Powers That Bind
By Marie E. Costa
Here is another story. I hope you all enjoy it! The standard disclaimer. The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal. No copyright infringement is intended, and this all came from my brain, and is not taken from any literary source or any other source whatsoever. No one gets the blame for my stories except me.
Xena and Gabrielle paused at the entrance way to the small village of Pitania. Shouting could be heard in the distance, coming from the common grounds. The two women looked at each other and grinned. The
dark haired one spoke first, "Looks like dinner will have to wait." Smiling she grabbed her warsteed's reins and jumped into the saddle, Argo already moving forward. Gabrielle grinned after her friend,
muttering, "Never a dull moment." She tossed her bag over her shoulder, before running after Xena toward the noise.
As Xena got closer she could make out the sounds. A mob shouting for blood, children crying and a woman pleading. The words made her spur Argo onward bursting onto an unwelcome scene in a cloud of dust.
"No!" Screamed Phillida, as tears poured down her face. "He's my husband! he's not a wolf! He didn't kill anyone. Give him back to me." Hands held her back from the man tied to a post, with straw and
sticks strewn around the base. Three children clung to her skirt adding their fearful screams to hers.
Taking it all in with a single glance, the Warrior Princess let out her famous cry, "Ayiyiyiyii!" and flew off Argo, somersaulting over the crowd to land in front of the man. "What type of treatment is this?" She questioned the angry mob, her hands on her hips near her weapons. She glanced from peasant to peasant, effectively stopping the ones holding the torches with just a look.
"He's an animal in the blink of an eye he changes from man to beast" "He's been killing our livestock and eating them!" "Burn him!" "Burn the bitch, if she doesn't get out of the way!" Shouts came from throughout the crowd, as Gabrielle reached the clearing. Xena stared at one man, only half listening to the others shouting.
"And you?" Xena raised an eyebrow at the man she'd picked as the ring leader. "What do you have to say about this?" She nodded her head at the scene around her.
"Xena?" The man, she had singled out questioned. Somehow he knew who she was.
She nodded acknowledgment, but made no sound.
The man swallowed hard. Tales were spread, first of hate and now of wonder, of the Warrior Princess. If all he'd heard was true perhaps he could use her to add to his fortune, but they still had to burn Jason first. "I am Gregor, Leader of the Pitania Village. If all we have heard of you and your companion is true," he leaned towards Xena and inclined his head, "Then you are welcome in our village." He paused, before continuing with a different tone. "However, I must ask that you step aside and let us be about our business. This man, Jason, was one of our own and yet he is now one of the Night Creatures. He was caught, tried, and sentenced, in the traditional manner of our people and I will brook no interference from outsiders."
Xena stared disdainfully. She'd met many pompous little men before, and now it seemed she'd met another. "What's he guilty of?"
"And what's a Night Creature?" Gabrielle let her presence be known, and the crowd parted to let the young woman walk forward to join her friend in the center of the crowd.
Another man spoke, answering Gabrielle's question before Gregor could. This man came from the alley opposite the way Xena and her friend had arrived. "Night Creatures are an ancient curse that was visited upon this village many hundreds of years ago. They are said to be similar in appearance to Wolves, yet much more intelligent. Almost as smart as man." He stopped and looked at his fellow villagers in disgust. "In some cases, evidently smarter." He bowed his head in greeting. "I am Bard Sophron, and I have been away...evidently too long.." He looked at his fellow villagers. "I have returned, as promised, and am ready to fulfill my duties as Lycurgus." The crowd remained silent, eyes shifting from Gregor to Sophron.
Gabrielle grinned. She liked the way this one talked. Xena rolled her eyes another bard? Why was she plagued with bards?
"Sophron," Gregor warned between clenched teeth, "The village elders already decided his fate!" Gregor drew himself up and addressed his people. "He has concerted with the Demons and they have
granted him powers. Powers to do evil! He has become one of the Night Creatures, stalking our animals, destroying our livelihood, and soon he will come after our children " Gregor allowed his voice to trail off. He scanned the crowd, gauging their mood, and raised his voice aloud. "Our history tells us what to do when the Night Creatures come! Our village has had to cleanse itself of evil before, and we are not afraid to do it again. It is our duty to destroy his kind!" He flung a finger at the accused man. "The History Songs tell us to burn alive all such creatures. As our fathers have done before, us we must abide by the law and burn the Demon Night Creature where he stands!" The crowd roared its agreement and he smiled a thin, hard smile.
"No!" Phillida, no longer restrained, ran forward and wrapped herself around her husband. "He's a healer! He gathers herbs and uses them to heal our people! Some herbs must be gathered only at night by the pale moonlight! And now, you all think he's an animal! All of you, who he has healed in the past! How can you turn against him now?! Against us!?"
Xena readied herself for battle, and under her breath muttered to the woman, "I hope you are untying that man." And without taking her eyes off the crowd, "Gabrielle?" The tone in her voice was enough to set
the young woman on edge.
"Xena," Gabrielle recognized her cue and paused to look at the situation. "Let me try. If I can talk us out of this one "
"...we'll have a much better chance of surviving." Xena finished her friend's sentence for her.
"Aargh, humph," The young Bard cleared her throat and raised her hand, "Um, excuse me, but I think there's a few details that you all forgot. You see, I happen to be a Bard and," she lifted a hand in
apology to Sophron, "I think these Night Creatures that you are talking about are most likely not living in your village." She shook her head and shrugged. "Naa, they can't. You see, when a man is changed into a night creature they tend to, umm, stay away from mankind because," An idea popped into her head. Gabrielle's voice became more confident. She knew where to go with this story. She was in her element now.
"The Night Creatures, as you call them, are known far and wide as Lykoi and they have certain symptoms that can not be hidden. Let me recite them for you. If anyone here has all the symptoms huh...then
we burn them." She faltered at the thought of burning someone alive and a shiver ran through her body. Swallowing hard she continued. "Memory loss, confusion, and difficulty coping with neighbors, wife
and family. Actually, with just about everyone on a regular basis," She paused for effect. "Those are what I call the nicer symptoms. Amhm," She nodded knowingly, "These creatures also have a
fascination with blood and a desire to physically attack others. Snarling, making guttural noises, biting, snapping, refusing to walk like a man." She wet her lips, " They walk on all fours like a wolf and insist on eating and sleeping on the floor. And last they avoid human contact, that is unless they're planning on killing the humans to eat. If a man or a woman doesn't have all the symptoms, they can't be a Lykoi.
She had them eating out of her hand. "How many of you know how the Lykoi came to be?" She searched the crowd for raised hands no one knew. She breathed a little easier. "Let me tell you of their history. It is a curse from the gods to be turned into a beastman. Why the very reason they roam at night is so they can avoid us humans." She nodded her head, her voice lowered in a conspiracy like whisper, "Artemis, Mistress of Beasts, created them in a fit of anger." She put a finger to her lips, "Shhhh. Don't say her name again or she might show up." The crowd, entranced by the Bard, nodded their heads in agreement, forgetting the man waiting to be burned. "Let me tell you the tale of the Lykoi..."
Xena made good use of Gabrielle's diversion. She helped the young wife, Phillida, untie her husband, and placing the three children on Argo, quietly escorted the family away from the center of town. Sophron noticed and followed, listening to Gabrielle's voice fade as they walked away. "In Arcadia, a region plagued by wolves, lived the goddess Artemis. She was a benevolent, but stern, demanding goddess,
and extremely dangerous to cross. It happened one hot, summer night. .."
"Thank you." The wife spoke softly, tears still in her voice. Jason clung to his wife as they walked beside the horse. "If you hadn't come along "
Xena interrupted. "It's okay." She patted Argo and smiled reassuringly at the children as she talked. "The main question is where can I hide the five of you."
Sophron spoke as they stopped in a small alley, "Actually, that's where I can help." He reached out and clasped Jason's hand. "Jason, I should never have gone on my pilgrimage. Believe me, I had no idea
this would happen."
"My friend," Jason smiled wearily, "let's not speak of it." He turned to Xena, "Thank you. My family and I owe you our lives."
Xena frowned. "You're not out of the woods yet."
"Come," Sophron stepped forward. "My home is not far. You will all be safe there. Gregor would not dare step within its confines."
Xena hesitated; looked from one to the other and back to the woman. "Okay, tell me where it is. I need to go back and get Gabrielle." She turned to Argo. "Take the children to safety." She handed the reins to Phillida. "She'll go with you now, but don't give her reins to another." She listened to Sophron's instructions to his home and the password she would need to gain entry. Nodding her head in understanding, Xena turned and sprinted toward the town center.
Jason turned to Sophron. "Go with her." He shook his head in Xena's direction. "She may need your help."
Sophron smiled. Even when in pain, his friend thought of others. "Tell my guards to be on the lookout they'll know enough to let you in." He turned to follow the warrior, knowing she wouldn't welcome his help.
Xena stepped into the clearing in time to hear Gabrielle ending the tale. " and so werewolves are abundant in Arcadia, and the main religion is entitled 'Wolf-Zeus'. Mt. Lycaeus is the scene of a
yearly gathering at which the priests prepare a sacrificial feast, and the main part of the feast is meat mixed with human parts. Whoever tastes it will become a wolf and be unable to turn back into a man,
unless he abstains from human flesh for nine years. So if you are ever traveling in Arcadia, beware the wolves."
The crowd stood or sat around the pretty, young Bard, so entranced that most had failed to see Xena and the others leave. Gregor had seen and had moved his guards to cover the storyteller. Xena's eyes
hardened as she recognized the tactic.
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke softly, a slight edge in her voice, enough to warn Gabrielle that all was not well. She stood at the edge of the clearing and waited on the Bard. Sophron emerged from the alley. Xena frowned, but made no comment, just one more bard for her to watch.
Gabrielle smiled enchantingly at her audience, and rising, tossed her bag over her shoulder, holding her staff innocently enough to those who didn't know its worth. "My friend has returned and it is time for
us to continue on our journey." She turned in the direction of Xena's voice. A brief smile lit her face before the village guards moved on silent command to block her way. "You don't want to do that." She
said, still smiling and tossing her hair back with the flick of her neck. She could see her Warrior Princess waiting in the background; swelling with pride that Xena was letting her handle it this time.
Gregor spoke, "You are to be taken to the prison. You and your friend have let loose a monster on our village and unless she returns him to us, you will take his place at the next setting of the sun." He
motioned to his men to take the woman.
Xena lifted her lip in a sneer. Sophron attempted to speak, but Xena clamped her hand over his mouth. She wanted to see how far the villagers would let Gregor take his power.
Gabrielle stepped back and prepared to battle. As the guards moved forward, so did the villagers. "No!" Came the cry from many voices. "She's done nothing wrong!" The guards stopped, unsure of themselves.
These were their friends and family on the side of the storyteller.
"Fools!" Gregor's veins stood out on his neck. "Is the Night Creature not gone? Have I not been here protecting and serving? As I promised when our Lycurgus left! I am the one who put together the guard,
patrolled the night, tried to stop the killings, and this is the thanks I get! You turn on me because of a strangers story!?."
"Gregor," One man stepped forward, hand held out in friendship. "We know all you have done. Your own money spent on hiring men to guard us, the sleepless nights to watch over us like a shepherd over his
flock, but what you just proposed " He pointed to Gabrielle, " she sat and told us of things learned in her travels. She did no wrong, she is not our enemy."
"No? And what of your former neighbor?"
Xena lifted her hand from Sophron's mouth and whispered, "Now speak." She faded back out of sight.
Sophron stepped forward, speaking as he did. "Friends, Jason is safely out of your reach for now. Please let the woman go. I promise that we will learn the truth about these Night Creature attacks. I am only sorry I was not here when they started." He kept his voice calm and rhythmic, trying to lure his audience into a feeling of love and security - a talent that had run strong in his family for years. As Cypselus has said, she's done no harm." He grinned at Gabrielle, "And I for one would like to hear her tell more of her tales. What do you say young Bard, will you join me in my home for your stay in our humble village?"
Gabrielle retained her warrior stance. No words were spoken as she played the recent events over in her mind. She knew Xena was in the background in case things got bad, but did this mean they were going
to stay and help these people out or was she supposed to say 'no thanks'? She frowned. No, Xena wouldn't leave until she understood what was going on. Suddenly she smiled a brilliant smile that shocked all who could see it. It was a test Xena was checking to see how the villagers would react. And in their reaction was her answer, to help or not to help. Knowing it was a test meant she knew how to answer. "I'd love to stay a few days." She winked at the guards, "As long as it's in a comfortable home and a not a damp, dark cell."
Sophron sighed with relief. "Gregor," he inclined his head in deference to the title the man held, if not for the man himself - a position, until very recently, he himself had held. "Might I suggest that as long as the Bard is with me, you give up this nonsense of killing her? All of us know that her friend would avenge her death by destroying our village. But with her safe, perhaps the prowess of the warrior may be put to use in our search for the true killer or killers."
Gregor stared at the people and anger filled his being. All the months of hard work thwarted, and so near the completion of his plan. Sophron's arrival might be a disruption, but he'd keep the villagers - the Bard been gone too long this time. And Xena...he'd have to find some way to get rid of her and her pesky friend. He drew in a deep breath, before sneering at Sophron, "You can feel safe in your castle. The rest of the village is not as lucky as you. If any die tonight, let it be on your head. "Come," he turned and walked away, knowing the guards would walk behind as always.
Xena's eyes narrowed. That sounded like a threat to her. That one bode no good. She'd have to see to it that he was watched. She looked away to study the villagers and their reactions, pausing once to glance thoughtfully after Gregor and his men. Hhmmm. She stepped back into view and smiled at Gabrielle. Gabrielle suffused with pleasure at Xena's acknowledgment of a job well done.
Sophron led the way to Gabrielle's side. Xena spoke first, and it was to the villagers she spoke. "I will find the beast, be it a man or creature of the wild."
"We have little to pay you with." One of the women spoke up. "Hush, wife." Whispered the man at her side fearfully.
Xena stared disdainfully at the man. "I am not doing it for pay. Come, Gabrielle." She turned and left the people staring after her, bewildered.
Sophron felt his own lips lift in response to Xena's actions. He steeled himself before turning to face his people and their wrath at what many surely felt was abandonment.
Xena wasted no time in leading Gabrielle to the safety of Sophron's home. Once past the guards both, women paused to take in the luxurious grounds and home within the walls fit for a king. Shaking
her head, Xena headed straight for Argo, while Gabrielle was escorted by a servant into a large common room.
The gray light of the afternoon was fading behind the window, candlelight and firelight warmed the faces of the two already seated inside. Jason started to stand as Gabrielle walked into the room. She waved him down, "Don't bother getting up on my account." She smiled. "I didn't get a chance to introduce myself earlier. I'm Gabrielle." She tried to keep her voice casual as she stared at the unusual furniture. Oversized, soft chairs that could easily fit two people apiece were arranged around the fireplace, low tables by each chair, with food and drink placed on each table. She felt her stomach grumble.
Jason's wife did stand. "Thank you." She said with a depth of feeling that cut into Gabrielle's heart. "I am Phillida, and I can never repay you for saving my man's life."
Gabrielle took a couple more steps into the room and shrugged. "Yes, well um, no problem!" She wished Xena would get here she was starving and unsure of what was expected of her. "Glad to help, really, it's
what we do." She stopped speaking as she realized that both of them were staring over her shoulder. A smile came to her face as she felt Xena enter the room.
"An interesting place your friend has here." Xena spoke no greeting, but went straight to what was troubling her - for this was truly a castle, and not the home of a wealthy merchanter. Yet, feeling no
threat in any of the occupants, she crossed the room and squatted by the fire, extending her hands towards the flames - partially for warmth and partially to show Gabrielle that she felt these people could be trusted not to stab them.
Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise as Xena strode across the room leaving her back to the two seated. The young bard smiled. Of course! Xena was letting her know it was safe for her to relax here. She sat in one of the oversized chairs, as Xena turned to face the room.
"Care to explain?" Xena's voice was hard. The young couple held onto each other, fear in their faces, but they maintained eye contact with the warrior.
Jason squeezed his wife's hand, and she began the explanations. "Sophron's very wealthy, but we try not to hold that against him." Xena raised one eyebrow at the obvious rebuke, and Phillida continued. "His family started this village. They were the rightful heirs of a kingdom lost in time. His grandfather ruled as King, as did his ancestors before that, but his father was different. Even as a young boy, all he ever wanted to do was paint. Not good for one destined to lead, but that never stopped him. When Neophyro was barely into his teens, the King died. Neo knew he couldn't rule, and all his life he had plotted on how he could arrange the village to have a ruler and yet maintain his freedom."
"So he created the Council, and the job of Lycurgus - the Lawgiver." A voice interrupted her, and all four turned to the doorway . Sophron stood just inside. "I'm sorry dear friend," he looked at Phillida. "Forgive me, but there are so many things to discuss things more important than my heritage."
He looked to the warrior. Their eyes met. Her icy blue eyes seemed to see into his soul, and he shivered. His own eyes were so dark as to appear black, somber, and filled with an incurious calm. The other
three looked on, uncomfortable, aware that in the silence a battle for truth and acceptance was being fought. Xena pursed her lips tightly, but before she could speak a servant entered and Sophron turned away.
He spoke quietly with the servant for a few moments, before dismissing her. "Rooms have been readied for the two of you." He spoke to Xena alone, knowing instinctively that she had no intention of letting her
friend out of her sight. "Two rooms with a door between them once my grandparent's suite. You should find them comfortable." Turning to Jason, he smiled. "And I hear that you will once again be sleeping in
the nursery." A light from years gone by lightened his eyes. "The children are already asleep."
Xena stood and crossed to Gabrielle's chair. "The hour is late. Do you want to go?" Gabrielle shook her head in response. Xena returned her gaze to Jason. "In that case, why don't you fill us in on what has been happening while your Lawgiver was gone and why you were accused of the crimes."
Jason nodded his acceptance of the command. "The 'what' is easy enough. Shortly after Sophron left on his pilgrimage, the killing started. First, it was finding the remains of some wild beast, then our beasts started disappearing, and finally a stranger passing through was found torn to shreds. Gregor recalled the history of our village and the conclusion was easy to come by. Although no one has seen any Night Creatures, they are very real. Our forefathers fought them. The History Songs do not lie. Gregor fed the peoples' fears to gain more and more power he has managed in four months to undo a century of work. The Council is a joke. What Gregor wants, he gets.
Sophron looked in shock at Xena. "How do you propose to change it?"
"By disclosing the pompous little weasel for what he is." Xena reminded him of the second part of the original question. "And why you?"
A chuckle escaped from his throat. "Because I have always been different." He paused, bestowing a smile on his beautiful wife before continuing, "I am a healer, as Phillida already said. What she didn't mention is that I have the ability to sense injuries, and to somehow send my strength to heal them faster than normal. My abilities manifested themselves in my youth, and my life was in danger. But as luck would have it the ex-king was in need of a healer, and my name was the one most often heard - even if it was
coupled with 'demon worshipper'. The ex-king was taken aback by my youth, but he showed me to a room " His eyes shifted to Sophron. "That was my first glimpse of Sophron. The nursery became my home. I was fed and educated, and in return I healed the boy who became my best friend."
"So the attack on you was an attack on Sophron." Xena regarded the two men for a moment, but it was Gabrielle who questioned it. "But why now? Why after so many years would they seek to attack?"
Sophron looked uneasy as he fished for the right words. "Because unlike my father, I was interested in leading my people. I enjoy helping them resolve differences. I was elected to the Council, and two years ago I became the Council Leader six months ago I was asked to be Lycurgus. Gregor was the only one vocally against the idea. He said it was handing the reign back to tyranny, and I wondered if perhaps he was right. The more I thought, the less I could function. Finally I left. I went on a pilgrimage to find the answer." He looked to his friend and found support. "I had decided to return and resign, if in truth I wanted to be king. Or to come back as Lycurgus - The Lawgiver, and rule hand in hand with the Council, but only if I did not crave the power of a king."
Xena considered this, expressionless. Oddly enough, it was her days as a Warlord that helped her understand what this man had been going through. And it was that knowledge that convinced her that these three were telling the truth as they saw it, and truly wanted to help the villagers.
Gabrielle took the opportunity that the lull in the room provided. "Twice now I have heard mention of the History Songs?" She raised a questioning eyebrow at Sophron.
"Yes," He smiled. "Our children are taught through the History Songs. When this crisis is over, I would be happy to show you the scrolls."
"No, no." Gabrielle shook her head, saddened at being misunderstood. "If there are songs about the creatures, there might be something in the scrolls we can use to defeat them." She shrugged. "That is, if
there really are any today."
A glint appeared in Xena's eye. That was her Gabby, always thinking. Her lips parted and she ran her tongue over her front teeth - a half smile on her face at the look on the others faces. "So? What do you
think? You got the scrolls?"
Sophron swallowed his surprise and a flash of anger that he hadn't thought of the scrolls. "Yes, I can have them brought out of the library if you'd like."
Xenon shook her head. "Not now. Gabrielle," She faced the bard. "Come, it's time we rested."
"Wait!" Phillida cried out, confused. "Won't you help us? If you leave, they'll kill my family." Tears filled her eyes. Jason placed a hand on her shoulder.
Gabrielle moved quickly and knelt by the woman's side. No one saw Xena's lips twist up in a half smile. "Hush," Gabrielle admonished the lady while grabbing her hands, and looking straight into her eyes,
explained her harsh friend's comment. "We will find the killer. Don't worry, no matter what type of beast it is, Xena will best it! We're not going anywhere until the village is safe."
"Truth?" She sniffled.
"Truth." Gabrielle smiled. "But in order to discover, and to fight, we need our rest tonight."
Xena stepped to Gabrielle's side and laid a hand on her head. "Tomorrow, the three of you can help us discover the facts about each killing, but now, we have traveled far and the hour is late." She looked to their host. "Have all the scrolls brought to this room tomorrow."
He nodded his agreement. "Perhaps it is time for all of us to rest. Come, I will show you to your rooms."
Gabrielle rose and followed her friend out the door, Sophron himself leading the way to their quarters, while Jason and Phillida went to the nursery, one flight up.
"Xena," Gabrielle was curled up in one of the oversized chairs, a scroll in one hand, a slice of nutbread in the other. "Did you eat?" She pointed to the platter and pitcher next to her.
"Before I went out to Argo." She replied. Xena nodded at the pile of scrolls surrounding her friend. "Find anything?" Gabrielle had spent the better part of the past few days searching them for any mention of the Night Creatures that caused the villagers to live in fear. Xena had been waiting, and her patience was wearing thin. Until they had something to go on, there was nothing the warrior could do. Even the
attacks had stopped or else people had stopped reporting them. Either way, it made Xena uneasy.
"Mmph." A mouth full of nutbread made it impossible for Gabrielle to speak, but Xena got the idea. "Which scroll?" She held her hand out. "Give it to me."
Gabrielle obliged, reaching for a drink and washing the bread down.
Silently Xena read the history of the coming of the Night Creatures, the destruction, and the saving of Pitania by Sophron's ancestor, the first King of the small village.
"That scroll tells the whole thing. First time they appeared and every detail exactly like today." Gabrielle spoke as soon as she could, excitement vibrating through her voice. "Too exact!" She
waved a hand in the air. "No deviation. It doesn't ring true. Oh no, something is definitely fishy!" She bobbed her head vigorously.
" I agree." Xena looked up as she finished the scroll. "This whole thing has been staged to look like the Night Creatures are back." She slapped her hand with the scroll and paced. "The good news is that
this scroll gives me a starting place. Quick, get me a map of this area."
Gabrielle pulled a map out of the pile of scrolls, but instead of handing it to Xena, walked over to the table and spread the map out.
Xena smiled, shaking her head. "Gabrielle, I need you to stay here." She was beginning to understand the bard's actions and laughed as she was rewarded with a startled look. "I'm not trying to protect you
this time." She insisted in her quiet voice, trying to stay the anger she sensed rising in Gabrielle. "I need you to continue this research if I do find these creatures, I need to be sure you have found out everything we need to know to kill them." Xena reached out, and placing both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, looked into eyes filled with fear and doubt. "I'm just going to scan the area. If I find anything, I won't press on. I'll come back. I promise."
Gabrielle looked hard into her friend's eyes. "You better or I'll just you better." She hugged Xena. Afraid, as always, that whenever she was left behind, this would be the last time she saw her
Faint and clear the tapping of a horse's hooves on the damp clay of the roadbed sounded through the misty opal colors of the morning. Xena was aware of the salt sweet sea smells and the headier tang of the forest she rode through. Argo startled, and Xena became aware of the deadly silence surrounding her. The woods a minute ago had been full of noise, but now, nothing. She quieted Argo with a touch and sat still in the saddle listening. She scanned the woods, but saw nothing that would account for the uncanny silence. For a full five minutes she sat, scanning; seeing nothing, hearing no noises. Then, somewhere in the distance, a bird began to sing and gradually life returned to the woods nearby. She rode on, uneasy in the saddle, sword resting on her lap - in case. She looked to the left and the right, then urged Argo forward. The sea was closer than she had thought. She heard a noise and glanced down the hill to the right. Not far from the water, the brush rustled once. The horse started, nostrils wide. She pulled her to a stop. The woods were again filled with a listening silence. There was definitely something down there.
If Argo had been other than a trained warsteed she probably would have been spooked by the changed forest.
Cautiously, she reined around and urged Argo toward the slope. At the bottom ,she stepped down from the saddle, and holding her sword ready, began to search the fern covered ground.
She found a man, unconscious and wet, in the ferns by the bank. She paused and looked out over the water, puzzlement on her face no sign of a vessel. She dropped her eyes back to the man. Blood dripped from the slashed thigh and crushed knee, and oozed from numerous cuts on his chest. The skin was waxy with exhaustion and blistered bruises ringed his bony wrists.
She knelt beside him and carefully turned the man over onto his back. His face was pinched and sunken with the clear marks of pain embedded on it. High cheekbones stabbed whitely through the taut and wasted skin. His dark clothing accented his paleness.
She felt the man's face and hands, and found them clammy with shock. Who could have tortured him, and how did he get to this remote spot? She'd seen no sign of other travelers and the waters were empty.
There was little she could do for him here. Xena leaned forward; lifted and draped the man up onto her shoulders. He was as tall as she, but not very heavy add starved to the list of what his captors had done to him. She whistled, and Argo came running. "Good girl." She talked quietly, reassuring Argo while she loaded her prize.
Xena arrived, and guards came running. "Fetch Jason." Xena demanded, as she allowed two of the guards to carefully take the man from her arms. "He's near death." A third guard rushed to find the healer, and another to find Sophron, while the Captain of the Guard attempted to question Xena, but not for long.
One look from the icy blue eyes as she stepped off her horse and stood defying him, blood soaking her armor and he started stuttering. "I... I... I am... mm sure tthe llllord will want you to fill him in
yourself." And quickly he turned to his men, shouting orders and trying to regain his confidence and his dignity.
The stir caused by Xena's arrival was nothing compared to the one when Gabrielle caught sight of her, as she stepped into the great room, covered in blood. The bard turned pale and jumped from her chair,
scattering scrolls to the floor.
"Gabrielle, I'm okay. It's not my blood." Xena hastened to reassure her friend. She clasped Gabrielle by the arms and held her at arms length. "I brought an injured man in. Jason is with him now. He wasn't what I expected to find, but he was where I thought something would be."
Gabrielle was breathing hard. Her heart had kicked into overdrive when she'd seen Xena covered in blood she was sure she'd come back to die in her arms. Finally she spoke, "Don't you ever scare me like
that again." Tears glittered in her eyes.
Xena's eyes softened as she saw Gabrielle's pain. "I'm sorry." She spoke softly. "I knew you were worried and I came straight to you. I should have taken the time to clean and change." She let go and turned to leave.
Gabrielle reached out one hand and stopped her. "No, I'm glad you came to me first. Let me come help you?"
Xena nodded her acceptance, not realizing until Gabrielle had asked, that she had wanted her friend to do so.
Gabrielle smiled and tried to lessen the tension in the room. "That armor will never come clean."
Xena looked down at herself, then back to Gabrielle a gleam in her eyes. "Good thing we have servants."
The two friends laughed, and peace flowed over the room.
"So neither of you know him?" Xena questioned, unable to believe that the injured man had apparently been conjured out of thin air. No one reported a missing relative. No one had seen him pass through the
city. No vessels had been to the nearby harbor in over a week. She was convinced that the unconscious man in the next room held the key to the Lykoi scare, and if she didn't solve this case soon She brought
herself back to the issue at hand. "How soon until he is well enough to question?"
"There is no telling when he will awake." Jason sighed, weariness settling like a cloak on him. Healing always took his strength away. Normally he could rely on his wife to ease the burden, but not this
time. She was needed as a nurse, and besides, the horrors that he witnessed no one else should be made to deal with them. "He is young, and I've done all I can. Now we must wait."
Gabrielle took advantage of the pause to change the conversation. "We have another problem." She looked at Sophron. "You did say you brought me all the scrolls?"
He nodded. "Yes, everything pertaining to the Night Creatures, as you asked." He looked perplexed.
"Hmm." She glanced at Xena. "Well, I guess that answers that. Someone stole or deliberately hid some of the scrolls."
Sophron's face went white, and he stole a guilty look at Jason. The look and the glance were not missed by Xena, whose own eyes narrowed, and she turned to look at Jason. Jason's eyes widened, and his mouth gaped.
"Missing?" Sophron repeated, stunned. The theft had been so long ago to be discovered now
Before Xena could make a move, Gabrielle had closed the space between her and their host, and jabbing a finger at his chest, "And you are going to tell me what you did with them!" Xena smiled. The Bard was
"B...b...but..." His protest was cut short.
"Tell them." Jason's quiet voice edged in. He glanced at his wife, and wondered what she'd think of his news. "It's my secret."
Sophron made as if to protest, but the look in his friend's eyes convinced him not to. He looked down, defeated. "Okay." He swallowed hard. Never looking at his small audience, he began to speak the quiet words that spelled his friend's doom. "As Jason told you, he was brought to this castle to heal me. You have seen his powers. The villagers would burn him at the stake if they thought he healed without his herbs. That's one of the reasons he learned them. When he was a small child, his own family threw him out as a demon changeling, because he could heal. That's how my father found out about him, and brought him to me. He healed me." A sad smile crossed his face. "and almost lost his life in the process." A fond smile flew across the room to rest on the healer's paled face. The smile broadened as Sophron saw Jason's wife's hands entangled in her husband's. "When we were both strong enough we scoured the library
for explanations. When we found them " His voice failed, the bard would hate him.
Jason spoke up. "When we found the answers to how I could heal, and why my ears had a slight point to them," He pushed his hair behind his ear as he spoke, and all eyes were drawn to his earlobe. "We were
scared. We were ten year old boys, and we took the scrolls; hid them in our room, and talked for weeks about what to do."
Sophron spoke, "It was my idea."
Jason grinned. "And I figured out how to."
Together, they continued. "We stole the appropriate scrolls. Practiced the handwriting, and altered history."
Jason looked with fearful eyes to his wife. Afraid that she would withdraw her love, reject him as so many had before. Phillida squeezed her husband's hand reassuringly, and looked into his eyes. "Husband, no wonder we were drawn to one another." Her eyes softened and she raised one hand to his cheek. "Don't you recall? It was my grandmother burned as a witch." She shrugged, "Some sort of power runs in my family, with Grandmother dead there was no one to teach me, but the power is there."
Jason leaned down and gently kissed his wife, unable to express in words the joy he felt. He turned to Sophron for help.
Sophron smiled, pleased at the way things were turning for Jason. He stole a glance at Gabrielle, who sat stunned, by the strange turn of events. He returned to the main issue. "I didn't destroy the original scrolls. They're hidden in the nursery. We just removed all mention of the Tribe of Lykoi, who first settled this valley. They were healers, and welcomed us with open arms, but as always, human greed destroyed everything."
A very small smile tweaked the corner of Xena's face. "Rewrote your history." A small laugh escaped, and she glanced at Gabrielle. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Sophron breathed easier. "You aren't mad?"
Gabrielle spoke first. "Mad? Of course I'm mad! Distorting history in such a way " She was at a loss for words. "That doesn't matter." She dismissed their fears with a shake of her hand. "What does matter,
is where are the scrolls? We need the whole truth if we are to deal with this situation."
Phillida gasped, shocked, a hand at her throat. "You mean you'll still help us?" Her eyes were wide with surprise, and tears threatened to fall.
Xena replied. "Yes, provided you get the real scrolls, and allow Gabrielle to read them." She crossed her arms and waited for Sophron to answer.
"Immediately." Sophron replied, glancing towards Jason, fear for his friend still in his gaze.
The tired healer sighed heavily. "If you are finished with me," he looked pointedly at Xena. "I will get back to my patient."
"Come, friend." Sophron offered his hand to Jason. "Let me bring you to your room. Phillida will watch the man. You need to rest. If there is any need for you, she will send someone to wake you."
Phillida gently kissed Jason, and squeezing his hands once, smiled into his eyes. "Go rest husband. I will take care of your patient."
Xena spoke, as Jason allowed himself to be led out of the room. "The children sleep. Bring the scrolls first thing in the morning."
"Perhaps, we too, should break for the night?" Gabrielle suggested to Xena.
Xena shook her head, reluctant to stop now. "It is late, but we still have a lot to do." She looked at Gabrielle, and realized that she looked exhausted much as Gab loved reading, it was still hard work and her day hadn't been exactly quiet either.
Gabrielle's eyes filled with resign, and she turned back to her chair. If Xena felt they needed to press on, she would keep going.
"Actually," Xena admitted, "I am tired, and a little sore from carrying that man. Maybe we should make an early night of it, just this once."
Gabrielle grinned. Say what she would, Xena had changed her mind out of concern for her. Things were changing. "Thanks, Xena."
The Warrior Princess only grunted as she led her way back to their rooms. Hot baths had already been drawn, and Xena took full advantage of the opportunity to soak her muscles and try not to think of her
friend in the next room.
For the fourth day in a row, Xena met up with Gabrielle in the Great Room. She paused at the entry to watch Gabrielle, sprawled out on the oversized chair reading, and eating. And with all the scrolls spread
about her there was no room for that second person Xena pursed her lips in amusement. "Good morning." She said in a warm voice.
"Hi!" Gabrielle beamed back. "How's Argo?"
Xena chortled. "You care?"
"Hey!" She sat up. "'Course I care. Just because she doesn't like me "
"Truce." Xena held up both hands to ward off the attack.
Gab stood, both hands on her hips, glaring. "Okay, but I owe you one."
"The scrolls?" Xena turned the subject back to their present problem.
"Funny you should mention those." Gabrielle teased. "I have proof that the spot you found that man at, is the same spot that the Lykoi first made dock when they arrived here in the past."
"They did come from over the sea?" Xena questioned with both a sense of relief and surprise. "Good work." Xena said, crossing the room to sit in the chair next to Gabrielle's.
Gabrielle handed her the scroll she had mentioned, sat down, and opened the next scroll, only to be stopped before she could start reading.
"Let's go over what we do know." Xena looked at Gab. It was good to have someone you could bounce things off. The longer they were together, the more she wondered how she'd ever survived without her.
"We know that someone who knows the detailed history of the Night Creatures is using that knowledge to scare the villagers." Gabrielle replied.
"And we know where the Night Creatures came from."
"And that they are Lykoi."
"The problem is, we don't know who is scaring the villagers, or why, and we have no proof of anything. The man in the room next door holds the key. I know he does. His captivity; beating, the wounds, - it
can't be coincidence." Xena absently rubbed her chin while she tried to sort things out.
Gabrielle shivered as she recalled the condition Xena had found the young man in. She gathered her legs under her, and wrapping her arms around her knees, leaned forward and rested her head on her hands.
"Don't forget those knife wounds somebody played a sli "
"He's awake!" One of the children ran into the room. "Father said to bring you. The man is better. He asked for food. Father sent "
Xena couldn't help but smile at the boy's enthusiasm. "Whoa, slow down there young man. You keep that pace up and you'll be bound to hurt yourself." Gabrielle was on her feet and moving toward the door
before Xena had finished speaking. Xena ruffled the boy's head as she too headed for the door. Now she'd get some answers.
Awakening slowly, as if into a dream, Zarhan sniffed the difference before opening his eyes to a new world again. This world tasted different no hate, anger, or cruelty in its air. He felt his hands, whole and clean, the pain a dim memory. He moved his legs, lips curling back in delight. He wore no bonds. Sensing the presence of one man in the room, he lay still, analyzing his situation. Had he somehow exchanged one cell for another? And where were his people? Hunger pained him, and he ran his tongue over sharp teeth without thinking.
Jason, who had been resting by the bed, noticed the movement with a start. Awake! His patient was awake. Rising, he moved to comfort the man. "It's okay," he spoke soothingly as he brushed the man's
hair back off his face. "You're among friends. I'm Jason, the healer."
"Father?" The door opened, and a small child stepped inside, a tray in his hands. "Mother said I should bring this to you."
The father grinned. "Tell your mother her timing is impeccable." He took the tray from his son, who turned to leave. "Wait." He called his son to him. "Before going to your mother, I need you to find
Xena, tell her he is awake, then get Sophron, and tell him the same. Okay, son?"
The boy nodded, swelling with pride at the task, and ran to accomplish it.
Jason carried the tray to the bed. "Here you go. Not very much - better with the trauma you've been through. I don't think you could handle more."
Zarhan looked at the tray and sniffed. Broth made from meat with bits of vegetables floating in it. Not a true soup, but then again, he probably couldn't eat a true soup. Well at least it didn't smell poisoned. His stomach growled in response to the smell of food, and he decided to eat.
They came as he finished eating, the ones the healer had sent for. He used his great sense of scent to sort and touch, separating this one from that, seeking to learn about his captors. Or newfound friends?
Their scents were tinged with curiosity and concern, but not fear. At least not fear of him. Still, he waited. Let them begin the questioning.
The four stood, arrayed around the bed, looking at the young man. Xena had to admit that he looked more like a boy than a man, lying here. Had it just been his injuries that made him seem older out in
the woods? Glancing at the others, she spoke. "We need your assistance." She started - no sense in polite talk. "Can you tell us who you are? How you came here? And who held you prisoner?"
The boy opened his eyes and looked into her cool, blue ones; felt her startlement at his green-yellow eyes, and almost smiled as she clamped down her reaction and continued to look into him, acknowledging and
accepting what he was in less than a second. "I can tell you my story." His voice sounded rusty, weak and unused, even to his own ears. "Whether that will help or hinder is not in my control."
She smiled with her eyes. He liked that. Father would like this one. He would have to make a point of learning her name. "Then tell us your story and we will judge it's worth to us."
"It's not much of a tale, and I'm not much of a bard." He swallowed. "Might I have some water? Please."
Gabrielle moved forward; lifted the pitcher from the table and poured a glass, handing it to Xena. The boy noticed the look that passed between the two, but said nothing. He watched the little blonde return to her corner and wondered at her position. Sipping the drink offered to him, he began his story
"There is not much to tell. We live much like you do here. I was returning from a hunt, content, and perhaps not as cautious as I should have been. I heard a noise and started to turn, but was stopped by a net; trapped like any wild beast. Half a dozen or more men came out of nowhere and attacked. To this day, I don't understand why I didn't smell them long before they had me! I was helpless, but that wasn't good enough for them. They kicked and kicked I curled into a ball trying to protect myself, but it wasn't enough. I felt a boot connect to my head, and awoke to find myself on a ship.
The ship was already out to sea, so I have no point of reference to my homeland. My hands and feet were bound tightly eyes were swollen shut I was blind not that it mattered. I believe they kept me locked
in a cargo bay. They never sent food soon time ceased to mean anything. Eventually the swelling lessened, and I could see slivers of light through the cracks in the wood. Soon after my sight returned, the ship stopped. They put me into a cage too small for me to stand in and moved me to my new home.
I ended up in a cell, chained to a wall. They kept a blindfold on my face no chance that I would ever see them but nothing will prevent me from knowing my torturers if I come across them again and then we will see who is strong." He paused to sip the water, and noticed the blonde's face was wet for him? He took a few minutes to compose himself, and started where he had stopped.
"The torture started then. Food enough to stay alive, but not to grow strong on occasion, I think it was even slightly poisoned I didn't care at least it eased the pains of my stomach. The whole time one
man tortured me, the other would keep a steady stream of questions coming. They wanted to know about my people what were we? where did we come from? what made us tick? secrets .what secrets? My arms held over my head by iron bands that bit into my skin a burning stick a whip upon the back a silvery knife toying with my body the voice, playing with my mind; promising sweet release for my secrets. At times I wished I had the secrets they so longed for. Eventually the pain became my friend it was the only way I knew I was alive." His story ended, the pain relived, he needed a drink. He longed for something stronger than the water, but knew not to ask. He looked to the blonde. Tears flowed freely down her face. He felt her suffering for him, and was amazed. Maybe he should learn her name, too. Turning, he looked at the one next to him, and was shocked at her expression. He sniffed pain ran deep in her but why? She wasn't one of those that had harmed him
Xena forced herself to stay calm. "And your freedom? Is that not part of your story?"
He looked puzzled. He'd assumed they would tell him that part of the story. "Then you," he looked around the room. "didn't save me?"
"I found you in the woods and brought you to safety." The dark-haired one said, emphasizing that it was she who had found him and here was safety.
"As to my freedom I am at a loss to explain it. I have no memory of escape." He closed his eyes, worn out from the talking. "Perhaps they thought they'd killed me, and just tossed me out like a piece of
garbage?" He speculated. Eyes still closed, he reached out and felt the dark one's despair, the blonde's sweet sorrow, the healer he knew as kin, and from the thin man it tasted like confusion, mixed with
The healer spoke. "He needs to rest." He opened the door.
One by one they left. As Zarhan drifted into sleep, a faint question from the healer's friend, but it stayed at the edge of his hearing, and slipped away as he fell into a real sleep for the first time in what felt like forever.
Xena carefully stroked Argo's coat. She was trying to erase the memory of the boy and his torture to think she'd once inflicted pain on people without thinking of the consequences, not only to them, but
to her own soul.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered the name, pain in her eyes - not for the young man in the castle - but for her friend. Cautiously, she stepped forward. More often than not, Xena would throw her out when she was
troubled. She reached the warrior's side and rested her hand upon her back, willing her support; her strength, to enter her friend's spirit.
Xena stood still, feeling the warmth and love emanating from her young friend. A shudder escaped. She closed herself off, and fortified, turned to Gabrielle. Blue eyes met sea green eyes. No sound was made. Without words, Gabrielle offered only acceptance the past was the past today forward was what counted "Thank you." Quickly, Xena hugged the bard, stepped back and rubbed her face.
Gabrielle gave her an uncertain smile. Xena was near impossible to read, but the tale the young man told had effected her at a deeper level than even Gabrielle had expected, and she wanted - no - she
needed to know why. This keeping secrets from each other had gotten them into trouble in the past.
Xena, in control again, looked at her young friend. Gabrielle stood, arms folded, waiting. Xena tried her cool blue stare, but Gabrielle remained unmoving. They stared at each other in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Xena looked away first. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and breathed a soft sigh of relief. She should get to hear the problem now.
Xena knew if she wanted to ease her mind she'd have to confess another sin from her past to Gabrielle. She was just so afraid that one of these days instead of loving forgiveness, she'd see hate in Gabrielle's eyes, and she truly felt that this incident might be the last straw.
Biting her lower lip, she looked at her friend. "I could have done that to him."
Gabrielle, startled by the announcement, stepped back.
Xena lowered her eyes and continued to talk. "I have ordered it done. I had kidnapped a prince a man barely out of his boyhood. I treated him so similar to the way that one in there has been treated." She couldn't bare to stand there and watch as Gabrielle drew away. She turned and leaned her head against Argo. "When the boy's father refused to yield to my army, I ordered the boy whipped to within an
inch of his life. I tossed him in the street as a warning to all who stood in my way and then I sat on my horse and I let my soldiers kick him as they walked past." She paused, and said almost in wonderment,
"I think I'd almost forgotten about it, until he told us his story." She stopped speaking, having convinced herself that Gabrielle would surely hate her.
"Look at me." Gabrielle commanded.
Xena refused to turn around. For what? To see the disappointment, the hate, that would replace the only warmth she'd had in so long
Gabrielle spoke again, enunciating each word slowly and precisely. "I told you to look at me and I meant now."
Xena steeled herself. She had never been able to say no to Gabrielle. Besides, she owed her this much. Swallowing the last of her emotion and hardening her face, she turned around.
Gabrielle stood directly in front of her, close enough to reach out and touch. Her face was wet with tears and yet Xena hadn't heard her crying. Xena's eyes widened and her heart leaped. She didn't understand it, but there was no hate in those shiny sea-colored eyes.
"Xena," Gabrielle spoke in assuring tones, as one might use on a frightened child. "I thought we'd been through all this before. But I guess I was wrong. We are going to end this tonight, for once and for all."
Xena paled, but stayed quiet, looking into Gabrielle's face.
Gabrielle continued. "You were a Warlord for ten years. I know that in that time you did things that would make me sick." She looked away for a second, "But I am, and always will be, your friend. You are no longer that person. You have changed for the better."
She looked up into her friend's blue eyes. "Maybe I am a little afraid, sometimes. I'd be crazy not to be. When I look at you, I see a haunted expression in your eyes. A vital part of you has been burned away by the personal hells you have walked through in your life."
She reached out and touched her friend's face, "Yet, in the past two years of walking with you, I've seen that haunted look less and less. You are a good person, and I have faith in you. No deed from your
past will tear apart our friendship."
Xena stood paralyzed by Gabrielle's words, all her nights of fear wrought to groundless worry by what she had just heard. She didn't know what to say she didn't have the words she wasn't a bard she was a
warrior. And suddenly, without expecting it, tears fell from her eyes and her legs went weak. Down on her knees she fell before the bard.
Gabrielle reached around and held her tight until the tears stopped.
The bard smiled as her friend's shuddering came to a stop. If she made a big deal out of it, Xena would only get embarrassed. Loosening her arms, she stepped back, giving Xena a chance to stand. Sometimes
you don't need words.
"Now, if you are ready?" She asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "We still have a big problem to deal with."
Xena, not quite sure of how to react, opted for reverting to her warrior ways, and pretended the past fifteen minutes hadn't happened. "We are going to have to come up with a way to draw the enemy out make them think we know or have something they value." Her eyes took on a calculating gleam. "Maybe we do." Her gaze turned thoughtful. "Gabrielle, get the others together. Tell them we meet in the great hall in fifteen minutes."
She turned to leave, glanced back, "and Gabrielle, " a sweet smile on her lips, " thanks!" and she was gone.
Gabrielle stood smiling after her friend. Maybe now they would have a more equal partnership. She shook her head, "Naaa, it'd never work. She was born to boss." She proclaimed to Argo before hurrying on her way.
The Lykoi came, over seas in a ship of wood and sail, to answer the call of blood. Zeroukas, Chief of the Eldvulf Tribe of the Lykoi, stood at the bow of the ship, eyes focused on the far horizon.
Dulf watched from a distance, fear for his father and his brother strong. The ties that bind a Lykoi unlike any known to humanity. Like the wolf they were descended from, the Lykoi were fierce hunters, fierce lovers, and devoted to family in ways mere humans could not comprehend. The tribes stayed organized within strict family groups, and most would splinter if the tribe were to grow too large.
Zeroukas leaned into the wind, letting his long red hair whip as if the frenzy of his hair battling the wind could calm the violence that rode in his soul. Here, on the open sea, his tribe felt more vulnerable; more fragile, than they ever had before. It was a true sign of the love and respect they all had for his son and heir, that so many of his people had come to fight. "He's out there." He acknowledged his younger son's presence, without turning.
"He lives, still?" Dulf was worried...the sense of urgency had lessened. He feared the worst.
"He lives." Father turned to son. "Situation's changed. My bond is weakened from months of separation, and from his experiences...but my heir still lives."
Dulf swallowed hard. "Father, I am glad. I have no desire to lead...my talents run elsewhere."
"Land in sight!" The lookout cried from his perch. Father and son turned toward the destination.
"Father," Dulf's voice trembled slightly. "Do we attack immediately?"
"No, son." Zeroukas frowned. "Study the enemy. That is the number one rule. Learn their weakness, and their strength. Reinforce their weak points, it lessens their power over us. With their strength
diminished, they will be easy prey. Attack comes after we lull them into a false sense of security."
Silence descended, and together father and son watched and waited as the boat sailed ever closer to the distant, mountain-embraced bay.
Arrival was a blessed relief. The journey across sea was never an easy one for those born to run in forests. The ship was anchored in the bay. Men silently filled the waiting skiffs, and those left to guard the ship lowered them into the water. The Captain of the galley and his first mate watched as their comrades eased the skiffs into the shallows. Their clansmen were going off to war. Some would not be returning, and prayers were sent skyward for their comrades not yet dead. Then fear, as out of the woods came men.
Captain Alekos Belen sat in the thickets with twelve of his men and watched as the strange galley sailed into the small bay. So the Warrior princess was right. Let us hope she was right in the rest of her plan. Turning, he spoke to the men. "Colin and Andries, with me. You." He pointed to his youngest man. "If they kill me, you run to Lord Sophron and tell him of the treachery." And raking his eyes over the rest of his men, he gave them his last command. "The rest of you stay, and keep them from our land." So saying, he stood and strode forward to meet the invading force.
"Father!" Dulf shouted pointing at the shore. "It's an attack!" He reached for his sword and others followed suit.
Zeroukas stood, water swirling around his ankles, and watched the approaching men. "No! Put aside your weapons." Hand held up to stop his men, he stepped forward. "These men come to parley."
"Father, how can you tell?" Dulf stood with his sword still in his hand, ready to battle.
"Look at the way they walk - no weapons in their hands, arms away from easy access to their weapons." He scanned the shorelines. "There is no telling how many men they have secreted away. Men don't come out like this, if not to parley. They would have attacked us before we saw them, if our death was their intent."
"But how could they have known we were coming?"
"Indeed, that is the question, my son." Glancing over his shoulder to look his son in the eye, "I intend to find the answer. You coming?" Without waiting, he headed for the three men walking toward him. His
people fell in behind, some pulling skiffs up and out of the water, others with hands on their weapons, and still others preparing by unsheathing their claws.
There were at least twenty men - big men with bushy eyebrows that met over the bridge of their noses, and long shaggy hair, giving them a fierce expression - walking towards him. Fear choked the young Captain's throat, but he was determined to carry on his mission. "Stay here." He told his lieutenants, and walked on alone.
Stopping while still a good distance from the band, he waited. For long moments, nothing and no one moved. Then slowly, hands away from his weapons, he stepped forward until he was within a yard of the
Leader. "I am Alekos Belen, Captain of Lord Sophron's Guards, and I bid the Eldvulf Tribe of the Lykoi welcome to his lands." He paused to see what effect his words had, and smiled, pleased to see that he had
shocked the big burly men. Even the leader looked stunned. He continued using the words Zarhan had taught him. "Lord Sophron, friend and protector of Zarhan, Chief's son, has commanded me to invite you to come, as allies, to his home, to sup and exchange tales for the benefit of all. I and my men have come to provide you escort."
Zeroukas closed his mouth, and eyes narrowed, stared, assessing the young man before him. This was not the welcome he'd expected. These people knew of his tribe and claimed a friendship with his missing
son. This one even used the ancient friendship greeting. Still, trust was not for humans. "And if we choose not to join you in friendship?"
"Then I must ask you to turn around." He used his head to point to the sea. "Go back unharmed to the place you came from, for if you do not accept my Lord's hand in friendship, then you are our sworn enemy and will not be allowed past this bay."
The big man laughed, "You and these two, against my kin?" an incredulous look on his face as he swept his hand to encompass the people around him.
The Captain blanched, but remained steadfast. "My men line the beach, bows at the ready. One gesture from me and you are a dead man." Inward, he wondered, what manner of beings were these Lykoi? Eyes of gold, pointed ears and shaggy of hair. For a moment he wondered if perhaps the old tales were true...wolves made man.
"We will come with you." The Chief made his decision. He lived in the now - act quick and decisively. For too long on the ship he needed to put action off, and he smelled no evil on this man. He silenced the rumbling behind him with a wolfish grunt and low growl.
The Captain looked surprised by the noise, but clamped his fear in tight. "Then I must ask you to follow me. My men will stay and guard the bay. Lord Sophron's home stands at the edge of the village. We
will enter through the back door...it will keep the villagers free from fear." The Captain turned and spoke quietly to one of his Lieutenants. The man nodded once and turning headed for the thicket they'd left the other men in.
Zeroukas eyed the Captain with suspicion, but made no move. He could sense the anger in his young son, and the demand for blood vengeance rising at fear of betrayal, but waited for an explanation. If his son
could be returned without bloodshed, then so be it.
Alekos turned back to his guests. "My apologies." He bowed his head. "I have asked Andries to stay and lead my men in guarding your vessel from attack. We wouldn't want any unneeded frustration, if raiders
should happen by."
The Chief leaned forward until his face almost touched the Captain's. "No." He spoke quietly and precisely. "Harm to my ship would mean death to your people."
"Yes, well, that's why we are going to guard it, and any of your people still on it." Captain Alekos Belen paled, intimidated by the Lykoi's physical prowess, but determined to maintain control. "Now, let's get you to my Lord." And before he could lose his nerve he turned and strode towards home, praying to whatever gods might be listening that he was doing the right thing.
Meanwhile, back in the village, the crowd demanded yet another story from the two bards. A competition had begun hours before, when Gabrielle and Sophron had wondered into the lone tavern, and started
drinking and boasting of their bardic skills. With each drink, they became louder in their insistence on each being the better bard, until at last one of the other patrons had suggested a competition to settle the issue.
Tale after tale about Lykoi and Night Creatures poured first from one bard, then the other, each tale meant to enlighten the listeners, and each tale drawn from the hidden scrolls Sophron had shown to Gabrielle.
The creation of the Lykoi as Gabrielle knew it. The creation of the Night Creatures as Sophron knew it. The evil done by each group, the good, and the healing power granted a very small group of Lykoi by the
god Zeus, when they saved the life of the nymph Callisto...his lover, now a constellation in the heavens. The destruction of the healers, by other Lykoi. Their fleeing from their home to a new shore, where
they hoped to live in peace.
The healers were a single family unit, fleeing the wrath of their own kin. They had settled this village - a fact kept secret by Sophron's kin. The humans came and were welcomed, but the humans, like their
own kin over the seas, knew fear of those different from self, and so death visited the healers again. This time, destruction came in the form of betrayal by a trusted ally.
By the time the two bards' throats had grown dry and raspy, the truth was known. Night Creatures and Lykoi-one and the same. Sympathy ran high for the healers' tribe, yet fear of the Lykoi remained. And so
the last tale to tell fell to Sophron - the tale of the death of the last of the Lykoi, and of his family's return to power through betrayal. Gabrielle sat, drinking her cider and willing him the courage and strength to carry on.
Xena paused. The tracking hadn't been easy. She'd been tracking since dawn, and night was falling. She'd started the tracking in the village. Following a hunch, she'd searched for signs of comings and
goings near Gregor's home. Follow first one, and then another until she'd found the one that led into the woods. Instincts took over. Warily she pressed on deeper into the woods.
The camp had to be within a day of the village - any further and it would be too difficult to take over the village. And why did they - whoever they were - want this particular village? She'd never heard of a Warlord taking a village this way, and it ate at her. Gregor was a traitor of that she was convinced, but why and to whom, she had no idea.
The trail led into the mountains and Xena followed, wishing she had Argo with her. Crisscrossing a small stream, at least she had water to keep her thirst away. Ferns overhung the water in places, and
rockwalls towered overhead. She heard the sound of a waterfall and stopped. A waterfall could hide the sounds of an army. She proceeded more cautiously. If she was right, there was a good force of bandits nearby, and if they killed her, the village had no chance. Up ahead, she could see the mist and spraying of the waterfall. A clearing through the trees. Sidestepping from tree to tree, she watched for hidden men but saw none.
The trail however, eventually led her to their camp and she hid a gasp. The leader was either a fool, or one very confident Warlord. There was only one way in or out.
The camp was in a small valley. At the point, the valley was no more than thirty yards wide, with steep walls rising on either side. It looked to be a mile long, and a quarter mile wide. A stream ran along
the bottom, and half a dozen large fires were spread around, tents every which way and men milling around...no guards. Extremely overconfident. Xena's lip curled in anticipation. This battle would
be easy, if she could get the villagers to come here and block the entrance to the valley. Time to get back to Sophron's. Gabrielle would be worried.
The competition ended. Votes were cast and as hoped, Sophron won. Gabrielle hid her smile behind a lowered head and feigning exhaustion, excused herself, before heading for Sophron's home. Stage one
accomplished. Sophron stayed behind, accepting congratulations and talking with his people, a comment or question carefully placed throughout the remainder of the day, and well into the night, ensuring
that the villagers would begin to look at Gregor in a new way.
The young Captain swallowed hard. This wasn't going as easy as he had hoped. He stood in the center court, with the Lykoi milling around nervously. His Lord was not home, and the Warrior Princess was
nowhere to be found.
The Lykoi stood ill at ease, walls surrounding them. Zeroukas held his hand up in silent signal to his people to fall into battle stance. If this was a trap, he would not fall easily.
"Father." Dulf whispered the word. "He is here." Eyes shining, he lifted his head toward the home that loomed before them and sniffed again. "My brother lies inside there."
Zeroukas sniffed. The familiar scent of his eldest wafted down to him and a howl escaped his lips. The guardsmen fearfully stepped back and drew their swords. He drew his eyes back and stared at the man that had led him here. A roar swept through his body. "My SON, a PRISONER!" His claws unsheathed and he stepped forward.
The Captain's face paled, but he held his ground. "We are not enemies." He said carefully, and looking the behemoth of a man in the eyes, he dropped his sword. "I'm unarmed. I refuse to fight the father of my lord's friend."
"FATHER!" A shout from the balcony. "No!" Zarhan leaned on the balcony, still weak from his ordeal, fear and joy mingling together as he watched his father prepare for battle. "FRIENDS!" He shouted
the single word in hopes of stopping a bloodbath.
The words penetrated the mind of the Chief and he growled, but stopped. His people followed his example and waited, each glaring at a different human, weapons held ready.
Zarhan smiled and heaved a sigh of relief. Turning, he spoke to the healer who had stood uncertainly in the doorway. "Help me go to them, before needless blood is shed on my behalf."
"No time for buts," Zarhan interrupted Jason. "Wait until they get a load of you." he grinned at his newfound kin. "If I don't go out, they will think it's a trick, and attack. Once my father sees us
together, all will be well. I promise. And I promise I'll come right back to rest, with him in tow." He smiled reassuringly. "Besides, you'll be with me."
Jason conceded defeat and gently put an arm around the young man.
Xena paused at the entry to Sophron's home, a sardonic grin on her face. Looks like family arrived just in time. She stepped through the gateway and into the center. A few more Lykoi than Zarhan had
thought. That could be good. Time to make her presence known. "Hello boys." She smiled, her eyes dark with amusement. "You weren't thinking about having a party without me, were you?"
All eyes turned to face the new voice. The Lykoi obviously shocked by the woman they saw standing before them. Captain Alekos Belen smiled for the first time in hours, and thanked the gods that Xena had
finally shown up.
Zeroukas smiled. A very toothy smile. He had been taught that humans didn't allow their women to fight. Evidently, the times had changed. If she was in charge, he'd be glad to take her on.
"Oh, but you must be Zarhan's family. We have been expecting you." She pointed toward the castle. "Welcome to Lord Sophron's home." She chose to ignore the tension coming from all sides and enjoy the
confusion that milled around the courtyard.
"Captain," She looked at Alekos, a grin on her face. "If you would be so kind as to show the Chief's men to their quarters and then to the dining hall, I will take the Chief to his son."
"My men go nowhere." Zeroukas' voice was a low, throaty growl.
Xena's eyes hardened, but before she could speak, a voice came from behind the Chief.
"Father." Zarhan breathed the name, then stared in surprise as he recognized his brother. "Dulf?" A grin broke out, and he let go of Jason to stand before the Lykoi tribe that would one day be his to rule.
"Zarhan!" The tall man rushed forward and made to grab his son. The healer interfered, stepping between the two.
"Careful." He demanded. "I'll not have you damage my hard work with a rib crushing hug."
"Who?" The Chief stared incredulously at the courageous man, who even now stood quite calmly in front of his son and heir. The man's eyes widened, and shock and puzzlement flashed through the Chief's own eyes as he noted their color. Sniffing the air, he glared suspiciously at the strange Lykoi and slowly flexed his hands, bringing attention to his unsheathed claws. If a fight was what they were after, he'd be
pleased to oblige.
"Father." Zarhan interrupted before Jason could answer. "Please, these people are my friends. Tell our men to go with the good Captain. No harm will befall any of us inside of these walls. I ask you and my brother to join us inside." He was fast running out of energy, and wasn't sure how much longer he could stand on his own two feet. Collapsing in front of the tribe would not be wise.
"Go, then." Zeroukas turned to his people. "My son vouches for these people. Treat them as allies, until they prove otherwise." He watched his people follow the young man who had led him to his son, and then turned to look once more at the warrior woman before following his son into the castle, Dulf at his side.
Xena took a step forward, but hearing a noise behind her, spun around, drawing her sword as she moved.
"Ahh, hi, Xena." Gabrielle suppressed a yelp. "Nice reflexes." She said nervously.
"Ya, well, our visitors have arrived." She sheathed her sword and fell into step with her young friend. "How'd it go in town?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Good. Just the way we wanted it to go." She skipped lightly, "Sophron should be along in a couple of hours."
Gabrielle sat in awe of the Lykoi. Watching the giant of a man rip into a haunch of half cooked venison had effectively killed her appetite.
Zeroukas' voice boomed, despite a notable effort to curb it. "Excellent fare! And well appreciated too, but the time has come for you to tell me what warrants the kidnapping of a Lykoi?"
"Good question." Xena looked around the table. Silence, all eyes on her, as if she knew the answer. "And one we have no answer for." She said wryly, biting into a sweet roll.
"Good Question!?" Zarhan's brother spat harshly. "That's no answer!" He stood in anger. "They tortured my brother, and all you can do is... "
"Peace, brother!" Zarhan broke in. And with a shake of his head and small smile, quieted Dulf. "Sit." He lowered his hand, as though physically pushing his brother into his seat. "Let me remind you,
these people saved my life. I am pledged to fight beside them." He looked to his father, pleased to see the pride shining from his eyes, and feeling the warmth of the familiar bond within. He glanced sideways at his newfound kin, smiling reassuringly at the healer. "I will not abandon my newfound friends."
Xena cleared her throat, and held up a hand for silence. Dulf cast her a sour glance, but his father laid a huge hand on his shoulder, and with a low growl, he subsided.
"All right," The warrior woman said finally. "As I said, we haven't a clue. Nothing in the scrolls, nothing anywhere that tells us why this village, why use the Lykoi, and why now." She wet her lips, "But I do know where their camp is."
"Then we attack." Captain Alekos stated, looking to Sophron for support.
Sophron responded by turning to Xena. He was no warrior.
Xena shook her head. "It's not that simple."
Gabrielle cut in. "We need to know who's camp that is, and why they are doing this before we can launch an attack."
Xena cast her a brief smile. It faded as she turned back to face Zeroukas. "She's right. And before we go any further I need to know that you and your men will do what I say, and not go off with your own
He gave the warrior a broad shrug and a smile. "It was my son they tortured."
"And it is a whole village they are out to destroy." She stared him down.
The Chief looked at his eldest son. Zarhan sat quietly, eyes meeting his father's, acknowledging the debt he felt to the warrior woman without speaking.
For long minutes, father and son sat and looked into each other's eyes. No words were spoken, but a wealth of information passed between the two, in the ancient way of their tribe. The rest of the room sat quietly, food and drink forgotten. The humans, unaware that a mental discussion was taking place, waited for the stare-down to end, and Dulf all too aware that he'd been shut out of the sending.
Finally, Zeroukas took a deep breath and looked back at the warrior woman. What was her name? Oh, right Xena. "Xena," He acknowledged more than any human knew when he spoke her name. "I so pledge."
Xena let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Without the Lykoi, she wasn't sure of their chances, but with them, she knew they'd succeed. "Then shall we get down to planning?"
They waited in the hedge by Gregor's door, Xena and Zeroukas. He had insisted on being the one to accompany her. They waited in comfortable silence for the man to leave for his rendezvous with his
A touch on the shoulder, and she looked first at the Lykoi next to her and then to the door he'd pointed at. Seconds later, it opened. Out stepped Gregor. Her mouth twisted at the sight of the rat and her hand tightened on her chakram, but she stayed still. She looked at the man next to her and nodded. This was the man they'd waited for.
Silently she stood, the chief next to her more silent then even she had ever managed. Envy crossed her heart for a brief moment, but passed forgotten as they followed Gregor deeper into the woods.
Xena decided to have fun. She grinned at her companion, and using her hands, motioned for him to wait until she stood in front of Gregor. Confused, but willing to see what she had in mind, Zeroukas waited
while she slipped away.
Ahh, a game. The warrior woman taunts her prey. He smiled as he listened to the rustling of leaves; branches snapping; moaning noises. The little man moved quicker. Perhaps he believed the lies he had
spread. Zeroukas laughed inwardly but maintained his silent vigil, walking quietly behind the man, and waiting for the warrior woman to tire of her game.
Gregor's mouth grew dry. Something was wrong in the forest tonight. It felt wrong. Noises weren't right. He swallowed hard. Maybe the Night Creatures were really here. His breathing got heavy. Snap. He jumped. Just a branch-cracking, must be from an animal. He moved quickly, being as quiet as he could, but he was no woodsman. He stopped and hid behind a high trunk, and listened. Noises came from up above and from beside him. Maybe it was a squirrel, jumping from tree to tree. Sounds assaulted his ears, half whistle, half bark. Oh gods! It really was the Night Creatures. He started to run, not
watching which way he went.
Zeroukas watched, fascinated by the way Xena scared her prey, smiling as the warrior woman flipped out of a tree to land in front of the runner. That was his cue, and he stepped out from hiding and stood
waiting behind the man.
Gregor ran, bang, right into something that wasn't there a moment ago. He fell down and looked up, turning pale as he saw the woman he had run into, standing, hands on her hips. "Ahh umm ," he wet his lips and swallowed hard. "Xena, umm I am ahh, glad to see see you." He stood up, and rubbing his hands together, backed away from the warrior. Frightened by her silence and fervently wishing he had
brought a guard or two with him, he tried to gain control of the situation. "I think we had better get back to the village. There are dangerous animals out here." He looked fervently to either side. "I think those creatures are nearby." He was talking fast. "I heard... "
"I'm not interested in what you heard." Xena cut him off. "I'm interested in what you are doing in the woods at this time of night." She smiled, but her eyes stayed hard.
He took another step backward, still unaware of the Lykoi at his back. "I I couldn't sleep. I just went out for a walk, and I got scared and ran in the wrong direction. That's that's all." He stuttered.
"Right." She replied sardonically. "You ought to go into acting." She took a step forward and gave him the look. "Care to try again?"
He wet his lips and tried to bluff his way. "You you don don't scare me." He pulled himself erect. "I'm a respected Council member. I demand you escort me safely back to the village."
"Right," Xena repeated crisply, her voice now dripping sarcasm. "Why would I want to do that?" She took another step forward and her mouth quirked with amusement. Just another two steps and he'd bump up against the Lykoi Chief.
"I can assure you, you'd be well rewarded." He backed away from the advance, not sure what she was up to, and gasped as he bumped into someone. He whirled around in fear. "AHHHHH!" He back pedaled to
Xena. "It's one of them!" He pointed a finger and tried to hide behind the warrior. "Kkkilllll himmm!"
Xena laughed. "Kill him?" She pulled the little man around to face the Lykoi. "But he's with me." She said softly.
Gregor paled, his eyes darting from warrior to the stranger in growing alarm. "Bbuutt " He tried to speak, but was too afraid.
"Yes, let me introduce you to my new friend." Xena held her hand out toward Zeroukas. "This is Zeroukas, Chief of the Eldvulf Tribe of the Lykoi." She leaned down and whispered in her captive's ear. "And he's not happy that someone kidnapped his son." She stood back up and smiled at Zeroukas. "And this little man," she shook her captive. "is Gregor, a traitor to his people." She let the man fall to the ground, and went to one knee beside him. "And he will be a dead traitor if he doesn't tell me what I want to know in one minute." She turned to the Lykoi Chief. "Have you ever seen a man die gasping for breath? All I need to do is this." Her hand darted out and jabbed Gregor on the neck twice. She smiled sweetly at the man. "I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. If you don't tell me what I want to know, you'll be dead in 30 seconds."
Dead silence as the Lykoi watched fascinated; then Gregor drew a shuddering breath and gasped. "Don't kill me. I I I'll tell you."
Xena gazed into his eyes, shrugged and reversed the pinch. "You realize that if you lie to me, I'll just do it again and leave you to die."
He caught his breath and rubbed his neck. "I'll tell you whatever you want to know."
"Well, what I want to know is simple enough." She leaned forward. "I want to know who you were on your way to meet, and what they want with the village." She pointed a finger at him, "And make it good." She said flatly. "Or you won't live to regret it."
"Vuldun, that's his name." Gregor rushed to speak, fear for his life pushing him to spill his entire knowledge. "I know it sounds weird, but it really is. He is a strange person, almost as different as your
friend." He swallowed trying to wet his throat. "He has a camp based not far from here, but I am not sure what he is after. He told me I could maintain leadership of the village, as long as I did whatever he
wanted. He talked about 'power lines' and the 'force' coming from the village."
Xena curled her lip. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I I don't know." He shrugged. "I just went along with it so I could be the King. Why should Sophron be a king. I'm just as good as he is. Better." He sneered.
"Power lines." Zeroukas spoke for the first time. "That could be dangerous."
Xena glanced at him. When he didn't continue, she raised an eyebrow and sighed softly. "Dangerous?" She looked at the Chief of the Lykoi. Anything that made a big man like him sound concerned was
trouble. "In what way?" She asked.
"Power lines," He shook his head. "I am not a scholar, but what I can recall " His voice trailed off, as he tried to remember lessons from his youth.
"You think about the power lines while I find out more DETAILS." She spoke the last word to Gregor.
He shivered with fear. "I don't know what else you want to know." He protested.
Xena laughed without mirth. "How many men does he have? What do you know about his plans? Remember, I know you were responsible for implementing them."
"I never counted his men. There's a lot. He uses magic to keep them protected, when I told him about newcomers he laughed and said they'd never survive if they attacked his camp. I was on my way to get new instructions when you found me. But I know that they were going to attack the village disguised as Lykoi, soon. I was supposed to learn when, tonight." He stole a furtive look at the real Lykoi standing
just beyond Xena and prayed he'd never meet another.
"Great, just what we needed an attack planned, and we don't know when." Xena swore.
"It'll be tomorrow." Zeroukas spoke with confidence.
Xena looked at him in surprise. "Wha..?"
"If this Vuldun is truly here because of the power lines, then he is a powerful Warlock! He craves the power lines for the added strength they will give him. Most are guarded by a certain people "
Xena waited expectantly, but the Chief said no more. She rolled her eyes, exasperated. "Do I need to ask, 'What people'?" Xena said impatiently.
"A Druid tribe. No one knows for sure, but we think they came from Gaul and resettled our lands. They use magic, and live wherever the power lines pool." He shrugged, almost apologetically. "Every now
and then one goes bad, major problems when that happens. We usually assist the Druids in containing the troublesome Druid, and in keeping strangers from settling too close. They assist us by trading herbs and
other items we need."
Xena stared thoughtfully at the Chief. "Come on." She hooked a finger under the traitor's chin and drew him to his feet. "I believe it's time to return to Sophron's castle."
Gabrielle kept watch from her window perch in the Great Room. The battle plans had been drawn, and all parties had agreed to their roles. She chewed her lower lip worriedly. Xena had made no mention
of her and her role during the upcoming battle, although Xena would be leading the attack on the Druid camp. She paused in her musings, as a rider was let through the gate. Shading her eyes to see better, she
focused in on the rider. It was Colin, returned from the village. Time to see if the villagers had agreed to all Sophron had demanded of them.
Gabrielle entered the dining hall-turned-battle room as Colin began to speak, "Sophron showed them the coward Gregor and explained in no uncertain terms that the man had been out to destroy our way of life.
Our people have always loved Sophron and readily agreed to everything he said." He paused to breathe, "All is as planned." He grinned. "You should have seen the look on everyone's faces when our legends
came to life in front of them. The young WolfLord he put everyone at ease when he spoke, and our people, and theirs now guard the village from attack."
Zeroukas swelled with pride. That was his son, Zarhan, the outlander spoke of. He turned to the female that sat across from him. "Okay, your sheep are safe. Let us go to battle." He rose to his full height. "Call my men to me." He ordered his younger son.
"Wait." Xena said, a faint smile tugging at her lips. "We have a few more things to iron out." She glanced at the others in the room and looked back at him, her eyes hard and calculating, there was room for only one leader in any battle. "Between us." She said softly. "Clear the room."
The Eldvulf Chieftain's surprised look turned quickly from anger to puzzlement ,and finally to curiosity. "Yes," He said slowly. "I suppose we do." He looked to his guard. "Go." And to his son, "Wait in the hall, this won't take long."
Xena yanked her head toward the door. "Go." She said; closed her eyes briefly, as all but one obeyed; took a deep breath, "Gabrielle, that meant you, too." And before Gabrielle could protest, "Go to the Great Room. I'll see you there in a minute." Feeling without seeing the doubt in her bards eyes. She spoke once more. "I promise."
Gabrielle glared once at the Chief, and walked out the door.
Gabrielle paced in the Great Room. Xena had promised to come talk to her before she left, and she was determined to change the warriors mind about leaving her behind. She deserved to be by Xena's side.
She'd proven herself over and over, and yet she kept getting left behind like a child.
The door opened and Xena strode in. "Gabrielle," She took control as she walked into the room. "I need you to do me a favor."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Don't even try." She cut her friend off. "You don't want me fighting. You want me to stay behind, but I don't want to. I..."
Xena smiled, amused by the outburst, but cut her friend off. "...can fight. You are good enough. Okay, I admit it." She could barely keep the laughter out of her voice. "That's not the problem."
"It's not?" Gabrielle looked confused.
"No." Xena's mouth quirked. "I need you to stay and watch the children. Zeroukas is going to have his younger son stay here as well as a couple of his men." She shook her head at a loss to explain her
Gabrielle bit her lower lip. "But I want to be with you." She protested.
"I know." Xena said as she studied the lithe form of the bard standing before her. "And believe me - I really wish you were going to be with me this time." She tousled Gabrielle's hair. "It'll be over before we know it."
Gabrielle searched Xena's face, knowing instinctively that the warrior hadn't told her everything. "What's wrong?"
Xena blotted her forehead with the back of her hand. "I just have a bad feeling about this one." She shook her head. "It's nothing I can pinpoint. Just be careful, okay?"
"I'm the one staying in the castle - YOU be careful."
Xena grinned. "I will." She cast a wink at Gabrielle and turned to leave.
Gabrielle's heart pounded harder. "Xena!" The warrior woman turned, and Gabrielle threw herself into her arms. "Come back." She said quietly, as she hugged her friend tightly. Xena squeezed the bard
back, surprised, but unexpectantly pleased by the display of affection. Before she said or did something she'd regret, she disengaged herself from Gabrielle's arms and strode through the door.
BATTLE AT THE VILLAGE
Zarhan paced, uncomfortably aware of the upcoming battle and its effect on his future as leader of the Eldvulf. Not only were the lives of these innocent villagers at stake, but his men, and his skills as a leader. To be put to the test in such a way frightened him more than he was willing to admit. He swallowed hard and sighed. The wait before a battle was always the hardest part.
Sophron walked amongst his people, giving an encouraging word to each as he could. The gate had been closed and archers stood ready along the wall. The village might be small, but it had been well planned.
Zarhan's men, all twelve, stood ready at the back entrance, the villagers to the sides, his guardsmen in the front. To practice warfare was one thing, to actually stand here waiting for the bloodshed to begin...He shuddered. It was not as pleasant as the tales of the heroes made it seem.
"Dust in the distance!" Cried the watcher at the gate. Sophron hurried to his place at the wall, wishing he'd paid more attention to his Armsmaster and less to his bookish studies.
BATTLE AT THE CASTLE
The village children and some of the women were all safely hidden behind the castle walls. Sophron's idea. The men could fight with less fear, knowing their families were safely out of harm's way. After all, why attack a fortress like the castle, when what you wanted was in the village?
Gabrielle paused at the doorway to the Great Hall. With so many children, it seemed small and overcrowded. She laughed with joy as she noted their playful antics. They took this change from everyday life as a great holiday, and not the dangerous battle for life and freedom that the adults knew it to be. She smiled at the women keeping the children inside, sighed, and walked on by, heading for the
Jason paced back and forth on the roof. He couldn't get rid of the feeling of impending doom. Something was going to go wrong with their plans. History showed that the best laid plans often went awry, and he was positive it would be proven shortly.
Gabrielle walked up, concern in her eyes. "Jason." She rested her hand on his arm. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know." He shook his head. "It doesn't feel right." He looked into her eyes. "I sense a disturbance, but I can't pinpoint it. It's almost like an illness, but slightly different, and I fear it."
Gabrielle, having no answer, stroked the man's arm sympathetically. "We'll be fine." She looked out over the walls. "It's our comrades I worry about."
Jason turned and looked down at the small woman, once again amazed at how small she was - she appeared so tall in his mind. "They'll be fine." He grinned. It was his turn to offer comfort. "After all,
they have the spell from the Lykoi scrolls. They'll knock that old druid's power out from under him before he can utter a single spell, and my newfound kinfolk will take care of the rest."
Gabrielle smiled, in thanks for the pep talk. "Come," she said wearily. "Let's go watch the children play." She turned to go. "Perhaps, they can take this fear from my mind."
BATTLE AT THE DRUID CAMP
Xena had half a dozen of Sophron's archers with her. She positioned them on the cliff overlooking the camp and left Phillida in their care. "Now remember," Xena warned. "You are not to expose yourself
to battle. When you see the band of soldiers leave for the village wait one candlemark and then read the scroll." Xena smiled reassuringly at the frightened woman. "You'll do fine." With one last squeeze of the woman's arm Xena left the Phillida to her duty.
The Lykoi lay hidden, in the bushes and up trees, all around the base of the camp. Xena smiled wryly as she listened to the singing birds and chattering of small animals. Any other army hiding in these woods
would have scared the animals away, but not the Lykoi. They were too much a part of the woods, especially clothed in the animal skins they always wore into battle. No wonder everyone thought they changed into wolves. The roar of the waterfall could be heard over everything else. She counted on that being enough of a cover to hide the initial sounds of battle, giving her troops a little extra time. She crouched down next to Zeroukas and watched the firelight of a dozen small campfires.
Zeroukas, Chief of the Eldvulf Tribe, glanced once at the warrior woman beside him and then back to the Druid Camp. "I still think this is too dangerous." He murmured the words. "I still think we should
sneak in and slit as many throats as we can before dawn."
Xena stifled a laugh. "Yes, it would be good to see their reaction when they discover HIS protections are no longer working." She looked at the fires before her, and back to the man beside her. "But would it give us honor?"
Zeroukas scowled, a grunt his only reply.
Xena smiled and waited for dawn to come. The hardest part would be watching the army leaving for the village, but if their plan was to work, each must play their part.
BATTLE AT THE VILLAGE
Sophron felt as though he was both a part of the battle and separate from it. Uncanny feeling - he tried to shrug it off as he engaged another swordsman in battle. The army had been larger than anticipated, and had managed to break through the doors. Thrust and parry. The archers were doing a good job of dispatching a number of opponents, yet the fight had become personal, and small battles raged
around him. He leaped over his opponent's blade, swinging low. He noted without effort the men and women fighting and dying around him. He ducked, and feinted to his right. Old Tagalik lay dead by the
granary. The soldier that killed him lay next to him, cut down by Tagalik's grandson - a spunky boy of 12, who'd refused to go with the other children. Sophron parried another blow, and thrust, this time
hitting his mark. The soldier went down, and Sophron finished him with a deep thrust into his chest, turning and ducking as another soldier came at him from behind. A quick thrust up, and that one lay
dead next to his comrade.
It was strange, the things you noticed at times like this: Dust clouds from the pounding hooves of many horses, the flare of the horse's nostrils, a vein in a man's throat pulsing once, twice,...and then red blood flowing, as the man's neck disappeared beneath a sword. Zarhan danced his way through the crowd, an angel of death. Still no sign of the ones that held him captive. He sniffed the air time and time again, in hopes. Slashing at another enemy with claws and blade as needed, he searched for other signs.
Cypselus stood on the wall, arrow after arrow flying from his trembling hands. His wife knelt next to him. This was her home, and she'd been determined to stay at his side to fall or win with him. She
tugged at his arm and pointed - one of the Lykoi was about to be cut down. He pulled his last arrow out of the quiver, and with deadly care, placed it on the string, pulling back with tried arms and trembling fingers, and let it loose. The arrow flew true. The man fell dead, and the startled Lykoi looked skyward, touching hand to forehead in thanks.
The battle raged on. Life on both sides held too cheaply as more fell, until finally the villagers and Lykoi stood together in a silent courtyard looking at one another blindly, exhaustion on each face. Slowly, it dawned on people that they had won the battle, and shouts of joy were soon echoing throughout the village. Men and women alike bent to the task of removing the bodies of their enemies and searching
for loved ones. Wounded were brought to the Great Temple, and a runner was sent to Sophron's Castle, which stood on the outskirts of town, to bring the healer.
BATTLE AT THE DRUID CAMP
Zeroukas and Xena watched, eyes tight and faces devoid of expression, as a band of soldiers slipped out of camp, and headed for the village. Xena's heart clenched in fear. The group was larger than they'd
anticipated. She hoped the villagers were up to it. The wait almost over, one candlemark, to ensure the band heading for the village would be out of ear range when the attack began here. No sense in going in
early and ending up trapped by the army within and the one they'd just watched leave.
Phillida held the powerstone her mother had given her years ago, and watched as the men marched toward the village. Her husband and children depended on her. She could do this - she would do this. She looked around her. The archers stood ready. She concentrated on her love for her family and focused on her stone. The words to cancel the protective spell cast by the Dark Druid echoed in her mind. She
waited until the power filled her being, and softly she began singing:
Goddess, protector, guardian,
cradle me and mine in your loving arms.
Tear down the walls that Vuldun made.
Burn away the evil walls.
Shatter that which he bound.
Healing water wash away blood sacrifice.
Flowing over wounds of hate.
Dispel his protective geis.
Negate his evil casting.
Love's power, greater than hate's vengeance.
Evil be dispersed.
Zeroukas looked at Xena. She nodded her head, and he gave the cry for the attack. The long-night wait finally ended. His blood sang for vengeance, and his people surged forward. Sophron's archers would
stay in place, picking off any that tried to escape.
Zeroukas took a step forward and the soldiers shrunk back. He felt a sense of triumph flare through his body. With one ear he listened as his people swarmed over the campsite, howling all the way. His mind
burst full-fledged into a warrior-pride, and the rumble that bubbled in his throat erupted into a roaring roll of savage sound - a sound that ripped deep into the hearts of the people and sent them scattering for cover.
He moved legs blurred with speed. A man lunged out of the shadows, a weapon poised over his head for a downward stroke. Zeroukas flung himself off stride to close in on the man. He swung his head to the
left, teeth bared, and slashed a swift and terrible slash with his right arm, a slash that struck the flesh and ripped through the man's armor as though it were cloth. The man tottered a few steps, before collapsing. He spun around and faced another soldier, and he hurled himself full-speed at the man. He swung with his right claw extended and quickly drew it back to the left across the man's throat. Hot, red blood splashed onto his face. His mind slipped into the red haze of rage, and with a loud howl, he turned to attack yet another soldier.
Xena drew her sword as she rushed to join the battle, a smile causing her face to glow in the early morning light. She dodged to the side, and slashed the first soldier she passed chest to groin, moving on
without pause. She grabbed the arm of the next soldier, twisting it behind his back until she heard a pop, and the man began to scream. She let go, and the man fell. She slashed at another man - he parried - she feinted to the right, and slashed to the left. The man parried again and countered with a feint of his own. Xena laughed as she threw herself into the battle, and with a quick forward flip, landed behind the man she'd been fighting. Tapping him on the shoulder, she grinned apologetically before ramming the pommel of her sword into his face. Backing up a space and arching her eyebrow she watched as he fell to the ground.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiiyiyi" She howled her battle cry and attacked two more soldiers. Xena somersaulted forward, slashing left and right. A backwards flip landed on the stomach of a fallen soldier. Not quite sturdy enough, she went down on one knee. A quick twist and turn, and she brought her sword up over her head to clang against the one swirling towards her. A forward roll, and a fast thrust up opened the stomach of the soldier who stood over her. Vaulting to her feet she grabbed the shoulder of a man rushing past, and kneed him in the groin. Lifting her head, she noticed a soldier about to slice a Lykoi down from
behind. Her hand moved faster that the eye could blink. Her chakram flew, ricocheted off a tree, and shattered the sword before returning to Xena's outstretched hand.
The battle raged on, and soon Xena lost all track off time, killing first one then another, blood splattering her leathers, and sword drenched red. Time ceased to have meaning. The world shrunk to include the blade, the chakram, and the next victim. She remained barely aware of the allies that fought at her side. The battle grew quieter, less swords clanging, less screams, less howling, until finally the sounds ceased all together. Xena stood and stared at the destruction that lay all around her. She trembled, though whether from exhaustion or fear of the battle-joy she had felt, she wasn't sure. She listened to the Lykoi howling their triumph to the sky and shivered. Something was not right. She walked slowly though the
field of death, searching for something that would tell her why she felt so uneasy.
Zeroukas glanced around him. His son's kidnapping had been revenged. With a glint of glee in his eye, he headed toward the warrior woman. His son had been correct. She was one whose name would be honored through history. Xena! A most powerful ally. Almost as good as another Lykoi. A frown came upon him as he realized that she was not sharing his people's celebration. She was searching the camp.
Something not right? He sniffed. The air felt as it should. Blood and death up close, the scent of his people nearby, animals in the nearby forest, and her friends up above. Nothing wrong. Arriving at her side, he questioned her, "Why do you search?"
"Something's wrong." Her eyebrows pulled together, she barely acknowledged him. Her attention was riveted on the tent she stood by. Raising the sword she still held, she poked the fold of the tent open
and stepped inside.
Zeroukas followed, claws once more extended and battle senses returning to full alert. His eyes opened wide in surprise. Not a soul in the tent, but it was full of all types of arcane materials. Fear clenched his soul as his eyes took in one magical item after another. This, then, was the tent of the Dark Druid, but where was the Druid?
Xena's heart leapt into her throat. She closed her eyes and prayed fervently that she was wrong. "Gabrielle." She breathed the word torturously. Somehow, she knew that was were the druid had gone. Her friend was in mortal danger, and there was no way to warn her. Xena turned with pain-filled eyes to look at the Eldvulf Chieftain. "He's gone to the castle." She turned and whirled out of the tent, whistling as she ran.
Zeroukas hesitated but a moment, before he, too, was whirling, and as he emerged from the tent he called his people to him. His people fell in beside and behind their chief, joining him in his newest challenge.
The tribe ran forward as swiftly as any horse, and more deadly, their chief telling them mind to mind of the danger awaiting them at their final destination.
BATTLE AT THE CASTLE
The guards had no chance. They were dead before they knew what hit them. The dark Druid rode past the bodies without looking down. He paused as he entered the courtyard. "Go my people and take captive
any and all you find in these walls." A click of his heels and he cantered into the middle of the yard. He looked about himself with a haughtiness born from confidence. His lip curled in a smile of contempt, and he laughed as he watched his people kill or capture the few guards that had remained. His smile widened as he saw two figures appear on the balcony above his head. "So you are the fools who dare oppose me." He dropped from the saddle and strode forward.
Zarhan fearfully backed away from the balcony. Gabrielle stood still and questioned the man, "Who are you? What do you want?"
The Druid stood hands on his hips, and his gaze flickered over the fair haired young woman, but his expression showed only a faint interest. "You would be well advised not to trouble me, little girl." He said in a commanding tone. His right arm lifted higher, bringing into view the long staff he gripped. "Stand aside and I'll leave you alive. It's your companion and his children I want."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared. This, then was the bandit leader - the Dark Druid. What did that weasel call him? Oh yeah - Vuldun. "You can't have them." Came her simple reply, and
under her breath, "Jason, quick, get the magic scrolls. They're on the table near the fireplace. They're the only hope we have." She leaned forward, hands on the balcony railing. "These people are under my protection, and I do not give up lightly what I have laid claim to." She tried to keep the druid's attention on herself, while Jason ran after the scrolls.
Vuldun smiled broadly, in amusement. "You?" he said incredulously, "You would keep me from my prey!?" Laughter, dark, and sinister, filled the air.
Gabrielle tightened her grip on her staff, and gritting her teeth, continued her bluff. "Yes, I! For I am she who commanded the Titans! I am the Amazon Queen, and more, I am a Warrior bred to battle evil! I am a Bard born to teach the world through story and song! The magic of the gods runs through my veins! I determine when my people have peace and joy, and I alone determine when they should have hate and
war!" She caught a glimpse of movement to her right. Jason had returned. "I determine who lives and who dies - not you!"
"So you claim a power equal or greater than my own." He said disbelievingly, eyes boring into Gabrielle in an attempt to read her soul. "I sense no such power in you." He raised his staff and pointed its silver tip in her direction. "Fortunately, I have the means to test you." Light flared from his staff, but Gabrielle no longer stood where the light was aimed.
She crouched behind the embankment. "Jason." She hissed. "Read the scroll - you have the power. I'll keep him distracted as long as I can."
"I can't do it." Jason whispered, his fear evident.
"Where are you little girl?" The Druid screamed vehemently. "I can start killing these innocents if you wish!? He pointed toward the captives. "Bring one forward."
"If I am weak and you so powerful, why am I still standing?" Gabrielle's laughing voice came from the spot she had been standing in before the magic blast.
Vuldun grinned. "Now you shall know the wrath of Vuldun! I shall have you begging for mercy before your spirit becomes my pet!" There was a note of cruel glee in his voice, and his eyes glittered with
satisfaction. Light flashed from his staff again.
Gabrielle dove for safety, smashing her shoulder into the wall. "Ouch!" She looked at the healer. "Jason!" She clutched the man's shoulders, "Look at me!" She held his eyes captive, as she fought
his fear. "Your own children depend on your strength. If you believe in yourself, you can stop this man."
"How?" He shook his head. "My power is only the power of healing."
Gabrielle shook his shoulders, "Think of the power lines we read about in the scrolls. You should be able to feel the energy. Read the scroll of power. Then read the scroll of dispersement, and when you do concentrate on the name Vuldun." She looked deeply into those strange yellow eyes, waiting for the acceptance she needed to shine forth. "Okay?" He nodded, and she smiled sadly, knowing that from this day forward his life would never be the same. "Good. Now I will distract him one last time."
Gabrielle stood up. "Hello, there." She waved to the Druid. "A little slow this morning?" She asked mockingly.
Vuldun's eyes glowed with an ever more angry light. "Fool!" He snarled. "I will destroy you!" Another blast of light flew toward the bard. Gabrielle jumped to the side. This time she felt the heat from the blast, and knew that if he aimed at her again, she might not survive.
"Still too slow!" She yelled, and turning to Jason, spoke quietly. "Hurry up! I can't keep this up much longer."
The Druid's face grimaced in fury, "No more words." He pointed his staff above the balcony, the light flashed, and stones began to rain down upon the two crouched behind the wall for protection.
Jason fought to concentrate as Gabrielle had told him to. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the power lines, gasping as he *saw* the white glowing lines appear in his mind's eye. He pulled the lines
toward him, much as a fisherman would pull a line in. His head arched back as he felt the power fill his soul; the strength; the joy; the warmth. He took a deep breath, forgetting the problem at hand and just enjoying the feel of the power.
"Jason!" Gabrielle hissed. "Read the scroll before we all die!"
Jason's eyes snapped open. "I...I...I..." He blinked furiously several times and wet his lips. "I am." He held the first scroll up to his face, and concentrating on the force he held, began the chant of Power.
The Dark Druid screamed. "No! How can this be?" He threw both arms up, and light poured from him up into the balcony. Stones fell, the balcony creaked.
"Hurry!" Gabrielle lay with her arms over her head, listening as Jason chanted. So far the rocks that had hit them had been small ones, but how long could their luck hold?
The light from the Druid's staff lessened, and finally dimmed. Jason picked up the second scroll and concentrated on the Druid's known name, chanting it in his mind as he read the scroll of dispersement.
"ATTACK!" The Druid bellowed.
"We intend to!" Came an answering bellow.
All eyes turned to the second voice, and Gabrielle smiled. She grasped Jason by the arm, "We just won!" Her sea-green eyes sparkled with excitement. "That voice! It's Xena."
The newcomers stood arrayed just inside the courtyard gates. The Druid's men turned from the castle and rushed to meet the new foes.
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi" Xena yelled as she flipped off Argo and landed in the midst of her enemies. Sword flashed right and left. Not stopping to inspect the damage, she grasped a soldier by the shoulders
and flung herself over his head, kicking the man to his left and banging her elbow into his head.
As though Xena's movements had been a sign, Zeroukas and his men surged forward, the blood from their last battle still drying on their animal skins, an unearthly glow shining from the yellow eyes, howling their intent, claws extended, knifes and swords drawn. The sounds of battle once more rang throughout the countryside.
"Jason, quick," Gabrielle said. "Finish the chant of dispersement."
"Right." The healer flashed her a smile, before refocusing the power and reading the scroll. A blue glow slowly surrounded the druid. His attempts to free himself caused sparks to fly, but he remained captured. Jason read on, and the blue glow strengthened, turning a deep, royal blue. As he said the last word, the light began to vibrate. The vibrations got faster and faster until the noise was unbearable, and the battle grew to a halt while soldiers cowered with hands held over their ears. The Lykoi howled their pain and rage. A sudden flash, and the blue light dispersed in a rain of colors spewing high into the sky, and with the light, the druid, too, disappeared. Silence descended on the courtyard.
CHAPTER 10 - END
The small party stood by the water's edge. The Lykoi Chief and his two sons watched as the rest of their party made for their ship. A single boat would return for them shortly. Zeroukas sniffed at the breeze, enjoying the last smell of the forest that he would have for months. Eager as he was to return to hearth and kin, he was loathe to begin the travel. Lykoi were made for forest life, not the sea.
Sophron smiled sadly at Jason, but he had no words for what he felt. Tears filled his eyes. "Are you sure?" He had to ask one last time. Life without Jason would be hard.
"Brother of my heart." Jason returned his smile. "We both know how hard my life was here." He snorted. "And now? After the battle, and what I accomplished," He shook his head. "It'll never be the same again. My family - I need to learn more about my heritage and understand this power I have. The village is safe. Other healers can be trained. I am not indispensable, and I have the chance to learn so much more than either of us ever thought possible. Surely you do not begrudge me this opportunity?"
Sophron shook his head sadly. "No, I do not begrudge you. I am envious. You have gained an entire tribe and I - I fear my own loneliness."
Jason hugged Sophron to him. "Brother, I will always be yours, and if you have a need, call and I will come." He looked deeply into Sophron's eyes, "Just because I have gained my people, that doesn't
mean I will forget my blood brother. Understand?"
Sophron returned the hug, but trusted not his voice. He merely nodded his acceptance of the situation.
"Father, the boat is here." A small hand tugged at Jason's sleeve.
Jason reached down and lifted his small son into his arms. "Good-bye, brother." He clasped Sophron tightly, and releasing him, turned to the warrior woman and her companion. "My thanks to both of you. I am eternally grateful for all you have done." He clasped Xena's arm to his, and hugged Gabrielle to him. "If there is ever a way to repay you..."
"We'll be sure to let you know." Xena said with a twisted grin.
Gabrielle held him an arm's length away. "Jason, be careful. This power you have, it can corrupt." She looked to his family, "Remember their love, and you should be fine." She turned and hugged each of
the children and Phillida to her, whispering to his wife, "Take good care of him. He's a good man."
"I know." Came the whispered response. "Thank you for his life."
The Eldvulf Chieftain stared at each individual being left behind. He looked to his sons and to the healer's family, then back to Sophron, Xena and Gabrielle. Slowly, with the solemnness born of ritual, he
spoke. "Xena Warrior Princess, Gabrielle Warrior Bard, Sophron Leader of Men, your names will live on in the tradition of the Lykoi. If ever you or yours are in need, the deeds done by you in our time of
need will be repaid a hundred fold." He reached out and clasped each to him, then quickly strode away. His sons turned to follow, Zarhan winking at the women as he turned toward the water.
The three friends drew closer together as they watched the boat row out to the galley. "What do you suppose that was supposed to mean?" Sophron questioned.
Xena's mouth twisted in a wry grin. "I'm not sure, but you can be positive it was a great honor."
Gabrielle grinned. "It means the next three children born to the tribe will have our names." Her smile grew larger as her friends turned to stare questioningly at her. "Hey, I had plenty of time to talk to Dulf before the attack came." She shrugged. "The newborn children will be told our tale, and they will keep us alive to the tribe. It's their way."
Xena scowled, but said nothing - just watched the boat move slowly away. "Sophron, good luck." She clasped his arm, then whistled for Argo. "Gabrielle?"
"I'll walk." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "We're not in a hurry now." She hugged Sophron. "Good bye. Thanks for sharing your tales with me."
Sophron stood back and watched as the two women headed out of view.
"Do you think Jason made the right choice?"
"Yes. A power like he and his family would be too dangerous left untrained."
Xena rolled her eyes. "What?"
"Do you think Sophron will be all right?"
"I think so. He's in his element. The villagers and he need each other."
"What else is new?" Xena fished in her saddlebag. "Here." She tossed a pomegranate to Gabrielle . "This should hold you over until time to break."
Gabrielle caught the fruit, and walked silently for a few minutes. "Xena?"
"What, Gabrielle?" A slight tinge of exasperation in the warrior's voice.
"Where are we going?"
Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle, anywhere you want. As long as we can do it in peace and quiet."
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