In the Darkness
By hobbes
June 5, 1998

How 'bout that! My Muse actually made an appearance, so here's a story in spite of being retired.

Disclaimers: Yes, yes, yes. I know I am not supposed to borrow them, but it is so much fun! I promise to give them back after I'm finished-I promise!

Warnings: There is a little bit of mature language, but nothing truly offensive I believe.

Xena and Gabrielle cautiously entered the tavern, senses fully alert. The mysterious letter they had received by a messenger only stated they were needed desperately and to be at this particular tavern on a certain day. The pair had ridden hard and fast to reach this out-of-the-way district and hoped they weren't walking into some sort of ambush.

Xena searched the room with keen eyes, looking for any possible sign of trouble. The patrons of the room had glanced up as they entered, but no one seemed overly interested in their presence. The warlord still felt uneasy. The room had the stench of fear in the air. There was nothing she could put her finger on, but she felt it just the same. The tension in the room was almost as palatable to her as one of her own burnt meals. Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's waist and indicated to an empty table towards the rear of the building.

Gabrielle gripped her staff tighter, feeling the hyper alertness of her companion. She didn't need to see her face to know that Xena's strong features were locked into her warrior mask; face expressionless, lips pressed tightly together, eyes flashing blue chips of ice; and the aura surrounding her that warned people to keep away.

They sat down and waited. Soon, a man wearing a dirty apron around his hips approached them.

"What can I bring you tonight?" he asked. They requested whatever meal was edible in his opinion, along with an ale and cider. He nodded and left.

"Xena, I don't think I've ever been in a tavern so quiet in my life. I wonder what's going on?"

"I don't know. It's almost like everyone here is waiting for some catastrophe to happen. The gloom in this place is so thick you could cut it with a sword," the warrior whispered as she continued to scan the room.

Without warning, the people around them stiffened perceptibly as four men in uniform entered the tavern. Everyone quickly looked away from them in attempt to go unnoticed by the soldiers. Xena watched the men as they swaggered into the building.

They were loud and boisterous as they made their way to the best table. As they neared it, the people occupying it scrambled out of the way. The soldiers took their actions for granted, telling the warrior that these men we accustomed to getting their own way here. She looked over the four soldiers. By their scars and rough features, she knew they were veterans of many a battle. These men lived by the sword. Xena stared openly as they shouted for the owner.

"Barkeep! Get your sorry ass over here!" the leader yelled. The unfortunate man rushed to their table, obviously terrified as he nervously wiped his hands on his apron.

"Bring us your best, you sorry excuse of a pig. And bring food too! None of that swill you serve the swine here either," he ordered. He pushed the man away from him contemptuously. His men laughed as he tripped over a patron in his rush to obey.

Xena's eyes narrowed angrily as she watched the scene. Her muscles stiffened as she gathered herself to stand. A warm hand grabbed her on the forearm. The warrior snapped her head to her side, meeting Gabrielle's gray-green eyes.

"Not yet. Perhaps our mystery writer knew exactly what we would see here tonight. Look around you Xena. This isn't an isolated event. Everyone here is cowed like abused slaves."

The dark-haired woman returned her gaze at the people around her. Not one person seemed willing to stand up to these men. Gabrielle was correct.

"I've seen enough. Let's get out of here before I start knocking some heads together. I doubt our writer will approach us inside while those men are here." Xena rose from the table and headed for the door with the bard at her side.

"Hey bitch, I don't remember giving you permission to leave."

Gabrielle winced, not wanting to look at her tall friend. After all these years together, she knew exactly how her friend would take his comment. The man was in trouble now; he just didn't realize it yet. Much to her surprise, Xena took a different approach to the situation.

"Funny, I don't remember asking," the warrior commented breezily before she turned back towards the door. They left the room unchallenged.

After they left the building and had walked several minutes, Gabrielle grabbed hold of Xena's elbow to get her attention.

"Xena, are you feeling okay?" she asked with concern.

"I'm fine, Gabrielle," the warrior said with a crooked grin. She knew exactly what was going on behind those guileless green eyes.

"Then what was that back there?" the bard asked, "I never saw you use that technique before. You completely surprised me."

"That was what I hoped to do to them. If I had given those men the beating they deserved, then I'd have had every soldier in this area looking for us. And if I hadn't confused them, they would have chased us down the second we left the tavern. Those men are probably still sitting there, wondering what in Tartarus happened," Xena said with a wide grin.

Gabrielle chuckled at the picture in her mind. "True, I can see them sitting there with dumb looks on their faces and saying, 'huh?'." Both women laughed at the image. The bard placed her arm around her friend's waist for a few seconds as they resumed walking. Xena didn't mind her friend being affectionate as long as it was kept brief.

"So, what now?" Gabrielle asked as they walked down the muddy street.

"Now we wait until our mystery writer contacts us. Let's find an inn somewhere. I'm tired and I still need to keep care of Argo. We pushed her pretty hard to get here."

· * * * * *

Gabrielle glared at her tall friend. *I should have never left the room knowing there was only a small bed for us to share,* the bard thought to herself. Xena was lying sprawled on the bed, sleeping on her stomach. Her long limbs spread out, taking possession of the entire mattress. Well, I might as well get this over with.*

The bard reached out one hand and tapped the prone warrior on the shoulder and quickly stood back. Xena backhanded empty air as she awoke at full alert, her adrenaline pumping.


"Nothing. Just move over you bed hog," Gabrielle said grumpily.

"Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. Her friend just grunted and crawled under the covers. They settled down and closed their eyes, only to be disturbed by a knock at the door.

"Now what?" Xena mumbled. She got back out of bed and retrieved her sword from its scabbard. She stood to the side of the door and asked who it was without opening the door.

"My name is Dantese. I was the one that sent you the message. Could you please let me in?" the masculine voice asked softly. Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who nodded in return. She unbolted the door and opened it. A young man of about twenty winters stood there, shifting anxiously from foot to foot. She gave him a slight smile to put him at ease and invited him in.

He glanced around the room and smiled shyly at Gabrielle, who was still in the bed. The young man ran a shaky hand through his shaggy blond hair and looked up at the imposing female warrior next to him. She looked dangerous even in a sleeping shirt.

Xena became a little annoyed when he stood there without a word.

"Well?" she asked tersely.

"You are Xena from Amphipolis, right?" He relaxed when she nodded, "Well, we need your help. About five years ago, we took on a new Magistrate by the name of Gardan, and his brother Lathon as his advisor. They seemed perfect for the job. They had both been soldiers in their militia and promised to clean out the riffraff in our area. Anyway, they hired mercenaries to take over the army here. Next thing we know, we're practically prisoners in our own homes. Gardan and his brother demand heavy taxes and imprison or execute anyone that displeases him. We want to get rid of them."

"I'm not an assassin for hire," Xena hissed. The wave of anger from the woman pinned Dantese to the wall in fear.

"W-w-we know that. That's not why we need you. Please, could you-"

"Xena, back off. Give him a chance to talk," Gabrielle commanded softly. The warrior shut her eyes, releasing the unfortunate young man from her glare. Dantese took a deep breath of relief.

"Dantese, what is it you need from us?" the bard asked gently.

"We have a plan to oust him from power, but we need help. We know that Gardan hates Xena for attacking his homevillage about eleven years ago-he's never made any secret about that. We heard about Xena changing her ways recently from a bard traveling through our village. My people didn't know if it was true or not, but we need a helping hand." The young man turned to the warrior. We need a distraction so we can attack while he's off balance. Will you help us?" he pleaded.

"Yes," she said simply.

· * * * *

The two women met secretly with a small group of the rebels outside of the village the next morning. A few of the men hadn't wanted to bring in outsiders. They were proud men and thought they could clean up their own mess without any help, though most welcomed them warmly. Xena sat facing their leader, a man by the name of Kant.

A man in his later years, he wore his age with dignity. He was a charming man of soft words, an easy smile, and had the respect from everyone around him. Xena likened him to Hercules.

"Like Dantese explained to you last night, we need a distraction. Gardan and his brother would practically fall over their own feet if they knew you were in the area. We know it's a lot to ask of you, but-"

Gabrielle spoke for Xena.

"No, it's not, Kant. Most of the people who ask for our help want her to do all their dirty work while they hide away from the real fighting. You and your people ought to be proud of the courage you possess."

The older man gave her a warm smile of gratitude as he gave her hand a warm squeeze.

"I have one request," Xena said sternly. Her friend and Kant looked up expectantly. "Keep Gabrielle with you. She won't approve of my methods this time." Xena held up her hand to ward off the bard's protest. Gabrielle stood there with her arms crossed and a rebellious glare on her youthful face. She dropped her arms and took a step nearer, leaning closer to her friend.

"Don't you go all dictatorial on me Xena. What exactly do you mean I won't approve? Don't treat me like a child. We're past that stage," she challenged. Xena looked away from her before she answered.

"I'm going to attempt to kill him."

"You're going to kill him?" Gabrielle whispered in shock.

Xena gave her blond friend a lopsided grin. "No, I'm going to ATTEMPT to kill him. For a bard, you sure don't pay much attention to words," she teased.

Gabrielle stared at her friend for several seconds before she smacked the larger woman against the arm in outrage.

"Xena…" Gabrielle couldn't finish. Xena knew by the look on her small friend's face that she was in trouble once they were alone.

"Look, I want you someplace safe while this is going on. His soldiers know we're together and will try and find you. I'm going to make it look like a serious assassination attempt. I'll fail and be taken prisoner. He'll be so busy gloating over my capture that-"

"And what if he tries to execute you immediately, what then? Do I sit by and watch you die?" Gabrielle turned around to hide the misery she felt. She was terrified of what could happen while Xena was a prisoner. Gardan's hatred could very well mean her friend's death.

"Gabrielle, if the Ascegians strike soon after I am captured, I won't be in prison for more than a day or two. I promise." Xena hoped she could keep her word.
· * * * * *

No one paid much attention to the striking servant woman as she circled the room with her tray of sweet fruits. She was fair of face, but the obvious limp and simpleton expression discouraged anyone from anything beyond a glance. She went from person to person, offering everyone to take from her tray. No one paid her any heed as she neared the Magistrate and his circle of simpering followers.

The servant was within a half dozen paces when she loudly dropped the tray that had hidden a small, flat dagger. Her expression lost its child-like features and took on a feral grimace. She lifted the dagger and took a step closer to the unsuspecting official.

The woman took another step and found herself under a pile of bodies as the guards tackled her. The blade of wrenched from her hand before she was hauled to her feet and dragged before Gardan.

"Xena!" he hissed. The warrior wasn't sure if his tone expressed joy or shock at the identity of his would-be assassin.

The Magistrate approached her, his gaze never leaving her angry glare. His hand snaked out and forcefully grasped her face.

"How accommodating of you, my dear. I had heard rumors you were in the area and had sent out a small troop to hunt you down. You saved me a lot of trouble." He dropped his hand and turned to his men.

"Take her down to the old cells. I want her alive when I see her next. She's mine to kill. Do you understand me?" he asked his head guard. The man nodded briskly and took the prisoner from the room.

· * * * *

Xena gave a half-hearted struggle as they dragged her down to the lower levels of the old building. Her hands had been tied securely and her feet hobbled. The men kept painful grips on her arms as they led her through damp, dark tunnels. She had been warned that Gardan kept prison cells down in the old underground caverns below. No one that had ever been sent there returned alive.

Finally, they came to a large chamber where they tossed her to the ground.

One man grinned as he faced his fellow mercenaries.

"He said alive but didn't mention well, did he not my friends?" Laughter echoed against stone walls.
* * * * *

Xena stumbled forward as the guard roughly pushed her into the small dark cell. The hard-packed dirt floor was uneven at best and it was all she could do not to twist an ankle as she fought to stay on her feet. A few quick faltering steps later, she spun around to send a crusty look with her one good eye at the smirking guard. He barked out a laugh and shut the door, leaving her in total darkness.

The warrior stood still, waiting for her vision to adjust. It didn't help. The dungeon cell was pitch black. She hugged her ribs with one arm and painfully held out the other one in attempt to learn the room. By touch, she found a small pallet for sleep, and by the smell, she found the chamber pot. Xena fumbled around the tiny room, hoping to find something that might give her the possibility for escape, then cursed. She had stepped on the hem of the peasant dress she had used as a disguise. The woman she had borrowed it from had been more girth than tall but at the time, Xena couldn't be choosy. Hitching up the tattered dress, she continued her search.

She ran her hands over the moldy, damp walls searching every crevice. After hours of exploring, her blunt fingers found a small hole in the wall about knee high. The tall woman knelt down. Xena could feel a small draft coming from the hole that wasn't any bigger than an apple.

"Who's there?" a fearful woman's voice asked from just inches away. The warrior jumped slightly in surprise, causing her ribs to protest painfully.

"My name is Xena. Who are you?" She wanted to grimace from the pain, but her swollen lip wouldn't allow it.

Long minutes of silence hung in the air before Xena heard a hesitant voice answer.

"Fallia", the woman replied. Her voice sounded hoarse from disuse. The former warlord wondered how long the woman had been held a prisoner.

"How long have you been here Fallia?" Xena asked kindly.

"I'm not sure. It's been a long time," she said brokenly. Xena felt pity for the woman. Her voice had been filled with such fear and defeat.

"What's the last thing you remember? Was it Spring, Winter Solstice…?" The warrior listened to silence while the woman on the other side of the wall remembered back. The only sounds she heard were the slow drip of water and the rasping that accompanied the breathing from the woman.

""It was early Fall. We just had the Harvest Festival and it had been our first good crop after the drought."

Xena thought back. The crops had been poor until the rains returned after three years of dry weather. *Four years. Four miserable years she's been in this accursed hole in the ground. How could she stand it? * She shuddered at the thought of being here for just a few days. The walls seemed to draw in closer with each passing minute. Had there been sunlight, the imprisonment wouldn't have been as bad.

"Please…could you tell me your name again?" the frightened voice asked.

"Xena of Amphipolis."

"The warlord? About time they caught your sorry hide!" Fallia said in scorn. "I heard about you; killing, raiding, burning. I hope they flay you alive for all the harm you have done!" she spat out venomously.

Xena spun away from the opening, gathering her pain around her like a cloak. Even after all this time, words like that had the ability to cut her deeply. She ran a hand over her face in attempt to push away the emotions that threatened her control.

All the warrior could do was wait and hope everything went smoothly up above.
* * * * *

Gabrielle listened to the servant girl as she described Xena's capture with a heavy heart. It was done and now she had to trust these people to follow through.

Tomorrow morning at dawn, everyone would be in place for a concentrated effort to overthrow Gardan and his hired thugs. The troops were undermanned until the men who had been originally sent after Xena returned. The Magistrate and his brother were celebrating the prize they had captured and feeling fairly cocky. Everything was ripe for the rebellion, but Gabrielle felt a chill settle in her bones that no heat could erase.


Her aching body wouldn't allow her the true relaxation of sleep, so Xena had dozed fitfully in a seated position against the wall. She had briefly considered the bed, but because of the odor it gave off, she thought the floor a better choice.

The floor was uncomfortably damp and she felt chilled to the bone. Her torn dress was of little use in keeping her warm. Xena shivered and gritted her teeth to prevent them from chattering. She shifted her body and turned sideways resting her sore face against the cold wall. She gingerly reached up to feel the bruise that must surely cover half of her face. It was swollen and tender. Her eye was still swollen shut. She dropped her arm.

"Damn, Gabrielle's gonna kill me," she murmured. *Yep, she's gonna lecture me into submission, fuss like a mother hen, then she's gonna kill me. No doubt about it.* Xena grinned softly at the thought. The warrior had to admit a little fussing would be welcomed right now. After living a decade in an emotional wasteland, having someone in her life that actually gave a damn about her felt good.

"Who's going to kill you?" Fallia asked from her side of the wall.

Xena grunted silently. The woman probably just wanted to know whose hand to shake when it was all over with.

"A friend."

"A friend!? Another cutthroat like you no doubt," she criticized.


"A thief? A warlord? What?" Fallia grilled without hesitation.

"A bard and an Amazon Queen."

"Ha! And why would such a woman have anything to do with you, pray tell?"

*Because she loves me,* Xena thought to herself. She sighed. The woman was as nosy as a foraging warthog.

"Take whatever ideas you have about her and toss them away Fallia. Gabrielle is a true friend. She came into my life when my world came crashing down around me and I had given up. Gabrielle didn't give a fig about my past. She judged me for who I was when I met her and has helped me become a better person. No one could ask for a better friend. So say what you want about me, but I had better not hear one nasty remark about her."

Fallia withdrew from the opening and leaned against the wall, contemplating the underlying emotions rather than the words spoken by the other woman.
* * * * *

Lathon stroked his goatee and chuckled. His brother was in fine spirits and was practically floating on air. He rambled endlessly on his plans for the Warrior Princess as he paced within his private chamber.

"I want to break her my brother. I want to see her beg for her miserable life before I end it. Remember what she did to our cousin? She had him shackled like a dog and fed him scraps from her table. Her arrogance and pride must be taken from her. What do you think? Slow, drawn out torture or withholding food and drink, making her beg for every morsel? Perhaps we can do that little trick I heard of from one of the men. Tie wet leather tightly around a foot or hand and let it dry out. I hear the pain is excruciating." Gardan looked to his brother for an opinion.

"Anything is fine with me, you know. Just remember to make her death a public one in order to keep the locals frightened and under our thumbs. Rumor has it; she's somewhat of a hero in some parts of Greece. Well, seeing a hero executed will keep them complacent as sheep."

"No doubt, no doubt. We must not give them any type of hope. Our sheep must be given a lesson now and again."

* * * * *
"Fallia?" Xena said, breaking the long silence.

"What?" the word was gentler than Xena had expected. She decided to not ask her question as aggressively as she planned.

"You asked me questions. I was wondering if you would answer one of mine?"

"You may ask."

"Why are you here?"

"Because I had the misfortune of catching Gardan's eye. I spurned him. He was furious, but he couldn't bring himself to kill me, so he placed me here. I suppose he was hoping I would change my mind. He still comes down here once in a while and asks me if I would marry him."

"And you always tell him no. You've been down here for about four years."

"That long? Well, being locked away in this room is better than spending one minute with that man."

Xena laughed. "At one time I would have said to say yes then plot his death."

Fallia giggled with genuine amusement. "Why didn't I think of that?" she laughed, "I could have plotted a gruesome little death for him. Poisoned his porridge perhaps."

"Say that three times fast," Xena grinned. She heard Fallia laughingly give it a try, only to sputter halfway through. They both chuckled at her attempt.

Suddenly, both women realized they had been friendly to one another. They fell silent, waiting for the other to speak. Finally, it was Fallia that spoke.

"You don't sound like a merciless warlord."

"I used to be."

"What happened to change you?"

"It's a long story Fallia."

"Well, it's not like we have anywhere to go just yet."

"True. Well, it all started when I…"

* * * * *
Gabrielle stood by the window, staring out into the night. Her eyes didn't see the graceful clouds drift past the full moon nor the gentle swaying of the crops from the breeze. Her eyes were focused inward, worry etching her face. The bard's vivid imagination, a blessing with the public, only brought her fears alive with clarity in her mind.

Images of torture, pain, cruelty, and death only fueled her already frightened heart. What scared her even more is that someone other than her friend had to be the hero. Xena's life depended on whether or not this rebellion succeeded. If it failed, there would be little the bard could do to free her. The Amazon Queen almost wished the villagers had chosen to hide rather than doing the fighting themselves. At least then she knew Xena would have a way to protect herself. Gabrielle sighed once more, not hearing Dantese approach her.

"Are you all right? You've been standing here half the night. Everyone's resting and you should be too."

Gabrielle turned, about to protest that she was fine, when she felt a decision come to life.

"Dantese, after the fighting begins, I'm going after Xena. I figure most of the guards will be called away in order to deal with all of your men, leaving Xena unguarded except for maybe one soldier. I can handle one or two men if I need to."

"Gabrielle, that's crazy! Wait until after-" the young man was stopped by two glaring and determined eyes.

"After what? Gardan orders her throat cut? He could do just that if he thinks he's lost the fight. I refuse to let her stay there if I have a chance to free her." Gabrielle knew how much Xena hated small rooms and being confined. *She's like a caged animal sometimes.*

Gabrielle returned her gaze to the night sky, waiting for the dawn.

* * * * *
The warrior sat against the wall. Her blue eyes were closed as she lightly slept, her breathing shallow and careful because of her cracked ribs. Time meant little in the solitude of darkness. When she was tired, she slept, but there always a part of her that remained alert. It was that awareness that brought the sound of approaching men to her keen ears.

Out of habit, she opened her eyes, looking for the danger. A key scraped into the rusty lock and squeaked as it turned. A sharp click and the door opened. A man carrying a torch rushed into the room. Xena wasn't prepared for the pain of suddenly having light around her. She quickly shut her eyes, throwing a forearm over them for protection.

Cool hands grabbed her arms and dragged her from the room. She still couldn't force her eyes to open.

"Xena! Xena! What's going on?" Fallia called out to her through her door. The warrior didn't answer. Why tell the woman what may be about to happen. Let her be ignorant of her fate. To her dismay, another answered for her.

"Don't worry my dear. Just time for Xena to pay the piper," Gardan replied. His chuckle echoed then faded as they walked away.

· * * * * *

Xena winced as she was pushed against a stone wall then being shackled to it. As much as she wanted to, she didn't fight them. Too many lives were at stake and she mentally prepared herself for the worst. She opened her watering eyes and looked directly into the face of Gardan.

"Well my dear, I've waited a long time for this moment. You have a lot to answer for. Seeing you suffer and die is going to be my crowning achievement. My name will-"

"Just shut up and get it over with you bastard," the warrior hissed in annoyance. She hated long speeches.

"As you wish," he smiled.

The Magistrate reached down into a waiting bucket, pulling from it a wet strand of leather. He shook it free of excess water and began looping it tightly around her wrist. He didn't tie it tight enough to cut off her circulation, but snug enough to dig into her skin a little. He repeated the process with her other wrist.

"I heard about this little trick. I hope you enjoy its subtleties. I heard that you had a refined taste for torture in your warlord days." With that, he left her alone in the chamber.

Xena looked to her sides and understood immediately. They had placed torches on each side of her, just out of reach. The warmth of the fires would quickly dry the leather, shrinking it. The cords would slowly and painfully cut off the flow of blood to her hands. If not removed, the leather would eventually cause permanent damage and she would lose them. She shuddered at the thought. The life of a warrior without hands was a frightening prospect.

· * * * * *

Gabrielle watched the sky gradually lighten. Dawn would come soon. The bard could hear the men preparing. The scouts had already left as well as the sentries. Everything seems to be ready.

She left her position at the window and picked up Xena's sword, attaching the scabbard to her back. She placed the chakram inside her satchel and retrieved her staff. She was ready.

· * * * * *

Xena wiggled her fingers, hoping to keep the circulation going. A few hours ago, she only wanted to warm up after spending time in a damp cell, now she wished she was back in there. She could feel the heat from the torches on her skin, drying the leather. She could feel the agonizing bite as they dug into her skin, slowing the flow of blood. Her hands throbbed with each heartbeat and there was a frightening numbness in the tips of her fingers.

The warrior wished her emotions were just as numb. Xena felt on the verge of panic. Within a candlemark, the strands would be dry. Shortly after that, she would probably lose the use of her hands for all time. A trickle of sweat streaked down her spine as she tried to rein in the terror she felt.

With a humorless chuckle, the idea that the mighty Warrior Princess was done in by two little pieces of leather was ironic. So much for going down in battle.

· * * * * * *

A small red-blond peered through slit of the tapestry, watching the door she believed to led down to the underground caverns. The call to arms had been sounded a little earlier and Gabrielle had watched as men exited the doorway. Her heart pounded hard as she silently counted the moments. She didn't want to get overly anxious and be captured by a soldier. The bard knew she would be of little use to Xena then. She counted to five hundred, then left her hiding place.

· * * * * *

"Lathon, take command of the troops, I have something I need to do."

"Do? Like what? We ought to get the Tartarus out of here while we still have a chance. Our men are being slaughtered out there!"

"There's nowhere to run to my brother, but if I'm going to die, I want her company on Charon's boat," Gardan laughed. Lathon shook his head as he watched his brother leave the tower.

· * * * * *

Gabrielle walked softly and cautiously through the tunnels leading downward. She strained her ears for any sounds, but only heard her beating heart and the soft roar of the burning torches along the walls. She followed the bend in the tunnel and stopped, cursing venomously. Two tunnels faced her. Both were equally lit and she had no idea which way to go. She dropped her head in defeat and sighed. Glancing towards the floor, she swore again.

*Sometimes I can be really stupid!* the bard thought. She saw the footprints on the ground. The tunnel on the left was fairly clean of prints. She took the tunnel to the right. Several minutes went by before she became aware of a metallic rattle from up ahead. The amazon hugged the walls and kept moving. Finally, she came to a large cavern. She stared into it, searching all the crannies she could make out. Nothing--and the rattling had stopped. She sighed.

"Gabrielle?" came a whisper from the dark. The bard entered the cavern and heard chains clink behind her to the right. She spun and spotted her friend against the wall inside a slight depression.

"Xena!" She rushed to her side and gave her a quick hug in happiness. She pulled away and saw that Xena's face was taut with pain. Xena gave her a weak smile.

"I'm happy to see you too, but please, get a knife and cut the leather off of my wrists."

The bard heard barely contained panic in her friend's voice, which shook the gentle storyteller. She opened her satchel and pulled out her skinning knife. She dropped the bag then stood on tiptoe to get a better view of the leather Xena talked about. The strands were biting deeply into her flesh.

"Xena, I'll cut you if I use the knife on them," she said with concern.

"I don't care. Do it!" she commanded.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and pushed the point into the fleshy groove. The strand snapped loudly as it broke. Xena bit back an agonized moan as the blood rushed back into her hand. Gabrielle felt tears brim in her eyes for the pain she had caused.

"Now the other one," Xena said through clenched teeth. Gabrielle nodded and lifted the knife, repeating the process for the other wrist. Another moan was wrenched out of the taller woman, bringing the tears of sympathy to the bard's eyes. She couldn't take it any longer. Gabrielle circled her arms around Xena's waist and buried her face into her neck, wanting to apologize.

Several minutes passed before the warrior could let her muscles relax. The pain finally faded and she sighed. She lowered her head and rested her cheek against soft hair. Her hands now felt numb.

"Let's get out of here," Xena murmured against the reddish hair. Gabrielle pulled away and reached for the dagger again so she could pick the locks. She stopped midway when she saw a look of complete misery on the older woman's face.

"What's wrong Xena?" The warrior looked away, unable to look her in the eyes.

"Xena! Don't do this to me. What's wrong?" Xena bit her lip and shook her head. Gabrielle reached up to run her thumb over the abused mouth. She whispered her friend's name in a soft plea.

"I can't feel my hands Gabrielle."

"Nothing?" the bard asks as she takes one large hand into her own. She rubs the skin lightly.

"Nothing. Gabrielle, we can't worry about this now. We have to get out of here while we can. It won't be long before someone comes down here and…" Xena lifted her head, listening intently.

"Is someone coming?" the bard asked nervously. She saw her tall friend nod her head. Gabrielle grabbed the skinning knife and inserted it into one of the arm irons, hearing a satisfying click as it released. She forced the metal cuffs apart and saw Xena wince as her arm fell to her side.

The bard reached for the of the leg shackles and began picking that lock. She had just barely released the mechanism when Xena shouted.

"No! Gabrielle spun around to see a man in elegant clothing standing inches away, a knife raised. The bard didn't have time to think. She thrust her own knife in and out of the man's shoulder. He screamed and jerked away. Gardan's face contorted into a hate-filled snarl and he rushed at her again. He didn't quite reach her. Xena kicked upwards with her freed foot and kicked him in the face. He dropped like a load of bricks to the ground. Gabrielle sucked air into her heaving lungs and looked down at him.

"He'll live. Hurry up and unlock the rest before he wakes up," she said, bringing her friend out of her daze.

"Yeah, right. Got it."


The fighting was over and Kant's men were still hunting down the few stragglers that had escaped. Gardan was dead, though not by Gabrielle's hand. A villager had decided to skip a fair trial and killed the Magistrate as he stumbled out of his home. Lathon was locked up for his own safety in Xena's old prison cell.

Fallia had been released and joyfully returned to her family, located outside the village. Her brother had sent a container of summer dried fruits to Xena and Gabrielle as a small thank you.

The bard read out loud the note that had been sent with it to Xena, who had her head resting on Gabrielle's shoulder. The warrior gave her an occasion 'hmm hmm' when appropriate, but didn't speak. She felt nice and toasty warm for the first time in days and felt lazy. She didn't see the indulgent grin on her friend's face.

Gabrielle placed the note onto the nightstand. She licked her thumb and extinguished the last candle.

The End
Finished June 12, 1998

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