A Friend's Debt
Disclaimer: Normal stuff about who owns what. An important note, I usually write with Smilegal/awatcher, but this work is all mine. She did contribute heavily to the plot, in fact she is the main plot. <VBG>. This story is dedicated to her, if it wasn't I wouldn't be writing about her.
Violence warning: Most of the stuff isn't that bad, less descriptions than what you would expect in a normal episode. Chapter 5 has some pretty nasty stuff though so be careful, it isn't that bad, but I thought I would warn you.
Sex warning: Sorry. No sex of any type here, no hints or anything.
Other works: This is my second solo story. The other story is "A Childhood Solstice" posted at Lynka's and XenaCrazed's sites. The other stories that I've worked on have been co-authored with Smilegal/awatcher, "Three's A Crowd" and "Reluctant Goddess" also at the previously mentioned sites.
started December, 1997
finished July, 1998 (I know it took me forever)
Chapter 1 "A friend?"
Liss leaned her chair back against the wall and let out a sigh. It had been nearly a month since her last contract and she needed money, fast. She glanced about the room and thought who might be interested in paying for her services. There was a standard contract available from her previous employer, but Liss had hoped she could find somebody else. Grakus paid well, but she didn't like his style, a little too dark for her tastes. If Liss didn't find somebody else to work for today she was going to have to settle with working for Grakus again. She looked herself over and wondered why nobody had approached her. She certainly was qualified, all though a bit young for the line of work she was in. Brown hair and chestnut color eyes that seemed to take in everything around her accentuated her slender but not skinny form. A good physique was necessary in her line of work. Liss adjusted the twin scabbards on her hips that contained two long, deadly daggers and picked up the buckler, a small shield she wore strapped to her left forearm, and started to head for the door. She was a mercenary, a scout to be precise, and a very good one if you asked her. Liss headed toward the innkeeper to pay her bill as she tried to figure out where she was going to get a job. She paused to pick up her cloak that had been hanging on a nearby peg when a woman walked in, a few years older than Liss, carrying an Amazon staff. The woman approached the innkeeper and began bargaining for room and board.
"Twenty dinars for a room," the innkeeper said, "and that includes dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow."
Gabrielle's eyes went wide. "That's robbery! I'll give you eight dinars for the room and meals."
The innkeeper let out a small smile, this was the kind of haggling he enjoyed. Not so much to get money out of travelers, but simply for the fun of it. "I've got a wife and five kids to feed. Fifteen dinars and I'll throw in feed for your friend's horse."
Gabrielle returned the smile with a grin of her own, understanding the game they were playing. "Every innkeeper this side of Athens has a wife and five kids to feed. Twelve dinars and feed for the horse."
The innkeeper barked a laugh, "Deal! We don't get that many Amazons around here and they usually don't like to bargain. What's your name?"
"Gabrielle, and you're right, Amazons don't like to bargain, but they do like a challenge." Gabrielle shook the man's hand, but quickly released it and tightened the grip on her staff when she saw five men out of the corner of her eye walk towards her.
"Well, well, look at what we got here, boys," sneered the nominal leader of the band of drunks. "An Amazon, and all alone."
Gabrielle backed away from the bar to allow her room to swing her staff. "Look, guys, I don't want any trouble and neither do you so why don't we just go our separate ways?"
"You're already in trouble, missy. A bunch of you ambushed me and my friends in the woods two weeks ago a couple of days west of here." The ruffian pointed to a healing wound on his leg.
The young bard snorted, "You had it coming then. Two weeks ago was The Festival of Artemis and a couple days west of here is traditional Amazon hunting grounds. Everybody knows that you don't go there this time of year, especially if you're a man."
The ruffian roared and charged her. Gabrielle brought up her staff and smacked him in the ribcage before spinning around and hitting one of his friends in the head. She backed off and waited for them to attack again. The group surrounded her and she quickly was fighting for her life. She managed to knock all, but two of them out before one of them got behind her. He crept behind her and brought his sword up behind his head to strike when he suddenly let out a gasp and fell face first onto the floor. The man Gabrielle was facing ran out the door as fast as he could while Gabrielle stood there wondering what had happened. She turned around and saw the man on the ground with a long dagger sticking out of his back. Liss pulled her dagger out of the man's lifeless body and wiped it clean on his trousers before putting it back in it's place.
Gabrielle blinked a couple of times. "Thanks for helping me. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but did you have to stab him in the back?"
The young mercenary smiled smugly, "His back was to me."
"Uh, right, okay so what's your name? I'm Gabrielle." The bard stuck her hand out. Liss hesitated before returning the gesture. "Liss."
"Liss? That's a lovely name. I don't think I've heard it before."
"Yeah, well, it's a nickname. Look, I gotta go."
"Please, let me buy you something to drink before you go. I'm sure my friend would like to meet you."
Liss thought about it for a few seconds. It had been a long time since she had been able to sit down and talk with anybody. Her "friends" usually consisted of other mercenaries who frequently wanted to do more than "talk" to her. Liss had decided a long time ago that no matter what happened, not matter how badly she needed the money, she was not going to sell her body. "I guess I have a few minutes."
"Great!" exclaimed Gabrielle, happy to meet someone new. She nearly smacked her forehead when she realized what she had been doing moments before. "Oh, geez, what are we going to do about these bodies? Especially the dead guy." Gabrielle shook her head. She had seen enough corpses in the past three years that another one didn't faze her, she just hated moving them.
Liss solved the problem. "Innkeeper! Time to take out the trash."
"Your mess, you clean it up." Came the reply from behind the bar.
"Your inn, unless you want him smelling up the place. Besides this happens at least once a week."
The innkeeper grumbled, but proceeded to remove the unconscious and the dead. Gabrielle ordered a cider, port, and after consulting with Liss, an ale from a serving girl before leading her new friend to a table in the back of the corner of the room. Gabrielle took the actual corner, forcing Liss to choose between having her back to a bunch of drunken men or the door. She opted to keep an eye on the men, hoping Gabrielle would warn her if anybody dangerous came in from outside.
"What kind of line of work are you in?" asked Gabrielle, hoping for a good story.
Liss narrowed her eyes and took a moment to analyze the woman in front of her. The young mercenary couldn't figure out why, but she felt she could trust the woman. Maybe it was the infectious enthusiasm or the way she talked. She decided she could trust her, in fact maybe she could get a contract out of her if she had any connections high up with the Amazons. "I'm a scout. I free-lance and I am looking for work right now if you know of anyone looking for somebody good."
Gabrielle returned the once over she had just gotten and replied, "Sorry, I don't know much about the mercenary business. My friend might know, but I really have avoided them. No offense, but most don't exactly have a good reputation."
A small laugh came from the woman. "No kidding. It's hard being a woman in this line of work, but the pay is good and I need the money. I just finished up a contract East of here and need to find a good job before..." Liss' voice trailed off as she realized that she was getting too comfortable with the bard. Some things just weren't meant to be shared between new acquaintances.
Gabrielle picked up on the tone in Liss' voice and decided to change the subject. "So, you just came from the East? I just came from the Kingdom of Ionia with my friend, Xena. Where..."
Liss nearly spit out a mouth full of ale when she heard Xena's name mentioned. 'Of all the people to run into! Why did it have to be her?!?!'
"Is there something wrong, Liss?" asked Gabrielle. She had gotten use to such responses at the mention of Xena's name, but never from somebody like Liss who seemed nice, for a mercenary. There was something she was missing, but couldn't place it. The bard decided to take a better look at the woman in front of her.
Liss quickly tried to cover up her outburst. "Xena? Wow! You travel with Xena? That must be...uh...neat." Liss continued mentally, 'Neat? Couldn't come up with something better than that, could you Socrates?'
Gabrielle examined Liss. She looked a little younger than the bard, but a few inches taller. The mercenary was wearing a forest green tunic and deerskin pants with matching boots. Strapped to her waist was a belt that held two nasty looking daggers in scabbards. Gabrielle had already had a first hand demonstration of them. Attached to Liss' left forearm was a buckler shield that was large enough to provide protection against small weapons, but wasn't designed for combat against a well armed foe. Gabrielle had seen Amazon scouts similarly attired for speed rather than sustained fighting. After all, that was a scout's job, find the enemy, not fight him. A small patch that looked like a ram's head was sewn onto the right sleeve of the tunic. Gabrielle had seen that design before, but couldn't place it.
"Neat? Well...I guess you could call it that. We just finished stopping a king from conquering a neighboring kingdom that was peaceful."
"Uh...good for you. I better get going." As she started to stand up Liss suddenly felt a large hand clamp down on her shoulder and a voice from behind her say, "Going so soon?"
Liss froze. She slowly turned her head and saw a six foot tall woman standing behind her with one hand still on her shoulder and the other inches away from a shiny, circular object. The look in the warrior's icy eyes told her going for her weapons would more than likely be the last thing she ever did. The mercenary gulped silently as she took in the warrior. She had never seen Xena before, except at a distance, and she wasn't exactly thrilled to get a closer look, much less an introduction. "Look, I was just leaving."
Xena shook her head and sat down next to Liss and with her back to the wall, but didn't remove her hand from the scout's shoulder. The warrior spoke in a tone that justified Liss' decision about not going for her weapons. "Oh, I think I can convince you to change your plans."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. It wasn't uncommon for her friend to intimidate people, but something told her this was intentional. Xena's face showed no emotion, just the cold look in the eyes. "Xena, I want you to meet Liss," said Gabrielle, not understanding Xena's obvious hostility towards the young woman in front of her, "she helped me when some jerks who decided they didn't like Amazons. She saved my life when one of them was about to attack me from behind. So, do you two know each other?"
"We haven't been properly introduced, but I know her boss, as do you."
The bard frowned. "I don't know any mercenaries at all, except Liss that is."
Xena let go of Liss' shoulder, but gave her a look that convinced the mercenary that it wouldn't be wise to leave anytime soon. "Maybe 'know' might be the wrong word, but we both ran into them in Ionia, remember?"
"Oh, right! That bunch that protected King Fractos's supply lines when he used his entire army to march against Ionia." Gabrielle carried on, more to herself than anyone in particular. "If they hadn't done that, we would have been able to force him to retreat without all that bloodshed. A lot of lives were lost because of a group of greedy thugs." The bard thought back to their recent adventure in Ionia. A corrupt and evil king named Fractos had decided to expand his kingdom at the expense of his peaceful neighbors in Ionia. The army of Ionia was no match for Fractos, who had hired mercenaries to keep his supply lines open in order to bring the weight of his entire army to bear on Ionia. Xena's initial plan had been to disrupt his supplies, forcing him to retreat rather than lead a starving army into battle. That plan had been tossed when they found out about the mercenaries. It would have taken too long to wear them down and then destroy the supplies. Xena and Gabrielle had been forced to give the Ionians a crash course in tactics. The mercenaries had even tried raiding one of the towns while the armies were fighting, but were stopped when Xena arrived before they could do too much damage. She was too late to prevent several of the mercenaries from killing two women. The Ionians defeated Fractos, but at a high price. Gabrielle sighed and then shook her head. "I don't get what this has to do with..." Her voiced trailed off when Xena plucked at the patch that Liss had sewn on her sleeve. "Oh, no, don't tell me."
"Uh, huh," said Xena as she sipped her port. "Liss is one of Grakus's 'thugs', as you so quaintly put it."
At that Liss decided she had, had enough. "I am not a thug!"
Xena sneered, "Tell that to the widows and orphans of Ionia."
"I had nothing to do with what Fractos did," objected Liss as she slumped into her chair. "All I did was scout for Grakus to prevent anybody from ambushing the supply wagons."
"And in doing so, kept Fractos from splitting his army or leaving his supplies unguarded. Either of which would have gave us a chance at forcing him to leave." Xena took another sip of port and watched as Gabrielle tried to reconcile the woman in front of her with the group of mercenaries that had allowed so many people to have been killed.
Liss was starting to get angry. "I did a job, nothing more. It was nothing personal."
"What about when you raided the village?" interrupted Xena. "How do you explain murdering defenseless women as 'nothing personal'?"
Liss dropped her eyes to the table. "I didn't know anything about that until after the battle. I was out with the rear guard and never went near the fighting."
There was a moment of dead silence that descended over the table as Gabrielle thought about what had happened. Xena had decided to try to bring as many of the mercenaries to justice as possible after they left Ionia. Liss was the fourth one they had found. Two had surrendered quietly while the third had died fighting. She wondered which road Liss would take.
The mercenary continued, "Some of the warriors decided to find a 'bonus', but I couldn't do something like that, so I remained behind with the supplies. When I found out about it, I collected the money that Grakus owed me and left."
"I don't understand," said Gabrielle. "Why would you work for such a monster to begin with?"
Liss hung her head dejectedly, "He pays well and I need the money."
Xena laughed and said sardonically, "It always comes down to the almighty dinar, doesn't it?"
"My village was raided a year ago and my mother was killed. My father was left crippled. I'm the only means of support for my family. If I don't raise enough money...look, what do you care what happens to them." Liss slumped into her chair and took a swallow of ale.
"Try me," responded Xena with more emotion than Gabrielle expected.
Liss looked at the warrior, who didn't appear quite so menacing suddenly. She had nothing to lose by telling at least part of her story. "My father used to be a farmer near Rhion, before he was hurt. In order to pay for some of his medical expenses we had to take a loan out on the farm from the local money lender, a heartless bastard named Alope. In addition to that my sister took out a personal loan from him. I've got two months to pay back both loans. If I raise enough money I might even be able to pay for an operation that will heal my father for good. There, happy now?" muttered Liss.
"I'm sorry," apologized Gabrielle. "I didn't know. There must be something you can do besides being a hired killer."
"I am NOT a killer," Liss hissed. "I kill when I have to, and only when I have to." Liss decided she wasn't going to wait around for Xena to figure out what to do with her. She got up quickly and ran for the door. The young woman paused when she realized she wasn't being pursued by the warrior.
Gabrielle jumped up to follow Liss the moment the mercenary started to run, but stopped when Xena grabbed her arm gently to restrain her.
"She's getting away!" exclaimed Gabrielle trying to remove Xena's hand from her arm.
"Let her go," replied Xena quietly as she pulled her friend back into her chair. The warrior gave Liss a nod to go on. Liss didn't stop to question why, she took off and never looked back.
"I don't understand," complained the bard. "We've tried to capture every one of those mercenaries that we've come across. Why did you let her go?"
"Let's just say I believed her story and let it go at that," replied Xena. The warrior recognized the name of the region Liss had said was her home and understood the urgency of her quest for money, especially with regard to her sister's debt.
Chapter 2 "A job's a job"
After she ran out of the inn Liss darted into the woods. She still didn't understand why Xena had let her go, but she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The mercenary stopped running after covering nearly a mile in record time.
'Well,' she thought to herself, 'I guess I don't have any other choice, but to go work for Grakus again. It's a good thing he likes my work, otherwise I would really be in trouble.'
She made her way to Grakus's main camp and headed straight for the tent that housed his headquarters. Liss nodded her head in greeting to the guard at the door and entered. Grakus stood behind a beat up table covered with maps. He was covered with from head to toe with dark brown leather and only a person with keen eyesight could discern where the leather stopped and the filthy person began.
"Liss! What a wonderful surprise!" shouted the mercenary leader. "I thought after our last job you weren't ever going to work for me again."
"Well, you may be a son of a harpie, but you keep you word when it comes to contracts."
Grakus grinned. "True, true and I know how much you need money, all though you have never told me why."
"And I never will," retorted Liss.
"You're in luck, little lady. I just got hired by a warlord named Kimon to guard a gap located three days north of here."
"Guard duty for a warlord? Doesn't sound like much profit in that."
The leader laughed, "You wouldn't think so, but it turns out that Kimon just killed his chief rival and has decided to expand his territory in the west. The only problem is the villages on the eastern side of the gap have a mutual defense treaty with the villages in the area he wants to conquer. He can handle one group, but not both. Our job is to hold the gap while he plunders the countryside. Your job is to make sure we get adequate warning when the militia arrives." Grakus popped a piece of mutton into his mouth as chewed as he observed Liss' reaction.
Liss looked disgusted. "You want me to scout for a warlord so he can raid and destroy villages? You must be out of your mind. You know my own village was nearly destroyed by a warlord last year. Now you want me to work for one? Forget it!"
Liss started to leave when she heard Grakus shout, "The job pays three hundred dinars."
The woman stopped in her tracks and slowly turned to face Grakus. "Three hundred?"
Grakus nodded. "Three hundred plus a chance at some real bonus money. If I recall, you were needing somewhere in the area of seven hundred dinars. This job can get you all of that plus more."
Liss did some quick calculations in her head. She hated to admit it, but if Grakus was telling the truth she might be able to get all the money she needed and quite working for scum like him. "What exactly do I need to do?"
Grakus smiled; he knew he had Liss all but hired. "Just what I said a moment ago. I want you to scout the area ahead of my little band and give us ample warning so we can ambush the militia coming to the aid of the villages. That's it, no more, no less."
"Sounds too easy. What's the catch?"
"Never could slip one by on you, Liss," snorted Grakus. "The truth is that the woods surrounding the gap are very dense and the militia could easily sneak up on us if we don't have a good scout. I have never made it a secret of what I thought of your skills in that department. The three hundred dinars is because I know you'll demand that much once you see the terrain. I'm just avoiding the bargaining later."
Liss knew Grakus didn't joke or lie when it came to business. He might cut his own mother's throat for a dinar, but was completely honest when it came to dealing with his mercenaries. If he wasn't nobody would work for him again. "Okay, three hundred dinars. I'll trust you that the terrain is that difficult. I'll need the standard equipment plus access to additional people to act as sentries at certain areas once I've pinpointed critical locations."
"Now, what's this about a bonus? There usually isn't much room to get a bonus in the scouting business."
Grakus poured himself a cup of wine and motioned for Liss to join him. Liss declined and instead went to examine the map of the area she would be working in. The mercenary leader took a long drink and refilled his goblet before going on. "Actually the bonus isn't from me, it's from our employer. It seems that Kimon used to be from eastern villages and holds a grudge against them for kicking him out. He offered a bounty of twenty five dinars for every head of a militiaman you can bring in and fifty for every civilian."
Liss turned pale. "Aren't you getting that backwards? After all it would be harder to kill the soldiers."
Grakus had a sickening grin on his face. "Kimon wants the villagers to know what it means to oppose him. That is why he put such a high price on the civilians. I think you misunderstood the offer though."
"Pretty hard to misunderstand money being offered to kill villagers and soldiers," sneered the young woman.
"No...no, Liss he wants the heads, nothing else. I know you don't enjoy killing, but I also know you really want the money. It's unlikely you will be able to kill that many militiamen, they're supposed to be well trained and travel in groups and you operate alone, but you might be able to get a few women and children fleeing the area."
Liss was appalled; never in her life had she heard of such a thing. Kimon was encouraging the mercenaries to murder innocent women and children. It was true she desperately needed the money; if she didn't get the money her sister would have to settle her personal debt with Alope. Liss shivered at that thought. "You don't expect me to kill women and children, do you Grakus?"
"I don't care if you do or you don't. All I am paying you to do is scout the area and set up look out posts. If you want to go after the bonus on your spare time, that's your business. Think about it. I'm going to start moving the army tomorrow morning. I want ideal locations for ambush sites as well as lookout points by the time we arrive at the gap in three days."
The scout nodded. "Fine, I'll leave tonight and mark the trail as usual. Don't have any of your goons get trigger happy and start shooting their crossbows at me." Liss turned and strolled out of the tent, the perfect image of control, at least on the outside. She calmly walked into the woods and threw up.
'Three hundred dinars will barely cover the cost of the loan on the farm. It will fall four hundred dinars short of what I need for my sister. In order to get enough money to meet both loans I'll need to,' Liss gulped silently and nearly threw up again, 'kill sixteen men or eight women and children and I STILL won't have enough for the operation to completely heal my father.'
As Liss headed over to the supply tent to get the equipment she would need to blaze a trail for Grakus and mark the lookout points, she carried on her mental argument with herself, 'No way! I won't kill any innocents. Soldiers I can deal with; they know what they are getting themselves into when they pick up a sword.' Liss felt relieved as she came to that conclusion, but suddenly became somber again. 'And how am I going to kill over a dozen trained soldiers by myself? There is no way I can do that.' She thought again about the women and children. 'What makes them any more innocent than my sister? She's family, they're nothing more than strangers.' Liss shut off her line of thought and concentrated on her work as she made her way to the gap. Despite her work, she couldn't keep from coming back to the same question: was she willing to kill innocent people to save her family?
By the time she reached the gap Liss had already picked out most of the positions that Grakus would need to position his sentries in order to prevent any sneak attacks by the village militias sent from the east. There were a few blind spots, but that couldn't be prevented without deploying a lot extra of men. Liss knew the mercenary leader would rather keep the men in reserve in case of battle. She decided to routinely scout those areas herself just in case the militia stumbled upon them. Liss spent the next three days checking and rechecking the area while Grakus brought up his army to defend the gap. She briefly met with the mercenary leader and pointed out the prime areas for ambushes and sentries. In addition to his own men, Grakus had a dozen soldiers from the warlord to beef up his strength. He wasn't crazy about the blind areas, but agreed that having Liss scout the area periodically was more efficient than posting men there.
A week went by with nothing happening near the gap. Rumors began that the warlord had started to raid villages, but was coming up empty handed most of the time. There were men left to run the villages, but the women and children seemed to be missing. The warlord, Kimon, had decided to hold off attacking villages until the situation could be sorted out. Whatever was happening to the villagers wasn't Liss' concern, until she was called into the main camp by Grakus.
"Liss, I need you to find out why the villages are being emptied out of women and children before they get attacked," said Grakus as he slouched back in his chair.
"Why doesn't Kimon find out himself?" retorted Liss, angry that she was being asked to do the warlord's dirty work.
Grakus sighed, "He thinks there is a leak in his army somewhere. He can't use his own people without tipping off the villagers. Look, I'm not asking you to do anything other than go into one of the towns he hasn't attacked and find out if there are any women and children around. If there are, find out if they're planning on leaving and how they found out about the raids."
"Why me? Why not one of your regular spies?"
The mercenary leader let out a small smile. "Because you're a woman."
"If, and I do mean if, somebody is planning on getting the civilians out of the town they're more likely to talk to a woman than a man. Especially if you act the part of a scared traveler. And if that doesn't work, try using your feminine charms on them." Grakus grinned at the last statement.
Liss nearly smacked the man, but restrained herself. "Not part of my contract, remember?"
"I'll throw in a hundred extra dinars, Liss."
The young woman mulled it over. There was nothing to be gained by not accepting the offer. She wasn't being asked to plan or participate in an attack, just find out if the women and children were being evacuated. Liss wasn't comfortable about being in a position where her information could lead to the death of innocents, but since she wouldn't be the one actually holding the sword during an attack she rationalized her fears away. The next day she changed into regular traveling clothes and headed to one of the villages near the gap that hadn't been attacked yet.
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