Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
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This story contains explicit descriptions of female/female and male/female sexual relations.
J.A. Bard's stories can also be found at Tom's Xena FanFic Archive and The Athenaeum
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In Search of a Greater Cause
By J.A. Bard
Part I - Return to Crometh
"Xena…I think…" The serious tone was broken by an eruption of giggles as a large lump under the sleeping fur moved into another position displacing the smaller lump. "Eeeyowww. That tickles!"
Inaudible sounds came from under the fur, as bodies shifted. The fire in the nearby stone ringed pit snapped, releasing sparks into the predawn darkness of the protective envelop the cave provided. Saddle bags that were neatly lying against a long log used for sitting on, or leaning against, threw interesting shadows on the cave's walls, as a smaller log thrown on the embers earlier, finally caught, sending up hungry flames to devour it's new meal.
The muffled voice began again, trying to take on the deep tone of a thoughtful observer. "That's not quite the right place." Another set of giggles followed by another yelp, then a tousled blond head of hair poked out from under the warm covers.
The breath from the mumbling form, still under the covers, tickled the blond's side, which made her breath catch. Try as she might, she wasn't able to resist the need to squirm away from the warm tickling breath of her partner.
"I didn't quite get that." She murmured lifting the fur to watch the action under the shadows of the covers. "Xena!" She yelped again.
Bright blue eyes amidst a dark head of hair that was looking wildly out of place peered up at her from under the fur.
"I said…I made a very close and careful inspection of the ground underneath you. No offending rock…pebble…or bump." A long tanned muscular arm wrapped around the smaller woman's bare waist, and as the taller woman turned on her back, she pulled the shorter woman onto her, tossing the constricting covers back. The cooler air in the cave settled around their heated bodies with little effect, as the cause of their temperature had nothing to do with what was outside of themselves.
"Let me see this injury." The voice purred in the laughing Bard's ear. "Maybe I'm looking for the wrong size…rock."
Xena easily lifted the lighter body; firmly laying Gabrielle on her stomach with her own body partially covering hers. She ran her hands from bare shoulders to the back of a tasty neck that was good enough to bite…and bite she did...then continued on with her close inspection down the back. Her hands slid along the warm skin that she was intimately knowledgeable of; enjoying the dips and curves of muscles and natural contours of the woman's body below her. She knew where the ticklish spots were, the spots prone to tenseness, spots that relaxed her and spots that would elicit a nice special type of moan…which was where she was at the moment.
Gabrielle groaned and pushed her body against Xena's. Breathlessly, she tried to redirect the taller woman. "Hmmm…not…that….high…Xena…" She sighed, as a nibble along her neck and up to her ear started another heat wave through her body, as familiar callused hands that knew every sensitive spot on her caressed, and stroked each location. It didn't really matter where the dark haired warrior lavished her attentions; the effect had the same overall incendiary effects: her face gets hot, then the rest of her body quickly follows, becoming flushed with the same sweat heat of desire, accompanied by a warm flow of liquid that coats her engorged flower. Then, whatever cover is over them, gets tossed aside, as it becomes too uncomfortable to stay under covers. So, a part of her mind was grateful Xena had removed the warm fur-cover from over them, for her body was generating enough heat to start an Amazon bonfire.
Xena groaned with her own pleasure in reaction to the body that was moving seductively beneath her, while continuing her very careful inspection across the muscular back, shoulder blades, her spine, to the small of her back…making sure Gabrielle was attentive by nipping her every now and then.
"How about here?" Xena voice floated up to her.
"Hmmm…oh…you mean for the rock?" She sighed. "Yea. Somewhere …around …there …but…hmmmm." Her voice trailed off as she luxuriated in another hot rush of sensations that Xena's exploring gave her.
"We.l.l.l.l.l…" Xena began softly, placing her hands on either side of the lithe body beneath her, then slowly dragging her own body up the smaller torso until she reached her target. She placed her mouth against Gabrielle's ear letting her breath tickle the sensitive skin. The feel of the firm muscular body beneath her, especially when it rubbed against her with desire, smearing her juices across the taught round cheeks that she pressed herself against, was almost undermining her resolve.
"I didn't find any marks that have been from a recent attack by a pebble…but…I did find some marks…hmmm," she murmured in the ear her lips were only a breath away from. She bit the ear lobe that was too temptingly near her lips and sucked on it for good measure, tugging on the golden earring that was hanging in the ear lobe, "that looked like someone has been biting you." She whispered in the groaning Bard's ear.
"Hey…" Gabrielle giggled for a moment taking her mind off her body sensations, "I…know where those came from….hmmmmm.…" Xena had Gabrielle pinned down so she couldn't use her hands to show her appreciation to her ardent lover so she used her body, sliding against the wet hairy mound pressed against her. She could feel heat coming from Xena's brown pelt that tickled her buttocks, and it excited her as another flow of liquid from her own hot core coated her inner thighs.
"Hmmmm." Gabrielle tried to find her voice. "Thanks for…" She sighed as Xena's mouth moved back to her bare neck. "Hmmm….looking." she whispered softly, hoping Xena would forget the extra few moments she said she would give them before getting up to get ready to start out on the road again, because those few were up.
She had thought to trick Xena's innate sense of time by distracting her, but what she had chosen to use to distract her with, was playing havoc with her own sensibilities. She had originally only wanted to stay under the covers of their warm fur for a little longer, enjoying the company of her lover, and the Dream State, that light sleeping evoked. Instead, restless Xena needed something to distract her, since she was impatient to start out on the road again while the weather held. Gabrielle thought by wrapping herself around her, and nuzzling her neck…well…it did go further than what she had planned… which she actually hadn't planned anything. That was the problem. She should have thought this particular delaying tactic out more. Then there was the rock she rolled on… she was sure it was a rock.
Xena knew when the allotted time was up. Laughing she rolled off a thoroughly aroused Gabrielle who attempted to grab her as she rose from their sleeping furs.
"Ahhh…ahh…ahhhh. You squeeze me like that again, and I'll wet myself…I don't mean that way. It's too late for that." She smirked at the giggling Bard. "C'mon, I need to visit a pit and we need to clean up before we go." Her smile grew wider as she thought about Gabrielle's failed attempts to distract her.
She reached down for the hand that was extended to her and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. "We have to reach Crometh before they start the week long winter solstice celebrations. That's tomorrow." She reminded Gabrielle giving her bare bottom a light pat and finding it difficult to remove her hand, as a tattooed one was placed over hers, and held in place. "I want you to know that by delaying us, we may not find a…" her breath caught as Gabrielle shifted her body's position. "nice…warm…safe…and dry…place…in town." She whispered in a hoarse voice, as Gabrielle guided her hands to places that promised more delays to their departure time, and her lips echoed the message, as they covered her lover's erect nipple. Xena was thinking that she should not count on the game being at an end just yet, for Gabrielle was still playing with every intention of winning.
"I have a nice…warm…and…safe…place." She mumbled as she bit what she held in her mouth. "I got her…right here." She whispered letting the nipple go while sliding a hand up behind Xena's neck and pulled her face down for a kiss. Xena could feel Gabrielle's hard nipples pressed against her rib cage. Her hands that were still on Gabrielle's buttocks couldn't resist gripping them firmer and pulling the smaller woman tighter against her strong frame.
"I'm glad you didn't say dry…because…that's not what I got here." Xena's low voice rumbled as their lips parted for a brief moment.
"Hmmmm." Gabrielle's tongue silenced her as she once more took possession of her lips, then sweeping her quivering tongue around the interior of a willing mouth.
Sighing after moments of Gabrielle's languorous and thorough explorations, Xena reluctantly started to pull away, gently touching her cheek.
"C'mon." She told her in a husky voice. "I want to stay ahead of those soldiers."
Sighing Gabrielle reluctantly released Xena letting her hands slowly slide down the muscular figure, relishing the curves the muscles created, then dropping at the strong thighs that were trembling ever so slightly. It wasn't just lustful thoughts that Gabrielle felt, but an appreciation for the athletic prowess, and beauty of the body her hands lovingly caressed. Both women stood still for a few moments gazing into each other's eyes, wishing they didn't have to be in Crometh so soon. In that moment the familiar and profound affection that vibrated on the invisible line that connected the two, filled them both with a warmth that brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes and tightened Xena's throat. Xena pulled Gabrielle closer and held her silently, the only way she knew how to handle this overwhelming feeling they were sharing.
Reluctantly, they parted, and dressed in silence, and quickly. Gabrielle's rush was more to ward off the chill that breezed in through the cave entrance. Xena grabbed their bag that contained soap, clean undergarments, and linen to dry off with. Gabrielle picked up the empty water skins and took the bag from Xena. Smiling Xena used her sword to part the vines that covered their natural shelter while draping the other arm over Gabrielle's shoulder as they stepped out into a dawning forest. Both women followed a path they had created from their two-day camp, which led to the water's edge. Two days earlier they had taken refuge in the cave from a relentless rain, that had overflowed the nearby creek and only abated the previous day in the late afternoon, which was now dawning to a blue cloudless sky.
The early morning sunbeams, that streamed through parts of the forest treetops of crisscrossing bare branches, and trees that remained clothed in their green cover, gave a contrasting appearance of brightness and darkness, side by side; while on the ground interesting light and dark patterns lay against the mixed bare tree trunks and evergreen vegetation. Both enjoyed the morning noises in the forest, and their shared companionship; breathing in the brisk clean air that was for a change not raining, or snowing on them. For a few moments Gabrielle played with her vapored breath sending out puffs.
"Look, Xena. Hydra's breath."
"If you say so." Xena drawled. "Is that anything like morning breath?" She asked after a slight pause.
Gabrielle did not bother looking at her, but she could feel the older woman's body that was against hers, vibrating with a chuckle. Instead she bumped her with her hip, enjoying the feel of the long dangling fingers from her companion tickling her arm in response.
Xena's acute sense of smell picked up the various fragrances of vegetation separate from the damp earth, including crushed raspberry vines, which warranted checking out for a few berries that might be left, various wet animals, one of which was Argo, and something not of the forest…a campfire. Xena knew the campfire was from the soldiers they had passed days ago under the cover of wind and rain, while looking for the cave they knew was here. Xena had kept track of the soldiers, even in the bad weather, making sure they were staying in their own cave. The soldiers sought cover a good two candlemarks from them, and closer to the trail that wound through the mountains and through the forest thicket. Only the smell from their fire reminded them that they were sharing the forest with others or their own kind.
"I'll meet you at the water." Xena told Gabrielle as she turned off to the side where Argo had wandered. Gabrielle continued her way to the water, careful not to step where her tracks would be noticeable and looking for any edible roots or herbs she may have missed in the last two days. Grubbing in the rain or mud was miserable, but they were low on supplies. From long practice, Gabrielle also looked around her for any noticeable changes in the environment that might show they were not alone or someone else had passed by without Xena's knowledge….as if that could happen, Gabrielle thought with a grin.
It had been about thirteen months, a lunar year, since they had last been here. It was after a journey they had made with a group of women to an old temple. Details of the journey and the reason for it were no longer clear to Gabrielle so she had been reading one of her scrolls to refresh her memory. Friendships they had formed had been forgotten, but the cave they had taken shelter in after they parted from the group was not forgotten, nor the fact that they had missed the winter solstice competitions, so Xena had promised they would come by the next year. But…that wasn't the only reason why they were headed to Crometh.
Athena had appeared to Xena and indirectly had warned her that something was amiss in Crometh. Xena was not one to do favors for the gods after her many run-ins with Ares and his assorted siblings, but Athena must have made a good presentation, for Xena who already had set their destination to the City of the Muses, set a faster pace to reach it. Artemis had like-wise appeared to Gabrielle and asked her a favor. Athena hadn't said if there was a problem but Artemis hinted something was wrong with some of her people, the Amazons, and asked if Gabrielle could lend them a hand. To identify herself with the priestess of her temple in Crometh she had given Gabrielle a ritual fan made of eagle feathers, that was used for passing over the burning incense to spread it essence during a ceremony. Artemis had given her a plain flat box to carry it, fitting perfectly at the bottom of her travel bag. Gabrielle at the time thought it was funny that she had, just days earlier, dreamed that Artemis was going to give her a box that was very important to be delivered to a Temple in Crometh. Artemis had said nothing about the premonition, only looked surprised. Xena was her usual noncommittal self…but Gabrielle was very good at reading her companion, and really, other half. Xena sensed something was not right about the dream and their visit to Crometh. But, Xena was good at puzzles. She liked them and would probably be able to tell her, what was going on with the gods and Crometh.
Where the rule originally came from, that gods were not to interfere with the affairs of mortals wasn't known, but Zeus, when he wasn't distracted with his own tampering, kept his fellow gods, as much as he could, to that stricture. However, all mortals knew those on Mount Olympus interfered, and interceded, in their lesser affairs when the gods had a mind to, so Xena was wary but curious.
They had spent so many days and nights taking shelter from the bad weather that Gabrielle was wondering if maybe another god was opposed to their visit to Crometh. However, Xena would have none of that, and argued that this was the usual winter weather.
Xena took care of her bladder first then tracked Argo to where she was happily munching on a berry bush, ignoring the prickly leaves. Chuckling Xena patted her damp hindquarters, then gave a firm push to the mare to give her room to see if there were any edible berries left.
"Hmmm. Looks like no more berries. You didn't happen to eat them all up, did ya, Girl?" Xena gave the big innocent brown eyes that swung her way, a playful glare.
Xena's hand suddenly dropped from Argo's withers. Her body became taught with suppressed energy and her senses leaped up to a higher awareness. A cool breeze whisked by, carrying with it the scent of damp heavy coarse hairs, a different body scent than man or beast. Her hearing picked up the hesitant movement of cloven hooves…two legged. Their movements were muffled in the wet fallen leaves of the forest. Argo's head had risen also, with her ears pointed stiffly forward. Both fixed their eyes on the same point. Xena was gone from Argo's side as she quickly made her way to the creek bed to find Gabrielle. The hairs on the back of her neck were sticking up.
Pools of water trapped in naturally formed containers of vegetation gave off a rich smell of dampness and rot. Gabrielle stopped short of where there was a break in the forest caused by rocks and other debris that had coursed down the rain-swollen creek from the previous two day's of bad weather. She looked around with only half-seeing eyes as she enjoyed the sounds and peacefulness she felt from this kinship with what was about her. The sounds of 'click click curoo click' came from somewhere out of her vision. The notes were from a small brown bird that was hopping amongst the damp leaves looking for a worm or bug, she imagined. Her head turned in that direction smiling as she could hear it's wings flap as rose back into the air. Must have found breakfast. The sudden squawk of a bird followed by a squirrel that flew from one branch to another, as it was chased by the diving bird had her chuckling. Closing her eyes she could hear the trickling of the creek water over rocks, the sound of a bird pecking at the damp tree bark, a small animal moving through some wet leaves with its pungent smell of damp fur was carried to her on a chilly breeze. A nice warm feeling spread though her as she thought about her tall vigilant friend, whose sharp senses would find more life around them, and after pointing this out, it all would seem so obvious.
One of the most precious gifts she received from Xena was the world she had opened up to her. When she relished these moments of acute attentiveness of the life that abounded around her, and the connection she felt that made her feel a part of it, she thanked whatever lucky star she had wished on, that she had met Xena. In these moments she didn't think about the difficult times, or adventures she would rather had not happened. She understood on some level that they were all part of something so much bigger…and it didn't matter if she didn't understand it fully, but the profound connection and sensitivity to…everything…that she could feel was beyond explaining and just had to be experienced. Even her clever tongue could not do justice to explaining the expansive feeling of being, that it gave her.
Her bond with Xena was another of the precious gifts. Sometimes, that unseeable link between them hummed with an undescribable power that brought tears to her eyes even right now, just thinking about it. And the good part of it was that Xena didn't have to be standing next to her for her to feel it. She released her breath to let the feeling of contentment flow through her and out into the environment wanting to share it. She thanked all the gods that were responsible for the area's ambiance, old deities and new, so as to leave no one out, and not due to fear…but of heartfelt gratefulness.
Turning her head to the side she smiled, thinking about the previous night. In the late afternoon when the rains finally abated, Xena had suggested they climb the small hill their shelter was in so she could see what was going on around them. By then, Xena and Argo were getting restless from spending two days cooped up in the small cave, though it was warm and dry. Finding something to entertain Argo with was not her worry…Xena was another story. She wouldn't have minded it so much if Xena's sword practices and throwing her chakram about in the cave hadn't gotten too close for comfort. Gabrielle's creative mind on what games to play or invent to keep her ever-active friend occupied was over ridden by Xena's impatience to reach Crometh before the winter solstice celebrations started. Entertaining a distracted warrior, whose hair trigger reflexes were legendary, if not plain infamous, was nerve racking, to say the least.
Xena had said she wanted to look for campfire smoke and perhaps the city's lights that might be seen from that particular rock outcropping when darkness fell. When someone as tall as Xena stood on a portion of the hill, a precarious position at that, she or he could see above the forest covering and the lands all around. But Gabrielle was gratefully too short and didn't mind for she would have gotten dizzy noticing the height and how she had to dangle over treetops to see anything.
There was a flat space of rock, flat enough that two people, if sitting close together, had a clear view of the sky with a sturdy back rest. So, after Xena satisfied her curiosity about what was about them, she went back to their shelter and retrieved a fur so they could watch Selene's white moon rise to its zenith surrounded by white glittering jewels set in a dark background in relative warmth. Gabrielle had dozed off for a short time and had awakened in an amorous mood, which Xena was attentive to, before they settled back into the fur to star gaze.
They did their usual clear night thing, and studied the star blanketed sky looking for recognizable shapes in the patterns. There were so many white pinpricks of light, that Gabrielle was amazed the night wasn't as bright as the day. They both identified different animals and monsters in the swirl of night-lamps, and made up stories to entertain each other. When Xena put her thoughts to it, she could come up with some funny stories. Gabrielle's smile widened at the thought of somehow adding some of the whimsical stories of her companion to her own bard tales. Now, wouldn't that put a rise to Xena's eyebrow, Gabrielle giggled to herself.
Carefully, Gabrielle stepped around, and climbed over rocks and the battered remains of trees and brush that were blocking a direct passage to the water. The creek disappeared under an upturned tree with half of its roots still firmly entrenched in the rock strewn ground about it. It looked like it had been in that position for many seasons. Carefully, she fit herself between two rock slabs and leaned over to fill the skins with the creek's icy substance. The water was for her to heat up and clean with, while Xena, impervious to the cold, washed off in the creek where the water came up to her knees. Xena preferred to immerse herself when she washed, rather than taking a wet linen over her body until ideal conditions presented themselves to soak. Their differences in tolerance to bathing water temperatures amused them both, and were often used to tease one or the other.
"Brrrrr. This is cold. It was cold yesterday and the day before…so why shouldn't it be cold today?" She mumbled to herself, wondering for the umpteenth time, how Xena could ignore the cold, and jump in to bathe. After just getting her hand wet she wished she brought a cloak.
Abruptly, the forest became silent. Gabrielle's head came up, with one hand pulling the water bag out of the trickling creek, and the other gripping the rock, aiding in her balance. Birds no longer sang their morning songs, and the squirrels stopped their chattering and movement. The slight breeze that moved through the trees and brush, came to a standstill, but since it was chilly, Gabrielle didn't mind. Quickly and quietly she picked up their belongings and hoped she wasn't going to twist an ankle, as she scurried over the rocks and debris to where she was spied a good hiding place, back in the dark forest cover.
The only sounds she could hear were her own breathing and heartbeats. She hoped she was the only one near enough to hear them.
A prickly feeling that started at the base of her spine and moved its way up her back, gave her unpleasant shivers. She could feel her mouth go dry and the hairs on her arms rise. Xena? Gabrielle silently called. She nearly jumped out of her skin until she realized the presence of the person she was silently calling for was the one next to her putting a hand over her mouth for silence and steering her to a better place of concealment.
Xena wore a look that was all business, as she silently stared toward the creek where Gabrielle had just been. Both women silently waited in the shadows, with Gabrielle holding her breath until bright blue eyes looked down at her, reminding her to breathe.
A tall dark and hairy form finally emerged from the cover of foliage on the other side of the creek bed. The satyr lazily brushed the dangling vine that was caught on one of his horns off, as he leaned forward sniffing the air. His bearded mouth seemed to be pulled into a frown as he gazed around him then hopped across the expanse of water. It wasn't very wide now that the rains stopped. He rocked on his cloven feet for balance on the uneven rock, then tested the air once more. In one hand he held a blow tube Xena was familiar with. The dark head bent down to study the traces of water splashes Gabrielle left. He appeared uncertain, as he again tested the air and seemed to pick up a scent he was not happy with. Turning around the satyr jumped back across the creek and near the bent tree's trunk, his form disappeared back into the forest thicket.
"What do you think scared him?" Gabrielle whispered.
"I don't think anything did. He just wasn't looking for trouble." Xena returned grimly. Xena was uncomfortable that a satyr was near by and with a blow tube. He wasn't a follower of Dionysus. He was more than likely a follower of Bacchae, who had once been close to Dionysus. There had to be a den nearby…and by the appearance of the blow tube, it meant they were looking for unwilling recruits for their Bacchae festival that was to take place after the solstice festival.
"You got what you came for?" She asked Gabrielle as she scanned the area around them.
The noise in the environment resumed, accompanied with the scolding chatter of a suspicious squirrel, as it peered down at the two women who were too close to his winter hoard of food.
"Hmmm. Do you mind waiting here while I take a quick rinse?"
Gabrielle's surprise must have showed.
"I don't want to leave you alone with that satyr wandering the forest…and I'm not going into the city smelling like I've spent a week in a temple orgy, as much as I like our smell." She teased.
"Xena, I…" Gabrielle paused. She was going to sound the usual refrain that she could take care of herself, however… "Sure. A satyr with darts isn't the usual grungy, wanna-be-tough guy or malcontent that I'm use to handling. Nor have I gotten past the first class in catching darts." She conceded with a smile and a half-hearted joke.
Xena lifted one of Gabrielle's tattooed hands and studied the design for a moment. "No. I don't think catching darts is in your repertoire of skills, and sneaking into their den and putting Joxer's gravy in their water bags…" She added as a quip and a raised eyebrow, "is not recommended."
Without conscious awareness, Xena's thumb rubbed over part of the design on the back of Gabrielle's hand. "I think any handling of these satyrs should be…left to someone with a…different approach." She finished awkwardly, then let the hand drop.
Some satyrs weren't reasoning beings. They reacted from the grosser elements of desire and were Bacchus' pets, so-to-speak. Gabrielle knew, for sometimes she retold the story of how Bacchus had taken some of these creatures of the forest and enslaved them with their own weakness. He had promised to take care of their needs if they willingly broke affiliation with the forest nymphs whose liaison quelled the more fanatical passions of the satyr's behavior. The agreement created a rift between the forest nymphs and the satyrs who had been willing servants to Dionysus' as had been Bacchus. But not all satyrs broke trust with Dionysus and his nymphs, just like not all followers of Dionysus carried his gift of the vine to the extreme as Bacchus inflamed his followers to.
Xena effortlessly hopped onto a flat rock. Disrobing quickly she stepped into the creek as if it were a lukewarm pool of water, dunking her head under the clear liquid and letting her senses jump up to a higher form of awareness. Her washing motions were mechanical. She wasn't aware of things like her body adjusting to the temperature of the frigid water, nor of her feet finding balance on the slippery creek bottom. Her heightened awareness was focused on the forest life, what scent rode on the breeze, what was in the shadowed parts of the forest around them, and the green eyes that returned often to her bathing form, from periodic scans about them.
From a wrapped oilskin, she pulled out the herb soap Gabrielle had bought her in the last town they had stayed in, since she had lost hers in one of their never ending little misadventures. It had her favorite scent in it and unwrapping it in its cloth released the strong fragrance in the air.
Well, if the Satyr or any of his friends return, finding me will be easy. Her eyes narrowed and her lips curled into a predatory smile at the thought of the surprise that awaited them. If they thought she was an easy mark for drafting her into sexual labor for their celebrations, they would certainly have a rude awakening.
Xena rose from the snow-chilled water, letting the cold air bring her to even a higher state of alertness. Her eyes rested on the pulse point on the pale neck that was beating faster than a heart at rest. Dark centers surrounded with a thin band of green malachite were set in white orbs that gazed up into her blues. The sound of a bird cleaning it's beak on a branch, came from the left of them, breaking the spell, then the rustling of a small rodent moving through damp leaves carried softly to her ears. An almost inaudible sigh, that was loud to Xena's ears, came from Gabrielle who released her held breath.
Xena dried herself off quickly taking from Gabrielle clean undergarments, then her leathers that Gabrielle was kind enough to keep warm while standing at her sentry position.
Gabrielle heaved a heavy sigh inwardly, and decided she might as well bathe in the creek too. After watching Xena she decided she needed something cold to distract her. All this just to spend a little more time underneath the warm fur with Xena. Was it worth it? Hmmm. As sure as Aphrodite's charms would be in Hestia's virginal rooms on a solstice night!
"Might as well…" she rolled her eyes at her tall bemused sentry, as she braced herself for her own dip in the cold pool.
Xena had finished blotting her long dark hair, wrapping the linen like a turban around her head then took her turn as sentry. Her eyes flickered on the bathing woman between her vigilant scans around them. Gabrielle's brown tan from exposure to the summer sun had faded to winter paleness. The winter clothing she was wearing only left her tattoos on her hands exposed. Xena studied the tattoos across her abdomen, as the muscles beneath them moved. They looked different in daylight. She blinked her eyes then moved her sight away to keep her mind less distracted.
When Gabrielle got to her hair, Xena moved off her rock and sat on the rock next to Gabrielle's partially submerged shivering figure. She loved running her hands through the short hair, especially when it was wet and soapy.
Gabrielle placed both of her hands on Xena's leathered waist to steady herself, closing her eyes and trying to relax into the sure feel of Xena's strong hands that stroked her scalp and then hair to cleanliness. The heat that came through Xena's leathers took the chill out of her hands.
"Hmmm. Xena, I like it when you wash my hair."
"Hmm." The taller woman responded only half listening, but attentive enough to catch the chattering teeth and the attempt at being seductive. "Rinse." She let her hands slide down the chilled skin before breaking contact.
"Brrr. I can't see how you do this without your teeth clacking." Gabrielle chattered giving the small squirrel that was still watching them suspiciously from his perch a quick glance. Did he just toss something at us? Gabrielle looked around her for what she thought the little creature had tossed their way, while briskly rubbing her body dry. Do squirrels throw things?
Noise from across the creek, deep in the forest, held Xena's major attention. It wasn't close to them, but near enough for Xena to feel the need to leave the area. A forest with this much activity in winter means trouble, especially if it's near a satyr's den.
Back in the cave, Xena laced up her boots, put her armor on, packed the last of their supplies and saddled Argo. Gabrielle made sure their fire was out, and the cave was left clean for the next person, and interfered with Xena as much as she could. Gabrielle was laughing and breathing heavily from the physical exertion, while Xena was chuckling at the determination of her companion to get a solid tag on her.
"So, what do you think the satyrs up to?" Gabrielle breathlessly asked Xena. Her last attempt to tickle the tall woman, as she bent over to pick up their saddlebags, resulted in her being tossed into a corner, proceeded by a grin, and raised eyebrows from Xena. She was lucky Xena tossed her into places where the dirt was soft, though it was defeating the purpose of bathing, as she had to keep brushing dirt off her cloths and exposed body parts. Xena, whose conversation level was almost nothing, seemed to be listening to something other than her companion, though defending herself quite well, much to Gabrielle's rueful chagrin. Gabrielle figured it had something to do with the satyr. She knew that if Xena thought they were in present danger she would not let their game continue.
"Trouble." Xena murmured, as she fastened the saddlebags in front of Argo's saddle. She attached her scabbard also to the side of the saddle, and tugged her warm coat about her as she turned to look at her smaller companion expecting another try from Gabrielle to tag her. Gabrielle drew her hand back, quickly giving the Warrior Princess a look of innocence. Smiling, Xena wagged a finger at her in warning, then picked up Argo's dangling reins. She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's neck, pulling her toward her for a hug. "Let's hit the road, shall we?" She brushed her cheek against the damp blond head then pulled the hood to Gabrielle's coat over her head to keep her warm. Gabrielle's raised eyebrows reminded her to do the same for herself. Catching cold from damp hair wasn't a smart thing to do on the trail.
Once out of the protection of their camp Gabrielle let Xena concentrate and kept quiet, knowing from experience, that Xena would explain in her own detailed way, what 'trouble' meant when they were out of danger. There was nothing she could do to help, or Xena would have told her.
They had traveled for half a candlemark, weaving in and out of winter foliage, which was difficult to pass through as there was a lot of unyielding dead wood, when Xena pulled Argo into a particularly thick clump of brush and indicated that Gabrielle was to wait with Argo. She pressed a finger to her lips and then was about to disappear into the forest cover when Gabrielle put a restraining hand on her arm.
A sudden almost paralyzing fear covered her heart. She won't come back. With all that they had experienced together, Gabrielle felt this premonition to be absolutely true. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's elbow as she turned to leave.
"No!" She implored in a soft whisper and with her eyes and heart. A long moment passed as the warrior's dark eyes went from distant to recognizable sky blue softness.
"Then…we better get out of here…fast." She whispered back. She led them out of the brush and searched for the road that wound through the forest and out.
The sound of the soldiers they had passed a few days ago drew them to the road they wanted and from Xena's reluctance to join them, Gabrielle guessed that they probably were between a rock and a hard place. As they drew closer Gabrielle could distinguish the words to the songs they were singing. Her faced reddened at the colorful and descriptive marching song they were singing. Now, would not be a good time to interrupt their male bonding type of mood, she thought nervously.
A horrible feeling sent a shiver up Gabrielle's spine as she grabbed the leathered wrist of her companion in fear. It was the same feeling she had by the river earlier.
Xena was on Argo's back in a blur and had grabbed Gabrielle around the wrist hauling her up behind her as she kicked the war-horse into a run. Argo's exploding golden form through the dense forest brush and onto the path the singing soldiers occupied, scattered the soldiers before they could pull their weapons out. What they saw was a big dusty gold horse descending upon them. The two fur clad figures leaning close against the horses back weren't as noticeable as the soldiers tried to regroup and face the more alarming sounds coming from the brush above them in the direction the horse had burst through.
Xena kept Argo running until they had plenty of distance between them and the bewildered soldiers.
"Hades in a flaming chariot, Xena!" Gabrielle finally got out when her heart was beating a little back to normal.
"Well, those soldiers at least got a warning that something was coming their way." Xena chuckled. She moved Argo into an easy canter trying to put as much distance from that part of forest as she could.
"Just what was that…ugh! I've never felt that horrible feeling before." Gabrielle's body shuddered against Xena's back. The strong hands of her partner patted the clasped tattooed hands that were intertwined into a locked embrace around her waist.
"It's near the Bacchae festival…after winter solstice. It's sometimes called satyr's rutting season." Xena smirked. "By the sounds and looks of those soldiers, they've been on the road for a while." Xena was silent for a moment, then added, "There's going to be a lot of soldiers with grins on their faces before too long."
"Xena!" Gabrielle pulled one of her hands loose and playfully slapped one of the armored shoulders. "Ouch!" It hurt even when she had a thick coat over the armor.
"Whaaat did I say?" Xena asked in mock innocence.
It was mid afternoon, without any stops only slow walks to give Argo a breather, when Gabrielle roused herself from a nap leaning against Xena's back. Sleepily she patted Xena's comfortable back as if it were a pillow. It was so much more comfortable when her pillow wasn't sharing space with a scabbard.
"Xena, I don't remember the forest being that dangerous the last time we passed through." Gabrielle yawned, rubbing her cheek against the furred pillow.
"Danger comes in many forms…maybe last year we were lucky." She turned and peered over her shoulder to look into the sleepy eyes that never failed to cause her to catch her breath at the profound sense of belonging she found there.
"You think this is what the merchants were referring to?" If not, I know we'll be back here to find out what all that was about. After all, that's the way of the warrior…helping people out when they're in all sorts of trouble. And satyr's preying on travelers…that would be a new adventure. She paused a moment. Xena always seems clear on what her purpose in life is…helping others or lending her energy to another's goal…even when she has doubts of her importance…she has this underlying strong sense of purpose. So , it takes us from one adventure to another. It really is in her nature to seek out adventure. But…is it mine? Sometimes I'm so sure that my purpose is writing, storytelling and helping Xena help others…but sometimes…I get a feeling that, I should be doing something more. She hugged the comforting body that provided something solid to hold onto when nothing else around her looked secure. The thought of leaving Xena to find a purpose to her life no longer filled her with dread, as she realized how close in heart and spirit they had become. She knew she would find her purpose beside Xena. But what it was…
I just wish I knew what else I should be doing. Just writing and story telling can't be all there is to my life. For a moment, Gabrielle wondered if she was jealous that Xena was so sure of her purpose. Would Xena stay with me if…if I found my purpose and it goes in another direction from hers? No. Niema said our karma was intertwined. Gabrielle tightened her arms around the warmly cloaked figure in front of her, and rested her cheek against the soft animal skin coat Xena was wearing. Xena responded by tightening her hand around one of the cold hands that was holding onto her securely. Xena would go wherever I asked her to. This she knew as an absolute. But…would I ask her to follow me if I knew she would be miserable? Gabrielle sighed. That was the real question. I know I would follow her eventually…wherever she went…no matter how much I hated it and no matter if I promised her I wouldn't follow. If I felt her life in danger…I would go to her. So…would I give her the choice…or would I just… Gabrielle's heart tightened at the thought of leaving Xena without giving her a truthful reason. No, I would give Xena the choice even if I knew it would…hurt her.
Gabrielle's thoughts returned to their present journey. What is happening around Crometh, a city dedicated to the Muses, that has Artemis' attention? She's the patroness of the Amazons, not of Muses, Gabrielle sighed inwardly. What danger does the City of the Muses have for an Amazon? And what did she mean, there are some things more important than self-sacrifice? Did this trouble in the woods have anything to do with it?
"Once we're in Crometh we can learn what's going on." A smile formed on Xena's face as she added, "I hear the bards there can make up stories just from hearing a bit of news." Xena felt a chuckle vibrate in the smaller form that was pressed closely against hers.
"Hmmm. Is that a challenge, my Warrior Princess, or is that a challenge?" Gabrielle returned. Xena could hear the smile in her voice and her mind filled in the familiar face lit up in mischief with sparkling green eyes flecked with brown.
"I think you're getting out of practice because you don't have much competition." She returned with a grin that Gabrielle couldn't see but could picture by the light tone of her voice. "You were a bit slow on star stories last night." The grin turned into a big smile as she remembered how she had won.
Gabrielle laughed, and in a mock outrageous tone retorted, "Hey! You distracted me! That was not fair!"
"Ahhh, ahh. You didn't lay down any rules. And I seem to remember that you started it…besides, my hands were cold."
"Xena, your hands were warm." Gabrielle laughed hugging the tall woman in front of her then butting her head against what had been a comfortable pillow. Gabrielle smiled remembering that she did start it.
Xena reached back and slid her hand under Gabrielle's warm coat to tickle her.
"Hmm. I'm certainly not complaining." Gabrielle giggled. "I want to warn you though…I am studying all these…war tactics of yours." She told her dark haired companion as she swung her leg over Xena's. Xena's tickling turned to a soft caress along the leg that moved to cover hers.
"Nice to hear." Xena purred. "Just be careful who you try them on." Xena removed her roaming hand and returned it to the hands that were still intertwined around her waist. She needed to pay attention to the road. She didn't have an army around her to let her get away with pleasant distractions in the open as she had with Borias; of course she was a lot wilder and brash then, and the riders of his tribe did just about everything on horseback. She smirked at the memory. She took a deep breath and released it. The pain she use to feel when she thought about Borias and her inability at the time to appreciate what a more trusting relationship could have brought them, no longer weighed on her. Any change in her past would change the present…with Gabrielle…and that is something she was not willing to tamper with even if it meant opening herself up emotionally to past lovers. She already found out what one life altering change had done to Gabrielle when she was at the temple of the Fates.
"I don't want too much excitement in every town we visit, to say nothing of me having to fight off wanna-be suitors." She growled in a low voice.
"Ohhh. I like that tone of voice." Gabrielle hugged her hard.
Xena patted Gabrielle's hands again, returning her thoughts to their destination. Athena had given her no information at all about Crometh. She had merely inquired if she and Gabrielle were going there as they had planned. Xena ignored the minor annoyance that the goddess was in their business and responded instead to her inner warning signal that something was amiss. Athena did not ask for favors...not from her anyway. However, it had the smell of god tampering in mortal's lives. It also had her curiosity for Athena was careful about her approach with her and how it might be construed…but by whom? She grinned to herself as she remembered that she was not the most approachable mortal when it came to dealings with the gods. So, Xena considered herself forewarned that something was not right in Crometh, City of the Muses…and…rumored to be well visited by three goddess of which Athena was one and Artemis was another, which explained why Artemis got involved. What was so important that two goddesses wanted them in Crometh? She sighed. She wondered just how Aphrodite was going to get into the picture somewhere on this trip.
A week from their destination they had taken shelter from a snow storm in a comfortable inn that was full of others that had likewise sought shelter from the bad weather. While Gabrielle plied her trade, entertaining the tavern patrons with her stories, Xena gathered news from the best sources of information on roads, towns and people…the traveling merchants and traders. What she heard further aroused her curiosity. Caravans no longer visited the city due to a problem in the surrounding hills and forests, which none of the traders could say what it was. However, they mentioned that Crometh had merchants that did leave the city and traded with her surrounding neighbors. Odd for a city that makes their primary living from visitors to suddenly change their income base, Xena thought.
The trio came to an end of the forest but not due to a normal ending. Stubs of blackened tree trunks sitting in a dirty gray ash, covered one side of a hill with rows of felled trees neatly laid out along side of the road waiting for pickup. It appeared that someone was doing some serious building nearby and getting the hill ready for farmland. They had one more hill to climb before they would get to the city. Xena dismounted and reached up for Gabrielle whose legs she knew would be stiff from the riding. Since they were near their destination they could both use a break and Argo certainly could use one. Argo quickly found some sweet grass growing along the side of the road.
Gabrielle stretched her legs as she studied the blackened hill that had the appearance of being prepared for farming yet lacked some of the essentials for preparation, like timely turning the ash and dirt under for enrichment of the soil. She moved off to the side of the road to relieve herself. Xena waited keeping an eye out for company until Gabrielle was finished, then she took her turn. Both shared sips from the water skin listening to the wind moving through the bare trees further behind them, an occasional call of a bird, the flutter of wings, the chattering of squirrels and a comfortable silence between them. Xena walked over to Argo and reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a small pouch tossing it to Gabrielle. Delighted, Gabrielle untied it and reached in for a handful of dried fruits mixed with nuts to snack on, putting two handfuls into a smiling Xena's one cupped hand, then reaching in for her share.
"I had forgotten we still had some trail mix." Gabrielle told her smiling companion.
The two women sat comfortably shoulder to shoulder on the stacked logs nestled up against the slope of the hill just off the road. Argo moved across the road where there were no logs stacked to find more grass, after accepting a rather dried apple from her mistress. While munching on their snack in silence Xena studied the scorched ground around them. In the soggy ash, she could see prints of people, various four legged creatures, and a set of cloven prints. The cloven prints seemed to be the most recent for they were imposed over a few of the people prints. It was the biggest set of cloven prints she had seen since Bacchus, whom had the misfortune of threatening them. Finishing her snack Xena turned to her friend who was letting her eyes dreamily drift over the tree stubs. Xena moved to Argo's side and unlaced her scabbard from the saddle, fastening it to her side, then chastised her four footed friend for not letting her secure her reins.
Wordlessly Gabrielle had moved to a less muddied part of the road waiting while Xena attempted to collect Argo who playfully evaded Xena's grab for her reins. She couldn't help laughing at Xena's murmuring to the prankish mare that she would give her a better tasting apple when they reached the city if she would behave herself and get back on the road.
Xena leaped onto Argo's back then nudged her over to the waiting Bard. Normally they would walk the rest of the way into the city but the road was too muddy with pools of water collected in the ruts thereby making footing for Gabrielle treacherous if not messy. She didn't always pay attention to her footing on the road because her attention was divided on either creating a new story for their next town, or on practicing one on her silent and vigilant companion. That required hand gestures, voice and eye contact, and sometimes leaps forward or to the side to emphasize a point or two…and all of which were not good for watching where she placed her feet, for the images in her head were not mindful of her present.
Once Gabrielle was comfortably seated behind her, Xena signaled Argo with a slight thigh squeeze, to continue their progress to Crometh. Gabrielle remained silent behind Xena but occasionally she touched her tall partner to point out small creatures that were peering out at them from the bare hillside, as Argo plodded through the muddied road that began to climb around a hill that was denuded of trees seasons ago.
Spotting wildlife around them was another game Xena played with Gabrielle to deepen her awareness of what was around her. The rules were that Xena had to spot ten creatures to Gabrielle's one before she could get a point. It had once been a higher number, but Gabrielle was getting better. At one time it was also a way to get Gabrielle to stop chattering for it drove Xena crazy. Now Xena didn't mind whether she chatted or played one of their many games. She turned to peer at her quiet friend with fondness. She watched the green eyes shaded under blond lashes flicker over the land around them then track to hers where they were held captive for a few moments. Both enjoyed the feeling that passed between them.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and unconsciously took a deep breath. "A lot of this has been cleared seasons ago. I wonder why they haven't used it yet?" Gabrielle broke the silence in a soft voice.
Xena nodded thoughtfully at the remark, returning her own gaze to the landscape. Xena let the warmth that had built up between them in the exchange subside, grateful that Gabrielle had broke the contact for she was loath to at that moment. You need to pay attention to your surroundings; especially since you know there are satyrs around, and they are using darts, Xena chastised herself, but not being able to take herself seriously. The way the land was bare all around them, the chance of someone sneaking up on her was as less likely as Ares showing up without her knowing. Xena cursed under her breath at the thought of him.
Gabrielle listened to the body language of the woman she was holding onto, knowing she was deep in thought about something that disgusted her, but as the body relaxed again, knew she had worked whatever it was out.
Both women turned their thoughts to the wildlife, and useful herbs that were lost because industrious people whom harvested the trees and scorched the land for farming, didn't appear to have replanted anything on the land they stripped. It was typical of most towns growing beyond their first settlements to harvest the trees around them then burn the remains of whatever was left. If they turned the ash under mixed with human and animal waste, and waited a few months they would be able to prepare it for farming that same season. It didn't make sense that they left so much unused land for what looked like two seasons and without even preparing it for any use. They were destroying useful resources, perhaps thinking that with enough prayers to their gods the forests would simply replenish in time, or that they could always trade for whatever they lost with someone else, Xena thought with distaste. Was this part of the problem or was this the result of the problem, Xena wondered. Citizens that were too busy working on defenses had little time for anything else.
Crometh started out as a farming and sheep community. A group of people, mixed in age and gender, left their own communities for various reasons and settled in this area that at the time was far enough away from other cities and towns to not be bothered with challenges to their settling on the land. Years later a family, fleeing battling warlords from Epirus, wandered into the growing community and opened up an inn. The Golden Ram soon became the place for socializing and entertainment with competitions of various skills being wagered. By the time the innkeeper's children were old enough to start their own businesses, the community was a regular stop-over for traders and big enough to support four inns. Then the real competitions began as each inn sponsored competitors that were pitted against visitors or each other. When the citizens speak of it today, they say the family had purposely started the rivalry knowing that everyone would want to come and see which inn would win the huge yellow-gold dyed sheep skin each month. The skin was from the Pyrrhic breed that only grew large in Epirus, supposedly from where the family had originally migrated. The monthly competitions were monthly fairs.
Five temples were located in the city, with the largest and most detailed being dedicated to the Muses. All cities had a portia, that is a patroness…or a patron. How the Muses were selected as the Patronesses was determined by the decision not to upset any of the gods. The Muses were the least interfering, so they were chosen. However, when the three sister goddesses started to visit regularly, it was decided to honor them…and quite wisely. A fourth temple to Zeus was added to give some sort of male representation, and after all, he was their sire.
Today the city spread out widely covering the entire flat grassland that nestled between rolling hills that had once been covered with trees. By the time they climbed the last hill that overlooked the city Argo was acting irritated from the condition of the road.
Xena halted Argo at the top of the last hill to give her a breather, and so that they could view the city that spread out below them. There was farmland neatly laid out on three sides of the city. The city appeared to be extending it's own boundaries as square towers that were part wood and part stone rose far from the original wall. A new wall could be seen raising from around stone work that was in progress, with people strung out in long lines hard at work. There were some dogs playing to one side and others curled up asleep, while guards, either on horse back or walking about looked toward the two women that stood out as silhouettes against the blue sky. The land to the east of the city wasn't cleared for farming, as the forest was allowed to grow.
They must have a stone quarry near by. Xena studied the amount of stone that had already been used.
As they moved onto the lower road they passed through farm fields whose walls at closer inspection, were falling into disrepair. Nearing the new stone works around the city, Xena studied the deep trench being filled in, which was for the foundation of the enceinte, the new thick outer walls. They had raised the wall in some places six cubits, almost twice her height with the thickness being a good eight cubits. Their progress into the city was slowed as they moved carefully around men, women and children working in long lines passing baskets of materials.
They finally dismounted as they waited for a young girl who had a bucket of water for the workers to lift her burden and move to another line waiting for refreshment.
Some of the workers nodded to them as they passed. A few suggestions were tossed to them as where they could stay when they reached the city and where to buy goods.
"Xena, it doesn't look like they're preparing for war." Gabrielle spoke softly, "They're too calm. Do you think maybe they're just expanding their city?"
"Could be…" Except it wouldn't explain the land that had the appearance of being fallow for a season of planting. They could be taking precautions from something in the surrounding forests… but from the satyrs? She gave a casual look over the crowd. I've never heard of satyrs taking on a city of people. There aren't enough of them to wage even a small battle. For a brief moment she wished Athena had given her a bigger hint at what she was concerned about.
They passed through the original gates of the city eyeing the two guards on either side of the gateposts. The guards stood with their hands casually draped over their sword belts chatting, however, Xena could feel them being examined as they passed. Xena did her own scrutinizing, noticing the uncleaned leathers, dirty metal and the unfinished noon meal lying half eaten in a basket nearby, surrounded by flies. Her eyes moved to the original walls, thick enough for a wallwalk with a turret where soldiers could be seen looking out in four directions.
"Xena, look at the art work on these gates." Gabrielle had paused before the gates to study the impressive detailed artwork that was fastened on the inside of the massive gates. They were ornate metal-pounded impressions with stones to enhance the effect of the nine Muses in posses representing their muse.
"Ya…nice." A thoughtful Xena glanced at the gates letting her eyes note more than the decorative covering. Her mind registered thickness of the wood behind the pounded metal, the soundness of the walls for keeping out attackers, the placement of the guards, the buildings that lined the inside of the wall, and how many people were about the entrance and what they were doing. There was something not right about this city that should be full of people ready for the weeklong celebration for Winter Solstice that it was so well known for. And the soldiers posed an additional puzzle. They looked like new recruits who wouldn't last a quarter candlemark in a light workout. Where were Crometh's hearty soldiers keeping themselves? Xena's thoughtful gaze returned to her companion who was smiling at…she moved her gaze to where Gabrielle's eyes were fastened.
A couple of cats were sleeping in the sun on top of a row of neatly lined barrels that were still damp from the previous day's rain. A dog was sniffing around the bottom of one, where a pair of small eyes was peeking out. Xena watched amused as a tiny claw reached out between the barrels and smacked the sniffing nose that got too close to its hiding place. The dog backed up surprised and shook himself, then barked at the hiding kitten who was joined by her litter mates, as more tiny eyes peered out at the larger four-legged creature that wanted them to play with him.
Odd, Xena thought.
"Awwww. That's cute, Xena." Gabrielle laughed.
As they entered the outer yard most of the merchant stalls were empty and the market place that they had heard boasted as being always crowded with customer's even in the winter, had few people about. However, there was plenty of wandering chickens, as well as goats and sheep in a pen that were tended by young children and yawning dogs. All seemed placid and very quiet. Normally the goats and sheep would be wandering the open lands finding available grass, trailed by their herders and dogs. Xena looked up at the winter sun and noted there was about a candlemark of light left. Did the people fear the surrounding area enough to bring in their wandering herds early and keep them within the city's original walls? And where are the rest of the herds?
Xena led Argo to an inn, The Bard's Hall, where they were going to stay.
"It looks like most of the citizens are out working the walls." Gabrielle observed. She was hopping the celebrations for winter solstice would liven the place up. She was getting weary just looking around.
Xena kept her eyes scanning the area as she pulled the saddlebags from Argo's withers. She loosened the saddle girth, then patted Argo's neck, making a mental note to brush the thick dull winter coat after they settled in their room.
"I'll be back to take care of you, Girl. And I'll find you an apple, just like I promised. That sound good to you, Argo?" Xena asked in a low voice. The mare turned her head to her mistress and extended her head toward her letting out a whiff of air from her whiskered nose. "I take that as a yes." She moved her hand behind an ear and gave a brief rub before joining Gabrielle, who was smiling from the inn's porch.
There were two people in the common room with a set of nicely crafted stairs to the right leading up into the area where the rooms for rent were. Darts, dice and other gaming supplies were neatly arranged on all of the tables, waiting for patrons to take them up. Bowls of fruit, dried and fresh, were on the front counter. Xena's sharp eyes spotted two nice looking green apples waiting for the asking. The two figures looked up at them as Xena closed the door, shutting out the day glare from behind them.
One of the women was tall with bright curly red hair, bound with a thin leather strip and ribbon, tied into a single braid that was pulled forward and laid across one shoulder, with loose bits of curly hair ends all about, giving the impression she had just finished some sort of strenuous physical activity. She wore a dark green winter cloak over her black mud stained trews. It appeared she had recently returned from riding for the mud on the sides of her boots and breeches was still noticeably wet. Her sword was creating a noticeable break in the flow of the cloak down her long frame.
"Welcome." The pleasant voice behind the bar greeted them. "Need rooms, food, drink, a place for y'er horses?" She asked as if it were the usual offer made to potential customers.
"We'll take them all." Gabrielle told her smiling. Her breath caught as she looked at the red head that was studying her openly. She looked vaguely familiar.
Xena nodded to the two women.
"Alala." She told Gabrielle under her breath.
For a moment Gabrielle didn't know what she was talking about. The redhead, of course. She's Alala. Gabrielle had a mental image of herself slapping her forehead. Birds, horses, Athena's animal warden at the Athens's temple. Gabrielle's memory supplied her. What is she doing here, I wonder? This must be Athena's connection to whatever the problem is here.
"Ala, will show y'er w'ere y'er can stable y'er horses." The women behind the bar told them. "Most is doin' time on the wall so's e'res short of 'elp these days." The barmaid apologized. "But ere's story tellin' during meal time, bout sundown." She reassured her guests. "T'is a Bard's Inn, y'er know." She smiled and nodded to Xena and then Gabrielle.
Xena laid the saddlebags on the floor next to Gabrielle's feet giving her a discreet wink, then followed Alala out. Gabrielle hid her grin at Xena's removal of two green apples and her nod to the Innkeeper to add it to their tab.
"Will y'er be needin' one er two rooms?" The woman asked as Gabrielle pulled her coin purse out and paid for one room for two nights in advance, with a morning and night meal for two people and board and feed for one horse.
The woman checked her coinage and dropped them into what Gabrielle could imagine as a locked box behind her counter. She could hear the money roll around as if the box were near empty. Gabrielle had picked up her own bag and the woman picked up the saddlebags before Gabrielle could and led the way up the staircase.
"So…you're expanding your city?" Gabrielle ventured.
"Hmmm." The woman responded noncommittally.
Gabrielle thought about how to reword her comment to get more information.
"I noticed the walls are pretty thick. If you ever had trouble you'd be pretty safe." She tried again.
"Trouble alright." The woman muttered in a dark tone.
"From who?" She asked not batting an eye at her jumping to the heart of the problem so quickly.
The woman shook her head. "Now wouldn't t'at be nice if'n were known…" She sighed.
Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the wealth of information she was managing to gather so quickly. "You've already had people looking about, no doubt."
"Yeeaaa." The old woman grunted in reply as she walked ahead of Gabrielle. "Didn' find nothin'. Hmmmp. Them idiots couldn' find 'eir boots even by smell." She glanced back at Gabrielle's concerned look. "No need ta w'ery. Few moons ago word was sent ta 'ercules."
"So you don't know if he's received word or…" Gabrielle guessed. She smiled to herself. I wonder if Xena was able to get as much from Alala. Warrior types. She thought smugly, as she imagined the two warriors trying to carry on a conversation. Won't happen. However, Gabrielle also knew that Xena's method of gathering information was usually not through conversation, though when she did use it, she could be quite persuasive. Well, whatever is bothering them…it was enough for them to send for Hercules. She smiled at the thought of maybe running across Hercules and Iolaus…but, after they had solved Crometh's problem, she smirked thinking of Iolaus' and her small competition.
"Or if the messengers ever got through." She finished Gabrielle's sentence as she regarded Gabrielle. Gabrielle passed her to enter the room as the woman held open the door, gesturing her forward. The woman laid the saddlebags near the bed and Gabrielle laid her own bag next to the table near a balcony door. She looked about the spacious room and noted the amenities of bath, latrine, running water for drinking and washing, a fireplace with a stack of wood and a very wide bed. The room smelled fresh and the bedding looked clean. Gabrielle nodded as she looked around.
The woman's eyes followed Gabrielle's. "Water's warmed from cook's fire. If y'er have a mind for testin the springs…Crometh's built round natural springs an e're mineral pool. Y'er got y'er pick as 'ere's one near each temple. Y'er should ave no w'ery about bathin with them soldiers, none of 'em know what a regular bath is. Fer two of y'er it'll be eight dinar with an extra dinar fer linen 'n two for an assistant."
"Great. That sounds nice…" Gabrielle paused for moment wondering how much more information she could get out of this woman before she deemed her too nosey for a stranger. "We passed some soldiers heading this way in the woods and something else…" Gabrielle offered hoping the woman would supply what she thought the something else was, or information on the soldiers.
"Hmm. Soldiers y'er say? Like ere's not enough already." She gave a sound of disapproval. "Ere's satyrs in the woods bout this time. Travelers use ta be safe from 'em …but …times change. Y'ere lucky y'er made it through without some fuss."
"What's happening?" Gabrielle asked bluntly. This was really pushing her luck.
There was a moment of silence as the women's face took on a thoughtful look. She rested against the door jam. "We thought t'wer some warlord trying ta scare us ta payin tribute. But t'wern't no demands." Sighing heavily she shook her head. "Ala 'n a few of 'er friends had cleared a group of thugs and satyrs out of the forest bout year ago n' things quieted down fer a bit. Then it started happen'n agin bout a moon after'n they left. The priestess told us t'was the same warlord as last time but…no one's seen proof…'n we don't take counsel on matters that aren't dealin with the gods from a priestesses…" Instead of giving a firm nod of affirmation at what she declared she shook her head doubtfully. "Now…" She shrugged her shoulders.
"So…now, you're building walls." Hmm, we'll have to visit this priestess.
"Ya. We 'ave General Gigantes leadin us. Seems smart ta do n' these times." Her voice didn't sound like she believed it. "But we're still loyal ta da Muses 'n have e'er celebrations…I'm hope'n 'ercules gets here n' time to help us though." She added in a lower tone. "Before business is nothin."
Gabrielle was silent as she studied the woman.
"We've winter provisions…plenty e're food. We've had a good nough harvest even with General Gigantes taking charge er' the surplus." The woman told Gabrielle as she took her leave. "So, y'er ta get a good fare. I'll put some warm food up fer the two of y'er. If y'er athinkin ta leave soon, there's a merchant's caravan leavin 'n two days. Best ta travel with ther caravan, then by y'er selves. No use pushin' the Fates. Though, it would be a shame fer y'er ta have made the trip 'ere 'n miss the solstice celebrations."
"Great. Thanks. Ya, we are here for the celebrations…and, we are really hungry."
The door was closed firmly behind the disappearing innkeeper's form.
Gabrielle went to the second door in their room leading out to a balcony and opened it. She wrapped her arms about herself as the cold breeze set her coat ends flapping. Their second floor balcony looked out onto an alley and a row of residences across from them, which had similar styled balconies and pipes for water dropping from the side of the rooms down into the ground below. Gabrielle didn't step out onto the balcony, she merely leaned against the doorframe and checked out the size of the balcony. It had a cistern for catching rainwater in one corner and in the other long thin bare branches from a climbing tree reached out to touch the railing of the balcony. During spring it probably was dripping with blossoms and carrying into the rooms the heavy scent of its flowers.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the city's sounds. She could hear some children talking in their high pitched voices, dogs barking, a cat's meow, chickens clucking, an occasional bleat of a lamb, and some banging from what sounded like a metal smith at work. The echoes from this lone hammering sounded haunting to her. Usually a city of this size had a lot of noise, from animals, hawkers for their wares, and a mixture of people's voices arguing over this or that. Even the workers outside the city's gates were quiet, except for a few that gave suggestions on where to stay or spend their money. Maybe because it's late in the day and they're just tired, she thought pursing her lips.
She breathed in deeply, picking out the more favorable smells of baking goods for evening meal over the usual city smells. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the some of the stronger odors that mixed with the baking smells. It was nice to visit a city now and again, but already she missed the smell of the rich damp earth, scents from fresh vegetation, sounds of the wildlife, the wind in the trees, and most of all, listening to an occasional song from her dark haired warrior companion.
This city has an uncomfortable feel to it, and I don't know if it's because I like the open space outside of the city's walls or if it's from the city itself. Hmmm. A city that is preparing for a war it doesn't know who with, and whose inhabitants are abnormally quiet…that certainly poses an interesting picture.
She and Xena had been to plenty of cities that were preparing for war, or in the midst of a war, and she couldn't remember any of them feeling like this…but then…all cities have a different feel to them. What is so different about this city? Gabrielle was lost in thought and didn't notice when Xena's tall frame quietly entered into the room.
Xena closed the door softly and studied the thoughtful face that was lit from the last of the daylight that came though the balcony door she was leaning against. Her cheeks were red from the cold but she seemed to be oblivious of it as her gaze appeared to be focused inward, with her arms wrapped around her and her hands tucked in the sleeves of her coat for warmth. Normally Gabrielle could sense when Xena was close by and would spot her in a matter of seconds, so Xena knew she was too far away in her thoughts to take notice of her presence. She took that time to go over what she had observed and overheard from the few people that were not working on the city's fortifications while leaning against the closed door and idly watching the reflective figure before her.
The stable was a short walk from the inn, located against the eastern wall of the city. Conversation between the two women was nil but neither seemed to find it uncomfortable. Alala didn't appear to remember Xena or Gabrielle, but there was a noticeable hesitation when she spotted Argo. Argo had no problem with her memory as she took time on their walk to the stable to lip the pocket on the cloak of the woman to remind her that she was interested in the little treats of carrots and slices of green apples she use to carry for her own mount. As Xena unsaddled her Argo settled for letting Alala scratch behind her ears. Xena suspected she was still looking for the treats she had once been given by Alala. Argo had a very good memory of who treated her well.
Xena didn't see any trace of Alala's feathered friends. Maybe the falcon was out hunting and the owl sleeping in a dark corner. Yori, her horse was in his stall, contently munching on fresh hay in his feedbox. She spotted his tact and noticed it was still wet with sweat though it had been wiped. She also noticed that Yori had a bucket of water to himself and his water trough that shared water from the common source was empty, plugged closed as a matter of fact. Xena striped Argo of her gear and brushed her down, chuckling when a golden nose pushed its way into the pocket of her coat that held the two apples that had been snagged off the inn's table.
So, now you ask me, huh Girl?
Argo knew the apples in her mistress' pocket were going to her, so she was just pushing her luck by checking with Alala for remembered treats the woman seemed to always have in her pockets. Her own mistress did not have pockets for snacks…or for that matter, when she wore her leather uniform, had no pockets to speak of.
As Alala pulled hay down from the rafters, and poured some oats into the feedbox for Argo, Xena covertly studied her, knowing Alala was doing the same to her. She could feel the tall animal warden's uncertainty. She didn't expect her to remember them for even Gabrielle needed to be reminded. Xena took the cue from Alala's attention to her horse and poured water from one of their water skins into a bucket for Argo. Alala didn't offer any suggestions or comments but her body language indicated she had made a note of Xena's choice.
Alala offered little conversation and Xena asked few questions on the way back. Xena chose a different route back to the inn walking through the alley that was behind the inn they were staying at. Her observations in silence gave her more information than if she had tried to pump Alala, who didn't look like she would be very forthcoming with any information. Xena overheard a few people that were standing around chatting; spotted someone watching her; caught sight of another person glancing at her before hurrying off.
Yep…there's certainly a lot going on here.
A knock on their door brought both women back from their thoughts. Gabrielle was startled that Xena was leaning up against the closed door. Xena opened the door after winking at Gabrielle.
"Yer foods ready. Woud'ya like it 'ere er ya be wantin' ta cume down ta the common?"
"We'll be down." Xena told her. She nodded to Gabrielle who responded by moving toward the door. Both women exchanged their warm outdoor coats for lighter indoor cloaks that Xena pulled out of their bags. Winter was winter and no matter how many bodies or big a fire, it was best to take something warm to wrap around you.
"How long were you there?" Gabrielle asked softy as she stood in front of the tall warrior, resting a hand on the leathered waist.
"Long enough to see that you really were thinking hard." She teased leaning down with her lips close to Gabrielle's ears as she fastened her cloak around her. "Must have been about the competition you'll be facing. But I have faith in you, O'Bard of mine."
Gabrielle attempted to give the tall woman a poke with her elbow, but a warm palm trapped her elbow firmly and guided her down the staircase.
In the common room a small group of people had gathered and by their appearance they had been working on the wall. Some surrounded a playing board sipping their drinks as they watched the two players while others played in pairs. Casual glances were sent their way as they entered, but no one seemed to take any particular interest in their presence. The room was abnormally quiet for an inn with games in progress.
Xena took her usual place with her back to the wall and in an area where she could watch the comings and goings and not be easily seen…in other words…the darkest corner.
Their food was delivered along with ale for Xena and a mug of cider for Gabrielle. The bread was warm and they were given the choice of flat bread or raised bread. Xena chose the flat bread, stuffing the vegetable stew from her plate into the center of the bread. Gabrielle liked fresh raised bread. She tore a piece off, dunking it in the olive oil and herb mixture that was set near them, chewing and giving a casual look around her as her spoon dipped in the thick stew with her other hand.
"Xena?" She asked as her eyes fell on the dark shadowed face that was silently eating next to her. Gabrielle watched the shadows move on the high cheekbones as her jaw chewed, eyes moving around as the expression on the dark face remained impassive.
"Hmmm." Xena turned her head slightly to regard the smaller woman who had a pensive look on her face. The blue eyes were bright in contrast to the shadows they sat in.
"They've sent a messenger to Hercules."
"They don't know what's going on, but the walls are to keep someone out."
"Hmmhmm." Xena nodded as she continued with her meal. She bit back her usual caustic reply of 'usually that's what high thick walls were for'.
"Did Alala recognize you?" Gabrielle continued, use to the reticent warrior's short answers and sparse information sharing.
"Nope. She recognized Argo, though." Xena smiled inwardly at the Bard's persistence, and patience in gathering information from her, though she wasn't comfortable with talking in the open. Too many people seemed to be interested in their conversation.
"Figures." Gabrielle responded with an inward sigh. At last she got more than a short response. "Xena?"
"What are we going to do?"
Xena stopped chewing and looked at her blond haired partner. For a moment she merely regarded the round face with green eyes that sparked from the light a torch across the room gave off. Her blond hair curled around her face giving her a maturer look, but not by much. She watched a trail of gravy drip down the side of her chin, which was unconsciously wiped by Gabrielle with the back of her hand.
"Find out what's in the woods besides satyrs," was her practical response returning her attention back to her own meal. Her voice was soft and didn't carry past Gabrielle.
Gabrielle paused in her chewing, not missing the momentary light in the slitted darkened eyes. She nodded and resumed her eating thinking of the nice hot bath she was planning on soaking in with a willing bathing partner.
As the women were finishing their meal more people trickled in and the somber mood was lifted somewhat. Some of the customers were bards who began the practice of their skills. Gabrielle listened but didn't volunteer to tell any of her tales. The content of the stories was informative of what was happening in the fabled city of the Muses. Xena was right; they were able to make up interesting stories from bits of happenings around the city. What was odd was that there were no tales of life outside of Crometh or the customary winter solstice tales. It could have been like listening to the local crier announcing the daily news of the city and palace, if they had one.
The winter darkness left a lot of shadows in the inn and someone was going about lighting more lamps. Xena's cloak covered her armor and in the darkness her features. Not many could get a good view of her. However, Xena knew that Alala had noticed her armor and if she didn't recognize her from their once long journey together, she would recognize her trademark dress and weapons. Alala was in conference with a small group of women and men in another dark corner. Xena's sharp eyes could see them sipping their drinks, nibbling on some bread and looking their way. Her sharp hearing picked up their conversation and she was the subject. Nothing new in that. Two Amazons, one that was tall with long blond hair tied back like Alala and a shorter dark haired one stood on the other side of Alala. Interesting combination. Xena recognized five more of the women amongst the group. Mercenaries. She said nothing to Gabrielle who was listening to the bard tales while with her fingertip was idly drawing circles on her knee under the table.
Two candlemarks after sunset customers started to leave the inn in small groups, saying their good-byes to the those remaining. Xena quietly watched wondering if there was a curfew or a meeting the others were off to. From the conversations around her the people didn't seem to be bothered with having to interrupt their drinks or games. A few of the members in Alala's group had left and now the remaining were leaving with only Alala and Hildreth left sipping from their mugs.
"Xena, I'm kinda of tired…" Gabrielle spoke after the last group of bards left.
Xena glanced around noting there were but a handful of customers left, and some of them Xena had noticed kept a sharp eye on her and Gabrielle. Xena rose and nodded to Gabrielle. "Me too." A brief smile hidden in the dark touched her face, as she remembered why they didn't get much sleep the previous night. Too much star gazing and playing, she smirked to herself.
Gabrielle didn't miss the glittering bright blue eyes in the torchlight and poked her as she walked by her. Xena is probably really tired since she didn't get to take a nap, she thought as she returned the smirk.
Eyes from other tables followed the two women as they made their way up the stairs to their room.
Either we're going to have visitors later or they'll wait for tomorrow, Xena sighed as she held the door open for Gabrielle. She pursed her lips as she wondered if maybe because the citizens worked all day on the walls that they felt it was wise to get to bed early. I think I'll take a look around a little later tonight.
Gabrielle's mind was on a warm bath, sweet smelling soap and a nice massage that she was going to wheedle out of her pensive partner…and a discussion as to why the city didn't look like it was preparing for the famous week long celebrations for winter solstice.
Xena put off her night skulking until Gabrielle fell contently to sleep.
"Thanks." A soft whisper came from the drowsy bard before her breathing deepened into sleep.
Gabrielle had a smile on her lips as she whispered a thanks to any or all who were responsible for this evening, then drifted into Morpheus' realm. She not only got a chance to soak in hot oiled water, great for winter dry skin, but she and Xena exchanged massages which left her so relaxed she didn't argue with Xena about accompanying her on her night exploration of the city.
Gabrielle's dream started with the soft click of the balcony door that was closed behind Xena's dark figure that dropped silently to the ground below.
Gabrielle found herself standing in darkness with a soft light coming from above the right of her. A stone staircase led down to where she was with the last four stairs at the bottom disappearing into the darkness that surrounded her. Gabrielle cocked her head to the side wondering about the source of the light for it…felt…yes...felt…nice. Sighing deeply, she thought about climbing the stairs to the see where the light was coming from.
Gabrielle's pounding heart filled her ears as she realized that she could not move. The previous warm feelings were forgotten quickly. For some unknown reason this filled her with despair as she looked upward at the stairs and her exit out of this darkness which suddenly was threatening. Her eyes were drawn to the pictographs that were on the wall leading up the stairs. She hadn't noticed them when she had first looked up the staircase but now they were obvious. Some of the drawings were faded and looking very old while the newer ones looked out of place and crowded around the older ones. Swirls going one way and then another, stick people inside one of the circles and…she leaned closer…was that a hand with a seed in the center. In India she had seen the hand of Buddha, or was it his feet. She shook her head then tried to move in for a closer look.
Her vision blurred as she tried to focus on the newer drawing with the stick people. Images of people she knew in the past, present and people she didn't know flashed by her so quickly, it was like being on the back of the fleet footed Argo and watching the landscape rush by.
In her sleep, Gabrielle groaned from the motion sickness that was threatening to unsettle the contents of her stomach and turned over trying to find a comforting embrace or warmth from her favorite pillow. Sighing softly at only finding empty space she opened one eye to look at what she was hugging. Muttering, she snuggled into the pillow deeper and went back to sleep.
Gabrielle became partially awake later to stumble to the chamber pot to relieve herself. She made her way back to the bed while listening to the water rush down the pipes, clearing the pot and keeping it fresh. Her sluggish mind was grateful for the more modern conveniences found in larger cities. As she fell back into the bed she turned half-opened lids toward the balcony door, wistfully looking for the timely return of her bed-warmer. She nearly leaped up in fright as she saw the shadow of a bird with an expansive wingspan move across the floor toward her. Lifting her eyes she almost giggled realizing that the origin of the shadow wasn't quite so large. The fright had her giddy and she put a hand over her mouth to regain some composure. The door to the balcony was open, letting in a mixture of the night's fresh crisp air and city smells.
Gabrielle and the large owl both regarded each other for a moment, then the owl flapped its partially extended wings, as if trying to get her attention.
"Are you expecting someone else?" Gabrielle asked softly, thinking of her missing friend. "She's off inspecting the city." An idea occurred to her. "But…if you can't wait…maybe I can help." Did Alala send Chia to get Xena?
The owl turned its head completely upside down, as if to get another view of Gabrielle, nearly causing Gabrielle to fall off the bed with smothered giggles. It was the funniest thing she had seen since Xena had fallen into a mud puddle dressed in leathers, armor and all…of course what had distracted also was funny…but that's another story.
The owl righted it's head, turned and hopped onto the railing, out of sight from Gabrielle who tossed aside the covers and was hurriedly sliding out of a warm bed into a chilly room. She grabbed her long winter pants and tunic pulling her outer clothing over her sleeping shift, and laced up her boots remembering Xena's warning to lace them properly rather than later regret it. She pulled her warm coat from the hook wrapping it around her in one movement as she quickly stepped out onto the balcony. The owl was waiting for her. The dark shadow that was darker than its surroundings became larger as wings were lifted and without effort sailed down the alley.
Gabrielle watched the disappearing shape with some envy. "Wouldn't you know it has to be something with heights!" Gabrielle muttered to herself as she forced herself to climb over the railing. "I can do this…I can do this…" she whispered to herself as she moved over the balcony whose dark outline was all she could see. From memory she knew there was a climbing tree against the balcony…great for thieves and night skulkers, so she leaned over the railing reaching out for an expected branch. Her hand grasp the nearly leaf barren branch nearest her and gingerly pulled herself toward it, muttering her favorite mantra for times like these…"I can do this…I can do this…"
Her feet fumbled around in dead air before her shin found what she was looking for…a somewhat solid footrest. She closed her eyes for a moment letting out a silent scream from the pain. "Shin guards. Gotta get myself some greaves." She grunted through clinched teeth. "Greaves are definitely something all night skulkers should have." Finally she had both feet firmly planted on the branch which she could feel bending under her weight. Frantically her hands reached out with a foot looking for another place to put her foot further down the tree. Then things started to happen fast. The branch she was standing on bowed downward and her eyes opened wide as her feet slid toward the end of the branch with only her hand grip on another branch saving her from sliding out of the tree, but when her feet reached the end of the branch, they slid completely off. The upper one bowed from her added weight and the lower one sprang back up slapping her between the legs. Gabrielle lost her grip on the upper limb and she sat abruptly on the lower limb that had just accosted her, her eyes watered as she whimpered. Her body then started to topple over sideways. She wrapped both arms around the lower branch that was almost perpendicular to it's trunk, still unable to move as she was trying to get over her shock of the painful experience, and adding to it as she leaned forward against the bruised body part to hang on to her tormenter. Her weight dragged her underneath the branch, and somehow she ended up hanging upside down, where she lost her grip around the thin branch and was dropped to the alley floor at the foot of her unwilling ladder, thankfully not on her head. For a few moments Gabrielle laid where she was on her back, unceremoniously discarded, trying to gather her wits together, while the pain, lost dignity and the resolve to finish this night business settled in their proper places of priority.
"All right. Just pull yourself together." She muttered to herself breathlessly, as a small part of her mind, that was still able to function, directed her. Gabrielle didn't realize she had her eyes closed until she blinked the tears away a few times and found a pair of big yellow eyes regarding her from what looked like the balcony railing she had just awkwardly left.
"I hope you don't have any more of this type activity planned." She muttered more to herself than the owl gently rubbing her pubic bone. She was going to have some pretty interesting bruises to explain to Xena. The shin bruise would be easier to explain about than the one her blond thatch of hair was covering…but Gabrielle knew the soreness would give her away. Oh, joy. I'm going to be hearing about this for a long time, she groaned inwardly. Then a smile appeared on her face as she thought about Xena's healing skills that would be needed to…she shook her head. Gabrielle, keep your mind on the flapping bird and off lecherous thoughts, she told herself firmly.
The owl spread its wings and again sailed down the alley and from where Gabrielle could see, led to the main city street. Getting to her feet she painfully followed wondering if there was something Xena wore to protect herself from such mishaps…The woman probably doesn't even have these types of mishaps! She grumbled to herself, pausing near the edge of one of the corner buildings and peeked out cautiously. The city was lit with a few scattered torches giving off wavy light in the occasional breeze. The voices of guards as they met each other on their rounds drifted to her without her being able to recognize what was said
Now where did Chia go? Ahh. By Artemis' feathers, she's waiting for me! Okay, let's get moving here. Where are the guards? Gabrielle looked both ways before limping to the next building's shadow.
General Gigantes was reclining comfortably on his couch studying a map of the land around them and the natural underground tunnels that ran though the hills surrounding Crometh that his own men had made from their explorations. His dinner having been finished he was relaxed and content for the moment.
The noise outside his doors had him partially rising from his couch pulling his tunic into order and brushing off bits of food that had deposited themselves in the convenient folds of his tunic. He was expecting a message but not this soon. Unconsciously he adjusted the gold ring on his left hand.
The door opened and Captain Herodes came striding in with a worried frown on his face. Irritation passed over Gigantes's face for whenever he had an unexpected visit from the captain it meant trouble.
The captain made a salute that Gigantes had to control his delight in receiving. He hid his smirk by turning to the table that had various tasty tidbits sitting on a plate.
"Well, what is?" He asked him picking out a stuffed date.
"We have trouble."
"I know its trouble when you come in here unannounced." He stated irritably. "What kind of trouble." It's so difficult to run a city especially when your talents and interests lay elsewhere, he lamented to himself.
There was silence as Gigantes' mental image of the tall dark haired woman's beauty, poise, and the wild animal power she radiated came back to him. He had seen her in Troy, just before King Piram had taken her prisoner. Her eyes were scanning the city's battlements as she strode with such purpose and confidence beside one of the generals. Those bright blue gems had but rested on him briefly, yet they had changed his mind about beauty that day. Before her he had thought Queen Penthesileia, the Amazon Warrior Queen in her golden armor gifted from her father Ares, with flashing gray eyes full of death, was the perfect example of beauty and strength. Just as she was light and golden, making it easy to follow her on the battlefield, Xena was dark…and rumored to be Ares chosen. She certainly fared better than Ares daughter did. At the time he wondered if Xena, the Warrior Princess had a death wish like Queen Penthesileia and was offering her services to the doomed King Piram, who seemed to draw beautiful and powerful women to him that had a dark cloud of death over their head.
Idly he tapped his ring finger on the table edge while thoughtfully chewing on his stuffed date. He plucked a grape from its bunch turning it in his fingers then plopped it in his mouth, as if unconcerned, not noticing the change in tastes, as his mind was busy processing this bit of news.
"You know, the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess." The captain hinted, not getting a response on his first announcement.
"I know who Xena is!" Gigantes spat out a seed, as he let his legs swing to the floor and take his weight.
He and his master had left right after the treacherous Horse had been rolled in. His master knew the Horse held Spartan troops. Gigantes had wanted to stay and see King Piram, arrogant in his use of the Amazon and her twelve loyal followers, fall with such a shyster's slight of hand trick. Now the dark warrior, whom he heard rumors had also escaped, was here. Those beautiful blue eyes. It excited him to think that she was in his game now and he had the power to…have her. A dangerous thought to be tempted by, his more practical side whispered.
"Did she say why she's here?" He asked suddenly. What if she heard what's happening to the city? We're not yet finished! He was torn between wanting her within his power or the safer move of getting out before she got involved. He knew he didn't have the caliber of soldiers to take her. He was at the moment regretting that because he didn't want to spend the extra money on better-qualified soldiers he was going to lose everything. But then, he would have had to live for a year of worrying about those he hired who may try to muscle him out of his own operation, he argued with himself. He hated the bloody part of the power game where he might be hurt and therefore let others do the actual dirty work, making sure he was far enough out of that part of the operation to be effected. In this case it was the Captain who was to handle that part or his partner, Yerik.
The Captain shook his head and hesitated, "She's traveling with that Bard that she usually travels with." Captain Herodes added.
"So, you think they've come to participate in the fabled celebrations for winter solstice, huh?" There isn't going to be any. He had finally got the spirit of the city down to such a low point in energy that no one any longer openly practiced festivals. The proof he had was that even though it was seven days before solstice they hadn't even started to prepare for the weeklong celebrations. He felt he had them finally under his power. He sighed to himself. He had mixed feelings at the moment. Xena will certainly figure out that there is something wrong with that. The business of extending the city's wall will distract her for a while, though…How did she get through the forest without being…well, she is Xena, of course. Hades! We have seven more days to finish with the bet and still to find two more of the dead Queen's belongings!
It had taken them over a year to get to this point…they had been lucky…or maybe it was as Yerik said, the stone and drawings protected them from the gods interference. But, would the drawings protect them from the likes of Xena? Gods or men hadn't been able to do her much harm…according to the tales, he thought worried.
"Ares balls!" He finally muttered. "Get word to Yerik. I take it you have someone watching her?"
"She'd know something was going on if we had someone watching her." Captain Herodes warned him. "I think we should first find out if she's here for the celebrations."
General Gigantes nodded. Her instinctive powers were legendary, which was why he was nervous. Captain Herodes was right; it was best not to go rushing into things concerning her until they had more information.
"We need her out of here before the meeting in three days and for sure before solstice ….or neutralized by then." He muttered to himself, impatiently gesturing for the captain to leave. "Leave me. I'll let ya know when I've thought about it some. Meanwhile, tell our contact at whichever inn she's staying at to fix her drinks and that bard that's with her."
He wanted to think alone. He rolled another grape between his thumb and forefinger. He didn't want to get her annoyed with him, that was for certain, for she always got her licks in….even with Caesar. Winning his bet was his real interest for it was just a trial run for what he wanted to eventually do…it was Yerik who had picked Crometh to try his experiment in first. Yerik was also his backers insurance that he played by the rules. Normally to try something new, it was best tried on a small village first but…Yerik had…Hades… had talked him into Crometh because he had heard of a reward offered by Caesar for three ritual objects that once belonged to the Amazon Queen Penthesileia. Yerik knew he had a weakness for the dead Queen. Three of the objects were reputed to be at Crometh, or so a Seer had informed Caesar. One was the golden girdle of the Amazon Queen given to her by Artemis when she became Queen. Another was the sacred feathered fan for sweeping across the sacred bowl as it burned incense to sanctify offerings to Artemis. The third was a gold ring…and it may be the one he wore. He had stolen it from one of the officers of Troy that had removed it from the belongings of the dead Queen. The girdle, feathered fan and the ring they had originally suspected were being hidden in the Muses sacred cavern, held in memorial trust of the tragic Queen. But, after finding the girdle, or the chest where they thought the girdle was in and not the other two objects, both his partner and him were separately thinking the other two objects were somewhere else in the city.
He looked down at the ring that he wore on his left hand, idly turning it around without studying the design that he was very familiar with. The cream white stone glinted as it twisted in the light. When Yerik first mentioned a ring they both thought it referred to another ring the Queen owned while she ruled her Nation, but the way Yerik was starting to look at his ring when they had their meetings….after all, when the Seer had seen the three objects, the ring was in his possession, so how could the Seer say the three objects would be located in the city, he argued with himself?
Gigantes stared at the marble head in the center of his table. It had been so easy to take over this city that he was already thinking of taking Pella next. And then…maybe Athens. He could cut a deal with Caesar…no…the Caesar Clan sailed to a multitude of political winds and he didn't want to be bothered worrying about when he would be betrayed, especially if Julius Agustus Caesar found out that the ring he had was the ring the Seer had seen. If this ring were the one, then it meant the other objects weren't to be found together. Thoughts like that confused the search for the treasures. Gigantes bit his lip in consternation. He was here only to win a bet, which would insure more backers for his next venture, and prove his theory…the reward from Caesar was a secondary bonus. It was also Yerik's greatest passion, he reminded himself.
General Gigantes sat down on his couch with his head in his hand, pursing his lips thoughtfully. His thoughts returned to a more immediate problem….Xena. Why not just let the natural course of events take her? If she proved a threat before she fell under the same influence as the city, he needed something to slow her down while he got away. First of all, he didn't want her to see him. She was relentless. He could fade into the crowds if she didn't recognize him. Next…he had to plan on leaving early just in case. What did he care about Yerik or…Alfonso? He shook his head. Alfonso he would work on later. He was a power broker that he would need to bring in more backers to his next scheme. Now…Yerik may be another matter. Yerik had become too focused on Caesar's reward. But he had a plan for him if he threatened him. He always worked better alone and had contingencies for when he took on partners.
"We can grab the Bard, young Perdicas' girl." He muttered to himself. Perdicas. Gigantes paused as he remembered the young soldier's eyes that lit up seeing his childhood betrothed run through the Trojan gates before the tall warrior with arrows from the surrounding army raining all around them. Trust Xena to come through unharmed. He sighed again. It was tempting to play his game on her, to possess her, but he really did fear her. It took two days for the drug to begin to slow down a person, unless given a stronger dose and if Xena suspected…too many chances taken with her would certainly lessen his chances of succeeding. Now, the Bard, that was something else. He shook his head. To harm her would bring Xena's wrath on him. His interest in life was too strong. Though Xena was rumored to no longer be Ares chosen, she led too charmed a life for him to take her on. He shook his head again. He didn't believe the gods as powerful as they put on, or Ares would not have let the golden Penthesileia die at Achilles hands, even if Achilles was his mother, Hera's champion. Then there was the matter of Crometh for all it's protectorates he had been able to slowly squeeze the life out of the citizens. He did not mind admitting to himself when he was afraid of someone. It kept him living longer. Gigantes popped a grape in his mouth as he thought about his chances, suddenly spitting out the rotten grape.
"Gaaaa." He choked and spat. He grabbed his wine goblet and gulped down something that would be more pleasing to his taste. He could have sworn that there weren't any bad grapes in the bunch. He would have to teach the server to select better.
He rang the bell for his servant. He needed a warm soak and a rub down. His lips curled up as he thought of his choices for the evening…before his meeting with Yerik.
Xena crept silently through the darkened marbled lined corridor whose elaborately carved statues of various famous mortals and gods provided their most useful purpose, acting as pillars and holding up the roof. There were few torches lit and only to give a guard light enough to not run into a pillar in case any of them decided to walk their patrol. Xena paused at one shadowed statue that held the resemblance of a young Hercules ready to toss a javelin in all his naked glory. A smile played on her face showing white teeth in a silent chuckle. The nice thing about not being everyone's hero was that she didn't have to worry about being embarrassed at finding her likeness staring at her in some public or other wise corridor.
The sound of footsteps had her slinking behind the youthful Hercules. Now who would be up at this time, I wonder. The footfall didn't sound like a guard. This person had a definite purpose and it was important. She had left the guards at the entrance so engrossed in their card game that she could have rode Argo in…with bells on, if she fancied them.
The heavy walker brought a torch with him and as it approached her it pushed back the blackness leaving shadows that shifted as it moved toward her. She moved within the darkness hugging the statue as a shield.
Male, middle aged, slight weight problem, with a limp, hmmm, no he was carrying something heavy in his other hand that was causing him to limp. Interesting. Xena kept moving slowly within the moving shadows not daring to peek out from behind or between Hercules three legs. She paused and studied the smaller of the appendages. Well, someone gave him a bit of a hard on, and a lot more than what she remembered the demi god had, but, she smirked, he is part god and he was well blessed. She almost had to put a hand over her mouth thinking how she would have to get Hercules here without giving the reason away...and without Iolaus and Gabrielle seeing it. Though as Greeks they were used to nudity, Iolaus and Gabrielle's embarrassment for Hercules would take the fun out of her teasing him. Besides, it was meant to be a private tease. A tender smile softened her face for a moment.
A grunt followed by a loud curse brought her back to the present. She frowned. It was in a dialect that was not from these parts. A door from further down the hall opened and someone came walking out.
"Why didn't you call for one of the guards?" The voice asked aggravated.
"This is not something I think you should be showing them. No telling what drunken fool will tell to another and who will remember it at the wrong time."
Two people grunted as the weight was redistributed and the two men struggled with the awkwardness of their burden.
As the steps receded she heard a door close loudly sending echoes down the hall. Hmmm. Well, I can keep a secret, Xena thought to herself smugly. I'll only share it with one person …and …if it's a good secret…she'll make a story out of it. She smiled as she moved toward the room the two had disappeared behind.
Excited voices from the guard's post at the front of the building sent Xena back into the shadows, pressed up against another statue. She looked up the solid carved muscled leg of…oh great, that's all I need is for her to think I'm grabbing her leg!
Feet ran up the corridor and the door she was interested in entering opened and closed with a bang. Hmmm. More action here than in the common room at the inn.
Curses from the other side of the door brought a raised eyebrow from the dark form leaning against Athena's leg. The dark figure moved to the next pillar, noting it was Artemis. She also had the nice athletic body that Greek's honored. She was dressed in her usual short tunic, bow and arrows on her back, and her hand resting on the head of a tall thin hunting hound. The dog provided less to hide behind than Athena's elaborate shield.
The door opened again to arguing voices, shut with the same echo reverberating down the corridor and running footsteps away from the voices. Well, I can tell none of them were raised in huts. Slamm'n doors sets the thatch roof a drop'n and the cranky chickens roostin in them drop'n their dropins. Nothing like chicken shit hitting ya on the head, to learn ya quick not to be slamming doors, Xena mirthfully mocked.
Xena leaned against the busy door and carefully opened it a crack. The two men were so intent on their argument they didn't notice the door opening slowly. The two torches on either side of the table the men were standing at, left much of the room in shadows. By the time the air from the door reached the torches sending them in a mild dance she was comfortably sitting on the beam above the two men. The shorter of the two men looked up at the waving torches then peered around…a comment from the other caused him to resume their disagreement.
Their conversation was easy enough to follow as it was loud enough…it was what the two men were leaning over on the table that had her interest.
"Can't you keep them satyrs controlled, Yerik! We needed those soldiers to relieve the ones here in the city…and in your cavern." The taller of the men fumed. He looked vaguely familiar to Xena.
"Didn't you tell them to take the other trail…if you hire men with little sense…you tend to loose them sooner." The thick accent returned disgustedly. "And yes…I could have used replacements …but I don't like the cheap work you're hiring. They tend to be excessive in their drinking, eating, and talking….and most importantly, lacking in what matters, doing what they are hired to do. Have they no pride in themselves? Their equipment and clothing, to say nothing of their lack of bathing is disgusting. There's enough baths around here for them to take advantage of!" The foreigner complained.
"Well…if you shared a bit of the gold you're digging out, we may be able to afford a higher quality of labor." Was the snip reply.
"You have the city's treasury."
"The treasury isn't in gold! What coins they had are gone in paying the troops. And in case you've forgotten, we have cut the city off from earnings from the outside. We've only got foods and a few worthless goods. The food we need for our troops and to be sure the people stay…tame. A hungry city that is reputed to have good harvests will arouse too much attention! And you know we can't send out more caravans to trade with our neighbors or anywhere else. There's enough rumors traveling around already. We need just seven more days!" The other man argued back wearily.
"That takes us back to the warrior woman. Why is she here? If not for the rumors dealing with the city but for the celebration…it won't take her long to know there isn't going to be a celebration if she hasn't already figured it out."
General Gigantes pursed his lips. He pretty much figured out how to neutralize the warrior then separate her from her little bard. The Bard would be their insurance…or his, anyway. Xena would be so busy trying to rescue her…and with his suggestions to her drugged mind…maybe after he's had his time with her, he'll send her chasing shades in the forest until he's long gone. He had it all arranged.
"I'm telling you, Gigantes, it's not good to leave that dangerous a loose end unconfined, when we're so close to achieving our goals." The smaller man continued.
"You're in charge of the forests and the cavern. You said your men and satyrs can handle it. You let her pass through the forests…" The other voice pointed out with ill concealed contempt.
"Because she did escape Scion and his group has me worried. You're putting too much importance on your method of controlling a city. Right now, I'm not happy to hear about a warrior whose reputation has her as important as a god and wandering around the city without anyone keeping track of her."
"I have no reason to not let her wander the city. Have you ever seen this Warrior Princess?" The general asked curious.
"No, but I'm not stupid enough to put aside a person's reputation that catches the imagination of story tellers and the fact that she was able to escape our net in that part of the forest." The other growled.
"Well, you had your chance…now…she's in my territory …I'll take care of her just like I did the rest. She's no different…she eats, drinks and sleeps." General Gigantes waved his hand that had a gold and jeweled ring on that sparkled as the stone reflected the torch light. "I hear she likes her ale a lot. My agent has already been informed to make sure her ale has a bit of bite to it." Then we snatch her friend…"We'll have a delivery for you…in two days her little Bard friend will be joining your group in the cavern. Maybe then we can find the rest of the treasure…if you've been following the tales then you know the Warrior Princess travels with an Amazon Queen who is that Bard she's here with."
The foreigner regarded his partner remembering Arri's obscure message; Light and dark enter as one, into a city home to some. From the description his own spies have given him, the warrior princess would fit the description of the dark one and her companion as light. He hated it when Arri would give him messages in oracle puzzles, but since he survived sitting on the oracle's chair, that was the only way he spoke when he asked him about the future. Arri was most troublesome when it came to some things these days. However he didn't see him as a threat like Gigantes. Achaean's, he thought disgustedly. Now he just had to wait for the next part, 'Light is taken into the darkness, to the usurper and his accomplice.' So, the light was the Amazon Queen. Yerik shook his head. He needed to go over the rest of the oracle's message with Arri. He had thought the dark one was the dead Amazon Queen and ….well….he sighed quietly and gazed at the map Gigantes had drawn up of the supposed tunnels branching out in the sacred cavern. His searches and his interrogation of the priestesses didn't reveal so much as one more than the three they had already found.
Xena craned her neck to look over the two bent heads hanging over the scroll. Not much of a view from where she was. She crawled a little closer so that she was directly above them. Good thing it was dark this high up, or they may think she was some sort of big black spider sitting above them. Her white teeth flashed a grin at the thought.
Then another argument started. Then it got more interesting. Stones, drawings, the oracle's passage and a treasure; these things they argued about needed further looking into.
Xena studied the foreigner that had strange looking knife hilts sticking out of his waistband and the lack of a sword at his side.
After going back over the sketches the foreigner made an attempt to roll up the map. "Nooooo you don't, Yerik. With this you don't need me. I want to make sure you stay to the bargain."
Yerik snorted. "You're the one not to trust. What's to keep you here until this solstice celebration."
"Because…I don't like losing bets."
"More like your life! And see that you remember that! I think…this Warrior Princess your soldiers are talking about may be more than what you bargained for." Yerik predicted with unease. So far the only difficult thing either had faced was keeping the soldiers they had hired in line. A few deserters had Scion on their heels and the rest learned that the contract they signed for a fifteen months period was going to be enforced through death.
"That's what you said when the Amazons and the priestesses showed up. Look where we got them now!" He unconsciously touched the gold ring that flashed often in the torchlight.
Xena's eyes focused on the design and small stone of the ring, trying to place where she had seen the design before. Yerik's eyes also tracked to the ring.
There was a moment of silence. "They weren't…personal…friends…of this local hero, Hercules." Yerik muttered in a thick accent.
"Where did you hear that?" Gigantes sneered. "You're repeating old gossip that has no meaning here. The messages for Hercules were given to my messenger and you know where they all went…" Gigantes tapped the metal pan that held oil for a bright light. "The great romance between the Warrior Princess and Hercules the do-gooder, is from some story teller's imagination. Do you think he would…even want someone with as much blood on her hands as she?" With the power and sensuousness she exuded, Gigantes knew that even Hercules would be tempted to lay with the dark haired warrior if she wanted him to.
Yerik watched Gigantes as he pounded the table for emphasis. He usually knew when Gigantes was telling the truth or weaving a tale. He personally hadn't seen this warrior woman, but on his travels through this Greek land, stories of her and Hercules were told in a lot of the taverns they passed through. Local hero stories had some truth to them. He didn't care about Gigantes' plan for the city. His real interest was getting the three sacred objects the Caesar clan was offering a reward for. It was enough to retire in a small kingdom. Caesar's seer had tracked the golden girdle here, which they thought was in the chest Yerik had just delivered to Gigantes, and from what the old Hag had said, the other two objects were also nearby. For the year they were here, he had time to figure out that the ring on Gigantes finger may be one of the treasures after all, which meant that the feathered fan was also close by…or maybe the Amazon Queen had it. The chest had the girdle carved on it, so it made sense it was in the chest waiting for the moment when its power to be used was called upon. The priestess had willingly sacrificed other's lives to keep the location of the other objects a secret, but he had other ways. Like Gigantes, he knew how to use a person's mind against them. It's just a matter of time and it's close. He could feel it…and his feelings usually weren't wrong…and then there's Arri. 'Thirteen moons of lunar travel, thirteen marks on the carved horn, darkest night and longest still, time to resanctify the signs will'. That's what he had said. That's what was to be this winter solstice. Of all the times for them to interfere in some heathen's nine year ceremony. This will be the last time I get talked into doing something for that crazy Caesar clan.
He glanced at the map one more time. The map showed too many tunnels. Though he hated being in the cavern, he made a point of visiting it almost daily, and he knew there weren't that many. He had been hopping to study the map and see if he could find a pattern in the drawings. He didn't trust Gigantes and wherever he had gotten the map from. He suspected that Gigantes would leave before his winter solstice deadline with him holding the bag, if it were to his advantage. Like Gigantes, he had his own spies, which he was sure Gigantes suspected. He knew for sure that Gigantes would not be leaving with the ring or the chest for once they were in the city, the seer's warning was that all three must leave together or the power they were carrying would turn on the individual who carried the one item.
For the past three days, he had been feeling the ground around the cavern move, as the day the oracle and the sacred objects were to be brought together approached. Arri suggested he move the golden girdle away from the cavern, for the Sacred Space could feel the closeness of one of the ritual objects and was shaking as if in anticipation of its arrival. Mentally Yerik sneered at Arri's description of the interaction of the Sacred Space and the girdle as a young woman shivering in anticipation of the embrace from her lover. Arri always did have a strange sense of humor. His experience on the Chair didn't change that much.
Yerik tapped the map and nodded. "Scion will be out in the forest tonight for the meeting. Keep your soldiers away from there. I don't want to hear that you've lost more men to carelessness."
"Hmmp!" Gigantes snorted. "I think you give him too much power." Gigantes ignored the pointed warning.
"He is a leader of his pack. Without him, we would not have the satyrs patrolling the forests, scaring people away, and not asking for as much as those soldiers you hired. Perhaps you should pay more respect to those whom you do business with, then you would not have to worry so much about betrayal."
"Are you suggesting I should worry about you, Yerik?"
"You should worry about the citizens of this city. You depend too much on your drugs to eliminate opposition. Your soldier's are lazy from lack of being soldiers and doing nothing but bully the slow witted."
"And you think the promise of riches and gold is going to give you a more loyal bunch of followers? Your men aren't much different, taking their pleasures from people that have no wits at all, no voice to sound their pleasure or displeasure. I trust those that are here, then those that are with you. You may never know if one of your men will become bored and cut a deal with that priestess ya got in that dark hole. She's lasted a year in darkness and even drugged. Has it occurred to you that maybe one of your own men is helping her?"
Yerik pursed his lips. He had wondered too. Six months ago he had found a small ghost like figure that was giving comfort to the priestess, but he had put a stop to the visits, using their own symbols against them. But…she was still resisting. He wasn't expecting this to have lasted a year. He had thought to leave after six months with gold he had the captives dig out from the cavern walls and the sacred objects of the dead Amazon Queen, leaving Gigantes holding the bag, as he suspected Gigantes will do to him, but they were both still here…just as they had told their third betting partner they would be, for one lunar year.
"We will talk again after your meeting with the citizens." Yerik nodded to Gigantes.
Gigantes waved him away, busying himself with a sip of his wine. Yerik is getting to be a problem. Only seven more days. That is all I need. He was dimly aware of the door closing behind him as Yerik left. He was depending on a drugged Xena to wander in the forest for days, looking for her friend, while he fulfilled the last part of the bet. He would be a rich man indeed…but most of all…he could take this plan elsewhere. Thoughts of killing the Warrior Princess didn't cross his mind, as he knew that she may have a lot of enemies, but she also had friends and he wanted to live for a long time enjoying his wealth. Besides, he enjoyed the pain in people's eyes when they were under the influence of the drug and knowingly had to obey him. Under the influence of the drug they were susceptible to suggestions, and he could easily wipe a memory of who did what to them. Now Xena, was a different story. She was being given a stronger mixture. He wanted her completely under his control. No awareness of herself, something like those in the tunnels. She would be malleable in his hands. Unfortunately, that strong a potion could not be given over a long period of time, but he only needed a week.
Xena studied the figure of Gigantes as he idly tapped the map with his knifepoint, then rolled it up and stuck it in a locked box on his desk. The gold ring with the gray-white stone sent sparks off as he moved his hand. Something about it kept tickling Xena's memory but …later it would come to her. Gigantes tucked the box under his arm and looking around to make sure he was alone…slid it under a chair that had an elaborate fur hanging over it to the ground. He laid his knife on the head of a statue that sat in the center of the table.
Taking another look around he left, taking his torch with him. Xena waited until she heard his footsteps no longer, then dropped from her perch. Slats of moon light cut across the marbled floor. Xena's made her way to the dark form of the chair. Pulling out the box, she took it over to the window with the intent of using the moon's light for reading. She pulled her breast knife out and unlocked the lock. She unrolled one of the three scrolls. It was the map the two were arguing over. She had seen enough of the map, and didn't need to look at it again. She went to the next scroll. She scanned the contents; it was a betting agreement and the rules of the bet with the four marks of three who were the betters and one who was the witness. She rolled it up and went to the other. Her heart started to pound faster. Caesar! A tight line formed on her lips as she controlled the anger he never ceased to bring up in her.
Satisfied, she rolled the third scroll up, quickly placing it back in the box, relocking it with the tip of her small knife and sliding it back in its hiding place.
So, Gigantes has until Winter Solstice to win his bet. Demoralize a city so much that they forget their gods, and he was to do it without bloodshed…or, as little as possible. His payroll shows few men, so it makes sense that they don't want to take over the city with a show of force. And it's the water, is it? Hmmm. So, that may be why Alala is not using the water in the common water barrel for her horse. If she knows, how many others know? And then there is Caesar's reward! Now what does he want with a deceased Amazon Queen's belongings?
For a moment the image of Alti came to mind, and her instructions to young Xena to bring her three personal objects of Gomorra, the tall young virile soldier. He had died in a battle three days later, and Alti had used the objects in some ceremony …to enslave the spirit of the man…she had said. Xena's eyes glinted with ice cold hardness, both at whatever Caesar planned and at what his plan was. So, that explains Artemis' interest.
She was going to look for whatever was heavy that they had dragged in but…
The hairs stood up at the back of her neck, and without thinking she had taken two long steps and leaped up into the darkness where she remembered the beam was. From her bird's eye view of the dark room she watched as the door to the room opened and a shadowed figure with a small lamp came in. She watched as the figure moved around trying to find something. Xena didn't wait around to find out if that person found it. She had other things to take care of.
First thing she wanted to check out was the city's surplus supplies. With some difficulty and lots of ingenuity she got into the warehouse which was where the town's surplus food was stored. The bales of food, staples and caskets of wine and ale were carefully marked where they were to go, just as Gigantes' scroll outlined. Hmmm. Prodding some of the sacks in the darkness she could smell the contents. One in particular got her attention. Her eyes glinted in the dark as she opened the bag and pulled out enough of the contents for her own needs. She made her way back to the caskets marked for General Gigantes and his soldiers. It took her another candle mark to mix the herb to a paste then add it to the wine caskets then the ale caskets marked for Gigantes and his men. It was heavy enough to settle to the bottom of the caskets, but the essence of the herb would mix with the wine and ale. The herb itself had no taste, which made it ideal for adding to foods or water…and in this case…Gigantes and his soldier's own drink. A bit of his own medicine would be a just return. Next she added from the other sack the herb that would neutralize the drug, adding it to the caskets that were marked for the townspeople.
Next stop was the city's water source with a small side trip to the soldier's armament room that just so happened to be on her way to the city's water source.
Xena finished her muddy work at the city's water aqueduct, which had been guarded with just as attentive guards as the ones outside of Gigantes' office. As she made her way back to the inn the flapping of wings caught her attention. Curious, she changed her direction. From the shadows she spotted a dark shape with a wide open wingspan glide to an outside wall, sit for a few moments, then take wing again. Puzzled she followed it back into the city.
A wide smile slowly made it's way to Xena's face as she heard a soft curse in a familiar voice. Now, what is she up to?
Xena moved to another position that would give her a good view to see what Gabrielle was cursing about. The owl flew by her, almost brushing its talons on her head, as Xena peered from a rooftop to where their balcony was. What in the name of Artemis is she doing?
Xena watched with mixed feelings as the dark shadow moved from the corner of their balcony to the thin climbing bush that was between their balcony and the next room. Her face moved from gleaming white teeth that flashed a smile, as she watched the unwise move the Bard made to use the flimsy bush to climb down, then into a grimace as the figure fell in no graceful way to the street below. She sat for a few moments wondering if her appearance now would be advisable, or maybe she should let her recover some of her dignity before appearing at her side. Xena sighed. Wow, is she ever going to have some interesting bruises. A grin appeared on her face as she thought about how Gabrielle was going to explain one very sore body part to her.
Silently she followed the limping shadow below her, making sure Gabrielle wasn't seen with all the noise she was making.
Xena dropped to the ground, and silently made her way to the smaller figure that was pressed against the wall of one of the corner buildings, slowly making as if to peer around the corner.
Gabrielle quickly turned around at where she felt her partner would be. Finding the expected dark figure behind her, didn't lessen the startled gasp she gave at seeing her there.
"Xena! You can scare a person into their next life!" She whispered exasperated.
"Hmmm. We both know my reason for being out here…" Xena's eyes and white teeth were the only things that were bright enough to see clearly in the darkness.
"That's Chia, Alala's owl. I think she wants us to follow her." Gabrielle whispered back.
"Hmmm. Us?…" Xena didn't bother pointing out to her that until her arrival there had only been her. Instead, she turned her attention back to the feathered bird whose dark form created an unusual outline on the wall. "Well, let's see what she wants us to see." Xena guessed it had something to do with the meeting Yerik reported was to take place that evening unless there was something else going on.
Both women continued their way, past darkened buildings and sleeping occupants, both two legged and four, as they made their way to the wall where their guide was awaiting them. Occasionally the cold night air blew from the north carrying the smell of the cesspits that were emptied into a compost heap just outside of the city's old walls to be turned into fertilizer, collectively used for the farms and city gardens.
When the guards passed out of sight, the two skirted across an open section to get to where the owl was waiting for them. Xena shook her head in amusement. Chia was sitting on top of a postern gate plainly looking as if she were waiting for them, and the guards didn't even seem to notice her. When they stood below her, she rotated her head so that she was regarding them upside down.
Gabrielle covered her mouth with both hands, as she was about to burst into laughter. The warm air from her breath was nice against her cold hands.
Xena tugged on her partner's coat pulling her before her as she kept looking about them. There was a door that had no lock on it, no torch above it, nor was it barred. The stone drum tower above it looked like there was a small fire lit but appeared to be unoccupied. The guards were probably on other ends of the wallwalk, patrolling. That meant the guards weren't overlapping in their patrols. Open spaces, poor lighting, no overlapps on patrols, preoccupied guards with non guard concerns…if they were in her army they would have all been executed on the spot.
"Doesn't exactly make me feel snug and safe." Gabrielle commented softly as Xena pulled the door open cautiously and peered out. It was about seven furloughs to the enceinte, which was about four cubits high into construction on this side, with a dark shape outlined against the night sky of stars, which would be another wooden tower, built as temporary protection for the day workers. Now there was no one there, since it had no nighttime defense if it were attacked. They hadn't put up a gate to this postern entrance yet.
Beyond the new wall the forest had been cut back to accommodate the placement of the wall and give more distance between the expanding city and its surroundings. The land here had not been additionally extended for farming and it rose sharply at a point shortly before the forest started. The forest beyond had been thinned rather than cut down. It looked like this side was under better care than the north side they had entered the city from, which meant it was probably the sacred grove of the goddesses, east of the city where the groves usually stood. The front gate faced north, which prevented the sun, rising or falling, from blocking the clear view of the guards that patrolled the walls. Xena and Gabrielle moved cautiously through the darkness trailing after the sailing form of the owl, weaving in and out of the remains of the tree stumps, pausing to make sure they were not seen. It was dark out and their dark coats further protected them from being seen.
Xena kept her eyes and head moving about looking, smelling, and sensing anything that came to her.
Once they were in the cover of the trees Xena picked up her pace remembering to go only fast enough to not lose Gabrielle. Her heightened senses allowed her to move quickly over anything that may have tripped most people on the forest floor, like roots that were meant to slow the unwary trespasser. She could feel Gabrielle's smaller hand resting on the small of her back to not loose her, and to prevent herself from running into something other than her partner.
Xena spun around when she heard Gabrielle's foot stumble. As she caught her she moved against the nearest tree trunk. While Gabrielle caught her breath from the fast pace Xena had set, Xena listened to the night forest life, picking out what was normal and what was not for a forest, including Gabrielle's noisy breathing. It was disturbing that there were no night sounds that were natural, only the faint murmuring of voices.
"There's something going on further inside the forest." Xena's lips whispered against Gabrielle's ear. This must be that meeting Yerik was setting up with Scion and someone else..
Gabrielle nodded and put pressure on Xena's back that she was ready to go with her to investigate it. Xena looked up into the tree while resting her hand on its trunk. Something didn't feel right in the forest yet…it was out of her awareness. She had confidence that it would come to her, though.
After lifting Gabrielle into the treetops with her, Xena made her way silently from branch to branch. Stopping, listening, smelling and feeling her way to where the voices were.
Gabrielle was grateful that Xena moved slowly for she wasn't particularly happy with tree travel especially in the dark…not to mention so far off the ground. Her recent experience with a smaller tree didn't help her comfort zone either.
It wasn't long before both women could see a wavering light through the dark outlines of tree branches. Xena stopped just outside of a cleared area in the woods. They recognized the two tall women; one was holding a torch whose flame wavered in the night breeze. They were arguing in low tones with a satyr with a few roughly dressed men standing to the side as if not concerned with the conversation. Each of the men carried a torch giving the area weird shadows that moved about wildly as the breeze picked up into a wind moving around them. The satyr was big. Xena had no doubt that the cloven prints she had seen earlier would fit the size of this one. She was hopping there was only one his size.
The flickering light from the torches gave the large satyr a threatening appearance. Gabrielle suggested to herself that it was the darkness that made him so scary, and if seen in daylight might have less of an intimidating effect, though anything that big towering over her was worth staying away from. She shuddered at the remembrance of the feeling she had in the forest on their way to Crometh, the previous day.
Xena felt Gabrielle's shiver and laid a comforting hand on her arm, guessing at where the shudder came from.
"You have not given us what we want…" The deep voice of the satyr flatly told the women.
"We gave you what you asked for!" The tall Amazon returned angrily. "You keep changing your…"
The deep voice laughed. "Isn't that toooo bad. An Amazon begging! That is…very goooood. I have priestesses begging tooo and that is very gooood."
The tall redhead halted the Amazon's arm before it moved.
"Where are our friends?" Alala asked in a restrained voice.
"Ahhh, yes. You did say you wanted proof that they were still alive."
Movement in the surrounding brush from bodies stumbling forward as if pushed from behind had Xena gripping the tree in anger. She could feel Gabrielle's pressure on her side where her hand rested increase.
Three figures fell forward dressed in clothing that was not a good cover for the weather. The figures did not move from their prone position.
"You may rise." The deep voice commanded.
The three women weakly rose leaving their heads bowed. Two men then shoved the women back into the brush, with one of the men with a torch leaving with the group.
Xena didn't wait to see what was going on with the rest of the meeting. She motioned Gabrielle to remain in the tree knowing she would keep track of what further developed between the group below.
Xena moved silently through the trees following the torchlight with caution, listening to the sound of stumbling feet from the three captives' and low threatening voices from their two guards. She distrusted how easy it was to follow them and made a wide circle away from the torchlight. She smelled their destination before they reached it. She slowed her own progress looking in the trees for any traps or alarms that may have been set for prowlers. She was amazed to find none. Did they have that much confidence in their drugging the city that no one would attempt to rescue their captives? Alala wasn't drugged.
She remained in the trees watching men dressed in animal skins with foreign curved swords move around in the areas they guarded, and the women and a few men held in cages that looked like they hadn't been moved for a long time. She knew where the style of sword came from but she wasn't familiar with the race of men that made up the group.
Satisfied she had seen enough of the camp and its occupants, she widened her inspection of the area. The faint sound of a spring had her moving in that direction. Sitting for a moment on a limb that overlooked a small incline she let her eyes slowly wander over moon lit rocks looking for the source of the water. Silently Xena dropped from the tree and approached a dark opening in the rocky hill face. It was close to the ground and she would have to crawl to get in. That would leave her vulnerable…and there was someone in there…humming.
She waited patiently behind a nearby tree, expecting whoever was in the cave would come out and a small figure, dressed in the robes of an acolyte to a temple, did. The child had no need to stoop to exit the cave.
Xena stepped out of her hiding place and waited until the young girl spotted her. She would have walked right by Xena if Xena hadn't raised one eyebrow and followed her with her eyes.
The figure stopped looking at Xena surprised.
"You can see me?" The little voice sounded disappointed.
Xena raised both eyebrows. Of course I can, she thought. "Yea. What are you doing all alone in these woods and at night?" Xena asked gently, knowing the answer to part of the question.
"I'm here for my priestess." The tiny voice suddenly sounded like she was going to break into tears.
Xena reached out to hug the child and the small figure stepped into her arms. Xena could feel herself holding something but it was like a thin sheet of curtain.
"You're a shade." Xena murmured down to the head that was barely reaching her waist.
"Yes." The grief stricken face looked up at her. "I couldn't leave her." Her little voice was so plaintive it tore at Xena's heart.
"No. You couldn't." She patted the small head. "What's your name, little one?"
Xena hesitated a moment.
"Dorie, would you like to help get some of those people free?" Xena asked. She was pulling from her memory all that she had heard about shades and what they can and can't do but all she had heard was hear say and it all was pretty far out.
The little head nodded blotting her eyes with the sleeve of her robe.
"There are three priestesses in the camp not too far from here that I'm going to free."
"The three you were watching from the trees." The child nodded solemnly.
"Yes." Xena didn't show her surprise or the discomfort she felt that she had been watched without her knowing it. Shade or no shade, her senses should have picked up that she was being watched.
"What can I do?" The little voice asked sadly. Xena had a feeling that whatever Dorie had tried up until now had not worked and was feeling quite disheartened by it.
"Well, I would like to look at your cave there, if you don't mind."
The little head nodded and walked Xena back toward the entrance. Xena closed her eyes a moment to not let her fear of closed places get in the way. She dropped to her knees and dragged herself in. It was pitch dark until the tiny shade lifted her arm and produced a lit torch.
"Handy." Xena mentioned. She quickly looked over the small cave, noting that it wasn't inhabited by anything living. The underground stream was carrying clean water over rocks that made up the waterbed. Something gleamed at the bottom of the pool of water and Xena reached in to pick it out. She peered at the gold nugget that shined in the torchlight.
She tossed the nugget back into the water. "I want to use your cave…as a place to hide them in…until they feel better." Xena explained as she continued her inspection.
The small head nodded, her solemn eyes watching the tall woman look around her hideaway.
"I'm going to…make it so they can't get out…until they're feeling better." Xena was hopping the herbs she had would be enough to counter whatever may have been given them to make them so docile.
The head nodded again. "They would go back to those bad men unless you stopped them. They're sick, up here." She informed Xena seriously, pointing to her head.
"Sick? From what?"
"They put something in the food and water that makes them do whatever those men…" The small voice quivered to a halt, as tears began to flow from her eyes.
Xena hugged the willowy form that was not solid against her again. "People do pretty terrible things to each other." Xena agreed. They must be getting a stronger dose than what the city had in their water. She knew all about the herbs that were being used, and that one of them could not be used for a long period of time or the heart would stop beating. So, they must be using the two interchangeably.
Xena gave the child a few moments to cry. Time was important. The small figure seemed to know this for she pulled away from Xena.
"New guards will be here in the morning. Every week they change. With the new guards they bring different people." She informed Xena between sniffling. "They use them to make the villagers pay them dinars."
"Hostages." Xena guessed.
The child nodded.
"Have they ever let any of them go?"
The child shook her head in the negative.
"Will they be moving the three priestesses?"
"Good." White teeth flashed in the torchlight.
"I can show you where they move them to. They take them into the tunnels in the Sacred Cavern, where they dig out gold." She told Xena hopefully. "It is where my priestess is kept."
Ahh. So, Yerik is mining gold and that gold nugget has a source near here. "Not yet. I want to move those priestesses from harm first. Stir up a bit of trouble. Create a diversion. " Xena smiled at the child who gave her a wide trusting grin. "And while they are out here looking…I'll pay the tunnels a visit."
There was hope in the eyes of the child that looked up into hers. Xena hopped she could deliver what she was telling the young shade.
"I'll be back by dawn. I'll meet you outside of their camp." The shade would be a good ally as well as it would be nice to set her free so she could be released from her worldly burden and move on.
The small head nodded.
Xena returned two candlemarks later to Gabrielle's side. Gabrielle had her coat covering her blond hair so that her dark form blended against the dark trunk. Xena could make out the shape of the owl on a limb not far from her. The large yellow eyes blinked at her as she moved to Gabrielle's side. Xena merely tapped the waiting Bard's shoulder and got the barest of nods from her, as Gabrielle slowly stretched her limbs out before moving. Xena didn't move until Gabrielle indicated her legs were okay. Sitting in a crouched position for any length of time in a tall tree required caution before moving. It was a long drop down if the legs cramped up or didn't move well.
The two silently made their way back into the city, sneaking in between guard turns. The only challenge they had came from two suspicious dogs they had nearly stumbled on, which Xena silenced by talking to them softly.
Once back in their room Xena took both coats and hung them on the corner hooks provided for such things. While she removed her armor and boots quietly Gabrielle had her clothing off and was under the covers waiting. As Xena slid next to her partner she went over in her mind what she knew. The story of the Shade was going to capture the Bard's heart as well as her lively imagination. It certainly shed more light about the city's plight. But the plan of Caesar's….
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warmer blooded Xena and pulled her closer for the body warmth and comfort. Xena started her story, telling it in the brief and terse form she normally followed. Gabrielle didn't interrupt but listened, her eyes tearing when she got to the part of the shade, Dorie. When Xena was finished she sighed letting the silence between them lengthen.
"Well…this must be what Artemis was talking about and Athena hinted at." Gabrielle finally told her. "This is about as complicated as some of the usual stuff we get involved with. I think we can…" A yawn stretched her jaws. "handle it. Let's see, a city held hostage for a bet…a shade held here because of her ties to her priestess…and Caesar putting out a reward for three ritual objects belonging to a dead Amazon Queen…. hmmm. You don't think it's because she was Ares daughter, do you?
Xena pursed her lips above Gabrielle's head. "I think it's because she is Ares daughter and because she is an Amazon Queen. That's two gods to tweak for the price of one."
"Xena, do you think that feathered…" she stretched her neck to peer into the face that was above hers.
Bright blue eyes shone in the darkness. "Yea."
"General Gigantes has a ring King Priam had made for Queen Penthesileia for fighting for him." She informed Gabrielle.
She was silent for a while thinking. Her breath wasn't deep enough for sleep.
Gabrielle squirmed a little trying to find a comfortable position without bruising herself further. Xena grinned above her, knowing how much it must be hurting, yet she still hadn't mentioned it to her. Should I say something to…encourage her to tell me of her injury?
"Does Caesar want objects only from her reign as Amazon Queen, or just anything that had belonged to her?" Gabrielle suddenly asked. "You see, I remember a story one of the old Amazon's from the Northern Nation told." Gabrielle continued after again moving gingerly to another position not wanting to give up her wrap around position on Xena's warm and familiar body. "It was the tragic tale of Queen Penthesileia of the Northern Nation, who had laid all her belongings of rank on the pyre of her beloved sister, Hippolyta II, and then had left her Nation to do retribution as a soldier in a foreign war. So, supposedly, she had no personal belongings left. Then in Troy…" she took a deep breath, "when we were in Troy, Perdicas had mentioned that after Achilles had slain her in battle, he returned her body with everything she had went onto the battlefield with… but when she was set upon the pyre….she didn't have all her things laid about her. Since the Amazon warriors she had came in with were all dead, she had no one to stand for her, and make sure all her belongings were burned with her as was her wish. Queen Helen took the place of her sisterhood, but …she didn't do anything about the belongings she had left in her room. Perdicas said the soldiers were angry that someone had removed her belongings from the room and not placed them on the pyre with her."
Both were quiet for a few moments.
"Xena, why don't you think the goddesses have done anything about Crometh?" She suddenly asked.
"Maybe they have and failed. That's why we're here. Huh?" Xena grinned, her white teeth shining in the small light from the last of the fire. She debated whether to get up again and add another log. Then discarded the idea as Gabrielle's hand that was lying across her stomach made an unconscious caress.
"Artemis sent you," Xena murmured in the golden hair that was resting beneath her chin, "with one of the ritual objects that is suppose to be part of this year end ritual of reanointing something in a cavern. We need to talk to a priestess about this to see if Caesar, these people being here, and the timing of the anointing of this are all connected.
"So, you think the fan is the one Queen Penthesileia used?"
"If a god gets involved…the problem becomes so convoluted, a puzzler would die in ecstasy." Xena snorted. "She did say to deliver it to a priestess, and she did say it was for a ritual. What if some of the ritual items she was given as a gift from the goddess weren't destroyed, but rather given back to the goddess or her priestess?"
"Hmm. That makes sense. I would certainly think more than twice about tossing a gift from Artemis into a fire…unless I was on it too." Gabrielle added in jest.
"Hmmm. So…that leaves the question of, why is Athena involved?"
"Xena….maybe she's doing it for Ares."
Gabrielle felt Xena's body shake with silent laughter. "Maybe." She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. Sometimes the gods did do favors for each other…but often times at the risk of mortal's lives.
"Do you think its true that those designs are protecting them from the gods entering the city? I mean, Ares usually just zaps people that annoy him…." Gabrielle cleared her throat as she remembered she was one of those people. "Anyway…" Gabrielle's voice took on a tinge of irritation.
"I don't know. I would like to get a look at them. They said it was in a chamber where the priestess is kept, along with the stone. Maybe I can remember something from what Alti was always drawing. Meanwhile I'm going to go back to the camp and relieve the guards of three of their captives in the morning." She held up her hand at Gabrielle's protest at her use of 'I'. "We need to split up. When I get the three free we need to keep them somewhere safe. That's where you come in. Dorie's cave is hidden, has running water, and from what I can see, one entrance that is defendable from the inside. We'll stock it with five days of food and herbs to counter the effects of what Yerik's been giving them. As soon as you set up the cave you need to get back here and wait for me. Order a meal for two and make it seem like we are both here. And…bring the fan. We'll hide it out in the forest until we can figure out…one, if the girdle is in the chest Yerik can't get open, and two, where is the real ring? I think you're right about the belongings. He specifically asked for objects of hers when she was Queen of the Amazons."
"I take it that's for later in the morning when there's food to be ordered." Gabrielle joked tiredly.
"Yea. Why do you keep moving around like that?" Xena suddenly asked, not able to resist any longer. After all, she was squirming around like she had ants in her pants.
Gabrielle sighed. "Ahhh." Xena could feel Gabrielle's rib cage move as she took a deep breath. "I had an encounter with a tree branch…all right? And don't give me that look."
"What look is that?" Xena asked innocently.
"You know." Gabrielle didn't bother to look up at the face she knew would have a big grin showing. "I slipped off the tree branch, okay?"
"Hmmm. Do you want me to kiss it and make it better?" Xena mischievously asked.
"One kiss wouldn't do it…and we're both too tired to make it all better." Gabrielle giggled kissing Xena on her cheek. "Maybe tomorrow with better light you can put some of that stuff you use for bruises..."
Gabrielle stopped when Xena placed a hand over her mouth. Feet moved outside their door and further down the hall. When Xena removed her hand she heard the deep breathing of her companion, whose exhaustion finally caught up with her. Smiling Xena kissed her gently on the forehead, letting her hand slide down Gabrielle's body, gently cupping her hand over her bruised pubic area as if to protect it. Taking a deep breath she let her own body relax, as much as it did, and slid into her own type of sleep…alert but restful enough to dream. Xena had one candlemark to rest before her day began.
Gabrielle started to dream again. She was in Troy, and her walk with Perdicas through the war weary Troy's remains of merchant stores was familiar. He had something he wanted to show her, but he was vague about it. As she made her way down the rows of empty shelves in this one store, she found herself alone, checking each shelf to see if anything was left behind. She was seeking a treasure. By the time she had reached the last wall she was wondering if this search for her treasure was going to be fruitless.
On the last wall, reclining on one of the shelves, as if it were a couch, which on closer inspection, it was…was Xena dressed in the regalia of an Egyptian Queen.
"Find your treasure yet?" Xena asked her, as she paused from her business of looking into a mirror whose back was dark and light with a yin/yang symbol.
The long form was instantly beside Gabrielle, draping one elegantly dressed arm over her shoulder pulling her near her. Xena held the mirror out in front of them.
"The treasure is here."
Gabrielle looked at the reflection of both their faces that became blurry, as their faces became overlapped with a quick succession of others that kept changing, making her dizzy with the speed.
Gabrielle moved swiftly into the next dream…back in the cavern she had dreamed of earlier. She was standing on a stone floor. She looked up toward where there was light shining into the dark stone room she was in. The stairs she looked up at had neatly cut wooden planks laid over the rough stone steps. There were designs on the wooden steps but her eyes were drawn to the designs that were on the wall that followed the steps down to where she was. Some of the designs were old and faded but the newer ones, they seemed to be getting in the way of the power of the older ones. Someone was pointing this out to her. She leaned closer to see what the newer drawings were made from, and found herself off balance. She put out a steadying hand right into one of the new drawings. She had mixed feelings of satisfaction and concern that she had ruined someone's work, for as she withdrew her hand the red was smeared on her hand and distorted one of the drawings.
She felt the ground tremble under her feet as she looked around her guiltily. Xena never outright told her she caused trouble, only that it seems to happen a lot around her, but this one…she sighed as she regarded her hand that had the evidence of her handiwork.
Curious she moved to the next design. She almost thought it moved. Gingerly she touched one of the lines and was amazed that not only did she leave a smudge, but again a trembling in the ground occurred.
"Right. I got it now. These designs are preventing the older ones from doing what they need to be doing." As she nodded her head she was whisked to another place…inky blackness all around…but she was not alone. Someone was here with her.
"Gabrielle. You need to remove the power from those symbols." It wasn't a voice she heard. It was a tired…thought?
Then Gabrielle was off to another dream…She found herself walking behind Argo's swishing tail deep in thought. The trail was one of the many they have traveled. Suddenly a gas cloud enveloped her, then the satisfying sound of a plop, plop, a stronger disagreeable odor and …
"Oh, Pegasus' sweet poop!" Gabrielle muttered disgustedly holding her nose.
The next thing she knew she was lifting a sandaled foot encrusted with the warm substance.
Xena's tall figure on the golden warhorse's back turned to look down at her, pulling Argo to a stop.
"Xena!" Gabrielle told her exasperated, thinking Argo did it on purpose.
Xena did a fancy somersault off Argo's back, drawing her sword out of its scabbard, while in mid roll…now, could she really do that? Gabrielle returned her attention to her hero, who could do just about everything…that wasn't involved with cooking palatable meals.
Xena landed in front of Gabrielle who was regarding her foot in disgust.
"Hold your foot up." She demanded in a fierce voice with eyes snapping as if she were preparing to meet up with an army of soldiers and not a sandaled foot heavy with horse shit.
Fearlessly, the Bard did it, balancing on her staff. However, Gabrielle watching herself in this dream thought the Bard nuts, though in all honesty, she would trust Xena with her life.
In a flurry and blur of motion, the sword glinted in the sun, as it moved around the proffered foot and small pieces of green and yellow when flying about the sides of the road. One giving a satisfying 'thwat' on the hindquarters of the offending beast, who sent her mistress a snort of protest, to Gabrielle's smug satisfaction.
When Xena was finished both looked at the cleaned sandal that was now gold instead of brown leather.
"Xena. You did it again. You are certainly better than Salmoneus's goose that lays golden eggs." Gabrielle sighed at her hero. "Salmoneus would be beside himself with such a sight."
The Xena of her dreams, snapped a quick salute to her then turned her sword in a fancy spin ending with sliding it into her scabbard at her side. No…no…it's suppose to be on her back!
Gabrielle looked up from the scroll she was writing this story on. When the dreaming Gabrielle looked into the eyes of herself…she woke up with a start.
"Hey. It's time to wake up." Xena told the bleary eyed Bard.
"Hmmmm. Right." Mumbled Gabrielle as she tried to remember her dreams. Gabrielle groaned and rolled over to Xena's side of the bed that was chilly. "Hey!" She complained. "You've been up."
Xena chuckled as she moved back over to the balcony. She had managed to do some of the exercises Lao Ma had taught her, besides some of her own quick drills for warm ups without waking the Bard and even now, she wasn't sure if her 'not-a-morning-person' was completely awake. Xena opened the balcony further and looked out into the predawn sky again. No owl…no falcon.
Gabrielle rolled out of bed and stumbled to a bowl filled with water. She cautiously dipped her finger in it wondering how cold it was going to be.
"Hmmm…warm." She splashed her face then found a towel being proffered to her. "Thanks. Xena…after you free the three priestesses…what about the other hostages?"
"We'll need to plan that a bit more. I need to get a look at the tunnels where Dorie said they are held. In a few days the roles here in the city should start reversing." Xena looked at their waterskins. "I don't want you to drink any of the cider or ale in the inn. Stick with what's in the waterskins." Xena paused. She didn't know how often the inn got new supplies from Gigantes and how much to trust him not finding out that she had reversed the water flow of the treated water and fresh.
"While they are fussing here or in the forest after the three women disappear…" Xena left it unsaid but Gabrielle could see the corners of her lips move up.
"…Xena will be at play." Gabrielle finished for her with a smile.
"Xena, where you going to get the food without anyone knowing?" Gabrielle asked as Xena looked out onto the balcony she was intending on exiting from.
"From General Gigantes' storage. He's keeping the surplus in the building next to his offices." Xena smiled. "I found another way in, so this second visit should be much easier than last night. I'll be using the underground tunnel the priestesses use from the temples to the storage buildings. My guess is that they use their secret ways to keep fresh offerings on their altars even during slow times, and probably to store excess offerings so the perishable foods don't go to waste, without their public knowing. Whoever is the scribe that oversees the surplus now had crossed out the names of the temples on some of the shelves and substituted the new destinations of the supplies."
She turned away from the balcony and came to stand next to Gabrielle, "In less than a candlemark, the city's people should be moving outside to work."
Gabrielle nodded understanding what she had to do.
Getting out of the city unobserved turned out to be easy as Gabrielle blended in with the children that were herding the sheep and goats to the open fields near the edge of the forest where grass seemed plentiful. The children didn't appear to notice her as she hung back with two of the dogs that peered at her uneasily.
Xena proved good on her arrangements, as she not only smuggled out Argo, but the stolen food as well. Xena was waiting in the forest with Argo and the supplies when Gabrielle met up with her.
"Who are your friends?" She asked indicating the two tall thin dogs that plopped down amid the tree roots as if waiting.
"They look like the two we tripped over last night."
"Hmmm. Well, looks like they intend on following you."
Gabrielle looked at the two that looked right back at her. "Why do you say that?"
"Because they don't look like they can climb trees." She smirked. "Dogs and satyrs don't like each other. They would be a good alert for you."
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, if they do follow…I'll remember that."
With the two bags of food dangling from Argo's saddle, Gabrielle followed the rabbit trail Xena had told her to take for about ten furloughs into the forest. She was then to let Argo lead her toward the cave, for Argo would be able to smell the water, as Xena had softly directed in her golden twitching ear, before she disappeared into the treetops. The two dogs trotted along sniffing the air now and again. One was up front and the other behind her as if they knew where they were going. Gabrielle shook her head and patted Argo's neck as she followed either Argo's lead or the dogs.
The cave was facing the west and if the forest didn't block out the sun it would have been nice and warm at the entrance at the end of the day. Gabrielle had to bend low, dragging the sacks of food behind her. The two dogs didn't enter the cave but rather sat at the edge of the forest. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and continued her own task. She lit the torch Xena had added to her supplies. The cave had a dry bed that dropped down to a small underground river. It didn't appear that the water rose above the bank for the watermarks the torch light revealed only rose two hands above it's present level. Gabrielle reached into the water at the shiny object that the torchlight picked up. Studying it for a moment, she put it in her pouch to show Xena, then continued her inspection. The last residents were bunnies or some other small animal by the tracks left. Xena, as usual, didn't leave any tracks from her visit. She grinned as she thought how Xena probably had to crawl to get in here, then she frowned as she remembered Xena didn't like closed in places.
Gathering rocks from the outside, Gabrielle made a fire pit, then gathered enough wood to keep the place stocked for five days. Once Xena freed the women, there was no doubt that the Satyr and his friends would be hot on their trail looking for them. The less the women went outside the better off they would be. Gabrielle placed the fire pit ring where the smoke could rise to the ceiling without smoking out its inhabitants. She held the torch were the fire would be to see where the smoke rose and how it moved across the ceiling. There appeared to be a draft somewhere near the ceiling. Gabrielle left the torch stuck into the center of the fire pit and followed the smoky trail to a small space between ceiling and rock wall. She then inspected the outside to make sure it would not draw attention to where the smoke escaped. Satisfied she returned to the cave, wiped her tracks, left the striker with the cooking and eating utensils Xena had thought to add, and took another look around the softly lit cave.
Finished she doused the torch, dusted the dirt off her hands and left the cave as Xena had instructed. She needed to get back to their rooms and order a late morning fare. She patted Argo's neck as she picked her way around the brush that covered the forest floor, even in winter. The two dogs were immediately back at her side when she entered the forest thicket.
Xena wanted her to leave Argo near a small stream in the sacred grove. Her attempts at unsaddling tall Argo would have left Xena laughing, however her only amused audience were the two dogs whose heads cocked to the side as they watched. Argo remained still as she nearly fell over backwards from the weight of the saddle. A golden head swung around to watch her leaning against a tree with the saddle laying at her feet, where it had fallen.
Gabrielle dragged the saddle into the brush, and carefully covered it and the bridle. She made sure she would remember what the trees looked like where she hid the horses tack. The good thing was Xena would probably be able to find it even if she didn't remember the exact location. Sighing she looked around her then started back to the city. How Xena was going to get Argo back into the city was not her worry. Xena's skills were many.
As she watched the city walls from her position in the forest cover, Gabrielle wondered how she was going to get back into the city without being seen. She turned toward the dogs that were both seated behind her watching.
"Would you two know of a safer place to reenter the city?" She asked humorously.
They both rose together and started off toward the east end of the city
"Silly me...of course they would." She mumbled to herself, thinking how she was going to put this in a story without Xena's eyes rolling too much back.
The dogs found an underground entrance into the city. Cautiously Gabrielle entered the dark tunnel both hands resting on the two tall guides that flanked her on each side. They led her into a Temple that looked like it hadn't been cleaned for a while. By the statues and hanging tapestry, it was Artemis' temple. "Hmmm." She looked down at the two dogs that had led her to a side exit from the Temple, and into a back alley of the City.
Xena met Dorie, in the trees not far from the foreigner's camp. This time Xena had felt her presence long before she saw her. She knew what to sense this time.
Silently the two sat in a tree studying the camp that was still silent with sleep. Satisfied that little had changed from her previous inspection Xena followed the small form that floated through the trees just a little ahead of her. Xena wanted to pick each of the guards off then dispose of the bodies so they wouldn't be found for a while. She would start her work at a spot that was a halfway point from the camp and the cavern. Though satyr's had a good sense of smell and would probably find the bodies soon…she was intending on making sure they were inconvenienced for their search. She grinned as she thought about the power she had in one of her herb pouches that satyrs didn't particularly like. Great for healing skin rashes on people, but it had the opposite effect on satyrs.
As the two silently moved toward their destination, Xena took stock of what she knew. Gigantes' primary interest was his bet…he seemed to care little for the secondary benefit of Caesar's promised reward in bringing to him the three ritual items of a dead Queen. Though, it wasn't just any Queen. She happened to be Ares daughter, under the protection of Artemis, until she had abandoned the protection to go off and die. Was he going to use her spirit to tweak two gods, as she had said to Gabrielle? Was that why Caesar wanted her belongings? Julius Agustus Caesar wanted to rule the known world. An ambition that he was nearest to fulfilling than any of his other clansmen. But he was more comfortable using his soldier's strength and other people's weaknesses. A cold knife pierced her heart at that thought. Why was he doing something uncharacteristic and using a Seer and shamanistic means?
Her thoughts returned to the items. It's probably not the ring on Gigantes' finger for that was given to her by King Piram for her services and from what Helen had said, she wore it but once or twice. Warriors didn't wear rings for they just got in the way. She knew Queen Helen had the original, which Helen had told her that the Amazon Queen had admired. Helen had offered hers to the older woman, but she refused, saying to accept another's gift brought ill luck with the object, so Piram immediately had another cast. Xena knew that Gigantes did not have Queen Helen's for her stone was purple. The white stone in the Amazon Queen's was to represent the moon and Artemis.
Helen would find her on moon lit nights standing on the ramparts, gazing at the moon heartbroken at the lost connection with her moon goddess and patron as well as her sister Amazons. That was where Xena found Helen often, gazing up at the same moon, looking as heartbroken as the Queen whose story she recounted while Xena kept her company.
So, either Gabrielle's feathered fan, given to her by Artemis is a decoy, or is the real thing. Which leaves then, the whereabouts of the golden girdle and ring and the added puzzle, that if the fan Gabrielle had was the real thing…then were those other two objects also being brought in by outsiders? Xena couldn't help grinning to herself at the puzzle. She liked puzzles. She was sure Yerik and Gigantes had the girdle, which left one more item to be found. The ring.
Hmmm. Where are they keeping the golden girdle. It has to be here in Crometh. Kept in the cavern? Or…was that what the two men had carried into Gigantes sitting room? Would Yerik trust Gigantes to leave it with him?
"It's part of the temple's ceremony." The little voice informed her as they made their way through the forest.
"What?" Xena asked startled.
"The three ritual pieces. Once they enter the city, they cannot leave unless together." She smiled at Xena as her gray form passed through a tree branch. "The one you call Yerik, he is seeking the ring and fan of the Lost One."
"Just who is the Lost One?" Xena asked puzzled.
"Why, it's Queen Penthesileia the Amazon who forfeited her life for the crime of killing her beloved sister, Hippolyta II." The little voice told her solemnly. "She has not crossed over into the Land of the Dead, that Artemis has set aside for her Amazons."
Xena halted her progress, and stared at the gray figure wavering before her. "Penthesileia." She whispered. So… She knew of Queen Penthesileia's grief. She also knew that she lost interest in life when her beloved sister, Hippolyta, no longer graced her days with her laughter and jokes. Was her grief that hard that she could not leave even after she had sacrificed her life? "Why do you refer to her as the Lost One?" Xena asked curious, as she resumed her walk from branch to branch.
"She could not face life without Hippolyta, beloved sister. When a Queen loses the connection with life…her Nation will also. So she stepped down and went to die a warrior's death, and those that also mourned the loss of Hippolyta followed their Queen to their deaths, so they could reunite with Hippolyta in the sacred afterlife of the Amazons. But…the Queen's grief is holding her back to receive the peace she earned. It is the bringing of her three sacred items and putting them on the oracle's chair at the darkest and longest night of the year that will call her spirit to that place. Then one who is of her caste can use the power of the chair to lift the heavy weight she carries and…"
"And let her find her way. That's why Gabrielle is…" Xena's heart felt heavy for she remembered the Amazon's she had helped Alti prevent from entering their resting place and later set free.
But this wandering spirit wasn't even halfway there. She is still wandering this upper world. Lost, Dorie said. She frowned. Why didn't Artemis just tell Gabrielle, she would have willingly…Xena bit her lip. Would she have interfered? No. She would have worried about Gabrielle though.
"I heard her girdle was given to her by Artemis when she became Queen." Xena murmured.
"Oh, yes! But when she stepped down and took up a warrior's mantle, she returned to Artemis' priestess, three gifts the goddess had given her. Then her father gave her the most beautiful armor of gold with a shield embedded with jewels that caught the suns light and could blind her enemy if they looked upon her splendor, and her helm was of gold too, with a long yellow plume of horses hair." She leaned forward a little toward Xena. "They say Ares shed a tear for his golden child."
Xena eyed the young girl wondering if she heard too many bard stories. Gold was heavy, and she didn't know of anyone that was crazy enough to wear it on a battlefield. So, Ares sent her off to her death…blessing her with armor and weapons. He didn't talk much of his children and it would seem for the life Penthesileia chose, that of battle, Ares would speak of her with pride. As for him shedding a tear… There was that something again, just tickling her memory, which usually was very good at coming up with half remembered things when needed. So, where does Caesar come into this?
"The enemy of Greece wishes to bring the Amazon Nations under his power, but not to use, to destroy. It is through certain objects that he will draw such power over them. Three of them are from the dead Amazon Queen whose father was Ares."
"How do you know of this?"
"Yerik knows. He talks to the bust he has of another creature that he keeps in his tent."
"You can listen to his conversations…and mine?"
Dorie smiled. "I can read some of your thoughts like pictures. I can no longer visit Yerik's tent for he has put up a wall that I cannot pass."
The child laughed at Xena's expression. "He needs three objects of hers and he only has one." She spoke with confidence.
"Is that the girdle?"
The head nodded. "Only, he has yet to figure out how to open the trunk it is in. His magic has not been able to go past what is protecting the lock. It will only open in the cavern, though he thinks that only the priestess can open it at the appointed time, and that is why my priestess is still alive. Yerik moved the box into Crometh for fear that its presence so close to the cavern without the other two objects will shake the cavern so much the tunnels will close, then he no longer can dig out the gold."
"So they are to here to release the Queen's spirit?" Xena asked.
"Not just that. On the night of no moon they will be used for that…to draw the Lost One's spirit to the chair. But on the full moon near Solstice, they will be used for another ritual. They are powerful objects in themselves and will be used to protect the sacred cavern and what it holds. Artemis used the making of the items from the old power of Ge."
"Why Gabrielle? I can understand about the Amazon connection, but what about the rest?"
"Because she is a Queen of an Amazon Nation she holds more power in other realms. She is also not tainted by her own motives for power, nor limited in her desire for the well being of one group of peoples. My priestess had said that because the City of the Muses wasn't just about the Muses but about all of life, then a person whose heart is of like mind, must be the one to join the objects to the regeneration of the power symbols in the sacred cavern."
"Why not a priestess, the oracle or…someone else? It sounds dangerous to me."
Dorie smiled. "Yes. It is dangerous, for anyone who enters the oracle's space and is not of the energy that surrounds it, will be a pile of ashes in no time. But…there is a moment in this special passing of heavenly bodies that gives even the most unworthy a space to safely enter and sit on the chair."
"Is there any life sacrifices involved in this?" Xena asked suddenly suspicious.
"Oh, no. No deaths or spilling of blood, mortal or otherwise! This is regenerating a different type of life force."
"Hmmm. So…what is with the symbols?"
"I cannot say. I promised my priestess."
"Can you go into the cavern?" Xena asked abruptly.
"Not any more…" she paused for a moment looking scared. "He saw me. He said if he caught me visiting my priestess again he would hurt her more."
"Can she see you?" Xena asked.
"She does not see anything. She is in a dark place where Yerik will not let any light shine. He keeps her there, trying to make her believe that the goddesses no longer protect Crometh, so she must open the box, but she will not. He does not see who she is."
Xena nodded understanding. A high priestess became the embodiment of a goddess or god during certain rituals or times when the goddess or god felt it was necessary to step into a physical form. Since this was winter solstice her embodiment by a goddess was certain. But which goddess? "Which goddess will your priestess honor?"
"I don't know. The Muses decide which one of them will visit though the priestess."
Xena thought about which one would be more appropriate for the situation at hand. "How did the satyr's get involved?"
"Yerik promised them the forests to the west of Crometh where the city was felling trees for market and with the intent to extend the farms. My priestess had warned the mayor that it was extending beyond what their immediate needs were and that others lived there, but they ignored her warnings. They picked the Muses thinking the nine would not interfere with their own desires." This brought a faint smile to the child's face. "They don't know as much as they think."
There was a faint path below them. Xena dropped from her branch to get a closer look at the area around the path.
How long? She asked her little companion in thought.
"Soon. They had stopped to set new traps in the sacred grove."
Xena nodded. So, anyone that goes into the sacred grove becomes another hostage. She held her breath for a moment as she remembered she had told Gabrielle to use that route to get to the cave.
"No harm will come to her, Xena." The little girl shook her head. "Artemis will watch over her."
"She was suppose to be watching over her priestesses too." Xena muttered. "I told her to leave Argo near there." Xena cursed quietly under her breath. She had thought leaving Argo in the forest would be safer than in the city where she may be given something drugged.
"She's a very smart horse." Dorie told Xena thoughtfully.
"Yea." Xena sighed. Argo can take very good care of herself in the forest. Hades in a horseless cart, Xena, what are you getting yourself all wound up for? You've left Argo out on her own many a time and she's been fine. And Gabrielle can take care of herself too…right. She also attracts trouble like bees to honey. And Artemis is watching over her, she thought cynically. It takes more than a goddess to keep Gabrielle out of trouble, she grumbled to herself with experience.
Dorie giggled and put a hand over her mouth at the glare from Xena.
A plan started to form in Xena's mind. She began to smear dirt on her face and was about to cover her armor with foliage when an amused little voice gave her pause.
"What's that for?" Dorie asked looking at her with wide-eyed interest.
Xena smirked. "I thought I would play an avenging agent for the Muses. Get them riled up a bit. Don't want to be recognized as myself."
The child smiled and opened her palm, slowly moving it in an arc. Xena could feel a tingling in her body and looked at her hands startled.
She looked like some kind of unrecognizable creature from the forest dressed in leaves, vines and…blossoms? In the winter…on her?
Xena glared at the little figure that had a hand over her mouth as if to suppress her giggles. The little one shrugged her shoulders. A noise from behind them along the trail saved Dorie from the glaring blue orbs that pierced through the darkened face.
Xena leaped into a tree and positioned herself on a branch that reached over the trail. She wanted to study her prey for a while. The seven guards were either tired or very clumsy for their feet kept tripping over the roots that crossed their path. Xena studied the cart two of the men were pulling. No horses.
She dropped behind the cart and took out the two guards quickly, quietly and efficiently. She lifted each body and carried it into the thicker brush of the forest, tucking the bodies under fallen logs and covering them with dead leaves, leaving itch power on leaves about hip high, all the while smirking. They are going to have an interesting Bacchus reverie. She was back behind the cart that jostled over the many tree roots that were helping slow down their progress immensely. The language from the cursing men pulling the cart was in a strange dialect that she barely made out. She stared into the cart and identified three sleeping figures. By the smell, they hadn't washed in a long time or the cart hadn't been cleaned from other occupants that hadn't used wash water in a long time.
She moved back into the woods, moving ahead and found the advance man, easily disarming him. Whatever he thought he saw it was enough to freeze his movements for a moment. Xena dragged him into the bushes finding a lot of available places to hide a body, then waited for the other four standing in the center of the path with her sword drawn, its point resting in the ground and her hands cupped over the grip.
On seeing her, foreign voices started yammering, probably because there were four men excitedly yelling in different dialects, not being understood by each other. The two men that were pulling the cart left it and advanced towards Xena with drawn swords, pushing the two in front of them toward her.
"You demon of the forests, we shall slay you and drive you to your demon father!" One of the men shouted in a dialect Xena could understand.
"Hmmmm. I don't think so." Xena returned in their language with a smirk. Great camouflage, Dorie.
"You are a demon! You speak in our own tongue! Arrggghhhh!" The man lunged toward her with both hands gripping his curved sword, which he held close to his shoulder ready to swing.
Xena waited for the last moment then stepped to the side pulling her sword up and slicing into a bare spot under his armor, swirling around to catch the other, leaving him headless. The other two, more cautious started to circle her in opposite directions. Xena's eyes glinted in merriment. This is fun.
She leaped into a somersault, twisting her body into a nice slow turn to face the two that ran into each other, as they thought they were charging toward their demon prey. His partner impaled him, though not fatally. Xena waited as the two decided whether to continue their attack or not. She needed one to get away and report to his commander what he had seen. Shake them up and bring a hunting party out to the woods. She decided the one stabbed by his fellow soldier was the one. He wouldn't be able to fight for a while but was alive enough to deliver the message. Without any more thought she whirled into action around the lone man standing. Though he realized he was fighting for his life the struggle was short. He wasn't in shape and was breathing heavily after only a few moments of a flurry of attacks against the elusive Xena. Xena felt a strange detachment as she tossed the dead body into the brush and regarded the remaining one.
The other man pretended to be dead. Xena was laughing to herself. "Take a message to your leaders. From the Muses…in one day…leave the forests and sacred caverns. And… get…. out….of…Crometh!" She leaned very close to the man watching him shudder as he felt her nearness and the pressure of her blade against his throat. "And let the hostages go …without further harm…or none of you shall leave the forests alive." Xena growled in her best imitation of a bad warlord. She laughed a little from the giddiness she was feeling in the pit of her stomach. She raised an eyebrow at her impertinence of naming herself an agent of the Muses. The Muses were one group of goddesses that she didn't have history with. She sighed to herself. Did the means justify the end?
The man passed out. Xena returned to the back of the cart. She easily broke the lock with her sword hilt, knowing just where to hit it. The three women were sitting up staring at her but with no expression on their dirty faces.
"They can walk. Just tell them where to go. They will obey." The child had moved to her side and was showing her excitement by moving from one foot to another and rubbing her hands.
"C'mon out." Xena ordered softly. The three filthy bodies moved out, slowly and not with much agility as they nearly fell on their faces getting out of the cart. They waited before her with heads bowed down. The smell alone would have knocked her out if she was locked up in the same space as they were, she thought. The Satyr would easily find them.
Can they see you? Xena asked the child.
"Now, yes. But they don't know what they see. Their minds are dead to anything but commands that tell them what to do."
"Then you can tell them what to do until this condition wares off." Xena nodded to the child.
She nodded she understood.
Xena was glad she had thought to bring her herb pouch and not just a mixture.
Their slow painful progress to the safe cave was interrupted by a golden shadow that greeted her with a wicker. Xena lifted each of the limp figures onto Argo's back, worried at the thinness of their bodies. Their progress was quickened with Argo's assistance.
It was just before noon when Xena's form slid into their room. Gabrielle had occupied herself with her own asanas poses and pranayama or breathing exercises, reading scrolls and writing. She had their food sent up and was wondering if she should send up for midmeal, though she wasn't hungry since she ate both portions of the morning meal. She had a lot of writing to catch up on, and it was a good way to keep her mind off worrying about Xena. Her morning asanas meditation and pranayama didn't relieve her anxiety for long…but it gave her a lot of things to sort out about Caesar, and the two men that were taking over the city.
This time she felt Xena's presence before she entered their room and a smile lit her face as she stared at the balcony waiting for the expected appearance of her partner.
Xena smiled at the Bard as she pushed the door further open. Gabrielle had moved the table so that she could see out of the opened door to their balcony. She had a cloak draped around her as she wrote.
"Hey." She rose from her chair and went over to her companion wrapping an arm around her leathered waist and avoided getting poked in the eye by an armored breast swirl. "How did your rescue adventure go?"
Xena shrugged off her armor setting it neatly across the chair. "Fine." The warrior laughed softly. "I got all three into the cave. The cave looked great, by the way. They'll wake up and find your note…I blocked the entrance to the cave." She added.
"They're not in any condition to protect themselves." Xena shook her head. "I don't want them to be wandering around until they get their own will back. Dorie said she would watch out for them
"Maybe we should…"
"No. The Satyr would smell our presence and find the cave." Xena guessed well what Gabrielle was going to propose. "Do you remember Agnes and Eleanor? The two are healers. They and Camila are the three I freed. The less movement on the outside of the cave, the safer they are."
Gabrielle nodded remembering the three only because she had refreshed her memory by rereading her scrolls while waiting for Xena's return.
"I found out from Dorie why you're here." Xena frowned turning toward the door. "Sounds like we're going to have company." She pulled her sword toward her and moved to the bed, snatching up a piece of bread to munch on. She stretched her long frame over the covers waving to Gabrielle to read to her. Gabrielle's soft voice read what she had written. Suddenly she put her scroll down.
"So, why am I here?" She asked unable to wait for when Xena thought it best to discuss it.
Xena raised her eyebrows in amusement. "Can it wait?"
"Well…what if you forget?"
Xena gave her an amused raise of her eyebrow as a firm rap on their door stopped their conversation. Gabrielle looked at Xena as she laid her quill down and walked over to the door to open it.
It was Alala, who looked tired in the daylight. Her eyes flickered over Gabrielle quickly and settled on Xena's reclining form on the bed.
"Good noon to you." She looked surprised to see Xena.
Gabrielle returned the greeting while Xena merely nodded.
"I hope you don't mind my interrupting but…a group of us were wondering if perhaps we could have a word with you."
Xena nodded to the woman and gave a small smile at Gabrielle. "Partner?"
Gabrielle smiled and nodded.
"We'll be down in a moment." Xena informed her. The woman nodded then left.
Xena made a quick job of putting her armor back on and fastening her sword to her hip, where her cloak would not hinder her quick reach for it.
"I think she misses Argo." Xena told Gabrielle.
Gabrielle had caught the slight frown that crossed Alala's face when she studied Xena. She probably thought if Argo was missing so was her mistress. Wonder if she'll ask. Gabrielle was chuckling to herself thinking of how warriors ask another a question that was broaching on 'none of their business' but they just had to know…at sword point?
In the common room were the same group of women and three men that were there from the previous night. The others that were in the room were busy around tables gaming or laughing about something. The only difference from the previous day was that there were more people in the inn at this time. Nothing else appeared to be out of place. However, it was just that, that caused Xena to be suspicious of being watched.
A mug of ale was placed before Xena and a cider for Gabrielle. Xena watched the young server as she scurried back behind the counter.
"You wanted to see us?" Xena asked tersely, looking back at the group that stood around them.
An older woman stepped forward and slid into the bench across from Xena. "I'm Eirene…once the Speaker for the citizen's of Crometh." She added hesitantly.
"Ya still are ta us!" A young man slammed his palm on the tabletop causing some of the others to jump and look at each other uncomfortably.
"Be still Abrie." One of the older men admonished.
The annoyance in the younger man's face didn't go unnoticed by either Gabrielle or Xena.
"Ya wanted to see us?" Xena asked again, not bothering to introduce themselves.
"You're Xena, the Warrior Princess." Eirene stated. "We're askin for y'er help."
Xena looked into her ale and then back up. "What kinda help?"
Eirene looked around at the others. "Let us be."
The others nodded and started to move away but Abrie seemed to find something to do near by. Alala's shadow fell over him and he moved away with a scowl with Alala and Hildreth herding him out the door.
Xena leaned back holding her mug of ale, extending a booted foot under the table, waiting for Eirene to start.
"This here is Theseus. He's one of the merchants that's been living in the city since he was a bit of a young one."
Gabrielle nodded to the man politely watching her partner out of the corner of her eye.
"We've a bit of a problem…it's been developing for about a year now." Eirene was looking at Xena, directly into her blue eyes and from the stiffness in her shoulders, she was finding it hard to keep eye contact.
She finally lowered her eyes to the table where her hands were fidgeting with an eating knife. Realizing what she was holding and the person she was facing she quickly let it drop.
"We hear you're having problems in the forest around here." Gabrielle offered quietly.
The old woman nodded toward her relieved. "That we are. Don't know why it is or if it's part of another problem we've been havin…but a stop has got to be put to it before it's too late… when everyone gives up hope."
"Why aren't you the speaker for the citizens anymore?" Xena asked directly.
"General Gigantes felt he couldn't work with me for the good of the city's protection so he appointed someone more to his liking."
Xena raised her eyebrows.
"I thought the speaker was appointed by the city counsel?" Gabrielle asked puzzled.
"Not when a city is threatened by an invading force. A city counsel that is established in peace is not adequate under war conditions so another is voted in with half being nonsoldiers and the other half having the experience of being soldiers. But, the counsel elects who General Gigantes picks."
"Who is General Gigantes? I've never heard of him." Xena asked curious.
"He says he came from Troy." Theseus volunteered.
"Hmmm." Xena couldn't remember a Gigantes from Troy, but she hadn't met all of King Priam's captains or generals, and not many had escaped the fall. It would explain why he looked familiar and why he had the ring.
"Does he know I'm here?" Xena asked.
"I'm sure he does. He has spies everywhere. That's why we need to talk to you now, before he does…something."
"So, you think he is responsible for what is happening around Crometh?" Xena got right to the point.
"We don't know. Maybe he's just taking advantage of it." Theseus shook his head.
"Draining the life out of the city, is what he's doing!" Eirene hissed.
The old man patted her hand but said nothing.
"You have a stone quarry nearby?" Xena asked.
"Yea. In the valley about half a days walk from here. His men keep the roads clear for the builders and the merchants but it seems only his merchants are getting through."
"So, he's a merchant turned General?" Gabrielle asked. She was trying to remember where she heard of the name before. Of course. When they were in Troy, Perdicus had introduced her to a merchant apprentice that had a pendant he wanted to show her, but he wasn't really an apprentice.
"Yea. He was a merchant."
Well, Xena thought. So, that's where I've seen him. A merchant. I didn't formally meet any merchants in Troy, but there were a few trapped in the city. Helen was talking about them creating a problem for King Piram because they wanted out, thinking the Spartan soldiers outside would let them go since they were not residents of Troy. They would have, but for a short time. As soon as they had the information they wanted...they would have been assassinated. She frowned for a moment. She remembered one of the generals had mentioned some of the merchants had disappeared as they were setting up a barricade in the temple.
"So, you want me to find out what's going on in your forest?" Xena asked.
Xena played with her mug still not drinking its contents. "We'll have a look."
"This trouble must be putting a dent in your economy." Gabrielle mentioned.
"Hmmph. Only those that the General doesn't like."
"I didn't see many merchants at their stalls." Xena pointed out.
"We haven't been getting many visitors for the last six moons. Some merchants have been sending their wares out on caravans. General Gigantes sends his soldiers to protect them, for a fee. Anyone he doesn't like he charges higher prices. He also taxes the merchants that try to make a go here. Only his select few can afford to stay in business." Theseus explained.
"Sounds more like a warlord than an elected official." Xena frowned.
"What happened to the priestesses?" Gabrielle asked curious for she had asked the maid who delivered their food where she could locate one and was referred to Alala, who was more of a warden in a temple, not an actual priestess, if she read her scroll right.
"They disappeared. One by one."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Do you think the General had anything to do with their disappearance?" Xena asked.
"Well, they started to disappear before he came. Now, even visiting priestesses disappear. He doesn't say it, but he has hinted that the Muses have deserted us."
"He's definitely a foreigner." The old man snorted.
"No Greek would make the mistake to think the Muses would get involved in something like this." Eirene told the two women heatedly. "Now Athena, Aphrodite or Artemis… they would."
The old man looked as upset as Eirene as he patted her hand consolingly. "Completely out of their experience…since the city isn't dedicated to the other four, they can't be called in officially to help."
Xena restrained herself from rolling her eyes…all the rules of what gods and goddess can and can not do and still…they do what they want and when they want.
"What has he suggested to put in place of the Muses?"
"Well, he said we should pay homage to Ares until this problem has been settled."
"But we aren't! Once we change the spirit of this city…it will be forever changed." Eirene angrily pointed out.
"You're right there. Ares won't be happy about giving up a new conquest or sharing with his siblings…that's for certain." Gabrielle remarked dryly. "He also takes a more hands on approach to cities that are dedicated to him…than say the Muses."
Xena was in deep thought. Why would Ares' help someone that is trying to steal her spirit? But then, if he knew what Caesar was planning would he make a secret pack with one of the partners? And…just to hedge his odds would he ask Athena to ask her a favor rather than him? Their last encounter was still too hot an issue for him to ask anything of her. But his involvement with Dahak…wouldn't his own siblings cut him off? The relationships among the gods were toooo convoluted for her tastes.
"What's preventing him from rededicating the city now?"
"Well, Alala, Athena's Priestess and Hildreth the Amazon, who represents Artemis."
"How did they come to help you?" Gabrielle asked curious.
"They and some of their friends had passed through last winter solstice. We thought they had found the problem and cleared it but once they had left, the problems started up again. We sent for them to return and about four moons ago five of the women returned. Three of them disappeared within a moon."
The old man shook his head. "Ya came at a good time, Xena. My cousin told me you and your friend had cleared out a bunch of thieves from the surrounding mountains near their village for them."
"Hmm. I was wondering why Alala, who is a priestess, hasn't disappeared." Xena asked, nodding at the compliment.
"She's not a spy." Eirene jumped to her defense.
Xena held up a hand. "I wasn't implying that."
"We don't know." Theseus admitted.
"I betcha General Gigantes mentions that a lot." Gabrielle guessed.
"Yea. He and his friends mention a lot of stuff."
"What is his payoff for turning this place into an armed camp?" Xena wondered aloud. She was curious just how much the citizens knew and how much they would talk about. So far…they weren't mentioning the hostages. Why? Yerik and Gigantes can't keep Crometh's change a secret forever. Already caravan merchants were talking about something strange happening to the city. And then there was Hercules. He would come, once he heard something was going on…or would he also be effected by whatever was keeping the other gods out of the city? He was part god. And the water. Why aren't these people as docile as the rest? Of course, Alala knows so she would have tipped off her friends but not everyone or Gigantes would…would do what? The citizens outnumber his soldiers. Which was where the hostages probably came in. So could she really trust these people? One of them was drugging her ale.
Xena eyes narrowed as her thoughts returned to Ares. Was that why Athena didn't say exactly what it was she wanted Xena to do? Because she knew part of it would be doing a favor for Ares, as well as freeing the city from Gigantes and his group's influence?
Alala and Hildreth who had left during the conversation burst into the room at that moment. "Empedon is leading a bunch of soldiers here. He's got them riled up again!"
Xena remained seated.
The others looked at Xena who calmly cupped her hands around her ale letting her eyes rest on Gabrielle who returned her gaze. Xena broke eye contact and returned her attention to her mug that had a bit of a leaf floating in it.
The door came open with a loud bang and soldiers poured into the room as if they were after an escaped prisoner. They pushed the patrons into a corner, with Alala and Hildreth separated from the group.
A tall overweight soldier dressed in ill fitting and dirty armor stepped in front of Xena who remained seated with the mug to her lips.
"Well, if it ain't the do gooder, Xena, Butcher Warrior Princess now Princess of the poor and down trodden." The soldier sneered. "Reaping what ya sowed." He leered.
Xena looked up at the soldier casually then looked around the room. "Well…if it ain't Empedon, deserter, thief and coward. Someone actually hire you?" Xena drawled. She lazily waved at the air in front of her as if Empedon smelled, which he did, of too much ale, uncleaned leathers and body.
The soldier drew back his arm as if to strike Xena but another soldier that had come quietly through the doorway halted his arm with his drawn sword point pushed into the back of his neck. He had saved Empedon's from a painful experience. If Xena hadn't seen that the new soldier would stop him in time, Xena would have sent a fist into his chest that would freeze his body's movements for a few agonizing moments.
"Empedon! What did I tell you about coming here?" The shorter dark haired captain demanded in a low voice. "You've been drinking! Aren't you on duty?"
"This here is Xena, trouble maker. Likely as the one causing all these problems." Empedon grunted. "I got some of the men gathered to bring her in."
Xena rolled her eyes. He hadn't changed a bit. Stupid. How on earth did he end up here and hired?
"Not likely. If you listen to talk in the inn, you would know she's been out of Greece for a while. Now…" he turned to look at Alala and Hildreth. "if you found out those two were involved. That I would believe." He smirked at the glare Hildreth gave him.
Xena noted the difference in the tall older Amazon that she had come to know as Lily over a year ago. She had favored chobos over a sword but now she merely had a knife scabbard in her waistband. She had discarded the Amazon jewelry for one solid gold necklace whose decoration was of Artemis that glinted in the indoor light. Interesting.
"Get back to your unit and report to your captain." His voice had turned cold. Turning back to Xena he smiled.
"I'm Captain Herodes." He extended his arm to Xena.
Xena remained sitting with her fingers still casually curled around her mug of ale. He returned his arm to his side. "I've heard a lot about you." He remarked bravely continuing on.
"As I have of you." Xena didn't smile. Herodes under the direction of one of Caesar's generals had slaughtered an entire village looking for one deserter. She was also not happy that he knew so much about her whereabouts for the last year. Who was keeping an eye out on her? The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Caesar or Ares?
"Going to be here long?" He asked.
"We're here for the celebration of winter solstice." She told him.
"Oh…yea…the Bard that travels with you…the Amazon Queen." The smirk on his face had Xena's hand twitching to pick up a nice ripe melon sitting on top of a nearby basket.
"Must be nice to have someone to record stories about you…and by an Amazon Queen no less." His eyes never traveled to Gabrielle. They remained on Xena. "Must drive that Amazon over there crazy that her Queen is waiting on you."
Xena appeared to take a sip of her ale calmly.
"Never saw a reason to celebrate something as worthless as solstice." He went on, not getting a rise out of her. "I'm more in for Bacchus' celebrations. They don't have much of that here, right now."
"I hear the satyrs are hunting for recruits around the forest. I'm sure you won't have long to wait if you took a walk in the forest." Xena mentioned casually. "But I hear your General would rather have Ares face in this city."
That got a laugh from the soldier. "This town is pussy whipped with all them goddesses. You'd think Zeus would put some…" He looked around uncomfortably and lowered his voice… "balls in the men folk. Now Ares, he wouldn't mind sharing with Bacchus."
Xena laughed to herself. He obviously didn't know anything about Ares. Ares was the most territorial of all the gods she knew.
"That would be like Ares lending out his leathers." Gabrielle snorted at the man's naïve.
He suddenly turned to her as if noticing her for the first time. "Who are you?" His eyes looked at her hands then up to her breast where she had let the cloak open, showing her tattooed flowers.
"Gabrielle, the Bard…that Amazon Queen that travels with Xena. And, you know if you really believe what you just said…you're in for a rude awakening. Ares shares with no one and satyrs don't have a preference for partners in the festivals."
"What daya know about Ares or Bacchus festivals?" He sneered.
He obviously didn't know much about Gabrielle, Xena thought wryly. Whatever he saw before him didn't impress him at all. Come to think of it, that really was Gabrielle's intention.
"Traveling with Xena I get to meet all sorts of…memorable…personalities like Bacchus, satyrs and…Ares." She smiled at him with no rancor.
"Hmmp." He grunted unimpressed then turned back to Xena. "So, ya here for a few days?"
Xena hid the smile that threatened to work its way to her lips, as she watched Gabrielle roll her eyes at the soldier's breath.
"Trying to get rid of me?" Xena asked innocently.
"Trying to prevent trouble. There's a lot of people here that would like to make a name for themselves. I don't want anyone getting hurt."
"Your concern for your soldiers is…commendable." Xena returned unimpressed.
"The General will want to see ya, if ya stay longer than two days." She was informed in a harder voice.
"We're here for the winter solstice celebration. I thought it lasted for a week." Gabrielle objected.
The soldier looked like he was going to say more, but decided against it. "Two days." He repeated and left.
"What's with this two days?" Gabrielle asked looking from one person to another that slowly moved back toward their table.
"Dunno, but…in three days we have this meetin where we have to prove to General Gigantes' committee that there is no more need for his army and leadership." Theseus informed them.
"Up until six moons ago, General Gigantes had to prove why his military leadership was necessary. The last meeting he maneuvered the committee to say that it is us who must prove that there is no danger to warrant his protection." Eirene explained tiredly.
"He's been encouraging citizens that offer any resistance to his rules to leave…in various ways." Alala added.
"A small group of us had been away from the city for about ten moons. When we returned the change we felt was considerable…and I don't mean in just the addition of the outside walls." Hildreth informed the two women she sat facing. "Most of the people we got to know from our first visit here have disappeared. According to their neighbors they had packed up their belongings and left."
Alala nodded. "However, some of those people we know would not just leave. This is where they grew up and had invested their lives in what the city represents."
"What did the city represent?" Asked Gabrielle trying to separate rumors from fact.
"Why…the Muses and the arts they bless." Eirene reported surprised. "Of course we also have athletic competitions, games…we celebrate life! We have prosperous farms surrounding us that support our vision and dedication. The sacred groves in the east are carefully tended and thinned, everyone that was part of the city were interested in no other gods but the Muses. We even had three other goddesses visit, in disguise of course. We never had any complaints about where the city's business was focused. Our competitions are well talked about." She held her hands out in puzzlement at what had happened to their once great city.
"The Muses aren't the type to mettle in our affairs though the people that come here enjoy the atmosphere and give generously to the Temple and to the entertainment. We had it very good here." One of the others nodded sadly.
"Can you remember when you first started to feel that something was wrong in the forest?" Xena asked.
"Ya. That's easy. A little over a year ago our high priestess, Aerope, had gone out to the sacred groves right after the spring planting to give thanks and check on the plantings she had done. When she came back she reported someone had pulled all the new plantings out."
"From then on, all sorts of little things to the sacred groves and fields for the Temple started to happen. Then almost a four moons later, it moved to more serious things. Aerope disappeared, then another priestess, and then it just kept agoin on."
"Were these priestesses always alone?"
"No. They had the usual temple attendants around them. The women just disappeared without the attendants knowing what was going on."
"Are any of the attendants around so I can talk to them?" Xena asked.
"Well, there's only one left now." Eirene told her hesitantly.
"What happened to the others?" Gabrielle asked concerned.
"Left." Therseus snorted. "They probably got spooked. They weren't exactly the most reliable group to guard someone."
"Whatda ya mean?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"They were young girls." Alala explained. "Here the attendants are young girls. When they reach womanhood they decide whether they want to continue working in the temple or go to another trade the city supports. Training them in whatever trade they wish to venture into rewards their time spent working for the temple."
"Did their families move out?" Xena was suspecting that those might be the families Alala had said just vanished.
"Yea. Their families left shortly after they disappeared." Theseus nodded.
The others might be in the tunnels mining for General Gigantes and his friends, Xena was thinking. Why no rumor? Hercules would have heard it. No, he's been out of Greece also and returned only a few moons before we had.
"Well, this isn't the usual warlord take over." Xena mused. "But someone wants this city… minus the Muses."
"Why?" Eirene asked frustrated. "We've been asking that ourselves. We aren't near any trade routes. Anyone visiting us is coming to be entertained. Our winter games are as challenging as the arts." She couldn't help smiling at that. "We're known as a fun city."
Gabrielle put a gentle hand on the woman's arm.
"We'll help you find out." She told her.
The old woman nodded and rose from her seat. "May the Muses guide y'er steps." Eirene told them gratefully. Their table was cleared from most of the people with only Hildreth and Alala remaining. Hildreth had risen to let Eirene by.
"Would you two like to sit down?" Gabrielle offered. Xena had to stifle a chuckle. She knew Gabrielle was curious about these two.
Hildreth nodded and sat down before Alala could respond. The other sat down slowly as if not so sure she wanted to be here.
"I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena." Gabrielle introduced for Hildreth.
"My Queen." It sounded like a choke.
Gabrielle smiled. "Gabrielle will do. Thank you. You're far from home." She remarked innocently.
The tall Amazon hesitated a moment then answered keeping a polite face. "Ahh. Yes. I had received a message from some friends that use to live here."
"You were at Lesbos?"
"Lesbos?" Hildreth asked puzzled.
"Yea. Are you not the Ambassador to Lesbos for one of the Amazon Nations?"
The tall woman's eyebrows rose to her hairline. "I had been, but I've been traveling lately and hadn't been back to Lesbos for almost two lunar years. I wasn't aware that we knew each other."
"Yea. We met sometime last year just before the harvest season. You introduced yourself as Lily." Gabrielle told her trying not to look at what she knew was a Xena look from Xena resembling the rolling eye face.
Oh, oh, Xena thought. Gabrielle's on a roll here.
Hildreth looked down at the tattooed hands that were casually wrapped around her mug of cider. She felt she would have remembered meeting with the Amazon Queen, with tattoos on her hands. She couldn't remember anyone mentioning that any of the Queens had tattoos. And that would be something they would mention. Especially when they caused one to focus on her bare neck that had the tattoos in flowery loops going from one side to the other.
"I've changed a lot in a year." Gabrielle helped. "My hair's shorter and…" She touched the back of one of her hands. "I've added some body decorations."
Xena almost snorted at the description. They were more than that. They were a reminder of her own rededication in the search for a greater cause than her own life. Something Xena feared would mean she would give her life up to…and leave her to face the world and its cruelties alone. But so far, it hadn't been the case. All she had abandoned was her staff, not just her weapon of protection, but a staff that represented her position as an Amazon, keeping the symbolic head to the staff safely stored away at the Amazon Village in the Queen's hut.
There was an awkward silence as Hildreth tried to remember where she had met Gabrielle and she was sure she had not met Xena formally. The last memory she had of the Warrior Princess was when she was still a warlord and it was but a brief meeting, thank the goddess. She glanced at the tall dark haired warrior whose presence was considerable even when she seemed to be relaxed with her elbows resting lightly on the table with one hand curled around her mug of ale.
"Do you have a plan?" The tall Amazon finally asked turning to Xena.
"Ya. I thought a walk in the woods would be nice."
"Mind if we go with you?" Alala asked.
"Not at all. You can show me where the priestesses have been disappearing."
Hildreth nodded. "We've been out to the different spots enough to know them by heart. You plan on staying past the two days?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders. "Gabrielle wanted to experience the winter solstice celebrations here."
"When would you like to take that walk?"
"Unless you have something to do…right now would be nice."
The two women nodded and rose.
They didn't take time to trade for warmer coats, as Xena didn't think they would be out long. She just wanted to see where the two women would lead her and to see where the traps that the foreigners were setting were. The two dogs that had joined Gabrielle earlier accompanied them out side the walls. The two dogs romped along side of them, toward the sacred groves that were east of the city as if knowing where they were going.
"Jerid would not have left his dogs." Alala muttered as she watched the two snip at each other, dancing in mock attacks at each other.
"Jerid?" Gabrielle asked as she tried to keep up with the three women who were all longer in leg limbs than her.
"He was a young merchant I met when we first came to the city about a year ago. He trained dogs for guarding the city gates, homes, things like that."
"Maybe these belong to someone else."
Alala glanced at Gabrielle. "He didn't have any intention of selling these two. He gave them to his wife for her protection. She liked to go visiting the forest to gain inspiration. She wrote lyrics and songs for the temple as well as for the monthly competitions."
"She's one of the people that disappeared?" Gabrielle asked.
"I really don't know. Their neighbors said they moved out, taking their business to neighboring Pandestia. But we had passed through there before we came to Crometh and we would have heard if they were there. Jerid's skills in dog training would have been the talk of the town." Alala shook her head.
"He's that good?" Xena remarked as she looked about her as they entered the first part of the sacred groves.
"He is. He doesn't just sale anyone one of his dogs. He use to take trips to visit potential customer to make sure the dog would be treated well."
"Hmmm." Xena ducked a low overhang to a tree that showed recent cuts. She walked around the tree studying the marks on the tree. "Looks like a satyr's been here." She squatted down to study the bruised bush next to the tree and the print that was hidden under the leaves.
"What are those marks on the tree from, Xena?" Gabrielle nodded to the bruised bark that was out of her reach.
"A satyr's horn." She muttered as she continued to look around the area. "Looks fresh enough to have been from last night. Usually satyrs don't move through sacred groves that are not to their patron."
Out of the corner of her eye Xena could see Alala give a guilty look toward Hildreth.
"Ahhh. Well…we had a meeting with Scion the leader of a small group of satyrs that have taken up residence in the woods on the other side of the sacred groves...last night." Alala admitted. "I guess he followed us back to the city."
Xena looked up at Alala, then slowly straightened up. She continued to look around pulling a tuff of rough hair from a branch over her head. "What was your business?"
"He's…holding some of our friends hostage." Hildreth's voice quivered with anger.
"Are they priestesses?" Xena asked innocently.
The two women were silent for a moment. "Yea…they're part of the problem the city has. There's…bad feelings from the last time we came through."
"We found he and some of his den mates were causing problems in the surrounding forests. We convinced him to move on. I guess it didn't stick for long." Alala finished.
Xena merely nodded and continued to look around, walking toward the cleared circle within the sacred grove that was for celebrations to whom the sacred grove was for. If followed for another quarter of a candle mark it would take them to the sacred cavern that Dorie had said was where the village hostages were kept.
The women followed Xena quietly as she inspected the circle. Gabrielle was successfully hiding the smirk as she watched the three. Gotcha! She couldn't help but feel pride in Xena's casualness at her information gathering.
Suddenly Xena was gone! "Hey!" Gabrielle uttered startled.
"Hey, yourself." The familiar voice returned above her head.
"Xena!" Gabrielle had her hand to her throat as she tried to get her heart to slow back to a normal pace. "What are you doing up there?" She asked in a normal tone as possible.
The other two women were also taken by surprise, but Hildreth recovered quickly, and not to be outdone, joined Xena in the tree. Alala stayed below to act as a guard for Gabrielle, as if it were their usual practice.
Xena pointed to Hildreth marks on the branches. "Looks like someone had a net up here."
"Recently?" Hildreth asked unbelieving.
"No. Been a while. When was the last time someone disappeared in these woods?"
"Three moon's back when preparation for the goddess' visit to her followers is made. These days people don't come into the groves."
"Hmm." From her perch Xena's eye caught sight of something in another tree and moved through the branches easily. It was a net…one of the traps Dorie had mentioned the foreigners were still setting.
She heard Hildreth softly curse under her breath.
"That's were we were going to collect herbs tonight for the Temple."
Xena nodded. She could see a nice collection of leaves below her that would yield a few taiga roots. She moved to the net and studied it. Pulling out her breast knife she cut some of the netting.
"That should be a surprise to whoever thinks they will be making a catch."
Xena felt a tremor in the tree. She looked toward Hildreth to see if she had felt it.
"What was that?" She whispered.
Xena dropped out of the tree and put both hands on the ground. She could feel small vibrations in the ground. Is there a tunnel running beneath here? "Do they have tremors around here often?" Xena asked.
"No…I haven't felt any until now. But it's possible." Hildreth sounded doubtful.
"What do you think it's from?" Gabrielle asked her as she stood next to Xena's kneeling form as she continued to study the trembling under her hands.
The priestess and Amazon exchanged glances. Hildreth looked back at the Amazon Queen and shook her head. "I don't know my Queen."
"It's Gabrielle." She smiled. She looked down at the woman whose body was warming her hand as it rested comfortably on her shoulder.
Xena finally rose. "Are there tunnels running under here?"
Alala shook her head. "Underground water tunnels are to the west of here. It's where the spring water comes from."
Xena frowned looking over the area. She moved forward following the sound of a stream. She studied the streambed then reached in and pulled out a handful of its bottom soil. She pushed the stones around as Gabrielle and the others leaned over her shoulders. Small gold nuggets lay amongst some of the other river settlement that her finger was pushing aside.
"Goddess!" Alala muttered under her breath.
Xena suddenly looked up. "We're going to have company if we don't get out of here." She warned the group. She let the loose pebbles drop back into the river.
She didn't wait for the women to make a choice as she herded them quickly in front of her, away from the river that showed one reason for the town being taken over.
Guards were waiting for the women when they returned to the Inn. Captain Herodes was seated at one of the tables watching while some of the clients were playing a board game. He rose quickly when Xena entered.
"Where've ya been?" He asked suspiciously.
"Why are you asking?" Xena raised an eyebrow at him.
"You have General Giantes attention. He doesn't need a reason."
"This isn't Rome, Herodes. We Greeks don't need to tell anyone why or where we go. Unless…Giantes thinks himself a warlord…and then…we would have a different situation here, wouldn't we?"
"The General isn't Roman and he isn't a warlord."
"He's not Greek either or he would know that taking a Greek city hostage tends to irritate the citizens to say nothing of it's Potnia." Xena told him softly.
Herodes snorted. "No one's a hostage here. Anyone who wants to leave…" he turned to the patrons…"should by all means…leave."
Xena smiled. She had decided to move things up a bit by letting them know, she knew. She could easily take their soldiers, but…that's not quite what she had in mind.
"The General will want to see you, without your weapons." Herodes turned to motion to the guards but didn't get far.
Xena had Herodes around the neck. "IF your General…wants to see me…HE…can come and visit…me."
She released Herodes pushing him into the small group of guards he had brought along. Herodes didn't challenge her but rather instead glared at her as he left.
"Is this trouble?" Gabrielle asked under her breath.
"Yea. But we can handle it. I think he was taken by surprise and decided maybe I needed to visit the General. Let's see what the General has to say…though I don't think he would want to see me…not yet anyway. They are going to wait a few more days to see if I succumb to the water, wine, ale, food or what ever else he has drugged."
"He's not going to let that go." Hildreth mentioned worried.
"Yea. I know his type well. I'm sure he's going to let Empedon do his dirty work." Xena turned to Alala and Hildreth. "How many people know about the drugged water?"
"Just the two of us." Alala didn't look surprised at her question. "We don't want to say anything until we can get past their guards and clean the water up." Alala informed her, "and get to the hostages they have."
"Hmm. I've already taken care of the water problem. But, if Gigantes suspects he may make a move against the citizens before the town meeting. Just to keep him off balance I'll stir the pot a bit."
Xena could hear footsteps approaching hurriedly. They weren't the heavy foot tread of soldiers.
Eirene, Theseus and some other people entered the Inn looking around. Spotting Xena, Eirene started toward her. She was angry by the set of her shoulders.
"What have you done?" She asked angrily.
Xena raised her eyebrows and pointed at herself.
"She told Captain Herodes to go play with himself." Heldreth told Eirene with a raised eyebrow.
"Whaaaat?" Eirene paused for a moment.
"No. It had to be something else to get General Gigantes in a big huff!" Theseus shook his head.
"We went into the forest." Alala offered. "General Gigantes had ordered the people to stop going into the forest because he couldn't risk spreading out his soldiers to protect them and those working on the walls". She explained turning toward Xena and Gabrielle.
"Well, General Gigantes told us that if Xena leaves by tomorrow, he will not declare martial law and lock up the city." Eirene told them.
Xena watched the citizens for a moment. Why were they all of a sudden backing down? Did Gigantes find out she had tampered with his water scheme? Or, was he putting pressure on the citizens that had family members as hostages to get her out of the city? Surely he knew that it would only strengthen her resolve to stay. Or…is he testing to see if the drug is taking effect on me?
"Captain Herodes told you that no doubt. But, no problem." Xena told her calmly. "We'll leave tomorrow."
The citizens were uncertain for a moment. Then Eirene nodded and pushed against the others that were around her as she stomped her way out.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who was calmly looking at her clasped hands. "Well, there goes the reputation of the city." Gabrielle remarked dryly.
"Hmm. So far the stories I've heard are not as good as yours, my Bard." Xena teased as she placed both hands on the table and rose. "Well, it's near sunset."
"When is the festival going to start?" Gabrielle asked.
"By the looks of things, it will probably be done within private homes."
"So, festivals and celebrations are being forced indoors?"
Alala nodded. "Yea. From what we gathered, about a month before we arrived, citizens who stayed out late into the morning hours would find themselves beaten and robbed. By the time we got here, it was an accepted practice that everyone was in their own home by two candlemarks after sunset, no matter the season."
"Probably. The point is…the citizens believe it and they don't have the will to fight…" She shook her head tiredly. "You've just seen what usually happens. One day they work with us and the next…"
"It must be pretty difficult to try to defend a city from itself and at the same time save your friends. How did you find out about the water?" Xena continued.
Hildreth sighed. "It took us about two weeks. Alala and I spend a lot of time patrolling outside the city and the sacred forest, drinking from the streams outside, as well as fill our water bags out there. The other three that were with us, began to get real strange about the third or forth day. Since we all were busy when we first arrived, attending to the temples and trying to get a sense of what was happening to the temples and city together we didn't realize what was happening until it was too late for our friends."
"We keep hopping something will…turn around in our favor."
Xena looked at her with a smile. "I think it has. Tonight they'll probably make another move." She stretched her long legs out beneath the table. "You're scheduled to make a visit out to the woods to collect herbs for the ceremony tonight, so…just disappear towards the western part of the sacred groves. The city guards don't expect you to return. Your disappearance probably won't be noticed till sometime tomorrow. Just remember…satyrs use smell…so keep to the highest part of the trees."
"All right. Do you want to meet somewhere and make plans?"
Xena smiled. "I'll find you. Just be careful."
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Shall we call it a day?"
Gabrielle nodded. They both rose from their seats and nodding as the two women went to their rooms. Xena entered their room first warning Gabrielle to wait. After a few moments she called Gabrielle in. Xena was kneeling next to their packs.
"Someone's been through our things. Looks like my herb pouch and food have been disturbed." Xena murmured as she touched pouches of various herbs pulling those that she felt had been removed by someone else, out of the saddlebag.
"Good thing we hid Artemis' fan." Gabrielle said in a low voice as sat on their pallet watching Xena meticulously go through each bag of herb.
"So…" Gabrielle looked at Xena hopefully. She was going to tell her what she had found out from her conversation probably with Dorie, for she didn't expect the guards she had dealt with would be of much help.
After she finished with her herb pouches Xena went over to their waterskins and emptied the water out without even sniffing the contents. Then sniffed the spout afterwards. She smelled the water from their pipes and nodding let it run into the tub, filling the skins back up
"Tonight we're going to check out this cavern that has the hostages. Tomorrow is when Gigantes will probably make his move on us. He'll want his drugs to do some of the work for him." She looked back at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle nodded silently from the bed. She would have to wait to hear what Xena had to say. She for one was tired and Xena most of all needed to catch up on some rest. She would put off asking her just what Artemis had in mind for her.
Continue on to Part Two