previous night's activitity, and a faint smile trailed across her face. Then there's some ways I know that NOBODY else is playing.
"Gabrielle?" Cyrene's voice behind her surprised the bard. "There's someone here to see you."
Funny, I'm not expecting anyone. Gabrielle rose and turned to see the tavern owner with a hand comfortingly on the shoulder of a young man in peasant clothes, who appeared about the same age as Gabrielle herself. The bard's eyes widened in recognition. "Thyrus?"
He nodded. "Hello Gabrielle. It's been a long time."
"It's good to see you." She embraced the young man, and he returned the attention with a big smile. "So what brings you all the way to Amphipolis?"
Thyrus dug into a pouch at his hip, and drew out a folded piece of parchment. "I was looking for you, to give you a message from your sister."
"Lila?" Gabrielle took the parchment and began to read. "Is something wrong?"
Thyrus continued, as if he had not heard the question. "Several of us were sent out to try and find you. Since you travel with Xena and it is known she comes from Amphipolis, I came here on the off-chance the two of you might have stopped by for a visit. I guess I got lucky."
Gabrielle gasped. "I don't believe it." Xena rose, more curious than ever about the contents of the parchment, but she was not about to read over the bard's shoulders. "Xena...Lila's getting married. She's getting married in a weeks time and she wants me home. To be her maid-of-honor!"
"I'm happy for you." The warrior grasped her lover's arm, and smiled. "And for your sister."
Thyrus crossed his arms. "If you want, I'll go on ahead and tell them you're coming, Gabrielle."
The bard nodded. "Thank you Thyrus, I'd appreciate that."
"It's no problem." He eyed Xena. "W-Will you be bringing anyone, or...?"
Gabrielle was still too busy looking at the note to see the dislike in her friend's eyes, or the reaction it got from Xena. "Of course. Xena and I will be there as soon as we can."
Cyrene noticed the rising tension at the table, and clasped Thyrus's shoulders. "Seeing as you've such a long trip ahead of you young man." She directed him toward the bar. "Why not have a drink for the road? It's on the house of course, seeing as you bring such happy news."
Thyrus shook his head. "Thank you ma'am, but I've another stop to make before Potedia." He started towards the door, only to stop and glare at Xena for a moment before leaving.
Xena did not miss the significance of the gesture. "Gabrielle? I think we need to talk about this."
"What?" The bard looked up from the parchment, only then seeing a growing concern on Xena's face. "Don't tell me you have something against weddings?"
"No." Xena sighed. "But I think your family, and a lot of others in Potedia will have a problem with ME. There are still plenty of people who hate me because of what I used to be, and I can't say as I blame them. My coming to the wedding ceremony with you might be more trouble than it's worth, and I'd hate to do anything that might take away from your sister's special day."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, don't be ridiculous. You're coming with me, I wouldn't have it any other way, okay? And if Lila--or mother--or anyone else has a problem with your being there...then by the Gods they'll just have to discuss it with me!"
Xena knew better than to argue with the bard. Once she had put her mind to doing something, Gabrielle could be just as stubborn as the warrior herself, moreso in some ways. "All right, we'll set out after lunch. I would not want you to have to travel on an empty stomach."
"Neither would I."
Lunch could not come soon enough for Gabrielle. Even as Cyrene started cooking in the kitchen the bard was at her side, the idea being that the more she helped, the faster the food would be ready, and the sooner she and Xena could start out for Potedia. They gathered their supplies and weapons, said their good-byes to the tavern owner and saddled Argo before anyone else had been fed. Cyrene stood outside, waving until Argo was out of sight. "Fates be with you..." she said under her breath as she went back into her tavern.
Even before Eryk had brought the wagon to a halt, Janice was leaping out of the back end and staring around with a look of complete amazement on her face. She had been talking--albeit quietly so as not to confuse Danus and the others about their origin--nonstop about coming to Amphipolis, silencing herself only when the village actually came into view. Melinda watched her in amusement for a moment, then climbed out of the wagon and--seeing how the archeologist was obviously far too preoccupied--turned to smile up at the wagon driver and his daughter. "Oh Danus, Sarah, I wanted to thank you both for the ride."
The big man shrugged. "No trouble at all, Miss." Eryk grunted. "Always happy to help. But we have to be on our way now, got this seed and grain due to be delivered."
"I understand." Melinda approached Eryk as the Centaur was adjusting his harness. "And you...I particularly want to thank you, Eryk. Growing up, I've heard lots of bad things about your people. I'm glad to see that many of them aren't true."
The Centaur grunted again. "Figures. Everybody teaches their kids to be afraid of the Centaurs." He glared at her for a moment, and his frown deepened. "Hey, anybody ever say you look like..."
Danus cleared his throat. "Eryk, we really need to be moving on."
"Yeah, yeah." The Centaur lurched forward, and the wagon came along behind him.
Melinda continued to wave until the wagon was out of sight. She looked around for Janice and was surprised to find the archeologist examining a wall. "What ARE you doing?"
"Would you look at this? It's real, it's really real." Janice shook her head. "At first I thought maybe it was just a dream, like I'd been hit on the head one too many times. But Mel, we're actually in Amphipolis. Somehow, that portal Martyr opened sent us back in time, and dropped us in the lost city of Amphipolis."
"Well, it's not lost just yet." Melinda nodded toward some townspeople, who seemed to be staring at them an inordinate amount. The southerner looked down at herself, and almost immediatly, realized why they all seemed to be pointing at them and whispering. "Oh my goodness...Janice! I think our clothes are attracting more notice than either of us wants or needs right now. As long as we're going to be here, in this 'time period' or whatever, I think it would be prudent for us to try and look the part."
Janice, however, didn't seem to have heard her. "Just think Mel...Xena was born somewhere around here. She walked up and down these streets at one time. THIS is where the legend of the warrior princess first began, and this is..." She grabbed the southerner's arm. "Mel! Xena, could even be here now! Remember what Martyr said, something about going back, to prevent Xena from stopping the Bloodsword? He blew it, but we're still here! If we're lucky, we might actually get to talk to Xena, and maybe even see her in action."
"That's all well and good, Janice." More people were stopping to stare at them now. "But I don't think THIS is either the time or the place to discuss such things, do you?" Even the distracted archeologist was beginning to notice all the undue attention they were receiving. Melinda pointed toward a nearby building, where she'd seen a large number of tipsy looking people exit a few minutes past. "Let's try in there."
Janice had made a similar observation, and she nodded. "Good idea. I could use a drink."
Cyrene was wiping down an empty table when she heard the tavern door open behind her. "I'll be with you in just a moment." She was whistling a tune she used to do for Xena when she was little, and the memory brought a smile to her lips as she turned. "How can I help..." Her eyes widened. "Gods."
Two women were standing in the doorway, staring back at her. While their clothes were different--unlike what she was accustomed to seeing--their faces were unmistakable. One of them looked just like Xena, and the other was a dead ringer for Gabrielle. In fact, if she had not known they were well on their way to Potedia by now, she might have thought it WAS them, trying to play a trick on her.
"Who are you?" the tavern owner asked warily.
Janice and Melinda both stopped and glanced at eachother, both thinking the same thing. Uh oh, this woman must know Xena and Gabrielle. Knowing any further conversation might be awkward, at best, the archeologist took the initiative and stepped forward. "My name is Janice, and this is Melinda."
Cyrene shook her head. "Your name's mean nothing to me. But what I want to know, is...why does your friend there look so much like my daughter?"
Daughter? Janice managed to contain her surprise, but Melinda gasped. Xena's mother? What the hell do we tell her? "I don't know." Better make sure. "Who IS your daughter?"
The tavern owner's frown deepened. "Don't play games with me child. I've seen enough people come through in my time to know when someone's lieing. I think you both know damn well who my daughter is, and I want an answer to my question."
A hundred different things were running through Janice's mind. The truth would be too crazy, but what other explanation was there? Just as she had come up with an explanation she thought might suit Xena's mother, she was surprised when Melinda spoke first.
"Did Xena ever tell you about princess Diana?" the southerner asked.
Cyrene was momentarily taken aback. "Yes, the daughter of King Lias. She said that Diana looked a great deal like her, as did another woman, Meg. Why?"
"Because, I AM Meg...King Lias's personal cook." Melinda put her hand around Janice's shoulder. "This is a friend of mine, Janice." She looked around, and lowered her voice as if afraid someone in the tavern might over-hear what she was saying. "We're travelling in disguise, gathering some special ingrediants for a feast the King is planning. That's why Janice called me Melinda."
Cyrene's eyes narrowed as she listened to the tale, but when it was over, her smile returned. "Well, I suppose, but it's odd that your friend looks so much like Gabrielle."
Melinda nodded. "Yes I know. I met her a few days ago, and when I realized how much she looked like Xena's little friend, I thought Xena and Gabrielle might like to meet her. That's why we came here, I'd hoped someone in Amphipolis might know how to find them."
"Unfortunately, you just missed the both of them. They're on their way to Potedia...Gabrielle's sister is getting married shortly, and she's going to be the maid of honor." Cyrene motioned toward the bar. "You've come all of this way, could I offer you something to eat or drink?"
Janice shrugged. "I could use a shot." She followed Cyrene and Melinda to a table, and sat down. "You have any ale?" The tavern owner nodded.
Melinda seemed uncomfortable. "I'm not much for drinking. Can I just have some sort of juice?"
"Of course." Cyrene smiled. "I'll be back in a moment."
Once she was gone Janice turned to the southerner. "Mel, that was great. How'd you pull it off? Where'd you hear about these Diana and Meg people?"
"How do you think?" Melinda smiled. "I read it in one of the scrolls, and I just took a chance that Xena would have told the story to her mother."
The archeologist shook her head. "Damn you're good. I'll tell you, if all these people weren't watching, I'd kiss you right here and now."
"Why wait? I'm not ashamed." Melinda raised an eyebrow. "Are you?"
Janice licked her lips. "Now that you mention it, not at all." She leaned across the table, took Melinda's face in her hands, and kissed the southerner will all the passion she could muster.
By the time they seperated, both women were breathing heavily and Melinda was flushed. "Oh my goodness, are you always THIS passionate?"
"Only about certain things..." Janice tickled the southerner's neck with her fingers. "...and people."
Cyrene cleared her throat to announce herself as she approached their table, bearing a tray with two mugs. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
Melinda's cheeks turned several shades of red, but Janice was a bit more composed as she took the proffered mug of ale and sipped it. "Whoa, good stuff." She looked up at the tavern owner. "Say since you're here, could I ask you a question?"
Cyrene nodded. "Certainly."
"You said Xena and Gabrielle were going to Potedia, didn't you? Well, could you tell us how to get there? See Mel...Meg and I need to talk to them, and we're not familiar with this area."
Xena had always told her mother to be wary of strangers. There was always a chance someone could come to Amphipolis looking to fight the warrior princess, but someone might also be looking for help. Cyrene had--long ago--learned to trust her senses on such matters. Though she wasn't exactly sure why or how, she got a feeling she could trust these two. "Tell you what...I'll do better than that. I know the route they were planning to take, I can draw you a map which should allow you to catch up to them."
Janice took another sip of her ale. "Thanks, that'd be helpful."
Cyrene set out in search of a piece of parchment, while Melinda turned to the archeologist with a puzzled look on her face. "Janice, I know that look. What are you up to?"
"Mel, don't you get it? We have to find a way back home. Don't forget, Xena and Gabrielle fought Martyr and his bunch, and they have experience with the Nightstone. I'm hoping if we can find them, and convince them of who we are, maybe they'll know of some way to get us home."
Melinda nodded. "I hope you're right, 'cause I've got this feeling something bad is going to happen if we stay in this time period too long."
"I don't know. It's just...a feeling."
Not far from where Janice and Melinda had appeared, there was a small stream partially hidden by trees. In it--partially submerged in the water and muck--lay the Nightstone. It's outer surface had lost it's luster and become brittle, while a series of jagged cracks leaked tendrils of inky blackness into the water. As a result dead fish and other small animals were scattered all around the bank--it literally smelled of death.
Suddenly, a fiery aura of energy took shape nearby. For a moment it just hovered there before coalescing into a vaguely humanoid shape; a small, wiry looking man with unnaturally pale skin, wild eyes, and a bizarre spiked hairdo. He was wearing full black body-leathers covered in studs and chains which rattled as he dropped to his hands and knees and stared at the Nightstone.
His face contorted into an insane smile as he started to giggle. "Hehehe...a new toy! Uncle will LOVE this!" A moment later he got to his feet, bounced up and down for a few moments then reached down and picked up the Nightstone. Effortlessly he lifted it over his head--still laughing--and vanished.
Gabrielle had been so anxious to get home, she was actually willing to try and ride Argo. But, after she almost fell off--and considering she felt somewhat sick to her stomach that whole time--the bard eventually gave up on the idea and went back to walking. Given their route the journey would take three days, two if they hurried--but Xena insisted it was not safe to rush TOO much--so as night fell they set up camp.
Later, sitting across the fire from Xena, Gabrielle stared at the warrior through the flames. She grinned. "Gods, you are SO beautiful."
Xena lowered her sword--which she'd been sharpening--and lifted her head. "What did you say?"
"I just said you were beautiful. Amazing. Xena, how come you can hear a twig snap from like half a mile away, yet I'm right here and you never seem to heard a word I say?"
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle." The warrior took a moment to sheath her sword. "I guess, I'm just distracted with all this wedding business."
"YOU'RE distracted? Xena, you're just going to be a guest...I have to take part in the ceremony. I mean I have never done this before, what if I mess up...Lila would be so mad...I don't want to..."
Xena shook her head as the bard started to talk so fast her words blurred together. Once, Gabrielle's talkative nature had annoyed her no end--she preferred actions over words--but this young woman's upbeat personality had grown on the stern warrior. Now, I can't imagine my life without her. The bard finally paused long enough to take a breath, and she spoke up. "Gabrielle!"
The bard raised her head. "What?" She saw the look on Xena's face, and her cheeks reddened. "Oh, sorry. I'm a little nervous, could you tell?"
"Yeah, I managed to figure that out." Xena lifted the spit out of the fire. "Now, would you mind getting us the cheese and water? Meat's almost ready to eat."
Gabrielle nodded, and reached for the packs, which were laying nearby.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"Yeah. So just relax, would you?"
Melinda stood behind Janice, who was crouched by a pit full of dry leaves and branches, trying to start a fire with some flint and iron. They had left Amphipolis shortly after Cyrene provided them with a map, and travelled until it was too dark to see before deciding to set up camp for the night. They had been forced to haggle with a local merchant in order to get some much needed supplies; Janice found her leather jacket and hat were in great demand, and traded them for food and water, ropes, a bedroll and a sheath for Xena's sword--which she'd made sure to hide out of sight while they were in the tavern. Melinda--on the other hand--sacrificed a golden bracelet and one of her rings for two riding horses--which were grazing at a patch of grass nearby--as well as some more 'period' clothing, so they could blend in with the natives.
The southerner wore a long brown skirt, blue peasant blouse and boots, and her hair back in a ponytail; while the archeologist had taken to a single piece leather tunic/breeches combination, which bared her arms and legs, and let her hair hang loose upon her shoulders. With a little help from Melinda--who used her wit and charm on the shopkeeper--she was also able to get a whip out of the deal. Just having the familiar weapon made her feel a great deal better, as Janice had not been keen on the idea of having to use Xena's sword if they ran into danger out here. Not that she was actually looking for trouble, but if it DID come, the archeologist planned to be ready for it. However, she had a much more current dilemma; in that night had fallen with no sign of Xena or Gabrielle, it was quickly growing colder AND she hadn't been able to get a fire started.
"Damn!" Janice threw down the flint and iron, and leaned back. "Why didn't I carry matches?!"
"Hey, calm down." Melinda came around behind the archeologist and began to rub her shoulders. "Relax. I'm sure you'll get it sooner or later." She leaned forward and kissed the archeologist's neck. "In the meantime, isn't there SOME other way for us to keep warm?"
Janice wrapped her arms around the southerner and pulled her to the bedroll. "Definitely." The archeologist's hands quickly went to work removing Melinda's clothing--followed by her own--and then she carefully lowered herself over the southerner and began to kiss her breasts. She gently suckled first one hardening brown nipple, and then the other, causing Melinda's lean frame to writhe and moan. Janice slowly moved down Melinda's firm stomach and gave extra loving attention to her inner thighs, before carefully grazing the downy patch of ebony hair between Melinda's legs with her lips.
The southerner's back arched as she gasped. "God, J-Janice...please..."
"Your wish is my command." Janice wrapped her arms around Melinda's firm thighs and--with a smile--started to gently probe the southerner's center with her tongue. Melinda's hips bucked involuntarily as she tangled her fingers into the archeologist's strawberry blond hair and tossed her head back.
"Yes! Oh Janice, oh...yes! YES!"
Janice continued the most intimate of explorations until the tip of her tongue found the hard bundle of nerves that she knew would drive her lover wild. As she caressed it with her lips and tongue, Melinda's body bounced off the bedroll in a long, jagged gasp of pleasure. Her hips thrust--harder and harder--against the archeologist's willing and hungry tongue, every manner of sound escaping her lips.
"I-I can't...I-I can't..." Melinda's body arched off the bedroll, her legs tightening around Janice's bobbing head as the onset of release threatened to overwhelm all of her senses. At the very last she saw stars dancing before her eyes, and the eruption was fantastic. "JANICE YES!" The southerner continued to shudder and moan, long after Janice curled up beside her and began to kiss her neck.
The archeologist smiled. "Judging from your reaction, I think I'm getting better at this."
Melinda could barely think or speak. "You know, if we keep this up, you are going to kill me."
"Maybe. But what a way to go." Janice sat up, licking her lips. "Now, let's just see about that fire..."
"Oh no you don't." Melinda grabbed the smaller woman and twisted around so that she was straddling Janice now. "I'm going to start a fire all right, but...I won't need the flint." She began to caress and squeeze the archeo-logist's firm breasts, marveling at the feel of the hard pink nipples against her palms. "Hmm...you like that, don't you?" Despite herself Janice squirmed, her back arching to meet the southerner's gentle touch. "Yes, I thought as much. You love it, don't you?"
Janice shook her head as she moaned. "N-No...I love...you..."
"I..." A tear rolled down Melinda's cheek, but she wiped it away and slid down to kiss Janice's ribcage. "Yes, I know you love me..." she whispered between kisses. "I love you too."
"Then...show me Mel..." The archeologist's back arched again. "Please!"
Melinda desperately wanted to make Janice feel as wonderful as she had only moments ago, so she slid down the rest of the archeologist's body, and nuzzled the soft blonde hair between her legs. At once Janice reacted, a shiver ran through her small, muscular frame, and she moaned with pleasure. But the southerner had just begun as she darted her tongue into Janice's sex in search of the center of her passion. The archeologist's hips rose as Melinda's unskilled but willing lips and tongue entered her body and she tangled her finger's in her lover's silky black hair. Melinda continued to explore until she stumbled--quite by accident--on a hard bundle of nerves, and knew at once she'd found something special as Janice's hips bucked against her face and she could feel a surge of heat throughout the archeologist's body. It wasn't long after that before Janice's entire body began to writhe and tremble, caught up in explosive release which claimed her mind, body and soul, causing the archeologist to cry out in perfect ecstasy.
Janice was still recovering when Melinda came up and nuzzled her neck. "God woman, have you been getting some extra practice in behind my back or something?"
"Only with you, my love." Melinda lay her head on the archeologist's shoulder. "Only with you."
Not surprisingly, Gabrielle was the first one up the next morning. She rose with the sun, fed and watered Argo and had started breakfast by the time Xena began to stir. The bard was a regular bundle of energy, chattering a mile a minute and obviously anxious to be underway, while the warrior seemed just the opposite. She ate break-fast at a frustratingly slow pace--for Gabrielle's liking at least--and ignored repeated attempts to get her moving, responding with as few words as possible. Finally, they DID set out...only to have Xena insist they stop by the next creek they came to in order to fish and bath. The warrior's attitude, which was unusually gruff even for her, finally got to be too much for Gabrielle, and she spoke up.
"Xena, is something wrong?" The bard was sitting--stark naked--on the bank of the creek, wringing water out of her hair. "I mean, you're quieter than usual, and you don't usually drag your feet like this. Is it Lila's wedding, or just going back to Potedia in general that's bothering you?"
The warrior stood nearby--also naked--in waist deep water, her head cocked to one side while she listened for the subtle disruption in the surface that would indicate a fish. "Neither..." she said without looking up. "Tell me something Gabrielle, what do you know about Satyr's?"
"Huh?" The question was so unexpected, it took Gabrielle a moment to form her response. "Oh, Satyrs? Well, as I recall they're half-man/half-goat creatures. They're supposed to be very strong, very tough, and--according to some stories I've read...immortal."
Xena chuckled. "One thing's for sure, they're NOT immortal, trust me." Xena abruptly slammed her hands into the water, and came up a moment later with a wriggling trout, the third such fish she had caught in the past few minutes. She brought it to shore and sat down beside Gabrielle. "As for the rest, well...we're heading into a bad area, Gabrielle. See, there is a tribe of wild Satyr's living in the hills above Amphipolis. Now, most of the time we stay out of their way and they stay out of ours but once a year they come down to hunt in this area. We'll be in their territory soon, and I just wanted you to be prepared."
"Gods...I used to hear stories about them when I was a kid. It is said they steal children from their beds during the night. Is that true?"
"Well, they ARE cannibalistic. I've seen Satyr's tear men apart to get at their flesh."
Gabrielle suppressed a shiver. "If they're in this area...Xena, are Potedia and Amphipolis safe?"
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that, Gabrielle. They're tough and mean all right, but Satyr's are not smart or tactically minded as a rule. They would never be able to organize enough to threaten a city. That's why most of them stick to the woods, hunting animals and the occasional unwary traveller." Xena saw Gabrielle shudder, and smiled. "Don't worry, I'll do everything in my power to keep you safe."
Janice and Melinda were up with the sun as well. They ate some bread and cheese for breakfast, then saddled up their horses and set out to continue following the trail. When they first got the horses in Amphipolis, Janice was somewhat surprised Melinda knew how to ride at all--but the southerner insisted she had won a number of riding and jumping trophies at her father's country club.
"You know, you just keep surprising me Mel." They were riding side by side, having been on the trail for just over an hour. "Is there ANYTHING you CAN'T do?"
The southerner seemed to consider this for a moment. "Well, let me see...I don't know how to fly a plane and I can't dance worth a lick." She paused. "Oh and I don't know how to fight either. That's one thing you definitely have over me, Janice."
"Take it from me Mel, fighting is not all it's cracked up to be." The archeologist stared wistfully at Melinda for a moment. "You know in a way, I envy you. I mean, you're so beautiful and charming, you can usually talk your way out of a fight. I always have to use my fists."
"Yeah, but if we DO get into a fight, I know you can handle it. You're an incredible woman, Janice."
"So are you Mel. I..." The archeologist suddenly pulled back on the reins--stopping her horse--while Melinda continued on for a moment without realizing it. "Whoa girl. Easy." Janice patted the gray mare's mane, and then rolled out of the saddle. "I'm going to check on something." She glanced over her shoulder as Melinda spurred her horse to a stop nearby, eyes wide.
"Is something wrong?"
Janice shook her head. "No. I just noticed some smoke in this clearing, and I wanted to see if there's someone camped here." The southerner climbed out of her saddle. "It could be Xena and Gabrielle."
"Or not." Melinda looked worried. "What if it ISN'T them? It could be someone not so nice."
The archeologist put her hand on the whip on her belt. "Like you said, I'll handle it. Now come on would you, we're wasting daylight." They led the horses into the clearing, where Janice soon found the remains of a fire. "I was right about seeing that smoke." She poked it with a stick. "Hmm...just what I thought. It's less than an hour old. Whoever was here didn't leave very long ago, we may still be able to catch up."
"Yeah, but how do you know it's them?"
Janice shrugged. "I don't, not for certain at least. But Xena's mother said very few people come this route this time of year, so chances are it IS Xena and Gabrielle." They climbed back onto their horses. "If nothing else, it'll probably be someone who has seen them, talked to them, you know?"
"I suppose so. It's just, I'm getting a bad feeling about this whole thing, Janice. I'm worried."
"Why? Mel, we've already faced the god of war himself. How bad could things possibly get?"
"Strife, I've got to hand it to you...you've got great taste in gifts." High on Mount Olympus, Ares leaned back in his throne, and stroked his beard. The younger god was laying on the ground by the Nightstone--which had been placed upon a brand-new golden pedestal--with his head in his hands. "But where did you say you found this thing again?"
"Outside Amphipolis." He giggled. "Why?"
The god of war's frown deepened. "Hmm...Xena's home village. That CAN'T be a coincidence."
"Is something wrong, Unc?" Strife rolled to his feet. "I thought you'd be happy with this...whatever this thing is. I mean, it practically radiates death and destruction, you know?"
"You're right, it has definite potential." Ares shook his head. "But I need to know more. I don't like something this powerful being built without my knowing about it, especially if it concerns Xena."
"Hey Uncle, are you still hung up over the warrior princess? Don't you think, if she were really going to come back to you she would have done it by now?"
Ares ignored his nephew's jibes. "Go back down...and try to find out who created this thing." He stood up. "I have some things to do in the meantime."
"That's cool." Strife bounced up and down until Ares glared at him. "Like what?"
"I'm going to pay a visit to an old friend."
"Xena? I'm really not sure this is a good idea." Gabrielle was seated--rather unsteadily--in Argo's saddle while the warrior walked on ahead, leading the mare by the reins. "You know what this does to my stomach. I still say that if Zeus had meant for me to ride, he would have made horses shorter."
"Like I told you...if we ARE attacked, I want to be able to get you out of danger as fast as possible and this is the best thing I could come up with on short notice, all right?"
"But WHY?" The bard held up her staff. "I CAN fight you know!"
Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, this isn't open for discussion. You've never fought Satyr's before, I have...I'm familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. Trust me, it's is for the best." She was expecting the argument to continue as it had been for some time now, so when the expected protests did not come she glanced up to find the bard's face sullen, and her green eyes distant. "Gabrielle?"
"What?" the bard asked after a few moments.
"Is my asking you to ride Argo what's REALLY bothering you?"
"You're doing it again."
Gabrielle turned her head to look down at the warrior. "Doubting my ability. I mean Xena, I realize I'm not--and probably never will be--as good a warrior as you, but I CAN hold my own. We've been fighting side by side for so long now, I don't understand why you still get like this sometimes."
"Okay, hold it." Xena pulled back on the reins, abruptly stopping Argo--who whinnied in protest. Her usually stoic face grew even more stern. "Gabrielle, you have to understand something. I have NEVER questioned your fighting ability, I know you can handle your own but please...don't try to be a warrior, be a bard. Remember, the true warrior fights because she HAS to, not just to prove she CAN. Do you understand?"
"I guess so." The bard shrugged her shoulders. "Xena I'm sorry I snapped at you. I know you really ARE just looking out for my best interest, but it's hard sometimes. We get into these situations and I watch you handle it so easily...I guess I get frustrated. I've worked hard to be where I am Xena, and every once and a while I'd like a little bit of encouragement, acknowledgement, you know?"
The warrior nodded. "I know, and you're right, Gabrielle. The Amazons taught you well, and you've picked up on a lot of the lessons I've taught you also."
Gabrielle was beaming now. "Thank you. THAT'S nice to hear, Xena."
"Well you're welcome. I just..." Xena--moving almost faster than the eye could follow--reached up and caught an arrow scant inches from the bard's startled face. "Damn, we're surrounded! Get down!" She yanked Gabrielle out of the saddle with one hand and swatted Argo's rump to dirtect her out of harms way, while using the other to draw her chakram. "Stay alert! They'll be on us in seconds!" Sure enough, two of the goat-men leaped out of a tree a moment later, brandishing swords. "I guess you get your fight after all."
"Great..." Gabrielle mumbled as they moved back to back. "Any chance I could change my mind?" The Satyr's took that moment of hesitation to charge. "Guess not." She barely managed to bring her staff down and block a sword aimed at her stomach, and she felt a jolt of pain through her arms as a result. Gods, they ARE strong! Her nose crinkled up as he moved closer. They STINK too! Yuck! The bard swung her staff, convincing the Satyr to take a step back. "Go take a bath, creep!"
Xena, meanwhile, was able to avoid the other Satyr's blows easily enough. Just as I remembered, they rely on strength and intimidation, not skill. I've had men in my army who fought better than THIS wounded. Her mind was not entirely on the battle however, she was more worried about Gabrielle. I have to keep an eye on her, the Satyr's wouldn't think twice about killing her, but she'll never...The warrior was torn back to reality as a blade grazed her arm, drawing blood. Damn! I have to stop letting myself get distracted like that! She jumped up and kicked the Satyr in the stomach--doubling him over--then flipped backwards and came back down with another kick which snapped his neck.
Gabrielle tried several times to knock the Satyr's sword out of his hands, but with little success. He's just TOO strong! From out of the corner of her eye she had seen Xena dispatch her opponent, and she was anxious to be rid of her own as well, albeit in a last fatal way. I have to think of SOMETHING! All at once it came to her, and a clumsy swing from the Satyr's sword gave her just the opportunity she was looking for. The bard ducked under his blade and slammed her staff down on his hooved foot, causing the Satyr to cry out in pain. He was also off-balance for a moment, and as a result it was a rather simple matter for her to swing her staff hard enough to take his feet right out from under him. He hit the ground with an angry thud. Hah! I GOT him! Her victory proved to be short-lived however, as the Satyr suddenly kicked up at her, his hooved feet striking the staff instead. It was a fearsome impact which sent it flying out of her hands and into the trees. "Oh no!"
As her attacker collapsed, Xena glanced back at Gabrielle. Gods! The bard had gotten herself into trouble, the Satyr was on his feet again and her staff was gone. NO! Drawing her chakram, she leaped over Gabrielle's body, and landed in front of the Satyr in time to block his sword. "Touch her and die!" He swung again and again, the warrior parrying his blade with her chakram each time, but even though she could feel each individual impact in her shoulders and arms his attacks did not penetrate her defenses. Same problem as before, they rely too much on raw strength! She shook her head. "Let's end this!" The warrior brought her chakram up against the base of his sword, and it sliced clear through the metal like parchment. He was so stunned, that the Satyr was unable to stop a second blow--this one to his throat--and he collapsed in a pool of his own blood. At once, Xena lowered her weapon and turned to Gabrielle. "Are you all right?"
The bard nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." No I'm not. I go to all the trouble of standing up to her, saying how I CAN fight, and then the next battle we get into I lose my staff. By the gods!
Xena could tell something was bothering the bard, and she could guess what it was. But, before she was able to say anything to comfort her lover she heard something. Movement. "Gabrielle..." the warrior said quietly, her chakram up and ready. "There's one thing I forgot to mention about Satyr's."
"What's that?" Gabrielle gasped as two more of the goat-men leaped out of a tree in front of them.
"They always hunt in packs."
Janice was down on one knee, examing some tracks in the road. "Just as I thought, the trail is fresh. A horse--with a single rider it looks like--came through here just a few minutes ago. There was someone else with them, a person walking the horse most likely. We're close Mel, real close."
Melinda--still seated on her mount--nodded. "If you say so."
"Is something wrong?" the archeologist asked as she swung back into her own saddle.
They spurred their horses onward, and the southerner was silent for a moment. "I'm not sure. It's strange, but ever since Xena's mother told us they were going to Potedia for Gabrielle's sister's wedding, I've had the oddest feeling that I've been here before. It seems so...familiar, somehow."
Janice shrugged. "You probably read about it it in one of the scrolls."
"I guess so. But I just can't shake the feeling there's something more, something I'm forgetting." They rode in silence for a few minutes, until the trees around the road grew thicker and they had to slow down. As the hoof-steps of their horses grew quieter, Melinda's face fell. "Janice, do you hear something?"
The archeologist nodded. "Yeah. It sounds like someone fighting." She climbed out of the saddle and tied the reins to a tree. "Come on, let's go have a look."
"Okay, but since we don't know what we're getting into I still say this is a bad idea." Melinda followed, noting how Janice put the scabbard holding Xena's sword across her back and uncoiled the whip from her belt. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I hope you don't have to use that."
"Believe it or not, so do I Mel." Janice WASN'T anxious to fight either--knowing any real warriors they might come across here would probably be better armed and more highly trained than she--worried the archeologist. I know I can take care of myself, but what about Mel?
"What's this?" Melinda bent down and picked something up out of the grass. It was a long wooden pole with a ring of white fur near one end. "A walking stick?"
Janice shook her head. "No that's a staff. A battle staff it looks like, and a good one. But why would someone leaving it laying way the hell out here?" The sounds of combat were even louder now, metal striking metal, and some almost animalistic grunts and growls. "Bring it and come on, Mel!" It wasn't long before they curved back to the road again, and were witness to a most amazing sight.
A tall, raven-haired woman in leather and bronze armor was being chased by two creatures which appeared to be half-man, half goat. She was running at top speed as she came to a tree, and as they looked on she used this forward momentum to actually take several steps up the trunk. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiii!" She flung herself backwards, turning head-over-heels to land behind the goat-men, and brought up her right hand--which held a familiar gold and silver discus. It flew through the air with a curious whistling sound as they were starting to turn, and sliced through their throats--then rebounded off a tree and returned to the woman's hand--even before the goat-men's bodies had finished shuddering. Nearby was a second woman, smaller than the first, with strawberry-blond hair and an angry look on her tired young face.
Janice could scarcely believe her eyes. All the stories her father had told her growing up, not to mention what legends and vague descripstions she had literally dug up on her own, none of them even came close to the real thing. Xena, the warrior princess; alive, and in action right here in front of her. She's magnificent! So strong, so fast, so...beautiful. She's everything I imagined, and more. What surprised the archeologist most, was how this woman in ancient Greece looked so much like her beloved Melinda. They could be twins.
Melinda was equally entranced. While Xena was in control of her body, she had actually had a tase of what it must have been like to BE the warrior princess; the jumping, the flipping but THIS was different. Now she really to SEE those moves in action, and it was incredible. Xena was as much gymnast and warrior as the scrolls made her out to be, a hero who actually lived up to the name. I can't believe I'm related to her! But, even though she was seeing the living legend and her companion--who was almost identical to Janice she suddenly realized, in a fading moment of clarity--in person, the southerner couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. Where was this mentioned in the scrolls?! Lila's wedding, Potedia, Satyr's, it all struck a chord. Finally, the memory clicked, and her eyes widened. "Oh my goodness!"
Gabrielle saw Xena finish the last of the Satyr's, and continued to look around for her staff. She got so caught up in the search that she never noticed a pair of dark eyes glaring at her from some brush nearby. The bard was totally unaware of his presence as she turned her back on the mysterious observer, and the Satyr took that time to charge toward her, head lowered in preparation to ram her with his horns.
Even Xena sensed his attack a moment too late, and though she had the chakram in hand, she could not get a shot off because the bard was in the way. "Gabrielle! LOOK OUT!"
Janice frowned as the southerner's hand on her arm drew her attention from the battle. "What?"
Melinda was pale. "Janice, I just remembered...I DID read about this in one of the scrolls. Xena and Gabrielle's trip to Potedia for Lila's wedding was interrupted when they were attacked by Satyr's. They fought a hard fight, but in the end Gabrielle got injured..." They both heard Xena's cry, and looked up in time to see Gabrielle as she desperately tried to get out of the way of the Satyr's attack. She was only partially successful though, and even that glancing blow was enough to lift the bard off her feet and send her flying into the face of a tree--where she slid to the ground blissfully unconscious.
"Geez Mel, you were right."
"There's more. Xena finishes off what she thinks is the last Satyr..."
"NOOOO!" The warrior pitched her chakram as hard as possible--and the discus almost decapitated the Satyr before returning to her outstretched hand--then raced to the bard's side. "GABRIELLE!"
Melinda continued, almost as if she were narrating the events taking place right before their eyes. "While she knew Gabrielle's possible injuries might make it hazardous for her to travel, Xena decided it would be even more dangerous to remain in Satyr territory, so she called in Argo." A shrill whistle pierced they air, and they heard a responding whinny and approaching hoof-falls from down the trail. "But unknown to Xena one Satyr remained, in the trees, the one who had fired arrows at them."
Now Janice's eyes widened. "Damn, I remember now! Argo accidently runs into the path of the arrows as he's firing again and is killed. Xena's never quite the same afterwards." She heard a branch snap, and looked up into the tree they were crouched under. The archeologist could just barely make out a human-like form hidden in the leaves, pointing what seemed to be a weapon at Xena and Gabrielle. At the same time they both turned to Argo as the mare came galloping into view, she would be in range in a moments. "No!" Janice uncoiled the whip, and drew her arm back. "I won't let Xena go through that grief when I can do something to stop it!"
Xena carefully scooped Gabrielle into her arms and stood up as Argo approached. It's risky, but I have to get her out of here. If there ARE any more Satyr's around, we're sitting targets. Just as the mare arrived, she heard an arrow being released from a bow and was about to react when she realized it was going to pass well over her head. At the same time there was some commotion across the road as a large figure tumbled out of a tree with a roar of anger and surprise. What in Hades?! Moments later she heard someone--definitely a woman--scream, as two people were tossed out on to the road, their backs to her.
"Interfering bitch!" The Satyr appeared--huffing and growling--with a whip wrapped around his right ankle. "I ought to kill you for that!" He carried an empty crossbow which he wielded like a makeshift club, and brought it high above his head. "I'll kill BOTH of you!"
Xena took a moment to lay Gabrielle across Argo's saddle, and then drew her chakram. Don't know who these two are but they may have just saved our lives. Guess the least I can do is return the favor. She let the chakram fly with only a moment to aim, and it cut the crossbow in half, dropping part of it down on the Satyr's head. The Satyr looked up in bewilderment while the chakram ricocheted off a tree behind him and came back to strike him full in the head this time. It sliced through one of his horns and took a chunk out of his skull, as it continued on to Xena's hand. He fell to the ground, face-down in his own blood, while the warrior returned the chakram to it's place on her belt and turned her attention to Gabrielle. A tear rolled down her cheek as she saw the bruises that had already begun to form on her lover's face. "Can you hear me?" Slumped over Argo's saddle, the bard jerked her head from side to side and moaned. "Gods Gabrielle, I'm SO sorry..."
"Xena?" The unobtrusive voice spoke up from behind her, so hauntingly familiar, especially when she turned and saw Gabrielle's face staring back at her. "Are you all right?"
"Who ARE you?" the warrior asked through gritted teeth. This woman looked so much like her beloved bard it was almost painful. Her hair was cut differently, and she had a strange accent Xena couldn't place, but otherwise she could have easily been Gabrielle's twin. She barely paid much attention to the other woman. She looks like me, big deal. After meeting Diana and Meg, THAT no longer surprised the warrior, even though she could tell this was not either of her look-a-likes. "What do you want?"
"I...WE...need your help." Gabrielle's 'duplicate' seemed uncomfortable, her own just stared.
Xena carefully swung up into the saddle behind Gabrielle. "You have horses?" Both nodded. "Good. There is a village east of here...called Laurel. Follow. After I get Gabrielle to a healer, we'll talk."
Janice and Melinda had been waiting outside the healer's hut for almost an hour before Xena finally emerged, and they both got to their feet at once. While her eyes were red--from crying--the warrior's face was a practiced mask of emotionlessness now. She spared the two women only a single glance, her trained eye calculating their possible threat factor, and then searching for weapons. Gabrielle's 'duplicate' wore a whip, and was shouldering a sword, while her own carried only a staff. NO! she suddenly realized. Not just ANY staff! Gritting her teeth, the warrior moved forward and ripped the weapon out of Melinda's hand. "What do you think you're doing?! THIS does NOT belong to YOU!"
"I-I..." Melinda was flustered, she didn't know quite how to respond to Xena's outburst.
But that had never been a problem for Janice. As much in awe as she was about being face to face with Xena, the archeologist wasn't about to let ANYONE--even the warrior princess--talk to her lover that way. "All right, I think this has gone far enough Xena!" She saw the warrior's eyes narrow as she took a step closer, and realized she was taking her life into her hands with this course of action. "I realize you're worried about Gabrielle...well, I am too." You've no idea how much. "But, that is still no reason for you to take it out on Melinda! SHE didn't do anything to Gabrielle, okay?!" For one frightening moment, it appeared Xena might actually lash out at her--and the archeologist held her breath--silently hoping she wasn't about to see what the underworld really looked like up close. Oh, I've really got to work on my temper.
Finally--Xena's face softened ever-so-slightly. "Okay, you're right." She turned to her 'duplicate'. "I apologize. Your friend is right, it wasn't your fault, and I shouldn't have snapped at you like that." The warrior crossed her arms. "So, your name is Melinda, is it?"
The southerner nodded, but still couldn't seem to find her voice. Seeing that Melinda was still so tongue-tied, Janice cleared her throat. "By the way, MY name is Janice. And, I have something for you, Xena." The warrior's hand moved reflexively to her chakram as Gabrielle's 'duplicate' started to reach behind her back and it remained there until she was convinced the other woman was not drawing her sword. Instead, she took off the scabbard, and held it out with both hands. "Here you go...I think this belongs to you."
Cautiously, Xena removed the weapon from it's sheath, and her eyes widened. "My sword! That's impossible, I left it in the Nightstone, deep underground. How did YOU get it?"
"Umm, would you believe me if I told you we dug it up from Ares's temple?" Janice chuckled nervously as the warrior's eyes narrowed. "I know it sounds strange, but it's true." Xena continued to glare, and the archeologist cleared her throat. "Look, it's sort of a long story Xena, and one I think you and Gabrielle should probably both hear at the same time. By the way, how is she?"
The anger and distrust in Xena's face was replaced by sadness. "Better than I expected, but she IS hurt. Some deep brusing mostly, nothing was broken. Thank the gods it wasn't a more direct collision or she might've been even more seriously injuried."
Janice nodded. "That's good to know. Is she conscious?"
"Not yet. The healer say's Gabrielle needs her rest, and gave her some sleep herbs." Xena adjusted the sword
on her back, and frowned. "I wanted to stay with her, but that damn healer said I was just in the way. She threw me out, and said I wasn't to return for at least a couple of hours!"
"I've had a couple of doctor's like that myself..." said Janice. "Terrible bed-side manner."
Xena's frown deepened. This woman looked SO much like her beloved Gabrielle; but her words were unusual, and her speech radically different from the bard's. "Since I'm not allowed to remain here, could I offer the two of you a drink?" She motioned toward a nearby tavern. "In gratitude, for helping with the Satyr's."
The archeologist nodded. "I could use a shot. What about you Mel?"
"M-My throat IS a little dry." Melinda mumbled. She was still busy staring at Xena, a fact which didn't escape the warrior's notice, but chose not to say anything about it.
Instead, she turned and walked toward the tavern. "Follow me."
Xena ordered a mug of ale--as did Janice, and Melinda asked for juice again--but once it arrived she took only a sip, and spent the rest of the time gazing blankly into the amber liquid. She was clearly preoccupied, and it did not take a genius to know what--or in this case WHO--held the great warrior's thoughts. Even so, Xena was not so preoccupied that she couldn't feel the sensation of being watched, and when she glanced up to find the duo sitting across the table looking at her once again, she sighed. "What?!"
Melinda shook her head. "Sorry, we don't mean to be rude." She tried smiling warmly as she spoke, to try and encourage her ancestor to relax a little, but faltered when the warrior's penetrating blue eyes met her own. "But, you're something of a legend. We've heard stories--read scrolls--about you, and now we finally get to meet you in person. It's a real honor to be here with you, Xena."
"If you say so." The warrior wasn't really upset, given her past she had grown accustomed to being watched, whispered about, even feared as a demon by the people who's lives she destroyed, but such outright adoration was something new. It made her uncomfortable. Of course, so did looking across the table to see the face of the person who meant the world to her, without being able to reach out and touch her. This is SO frustrating! What ARE the gods playing at? First Diana, then Meg, now THIS?! "Look, if you won't tell me who you are, yet, can you at least give me some idea of why you're here?"
Janice glanced at Melinda, who nodded, and then cleared her throat. "Actually, we came looking for you. See, we need your help to get back home Xena."
At last, something I can deal with. The warrior leaned forward in her seat. "What seems to be the problem? A warlord, a Hydra, what?"
The archeologist shifted nervously in her seat. "Well, like I said before, it's a long story. But, I CAN tell you it has to do with something called a Nightstone, and the god of war."
Xena lifted an eyebrow. "Really?" The Nightstone? Well, THAT explains how they got hold of my sword. She observed Janice's body-language as she spoke, listened to the tone of her voice and she came to a conclusion; whether or not Gabrielle's 'duplicate' was telling the truth, she DID believe what she was saying. And I wouldn't put it past Ares to torture these girls just because they happen to look like us. "Okay, I'll tell you what...I'll talk to Gabrielle when she wakes up, and we'll see what we can do." She shook her head. "Because, I get the feeling this is a story I will REALLY want to hear."
Unnoticed by the three women, a figure who would have been familiar to them all--had they seen his face--sat at the next table. Ares, the god of war, stroked his beard and smiled. Me too.
"So, do you believe them?" Gabrielle was sitting up in bed, supported by several plush pillows, and holding a wet cloth to her swollen face. Black and blue bruises covered the right side--though they had already started to lessen somewhat thanks to the healer--and caused a twinge of pain every time she opened her mouth. The light sleeping shift she wore did nothing to conceal the yellowed bruises across one shoulder and down the small of her back, but the healer had told both of them it was not as serious as it looked, and she would be okay in a few days. "What could they have to do with the god of war and the Nightstone?"
Straddling a chair beside the bed, Xena shrugged. "It's hard to tell. I suppose this could all be some sort of an elaborate trap on Ares's part, I wouldn't put anything past him." She paused. "At the same time my instincts tell me we should trust them."
"Well, that's good enough for me." Gabrielle touched the warrior's cheek, wincing at the resulting stab of pain that passed down her arm. "Bring them in." Xena got up and motioned to someone outside the hut, then just as quickly returned to her bed-side vigil. A few moments later two people entered, and the bard could not help but gasp. Gods! Xena said they were similar but THIS is amazing! One of the women--Melinda apparently--looked almost exactly like Xena but her bearing was different, more refined. She was unarmed and smiling, something a warrior rarely--if ever--did. The other woman, however--Janice--was even moreso. It was almost like viewing her own reflection in the water, and yet not. Her face is hurt, distant, like Xena's used to be...she's obviously led a hard life. Strange, I don't even know her and I already feel a connection. Why?
Xena's 'twin' licked her lips. "My name's Melinda, Melinda Pappas...and this is doctor Janice Covington." She gestured to the other woman as she spoke, who nodded slightly but said nothing. "Ummm..." The raven-haired beauty cleared her throat, she seemed anxious--almost giddy--as she shifted from one foot to another. "It's nice to finally meet you, Gabrielle. How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle shrugged, wincing at a stab of pain in her shoulder. "Okay, I guess. I'm sore, but the healer tells me I should be up and about by tomorrow." As she spoke, the bard noticed that the other woman--her own double--was troubled by something. She was grimacing, and seemed to be deliberately avoiding looking at her. "Janice? Are you all right? Is something wrong?"
The archeologist raised her head. "What?" She realized they were all looking at her. "Oh, no not really. I have a headache, that's all." In truth it was more, ever since the tavern she had been fighting against this pain, which only seemed to be getting worse with each passing moment. "I'll...be fine."
Gabrielle started to respond, but Xena spoke up first. "Enough of this. Are you going to tell us WHO you are, and WHY you're here, or not?"
"Xena, don't be so rude. I'm sure they'll tell us when they're ready."
"But Gabrielle, the healer said you need your rest. I don't want you to get tired from talking, and..."
"Xena, the day I get tired from talking is the day I give up being a bard." Gabrielle swept an arm toward Janice and Melinda. "Now they obviously need our help, and from what you told me, I think we owe it to them at least to listen. All right?" At first there was no response from the warrior except a lowering of her head. "Xena?" She finally nodded, and the bard started to smiled once again.
Melinda was impressed. Their love must be strong for Gabrielle to talk to Xena like that. Anyone else would likely meet the end of her sword. At least now I know where Janice gets the fire in her heart. The southerner's smiled faded when she realized that Janice had closed her eyes, and was slowly massaging her forehead. "Can I help?" she asked worriedly.
"No, I-I just need to get some air. I'll be back in a minute." The archeologist spun on her heel and stormed out of the healer's hut without another word, leaving Melinda to fend for herself.
"Is your friend going to be all right?" asked Gabrielle.
Melinda watched the swinging curtain of beads in the doorway--the only sign of Janice's presence--come to a stop before she turned back. Her blue eyes were dark with worry. "I hope so."
Outside Janice leaned against the wall and took a deep, cleansing breath to try and clear her head. Instead the pain just seemed to get worse, it made her skull feel like it was going to explode, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. Damn it, why is this happening to me? The headache was like none she had ever had before in her life; intense, almost rhythmic in nature. She fought through the overwhelming rush of agony and--for one brief, indescribable instant--she was almost able to put a name to her pain. No! The archeologist felt herself besieged by terrible sensations of death and violence, it was just too much and her brain started to shut down in order to protect itself, and perhaps to preserve her very sanity. Stop! Make it stop! She slid to the ground clutching her the head, tears streaming down her face. Please! Someone...make it all stop!
As the archeologist slid to the ground, not unconsious but not fully awake either, she didn't notice a mystical nimbus of flame erupt nearby. In a heartbest it coalesced into the form of Ares, who sneered as he crouched by Janice and touched her trembling cheek. "I will. I'll make the voice go away. Trust me." The god of war laughed, though not so loudly as to alert those inside the hut.
Melinda settled into a chair and put her hands in her lap, well aware Xena and Gabrielle's eyes were on her the whole time. In fact the warrior was holding one of the bard's hands in her own, a fairly intimate gesture for such a public forum. She smiled at that. "Well then, where to begin?"
"Try at the beginning!" Xena snapped. Her anger eased slightly when Gabrielle squeezed her hand.
"Just relax and take your time," said the bard.
"Well as Janice said it is a long story, and a complicated one at that. In fact, I'm not certain if either of you will believe what I'm about to tell you but...it needs to be said." Melinda took a deep breath. "Janice and I are from a point far in the future, YOUR future to be exact. See Xena, the reason you and I look so much alike, is because I am your direct descendant. One of your children must have a child of their own, who has a child and so on and so on until the timeline gets down to me. And as for Janice, well, in case you couldn't figure it out Gabrielle, she is related to you."
"B-But, I don't have any children."
Melinda shook her head. "I never said you do. Somewhere along the line though, you will. I think."
Xena frowned. "You think? If you're really from the future, wouldn't you know?"
"We don't exactly have a detailed biography on either of you." Melinda shrugged. "But while my ancestry is fairly well documented, little is know about Janice's. Some stories tell of her being directly descended from you, Gabrielle as I am from Xena. Others say Lila is--in fact--her ancestor, and she shares your face as only a quirk of fate. That would still make her related to you though."
"What stories?" asked Gabrielle. "Are you saying someone writes story about us?"
The southerner nodded. "Yes, you. It's your scrolls, Gabrielle, some you're writing now, and others you have yet to write. Janice and I found them in a tomb...in fact, that is how we met. She was searching for the scrolls, and I came along to help her translate them."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "You said you found these scrolls in a tomb? Who's? One of ours?"
"No, we already know where the two of you are--or will be--buried. The tomb in question actually belonged to the god of war."
Gabrielle gasped. "What? Ares died?"
"Can a god die? No it's only called a tomb because he was buried there, but he was very much alive. And he told us his spirit had been trapped there for untold centuries, waiting for a certain someone to come and release him back into the world. That someone was your descendant Xena. Me. We also found your chakram there and it was the only thing which could be used to strike the Eye of Hephaestus and free Ares. Janice and I did all we could to stop him, but it was not enough. Our efforts would have been a lost cause had we not received a bit of help from a long lost spirit...your spirit, Xena. You took possession of my body for a short period of time, and you were able to defeat him!"
Gabrielle smiled. "Spirit? Possession? Gods Xena, you DO get around. I thought that was a trick you only did with Autolycus and I."
"This is ridiculous!" Xena seemed ready to jump out of her seat, but was stopped by the comforting touch of Gabrielle's hand on her arm. "That didn't happen, none of it! I would have remembered..."
Melinda shook her head again. "Xena, listen, please. You don't remember, because is hasn't happened yet for you. What I am saying may have occured in our past, but it's still long in your future." Both women had a blank expression on their faces. "After all, Ares IS still free, right? And, I KNOW some of the things mentioned in the scrolls have not yet come to pass...your sister's wedding for example. Janice and I knew about the Satyr's, but I am SO sorry we did not remember it in time to keep you from being hurt, Gabrielle." The bard shrugged. "On the other hand, as least we did manage to save Argo." Xena's eyebrow arched again, she was clearly intrigued, and southerner continued with her story. "See, the FIRST time this happened, Argo was killed by the Satyr carrying the crossbow. Janice said she couldn't stand to see you feel such grief again, especially since Gabrielle had just been injured, so she took it upon herself to save her."
Gabrielle leaned closer to Xena so she could speak without being overheard. "You were there, and conscious, is what she says about Argo true?"
"I don't know." The warrior shrugged. "Maybe. There was a Satyr with a crossbow...and his shot DID go wild when he was pulled out of the tree. But it's hard to tell WHO he was aiming at."
The bard nodded, and then turned back to Melinda. "Don't take this the wrong way, but we still need...more. I have another question which I'm hoping you can answer as well."
"I'll try my best," said the southerner.
"For sake of argument let's say you are telling the truth. You ARE our descendants, and you ARE from some-where in our future, so how in Hades' name did you end up HERE? In our time?"
"Well, ironically enough it has to do with Ares again. See, after we finished with the scrolls, Janice and I went on to look for, um..." Melinda stopped herself just in time, deciding--at the last moment--that Xena did not need to know her home would be lost in the future. "...more artifacts. Anyway we eventually stumbled upon a temple here in Greece, dedicated to the god of war as it turned out, and it it we found the Nightsone. It was intact, save for a sword sticking out of it. YOUR sword, Xena, a fact you know to be true because you're wearing in on your back even now." The warrior nodded reluctantly, and Melinda continued on as efficiently as any bard. "So...we dug the Nightstone up and brought it back to out camp sword and all. But there we were attacked by Zagrias, a long-time rival of Janice's, who tried to take the scrolls and the stone and all the other artifacts we had found by force. We--actually SHE mostly--managed to fight them off, but during the fight Zagrias yanked the sword from the Nightstone...and then something REALLY bizarre happened."
While Melinda rambled on, Xena looked on, stunned. After all that, NOW we get to the bizarre part?
"Something, someONE emerged from the artifact, and took over Zagrias's body. He became, I suppose, the re-incarnation of a warrior who called himself Martyr." The southerner paused long enough to gauge the looks on their faces, and by their expressions she could tell neither Xena or Gabrielle recognized the name. Odd. "At first I think he believed we were the two of you and told us something about wanting to fulfill his group's destiny of serving the god of war, by once and for all destroying the warrior princess."
Gabrielle gripped Xena's arm. "Xena, you know who she's talking about, don't you?"
"Yes." The warrior's face was grim. "The Bloodsword."
Melinda nodded. "Yes, that's right, Martyr called them the Bloodsword. Well, it wasn't long before he realized that we weren't who he thought we were, and that's when Martyr knew you had defeated him Xena. Enraged by his failure, he went on to use the Nightstone and an impending eclipse to open some sort of a portal, as it turns out some sort of a time portal, through which he planned to return and eliminate you two before you could stop him that first time. Janice and I fought him, but it wasn't enough and he opened the portal anyway. It did not do as he expected though, because Janice had already damaged the Nightstone, and began to emit wicked bolts of black lightning. One of them killed Martyr--and struck Janice as well--but as you can see she survived. Martyr's portal stayed open though, it pulled in his body and the Nightstone, and no matter how hard we fought against it...Janice and I as well. Next thing we knew, we were here. After we realized where HERE was we were fortunate enough to meet a passing merchant, who brought us to Amphipolis. We had a pleasant conversation with your mother Xena--who believes we are Meg and a friend of hers, so you don't have to worry about THAT--and she told us you were going to Potedia. We followed you and the rest, as they say, is history."
Xena stood up. "The Nightstone, where is it now?!"
"I-I don't know. It didn't reappear with us, at least that I noticed."
Gabrielle could see anger and concern on her lover's face. "Xena, what is it?"
"We have to find the Nightstone. It's too dangerous to be loose...imagine what would happen if some King or warlord got hold of it. Who knows what kind of powers it may possess."
Melinda nodded. "I suppose we can go back and look where Janice and I landed. I didn't see it anywhere, but who knows? Maybe it's laying in a ditch somewhere."
"Do you think you'll be able to ride?" Xena said to Gabrielle.
The bard winced at the idea. "I don't know, not yet. Tomorrow maybe." Gabrielle reached up, and grabbed the warrior's arm. "But Xena, what about Potedia? Lila's wedding?"
"Damn! I forgot about that." Xena gritted her teeth. "We're going to have to figure something out though, the longer the Nightstone is free, the better the chance of it's being discovered."
Outside, near the half-open rear window of the healer's hut, Ares smirked. Thanks to his Olympian senses the god of war had overheard every word, every whisper of those inside. Too late, Xena. Laughing--outloud now--he vanished in an aura of flame.
Xena rushed outside--sword drawn--a moment later, with Melinda only a few steps behind her. "It was Ares!" the warrior was saying. "I'd know his laugh anywhere!"
"I don't see anything, Xena. Besides, why would he..." Melinda's eyes widened, and she gasped. "Oh no...no, Janice!" The archeologist lay crumpled on the ground, out of sight of those passing by on the street, thanks to a stack of barrels. "No! Janice!" She dropped to her knees beside the fallen woman, cupped her head in her lap, and gently stroked her face. "Oh please, oh please wake up. Janice?"
Xena glared around for any hint of danger before finally sheathing her sword. She heard Melinda cooing, saw a tear running down her cheek, and all at once she knew. Hmmm...it would appear our descendants share more than just our faces. "Anything I can do?"
Melinda looked up, as if she had forgotten Xena was there. "Could we take her inside? Maybe that healer can help her, as she did Gabrielle." The warrior nodded and--without a second thought--scooped Janice's relatively light frame into her arms and headed into the hut.
About a brief examination, the healer informed them that Janice wasn't hurt--no wounds were found anywhere on her body--she was just...unconscious. She had no explanation nor remedy either, none of her herbs had any affect on the archeologist, and nothing they tried could make her stir. Melinda stayed at Janice's bedside, hold-ing her hand tightly and talking to her, while Xena discussed her plan with Gabrielle. Night came, and the healer asked Xena and Melinda to come back in the morning, insisting how her patients needed their rest. Reluctantly, the warrior and her descendant did as they were told, but returned at first light. Upon entering the bed-chamber they were surprised to find Gabrielle and her descendant both awake, side-by-side in their pallets, eating break-fast and discussing something involving hot oil. The virtually identical duo looked up at the same time, as their respective--and equally similar--lover's stepped inside the room, and stopped.
"Something wrong?" they asked at almost exactly the same time. It was actually difficult to tell them apart, for both had tied their strawberry-blond hair up, and were wearing matching sleeping shifts. After a moment or two of stunned silence, Gabrielle and Janice glanced at each other, and began to laugh hysterically. They pointed at Xena and Melinda, commenting in unison about the looks on their faces and how they had discussed playing a joke on them. It was all supposed to be in fun, though they both sobered up after realizing neither of the raven-haired beauties appeared to find it all that amusing.
Xena crossed her arms. "Actually Gabrielle, you've just given me an idea."
"Oh really?" asked the bard, who was sitting on the left. She frowned. "Hey Xena, you tricked me!"
The warrior shrugged. "But I really do have an idea. Are you still insistent on going to Potedia?"
"Naturally. It's Lila's wedding Xena, I HAVE to be there."
"I understand. I do. But, the Nightstone is also a pressing concern, Gabrielle. If it is out of the temple, I've got to make sure it doesn't get used by anyone else."
Gabrielle's face fell. "Oh, you're just trying to get out of going."
Xena nodded. "In part but...with good reason. Your family doesn't like me Gabrielle, Lila especially. They can't stand the fact I took you away from them in the first place."
"I told you before I really don't care what they think. Xena I love you..." She saw the warrior's face redden, no doubt because Janice and Melinda were in the room, but she continued undaunted. "...and it's not my fault that my family is so closed-minded. They'll get over it."
Xena sat down on the edge of the bed. "Gabrielle, I can deal with the anger and resentment, believe me, it's an old burden I've gotten used to bearing. But, I can't stand the thought of you being uncomfortable and let's face it, you WOULD be whether you can admit it or not."
The bard sighed. "I suppose you're right about the Nightstone. It DOES need to be found. I just don't like the idea of going all the way to Potedia alone."
"I thought as much. That's part of my idea, Gabrielle. You wouldn't have to be alone, if Melinda agrees." Xena glanced up at the wide-eyed southerner. "Would you like to escort Gabrielle?"
"M-Me?" Melinda glanced at Janice, who shrugged. "I'd be honored Xena, but why?"
"Because, you look like me."
Gabrielle was beaming. "Xena, that's a GREAT idea! Lila and the others would never know the difference, and I'll wager Melinda can be a lot nicer and more charming than they would be expecting."
"Yeah, that's just what I..." The warrior's face filled with mock indignity. "Hey!"
Gabrielle patted her arm. "I'm just kidding, Xena. Seriously, I do think it could work. Melinda?"
The southerner seemed a bit uncomfortable, but she nodded. "I can certainly try...only I don't know if I would look good in your armor, Xena."
"Oh I'M going to wear the armor. You could just take what you have on, and they would probably think that I considered it dressing up for the wedding."
Gabrielle clapped her hands. "It's settled. Melinda, we're going to a wedding!"
Xena stood up. "However, I don't want YOU to feel left out Janice. So, if you're up to it...you could come with me to look for the Nightstone." She saw the archeologist's face light up. "Of course, if you agree, you'll have to dress up like Gabrielle." There were three sets of eyes on her now. "What? On the chance we run into someone who knows us, we have to let them think Gabrielle is still with me. Otherwise, they might get the idea to look for her back in Potedia. You don't want THAT, do you?"
Janice frowned. "Oh, what the hell...I'll go with you, Xena." She looked to Gabrielle. "And, since you and I are related, chances are your clothes WILL fit. So when do we leave?"
"Since we're going to be travelling you'll need your rest." Xena glanced out the window, studying the sun for a moment. "Let's see how you two feel around midday, and go from there all right?"
"Thank you." Gabrielle hugged the healer good-bye, then stepped outside her hut to find Xena, Melinda, and Janice saddled up and ready to leave. She took one look up at the black mare the southerner was riding and her face fell. "Unbelievable. Xena...what are the chances your descendent could find the only horse in all of Greece taller than Argo?
Xena frowned. "Gabrielle I know you don't like riding, and I'm sorry. But it's important for you to stay off your feet as much as possible. You're not entirely healed yet, you know."
"Yeah, yeah." The bard hissed in pain as she climbed up into the saddle behind Melinda. "Gods, I'm getting a headache just being up here." She raised her hand and pointed to her wrist. "Say Xena, you think that pressure point you showed me would work up here?"
The warrior shrugged. "Who knows? Give it a shot." Xena heard a grunt and turned to see Janice yanking up the revealing top of the Amazonian outfit Gabrielle had loaned to her. Though it was only supposed to be worn by the Queen, it was also the only other set of clothes the bard had with her, and Gabrielle insisted she couldn't wear IT to Potedia. "How are YOU doing?"
Janice gritted her teeth. "Fine..." she said icily. "If you can overlook the fact that I'm dressed like a dancer in a burlesque show." Melinda covered her mouth and laughed. "You know, I'm sure there is a fascinating story for WHY you have this little number at all, Gabrielle. But frankly, I don't think I want to hear it. I'd rather we get this trip over with, so I can get back into my own clothes as soon as possible."
Xena nodded. "All the more reason to find the Nightstone. It's power brought you here, so chances are it can probably send you back."
"Xena?" Gabrielle's lower lip quivered slightly. "I-I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too." Xena smiled. "But you two try and have fun at the wedding, and we'll see you back here in a couple of days all right?" She spurred Argo and the mare galloped forward, followed a moment or two later by the stern-faced archeologist.
Melinda watched them go, a concerned look in her eyes. Be careful.
Strife returned to Mount Olympus, to find Ares standing watch over the Nightstone. "Hey Unc, good news. I found some info on this little trinket."
"I already know." said the god of war. "It's the Nighstone, and it was created by a group of my followers. The Bloodsword." He smiled. "Right?"
"Uh...yeah. Man Unc, you ARE cool." Strife rubbed his hands together. "So, what's the plan?"
"I have to determine the extent of this thing's power, and to do that, I need it repaired." Ares waved his hands at the Nightstone--which vanished--only to reappear a moment later in Strife's hands. "Here, take this to Vulcan mountain and find out if Hephaestus is busy."
"Oh man, do I have to? I hate that guy, he creeps me out!"
Ares' eyes narrowed. "Just DO IT!"
"Okay, okay." Cowering, Strife hoisted the Nightstone and vanished.
Janice took a sip from the waterskin and glanced across the road at Xena, who was watering Argo. Since they had made such good time getting back to Amphipolis the warrior suggested they stop and take a break, an idea for which the nearly saddle-sore archeologist was thankful. Her father had shown her how to ride a horse when she was a child, but THIS was the most riding she had EVER done in her life. What's more, neither Xena nor her faithful horse appeared to be the slightest bit winded. Damn she IS incredible. So beautiful, so strong, so much like Melinda, and yet...NOT.
Over her shoulder, Xena again got the feeling she was being watched, but she didn't have to look to know by whom. Janice had been stealing glances at her every chance she got. It must be because, in her eyes, I am some sort of a 'legend'. The warrior shook her head as she led Argo toward the glassy-eyed archeologist. Either that or I just remind her of Melinda. It's good to know our descendants could find true love. She cleared her throat, and Janice looked up. "Are you ready to go?"
"Y-Yeah, let's go." Trying to ignore the reddening of her cheeks, Janice stood up and reached for her horse."I was just thinking since we're so near Amphipolis..." They both climbed on to their horses. "You want to stop in and see your mother again?"
Xena shook her head. "No, too much of the warrior princess isn't a good thing for Amphipolis. They might be willing to tolerate me for mother's sake and because I helped them against Draco, but even so I know my people are more comfortable when I am NOT around." She snapped Argo's reins and rode off--for the moment unaware whether Janice followed or not.
The archeologist watched Melinda's ancestor with a wistful eye before riding after her.
Melinda was wide-eyed as they entered the village. "Wow. So THIS is Potedia?"
"Yep." In the saddle behind her, Gabrielle tapped a pressure point on her wrist for what felt like the hundredth time in the last hour. "It may not be much to look at but it's home." At least, it USED to be. The bard's thoughts drifted back to a time when she and Lila were playing by the river, and she had fallen in. Though she was older, Gabrielle had not yet learned to swim, while her sister had always taken to the water like a fish. In the end, Lila's swimming talent proved a literal life-saver as she jumped in and saved Gabrielle from drowning. Afterwards, the sister's were inseparable, day or night they rarely left one another's side. Until that day when Draco's men came to Potedia, they captured her friend's and family in order to turn them into slaves. A plan that would likely have been successful if not for the timely arrival of a certain raven-haired warrior woman. Gabrielle had found herself strangely drawn to Xena from the moment she first saw her, a fact she'd been unaware of until much later, when she came to realize that her feelings for the warrior had begun to change.
The bard was drawn from her reverie by the sound of someone calling her name. "Gabrielle?" a woman's voice shouted. "Gabrielle it IS you! I thought so!" It took her a moment to recognize the dark-haired woman watching her from the stable doors.
Gabrielle's face lit up. "Marda!" Daughter of Herron the stablemaster, Marda had been one of her best friend's growing up. "Gods, I don't believe it!" She climbed out of saddle, wincing in pain as the other woman threw her arms around her bruised back in a tight embrace. "How ARE you?"
"I'm good. Did you know I got married to Aran last summer? We have a son, Tyrus."
"Marda, that's wonderful! I'm SO happy for you!" Still in the saddle, Melinda cleared her throat. Gabrielle took a moment to collect her thoughts. "Oh, right! Marda, this is...uh, my friend, Xena."
Melinda dropped to the ground, and nodded. "Pleased to meet you," she said in her best Xena-voice.
"And you as well." Marda smiled. "Any friend of Gabrielle's is a friend of mine." She extended her arm toward the stables. "Come inside, and let us take care of your horse."
Gabrielle nodded. "We should hurry. I'm anxious to get home and see Lila."
"Of course, the wedding. I hear you're going to be the maid of honor. Congratulations."
"Thank you." The bard glanced over her shoulder at Melinda, who followed but not TOO closely. "I just pray everyone else will be as civil toward 'Xena' as you, Marda."
The stablewoman shrugged. "I wouldn't worry, most people around here have really mellowed about warriors, ever since you and Meleager saved the town a while back."
Xena crossed her arms. "Are you sure?"
"More or less." Janice leaned against a tree, and brushed a lock of strawberry-blond hair out of her face. "But I'm fairly sure THIS is where we landed."
"So, where is the Nightstone?!" They had been searching for several hours without success. "If it was pulled into the portal ahead of you, like you said, it should have landed first."
"Maybe it DID. Xena, I don't pretend to understand how magic works--hell, until a few days ago, I didn't even believe in time travel either--but isn't it possible the Nightstone landed somewhere else? As fas as we know the damn thing could have landed on the other side of the planet."
"Which means, it could be ANYWHERE." Xena sighed. "Great."
Janice went to take a drink from her waterskin, but found it empty. "Damn! Guess I WAS thirsty."
"Don't worry, there's a stream nearby." Xena glanced up at the darkening sky. "It's going to be night soon, I'd say we should make camp, and start out fresh in the morning."
"Good." Janice pushed off from the tree, and reached for the reins. "I could use a bath too." A short time later the archeologist was looking down into the water, and shaking her head. "On second thought, I don't think dirt ever killed anyone."
Xena face was rigid, angry. "No, but something killed these animals." There were birds, snakes, rodents, even fish, all scattered about the bank, their bodies contorted as if they had died in the throes of agony. "I only wish I knew WHAT."
Janice crouched and studied the mucky water for a moment. "Do you think someone could have poisoned the stream for some reason?"
"Maybe. But why?" Xena stood up, and eyed the stream. Something caught her eye. "Janice come here, have a look at this." She pointed, and the archeologist looked to see what the taller woman saw.
"What? You mean that hole? So what?"
"Look at the shape, the depth. Something round and heavy was dropped here, from a good height. My guess would be your portal dropped it off here, then floated to where you and Melinda appeared and released the two of you THERE."
Janice nodded. "Yeah, okay...I can see that." She chewed her lip for a moment, and then pointed at something herself. "So, these footprints probably belong to whoever took the Nightstone."
Xena's eyes narrowed as she realized the implications of Janice's discovery. "Uh oh."
"We may have a bigger problem that I thought."
Xena is worried? This can't be good. "What is it, Xena?"
The warrior pointed yet again. "Look, our footprints lead right up to the stream. But, THESE footprints do not come from anywhere...as if someone appeared, grabbed the Nightstone, and left."
Janice's own frown deepened. "Oh no, don't tell me!"
"Unless I miss my guess, one of the gods has the Nightstone now." Xena shook her head. "And, since it was created by Ares's worshippers, it's not hard to guess which one."
The archeologist licked her lips. "So, what do we do?"
"Right now, there is not much we CAN do. Gabrielle and Melinda won't be back from Potedia for a day or two, and WE certainly can't go THERE. So we'll just have to do what I said before and make camp. Come morning we can head back to Laurel and wait for them."
"No, no, NO!" Lila, Gabrielle and their mother Hecuba were in the girl's bedroom, while the youngest daughter stamped her foot in anger. "I don't want that...that beast...involved with MY wedding!"
The bard cheeks reddened. "Watch your tongue, Lila! Xena did nothing to you, and you have no right to talk about her that way!"
"Did nothing? She did NOTHING?! Gabrielle..."
"Girls, girls..." Hecuba put an arm around each of daughters. "This is not the time for arguments, it is a time of joyous celebration. Lila's wedding is tomorrow, and we still have to prepare."
"No! I'm sick of this!" Lila pulled away and crossed her arms. "Besides, we all know you don't want Xena here anymore than I do."
"Perhaps not." Gabrielle felt her heart break at her mother's words. "But Lila...Xena IS here now. You and I are just going to have to deal with that fact."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Both of you, stop it! Xena is here because of ME! If you turn her away, you will be doing the same thing to me! Do you want us to leave?!"
Lila got in her sister's face. "Go ahead! Why don't you just go away, Gabrielle? Run after your precious Xena, just like you've been doing all along! Go on, leave, I DARE YOU!"
"Excuse me." The quiet, hesitant voice surprised all three of them, especially given the source. 'Xena' stood in the doorway, watching them. "I-I don't mean to interrupt but I can't help noticing that you're arguing about ME, and I thought perhaps it was time I got involved."
"Get out of here!" Lila snapped. "You have NO business in Potedia, Xena! You may have taken my sister, but I will NOT let you ruin the happiest day of my life!" Tears streamed down Lila's face as she turned to cry on her mother's shoulder.
'Xena' lowered her eyes. "I-I am sorry, Lila." THAT got everyone's attention. "I should not have come. I knew my coming here would probably be a mistake, but Gabrielle asked me and I can't refuse her anything. Look, I am not here to interfere with your wedding, nor would I ever dream of intruding. I ask only I be permitted to attend, just as any other guest. Right now I am no warrior, I'm Gabrielle's friend and--if you'll let me--I'd like to be YOUR friend too, Lila." She smiled nervously. "Would you allow that?"
Shocked by what was--for such a 'dark-hearted warrior'--an emotional revelation Lila turned, wide-eyed, to her mother. Hecuba took her youngest daughter's arm and smiled graciously. "Very well. Xena...for Gabrielle's sake, you will be welcomed in our home. You may sit in on the wedding, and the reception afterwards, but please...do not make a scene."
'Xena' inclined her head. "Of course. Thank you Hecuba."
For a moment Lila seemed to be on the verge of protesting, but the gentle squeeze from her mother and an icy stare from her sister was enough to silence the bride-to-be. "Fine!" she huffed.
"Come Lila, we still have to work on the hem of your dress." Hecuba ushered her younger daughter out of the room, leaving Gabrielle and 'Xena' to themselves.
"Melinda, that was amazing!" The bard was flabbergasted. "You might have just given--mother at least--an all new respect for Xena."
The southerner shrugged her shoulders. "Perhaps, but not Lila. Does she harbor such dislike for everyone, or is it specifically Xena?"
"Xena." Gabrielle sighed. "Lila thinks I chose Xena over her, which is simply not true."
"What about the rest of the people? With the exception of a few--like your friend Marda--most of them do not seem to like warrior's in general."
"It's a long-running prejudice I'm afraid. In the last hundred years, there have been no less than a dozen major conflicts in this area. But the founders of Potedia strove for nuetrality whenever possible, no easy task. So, two years ago when the gods smiled upon me and Xena appeared, some people were afraid that the presence of the warrior princess would draw the very sort of trouble they had always hoped to avoid. And, THAT is added Lila hating her for taking me away in the first place."
"Well, I can say is...Xena must love you very much to put up with this treatment."
Gabrielle nodded. "Oh she DOES. But, that is the reason she's so hesitant to come with me. If she were forced into a conflict with mother or Lila, Xena would be afraid of losing her temper. Either she'd storm out or else they would, and everyone would end up angrier than when they started."
Melinda smiled. "Well, you don't have to worry about that this time. If everything goes as I hope, your family will be begging Xena to come with you the next time."
Xena was up with the sun the next morning. She fed and watered Argo, and had a little something to eat, then she spent the rest of the time just sitting and watching Janice. It was something she did every morning--though admittedly, it was usually Gabrielle she stared at--and it made her feel better to know her lover was so close and safe from harm, yet the bard seemed none the wiser.
Experience taught the warrior that she could learn more about a person simply by watching them sleep than in all other hours of the day combined. Only in the depths of sleep could one completely relax, however briefly, to let their true inner self shine. Through facial expressions, gestures and sounds--especially sounds--an observer could actually catch a glimpse into the sleeper's soul. Everyone talked in their sleep, she had discovered, at one time or another--especially if something was weighing heavily on their mind.
Janice, it seemed, was no exception. As Xena looked on, concerned, the archeologist began to thrash around, caught up in the midst of some terrible nightmare. She threw her head back and opened her mouth, as if to make some noise, but nothing came out. Her body was covered in a sheen of sweat, and her fingernails clenched and unclunched the bedroll beneath her writhing frame.
Gods, it's a bad one all right. For one moment Xena considered going to Janice and waking her, for her heart so wanted to reach out to the woman who looked so much like her beloved Gabrielle, but she decided against it at the last moment and sat back down. Violently bad dreams like the one Janice was having could sometimes be very therapeutic, they were often the only way a person had to express pent-up frustrations and hostilities that might otherwise never see the light of day. In fact, Xena herself usually woke from such experiences resfreshed and as calm as she ever was--though Gabrielle had told her on more than one occasion, that these dreams often brought terrible, heart-breaking screams with them as well.
As she leaned in closer, Xena realized that Janice had begun to speak under her breath. Most of it was harder to hear at first, nonsensical mumbling and incoherent sounds, but as the dreams progressed--it got both louder and clearer. Xena was just able to make out a few familiar words at first...Potedia, Amphipolis, Nightstone. Then the names began; not surprisingly Melinda's was first and foremost, but she also heard Gabrielle's and her own, as well as that of Ares. In fact every time she spoke the god of war's name, it was usually accompanied by more desperate moaning and struggling than before. Knowing all too well how much influence Ares and his ilk could have on the human mind, the warrior decided to put an end to her torment.
"Janice?" Xena got down on one knee and touched Janice's bare shoulder. To her surprise, the archeologist's skin was hot. She's burning up! "Janice? Can you hear me? Janice?"
"NOO!" The younger woman sat bolt upright, sweat pouring down her face and still shaking like a leaf. "How did...where is..." Janice's breath was coming in ragged gasps, and she seemed to be having difficult time getting her eyes to focus. "What happened?" Turning her head she finally caught sight of the warrior crouched beside her for the first time, and her eyes widened in what appeared to be shock. "Xena?"
Xena stood up, a curious look on her face. "Are you all right, Janice?"
"Y-Yeah, I think so. Head is...spinning...can barely..." She lifted her hazel green eyes. "I felt like I was on fire, I couldn't even breath for a minute. Xena, what's happening to me?"
The warrior shrugged. "I don't know, Janice. But, once we get back to Laurel, you should have the healer take another look at you...just in case."
"If you say so." With effort, Janice stood up. "Is it time to go?"
"You'd better eat something first though. I don't know what might be wrong with you, but I am sure you don't need to travel on an empty stomach."
Janice cleared her throat. "Now that you mention it, it feels like I haven't eaten in centuries."
It was a beautiful ceremony.
Lila--the train of her long, lily-white gown flowing behind her--strode down the aisle with Hecuba on one side and Gabrielle on the other. Both were dressed in white as well, though the bard seemed a bit unsteady in such a long skirt and was forced to take slow deliberate steps as a result. Herodotus, Lila and Gabrielle's father, walked a short distance ahead of them, carrying the dowry. He moved to one side allowing Asor--the groom--to see his bride in all her glory. Standing behind the altar the priest smiled as Lila and Asor linked arms and turned to face him, while Gabrielle and Hecuba moved into place to Lila's left and right respectively.
"We are gathered today in front of the gods and all these good people, to witness the union of Lila--daughter of Herodotus and Hecuba to Asor--son of Orman and Ninya. It is said..." The ceremony went on for quite some time--a Potedian wedding ritual was more involved than most--but eventually, the priest came to the last part of the lengthy speech. "So if anyone here knows any reason why these two fine people should NOT be wed, they should speak it now, or remain ever silent." No one in the temple moved or spoke for a few moments, for while a ceremony had never been actually interrupted in recent memory, they were always a first time. Several people in the audience even glanced at 'Xena', as if they expected HER to do something, but she remained with her hands in her lap and a pleasant smile on her face. Finally, the priest continued. "In the name of Aphrodite, goddess of love and Hera, goddess of marriage, may this union be blessed for all eternity." Lila and Asor moved into each-other's arms and kissed, while the audience got to it's feet and started to clap and cheer.
The happy couple greeted their friends and family for several minutes--Lila even took the time to accept a few kind words from 'Xena'--before Hecuba ushered them all into the next room for the reception which followed the actual wedding ceremony. A huge feast awaited them, with enough food and ale to satisfy the largest appetites for either while a Potedian band music played in the background, and after numerous toasts--including to many people's surprise one from 'Xena'--came the traditional first dance for Lila and Asor, which led people to pair off and begin to dance themselves.
Gabrielle found her admittedly limited ability put to the test as she danced with her father, Asor, her uncle Orn and several other men she had known since childhood. In fact, they were practically lining up to dance with the bard, who was gracious enough but meanwhile kept a close eye on 'Xena'. As she feared, even though she had done her best to make a good impression--and many people would likely leave with a more favorable opinion of the warrior princess than when they first arrived--Melinda was still being treated rather like a pariah. Only a few passers-by said two words to her, and NO ONE asked 'Xena' to dance. She eventually stepped to the back wall, a sad smile on her face, and sat down to watch everyone else. It's not right. I should do something to cheer her up. I know! I'll ask her to dance! Before the bard could approach the woman who so resembled her beloved an eeriely familiar voice spoke up from behind her.
"May I have this dance?"
"Of course." Gabrielle's attention was still on Melinda as she held up her hand, and felt the man's strong arms come around her. As soon as his hands clasped hers, the bard felt a sudden chill that caused her entire body to shudder in fear, and she slowly looked up into the dark, narrowed eyes of a god. "Ares...?!" she whispered, her voice trembling with concern and disbelief.
The god of war inclined his head. "Of course. You sound surprised."
Gabrielle WAS surprised; she was also terrified and angry and all at once. She tried to remain calm though, as she knew it could provoke the god, especially since there were so many vulnerable people around. "Ares, what are YOU doing here? What do you want?"
Ares laughed. "You're right, they ARE vulnerable. So, why would I waste my time or energy killing the people of this pathetic village of yours?" He pulled Gabrielle closer, knowing she would never make a scene as long as there was a chance he might do something to her friends and family, and smiled. "Actually, I thought I'd have a chat with Xena, but I see now I chose the wrong place. She's not here, she's with the other one."
He knows about Janice and Melinda? Gabrielle inwardly cursed herself at the thought, if he hadn't before he DID now, and they could all be in real trouble. "Ares, you're not going to hurt anyone are you?"
"Believe me, Gabrielle...if that were my intent, they would all be dead by now. No, I'm trying to determine what you all know about the Nightstone." His rather playful face suddenly became deadly serious. "Now, would you care to TELL me, or do I have to TAKE it from you?!"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. What do I do? If I resist him...
Ares nodded. "...I'll get what I want and maybe hurt some people in the process. You're quite right."
"Okay," she whispered. "I'll tell you what I know."
"Naturally. THAT was never in question..." Ares bent Gabrielle backwards and--before the bard even realized what he was doing--kissed her hard on the lips. It was an intensely passionate embrace which lasted for several long moments, during which time the bard felt a cold stab of pain in her mind. Uncontrollably, she found herself going back in her thoughts. Back to the first attack by the Bloodsword, finding that temple with the Nightstone in it, what she remembered that immortal Bloodsword 'Matyr' had told them about it. The battle, Xena losing her sword, the collapse of that temple, then eventually meeting Janice and Melinda. The story about being from the future...it was hard to believe but she did, and took what they said about the Nightstone and Ares's imprisonment at face value. That brought up a whole different line of thought she was unable to hold on to. Everything brought to the forefront of her mind in one overwhelming rush of memory, followed by tears streaming down her cheeks as she stood there utterly helpless to resist. Finally, tauntingly, the god pulled his head back, allowing Gabrielle to start breathing once again. "Thank you..." he whispered into her ear. "Now I'm beginning to understand why Xena allows you into her bed at night. Until later, Gabrielle." He released her and stepped into the crowd, where in the span of a heartbeat he vanished, yet no one seemed to notice.
Gabrielle stood there--motionless--until a hand came down on her shoulder. "Are you all right?" After getting no response, Melinda stepped in front of the bard and waved a hand in front of her eyes. "Gabrielle? What is it, is something wrong? Gabrielle?" She kept her voice down as much as possible but several people were starting to stare at them nonetheless. "Come on girl, snap out of it!"
The bard abruptly lurched forward. "Xena?" Her mind cleared. "Oh gods, Melinda...he was here. He was right here, touching me. Didn't you see him?"
"Who?" Melinda could tell Gabrielle was genuinely frightened, she was pale as a ghost and shaking. "I didn't see anyone, I just looked on the dance floor at one point and you seemed to be having a problem standing, so I came out to see if I could help. Why, who did YOU see?"
She could barely bring herself to say the name, for fear he might still be close enough to hear. "Ares."
Now Melinda paled. "The god of war was HERE? Oh my goodness."
"He knows about you and Janice, he knows about the Nightstone...I-I tried to stop him Melinda, I did. But, he was just too strong. I couldn't help myself." Gabrielle was on the verge of tears. "He knows everything, I-I think he may even go after Xena and Janice now. We have to DO something."
"Don't worry, we will." Melinda squeezed the bard's arm supportively. "Come on, let's go find your family and see how long it is before we can leave, all right?" Still dealing with what had happened, Gabrielle nodded rather mechanically before allowing herself to be led away.
After breakfast--of which the archeologist ate precious little, Xena noticed--they saddled their horses and set out for Laurel. Knowing one of the gods, most likely Ares, had possession of the Nightstone made the both of them nervous, and they were anxious to get back and make sure Gabrielle and Melinda were all right. Janice had spoken very little since they broke camp--unlike her ancestor, who tended to talk MORE when she was worried, but this time the warrior found the silence to be disconcerting.
Something must really be bothering her, but I don't know how to ask. It was easy with Gabrielle; Xena could read the bard's face, her body language, almost like a book. But Janice seemed withdrawn, edgy, and continued to look over her shoulder as if she thought they were being followed. While Xena would admit to a certain level of paranoia on her own part at times, THIS concerned her. Maybe, if I stike up a conversation with her, we can move on to something more serious. "Umm...Janice?" The archeologist slowly turned to look at the warrior, but said nothing. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Yeah." Her tone was clipped, tense.
Xena paused, surprised. Now that she actually HAD Janice's attention, she was at a loss for words. "Oh. You know all about MY childhood from whatever you read in those scrolls I guess, so I was wondering if you could tell me about yours?"
The archeologist shrugged. "Not much TO tell. Mom ran out when I was young, left Dad to raise me all by his lonesome. Did a damn fine job if you ask me...taught me how to fight, how to know a good artifact when I saw it and all that. I loved him alot. Then he died. I went out looking for my mother afterwards, to tell her he was gone, but came to find out SHE had died too. Left me all alone...'til I met Mel."
"You love her very much, don't you?"
Janice nodded. "More than I ever thought possible. So much it scares me sometimes."
"I know the feeling. If anything happened to Gabrielle, I don't know what I'd do."
After a moment Janice slowed her horse. "But, hasn't something already happened to her?"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm talking about Thessely. Didn't she die there, Xena?"
Xena pulled back on Argo's reins to slow the mare. "She told you about that?"
"No. At least...not on purpose anyway." Her eyes narrowed. "Back in the healer's hut, Gabrielle was talking in her sleep. I didn't catch most of it, but she kept saying the words Thessely and Xena brought me back over and over. I just put the pieces together after that."
The warrior felt a clench around her heart as she thought back to that terrible day. "It's not one of my fondest memories, I can assure you. If I never come that close to losing Gabrielle again, it will be too soon. But Hades
is well aware of how much I care about her, he'd think twice about keeping her."
Janice smiled. "You don't like the gods AT ALL, do you?"
"It's not that, I just really don't care about most of them one way or another. Oh, there are some I respect more than others I suppose, but over all, I could take or leave them."
"Like who?" Xena raised an eyebrow at the obscure question. "What I mean is...you say you respect some more than others. Which ones?"
Xena paused a moment, to consider the question. "Athena for one...I've always felt the goddess of wisdom to be a bit more mature and humanistic than some of her kin. And, until recently, I probably would have said much the same thing about Artemis."
"Until recently? So what's changed your opinion about her?"
"Velasca." Xena mused on how she now said the Amazon goddesses name with the same venom as she once reserved solely for Callisto. It still made her ill to consider just how easily she had turned to her greatest enemy, an immortal--thanks to Hera and Hercules--in order to fight the newly born goddess. Of course, the fact that the two ambrosial spawned goddesses were trapped under thousands of tons of molten rock made it slightly easier to swallow. The warrior relayed much of the story to Janice. "After Velasca ate the ambrosia and became a god, she proceeded to destroy everything and everyone who even resembled an Amazon. She even tried--more than once--to kill Gabrielle, the Queen...yet Artemis did NOTHING!" The warrior raised her eyes toward Olympus for a moment. "And afterward, she never even tried to show her face to explain why!"
Janice could tell--by the reddening of Xena's cheeks, the higher pitch of her voice, that this was a wound that had not yet begun to heal. "So, you hate Artemis now? Where then, does that put her in the ranks compared to someone like, say...Ares?"
"I DON'T hate Artemis..." The warrior paused to consider her next words. "...and in truth I do not HATE Ares either. What I DO hate, however, is what he did to me, what his influence turned me into. His battle-lust twisted me inside--easier than I like to admit--and I became his warrior princess, destroyer of nations. That's the darkest part of my life Janice, one I was only able to escape with help."
"You mean Hercules?" She remembered reading THAT much in the scrolls.
Xena nodded. "For one. Hercules helped me to see there was more to the world than death and destruction, a concept I was not at all comfortable with at first. But if it hadn't been for him, I might never have tried to give up my life as a warrior, and tried to bury my past outside a certain village..."
Janice tried for the obvious. "Potedia?"
Again Xena nodded. "Sometimes, it scares me to think how close I came to NOT stopping there. Potedia's not a large village by any stretch of the imagination, it was barely on the map as far as I was concerned. That's why I chose it in fact...figuring I could give up my former life, without being disturbed. How was I to know about the slavers there? And how could I possibly guess I was going to meet the most wonderful, beautiful person in the entire world? The Fates were kind that day."
"Say, was it love at first sight, Xena? Between you and Gabrielle?"
"No." The warrior knew at once she had spoken too abruptly, too harshly, and she shook her head. "Janice, I honestly can't answer that question. Love has never been an easy thing for me."
The archeologist chuckled. "Now THAT I can relate to."
"CAN you?" Xena felt her temper flare momentarily, but she quickly got it under control. "When you and she were talking, did Gabrielle mention I have never TOLD her 'I love you'?"
"I think she mentioned something about that, yes."
"Do you know why?"
Janice shrugged. "You're afraid of commitment, maybe? I don't know."
"No." Xena was clearly NOT amused. "But you're half right, I AM afraid...I'm afraid for Gabrielle. People who I dare to love end up dead Janice, and I will NOT take that chance with her!"
"What? Don't tell me you think you're cursed or something." Janice shifted in the saddle. "Besides...have you ever once stopped to consider how that makes Gabrielle feel? She loves you, and you obviously love her, yet a part of you is always using this old fear as an excuse. Nothing is going to happen to Gabrielle just because you say 'I love you', and even if it does you could probably call in a favor from Hades and have her brought back to life or something. Get over yourself Xena, and take a chance. SHE is."
They travelled the rest of the way in silence.
High on Mount Olympus, Ares turned from his scrying bowl as he heard someone appear behind him. "Strife, is that..." The god of war caught an arrow scant inches from his chest, laughingly tossing it aside as he smirked at his would-be attacker. "It's good to see you too, Art. Problem?"
Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt, lowered her bow. The beautiful, golden-leather clad goddess did not look happy. "Ares! Gow dare you interfere with my CHOSEN!"
"Why Art..." He smiled as 'innocently' as possible. "...I have no idea what you're talking about."
The goddess was livid. "Don't play coy with ME Ares, you don't do it very well! And you've no right playing your sick games with one of MY Amazons...especially my Queen!"
"Oh, HER." Ares settled back in his throne, and stroked his beard. "Come on Art, it was one little kiss. It's not like I fondled the ridiculous little girl or anything."
Artemis was literally seething with rage. "You assaulted her mind, Ares! You ripped the thoughts out of her head, left her dazed, frightened! You're a monster!"
"Maybe, but I'm a monster with a plan. So Art if you don't mind, I've places to go and people to kill." The god of war started to leave, but before he could dematerialize Artemis abruptly lashed out and grabbed his arm in an unbreakable grip. "Hey!"
"You're not going ANYWHERE until we're finished!" She released him and--surprisingly--he stayed. "Now...I do not care about your plans Ares! I don't care about that little trinket of yours either! Do what you will to most of the mortals, but leave my Amazons alone!"
Ares got to his feet, and even Artemis took a step back as she saw the barely checked rage in his eyes. "YOU would dictate terms to ME?! I am the god of war, your Amazons are NOTHING!"
"My Amazons are the greatest warriors this world has ever known! It's not my fault you chose to ignore their true potential all those years ago!"
"Your Amazons are of no consequence to me! Do not interfere Artemis!"
"I will not interfere with you, as long as you leave Gabrielle alone!"
Ares smiled. "Oh? And what of Xena?"
"What about her?! Xena has denounced me, she has no love loss for me, nor I for her." Artemis paused. "Yet she holds my Queen's heart, and thus is important to the Nation."
"NO! Xena is MINE!"
"Actually Ares, she is OURS." God and goddess turned as Athena took shape nearby. "After all, you are not the only denizen of Olympus to lay claim to the warrior princess." The goddess of wisdom clasped her hands behind her back as she approached. "Or her precious little companion for that matter."
Ares put a hand to his forehead in disgust. "What is this, a reunion?!"
Artemis sighed. "What ARE you doing here, Athena?"
"Simply put, this time Ares' plans threaten more than just warring factions, or his repeatedly failed attempts to reclaim the contumacious Xena. The Nightstone is an object of greater power than even you realize Ares, and I caution you to be wary of how you utilize it."
"Oh please! Save your advice, both of you, and leave...me...ALONE!"
Athena crossed her arms. "Talk is cheap Ares. We all know the depth of your feelings for Xena, so I know it's safe to speculate you would not do HER any more harm than was necessary. But it is a pity the same cannot be said for any other mortal on the planet. However, as far as Gabrielle is concerned...I'm sure we can come up with a mutually beneficial agreement concerning her sponsorship."
"I don't want her! She's a bard, not a warrior, and of NO use to me!" Ares turned his back. "I have plans to attend, plans which--for now at least--have nothing to do with her!"
"Fine." Artemis vanished, but her voice carried on. "Heed my warning Ares! Leave Gabrielle be or else!"
Athena smiled. "In her own predictably overdramatic fashion Artemis is correct. You would be wise, for once, to listen Ares. Gabrielle's destiny is intertwined with that of the warrior princess. And SHE--as you know all too well--is notoriously difficult to overcome." Her lilting laugh continued to fill the room, long after the goddess of wisdom had vanished.
Xena approached the tavern with some trepidation. The ride back to Laurel had been nerve-wracking even for the warrior; she and Janice had not said two words to one another since their 'discussion'. As soon as they got back--the archeologist handed the reins of her horse over to the stablemaster and announced she was going to have a drink. The warrior was rather surprised, they had not yet checked in with the healer--with whom the four had all agreed to leave word when they returned--to find out if Gabrielle and Melinda were back yet. In point of fact they had not, so Xena informed the healer she and Janice would be in the tavern and then went to confront the bard's headstrong descendant.
As she approached the tavern doors, the warrior immediatly detected the sounds of a fight. Oh, I hope SHE is not involved. Xena's face hardened as she stepped inside, glaring around to see fists and furniture flying. Only a moment or two passed before her narrowed ice-blue eyes focused in on the archeologist's red-blond hair. She was--not at all to the warrior's surprise--right in the thick of things. As she watched, Janice threw a roundhouse punch to the midsection, driving the burly looking beared man across a table and then spun around to confront another man with a wicked grin. The wild-eyed look on the archeologist's face was unfortunately all too familiar to Xena, it was a look she had seen many times on the faces of her warriors. She had worn it also, most recently when fighting the Horde. Bloodlust...she's enjoying this! It was tough for Xena to see someone with Gabrielle's face so happily involved in violence, even though she knew deep down it was NOT her bard.
Tavern brawls weren't uncommon in the towns they visited. Xena herself had been involved in more than she was willing to admit in fact, and they rarely ended peacefully. She knew if this kept up it was likely Janice would get seriously hurt or--worse--seriously hurt someone else. I have to do SOMETHING! Unfortunately, there was a rather large group of onlookers and combatants alike between her and the archeologist. I can't go through all of these people. At least...not without injuring someone. She frowned.
Janice had not entered the tavern looking for a fight; she had just wanted to sit down, have a drink, and try to ignore the excruciating pain seated right behind her brow. It made it hard for her to think straight, and each time someone spoke to her, she inevitably snapped at them. While the barmaids were accustomed to such treatment and just brought her an ale as she asked, a burly bearded man at the next table was not so easily dissuaded. He was obviously drunk, and when the archeologist refused his garbled request to dance with some rather colorful swearing he attacked her. She had been able to avoid his clumsy charge with ease and sent the man flying face-first into a wall, but the other men who were sitting around the table with him decided to retaliate. If someone in the tavern had not yelled "FIGHT!" and encouraged everyone else to get in on the action as well, she knew she would likely have been in a lot of trouble against five men.
Even now Janice grabbed a barmaid--who had tried to smash a tankard of ale over her back--in a headlock and punched her in the face. Smiling with a ferocity that would likely have scared her had she seen it she did it over and over, even after she felt the woman's nose break and her body had slumped forward in unconscious. Even-tually the archeologist tossed her would-be attacker aside and looked around for more, it felt like her blood was on fire and and she loved it. Kill! Kill!
Little did she know someone else had the same idea. Behind her, one of the men who had been seated around the table with that first man drew a knife from his belt and came at her, growling. At that moment, she was busy blocking a plate spinning her way and did not notice.
But Xena did.
She had barely started to make her way through the crowd when she saw the man sneaking up on Janice, and she knew--for once--there was nothing she could do about it. I can't use the chakram in such close quarters. It was also too crowded and the ceilings too low for her to try and leap over, so the warrior did the only thing she could think of. She yelled.
"Janice, look out! Behind you!"
Somehow, through the red haze of pain and madness Janice heard the warning. She didn't recognize the voice and she didn't respond so much as react, spinning around in time to easily block the man's clumsy swing of the knife by grabbing his wrist. The archeologist twisted the limb and he howled, so incapacitated by pain and port she could have simply pushed him aside. Instead, a strange look overcame Janice's face. She turned the knife in his hand so the blade was facing the man's chest, and began to push.
Though he was clearly drunk, he had enough instinct to know when he was in danger, and resisted. But while would clearly have been much stronger that she in a sober state, Janice's bloodlust and leverage allowed her to overcome what resistance he was able to offer. A wicked smile crossed her face as his strength gave way under the pressure, and she jammed the knife deep into his chest.
Xena's eyes widened in shock, she had just watched Janice kill someone in cold blood. As his body fell to the ground--still shuddering--the archeologist stared at it with a smile and a gleam in her eye which the warrior saw from across the room. No! NO! It was too late to save him of course but fortunately--if such a word could really be used in this circumstance--everyone else was too busy fighting to notice what had happened. I've got to get her out of here before someone calls the town guard!
The warrior took a deep breath and started shoving her way through the crowd now; not hard enough to hurt anyone but with enough force to let people know she wasn't kidding around. Some took a swing at her, clumsy blows she was effortlessly able to avoid, others recognized her face and gave her plenty of leeway. It took only a minute or so for her to cross the room to Janice, where the archeologist had just started to take a swing at yet another drunken patron.
Xena stopped her by grabbing the smaller woman's wrist with ease. Janice turned to face this new 'threat', her eyes dark, and fury written across her face. "Come on!" the warrior hissed. "We're leaving!" She began to yank the archeologist toward the door, and though Janice resisted--even taking a swing or two at her in the process, Xena ignored it until they got outside. Once safely down a side alley near the tavern, Xena shoved Janice back against a wall, her own anger barely kept in check. "Why did you DO that?"
"What?" the archeologist asked, enmity dripping from every word.
"You killed that man! For NO reason! WHY?!"
Janice shrugged. "Seemed like the thing to do at the time." She crossed her arms, taking a stance that seemed oddly familiar to the warrior but she couldn't place from where. "How do I know he wouldn't have just gotten to his feet and come after me again? This way, I don't have to worry about it." She slapped the warrior's hands off her shoulders and sneered up at her. "Besides, who are YOU to lecture ME about killing?! You've slaughtered a lot more people for a lot less!"
THAT hurt, and Xena closed her eyes for a moment. "It's not the same thing..."
"Yeah yeah, excuses, excuses. Warrior Princess...Destroyerof Nations. Isn't that what they called you Xena? What some people STILL call you?! You killed hundreds maybe thousands of people Xena, and you ENJOYED it! Didn't you? DIDN'T you?!"
"I was a different person back then, Janice."
"Oh, don't give me that! You're the same person you always were!" Heedless of her own safety, Janice jabbed the warrior in the chest with her finger--over and over--to emphasize her words. "Regardless of whether you do it to 'conquer' or to 'protect', killing is still killing isn't it?!"
Xena shook her head. "Not exactly. Killing in the heat of battle is one thing...to save your life or that of some-one you care about...but your life WASN'T in danger. Janice that man was no real threat to you once you knew he was there. You could of disarmed him easily."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Why take a chance?" Janice looked the warrior in the eye, her own cold and hard. "Let's get one thing perfectly straight warrior princess! I might LOOK like Gabrielle, but I am NOT Gabrielle. She is the blood innocent here, not me! I'm not your little toy to push around Xena, my heartstrings aren't there for you to pluck whenever you feel like it! I do what I want, when I want, GET IT?!"
Xena was a little taken aback by the outburst. She wasn't accustomed to being spoken to in this manner, even by someone who looked so much like Gabrielle, yet her building anger had started to dissipate. She felt nothing but pity and concern for this lovely young woman. "I doubt anything will come of it." she finally said. "But I'd suggest you not go back in that tavern again if I were you, just in case."
"Oh..." Janice reached up and grabbed Xena's breastplate, pulling the warrior's face down to her own. "...shut up!" She parted her lips and kissed the warrior--who was far too startled to respond--with fervent passion. The two of them remained in the embrace for several moments, until Xena finally broke away and took a step back, a startled expression on her face.
"What do you think you're DOING?!"
The archeologist smiled. "If you don't know, I must not be doing it right." She crossed her arms. "I've wanted to do that from the first moment I met you."
Xena licked her lips. She couldn't deny it WAS a good kiss, but this was wrong in so many ways she couldn't even begin to count them all, so she started with the most obvious--and tried to appeal to Janice's heart. "What about Melinda? Remember? The woman you professed to love?!"
"M-Mel?" Janice seemed taken aback. "I...I..." She put a hand to her forehead. "Damn what am I doing? What am I thinking? I-I DO love her, I DO! Xena, what's going on? My head..."
"It's all right, Janice." Xena put a hand on the smaller woman's trembling shoulder. "Everything is going to be fine, I promise." She frowned. "These headaches of your's...it CAN'T be a coincidence that they happened after we started talking about Ares and the Nightstone. They MUST be involved somehow."
"What you think the god of war has nothing better to do than mess around with MY head?" Janice sighed. "I apologize Xena, that was uncalled for. I-I just don't know what to do." She looked up at the warrior with tears in her hazel green eyes. "Xena, I'm scared. What's happening to me?"
The warrior held her, but--she noticed--not TOO close. "I don't know Janice. I don't know."
After taking care of their horses at the stable, Gabrielle and Melinda returned to the healer's hut--to find Xena out front, sharpening her sword. The warrior did not look happy, even moreso than usual, and given where she was they were both immediatly worried.
"Xena?" the southerner asked. "What's going on? Where's Janice?"
"Inside." Xena stood up and sheathed her sword. "Her headache's come back, worse than before, and still the healer can't find anything physically wrong with her. It's maddening."
Melinda paled. "I-I have to go to her..." She started inside, but Xena grabbed her arm.
"I wouldn't advise it. The healer was adamant about not being disturbed. But don't worry, she promised me as soon as she knew something she would come and tell me." Melinda nodded--reluctantly--and took a step back, while Xena cleared her throat. "So tell me...how was the wedding?"
"Umm..." The southerner glanced back at Gabrielle, who seemed to be admiring her own feet. "Well, let's see... the ceremony was wonderful, the flowers, the music...Lila was beautiful of course...and I think you may just get a whole new reception the next time you go to Potedia."
The warrior lifted an eyebrow. "What AREN'T you telling me, Melinda?"
"I think you'd better ask Gabrielle about that."
Xena lifted her head and examined the bard; she seemed unhurt but nervous, and pale. "Gabrielle? What is it, did something happen on the journey back?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No." she said quietly. "At the wedding."
"What?" Xena was disturbed by the fact the bard would not meet her gaze. "Come on Gabrielle, you know I'm here for you, no matter what. Tell me, please."
Finally, hesitantly, Gabrielle looked up--tears filling her tired eyes. "Ares." That got the warrior's attention in a hurry, her back tensed and her face tightened. "He came to me, at the wedding, right in front of everybody...but I don't think anyone else saw him. He wanted to know about Janice and Melinda...about the Nightstone...I tried to stop him Xena, I DID...but he was just...TOO strong. I-I'm sorry, I couldn't..."
At once, the warrior crossed the distance between them and carefully threw her arms around Gabrielle, pulling the bard's body close to her own. "No, oh Gabrielle no, don't talk like that! Gabrielle, listen to me...Ares is a god, there is no way you could have resisted him." She gently caressed the bard's strawberry-blond hair. "And even if you'd tried, her might have hurt you, or your family."
"My mind knows you're right, but my heart...I just feel like I should have DONE something more."
Xena kissed the top of her head. "Trust me, it's not your fault."
"I guess." Gabrielle was still hurting, obviously, but she felt better now that she was with Xena. "So...did you and Janice find the Nightstone?"
"No. Somebody got there ahead of us." Xena sighed. "I think Ares has it."
Melinda closed her eyes. "Oh my goodness."
"Great. Just great." Gabrielle lay her head on the warrior's shoulder. "So what are we going to do?"
"I don't know..." Xena's mind was already working over a plan, the bard could see it in her eyes. "Yet. I've got an idea, but it still needs to be worked out."
Janice--who was sitting on the corner of her bed in the healers hut--looked up as Xena, Gabrielle and Melinda entered the room. "Hey guys." She had just finished pulling on her boots, and stood up. "The healer gave me a clean bill of health, I'm all set to go." The archeologist slipped an arm around Melinda's waist as the southerner came to her side. "But I was a little fuzzy before, where did you say we were going Xena?"
"Parthos. It's a small village about a day or so west of here."
"Uh huh." Janice hooked the whip on her belt. "And WHY exactly do you want us to go there?"
"Because, it's the nearest place with an organized temple to Ares. Parthos is a community made up entirely of retired war heroes, and they choose to stay on the god of war's good side."
"Sounds wise." The archeologist frowned. "But, wait a minute, aren't the two of you close? Can't you just call him down or something?"
"Maybe." Xena crossed her arms. "Except if I go through all of the official rites to summon Ares to his temple, then he'll be duty-bound to tell me what I want to know."
"Are you sure you're fit to travel?" Melinda asked. "You might not be hurting right now, but what if the pains return? What would you do?"
"I've still got some of the medicinal herbs the healer gave me, and Xena knows how to get rid of pain with her little pressure point techniques." She smiled at the warrior. "Right?"
"Perhaps. But, since we don't know exactly WHAT is causing your headache, using pressure points could be more trouble than it's worth. It might even prove dangerous."
Janice shrugged. "Hey, I'm not worried. So when do we leave?"
Before Xena could respond, Gabrielle grabbed her arm. "In a minute." the bard said. "There's something Xena and I need to discuss. Be right back." She led the warrior outside.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked. "You've been acting edgy ever since I brought this up."
"Xena do you realize what you're proposing here?! You want to walk right into Ares' den and have it out with him? I know the two of you have a history together, but he's a god! What if he suddenly decides you're not the warrior for him anymore? Even YOU can't stop him."
"Do you have a better plan?" Xena cupped the bard's cheek. "I'm sorry. Gabrielle trust me, I don't like the idea of confronting Ares any more than you do. But we need answers, and like it or not HE is probably the only one who can give them to us."
Gabrielle sighed. "Okay, you're right. I hate this, I really do, but you're right."
High on Mount Olympus the god of war peered down into his scrying bowl, eyes narrowed with anger. "You ARE good Xena." he hissed. "You know I am virtually powerless against the proper summoning rites, but there is something you've overlooked. To use them, you must first GET to my temple!" Ares started to laugh, until he sensed a presence behind him. He turned just in time to see Strife taking shape, and was further annoyed to see the younger god's hands were empty. "Well?! Where IS the Nightstone?!"
"Sorry Unc, Hephaestus isn't quite finished with it yet."
"What's the problem?! I'm working on a very delicate time-table here, and I NEED it!"
Strife shrugged. "Chill Unc, it's almost done. But Hephaestus told me to tell you the Nightstone's got a flaw in it now, and if you try to use it without this certain component it won't work at all."
Strife shook his head. "Not WHAT Unc. WHO."
Gabrielle sat on the creek bank, scratching her chin. "Kyrkus?"
"Very good." Xena was knee-deep in water, head cocked and listening for fish. "You're getting better."
The bard shrugged. "Sure, now that you're not cheating."
"What? Callisto WAS in my body at the time she killed Theodorus."
"Yes, but YOU didn't kill him Xena! It wasn't fair."
The warrior shrugged. "Yeah well...life's not always fair, Gabrielle. You know that." She jammed her hands into the water, and after a moment came up with a trout. "You think three's enough?"
"Probably. Melinda said she's not very hungry."
Xena walked back to shore. "One thing's for sure...Janice is definitely your descendant."
"Why do you say that?" Gabrielle asked as she stood up, holding the string with the other two fish Xena had caught on it.
"Easy. Sick, hurt or tired...she's still got an appetite."
"Hey!" Gabrielle playfully slapped the warrior in the stomach. She looked around. "How much further did you say it was to Parthos?"
"Three or four more hours, maybe six if we don't get in a rush." Xena handed the bard the fish she had caught and strapped on her scabbard.
Gabrielle nodded. "Good. What about the terrain? Is is hard to travel? Is it rough going?"
"Not really. Nothing Argo can't handle."
"Oh, I know that. It's Janice I'm worried about."
Xena squared her jaw. "Me too. Something is going on with her and I don't know what it is." She had decided not to tell Gabrielle or Melinda about what had happened in the tavern. "What I can't figure out, is if Ares IS--in all or in part--responsible for her headaches, why is he going to such effort?"
"I've got it! Maybe she's a threat to his plans somehow, and he's trying to incapacitate her?"
"No, that's not like Ares. If Janice were in his way, he'd just eliminate her." Xena jerked her head up as a shrill scream pierced the air. "Trouble. Come on!"
Gabrielle threw down the fish and readied her staff as she followed the warrior up the hill.
"No...stay back!" Wide-eyed and white as a sheet, Melinda was backed against a tree, while two men in black body armor advanced on her, swords drawn. Nearby, two others supported Janice's unconscious form between them, each holding one of her arms. "Leave me alone! HELP!"
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiii!" The chakram appeared out of nowhere, whistling through the air to strike the head of one of the men near Melinda. He sank to the ground--blissfully unconscious--while the discus bounced off the tree by Melinda and arced back at the second man, glancing off the side of his skull. Even as he fell, also unconscious, the two remaining men released Janice and drew their swords.
Xena came cartwheeling into the clearing, and as she landed on her feet she reach up and caught the chakram with a wry smile on her face. "Hey boys! Starting the fun without me?" She hooked the chakram on her belt and drew her sword. "I want to play too!" Both men looked at each other, Janice, and then at Xena. After a moment, they shrugged their shoulders, and charged her. The warrior parried their sword thrusts with relative ease, then spun around--driving her boot into the small of one man's back.
Off-balance and dizzy, he flew past her with an angry grunt, just in time to receive Gabrielle's staff hard across his face. The directed impact spun the man like a top and he finally landed at the bard's feet--in an unconscious heap of armor and flesh. She looked up in time to see Xena dispatch the other man. "Nice move." she said while the warrior continued to glare around in search of further attackers. "But tell me something Xena, did you know
I was back here when you kicked him?"
"No, but I had a feeling." Xena lowered her sword. "I think we can relax."
"Janice!" Melinda raced toward the fallen archeologist, stopping momentarily between Xena and Gabrielle. "I want to think the both of you for helping us." That said the frantic southerner dropped to her knees and gently caressed Janice's face. "Janice? Can you hear me?"
Xena checked the archeologist's wrist. "Pulse is strong, and she doesn't look hurt. What happened?" She got no response from her look-a-like. "Melinda! What happened?"
The teary-eyed southerner's lips were quivering. "They came out of the trees. Janice...she tried to fight...but it was no use. I think her head started hurting...there were just too many of them...and I couldn't do anything. The two grabbed her...other two came at me..." She shook her head. "Damn it WHY couldn't I help her?! I'm uesless, I'm absolutely useless!"
"No. No you listen to me." Gabrielle put her hand on Melinda's shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. "Believe me, I do know how you're feeling. When Xena and I first started travelling together she DID all the fighting and
I just had to stand back and watched. A lot of times, I felt useless too. But you're not. Melinda, trust me...Janice needs you now more than ever. Be with her. Protect her. LOVE her."
Someone--somewhere--began to clap. "So touching. So beautiful. So...sickeningly sweet."
Oh no, not him! Anyone but him! Xena recognized the voice, but didn't bother to draw her sword. She knew it wouldn't do any good.
A moment later, the god in question appeared. He spread his arms and laughed. "Miss me?"
"Strife." Xena gritted her teeth. "What are YOU doing here?"
He shrugged. "Simple. I just dropped by to pick up something for Uncle."
"What could we possibly have that you and Ares would want?"
Strife pointed at Janice's unconscious body. "HER."
"No!" Melinda put herself between the god and her lover. "Don't you dare touch her!"
"Oh please, like any of YOU could stop me?!" Strife took a step forward, barely stopping when Xena drew her sword and poised it scant inches from his leather-clad chest.
"We can try!" the warrior said determinedly. "You want her?! You'll have to go through ME!"
The god hesitated, he actually seemed nervous for a moment. "Uncle would probably be miffed if I lay a hand on his favorite plaything. Then again..." Moving faster than even Xena was able to follow--much less react to--Strife batted away her sword with one hand, and grabbed her by the neck with the other. He smiled as he raised the warrior princess off the ground."...what he doesn't know, won't hurt him!"
"Let her go!" Gabrielle came forward, her staff held up and ready, and Xena was in no position or condition to warn her away. "I said...LET HER GO!"
Strife caught the staff with his free hand, and effortlessly tore it from the bard's grasp. "Little girl, you must be light in the head if you think this piece of wood can threaten a god." Lightning-energy surged around his hand, and the staff burst into flames. In a matter of moments it was nothing but ash. "Now then..." He pointed a finger at the bard now, and she gasped. "...it's YOUR turn."
"STOP!" To everyone's--including Strife's--surprise, Ares appeared. "Don't hurt her, Strife!"
The younger god shrugged. "Oh come on Unc, I wasn't going to do any REAL damage to Xena. I just wanted to teach her a lesson, that's all I swear." Strife released his hold on the warrior's neck and she fell to the ground, coughing and gasping for air.
"No, I wasn't talking about Xena." He nodded toward Gabrielle. "I meant her."
"What?" Strife was clearly stunned. "HER? You care what happens to HER? Why?!"
Ares gritted his teeth. "Let's just say I have my reasons and leave it at that." The god of war virtually ignored Xena and Gabrielle, instead approaching Melinda. "Hello Miss Pappas..." he said in his most charming voice. "I have a favor to ask of you."
Melinda licked her lips nervously. "I-I won't help you, Ares."
"Fine. Have it your way." Ares waved one hand and an unseen force swept the southerner aside. "I was only trying to be civil." He crouched beside Janice. "Have I got plans for YOU." The god of war snapped his fingers and one of the nearby dead warrior's lifeless corpse floated into the air. "First however, I have to get you out of this pathetic mortal shell." He grabbed Janice's head in his hands and closed his eyes. "Now it's a simple matter of a little soul transference, and..." A shimmering ebony tendril of light emerged from the archeologist's brow, it hovered above them for several long moments before rippling through the air, and striking the dead warrior. His remains were momentarily awash with divine energies, in the middle of which 'he' began to tremble and move as if life was somehow being restored. "...it's done." Ares released Janice, opened his eyes and stood up while the warrior sank to the ground and stood there, moving and breathing.
It was unmistakably Martyr.
Xena, Gabrielle and Melinda all recognized the voice, though none of them could quite believe it. Warrior and bard had thought him dead for months, and the last the southerner had seen him, his lifeless body was twisting in the wind as it was pulled into the portal.
"Thanks to you, Lord Ares." Martyr turned to the god of war, and got down on one knee. "Tell me how I may serve you master. I am yours to command."
Ares nodded. "Of course you are."
"H-How...?" Xena was barely able to speak her throat hurt so much. "You don't...have that...kind of power...to bring back...the dead. What's going on, Ares?"
The god of war laughed. "That's easy. He WASN'T dead. Xena, you forget...Martyr is immortal. He CAN'T be killed in the traditional sense. His physical body CAN be destroyed, but the spirit is eternal. After you defeated him Martyr existed in only a disembodied state for thousands of years within the Nightstone, until it was fianlly discovered by your descendants...Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington. Somehow his spirit was released and took on the physcial form of their adversary, who was woefully too mortal to be of much use. HE died, reducing Martyr to an incorporeal state once again."
"But how did he get inside Janice?" Melinda asked. "She wasn't possessed like Zagrias, I would have known, I would have noticed!"
"True. Your 'friend' is too nice, too noble to allow Martyr total control of her body. You see...the Nighstone is a thing of pure, glorious evil. It grants powers accordingly, to those who share it's essence, who have the dark-ness within them more than others. Men like Martyr and Zagrias--who were already corrupt BEFORE they came in contact with the Nightstone--succumbed easily to it's influence. Your precious little Miss Covington though, she DOES have some of that darkness inside her as most mortals do, but it is overshadowed by a greater sense of goodness and love which prevented him from 'possessing' her as you said. He existed as nothing but a stray thought, barely able to impel her little more than a subconscious level."
Xena frowned. So that's why Janice killed the man in the tavern. It must have been Martyr compelling her to violence, and probably why she kissed me too.
Gabrielle leaned in close to Xena. "Like you were doing with Autolycus, early on..."
The warrior nodded. "How did you find out about all this, Ares? Martyr and the Nightstone?"
"I'll field this one, Unc." Strife stepped forward, while the elder god looked on. "I found it Xena, and I brought the Nightstone to Ares as a...gift. He wanted more so he probed your little girlfriend's twin's mind, then later, he took a swim around Gabrielle's head too. He's VERY thorough."
Ares glared at his nephew. "Enough! Go back to Olympus Strife, wait for me there!"
"Oh come on, Unc..."
"All right, all right. I'm out of here." Strife vanished.
Ares shook his head. "Now Martyr, I have a little job for you."
"Of course master. How may I serve you?"
"According to what I saw in Gabrielle's mind...you claimed that you and your Bloodsword are far more worthy of my praise than Xena. Is that true?"
The Bloodsword nodded. "Yes, Lord Ares. I apologize for out arrogance."
"Don't grovel fool. Stand up!" The Bloodsword did as he was told. "Before I send you off on this assignment I must see your worthiness for myself! Prove to me you ARE the warrior you claim to be, and I shall grant your most fervent desire. I will make you my Chosen!" Ares pointed. "Destroy Xena!"
Martyr smiled. A twisted, evil smile on a pale, almost inhuman face. "It will be a pleasure!"
"Here." Ares waved his hand and a sword appeared. "Use this. It's unbreakable."
Martyr twirled the weapon experimentally. "Thank you, Lord Ares." He turned, to see Xena getting to her feet and going to retrieve her own sword. "It's time for you to die, warrior princess!"
"I've heard you sing that tune before." Xena stared longingly at Gabrielle for a moment. "If I lose, get Melinda and Janice as far away from here as you can, all right?"
The bard bit her lip. "Xena please...be careful. I-I love you."
"I know." Xena twirled her own sword and approached Martyr. "Any time you're ready."
Ares leaned back against a tree and crossed his arms, a confident smile on his face. If Xena wins--as I am sure she will--it confirms what I've said all along. That she is my perfect warrior. But, if by some chance Martyr happens to defeat Xena, I'll know she obviously wasn't meant to serve me.
Melinda gave little attention to the warriors--she was more concerned about the beautiful woman whose head was cradled in her lap. "Janice?" She gently stroked the archeologist's pale cheek. "If you can hear me, wake up please! I need you Janice!" Nothing happened, there was no response, and tears began to roll down her cheeks and on to Janice's face. "Come on, wake up! I don't think I can live without you!"
Nearby, Gabrielle overheard the southerner's pleas, noting how similar they were to her own thoughts. I know you can fight Xena, and I've seen you take on guys bigger than Martyr and win. But he's immortal. Xena, you left me once before, don't make me go through that again. I couldn's stand it! She desperately wanted to be at Xena's side, just in case. But without my staff, what good am I?
Xena and Martyr circled one another warily, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Having already met in battle once before they had a good idea of what the other was capable of, and were not going to take the chance of making that one fatal mistake. Each revolution brought them closer and closer to one another until, at last, they were finally in sword range.
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiii!" Xena leapt into the air without warning, rolling into a mid-air flip intendeded to place her in a perfect position to strike at Martyr's exposed back. But even as she touched down the Bloodsword pivoted on his heel and lifted his sword just in time to parry the attack.
Martyr smiled. "Come on Xena, surely you can do better than that!" In the next moment, Xena leaped straight up and drove a vicious spin-kick into the Bloodsword's chest. He stumbled back--wide-eyed--but it wasn't long before the ever-brazen smile returned. "See? What did I tell you?"
Even from a distance, Gabrielle saw the growing frustration on Xena's face, and she could understand why. It was bad enough that Martyr countered her every move with relative ease, he did it with such a cavalier attitude that it was starting to wear thin on the warrior. If he keeps this up, Xena may eventually lose her temper, and if THAT happens and she falters--even for an instant--Martyr will certainly take advantage.
The mere thought sent a chill up and down the bard's spine. Ever since Xena's 'death' she had come to accept that even the mighty warrior princess was NOT invincible. But this was the first time Gabrielle ever remembered questioning Xena's fighting ability. She was in her element. Xena couldn't lose, could she? Artemis, Athena...or ANYONE who might be listening...protect her! Please!
Melinda watched Xena and Martyr go back and forth--parry and thrust--in mute fascination. It's almost like a dance. Only she knew it was a 'dance' with deadly consequences; if Martyr won he would no doubt kill them all without a second thought.
Biting her lip, the southerner looked down into Janice's still pale face. "God, I wish you were awake Janice. I'm scared, for both of us. I really need you here--beside me--to tell me what to do. Please, Janice?"
The archeologist stirred slightly--her head rolling from side to side in Melinda's lap--almost as if she had tried to respond to the sound of her own name.
"Janice?! Janice, you heard me didn't you?" Melinda's face brightened with hope. "Come on Janice, you can't hide from me! I know you're in there Janice, come on...wake up!"
The archeologist's eyes suddenly popped open, but they were wild, unfocused pools of swirling green. For a moment her mouth moved as if she were trying to speak, but no sound came out. She grabbed at Melinda's arm so desperately, like she was trying to pull her closer and push her away at the same time.
Melinda smiled, tears of joy and relief pouring down her face. "Janice? Oh thank God, thank God." She pulled the smaller woman into tight embrace and kissed her repeatedly on the forehead. "I love you, Janice! I love you SO much. I'm just glad you're back. Are you all right?"
"Not really...but I think I'll live." With help, Janice managed to sit up. "Ooh! Feels like someone set off a bomb in my head." She groaned. "Mel, what the hell happened?!"
"I-I'm not sure. It's rather complicated, I'm not sure I understand it enough to explain it to you."
Janice rubbed her brow and frowned. "Try."
"Well apparently...Martyr somehow survived our last encounter. Incredible as it sounds, he lived as a 'spirit'--I guess--inside of YOUR mind, Janice. He was the cause of your headaches."
"Inside of me? Mel, that's crazy!"
Melinda nodded. "I know, I know...I probably wouldn't believe it either, if I hadn't seen Ares 'exorcise' him out of you with my own two eyes."
"Ares?" Janice paled. "HE'S here too?"
"Yes, ma'am. Martyr is working with Ares now, and the only person who MIGHT be able to stop them doesn't seem to be doing too well." She pointed.
Xena took two steps up the front of Martyr's body, flipped backwards and kicked the Bloodsword flush in his face on the way down. As soon as she landed she came at Martyr swinging her sword, but in spite of his being off-balance he still managed to parry the attack.
"Not bad Xena. Not bad at all." He smiled. "But don't forget...I am immortal. I tire at a far slower rate than you, and even if by some chance you manage to strike me, I heal FAST!"
We heal FAST. Oh, but not in pieces. Xena remembered Callisto's words well. "You talk big Martyr, but I have yet to see you back up your claims." She saw the Bloodsword's eyes narrow at her words, and that gave her an oppurtunity to slip a hand toward her belt. "Tell me something...if you're such a big, bad immortal, why am I still alive?" She untied her chakram but did not actually remove it. "Hmmm?"
Martyr took a step toward her, a growl on his lips. But then he stopped, and it was replaced by a smile. "Oh, I AM impressed, Xena. You ALMOST had me going for a minute there."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course you don't." Martyr twirled his sword. "It's your move, Xena. What'll it be?"
Without warning Xena drew the chakram and pitched it right at Martyr's head. At the last moment he ducked, and it passed over him like a silver and gold blur. The chakram struck a nearby tree, and it's return course aimed it at Marty's head once again. But, with the same indifferent smirk on his face, he brought his sword up over his shoulder and deflected the chakram. It glanced off the blade and struck another tree, this time sinking deep into the craggy brown bark.
The Bloodsword shrugged his shoulders. "So much for your most powerful weapon Xena."
Xena twirled her sword, hoping she looked more confident than she felt. "Let's finish this, Martyr!"
"Fine by me." Martyr charged, but Xena was still able to counter. His sword was parried again and again, and while his anger grew Xena finally started to understand what her subconscious mind had been trying to tell her all along about the Bloodsword.
He's not as strong as before. Must be the new body. Xena wasn't sure if it was a weakness or not, but it WAS the closest thing to a vulnerability she had seen in Martyr since he was resurrected. Now, I've just got to figure out how to capitalize. I know! She dodged his sword several times instead of merely parrying, then dropped to the ground and swept the Bloodsword's legs out from under him.
"Oh, you are going to pay for that one, warrior princess!" Martyr arched his back and flipped back to his feet, but before he could regain his balance Xena spun around and kicked him in the chest. He went flying backward to slam hard into a tree and at once his eyes widened. He threw his head back and howled in pain, sliding to the ground a moment later to clutch at the chakram which was now sticking out of his back. "Damn you Xena, I will KILL YOU FOR THIS!"
Xena smiled. "You can try, but I'm betting that wound's going to slow you down."
Ares uncrossed his arms, his eyes narrowing as Strife appeared beside him, holding the Nightstone. "What in Olympus are you doing here with THAT?!"
"Sorry Unc, but this thing's on the fritz or something. Check it." Sure enough, the constant ebony glow which the Nightstone had been emitting since Hephaestus repaired it was almost nonexistant now. "It started wigging out just a few minutes ago. What do you think it means?"
The god of war looked from the Nightstone, to Martyr, and back again. "Damn! He was right!"
"What do you mean, Unc?"
Ares' wrath was palpable. "Hephaestus said the Nightstone and Martyr were linked. Remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Right. What happens to one happens to the other."
Ares nodded. "If Martyr is defeated or his body irreparably damaged, it could destroy the 'stone as well. That would ruin all of my plans. I WON'T stand for that!"
"So what are you going to do? Give what's-his-name a supercharge?"
The god of war smiled. "Strife, you just gave me an idea!"
"I did? Really? Cool."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder as Melinda and an obviously still unsteady Janice came to her side. "She's winning! Did you see? Xena's winning!"
"Don't get your hopes up just yet." Janice nodded toward the trees. "Look who's back."
The bard followed her descendant's gaze, and saw Ares talking to his nephew. "Strife!" She gasped. "And he has the Nightstone! We have to DO something!"
"What CAN we do?" Melinda asked. "Xena's not one to ask for help from anyone, and we certainly can't take on the gods by ourselves."
Janice gritted her teeth. "Mel, Gabrielle's right. We need a plan."
Something caught the bard's eye, and she smiled. "I've got it. Listen..."
Xena had seen Strife's reappearance also, but she was disturbed by the presence of the Nightstone. What are they going to do with that? She knew the Nightstone was some sort of a power source, but the Olympian gods had their own power. Why do they need more? Unless...
Too late, she became aware of a steel-hard grip latching on to her right ankle. Even as she was glancing down an unseen arm threw the warrior right off her feet, and sent her flying head over heels backwards. She landed in a heap--breathless and weaponless--she had lost the grip on her sword. Groaning, Xena looked up through hot tears and wasn't at all surprised to see Martyr getting to his feet.
The Bloodsword was different somehow, and it took Xena a moment to realize why. His eyes were no longer a dark yellow-green but black. Glowing black in fact, similar to that which she had previously seen being radiated by a certain mystic artifact which had recently resurfaced. The Nightstone! The warrior turned her head--feeling a throbbing headache coming on--and saw Ares holding the mysterious object. Lightning-like tendrils of godly energy flowed out of his hands, and seemed to be adding to the Nightstone's growing ebony aura. No! What is he doing? He's enpowering Martyr THROUGH the Nightstone!
Martyr spread his arms and laughed maniacally. "I don't know what's happened to me, but I feel GREAT!" His voice was getting deeper, more inhuman. "I have power!" Ebony energies crackled around his hands. "POWER ENOUGH TO KILL YOU, XENA! WITH MY BARE HANDS!"
"Or not!" Startled by the voice from behind him, the Bloodsword was not able to react to the familiar sound of snapping leather, and he was unprepared for a sudden sharp pain across his broad back. "Martyr, this is where you fall down!" Something pulled against the chakram--which was still imbedded deep in his body--and he was actually yanked back off his feet. To make matters worse he landed on his back, and the ultra-sharp weapon cut even deeper into less than invulnerable flesh.
Martyr threw back his head and screamed in pain.
At that exact same moment, something bizarre happened to the Nightstone. Ares felt an eruption of heat from it so powerful it threatened to burn even his godly flesh. "What in Zeus' name?!" His hands reflexively opened to rid themselves of the offending object, and it plummeted toward the ground.
"I'm on it Unc!" Strife crouched down to catch the Nightstone, but as his hands touched the outer surface, he felt the heat as well. "Yow!" He sat it gently on the ground. "What's going on?!"
"Them!" Furious, the god of war pointed to Gabrielle, Melinda, and Janice, who were just releasing the handle of the archeologist's whip. Working as a team the three had succeeded in ensnaring the chakram, and used it as leverage to bring the Bloodsword down. "Foolish mortals! They'll ruin everything!"
"No prob." Strife raised his glowing hands. "I'll take care of 'em!"
Too late, Ares noticed what his nephew was going to do, and shook his head. "No, don't!"
Strife unleashed twin bolts of lightning-like energy which encompassed the ground around Gabrielle, Melinda and Janice's feet in enormous plumes of flame. All three women were tossed head over heels into the air like rag dolls, unconscious long before they ever touched the ground again.
Xena retrieved her sword, and was just about to use it to finish the battle once and for all, when she heard the unmistakable surge of a lightning-bolt. Specifically, she recognized it as that sort of lightning-like blast used by the gods; a sound which she'd unfortunately become all too familiar with after Velasca and Callisto. She turned, eyes widening in time to view the horrific explosion which resulted in Gabrielle, Janice, and Melinda being flung into the air. "Gabrielle!"
Before the warrior could take two steps another lightning-like bolt appeared, but it came from the sky and was focused just a few feet in front of her. Scared, angry, and confused she blinked, and in that instant the electrical energy coalesced into a human form...that of a beautiful dark-haired woman wearing golden leathers. She held a longbow with a quiver of arrows on her back, and she was angry. VERY angry.
"ARES! I WARNED YOU!"
The god of war raised his hands. "Now Art...wait just a second. It wasn't me, I didn't..."
"I DON'T CARE!" She aimed her bow, which suddenly had an arrow at the string. "You broke the covenant! I told you to leave Gabrielle be, you assured me that she would come to no further harm by your scheme! So I am here to collect on this debt of honor Ares! One way or the other!"
Ares' eyes narrowed. "You overstep your bounds, little sister! You would not dare harm ME!"
"You think not?!" Artemis drew back the string of her bow. "Want to test me? I'm not playing here Ares! You know the rules, I'm well within my rights!"
Strife peeked out from behind Ares, his skin even paler than usual. "I think she's serious, Uncle."
"I KNOW she's serious, fool!" The god of war stepped forward. "Art...Artemis...don't do this. My future rides on what happens here today. I need to use the Nightstone, and the spirit of ONE of these mortals at least, to go and release my future-self from a tomb in Macedonia."
Xena's eyes widened slightly as she heard Ares words. Beware the man who strives to release himself from a cage not set. Marina was right all along. She shrugged off the chilling accuracy of the Oracle's prophecy, and rushed to check on Gabrielle.
Artemis shook her head. "Oh, THAT was foolish."
"What are you talking about?" Ares turned as a corona of flame appeared behind him.
"Your plan was doomed to failure, brother." Athena appeared. "You know time-travel is forbidden."
Ares nodded. "Yes...that is why I was going to get one of these lowly mortals to do it. I had planned on using that worthless Bloodsword in fact."
"It's not that simple, Ares." Athena clasped her hands behind her back. "Zeus decreed that the time-stream is to be immutable, we are not allowed to interfere with it at all! By even mentioning using the Nightstone for such a nefarious purpose is to risk invoking his wrath. That is why I am here!"
"I know I know...the goddess of wisdom acts as his perfect underling and avenger all at once. You're certainly your father's daughter, Athena."
Athena bowed slightly. "I AM, and you're lucky Ares. Zeus is busy right now, and he left me in charge of this particular aspect. I can let you off with a warning, this time, IF you agree to denounce the Nightstone...now and for eternity." She saw his jaw clench, his eyes narrow. "Think well before you answer, Ares. I'm being generous here, giving you the benefit of the doubt, which I'm certain you know to be far more than you could expect from our oftentimes ill-tempered father."
The god of war's jaw tightened in anger.
Xena maneuvered carefully but quickly through the still smoldering underbrush, blue eyes scanning wildly in a desperate attempt to find Gabrielle. She came across Janice first, the archeologist was curled up at the base of a tree, obviously unconscious. Soon after she found Melinda--also unconscious--laying face-down in the dirt a few yards away. But there was no sign of her beloved bard.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior grew frantic. "Gabrielle? Where are you? GABRIELLE!"
"Xena? Up...here..." The bard was hanging across the branch of a tree, and though every inch of her exposed skin seemed to have been reddened by the heat she was at least still conscious. Barely. Gabrielle groaned. "My body hurts. Xena, what happened?"
"I'll explain later." Xena held up her hands. "Come on Gabrielle, I'll catch you."
"I know." After a moment the bard allowed herself to fall out of the tree--into Xena's gentle grasp. "I'm always safe in your arms, Xena."
Xena pulled Gabrielle close and held her tight--as if she never wanted to let go. "I saw Strife throw a lightning
bolt--you were caught up in the explosion." The warrior seemed almost on the verge of tears. "When I couldn't find you Gabrielle, I got so scared...I-I was so afraid I would never see you again." She cupped the bard's cheek in her hand and smiled. "I can no longer imagine my life without you. I don't care what happens...I'll fight Hades himself to keep anything from happening to you, but...I-I love you Gabrielle."
For a moment, Gabrielle was too stunned to respond. Then, she began to cry. "Oh, Xena!" She threw her arms around the warrior's neck. "I love you too!"
"Tsk...tsk...tsk...how very touching." Martyr emerged from behind another tree. His eyes were back to normal, and he was holding the chakram in one hand and his sword in the other.
Ares glared angrily at Artemis and Athena. As god of war, he was more powerful than either of them, but not both of them. He could tell that the moon goddess was more than willing to fire at him--and her arrows would actually be able to harm him--but he was still more worried about Athena. The goddess of wisdom held another title--the goddess of war--and she had direct access to Zeus' personal cache of thunderbolts. That's one power even I can't match. DAMN!
"What's it going to be, Ares?!" Athena was growing impatient. "I have other things to attend to!"
Artemis shook her head. "Just let me SHOOT HIM, Ath!"
"Silence!" Athena raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"Like I have a choice? I'll do as you say Athena, even I can only push Zeus' rules so far." Ares sighed. "Fine, I renounced the Nightstone, now and forevermore! Happy?!" He gritted his teeth. "But be warned...I shall NOT forget this! One day--dear sisters--there WILL be a reckoning between us! Strife!" The god of war vanished, to be followed a moment later by his cowering nephew.
Xena carefully put Gabrielle down--asking her to go check on Janice and Melinda--and drew her sword. "Let's get this over with, Martyr! I'm really not in the mood to fight."
"How the mighty have fallen." The Bloodsword shook his head. "How pathetic. The warrior princess...beaten not by army or fist or sword...but by sharing her heart with a lowly little bard. You know Xena, there was once a measure of respect mixed in with my hatred for you. No longer!"
"I'm hurt. Can we just finish this?!"
Martyr shrugged. "Fine by me..." He spun around and threw the chakram at Xena with incredible force. It was simple enough matter for her to catch the weapon but--in the moment it took her to do so--the Bloodsword took advantage of her being off-balance and attacked. He leaped into the air and did a series of flips which got into a position to kick her in the chest.
But Xena took it all in stride. She used the momentum from Martyr's kick to do a flip of her own--this one back into a tree--pushed off the trunk with both feet, and then leaped back into the air. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiii!" She twisted around and landed behind Martyr, swinging sword and chakram even as she landed. Both blades cut deep into his back--already previously injured from the chakram--again and again until he finally fell to his knees, howling in pain. He was left nearly unconscious, totally helpless and unable to prevent Xena from making the one strike sure to kill--or at least incapacitate--an immortal.
"STOP!" The warrior halted her sword inches from it's target. It would have been a clean cut too, severing his head from his neck, and she glared at the interfering voice. "Do not kill him Xena." Athena said quietly. "I warn you against this illogical course of action."
Xena lowered her sword. "Go away Athena! This is none of your business."
"On the contrary, it IS our business." The goddess clasped her hands behind her back. "The Nightstone was not made by the gods, but it does have Olympian origins. We are responsible for it and as such, what has been wronged shall be set right." She pointed to Janice and Melinda, who were starting to regain consciousness and had been helped to their feet by Gabrielle. "THEY do not belong here. Their presence affects the time-stream, in ways you can not possibly hope to understand; and the longer they remain in our time, the more irreperable the damage. Something must be done."
Xena shrugged. "So go ahead. You're a god, send them home."
Athena lowered her head. "I can't."
"Can't? Or WON'T?!"
"Hold your tongue, warrior princess!" Athena was angry, this mortal WAS impudent. "You have honored my name in the past, but my patience is growing thin! Do you want my help or not?!"
Xena started to respond, biting her lip to quell the insult on her lips when Gabrielle appeared at her side. "You may not like them..." the bard whispered. "...and that's fine. But could you do me a favor, and at least PRETEND to respect the gods? Just a little? For all our sakes?" Finally, after several torturously long moments, the warrior nodded. Both Gabrielle and Athena smiled at the small victory.
"Ah, my Queen. Ever persuasive." Artemis appeared at Athena's side. "Hello Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's eyes widened further. "Goddess..."
Seeing the moon goddess brought Xena's anger back to the surface. "You know, you've some nerve showing your face around here, Artemis!"
Gabrielle started to protest, but the goddess shook her head. "No, I want to hear this. Go on Xena."
"Where were you months ago, when Velasca was destroying the Amazon village?! Or when she was trying to kill Gabrielle?! You're supposed to be their protector Artemis and yet...you did NOTHING! Countless Amazon lives were lost, and still you did nothing! WHY?!"
"Why? You want to know why?" Artemis moved closer, until her face was only inches from the warrior's. "I'm a goddess Xena, I don't have to explain myself to anyone! Especially not an insolent mortal who has no respect for me or my kin! I should just kill you where you stand Xena, and be done with you!"
"NO!" Gabrielle came forward and put her hands around the warrior. "I-I mean please goddess. Please, do not harm Xena, I could not live without her."
Artemis nodded. "This I already know." She stepped back. "You're fortunate this day warrior princess. I don't forestall my wrath for just anyone. But my Queen asks, I can not refuse her." The goddess smiled. "Speaking of the mark of Queenhood, I believe you misplaced this." She waved a hand and Gabrielle's staff reappeared in the bard's hands. "Strife never was very good as disintegration."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, goddess."
Xena took a deep breath. "Athena, if you won't help us send Janice and Melinda home, can you at least TELL us how to use the Nightsone to send them back?"
"Yes." The goddess of wisdom smiled. "So long as Martyr lives, the Nightstone exists. It is simply a matter of strength of will in getting it to do what you want. Since they do not belong here, returning your descendants to their own time should be easier than bringing them here was." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "But I must give you two bits of warning Xena. First, be certain that you destroy the Nightstone when you are done, so that it will not be detected or used later. Secondly, you should know that it is a thing of pure evil. Only someone dark of heart can safely touch the Nightstone, anyone else would be destroyed. Especially those pure of heart."
Xena frowned. "I don't understand...what do you mean?"
"I can say no more." Athena lowered her head. "The longer Artemis and I remain here, the more likely it is our presence would eventually be detected. If our involvement in this matter was ever revealed, she and I would no doubt face dire consequences. I'm sorry." She vanished.
Artemis shook her head. "Athena never was good at confrontations. Still, she IS right Gabrielle, we must go. I just wish I had more time to spend with my Queen. But, just so you don't leave empty-handed..." She motioned toward the staff, which the bard only then realized had new, unfamiliar carvings on it. "I present you with these summoning runes. If ever you have need of me, just touch these symbols and call my name. IF I am able..." The moon goddess glanced at Xena. "...I WILL come." She also vanished.
Gabrielle stared into the open space for a moment. "Wow."
Xena--as usual--took the lead over the next few minutes.
First the warrior bound Martyr with several lengths of rope, making certain the Bloodsword would not be able to escape or harm anyone. Next, she tended to Gabrielle's wounds--and those of their descendant's--mostly just a few burns, scrapes, and bruises, nothing serious or permanent. She made sure Argo and the other horses had not been harmed during their battle, then spent the rest of the time leaning against a tree with her arms crossed, staring at the Nightstone.
After a while, Gabrielle came to join her. She slipped an arm around the warrior's waist and lay her head on her shoulder. "Is something wrong?"
"No." Xena returned the embrace, and sighed. "I'm just thinking about what Athena said...how only someone with a dark heart can touch the Nightstone."
The bard nodded. "You're convinced it's you, aren't you?"
"Who else? Gabrielle, you've never killed anyone, your heart's still pure." She glanced over her shoulder. "I'm not sure about Janice, but I would guess the same holds true for Melinda. If Athena was telling the truth, either of you might be killed if you touched it."
"Don't be so hard on yourself." Gabrielle's plaintive gaze met the warrior's. "Xena, I KNOW you, maybe better than you know yourself. Deep-down you're a nice person, what if your heart is too pure and the Nighstone kills you too? Can we...can you...really take that chance?"
Xena shook her head. "You're reaching, Gabrielle. I may be 'good' now, but I was 'bad' not so long ago. After all one does not come to be called warrior princess and destroyer of nations for nothing. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who had a darker heart than me."
"Maybe. But that's NOT you anymore, Xena. Your heart is..."
"...is better having you in it." The warrior took Gabrielle's face in her hands and smiled. "You are an incredibly beautiful, wonderful woman Gabrielle, and I love you for it." The bard's own face lit up. "But let's face it, there's no way I'm letting you or anyone else risk your life around the Nightstone, when we all know I'm best suited for this task." The bard started to protest, but Xena silenced her with a passionate kiss.
Across the clearing, Melinda watched the lovers embrace and smiled. How romantic. It was one thing to read about the passion Xena and Gabrielle shared in the scrolls, it was something else to actually SEE it. They are so much in love, just like Janice and I. Her own passion rising she glanced to her left, where the archeologist was leaning back against the tree with her eyes closed. "Janice?"
"Yeah?" she asked without looking up.
"Is everything all right?"
"I don't know, I was just thinking about love and life, destiny..."
"They're kissing, aren't they?"
"Xena and Gabrielle."
Melinda was taken aback. The archeologist still hadn't opened her eyes. "How did you know?"
"You've got a 'how romantic, I wanna be romantic too' tone in your voice." Janice finally looked up. "But, this is neither the time or the place Mel."
"Why not?" For a moment, the southerner's mind drifted back to their first night in ancient Greece, when they had made love in the moonlight. "This is a very romantic time and place."
Janice frowned. "But it's not OUR time and place. Mel, we need to get home, and the only way to do that is to get hold of the Nightstone. I just have to figure out how to get past Xena."
"You're not thinking of trying to use it yourself are you?" Melinda gripped the archeologist's arm. "Janice no, you CAN'T! It's too dangerous!"
"I know, but we don't have a lot of choice here Mel." Janice's face was stern. "Look, if I know Xena, right now she's doing the same thing I am. Find a way to use the 'stone without anyone else getting hurt. And let's face it, I am a lot more expendable than she is."
Melinda shook her head. "Not to me, you aren't!"
Janice continued on as if she hadn't been interrupted. "This IS Xena's world, and it needs her. Gabrielle needs her. But if I die here, no one--except maybe you--would miss me."
"This is crazy. Janice, I can't lose you...I won't let you..."
"I'm betting you won't." She cupped she southerner's cheek. "Look I love you Mel, don't ever forget that, but I DO have a darker heart. In fact the only light I've ever had in my life is YOU." The archeologist stood up. "I've got to do this Mel, for everybody's sake."
Xena and Gabrielle broke the embrace when they heard a shrill cry.
"Janice, NO! Come back! Please!" Warrior and bard turned to see the archeologist moving toward them with a determined look on her face, and Melinda frantically chasing her. "Xena! Gabrielle! Stop her! She's trying to get to the Nightstone! I don't want it to hurt her!! Janice!"
Xena glanced at her lover. "Gabrielle..."
"I know." The bard smiled. "Go on."
The warrior took off like an arrow, in mere moments almost catching up to Janice before the archeologist even knew she was there. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiii!" She leapt into the air--flipped head over heels--and landed in front of the smaller woman, who tried to stop herself too suddenly and lost her footing. As she hit the ground and tumbled the warrior continued forward, just a few feet from the Nightstone now.
Janice gritted her teeth. "No Xena!" She uncoiled the whip from her belt, and lashed it at the warrior's feet, the tip just wrapping around Xena's right ankle. "Stop, please!" The archeologist yanked back as hard as she could in an attempt to take the warrior off her feet, but only succeeded in bringing Xena to her knees. She got up, and tried to slip past Xena, but the warrior grabbed her by the arm and rose.
"Why did you do that?! Are you crazy?"
"I'm sorry." Janice lowered her whip. "I didn't mean to hurt you, I was just trying to slow you down."
"Are you really so anxious to die?" Xena released the archeologist's arm and frowned. "What if you try using the Nightstone and it kills you? Did you stop to consider that?"
"Did you?" Janice crossed her arms. "Like I was telling Melinda, you are important to this world Xena. If YOU die, everything in my future might be changed as a result. If I die who's gonna care?"
"ME." Melinda stomped up to them, her face red. Gabrielle was right behind the obviously irate southerner. "I don't believe you Janice Covington, thinking only of yourself. You're not going to die here today, because I am not going to LET you. Do you hear me?"
Janice shook her head. "Wait a second Mel..."
"No YOU wait!" Melinda was livid. "I love you Janice--more than I ever thought possible--and I refuse to live the rest of my life in mourning, or wondering what it might have been like had we been together. So..." She took a deep breath. "...if you insist on going through with this, I'm going to do it too."
Janice's eyes widened. "WHAT? Mel, are you crazy?! I MIGHT survive, it WILL kill you!"
"I don't care. That is my decision and I'm sticking to it." Melinda crossed her arms and turned her back on the archeologist. "END of discussion."
"Damn it, this is ridiculous. Xena, can you talk some sense into her?"
Xena nodded. "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything." Faster than the eye could follow, she jabbed a finger into Melinda's neck, and the southerner's body instantly tensed up. She slumped forward into Xena's arms, and the warrior gently lowered her to the ground. "That pressure point will leave her unconscious for only a couple of minutes, so we have to hurry. Janice?"
The archeologist looked up from Melinda's prone form. "Yeah?" A moment later, the same pressure point had rendered her unconscious as well.
Xena lay Janice on the ground beside Melinda, and then turned to Gabrielle. The bard was staring at her, with undiluted love and sadness both in her eyes. "Hey, don't worry..." She threw her arms around Gabrielle, pulling the bard into a tight embrace. "I'll be fine. What could possibly happen to ME?"
"You want a list?" Gabrielle shook her head. "No, seriously Xena...I WANT to believe you'll be all right. Deep down my heart knows you will always find some way to come back to me. But I'm still scared Xena, I'm afraid I'll never see you again. I can't even imagine living without you."
"Or I you." Xena raised the bard's chin and kissed her. "I LOVE YOU, Gabrielle."
"I love you too." Gabrielle took a step back and wiped away a tear. "Now, you'd better go, before I change my mind and decide not to let you try this." The warrior gave her one final passionate kiss, then turned and walked toward the Nightstone, which rested on the ground under a tree.
Xena approached the mystic object with caution.
In her days as a warlord she had done her best to avoid magic whenever possible; barring it's use in her camp and doing her best to avoid battling magic users. Magic was unreliable on the best of terms, and could actually be dangerous if it was used incorrectly. The Nightstone had proven to be an enigma, and she had no idea what to expect even if she could get it to work. The warrior was afraid, but not for herself--death didn't scare her, and had not for many years--rather she was worried she might never see Gabrielle again.
Resisting the urge to look back at the bard one last time, Xena crouched down beside the Nightstone and put her hands flat upon it's glossy outer surface. The instant her bare flesh touched the artifact it reacted, her spine arched painfully and tendrils of black, lightning-like energy overwhelmed her entire body. She knew pain unlike anything she had ever imagined, tearing into every ince of her mind and soul, and she wanted nothing so much as to scream outloud.
Suddenly, everything changed.
Xena found herself standing in the middle of an endless void. She tried to turn her head, to look around, only to be struck by an incredible wave of vertigo. It left her confused--light-headed--for though her body wanted to fall, her mind wouldn't let it. After what seemed like an eternity, she managed to regain her bearings, and tossed her head back. "What's going on? Where am I?"
"Who's there? Who are you? WHERE are you?"
"You already said that. Now I want some answers. Am I in the Nightstone? Is that it?"
YES. NO. MAYBE.
"Stop being so cryptic, whoever you are! Can you help me?"
PERHAPS. PERHAPS NOT.
"Just tell me what I have to do!"
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
Xena wanted to get angry, to lash out at whoever or whatever was responsible for the irritating voice, but she just couldn't find the strength to do so. "I want, no...I need to find some way to send Janice and Melinda back to their own world. Can you help me, yes or no?"
NO. I CAN NOT DO THIS THING, BUT YOU CAN.
"Me? How?! The Nighstone makes the portals, not me! What am I supposed to do?"
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
Now Xena WAS becoming frustrated. "Look, I'm not here to play games! Janice and Melinda come from some point in the future, and they deserve to be back in their own time, their own world."
YES. ALL SHOULD BE RESTORED.
"So, does that mean you can help me or not?"
NO. I CAN NOT DO THIS THING, BUT YOU CAN.
Xena sighed. At least she thought she was sighing, the warrior suddenly found it harder to breath. "Fine! If it will make this ridiculous conversation go any faster, I will open a portal to send Janice and Melinda home! I will do it myself, are you happy?!"
Xena opened her eyes, gasping for air.
She was surprised to once again find herself down on her knees in front of the Nightstone, which appeared to be emitting a faint hum which surged in time to it's shimmering ebony aura. With her chest feeling heavy as she took in one labored breath after another, the warrior turned her head, and was surprised to see a ctackling black doorway of energy floating in the air nearby. It works! It really works!
"Xena! By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle raced to the warrior's side. "Are you all right?"
"I-I think so. My head is spinning. It's hard to remember. What happened?"
Gabrielle helped Xena to her feet. "You touched the Nightstone, and suddenly started to scream. I tried to get to you, to help you, but it was throwing off these black lightning bolts. I couldn't make it." She nodded towards the floating doorway. "Obviously it worked. How do you feel?"
"Fine, I guess. Where are Janice and Melinda?"
"Right here!" The archeologist arrived first, her eyes narrowed. "That was a dirty trick, Xena."
The warrior shrugged. "Sorry. It was the only thing I could think of to stop you."
"When will this headache go away?" asked the southerner.
"In a few minutes. Take deep breaths, you'll be fine." Xena slipped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "So I guess this is good-bye. It was...nice...meeting you two, seeing our future."
Gabrielle nodded. "At least we know whatever happens to us, out families will live on."
"Xena..." Janice held her hand out, and Xena clasped her arm in a warrior's grip. "It was good to meet you. I'm glad a got a chance to put a face to all those stories I've read." She turned to the bard. "And Gabrielle, what can I say to you? We're of the same blood, you and I, and I'm proud to say that."
"So am I." Gabrielle smiled. "Good-bye Janice."
Melinda stepped forward, a look of quiet amazement on her face. I don't believe it. Now Janice is GLAD she's related to Gabrielle? Will wonders never cease? She cleared her throat. "Well Xena, I hope you find the peace and love you so deserve in life. Like Janice said, I'm VERY proud to know we are related, and this adventure will live on in my memory for the rest of my life." She embraced the warrior, then turned to Gabrielle. "And Gabrielle, you are a lucky woman and a wonderful bard. Your destiny has not yet been fulfilled, so do not ever give up on whatever you are looking for in your life." She embraced the bard as well, then turned to Janice and clasped the archeologist's hand in her own. "Are you ready to go?"
Janice nodded. "Let's do it." Hand in hand, they strode confidently toward the portal, pausing at the very last moment to wave to their ancient ancestors. Warrior and bard still had their hands in the air when they leapt into the ebony doorway and vanished, followed a moment later by the portal itself.
Xena lowered her hand, a strange look overcoming her face.
"What?" Gabrielle glanced up at her beautiful lover. "Xena, is something wrong?"
"I don't know...I just get a feeling I'm forgetting something." The warrior looked around, but everything in the camp seemed as it had before. A piece of rabbit meat hung over the fire, their supplies were neatly arranged out by their bedroll, and Argo was munching happily on some grass nearby. Nothing out of the ordinary. "Guess it was just my imagination." She slipped an arm around the bard. "Say, are you hungry?"
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled lasciviously at the warrior. "Yes, but not for food."
Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas reappeared in the middle of their own camp, still in shambles from their battle with Martyr. The tent holding all of their belongings and artifacts had been strewn everywhere, while the smoldering crater where the Nightstone had been was still glowing black.
"We made it." the southerner gasped. "We're home."
"Yeah, but do you feel that?" Janice looked around. "The air is all tingly, it makes my skin itch."
"I DO. What do you think it means?"
"I have no idea." The archeologist peered into the crater, and her face fell. "But if I had to guess, I'd say we're not quiet done with this little endeavor just yet."
Melinda gasped when she saw what Janice was looking at. "Oh my. The Nightstone?!" It lay in the bottom of the shallow crater, covered in cracks and leaking tendrils of inky blackness, but still intact. "How can that be? I thought we left it in the past!"
"Obviously not." Janice crossed her arms. "So what are we supposed to do now?"
"DIE!" A dark figure appeared behind them, knocking both women to the ground. They glanced back to see a pale-skinned, wild-eyed man wearing black body armor. Janice reached for the whip on her belt, but he stopped her by stomping his foot down on the archeologist's wrist, and grinding his heel into her exposed palm. "Oh no you don't little girl, no more of that!"
All the color drained from Melinda's face. "I-I don't understand, how can YOU be here?"
Martyr shrugged. "Beats the Hades out of me. When Xena opened that portal to send you two back here, the Nightstone went through too, and I must've come along for the ride." He stepped off Janice's hand and reached for the whip. "And I was so looking forward to finishing Xena off. Oh well, guess I'll just have to make due with killing the two of you!"
"NO!" Janice spun around and leg-swept Martyr's feet right out from under him. "Mel listen! I remember now, he's linked to the Nighstone! He'll exist as long as it does! " The Bloodsword grabbed her by the leg and pulled the archeologist to the ground beside him. "Find a rock or something! Destroy it!"
Melinda got to her feet and nodded. "I'm on it!" She went off to do as she was told, while Martyr manuevered so her was straddling Janice.
"Stupid bitch! You just had to tell her, didn't you?!" Janice fought him as best she could, but the Bloodsword was holding her wrists in a vise-like grip. "I'm going to rip your spine out and show it to you! Then I'll just have to make sure your girlfriend doesn't do any real damage to the Nightstone!"
"Go to hell!" Janice brought her knees up as hard as she could into Marty's groin, and he screamed in pain. "I bet you can sing soprano in the Devil's Choir!" She rolled to her feet while the Bloodsword collapsed, moaning and hissing under his breath, but still conscious. "Mel?" The archeologist went looking for Melinda, whom she found dragging a sledge hammer--one of the ones they used to drive in tent stakes--behind her. "I'm impressed, Mel. But let me help!" Together, they were able to pick the hammer up, and carry it toward the Nightstone. "We have to finish this thing off before Martyr recovers!"
"GET AWAY FROM THERE!" The Bloodsword came lurching down the hill, wielding one of the swords they had recovered in Ares's temple. "I'll kill you both!"
"Now Mel! NOW!" It was heavy, but Janice and Melinda managed to get the sledge-hammer over their heads and swing it back down in one relatively smooth movement. "Sayanora sucker!"
"Shazam!" Melinda cried, just before the hammer struck the glossy surface of the Nightstone.
A heartbeat later there was an indescribable explosion of heat and sound which engulfed both women in fiery darkness. It lasted for only a moment, and when it finally faded and the smoke had cleared, both the Nightstone and Martyr were nowhere in sight. The ground for hundreds of yards around the crater was smoldering but not burning, while the crater itself did not appear to have sustained any further damage. Melinda lay curled in a ball on one side, and Janice lay sprawled on her back at the other. Surprisingly, given the apparent severity of what they had just been through, both were still conscious.
"Oh damn, just what I DON'T need!" The archeologist sat up and moaned. "A NEW headache."
The southerner sat up too. "Please, don't yell."
"Sorry." Janice looked around. "Well, I guess we did it. Looks like he's gone."
Melinda smiled weakly. "Good. You know it's funny, but I just remembered something that's been bugging me the whole time we were back in ancient Greece."
"Before all this started, how many of the scrolls would you say we read through?"
Janice shrugged. "I don't know...half, maybe three-fourths. Why?"
"Do you recall ANYTHING about Xena and Gabrielle's meeting their descendants from the future? Or fighting with us against Martyr and the Nighstone?"
The archeologist paused for a moment. "Now that you mention it, no. The closest thing I remember, is the last battle they had with the Bloodsword--in Ares' temple. They left the 'stone, Martyr and everything else buried in an earthquake. Damn Mel, what do you think it means? All this never happened?"
The southerner shrugged. "I remember, you remember and our camp is still ruined. Maybe--since we travelled through time with the Nightstone--it kept our minds intact while changing everybody else. Xena and Gabrielle's memories of the Bloodsword end after that last battle."
Janice sighed. "I guess that's probably for the best. I'd hate to think their lives were all messed up because we left 'em worrying about their future."
"What about OUR future?" Melinda was teary-eyed. "Where are WE going?"
"I don't know, Mel." Janice smiled. "But what do you say we try and figure it out...together?"
"Do you ever think about our future?"
Xena turned her head to look at the bard, who was curled up beside her on the bedroll. "What?"
"You heard me. Our future." Gabrielle rested her head on the warrior's bare shoulder. "Have you ever thought about where we're going to be in five or ten years? And what about children?"
The warrior chuckled. "I may have many skills Gabrielle, but even I can't give you children."
She playfully slapped Xena on the arm. "Oh you! You know what I mean!"
"Yeah, I know." Xena sighed. "To be honest, until recently I'd never really given it much thought."
Gabrielle smiled. "So, you HAVE thought about it?"
"Some. Thanks to you." Xena turned so her face was only inches from the bard's. "Gabrielle, I NEVER wanted to be bogged down with children when I was younger--that's part of the reason I gave Solon up to be raised by Kaleipus and the Centaurs. I knew HE would take care of my son, love him, as I could not. But it never occurred to me that I would ever meet anyone who made me feel the way you do, Gabrielle. You taught me HOW to love, and while that's a debt I know I can NEVER repay, I'll spend the rest of my life trying." She kissed the bard, first on the brow, then on the nose, and finally on the lips. "I love you Gabrielle."
"I love you too, Xena."
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