Originally posted at the XNF
April of '97
Gabrielle waited by Argo as Xena strolled through the giant's graveyard, lost in thought. Xena didn't seem aware of her surroundings, her path was inward. Memories of the past mixing with the regrets of today. The death of Goliath had hit her hard. *If he had only listened to reason.*
Xena took a deep breath and refocused, trying to shake off the dark mood she was in. She and Gabrielle needed to move on. The dark-haired warrior returned to Gabrielle and mounted her horse. Xena nudged Argo with her heels and headed down the road, Gabrielle walking by her side.
Gabrielle remained silent, knowing by experience that her friend needed time to herself. She didn't try to fill the night air with epic tales or poetry, and didn't attempt to tease Xena from her mourning. She just watched Xena playing absently with a stick, poking it into the fire until it started to smolder. The older woman lifted it and looked at it with ancient, weary eyes, her face passive.
The bard felt Xena's pain as though it were her own. She knew that the warrior felt the terrible burden of guilt over Goliath's death, even though she had no choice. He had given her none. If only Xena didn't have such a deeply caring soul...but then she wouldn't be the person she was. It was the price the warrior paid for needing to do what was right. Xena would do it all over again given the same circumstances, but it didn't make it any easier.
"Xena, he wouldn't want you to regret his death."
"I know," she said with a voice so lifeless, it broke the bard's heart.
"Why don't you get some sleep? It's been a long day," she suggested gently.
"I wouldn't sleep. You go on ahead. I'll be fine, Gabrielle."
"It's times like this that make me wish I could sing like you, Xena. I'd sing you a lullaby."
Xena was touched by her friend's caring and sweetness. Gabrielle truly wanted to make her feel better, so Xena gave her a way to ease her mind.
"Why don't you tell me a story or poem? I'll lie down and close my eyes. That should do it."
"If would help...?" the bard said shyly, unsure if Xena meant it. Xena nodded with a smile. She got into her bedroll and pulled up the covers.
Gabrielle began a story, a quiet tale of travel and discovery. It weaved an enchanted tale of lonely travelers and people met, and Xena drifted off before the story was finished.
Xena woke and was surprised the fact that she had slept at all. No nightmares had bothered her, no waking in a cold sweat with heart pounding. She felt refreshed and ready to face a new day. The tall woman stood, stretching the entire length of her body, arms held above her head, balancing on her toes. Xena felt her spine loosen, and muscles relax. Feeling better, she walked over to the fire to stir the embers and added more wood.
She pulled out her bag of herbs, and threw in a mixture of several leaves for their morning tea. Mint, sweet flag, and rose hips were thrown into the pot. She never used the same mixture twice. Xena returned her herbs to the saddlebag and walked over to Gabrielle to wake her for the first time. It usually took several tries. The warrior shook her arm and told her to get up.
Xena began dressing, pulling on her boots and leg armor. She then walked over to Argo and greeted her, before inspecting her hooves. She then saddled her. Xena walked back to Gabrielle and nudged her again, getting a sleepy moan in response. The tall woman collected her bedroll and saddlebags and tied them to the saddle. She picked up her weapons and put them in place. She shook Gabrielle again.
The warrior poured the tea through a cloth into another pot to strain the leaves. The tea was ready. She rinsed the pot with a little water and went to wake her friend again.
This time, Gabrielle sat up and with sleep-glazed eyes, looking around. The bard stood slowly, and with a stumbling gate, she went to the fire. She picked up her cup, helping herself to some tea.
She sipped it and sat there quietly, trying to wake up.
"Hungry? We still have some bread and grain cakes left. I can cook up a few for you," Xena offered. Gabrielle smiled and took her up on her offer.
"A few grain cakes sound good. Do we have any oil left?"
"Hmmm. Some. We need to pick up more supplies soon. There's a town down the road. We should reach it by late afternoon if we don't dawdle."
"It's not a town you've raided in the past, is it? I know you've been in this area before," Gabrielle asked with concern.
"Don't worry. It was so long ago, I doubt anyone would recognize me," she said while heating the fry pan. She added oil to the dried cakes, and threw them in.
They walked into a large town located near the eastern foothills. Its location made it favorable for caravans passing through from the seaport. It was a prosperous town with merchants and well-kept homes. People were everywhere, going about their business. Xena didn't like being surrounded by so many people, it made her feel caged in.
"Let's pick up our supplies and get out of here," she said tightly.
"We would, but we have a small problem. We don't have a lot of money left. If I could find a tavern or inn, I could pick up a few dinars telling stories," said Gabrielle.
Xena let out her breath in an aggravated release.
"Alright, but let's not take all day. This place is too crowded for my liking. It's a lot bigger than it was ten years ago.
Xena headed for the first clean looking tavern she saw. She spotted a young boy hanging around and offered him two copper pieces to guard Argo. Her horse really didn't need it, but it was safer for the unfortunate people around her. Argo didn't like strangers near her, and would nip and kick anyone that came too close.
He eagerly agreed, and the two women entered the establishment. They searched out the owner and got permission for the bard to perform.
Xena stopped her smaller friend before she went to the front, and reminded her not to tell tales of herself. It wasn't a good idea to use her name in this place. Gabrielle nodded and began her act, drawing the crowds to her. Xena ordered a mug of ale and sat down. The tavern was getting quieter as Gabrielle spoke. The patrons only commenting occasionally to give approval and applause to the parts of the stories they liked.
Xena finished off her mug, and ordered another.
"Your friend tells excellent stories," a man said from behind her. The voice was friendly, and she stopped the impulse to smash the person with a blow to the midsection with her elbow. She turned around to see a young man barely old enough to shave. His voice was deceptive. It was deep for his age.
"Yes, she does--but then again, she's had lots of practice," she commented.
"Is she a trained Bard?" he enquired.
"No, but she has a natural talent. She applied for the Academy once, but decided against it. She would rather travel," she said trying to discourage him.
"Too bad. She could make good money in this town if she stayed. Where are you heading next?"
Xena shrugged. Even if she knew, she wouldn't tell a stranger.
"What's your names? My name is Brueshe. My father owns this place," he said as an introduction.
Xena considered it for a while and gave her name and her friend's.
"The Warrior Princess? But I thought..."
"Quiet! I don't need any trouble on my hands right now," she hissed between clenched teeth. The youth paled considerably. The reputation of her past known to him. He wondered how much longer his life would last.
"Xena, why are you scaring this poor boy?" Gabrielle's teasing voice said from beside her. Xena looked up and gave her a crooked grin that said, 'Who? Me?' while raising an eyebrow.
The boy looked ready to bolt, and Gabrielle placed her hand on his arm to calm him down.
"Don't worry. She's not going to bite you or anything. She just tends to be intense. It can be unsettling at times," Gabrielle said with a gentle smile.
He looked uncertain, but remained seated. He glanced at the warrior with nervous eyes and returned his eyes back to the young woman.
"She..she's the Warrior Princess", he said in a whisper, "I don't remember much about the raid ---I was only a child, but I remember her name. If people knew she was here..." he stammered.
"No one needs to know. We're just collecting a few supplies and heading out again. We won't be here long," Gabrielle said, "And don't worry, she doesn't lead armies anymore. Xena helps people. It's a long story, but..."
"We don't have time to tell it, Gabrielle. Let's get out of here," the warrior said impatiently.
"It was nice meeting you Brueshe. Good-bye," she said as Xena pulled her to her feet by the elbow. The boy just stared in awe as they left.
Xena didn't slow her pace until they reached the market stalls. She turned and looked down at her friend, who was out of breath.
"Xena," she gasped, " look at your legs." Xena looked down in puzzlement.
"What about them?" she asked.
"Now look at mine," Xena looked at her friend's sturdy limbs.
"Your legs are a lot longer. When you walk at a fast pace, I can't keep up. Naturally I'm out of breath," she chided.
"Well, I can't help it if you're a little thing," she said with a wry grin.
"Xena, didn't your mother ever warn you about picking on little people? We might haul off and punch you in the kneecaps if annoyed," she quipped. Xena laughed and put her elbow on Gabrielle's shoulder, using her as a leaning post.
"But it's so much fun!" she said. Gabrielle gave her a playful slap on the stomach.
"She must have really changed if she'll let you talk to her like that," said Brueshe from behind them.
They spun around to look at the young man. He shrugged and gave a shy smile.
"I was curious. It's not everyday that you meet a reformed warlord," he said.
"It's OK. Just don't use her name too loudly. We don't want trouble. We just want to buy some things and leave," said Gabrielle. He nodded his understanding.
"What are you looking for? Maybe I can point out the best places for the money," he offered.
"We need food supplies," Xena told him.
"Alright. Gervin has the best." He led the way. They went to a stall at the outskirts of the market. Brueshe greeted the man with a large smile.
"Gervin, these are friends of mine. They need to restock their food before leaving town. Treat them fairly." The man gave them a warm smile and took their order. They collected the packages and thanked him.
"Xena, is it true you help people now?" the boy asked as they left the stall.
"Yes. Why, do you have a problem?" Xena asked carefully.
"I do, but I don't know if you'd be willing to help. I realize you aren't a popular person here. You may not want to take the risk of staying even a short time," he said without insult.
"What is it? She can't help if you don't tell us," Gabrielle said sensibly.
"There's a group of thieves in town. No matter what the authorities do, they can't be caught. Men have been posted throughout the town, but they never spot anyone. The thieves are bleeding everyone dry. The only person that caught them in the act is dead. The town guards found his body inside his empty shop. The Magistrate doesn't have even a clue as to who they are."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena with pleading eyes. Xena sighed.
"Alright, but first we should speak to your father. Perhaps he could put in a good word for me. I don't want to meet the Magistrate on my own--I'm likely to be thrown into jail if I did. I want a Guarantee of Immunity before I'll stay. If they agree--I'll help," Xena stated her terms.
"You don't want money for your services?" he asked.
"I don't work for money. Only justice."
Xena stood before the Magistrate, pride in her stance. Paulus was an older man with shocking white hair. He pursed his lips, unhappy about the agreement, but he was a man of his word. He had reluctantly given his consent to accepting her help.
"Xena, if I wasn't so desperate to help this town, I'd lock you up in jail and let you rot. You killed many of my friends and neighbors with you raid," his stare pinning her in place. She met his eyes without flinching. *She is a cold woman,* he thought, not understanding her inner turmoil.
She would never allow him see how his words stabbed at her soul. He wouldn't understand the anguish she felt because of her past life. Let him think the worst.
"Magistrate Paulus, you don't understand..." Gabrielle started, but Xena's hand on her shoulder stopped her words. She looked into the blue eyes of her friend, and saw the plea there. Xena didn't want her making excuses for her. She gave a slight nod of understanding and changed her words.
"...as soon as we find the thieves, we'll leave this town. We know were not welcomed here, but we're willing to help. You are doing the right thing. Xena's the best," she said with confidence.
He looked unconvinced, but he said nothing else insulting.
"These thieves have no pattern, no amount of plotting on my part has brought forth results. I hate to say it, but it could be possible they have an informant within my own men. No one could have such good luck hiding this long. I decided only to let my highest ranked officers know of our agreement. No one else will know of your involvement."
"Will I have to avoid your own men as well? That might hamper my style," Xena said.
He took a parchment and wrote for several minutes. He handed the paper to Xena.
"If for any reason you're stopped by the city's guardsmen, show them this. It should allow you the freedom of the city--though I can't guarantee my men's actions. Several of them lost family in that raid. They may decide to seek revenge. I hope you will take my advice and try not to kill them. Just disarm them if you can," he asked politely. Xena nodded in response. She would have done it anyway. She and Gabrielle left the building.
Xena and Gabrielle returned to the tavern with Brueshe's father, Lomar. He had agreed to give them lodgings, afraid they might have trouble staying at an inn. He had some of his men bring in a bed and install it in a back room. The room was cramped, but it would have to do. Xena looked over the building carefully, noting all exits and windows. She didn't want to be caught unaware. She and Gabrielle stored their belongings in the room and Xena made arrangements for Argo's care. Xena wanted her horse kept nearby. It wasn't practical to ride Argo at night, the sound of hoof steps would alert the thieves. The warrior would be getting a lot of walking in at night.
They ate an early dinner at the tavern, waiting for the sun to go down. The thieves were never known to hit before full dark, and only if the streets had turned quiet. They had several hours to wait. The women would eat and take a brief nap before patrolling for the evening. Lomar had tried to convince Gabrielle to tell more stories, but Xena stopped him cold. The bard needed her rest.
The two women clung to the shadows, staying away from the torches set throughout the town to discourage the unsavory types. They had been covering the north end of town, watching for every little movement. There were less guards at the north end, and Xena figured that the thieves would take advantage of it.
Half the night had passed, and so far nothing had happened. People tended to stay within their homes after dark, except for a few people visiting neighbors. Xena pointed towards another direction to head for. Gabrielle followed, careful not to make any unnecessary noise. They spotted two of the city's guards and approached them slowly. Xena wanted to easedrop on them. She drew closer.
"...luck of the gods. We're wasting our time. No one has even so much as had a glimpse of them," said the first guard.
"Yeah, we ought to give it up. It's frustrating. They keep getting past us. It seems we just have to hope for the best. How'd it go with that little brunette you met lat night?"
Hearing nothing of interest, Xena headed away from them. The guards were making enough noise that staying here would be stupid. The thieves would avoid them. She headed east.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered.
"It may be a silly idea, but what if we split up. We can cover a larger area that way."
"You're right. It's a silly idea," Xena said with finality, "There's no way I'll let you travel alone on these streets. It's too dangerous. Besides, we don't know how many there are of them. They've already killed once...."
"It's Ok, Xena. I understand," she said while trying to hide her mixed feelings. Xena was too protective, and it annoyed her...yet she felt pleased at the same time.
They returned to the tavern at first light. They were tired, hungry, cold, and frustrated.
Nothing had been seen the entire night. No one in the area they had watched had been hit. The women found Lomar and asked if they could have something to eat. He eagerly agreed and told them to sit. One of the serving girls brought them warm cider to help chase away the chills and offered to get them blankets.
They shook their heads, they would head for their room soon enough. She walked away with a smile.
"Xena, I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. Maybe this was a bad idea, we didn't get anything accomplished last night." Before Xena could reply, Lomar spoke.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. There was no thefts last night at all. Either word got out, or they spotted you."
"I don't know how. We were very careful. If word got out, Lomar, it could be dangerous for you. Maybe we should find other lodgings," Xena warned.
"No. No matter where you went, they would find you if they wanted to. You might as well stay here. There's people here throughout the day. We'll keep an eye out for anyone trying to get near your room while you sleep. Admit it, this is the best place for you right now," he said.
Xena had to agree. Brueshe brought their meal and joined them at the table, eager to spend time with two pretty women. He grinned boyishly with excitement. His father caught his eye, and silently told him to behave. His smile weakened.
Gabrielle saw the whole exchange and stroked the boy's arm. His smile returned twice fold.
"Is there anything some of us can help you with? Any information you need?" asked Lomar
"Can you tell us if any of the stolen property has turned up?" Xena asked.
"Not here in town. One piece of jewelry was seen in the next town two days after it was stolen," he answered.
"Then maybe we'll see if the Magistrate can post guards out in between the two towns if they strike again. Maybe they can stop them on their way to fence the goods," she commented.
"Good idea. I'll send someone with the message as soon as I can. Anything else?"
"Not at the moment. Right now, we need some sleep," she said while standing.
The muffled noise of a body hitting the floor woke the Warrior instantly. The sound had been slight, almost inaudible, but there nevertheless. She put her hand over Gabrielle's mouth and shook her. To her relief, she woke instantly. Xena held her finger to her lips and got up. She positioned herself behind the door while Gabrielle pretended to be asleep.
The door opened slowly and a foot entered the room. She waited. A body followed and the warrior acted with uncanny speed. Xena grabbed the figure and threw it across the room. A hooded man hit the wall with a thud, and fell to the floor in a daze. Xena pulled him to his feet and sat him on the bed and yanked off his hood. The man had dark hair and glazed eyes.
"Gabrielle, go find out who he hurt, and find Lomar. Hurry." Gabrielle strung to her feet and left the room. She picked up his knife, a curved blade about two hand's length long. She tossed it across the room. Xena searched him for other weapons or clues to his identity. Finding nothing, she slapped him awake.
Lomar entered the room, looking at the man.
"Do you know him?" Xena asked.
"No, but maybe someone else will. This is the first person caught. I sent Brueshe to the Magistrate's Office. I suspect he'll send guards to pick him up. He knocked out one of my men, but he'll be fine. Gabrielle is tending to him," he told her.
The assassin woke and tried to jump up. Xena tightened her hold and forced him to sit.
"Who are you?" Xena demanded.
He glared at her, and refused to answer. She smiled wickedly. Suddenly, fingers found the pressure points on his neck. His eyes bulged as the blood was blocked. She spoke.
"If you know anything about me, you know that you have only moments to live. Speak and save your miserable hide," she warned.
Incredibly, the man refused to speak. He sat there with blood dripping down his face and remained mute. Xena released the pinch before it could kill him. He passed out.
"I'm sure the Magistrate can get him to speak," Lomar said.
"I doubt it. This man was ready to die. Unless someone can identify him, we won't have a clue."
Paulus sent six men to bring the assassin to the city's jail. They arrived with little fanfare, discreetly taking him into custody.
Gabrielle rejoined Xena after making sure Lomar's man was taken home. He had taken a severe blow to the head, and would need bed rest for a few days.
"OK, what's the story so far?" she asked Xena.
"Don't know. He wouldn't talk."
"Didn't you do the neck pinch on him?"
"Of course I did. He wouldn't talk. I think something bigger than night thefts is going on. The man was more scared of talking than he was of dying. I don't like it. Word got out far too quickly about us. Either one of Paulus' men or one of Lomar's men have given us away. For all I know, maybe both. We'll have to sleep in shifts. I'll ask Lomar to have his people work in teams. I'll tell him it's for their own safety. I won't tell him what I suspect. You go ahead and get some sleep. I'll wake you in a few hours
Gabrielle went to wake the warrior, her hand hovering over her shoulder. She paused and thought better of it. With what happened earlier, touching her could be dangerous. She stood back and tossed one of Xena's knee guards at her. A knife was instantly drawn and the warrior was in full combat mode. She looked at Gabrielle and relaxed.
"Pretty tricky, Gabrielle. I'm glad to see you're more cautious, though."
"Something told me to be careful. I already had one fat lip, I didn't want another," reminding her of the time spent in the glade.
"Sometimes lessons can be painful. Come on, let's get something to eat."
"Believe it or not, I'd much rather have a bath. I think that bed has bugs or something. I itch like crazy," Gabrielle joked.
"We can do both. There's a public bath just down the street. We'll go there first, then eat. How's that?" Xena suggested. Gabrielle grabbed her satchel, and threw Xena's saddlebags to her.
"What are we waiting for? Let's go."
Xena pulled on her leathers, then her boots and sword. They waved at Brueshe as they left, but didn't inform him of where they were headed. They had almost reached the bathhouse when a guard on patrol stopped them. His look was cold and unyielding as he looked at Xena.
"I know you, you're Xena!" he said as he drew his sword, "Butcher!"
Xena pulled out her own sword, and pushed Gabrielle out of the way. A crowd gathered at the sound of the man's words and watched in fascination. Xena parried everything he had, playing with him. The city guard was no match for her skills. The man was getting angry, and threw caution to the wind, his thrusts and swings growing more wild. Still, he couldn't get at her. Gabrielle stood back, unconcerned until she spotted two more guards hurrying towards them, drawn by the sounds of combat. She decided to join the fray.
The small blond went unnoticed by the men, and as they passed her, she used her staff to knock one of them off his feet with a blow to the back of his knees. The other turned to face her, a snarl on his face.
"Are all of the magistrate's men stupid, or just the three of you?" Gabrielle taunted. He rushed at her and she bent at the knees to deliver a blow to his side. He attempted to grab his sword, only to have his knuckles cracked by the staff.
"Don't. We have Papers of Immunity from Paulus. We're just protecting ourselves. I don't think your actions would look good in his eyes, do you?" she said with a calm voice. He stood back, thinking the better of it. He shouted at the man fighting Xena.
"Marsona! Stop!" The man heard him, and being well trained, he did as he was told, though he kept his sword at ready. Xena did the same. The two men whispered briefly, and Marsona looked at the warrior.
"Is this true? You have Papers of Immunity from Paulus?" he asked disbelieving.
"Yes," she said as she withdrew it from her bodice. She handed it to the guard who skimmed the parchment quickly. He handed it back to her.
"Know this, Warrior Princess. I'll honor it while you're in our jurisdiction, but I will kill you if I find you outside of it," he said with conviction. She nodded at him regally, her understanding complete. He had to save face, and the threat did this. She doubted they would ever meet again. Let him have his little victory.
Lomar met them at the door upon their return.
"Paulus sent word. While the guards were taking the assassin to prison, and an arrow killed him. It was poisoned. They couldn't save him. They couldn't find the second killer," he informed them. Xena took a deep breath.
"Did he say if anyone could identify him?"
"No, he didn't mention it."
"If no one knows who he is, then we're right back where we started from," said Gabrielle.
Xena turned to Lomar, "Keep us informed if anything else comes up. We're going to get something to eat and head out. I'd like to know some of the names of victims that by these thieves."
"Of course. If you like, I'll have Brueshe go with you. He knows many of them and knows where they live," he offered.
"Fine. Just as long as he understands that he's not going on patrol with us." Lomar nodded and went to fetch his son.
"The Goldsmith lives right around the corner," Brueshe said while he walked ahead. He was thrilled to be showing them around. He had wanted to spend more time with them, but they were always busy. Being asked to be their guide was the perfect opportunity to get what he had wanted. Both women seemed bigger than life to him. One a warrior, the other a Bard--following him! He had to constantly remind himself to wipe the silly grin that kept appearing on his face.
He stopped at a door and knocked. A skinny little man answered the door
"Yes? Well, Brueshe! What are you doing here? Come in! And who are these two lovely women? " he nudged Brueshe playfully in the ribs, "Trying to make an old man happy?"
The man was a sweet old charmer and both Xena and Gabrielle smiled back at him.
Brueshe didn't give their names outright, afraid that he wouldn't be willing to speak to them once he heard Xena's name.
"These two women are working for Paulus. He hired them to help find the thieves. They're problem solvers," he told the old goldsmith.
"Yes. I'd like to ask a few questions if I may? I'd like to know what type of things they stole. Also, I'd like to know if you remembered anything at all since you spoke with the guards," asked Xena.
"Well, they stole mostly gold that had been hammered into sheets. They left the bars--too heavy I guess. I had other things more valuable, but they left them alone. Of course, my work is so well known, any one with enough dinars to buy my merchandise would recognize it immediately. I don't remember anything out of the ordinary about that night, except that I thought it strange that my dog didn't howl. He usually makes a fuss if anyone he doesn't know well comes near the place. I don't know if that helps you any. Is there anything else?" he asked.
"No that's fine. Thank you."
They said their goodbyes and left the building.
"Anyone else you want to see, Xena?" the boy asked.
"No. Let's head back to the tavern."
The boy raced ahead, and Gabrielle looked at Xena.
"I know that look. Something triggered an idea. What's the plan?" she asked with a excited smile.
They returned to the tavern and Xena asked Brueshe to join them while they ate.
"Xena! I thought you didn't want to encourage the boy?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Don't worry, it's part of the plan," she said with a smile. Gabrielle glared at her.
They sat down and just chatted with the boy, getting him to relax. Dinner was brought to them and they ate while giving undivided attention to Brueshe. He felt on top of the world. Slowly, Xena brought up the topic of the people they had spoken to that night.
"Brueshe, the sweet old man we saw--does he get a lot of visitors?" Xena asked.
"No. Just me and his nephew basically. He keeps to himself mostly. Why?"
"Oh, I thought I might see him again before we left town. He reminds me of my grandfather," Xena said pleasantly. Gabrielle glanced at Xena in puzzlement. Xena never knew her grandfather.
"Oh. Well, I think he'd like that. It's not too often he gets to see a beautiful woman walk through his door," he said with stars in his eyes. Xena and Gabrielle hid their amusement at the boy's adulation. They excused themselves and went to their room.
"Ok. Tell me what's going on," Gabrielle demanded.
"The thief is either Brueshe or the goldsmith's nephew--or both," said Xena
"What?!? Say that again."
"You heard me, Gabrielle."
"I heard you. But I just don't believe it. What gave you this crazy idea about Brueshe.?"
"When we went to the goldsmith's--the dog didn't bark at us. He was as quiet as a mouse."
"So? What does that have to do with anything?"
"Remember--he said the dog usually made a fuss when anyone came near. The dog knows Brueshe's scent--and his nephew's."
"Then maybe it's just the nephew and friends of his," said Gabrielle.
"It's possible. But I know a way to find out. We follow Brueshe tonight."
Xena and Gabrielle left the tavern shortly after dark. They made sure that Brueshe overheard them say they would patrol the west side of town that night. They waited outside where they could watch--and not be seen.
A short time later, Brueshe left his father's tavern and headed south. They followed at a distance, not wanting to alert him. He walked nearly a half-mile when he stopped at a house and knocked. A younger man opened the door. They weren't close enough to hear yet. Brueshe went inside and the door closed. The women walked over to the house and tried to hear what was being said.
The voices were soft and only sporadic words could be heard.
" ...Xena...on....side.......I don't....maybe...it....NO!...can't"
The sounds of someone coming out made them jump back into the shadows.
"Gabrielle. I hate this, but I want you to follow Brueshe. I'm going to stay here and follow whoever comes out. Be careful!" she whispered. Gabrielle nodded and went after Brueshe. Xena waited for several minutes and approached the house again. She heard several voices but still couldn't hear anything of value. She heard footsteps, and she hung back out of sight. Three men left the house, all dressed in black. They blended into the shadows, and only her trained eyes would have seen them.
She padded quietly after them, careful not to make a sound. These men were well trained in the art of hiding and moving without being seen. They were not to be underestimated. One small error on her part could ruin everything. The men headed east--the opposite direction she had said near Brueshe. There was no doubt in her mind that they were working together. The only thing that puzzled her was the fact that *he* had asked for help to stop the thieves. Was it possible that they were forcing him in some way?
She watched them stop and slowly circle a building. She didn't know what kind of merchant was set up there, but they apparently did. They took a knife and lifted the door lock, and pushed the door open slowly. They peered inside and satisfied no one was there, they entered.
She waited for several minutes, needing for them to be caught with their hands full for the law's sake. They came out with arms loaded with large bags and headed for the shadows back towards her. She waited with a feral grin on her face.
Xena drew her sword. The men didn't appears to be armed with anything except knives, but she wasn't taking chances. As they got nearer, she jumped from her hiding spot with a battle cry that shrilled in the night air.
The men, momentarily in shock, stood still as they watched a figure do a forward flip and land in front of their path. She held her sword in an almost lazy manner, confidence radiating from her.
"Time to pay the piper, boys. I'm taking you in," she said in a honeyed voice.
The three men dropped their stolen goods and split up to circle her. They drew out curved, long-blade knives, much like the one who had tried to kill her earlier. They stalked her with legs bent, softly and quietly surrounding her. They worked as a team. Never once did they speak or utter a sound. In unison, knives ready, they lunged at her and found only air. Xena had jumped straight up and cleared their slicing blades.
She flipped in mid-air and came down to strike two of the men with a crunching snap to their heads with her feet. The other, she her caught with her fist. Xena rolled and turned to face them once more. They were slower to recover, and she came at them fast and furious. The tall warrior succeeded in blocking their blows until a hard fist caught her in the eye, sending her sword flying from her hand. Her eyes watered, obscuring her vision. By instinct alone, Xena lashed out at the man, and chopped him in the neck. He hit the ground unconscious.
The other two tried to take advantage of her temporary blindness, rushing at her. Xena felt the air of something nearing her face and pivoted and crouched to avoid it. She struck out with the heel of her hand and connected with an unprotected groin. Another down. One left.
The remaining man slashed at her with his knife, she jumped back, though not entirely far enough. A thin bloody cut was left across her collarbones. The woman warrior had enough. She swept his legs out from under him and delivered a punishing blow to the face. Xena stood over him, temper still unspent and spat on him.
She tied the three of them with bindings from the bags and went to fetch the city guards.
At the Magistrate's office, Paulus spoke to Xena with a new respect.
"I don't know how you did it so fast, but I can only be grateful for it. We've been looking for them for months," he praised.
"Well, it's not quite over yet. We still don't know the whole story," she told him. She turned around at the sound of the office door opening. Gabrielle, Brueshe and Lomar entered the room. They had been told nothing by the guards in accordance to Xena's wishes.
They were motioned to sit. Xena held a hand up to stop Paulus from talking. She walked over to Brueshe and leaned down to look into his eyes.
"Why were you helping them?" she asked quietly. His eyes opened in surprise.
"You know? How?" he asked with a squeaking voice.
"We followed you tonight. You led us right to them. They are in custody. You're safe from them. Now talk," she said.
A great sigh of relief poured out of him. "Thank the Gods! I've never been so scared in my life!" he said with relief. "They knew how well I knew everyone, and wanted my help. I refused and so they threatened that if I didn't, they'd kill me. Then they said they would kill anyone they found inside the buildings they entered. But, if I helped them--they'd spare them. They even told me if I tried to turn them in, they'd kill my family and friends. That they had friends everywhere, and we wouldn't be safe no matter what I did. I didn't know what else to do," he began crying.
Gabrielle went to Brueshe and held him. He seemed even younger than before. The strain had been too much for him.
"You were the one that told them about us?" Xena asked.
"Y--e-s,"he stammered, "I-I didn't want them to know I betrayed them by asking you for help. I thought you could handle them. I didn't think they'd come to the tavern and try to k-kill you. Really!" he said in a panic.
"It's Ok. I just want answers-- not revenge," she said gently.
"Do you know how many are involved, if there are more of them? And why are these men so frightened that they were willing to die rather than confess?"
"I'm not sure. I don't know much, but I heard two of them talking. They said that the High Priest would be pleased. I think they belong to some cult. They mentioned Zankor--I don't know what that means. I never heard the word before."
At the name, Xena stiffened.
"Xena. Do you know what he's talking about?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. Zankor is a cult that believes in human sacrifices. They're fanatics that will do anything for the High Priests--even die. They are from the northern regions. I never heard of them being this far south before. We have to find the cult's hiding place and take care of them."
Xena told Lomar to keep extra men at his establishment until the cult was found. There was still a chance of more of them in the city and trying to seek revenge against his son. He agreed and had his men arm themselves. Gabrielle pulled Xena to their room.
"Xena will you please sit down? That cut needs cleaning before it festers."
The warrior looked down almost in surprise. She had forgotten it. Gabrielle fetched a bowl of hot water and pulled her friend's medicinal bag from her pouch. She sniffed the contents, then held it out to Xena to verify it was the right one. Xena nodded an affirmative.
Gabrielle put the herbs into the water and stirred it with a finger. She took a clean rag and soaked it, then wrung it out before bending over Xena to place it over the cut. Xena winced, but otherwise didn't react. Gabrielle knew from experience how much the stuff stung. She carefully dabbed at the wound until she was satisfied it was clean.
Xena let out her breath once her friend was done, and sniffed in disgust. The medicine always made her gag from the smell.
"So much for that bath. Now we both have to smell this all night," Xena said wryly.
"Well at least you're alive to smell it. That cut was too close. Any deeper and you would have bled to death, before anyone could save you," Gabrielle said with a shaken voice.
"Gabrielle, everything turned out alright tonight. I was lucky. But tomorrow is another day," she lifted her friend's chin with a finger, "and you know very well that each day could be my last. I thought you had come to terms with that."
"I lied," she said with a sniffle.
"Oh, Gabrielle! What am I going to do with you?"
"I'm hopeless. The only choice you have is to be careful and not die on me."
Xena laughed softly and ruffled Gabrielle's hair.
The two women headed out of town to follow clues received by Brueshe. He remembered that a massager had brought a parchment from the town to the west. It was all they had to go on. It was a half day's journey away. Gabrielle desperately hoped word of Xena's exploits hadn't reached them. They could be walking into a trap.
She wouldn't tell Xena her fears, knowing that they would only put a burden on her friend. Xena had enough on her plate already. But she couldn't shake the jittery feeling she had since last night. Just a little deeper and her friend would have been lost to her. If something happened to Xena, what would she do? The bard couldn't picture what life would be like without her. She had become such a shining force in her life, everything else had faded in it's brilliance.
Gabrielle suddenly became aware that Argo had stopped and she had walked beyond her and Xena.
"Gabrielle! Hey dreamer! Why don't you come back and join me for lunch?" She shouted to her. Gabrielle felt a flush shoot across her face. She had been lost in thought and forgot to stay aware of her surroundings. Xena would probably lecture her on her inattentiveness.
She walked back sheepishly and sat under the tree with her warrior friend.
Gabrielle walked over to the tree Xena had say under. She used her staff and thumped a few scurrying critters and sat down. Xena had pulled out two bundles from her saddlebags and opened them up. Gabrielle leaned closer. This was not just plain fare, but some of the special baked goods from Lomar's kitchen. As smile spread across her face.
Xena grinned and divided the food into two, thought better of it and added some of hers to her friend's cloth plate. Gabrielle couldn't quite stop her amusement from showing, but she didn't have to. They knew each other too well. She bit into the pastry. It was filled with cheese and sliced beef. She didn't bit down quite hard enough and pulled some of the stuffing out. It flopped onto her chin. Xena laughed and threw her a rag to wipe her face. The bard giggled and kept chewing, certain that she found paradise on earth. Lomar's cook was the greatest. If they had stayed much longer, Xena would have had to hire a donkey and cart to haul her out of town.
Gabrielle looked at the other selection and found it contained fruit slices that had been rolled in honey and spices. She took on and popped it in her mouth. She chewed with appreciation, and glanced at Xena, who was smirking naturally.
"Don't even think it, Xena," she warned mildly.
"What?" she said with a sweet smile.
"About teasing me about my appetite."
"Would *I* do something like that?" she said innocently.
"In a heartbeat."
Gabrielle was riding behind Xena. They were both looking everywhere at once as they rode into Sielrea.
Gabrielle said with a grimace, "What are we looking for?"
"I don't know. Little is known about the cult. I'm just hoping for the best," she admitted.
" Hmmph. That's a first," Gabrielle said.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" she said as she turned in the saddle to look at the small bard.
"You heard me O Mighty Cynic," Gabrielle immediately hung her head in shame, "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm just jumpy. I shouldn't take it out on you."
Xena looked at her friend in concern then turned around. They continued their ride around the town.
It was getting late, and they still couldn't see anything. They were reluctant to question strangers, for fear of alerting their quarry. They decided to find an inn, and call it a night. They found one that was out of the way. It was quiet, but clean. It suited them and Xena asked for a room and meal
"And bath," Gabrielle added. She smiled at Xena playfully.
"No offense, friend, but you stink."
Xena pressed her lips together, squashing a pert remark. Revenge was sweet.
They sat at a table, while waiting for their room to be prepared. A young girl took their order and brought them a assortment of bread and vegetables to eat, along with their drinks.
After the girl walked away, Gabrielle leaned forward and spoke in a whisper.
"What now? We don't know what we're looking for or have any other clues."
"I'm trying to remember what little I know about them, but it isn't much. They're neighbors to the Gauls, but it's not a happy mix. The Zankor's often raid them just to have humans to kill in their rites. What bothers me is that they were never thieves before. They rarely took anything but food supplies in their raids. It doesn't make sense."
"Maybe their numbers are dwindling, and the Gauls are at their door. They might want to hire mercenaries or something," Gabrielle said as a shot in the dark.
"What!?" she hissed, "Gabrielle, I think you're a genius! That makes perfect sense. Now I have an idea."
Gabrielle tried to pry it out of her, but Xena was being stubborn. She wanted to fine tune it before voicing her idea.
"Later," was all Gabrielle could get.
They finished their meal and had the girl lead them to their room. A bath was waiting inside. Gabrielle helped Xena with her armor before getting ready for bed herself. The bard rummaged through her satchel and pulled out a bar of sweet smelling soap. She threw it to her companion. Xena caught it and grinned at her--- a naughty grin. Gabrielle sobered and realized that look meant trouble--for her.
Xena hummed and continued with her bathing. Gabrielle got into bed and closed her eyes, but not sure she should. She listened to the sound of Xena's humming, a soft lilting tune. She found herself drifting off.
Xena smiled and quietly got out of the tub. She gave herself a quick wipe down and tiptoed over to the bed. Gabrielle was asleep. The warrior carefully pulled back the covers, glad that her friend's ability to sleep hard was going to make this so easy. She picked up Gabrielle as easily as she would a child. Xena looked down at her innocent face and almost felt guilty--but not quite.
She carried her over to the tub, and without ceremony, dropped her in. Gabrielle came up sputtering. Xena stood back out of the way of the splashing water and laughed. Gabrielle sat up in the tub and glared at her *friend*. This meant war. She pulled herself out and grabbed a wet towel, spinning it into a pointed weapon and snapped it. Xena suddenly realized this was not good. She was still naked, and had no defense. The only towel was in Gabrielle's hand.
The best defense was retreat. She flipped over the bed, trying to avoid the snapping towel." Snap! A stinging welt appeared on her thigh. She scowled at Gabrielle, but she wouldn't be intimidated. Xena grabbed a pillow, but not without receiving another crack to her arm. Gabrielle began cracking the towel at a break-neck speed. Only one out of twenty actually connected, but the bard counted that as a victory.
Finally, her arm became too tired to continue, the petite woman dropped it in exhaustion. Xena threw down the pillow and tackled Gabrielle. It became a free-for-all. Furniture went scooting across the room as they tried to get the best of each other. A pitcher toppled over and crashed to the floor.
Then a pounding at the door brought them to a standstill.
"What in Zeus' name is going on in there? If anything is broken, I'm adding it to your bill!" said the male voice before it retreated.
They looked at each other and laughed.
"Go over this one more time. I'm Gielea and you're Kesta. We're mercenaries looking for work... and we're just to stroll up to the tavern and swagger a bit," said Gabrielle.
"Not swagger. Just act confident. Let me do the talking. You just try and get that accursed baby-look off your face. Look tough," Xena said.
Gabrielle let the 'baby-look' comment slide. She followed Xena into the tavern and tried not to look scared. That was all she prayed for. Xena sat at a table and acted like herself. She gave Gabrielle a stern look that made her stiffen. *She isn't sure I can pull it off!* Gabrielle thought. She let some of her resentment show through. Xena nodded her approval.
That took some of the sting away, but Gabrielle forced herself to hold onto the feeling. A barmaid took their order for two ales. Gabrielle didn't know if she could handle the brew, but was determined to play the part.
A man walked up to their table.
"Well, looky here. Ain't you the tough ones. What are you doing in a little poke in the woods place like this."
Both women managed not to roll their eyes in disgust.
"Looking for work. Our army broke up and we needed to find another to join. Sure don't want to do something silly like settle down. I know I'd die of boredom within a month," Xena said, "Right, Gielea?"
"Hmmm," Gabrielle answered, not trusting her voice after sipping her ale.
"You're warriors? Nah, can't be. Prost..," Xena's hand flashed forward and stopped him before he could finish his sleazy sentence. She grabbed him by the throat and stood up, an ugly snarl on her face. She squeezed his neck, almost to the point of breaking it, when Gabrielle stopped her.
"Kesta! Put the fool down. I don't want to spend another night in jail because of your temper!" she ordered in a voice she didn't recognize from herself.
Xena released him and he stumbled backwards away from her. Other men in the tavern laughed at his misfortune. One of them walked closer and stopped at a respectful distance.
"Want a job? I'm heading for a place now to meet someone. They need fighters to the north. Interested?" he asked.
They hid their triumphant smiles. They nodded and followed him out of the tavern.
They followed the man named Gordus to a house. It was small and unkempt. Probably abandoned at one time. He knocked on the door, waiting until a man in black robes opened the door. Gordus introduced himself and the two women that came with him. They were allowed inside.
Another man entered the room and motioned them to sit.
"My name is Saulth. I understand you wish to be hired on for the army we're building? Well, I can tell you it pays 20 dinars a day, and we provide weapons if you need them. We feed you and provide barracks for the men. We have no place set aside for women warriors," he said while looking them over, " but I'm sure we can accommodate you," he said with a slimy tone.
"I'm sure you could," Xena murmured under her breath..
"Tell me, Saulth, what is this army intended for?" Xena asked, wanting to verify that they had the right people.
"My people are having trouble with our neighbors. We want to end the threat over our heads. An army on our lands should put an end to it," he said with a bored tone.
"Alright. We'll take it," Xena remarked.
They got their instructions for where to go the next morning. They had the evening to themselves and found an inn to make their plans. Once inside the room, Gabrielle sat down with a sigh of relief.
"I can't believe how exhausting it is to pretend to be like you!" the bard said as she fell backwards onto the bed, her arms spread out.
Xena just smiled indulgently and started to pull off her armor. Gabrielle noticed and jumped up to help her. She removed the heavy plating and threw the armor on the trunk at the end of the bed. She then sat back down. Xena sat next to her to pull off her boots. The warrior looked down at her toes and wiggled them, enjoying the feel of the cool air on them.
"I'm hungry," Gabrielle said.
"Then go downstairs and order something for us," Xena said calmly.
"But that means getting up. I don't feel like moving right now," she said pitifully.
"Ok!" Xena said with a smile, "I'll go order something. You stay here." She pulled her boots back on and left the room.
Xena walked down the stairs and found the proprietor to the inn. She ordered a large meal for the two of them, knowing it would be field rations on the road if the past was anything to go by. She wanted one last decent (hopefully) meal before heading out tomorrow.
The owner promised to send someone up shortly, and asked if they needed anything else. She grinned to herself and thought about ordering a tub brought up, but shook her head at her wicked thought. Another dunking, and Gabrielle just might do something impulsive--just to get even. Better not push her luck. Gabrielle already had a rough day.
She returned to the room and found Gabrielle in the same position. The bard hadn't moved an inch. Xena smiled and took her boots off once more, tossing them to the floor with a big thump, The bard didn't even jump. Sound asleep. The warrior shook her head in bewilderment. How could anyone sleep that soundly? She got up and pulled Gabrielle's legs up onto the bed, then pulled the covers over her after removing Gabrielle's short boots.
Xena pulled off her leathers and threw them beside her armor, then sat down and waited. When the knock came at the door she opened it and allowed the woman to bring in the tray. The older servant glanced at the bard, but didn't comment. She left the room after collecting the dinars in advance. (Word had gotten out about their exploits from the other inn.) Xena shook Gabrielle awake.
"Hey! You said you were hungry. The food is here," she said with another shake. Gabrielle woke up groggy. The younger woman got up and walked to the tray, almost sleep walking. The warrior had to cover her grin, not wanting a fight over the *cute* word. She also helped herself and the pair sat on the bed to eat. Gabrielle seemed to eat without noticing her food, and ate in silence. Gabrielle was either sick or exhausted. Xena lost the mood to tease her.
When Gabrielle finished, Xena took her plate from her and told her to undress and go back to bed. Gabrielle did as she was told and was asleep within seconds.
Gabrielle rode behind Xena. They were traveling with seven other men--six warriors and Saulth. Gordus walked alongside Argo. He had taken a liking to Kesta and was trying to get her to smile, but so far hadn't had any luck. In fact, both women had a grim look on their faces. Maybe if he turned his charm onto the blond, he'd get a reaction.
"Gielea, you two seem to know each other well. How long have you fought together?"
"Against each other or side by side?" Gabrielle joked. Xena's mouth quirked. Gordus noticed and joined into the spirit of her jest.
"You don't get along? Probably because you're too much alike," he guessed. Another twitch of the mouth of the dark-haired gave him a warm feeling. She was a pleasure to look upon to his old eyes. Not many men lived to see his age when making a living as a warrior. He would be 42 winters old this year.
"You could say that. We were barred from an inn at Sielrea. We make too much noise when we fight. They didn't like having their property smashed either," she said with a smile. Xena hooted with amusement at her friend's statement. Gabrielle opened her eyes in surprise. It wasn't very often she got her to laugh like that. She grinned and decided to go all out. Joking with this warrior was better than traveling in the tense silence they had been suffering from.
"Yeah, you should have seen the look on the innkeeper's face when he walked into the room. The porcelain was in pieces, the table had lost its legs, and the floor was soaked and stained from the bath water," she told him.
"What did you do? Dump the tub?" he asked.
"No, she caught me by surprise and dumped *me* into it", she leaned towards him and whispered loudly, "She takes offence easily if you hadn't noticed already." Xena took a small revenge by reaching back and pinching Gabrielle hard on her thigh. Gabrielle yelped. Gordus laughed at the image he saw in his mind.
"Gielea," Xena said, "That's quite enough." Gabrielle shrugged at Gordus and pointed him away with her chin. He took the hint and joined the men.
"Don't get to friendly with him, Gabrielle. If I have to kill him, you'd only be hurt," Xena told her with all seriousness.
Gabrielle hadn't thought that far ahead. A sinking feeling hit her stomach. Xena was right. She shouldn't be her normal friendly self. She was supposed to be acting like a warrior--not a bard.
"I'm sorry. You're right of course. I keep forgetting I'm supposed to be a hard-hearted warrior. It's just that he seems so...nice," she floundered for the right word.
"He is nice, and if circumstances were different, I'd make friends with him myself. But things aren't different. He may very well stand in our way when it comes to the Zankor. If he does, I won't hesitate to kill him."
They made camp near a stream. Xena pointed to a spot away from the others. Gabrielle didn't argue with her and started to set up camp. She collected firewood and stones for the fire and pulled her cook ware from the saddlebags. Xena started the fire and considered catching fish for their meal. She knew dried food was the only other option on this trip, and wanted a little something to ease the bland diet.
She removed her boots and whispered to Gabrielle to keep her eyes opened before she entered the stream. The water was colder than expected and she felt goose bumps rise on her skin as she shivered. Hopefully the fish were eager to be caught this evening.
Xena had stood bent over the water for many minutes, thinking about giving up when a trout skimmed by her leg. She scooped it out of the water and tossed it to the bank. The tall woman bent over again, waiting for another, her enthusiasm renewed. Xena waited for only moments when a seconds fish swam by. It was a runt. She better catch more. Eventually, she managed to get five fish. She got out of the water and stood in front of the fire. Her legs felt frozen.
Gabrielle noticed, but squelched the urge to jump up and get her a blanket. They were supposed to be battle-hardened fighters. She had to stay in character. The bard finished cleaning the fish, a job she detested, and put them in the pan. She added olive oil and spices to add flavor. Xena grabbed her boots once her legs dried and put them back on.
"Whatever you do, don't start up a conversation or be friendly with any of the men," she reminded Gabrielle in soft tones.
"Don't worry. I won't make that mistake again," she told her friend.
"I know you won't. You rarely make the same mistake twice. I just don't feel like fighting off their advances the whole trip."
"So much for comradery among soldiers," Gabrielle said in a deadpan voice.
Xena's head snapped up to stare at the bard, shocked, until she realized she had just pulled her leg--and good too. A huge smile split her face. She resisted the urge to push her friend off her perch on the log. It wasn't a good time to be silly. They had a job to do. The warrior instead leaned towards her friend with a wicked gleam in her eyes.
"Later," she promised.
They continued on the long journey for almost eight days, until finally, they reached the southernmost end of the Zankor's lands. From what they understood from Saulth, the mercenary camp was another day's ride. Xena had been trying to weed out information from Saulth. From what little she got from him, the Zankor were few in numbers. Many of the leaders had perished from the raids from the Gauls.
Xena had thought of a solution for the Zankor problem, but now regretted that Gabrielle accompanied her. It would shatter the girl's faith in her. She tried to come up with an alternate idea, but it kept returning to the original one. Kill all the leaders, and the problem would be solved.
With the leaders dead, the remaining Zankor would be easily controlled by their neighbors. Their threat to everyone would end. But how could she make Gabrielle understand? Xena feared she wouldn't, and their friendship would end. How could Gabrielle ever come to terms with cold-blooded murder on the part of her friend? A cold lump formed in her breast. The safety of many or Gabrielle's respect. Which would she choose? She hated the idea, but she knew what she had to do. Tonight, she would take the bard aside and speak with her.
Xena decided to make camp even farther away from the others. She didn't want to take a chance of being overheard. They sat near the fire, staring into the flames. Xena had yet to bring herself to speak. Gabrielle sensed her friend's mood, but allowed Xena to go at her own pace. Sometimes timing was everything with her.
"Gabrielle?" Xena said with nervousness.
"I have a plan. I tried to think of another, but I just can't. If you have another, I'm willing to listen."
"Then why don't you tell me?" asked the bard. Gabrielle looked into her blue eyes and saw fear.
"Xena? You're scaring me. What is it?"
"The only solution I can come up with is..." she glanced at Gabrielle's expectant green eyes, "...to kill the cult leaders. To execute them," she said quickly and turned away her eyes from her friend's, not wanting to see what would reflect there. Xena felt a warm hand on her arm. Gabrielle gave her a gentle squeeze.
"Xena. I don't know what to think. To kill them in cold blood..." she lost her ability to think. The young woman was in shock. She stood up and walked away from the fire, needing time to herself.
The warrior watched her friend walk away with a heavy heart, convinced this was goodbye.
Gabrielle came back several hours later. As she suspected, Xena was still wide awake. She sat down next to her and took her hand in hers. Xena looked at her with pain filled eyes, afraid to hear her answer.
"I can't think of anything else either. If you think this is the solution, then do it. I'll accept it. I won't like it, but I'll accept it," she told her friend.
"And what about later? After I kill them...will you leave me?" her voice choking up.
"Leave you?!? Xena! Do you think so little of me that..."
"No! Gabrielle, it's me. If I do this, you'll never be able to look me in the eyes again. I vowed never to kill in cold blood again. You know that. How could I keep your respect if I do it? I feel like I'm betraying you somehow. Like I'm a failure in your eyes."
"Xena, You don't understand. My feelings shouldn't be the sole basis of your actions. If you think this is the answer, then do it. I won't place the burden of my expectations on you. Do as your heart leads you. I'm not going anywhere. Like it or not--you're stuck with me," she said.
"Gabrielle, I don't want to. That's just it. It is your expectations that make me follow my heart. You remind me of my shortcomings. No..." she stopped the bard's protest, " it's not a bad thing, Gabrielle. I need that more than you'll ever know. We don't always see our own faults. We need another's view for that. Everything inside me is screaming that this is wrong--and not just because of you. There has to be another answer, but I can't see it," she lowered her head in frustration.
"You forget, Xena, that you work best under pressure. If you stop tearing yourself apart about this, a new solution is likely to come to you. Why don't you get some sleep?"
Xena nodded her head, and crawled into her bedroll. Sleep wouldn't come easily this night.
Xena stared at the camp that sat in the midst of a clearing. There had to be about forty soldiers. If the leaders were here, the chances of escape were slim. She could only hope that the Zankorian leaders lived elsewhere. They probably liked their comfort, and resided inside a town's border.
The warriors followed Saulth into the camp. Xena prayed to the gods silently, hoping that no one here would recognize her. Most of the men she had in her army were dead or in jail. So far so good, she didn't see anyone she knew. The former warlord let out the breath she had been holding.
Saulth came to a stop and dismounted. They followed suit. He pointed the men to a large tent, indicating this was theirs. He rested his eyes on the two women.
" Perhaps you'd like a private tent? I'm sure it could be arranged," he purred.
Xena smiled without humor. "I think it might be best if we just borrow a small tent and stayed at the edge of camp," she informed him.
He didn't hide his disappointment well. "It may be for the best. I'll have someone bring it to you shortly," he said before turning away.
Gabrielle shuddered. "Why do I always feel like taking a bath after I've been near him?" she joked. Xena chuckled, knowing exactly how her friend felt.
They wandered around the camp, getting a feel for the ebbs of the men's attitudes around them. They seemed relaxed for a ragtag army, and Xena thought it fortunate. She and Gabrielle could probably come and go without comment. Xena decided to test her assumption. She nudged Gabrielle and they headed for the outer boundaries of the camp.
No one said anything. They walked into the forrest and stretched their legs. Without speaking, the friends continued walking. They needed time alone away from prying eyes, not stopping until they came to a spring. It flowed gently past, a peaceful scene in the middle of nowhere. The two women sat down and rested.
Gabrielle broke the silence first.
"I wonder where the water goes?"
"Into a river, then to a lake or ocean," Xena said with little imagination. Gabrielle smiled weakly. 'I wonder' games where lost on Xena most of the time. She sighed and looked up at the clouds, seeing shapes in them. The young woman had often sat with her sister Lila in the fields to stare at the clouds. It brought a warm smile to her lips at the memories.
Xena saw the glow in her eyes and leaned onto her elbow next to Gabrielle.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked gently.
Gabrielle turned her head to look into those startling blue eyes, seeing soft wonder in them. She smiled and told Xena of childhood memories, of bunnies in the sky, and of the joys of just doing nothing on a warm summer day. A contented smile came to Xena's lips as she laid down next to her, and looked up at the blue sky.
They returned to the camp, and walked around. They ignored the occasional lewd comment and kept moving, listening to scraps of conversations and watching the goings on.
Gordus approached them, hoping to be allowed to join them for a time.
"Gielea. Kesta. What do you think of this little collection?" he asked.
"Interesting," said Xena, "but I don't know if this band can work as a team. There doesn't seem to be a real leader. Who's in charge?"
"To tell the truth, I have no idea. The only one I see giving orders is Saulth and one of the minor officials from the group that hired us. The young one is laughed at. Saulth is listened to, but they don't take him too seriously. Neither of them is a soldier," he commented.
"Then perhaps one should be chosen," said Saulth from behind them. They stopped and turned around.
"It wouldn't be a bad idea. If there's no soldier in charge, the band will only be a group fighters floundering around in confusion," Gordus told him.
"I'm not a soldier, as you said. How does one choose a leader among wolves?"
"It's the strongest that rules the pack," Gabrielle piped in.
"Good point. I'll announce a little contest for those interested. I'll tell everyone at the evening meal. Thank you for your insight." Saulth gave them a small bow, and walked away.
The news brought forth cheering from the men. Bragging and loud boasts filled the air as they spoke among themselves. Tomorrow would begin the competition.
Xena had mixed feelings about it. Without a leader, they would be easier to deal with, but on the other hand, Saulth wouldn't question her loyalty because she had been involved with the suggestion. He would trust her to a point. She dared not compete herself. She didn't want the focus of the soldiers to be on her. The leader would never have any privacy, and she needed it to do her job.
Xena and Gabrielle went to the line to collect their meal of day old bread, as well as meat that had been burned on the outside and bloody on the inside. Gabrielle's look of disgust at the bloody meat was comical, and the taller woman leaned towards her and whispered that they'd return to their little camp and cook the meat more. Xena didn't mind a rareness to her meat, but it was out and out raw in the center.
They weaved between the crowds and returned to the small tent. The fire was still burning, and they took sharpened sticks to skewer the meat. They allowed it to hang over the fire as they sat and talked.
Gabrielle asked questions about the Zankor, trying to learn of their beliefs, but Xena knew little.
"If they think that sacrificing people pleases the gods, only killing those they think worthy, they would only hurt the mortal race. If the best continue to die, then only the weak will remain. It's a stupid belief," she said with irritation.
Xena agreed. "If these men understood who they were working for, they might..." she opened her eyes in surprise at her own words.
"Gabrielle! That's it! Most of these men have no idea that they're working for the Zankor. If they suspected that they could just as easily become a sacrificial lamb to their gods..." she grinned from ear to ear, "It just might work!" she said happily.
"What? Don't leave me hanging like this. Tell me what's going on in that head of yours," Gabrielle demanded.
"Gossip. A little word here and there would spread like wildfire. The suspicions of the men would grow to the point they just might do our work for us."
"And you wouldn't have to kill in cold blood. These men would wipe out the Zankor on their own out of fear," she said sadly. "Xena, you'd keep your hands clean only to a point. If we do this, we share in the guilt of the deaths of these men. We won't be able to deny our part in this."
"I know. But it will be up to the gods on this. All we have to do is start the stone rolling. If we start the gossip, then quietly disappear--the warriors will think we had been eliminated for our sins. We won't even hang around for the results. Gabrielle, if you don't approve, I'll think of something else..."
"No. I think this is the best plan. Let's do it."
The next day, they watched the competition. Gordus was one of the contestants, but his turn would not come up for a while. He joined them at the sidelines.
"Kesta, why won't you compete? You have the skills to make a good leader," he said sincerely.
"I'd rather not become a lamb to their gods," she said in quiet whispers.
"Huh? What are you talking about, Kesta?"
"Didn't you know? The people we're working for are the Zankor. They like sacrificing people who are worthy to the gods. If I don't stand out, they won't choose me for their altar," she said in a secretive tone. Gordus paled.
"Human sacrifice? Are you sure?" he asked in panic.
"Yes. If I were you, I'd drop out of the competition. Better to be thought a coward, than die like that. Oh, you'd be safe as long as you were of use to them alive, but..." she let her voice trail off in warning. He got the point. He walked away to think. The two men that had stood behind them also walked away. Xena glanced at them and grinned. Their job was done. Within hours, the camp would be in turmoil. She took Gabrielle's arm and pulled her away.
"That's it. Let's see if we can leave without being noticed."
By late afternoon, Xena relaxed. They were far enough away to be sure no one had followed them. She slowed Argo down from her grueling pace, making Gabrielle sigh with relief.
"Can we stop for awhile? I need to stretch a bit," she asked.
Xena stopped and gave her smaller friend an arm down. Gabrielle rarely complained about riding on the horse, but hated it nevertheless. The older woman got down herself. She took the reins in hand and led Argo down the path.
"What now?" asked Gabrielle.
"I guess we go back and tell Lomar and Paulus what we did. The threat from the Zankor is over for them. Paulus will probably keep the thieves in jail for life if he doesn't execute them for the death of that shopkeeper. It's over."
Gabrielle didn't comment, but walked in silence. It was over and her mind needed time to ponder over the last few weeks. Xena went out on a limb to confess her need to earn her respect. Gabrielle felt humbled at the warrior's feelings. She held Xena in such high esteem, that she never considered the idea that it was returned.
She felt a warm glow inside her, no longer worried about the possibility of being sent away. She had to admit to herself that the worry had always been there, unsure of how she was seen in the warrior's eyes. Now she knew and the knowledge set her free. Xena genuinely needed her in her life, and the need was returned.
They sat around the fire, feeling the peace of the quiet forest. The crickets chirped in the thickets, their song a contented harmony. Gabrielle held a quill in her hand, writing on a parchment, bringing her thoughts into focus. Xena sharpened her sword out of habit and repaired minor flaws in the stitching of her arm bands.
Gabrielle wrote about her fears for Xena, about the night Xena had caught the thieves. Thinking about it still made her shake. She tried to imagine what it would be like in a world without Xena. What would she do? The bard had choices of course, everyone did, but would she be happy with them? She could stay with the Amazons, or return home, or go to the Academy, but couldn't visualize what it would be like.
Another thought crossed her mind--what would happen if *she* died? What would her friend do?
"Xena, may I ask a question?" she spoke the most hated words. Xena stiffened, expecting a question about the Zankor. She nodded.
"What would you do if I died?" she asked unexpectedly. Xena felt as though the air had been knocked from her lungs. Where had this question come from?
"Gabrielle, what are you talking about? I already promised not to become a monster if anything happened to you. What more do you want?" she said in shock.
"I know. But that concerned the possibility if I died violently. What if I died by accident--or disease. What would you do? Would you still fight for justice. Retire and settle down? What would you do?" she asked.
"I..I.. Gabrielle, I don't know. This came out of nowhere. I never thought about it. I try to take each day as it comes." She turned her head to stare out into the night, thinking furiously. What would she do? The idea of continuing on without Gabrielle made her feel sick. Perhaps she would go to Jolese's village or back home to Mother. She didn't know for sure. She repeated her thoughts to Gabrielle.
"You'd be as lost as I would be. I don't know what I would do either," she confessed.
"Gabrielle, let's make a pact. No matter what the future brings, we will try to only dwell on the good times. No self-blame or regrets. Ok?" she asked with eyes shimmering from unshed tears. Gabrielle smiled tearfully and grabbed her hands, grateful for the friendship she had found so long ago.
Xena woke and found Gabrielle gone from sight. She quickly stood and heard the sound of parchment hitting the ground. Bending over to retrieved it, she saw that her name was scribed on the outside. Xena unrolled it and found a poem.
When I die lay me with outstretched arms, facing east!
So I may collect and be taken, unto sun's absorbing feast.
Where I'll be the daily red shine, that shines upon your face.
Into the morning as your eyes crack to my forceful beam.
You'll shine brightly into me, elegantly, I'll burn and place,
Unto your soul with rays, and into the world a day dream.
Or giving heat to the air, by timely and attentive ways.
My love is the warmth you'll wear, by the sweat you bare.
By the twilight I'll give you questions for the gods to share.
With my absence threads of silk from my face, shine into
Waves of blue light, black with loneliness, left to renew.
Oh, when the sun's glow and light are more than bright,
And you do notice a blinding sight of a love you lost and knew.
Realize! The hazing sun is a fire of blissful contentment.
Satisfied and intoxicated with the wondrous beauty of you!
Xena sat on the ground and wept, her feelings overwhelming her. Gabrielle had given her words of hope and love to live by, and she would cherish them for all times. She wiped her face and lovingly placed the poem into a waterproof cloth, placing it in her personal saddlebag. Gratitude filled her, as she realized Gabrielle had known how she'd react and gave her the privacy she needed. Xena looked to the sun and smiled.
Once again, I thank astrogrl for her inspiration and poem. It had brought me to write this story. I hope you all give her the credit she is due. Thank you one and all for your support and ideas.
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