DISCLAIMER: Characters belong to Renaissance Pictures, no copyright infringements intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Plays somewhere in the second season.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The village where the two armies clashed had become a battlefield. Various houses were burning, the fires filling the air with acrid fumes and ashes. Xena squinted through the smoke and ignored the sweat running into her eyes. She easily parried with her opponent, who bled from several cuts and was already way too exhausted to be a real threat to the warrior princess.
Xena was concerned for Gabrielle and looked for the little blonde. She finally found her in fierce combat with a bald fighter. The guy was at least twice as large as Gabrielle, clad in rugged leather, with a giant double handed sword. But his size and the size of his sword were to Gabrielle's advantage. He was too slow. The small woman danced around him, placing expert strokes with her staff onto her enemy's body.
The battle was almost over. The warlord had been beaten a while ago and most of his followers had already sneaked into the surrounding woods. After scaring off the last warriors, real work was waiting for Xena and Gabrielle. Wounded people needed to be tended to, fires needed to be extinguished and the village had to be repaired. Gabrielle would never leave the local people in a destroyed village and Xena agreed. A war was not over, just because the warriors had left the battlefield.
Changing her sword into her left hand, Xena held the tired soldier at arms length and released the chakram from her hip. With a flick of her wrist she sent the chakram flying knocking Gabrielle's opponent off his feet. As the guy fell a surprised look spread on the bard's face. With a satisfied smile she dropped her staff and rolled the man onto his back.
"Damn," she said, as her eyes fell on the unmistakeable cut in his forehead. Meanwhile Xena had caught her chakram with an elegant sommersault and landed behind her opponent. She kicked his feet off under his body and sent him into dreams with the flat side of her sword onto his head. The fight was won.
Xena motioned a helper to retrieve the unconscious soldier from the battlefield. She turned to face the bard, who somehow looked unhappy. Concerned Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Are you all right?"
"You did it again!" the bard complained with a furious glint in her eyes.
"Huh?" Xena had no idea, what Gabrielle was talking about.
"You k.o.-ed my opponent!"
A genuine smile spread on the dirty but gorgeous face of the warrior princess: "You're welcome."
Gabrielle felt a slight difficulty to maintain her anger. "But I don't want you to do that!" she burst out, thereby restoring it.
"You looked like you could use some help!" Xena replied a little bit nonplussed.
"I was doing fine."
"Well, yeah, I need to talk to that captain of the army. I'll meet up with you later at the after battle party at Downtowns."
Gabrielle stomped off, clearly unsatisfied with the direction this conversation had taken. Something had to be done. She could not longer allow herself to be treated like this. As if she was a little girl.
The bard turned at her mate's call. "What?"
"The other direction!"
The "Downtown" was an upbeat tavern nearby. The innkeeper had had the glorious idea to advertise an after battle party where tired soldiers could celebrate their victory. He had put a small chalkboard on the road prior to the fighting as soldiers marched by his sorry hut and now they knew where to go for that much needed end-of-the-day ale. Despite the impudent prices of the alcoholic beverages the room was already crowded and more people pushed in looking for a place to settle their bruised bodies.
Gabrielle having already been shooed off by a very gruff soldier and some guy who wanted to celebrate with kisses and other inappropriate behaviour had found a tight spot at the bar. This splendid piece of furniture was so high though that Gabrielle could not comfortably put her elbows on the grimy surface. "It is to dirty, anyway," she muttered under her breath as she took the first gulp from her tankard. She did not really care much for the ale, but it was still better than the wine or the diluted port offered.
"Gabrielle!" someone hollered letting his hand fall onto her shoulder and her ribcage made painful contact with the edge of the bar. The bard's hand slid to the staff as she tried in the semidarkness of the tavern to make out whose face belonged to that hand and voice.
"Salmoneus!" Gabrielle was really surprised to see the enterprising salesman. Seeing Salmoneus always meant trouble, because he always had a dirty trick up his sleeve, but he usually kept clear of real danger like battles or war.
"What brings you here?"
"Business," he replied with a wide grin, "right now, I am owning that tavern!"
"You do?" Gabrielle said, but she believed it without a doubt, the whole concept did sound a lot like the Salmoneus Gabrielle knew.
"I have rented the house from a local shop owner for a minimum fee after all it could have been destroyed like so many other houses "
Salmoneus elaborated his financial succes, but Gabrielle interrupted: "Since you own this place don't you have some back room, where a girl can stretch her legs?"
"I am so sorry, the backrooms are all busy with the card players, but if I can do anything else for you, just let me know. I'll be back in a while, just let me attend to my business for now." Salmoneus ordered a new tankard for Gabrielle and disappeared into the crowd after the tankard was placed in front of her. Gabrielle followed the stout figure with her eyes, chuckling softly.
As Salmoneus returned Gabrielle was seriously drunk. Otherwise all of what happened later on could have been avoided, or so Gabrielle told herself. Somehow she had made up a plan to prove to Xena, that she no longer needed to be rescued by her on all occasions.
"I do need your help, Salmoneus," she said her speech already a little slurred, her eyes a little bit crossed.
"Of course, I'll help you!" he looked at the petite blonde. He liked Gabrielle, as much as he could - a salesman who valued nothing in life above money.
"Do you remember that beauty contest you organized with Xena as Miss Amphipolis?"
"Sure! These were glorious times ," Salmoneus did not really want to think back to this horrible experience. All of the beauties, but one left the contest before he could even announce the winner. The peace that should have been secured did not last for a long time, despite their good intentions and on top of all, all the money Salmoneus had hoped for went to the hungry people of that little village thanks to Xena.
"Do you think you could do that again?"
"Certainly not there is not enough money in that business concerning the trouble I had to go through!" he tried to shake off the memory. "I tell you, working with women is not worth the pain "
"I wasn't talking about the same kind of contest, actually," Gabrielle took a deep gulp out of her tankard, if Salmoneus wouldn't help her
"I need to show Xena that I am good "
Salmoneus interrupted her: "Don't worry, she sure knows that!"
"But she is so over protective!"
"But isn't this a good thing?"
Gabrielle dropped her head into her hands. "She needs to see, that I can stand up for myself. That I can handle all these situations just as good as she can on my own!"
"Uh, oh, uh! So you mean a contest between you and Xena?" Salmoneus scratched his beard. He considered if it really was a good thing to annoy the tall dark woman. "I don't know, Gabrielle you know Xena " he was waving his hands uncertainly up and down.
"She doesn't need to know," Gabrielle insisted and Salmoneus warmed to the idea: "The mighty warriour princess against the battling bard!"
"I see Salmoneus, that there is no profit in it for you, but I need to show Xena, that I have grown up."
Salmoneus wasn't listening any longer to the saddened bard. He was sure to find enough people who would place a bet, if he would just make it right. The prospect of a good business brought a wide smile onto his face, as he saw Xena appear in the entrance of the tavern. It would sure do no good if she saw him right now. He turned to Gabrielle: "I will arrange something. Meet me tomorrow before the sun is up. I'll be right here, waiting for you." and with that he scurried away tending to his business.
Getting up before Xena was almost impossible for Gabrielle. Not only did the warrior princess live on a mere six hours per night, she also was a very light sleeper, having trained her survivalist instincts to perfection. A sudden movement nearby, a snap of a twig under the foot of someone approaching jerked her awake immediately and awake meant ready for action. In addition Xena had the irritating habit to fling an arm or a leg over Gabrielle, thus pinning the smaller woman to the ground without the chance to steal away unnoticed.
But luck was on Gabrielle's side this morning. After the fighting had ceased Xena herself had to relax and gather strengths for the difficult tasks that lay ahead. As Gabrielle disentangled her limbs from under the cover just before dusk Xena muttered sleepily: "What is it, Gabrielle?"
"Hangover!" the bard replied only half pretending. With a wistful glance at her peaceful friend she shoved her green top in place. She would have to go shopping one of these days this Phrygian soap would never get the old blood stains off the garment and it anyway felt as if she had been wearing this bra forever.
Yawning, she made her way to the tavern. The sun rose over the horizon promising a glorious day. Birds were greeting Gabrielle. Salmoneus of course was not there and the house was locked and barred. Gabrielle cowered next to the door already entertaining second thoughts about the geniality of her idea. She could still go and forget about the whole thing. Slowly she pushed herself up and did the first step back as the door finally opened.
"Come on in!" Salmoneus said. He grabbed the girl by the wrist pulling her into the bar. Gabrielle scrunched her nose up. The room was smelling of stale beer and sweat and the unmistakeable odour of vomit. Gabrielle decided spontaneous to skip taverns for a while. But despite the smell the room was cleaned, the tabletops scrubbed and the straw on the floor was fresh. A few hours with open windows would clear the smell out of the room.
Salmoneus filled a tankard with beer putting it in front of the bard. Gabrielle almost gagged.
"No, thank you," she managed to say, "let's get down to business!"
"These are the words that every salesman likes to hear most," Salmoneus smiled and dug a giant scroll of parchment from behind the bar. "Here is my plan!" ,and then he started to explain all his ideas to the apprehensive bard. Gabrielle shook her head: this wasn't going to work. "Do you have anything edible available?"
Salmoneus beat his hand onto his forehead: "I am so negligent maybe you can go over the plan while I'll fix you some breakfast," it did Gabrielle not take long to figure out that Salmoneus plans needed extensive honing and improving. Some of his ideas were acceptable, some were dangerous or even foolish and some were outright ridiculous.
As Salmoneus returned with a giant wooden board filled with bread and cheese and a big pitcher of warm milk, Gabrielle was almost certain that it would be a better idea to call the whole thing off and return to the warrior princess head bowed. But she had not counted on Salmoneus' convincing persistence. As the last crumb from the breakfast table disappeared into Gabrielle's mouth, they had a battle plan ready. They had decided on five major competitions. Gabrielle could prove if she really was ready for the hard life. Or if not, if she should quietly return to Poteidaia. Either way she would live the life that was carved out for her.
"Where have you been?" Xena was more than a little upset. She had waited for her friend a long time, then asked around if anybody had seen her. Finally she decided to get to work the village people needed her help.
She was organizing a crew to fix the burnt down houses, as Gabrielle finally came back.
"Where have you been?"
Gabrielle was really sorry. How could she have spent so much time on her own petty problems, while others needed her help.
"We need to fix a reasonable place for the wounded, where they can stay for the time being," Xena pointed out, "they need some kind of shelter."
"The tavern?" Gabrielle suggested. She knew of course that Salmoneus would not be pleased, but the place really was almost perfect, it was dry, clean and had just the right size to accommodate the man.
"Good idea," Xena smiled, almost soothed, "why don't you find the owner and have a chat with him. You could emphasize our point of view, if he is not reasonable!" With these words she handed Gabrielle her staff, that she had left at camp earlier this morning.
"I don't think this will be necessary," Gabrielle replied a little embarrassed. She did not want to tell Xena about Salmoneus. At the same time she felt guilty about having secrets from her best friend. So for the second time that day she went to the tavern, breaking the news to Salmoneus. As expected there was a great deal of whining and complaining from the inn keeper, but Gabrielle had the better arguments in the long run.
As the group of wounded man arrived at the tavern, was Salmoneus nowhere to be seen. He had located the owner of the house and returned his keys. He had told the bard, that he would be waiting by the wayside until the two woman would be on their way. Of course he did not tell her, that he also was going to find an auditorium for the challenge between Gabrielle and Xena. He would improve the battle plan that the bard had finally approved on his own account.
The rest of the day Xena and Gabrielle helped the villagers to remove the traces of the battle and get back to a normality, as peaceful as was even possible in this situation. As night fell Gabrielle had almost forgotten about the morning. She was righteous exhausted and tired.
"What do you think of Troy?" Xena asked, as she and Gabrielle were sitting by the fire.
"We haven't been to Athens for a long time," the bard replied, " and if we hurry, we might even make it to the Olympics." Carefully she leant her head on her friends strong shoulder. "The Olympics?" Xena was surprised, "I didn't know, that you cared for the Olympics. There are a lot of strong half naked guys."
Gabrielle smiled teasingly: "Exactly!" and then she lent in on her friend and kissed her tenderly.
"So, Athens, it is," Xena determinedly closed the conversation, "Let's go to bed!"
The sun rose the next morning onto a clear blue sky and promised a glorious day. Xena whistled for Argo and the faithful mare appeared with a happy neigh, sensing the fresh start and a new adventure. Xena, holding her hand out, helped Gabrielle onto Argo's wide back. They crossed the little village where people rushed to them to wish them a safe journey and express their gratitude with little gifts or some food they could spare.
Xena would have none of it. She thanked them all for their friendliness and hospitality and enjoyed the gentle movement of the horse and Gabrielle's strong hands on her hips. Sometimes she remembered with a lusty grin she would race Argo, just to feel Gabrielle's arms slide around her waist and holding on for dear life. All she could think then was: faster, faster. She would probably do that again later today.
Once, past the village, Argo was falling into a light trot. Gabrielle wondered whether she should look out for Salmoneus, but she decided against it. He would just have to look out for her. A couple of times she believed that she had glimpsed a movement in the dense underbrush on the wayside, but Xena did not reign in Argo, so she could be mistaken.
Salmoneus had meanwhile proceeded to the next village. He was searching the place for two men at about the same height, strength and build. According to plan they should start an argument with Xena and her blond mate. The woman, who would finish her opponent first would win.
The day was dry and warm and the way to Athens was long. Argo made good speed during the first few leagues and then fell into a gentle trot. Xena let her, she was not in a haste. She always enjoyed being on the road with Gabrielle with no particular purpose driving them from battle to fight. The light falling through the canopy of the forest turned the way into a light green band and the birds were singing, it did not take long for Gabrielle to drift off, her head on Xena's shoulder.
As the sun reached its zenith the peace was over. Two men were blocking the road, swords drawn and dirty grins pasted onto their equally dirty faces.
"Stupid idiots," Xena thought, "they are blocking the road, where everybody can see them leagues ahead. Anybody in their right mind could just finish them off with a good strung bow."
She turned to Gabrielle patting her gently on the shoulder to nudge her awake.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, her sleepy eyes fell on the men and she gasped. These guys were really big. Enormous muscles bulged on arms and legs, and their breastplates looked solid and black.
"How about a ransom?" asked one of the robbers, leaning heavily on his sword.
"How about not?" Xena replied, "it is always the same with you, guys. Some of you", her eyes darted from one to the other, "even look alike!" She dismounted with one fluent motion while Gabrielle fiddled with her staff. She shortly mused where Salmoneus could have found those guys. A little bit down the road she could make out the first houses and a stone temple.
"Yeah," the other guy said in a raspy voice, "we are the evil twins. Adam and Evan." He said with a mock curtsy.
"I don't really care to become acquainted with you, but if you don't move and let us pass, you might not longer look alike, because one of you will at least have a nip in his lip. So, what is the decision?"
"I am not really scared of cats, you may scratch as much as you like." Evan said and Adam added: "I think we are taking the risk!"
Xena sighed: "Well, don't say I did not warn you!"and as Adam charged Xena was ready. Gabrielle took on Evan. "Zeus almighty!" she thought as the blade cut the ground not an inch next to her toes. She turned around bringing the staff to the back of Evan's knees.
His legs buckled and he made an awkward knee fall, thus enabling Gabrielle to look straight into his eyes, but he kept swinging his blade in wide deadly arches nevertheless. Gabrielle had to step backwards to avoid his blows and immediately he jumped to his feet, hardly stopping within his attack. While adrenalin flooded her system, she tested her opponent for weaknesses. His strength was obviously attacking. Due to his sheer size he probably did not have to defend himself very often. And though the armour on his torso and upper arms was heavy and studded with spikes, he had almost no protection on his lower body. Gabrielle stepped closer, ducking under his arm and delivered a new blow to his knees. It seemed also that Evan was not a very fast learner, because he went down to the ground again. Sweat was trickling down his face now and his complexion had turned a tad green, but his strength suffered no setback. It was a fast fight and Gabrielle blessed all the hours where she had walked next to Argo, building up her stamina.
She brought down her staff on his wrist, just above the leather piece that was supposed to safe his sorry bones and heard Evan's sharp intake of breath. All the while she was moving, avoiding his whirling sword with strategic jumps backwards and to the sides. She heard Xena's triumphant "Ayiyiyiy", but had no time to turn.
With a graceful pirouette she gathered momentum to bang her weapon onto Evan's head. Blood, spittle and a couple of teeth spewed from his mouth as the battle concluded. The big man hit the ground with a hollow thump, holding the side of his head and whimpering in pain.
Gabrielle stepped back and bent over to catch her breath. She leant on her staff and swore heartily. This was supposed to be some kind of game, not a killing spray. She realized that her hands were full of blood. Surprised she looked at Evan. She did not remember causing such a blood bath. Unbelieving she stared at her hands as Xena stepped by, taking a closer look.
"This is a nasty gash!" she took Gabrielle's hands in hers.
"This is nothing," Gabrielle replied, but felt the pain in the same moment. Evan's sword must have cut her skin at some point. She looked her friend up and down, but could not find any injury on Xena. "Damn", she thought. She would never beat Xena beating the bad guys. Adam was already bundled up and tied upon a tree.
Gabrielle slumped to the ground stretching her dripping hand from her.
"That was a really good fight," Xena remarked as she wrapped some cloth around the bards injured hand.
"Yes, it was " ,Gabrielle stopped in the middle of her sentence, looking at the warrior princess, "you did not help?!"
"It was not necessary. Besides, I still had my hands full with that other scumbag. He needed to be tied up. I did not want him to go off with Argo. Let's go stitch your hand up. I'm sure they have some thread and a needle in that temple there," she pointed to the stone building ahead.
"What do we do with A. and E.?" Gabrielle asked as Xena tied Evan onto his twin, his eye was swollen and blue. The family resemblance was not any longer visible, just as Xena had promised. "We'll leave them here. Somebody will come from the village later and take them to the dungeon. Let's go."
As they approached the village Gabrielle noticed a group of men. Two of them were swinging their swords. "Aye, Xena," one of them yelled, "are you in for a little sword play?"
"I'll take the blonde", another one smirked. Gabrielle had a bad foreboding. She was aware that Salmoneus was lurking in a shaded doorway, a little bit down the path. With a jerk she realized that the twins they had just defeated had really been highwaymen. Knowing her friend very well Gabrielle could read the anger in Xena's motionless face.
"The second set of idiots on one day! I don't believe it. Let's cut through the small talk. My friend is hurt and needs help. So no, we are not playing." She pulled her sword out and let the hilt slam on the first guys head, while she kicked the other in his stomach. "Anybody else, want to fight?" , but the people were already hurrying off. Gabrielle couldn't help smiling, though she knew that she had lost the first competition.
The women made camp in the temple. A fat priest, babbling about rough and bloody times led them to a sparsely furnished room. It contained a narrow bedstead and a giant chest. The window was covered with splendid velvet curtains. The warrior princess did a quick check up and then set out to find the accessories to sew Gabrielle's hand. It really was no big deal. Gabrielle didn't want the fuss Xena was making about the cut, but the warrior princess was adamant. "We're staying here till tomorrow. Now you should rest!"
"This is just a cut on my hand, Xena. I am fine!" Gabrielle complained.
"Then maybe we should find something to eat," Xena replied patiently, "Let's look for a tavern."
"Not another tavern, Xena, please," in general Gabrielle was not against a hearty lunch, but she was sure that they would run into Salmoneus in the tavern, and somehow she did not want to talk to him at all. She had glimpsed his face as Xena sent his chosen fighters to sleep within a split second and it was not happy.
"Well, then I'll go find something to eat," and before Gabrielle could answer Xena was out of the door. The bard just hoped that Salmoneus would be clever enough to stay out of Xena's way. She settled back on the bedstead and pulled out a quill and a scroll. She would use the time to write down what had happened during the last few days. But then she hesitated, did she really want to write down about her arrangement with Salmoneus?
She doodled on the parchment. With a few lines she drew Xena's face. And in a bubble she wrote: "Do you really believe that challenge would change anything?" "A valid question," she thought. She drew her own face and resisted the urge to depict her fingers in her mouth. "It was worth a try." She wrote in the bubble that floated over her face. "I'll love you always." The Xena that appeared on the paper under Gabrielle's skilled fingers replied. And Gabrielle added her own figure in a tight embrace with the warrior princess.
"This is funny!" Salmoneus said and Gabrielle almost jumped off the bed.
"No it is not. It is comical!" she said, as her heart had finally calmed down to it's usual steady beat. "How did you come in here I did not here you!"
"I've been outside on the ledge, since you entered," Salmoneus sighed.
"But this has been a while ago.", Gabrielle replied.
"Forever!" Salmoneus whined, "my legs are numb and I didn't dare breath for most of the time."
Gabrielle guffawed: "That was really clever. Xena would have killed you."
"That's what I figured."
"Listen, Salmoneus, I am sorry about what happened today "
"Ahum, I lost a couple of dinars, because I put my money on you."
"You did, what?"
"I know that was kinda risky, but I had somebody out there to help you!"
Gabrielle could not believe what she heard. "You were taking bets and you cheated. I should have known! I am cancelling the challenge. Immediately."
"But you can't"
"I I I am ,"Salmoneus stuttered.
"You brought yourself into trouble!" Gabrielle finished his sentence.
The salesman looked extremely unhappy: "I have already spent some of the money, to organize the challenge. And there are some really powerful people, who placed their bets too!"
"Such as Gideon, the warlord, Vagrén, the weapon salesman and," his chin dropped onto his breast and his breathing sounded laboured, Gabrielle thought.
"And?" she pressed on, showing no mercy.
" and Ares, the god of war," Salmoneus concluded.
"This is just great!" Gabrielle was exasperated, what did she get herself into - again?
"So, do we carry on then as planned?" The look in his eyes was pleading.
"I am talking to Xena!"
"She'll kill me in cold blood," Salmoneus suspected and Gabrielle was not sure whether he was so wrong there. "I wouldn't blame her," Gabrielle muttered under her breath, but she didn't dare say it loud, because who's idea was it in the first place?
"Okay, I won't say a thing, but you got to promise, that you'll call the competition off, as soon as you find a way out," Salmoneus face went bright and cheery momentarily, "or I'll talk to the warrior princess." She accompanied her last sentence with the most intimidating look she was capable of. However she was not so sure, that Salmoneus left, because she had scared him off, or if he was just up to some other plans.
Thoughtfully she went back to her scroll tapping the image of Xena with her index finger. "I do hope, that I know you well enough by now!"
A short while later Xena appeared with a small cauldron full of steaming soup, two big chunks of bread and a pitcher of golden white vine. She handed Gabrielle a plate and ladled the soup onto it.
"Well, I found out that this is actually Bacchus temple. He doesn't provide travellers with plenty of space," she looked around the bare chalked walls and then with a new sense of appreciation back to the cauldron on the chest, "but if you ask nicely you will get a sumptuous dinner." Gabrielle provided two cups from her travelling bag and poured the wine. Xena nudged Gabrielle and sat next to her friend: "Dine fine!" she said and they turned their attention to the soup. It was really good.
"I am happy that we didn't go to the tavern." Gabrielle said, dipping her spoon into the bowl again and scraping it along the edges to get every last ounce out of it. They were toasting each other with the wine as Xena's eyes fell on the scroll: "What's that? A new story?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle replied hesitantly, "I am missing a couple of ideas, yet!"
"A challenge? You should continue this," she said, smiling, "I like this!" and she let her fingers trail over the pictures further onto Gabrielle's arm and face, creating a prickling sensation on the bards skin. Gabrielle forgot about the food, the story and the challenge at once. Only Xena was able to evoke sensations like that. It was very convenient that they were already sitting on the bed.
Gabrielle leant back, taking Xena with her. She held the warrior by the wrist and pulled her gently along. Stretched on the rough covers she took another sip of the wine savouring the sweet taste on her tongue. "Will you love me always?" she asked as Xena bent over and kissed her.
"I am commanding you to let me see the warrior princess!"
A steely voice carrying through most of the temple shook the women awake at the next morning.
"What is it now?" Xena was already getting up and covering her beautiful body with the familiar armour. She opened the door with fervour to look what all the commotion was about as the stocky priest stumbled into the room: "It is Gideon, the warlord," mumbled the priest, holding his cheek and covering a bred right mark of five fingers on it. And while he was diving for cover into the little room Gideon, the warlord, marched in uninvited and unwelcome.
He was a sight to behold: straight as a stick, with muscular shoulders and wavy shoulder long hair that he constantly shook out of his face in order to see at all. Like Xena he carried his scabbard on his back, but apart from this and the black leather boots with the iron toecaps, he did not look at all like a warlord. He obviously preferred the more fancy style, wearing silk pants and vest and a richly embroidered cape, almost dragging on the floor. He wore rings at almost every finger, including his left thumb and a heavy golden pendant around his neck.
His face though, was anything but beautiful. He had lost a large part of his former looks to Ares, considering that his face had been damaged in several wars and was now beyond repair. A large chunk of his nose and right ear were missing and a patch was put on his left eye. The scar ran across his heavy dark brow and ended somewhere between his hair. And as he was grinning at the warrior princess or at least Gabrielle translated his facial expression as a grin, it was clearly visible, that he had lost a couple of teeth too. If the cause had been a fistfight or just bad hygiene Gabrielle could not tell.
"We have to talk business!" he introduced himself and closed the door behind him. Gabrielle stood in front of the priest, holding her staff, ready to protect the poor man and silently counted to ten. She should have told Xena.
"I have no business with you," Xena said coolly, "you had better get out of this room, right now "
" or what?" Gideon interrupted with a smirk.
"Or else." said Xena and the surprised warlord landed hard on his behind, as Xena pushed against his chest with her flat hand. She bent into his face, almost purring, "I am not talking business with just any impolite bastard, who dares to step into my bedchamber, but I might make an exception, if you wish!"
She pulled her impressive blade from the scabbard, so fast that it was singing and pointed it between Gideon's legs. "So, will you talk business, or will you get OUT?" The warlord almost squeaked as the weapon cut through the floorboard not an inch from his private parts and crawled more than he walked out of the room. The look of utter surprise on his face told Gabrielle that they were safe for the moment, but a guy like him would not could not take Xena's move unpunished. Gabrielle nudged the pale priest out of the door and looked at her friend.
"Xena, I ", she began.
"I am sorry," Xena said, "but I can't have scum like that just moving in and out of my room at their own pleasure. I have to defend my good name!" Gabrielle coughed to cover up a tiny laugh and tugged nervously on her clothes, which she yet needed to straighten out after dressing herself so hasty.
"But, I "
"You've put your top, upside down," Xena said, "take your time, while I will get us some breakfast."
Gabrielle slumped back onto the bed. She had to have a word with her friend. The sooner she confessed to what she had done, the easier it would be. Maybe they would even be able to sort out this mess for Salmoneus, though she doubted Xena would be very keen in doing so. She redressed, taking the time to comb her hair and put their stuff back into the travelling bags they could still go to Athens. She had decided on her actions as the door burst open, at the second time this morning and Salmoneus fell on the floor.
"Look, what I found?" Xena said stepping over the threshold and glaring at the scared trader, "somebody else 's been sneaking around the temple. You probably don't have to do anything with that handsome warlord, have you?" Salmoneus' whole body language was screaming the opposite, but he just could not help it. "I was just in the area!" he pleaded, caressing his sore shoulders, where Xena's hands had held him. Xena did not even lift an eyebrow and Salmoneus stuttered on, "I was looking for some business and and "
"I ", Gabrielle managed to put in, but Xena did not want to hear: "So, you have hooked up, with Gideon, the warlord, " she spat out with contempt, "and you haven't even have the common sense, to let me out of this?" Salmoneus was just shrugging.
"Now I really need some breakfast. You," she growled at the salesman, "stay here! Gabrielle, I am holding you personally responsible for this piece of misery!" And head held high, the proud woman left the room again. Salmoneus rappelte sich auf. Xena was in her warrior mood that was getting really serious.
"Ok, that's it. I am talking to Xena!"
"No," Salmoneus protested, "we could just use our momentum!"
"We could what!" Gabrielle thought, that she couldn't take any more. Salmoneus was really something special. "Momentum, was that the word you used? Gideon will be onto Xena's heels after what had happened this morning." "Yeah, but this is good!" "It is?" Gabrielle felt pretty stupid repeating everything that Salmoneus said, but she didn't think, that she knew to many people who would act more clever, except for Xena maybe.
"It is time for the mountain competition, right?" Salmoneus was in his element again, planning further steps, carrying out his business plan. "You'd have to split from Xena anyway. And if I can talk Gideon into it, he'd just lead Xena, exactly where we want her to be." "But didn't you hear her?" "Of course I did, she said, keep me out of this!"
Salmoneus was smiling his sales man's smile and Gabrielle did not like it very much, it was not honest. "And how exactly do you plan to do this?" "She doesn't need to know, ever." "Forget it!" Banding up with this guy, would not earn her sympathies from Xena and she knew exactly where her loyalties lay. But than again, it seemed that the decision was taken out of Gabrielle's hand. She heard the distinctive creek of a floorboard and while whirling around felt the painful whack on the hand. She managed to cast a look on a smiling Gideon, but that was about it. She passed out.
Coming to was not less painful. Somebody had her propped up against a rough loam wall. Legs stretched in front of her. For a while she just sat there and tried to ignore the throbbing in her temple. Her mind wandered up and down her body to make an inventory of all the things that hurt. In the end she concluded, that her body hurt on most of the places, but not so much, that bones seemed to be broken or joints displaced. Her mouth was dry and she could not open her eyes. She tried to raise a hand to wipe away the goo that was stuck on her face and discovered that she was not able to. Her hands were tied behind her back and the movement caused the rope to cut into her wrist. She made a mental note to skin Salmoneus if she would ever get out of this mess alive, as she heard a soft whimpering. Still it took her a while to crack the coating on her face till she could see again.
Salmoneus was sitting next to her. His chin sunk onto his breastbone. From underneath a dirty bandage around his head seaped a slim stream of blood. By the way his cape looked, Gabrielle detected that he had been bleeding for quite a while. Looking at her own clothing she saw that her partner in disaster had taken a much harder blow to the head than she had. She also realised that the stuff, that had clogged her eyes was her own blood, probably painting a gruesome pattern on her face.
"Salmoneus," she whispered and nudged the man with her shoulder. She pulled back with a hiss immediately as the rope cut the skin on her wrists again. She had not only been tied, she had been tied onto something and would not be able to move to either side or to get up.
"Oh, somebody has finally decided to return to the living!" a sneering voice rung through the room, which Gabrielle upon closer inspection categorized as a barn of some sorts. Straw covered the packed dirt ground. Tools and supplies were lined up properly along the walls. Big amphorae filled with oil or corn were placed carefully in a thick bed of packed straw.
But the people who had placed them there would probably never return. A fight had taken place here not long ago. Gabrielle saw the remains of a large fire that had eaten up a big part of the roof. Some of the vessels were broken, spilling its valuable contents over the floor. What had these men done to the people that lived here, had raised their children and worked there living from the land. Bile rose up in Gabrielle's throat as she stared at the warlord with contempt. But Gideon did not pay to much attention. He was motioning at two soldiers: "You two," he commanded, "take her out, that she can clean herself up." The two guys were looking at each other leering and Gabrielle felt a familiar fear grow in her stomach. Without her staff and with her hands tied to her back she did not stand a chance against those muscular guys. "Rolus, Dagos, if you'll touch her, I'll personally rip your guts out and eat them for dinner." Gideon added with a friendly smile. "Don't think I care," he said to Gabrielle, "but you have to be in good shape for that competition."
He untied the rope from the hook in the wall and handed it to Rolus. And without further discussion Gabrielle was led out through a solid wooden door to a well, where she got finally rid of the blood, that was still obstructing her vision.
Rolus and Dagos had freed Gabrielle from the rope, but were standing with drawn swords, staring shamelessly at their prisoner. Gabrielle dipped her skirt into the water, intending to clean up Salmoneus' face, as soon as she could.
"Don't you want to clean up your top too?" Dagos snickered. He had hardly seen more than fourteen summers and behind his screwed brows and his lewd talking Gabrielle was still able to make out the little boy, that he was, before he had joined Gideon's gang. His sword was to big for him and his leather did not fit his slender frame. He had probably seen hunger and pain and now dreamt of riches and the possibility to see the world. He did not yet know the price he would have to pay for that.
By the stand of the sun Gabrielle figured that she had been out cold the almost a whole day. In the advancing darkness she could make out a couple of houses nearby, but nobody showed. She figured that the people had abandoned their homes after they had lost the barn and all their supplies. She hoped that they were still alive. Over the still village loomed the great mountain of Olympus. Gideon must have moved her on horseback the whole day. The demeaning image of herself thrown on horseback and brought all this way made her cheeks burn in shame. But there were other more pressing issues, that Gabrielle had to deal with than her tender feelings. What was Gideon up to?
"So, what is the plan?" Gabrielle asked as she was tied again and brought back into the barn. "How should I know," Rolus, the older of the two men answered, "and what do I care. As long as Gideon knows, what he wants it is ok by me!" He pushed Gabrielle forward.
A small table had been set up in the middle of the barn, adjoined by two chairs and laden with food and drink. An oil lamp was brightening up the dim light in the barn. Gabrielle was pushed onto one of the chairs and the men got in position left and right behind her. Gideon sat down opposite. "Bring the other!" he yelled, a third chair was pushed to the table and Salmoneus wobbled by, held left and right by one of Gideon's henchmen. He had been brought to consciousness with a bucket of water over his head. His eyes were still clouded and his face looked unnaturally pale, but he was able to walk.
"I invite you to my humble dinner" Gideon obviously enjoyed to play the host. Definitely more than Gabrielle enjoyed being his guest.
"This is excellent!" he offered a cup swirling a dark red wine in it, "It really does have its advantages to be a warlord. Today we are making camp in a barn, but you see it fits my plans and tomorrow it will be a temple or a castle."
Gabrielle looked him straight into the eye. "What do you want, Gideon?"
"I want to win the bet. See my plan is pretty simple. We have sent a letter to Xena guiding her to the starting point of the competition. When she arrives there, naturally you won't be there, but another letter, will tell her, that she can find you on top of the mountain. In the meantime, you will be climbing the mountain from this side."
"And if I don't obey?"
Gideon shook his shoulders sadly: "I'll give you a little incentive." After a lazy wink from the warlord, Dagos carried a wooden plank to the table and put it up. "This is Mount Olympus. This is the peak, you are going to climb." He indicated a spot on his makeshift map, "You see, I will send you right up to the gods." He grinned, "my guys will be standing here, he drew a rough half circle on the map. Once you have had a good start I'll send them after you. You'll be the price!" He looked at Gabrielle for a moment, than added: "I have been told, that you are pretty tough on yourself, but you should also think of your travel companion here." Salmoneus turned sheet white as Rolus stepped behind Salmoneus and held his blade right underneath the old man's chin. Gideon really do had a placative way of showing his point. He motioned again and Rolus stepped back with a satisfied grin on his otherwise grim face.
"I hope, that you will win, because Salmoneus here put a good chunk of money on you, and the quote is pretty good. We just have become partners. He will be taking the risks and I will be responsible to spend the gains. In case, that you loose and Xena wins, I will win to, because I have put my money on the mighty warrior princess. Who turned and I've taken over his business."
In exactly that moment Gabrielle heard someone laughing the fates! Gideon the warlord was pushing them around like pawns on a chessboard. And a game, was all what it was. Gabrielle was furious with herself, there had to be a chance to turn this all around for the greater good.
Xena had been riding during the whole of the last day and most of the last night. But Gideon had had to much of a head start. He had created several false trails, being able to do so, with so many men in his lead.
Coming back to the chamber with a giant tray of breakfast, Xena had found the room empty and two patches of blood on the floor. Gabrielle and her weapons and all of their joint belongings, including Argo's saddle were gone too and Xena knew, whom she had to thank for that.
Why had she been so stupid and thought that Gabrielle would have been safe for the moment. And what was Salmoneus' role in all that? The letter lying on the still unmade bed, called her to mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. She new the place the letter indicated. But she also knew that this place was a very bad place to keep a hostage.
After gathering some information in the village about the warlord, she also wondered why he would bring Gabrielle so far from his usual playgrounds, which lay more to the east. And last of all he did not ask a ransom for Xena's friend, but nearly stated, that he would bring her to the mountain. This was all very odd. So the warrior princess decided to follow Gideon's trail rather than to believe his letter, but she was on her own. Usually warlords with an army as large as Gideon's would face her or at least not tried to cover her tracks. Gideon had been very careful indeed and that made Xena all the more suspicious.
All day long her mind travelled to Gabrielle. Would she be able to defend herself, as she so often claimed. Xena knew very well, that in normal circumstances her friend would get by just fine. But being out and about with the warrior princess made Gabrielle especially vulnerable. For Xena the implications were clear from that moment, were the girl from Poteidaia had joined her at the camp fire close to Amphipolis so long ago. She had taken over responsibility and would stand to it until she or Gabrielle would draw her last breath and deep inside Xena knew, that she would feel responsible even beyond that last breath. She just hoped that nobody, not even her blond friend would be able to look that deep inside her.
Xena cursed as the trail split again. She dismounted and carefully inspected the hoof prints. She grinned: "I won't let you get away that easy, Gideon!" She whistled to Argo and got on the horse as she was already in full gallop. As she proceeded south she also wondered if they would still make it to Athens in time. That was another one of these feelings, Xena had come to appreciate with Gabrielle around. Looking further than the next day and having actually fun planning. If Gideon would do anything to Gabrielle he would bitterly regret it.
Early the next morning she finally reached the indicated spot. The sun was just crawling above the horizon. Here in the mountains it was still cool and misty. She had left Argo in the last village in the care of a friendly innkeeper that seem reliable enough, because she did not want to endanger her. Even the first league up the mountain had been a challenge. The ground was rocky and slippery from the many streams that sprung from the mountain. She spied the letter that was nailed to a tree with a plain knife at once. As she could not make out anybody, or anything else that aroused her suspicion she approached the tree cautiously and took the letter down.
"Xena," it read, "you will meet your little friend on top of the mountain. And just to give you a little incentive: Tomorrow by nightfall we will start chopping her into pieces. We'll be starting with her fingers! I am expecting you soon! Regards Gideon!"
"What a nice guy!" Xena said to herself and started up the mountain. Gideon would be in for a couple of surprises.
Gabrielle was not ready, but Gideon did not care. "It is time for you!" he said. I'll give you an hour before I send off my boys. Twenty men all armed to there teeth stared at Gabrielle with dangerous glints in their eyes. Gabrielle looked at Salmoneus, who stood shivering between Gideon's watchdogs. She feared for him. She knew of course that he was responsible for a big part of the trouble he was in, but she could not help it.
After a gesture from Gideon Dagos, the young boy, who had been watching over the blond captive during the last night, handed Gabrielle her staff. He gritted his teeth, obviously not happy with Gideon's plans. "I'll be the first to get to you." he promised.
"Be careful, what you wish for." Gabrielle replied seriously and started up the mountain. She was aware that all the man were staring after her as she stepped around the first rocks on the open field just above the barn.
Her thoughts travelled to Xena. This all could have been avoided easily, she thought bitterly. And it was her fault, that they were now in this mess. She knew deep inside that Xena would never stop protecting her in the way she did. In her companionship she always felt safe and taken care of. And she would, in a way always be a pupil of Xena. Gabrielle smiled a little sad smile and looked back to Gideon's camp, that was still in plain sight. Salmoneus was standing upright looking miserable, yet at the same time brave. Gabrielle saw the messenger that announced that Xena had reached the clearing around the mountain and probably started the competition.
"By the god's Gideon is in for some serious trouble!" Gabrielle swore.
About an hour later she could no longer see the houses. She knew that Gideon's men would be on their way. She memorized the crude map on the board and turned westward. She was still making her way up, but she would no longer be Gideon's puppet. She was not sure if she could really finish her plan. But she had a plan, it was planned as best as was possible in that short time. She had to be fast though. The mountain was steep, rocky and no apparent paths were leading upwards. So she could not tell which way Gideon's troup would advance. Guessing the speed and strength of her pursuers was another unreliable factor. And just how could she be sure that the evil war lord had kept to his word and not send his men after her much earlier. On the rocky sides of the mountain were only few little trees grew, she could not really seek for cover.
The whole plan was rather risky, but Gabrielle would not be Gideon's puppet any longer. As fast as she could she moved upward and westward at the same time having no time at all to enjoy the splendid views and the fresh air on her skin.
She was walking alongside a wide canyon that cut her path, as she saw Dagos storm up the mountain. "What do you think, chickening out in that direction?" he yelled, "You should've gone up there. Now you are mine!"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She was fed up. Why, she wondered, were all this boys so confident, when it came to fight women? She got her staff ready and looked for safe footing on the ground. A few feet off Dagos stopped short, he pulled his sword out of the scabbard and started attacking. But Gabrielle had chosen her spot carefully. The ground was slippery and the stones loose, rolling under the boys feet. Before he was able to strike he lost his footing and stumbled, windmilling wildly with his arms he tried to regain his balance as Gabrielle's staff hit him unexpectedly in his sternum. The second strike from the battling bard hit him on the hand and send his weapon flying. Gabrielle registered the familiar surprise in the boys face, it was followed by a jolt of anger and she held her staff tighter. He was so young! With some regret she hit him again, this time on his right shoulder. With a loud crack his joint snapped out of its socket and he went down.
"Will you stop fighting me?"
"Yes!" Dagos said through clenched teeth. Tears were rolling down his face. Gabrielle wondered what to do with the boy. She had no time to take care of him, but she felt bad leaving him all alone.
"You'll be ok," she said as he sat up, caressing his injured arm. She picked up his sword and threw it into the canyon, thereby testing its depths. It was hopeless, climbing down there und up on the other side would not work out.
"You should take a rest here and then return to wherever it is you run from," she looked at Dagos, "sooner or later this life will kill you. And looking at you it is bound to be sooner rather than later." Dagos sneered. "You can still go back!" she reassured him once again. "Right now I don't have the time to help you."
"I don't need your help."
"Yes, I see that you can help yourself. Go back Dagos and live a real life."
"We will meet again," he barked again, trying to will his eyes dry, "and then you are mine."
"I tell you once again that you should be careful about what you wish." And with this words and a bitter feeling in her heart she moved back to her plan and onto the small track, that run along the canyon. "Maybe a bit further up," she though, "can I cross over and find Xena." She looked back a few times. After a while Dagos got up and walked down the mountain. "How would this cycle of hate and violence ever end?" she thought. It took her a long time to shake off the feeling, but finally she was able to concentrate on the task at hand again.
The walls of the canyon were now not further apart than 4 or 5 meters. Deep down in the gorge Gabrielle could see the foaming brook, tumbling around boulders and cutting the canyon deeper into the rocky ground. The walls were flat and smooth and so steep that Gabrielle, even if the walls were closer to each other a few meters down, she would never be able to climb down there. Looking longingly to the other side, she did not see the figure that was coming down towards her.
She was judging the distance, maybe she could jump? With a long enough run, maybe? She decided to give it a try. So she stepped back a couple of yards and then some more and one more again, before two strong arms closed around her hip.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shrieked, "One of these days you are giving me a heart attack."
"Don't you tell me, you were going to jump that canyon?" amusement twinkled in Xena's blue eyes.
"Of course not, I am not stupid," Gabrielle replied curtly, "I had to come to you, one way or another." She looked at her friend, happy to see her and then a sudden realisation dawned on her. "You jumped?" she said reproachful.
"The canyon is much narrower, a little bit up the way." Xena replied with a hardly covered smile in her voice. Trying to be not too obvious she watched the bard up and down. Gabrielle had taken a good whack on the head, she was still a little pale, put seemed otherwise unhurt, even the cut in her hand was healing nicely.
"What is your plan?" Xena asked the bard.
"Are you asking me that?" Gabrielle was perplexed this was something that had never happened before.
"You are the one that knows all the details." Xena said.
"Well," Gabrielle started hesitantly, not sure if the mighty warrior princess found it amusing that her naïve pal would make a fool of herself, "Gideon camps down this way in a large barn. It looks like he has captured it from the local people. At first though we have to free Salmoneus. And then we should really see that the people who own that barn could reclaim their possession."
"Sounds good to me," Xena agreed, "any specifics?"
"I thought, that after joining with you, we could go back to the base and advance on Gideon's gang from below. We don't have much time though, because I think, he will discover pretty fast, that I am not longer on my way up."
Xena nodded slowly, mulling over what she knew about the topography of this area so far.
"We don't have enough time to walk up, where I crossed the canyon, we do have to cross here!" Of course there was no passage further up the mountain at least not there, where Xena had crossed, but she didn't have to tell this her blond companion. "Go ahead then!" she added.
Gabrielle didn't know what to make of it, but something very fishy was going on here, though she could not yet tell what it was.
"What are you waiting for?" Xena asked quietly.
"You really want me to jump?"
Gabrielle looked at the canyon that seemed to have grown since the time she had last looked. The gap appeared unbridgeable and she wondered if she really had considered jumping, just moments before. But Xena seemed to be convinced that she was able to reach the other side. Gabrielle knew that determined look in her lovers eyes and she did not want to disappoint her: not now, not ever. She stepped back again taking careful measure of the canyon and considering the jumping point.
"Go," Xena yelled suddenly and Gabrielle run as fast as she could. She focused on the point she had determined. She pushed her staff on the ground and used her momentum to propel herself forward and up over the canyon. "I'll make it, I'll make it!" Gabrielle prayed, but she would not. As she realized it time started to stretch. She made out the water, deep down in the gorge and wondered about the unnatural dark colour: purple, almost auburn, with frothy white foam bubbling on the surface. She marvelled about the stark contrasts of the black shades on the slade grey rock. She wasn't afraid though and wondered about this too. She would descend into the black unrealness and drown, crashing her head on the smooth boulders.
And then she heard it the unmistakable "Ayiyiyiyi" of her best friend. Xena's arm around her body and the enormous push that carried her the remaining two yards or so. As Gabrielle's feet touched the earth she let the air out of her lungs and pulled her arm up. She was carried further, fell and rolled of, landing on her feet, staff still in her hands.
Xena was on her feet with a satisfied grin on her face. "I love this," she said and pulled Gabrielle in a tight embrace. Much to her surprise Gabrielle's thoughts were along the same lines including a soft bed and a long long night in Xena's arms.
"There will be time for this, Gabrielle later!" Xena said, reading her friends thoughts. Still grinning as she released her. Gabrielle took a deep breath as she waited to hear anything other than Rauschen in her ears. "Yeah," she managed to croak. With wobbling legs she followed the taller woman down the mountain.
"What do you mean, she is not longer on the mountain?" Gideon was fuming, "One of you useless bastards should have caught her by now. There is no way she could get away unless she has jumped over the canyon." He started to laugh until his eyes fell on Dagos, who had just stumbled into the barn.
Dagos ducked under the glance of his war lord. He tried to hide his useless arm and the empty scabbard. "So, did she jump the canyon?"
The boy flinched: "I don't know."
"You are the one who should know. What is wrong with your arm and where is your sword?" Gideon stepped closer to the boy and shoved him on the dislocated shoulder. Dagos yelled in pain.
"See, see! Did you stumble on the treacherous ground and loose your sword or did the little bitch disarm you?" His eyes narrowed as he pushed the boy again, "If you want to be of any use for this army, you have to prove that you are a true warrior." Dagos bit back his tears and his pride, nodding fervently.
"This does not involve loosing your battle sword and getting hurt!" Gideon added.
"I am not really hurt that much," Dagos gritted his teeth, "if someone could just move the bone back into the socket I'll be able to fight again."
"Then go and find someone," the war lord dismissed the boy and Dagos retreated, "but remember," the boy turned around only to receive another punch onto his injured shoulder, "this had better been your last mistake!" Panting from pain and fear Dagos nodded again and left hurriedly the barn, just as Rolus entered. He looked as grim as Gideon.
"What are you doing here?" ,the war lord bellowed, "You were supposed to follow Xena!"
"She has tricked me, I followed her in a distance that I could just see her, but then she disappeared and she left no tracks too. I've been looking around the place about 20 yards in a big circle, but there was nothing. There was nothing were she could have disappeared to, no trees, no caves. Nothing!"
"Get out," Gideon bellowed. He was loosing his patience and the fun he had had while playing with the girls. He had business to attend, villages had to be looted and farmers to be kidnapped for the slave markets. Cesar needed strong men to row his Galeeren. And Gideon would take a big bite out of this cake. Playing with Xena had only been for the fun, but now that both women disappeared, there was no need to pursue this. Killing Salmoneus that greasy salesman would finish this chapter with a nice bonus on the side.
"Bring the trader," Gideon ordered his guard, "I need some entertainment!"
"Interesting," a deep voice retorted and a man stepped into the barn, "you are not trying to fool me, my friend?" The guard had drawn his short sword but Gideon enjoined him to put it back and leave the two men alone. The guard gave a short nod and scrammed.
"Don't be concerned, Vagrén, I will not buy my weapons from anybody else but you." But his smile was forced and his hospitality false as he invited the infamous weapons dealer to his table.
"I don't think you would, cause that would be very unhealthy for you!" Vagrén took the tankard with wine that Gideon offered and set on the chair propping his feet on the table. "Good wine," he remarked.
"Forgive me my friend, but I daresay that you haven't come along for the chitchat I have bought weapons and armour just last week and I have paid for those with solid trakean gold. So what brings you here, such a long way from home?"
Gideon was playing with his knife swinging its double sided blade slowly up and down and looking Vagrén straight into his eyes. The trader was a stocky man, still very young, but nevertheless extremely stubborn and ruthless. He had been brought up in a castle as the illegitimate son of an influential prince.
The prince had fathered three daughters before Vagrén and than six after him. He had therefore a fondness for his only male descendant. Vagrén had received an excellent education and an excessive training on all sorts of weapons from a very early age. But as he started to kill his half sisters, his father had banned him from the castle. Vagrén cashed in a handsome sum of gold as a good bye present from his father and started his business right away. He knew everything that he needed to know about weapons and cash and he spoke enough languages to make business with princess and warlords alike in this country and in every other country in the known world. He controlled the weapon trade and had long outdone his father in his influence.
He still had dreams though: he wanted to kill his father for banning him. He wanted to own Hercules' club and Xena's chakram weapons crafted from the most skilled blacksmith in this hemisphere: Hepheistos! As he heard from the competition between Xena and Gabrielle, he took the opportunity to get closer to the fulfilment of his dream.
"Rumour has it," Vagrén said, with his eyes closed, which enraged his business partner even more, "that you have gotten hold of a certain bard, who happens to be Xena's best friend and", he opened his eyes again for dramatic effect, "Salmoneus, who has arranged for a competition between the warrior princess and the battling bard. I have put my money into that competition and I find your interference unacceptable. You could as well find another weapons dealer?"
Gideon had become rather pale being only now aware of the implications of his rushed actions. He had been humiliated by Xena and wanted her to pay for that. He wanted cash and he wanted lots of it. Getting into trouble with Vagrén had not been on his agenda. He knew that Ares was in the deal too. If Vagrén was already dangerous for Gideon, he feared what the god of war could do to him. Gideon did not dare think about it.
But though Gideon was scared he could not possibly show it. Vagrén had been walking into Gideon's camp, right into the middle of over 300 men; villains, robbers and seasoned murderers, all of them armed and ready to strike on Gideon's command. He would not be so stupid to hurt Vagrén in any way. He knew about Vagréns reputation and he was sure that the prince was still holding his hand over his son. It was not clever to gain so many so dangerous enemies in such a short time. But it would probably be a good idea to show Vagrén a little bit of the power, that he Gideon - had. Maybe it would even help him to keep the weapons dealer a little bit down in the future.
Gideon let the blade slip through his fingers, it turned in the air, once, twice and finally caught in the wooden back of the chair not an inch away from Vagrén's head. Much to the warlords annoyance did not so much as bat an eyelash. "Good shot," he remarked lazy, though with a chilling undertone, "I want to see the girl!"
"I am sorry," Gideon replied, "I do not have the girl, in fact I never had!" He would rather chew his hand off than to admit that Gabrielle had gone off the mountain, with 20 of his men on her heels, not even noticing what had happened. She could still not be that far away and he had plenty of time and people around, who would give notice the first time the blonde appeared. But Vagrén did not buy into Gideon's bubbling, he had his own eyes and ears in the war lords camp. He grinned disdainful: "You let her run off! I figured as much. Only an idiot like you could carry her all the way here to Mount Olympus and then let her run."
Gideon finally lost his temper, he stepped to his business partner and grabbed him by his tunic, pulling him up, "You should be careful, whom you are calling an idiot!" With a quick movement Vagrén wrenched his tunic from Gideon's hand. He landed a hard punch in the war lord's solar plexus and the older man was momentarily unable to react. "I know quite well, whom I am calling an idiot. Pull yourself together old man." Vagrén pulled the knife out of the chair and let it swing as Gideon had earlier.
The war lord got up from the floor, defeated for the moment, but with red hot anger burning his insides. For God sakes, he was a successful war lord and he would not allow anybody to push him around like that, not Xena, not some shady weapons dealer, who could be his son.
"Guard," he hollered and a young men appeared in the entrance, "bring Salmoneus. I need some entertainment." Vagrén returned to the table and poured himself another cup of wine. It did not take a long time before Gideon realized that something was wrong. The noise level outside rose momentarily and then died down to almost a whisper. It took to long to pull Salmoneus from the chicken pen, where Gideon had put his captive, after Gabrielle had been sent up on the mountain. Three men stormed into the barn just as the war lord was getting rather nervous.
"The trader has disappeared!" one of the men stated with a puzzled look on his face and Vagrén started to laugh.
"I need to take a rest!" Salmoneus whined.
"I'd say you need a good spanking you old ass," Xena replied slightly annoyed and Gabrielle bit her lip in order not to laugh out loud.
"We are far enough away from Gideon's camp now," Salmoneus persisted.
"The farther away we are from it the better. Gideon is probably fuming. He has been freed of Gabrielle, me and now you in one single day. And with his old business partner Vagrén around, he will lose his face too or whatever is left of it, if he doesn't go after you."
" or you," Salmoneus sulked.
" or me," Xena agreed.
"But we can not run indefinitely," the salesman remarked.
"I am not running," Xena spat angrily, "I am taking you somewhere safe and far away from me and Gabrielle and then I will go back and finish what I started."
Gabrielle felt the hair on her neck stand up, something was just not right with her friend.
"But " It was obviously not easy to stop Salmoneus from complaining.
But what Xena wanted, she would achieve eventually: "Move on old man, before you really making me angry." Salmoneus ducked under the icy blue stare of Xena's eyes and for a moment he forgot everything about money or business.
At nightfall the little group reached one of Xena's secret hideaways, a small cave where they could sleep in peace, without to fear an attack. It did not take them a long time to prepare the cave for the night. A fire was burning and a kettle with soup was boiling, spreading a delicious smell in the far corners of the cave. Gabrielle filled fresh spring water in three plain cups. The food was not as sumptuous as the "humble" dinner Gideon had invited Gabrielle to. But the bard would prefer a dinner with Xena any time. Soon after they had eaten Gabrielle wanted to crawl under the covers and sleep, her head was aching and she was tired to the bone.
She spread her bedroll and got ready for bed, as she realized that Salmoneus was nowhere to be seen. "Where is the trader?" she asked Xena. "I have sent him over there," Xena answered pointing somewhere in the dark. "But won't he be cold, so far from the fire? We should call him back." "Maybe later, Gabrielle, but right now I have to talk to you!" Xena answered curtly. Gabrielle searched for her friends thoughts, but Xena's beautiful face lay in the dark. She doubted that she could read anything in the warrior princess face anyway, but she had to try.
"What is it?" She had of course a very good idea, what this was all about and she was ready to confess, but she was really tired. Maybe she could procrastinate the heated discussion, that was sure to follow for another day, or another week, or even forever?
"It is about this morning!" Xena answered. Xena's voice sounded like a cat's that had stolen the cream all of it. "Hmhm!" a bright smile crept on Gabrielle's face and a warm feeling rose from her stomach. "I have the feeling that you have been unhappy with me for a while?" Xena asked and Gabrielle wondered if she could here something very unfamiliar in her companions voice uncertainty or even insecurity. Gabrielle put her arm around the larger woman's waist. "Do you want to talk?" Gabrielle asked, not sure what answer she wanted to hear, but as Xena said: "No, not really!" she felt a sigh of relief that left her chest almost inaudible. "I only want to make up for it!" Xena said and then she did.
The night was so special that Gabrielle forgot all about Salmoneus. She leaned into Xena's touches and felt burnt where she was touching her lovers soft skin. She bathed in the warrior princess smell that mingled with the smell of the fire and lingered until she slipped into sleep. Even through her dream she could feel the heat of Xena's skin on her own skin like a promise, like a guiding light and she held on as much as she could, as she would always do, regardless.
"Wake up, sleepy head!" It was Xena's kiss that woke Gabrielle in the morning before the sun went up. The sky outside was hanging low, spotted with heavy black clouds and it was cool. Shivering Gabrielle pulled the cover around her shoulders as Xena stoked the fire back to life. Salmoneus had moved closer to the fire during the night. He was still asleep snoring soundly.
Xena broke some bread, handing Gabrielle a big chunk. "It is time, we move," she said smiling the familiar half smile, that was always both reassuring and a little bit sad to Gabrielle. The bard nodded, drawing the last sip of water out of her cup and catching a little bit of the warmth that radiated from the fire.
"I have told Salmoneus, to stay out of harms way, for a couple of days meaning to stay here in the cave and I told him this too. So I hope he will be safe," Xena said.
Gabrielle smiled non of their friends actually thought too high about hiding away, not even Salmoneus. But he was probably the only one, that would stay at least for a day or two.
"Looks like we will not make it to Athens in time," Xena added.
"Athens was just an idea," Gabrielle said, "there are people in need. They are threatened by Gideon the war lord. You know my priority!" She gently put her hand in Xena's, confirming their consent once more.
Just as they left the cave Xena's body got rigid, "Ares" she whispered and pushed Gabrielle back behind a big boulder that hid the caves entrance.
"What do you want, God of War?"
Gabrielle could not but admire the warrior princess' stance and courage. Xena was about the only one that Gabrielle knew, who faced Ares like a mortal, spoke to him like a mortal and never ever showed any sign of fear or submissiveness. And though Ares could probably crash the warrior princess between his fingers, he probably never would. To Gabrielle it almost felt that he treated Xena and Gabrielle never really dared to say this aloud as an equal.
Right now Ares appeared with an unsettling clanking out of thin air. "Xena," he greeted the woman with a chivalrous bow, "always alert!"
The sun appeared on the horizon sending a few golden lights, that reflected in Ares shiny black leather armour. "Ares," Xena replied, "always with the knack for dramatic timing! Beard and hair trimmed to perfection. Armour polished. I'd say you are even more vain than Aphrodite!"
Ares laughed. He actually enjoyed the banter with the warrior princess. Mortals, apart from her, were so boring. Come to think of it even most of the gods were boring. Obsessed with sex and petty family rivalry, nobody but him thought of the greater picture. It was time for the gods to claim the world again, but instead Zeus was running after yet another girl in silly disguises as ox or swan. Hera was fuming over Zeus. He didn't even want to think about all the other gods. It made him sick!
"You know me to well, woman!" he grinned, turning again in the light. He stepped closer to the warrior princess and Gabrielle was not longer able to hear what the two were discussing. Seeing them so close together always made Gabrielle uneasy. And though she could still feel all the tender places were Xena had kissed or touched her just hours ago, she felt a pang of jealousy, as always.
Ares was moving around the warrior princess, touching her, trying to seduce her with all he had to offer. Gabrielle had a vague idea what Xena was feeling. They had talked about this before. Ares always found something of the dark energy, that Xena had buried deep inside her and always wanted to keep there. But he had the ability to call this energy to live, to make it vibrate and grow. It always seemed to be so easy with him around to just give in and forget all about the guilt and shame.
And though Gabrielle had not such a dark past, she felt the same with Ares around. She could only imagine how much it took Xena to fight off Ares powers and find the strength inside her to resist and keep on doing good and atone for her sins.
Right now she could see Ares powers almost as a dark cloud that was engulfing her friend and while both of them were smiling, the fight was clearly visible in Xena's face. Gabrielle wanted to call out for her friend and disentangle her from the emotional mess she was in. But she did not. She just watched them and wondered, if there would be a time when Ares would win over Xena.
After a while Ares disappeared. Xena stood for a moment stripping herself of the last strings the God of War had attached onto her again and then motioned Gabrielle to come out from behind the boulder.
"Why does he always do this?" Gabrielle asked after a while to break the silence.
"Because he can," Xena answered quietly.
"Are you going to talk about it?"
"Not yet, Gabrielle. Let's go, we have to hurry!"
The few specks of sunshine disappeared as wind shifted more clouds on the grey sky and a few minutes later it started to rain. A steady drizzle went down on the women, as they walked back to Mount Olympus and Gideon the war lord.
They would talk later, Gabrielle thought, as the rain run over her face and stung in her eyes like tears.
Gideon was upset. He was downright furious. A woman was interfering and throwing him off schedule. After the Blamage in front of Vagrén he had sent off a patrouille to pursue Salmoneus, with the strict order not to return without the traders head. Or all of them would loose their own heads. He had not heard from them since.
Then he sat to the task of raiding the nearby villages. He had expected fear or that grim pathetic self defense, the villagers seemed able to put up. Or best of all a nice lump sum trying to bestechen his gang. Loot nicely piled up on wagons, ready for the taking. But he had not expected to find the villages deserted. All valuable possessions hidden or taken away. Burning the empty houses was not half as funny, when nobody screamed, whined or whimpered. In addition it took time and thanks to that intermission with Xena and Gabrielle on Mount Olympus that had cost him two full days he was already short on time. If he wanted to get to the slave market in Rom, he would have to find slaves fast.
"Leave the village," he yelled at his gang, "there is no loot here, apart from a few amphorae of oil and wheat. We're not taking those." The gang assembled, ready to march to the next village, a good four leagues along the foot of the mountain. The trail led through a dense forest, with steep inclines and across wild creeks. It was no good country for a gang like Gideon's. There were just to many man and everywhere the opportunity for a good trap. Traps of that kind that Gideon himself liked to lay once, before his gang had grown to big. He swore under his breath as he decided to split the group at the next possible opportunity.
He should have thought of this earlier though. The area was strange to him and to his men, and despite the sheer size of his gang, he had not much to show off. Since he disliked the army his men were not organized and ready to report to some kind of Hauptmann or medium boss. He liked to be the head honcho and that had worked out properly in the past. But, as he was about to learn the hard way, a big operation, like taking slaves across land and sea, needed better organization and a strict hierarchy.
Crossing through the forest with men on foot and on horseback, wagons laden with loot and a troop of tired farmers on an iron chain, he felt his unease growing.
"Rolus," he screamed, calling his most trusted man, "we have to move faster. You will be personally responsible for my slaves. And you will double their speed no matter what it takes." Rolus, a mean smile on his face, disappeared in the track. Gideon shook his head he was not sure, how many of these men he would loose on the way, but he had to get out of this forest before nightfall. "Somebody is watching me," he thought nervous, but he could see nobody as much as he looked.
Xena was sitting on a tree over Gideon's head. It was time to start the attack, before he split his group. She imitated the call of an Eichelhäher and heard the call coming back from another tree. The army she had pulled together was not have as dangerous as Gideon's gang, but she trusted them. They had nothing to loose. She had hoped for a group of military men, to help her, but as usual, the powerful of the land, were not going to safe their people from the everyday danger of villains and highwaymen. She would have sent for the Amazons too, but they were to far away and would not be here, till it was too late. So she had resigned to the next best thing, calling for help in the villages, that Gideon's men were going to raid.
She had sent Gabrielle to spread her word and sweet innocent Gabrielle had had the power to raise a little army. Men, who knew every foot of this land. Men, who were able to set a trap for any kind of deer that roamed this forest. Men with crossbows able to hit a moving target, despite the changing light and the fleeing shadows under these trees and men, whose relatives were in that group on the iron chain with the prospect of being chained onto the rowing banks of roman war ships. An army of desperate men.
As quietly as possible Xena moved on, jumping from one tree to the next, ready to start the attack, when Gideon reached the trap, they had set for him: An open area that looked like the most unlikely place to attack. It was not long now.
Gideon was relieved as his gang reached the clearing. The place was large, flat like a board and bordered by trees. No rocks or other obstacles restricted the view. If he would square off the trail, he would be able to sit down without fearing an attack and rethink his strategy. So he ordered the truck drivers to form a line across the trail and found a beautiful spot in the middle of the field, where he assembled his most trusted men.
But as he settled unnerving messages started to trickle in. Behind the thin seam of trees, the clearing was bordered on three sides by steep cliffs, that could not be descended with horses nor wagons. Even the trail that led on the clearing was pretty narrow. The clearing was a plateau and though nobody could attack, he could not attack as well. This cursed place was a trap the perfect trap.
As soon as he realized this he tried to get back into the forest, but it was to late. His gang was greeted by a shower of arrows and a very familiar battle cry. He found her impressive body in a tree. She was standing tall, as if on safe ground, with a wide grin on her face.
"Looks like you have lost again, Gideon," she stated matter of factly, "it is over!"
"It is never over till it is over," Gideon yelled, but he already knew that he was defeated. His plan to sell the farmers at the slave market in Rome would not work out.
"I'll offer you free retreat, in exchange for the prisoners, the loot and your weapons!"
Gideon laughed: "I kill the prisoners, if you don't let me go." Xena counted slowly to ten. People like Gideon made her sick. She wanted to beat him up, so she counted to ten again, because beating up the war lord would not help anybody. Xena had feared that it would come to this. Being good always put you in a weaker position. Being good meant that you could not sacrifice twenty innocent men in order to get fifty or hundred of the guilty. Being good meant that if you didn't safe all of them you felt bad. Being good was not about counting at all. And that was why people like Gideon made her sick.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered trying to regain a bit of her usual balance. Often it helped just to call her friends name.
"I am here," Xena heard Gabrielle from beneath the tree and knew what to do.
"I'll give you time to rethink your decision until tomorrow!" she called out to the trapped war lord. "Tomorrow after sun rise, I will be here again to talk! If you harm any of the prisoners you are in trouble, Gideon!"
She climbed off the tree and nodded toward Tamasius. He was the appointed scout of the troup and knew every foot of this land. "He is reacting as expected, so we are proceeding as planned." Tamasius nodded gravely. He grabbed his crossbow tighter and led a group of forty men to a giant boulder. Tunnels were crisscrossing under the open surface, washed out by heavy rains, molten snow and enlarged by his people. Their entrances were hidden in trees and under unsuspicious stones. But though the area was to the advantage of the attacking party, entering the tunnels was still very dangerous.
From her elevated position on the tree Xena had been able to spot the prisoners. But she had known exactly where to look for them. As far away from Xena's little army as possible, situated on the other side of the plateau. The warrior princess shook her head Gideon really was not that clever. She would have put them on the other side as a barrier or ram for anybody advancing. So they also had to divide their attention, watching both sides: the prisoners and the entrance to the plateau.
Despite its size Xena and Tamasius rolled the boulder off quite easily. Gabrielle admired the talent, that had made up the technical prerequisition for this solution. The descended a shaky ladder into a narrow tunnel. Dust fell from the low ceiling and the light from the lamp that Tamasius held did not carry further than a few feet. However it was light enough to see that the ceiling went even lower. The scout had already warned them, that they had to go down and crawl on their knees, at some places even that would not be possible.
Gabrielle was the last to reach the foot of the ladder. She pulled on an ancient cord that was strung down into the hole, it caused the boulder to roll back in its original position. Suddenly the tiny light from Tamasius was the only light in the tunnel and Gabrielle thought seriously of stepping up the ladder again and returning to the friendly daylight outside.
Of course with Xena in the lead Gabrielle would do no such thing, especially when Xena would understand her friend. Usually Xena would ask Gabrielle to stay behind and that she had not done it today made it even more impossible for the bard to do so. So Gabrielle got down on her knees and followed Tamasius, Xena and the other men.
Time seemed to stand still as Gabrielle crawled through the cool and wet tunnels. At first Gabrielle just followed quietly, every now and then running her hands along her skirt to get rid of little stones that cut her skin. A little bit later the feeling of being lost sneaked in her consciousness. They crawled over crossings and changed tunnels moving left and right that Gabrielle was not longer aware of her direction. The light was dim and when the Tamasius followed a bend in the tunnel it was so dark that Gabrielle could not longer see her hands in the dirt.
Her knees were starting to hurt being rubbed open, but that was not the worst problem that Gabrielle encountered. She realized that she could not longer breath freely. Down here the air was already bad, but in addition her chest seemed to contract, making the intake of air even heavier. Sweat was beading on her forehead as she tried to avoid a panic. Her heart was hammering wildly and Gabrielle was sure, that Gideon and his gang, were able to hear it outside, if they just pressed her ears hard enough to the ground.
But a while later, an endless time later the tunnel system held another unpleasant surprise for the quiet intruders. Gabrielle heard a murmur before she felt somebodys feet sticking into her face. The group had come to an unexpected halt. Gabrielle prayed that Tamasius had not forgotten the way, it would be just great if they unearthed from the tunnels in the middle of Gideon's people or even better if they would crawl along forever, never finding an exit. "I have to think of something more pleasant," Gabrielle reminded herself as her breathing became laboured. She would not die in a stupid tunnel. "Xena," she whispered and across the line of people in front of her she heard her companions voice: "Are you okay, Gabrielle?" "Yes," she answered and for a moment all the fear fell off her and a smile tucked at the corners of her mouth, "I am fine."
A moment later she heard a faint splash as something had fallen into a stream or a lake and the feet in front of her moved forward. The tunnel went down in a soft incline and then suddenly the guy in front of her disappeared into a hole in the ground. Into a whole that was filled with water. Xena was waiting there for her friend.
"What is this?" Gabrielle asked unbelieving.
"This part of the tunnel is filled with water." Xena explained.
"But then we cannot get on?" Gabrielle said and noticed that her voice sounded pleading.
"All of the others have gone, sweetheart." Gabrielle could almost see the smile on Xena's face and the seldom used pet name soothed her mind somewhat. "I have this string here," Gabrielle found it by fiddling for it in the dark, "Tamasius is on the other end," Xena continued, "he just gave sign that the next man has passed this section unharmed. We will have to dive, Gabrielle."
"No!" Gabrielle answered, the panic now rising in Gabrielle's chest without her being able to stop it. A gentle hand found her shoulder.
"You can do that!" Gabrielle closed her eyes, she heard the conviction in Xena's voice, but she was not sure.
"You take the string and pull yourself through the water."
"How far is it?" Gabrielle's voice sounded hollow and much to shrill. But if she did not do it, they could not finish this mission.
Xena hesitated. "That far?" Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's face. "That far!" Xena answered, "All of them have made it to the other end. We have to go now!"
"Yes." Gabrielle pulled Xena's head to hers and rested her face for a moment on the warrior princess' forehead. She would have made this moment last forever, if she only could. In the end she pulled back, her heart still beating to fast.
"Are you ready?"
The bard was determined. She took a deep breath and put her hands into the icy water. She found the string, pulling on it gently. She let her body glide into the hole and started kicking as her feet were down in the water. She felt the warrior princess follow right behind her as she dove deeper into the hole. The tunnel was so narrow that her body touched its sides, slowing her down and scraping her skin. She chewed on the air letting out as little as possible, as she still dove down. Her grab on the string became tighter and she pulled with all her might to become faster.
She felt the water pressure raise and pressing her lungs together, another stream of air bubbles left her mouth and she started to feel dizzy. As she thought she would never make it she reached the bend. As the tunnel straightened she believed to see a light somewhere on the other side, but this could not possibly be real. With a kick of her legs she swam towards it, crashing into the wall with full force. "That was it!" a bitter thought run through her mind, but then she felt a gentle push from behind and she moved on upwards. With the last bit of strength she had in her body her head broke from the water. Precious air was streaming into her lungs as hands got hold of her and hoisted her out off the water.
Panting she came to lie on hands and knees on the rocky floor of the tunnel. Soon Xena was crouching in the same position next to Gabrielle cursing silently. They had to find another way back. She would never again object Gabrielle to that torture.
"You did great," she said, as she could speak again, resisting the temptation to pull Gabrielle to her chest and kiss her in front of everybody, "now, let's get this over with!"
Gabrielle nodded and got to her feet. Water was running out of her clothes and hair. She was probably looking like something a dog had chewed on, but she had never felt better. She made it and the mission could still be a success. So who the hell cared how she looked, the more though that nobody could see it.
Not very long after this they reached the exit. It lay on the other side of the plateau under an overhanging cliff, its mouth obstructed by overhanging roots and plants. The men settled inside the cave, while Tamasius, Xena and Gabrielle went outside where they found a narrow space on a ledge. Stating from the sun the tour underneath the plateau had not taken longer than an hour, but Gabrielle had lost all sense of time.
After a brief rest Xena and Tamasius climbed up the cliff, disappearing over its edge. They 'd be checking the chances for a surprise attack or for a sneak attack on Gideon's gang. Gabrielle knew that Xena preferred the open confrontation, but she had learned that it was often safer to sneak up on the war lords and free the prisoners, before the war lord even found out, what was going on. Gabrielle thought often, that Xena still had more than enough chances to scream her battle cry and kick butt.
While the men rested, roots and branches pushed to the side and secured there, Gabrielle tried to clean herself up. Mud was caking her hair and run in streaks along her body. Her hands and knees bled from several small cracks and fissures. As Xena's head popped over the cliff Gabrielle almost looked presentable again.
"We are waiting for nightfall!" Xena announced. People acquiesced easily to the warrior princess leadership. The demeanour with that she ordered people around was so natural that seldom somebody objected. As Xena appointed guards and scouting parties the men only nodded and set to their tasks. Tamasius went from group to group explaining where they should seek the entrances to the tunnel system, how far in they should go and what they should look for.
As the groups reappeared Tamasius and the two women found a quiet spot to discuss the escape of the prisoners.
"There are about forty prisoners in all," Xena pointed out, "we can get out with ten or even 15 of them, but sooner or later even Gideon is bound to find out that something is going on. In addition we won't be able to return through that same tunnel. The prisoners will be tired and exhausted and certainly will not make it through the water. So what are our options?"
Tamasius drew a rough half circle into the sand: "If this is the plateau, we are here, there is the rest of our group. We have tunnels here, here and here." He pointed with a stick, explaining. Xena's alert eyes followed his movements. "Can we get through the tunnels?"
"In principle, yes. But probably not in different groups. I have only one more man, who is able to find the way through the maze."
"So, we can use two tunnels to get the men out of here?" Xena walked back and forth on the ledge, massaging her neck, "can we use this tunnel, to hide there?"
"Sure!" Tamasius warmed to the idea, "the entrance is concealed by shrubs, much as this cave is. If the people are absolutely quiet Gideon will probably not find them."
"Hmhm!" Gabrielle looked at her friend and as Tamasius started to say something, she lifted her hand: "She has to think! We should give her some time."
Xena did not notice the little exchange. She was indeed already in her own world, shifting visions of strategic moves, comparing distances and getaways, counting in time schedules and estimating the patience and situation of the prisoners. Would they be able to stay quiet for such a long time? Could Tamasius get back through the tunnels in time? Did he have enough strength to join into the battle after being underneath the earth for such a long time?
All those questions always cleared her head. Her mind became crystal clear and she enjoyed the challenge. In these moments she needed nobody, just her own ideas, her own intelligence. Later, when she had come through, made up her mind, she liked to discuss her plans. But only as much as needed to be discussed. She had to stay in control. She realized that Gabrielle usually followed her and trusted her judgement and strategic talent, mostly without asking. She send a warm smile to the blond girl and was happy that Gabrielle did not look at her.
"Ok," Xena summoned up, "that is how we do it!"
As the sun went down bathing the cliff in a splendid spectrum of red, orange and purple, Xena's group was ready to attack. Tamasius had been back to the main group to communicate the strategy. Xena was waiting impatiently for his return. Without him the plan was highly unlikely to be successful. It depended all on getting off the plateau, with as little attention from Gideon as possible.
Throughout the afternoon, nobody from Gideon's party had checked the small stripe of shrubbery, that parted the plateau from the cliffs. And though his gang made a great deal of noise, setting up camp, none of his guys was preparing for any kind of battle.
Xena's group had fanned out on the cliff, with groups of three to five men, each group with a meticulously planned task to fulfil. And then the attack started. A burning arrow was shot from the access to the plateau, painting a fiery trace onto the darkening sky.
Gideon's men got to their feet almost immediately. Xena was sure that they would try to get off the plateau if there would be any chance to do so. Of course her men had barred the access with fallen trees and a few strategically placed trenches. The sixty men there would easily be able to keep the villains in check.
But as she had expected the three men guarding the prisoners were pulling their captives up, ready to get past the access. The group led by Xena used the commotion to wrestle down the guards. It was almost to easy. As the rest of Gideon's gang was starting towards the diversion at the entrance of the plateau, the prisoners were led off by their own folks to three different tunnels.
Tamasius and the other guy took over from there, leading the men through the tunnels into freedom, the third group was led to the tunnel where Xena had surfaced in the early afternoon. They could wait out the battle without being harmed in any way. About ten men with crossbows were then attacking Gideon's gang from both sides. The robbers were completely surprised by this unexpected attack. As they finally reacted Xena's men had miraculously disappeared and the escape of the cliff had been prevented as well.
Xena used this tactic several times during the night. Her men were attacking from all sides, appearing and disappearing in and out of the tunnels. By morning Gideon's gang was ready to give up. At least fifty of them had died during the night and more than hundred had been wounded. Tamasius had pushed at least fifty prisoners through the tunnels during the night. The rest of the gang held a small triangle in the middle of the plateau, trying to protect it, but Xena knew that it was only a question of time when they would break. These were no soldiers, they were not trained to fight and only driven by their desire to get a lot of money as easily as possible.
The warrior princess had made her way back onto safe ground and climbed onto the same tree as they day before, just after the sun rose.
"Gideon," she yelled. As the war lord appeared, she knew that she had won the battle, "I have changed my mind. I want you to surrender!" Even from that far off she could feel the hate radiate from Gideon. He was defeated. "Your men may come forward one after the other and they will be handed over to the authorities." There was no answer from the plateau. "If not, we will be attacking again tonight!"
"This will not work as good as last night, Xena," the war lord spat, "we have found the tunnels!"
"It doesn't matter anymore," Xena answered, "you can still not get off the plateau. For your own safety I advise you to surrender. I will be back here in an hour and hear your decision."
An hour later Xena was back. Her little army was still guarding the access to the cliff. Gideon though had disappeared. Xena had known that this would happen. A few of the villains had started to climb down the steep walls on the opposite side. Some of them would probably even make it. The rest of them surrendered pretty soon, among them Dagos. Gabrielle tied a string around his wrists. The boy held his head low and did not look at the bard.
At midday all was over. Farmers and fighters, free men and prisoners were sleeping in the forest near the plateau. Xena had ordered a few of the farmers to guard the sleeping men, though it was probably not necessary.
Argo and the warrior princess found the bard on a beautiful clearing, where a patch of wild flowers bloomed. Gabrielle was kneeling there, her eyes closed.
"What are you doing?" Xena asked.
"I am praying," Gabrielle answered simply, "for the welfare of all this men, for their safe return."
"And a little bit for that boy, Dagos?"
"Yes," Gabrielle admitted, "he is young. I wish that he will be able to turn around his life. If it was not for man like Gideon " Gabrielle's voice trailed off.
"There is no eternal peace on earth, Gabrielle! Ares will see to this. Gideon had escaped and he will never be back soon. For now he had been to greedy and has been punished for that, but he will be back."
Gabrielle's eyes lingered on Xena. There was still something she had to tell her.
"Let's go!" Xena interrupted Gabrielle's thoughts, "we have to catch the games in Athens!"
"Maybe tomorrow," Gabrielle thought, after all everything had turned out to be for the greater good.
During the next days Gabrielle's desire to tell her friend about the competition she had arranged with Salmoneus grew stronger and stronger, but there never seemed to be a chance to talk. Xena was pushing her companion towards Athens as if their life depended on in to reach the games.
As they finally reached the city, there was still a day before the games would start. It was early in the morning and people were already crowding the streets coming from the far corners of Greece to see the games and to trade. Every house in the place was filled to the roof with guests and Xena was already planning to find a sleeping quarter, somewhere outside on a field with the stars overhead.
Gabrielle though would not here anything of it. "There is no quiet spot in or outside that city for leagues," she protested, "and I will not sleep wrenched in between a garlic trader and an ass, with pick pockets all over the place."
"Suit yourself," Xena snapped, "I don't see where you will find any appropriate sleeping quarter in Athens, this time of the year."
"Let's split up. I will look for a place to stay, while you "
"While I ?"
"Do what you always do," Gabrielle laughed, she knew, that Xena always had something on mind and she did not want to do to well what her companion was up to. Everyone needed her little secrets sometimes.
"We can meet up tonight, an hour before sun down," she suggested, having herself more in mind than looking for a sleeping place. Her stash of parchment was coming to an end and there was still a certain garment that had to be replaced. Pushing over the rough surface of an underground tunnel and swimming in an underground puddle had not improved the looks of her green top. She also wanted to catch some new stories that were travelling through Greece. She wanted to sit on street corners, eat fatty food, fried in stoves on the street and in general relax from the hastened travel.
Xena agreed, a little smile twisting her lips, but Gabrielle was to excited to realise. After a quick hug both of the woman went their ways. The day unfolded and Gabrielle did all those things she had planned to do, maybe even more. And as she returned to meet her friend she had also found a place to sleep - the Athens Academy of the Bards. There was a place in the stable for Argo and a beautiful little room for Gabrielle and Xena.
A wide window was overlooking the market were jugglers were playing their tricks on gawking visitors.
"We could just sit here and watch," Gabrielle said dreamily. Xena said nothing, the light from a fire outside was playing on Gabrielle's features and the new top looked lovely on the blond woman. Someone was singing outside accompanied by the slow and sad melody of a lyra. Yes they could just sit there.
"I want to tell you something, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"You know," Xena interrupted, "I am suddenly very hungry can't we go out and eat somewhere?"
"Really?" Gabrielle was unwilling, she wanted to talk to Xena urgently.
"Yes!" Xena answered adamantly, "I am very hungry." And she pulled Gabrielle by the hand out of the room and onto the crowded streets of Athens once more, "I have found a very nice tavern, just around the corner."
The tavern was indeed very nice. The women found a place in a corner of the small room on a table scrubbed clean. A candle was placed on it. Windows and walls were sparkling and fresh straw lay on the floor. But Gabrielle thoughts were somewhere else. She cringed as she recognized the innkeeper stepping to their table.
"Salmoneus? What are you doing here?"
Salmoneus did not look less surprised: "I have opened an inn," he stuttered with an uncertain glance to the warrior princess, "you know, it is good business during the games." "But you should have stayed in that cave!" Gabrielle was everything else than happy to see the trader again, she had hoped to meet him somewhere in the future in the far future.
"I was sure, that you could deal with Gideon! And it has been planned for a long time," he grinned, "I do have to make a living." For a moment he was just standing there not sure what to say and then suddenly remembered his new found business: "What can I bring you?"
Xena ordered soup and bread, cheese and fruit, wine for Gabrielle and port for herself and Salmoneus hurried to fulfil the order.
"Maybe," Gabrielle started hesitantly, "I can talk to you here ," she looked at her dark friend, but already someone else was approaching their table. "Homer," Gabrielle jumped up, seeing her old friend, "what are you doing here?"
"Somebody told me that you are staying in Athens," Homer answered with a boyish grin. He leant over the table greeting Xena, "I could not possibly let you run off, without talking to you!" Momentarily Gabrielle forgot about the competition and the confession. "Tell me all what is new," she demanded and Homer complied.
"I just heard an interesting story about Gideon the war lord, who has sworn to kill Xena."
A boy appeared with a tray of food and two pitchers. The smell of grilled meat was rising into Gabrielle's nose. Xena grabbed a big chunk of bread and leant back. "Tell us all about it!" she said, digging in with great appetite.
The dinner lasted until late in the night. Homer knew thousands of stories and he loved to tell them. Xena very much to Gabrielle's surprise wanted to hear them all, and urged the young men on, from story to story. As Gabrielle fell sleeping onto the table for the third time, even Xena noticed that it was time for bed.
Xena dragged Gabrielle to the room in the academy. She was so sleepy, that she stumbled more than she walked. She gently lowered Gabrielle onto the bed where she fell into a deep sleep without taking her clothes off. Xena pulled her friends shoes off and spread the cover over her. With a silly grin she patted Gabrielle's stomach and whispered: "Sleep well my friend. I have a surprise for you in the morning!"
The sun had risen high as Gabrielle finally opened her eyes. The noise outside the window was almost deafening. "Xena! Xena! Xena!" people screamed and Gabrielle shook the sleep out of her eyes. Where was she? Oh, yes the Athens Academy of the Bards and the Olympics.
The screaming outside rose another notch and Gabrielle sprinted to the window. A muscular guy was sailing through the air and fell on the floor with a thud, while the warrior princess shook various hands. "You are the champion!" Gabrielle heard and "Who should beat you?" and other comments along the same lines.
"What are you doing there?" Gabrielle hollered out of the window.
"I am training," Xena answered innocently, paused just a moment too long and added, "I have put us up for the games!"
"You did what?" Gabrielle was not sure, if she had heard right.
"I signed me and you in for the wrestling match. We are up in about an hour." Gabrielle had no breath left to answer. "Maybe you should get something to eat and do some warming up yourself," the warrior princess suggested, obviously very satisfied with the effect these news had on the bard.
Gabrielle had collapsed on the bed, keeping her head in both hands as Xena stepped into the room.
"You are just joking, right?" Gabrielle was pleading, but in that moment she did not care, what Xena thought about her friends sudden irresoluteness.
"No, I am not!" and Gabrielle could not make out any humour in the dark woman's voice.
"So, you knew all along?"
"Not all along. I found out, when Gideon abducted you. He was not as fast as he believed and I followed him and his men, all the way to the barn."
"But why did you not free me and Salmoneus, right there?"
"At first I was wondering why he would schlep you on horseback all the way to Mount Olympus. Even a man like Gideon would not do such a thing without any reason. And then I heard you talking to Salmoneus."
"We were only whispering, Dagos was guarding us."
Xena smiled: "Dagos had probably decided that you two were not going anywhere during that night and had taken a long and well deserved nap!" Gabrielle smiled, she sure had a soft spot for that boy.
"So I heard you talking and at first I was pretty angry about you. A competition to show that you are strong and able to fight, what was that going to prove.", Xena shook her head, "but than I somehow could see your point and though I never doubted that you have turned into a good warrior I thought it would be a good idea to let you proceed with it."
"But then I started to talk about how the fates where laughing at me," Gabrielle remembered, "and that I wanted to turn it all around for the greater good "
" and Salmoneus started whining about Vagrén and Ares and all the painful ways about how he would die," Xena continued.
"But I would not have anything of it. And though he kept begging almost the whole night, I said "no" to his pleading."
"By that time I had already left. I knew that Vagrén was in the area and I decided to speed things up a little bit. I spread word about Gideon's kidnapping and then got in position for the contest!"
"And since you knew my plan "
"I acted accordingly!"
"But why did you not let me tell you about it?" Gabrielle wondered.
"At first I wondered whether you would tell me about it and I wanted to leave it to you to talk about it, but you were not so eager to come out with the truth."
"I was ashamed, I did not know how to say it. But later on I wanted to talk to you!"
"I know, but this little titbit has to wait till after the fight. You should get ready!"
Gabrielle went very pale, Xena had really signed them up for the wrestling competition.
"I take it that there is no way out of this?" she asked hopefully, but the warrior princess shook her head, "Nope, absolutely no way out of it! Now come!"
The woman sat out to the arena. Xena, looking confidently as always and walking in quick strides. Gabrielle was very nervous, but following her friend. The seats in the arena were packed. Two oily fighters were wrestling each other on the ground and the people were raging. Screams and curses were flying over the crowd, as Salmoneus pulled Gabrielle into the locker and separated her from her friend.
"I can not do this!" Gabrielle heard her voice like from far off. Salmoneus smiled his crooked smile, "I have been talking in angels tongues," he said, "they usually don't let girls fight."
"I think I am going to be sick," Gabrielle croaked as Salmoneus pushed her through a little door into the arena. A helper carried the guy away who had just now lost his fight. He was unconscious and looked like he had lost a couple of teeth. Xena stepped through a gate on the other side.
"Xenaaaaa, the warrior princess," a magnified voice announced, "against Gabrielle, the battling baaaard."
Gabrielle stepped closer as Xena lifted her hands into fighting position. And Gabrielle stepped around trying to get onto Xena's weaker side. Xena was fast. With a soft kick she sent Gabrielle skidding on the ground, but the younger woman kept her balance. She faked a kick and buried her fist in Xena's solar plexus. A surprised look appeared on the warrior princess' face. She jumped over her friends head and pulled Gabrielle's arms up from behind. The bard rolled over the long back of her friend and came again to stand in front of Xena. Without waiting she kicked at Xena's feet. As the warrior princess went to the ground, she was the one who was more surprised than anybody else. But Xena got to her feet quickly and paid back real good.
In the end Gabrielle lay flat on her back, could not move a limb and she knew from experience that the warrior princess had not even started fighting seriously. The crowd was cheering as Xena picked up Gabrielle and carried her back to the room, where they stayed.
"You could not let me win," Gabrielle croaked through a split lip. Xena smiled, putting a wet cloth on her companions face.
"Do you remember Ares," she said and Gabrielle nodded.
"He told me, if I was able to fight you in front of a really large audience he would leave Salmoneus alive." Xena wrapped a bandage around Gabrielle's open shin.
"And that is why you did not let me tell you about the competition?" Gabrielle asked, "I would have fought, even if you did."
"At the Olympic games?"
"Well," Gabrielle reconsidered, "probably not. I would have talked you into some other fight!"
"That's what I figured. Besides it was nice to see that guilty look on your face every time you wanted to talk." She combed Gabrielle's hair out of her face. "Now you can write a real true story about Xena taking part in the Olympic games."
"Yes," Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "that was probably worth it. What happened to Vagrén?"
"He went back home, he had a good laugh. I hope Gideon left it at that, otherwise I am really sorry for the men, he send after the weapons dealer."
Gabrielle rolled onto her stomach and then pulled her knees up. "What are you doing?" Xena asked interested.
"How does it look," Gabrielle said exasperated, "I am standing up. I need at least a pitcher of wine to forget about this humiliation."
"Oh, ok, I know a very good place, it's called the After Games Party Inn!"
"It is not led by a certain Salmoneus, is it?" Gabrielle asked as the door behind the two women closed.
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