See disclaimers in Part One
In Search of a Greater Cause: Part Two
By J.A. Bard
The Sacred Caverns
Xena and Gabrielle watched the guards outside of the cavern entrance. Gabrielle had a déjà vu experience but couldn't remember why the entrance was so familiar.
The two women watched silently from a tree branch that was higher than what Gabrielle would have chosen to be roosted on. But the branches were bare and Xena wanted to be higher than the guards would normally look. The guards were satyrs also, so any breeze with their scent would give them away. Five of them were sitting around a small campfire rather than taking cover in the cavern, which by nature they would be more comfortable in.
Before they had reached the cavern they had weaved through a lot of traps that were set surrounding the area. According to Dorie, the only time others visited the cavern was once a lunar year for the Solstice Celebration when the oracle spoke for the City. Xena guessed the traps were to keep the Amazon from tracking the hostages to where they were being kept. Both women were surprised about the gold so Xena knew that the gold mines were kept from public knowledge. She could see why. Once the gold was known to be here, the city would no longer be associated with the Muses or their athletic competitions.
Xena had left Gabrielle safely up in a tree while she checked the rows of arrows set on a hair like trigger, pikes in a gully, nets, and something she couldn't discern in another pit but it moved around.
"Taking them by surprise is out." Xena muttered softly. If she took this way in, and escaped all the traps, which she thought she could, there was no way she could get by the ivy that was growing all around the cavern. From the breeze that was blowing by, there was a power on the leaves that would render the person passing through it unconscious within minutes.
Xena tapped Gabrielle's arm and both silently withdrew. For the next candlemark Xena searched the surrounding area for any air holes into the tunnels. There had to be many in order for the hostages to still be alive under ground.
"Gabrielle, wait here and keep an eye on that area over there." She whispered close to Gabrielle's ear. Gabrielle brushed the ear that the warm breath tickled distracted for a moment by nicer memories of late nights they spent together in a forest.
Xena moved silently in the dark, guided by smells, sounds and dark shapes that loomed out of the darkness. Dorie had said there were a lot of small air openings somewhere around here. If I can locate the different air vents I can control the type of air that enters the cavern. She smiled at what could blow in on a gust of wind.
The idea of using Gigantes own methods had a pleasing note to it. A strong smell came her way and she moved to follow it. It wasn't pleasant for it was from a lot of unwashed bodies and human waste.
"So, this is the exit to the air flow." The flap of wings interrupted her inspection as she watched the familiar owl settle on a dark form that in daylight would reveal the dark shadow to be a rock. The two regarded each other until the owl stretched her wings and took flight. Xena followed the gray shape as it sailed between trees.
The owl led her to an opening in the rocks that by the sound was sucking in air. The sounds from the wind moving through the naked branches overhead had covered noise. Xena walked around to locate a few others.
Satisfied she had enough located to do what she needed to do she turned back to join Gabrielle. On their way back Xena spotted two familiar dark figures moving stealthily further into the forest, using the high branches of the trees for safe passage.
They made it back into the city before the last star faded, managing to avoid the casual posted guards on the walls.
When both women were back in bed, Gabrielle snuggled against her favorite pillow, she finally broached the subject Xena had yet to discuss with her.
"So…are you going to tell me just what Dorie said about my need to be here?"
Xena chuckled and kissed her on the top of her head. "Hmmm. It seems…an Amazon Queen of golden and impeccable qualities is needed to help the spirit of a lost Amazon Queen find rest and direction to her rightful resting place in the Amazon land." Xena waited for a few moments to see if Gabrielle was going to say anything.
Gabrielle lifted her head up to look at Xena's shadowed face. "And…" she encouraged.
"Hmmm. Yea…you also need to do some other stuff that a priestess needs to talk to you about. I'm…well…I want to hear just what all the rest is about myself. Dorie was a bit sketchy."
"Hmmm. So…we need to get into the cavern before solstice."
"Thirteen moons of lunar travel, thirteen marks on a carved horn, darkest night and longest still, time to resanctify the signs will." Gabrielle quietly recited.
Xena looked down at her. "Where did you hear that?"
"It's in a scroll I read at one of the Temples some years back. I didn't know what it meant then…I was translating for the priestess because it was in an old language. For some reason it just came to mind."
"Hmmm. In any case…we won't have to worry about the people here. I know the water is back to normal and the people should be getting some of their spunk back." She peered down at the figure that was resting comfortably against her for comfort. "I'm going to have to find out where they hid the golden girdle. I'll leave that for tomorrow night. So, what did you see while I was away?"
"Oh…yea." Gabrielle rubbed her face against the warm leathered bodice then peered up into her partner's face. For a moment she was caught up in the reflection the dark blues were getting from the small light of the fire. Sighing she resumed. "There were some hostages that were watched by a few satyrs and men. I think they were grubbing in the dark. Strange to be looking for herbs at night if you're not a priestess. Some of them looked like they could have been soldiers. They looked like they once had nice bodies under the rags."
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle whose face was showing strain.
Gabrielle hugged Xena a little closer, using her to give her more than warmth from her body as she struggled in her mind at how to present a plan she knew would have crossed Xena's mind, but may discard it.
"Xena, why do both of us have to be arrested." She raised her head to study the outline of a jaw above her.
"Who said anything about us getting arrested?" Xena's heart beat changed rhythm and her breathing slowed.
"It's the only way we are going to get into the cavern aside from killing a lot of satyrs and who knows what else." She told her matter of factly. "One of us has to remain outside, and you know it can't be me. I would be better working from the inside." She let her hand rub the arm that was wrapped around her, soothing and letting her know she knew this was going to be a difficult decision.
Xena sighed. Gabrielle had pretty much summed up what she had been planning. They needed someone on the inside but she was reluctant to use Gabrielle though she was the only good choice.
"We can't be sure that they will be taking you to the cavern or how they will treat you."
"Xena, you already said this was their plan. To take me as a hostage, send me to the cavern as a hostage, and have you, in a drugged state, wandering around the forest looking for me. So?"
"Hmmm?" Xena was distracted from her thoughts…she took a deep breath and decided, reluctantly, to let her faith in Gabrielle's ability to use her wits to keep out of trouble… Out of trouble, Gabrielle? Ahhh ahh, don't go there Xena.
"Well…since you have your heart set on being a hostage…and they have their heart set on making you a hostage…whom am I to disappoint you all." Though she made light of it, she hugged Gabrielle closer at her unexpressed worry at what could happen to Gabrielle as a prisoner and her not able to get to her in time.
Xena let the fingers caressing her arm lull her into a sleepy and relaxed mood, now that the decision was made.
"Hmmm. Do you think Gigantes will be surprised at the next meeting?" Gabrielle smiled at the question. She could feel a chuckle vibrating against her ear that was pressed up against Xena's breastbone.
"If things go as planned…his soldiers will be where the citizens are and the citizens where the soldiers are."
"Eeewww." Gabrielle squeezed Xena and rubbed her face on the leathered beast. "Hmmm." Her voice suddenly changed.
"Hey!" Xena yelped when Gabrielle latched a set of teeth on the leather bodice where her nipple was covered.
Gabrielle giggled lifting a hand to brush the wet spot she had left on the leather cup, noting Xena's intake of breath. "Sorry. I just don't know what got into me…where was I before I was nicely sidetracked…oh, yea. Those soldiers are not the cleanest group we've seen. Are you sure this city won't mind switching places with them? Whew! Over 1200 unwashed bodies in a city makes it a real small space."
"I doubt that has to do with the water…I mean…I think that's something they weren't taught when they were children." Xena mumbled into the blond head that was starting to nod off. After that nip…she wanted to do some nipping of her own, her arm gave Gabrielle a reflex squeeze.
"Hmmmm. That doesn't sound Greek to me…or Roman for that matter." Gabrielle let a yawn stretch her jaw. "I've never heard of a Greek that didn't like her baths. Remind me to thank both our mother's for being Greek." A muffled voice told her as it buried itself into the leathered bodice, this time to sleep.
Sometime close to daybreak, bright blue eyes sprang open alert. Her ears picked up unusual noise outside. Dogs barking, roosters crowing, and a large number of booted feet moving accompanied with low grumbling, metal scraping metal…she had already started to untangle herself from her sleeping partner and bedcovers, rolling off the bed and reaching for her weapons, armor, saddlebags and boots.
In a harsh whisper Xena attempted to wake her companion. "Gabrielle!…Gabrielle!" Xena had her hand on the door to the balcony before one sleepy pale green eye looked at her over the covers.
"It's started. Don't take chances! I'll be watching." Xena disappeared out into the predawn darkness. She pulled herself up onto the roof, noting that the archers hadn't even got into position yet. Hmmmm…too late…too dumb, she thought contemptuously.
Geeezze, I feel like a lover fleeing from being caught in the arms of her forbidden love. Xena sniggered and shook her head as she thought about Gabrielle's dramatics rubbing off on her. One Bard in the family is enough, thank the Muses.
She moved across neighboring rooftops putting her armor on while she moved. While she waited for a small group of soldiers to move past her she laced her boots. She smiled as she noticed they did not have the same demeanor as what they had when they had first arrived in the city.
"Must be something in the water." She humorously mused.
She moved to a rooftop that had a view of the official building General Gigantes was using as his office and residence. She was wondering if he noticed any changes in himself by now. If Yerik visited him, would he notice and say something…or use it to his advantage. Xena grinned. Without a doubt, he would use it to his advantage.
The soldiers marched out of the Inn behind Captain Herodes with a small blond figure wrapped in her winter coat. At least they let her put something warm on. The half asleep small figure stumbled and Xena nodded when a solicitous soldier put out a hand to steady her. Yep, must be something in the water. Definitely a different group that visited them the other day.
Xena waited just inside the protection of the forest for the guards to take Gabrielle to the cavern for safe keeping after she made a side trip. She had set little traps in the barracks, rooms Gigantes used and where Captain Herodes liked to bathe…just so that Gigantes and the troops would think she was prowling around the city setting up diversions to free Gabrielle. On her first night she had set a few, just in case she would need a diversion, for what, she hadn't quite worked out. It now fit in just purrrrfectly with what she needed…misdirection.
From her treetop view she spotted a small group of soldiers exit out of one of the back ways from the city and push forward a smaller figure as they looked furtively around them. A smile curved her lips. Oh, so predictable.
Xena could feel Dorie's presence as she silently watched the soldiers enter into the shadows of the forest.
"Why did you let them take her?" The plaintive little voice asked.
Xena nearly jumped when the voice sounded so close to her ear.
"Dorie, it's okay. We planned it this way. She's going to work the inside while I work the outside. How are those women doing?"
"Well…the two that escaped from the satyrs, they found their friends in the cave. They heard them singing."
Xena pursed her lips…it also could be overheard by satyrs or the men with them.
Dorie shook her head. "The outsiders don't come around there. It's too far from anything they need…besides, I would chase them away."
"They know you are here?"
"No. They don't know what it is that makes trees shake, roots trip them, or animals attack." She smirked.
"Ahhhh. So, they were singing." That's a good sign. Xena nodded to herself, something she probably learned in the temple. It certainly did ease some pain she felt when she sang over the pyres of fallen friends. For a moment her breath caught. A vision of her singing over Ephiny's pyre came to her along with the sorrow mixed with…anger at…Caesar! Xena straightened up with a hiss.
She shook her head and stared at the tree her hand was gripped around tightly.
"Are you all right?" The little voice asked her.
"Hmmm? Oh…yea…so, these two let the others out?" She pushed the intrusive feeling out of her present awareness.
"No. They can't move the rock you put before the entrance. They're trying to figure that out. But they have whispered conversations with their friends."
"So the drug has worn off?"
"Almost. They have sore tummy's. The one that talks to the birds, thinks you did it and will return soon to remove it."
"Hmmm. Well…I've got more important things to take care of now. Do you want to come along or…"
If the shade had color in her eyes, Xena would have seen them brighten at the invitation. She had asked the shade to not go with them to the cavern in case Yerik felt her presence, which Dorie had said he could. Now she could use her to further rattle Yerik's group that was outside of the cavern.
"I saw a map of the tunnels. There are a lot of them." Xena commented as the two moved after the group that was leading Gabrielle further into the forest.
"No. There are only three." The little face beamed. "They only think there are more, except Yerik. He knows because in the beginning he had explored the tunnels with lots of lights to burn and destroy as much as he could of the sacred objects in the tunnels, cavern and walls."
"Ahhh." A part of her was wondering if Gabrielle would figure that out. Xena slowed as she noticed that the traps she had studied the previous night were rearranged. Probably to keep rescuers off balance, she thought to herself.
"They change them every morning. They make the soldiers from Crometh do it." The little voice whispered.
Xena nodded. Using military minds to imprison themselves. Must be funny to Yerik, Xena was thinking. Then she smiled. The pattern of the maze was from one of the games at the Inn.
Xena smiled at the thought she had. Xena moved ahead of the group quietly, using the trees but dropping to the ground when it proved to be a faster way to where she was headed. Finally seeing what she was looking for…she removed her breast knife and placed it under one of the curling roots of a tree. She was hopping Gabrielle would see it before her guards did. The way they are all stumbling you would think they were suffering from a hangover of still drunk. She pursed her lips as she wondered why Gabrielle was stumbling so much. Had they given her some of the drug already so she wouldn't be a problem?
Xena nodded when Gabrielle stumbled for what seemed like the tenth time and retrieved the knife with her captors none the wiser.
Xena and Dorie moved closer to the cavern entrance and watched the group approach the satyr guards. Dorie turned her head to look at Xena as she watched and heard the group handing over Gabrielle to another. When Gabrielle disappeared into the darkness Xena gave an inaudible sigh and nodded at Dorie.
"C'mon. I need to gather some herbs. There should still be some growing around here."
"What are you going to do?" Dorie asked as she assisted Xena in gathering the herbs she needed. Dorie was able to spot the necessary herbs faster than Xena and had collected more than enough in a short time.
"I'm going to burn some of this stuff outside of the vents to the tunnels."
"What does it do?"
"Well…it acts in the opposite manner to the herbs I found General Gigantes was using in the city. The thing is, if you are not under the influence of the other herb this is suppose to counter, then you get quite worked up. I'm betting that the satyr's don't go into the cavern. I certainly don't want to be stuck in a cavern with a worked up satyr. They were all on the outside, which is unusual for a satyr when there is a cave nearby…my guess is, is that there is something they don't like in there. So much…that they stand quite a distance away from the entrance." Xena didn't look up as she mixed some of the herbs from her pouches with the ones they had gathered in the damp dirt, patting them into small squares."
"Oh. You don't want everyone to wake up."
"Hmm. You still won't be able to get in and they still won't be able to get out."
"Why?" Xena had a look of concentration on her face as she formed a neat line of mud patties on the rock that was serving as a table.
"The symbols near the sacred pool. Even the goddesses can't get past."
Ahhhh. Now I get even a bigger picture. Must be the symbols Gigantes and Yerik were babbling about. "Just what is that?" Xena glanced up at the shimmering form next to her that was just as industriously patting mud into a flat shape, but not really contributing any finished patties to her growing collection.
"Some circles with little pictures in them."
Xena thought a moment. Shaman? She shook her head, Yerik didn't strike her as a shaman, but she asked anyway. "Is Yerik a shaman?"
"As a boy he worked for one in his village…but the old man died before he learned the craft. The statue he talks to…told him what to do, with the blood from living things…" she shuddered.
"Human blood?" Xena asked worried.
The little head nodded and added, "He used the satyrs too."
"That's interesting." Xena paused wondering what she got both her and Gabrielle into. She shook her head. She would keep to her plan and counter the effects of the drugs those in the cavern were being given and by now, including Gabrielle. She was hoping she still had enough sense to do what she had to do. Would she be able to figure out that pictures on a wall were preventing people from escaping? Well…she said that she saw some people being let out at night…and they had to do something to let her enter. She had to give Gabrielle a chance to figure things out.
Xena regarded her finished products. Seven little squares of mud mixed with herbs. When burned, the herbs would release their essence and the mud would harden and at a certain point burst.
"All right. Let's get these little patties bakin'." Xena whispered to Dorie.
Bleary eyed with sleep, Gabrielle looked at her partner bending over her boots collecting them quickly and making it out to the balcony door. She stifled a giggle as the idea of a wanna-be suitor making an illicit visit to try out her purchase before taking ownership, was sneaking off before getting caught.
"Whaatt? She tried to shake the woolly feeling she had in her head. "How can anyone be bright eyed and bushy tailed before it's even light outside?" She grumpily mumbled to herself. "Squirrels don't get up this early."
The vibrations of a lot of heavy footfalls in the building brought her up and alert abruptly, groaning from the soreness she acquired from her previous night's climbing incident she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Xena's hurried message trickled into her slowly waking mind. She dragged her boots on and was lacing them up when the door to their room swung open and soldiers surrounded her. Pale green eyes opened wide at the dull but pointed ends of many swords that were only a finger's width away from her skin.
"Morning." She spoke pleasantly. "Had a bad night?" She asked nervously as a hand reached though the swords and pulled her up roughly.
"Where is she?" Captain Herodes breathed in her face.
Gabrielle grimaced at the stale smell of onions, garlic and beer that bore down on her heavily, not to mention that he hadn't bathed recently.
"Well, I just woke up so…"
Herodes shook her so hard her teeth rattled.
"Where…is…she?" He asked again between clinched teeth. He had stumbled into one of Xena's traps she had set and was pretty shaken up. How in Ares balls did she know we were coming for her? He had no doubt she set the rack of lances to fall when a certain amount of lances were removed. He remembered something similar she had done to one of Caesar's troops when they took over one of the Greek fortresses near the port they had landed a scouting party at four years back. They were just testing the defenses of the Greeks. They had a rude awakening from thinking it was going to be easy once they took over their fortresses. This was very much like her work.
"I don't know." Gabrielle answered calmly putting a hand on the fist that was digging into her shoulder. "She wasn't here when I woke up."
Herodes pushed her into a wall hard, while he gestured to the soldiers to pickup their belongings. Gabrielle noticed Xena had taken some of their packs with her.
No more questions were asked her as her tunic and coat was tossed to her.
"A walk? Of course I could go with you on a morning walk. But why not wait for light…have a light meal first..." Gabrielle grumbled as she pulled the tunic over her head then wrapped her coat around her, "hey!" She objected as she was roughly grabbed and pulled out of their room.
On the stairs one of the soldiers pushed her in the back to move faster down the stairs. There was no one in the common as she was hurried out. She stumbled as she was caught up in a yawn and felt someone grab her elbow to keep her in line. A very distinct feeling of familiar eyes watching her caused her to smile behind a hand and another wide yawn. Gads! Warriors and their early hours! No wonder they're so grumpy. If they had a leisure morning meal maybe they wouldn't be as irritable as Hera's left foot. Gabrielle was referring to the tale of Hera's left foot that was reputed to have a twitch and how it got the twitch. That is another tale, and is left for telling as a warning to errant children.
General Gigantes was standing in the shadows of his meeting room watching Captain Herodes pushing the small blond woman ahead of him. He frowned. It wasn't Perdicles' girlfriend, not as he remembered her. Squinting he looked closer. Yesss. There was something familiar about her. The way she tossed her head at something that irritated her.
The Captain pushed her toward him when they were within a few feet. "Xena wasn't there." He told Gigantes in clipped terms.
Gigantes looked down at the dagger he was playing with. He had been using it to cut fruit with and it was sticky with the juices. He looked back in the dark green eyes that were shining from the little light in the room.
"You've changed a lot since we've last met." He told Gabrielle as she returned his stare. He studied the back of the tattooed hand that was holding her coat around her from the chill of the room they were in. The torches in the room flickered together, as the doors to the anteroom they were in were closed to cut the cold draft off.
"So have you. I take it you're no longer a merchant's slave."
Gigantes raised an eyebrow at her. His master had never treated him as one, nor referred to him as one…so how did she know that he really was?
"Where's Xena?" He asked instead in a terse tone.
"I don't know. I woke up to your soldiers…not a pretty sight, I'm telling yaooo.…upf"
Gigantes struck Gabrielle with the back of his hand angrily. Gabrielle maintained her balance and took the blow as Xena had taught her. She was lucky she had seen it coming so she could prepare for it, otherwise she would have been picking herself up from the floor. Her lip dripped blood from the cut he opened with the heavy gold ring he wore. One of the soldiers grabbed her roughly by the shoulders holding her in front of the exslave.
Not the listening type, Gabrielle surmised, as she waited for the pain from the blow, and from her arms being pulled up behind her to recede. Her legs instinctively sought balance from the uncomfortable position she was held in.
"Where is Xena?" This time he didn't wait for an answer, but struck her in the stomach. As the air in her lungs whooshed out, her legs gave out and the soldier's grip tightened holding her up with her limp legs dangling below her. She felt her body struggling for air while another part of her distanced itself from the withering part and looked around her. Bored soldiers were standing around while Gigantes grabbed a handful of her short hair, pulling her head up and waited, leering at her bloodied mouth that was opened in an attempt to suck air back into her body. Her eyes were glazed as she gazed inward for the agonizing time it took for her body to recuperate.
"I'll ask one more time…"
Distantly, Gabrielle noticed he smelled a lot better than Herodes, as his pale face was up close to hers.
"I…." She felt a groan escape her lips as he painfully twisted her hair pulling her head back so her neck was exposed. Her body finally had its needed air back, and she was able to get her feet under her, taking off some of the weight from her arms that were held tightly behind her back.
"I don't know. She was gone…" another slap across her face rocked her back into the soldier, "when I woke up." She finished breathing heavily. She could feel her eye swelling. The whole right side of her face was numb. The gold ring on his finger was doing the most damage.
A commotion in the hall had both men taking defensive positions. Gigantes pulled a stumbling Gabrielle against him drawing the sticky knife up against her throat.
One of the soldiers came in with his sword drawn. "She's attacking us!" He frantically yelled gesturing with his free hand.
"Where?" Gigantes demanded.
"How?" Captain Heordes asked at the same time. Herodes suspected she had seen them drag Gabrielle into the building. He was nervous that she would get angry at them because Gigantes was mistreating her friend. He heard what she did to people that messed with her friends.
"A fire in the stables."
"Well, we don't have any horses there right now….so, what else?" he asked exasperated. "She's setting up diversions so she could get the Bard back." He muttered to the Captain Herodes. Gabrielle grimaced from the chokehold around her throat and the knife that was pressed painfully against the skin at the bottom of her ear.
"She gets her back…and we'll be on Charon's vessel with an obol shoved up each of our asses." Captain Herodes told his General.
"Take her out the back to the cavern." General Gigantes told him hurriedly. He pushed Gabrielle over to Herodes. "Keep Xena busy, until you get her out, then we'll make a bargain." Gigantes grinned. Well, looks like she made the decision for me. She's going to be part of the hostage game. She's going to be able to get in those tunnels, sooner or later. But that's not going to be my problem. Two days is all I need to keep her busy…and she should be starting to feel the effects of the drugs. He would have to get Herodes to face her and see if her eyes showed how far the effects of the drug were with her…then he would know just how much he could influence her…and if he dared to order her to his bed. His spy had said she had put enough of the drug in her ale to knock a horse out. And she wouldn't lie…for they had her daughter as hostage.
Captain Herodes pushed Gabrielle forward into the arms of a soldier. By the time they had reached the underground tunnel that led out from the building under the two fences, her hands were bound securely in front of her, and around her waist with her mouth gagged.
Gabrielle could feel the right side of her face that had been numb was starting to hurt, especially where the gag pulled across her bleeding lip.
All right Xena, plan A is going just fine…with a few injuries, but nothing unusual. She thought silently to her friend, and silently hoped she wouldn't get a view of her face. Xena would keep to her plan, but seeing her injuries would distract her.
Gabrielle concentrated on what Xena had taught her when in situations like this, study their defenses and possible ways out and in. You did ask for this job…so, keep alert, she briskly reminded herself as she tried to balance herself without the use of her arms over roots, brush, and rocks that they weaved through like a drunken troop, which apparently, some of the men were drunk.
The soldiers kept glancing about them nervously, which caused them to trip over roots or run into low over hanging branches while they were looking the other way. But then, she would be too, if she were in their boots. No one wants a big bad exwarlord after them, to say nothing of being a very pissed off big warrior princess, if she catches sight of her bruises, Gabrielle smirked. My hero, she thought trying to boost her confidence in herself.
Once they were well into the forest Gabrielle could feel that special connection the two women shared, vibrate the way it would when they were in close proximity to each other. Hey, she thought relieved, I know you can't hear me, Xena, but I want you to know, I'm okay.
She stumbled over whatever the unfriendly forest had on its floor, but not as much as the men that surrounded her, so she didn't feel so bad. Since her hands were tied securely waist level she had to keep turning her body to the side to prevent further altering of her facial features. On her tenth trip to the forest floor she managed to lay her hands on a very sharp and familiar knife set in the roots of tree, that she had spotted glittering through her one good eye. By then her lip had stopped bleeding, but her eye had swelled closed. She tucked her weapon neatly into the folds of her tunic under her coat with flexible wrists, as one of the soldiers dragged her back to her feet, himself barely missing entangling his feet in dried vines entangled in a blueberry bush.
No berries, she noticed from her quick look.
By the men's reactions in the forest she began to think that all of that nervousness wasn't just from Xena's reputation. I wonder if they've seen Dorie wandering around?
As the guard behind her pushed her forward, she could hear the men muttering under their breaths, as they slowed their pace. From what Gabrielle picked up the traps started and only one of them knew where it was safe to step…and he had a hangover. There was a lot of hesitating over his decisions.
Obvious they haven't traveled with a warrior princess who can see patterns even in ant tracks, and is a great teacher in such rudimentary skills. Should I volunteer to lead them to the cavern? Naaahhhhh. They may think I'm too interested in getting into their underground hideaway, to say nothing of their wounded pride.
The satyr guards were all standing by the time they reached the open clearing in front of the cavern opening. There was only one narrow path through the ivy, and she remembered what Xena said about the ivy so she made sure she didn't touch any of the leaves.
The satyrs gave Gabrielle a brief fright as they sniffed about her. She felt like a mare in season around a paddock of milling stallions…and it wasn't even during her moon time. She remembered Xena's comment about the satyr's rutting season.
Xena, I know you'll remember to get me outta here before their festival begins, she anxiously reminded her friend mentally.
The guards merely laughed at Gabrielle's expression and made their usual crude remarks. She played in her mind what Xena's tart replies would be to them. Instead of comforting her, made her more uncomfortable, as it reminded her that Xena had a lot more than her quick wit to back her up. Xena was use to the rowdy lewd comments, and had told her she just shut them out when she didn't want to hear them. However, she wasn't Xena, and was not able to shut them out…so her face was burning with embarrassment to say nothing of being intimidated. They pushed her into the dark entrance. She stumbled forward from the sudden change from light to darkness. Her hands that were tied in front of her came in contact with the wall and so did her head. The entrance went forward about five strides then doglegged sharply to the left and downward.
Before her eyes could focus on the blurred swirls that were drawn on the wall her forehead rested on another set of rough hands grabbed her elbow and dragged her down a sloping tunnel. She gave a weak attempt to shake the stars that were in front of her eyes clear.
Great, I'm going to be this one big bruise by the time we have this problem solved. Comparing bruises with Iolaus as side-kick to side-kick is not something I want to start.
Tiny lamps burning in small niches carved out about knee high from the bottom of the wall showed only where the ground was, but not much else. The person that was dragging her down the tunnel was difficult to see through her one good eye. His dress wasn't local and he hadn't bathed recently. She was beginning to wonder about the hygiene of the invaders. A turban covered his head with the bottom of the cloth covering his lower face. Something Gabrielle was wishing for, as the fresh air from outside was displaced rather quickly by the smell of unclean bodies, human waste, and the rotting of something Gabrielle didn't want to even guess at.
As her sight cleared and adjusted to the darkness she stumbled less, and was able to anticipate the steady downward slope of the floor. The journey abruptly was halted, as she was pushed into a small grotto, then jerked downward to sit on the floor.
"Wait here." She was ordered.
With her hands tied in front of her and to her waist she wasn't able to prevent herself from landing on her face from the push. Her cheek felt scraped under the good eye. The problem with going after not nice people, was that accumulating injuries was a probability, and unlike Xena, she usually came away with bruises, cuts and sprains. She sighed to herself, as she reminded herself that it helped Xena keep her herb collection fresh, and her healing abilities sharp.
Gabrielle gulped as she could feel an unmistakable vibration coming from…all around her, even in the air. Her whole body tingled even to the ends of her hair. The receding footfalls told her she had been delivered to where she was suppose to be. Curling in a fetal position, she bent her head towards her hands, stretching the rope around her wrists as much as she could, finally getting numbing fingers on a piece of the cloth and pulling it out. The dry cloth had soaked up some of the blood from the cut on her lip, helping it to clot, and when she pulled it out the cut on her lip was reopened painfully. She thought about using the knife to cut the rope from her wrists to get the blood recirculating in her hands, but it was too soon.
As the tingling feeling subsided she started to look around her. There was little light in the small grotto. Gabrielle rolled over and looked up at the ceiling of a low naturally vaulted room. Her eyes slowly wandered around the room taking in the small lamp sitting in a hollowed out niche that radiated little light. To her left there was the sound of dripping water and by the sheen on the wall a natural source of water was trickling down the wall into a stone bowl. Looking at it for a few moments she could see that it had been broken and the water from the bowl spilled out and ran down the side of the room trickling off to somewhere. Deep scratches in the stone floor with scattered rocks about looked like there had once been a detailed stone carving that someone had broken up and dragged off. Turning her head to look in front of her, she could see black smears on the walls with remnants of fabric barely hanging on their tacks. There were thirteen dark alcoves cut into the walls, and from the appearance of the deep scars cut into the stone floor something heavy had been dragged from them.
The floor she had been unceremoniously dumped on was used in places for someone's bladder release. The urine smell was especially strong over another smell that was burning her nostrils. Her eyes finally rested on the presence that was sharing the room with her. There was no movement from the seated silhouette but the yellow eyes that watched her gave her goosebumps, telling her that this was not someone Xena would approve of to have her left unchaperoned with. The eyes remained fixed on her and didn't blink. She heard no other sounds except the steady even breathing of her fellow occupant…and her pounding heart…and the building up of a headache. She realized in her fear that her mouth and throat were very dry, making it painfully difficult to swallow.
Yellow eyes with large black centers, watched her from a darkened dais with a tripod chair that the pythoness sat on once a month for communion with her goddesses. It was the oracle's seat for the Muses. The spot had always been an area of power for many ley lines in the surrounding land converged at this point. Before the Muses the pythoness for Ge sat in service in the sacred grotto. Even now, looking at the tripods that held the chair, the mystical messengers to the oracle, snakes, could be seen weaving their way up the chair. Crometh had been built upon the foundations of even an older city, long since gone, leaving behind the base of their ancient spiritual power.
The shadowed form of the hermaphrodite could feel the power from the base of the oracle's chair stir as if the small woman's presence was summing it. Dark forearms rested comfortably on the chair's arms with a slight breeze moving his fine hairs, and bringing a much needed breath of fresh air into the desecrated sacred area.
When he had first sat on the chair, in his arrogance, he had thought Hermes, his mentor at one time, would see that he was not burned to a crisp, as the uncleaned and unprepared would have happen to them, if they even stepped upon the dais of the chair. And in a way s'he or someone else did protect him. The flameless fire burned the outer grossness of his body, the shell that housed his spirit, and cleaned his inner self from self-delusions.
Yerik had told him to stay away from the room that held the chair, but he had taken four others when Yerik had gone to the city, and in a maddened drunken haze, had smashed the thirteen statues; ignoring the increasing of the energy in the room. Arri was surprised to find himself alone, weaving on his feet, breathless from the exertion of destruction he and his soldiers had visited on the supposed power spot of the cavern. He was protected by Hermes, he had thought drunkenly. But when he had looked about him for his companions he was aware of an awful smell of burnt human flesh, and found small piles of something that was like sticky black tar.
Furious he had advanced toward the dais where the seat stood and challenged the unseen power that he was beginning to feel burn through his body. He was too drunk to walk back out, and too arrogant to recognize his danger. The moment he collapsed on the chair he knew he would never be the same.
Lights brighter than his eyes were meant to see seared his vision, fire shot up the chair into his body, shaking and rocking the very ground beneath him. His scream of pain was voiced in another place for he was not on the chair when he was unceremoniously dumped before something he could not see. The power that surrounded him was in whirling lights of various colors, burning his skin, and eliminating the hairs on a once hairy body. He was on all fours panting from shock…naked…breasts hanging with nipples hard and an erection that would kill a centaur with the most incredible power building in the base of his spine. It was a hurting that was blissful at the same time.
A voice spoke to him, within him. No words…they were sounds. He didn't know what was said, the origin of the sound, the gender of the messenger, or if it really mattered. The new fire that burnt through him was so painful his eyes didn't tear as he watched his body burn to nothing and another under the old shell was reformed. He knew what had saved him was because he was a hermaphrodite. Then his consciousness was dropped back into the body that was sagging in the sacred chair. He had something to finish before he could return to the presence he had but a short visit with. His heart nearly broke to be separated again from this force, but he knew this was not his time to cross over yet. And he willingly returned.
The body he returned to was damaged from the flameless fire, and with the help of the energy that was within the temple and in the ley lines that ran up the sacred tripod, he steadily healed what he could. On his return he forgot much of what he had witnessed, and when the visions started, as his outer body healed, he learned what he needed to know to complete his tasks. The priestess Aerope at that stage assisted to his embarrassment, for he had helped enslave her.
On Yerik's return when he had entered the cavern to look for him, he had been angry that Arri had sat on the chair. However, because he could not get near the chair, nor anyone else without dying, he had to leave him there, ranting or mumbling. Water was left but at the doorway, for no one could enter the room. Arri had increased the power in the room to use for his healing.
It was after months of babbling nonsense to no one in particular, that he realized that the visions were not for the reasoning mind. That profound moment was like a huge door opened, and things he had previously not known, or even understood, surrounded him, as if he were in the library at Athens and merely had to touch a scroll and he would understand its contents. His shout of joy had echoed down the cavern's tunnels with only the hostages to shudder in their drugged state at the eerie echoes, for the soldiers hated to stay in the cavern for any length of time. For good reason too, for it not only smelled but the energy Yerik had sought to desecrate was very much alive, and running though out the tunnels giving those that were not prepared for entering a sacred place, unpleasant feelings. Arri laughed. All they had to do was change their attitude to kindness and their discomfort in entering the tunnels would disappear.
Unfortunately for Yerik, his brief time in childhood, spent with the old shaman, only gave him access to the magic statue, not to any worthwhile teachings. Arri knew where the energy from the statue was coming from. It was a mere spirit guide his former teacher had captured with a promise of release after a certain amount of time had passed. Arri smiled. The spirit was angry because Yerik didn't know how to release it, yet it was still bound by the previous owner's spells until that appointed time for release came.
Arri let his sight change so he could watch the light that emanated from the young woman's body change with her thoughts. The basic colors remained. She didn't have any of the tinge of uncleanness that most people had.
The shadow shifted his weight, as he watched the blond woman move into a position where she could view her environment. He shifted his sight to another level. She had the same kind heart as the priestess Aerope, and that steely inner quality that would help her through the many life ordeals she still had to live through. He knew he had to help her survive this lesson…just as he was doing for the Priestess, Aerope. To Aerope, he owed her his life and sanity, for she had guided him with her thoughts to mentally survive the visions.
Gabrielle finally managed to get herself righted. Frightened but with a firm resolve she asked the dark figure with the unblinking yellow eyes, "You don't happen to know where there is some water, do you?" she croaked. She winced at the sound of her own voice.
A smile formed on his face, unseen in the dark. He was aware that Abbas was returning with the drugged water for her. With the drug, a person in a matter of days…would become witless and without consciousness.
Gabrielle could hear the echo of steps and rolled herself until she came up against a wall, keeping a watch on the unblinking yellow orbs that followed her movements. As torchlight approached the interior of the room started to move from unknown darkness to shadows with only the dais wrapped in a dark shroud. The golden tripod glinted from the light. The guard placed the torch in a holder outside of the room. He had a gourd of water in one hand. He easily spotted Gabrielle still bound, but leaning up against the wall where a statue of one of the muses had once been.
Abbas nodded toward Arri and caught his slight gesture to bring the water to him. Abbas hated coming into this place for he kept thinking he would end up dead like the others, but Arri told him he would protect him. Carefully he made his way close to the dais, but not too close. He grinned thinking Arri was going to further frighten their new slave. It was all right with him. He had already told the others she was his. A new plaything to get rid of his boredom. He wanted her before the drug took effect. He was tired of the others who were too docile and offered no resistance or even interest in what he did to them or asked them to do.
Arri turned back to the woman propped against the wall and started to prepare the chains he had dangling in his other hand. Until the drug took effect, Yerik wanted their captives kept in chains.
"I'm goin'a cut the ropes on yer 'ans. Ya run, I cut ch'a."
Gabrielle nodded she understood.
Arri smiled inwardly knowing Abbas' thoughts and plans. He took the water gourd in his hands and felt the energy from the chair run though his arms into the gourd. The young woman needed to prepare herself for she was the one he had foreseen to act as the vessel to contain the light that was to be used to revitalize the sacred ley lines around and in the sacred cavern. She was also the one to intercede with the powers to end the wanderings of her sister Queen. Into the water he sent a different type of energy, changing the structure of the water.
Arri cut the rope from Gabrielle's wrists, then pulled at the coat around her, which by now was too warm for where she was. "Ya don' need this." Abbas pulled it off her letting his hands roam her body while he was pulling the coat off. Gabrielle's cold stare only made his grin wider, which showed that what teeth weren't missing, were blackened with rot.
"Abbasssss." A soft voice hissed.
"Arrrrgggg." Abbas grabbed his throat angrily falling over sideways with the chains he still had draped over his arm. Frightened, Abbas scrambled to his feet angrily. "I was only playin! No harm done. Not like ya can do anythin." He muttered the last statement more to himself.
"Abbasssss. Would you like me to prove to you….personally…that you are wrong?" The voice was soft but Gabrielle could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. It was at that moment the ground under them trembled and the energy in the room sent more of the tingling feeling through her body.
"Now…finish with your job." Arri told the frightened man when the trembling ground stopped.
He moved quickly now. He clamped the wrist cuffs around her bruised wrists, then guiltily, loosened them a bit, not hiding the quick smile at the tight lipped grimace on the woman's face. Yes, he wanted her before the drug took effect. Once she was under it's influence, she would not show any reaction to pain…or the pleasure he would give her. She wasn't going to be staying with the Captain long, only until he questioned her, he thought.
Next the ankles…he was going to remove the boots but stopped. He could do that later. He clamped the anklets around her and again pulled the chain to make sure they stayed locked. Then he returned to Arii's chair for the water.
Arri looked into Abbas' eyes as he lifted them to his to take the gourd, and without words pulled the man's mind to his will. "She is mine." He told Abbas. "No one is to touch her… do you understand?" His voice was so low that it was a mere whisper but Gabrielle and Abbas heard. To Abbas it was like a loud voice inside his head that threatened him indescribable harm if the order was not carried out.
Abbas was but a mere soldier whereas Arri, before he dared to sit on the chair, was the Captain of their small army, with Yerik their general. Their payment of gold and use of the hostages for their pleasure, with a few rules to follow, had kept the men from sneaking off to the neighboring villages and towns for amusement…for a while. But they were all tiring of the unresponsive slaves and the company of the satyrs. If they did not fear Yerik and now especially Arri, they would have deserted moons ago. The few that broke Yerik's rule of not killing or bruising the hostages where they could be seen, found he was harsh in his punishment. For the deceased the one who took the life took his or her place digging for gold, chained with little hope of getting out. For those that bruised a hostage so the one paying the fee to keep them alive could see them were handed over to the satyrs for a night's worth of entertainment.
Abbas nodded his understanding, wanting to leave the room quickly, as the fear that was running like a cold trickle of water up and down his spine was giving him spasms in his back, and making his bowels weak. Right now the thought of getting some fresh air outside was all he had on his mind.
Gabrielle listened to the whispered order and felt a fear of dread, though, not from the dark figure on the dais. Abbas gave her creepy feelings she would like to wash off.
Abbas took the gourd from Arri's hands and turning around, dropped it at Gabrielle's feet. "Stay in here." Abbas told her gruffly. "until someone comes for you. If you leave without permission…there are some who don't care whose slave you are…" Abbas had stepped out of the grotto, then turned back to the dais. "And even he cannot protect you once you are in the tunnels."
Arri smiled at the warning but said nothing. Abbas turned on his heels and left.
Gabrielle struggled to balance the gourd in her hands, feeling the heavy weight of the chains shift as she moved the gourd's spout to the unbruised side of her mouth. Thirstily she sucked up the water feeling some of it drip down her neck and what made it down her throat soothing the parchness that was probably contributing to the burning in her throat. She patted some of the water over her partially closed eye and bruised lip. For a moment the idea that the warm tingling on her skin from the water was healing the bruises crossed her mind, but she quickly discarded the idea as too fanciful.
Finally she laid the gourd to the side and stared into the eyes that were still regarding her silently.
Again, Arri smiled, unseen by Gabrielle, as his form was shrouded in darkness. He preferred the darkness for the burning had left him light sensitive. But then again, he used a different sight, which he felt was a lot more reliable for his immediate needs.
Gabrielle sighed. Whoever was watching her wasn't going to say anything. She closed her eyes for a moment to gather her thoughts, and to close out those eyes that seemed to draw her into them. In a few moments her breathing was deep and even, as if sleeping. It gave her a break from the awareness of how bruised and battered her body was feeling at the moment.
Xena was cursing silently under her breath, as she watched the soldiers and satyrs dump a dark mixture of something on the stones near each of the air vents she had mentally marked, then smear the mixture so that it covered the width of a hands the rock surface. The big satyr lifted his bearded face and sniffed the air. Xena was hopping the wind wouldn't shift, thus bringing her distinct scent to the sensitive satyr's small flaring nostrils. This turn of events was changing her thoughts on her tactics already.
But where's the thrill without some improvising? Xena thought grimly as she watched the satyr look toward the rock she was hiding behind.
It surprised her that the great Satyr did not move toward her hiding place, for she felt he was aware of her presence. His lack of action told her a few things, one being that her presence here was expected and another, which gave her just as much worry, was that this was part of a trap.
Xena could feel Dorie's presence and it seemed very restless. Xena's stomach took that moment to go through one of those 'Gabrielle was anxious about something' type of twists. Xena was grateful she had finally worked out her body's method of communicating to her just what type of distress her companion was experiencing; otherwise, she would have been rushing into a room every anxious moment the Bard experienced with sword drawn and ready to take head counts. She sighed. Since their return trip from India, Gabrielle had emotionally calmed herself a great deal, sometimes making it difficult for Xena to know when she was really in danger, but her body's sensitivity to the Bard adapted quickly. The twist in her stomach faded away, much to Xena's relief. That was a relief. If it had gotten worse she would have had to perform one of those feats Gabrielle liked to turn into more than what it was. Getting past the satyrs at the cave entrance would be quite a daring accomplishment, though she had no doubt she would be able to do it; it's what she would have to go through that had her concerned.
Except…hmmm…Images of dancing maidens at the edge of the clearing, appeared in Xena's mind. And so close to their festival time…that just may do the trick…Remembering their reaction to Gabrielle's appearance had her smirking. In their condition, one dancing maiden would be enough. Well, if this doesn't work, I have another option…dancing in the moonlight.
Xena waited for the group to finish their work. A torch was set to the dry brush around the rocks, when they finished. She frowned at the slight breeze that brought the smoke from the burning mixture they had pasting around the rocks to her sensitive nose. They had the same idea she had but hers was to drop the burning mud paddies down the opening so the smoke would get into the tunnels. There it would drop some where, with its slow burning incense odor would not be noticeable, and by the stench coming from the air ducts, anyone down there probably no longer smelled anything. She thought of Gabrielle enduring the stench, and how she would personally assist her to get rid of the stink that probably was clinging to her cloths and skin, when they were finished with all of this.
"Hermes feathered codpiece!" Xena cursed softly to herself, as she realized what she had inhaled. It put a person into a mindless state of consciousness. It wasn't the same drug Gigantes was using, or what had been used on the three priestesses she had rescued. It didn't leave the victim with an observable subservient demeanor. And the victim usually didn't remember anything after it wore off.
Why are they coating the air openings? Not much of that smoke is getting into the vents. Seems like a waste.
"You need to get away from here." Dorie told her worriedly.
"Hmmmm?" Xena looked up and could see Dorie's small ethereal shape hovering above her. Her shape also looked….different….like a wisp of cloth caught up in a breeze and…
Part of Xena's mind informed her she had inhaled some of the mixture that was meant for her to inhale, and she had better get out of there before she was overcome with it.
"Come, please." The little voice pleaded.
Xena didn't know how she managed to sneak away, but she wasn't occupied with her own safety entirely, as she was looking around her with different eyes. Her world was taking on a different sight, and she was finding herself doing just as Dorie told her, biting back a giggle at the thought of the big bad warrior princess doing the bidding of a tiny child, and a shade at that. Her eyes narrowed however when the tiny figure wavered between wisps of a shade and that of a grown woman whose shape had her imagination running away with her. Oh, Oh.
Xena's progress to wherever Dorie was taking her was stopped now and again, as Xena reached to pick some leaves, or seed, as she studiously looked about her in an exaggerated demonstration of a grubber. It was funny how she recognized in the darkness the herbs she needed by senses alone. Her healer skills were still in tack, and her instinct to survive was keeping a part of her from being subdued by the drug's entire effect, but it was taking an enormous amount of will power and concentration of movement to keep herself from falling under its haze.
Xena showed no surprise, as two women dropped beside her, only annoyance, as one of them dropped her heel on an herb she was looking for.
"Lily!" Xena growled dangerously.
Both women's eyebrows rose. It was a name Hildreth hadn't used for almost a full season.
"Get your muddy boots off that plant!" The tall dark warrior ordered in a low voice.
Hildreth looked down at her feet.
Hildreth stopped as she noticed she did not have the warriors full attention…in fact…she didn't have any of it at all, as Xena reached for the smashed foliage and disgustedly tossed it to the side. Her eyes caught sight of another one and she pounced on it like it was an edible delight.
"Ahh…Xena, since you're here. Do you think you can…Xena, are you alright?" Alala studied the woman closely. "Athena's tight leathers." She cursed under her breath. "Hildie, I think she got some of that stuff in…"
Xena suddenly straightened up, and with a glint in her narrowed eyes, she shook a plant and its roots, dirt and a bit of pebbles at them. "Ya got that right! But don't you worry…" She smirked at the two women almost breaking out into a mirthful laughter at their expressions, "I got just the right stuff here."
After a few more moments of scrounging around the rocks, and finding one more small bunch of leaves of the herb, Xena straightened up and nodded toward the clearing where the small cave she had stashed the three priestesses in.
"Ya sure ya wanta get them out?" She regarded the two with an almost uncharacteristic wild gleam in her eye. "They could be still under the influence." She waggled her brows at the two.
The two women looked at each other then back at Xena. "Do you want us to boil some water for you?" Hildreth indicated the mixture of leaves and seeds Xena's large hand was clutching.
"Hmmm. Why don't we clear the opening." She suggested. She needed something to put the herbs in and that would be in the cave. Hopefully the priestesses were somewhat recovered. She was getting weary from fighting the dullness that kept threatening to descend on her thoughts; knowing that if she succumbed she would be of no use to Gabrielle.
She handed the herbs and seeds to Alala. "Now, don't loose any of that…or you'll be looking for more." She warned the tall animal warden, Alala, who looked worried.
Xena didn't need to study how to unblock the entrance. She had stopped it and knew how to unstop it. She found a large fallen branch and leveraged it off center, and leaned her weight on the end. She had placed a second stone under the larger one so that it could only be pushed this way. She suspected that anyone else may think it was balanced and try to put leverage in the center.
The stone rolled back and Hildreth was the first to crawl in, cautiously for she did not know if the three women would think they were the enemy, and be ready to kosh them.
"Agnes!" Hildreth called in a low voice. "It's Hildreth and Alala. We're coming in."
Hildreth dragged herself in and looked up to see Eleanor with a pan ready to bash her on the head.
"Hey, careful there." Hildreth told her as she dragged herself further in then stood up. The three women rushed to her and were still holding onto her in relief when Xena using all the control she could muster dragged her tall frame through the small opening then stood up breathing a sigh of relief that the cave was big and roomy.
Alala stuck her head in and handed Xena her herbs. "I'll keep an eye out here." She whispered.
The three women grabbed her hand and for a few moments held on. Then Alala disappeared back outside.
"Get up in the trees as high as you can." Xena told her as she withdrew. She was giddy with that brief effort to bring her thoughts into a tight focus.
"Do you have some hot water. Xena got some of that stuff in her." Hildreth told Agnes who was holding onto her.
The others nodded and went to the small fire they had going. Agnes took the herbs from Xena's hands that started to shake from the exertion.
"Come on. Get her over there. We have some herbs already going." Agnes was looking at what Xena had plucked and pulled. "Hmmm."
"This leaf we don't have." She added it to the already steaming brew they had steeping.
After a few candlemarks of sipping and Agnes massaging the muscles in her legs and arms that were cramping from the reaction, Xena was beginning to see a little more clearer. But not enough to go back to the cavern and face the satyrs.
"I take it…you're the one who got us in here." Eleanor mentioned to Xena as she placed another herb-laden cup of tea in her hand.
Xena nodded tiredly. She needed her herb bag to take another herb that would kick her system into a higher drive so she could fight the lethargy that was the after effects of the two drugs fighting each other.
"Thanks." Eleanor laid a hand on Xena's arm. Strong biceps contracted from the touch of a stranger.
"Sorry." Eleanor withdrew her hand.
"So…what's the plan?" Hildreth asked.
"Get the others out of the cavern." Xena told them quietly. She sipped the hot tea again. It was bitter, but she recognized some of the herbs, and one of them would soon be kicking in to give her that needed energy.
Blue eyes opened wide and looked around. She noted the cave was neat, the three women, who had once been mindless, looked a lot different…cleaned would be a good descriptive word, with direct eye contact.
"How are you all doing?" Xena asked.
Agnes smiled. "Well…after some of the fogginess cleared…and getting the scare of our lives when we heard Hildie and Alala chatting over our heads…"
Hildreth snorted. "You just about scarred the…" suddenly she turned to Xena. "Why didn't you tell us where they were?"
Xena's eyebrows rose. "You don't like surprises, huh?" She sighed. "If you went straight here…the satyrs that were trying to follow your trail would have found the place."
"We were followed?"
"Yea. But…you went around in circles there for a while and confused them…"
Hildreth laughed. "Well, we kinda got lost. I don't know what it was but…one moment we were going this way and then another…" She raised her hand bewildered.
Xena had a guess Dorie had a hand in it.
"Well…this is a safe place, but to guard it…you need to have someone way up in the trees. And it's cold out there."
Hildreth nodded. "I'll go relieve her. How are you doing?"
Xena nodded. "Better." She turned to Agnes. "I think we need to prepare some stuff for the satyrs curious nose…do you think…"
Agnes' lips tightened. "I've dreamed up a lot of different things."
"Well…make it simple. We can put it around here and other places just so that they know…they aren't the only ones in this game."
Agnes nodded. Xena leaned back against the wall and started to make new plans. Her gut wasn't twisting so Gabrielle was okay…so, far. She needed to get into the cavern. All caverns had more than one entrance.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she had slept, but when she awoke it was with awareness at where she was. Opening her eyes slowly she let her sight confirm what her sense of smell told her, and the tight bindings on her wrists reminded her, that she was still in the cavern, chained. Reaching over she pulled the gourd toward her and took a sip, the chains rattled on the stone floor. Gabrielle sat for a few moments letting the water's moistness coat her parched throat noticing that the same unblinking eyes remained focused on her. She wondered what she could say to start up a two-way conversation when her growling stomach intervened.
"It is better to stick to the water." The voice offered.
The voice was not accented as the others were, however, the voice sounded strained.
Gabrielle remembered the food was drugged and had no intention of willingly eating it. "Ahh." She blinked her eyes for a moment realizing she could see out of both. Gingerly she felt her lip then her eye. "Did you do this or…"
"You are in sacred space…though by the smell you wouldn't know that."
"I'm not sure I understand. Are you one of them?"
"I was once a very active member of this group that has enslaved the city's citizens down here and did as much damage to this sacred cavern as I could." He waited to see what reaction he would get from the young woman.
"Once…" she encouraged.
It didn't surprise him that she didn't focus on what he had done. It intrigued him… though it wouldn't have mattered, for her part in this drama was already set, unless she changed an integral part of her sacred Self that would change her usual response to what was to happen.
"My interests have changed…"
Both heard the soft echo of booted footsteps and moment's later the light from a torch brightened as it made its way toward them, removing most of the darkness though still leaving a lot of the room in shadows. Gabrielle heard the torch slide into the outside holder with a solid thunk.
Why weren't they bringing the torches in here?
"Arri!" A medium sized muscular man entered just as far as the overhang of the grotto's entrance. He studied Gabrielle's shadowed form noting the chains were fastened on her wrists, and legs, and she was seated on the ground in a nonthreatening position, with a gourd that normally held the drugged water. He looked back up at Arri's shadowed form on the chair.
"I want to talk to you." He glanced at the woman in the corner and grunted. "Scion said the Bard of that Warrior woman was delivered." He stated in another language. Gabrielle didn't let on that she understood.
"She's a Bard? We were just getting to know each other. What brings you down to the cesspit you created, Yerik? I know you hate it down here."
"The Warrior Woman slipped past Gigantes." Yerik spat into the corner of the cave. He was about to take another step toward the stair of the dais, but thought better of it. Instead he shifted his weight to the other foot and spat again into the corner of the cave.
"Do you mind? I spend my time in here. It's bad enough you had them urinate on the walls and I have to smell it." Arri complained, then continued, "I would offer you a chair, but it seems the only one we haven't smashed may not fit you quite right."
"It's part of the plan, Arri. You know that. Desecration. Destruction. Humiliation. It's the way to keep the power at bay. And it was you that started it in here. I warned you to stay away from this room. Enough of this. Scion smells the warrior bitch near the cavern entrance. He's gone to take care of her. She should be wandering the forest, lost and senseless soon. He'll then snag her and add her to our collection. Gigantes thinks too much of himself. May Fata Morgana eat his heart out! That foreign trader! He thinks he's set us up when in fact…he sent us an Amazon Queen!" He roared then looked intently at his captain. "We've got four days left for the other two objects to be found."
Arri smiled. Of course he knew. He could feel the power building in the chair, in the cavern, and in the earth surrounding the cavern. The power would reach its most intense level at the new moon, ready for the three symbols to be joined by the sacred vessel, the emissary sent by the wise ones. Then a few weeks later at the full moon they would be brought together again for the final binding.
"Hmmm. Do you think her being an Amazon Queen automatically gives her this inside information on where the remaining items are?'"
"Arri, I've no time for your cynical comments. We need to get out of here before the solstice. The symbols I've put on the walls won't contain the energy that will rise and I don't want to be around to see what happens and nor do you! Now, use some of that power and find out if she knows where any of the stuff is."
Arri seemed to sigh. "Hmmm. Well…I could ask if she knows anything about the treasure?"
"What's that going to get?"
"At least we'll know if she knows."
"Arri, she has to be here for a reason. It's too coincidental!" Thundered Yerik impatiently, and annoyed with the smells that were bombarding his senses. His accented voice echoed down the tunnels.
"Okay. Then what's your suggestion, since you don't like mine?" The voice rasped.
"I say we drag that priestess up here and start skinning her alive."
"You won't get anything from her, Yerik. She can stop her heart beat."
"Well, that she may, but this woman won't know that, and she may give us all the information that we need to know. I understand she can't bear others to get hurt, especially if she is the cause."
"I think another way might do. Less dangerous than dragging the priestess out of her prison, which holds her powerless…why not let the young Queen visit the captives? Have her serve them…water…food…bind their wounds."
"Yerik…if you send her down there, and not let her interact, nurture those poor souls…" Arri's voice took on an exaggerated, though hoarse, pitying tone, "how is she going to quickly bond to them? Think beyond your normal use of force. You pride yourself in being able to adapt. Now, let her give some assistance to them…they certainly aren't going to be aware of her. They're too far gone. Besides…they need some medical attention. Our own skills are limited here. We can't be killing off hostages and workers for something that could have been prevented. We still need them to work on digging out the gold. Surely you haven't hoarded enough."
Yerik looked at the darkened figure of a man/woman he had taken under his wing, and found to be trustworthy enough to elevate to almost partnership status. However, Yerik never trusted anyone completely…and Arri had changed. Then, again, he still needed Arri for it was his knowledge that helped figure out the oracle's pronunciation. He ignored that Arri had pointed out that he was keeping back gold the hostages were digging…more than his share.
He would have to consult his small statue, though it was being more cryptic than an oracle lately. The spirit trapped in a statue made in her earthly likeness, was demanding release at her appointed time, and Yerik suspected, she knew he didn't know the words to release her. Too many distractions right now, when he needed less. He was getting nervous as the time drew near, but he had to stick it out. The spirit in the statue said that all three articles would come together by the appointed time. Moving the golden girdle that was in the small trunk they had found, to Gigantes' office was not opposed by him, for it would be a true test as to whether it was the genuine article. If the trunk was transported back to the cavern some how, it would prove it was real, just like the ring on Gigantes's finger. If it was the ring the oracle mentioned, then the ring, with or without Gigantes, would also be here. Yerik nodded to himself. Somedays he cursed the day he was captured by Caesar's army and others he was grateful. Caesar offered an exchange for his life for the delivery of three objects. To fail at it meant a forfeiter of his life. He had not doubt Caesar's agents would find him and have him dismembered alive if he ran out on this deal. He was suspicious at Caesar's generous additional offer that he and his partners will not have to worry about money for the rest of their lives if he succeeded. But so far, he had no choice but to locate the objects.
Caesar had given Yerik the Seers prose, and a direction of where in Greece the Amazon's golden girdle would be found. It was kept in the Temple of the Muses in Crometh. So they knew that everything else would come together in Crometh, where the girdle was. What had him worried was the box that held the girdle was not heavy as if holding something that was made of gold. However, when the box was in the cavern the ground about it did shake, making him nervous enough to move it into the city. The shaking did seem to lessen with its removal, so maybe it did have the girdle in it.
For comfort, he ran the oracle's words though his mind again.
Moonless heavens a'fore solstice night
Three sacred objects brought to light
Owned by the tall proud Queen
Amazon crafted golden girdle
Feathered wand that moves the air
Ring of gold, that's the key
He looked back at his Captain. Arri was unable to escape the cavern into fresh air until they removed the symbols Yerik had drawn on the walls of the underground chamber, where the priestess was held captive. It was Arri who was holding some of the wild energy to a focused point and by the tremors in the ground, either he was tiring or they were getting stronger as the solstice approached, or was it the objects of power? Arri's surviving the power of the chair had mixed blessings.
"Yea…" Yerik decided to go along with Arri's suggestion. He didn't want to tell Arri that he didn't care one iota what happened to their hostages after he had all three objects. At this stage, he didn't care if Arri, whose damaged eyesight was too sensitive to light, even left the cavern. He suspected that the cavern would be left in shambles from the earth movement that the rising power would cause without the focus of the three objects of power to reconsecrate the original symbols on the cavern walls. He didn't understand the old symbols and didn't fully understand the symbols he had drawn. He had an idea they were in relation to time, distance, and life. He hadn't been a good student in his younger days when the full meaning behind symbols was taught. They were symbols he had gotten out of one of the books he had stolen from his deceased master's library along with the statue.
"We need to get her to give up the information before the drug takes effect. Otherwise…" he paused for effect on Arri, "I'll give her over to Scion for a night."
Gabrielle kept what she was hopping was a blank stare on her face. By the curse of Europa, so he thinks he can use me. I think I'd much rather be down this stinking place binding their cuts then visiting Scion! To quell her fear she thought about the tale of Europa and how after her rape by Zeus, who had taken the form of a bull, she had put a curse on him that he would never find comfort in his wife or any other woman for that matter. Whether that was already Zeus' fate or not, the story told on a young girls first blood moon, gave her some solace that rape, even for a god, was held accountable.
"I'll let you handle her then. I'll be back tomorrow. I need to see what Gigantes is up to in the city. I want to make sure our treasure is still where I left it…in his care."
"I don't think he'll be leaving the city with it, Yerik. Even if he doesn't believe in the curse he doesn't look like he's interested in testing it."
Yerik grunted, turned and left, taking the torch with him. He didn't see or feel the eyes of deep violent staring at him from a small alcove that was at one time a place where Urania, the muse of astronomy, had her statue standing.
Urania and her eight sisters could not take a life, as it was repugnant to them. They merely reported what could happen and what did happened in life. And their other sisters who visited their city were told they mustn't interfere by the Fates, for it would not bode well for those on Olympus as a whole. But the other three whose following of the rules didn't always occur nor their objection to using others to do things for them, had been leaving some hints to those they had deemed to be able to handle what was to come. The deadening of the city's citizens to their inner self and connection to their patrons, the Muses, was lifting, after Xena the Warrior Princess had changed the flow of the contaminated water. Urania smiled and left to return to the others. She had seen enough. Things were going as the Fates had said they would. But the worse was still to come. Would those that they were depending on come through for them? Not even the Fates knew, for the thread was clear with unseen threads.
"Well, Amazon Queen and Bard friend of the great Warrior Princess, what have you to say of Yerik's plan?" Arri asked in the same language Yerik had used.
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, pursing her lips. She knew he knew. Was it pointless to keep up a false front? Another part of her was worried about those Arri had said needed help. And what of Xena? She needed to be down there, just in case Scion was successful in bringing in Xena.
"Why are you helping me? And how did you know I could understand?"
"Ahhh. You don't believe that I have such powers just by sitting on the oracle's chair?" he asked switching to a Greek dialect.
"The oracle's chair? I thought…" She asked confused, for everyone was led to understand only those with the power of the pythia could sit on the apex of power the sacred space radiated. Was that trembling what she was feeling? Why wasn't Yerik burnt for being so close or her for that matter?
"Yes. I control the flow for now."
"That is not important right now. What is important is that the people below, in the tunnels need your assistance. The water you have will help heal some of their injuries."
Unconsciously Gabrielle touched her lip where the cut was now almost gone. The rattling of the chains made her look down at her wrists that were no longer sore. She couldn't see much in the gray light but just by feel she knew her cuts were healed.
"Is it this water?"
"Partially. It is the power from this cavern. Surely you feel it."
"Well…I feel something." She was quiet for a few moments thinking of what she needed to help the people. Lots of rags for binding cuts she guessed, which she didn't have.
"Just use the water. Dab it on those with cuts. Do be careful, for as Abbas has said, there are some that are maddened beyond my reach, and who will do you harm."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Right." She was determined to go and attend to the hostages for that was what she was here for. She shook her chains. They could be used as a weapon. She had seen Xena use them as such often enough…more than enough for her comfort.
She picked herself up and picked up the gourd trying not to trip over the chains wrapped around her ankles. She turned back to the yellow eyes. "What are you that survived the oracle's chair, if you are not an oracle?"
"I was once under the protection of Hermes."
"Hermes? Ohhh, well…I see. You're both man and woman." She suddenly understood better. The sacredness of twin souls, found in people who came into this life with the body of man and woman and those that had the inner soul of one sex and the outer appearance of another were considered by many to be the embodiment of Hermes, the sacred messenger, and therefore a natural diviner and healer. Many were trained to work in temples. "So…what are you going to do?"
"Send you down into the pits to help those that need more care than what they are being given. I cannot walk great distances yet, and though Abbas seems not to have taken my warning seriously, you can do much to help until he gets over his fear of me." The dark figure watched her for a few moments. "Are you willing to take advantage of that time? It won't last long…for he will drink himself to foolishness. Something's I can prevent…some must follow their natural coarse. Remember this however…self sacrifice is not always the right course of action."
Gabrielle laughed, suddenly feeling better. "That's something Xena likes to tell me, of course she doesn't follow it much."
"It's something to consider when you do have that chance, otherwise, you would not have been given that opportunity to consider it." Arri laughed. "So, refill your gourd with the water that runs behind the remains of Mnemosyne's shrine."
"Mnemosyne? I thought this cavern was to the Muses?"
"Yes. And to their parents was added a small niche. The river that runs through here was dedicated to Mnemosyne and the spout there, was to Zeus."
"Well, as long as it's not from the river Lethe." Gabrielle laughed nervously; having very good memories of her own experience with Mnemosyne's Temple, and the one time temptation to forget her part in doing harm to others was equal to her need to not forget her love for Xena.
The dark form said nothing as Gabrielle made her way cautiously around the debris to the water source. She was thinking of how many times she would have to return to refill it when Arri's chuckle caused her to look up from the filling gourd.
"Nothing too important for now."
The Shake Up
Xena rested her head on the rough wall's surface she was sitting up against, not daring to close her eyes. It was too close in the cave and the drug's effect was magnifying her fear. She focused on the uneven texture of the dirt and rock that she leaned boneless against. She wished the essence of the herbs would hurry up and kick in to rebalance her inner and outer worlds. Her eyes flickered over the shadows on the wall the dancing flames from the fire created when another log was added. Idly her mind moved to other times she had spent in caves, watching the shadows while Gabrielle wove a fanciful story about what the shadows were to her…they were folder for story material in a very imaginative Bard's mind. By the time she had finished the story, Xena was also seeing the same story acted out by the shadows on the wall.
Xena sighed, closing her eyes. She wondered what Gabrielle was up to as a hostage. Playing havoc with their nice operation, she hopped. Though Gabrielle seemed to somehow get in the middle of dangerous situations, she usually managed to escape…but with her help.
Xena pulled herself to her feet with effort. For a moment she had felt herself getting her strength and wits back…but the sudden drain of her energy had her grabbing onto the wall for support.
"What the Hades is going on?" She mumbled to herself as she felt her legs wobble and a roaring sound that started from far away grew louder and buried her in its sound and dust. The wall she was clutching was also moving making it difficult for her to stand.
"Agnes!" Xena yelled. She had heard voices screaming near her but now there was silence.
When the rolling ceased Xena was curled into a ball with her arms over her head protecting herself from any falling rocks. She was surrounded in darkness and a thick dust that filled her lungs at every breath. She could hear the choking cough of others.
"Everyone alright? Agnes, Eleanor, Camilia?" Xena coughed from the thick dust. It was pitch black. She had risen to her feet cautiously. For being tall, she had learned early to check on headspace in darkened areas. She cautiously moved her feet forward feeling the debris that was loosened from the ceiling onto the floor.
"Xena…" A hoarse voice started then broke into coughing fits. Xena moved in the direction of the voice, nearly colliding with a low ceiling that she knew had not been there before. Her hypersenses were not dulled. She let her hands feel their way to the coughing that continued. The air was thicker with dust here. It meant there was no airflow. No airflow meant they would be running out of air soon.
Her feet felt something and she lowered herself to get a better feel with her hands. Her fingertips felt a dusty hand. Moving around she got an idea of the position and what one problem was with the woman under some major debris.
"Xena?" A soft voice whispered more to avoid taking deep breaths.
"Eleanor. We're Camilia?"
"E're." A weak voice from further in the darkness called.
"Are you two all right?" Xena asked.
There was the sound of movement and rocks being moved. "Got a busted leg…I think. Naw. Hera's curse. It sure hurts like a break, though."
"Can you get over here?"
There were more curses and time passed as Camilia tried to find a way to the others. Meanwhile Eleanor and Xena cleared a space for them to move Agnes, when they unburied her.
"Xena, I think we're running out of air." Eleanor informed her as she wiped a dusty shoulder across her dripping forehead.
"Yea. Let me see what I can do." Xena moved off to where she could hear the river moving. Though the cave had not been that big…it took a long time to make it to the water since there was a lot of large rocks and opened pits to navigate around in the dark.
Ahhh. Xena stepped into the water gratefully sinking into it and letting cold liquid cover her head. Underwater she rubbed the dust off that had coated her eyelashes and everything else on her. She opened her eyes up under water and had to shake her head in disbelief. There was a stab of light, like a knife blade cutting across the darkness. Xena rose to the surface and remembered to take a shallow breath of the still dust heavy air.
"I think I've found a way out. Give me a few to check it out." Xena then ducked back into the water and swam toward the light. Her dark hair fanned out around her as she swam and kicked toward the opening into daylight and hopefully out of the cold water. Her lungs were about bursting when she finally reached the light only to almost gulp in the liquid that surrounded her. A cloven hoof stepped into the water. Quickly she moved back into the darkness looking for a place to grab some air.
Pulling herself across the rocky sides of the streambed she pulled herself up cautiously to get some air. She controlled her impulse to take in deep breaths as her lungs cramped from the effort to be cautious and the icy cold liquid the surrounded her. She pulled herself out of the water completely. The cave she was in was warm, probably because it was cut off from the outside winter weather, with the exception of the icy stream that ran though it.
She was still in a part of the underground tributary she guessed. When the ringing in her ears ceased and the pounding of her heart got back to a more normal beat she could hear voices droning from the other side of the rock outcropping she was hiding behind. Feeling her way along the rocks she moved cautiously closer to the wavering torch that was moving now away from her.
Xena slipped back into the cold water and dragged herself to the other side. By the time she had reached the other side, it was dark. She lifted her head cautiously above the surface of her water cover.
Her nostrils flared as she picked up the smell of unwashed bodies, human waste and something that was rotting. She also recognized the smell of the foreigner, Yerik. Doesn't any of his men take baths? She mentally asked no one in particular. Not wanting to leave water marks on the stones in case someone returned with a torch. Xena silently swam further into the cave hopping she wouldn't get too cold to finish what had to be done.
Her nose also recognized the smell of bituman. It was used for burning. Handy to coat on the end of a stick to make longer lasting torches, but this was stronger than what a few torches would give. It was also used for setting towns on fire in a hail of fireballs thrown from catapults. Tentatively she reached out to pull her self up and found her hand covered in the slime. Apollo in a flame ball! They smeared this stuff all along here. Why? Why were they preparing to set this small stream on fire? Did they know they were in the cave and this was the only way out? Xena cast about for other alternatives. She had to get the three women out of the cave they were in because there was little if no air. Xena pulled her self over the slimed sides of the rocks that lined the underground waterway. She needed to look just a little further down the way to see how much they had tarred their exit.
She stumbled on some abandoned equipment. Her eyebrows went up when she realized what was left. A plan formed in her mind and feeling around with her hands she had secured what she needed, tucked the sack in her waist belt and felt her way back to the water.
When she arrived back she pulled out the torch she had retrieved and carefully wrapped in a burlap so the tar would not fall off the wood. The tar wouldn't be effected by the water, but the straw used for helping it ignite would. She felt around for the flint someone had conveniently left behind, which she stored against her skin wrapped in its oilskin. She lit the torch to get an idea of what damage was done in the cave they had taken refuge in.
The flare from the torch light had three white dusted women hiding their faces from the brightness. Xena was relieved that all three were alive.
The dust was somewhat settled, so there had to be some air circulating, though not by much since the flame on the torch suddenly went low.
"The stream goes to another part of the cave but it looks like it may be part of the sacred cavern. Someone coated slime all along the rocks on the edge, like they plan on setting it on fire. What we can do is swim to the cave and dump dirt all over the stuff. There's some fresh air but the stink from the unclean is enough to gag you if you breathe too deep. Are you all going to be alright returning to the tunnels?"
The other women nodded. They weren't powerless this time and they wanted revenge and revenge meant getting the others free.
"Alright. So, lets get everyone's injuries tended to…then we'll get outta here. Eleanor, can you go about and see what supplies you can retrieve? I'll look after Camilia and Agnes."
Eleanor nodded. She like Xena survived with a few scrapes and bruises.
Xena took each woman to the water to submerge her and wash away the dust so she could get a clearer view of each one's injuries.
By the time she had wound around strips of cloth around Camilia's leg to give it support Eleanor had gone through the stack of supplies they had and resorted things.
"All right. Can you all swim?"
All of the women nodded.
"Good. It's dark and I don't want to lose any of you so…" she indicated the long strips of cloth she had Camilia knotting together from one of the cloaks they cut up. "It's not much, but I want each of you to tie one end to your wrist and attach it to another."
Xena pulled some of the supplies toward her and noted what would not fare well in the water. Then prepared for another dip in the cold water. "Okay. We don't need to swim all the way underwater. I'll tell you when. Let's go."
Xena put out the torch and wrapped it around a soaked sack. She could feel the tug of the others as she led them into the water. She knew she would have to get a fire going right away to warm them up. With the bituman from the coated rocks, fuel wouldn't be a problem.
Gabrielle had one hand firmly on the side of the moving wall and her legs splayed out riding the wave of the earth moving under her. The roar within the cavern was loud and frightening. Her first thought was of Arri who could not move around, then of the people in the caverns that she had only heard in soft echoes of movement as she moved down the cavern. Arri had told her it didn't matter which of the three tunnels she took, she would start running into the workers soon enough. Her lamp of oil she clung to fearing that if she dropped it the oil would burn out and leave her in utter darkness. She could hear the echoes of tapping grow louder as she moved further into the tunnels.
A dark shadow that a flickering torch nearby barely revealed, moved slowly. She winced as she got a better view of the figure. Rags hung from a bony frame as it tapped the green strip that ran in a zig-zag line along the sides of the tunnel's wall.
The figure didn't turn to look at her or seem to hear the dragging of her chains.
She watched as the figure mechanically chipped away rock, tossing bits into a basket at his feet. For a moment Gabrielle let the anger run up her legs and into her heart then in a breath let it go.
"You can stop what you're doing." She told the figure before her. The motions stopped immediately. "Drink some of this." She handed the gourd over. The thin fingers grasped the gourd and started to drink, and drink until Gabrielle realized she needed to stop the intake.
"Okay, that's enough." She cursed under her breath at Yerik and whatever he had given these people.
She was studying the figure looking for observable cuts but there seemed to be none. "Why hit someone when they do everything you say?" She muttered. She wanted to free the man and let him rest somewhere but she didn't want to cause any problems…yet. She gave him the direction to return to his task and moved to the next shadow. She found that some did have bruises, under their rags and almost out of sight. Not knowing if just drinking the water would do the trick, she used bits of their clothing soaked with water to dab at the open sores.
She was down the second tunnel when she heard Abbas yelling in a drunken voice her name. Her skin crawled. She couldn't go back up the tunnel she would run right into him. She gripped the gourd and hurried further down to the end of the tunnel, passing oblivious workers, hopping she would find some place to hide. The chains made it not only slow but also a noisy progress. She stopped at the edge of an underground waterway. She didn't know how deep it was and with the chains, she would sink.
"Well there you are. Didn't I tell ya lads? She's a live one! Now don't ya go and get too anxious Darid. I get her first."
The others didn't pay attention as Gabrielle suddenly found herself fighting off Abbas and his friends awkwardly due to the chains. She managed to knock a few off of her senseless but a crack on the back of her head had her knees turn to liquid and she collapsed to the ground.
"Hellas, Abbas! We want her awake!"
"Well ya got ta get to her first. Let her wake up. Get some water over there. Hold her legs and arms down. Get away from there Darid, I told ya I get her first."
Gabrielle groaned as her head ache was the first thing she became aware of then the different hands holding her legs and arms down and the others that were roughly and hungrily roaming over her body.
"Do ya like this, lovely? Hmmm? Abbas is going to make you feel real good." He slapped her across the face hard to get a response from her. "Wake up!"
"I've got something that will do more than that for you." A low and familiar voice to Gabrielle's ear purred.
"What?" The men holding Gabrielle were slow to respond as they were not just dulled from drink but focused on their fun, a break from real boredom.
Abbas bounced into a rock formation from the impact of a spinning blur that hit him on a metal part of his armor. Silently he slid down to the ground unconscious. Xena's sword was out and with cold anger rendered the rest unconscious. She didn't dare kill any of the men for in the Sacred Caverns taking a life wasn't done.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was shaky as she did her best to wrap her chained wrists around her rescuer's cold damp form.
For a long moment they stood with Xena's arms completely wrapped around the shaking figure of her beloved and Gabrielle's hands resting on the wet waist of her lover, letting the warmth of their connection settle her fear and the warmth of her body seep through her hands.
Finally Xena released her and let her fingers move along the chains. "Let me take these off."
"No. Xena if you take them off, Yerik will suspect you're here."
"He's going to when these guys don't show for dinner."
"Then let's get the prisoners out of here. He'll for sure take it out on them. I take it you found another way in."
"Ahhh, yea. But it's blocked now."
Gabrielle nodded. "The quaking of the earth, it's from the oracle's space. It's real strong there. Arri said it's building up."
"Do I need to know who Arri is?"
"He's sitting on the oracle's chair. He's one of Hermes' children."
"He's one of Yerik's men, Gabrielle." Xena hissed softly, suddenly connecting the name. Gabrielle's pronunciation of the name and Yerik's was considerably different. In the conversation between Gigantes and Yerik she had overheard their first night in the city, Gigantes never referred to him by name…now she knew why.
"Not anymore. Not since he sat on the chair, Xena. He…healed my cuts. He didn't have to. He also let me come down here to give the prisoners water and check their injuries."
"Before the drug they give you takes effect." Xena's voice growled. Her fingers touched the side of Gabrielle's face that she had seen the bruises on from her perch in the trees.
Gabrielle didn't want to argue. "Xena, we got to help these people. Now that you're down here, can you help them with some of your herbs? Do you have any with you?"
Xena sighed. First things first, she reminded herself. "The three priestesses are in another cave that's part of this underground place. The connection to the two must have opened from the last rumble we had down here because it hasn't been disturbed. It's hard to spot unless you're looking for it. It goes pretty far back and from the smell it has an opening to the outside. Eleanor went to look."
"You said they're healers. Why don't we let them take care of the hostages?"
Xena nodded. "That's what I was thinking. Send them down this way, to the end. I'll have one of the women waiting to show them through the small opening. It's a slit in the stone wall. Look for it on the left-hand side at the end of this tunnel. Ya got that?"
Gabrielle nodded. She wanted to get back to Arri to see how he fared in the shake and to get more water.
"Xena," she picked up the almost empty gourd. "just in case Yerik comes back, I'm going back. I'm expected. I don't think he goes far into the tunnels because of the smell, he just visits Arri."
"Just where are you going to be in case I have to come looking for you?"
"Up the main tunnel, they all lead to it. About halfway up there is a grotto to the right. You can't miss it…" she hesitated wondering if she should remind her about the danger of stepping into an oracle's room. "Let Arri know who you are before you step into the room."
Xena merely nodded and gently pushed Gabrielle back up the tunnel ahead of her. She was going to escort her as far as she dared. She didn't miss the grimace that crossed the Bard's face when she glanced at the shadowed forms of her would be rapists. She needed to tie them up and hide them somewhere so Yerik or any of his other men didn't find them, but first things first. They passed the workers that were still mindlessly pounding out bits of rock along a thin vein of gold that ran along the side of one of the tunnel's walls.
"Come here." Xena told Gabrielle quietly. Gabrielle's bindings rattled as slowly moved over to Xena's tall dark form. Gabrielle melted into Xena's embrace, relishing in the strength that radiated from the strong warrior's body and into hers. They let the tendrils of their bond weave through their bodies, reaffirming the closeness they felt that went beyond a physical touch, a sound, a tear, so deep it seemed to make everything else go away.
"Don't take chances." Xena told her solemnly as she finally released her friend. "That's my job, okay?"
"Right. You take the bruising better than I." Gabrielle joked back. Getting practical again, she thought with Arri's help, she could take some of the pressure off Xena in that score but didn't want to raise Xena's worry level by telling her.
As Gabrielle made her way back to the oracle's room, Xena hurried back down to where she had left the unconscious bodies.
Xena looked again making sure she had the right tunnel. Nope. She wasn't mistaken, there were marks of her chakram left on the walls. No bodies. She cursed to herself silently wondering how the men could have passed her since from her own inspection of this second tunnel, there was no other exit except…back down to where she left the three women. She hurried back down the tunnel. Her senses were fully engaged as she made her way back to where she had hid the women, making sure that the men were not hiding somewhere.
The soft keening sound of a falcon caught Xena's ear. Stopping she listened again. It was coming from another part of the tunnel she hadn't explored. The falcon was easy to find by its mournful calls. There was a small torch in one of the corners of the small grotto, giving an eerie shadowed effect of the falcon who was flapping its wings against the jesses that were keeping it tethered to the perch it was attached to. Old meat partially eaten, hanging just out of reach was giving the small area a sick smell.
Xena paused at the opening of the small alcove, letting her eyes and other senses search out anyone that may be around to be upsetting the falcon. Her eyes spotted a large rat that was moving about in one of the corners of its prison.
Cautiously she approached the falcon not knowing if it would recognize her.
"Ahhh, Mutie. Feathered friend of the Athena's Warden, Alala. Would you like to see your mistress again? Hmmm? There feathered one. Yesss. Do you remember me or are you just curious? Or are you just waiting for me to get close enough to take a bite? Xena thought to herself. Thank the goddess they didn't clip the wing feathers!
Xena made a slight detour and with a knife toss stuck the rat. She brought it over to the falcon cautiously. While it ate the rat with great relish, Xena cut the jess from one arm so that it could eat easier. She could see the arms were raw and hopped infection hadn't set in. She didn't have any salve on her, and didn't think Mutie would let her get that close with her. She didn't have the time to bond with the falcon. She could release the bird through one of the vents and let it find it's way back to Alala. She pulled a small piece of cloth over the eyes when the bird was finished with most of the rat and waited to see if she was going to be attacked. Then she wrapped a thin piece of cloth around the still tethered leg. The rag was from Agnes robe, which she had used to bind a cut on her hand that she had long since removed. She knew Alala if not Hildreth would recognize the dirty but colorful weave. They were probably frantic topside.
Xena managed to get the bird to the small opening she had noticed earlier, where much needed fresh air was passing through. It was probably another opening from the earth shake, which meant the tunnels were not as deep as they seemed. Pulling off the cloth from the falcon's eyes, Xena noted that there was some light out but was not able to tell whether it was sunset or sunrise. The falcon hopped off her wrist and carefully walked across the rocks then poked its head through the opening. It appeared to be testing the outside.
"Will ya get going, Mutie? Go find your mistress." She hissed. The falcon hopped through the rest of the opening then disappeared. Xena didn't know if it took off or merely hopped out of sight. Whatever, she needed to get back to see what was happening with everyone else.
"Eleanor!" Xena whispered before she stepped into the dark slit in the wall.
She slid in and found herself facing Camila who had a rock in one hand.
"We're going to have company. Get the water boiling for some of that mixture you prepared for yourselves. Gabrielle is send the hostages to us."
Camila nodded her mouth tightening in a grim line.
She scrambled back into the cave while Xena went back out to direct the first of the group. They made no noise just moved forward whether there was light or not. If they stumbled they quietly regained their balance and resumed their progress. Xena could feel the quiet anger build up in her. When she got hold of Yerik…
Eleanor joined her. "Did you find a way out?" Xena asked quietly.
Eleanor nodded. "It's going to be a tight squeeze, but Alala and Hildreth are out there. They said they would work on it from their side."
"Good. I found Alala's falcon friend. She should be reunited with her about now."
Eleanor's eyes brightened in the small lamp light. "That shall be a heart lifter, for sure."
Xena felt partially relieved. "Why don't you direct our new arrivals. I'm going to check up on Gabrielle. And…there's some soldiers that I knocked around some. They disappeared when I returned to tie them up. Be on the lookout for them." Her misgivings about Arri were making her apprehensive.
Eleanor nodded. "Don't worry. We're not the same passive slaves they once had. We know just how to handle them."
Gabrielle whispered a command to the first person at the head of each tunnel after making sure there were none of Yerik's men around. The command was to tell the person next to him or her where to go, then to go there themselves. It saved her time, she was thinking. She was getting weary from the drag of the chains, though not from all the walking, for that was something she was use to. There was also the fact that she hadn't eaten anything and though the water was refreshing…her grouchy stomach that wanted food. Another reason to get back to the oracle's chair. By the looks of the prisoners, they didn't eat much. Maybe Arri could get some more food for them.
As Gabrielle turned up from the third tunnel into the main tunnel a fist she was too distracted from noticing came out of the darkness and nailed her on the chin.
Yerik grunted and brought his curled fist up shaking it out. He hadn't intended to hit so hard, but it did the job.
"Get her feet." He directed the man that was with him. They both carried her up the tunnel and past Arri's cave.
Unblinking yellow eyes watched them. Some things he had to let run their course. He would wait for the dark one and direct her to Yerik's tent. He smiled at her knack for usually arriving to help her friend at the right moments.
Gabrielle for the second time that day awoke to a headache but thankfully not held down by pawing hands. A soft groan escaped her lips as she tired to move her head to the side to clear the red that covered her eyes. Another fear crawled up her limbs as she found she couldn't move her head for it was held firmly between two posts. Her arms and legs were held just as immobile. She closed her eyes for a moment as she groaned inward, I hope this is not going to be a habit with Xena finding me in this same type of predicament, cause it's getting to be embarrassing.
She waited, knowing that whoever now had her would let her know what he wanted soon enough. Over the growling of her hungry stomach she could hear voices somewhere near her. They were very clear.
Voices carry well at night so maybe it was dark…unless the intention is for me to hear the conversation.
"I tell ya, Abbas' gone with the others. They got scared when Scion found those bodies of Molion and his group."
"He's drunk, Pausanias. He and the others can't walk far after consuming a barrel of ale. Get the satyrs to look for those fools tomorrow morning, if they don't come back by then. Probably passed out in the forest trying to piss out what they drank. Fools!"
"Do you want me to pass out the food to the slaves in the tunnels?"
"Yea. The usual. Leave a bucket at the front of each tunnel. Don't waste time. We'll start on this Queen when you get back." Yerik turned back into his tent. He went to his desk and tapped the top of the lid to the small box Scion had sniffed out in the forest. He smiled. He couldn't open the lid but the jeweled carving on the top of box showed a fan. Three more days and he would have them all.
He turned to the bedraggled figure that was secured on the special rack he had prepared for the priestess. The technique hadn't worked on her, but she was the exception.
His prisoner's breathing was regular and not deep so she was awake. Good. He turned back to his table to look at his plans. He had marked at different parts of the tunnel where the slime, the tar that easily held a fire was going to be applied. He planned on leaving the tunnels in flames when he left, just in case the energy raised didn't bring the tunnels down. He didn't want any survivors that would recognize him. The citizens would blame Gigantes for their deaths and not him. One less person to share Caesar's reward with. He had no worry about Arri. He frowned as another tremor under his feet shook his tent. They were becoming more frequent.
He sighed and went over to his chest. He started to remove his instruments. He held the pincers up for a moment and remembered the last person he had used them on. She bled to death too quickly. He had to remember to take less flesh.
The statue on his table was watching its new master and another person he was going to try to get information out of. The spirit in the statue, though she could not travel far from her own prison, could have visitors, and Arri, the usurper, had visited her. She smiled. Her time was near and Arri had told her that when the woman on the rack released the spirit of the Lost One, she too would be released. He was right. She could feel the energy raising all around this small area she was imprisoned in. Even if Yerik did not let her go, she could use the energy herself for he didn't know how to reinforce the binds that held her.
So, it was to her advantage to help the small Queen on the rack. As she watched Yerik with his toys of torture, a dark shadow slid in through the tent flap and quickly scanned everyone in the vicinity including her. Silently the figure was behind Yerik and nailed him good behind the head.
"You must go quickly. The satyrs will catch your scent." The statue told the tall dark shadow. "You must leave through the back flap, and to the west. There are plants there that the satyr can't pick up scents from."
"What about you?" She asked as she quickly cut through the leather bands that held her friend down.
"I shall be there when the time is right." The statue answered. "Take the box with you."
"Geez, Xena. I'm getting rather tired of this same old rescue scene." Gabrielle whispered as she pulled her arm through the harness and rose, pulling the red cover that was over her eyes off. She blinked in the light looking for the source of the other voice.
"Me too. Come on." Xena grabbed Gabrielle with one hand and the box they had hid in the forest with her other. Looking around cautiously, she pulled Gabrielle behind her.
Yerik had removed Gabrielle's chains, much to her relief, so she was able to move easier but not fast enough to avoid Xena's push towards the back flap, and before getting a good look at what Yerik had planned for her.
Yerik's tent was a distance away from the cavern with a lot of open space and satyrs. Xena made the circle as the statue had told her, walking low and cautiously through the waist high stinging nettle that the satyrs hated because it itched their noses. For people the hairs of the plant would itch the skin but it was also used to awaken sexual desire. "Don't let yourself get scratched by those buds." Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "Or you're going to be the star performer at some temple fertility festival."
Gabrielle's eyes opened wide as she pulled her arms closer to her body and followed the shadow in front of her.
Xena had been lucky getting out of the cavern for it was eating time for the prisoners and satyrs. She was with Arri when the bucket filled with something called food was brought down by one man who grumbled all the way down into the tunnels. On his second trip down Xena was already on her way across the open space to Yerik's tent.
Oh, oh. Xena lifted her head a little from her flattened position on the ground where she and Gabrielle were inching their way back to the cavern for the last few cubits. She caught sight of the big satyr approaching the cavern entrance and pressed herself down into the grass as much as she could.
His fellow satyrs that were quickly at his side answered his yell of rage with yells of their own.
No doubt they picked up my scent. Hopefully they don't know which direction I went in.
Both kept still, hidden by the darkness and grass as Scion gave orders…and the others refused to move.
Why are they refusing to enter the cavern? What was keeping them out?
A human figure joined them from inside the cavern.
"What's all the noise about?"
"The warrior woman, she has passed by here." Scion roared his anger. "Did you pass her?"
"Scion, there are three tunnels down there. I was in but one of them, and I didn't see any other light but my own."
"Go back down and look!"
"Are you crazy? If she is down there, then I escaped with my life. Listen, she's got to be after the Queen, and she's in Yerik's tent. Where's Yerik anyway? With all the noise you've been making he should be out here." The man's voice sounded suspicious.
Scion made a sweeping gesture to his fellow satyrs and they spread out and moved toward Yerik's tent.
"Here! She has been here!" One of them yelled.
The others swarmed to the right of where the two hidden figures were; not listening to Scion who yelled for them to stay spread out. Xena pulled on Gabrielle's wrist and both got up from the dark ground and ran the short distance back into the cavern. By then, Yerik had come to and was making such a ruckus everyone's attention was focused elsewhere.
"Xena, I hope this has a back way out." Gabrielle told her breathlessly as they moved as fast as Xena thought safe down into the smelly darkened tunnel.
"Yea, we're working on it." She mumbled as she led Gabrielle back to Arri's grotto.
Without announcing themselves Xena pulled Gabrielle into the room that had one small lamp lit.
"I see you have both made it back safely, but…Arri greeted them in his hoarse voice. "I'm expecting company. Do you mind waiting in there?" He gestured with his scared hand the side of the room where Gabrielle had filled her water bottle. "There is a small space to hide. I'm sure you both can fit."
Both women were about gagging from the pocket of stale air that surrounded them in that small space that was more accommodating for Gabrielle's height, and alone.
Footsteps and hooves echoed down the tunnels with Yerik turning the corner and cursing as he jumped back.
"Yerik. If I had known you would be coming I would have started working earlier on bringing down the energy, but now, it will take a while…what's all the activity about?"
"You're sittin on the chair!" He snarled. "You tell me!"
"Sitting on the chair is by circumstance. I can't go anywhere and no one can lift me off it. And I don't know how many times I have to explain to you…oracle visions are once a month and then it takes preparation, rituals, incense, you should know. You worked with a shaman for a while. Does this place look and smell like it's being prepared?"
"Don't give me that centaur's droppings, Arri! They had to come by here."
"The only thing I heard coming down that tunnel was you and…well, hello Scion. It's unusual to see you down here. Your sense of smell must be terribly offended."
The two women heard a grumbling noise. "You can't go back up! They're down here somewhere."
"How do you know?" Scion grumbled louder. "Did you see them enter?"
"They need to get back in here." Yerik argued.
"Hmm." The loud noise of hooves leaving, then fading away had Yerik furious. "Stay here." He directed Pausanias. "I'll search the dam tunnels myself."
"Yerik, that's not wise. If she's here…why not seal the cavern entrance?"
There was silence for a few moments. Arri was grinning for the idea of sealing him and everyone else in here had crossed Yerik's mind, he just wanted the third object and felt the cavern was what was pulling the objects toward him, so he didn't want to be too hasty.
"And seal Arri? Pausanias, he's a partner." Yerik grinned at the two men who did not like each other, then turned and exited the cave, following Scion back out.
"We just won't send anyone back down until Abbas and his drunken buddies get back." Yerik muttered, cursing under his breath. However, the cursing lacked conviction to Arri's ears.
Pausanias stood just outside of Arri's cave not able to get any further least he end up as a small pile of ashes. He spat into the room and turned to leave.
Arri's laughter echoed down the tunnel following Pausanias out. Pausanias refused to give into what his senses were telling him, to run out as fast as he could. It would be giving in to the freak, and he would not.
Xena and Gabrielle came out of their hiding place as soon as the last footstep died away.
"We must begin to prepare." Arri told the two women.
"What are we preparing for?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"For the rituals. This Sacred Space needs to be cleansed."
Gabrielle looked around at the mess. She was tired and hungry. She couldn't remember when she last slept, which bothered her since she lost track of time in the tunnels. Her stomach had stopped grumbling it was empty long ago, probably giving up on her.
After most of the rubble had been cleared from the floor Gabrielle sat with her back against one of the cleaner walls to rest. Xena was using the gourd to pour water over the walls, rinsing them down. The air that was coming through a few of the ducts was helping with clearing the air.
"Aren't you worried Yerik's going to notice this place is cleaned up?" Xena asked as she patted some water on her face to cool it.
"He and his group will not be able to enter this area any more. The energy is now raising rapidly. It is already into the next day. Three days until the new moon."
The yellow eyes never blinked as they watched the two women clean the oracle's sacred spot. He knew he could refresh the two women, but there were still things that needed to happen and revitalizing Gabrielle would change things.
Xena turned to her friend who fell into a light slumber. "I'm going to check on the others. I'll be right back. Three days, you say?"
"It's the day the golden girdle left the city. It is three days from when the new moon raises into the star blanketed sky."
"Yea? Well, watch out for her will ya. Let her know I'll be back." Xena was weary though not tired. It meant she had been going for about three or four days without sleep yet didn't feel sleepy. She suspected it had something to do with the room they were working in. The trembling she felt beneath her feet, and the energy she felt crawl up her legs, just about made her hairs stand on end. It was strange that Gabrielle wasn't as effected, especially if she was the one that was suppose to be bringing all this together.
She cursed to herself silently. She meant to talk to Gabrielle about that part. She cautiously felt her way down the tunnel, listening for sounds that would indicate she wasn't alone. The small lamps that burned in their niches weren't being kept up, and some were out leaving long stretches of the floor in the dark.
It was sometime before she made it back to where she had left the three women. "Is there a way here?" She called to whoever was on the other side of the entranceway. Whoever it was smelled a lot better than what had passed by her earlier.
"Who goes there?" Camila's voice rasped.
"A friend." Xena gave the soft answer. She slid through nodding at the skinny face that the lamp reflected off. Camila waved her in and toward two dark forms huddled together.
Xena found Eleanor talking quietly with a young woman who looked as if she had been crying. Eleanor looked up at Xena and nodded toward another clump of people sleeping.
"Agnes just fell asleep. She's been worried about you." Eleanor told her softly. "She needs to talk to you."
"Right." Xena stepped around sleeping bodies sprawled out wherever they could find enough space. This place wasn't the roomiest.
She knelt down next to Agnes and gently shook her shoulder after calling to her.
"Hmm. Xena." Unlike Gabrielle who was sometimes slow in rousing, Agnes was wide-awake instantly, as if she were waiting for her, "I was wondering what happened to you. Camila went to look for you and brought back the buckets of food that one of Yerik's men left at the tunnel entrances, and told us she heard the great Satyr yelling."
"Yea, well we had a little trouble." With Gabrielle, what else is new? She mentally shook her head. And with the trouble, as was usual, came mixed blessings for they had retrieved one of the ritual objects.
"Are you alright here?"
"Yea. Alala and Hildreth have made the exit hole a lot bigger. The opening let's in some nice clean air. Alala sends heartfelt gratitude for releasing Mutie, and so do we." Agnes let a small amount of silence pass. "They've been hunting food for us too, bless Artemis for their catches. Many haven't eaten anything that solid for almost a year so…well."
"Good. Good. Look, I'm going to leave you guys on your own. Whatever is going to happen is around the oracle's chair and that's still a few days away. I want you guys to get back to the city. By now the citizens should be pretty much back to themselves and I'm sure they will love to see their loved ones."
"What about the satyrs?"
Xena was hopping Dorie was still helping out. "You'll be alright. They don't like this part of the forest I hear, and Alala and Hildreth can keep to the treetops and spot them soon enough. I have a feeling though, the city will be heading out toward the cavern's as soon as they realize Gigantes is missing."
"Before you go back!" Agnes put a hand on Xena's leathered wrist. "Take this box and this." She handed Xena something that picked up the light from the small lamp nearby.
A large ring lay in the center of her palm. The stone was milky white and each side was a different picture of Artemis. "You had this, all this time?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Yes. I'm surprised they did not find it on me or even ask me for it. Hildreth was instructed by Artemis to bring it here for the new moon's ritual to release the spirit of a lost and wandering Amazon Queen. Hildreth had given it to me the day I was captured to take to the Temple of Artemis. She had a premonition that something was going to happen that day when she rode out to inspect the forest. She thought it was going to be her that was captured but…it turned out different."
"Did you know that Caesar has a reward out for it?"
"Yes. We heard from some wandering Amazons, on our way here. That's what had us worried about Crometh. We thought he would send troops to take over the town to find the three items. Hildreth sent others out before us to see if Crometh was taken but they never returned. They became drugged like the rest of the citizens, forgot their mission, forgot us."
Xena nodded and thought about the mercenaries she had seen with Hildreth on their first day. Absentmindedly she slipped the ring onto a finger on her left hand so as not to loose it. "That's the girdle?"
"Yea. Hildreth and Alala spotted someone sneaking into the forest last night and removed his burden." She moved a little and gestured to the rock. "You may open the box for the time is near, but remember, once it is opened, you must remove the girdle or you will not be able to open it again until another seven years." She shrugged her shoulders. "That's the protection spell the priestess put on it when Artemis gave it to her to hold."
"All right. Anything else I need to know?"
"Just that, you must remember that the oracle's words are not binding, for as the goddess always tells us…"
"We are the masters of our destinations…" Xena finished impatiently. That was her motto.
Agnes smiled. "Yea. Demeter said you would know."
"Demeter? Just how many are involved in this?"
Agnes gripped Xena wrist strongly. "You only know a bit of it. And we don't have time to discuss it. The goddess said Gabrielle has been sent dreams for three moons, of her quest, and since the first night of her stay in Crometh, the high priestess of the Muses Temple, instructing her in what she must do. The priestess is Aerope. You must find her and bring her out so she can help. She's at the bottom of the first tunnel, but Yerik has blocked the entrance. Arri, the Usurper, he will know of another way down. That is where Gabrielle must go now, before the energy of the oracle's seat is released. If she does not remove the spell Yerik has on the sacred pools, this entire city will be no more."
Xena reached behind the rock and pulled out the small box that held the golden girdle. Her fingers traced the design on the top of the lid.
"Take care of yourselves. See ya when this is all over." Xena was up and hurrying back to where she left Gabrielle. Sounds from one of the tunnels echoed down the tunnel as she moved as fast as she dared. She slowed to listen. She shifted the box that was under her arm and cursed silently as it made a scraping noise on the wall.
She pursed her lips and decided the box would have to go. If she had to fight her way back to Gabrielle's side, carrying a box this size would be in the way. She lifted the lid carefully, not knowing what to expect. It was dark where she was and the she had to feel for the contents. She lifted the thin-leathered girdle out of its box and tied it around her waist. Why not? Safest place for now. She picked up the box and somewhere along the way, found an obscure place to tuck it.
From where she was, she could hear angry words being exchanged between Yerik, who had returned and Arri's quiet voice answering him. Yerik was standing out side of the room.
"Say it to me again!" Yerik demanded.
"Alright, if it makes you happy. Dark and light held together, one to one and one as one, three objects bind them together, one to one and one as one, forward or back, there or now, one to one and one as one.
"What's that suppose to mean. Sie werden der Tod von uns alle sein!"
(You'll be the death of me yet!)
"Yerik, death isn't so bad, so quit your whining." The ground trembled making the people in the tunnel grab the walls for balance. "By Hermes winged sandals!" Arri breathed excitedly. "Can you feel the energy building up here?"
The ground continued to tremble under their feet and Xena had to grab onto the wall she was pressed closely against as the tremble grew.
"They are here!" The statue in Yerik's hand screeched scaring him so that he flung the statue away from him in fright. Into the oracle's room it went, rolling to a halt at the foot of the dais.
The energy in the room became more intense, as the three objects drew near to each other, or was it because they were near the room? Xena rolled her eyes as she thought about two of the items she was wearing. Agnes didn't say anything about this happening when the three objects got near each other. She moved back down the tunnel past where she had hid the box.
"Scion, look down the tunnel!"
Xena heard the reluctant movement of hooves echoing in the tunnel toward her. The movement under her feet stopped rolling but the trembling was still there. She moved back trying to gauge just how close Scion was to her position.
"Yerik!" He hollered. "We have found your girdle!" There was silence for a few moments. "It smells of that Warrior Woman!" He growled.
Xena raised her eyebrows relieved. Hopefully they didn't open the box.
"Yessss. How did she get it?"
"Who cares. You have two of your items. You only need to wait for the third. Let us leave this place." Scion's deep voice echoed through out the tunnels.
"Wait." There was a pause and the shuffling of feet. "This is good by, Arri." Yerik's voice was soft. "It's been interesting knowing you but now, your value has suddenly dropped. Seal the entrance, Pausanias."
"Yerik, I'm so disappointed in your actions. Don't you want your statue? Maybe a little bit of advice before she leaves you?" Arri taunted.
Yerik laughed. "Her words are more cryptic than yours, Arri. The ring will come and I will be waiting just outside."
So, he doesn't realize we have the fan box. A bit too careless to be working for the likes of Caesar. Xena crept closer to see just how Yerik was sealing the entrance. She could smell the slime, bitumen, from where she was. They were going to fire the entrance. It would suck the air out of the small room. Xena watched the lone figure light the fire and watch it for a few moments then laughing, turn away and run up the tunnel after the others. Xena didn't wait as she dove headfirst through the flames. The ground again moved under her rolling body. The foot of the dais stopped her forward roll. Her feet came to a rest on the second stair where Gabrielle was struggling to help Arri's misshapen form off the chair.
"Gabrielle don't….touch… How come you're not up in smoke?"
"Like you, she has a sacred object. Can you not feel the power you both have around you?" Arri told the tall warrior as she got to her feet. He chucked. Xena easily lifted him and followed Gabrielle who was holding the statue Yerik had abandoned. Well, that meant they had all the stuff they needed, Xena was thinking.
The General's Fall From Power
Gigantes was sitting on his divan letting his slave feed him grapes, when Captain Herodes came pounding on the door with his sword hilt. Gigantes merely opened his eyes and turned his head to the door as it was pushed open to reveal the Captain with the City Counsel.
Surprised he sat up. He had forgotten the meeting, though only a candlemark ago he had dressed for it.
"The members to the City Counsel, General."
"Of course, of course. Do make yourselves comfortable. Amand, is there enough food? We mustn't let our guests go hungry." Gigantes giggled a little at the joke. He remembered he was the one that held the key to the city's food surplus.
"We are fine, General. Shall we get on with this meetin'?" The others nodded and took their seats. The servant offered the various members wine which some declined. For the last few days they had their wits back, so-to-speak, and were aghast at what their memory, which was not affected, informed them of what they had been participating in. They also noted that the soldiers that they had been subservient to were now less hostile and this made their more sharper minds figure the puzzle out. They had also discussed the hostage situation of their family members with each other and decided to take things cautiously, until they could do something about it.
"General, the recent earth shake has damaged many of the farm fences. We're going to concentrate on getting them repaired before returning workers to the wall. This is also winter solstice week and our festivities must be attended to, which also means those not repairing their walls will be getting the city ready. We are days behind."
The General sat up in his couch. "What?" The drug didn't get rid of his awareness of his purpose in the city nor of what would happen to him if he did not make it happen. The drug hadn't been in his system long enough for him to be bent to another's will, just a tad bit compliant and relaxed.
"Ahhh." Gigantes struggled to get something into focus. "We don't have any visitors to have a celebration…and we have to get the wall parameter up to keep those satyrs and whatever else is with them…out. What if they capture more hostages!" Gigantes didn't realize he had put his feet to the ground and had drawn himself up, leaning over the table to try to pull some semblance of control over the meeting. But the anger, the force of emotion that he had used when these people were more malleable was missing on both sides.
"We don't need visitors to celebrate something that has been part of this city for many lifetimes." Pianet replied pushing the loose grapes before him around. He was elected to be the one to remove Gigantes out of control of their city counsel. He had been ashamed that he was the one that had been Gigantes' chief backer, believing in the man's impassioned speeches on what was going wrong and what was needed to fix it. This was his chance to undo what he had brought down on his city. They figured it had something to do with the water, wine, and food and were careful now at monitoring who got what. Since Gigantes drank wine and he wasn't in his usual mood his server determined it was in the wine and passed that bit of information onto his father, Pianet.
Gigantes looked toward Captain Heordes. "Captain, have the soldiers seen any danger…"
"General Gigantes, do not threaten us with your soldiers. We may not know how to fight as soldiers, but we have found out about the water supply…they will not be able to help you. We've made certain that they will not be bothering our citizens again." Thesus warned in a low voice. "Your game is up…we have you as hostage now. We will exchange your life…for our family members that you have captive."
Captain Herodes took a step forward, momentarily undecided at what to do since he was out numbered and though he had a sword, the servant had a knife out and it looked like he could use it.
The Sacred Pool
"All right." Arri's voice directed them. "Down here. See the break in the wall where the water flows down?"
Once they were close to the wall they could hear the roar of water rushing down to another lower pool.
"Hmmm. That's not what I think it is, is it?" Gabrielle's voice didn't sound very happy.
"It's all right. No one drowns in the sacred pool." The small statue in her hand told her.
"It's not the ride down, or the water. It's being up here." Gabrielle muttered as she secured the statue under her belt, removing the small box that held the fan. She couldn't secure both under her belt. "Here, do you think you can hold onto this?" Gabrielle asked Xena.
Xena stood still for a moment, realizing she would be holding all three sacred items. She sighed and took the box, tucking it securely behind the girdle that no one seemed to notice she was wearing.
"This is cold!" Gabrielle told them both before she pushed off. The current was fast and she was pulled into its swift passage, moving downward and to the left then right, and downward. "Eeeeep!" She nearly choked on the water as she was pulled and dragged, as the current became stronger. The small statue was letting out her own screams of glee. This was fun.
"It's an exciting ride." Arri grinned at Xena before he settled himself in the cold water.
"You're going to be okay?"
"Oh, yea. It's the only thing that was worth staying in that filthy room for…besides sitting in the chair. I was riding down here almost every night and had one of the hostages meet me at the bottom to carry me up. That was before Yerik sealed the entrance. Well, have a nice ride down."
He let the current pull him down and on an exhilarating ride he was familiar with.
Xena was thinking about how lucky she was going to be if her sword and armor didn't rust with all this water she had been in lately. Xena's eyes opened wide as she was whisked away in the darkness, from one side to another then down then suddenly she was dropped with just her tailbone barely touching the smoothed rock surface the water coursed down.
She arrived in a small pool that the underwater slide dropped her into with a big splash. There were some torches lit so she easily spotted Gabrielle helping Arri to his feet.
"Ya know…that alone could bring people from far and wide to experience!" Xena told the two breathlessly.
Arri's yellow eyes brightened.
"She's over there in one of the holes." Arri gestured.
"Gabrielle why don't you wait here with him. I'll take a look and see if we can…."
Her eyes caught the patterns of designs on the walls all around them. She turned around noting that they were everywhere.
"This is the heart of the cavern." Arri informed her.
"I saw this…or…something like this…in my dreams." Gabrielle informed the two in awe. She left Arri sitting on a rock and approached stairs that led upward. There on the walls were the designs she had dreamed of. Seven of them. Two were smeared…just like in her dream.
Xena left Gabrielle to study the designs while she went to look for the priestess.
"Aerope?" She called softly down the first well.
"Over here." A tired voice called up to her faintly.
Xena moved carefully past two dark holes in the ground and leaned down the third. "How far down are you?"
"You'll need a rope." A voice came up to her from deep down.
"We don't have one." Xena studied the sides of the well. She could brace herself and climb down…but her suspicion as to why the priestess couldn't get out gave her pause.
"I'm chained down here. Do you have a key?" The priestess seemed to read her mind.
"It's over there on the wall." Arri gestured to the stairs when Xena repeated the question. Gabrielle was standing near the bottom of the stairs with her head cocked as if remembering something.
"Gabrielle, can you toss over those keys?"
Gabrielle walked over to the side of the wall where a collection of old keys was hanging. One lone key was set aside from the others. She reached for it without hesitation and tossed them back to Xena.
"Thanks." Xena paused and watched Gabrielle as she turned her attention back to the marks on the wall.
Must be something she's seen in her dreams, Xena thought, remembering Agnes' words. .
"It's the runes. They are Yerik's making. He learned some things from an old shaman's book. Those designs keep the priestess in here. Even if you should free her…she would not be able to leave as long as those symbols aren't changed." Arri explained.
"Ya?" Xena asked sarcastically, "How bout if we hit her on the head and carried her out?"
Gabrielle had moved toward the drawings remembering in her dream that she had accidentally smeared them. Cautiously she ran a finger through one of the lines of one of the ones she had not touched in her dream. Nothing happened.
"Gabrielle!" Xena's voice startled her and in turning she lost her balance on the uneven floor and put her hand out…just as in her dream. Her right palm ended up in the center of one of the patterns and the shaking of the ground beneath them told her that she may have disrupted something.
As she removed her palm the lines in the design were askew and broken. She turned toward Arri. "Just what is this doing?"
"Well, for starters…you've broken the power of that drawing. I don't know how you were able to do that…try the others. It looks like three are now broken."
While Gabrielle was moving to the other design Xena tucked the key in her leathered bodice as she felt an urgency to get out of where they were, and start her climb down into the dark well. Whatever Gabrielle was doing, or maybe it was just the buildup of the energy for the last few days, but the earth was trembling more and it made climbing down the wall difficult, though not impossible.
"It took you long enough." An old dry voice sounded close below her. Xena dropped the rest of the way noting where the voice was. There was no light to guide her so she merely grasped the frail figure whose hands gripped hers. Xena felt in the darkness for the chains and found only one around a bony ankle. She unlocked the anklet and proceeded to untie the girdle she had around her. "Here, can you hold this?" She gave the box to the old woman whose hand she could feel shaking as she took the box and tucked it between both of them as Xena hoisted the frail figure onto her back and tied the girdle around both of them.
"Are you alright back there? I don't want to lose you after all this effort to get down here." She smiled.
"You do what you need to do, but do it now." The voice wheezed. She could hear the voice chuckling. "You must be the wielder of the light."
"Oh, nothing. Just an old mind wandering. Just you keep moving out of here. We haven't much time. I can feel something happening all around us." The old voice warned.
Xena felt along the wall for the tiny bits of unevenness or places that would give her enough room for a grip or room to place her toes. As Xena began the climb up she could feel the walls vibrate with increasingly small shakes. The movements had their own mixed blessing as rocks stuck out more but the disadvantage was occasionally Xena lost her grip and was left dangling with only one hand gripping an out cropping with feet looking for somewhere to anchor.
"Next time carry rope, Xena." She muttered to herself, feeling another tremor shake the dark hole they were in. Once again she felt around frantically for grips for one hand that was loosened and two dangling feet, as the old priestesses breath stopped for a moment behind her right ear. If not the breathing, Xena would not have known she was carrying someone.
After the tremor stopped Xena continued on. "How are you doing back there?" She asked as she pulled herself up another elbow length.
"Hmm. I'm having a great time here." The voice chuckled.
"Great to hear." Xena' grunted as she moved a little to redistribute her weight. Her fingers found an small hole that would be ideal for her foot to also use. As she shifted to get a firmer hold she felt a string then a bag.
This was getting too…weird.
"That's the stone. You'll be need'n that, yes." The old voice chortled.
Xena withdrew her fingers and tucked the small pouch in her bodice. She was beginning to feel rather smug that she was carrying everything Gabrielle would be needing for this ceremony. All she had to do now was discuss it with her since they hadn't had time to talk about this part...oh, and of course, get out of the well.
The hairs at the nape of her neck rose accompanied by the familiar dark energy that tickled her body. At one time the owner of the energy was tolerated and sometimes welcomed, but always kept at arm's length and controlled by her knowing that this distance was where her power over him laid. Otherwise, she would have been like all his other toys, easily discarded as he used up their energy and found another younger challenge to corrupt. Now he was not just annoying but unwelcomed in her life.
"Of all the times for him to show up." She muttered darkly under her breath.
The lightweight on her back shifted slightly. "Hmmm. I feel it. Who'se that?" The priestess asked in a hoarse voice, that was barely a whisper.
Xena didn't answer, but gritted her teeth, as she continued to pull them further up the dark well wall, dreading what was going to be at the top when she reached it.
As Xena's hand reached over the rim of the well a booted foot stepped onto her hand, not crushing it, but with enough pressure to be uncomfortable.
"Ares, get your dirty boot off my hand!" Xena didn't speak very loud but the threat was there, and she knew the god would not only be able to hear her but also pick up the dark thoughts she was directing at him if he had hurt Gabrielle.
When he did not immediately lift his boot, Xena quickly twisted her strong wrist, grabbing the god's ankle and using it to pull herself and her burden over the rim. The motion was in a blur and would have impressed a group of mortals, but Ares was used to her quickness and lack of intimidation of him, which was what gave him shivers of excitement.
Xena calmly undid the girdle that was wrapped about her and the priestess without looking at Ares, catching the frail figure behind her as she let her slide from her position on her back. Xena's eyes had quickly scanned the low-lit interior of the cave and noted a group of slumped forms near the gray stairway. Deliberately she turned her back on Ares as she gently moved the unconscious priestess away from the edge of the well. Her eyes did not miss anything that was behind her.
So, this is unofficial business, she surmised curling her lips in a silent snarl, and in someone else's temple, yet. Nine someone else's.
"What brings you into the bowls of the earth…in the Muses Temple, no less, huh, Ares?" Her voice was even but there was an undisguised touch of impatience. His being here told her that whatever had prevented the other goddesses from entering the cave was removed, and Ares was looking for something his sister's didn't know about.
"Xena, Xena." His sigh was dramatic and predictable. "Can't I pay one of my once favorite warlords a visit now and then? A check up to see how you're doing?"
"Knock off the small talk, Ares. You're not good at it." Xena snapped. She could feel the ground beneath her continue to tremble. She couldn't help but feel they were a prelude to something bigger, and they were not in a good place for this. She wrapped the girdle around her and picked up the fan box, tucking it in the girdle close to her body.
"Feeling a bit shaky there, huh Xena?"
"Get to the point, Ares!"
"Xena, sometimes your impatience…"
A strong shake had Xena turning to grab the priestess just in case her unconscious form would roll back into the well. She didn't trust Ares. She lifted the priestess in her arms and walked passed Ares, toward where the other bodies were laying as if frozen in sleep. Her intention was to see how Gabrielle was and to see whom all was there.
She was quick to notice that Arri was nowhere to be seen. Gently she laid the priestess next to Gabrielle's sleeping form. She paused for a moment studying the Bard whose pose was that of someone sleeping peacefully as she was partially curled up with her head resting on a bent arm.
Xena turned to face Ares. The god was standing in a typical pose, one arm held across his chest and the other bent stroking his bearded chin letting his dark eyes openly roam her body with an undisguised look of lust. Usually it took her temper or rage to get that look in his eyes. She frowned as her suspicions mounted at his appearance where he would not normally appear. Is this about Penthesileia? Xena asked, knowing Ares could hear.
He merely pursed his lips and seemed to be thinking of what to say next.
She turned and glanced up at the stairwell then studied the smeared wall paintings. She recognized parts of the designs that were smeared from the shaman Atri's work. They shouldn't be smeared. They needed to be neatly altered. Some of the designs looked familiar. Now what did they represent?
"Well…have you figured it out yet, Princess." Ares had moved behind her letting his finger pull back the hair from her shoulders. Xena impatiently flicked the hair out of his reach.
"If you have something to say…say it!" Xena turned around and grabbed him around the throat, shaking him then releasing him while pushing him back. Time is important here. Time! That's it! The designs have something to do with time.
"Xeeena!" he growled stepping back from the force of her push with a raised eyebrow. "I love it when you play rough."
Xena rolled her eyes and then grabbed the side of the cave wall when the rolling under her feet started again. Is he trying to keep me here?
Xena leaned down and hoisted Gabrielle onto one shoulder then lifted the priestess's feather light form onto her other.
"What's your hurry? Xena! Hey, I'm not finished here. Don't you want to hear what this is all about?"
Xena felt a weak pull from Ares' but she leaned forward and let her two burdens help her resist the pull backward. She didn't know what was going on…she knew that was Ares…he's the only one that put out that type of energy she felt when he was near…why is he trying to keep me down here?…and why wasn't he using his power to keep me in the cave? Does his lack of power have anything to do with those drawings? Was he here to make sure his daughter's spirit was released? If so, why the games? Time. Those designs were representing time. Forward and backward.
Once at the top of the stairs Xena leaned against the entrance peering out startled, not sure what she was seeing. Before her was a desolate landscape…flat, gray, no vegetation, no rocks, hills or life. She shifted her shoulders under the weight she carried, then realized she lost Gabrielle…and the priestess!
"Blasted god's business." She muttered as she turned back to reenter the cave to find Gabrielle…and the priestess. Why was it so difficult to remember the priestess?
Maybe because she is so light….
"Are you implying I weigh a lot?" An angry Bard stood before her, hands on hips, cloth pouch with her writing materials slung behind her. "Well? Don't I deserve some sort of response?" The hem of her long tan dress was dirty and beads of sweat were across her forehead and running along her upper lip as if she had just been running.
Xena looked around her at the changed scenery. What is going on here? Her blue eyes squinted as she caught sight of a familiar figure standing between two buildings, watching her. Xena started to move toward the figure when a hand on her leathered wrist stopped her.
"I am talking to you and you just ignore me like I'm some sort of…insignificant person…" The young Bard's voice sounded angry and hurt.
Xena tore her eyes away from the figure that disappeared between the two buildings.
"Gabrielle…can't we continue this conversation at a later time? There's someone over there I gotta go see." She moved her eyes quickly back to the Bard as the fingers released their hold on her wrist. Xena paused, as she became aware of the familiarity of this scene and the consequences of the decisions she had made in the past.
What would happen if I did it differently? The next day when she had found a heartbroken Gabrielle she had told her that if she could do it differently she would have…yet, she also remembered with great clarity her promise to herself not to change anything in the past if she ever got the chance again. The first and last time she did have that chance, in the Temple of the Fates, was very sharp in her memory.
Suddenly Xena became angry…at whoever or whatever was messing with the timeline of Fates. Ares!
Xena grabbed the Bard's arm and turned around to where the cave entrance had been…she ignored the struggling as she pulled her a few more steps down the street.
Ares! I know you can hear me! Get your tight leathered ass here!
The scenery didn't change a bit, as she finally listened to Gabrielle's demands to let her wrist go. Xena released her grip, and continued her walk down the street looking for the stable where she had stabled Argo.
A surprised Gabrielle suddenly found her forward motion stopped and before she could regain her own balance she fell into the dust, face first.
Astonished Gabrielle looked around her before getting up and dusting herself off. What is going on here? The last I remember, I changed the fourth symbol where we were in a cave trying to free the priestess.
She looked up the road and saw the familiar backside of her leather and armor clad friend, stalking her way toward the stables. Gabrielle looked around trying to place where they were. Arcidava. Small town, two inns, one definitely not safe, one slow and willing to take on a story teller, which in one evening, paid two days of meals and a room. What else is there about this town? Here her memory supplied her with a painful incident in an early stage of her relationship with the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle dusted her long skirt off and pulled her long hair into some type of order, then quickly walked after the retreating form of the truculent exWarlord. She could feel herself getting angry at being treated as either a young kid or as a nonperson. The least she could do was say yes or no, if long conversations were beyond her skill level, she grumbled miserably.
Gabrielle neared the barn where she knew Xena would be. She spends a considerable amount of time with Argo, which if she were a guy... Gabrielle shook her head blushing at where her anger was taking her in thoughts.
Aphrodite's charms run amuck! she thought to herself disgustedly. I'm getting as bad as those soldiers in Pgisi's Tavern. Better keep that impudent mouth in your tongue. Gabrielle shook her head. Hades in a horseless chariot…I mean…tongue in your mouth, Gabrielle…the thoughts that image conjured up had her coming to a stop in front of the barn door. Best just to keep still for a moment here…get yourself together…She focused on where she was, standing in front of the barn door.
This was where she…found Xena in…she took a deep breath…she remembered the pain she had felt when she walked in unannounced, into this very barn the last time. We weren't lovers then. But it still hurt…to say nothing about being embarrassed. She paused. Xena had kept telling her she had some personal business to attend to and Gabrielle should wait in their room, or entertain the customers with her tales. It was the type of interest Xena was paying the soldier she had been drinking with. She took another deep breath to quiet her pounding heart. Xena had told her if she could, she would have done it differently, but…a year or so later, they both learned that changing situations in the past opened up other possibilities. And those were equally, if not more painful.
So, do I walk in and go through the drama again…or…Gabrielle looked at her hands that were clutched in front of her…do I turn around and go back to our room? She would be changing the future if she didn't go in. What good came out of my seeing Xena with a man? She shuddered with fear, jealousy and…need. Wanting to be the one who was on her back…only…with Xena above her, thrusting and panting and her hips rising to meet each push …Gabrielle shook her head as a tear rolled down her cheek.
This is in the past. What is the point here? For a moment she stilled her battling emotions …if I don't go in…it will change the present…okay…you already know what you're going to see…it shouldn't be so difficult…wait a moment here! What am I doing in the past? Xena!
"Xena!" She called as she opened the door to the barn. "Xena!…" she held her breath as she saw the two shadowed forms moving further into one of the stalls. This wasn't the way she remembered it…she looked at the door to the barn…she hadn't entered this way because it had been barred from the inside…she turned back around and closed the large door looking for the smaller one she had entered.
Argo was out in the paddock milling around with a few other horses that were moving to the wooden boxes alongside of the fence that had fresh hay in them. Gabrielle stopped for a moment. Argo was outside? Gabrielle opened the small door to the barn, peering into the darkened interior. Do I want to continue with this? Do you want to risk changing the present, she asked herself firmly. No. Just get this over with and find them where you know they are going to be. Then…maybe I can figure out what is happening here.
Gabrielle pursed her lips into a grim line and marched up the row of stalls to the one she knew she would find…Xena reacquainting herself with an old…buddy. The anger started to boil through her veins again, a jealously that set her mouth and face in hard lines.
"Well…you certainly haven't changed much Xena." A rough voice could be heard in one of the stalls. Gabrielle slowed her steps breathing hard and finding her resolution to keep going melting.
"Well," a low throaty voice replied, "Gades, you certainly haven't. Looks like you and your partner here are looking real healthy…"
Gabrielle closed her eyes at the groan that came from Gades' throat that turned into a deep growl and then panting.
Gabrielle needed to keep going…she needed to be the naïve…bungling kid…she had been at that time…and walk right into the stall…
The grunting was from two people now. She had to move forward. She didn't want Xena to be pleasured by Gades…she had to keep going…was I all that naïve? Surely I knew what the noise was about…I knew Xena was in the barn…had I purposely acted dumb to stop what I didn't want to happen. I knew Xena had to take care of her warrior's lust… but…why couldn't her sword practice or jumping in a cold river suffice?
She could now see the hairier legs of Gades…the grunts were becoming more urgent. "Xena! Are you in here?" She shouted louder than she needed to.
She heard different noises in the stall as she moved closer, a smile curling on her lips as she knew she had interrupted them.
She heard a muffled curse and Xena's voice telling him to shut up. Then she heard Xena clear her throat. "Gabrielle, go on to our rooms. I'll be there in a bit."
Stubbornly…she had to finish it…she rounded the corner…she stopped.
Blood left her face for a moment…as she took the scene in she felt her face suddenly flush with the on rush of embarrassment…and a twisted smile that she had been able to go through with it…again.
Xena hurriedly pushed her partner off her roughly.
"Hey!" The guy tried to grab Xena but she punched him somewhere that was enough to silence him.
"Gabrielle, I told you…" She growled her blue eyes bright slits in the shadowed stall.
Gabrielle couldn't help it…she stood rooted where she was…she couldn't see Gades for he was slumped on the floor…but Xena was standing without anything on, breasts free with a small red mark on one of them, and with her black patch of wet hairs showing…her long muscular legs that were trembling …why were they trembling?
Desire crept up Gabrielle's shaking form as she silently felt her own want and need cresting…a low keening started in her throat…she hadn't noticed that then…and a rush of wetness coating her underpants.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm pulling her out of the stall. Gabrielle's arm brushed against Xena's nipple as she tried to pull her arm from the strong grip. It gave her a shiver followed by a hot release of more fluid that coated her inner thighs.
"I told you I had some business…personal business…" she shook Gabrielle's arm.
Gabrielle looked up into Xena's eyes expecting to find the cold stare but she was surprised …there was sorrow there…and…tenderness…
"Gabrielle…go back to our room. Wait for me there…please…We need to talk about …privacy and…other things." She had told her quietly in a low voice. Then she pushed her firmly toward the door she had came in.
Just like in the past…Gabrielle cried on the way back to their room…why? Because for some reason…her heart was actually breaking…she wanted Xena…for herself.
She shook her head over her folded hands on the table that was in their room. She was composed now. She knew Xena would come and look for her…she had done that in the past…she needed to pack her things…not much to pack…leave her a note…she sighed. Even knowing that Xena and her had become lovers…it still hurt.
Why was she going through this again? This is the past? Arri…the cavern…Xena was rescuing the priestess…a flash of light…and now she's here. Reliving a painful past.
Gabrielle found herself standing under a tree…the tree Xena found her under…crying. She didn't remember the walk here.
She was tired. She dropped her bag under the tree and leaned up against the trunk, closing her eyes and taking comfort in its firmness behind her. Then the tears started to flow again.
Xena reluctantly headed for the barn…she wanted to get this awkward situation over with. She had met Gades one of her soldiers from her warlord days. One of the few she actually took a liking to in more than one way. They started to renew their…more heated type of relationship in the inn over a few mugs of beer while Gabrielle told stories to a growing crowd. Xena intended to get the business with Gades out of the way before Gabrielle finished her stories, but Gades talked her into more mugs of ale than she had in a long time …then Gabrielle appeared next to her. That proved to be awkward. It hadn't helped when she felt a desire for Gabrielle rushing through her. She dispatched the annoyed Gades to get a private place ready and she would meet him…as soon as she got rid of Gabrielle. Xena had some battle lust to discharge and it was making her cranky…to say the least. She hadn't been with anyone for a while and Gades happened by at just the right time… then there was Gabrielle.
If she wasn't so naïve…really just a kid…Xena would have thought she was acting like a jealous lover. She tried to interfere and stick to Xena's side no matter what Xena told her as Xena tried to meet Gades for their private encounter.
This is the past, she reminded herself. Now that she knew what Gabrielle's feelings were …was she really as naïve as she thought? Xena pursed her lips as she entered the barn through the main door, and turned to latch the front door.
"It's been a long time, Warrior Princess." A low male voice, full of lust, growled near her.
She turned to face Gades. "Hmm. It has been. You still the stud you were back then?" She asked gripping his leathered shoulder and pulling him closer to her while grabbing him between the legs and biting his lip. She suppressed her repulsion at the feel of his rough bearded face on her tongue.
"Hades balls, Xena!" Gades shivered. "You always gotta lead?"
"That's the way, Gades. I seem to remember…that's the way you liked it too."
"I didn't have much choice then…but you do have a way with c'ha." He growled in a low voice. If Xena didn't have his swollen throbbing manhood in her hand the tone of his voice would have told her the man was ready to beg for release. It was a power thing with her and she felt her heart beat increase and her fluids flow at the anticipation of what was to come.
Xena pushed down the guilt of knowing this was past and things had changed… considerably… in order to let the lust she had been feeling at the time take rein. They moved toward the back of the barn where, near Argo's stall she removed her boots noticing that one of the stalls was freshly cleaned out with a few blankets thrown over the fresh cover of hay. Gades smiled in the shadows.
"Nice and private." He advanced toward her pulling her in for a rough kiss. She opened her mouth to him biting his lips then sucking his tongue, while pushing him into the back of the stall and onto the blankets…
They were past the getting reacquainted and exploration stage when she heard Gabrielle call for her. Had she heard her in the past also, over their heavy breathing?
She had told her to leave her be, gave her, rather bluntly, the reason why she needed to let off some of this energy. She needed to get this out of her system. She reached down and squeezed Gades' balls to make him work harder, and he did increase his rhythm with a sound that was between a growl and a howl. She groaned at the fullness of his cock inside her and the fire it nourished. She liked the feel of the penetration. She blocked out the present memories of Gabrielle and how they pleasured each other. This is the past…this is the past. She needed to get this over with…what in Aphrodite's cloud of lust was all this for? What is the point?
She grunted and groaned as she felt her body reacting to the long full thrusts from Gades, and the pleasure her insides were experiencing at the friction and being filled. She had to close out of her consciousness the smell of him and the feel of the thicker and coarser hairs rubbing against her body that no longer brought her sexual arousal. Instead, the image of Gabrielle on top of her appeared in her mind…thrusting and grunting…panting and groaning. Soft lips around sharp teeth, latched on to her neck as the smaller woman's hips joined hers, taking up the age old rhythm. Heat in her body flared as her lover pounded her bones with their stiff toy, bringing her a profound release that lifted them to shared heights they had never experienced with others.
Goddess…her timing is terrible. Xena thought as she felt a sudden panic at the anger in Gades as he moved his hand to throw a knife lying near his belt that was next to Xena's face, not missing in his strokes. Xena groaned in anticipation at the impending stop to her pleasure. Gades had a low tolerance for someone interrupting his fucks. Was that what she was? No, she controlled this. It was for her release that she needed this hard pounding and grinding…she needed it to let out the burn that was in her body from the fire of the competition she had experienced earlier.
Xena knocked Gades out before he could flick the knife her way. She felt his cock quickly soften inside her, withdrawing into his own body, lying flaccid between them. Xena fought her mounting frustration at the distress calls her libido was sending out for immediate gratification and at the same time fighting with her guilt of knowing…that Gabrielle had loved her then … physically as well as emotionally and that it had been mutual. Aphrodite's brew! She cursed to herself silently as she rose to her feet somewhat awkwardly.
She didn't fail to note Gabrielle's eyes were staring at her swinging breasts then moved down to her patch of wet hair…nor of the licking of her lips as her green eyes widened with desire. She shivered at the thought of Gabrielle's face between her legs, tongue licking, mouth sucking…she shook her head and angrily grabbed Gabrielle's arm steering her back out the door she had entered. Nearly loosing her resolve as Gabrielle's skin bushed her erect nipple.
Aphrodite's tits in a leather and lace bodice, Xena thought disgustedly. Now she was really horny. If she had her saddlebags with her she would be pulling out her toy, strapping it on and ridding out her frustration on Gabrielle. Xena wiped her brow in exasperation at the dual feelings, then turning back to Gades who was moaning as he came back to consciousness.
Xena remembered she and Gades had resumed their workout, just so she could get it out of her system, as well as save Gabrielle a lot of grief from Gades. She was afraid if she went to talk to Gabrielle now…especially now…she would either strangle the Bard from frustration or pin her to a wall and ravish her…Xena took a deep breath and advanced back on her prey. It didn't take much to get him back up. She rode him until he no longer could keep up.
Xena already knew where she would find Gabrielle. Gades was satiated, her fire was quenched, now she needed to complete the last part. This was the painful part. It wasn't just because it was going to be a sensitive chat with a woman…yes…she was a woman… attractive…strong…and in love with her…and that was the painful part…hurting someone she loved then and especially now…then, there was the going through all this…again…why in Fates is this happening again?
Suddenly she was standing in the shade of a tree…no Gabrielle near her…it was a familiar rest spot. She was dressed in armor, leathers, sword on her back…Argo was next to her…where was the Bard? Ahhh. She was bathing in the small river near their campsite. She frowned a moment…that's not how she remembered it happening.
She had left Gabrielle at dusk the night before, in a secluded campsite…safe…while she went ahead to see where the smoke was coming from. They had a really long day of fighting three separate groups of soldiers on the road that were looking for trouble and even earlier in the morning helping a caravan that was hit by a group of mercenaries out of work. Both of them were tired…but Xena's cautious nature wanted to make sure whoever left the smoke signals wasn't headed their way.
She liked that particular hidden part of the river and was looking forward to a quiet night of routine puttering around and if she got it right, she would give Gabrielle a massage. Gabrielle needed it. She was emotionally drained with facing so much violence in one day. So, Xena was going to insure their peace and quiet. But even the best laid plans had delays…instead Xena spent a long night picking off the raiders who were trying to pick off the remaining town's people whose huts they had set fire to.
Alright Ares! Do you have anything to do with this? Show that pathetic face of yours. Xena snarled mentally, knowing he could hear her. She was not going to go over this scene again.
The prickly feeling that sent goose bumps, the unpleasant kind, over her arms and legs started. "Ares…I know you're here."
A light flash and the smirking bearded tight-leathered athletic figure of Ares appeared before her.
"Xena….how did you like that replay? Hmmm. Make your….juices flow?" He purred in her ear.
Xena's hand was out and quickly grabbed part of his beard pulling him around to face her.
His hand came down to hit hers away but she evaded it and stood in front of him defiantly with hands ready at her sides.
"So…" He raised an eyebrow. "I kinda liked the show…especially after that stupid little bard of yours left." He grinned. "My type of action…hmmm."
"You don't know why this is happening…do you?" Xena ignored his baiting her and pressed on with her hunch.
"Of course I do." He replied arrogantly, but there was something about the way he held himself that Xena knew he was lying. After all the years of working with him…she knew when he lied or was telling half truths…which was usually all the time. He never could give her a straight answer. In her position as a Warlord…she needed reliable information and…he became an unreliable source of information. She had her own ways of gaining information reading what she could in what he would tell her and what he left out. He became too predictable.
"Hmmm. So, why?" She asked.
"Well, ahh. I think it would do you some good to use that…" he came close to her until she put a hand out to stop him from getting any closer. "pretty head of yours to figure it out yourself."
"Ares…you're no bull so cut the poop out. You don't know and you're hoping I figure it out for you." She regarded him for a few moments. "Does it have something to do with that part of the cavern?"
Ares sighed. "All right…" he shrugged his strong shoulders and grinned at her. "We don't know. It's something Yerik brought with him. It's not just the stone he has in that cave but the drawings on the walls. You've probably noticed them…swirls…little dots…stuff I don't go in for."
"Why are you?" Xena asked pointedly. She didn't bother to add that the cavern was considered the Muses and his other three sister's territory so-to-speak…making this something Ares would definitely not help with…willingly…unless there was something in it for him personally.
"Daddy dear." Ares barely made the mumbled answer audible.
"Huuhhh?" Xena asked not sure if she heard right.
"It's got the old man in a huff."
"Come on, Ares." Xena frowned glaring at him.
"Well…if you want to know…I'm helping the old man out."
Ares was looking uncomfortable but was sticking his chin out so Xena knew it was something he was not going to be pushed to talk any more about. Someone's got him by his godly balls. Xena smirked at the god, her blue eyes sparking but without warmth. It was a look that excited Ares, and though he could read the thoughts of mortals…there were some thoughts of Xena's that were not heard by him…nor by any of the other gods. There weren't that many mortals that had that ability to think out of their range.
"So what do these blasts into the past have to do with this Yerik thing, she asks?" Ares spoke in a mocking voice.
Xena laughed to herself letting Ares know she was aware he was changing the mood to relieve his discomfort. She was aware Ares was uncomfortable on two levels…from the subject and from her. Xena rolled her eyes at both.
"Well…" Ares paused and looked Xena up and down with a predatory male look.
Old stuff, Ares. Xena shook her head. He's still plays his games of trying to put her off balance by his change of moods and tactics…but he's predictable and boring…and wasting her time.
"So…who all does this effect back home?" Xena drawled, implying Mt. Olympus.
"Xena, I thought that quick romp in the hay would have taken some of that edge off you…but I can tell it has just…wet your appetite. You're so impatient!" Ares was drawing a path with his finger from her chin, her neck, her shoulders and across her armored bodice, letting his large hand come to a stop cupped against her left breast. His thumb drew a circle right where her nipple was.
Xena didn't back away but kept her eyes focused on Ares with a look of disdain on her face.
Ares' heart beat faster at the thought of capturing this emotionally distant mortal whose fire he had once ignited, but only in her warrior heart. He had witnessed her sexual games and possession of others, then discarding them…or the few that got away with discarding her…and it furthered his desire to have her under him…sexually and emotionally. He willed his heart to stop beating so fast, knowing she was aware of her effect on him. She couldn't miss his swollen manhood pulsing against his leathered pants.
Suddenly he pulled back…the image of Xena disdainfully flicking a finger at his bared extended offering that was so close to penetrating between her strong thighs had his swollen member wilting quickly. She had purposely let him read her mind.
Anger filled him as he remembered that Hercules had been to bed with her. His little brother…half mortal…who was not only bigger than he was in those particular parts that men bragged about but that Xena had given herself to him willingly…and it was he, Ares…not Hercules that made her the legend!
"What's wrong Ares…your leathers suddenly too tight?" Xena asked in a low sultry voice. "Are you ready to get back to what you're better at?" Xena watched the handsome bearded face of the god struggle to maintain his hold on his temper.
Oh, yea. Someone's got your balls locked up in a strong box. Xena turned for a moment to give him a chance to compose himself and to see what scene was behind her. Normally by this time the god would be strong-arming her into a corner somewhere…not giving her half hearted verbal duels.
The river was empty…the scenery was the same…the air…she sniffed …hmmm …blooms …like it's the early morning…smoke…someone is letting their morning campfire smoke…didn't bank it right at night or not watching it carefully for their morning fixings…
Xena found herself leading Argo into the neatly made camp that she had left Gabrielle in the night before. Weary from the previous day and night. She was short tempered, as usual and no Gabrielle about…oh, yea…she's picking berries…not paying attention to what is going on around her…
Xena left Argo near the tree with Gabrielle's gear while she quietly climbed a tree to get a bird's eye view of the area. There they were…five men stealthy creeping in a circle around Gabrielle who was picking berries, eating berries, and practicing a story on the surrounding shrubbery …as if the berries would willingly trade their life for a story. Xena smiled. Of course they would.
Xena located Gabrielle's staff just out of her reach. She watched the familiar scene unfold… Gabrielle will find a bunch of berries out of her reach…get her staff….pull the berries toward her then whap the first guy that thought to reach out for her. The other four were more patient and thought to bide their time with taunts until their fifth member awoke. Meanwhile… Gabrielle was trying her damnedest to talk them out of what they had in mind. Xena sighed. She knew if she dropped down now she could take them all out in no time…but she wanted Gabrielle to learn some things about herself…like, she needed to pay attention to her campsite, her surroundings, always have her staff near at hand, and that she could take these men out herself. What Xena had learned afterwards was that the words the men had used to taunt her had hurt her more than a few of the punches they got in. Here was her chance to change that… should she? This was something…that seemed so minor…after all, Gabrielle did learn a lot as they went on in life…but, practice…practice and exposure is where strength is built from. Xena shook her head…this was miserable watching Gabrielle take the verbal insults as if they didn't mean anything to her, yet knowing they did….Fates! This was in the past. Where the Zeus is Ares!?
"You called!" Ares announced happily grinning as he leaned against the branch in a casual manner. Xena ignored the fact that his reclining position on the branch defied a mortal's laws of gravity.
"We were talking about this going back in the past…stop wasting time Ares and just tell me what's going on, who's affected." She didn't have to add that she could care less if it was merely affecting the gods, but she and Gabrielle were also effected. And where is the present Gabrielle?
"That little blond trouble maker is right there." Ares pointed to the Bard who was now fighting the rest of the men, easily reading Xena's thoughts as if she had spoken them.
"So…she's re-experiencing the same past as I am?" That gave her a partial relief for if she also was aware…then she wasn't changing anything either.
"Hmm. You both are rather boring to watch a second time around…you know?"
"If we are being given second chances…that means…your mother will be given another chance …to decide whether to take Zeus as her consort or not." Xena guessed. "That also means…that if Hera does not give herself to Zeus…he does not become joint ruler of Mt. Olympus…you aren't born…in fact…it may go all the way back to Ge's time…"
"Very good Princess."
Xena frowned…it meant mortals would cease to exist…perhaps.
"What about this stone you spoke of…what does it have to do with all this?" Xena asked.
"The stone gives added power, focus, to the symbols."
"So…the drawings keep you away and changes the time line?"
"His drawings are about connecting past, present, future. At some point Yerik is going to realize he can move around in time…but he hasn't figured that out yet. He only knows it gives him the power to hold the priestess and to keep the gods of this land away from him. He wants the three ritual objects to take to your nemesis in Rome…" Ares pointed to Xena. "I see you have them all…including the stone."
Xena looked down at her dress. To her eyes she was wearing her usual warrior dress.
"In this timeline you can't see them…but you still have them."
"In the cavern?"
"It's not just about your father, is it?" Xena asked softly.
Ares didn't answer. Xena knew it was too personal.
"So…how do we go about stopping this bouncing back and forth? She asked him.
"I can't say." He told her looking frustrated. He really meant it. "You're smart Xena."
"So…getting the stone is not the important part…getting rid of the drawings is. Why not just rub them off…I saw some of them were smeared." The continuing battle going on below her was not lost to Xena. If Gabrielle is aware that we are reliving the past then she knows I'm above her and that she will be able to take out most of the men. And if she knows we are reliving the past…she still walked into the barn knowing how hurt she was going to be…just so she wouldn't change the time line.
Here Ares looked pained as he moved into a sitting position. He looked down at the Bard between his dangling legs and the two remaining would be rapers. "She's pretty good with a long stick…" Ares chuckled at his double meaning. Xena let it go without comment but she had to struggle with a smirk that wanted to cross her face.
"It seems…your friend down there is the one with the ability to get past…whatever he has protecting the drawings…and smear them…as you say."
"Hmmm. So…she smeared a few from what I could see before we left, and we're here."
Ares shrugged his shoulders. "With the five that were smeared, I'm able to appear…but not for very long…which means…I gotta go." Ares faded.
Xena took a deep breath…her time to appear below to take out the one guy that was coming around who had a knife he could toss into her back was…now. Xena silently dropped out of the tree and did her part. Both women, knowing they had to replay their parts in this experience went through the motions, all the while both thinking to themselves how they had moved from one life experience to another separated by months. Xena pictured them sitting on the rock staring up at the stars they had been enjoying a few days back. Who said it had to be painful moments?
"Geez, Xena!" Gabrielle breathed. She pressed herself up against the warm linen clad woman, knocking the fur that covered them from the cold to the ground below their perch.
For a moment both of them remembered that Gabrielle had dozed while waiting for Selene to reach the top of her climb, when the stars were the brightest in the skies…and she had awaked from a dream that she had said she couldn't remember.
"Careful…you're going to have both of us falling off this rock." That comment was from the past, Xena took a deep breath, as she was about to change the rest…unless…she could incorporate it into the stories they told that night! Xena pulled Gabrielle close to her sliding her hands around the bard's waist and burying her face into the sweet smelling soft hair.
"Yesss." Gabrielle pulled her close letting her hand slide down her strong thighs, moving to the insides of them.
"Gabrielle…this is…" Xena paused remembering that they had for a short time gotten sidetracked from watching the stars for a about a candlemark.
"I want to feel you." Gabrielle whispered in her ear. She guided Xena's hands between her own legs that were slicked with moisture. "Inside." Gabrielle panted.
Remembering the look in Gabrielle's eyes when she had interrupted Gades and her, in what seemed like only a few candlemarks ago, brought a groan to Xena's throat. She slid her fingers between Gabrielle's wet undergarment and felt the swollen wet lips, bringing another groan to Xena and one from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle pushed the warrior back into a sitting position and straddled her hips, lowering herself onto Xena's long fingers. Both women groaned as Gabrielle pushed down, impaling herself, then raising again, and increased her upward and downward movement as if in urgent need. Her wetness dripped down the two fingers that were increased to three. Gabrielle cried out as her bud was stroked by Xena's thumb that sent her into an uncontrollable shudder of rapture.
She's so ready, Xena thought as she relished in the feel of the wetness coating her fingers and the contracting of muscles around her fingers as Gabrielle pushed down. With each downward thrust Xena stroked her bud, feeling the thick sensitive knob ready to explode. Gabrielle's body shuddered against her accompanied by quivers in the muscles that surrounded her fingers, then a fresh release of juices slid down her cupped hand.
Gabrielle bit Xena's neck as she pushed down as far as she could, not wanting to give up the feel of Xena's fingers inside of her just yet. She could feel Xena's heart pounding against her breasts. Moving slightly, she let the wet fingers withdraw from her core. Smiling against the neck her lips were pressed against, Gabrielle slid off the rock, pulling Xena's long legs over her shoulders. Gabrielle leaned against the cold rock pressing her face between Xena's legs, sucking on the wet swollen lips and groaning as the tangy nectar coated her face. Gabrielle rubbed her face in Xena's womanhood, humming at the response from the muscular woman, whose legs tightened around her and hands pulled her face closer into her. Gabrielle sucked her swollen lips, sliding three fingers into the dark cavern that tightened around her fingers as soon as they entered the throbbing entry. She let Xena set the pace, her hips moved quickly, pushing for release. Xena's low growl and the shivering of her inside walls signaled she had peaked. Gabrielle waited before withdrawing her fingers, enjoying the feel of the muscles contracting and releasing around her fingers. Finally Xena shifted and pulled Gabrielle back onto the rock, on top of her.
"If we go through any more of those…" Was all that Gabrielle mumbled in Xena's neck that indicated she was aware…not daring to change any more of their past conversations.
For the rest of the night they used the game of identifying star constellations with lying out a plan. Both hoping they had the same understanding…then Xena nodded to Gabrielle and as in the past suggested they return to the cavern…
A Return to the Cavern
Both were back in the core of the Sacred Cavern, ground shaking under their feet. Xena looked around in their dusty surroundings. The bodies of satyrs and men were near the bottom of the stairs unconscious. Xena had only noticed five paintings were messed up, and if she understood Gabrielle's message imbedded in a tale dealing with one of the star constellations there were seven on the wall, and she believed she had only messed up two in her dreams. So…what had happened to the others, if only Gabrielle could reach them…why were their memories different?
Xena felt Gabrielle's hand on her leathered wrist as she tried to keep her feet under her and study the drawings on the wall. As she tried to focus, they became blurry, whirling around. Alti had said the symbols were alive and some people could see them as living entities, thus being able to manipulate them. So, time is fluid and a living presence.
"Gabrielle, maybe that's it! God's don't dream because they don't sleep…so they can't change the patterns on the wall…that makes sense…shamans use the dreamtime as part of their normal world…You said you dreamed of changing two of the patterns…that's what I had seen when I looked at the wall when we were first here." Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm as the ground shook under them again.
"Well, I don't remember this happening…so that must mean we're….Xena I don't remember what happened to those three drawings. Whooooa. We're on some shaky ground here." Gabrielle increased her grip around Xena's arm trying to steady her balance as the ground beneath them rolled.
"Can you see those designs?" Xena asked, as she relaxed a little when the rolling motion stopped.
"Well…ya. There are seven of them. There are five that are smeared. I only remember touching two in my dream."
"Thinking back to the barn, you didn't meet me in the street, you just suddenly appeared in the barn, then I sent you back to our room, where I later came in and explained…"
"No, no. That's not right. I followed you out of the inn asking you to tell me where you were going, which you refused to say…and you didn't come back to the rooms while I was there. I left…I don't exactly remember when…but you caught up with me outside of town, under a tree."
"Gabrielle, we had the sensitive chat, remember, you sitting on the cot with your skirt all twisted up in your hands, I…"
"Xena, you came riding up to me where I had fallen asleep, under a tree. It was…hmmm. I can't remember…oh, must have been morning…or, maybe evening…well, it would make better story if it was in the morning." Gabrielle shook her head. Some of the small parts were missing. Was it real? Oh, yea! The visit to the barn did happen. It's the other stuff that becomes hazy. Memory is so fickle!
"Xena…why Ares?" Gabrielle asked uncomfortably.
"Because he's been dropping in…and just before all these visits to the past started."
Ares? "Wait…wait…memories….Mnemosyne. What if it's not from our memories but from Mnemosyne's."
Xena was thinking about the mother of the nine muses too. This problem was getting to smell like a family secret not buried very deeply in the family yard, and confusing. What is the real issue? Zeus sent his son, Ares, whom he knows we don't have the greatest of relationships, down to get me to…do what? Get rid of the drawings when they know that only Gabrielle can reach them? Why didn't Zeus just ask Gabrielle, or have Artemis ask Gabrielle? Zeus and his fathering the nine Muses from Mnemosyne wasn't something that Hera would be angered by…Hera…Hercules had sent her to where Cronus was held, in the dark abyss…would both be plotting to get back at the gods that remained on Mt. Olympus? Hera would…Would Ares help? Only if he could get something out of it for himself. Is Hera's anger still a threat, now directed at all the gods and mortals?
Hera focused her anger on Zeus, those he dallied with, and their offspring. Hera had once been the goddess of family life until Zeus, who was to be the male balance of the family energy, failed to contain the creative force of the faithful father and husband. The energy was too much for him, and he was now running amuck in it's force, fathering whoever and whatever in all sorts of forms. He had become servant to the tool, the staff, that he was to have been the master to. And Hera, rather than trying to bring it all back under control, went the other way. Both failed to replace Ge. Xena blamed neither for their failure to contain the image of a reasonably happy household. She didn't believe in perfection, though she attempted it in her workouts and actions, and she certainly had enough troubles containing her own drive to do great bodily harm to some. So…she had little room to judge…which brought her to Ares. Something was being left out…did all the god's know that the designs and stone could change life on Mt. Olympus, or even that the time line was being tampered with? And where was Yerik in all this?
"So…are we present or are we future?" Gabrielle murmured as she looked around her.
Xena frowned. "What I learned with Alti…is that there isn't any time, as in the sense that we know it." Xena put a hand to her head. "What I mean is…in the dream state…which is where shamans spend a lot of time…they don't have physical reminders," Xena gestured to what was around them, "of the passage of time…therefore…what passes in the dreamtime as a life span of adventures can turn out to be but a night's sleep. So…whoever is doing all this…it's someone's dream…and gods don't dream."
Gabrielle's eyes opened wide. "We are in someone's dream?"
"I think our own, now. In the beginning it may have been Mnemosyne's recording of events in our past but…those drawings that are smeared. It's not canceling out the power but distorting it…changing the direction. When I look at the drawings…I'm seeing the ones you had disturbed, influencing the ones next to it."
"Ohhhhh." Gabrielle was recalling her lessons in India about energy and…she looked down at her hands. "Xena!"
"Hmmm?" Xena glanced at the smaller woman whose head was bowed looking at her hands. Xena leaned over toward her brushing the long hair out of her face. Green malachite eyes moved to hers…looking worried. "What is it?"
Gabrielle reached up and touched the fingers that were entangled in her long hair. "My….my hair is short in the present….and…" she lifted her hands palms down, "the…" She left it unsaid.
"Great. Just where are we?" Xena glanced around and noticed they were alone. No bodies, no bones, no light coming from the torches…no light coming from the stair well. How on earth are we seeing in this cavern without light?
A rumbling from above them followed by a shout had them both looking up at the sudden light shining from the stairwell…
Xena was suddenly moving up the stairwell….they mustn't come down here!
A small light stabbed through the darkness shining on the walls of the stairwell.
"What d'ya think those marks are about, Mel?" A familiar voice asked.
"I don't know. Here, hold this…I want to draw these…"
Nooooooo. Xena cried out in frustration. Xena could go no further than the bottom of the stairs.
"Mel? Do you think we can set up a camera here? It's kinda hard to duplicate these smears?"
Xena closed her mind to the people at the top of the stairs that she could only hear and sent out an explosion of energy in her own mind that she was going back to a memory of…
"Gabrielle…have you ever pondered the meaning of silence….I mean…really tried to get an understanding of it." A snippy warrior queried the small woman that was ridding behind her. Normally she would have told the wanna-be-bard she was going to ride ahead and check the road out, and left her walking to catch up but she had twisted her ankle and was riding up behind her on Argo. She should have just found a cold river and left her soaking the ankle in the water while she went about her business….but it wasn't safe around here…raiders… displaced villagers looking for a quick dinar or food…or someone to victimize to lessen their own pain.
"Ahhhh. Sorry…I was just trying to keep you awake."
Xena snorted and twisted to look in disbelief at her passenger. Her breath caught, as she looked into green eyes squinting against the sun that her shoulder had been shielding her from. Unconsciously she moved giving her small blond-haired rider some shade so she could see the sea green eyes open wider …sparklingly with mischief…warmth… love…and intimate familiarity.
Gabrielle's long skirt was hoisted up her thighs to allow her to straddle Argo's back, which Xena noticed only when she had unconsciously placed one of her hands on a bare leg. She looked down at the bare white leg turning a pinkish color from the unaccustomed exposure to the sun. She swallowed a few times realizing how…the rubbing of the soft hairs on her own bare thighs was making her edgy.
Looking back up at Gabrielle she could see that Gabrielle was aware they were somewhere, where their relationship was developing into a friendship. How long had they been together then? Six months. They were definitely not intimate, friendly, or even on speaking terms…by Gabrielle's definition of speaking anyway. Oh, goddess. This is a toughie. Xena groaned as she could feel the heat between her legs build.
"So…isn't this where you get off the side of the road and find a cold stream?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
"Whhhaaat?" Xena was nonplussed. She couldn't remember for a moment just what they had done.
"Cold water…soak the ankle time…you take off for a while of peace and quiet time in the woods…or whatever…and I soak my ankle…write…and get into some usual 'young woman attracts trouble' stuff so you can come rushing back and…save me."
Xena was still twisted in her seat and was not paying attention that she had applied pressure on one side, thus redirecting Argo. Redirected they were going to pass under a few low hanging branches along the side of the road.
Xena's quick reflexes only saved them from a painful drop, but both ended up being swept off Argo's back onto the ground. Argo continued toward where Xena knew was a campsite that was safe to spend the rest of the day and night at.
Then Xena realized she was holding the blond haired woman…no…girl…in her arms. She was going to drop her to her feet when Gabrielle's arms tightened around her neck and she looked around expectantly.
"Well…where's the river? Xena…yoooouuuu hooo!"
"Hmmm? Oh…right…soak foot…check out the parameter…get food…" Xena mumbled as she started after Argo's retreating figure with her light burned in her arms.
"Xena…this never happened." A quiet voice whispered in her ear.
"Hmmm?" She asked startled.
"Well…in case you haven't noticed…the vegetation is a bit strange…Argo is even stranger looking…for a horse…and you do look quite…different…this gettup…what is it?"
Xena looked down at herself…letting Gabrielle slide gently to her feet. Her upper body was covered in clothing that was in varying shades of gray, she was wearing some kind of short pants with an obvious protrusion budding against her front. Her heartbeat was pounding loud in her ears and against her straining member.
Gabrielle had slid her hand down her chest, past her waist and came to rest against her erection caressing it and making it throb to a point of urgent need for release. Her fingers seemed to know what they were doing, as they pulled a small strip of fabric back so that a full sized erected penis popped out, waving invitingly in the breeze.
One part of her groaned and another part was asking, "What the…." She brushed her rough cheek against the head that was kissing its way down to the body part of hers that needed immediate attention.
It suddenly dawned on her that whatever that four wheeled gray creature was that they had been riding…it wasn't Argo….and she wasn't what she remembered herself to be. She could feel her knees starting to buckle as a mouth engulfed her throbbing staff, she fell to her knees, Gabrielle following her down, keeping a hand around her member that was struggling for release. A part of her remembered her tryst in the barn and her desire to ride Gabrielle instead of her male partner.
"Quite a flash back, Xena. Just what life is this?" Gabrielle teased, not seeming to mind the change...She pushed Xena on her back and stroked the swollen member back to a stiffer erection them moved herself to straddle it. Xena did a double take for she was now noticing that this young woman did not have the same face as Gabrielle's.
Xena closed her eyes to get a grip on her wits. Mnemosyne! She then opened one bright blue eye as the feelings in her body subsided.
The movement around her was so quick that for a brief moment her equilibrium was off. She found herself on her hands and knees, staring at the grass beneath her hands, the sounds of trickling water nearby, the smell of a marsh, birds calls from birds that would be found around a marsh, the weight of her sword was on her back, she could see the leathers to her skirt….Xena looked up, then rose to her feet cautiously.
"Hello, Xena." Mnemosyne's voice was soft. In her arms she had a bouquet of flowers that Gabrielle called forget-me-nots.
While Xena kept an eye on Mnemosyne she let her other senses inform her that she wasn't in the cavern, nor around Crometh, nor was this winter, wherever they were.
"You wanted to talk to me about…?" Mnemosyne prodded as she moved to another bunch of flowers and instead of picking them, she seemed to be planting the long stemmed flowers.
Xena shook her head to clear the cognitive dissonance it was causing her mind to experience.
Ahh. Right, "memories."
Mnemosyne laughed. "That's a rather broad topic. Let's see…do you want to know why no two people remember the same thing, though they were both there? Do you want to know why memory changes over time? Or, do you want to know why we remember outcomes, but not always the other details?"
Xena blinked a few minutes. Things like that did tickle her philosophical side…but…she had some other important things to take care of.
"Well…why don't two people remember the same event as the other?" She couldn't resist.
"Because, each person is looking at the event from their own understanding of what is happening."
"I understand that…but…a past event…one that we've talked about…why does she still remember it differently?"
The goddess smiled at the hurt that this mortal was carrying. She sighed and did what she knew was going to have repercussions, but not for a while yet. It was easy to see the 'she' she was referring to was Gabrielle.
"Memories aren't reliable, Xena. They change over time. In your travels with Gabrielle, you have witnessed this a countless number of times. What complicates memory is life, and its many stories that we hear, see and dream of. I am not saying memories are not important…they help form our personality. What I am saying is, that what you remember of an event, is true for you but not necessarily for others. But because you believe it, it is what you base your actions and reactions on."
"So…what about facts?"
"A somewhat arbitrary agreement between individuals, though it is created out of need. Chaos is difficult to find time to think in." Mnemosyne smiled at the wrinkled brow of the tall mortal. "Let's take your life as a warlord…"
Xena's shoulders tightened. That was one long memory she was just learning to put out of her dreams.
"You use those memories to keep you on what you consider a better path, no?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders.
"But when they don't seem to be giving you the shudders and same intensity of self hate, loathing, that they had once given you, you add more graphic detail."
"What? I don't need to add detail. I was there! I saw the dismembered bodies of children, women dying, men skewered…" Xena shuddered.
"Hmmm. Well, you never personally took a weapon to children, and as for the women, you always had given orders only to hurt villagers that fought back. Your men took it upon themselves to do what they wanted…and you punished them for disobeying your orders."
Xena took a deep breath. Again in her mind the picture of a small child formed, impaled at the end of her javelin, and her standing above the dead child unrepentant.
"No…what had happened was one of the new recruits, hopping to further gain your attention, missed the speech you had given on who to spare, and in front of you, before you could react, killed the child and it's mother. Because it was your soldier, and you had slept with him the night before, you took the responsibility. So, every time you remember that scene, it is you, not him, that is killing the child."
"I…no…it was by my hand."
"Xena, now think."
Xena took a deep breath. "Yea, I did give my troops orders not to kill women and children."
"So…how could you have done that?"
"Ahhh." She took a deep breath. Was she letting this goddess talk her out of her guilt? She couldn't let herself get away so easily with all the villages she laid to waste.
"Ahhh, ahhh. There you go again. You keep saying you laid villages to waste. You did some, but since you had to return back the next harvest, you didn't want to make it too difficult for the villages to recover. This lying to waste is another creation in your mind to make things worse than what it was, because for some reason you need guilt to keep you on the right path. Xena, you don't need it. You now have that strength of your own to keep on the right path. You can stop recreating your past memories to making them into something worse than what they were. They are bad enough without you adding more gore to them. Really."
"So…are you saying that…my childhood memories aren't….real?"
"Sure they are. If you believe them to be real…they are. But, Torres will see the same event from his little boy perspective as your mother will see it from her perspective. It doesn't mean the event didn't happen…just that there are a lot of versions to it. Remember when Torres was finally able to see a different version to why you felt you had to fight the invading forces on your village? And when Gabrielle retold the story of you and the Cyclops? You think she is making up some of the parts, embellishing the story like most story tellers do, to sell the audience. But she isn't. She experiences you in a different way, so she will be seeing it differently. When she meets another Cyclops, and befriends him, her story will change, and her memories of the first Cyclops will also change. Enjoy the differences. Makes for good story telling material."
"Is that why…the barn was different?"
"Oh, that scene. Well, even as you relived it, you were creating, leaving the unimportant things out…like why you wanted to screw the soldier."
Xena's face hardened.
"You were trying to forget how the young Bard was turning you on, so you had decided to put some emotional distance between you two."
"I was working off…"
Mnemosyne held up her hand. "See, even I remember it differently. Because at that time in Mt. Olympus, we all could see your attraction to each other, like a silvery band that tied your souls together, so I had another view of the story that was unfolding."
"So…" Xena tried to get her thoughts together, memories and dreams, what a combination. "whoever is dreaming in the cavern, is not in control of us, because we can move in and out of the cavern, though its through the past and present…well…wait. So, I can dream that we both are back in the cavern and Gabrielle fixes the problem!"
Carefully she looked about her. It was the cavern…she was alone…she was dressed in her dark leathered skirt…she waited for something to change.
Gabrielle Meets Potnia Ge
Gabrielle almost shrieked at the change in Xena, but composed herself quickly as she knew it was Xena by looking in the bright azure eyes. Xena's lack of noticing their change at first was humorous and she couldn't help grabbing the most noticeable change in her body, stroking it and watching in excitement at the near loss of control Xena displayed in her behavior….that was unXena like.
Then Gabrielle started thinking quickly. They had to stop this moving around to different times and places, before she started screaming like a siren. As she watched Xena close her eyes, the figure before her became unfamiliar with the beginnings of beard stubble on her chin and the look of lust as she pushed the man down on his back, and after getting the erection to where she knew it would give her the most pleasure, she straddled his waist, impaling herself on his hard penis. The pleasure of it entering her almost caused her to forget who she was…. The Sacred Grotto, the grotto. Gabrielle chanted to herself.
The change in the atmosphere was so quick she was blinking her eyes trying to get use to the near darkness. She spun around to face the oracle's tripod chair. It was empty.
She hesitated for only a brief moment, then hurried up the steps to the seat. Artemis, if this is not right…tell me now. She continued up the few steps and looked calmly at what had damaged Arii to a horrible mass of scarred flesh. Would she fare the same? She had to stop whatever was happening. The time change that was effecting their lives most probably was effecting others and others may change things…for everyone.
Not getting an answer from Artemis she turned and closing her eyes sat on the seat, holding her breath and praying to Xena for forgiveness for not letting her know that she might not return.
You are so serious!
Gabrielle's eye's shot open to see not the cavern, but a peaceful garden. She looked about her in astonishment gripping the arms of the chair in disbelief. As her eyes moved around the area she spotted a beautiful young girl sitting on her side stroking the neck of a small doe and watching her under brown lashes, with amusement.
"Pornia theron!" She breathed in awe.
"And who are you?" The young goddess asked bemused, "And why have you called me?"
"I…I'm Gabrielle…a…Queen of one of the Amazon tribes that honor you." She stuttered.
Artemis was beautiful. Brown lashes covered golden brown eyes that lifted in surprise as they regarded her closer. She had on a golden short tunic covering her body to just above her knees. Her legs were long with muscles developed from running with the wild things of the forests. Her shoulders were not broad but they were starting to show strength, as the young girlish body hadn't yet left her.
Gabrielle reddened. If Artemis was looking this young, barely a woman, then this must be way in the past.
"Ahhh. Yeeeaaa." Gabrielle was trying to remember what tales she heard of a young Artemis and how she could find out what she needed to know. Which was what?
"You know the cavern I was in?"
"Yes. It was one of grandmother's followers schools…but they had left because it was the end of her time."
Artemis stood up and came over to her seated form. That's when Gabrielle realized she was still siting in the oracle's three legged chair. Artemis sat in front of the chair folding her legs in a lotus position, studying Gabrielle for a long moment.
"I see…" she murmured nodding.
Gabrielle couldn't resist looking behind her to see what she was talking about. There was only the forest behind her.
Gabrielle looked back at the young goddess blushing. Artemis was laughing. "I see why you are here." She explained with an open smile. "Hmmm. It's the designs on the walls you need to change." She frowned for a moment as she thought. "I had watched an old follower of grandmother's in the woods, making designs similar to those, when I had started to draw the same, grandmother was very upset, saying we cannot draw them…it is a magic for mortals alone. It was a gift she had given them to draw power to help them against any of our wrong doings." Artemis sighed. "Something Ares needs to remember, that little brat." She shook her head with regret.
Gabrielle was tempted to ask her to tell her some tales of Ares as a youth but her dislike for what he was in her present, and her worry about time, kept her from asking.
"So…I need to change the designs…but how?"
Artemis looked up at her surprised. "You are mortal, don't you know?"
"No." Gabrielle was about to mumble some colorful phrases to describe her frustration at this point, but instead…"what about your grandmother? Is she around?" Gabrielle, you have such nerve!
The figure was suddenly standing before them…Gabrielle nearly started to cry at the feelings of warmth…comfort…and love that emanated from the smiling figure. The brilliance of her appearance was toned down almost immediately, as Gabrielle didn't think she would have been able to keep her eyes on her, and at the same time she could not move her eyes from the vision before her.
"Mortal child, you certainly get into a lot of interesting situations." The shining figure laughed gently.
Gabrielle nearly burst with happiness at being addressed so lovingly by this goddess, thee goddess, Potnia Ge.
"I will show you what you need to know…though it is not in the life of Gabrielle that you will learn of them in detail, but in the life of Alekasasha, a shaman."
The next thing Gabrielle knew…she was standing in front of the designs, earth shaking beneath her feet, Xena shouting for her to be careful. The designs were moving and changing their patterns as they reacted from the changes of their neighbors.
Gabrielle moved her hands in a pattern, mumbling the chants Ge had taught her, then reaching through the curtain she could see. She touched the first symbol she had touched in her dream. With a fingertip, and words of power, Gabrielle redrew the swirls, adding to them and breathing a different energy life force onto them. Once the first was redirected and stabilized she moved to the next. The entire cavern was a great big ball of energy that invigorated her and the tingling of the fire that ran up her torso from the ground, to say nothing of the wild discharging energy around her from the misshapen magic swirls, caused her hair to stand on end. Good thing it was short, or she would be spending a long time trying to untangle it later.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she worked on the seven swirls that had been added by the foreigner, but when she was finished she moved to the center of the cavern, not seeing anyone but the magnificent display of flashes of light from the discharging energy around her. She needed to reconsecrate the cavern, readjust the energy lines that ran throughout the land surrounding the cavern, and move the time line back. It was so simple. Ge had shown her…Gabrielle spread her arms to the side of her and tilted her head back…humming the tone she wished to focus the energy into…building it…until….
A bright flash of light that nearly blinded Gabrielle and Xena on their perch above the forest, had both women covering their eyes and holding onto each other.
"Goddess!" Gabrielle breathed in awe. Gabrielle looked up at her partner whose one arm that was wrapped around her had tightened. Their sleeping fur slipped off them and ended up at the foot of the rock they were sitting on, as they were watching Selene's mares drag the small slice of white moon across the star blanketed night sky.
Xena leaned down and kissed the tip of Gabrielle's nose. "You did it, O'Bard of mine."
"I…I remember…I remember it all!" She was referring to her meeting with Potnia Ge.
"Yea…I guess tomorrow we find out just…what has been changed."
"Xena, I meant…I …I…met her!"
Xena looked into the eyes that even in the night light, she could see were tearing up. "Met who?"
"Potnia Ge!" She whispered reverently.
Xena nodded silently, remembering her own visit with the goddess and the overwhelming feeling of…peace she had, if even for a short time…it was…beyond words.
"You're going to have to tell me what happened after….ahhh."
Xena could see the wide grin on Gabrielle's face as white teeth glowed in the early morning's darkness.
Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and pulled her with her as she tried to negotiate her way back down the hill and to their safe cave in as less time as possible.
"Hey! What's the hurry!" Xena had grabbed the sleeping fur as she was pulled along, finally grabbing the smaller woman around the waist and hoisting her over her shoulder. Xena made better time due to long legs and better night vision that didn't see darkness, but varying shades of gray.
Groans and sighs echoed off the cave wall though the rest of the starry night and well into the predawn. It was only a candlemark before Helios began his ascent that both fell into a satiated doze.
Continue on to Part Three