Stagecraft

by Fedelma

email: csbteach@hotmail.com

 

Disclaimers: X. and G. aren't mine, everybody knows it. Thanks, TPTB.

Sex and related stuff: two women, in love with each other. So? Nothing explicit here, just some affectionate playing around. (and implications -- make of them what you will).

Violence -- This is Xena, after all. some people get hurt and a few get killed, but nothing excessively gory.

Timeline: Somewhere between The Convert and Endgame. After India, Gab has the short hair. She's not doing the violence thing but (as in Endgame) can participate in battle without killing anybody.

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Finally, liberty! Bell sounds and chimes wafted over the town. People filled the square, and, male and female, began to converse, touch and embrace, free again to mingle with each other. As Xena and Gabrielle watched, flags of red and blue were unfurled from the towers, streamers blew out from the balconies, and the victory celebration began in earnest.

Xena smiled, and put her arm around Gabrielle as they stood in the middle of the square, the riot of festivity whirling round them. The joy of these people, reborn after three years of grim oppression, was worth all they had been through to get here; the journey, the fighting, the...foolishness. She knew it wouldn't be long before she and Gabrielle were dragged forward for silly speeches and undeserved accolades...when all they did was see through the fraud. All she wanted to do was stop a foolish, unnecessary war. Unite a young couple. Well...as the party swelled, they had a moment of anonymity. She took that moment to reflect on the event, and the way that it happened. It had started on an unseasonably warm winter's day in Amphipolis... only weeks ago...

The thaw had been a relief. Winter had come early and bit in hard, with snow deep on the ground by the harvest festival. It had been a good thing they had reaped the harvest quickly, or acres of corn might have rotted under the snow. As it was, it had been a good growing season, and everyone had plenty to eat, with the cribs bulging with grain, the smokehouses hung with sides of cattle and pigs, and shelves of clay crocks filled with pickled vegetables and fruits lining the storerooms. Xena and Gabrielle had settled in the back of Cyrene's inn, an extension that Cyrene had had built on when she bought the establishment and moved there from the farm to live. It was a cozy three rooms, a sitting room, sleeping room and heated bath, that Cyrene had turned over to her daughter and her companion as an inducement to settle down for a time.

For more than two months Xena and Gabrielle had been living a settled life, most days confined to the inn by constant snowstorms, slamming in from the north to encase the village in whipping curtains of white. Xena had never seen such severe weather in Amphipolis; some said the gods were meddling with the weather. Xena kept her opinions of the gods to herself. For Xena the snow was a double-edged blessing. Raiders didn't ride in snow this bad, so she wasn't fighting, for a change; but she was restless and edgy, since she wasn't fighting. She channeled her energy into more domestic pursuits, doing leatherworker and carpentry in the barn, repairing things about the inn and its outbuildings, and turning an abandoned but sturdy shed into a forge where she could do armorer's work. It kept her busy, but it didn't quite blunt the restive edge that had kept her moving for years, first as a commander and a raider, then as a wanderer. She'd not spent this long in one place in her adult life.

Then there was Gabrielle. The bard was writing copiously as well as doing other chores, milking and cooking and cleaning, chores she would have been doing had she stayed in Potidea, but now performed as part of an interlude of warmth with the love of her life. The two had settled into domestic life as easily as they had gone to battle side by side, as easily as they had fit together snugly on Argo's back in the early days. Much of that excess energy of Xena's was spent in the vigorous pursuit of her desire for Gabrielle; the bard and the warrior couldn't get enough of each other, would go to bed early, go to sleep much later, breathing deeply at the nightly miracle of the things they did for each other. During the worst of the snowstorms they'd spent entire days in bed, making love, dozing, eating, surrounded by a blanket of silence broken only by the distant howl of a wolf or the tinkle of sleigh bells far away as some villagers braved the weather on some unknown errand.

It was a warm day, almost a springlike day, a few days before solstice. Xena was in the kitchen, gathering food for a late breakfast; Gabrielle was still in bed. Xena's mother had had Xena set up the churn on the inn porch, and was busy churning two day's portion of milk into butter, to be salted and stored away. Through the glazed window Xena could hear the rhythmic, nostalgic sound and almost felt eight years old again.

Her acute hearing caught the rasp of horse's hooves in the melting snow before her mother did; one -- no, two horses. She ducked out of sight next to the window, pulling a long kitchen knife from the rack on the wall. It was probably nothing; but too many people who wished her ill knew where she was from, and, it was best not to be careless. This was the third time this season that strangers had ridden up to the inn from out of town, and the first and second had both had hostile intent. She crept to the main entrance and kept out of sight until it was clear who was here and why, keeping her mother in sight.

A slight, youngish man, leading a second horse. He was wearing a heavy hooded cloak, so Xena couldn't see his face. He didn't appear to be armed, but you never knew... He leaned over to address Cyrene.

"Hello...I'm looking for a woman called Xena...I'm told this is where she lived once. She wouldn't be here, would she?"

Cyrene worked the dasher of the churn, and considered the stranger. She had come to understand that her daughter's path to redemption was strewn with enemies, and she was willing to screen Xena from having to shed blood if it was at all possible. She turned back to her churning. "Who wants to know?"

"I'm...a friend...from a long time ago...I met her in Thessaly, during a war...I don't know if she'll remember me, but, I need a bit of help..." He spoke diffidently, as if he expected not to be believed. Xena thought, if he's an assassin, he's got a pretty good cover, and stepped out on the porch. "I'm Xena," she said, the long knife conspicuous in her hand. The stranger dropped his hood, revealing a boyish face with dark brown hair cut as if a bowl had been clapped on his head and his locks hacked off with a knife. The cloak fell open to reveal a once-white, now travel-stained ankle-length tunic and worn sandals, worn over feet wrapped in threadbare rags. Xena peered, feeling a buzz of recognition...

"Democritus! Hades' name!"

"Xena...so glad to find you!"

She stepped down from the porch and embraced the young man, slapping him on the back with vigor. "How are you? By the gods, how are you?"

"I'm...well Xena, I'm in good health, if that's what you mean. How long..two years? Three?"

"Almost three, I think."

"How's Gabrielle?"

A musical voice sounded from the doorway. "She's all in one piece, thank you." The bard descended from the porch and took over the embrace from her spouse. "Good to see you, Democritus."

Cyrene continued to pump the churn, with a look on her face guaranteed to sour the milk therein if she were to spare it an unshielded glance. "Fine, Xena, don't introduce your mother, I know you have all these strange friends...I can just...sit here and cover for you..."

"Oh, mother...lay off the martyrdom act. Here, this is Democritus. We met in Thessaly, during the Metoan civil war. He was studying to be a healer when Gabrielle and I kind of...

"They took over the temple and showed us some new ways of healing, ways that were very good. Poor old Galen..."

"How is the old ba..." Gabrielle put her hand over Xena's mouth.

"Dead, I'm afraid." Xena snapped her teeth shut and kissed Gabrielle's palm. "But you gave him quite a shock. He decided that there was something to the kind of healing you showed us -- using what our eyes told us, rather than waiting on the gods. In the last few years he began studying animals, doing careful examinations of their insides, drawing and writing down what he saw. He started to understand the way bodies worked. Too bad he didn't have more time -- we found him, Hippocrates and I, collapsed over his scrolls. His heart, I think."

"I'm sorry, Democritus -- I know you cared for him."

"Yes -- he was very dear to both of us."

"Where is Hippocrates now? How is he?"

"He went to Athens to continue his studies. He has a school for healers now. Xena, he's transforming the healer's art. Makes all his students swear an oath -- that they'll do no harm, use the best of their talents to save lives, be honorable -- very successful. He's written several scrolls on healing."

"And you? Have you made your mark as a healer?"

"Ah....no. I decided that...well...healing isn't for me."

"Not happy with blood?"

"Oh no...I've seen plenty of blood and it doesn't bother me...it's just a mess to clean up. It's death, Gabrielle. I just don't have the...I can't handle being responsible when people die. I remember when you died, and I thought maybe it was my fault, that I didn't do enough to protect you... anyway, I've given up on being a healer."

Cyrene interjected. "Died? In Thessaly? This is one you didn't tell me about?"

Xena rolled her eyes. It's a long story, mother."

"I'll bet. Shouldn't you invite your guest inside? Offer him some drink?"

Democritus blushed. "Oh...I couldn't...I..."

Gabrielle smiled. "C'mon, I'll bet you're thirsty after riding for..how long have you been riding? Anyway, come on, Cyrene has good ale."

"No..you see...I don't..well...I'm...I don't have...money..." He took an empty water skin from the second horse, started toward the corner of the house where there was a barrel, used as a rain catcher beneath the eaves. "I'll just fill my skins here, if I may...that shouldn't cost..."

"Are you insane? Do you think I'm going to charge a friend of my daughter for a mug of ale? You must be out of your mind." Cyrene jumped up from behind the churn, grabbed the young man's arm, and practically dragged him into the inn. She deposited him forcefully in a chair, hustled to the bar muttering under her breath, and slammed a pitcher and three mugs on the table. "I'll show you hospitality if it kills you!" And she stormed out to the porch again, where the churn took up a new, aggressive rhythm.

Xena and Gabrielle sat down with him. Cyrene scooped her butter from the churn, put it in the spring house, and came into the common room with bowls of mutton stew and a basket of biscuits. Democritus looked a question at her; she nodded, and he dug in with gusto.

Gabrielle broke the silence engendered by good food and full mouths. "What brings you here, Democritus? Not that we aren't glad to see you, but..."

"It's a long way from Thessaly. I know. Actually, I was in Chalcidice, Potidea,..."

"My home town!"

"I know...I asked for you and Xena there. I remembered that you said that was where you came from, and I didn't know where Xena lived, so...Gabrielle, no offense...what's the matter with those people?"

"None taken. They're just provincial, I guess. You notice I don't live there any more. Why were you looking for us?"

"It's a long story. I was really trying to get home. I found out I can't -- and that's why I needed to find you, Xena."

"Why?" The warrior leaned closer.

"I can't go home. Not without being killed."

Six eyebrows raised. "What did you do to get them mad at you?"

"Well..I left and got an education."

"And for that your life's in danger?"

"So it seems. But that's nothing compared to the second thing."

What's that?"

My sister got engaged."

Xena leaned back in her chair and threw a leg over the arm. "Tell me all about it."

"...so I went home. or, I should say, I tried to go home." Democritus took a pull at his ale -- his third -- and Xena decided he was long past being warned about the potency of her mother's brew. He was pleasantly illuminated.

"Tried?" Xena knew she'd probably get more of the story out of Democritus inebriated than Democritus sober. She wanted all the details.

"After the Metoan war, and Galen's death, I decided to leave Thessaly and go home. Hippocrates had left the year before, and I had no reason to stay. I traveled north, through Metos, which, as you know, was able to negotiate its independence from Thessaly. That country was devastated by the war, Xena..."

"I know. We passed through it after we left you."

"Whole villages wiped from the face of the earth. Black, barren fields where there should have been ripe crops. I never understood it."

"War doesn't make sense most of the time. Even those who fight it don't expect it to make sense."

Cyrene interjected. "Why were they fighting in the first place?"

"Over what gods to worship. Stupid reason." Democritus drank some more ale, a bitter expression on his face. "Stupid gods."

Gabrielle saw a sympathetic smirk cross Xena's lips. She asked Democritus, "I thought you revered Aesculapius?"

"I did, once. But after seeing what I saw in the war, I don't believe that the gods give a damn about us. Or maybe there aren't any gods at all, and we just have to figure things out for ourselves. Gabrielle, I'm young, I know that, I'm only twenty-one, but I've seen enough brutality to last me if I live a hundred years. If the gods cared, if they had the power to intervene, why do they let people do such destructive things?"

The bard gave Xena a sidelong glance. "Not to go into too much detail, Democritus, but from our experience most gods act like spoiled children."

"Your experience?"

"Well..." Gabrielle squinted. "Let's say we know they do exist, but in most cases we'd rather they didn't."

Xena interrupted. "This isn't really getting anywhere. Why can't you go home? And where is home for you, anyway?"

"Abdera."

Gabrielle choked on her ale. "Abdera? ´How many Abderans does it take to light a candle?' That Abdera?"

"I know, there's lots of jokes about it. I've told a few myself. But they're not stupid, really. It's a small walled town, farmers and traders, simple folks, sturdy, honest -- just not very sophisticated. That's why I left, I wanted to go to Athens, study philosophy, science, history. Become a healer. Wasn't much chance for that there. But I got caught in the Metoan war, and decided maybe Abdera wasn't such a bad place after all. Peaceful. Or at least it was."

"What changed?"

"The town got rich. They found some trade routes that were very lucrative -- especially with the Amazons, just across the mountains. I guess they made a treaty..."

Gabrielle made an "O" with her mouth. "I know about that. Actually...I helped negotiate it."

"You?"

"I'm Queen of the Thracian Amazons, Democritus. Didn't you know that?"

"You never told me...your majesty."

"Call me that again and I'll whack you with my staff. No, I can't do that any more. Really, it's mostly honorary -- I have a regent who does all the work."

Xena thumped her mug on the table. "Will you two get on with it? Bards, philosophers -- takes ten words to say what anyone else could say with two."

Gabrielle stroked her partner's knee. "Yes, your crabbiness."

Xena snorted; Gabrielle grinned, and Xena pursed her lips in an airy kiss.

"I'm sorry -- I like to talk, I guess. The trade brings in a lot of dinars -- people were able to build nicer houses, things like that -- but they didn't really spend a lot on themselves. They mostly gave the money to the temples."

"What do they trade?" Xena asked.

"Iron. There are mines about a league north of the town. there aren't a lot of smiths who want to come to a dinky burg like Abdera, so we smelt it into bars and trade it."

Gabrielle nodded. "That's right. When the treaty was made, the Amazons needed new sources of iron for tools and weapons. We trade gold for it, from the mines on the north of the nation's lands. Everyone wins."

"What do the temples do with the gold they get?" Cyrene wanted to know.

"Buy food for the hungry, help people get houses; there's a lot left over. They've gilded a lot of statues. they even lined the walls of the temple of Zeus with it."

"So -- let me guess. An ex-warlord's guess. Somebody decided the town was easy pickin's."

"Right, Xena. And they were right."

"Who's ´they'?"

"Pirates. Raid after raid. Burning, looting, rape. That was one reason I wanted to go home -- I have friends and family who were in danger. I needed to be there."

"How did you know all this, if you were all the way in Thessaly?"

"I didn't until I started my journey back. I got as far as Pella and stayed at the inn there -- I still had a little money, then. there was a scroll there, in the care of the innkeeper, that was supposed to reach me in Thessaly. It was a letter from Empedocles, my best friend, warning me not to come home. He wrote about the raids, the whole mess. And the new religion."

"What new religion?"

"I'm not sure I understand. Here." he reached into his pouch and took out a scroll, which he unrolled on the table. He pointed. "Here. Read this."

Xena and Gabrielle perused the letter intently, then exchanged a significant look. Cyrene looked confused. "What? What does it say?"

Gabrielle read aloud: "Democritus, be guided by me in this. These Ammonites, these sun-god worshippers, mean no good to the likes of you and I. Though they protect the town from the raiders, they rule the people by a combination of persuasion and fear -- fear of what will happen if they leave us to the mercies of criminals, and persuasion that our own ways have brought the wrath of this sun-god upon the town. It is true that they have powers that cannot be equalled. But, as you and I have said many times, with the use of reason any mysterious power can be explained. I have yet to explain the Ammonites' powers, but I fear less for my own life than I do for those that remain within the city walls. I choose to bide at the farm until I can understand what it is these sorcerers do. I think they fear me, and most certainly you as well, because we have been abroad and understand a little of the world. You are in danger because of that understanding, my brother. Do not yet return. Wait for my word."

Xena said, "So these -- Ammonites? -- arrived and chased the pirates away. Then they convinced the townspeople to give control of the town to them."

"So it seems." Democritus rolled the scroll down to a different place. And that's not all."

"What else?"

"Read." Democritus pointed to a passage, and Xena read:

"Now for news that grieves me to tell. Your sister Serena is in the custody of the Ammonites, for nothing more heinous than proclaiming her love. You may remember Sergio, a boy whose parents arrived here years ago, when you and I were children and Serena a mere babe. Sergio grew into a fine young man, and he and Serena had eyes all and only for each other; so it was natural that when they should come of age they should declare for each other and marry. But the Ammonites have declared strict separation between men and women, proclaiming all forms of love vile and corrupt. Even long-married couples are now forced to live apart. And Serena rebelled, along with Sergio, and another young couple of their age. So they went to the Temple Square, and proclaimed their troths in loud voices. The soldiers of the Ammonites came for them, and the other young man, Carl, resisted them; and he was executed on the spot, in a manner unbelievable if I had not seen it -- the chief priest hurled a bolt of fire at him, and his chest was blasted open and his living heart roasted in his body! And this is not the first such death that has been unleashed by the Ammonite priests.

 

The other three young people now reside in the dungeons newly-built beneath the temple square, awaiting torture or execution. I admire your sister's bravery, but she was foolish to force an issue against people so vastly stronger. Yet I am convinced that their strength is not the strength of a god, and that when exposed will seem of no more force than the tinkling of a tambourine; yet I have no clue how to do this. It is deadly for me in the city, and for you as well, and for any who return with knowledge of other lands. Stay well away until we can show these animals for what they truly are."

Gabrielle was aghast. "Are you sure your friend has this right? How could they force..."

"You don't know my townsmen, Gabrielle," said Democritus. "They've been left alone to live their lives for as long as anyone could remember -- they had nothing of any value except the clothes on their backs, their few animals and tools. Their real wealth was in each other, families, friendships. I can see how these fellows could come into town in the wake of these raids, and the citizens would accept anything in exchange for protection."

"This doesn't surprise me, Gabrielle," said Xena. "Nothing like this surprises me. When people see a threat, and someone offers protection -- they'll trade anything, even their most cherished ways of life, for their safety."

"But that's..."

"People will happily and blindly exchange freedom for safety, Gabrielle. They usually end up losing both."

There was a silence around the table. It was Cyrene who broke it.

"I was just getting used to having you around, dears. I'll miss you. Can you be back in time for Gabrielle's birthday?"

"I wish I'd never told anybody when that is," the bard sighed.

Xena rolled a thick fur into a bundle on the bed. Gabrielle was packing small items into saddlebags. Xena remarked, "Abdera's about twenty leagues from here. Have to cross a couple of high passes to get there. Don't know if we can get through in the winter."

"We'll pass just south of Amazon country. We could go through there. It'd add two days to the trip, but we'd avoid the passes."

 

Xena said, "Maybe....hmmm...love, do you think you could convince them to put together a small force? Do your queen thing?"

Gabrielle looked at her partner. "What kind of a force?"

"Fifty. Bows, swords, chobos."

"What for?"

"I'm not sure yet. But maybe we'll need a light striking force. Pirates in those waters tend to land and raid, and a mobile infantry force might be just what we need to defend against that. Remember, I used to sail those waters. I was always reluctant to attack villages that were defended like that -- too costly."

Gabrielle considered. "I don't know, but I can try. Some of the younger girls have been spoiling for a fight, or so I hear from Ephiny. And I want to see how she and Solari are doing -- we couldn't go to their wedding and I wanted to congratulate them."

"Good idea."

Gabrielle continued packing, lost in her own thoughts. She had a hard time picturing Xena, her Xena, as a ruthless pirate, pillaging up and down the coasts. That it was true she didn't doubt; and that Xena had transformed so far was her source of greatest joy, that and the fact that maybe, just maybe, she herself had had something to do with that.

They set out just before dawn, Xena on Argo, Gabrielle on a bay from Cyrene's stable. Since their return from India she'd been learning to ride with some success, having put aside the combat lessons from Xena for more peaceful skills. She was still nervous about horses and heights, but she'd learned to calm herself so that it didn't show or affect her judgment. Riding had become an exercise in applied meditation.

They rode that day without incident, the skies blue, the air crisp and clear. For a while they rode three abreast along the road, Gabrielle in the middle, telling stories. She liked that; she needed to practice, she hadn't had much opportunity to act as a bard lately. She missed it.

Gabrielle begged off after a while, and she asked Democritus to tell them about Abdera. "Well, It's a walled town, on a low hill right by the sea. Nobody knows how long ago it was built. There's a stream that runs right by the wall, and some say there's an underground river that runs under the town, but no one knows how to find it. There's supposed to be a curse on that river, but I never found out what kind of curse. Superstitious bunk. It's well-fortified, though the gods know it's been peaceful for generations -- we don't even have a standing militia, and hardly anybody there knows the use of arms. It's surrounded by wooded hills and farms -- the townspeople buy food from the farmers. and the farmers buy crafts and tools from the town, but the country people pretty much govern themselves, and the town pretty much leaves them alone. There's a local legend, about a warlord who kept losing battles, so he built a fortress on this hill in an out-of the way area by the sea, and turned to piracy. He was afraid of being attacked, and he had very strong fortifications built. But he lost a petty sum in a game of dice once, and in an angry fit cursed Kairos, god of luck; so the town fell, not by direct assault, but kind of by mistake. It seems the wandering remnants of a defeated army found the entrance to the underground stream, and made their way into the town, where the warlord was captured and beheaded. But the soldiers weren't very smart or organized, and they didn't really know how to exploit a conquest. Since that time Abdera and it's citizens have been thought of as kind of unlucky."

Gabrielle smiled. "I'd say they were really lucky, to have lived so many generations in peace."

"I remember, when I was leading an army, it was one place nobody would attack, for that reason,", Xena said. Everyone thought it was unlucky."

"Well, " Democritus said with a sour look, "looks like that bad luck is more than a story."

They stopped early, an hour or so before sunset. As darkness gathered Gabrielle and Democritus made camp while Xena went fishing in her own unique way. Xena brought three large bass back to the campsite. She'd checked the snare she'd set earlier, but there was no game in it yet, so it was fish for dinner. After a meal and a story around the fire, Gabrielle and Xena bundled into their furs, and Democritus into his. The next-to-last thing Xena saw before sleeping was clouds skating over the sky, weaving a net that would obscure the stars and presaged snow. Tomorrow might be heavy going.

The last thing she saw before sleeping was Gabrielle's sea-green eyes, gazing into her own with infinite, fiery love. The memory of that gaze, and her lover's embrace, kept her warm all night as she slept lightly, listening for any threat to her family and her friend.

The next day dawned dark and cloudy, and the wind picked up as they rode. The snow held off until midafternoon, and Xena was satisfied that they had made about nine leagues before the heavy flakes started to fall. A way off the road was a barn; with any luck they'd have shelter for the night. Dinner would be dried meat, and fruit and nuts, but they'd be warm in the hay.

The barn was abandoned, but sound, the house near it burned to the ground. No bodies, no sign of violence; perhaps it was just an accidental fire and the family had simply moved on. After caring for the horses Xena and Gabrielle climbed to the loft, while Democritus found a clean stall piled high with straw. He was instantly asleep.

Gabrielle cuddled with Xena in the hay. "I'm kind of happy to be on the road again, Xena. A bit sleepy, right now, but happy." She kissed Xena's shoulder, her chest. "You know you always make me happy."

"Even when we disagree? even when we fight?"

"I'm happy to have someone to fight with who'll respect me even when she disagrees with me. I don't expect you to never be grumpy. But you always apologize."

Xena's eyelids dropped and she appeared almost bashful. "That's something I never did before I met you. I could never admit to being wrong; it was too dangerous to appear weak and indecisive. Now...I'm not afraid of that. You give me courage, Gabrielle."

"Courage? Xena, you're the bravest..."

"Courage to trust, my darling. Courage to love. I get that from you."

Gabrielle looked at the warrior with liquid eyes. "That may be the sweetest thing you've ever said to me..." She squinted slightly and her face stretched. Xena said "You all right?"

"Yeah...just a little sneezy from the hay." She sneezed three times in quick succession, and felt Xena's hand on her forehead. "Xena...I'm fine."

"I just want to be sure you're not catching anything."

Gabrielle threw her spouse a kind of dopey look. "Don't get into your doc thing, sweetie. It's just dry and dusty up here."

"Okay. I just feel..."

"Overprotective."

"I wouldn't call it that."

"I would. But I won't say there aren't times when I like it. I like it when you do things for me. I never thought that anyone would care if I was happy, would want to do things to make me happy."

"What can I do to make you happy now, Oh Queen of the Amazons?"

"Kiss me."

Xena kissed her. Gabrielle kissed back. Xena pulled away, felt the unseen green eyes on her, felt herself slipping down the slope that would lead to...

She raised an eyebrow, grinned mischievously. "Now what?"

Gabrielle's pointed finger slid slowly down between Xena's breasts. She grimaced in anticipation. "You know very well what."

They rose before dawn and Xena jumped down from the loft with quiet, light steps like a dancer. She helped Gabrielle down after her and woke Democritus, saddled the horses. The first light was barely showing in the East when a rustle in the brush next to the barn caught their attention. Gabrielle started to poke the brush but Xena restrained her, carefully pulling back the weeds, revealing a small vixen and her kits, the fox huddled up in a protective posture and with teeth bared. "She'd have taken off a couple of fingers, protecting her young. But I'm glad to see her."

"Why?" Asked the bard.

"If there's a hunting animal here, there must be something to hunt nearby. A nest of rabbits, pheasant, something." She unhooked the chakram and quartered the field, right and left. As they approached the treeline a form flashed across the center of their vision. The chakram streaked like a comet on an intercepting line, and the animal collapsed limply as the chakram returned. "Looks like a hot breakfast after all, hon." She retrieved the rabbit and cleaned it while Gabrielle built a fire in the empty barnyard.

Four days later they sighted the walls of Abdera. They'd spent a day and a night with the Amazons, and Gabrielle had arranged for Eponin to place fifty Amazons under Xena's temporary command. Democritus was impressed with the Amazons, although he had had to stay in the visitor's hospice, isolated from the main village and out of sight of the general population of women. He'd spent the time scribbling in a scroll which he was unwilling to show to anyone. After they had seen that the troop was armed and supplied, they'd moved out. They marched for Abdera, keeping to forest tracks and trails so as not to be seen on the roads. The snow had stopped, the sky cleared to a dazzling blue, though it was chattering cold. On the evening of the fourth day they crested a long rise, guided by Democritus, and the town lay before them. Abdera was built on a small, flat hill, the rough stone walls right up to the break of the slopes, with small wooden towers placed at intervals. A stream ran by the base of the hill. A tall tower protruded above the walls to the east, and rude huts were scattered about the flat, soft ground outside the walls. Cultivated rows of stubble could be seen under the light snow, and beyond the walls they could see the blue-gray of the sea. Xena could pick out the tops of masts in the harbor beyond the town. Smoke from the town gathered in a chalky pall above it in the still, cold air.

Xena ordered the Amazons to make camp in a hollow to the east of the ridge they had climbed, hidden from the view of the town and screened from the road by a dense copse. They would remain camped there, hidden, until they were needed. Xena assured them they wouldn't have to wait more than a couple of days.

She wished she was as confident as she sounded.

Democritus said "I don't want to enter the town. I'm not sure what they'll do if they recognize me."

"Don't you want to find your sister?"

"Yes, of course, but too many people know me there, and from what Empedocles said, I don't think I'd get a friendly reception. maybe we should go to his farm first. It's just north of town, upstream."

Xena disagreed. "I think we should see how things lie in the town first," she said. "The faster we resolve this the better. Who knows what they plan to do with you sister, to say nothing of anyone else they've got in their lockups."

"Why don't you got to your friend's farm, and we'll join you later?" Asked Gabrielle, and Xena nodded in agreement. "Just tell us how to get there."

"Just follow the stream northwards," the young scholar said, "until you pass two big rocks on the west bank. The lane to the farmhouse is just beyond them."

"How will we know we've passed the right two rocks?" asked the bard.

"Oh, they're very obvious, round and right next to each other. Empedocles calls them the two..." He stopped short, blushed.

"The what?"

The scholar dropped his eyes. "Well...um...ahem...you have very nice ones."

Gabrielle giggled, Xena scowled, and threw a look to her partner. "We'll be there soon. Wait for us. She dismounted, and Gabrielle did also. Xena handed Democritus their horses' reins. "Your friend's farm has a stable, yes? take care of our horses. We'll walk from here."

As Democritus rode away Gabrielle put her arm around Xena's waist and laid her head against her partner's side. She grinned. "You do, you know."

Xena snorted.

The road led north of the town to the main gate, which faced wooded hills and was pierced by the road that led, a day's journey away, to the iron mines. Ahead of them they saw a string of donkeys, each beast burdened with a heavy pack, and led by dusty and travel-stained men. A man on horseback supervised the entry of the caravan into the city.

The two of them fell in behind the last animal, and as they approached the gate the horseman barred their path. He wore a yellow quilted tunic and a brass helmet; there was a short sword at his side in the Roman style.

"Strangers! What's your business here?"

Gabrielle spoke first, using the story she and Xena had agreed upon. "We're from Potidea, west of here. We've heard there's good trading and we wanted to find out if it was true."

"Traders? What have you got to trade?"

"Wool, meat, cheese...but we'd rather discuss it with someone in authority."

The rider considered them. Xena was wearing a dark cloak over her armor and had her hood up, so she wouldn't be recognized.

"What kind of place sends women out as traders?"

"Potidea does. We're ready to negotiate in good faith. But, if you'd rather not..." Gabrielle moved to turn her horse away.

"Wait. You'll have to go to the caravanserai."

"Fine. Can you show us the way?"

"Surrender your weapons."

"We're not armed." Xena's cloak concealed her sword and chakram. The guard looked them over suspiciously, but didn't approach closely.

"Follow me."

They were led through the high wooden gates to a square. Statues of gods and gold-plated idols lined the square, although there were many empty pedestals where figures had apparently been removed. A crew of workmen was gathered around a statue of Pan, prying the gilded idol from its base. People milled about; the noise of the square rose above them. Cursing drovers dragged laden animals to the gates of the caravanserai through the roiling crowd. Very little of the town could be seen beyond the square, blocked from sight by the row of temple buildings. Only one temple of the many seemed to be open, the great temple in the middle of the square. Xena would have expected people to be entering the temples to worship and honor their own deities; that they weren't was curious and more than a little ominous. Gabrielle noticed another oddity. "Xena, there's only men going into the temple. No women. That's strange."

"Perhaps. There are lots of places where the temples are one sex only."

"But that's...silly."

"Everybody to their own taste, Gabrielle. I've seen some temples where men and women were required to perform...wait, that looks like somebody official."

A group of men approached the caravan, one of them being carried in a chair by four bearers. All the men wore yellow tunics, the same color as the gate guard. Some of the men on foot began inspecting the packs, making tallies on wax tablets.

At the sight of the group, the people in the square had dropped to their knees and cast their eyes down, as did the caravaners. Aside from the important personage's companions, Only Xena and Gabrielle were left standing, and remained so even under the wilting gaze of the official and his retinue.

One of them approached with a leather whip and began to uncoil it. "Bow before the High Judge!"

Xena said softly, "Lash that whip and you'll be wearing it as a necklace."

The whip handler drew back the lash and Xena took a defensive posture. Just as the man was about to lash forward, the man in the chair called out "Hold!"

The whip man backed away, but Xena stood still, prepared to receive an attack. Gabrielle, at her partner's side, said in a loud voice "This isn't a very encouraging reception to your city! We heard you would trade, not fight!"

At a gesture from the Judge, his bearers knelt and lowered the chair to the cobblestones of the square.

The Judge stepped out and stood erect, folded his hands inside his voluminous sleeves. . He approached Gabrielle. I am Donner, Ammon's High Judge. You fail to show respect to me, and thus to Ammon. It is only because you are strangers and new to our ways here that we permit your heathen behavior. In the future, now that you know, when a Judge of Ammon enters you sight, you must show him the proper respect or you will be disciplined."

Gabrielle said, "We don't worship your god. Why should we bow before something we don't believe in?"

"All must believe in Ammon. The Lord of the Sun is the only true god, and to not believe in him is to condemn and be condemned." The Judge looked stern. "Since we brought the Word and the Light and the Peace here there has been no evil here. No murder, no adultery. No theft. Even lying is forbidden. These have become the most honest of people. Lust is also strictly forbidden; men and women are permitted to be alone together now only for the purpose of having children, and only as long as it takes to quicken a child in the woman. The sexes sleep apart. The evils of marriage, jealousy, covetousness, indifference, have all been eliminated."

"Surely --" Gabrielle looked him straight in the eye -- "there must be people who disagree with your beliefs. There are many gods, many ways of understanding the gods."

"No. Only one. We are the ones who have been blessed with the sight of Ammon. No other belief is possible. Only corruption. That is why foreigners may not mix with the citizens."

"But new ideas are good for growth, and trade..."

"Only Ammon is of any value. Only Ammon is true."

A man in the kneeling crowd got to his feet. He was tall, thin, wore a blue turban and a white caftan. He raised his arms. "She's right! She's right! How did we come to tolerate this? What right have these...these judges to take away our way of life? How do we know their god is true? We..."

Donner took his hands from his sleeves and pointed swiftly at the man. One of the lesser judges faced the protester and threw something at him, just a blur in the air. Xena was too far away to try and intercept the object, and it was just as well -- when the blur struck the man there was a flash of fire, a roar, a cloud of smoke, and the dissenter fell to the ground. When the smoke cleared there was a gaping hole in the man's abdomen, surrounded by charred flesh and smoldering cloth.

Donner turned on the two women, anger on his face. "You see what your words have done to our people," he said. "You inspire doubt by your very presence. Ammon permits no doubt. Doubt means death. As is our custom, all foreigners must be confined to the caravanserai. When we are ready to discuss trade or other matters, you will be summoned."

Gabrielle could feel the fighting lust rising in her partner, and whispered in her ear "maybe we'd better wait a while here, Xena. We have no idea what these people can do. Maybe they are gods, from another part of the world..."

Xena sneered. "Nah, I know what gods feel like, and these guys aren't it. But maybe we better play along -- that throwing fire thing is dangerous. It's just a big inn, and we still have our weapons."

They were escorted through the square to a low stone building with high, narrow, barred windows. The building formed the fourth wall of an open courtyard , divided by stone walls from the rest of the town. Just south of the stone caravanserai was a paved quay, with three ships docked there. Two of the ships were large dromons, war galleys of the kind Xena had seen in Egypt. The other was a small, fat merchant ship, riding high and empty.

The building was one large room, with a curtained-off space across one end that served as latrines. There were no bunks or sleeping pallets; people were huddled in blankets around small fires built in rings of loose stones. The place looked foul and smelled worse, the combined odors of spoiled meat, wood smoke, wet wool and straw, and unwashed humanity and its wastes melding in a stomach-wrenching miasma that almost brought Gabrielle's lunch back up. Xena's eyes darted about the space, looking for any weakness that offered an opportunity for escape. The windows were high, barred and very narrow; even Gabrielle would find it hard to squeeze through. The door was barred on the outside, and double-layered timber bound with iron. "Xena, this is no inn."

The stench suddenly got worse, sharper, nastier, as three ragged forms closed in on the women from each side. "Look what we got here," said the tall one. "Yeah, nice," the short, fat one said, stroking Gabrielle's arm. The muscular one just leered. Gabrielle took one step backward, and Xena's fist buried itself in the short man's face; he sat down in the dirty straw clutching his nose. Almost simultaneously, the tall man's wrist broke with a sickening crackle as Xena seized his fist with hers, and bent backward; he gasped, she let go, and as he was nursing his wrist she bashed in his teeth with a backhand fist, never even looking at her attacker. Xena planted her foot in the muscular man's gut, and he reeled backwards to fetch up against the wall. he recovered from the blow and was set to round on Xena again, when a dull thud sounded from behind him, his eyes rolled up in his head and he folded to the floor.

A man stood tapping a length of wood against his palm, looking down at his victim. "Ah, better these ones should never get up," he said. He looked at Xena with a grin and a sparkle in his eyes, saying "Welcome to out own little bit of Elysium." Extending a hand, he said "Me name's Brian. he led them to a space by the wall, where a woman and two small children sat huddled in blankets. The woman pointed to a blanket spread over the straw, and indicated they should sit down. "What's going on here?" Gabrielle asked the woman, as she reached into her pack for an apple. The woman watched the fruit covetously, and Gabrielle took out three more, giving them to the woman and the children. They attacked the apples voraciously.

"Don't they feed you in here? How long have you been here?"

"How long? Don' know. Year, mebbe. Ever' now an' then they haul in a pot o' slop, aht I wouldna gi' m hogs, not much t'live on."

"A year? Why?" Gabrielle was shocked. "Xena, this is a prison."

"So it would seem." She turned to the woman. "Why are you here?"

"Didn't swear."

"Swear? Swear what?"

´Llegiance. They come in on those ships, chase the pirates out. Then they say pirates're here ´cause of evil ways. make us swear to that god o' theirs, no more marriages, no men, no women together, no music, no solstice, only go to the temples when they say. Most folks went along, some o'us dint. I dint, an' Brian, he dint. He never wen' ´long with what folks told him, anyway."

"That's right." Brian said. "Always been a troublemaker. "You're welcome to share our fire," he said. "Folk need be careful in here. Some of these people's thieves. Takes from the others, we don't know who. But don't you trust anyone." He was a large, muscular man with surprisingly delicate features and ginger-colored hair down to his shoulders; his fingers were also long, agile, and thin, snaking from well-calloused hands. In the firelight his face was surprising -- it was decorated with blue lines and swirls, twisting around his eyes and lips. He put an arm around the woman and drew her close to him.

"I've seen that pattern before," said Xena. "Remember, Gabrielle?"

Too late, Xena remembered how the mention of that island might affect Gabrielle, and sure enough she felt a cold chill roll off the bard like air off a frozen stream. "No, I don't remember that." Xena wrapped her arms around the blonde, and whispered in her ear, "I'm sorry. I didn't think."

"It's all right. Not your fault. I just need to..." She put her head against her partner's shoulder and closed her eyes for a moment.

"So why should we trust you?" She turned to the tattooed man.

"An' why should we trust you, " Brian answered back. "Because you put those two buggers to rout, an' I had to do the same thing when I come here. Decent folk got to stick together, says I."

Xena nodded in a wary acknowledgment. Brian spoke again. "Actually I'm from an island near Britannia. We call it Eirghe. And how, you might ask, do I end up here? Well let me tell you..."

He spoke well, but in a strange accent; "from" came out "froom", "up" transmuted to "oop." But he was quite understandable as he launched into his story, without even being asked. Gabrielle smiled; she felt a kinship with this loquacious stranger.

"Me and me brother come here ten years ago, when our ship was wrecked on the way from Byzantium. We was pulled from the waters by some fishermen, and brought to this place. We woulda moved on, we're both the restless sort, but I kinda got involved with Filia here, it was just fun at first, but then -- well, along she comes to me one day, an' says, ´Brian', she says, ´I'm with child, and it's been nobody else but you, so I ken it's yours.' So I done me duty by her, and it wasn't so bad, and then it was wonderful, and I stayed on. She's an amazin' woman, because she's ever the only one that could make me bide in one place for any time. An bein' a da, and raising Mike, here, and Paulus, they've been the joy a' me life. So I got me a shop, and we made a good livin', ´till these thievin' heathens come along."

"What did you do?"

"Ah, carpenter, ship's carpenter I was before, but now furniture, tableware, that kind o'thing. Ah, but me pride an' joy was instruments, y'know, musical instruments. Drums, lutes, flutes, anything made a' wood, that made a sound, I'd build it. Organized a town band, y'know, an' we'd play in the square on summer nights, an' people'd come out an' dance t'our music. Them bassards put a stop to all that."

Gabrielle asked, "What happened?"

"Well, two summers ago now, Pirates began hittin' us, sail right into the harbor, bold as brass, land at the quay, rampage through the town, steal anythin' that wasn't nailed down an' burn the rest. Took some folks away -- as slaves, is my guess. But they was always hit an' run, only for a few hours. Well, me an' me brother and some others, we took to organizin' a militia, y'know, nobody here but knew nothin' ´bout warfare, so we jus' kinda went at it any which way. Got our asses kicked a few times, but we was getting better at stoppin' ´em, killed us a few, burned one a' their ships. So about a year ago these pirates come a'raidin' again, and we've got ´em bottled up at the quay, but they're fightin' hard, and these two big galleys haul ass into th' harbor, men pourin' out of ´em onto the quay. They cuts through the pirates like a hot knife through pig fat, chase ´em back to their ship an' they sails off, and never've we seen 'em from that day to this. people were grateful, as y'might imagine."

Filia broke in. "Fer a while ´twas a relief. They helped us t'rebuild our homes that th' pirates'd burned down. Kept order, like. But then -- well, things got kind o' strange."

"Strange, how?"

Filia became animated. "Well, all along they'd been preaching ´bout this god o' theirs, how he was all-knowin' an' all-seein an' such, an' a few folks got caught thievin' an' such before they was even inside the houses, so we knew they had some way a' knowin' when someone was plannin' a mischief. So then they said all our trouble was because we dint have ´llegiance to this god."

"Ammon", they call ´im," Brian said, "An' sure but how I despise that name. They called everyone together in the square, and said we had ´bomation -- was that the word? -- anyway, somethin' evil among us, an' they took Decius and Isomorus, an' they killed ´em. Right there in front of everybody."

"Who were they?"

"Oh, jus' a couple o' fellows who shared a house, never meant or did anybody any harm. Folks said they was -- well -- maybe they was unnatural but that didn't matter to no one, they were both nice boys -- but they killed ´em. Blew ´em up, burned 'em -- don' know how they did it. Then they separated all the men and the women an' said that'd have to be the way from now on, because their god didn't hold with lovin' for the fun o' it, only for babies. So they were gonna take Brian away from me."

Gabrielle was furious. "Why didn't you fight them?"

"Ah, an' sure there was a few who tried," Brian said. "But they got the same treatment, blowed up -- scared the bejeebers out of everybody. So when they demanded that everyone swear t' this god, ´most everybody did. But when they said their god wouldn't hold wi' music, that's when I said no. I wouldn't fight ´em if I could help it, I got a wife and family to care for, but they were gonna take away me livlihood and me pleasure -- me wife an' me music -- I had to say no, an' I waited for the fire to blast me to bits. But they locked us up in here instead, along with these others, and the strangers who come in from out a'town. An' here we been since that time."

"Who else have they killed?" Xena wanted to know.

"Well, there was Lissa an' Dromeda, they was two ladies that'd been together for years, they was drug out of the women's house and killed like the boys, for bein' unnatural -- an I hope you two are careful, ´cause they might go saying the same about you, if you get my meanin'. An' there was the four who wanted to get married, like in the old days, an' said if no one in the town'd do it they'd stand under Zeus' heaven an' do it themselves. But I guess maybe they didn't kill them all, except I'm not sure, I didn't see it -- we was locked up in here. Jus' heard about it from the men who haul in the slops. An' there've been others, I hear."

"Including the man they blasted when we arrived."

"How did that happen?" Brian asked.

Gabrielle described the events in the square. Brian grinned lopsidedly. "Blue turban? Tall? Thin?"

"Why, yes."

"That's Kasseris. Was Kasseris. Always grumbled about the yellows -- as we call ´em behind their backs. Guess he finally had enough. Although he was a drinkin' man, an' maybe found the lack of ale too much to bear."

"No ale?"

"No ale, no romance, no music, no dancing, no conversation that ain't about the god, no gatherin's, no books..."

"No books? What?" The bard was outraged.

"Burn 'em whenever they find ´em. Said any ideas that don't come from this god is evil."

"How do the people endure this?"

"They're scared, lassie, an' I tell you I'm scared as much as anyone. I only stood up ´cause of my music. An' because a' Carl."

"Carl?"

"Me brother. He's four years younger an' not so bright, but he's got a good heart. Music's all he knows. Handsome, he is, in kind of a puppy-dog way. Girls like ´im. Maybe he could'a made a livin' as a musician, an' I didn't want these bassards to take that away from him."

"Your brother's name is Carl?"

"Yes. Why, missie? You hear tell of him?"

Xena, who'd been silent all this time, said in a soft, deep voice, "I'm afraid we have some bad news."

There was little anyone, even Filia, could do to console Brian; he had been his brother's caretaker since childhood, and not even his marriage had ended that bond. Hs grief was the grief of a strong man, quiet, painful, and unshared. At Filia's invitation, Gabrielle and Xena wrapped themselves in their cloaks next to the family's fire, as the sounds of the caravanserai were muffled by the depth of the night. Gabrielle slept on her side, with Xena at her back, nestled together, the warrior's arm over her exhausted friend.

Xena didn't sleep, not in any continuous sense. Dozing fitfully, she kept her senses at a high pitch, remembering the two thugs who had accosted them when they entered. How many other scum would be in among the honest resistors, she wondered, and thought of ways to get out.

Whatever Democritus' friend had told him about conditions here, it wasn't half as bad as the reality.

Something woke her to full alertness; motion and sound. She carefully drew her sword from its scabbard, and raised her head to look along the length of the building.

There were figures moving there.

Figures that crept from fire to fire, crouching at each, rifling through meager posessions. Once, she saw a hand grab a man's wrist; a fist struck, the hand withdrew. The men came closer.

"Gabrielle." She shook her soulmate's shoulder. "Gabrielle, wake up."

"Eh? What is it, sweetheart?"

"Trouble."

"Naturally."

Men, men in half armor and rags, moving through the caravanserai, looting the sleeping prisoners. A thousand questions ran through Xena's mind, but foremost among them was anger and rage that these people, already victims, should be victimized further. As the pair came close to the family she'd befriended, she struck out.

The pommel of the sword came down on the back of one of the looters, and he crashed to the floor, lifeless; the crunch of the blow told of a broken neck. Gabrielle was struggling to get away from the other man, but he was twice her size and much stronger. he seized her across the throat; looking at Xena, he grated "drop the sword or she dies! I'll crush her throat!"

Xena backed off. "Okay, okay, let's just calm down here." She put the sword on the floor, and straightened; she caught Gabrielle's eyes and flicked her head up. Gabrielle caught on. Her hands on the man's arm, she pushed off with her feet, swinging her legs up until they caught on Xena's shoulders, giving Xena a clear kick at her assailant. Xena struck out with her booted foot, catching the thug in the crotch. Gabrielle heard the foul breath whoosh out of the man like an empty water skin, felt his grip loosen, and she was turned loose as the man collapsed. She found herself hanging upside down, her ankles held by Xena's strong grip, her hair brushing the floor. Xena gently let her down.

A closer look gave Xena a start. "I know this guy."

"You? You know him?" Gabrielle wasn't impressed. "Another one of your former hangers-on, I suppose?"

Xena grabbed the man's jaw and turned his face to her. "Yeah. Hello, Sitacles."

"Xena!" The man's eyes bulged. "Oh, gods..."

"Fancy meeting you here." To Gabrielle, she said, "This guy was one of the crew I sailed with --- before Caesar."

Gabrielle nodded slightly, made a silent "Oh", and rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised."

Xena snatched the man by his coarse hair. "So, Sitacles, -- you made it out alive."

"I...I escaped, Xena! Yeah -- jumped overboard before that Roman could hogtie us all -- had to swim for it! You believe me, don't ya?"

"Sitacles, you couldn't swim across a bathtub. I had to haul you out by the scruff of your neck when that shore boat capsized, remember. But your being alive does explain a lot."

"No Xena, ´twasn't me..."

"Wasn't you what?"

"Whatever you think I did..."

"What might I be thinking...not about that cache of gold and weapons in the caves south of Amphipolis -- the one I returned to a year later and found it looted -- nobody would have found it who didn't know where to look. You sold it to Caesar for your miserable hide, yes?"

"Don't kill me, please, Xena, I was just makin' a deal -- you were dead, anyway...at least, I thought...you..."

She shook his head roughly and let go of his hair. "Well, you're lucky, Sitacles, because I don't give a damn about that anymore. I'm not going to kill you." She took him by the throat. "As long as you tell me what I want to know."

Sitacles was pale in the flickering firelight. "What do you want to know?"

"What're you doing here? How'd you get in here?"

"Aw, well, Xena, man's got to look out for hisself, you know how it is...we come in here whenever they gets new ones -- relieve ´em of extra baggage. Pickin's're slim since the yellows moved in."

"No more raiding, eh? Where's your base?"

"Thasos. We row across and beach the boats under the wall."

How'd you get in?"

"I can't tell you that, they'd kill me sure..."

"And I'll kill you if you don't." She jabbed stiff fingers into his neck. "You remember how this works -- you were there when I learned it. No blood to your brain, dead in seconds -- you saw it. Now talk!"

Sitacles started to turn blue. "Tunnel -- false stone behind the latrines -- push the smallest stone closest to the wall---under the town, to the harbor."

"Let's go, Gabrielle. Wake these people up and get them organized, quietly. We're leaving."

"Xena."

"C'mon, we have to do this qu..."

Gabrielle gestured at Sitacles. Xena turned back. "Oh. Sorry." She took the pinch off and Sitacles collapsed to the floor.

The stone was there; the tunnel was there. Brian and his family followed them down the sloping passageway, Xena carrying a burning brand from the fire.

On the right was a wall of rubble. To the left, a tunnel extended, high enough for even Xena to stand erect, and wide enough for two to walk abreast. The other prisoners followed; they were staging an impromptu mass escape. The only problem was they had no idea where they were escaping to.

She led her band of refugees along the left tunnel, which widened to accommodate three people. They came to a second fork, And they paused for a moment while Xena sniffed the air. There was a palpable breeze blowing up from the tunnels ahead of them.

Xena pointed to their left. "The sea is that way. The right fork leads to the fields to the west, I think. We should get these people out of here."

"Sea, or land?" Gabrielle had been shepherding the still sleep-dazed refugees during their flight.

"Land, I think. We have no way of knowing if there's boats, and these people would do better in the countryside. Brian?"

"Aye."

"Can you lead these people to someplace safe?"

"I believe so. The farmers and the country people are still safe. The yellows haven't got around to them yet, an' they're wantin' nothin' to do with those bassards."

"Good."

The right tunnel led on, the aroma of the cool night air growing stronger. They came up against an iron door, held in place with two sliding bolts. They resisted briefly, until the pommel of Xena's sword knocked them back. The door opened on another short tunnel, then they found themselves at the mouth of a cave, an opening in the hill that supported the town. They were about halfway down the slope, overlooking a river; a ridge of debris below them showed the highest level of the river's flood. beyond the river lay fields, meadows, and woods.

"This must have been a postern gate, built for escape in case the town was taken," Xena said. "These tunnels were built by engineers, military engineers. They're cut out of solid rock and smoothed to allow carts and sledges easy passage. It was a fortress at one time. maybe Democritus' legend has a grain of truth in it."

"Most legends do," said Gabrielle. She gave Xena's arm a squeeze. "Mine do."

The night was still dark, facing west, but they knew from the position of the moon and stars that dawn was not far off. Xena told Brian, "Gabrielle and I are going back -- there's something we have to do. I may be sending you more people in a little while." She told him how to find Empedocles' farm, and then she and Gabrielle bid them goodbye and bolted the door again, after making sure the bolts could now move freely.

"We're going back for Serena and her friends, aren't we? I'm surprised they weren't in that lot."

"They're kind of special prisoners, people Donner would want to make an example of."

"Where are they, then?"

"Under the town square."

Back at the sloping tunnel that led to the caravanserai prison, stood by the wall of rubble they had passed earlier. . "That's north, "Xena said, towards the pile of rock. "We're south of the temple square, and Empedocles' letter said they were being held in cells beneath the square." maybe they're on the other side of that pile."

"How do we get there?"

"Look at the top."

They climbed up the mass of compacted stone, and at the top they found that it didn't go all the way to the ceiling. "The stone settled after it fell," Xena said, we can crawl through here and get them out this way."

They crawled through the gap, and descended on the other side into another passageway. This tunnel was rougher, cruder, and rawer, hewn from the stone with far less care and preparation, with twists and turns every ten or twenty strides. It was also lit at intervals with weakly-burning torches, a fact that Xena noted with some wariness. Sure enough, she could hear soft sounds around one turn of the tunnel, and she put Gabrielle against the wall as she crept around the turn in the torchlight. Two guards knelt on the floor, rattling bone dice and cursing at each other. Silently she came up behind them; the guards, absorbed in their assuredly illicit recreation, took no warning of her approach. She swiftly seized them by the backs of their heads and thrust their skulls together with a sickening crack.

She beckoned to Gabrielle; they stepped over the bodies and moved on. The tunnel widened into a rough-hewn chamber, and, in the torchlight, barred openings were visible. Behind them were rough, cave-like chambers, and in three of the chambers was a person. Two women, one man.

Xena recovered a ring of keys from a supine guard. Soon they had liberated and met Serena, a short, pert, redhead, and her rebellious companions. They were weak from hunger and inactivity, but pleased to be released.

According to Serena they had been fed infrequently and taken at intervals -- she said it felt like once a day -- to a side tunnel to relieve themselves. They hadn't been physically abused, but they had been simply forgotten -- the only people they ever saw was the guards. "They want us to disappear," Serena had said, and Sergio, her boyfriend, amplified. "We did the worst thing they could imagine," he said. "We tried to bring back the idea that people could be safe together, in marriages, in families. One person alone is always defeated. But two together, or more, men or women or both together, are strong. they have something to live for, to sacrifice for, something of their own -- and some king or prince or priest had better beware of that. So they try keep people apart, forbid them from sharing their lives and their strengths, and they paint sex as evil and use it as an excuse."

"Sounds like you've given this a lot of thought," Gabrielle commented.

"I've had a lot of time to think, locked up in here. And I remembered that one of my teachers in the Scholia in Byzantium had said something like it, how marriage wasn't from the gods, it was something people invented to defend themselves and their children. The gods got in on the act later."

"You studied in Byzantium?" Gabrielle asked. "Why'd you come back here?"

Sergio looked at Serena. "Her."

Serena smiled back at him, and the look they exchanged made Xena search out Gabrielle's face. "I think they wanted us around so we could eventually recant in front of the people. That's why they didn't kill us. maybe they were softening us up for torture later, or something. But I'll tell you just having to listen to those sermons every day was almost torture in itself!"

"Sermons?"

"Endlessly. Donner, preaching in a big booming voice, echoing around the walls down here. Awful. The man is a fount of absurdity, but he's slick enough to be convincing. Scary stuff."

"Hmm." Xena raised a single eyebrow, twisted her mouth. "Maybe I should check out this place. Hon, can you get them to the cave to the outside? Then come back here."

"Sure, I know the way. Be right back." She kissed Xena on the lips and left, holding a torch, the freed prisoners behind her.

"Oh, and shut the door, but don't bolt it."

While she was alone she explored the chamber. Not carved by the same engineers that had cut the much more sophisticated tunnels to the south, these passageways seemed more recent, the rock not showing the gray coating of soft dust present in the older tunnels. One side passage ended in a small round chamber with a hole in the floor. This must be the latrine, Xena thought, and dropped a small stone down the hole. It took a long time to reach the bottom, where it landed with an echoing clack, clack, clack. No wonder it doesn't stink in here, she mused -- that's one deep hole. Too deep. No one dug that -- it was here before these tunnels were made.

Back in the main prison chamber, the warrior noticed that there was now a dim, suffused light coming from another side passage, not torchlight. Following the light, she came to a narrow shaft, extending upward, where the silver light of dawn was filtering through a ceiling of badly-laid wooden boards. There was a ladder fastened to the wall of the shaft. A way out? Where? She tried to remember the geography that she had seen, and the direction they had moved underground. This is somewhere under the center of the temple square, she thought, perhaps in front of the large temple.

She heard Gabrielle softly call her name, and went back to the large central chamber to meet her. Gabrielle hugged her in relief. Xena took her to the shaft.

"I think this comes out either inside the temple or just next to it, " she said. I want to look around, see what it is Donner and his gang are really looking for."

Gabrielle looked up the ladder. "I'm game," she said, and began to climb, Xena just behind her. When they reached the top, Gabrielle thrust her hand against the boards of the ceiling. Half the woodwork lifted up, a trapdoor that led to a small, enclosed metal cage, wrought of finely cut and welded gilded iron, the metalwork forming a box-shaped basket about twice the size of a coffin. Sunlight was pouring in. Gabrielle climbed out into the box and scrunched up, leaving room for Xena to emerge. They had to close the trap door to give both of them room to fit.

Looking through the metal meshwork, they saw they were in the interior of a vast building, domed, the dome and walls pierced with windows that let the morning sunshine in. The metal box they were in seemed to be in the center of the building.

"We're in the big temple! This was the temple of Zeus before Donner's boys took it over!"

"What's this cage for?"

"It's the altar. We're inside it."

"is there any way out?"

"Just back the way we came. Not without dismantling the thing, anyway."

"maybe we'd better get out of here."

Just then a gong sounded. Xena, watching the open space before the altar, saw the massive front doors open. People began to file in; they were all women. Morning devotions, she guessed. the men must meet in a different temple. Or at a different time, different day...

"Hold still! There's people out there. If we don't move the meshwork will hide us. Looks like we get to hear the service." Gabrielle slowly laid herself down next to Xena, watching the proceedings.

The women in the sanctuary dropped to their knees in unison, their eyes downcast. Donner appeared on the raised stage of the temple, back to the altar, raised his arms, and began to speak.

"Blessings of the Sun God to all who hear his holy words this day!

"I speak to you today of the life of woman, the sacred vessel, the holy gift. The Sun gives life, and it is through woman that life is born anew; thus is a true sister of the Sun blessed. It is as mothers that you were made, and it is for motherhood alone that you are destined. Revel in your isolation, O daughters of Ammon, that you only know the rough hand of men as the instrument of your fertility! A woman is of three parts, body, heart, and soul. The sun god already owns your souls, as he has from the beginning of time. Devote your hearts to his service, and your bodies to purity. Soil yourselves not for the sake of fleeting pleasure, the curse of the dark ones. Men see women only as instruments of dark pleasure, it is in their nature. When men and women associate, women are degraded! A man will see you only as a prancer, a seductive distraction from his devotion to the spirit! Truly I say to you, woman is the source of all temptation, and temptation the source of all evil..."

Gabrielle hissed in Xena's ear. "I've heard enough. Let's get out of here."

"Suits me. Open that trap, Quietly!"

"That blowhard's making enough noise to drown out a herd of stampeding cattle."

Xena nudged Gabrielle's shoulder. "Go!"

"I can't!"

"What'dya mean you can't?"

"The trap won't open. It's stuck!"

"You're kidding."

"Would I kid about that? Xena give me...damn, stupid thing..."

"All right...listen, Gabrielle. Squirm up here on top of me, between my legs."

"This is a fine time to get horny!"

"Is there ever a bad time? That's not it."

"Oh."

"Don't look so disappointed. I'll push against the top of the altar with my feet, and I should be able to break the trap open. We might fall all the way down the shaft -- I'll try to grab the ladder. But if we land on the floor, I'll cushion you."

"And who cushions you?"

"I'm the one in the armor, remember?"

"Uh..yeah. But...!"

Xena kissed her and at the same time thrust upward with powerful thighs, straining with her feet against the top of the altar. she heard the crack and rip of wood joints giving way, felt her legs stretching...

The top of the altar popped off, sunlight from the windows streaming down on them. There was a silent pause.

Xena threw Gabrielle upward, sprang to her feet. Might as well make the most of this, she thought, and shouted to Gabrielle "get these women out of here!" Gabrielle dodged to the floor of the sanctuary as the acolytes and guards rounded on her at Donner's order.

An insane melee developed, with Xena at its center. Yellow-robed bodies rushed in, and were almost as quickly bounced out to lie dazed on the floor as Xena spun out a series of roundhouse kicks and punches that couldn't be seen, only felt. She hadn't even drawn her sword, and already had the advantage over twenty men. Finally she had kicked a clear path between her and Donner. The priest reached into a fold of his robe, and hurled an object at Xena; she dodged the flying projectile and was knocked down as a roaring blast smashed a hole in the wall behind her, dust and debris covering her. Good thing I'm still fast, she thought, or I'd be just little bits now.

She rose, shedding dust and fragments of stone, to see Donner disappearing through a door in the rear of the temple. She followed, but the door was slammed shut, and she found that it was as unyielding as the wall itself; she couldn't pursue any further. She turned and ran out the main door to the square to find Gabrielle.

The bard was having her own problems, as she was being chased around the square by a dozen guards, with hundreds of women screaming, dashing around the square in random directions. Gabrielle wouldn't fight the guards, but she wasn't going to stand still and let herself be captured, either. She ducked behind pillars and posts, up and down porches, knowing Xena would be out as soon as she could and they could both get out of here. Finally the warrior appeared in the center of the square, slugged one guard, kicked another, and grabbed Gabrielle around the waist. "Hold on!" she said in the bard's ear, and, gathering her powerful legs in a crouch, sprang for the top of the wall with a fast, snapping flip, Gabrielle held firmly against her stomach. Xena's feet came down on the rampart, then, with another, lazier roll, flipped over the wall to the ground below, rolling down the grassy slope to the flat ground outside the city walls. They pelted off to the relative safety of the trees.

Looking at each other, they both broke into laughter. they were both filthy, covered with dirt and grime, Xena white with the plaster dust from the temple, and both streaked with green stains from sliding in the grass. Gabrielle held up the folds of the sari and said "I will never get this clean."

"Sure you will. It'll just take a whole day to beat on a rock and a whole day to dry."

"And I walk around naked for two days?"

Xena grinned. "I don't mind. Not at all."

"In your dreams."

"Always."

Xena looked back at the city walls. "Guess we'll have to head for the country a little bit early."

"Seems so. You remember how to get to Empedocles' farm?"

"Yup. Follow me."

"Anywhere."

Gabrielle put the mug down on the table with a satisfied thump. "That's very good ale, Parakes," she said.

"Thanks, your Majesty," the old man said through his beard. "Want another?"

"No, thanks very much. But I do think I'll have some more of this bread and cheese, if you don't mind."

"As you wish, your Majesty, enough for everybody." Parakes had been calling Gabrielle "your Majesty" at every opportunity since he'd been told she was Queen of the Amazons. He'd said he'd never entertained royalty before, with an air that made it hard to tell if he was seriously in awe or merely being sarcastic.

"Brew the beer myself, bake the bread myself, Ampo here milks the cows, but I make the cheese. Got everything we need right here. Always do for yourself, I say. That way you don't have to do for anybody else, but you can if you want to."

"Come now, uncle, you're not so independent," said Empedocles, sitting across the table. "You've got a barn full of tools and implements you didn't make."

"On with you, that was a good swap, and we do it all the time. Michael the Smith, just up the river, he takes our barley and beef and beer and gives us back tools. What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing at all, uncle. You just don't live in a vacuum, that's all."

"Does a vacuum really exist?" mused Democritus into his empty mug.

"Ah, that's not what I mean. I just mean there's no intermediary, no taxman or magistrate or governor's man in on the deal, just Mike and I. Old friends, no fuss, we trust each other ´cause we've known each other all our lives. Don't need a town's reeve or mayor to tell us what to pay and where."

Xena broke in. "So you've had no interference from Abdera?"

"Oh, sometimes we'd get folks riding out here, you know, youngsters out from under their parents, spend a couple of days in the country. But no one official. We're too far up in the heather to be of any bother to them."

Someday, Xena thought, Someday when these bones get too old and sore to fight, maybe Gabrielle and I'll find a place like this, a place where I can breathe and she can be safe and happy. The farm was well up in the hills, spread over the wide top of a flat, bald hill with a wide prospect all around, and acres of open space to grow crops, graze cattle, and ride at full tilt until she and the horse were both tired. They kept chickens and pigs and rabbits here, and grew barley and rye and oats and vegetables; there was a small spring that rose on a mound at the north end of the fields, ran through the farm in a crystal stream, and descended to the river below in a white ribbon of waterfall, paralleling the path up which they had ridden to get to the farm. Assuming I live that long, the warrior concluded cynically to herself. Assuming I ever deserve that kind of peace.

"No one at all?"

"Oh, sometimes there's'a a boatload of men from the town, I guess, rowing up the stream past here. You can see ´em from the gate. And then a few days later they float back down the stream again. Don't know what they're doing, and I don't ask. Mind my own business, and that's what I recommend to everyone. We all got enough troubles of our own without sticking our hands into other people's."

Xena smiled. the old man was an amusing combination of profound wisdom and country-bumpkin philosophy, but a kind and decent soul who'd balked not at all at offering hospitality to Xena, Gabrielle, Democritus and the refugees from the prison, who were now camped in the byres and barns. Xena and Gabrielle had a small room to themselves, in the rambling log house that had been built by Empedocles' parents and Parakes and his late wife. According to Empedocles -- "Ampo" to his uncle -- they had lived happily in the house for years, raising children and working the farm, until both his parents had taken sick and died. Parakes and his wife had raised him to manhood. Parakes wife had died a few years before, and the children had scattered to the four winds, leaving only Empedocles, and a cousin named Lyla and her ten-year old son, Dennis.

Gabrielle had said to the young mother, "I have a sister named Lila. Do you spell it the same way?"

Lyla spelled her name. "Oh, so it is different", Gabrielle had said. Well, you don't look anything like her, anyway." Xena had leaned over and whispered in the bard's ear "neither do you." This had earned the warrior a gentle slap on the arm and a kiss, later.

Just to keep the old man talking, Xena asked casually, "How's the fishing around here?"

"Ah, lousy." Parakes snorted. "Used to be you could get a whole string of fish for a few hours angling. But about a year ago some sickness took the fish -- you could see their dead bodies floating down the river. Water smelled foul for a while, sour, like. I've talked about damming the spring stream and making a fish pond, stocking it, you know, but that's one of those chores that always has to wait for more important things."

As they passed the time at the table, picking at the remains of their dinner, Xena receded into silence, in a way that her partner recognized as a symptom of deep thought. What is that devious mind cooking up now? And she says I get into trouble.

 

 

Bard, warrior and scholars gathered around the fire in the large front room after dinner, while the others went off to bed. Gabrielle handed cups of hot cider around and asked, "What's on your mind, Xena?"

The warrior looked into her cup absently. "Thasos."

"Thasos?" Empedocles raised an eyebrow. "The pirate island?"

"Yeah. Before we escaped, I ran into a...ah...former associate of mine. He said he'd been operating from Thasos. I just wonder if there's a connection between the pirates, Donner's group, and Abdera. "

"What kind of connection?"

Xena's face twisted. "I don't really know. It's just a feeling in my gut. Donner and his gang seem like a bunch of religious nuts, but...I wonder why they're here. Why this town."

"Do fanatics need a reason, Xena?" asked Democritus. "They provide their own reasons, it seems."

"I don't know. Wish I knew more about these pirates hat they chased away. Apparently chased away."

Gabrielle caught Xena's tone. "You think the piracy was...convenient?"

"Not sure, and I don't want to say until I am sure. I heard someone say once that guessing is bad for the logical ability. I'd like more facts."

Xena...what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking I might...well. lat's go to bed, Gabrielle. We can talk about this in the morning."

In their room, Xena held Gabrielle in her arms for a long embrace. Xena took Gabrielle's face in both her hands. "I have to go to Thasos. I want you to stay here."

"Oh, no. You are not leaving me behind again. Xena, I thought we'd had this out..."

"Gabrielle, listen to me. You want to keep to your Way, right?"

"Yes, of course."

"And your way is Truth, yes?"

"Yes..."

"And Love? And Nonviolence?"

"Yes. But what does that have to do with..."

"Love, Thasos is more of a den of thieves, scum and villainy that even Trachus ever was. While I'm there I won't be able for one minute to tell the truth, nobody believes in the power of love, and there's likely to be more violence than in the Trojan War. You just wouldn't fit in, sweetie."

Gabrielle pouted. "You only call me that when you want me to do something I don't want to do."

"I need you to stay here to keep an eye on things. Find out everything you can from all these people, maybe we'll figure out what Donner really wants. This whole charade can't be just for the fun of it."

"You said it yourself -- he's a religious fanatic. he doesn't need a reason."

"Nah, I don't think so. Some of the people around him, maybe, but Donner strikes me as a cold character, he's got some mercenary motive here that we're missing. See what you can find out. And try to stay out of trouble. I don't think I'll be gone longer that three or four days."

I'll miss you." She softened as Xena kissed her, gently at first, like the touch of a butterfly, then with more strength as her passion grew.

The warrior took Gabrielle's lip softly between her teeth, then let go. "I'm leaving in the morning," she murmured. "We've got all night."

Gabrielle's tongue sought out her lover's. "Mmmmh. All night. How can we possibly pass the time?"

They rose before dawn, and Gabrielle accompanied Xena to the stable to saddle Argo. "Thasos is an island, Xena. How do you plan to get there?"

It's only two parts of a league offshore. I'll buy a boat. Or borrow one. Hades, Gabrielle, I can swim there if I have to."

"Brrr. Well...be careful. I wish I was going with you."

"No you don't. You'd rather I stayed here in bed with you."

"You do too."

"Yes, I do. But I have to do this and I have to do it alone. Organize these refugees, Gabrielle. get them feeding themselves, hunting, find out what you can do to help hem get their town and their lives back. I'll be back soon -- a few days. believe me, I don't want to be gone any longer than I have to." She kissed her love goodbye, mounted, and rode off into the dawn.

Gabrielle's organizational skills were less in demand than Xena had thought. the refugees had sorted themselves out into families, and had begun the work of finding food, improving shelter and maintaining sanitation. There were two men in the group who had been in battle before, and had begun to train their fellow refugees to fight. Realistically, Gabrielle acknowledged that this was probably going to be necessary; as much as she deplored violence, and rejected it as contrary to her spiritual Way, she recognized that sometimes it was unavoidable. She simply could not dedicate herself to it any longer.

She asked the townspeople many questions, and pieced together bits of stories that gave her the impression that Abdera was just an ordinary town of no particular importance. Why should Donner's men concentrate their efforts there? Clearly,the wealth of the town -- the trade in gold from the Amazons -- was an attraction but, given that, why didn't they just loot the town and leave?

The people of Abdera had causally worshipped their gods, lived their lives, until misfortune had descended upon them. Some were genuinely afraid that the gods had abandoned them; Ammon seemed like a powerful alternative protector. Others weren't happy with the new god, but were afraid of the destructive power of his priests; and some few others, according to the stories Gabrielle heard, were all too happy to cooperate with the invaders, enforcing their new and radical rules while accepting positions of authority over their erstwhile friends and neighbors.

Over the ensuing days others filtered into the farm, refugees who had fled the city in the earliest days of the invasion and had hidden in the countryside. The leaders of the refugees had sent out scouts to find these people, and gather them in. The farm was assuming the aspect of an armed camp, a fact about which Parakes both grumbled and gave encouragement at the same time; grumbled at the effect so many people had on his land, and encouraged because he felt that what happened in the town was stupid, evil and dangerous. for all his talk of rugged individualism, Parakes knew that if his neighbors were in trouble, he was too.

On a warmer day, Democritus and Gabrielle leaned on the fence by the gate, listening to the hiss of the waterfall, and watching the river go by. Democritus was doodling with a piece of charcoal on a board, drawing diagrams. Gabrielle looked at his work; there as a sketch that looked like a plan of the town. "What are you doing?" She asked.

"Trying to reconstruct the tunnels you guys described. I wonder if that underground stream exists and where it might be. maybe the tunnels are related."

"Why is the stream important?"

"Because it's hidden."

"And you think that Xena's right? That something hidden in the town is why Donner's people stay?"

"It makes sense."

"Look there." gabrielle pointed to a boat rounding a bend in the river to the south, rowing upstream against the current. She watched the boat's slow progress up the river. there were four men in the boat, one of then, hatless, seated in the stern. Obviously an important personage, he wasn't rowing. Hmm...that bald head...stocky arms..."

"Democritus, that man looks like -- he looks like the priest who killed a man in the village square the day we arrives in town. What would he be doing up the river?"

Dennis, the young son of Empedocles' cousin, came up to the fence and watched through the rails. He'd been leading a donkey to haul firewood, and now he and the animal stood silently beside the two adults. He'd been very quiet while Xena and Gabrielle had been there, but Gabrielle had managed to befriend him in a sort of silent way, showing him how she wrote stories and teaching him some of hers, and making up new ones for him. Now he spoke without being addressed.

"Old farm up there. that's where they go."

"Dennis, you know where they go?"

"Told ya. Old farm. Nobody there now. But they goes up there now and then."

Gabrielle gave Democritus a look. To Dennis she said, "Could you show us where?"

"Sure." It's over that hill. He pointed to the north.

"How far?"

"Far."

"How long?"

Morning, walking, with Blitzen."

"What's Blitzen?"

The boy looked at Gabrielle with a ten-year-old's expression of exasperation at how dumb grown-ups can be. Before he could reply, Democritus answered her. "Parakes named him. Parakes traveled a lot, in the northlands. It means ´lightning' in one of the northmen's languages. It's a joke. He's the slowest animal on the farm."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, forced a laugh. "Ah. I see." To Dennis, she said could you show us? Now?"

"Can I take Blitzen? Get some more wood?"

"Sure."

The boy led them over the hill that bounded the north end of the farm, then over a series of low ridges. After an hour or two they topped a small rise covered with trees. Dennis pointed out to them an old, low stone barn with a wooden roof, near the water's edge. The men they had seen in the boat were there, loading sacks into the boat. Gabrielle watched them lock up the barn, slide the boat back into the water, and drift downstream. when they were out of sight around a bend, they crept up to the barn, leaving Dennis and the donkey concealed in the trees. The door of the barn, was closed with a large padlock. Gabrielle picked the lock with the tip of Democritus' dagger, and they eased the door aside.

"Where did you learn to do that?"

"Xena has many skills. She's a good teacher, too."

"I guess."

It took a few moments for they eyes to adjust to the gloom, and they then took in the strange furnishings inside the structure.

Against one wall were stacked canvas sacks, covered with a white dust. Against the other wall were bales of white fluff, wrapped in sisal rope and burlap. Gabrielle recognized the fluff as cotton, which in India was used to make a fine, light fabric. Her sari was made of it. The sacks of white powder were a mystery to her. Democritus recognized it, however.

"Nitre."

"What?"

"Nitre. What the Romans call saltpeter. They use it in making liquid stone. You know, for the foundations of buildings, bridges, that kind of thing."

"How did you know that?"

"I studied Al-khemi, the Black art -- that's what the Arabs call it. The Egyptian arts. How to change one thing into another. Powders, philtres, poultices. Metals, salts, that kind of thing. They use nitre for a lot of things -- mummies, especially. All that started in Egypt."

"What would they be using it for here?"

"I don't know. Maybe that thing can tell us."

He indicated a complicated apparatus in the middle of the barn, consisting of what looked like tanks made of clay and of metal, connected by long and short lengths of tubing. There were several wooden barrels of water lined up in a row, with tubing going into them. Democritus lifted the lid of the large tank, which sat over a cold fire pit, and rubbed his fingers on it, scraping off a white residue. "I think I see."

"See what?"

"What's in that locked bin over there?"

"Let's find out."

Gabrielle took out her dagger again and worked at the lock on a large crib against a short wall of the barn. Democritus took her wrist. "Be careful. Don't make any sparks."

Inside were bundles of cotton, not different in appearance from the burlap-wrapped bales they had already seen. The crib was lined with lead sheets, and the cotton was loosely packed. Democritus carefully pulled off a small bit of the fluff, and took it outside in the sunshine, well away from the barn and the dead guard. He laid it on a rock, and stepped back with another rock in his hand. He tossed the small rock; it struck the wad of cotton.

The cotton exploded.

A bang, a flash of flame, a puff of smoke, and small fragments of rock went zinging by, hissing like angry wasps as they passed. A fragment struck Gabrielle's armband.

Gabrielle's eyes were wide. "What is Hades' name is that? It's not black powder but it sure acts like it!"

Democritus pondered. "I think I know. In Egypt there's a rock called the Salt of Ammon, and if you try to burn it it does the same thing. It smells kind of like that barn. I think what they do is heat the nitre, then collect the fumes in those water barrels, then soak the cotton in it and dry it. If you strike it, or throw it against something, it explodes."

"And this is how they're casting fire at people. This could do the kind of damage we saw -- literally tear the chest out of a person."

"Exactly."

Gabrielle looked around the barn. "Maybe we should cut off their supply of miracles."

Democritus looked at her, wide eyed. "Are you serious?"

"What would happen if we set a fire in here?"

"This barn and everything in it would be blown clear to Mt. Olympus. And us too."

"Not if we were far enough away."

"How?"

An hour later the barn was strewn with the explosive cotton, which Gabrielle and Democritus had carefully teased out into long festoons, tugging and pulling, looking for all the world like two sheep trying to tango. they had to work gently, or they would have, as Democritus said, been company with Zeus, Aphrodite, Cupid, and all the other heavenly beings. Gabrielle collected several bags of the stuff. Democritus asked, What's that for?".

"The future," Gabrielle said.

They walked until they could look down on the barn, now four hundred paces behind them, from a low height. There was a sturdy young sapling on the rise, and Gabrielle started to climb the tree.

"What are you doing?" Democritus asked, irritated, both emotionally and physically -- the nitre dust had made him start to itch all over.

"Climb up here with me!" Gabrielle rasped, "I'm not heavy enough!"

"That tree can't hold both of us!"

"That's the idea. Climb on up!"

Democritus gulped as he watched the blonde sway in the tree, then set his foot to a low branch. The tree swayed even more as he climbed, gradually bending the flexible trunk until the top of the tree touched the ground. They held the tree in place while Dennis positioned a stone, wrapped in the deadly cotton, in the crook of the branches. When it was secure, Dennis went back to hold Blitzen's bridle and fold down his ears, as Democritus had warned him to do. They let go and stepped back. The tree snapped up and the projectile carried, in a graceful arc, right into the wide-open doorway of the barn.

The roar and the blast knocked them down, even so far away. a cloud of dust and debris hid the building, and chunks of stone and wood and metal pipe and chunks of clay flew high into the air and landed with resounding thuds all around the site of the blast. The donkey started and tried to bolt, but the three of them kept him under control. As the dust settled, only the outline of the foundation could be discerned; the thick stone walls had disappeared, leveled to the ground, and the wooden framework of the roof was now just so much kindling, blazing in the crater left by the explosion.

"Mighty gods!" Democritus was awestruck. It's as if Zeus and Ares combined their powers of destruction..."

Gabrielle brushed herself off. "Yeah. But it wasn't an act of the gods. It was an act of Gabrielle and Democritus."

"So men can have the powers of gods. I always believed that could be true."

"Well, I guess it is. Right now we have some gods that need dethroning."

They carefully loaded the dangerous bags into Blitzen's panniers and headed back to the farm.

"If it isn't the Warrior Princess of Kalmai."

Xena let her mouth curl. "It's been a long time since anybody's called me that, Aloris."

"I've heard some things about you. Makes me wonder why you're here." The pirate chief poured a cup of wine for them both. Xena noticed the seal on the bottle.

"Syracusan wine. You're living well, Aloris."

""It was a good season. Not too many storms, some fat merchantmen. Rome's good for business."

"Rome?"

"You know. As long as I kick back something to the local sea tribune, we have a pretty good time of it. We've got it down to a business, Xena. very profitable."

"But not as much fun."

"True."

So what have you heard?"

"That you lost your army. Some people say you've turned into a do-gooder."

"Win their trust, and you can shear them like sheep. I've learned to be more subtle as I got older. There's profit in people thinking you're nice."

"What about that army?"

"These things happen. Don't tell me it hasn't happened to you. What about that mutiny at Lemnos? Anyway, Darphus is long dead. I'm ready to go back to sea."

"So what do you want from me?"

"A ship, a crew."

Aloris stood up and stepped behind Xena's chair, drank his wine. "That's a lot, Xena. And what's in it for me?"

"Half my profits."

He put his hand on her shoulder. "Nothing more?"

"That's my offer for now."

"I heard you had a friend. A little blonde friend." She felt his thumb caress her cheek.

"What of it?"

"Oh rumours, stories. That you and she were...more than friends."

"Oh, her. She was just a plaything. A body slave I bought in some half-assed village. She amused me for a while, but I sold her off."

"So there's nothing standing between...you and me."

"Aloris..let's keep this to business for now..."

"Maybe this is business. Xena, maybe I'm ready to give you your ship for half your profit. But you're part of the price."

She stood and turned to him. "What makes you think I'm for sale?"

"You want something from me. I want something from you. Maybe we can make an arrangement."

"And you think I'd say yes now, when I said no so many times before?"

He fondled her hair. "Times change. People change."

"Maybe they have. Maybe I have." She put her hands on his shoulders and caressed him, inclined her head, brought her lips close to his.

Four fingers thrust savagely into his neck. She caught him as he collapsed to the floor.

"But not the way you think."

In less than a minute he was bound, gagged, and the ring of keys at his belt in Xena's hands, then secured between her breasts. She took the pinch off and thrust him into a closet, barred the door with heavy furniture. She partially unlaced her leathers, unclipped one armor strap, disheveled her hair.

 

What a babe, the guard muttered under his breath as Xena stepped quietly outside Aloris' door. From the looks of her the boss worked her over real good. Wouldn't mind knocking off a piece of that myself.

She smiled stickily at the guard. "He's asleep. let him rest -- he...indulged a little bit more than was good for him."

She was putting herself back together as she said this, and the guard's attention was completely focused on the bits of warrior that went briefly astray here and there. She noticed him leering and her expression became icy. His bowels turned to water. "Sorry, friend. Not for you. Not today."

She was gone before he could say a word.

Gabrielle visited the Amazon camp that night. She warned Solari about the explosive weapon the invaders had at their disposal, and she left the bags with them for safekeeping. "This is totally secret," she told Solari. Don't let anybody know about it."

"What are you going to do with his stuff?"

"I'm not sure, but I have an idea. Wait till Xena comes back."

It had taken Xena three days to get as far as Aloris, and now, with his keys in her hands, and the pirates sleeping off their traditional evening drunk, she crept through the camp of rude huts to the treasury, a substantial building of double-walled timber and no windows. It wasn't guarded; the stout door and multiple locks assured Aloris that his booty was safe. She let herself in; she took a torch from a rack on the wall and lit it.

Chests and barrels met her eye, some were sealed and locked, but some were open. She was not too surprised to find that the treasure was rather lean; coppers and silver, very little gold and jewels. Aloris had been trying to recruit her, then, with his stories about prosperous voyages. These pirates were hurting.

She needed to work fast. Letters, papers. They must be here somewhere. She rifled chests and cabinets, working quickly. Aloris might take a while to get loose, but when he did there'd be Hades to pay. It would've been safer to have killed him, but now she could truthfully say to Gabrielle that she hadn't killed anybody in cold blood. Hnh. Maybe she had changed. More than she realized.

 

"Gabrielle." The bard was sitting in front of the fire, writing in her diary scroll, when Democritus called her name. She looked up. "What is it?"

"I think I figured it out."

"What?"

"Where the stream is. The underground stream."

"How did you do that?"

"I tried to think of how the tunnels were laid out. They aren't very deep. But the prison -- there's a deep hole there."

"The latrine?"

"Yes! Look..."

He spread a large piece of parchment before her, on which he had sketched a map. "Here. The prison was under the temple square, yes? And the tunnels ran southwest and southeast. But there's no tunnel running north. Could in have stopped there for a reason?"

"Why is this important?"

"Like I said before, it's hidden. It's something everyone knows as a story, but it's never been found. Maybe there's more to the story than we know, but Donner does know."

"What would it be?"

"I don't know. But maybe we should go look."

"Look? You mean sneak in through the tunnels."

"Yes. We need to explore this."

"But won't the tunnels be guarded? Especially now, that so many people escaped?"

"Do Donner's people even know about the tunnels?" Democritus asked.

"Of course they...Hmmm. They dug the prison chamber from above. They don't know about the bigger tunnels to the south...". the bard, her face screwed up in concentration.

"The south tunnels were blocked by rubble. They probably didn't notice the gap at the top. They took them in there through the altar shaft."

Or maybe there's some other entrance we didn't find.

"maybe. We could get in the door you came out of, climb over that rubble you told me about, and get in. We could take a rope and let ourselves down the hole..."s

Gabrielle grimaced. "Yuch."d

"If I'm right it won't be that bad. I think the stream flows right under that hole."

"This is crazy. We don't even know if it exists."

"Don't you think it does? You've talked to these people. They believe it."

"But it's a legend."

"All legends contain a grain of truth -- you said so more than once."

"All right. Let's go down there and see."

The water was bitter cold, and the waves kept buffeting her. She tried to swim a regular stroke, trying to keep the moon over her left shoulder. The armor was heavy in the water, but she kept up her stroke, the oilskin package pressed close to her skin under the leathers. How long before the ships caught up with her? She had a long head start, but they could row faster than she could swim. She could only hope they'd miss her in the darkness and the roughness of the sea.

"This is the rubble pile." Gabrielle raised the torch. There's a gap at the top. It's hard to see from here, but it's there."

They clambered up the rock as quietly as they could, and paused at the gap. Gabrielle had exchanged her sari for a pair of leather breeches and a warm wool tunic, courtesy of Lyla. They were a little big on her, but she was less exposed. "Do you hear anything on the other side?"

"No. Let's go over." She slid through the gap, moving carefully down the loose stone slope to the tunnel floor.

"There's no torches. No guards." Democritus looked at her. "I thought you said there were torches."

"No one to guard, no guards, no torches. They've abandoned the place since the prisoners escaped, maybe."

"Let's find that latrine."

"Down here, this way." She led him down the short side corridor, and they found the hole that the prisoners had used. "fasten that rope over there, against those bars."

Democritus tied the rope off, and they let the end down through the hole. Gabrielle gestured. "After you."

"Ladies first."

"It was your idea."

"Just kidding."

Democritus squeezed himself into the hole, and began shinnying down the rope. gabrielle heard him grunt and wheeze as he let himself down. The rope began to move back and forth, and finally she heard him call up. "Don't go straight down! Swing to the side!"

She slid down into the hole. The stone floor was only a few hands thick, then she was in the open space below. She felt her hair ruffled by moving air, and as she lowered herself down she felt the rope tighten under her; Democritus was dragging her to the side of the cavern, avoiding the area directly under the hole.

When she reached the bottom she saw why. Under th hole was an open pond, dark in the torchlight and noisome with stench of sewage. Below the pond was another wall of stone, rubble which dammed the water and blocked any access beyond. On the other side of the pond...

Was brilliance. Glorious, golden planes reflected the torchlight. The floor of the cavern was cut by a stream, which flowed into the dark, foul pond and then out through cracks and gaps in the rubble dam. the banks of the stream were a fairy show of reflected light, and the golden planes and blocks spread along the floor in glittering patterns. Gabrielle was fascinated. "Is it gold?"

Democritus knelt down to examine the crystalline growths. "No. It's false gold. You find it in iron mines. Miners sometimes think it's the real thing. I wonder..."

Democritus bent over the clear water upstream from the pool. As he was about to touch it, an echoing voice said "Don't!"

Gabrielle's heart paused for a moment, then resumed beating. Of all the voices in the world...

"Xena!"

The warrior appeared from the upper depths of the cavern, where the stream emerged. She was a mess, her hair matted, her arms and legs marked with cuts and bruises. gabrielle couldn't have been more surprised if her lover had appeared in a puff of smoke.

"Where did you come from?" She cried, as she embraced the warrior. Xena held her close while Democritus looked at the ground.

"Well, Amphipolis, but I've been..."

Gabrielle slapped her rump. "You're mean! You know what I'm talking about!"

"I followed the stream from its source."

"It's source?"

"The iron mines."

"How did you know it was there?"

"Let's get out of here. I'll show you."

They were warm in front of the fire again, clean, dry, and fed, Xena telling them about her adventure. "I found these letters and maps at Thasos. It seems things there were being run by an old...ah, friend of mine. So I got him to let me in on his little scam here."

"You didn't kill him, did you?"

"No." Being tied up in a closet won't kill a man. If he's let out soon enough.

"So what did you find?"

Among other things, a letter from Donner to my...associate. Telling him about the gold and the stream legend, and proposing an alliance."

Democritus asked, "An alliance?"

"The pirates raid the town, and Donner and his men come in and save the day, are welcomed as heroes, and take over."

"What was with the stream?"

"It's poisoned."

"Poisoned?! How?"

Democritus only gave us part of the legend. It's all he knew. The stream rises up in the hills, here the mines were dug, and flows underground until it empties into the sea under the town wall. Seems the iron mining released some kind of poison into the water, a poison that affects people's ability to think. If you take it in over a long period of time, you can't think clearly any more."

"So the people of Abdera got stupid because they drank the water from that stream?"

"Seems that the town drew its water from the stream, until s few people, people who hadn't been in the town to drink the water, caught on to what was happening. Isn't that right, Parakes?"

Xena looked up to see the old man standing in the doorway. He didn't speak. She pressed on.

"You were in Germania, in the north. You were in the Roman army, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"Engineer?"

"Yes."

"It was you who supervised cutting the escape tunnels, wasn't it? And you who blocked off the access to the underground river?"

"We all agreed. Polyartes, Suetonus, and I. We were all in the army."

"And when you came back, after so many years, you found your people incapable of running a town. You wondered what happened."

"I knew what happened. Lead miner's disease. I'd seen it in the north. We were afraid if we told anybody they'd panic, there'd be riots and violence. So we cut tunnels into the sides of the wells, found the stream, and filled the wells with rubble."

Gabrielle piped in. "And when Donner and his people dug that new dungeon, they uncovered the old well."

Xena agreed. "But they didn't know what it was, even though they were looking for it."

"Why were they looking for it?"

"To use as a weapon." Xena unfolded a piece of parchment.

This is a letter from Donner to Aloris, the pirate king. "Imagine what we can do, my seagoing friend. Mix this endless supply of tainted water with a town's pure water supply, and the population becomes docile and passive, easily conquered. It wold reduce resistance to the level of incompetent peasants."

 

"But why the fake religion?"

"Gabrielle, I don't think it's fake. I think the people who came with Donner honestly believe those ideas. Donner is a con man who's conned everybody, including his followers. I'll bet he latched on to this religion in Egypt, talked his way to the priesthood, and then started negotiating with the pirates after he heard about Abdera through the jokes and stories. And there's another thing."

"What's that?"

"You've been watched. There's been spies among the people of Abdera for years."

"Years? Then this thing was in the planning for a long time."

"Yep." Xena grinned her evil grin. "And one good plan deserves another."

Gabrielle grinned back at her spouse. "And I'll just bet you have one."

"Part of one. I need you guys to help me with it...and one more person...well -- speak of Ares..."

They all looked up as Solari appeared in the doorway. "We're all here now. Listen to this and rip it apart..."

Shadows moved up the slope, to the unlatched postern door. Parakes and his men had anticipated a mass exodus, wit the people and their posessions and animals. Xena wondered if they'd envisioned it in the other direction...

Did the citizens and their oppressors have any idea what was happening beneath their town?

Gabrielle had camped out in a lot worse places, but she had always had Xena with her. Now alone in the musty bell tower, overlooking the square,all she could do was wrap herself in her cloak and wait for the dawn. Democritus was a friend and good company, but it wasn't the same. Oh well. The greater good...

Xena's intelligence said the invaders were spread thin -- she estimated no more than eighty men, and she confirmed this ny the presence of only two warships in the harbor. "Those can carry no more than fifty, forty in comfort or for any length voyage. If they came all the way from Egypt, then it's the smaller number."

"What if they came from Thasos?" Democritus had asked.

"Then we're going to get more of a fight. But I hope to make it very shaky for them."

"What are you going to do, exactly?"

Xena put her hand on his shoulder, Democritus, old friend, Galen tried to make me out to be a god. Some people think so now."

"So?"

"So, I'm gonna let ´em."

So Democritus, Xena, and Gabrielle had made their way into the caravanserai, ahead of twenty amazons dressed in rags, and scurried across the square to the tower, up the stairway in the darkness, and then to the platform on the top. Xena, leading, had silently disposed of the lookout. She left Gabrielle and Democritus to sleep, wrapped in their blankets, until the dawn should wake them.

Darkness covered many movements; stealth was aided by overconfidence of the enemy. By dawn everyone was where they were supposed to be.

Dawn.

A majestic figure, clad in dark leather and brandishing a sword, raven hair streaming out in the morning breeze, stood on the rampart above the main gate. The rising sun glinted off her armor and the naked blade, drawing the attention of the early risers who stared and pointed. As they watched she declaimed in a voice that carried over the town.

"People of Abdera! I am Xena, the Destroyer. I see into the rotten heart of your city! The gods have told me all about you, how you have surrendered to false gods! I see, and I know!"

Her name passed among the gathering crowd, and she pointed at them, recognizing a face here and there from the drawings the spies had made and sent to Aloris' headquarters. they were crude, but they gave clues to distinctive features -- a bald head with a birthmark, a luxuriant handlebar mustache.

"Spirales!" A fat man jerked his head up. "Spirales the wool merchant! how much is a pound, Spirales? You've been cheating people for years with that trick scale of yours? Hymenoptera! You and Deucales were lucky! You husband was almost ready to find you out -- your little affair is no secret to me! And magistrate Leucamon -- how many bribes did it take to build that house?"

"There are those among you who are corrupt in your little ways! But the wrath of the gods is at its worst against those who betrayed their neighbors! Serates! Philemon! Bisanthus! Agrippina! Orenton! Look for these, they are spies for the false god!"

She saw a movement in the crowd at the far end of the square. The crowd was restive, each turning to the ones next to him to see if any of those she had named were in proximity. they may not believe what she said, but those named would know. It had paid staying up, memorizing the lists Donner's spies had sent back to Thasos, memorizing the spies' names. She had sown a seed of doubt. Gabrielle would bring that seed to blossom.

The crowd was parting; Donner in his chair was being borne into the middle of the square, surrounded by his retinue. "Harlot! Criminal! How dare you deceive these people with your magician's tricks!"

She called down to him. "And you should know about magician's tricks! Your entire religion is a fraud!"

One of the acolytes stepped forward and hurled something at her, and Xena jumped.

She knew that despite their production being destroyed, they'd have a supply of the deadly balls, quite enough to kill her and everyone in her party, if she let them use them. She'd come prepared. As she leaped from the wall into the square, she tossed something from the pouch at her side to intercept the explosive. It collided with the projectile in mid-air, and descended to the ground with a splat. As she landed on the cobblestones she grinned wryly as the townsfolk recoiled fron her secret weapon.

A wet rag.

Gabrielle, looking down on the square from the tower, saw her cue as soon as Xena's feet hit the pavement.

Xena stood alone in the square, clad in armor and leathers, a perfect scandal as the Tribunal made its ceremonial way to the high stage. Donner gestured from his sedan chair. "I warn you, harlot! You meddle with forces far to great for you!" Then, to the troops flanking the procession he bellowed, "Take her!"

Two columns of armed men moved forward toward Xena. Gabrielle picked up the first of the cotton-wrapped stones from a basket beside her, and threw it downward, aiming for a point just in front of the advancing column. The flash and smoke blinded the soldiers, and Donner and the others blanched in astonishment; they knew what was happening, but didn't understand how they had lost control of their destructive magic.

Gabrielle threw another projectile. It landed next to the left column of soldiers; two went down but were still moving. Another, aimed near the right column; some of the soldiers wavered, made as if to run from the square. She saw the pompous Donner try to stand in his chair, gesticulating, his bearers struggling to keep him upright. She couldn't hear his words, but he was such a perfect target...

Xena set herself for a fight, hoping Parakes and Empedocles would do their part.

The next projectile from the tower landed to Donner's left, and he and his bearers crashed to the ground. Xena began advancing to grab him, but another body of men came up from behind him, as he screamed "get that woman!"

Then the gate disintegrated.

A cloud of dust rose over the square at the heavy wooden gates fell, blown down by an abundance of the deadly cotton, set and triggered by Empedocles and Parakes. Through the dust, thirty armed Amazons charged, followed by a hundred townsmen armed with everything from pruning hooks to axes and pikes. The Amazons closed with the yellow troops, Xena at their point, and the fight was on.

At first the townspeople held back, trying to retreat to the edges of the square. But more and more of them saw their chance, and rushed into the fray, attacking the soldiers in their rage with their bare hands.

And when twenty more Amazons appeared from the caravanserai, howling like fiends, taking Donner's party from the side, the trickle became an irresistible wave.

From Gabrielle's high vantage point, distant from the rough sounds of battle, the fight took on the aspect of a swirling, elegant ballet. The rough-clad citizens and merchants circled with the yellow-clad interlopers, forming kaleidoscopic patterns all over the square. She saw one invader take a swing at Xena and saw her lover dodge, twist and strike her assailant down in one fluid motion. She had to admit, Xena gave the brutal motions of war an almost artistic beauty. She saw a line of soldiers hustle across the square, swords drawn, only to be met by an opposing line of townspeople with forks, knives, and staves. For a few moments the two groups locked together, engaging in a demented two-step as they shoved back and forth; then a flashing steel circle zoomed along the backs of the soldiers. Gabrielle watched the bodies twist in pain and fall to the ground.

What had started out as a riot was turning into a battle. And a fairly one-sided battle at that.

Mingled in with the angry citizens, the priests found their explosive weapon unusable, as they stood to destroy themseles and their men along with their opponents. The citizens, their anger aroused and finally given vent, grabbed priests and soldiers with their bare hands, slamming them against the walls of buildings on punching them into unconsciousness. The poor fighting qualities of the invaders became apparent; they had never really had to stand against real opponents, led by resolute fighters, in anything but a staged set-piece.

Xena saw Donner jump up and, in the general melee, make for the door of the great temple. Xena pursued -- he had to answer for him crimes. he turned as he mounted the stairs, and threw a projectile at her; she saw he had a pouch by his side, and presumed he had a supply of them. She pulled another rag from her own pouch and this time caught the destructive pellet in it -- it hit soggily and she dropped it to the ground.

Gabrielle, watching from the tower, saw a priest, behind Xena, recover from a blow that had knocked him down. He took out a pellet, hurled it at the warrior.

"Xena! Look out behind!"

The warrior heard Gabrielle's warning and dropped to the ground. The projectile flew on beyond her, toward the temple steps - and struck Donner as he readied to throw again.

The world erupted.

Xena was deafened by the explosion, and she felt pieces of the temple porch falling on her. She waited, arms over her head, waiting for something large to flatten her. Nothing did; as the rain of debris abated, she raised her head to survey the damage.

The entire front of the former temple of Zeus had been stripped away. Fragments of the stone, wood and metal littered the square in front of the temple. People lay on the paving stones, stunned by the explosion. Donner was nowhere to be seen.

There began a stream of yellow tunics through the remains of the gate, fleeing to the countryside. The battle was over; the invaders had had the heart to fight knocked out of them. Xena waved to Gabrielle, who waved back.

She turned back to the chaos in the square. there was a lot of cleaning up to do.

During the day they tended the wounded, counted and prepared the dead -- very few, fortunately --

and set about the task of tidying up, and assessed the need for greater repairs in the ensuing days. late in the afternoon Brian cane running, exultant. "They didn't burn them! everything's still here!"

"What?" Gabrielle couldn't help but return the smile on his face.

"The instruments! The band's instruments! They're still in the temple of Euterpe!"

"Then put them to work! people want a celebration!" the bard gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the square, and he gathered up people as he made his way to the music temple.

Xena heard music issue from the temple, growing louder as an impromptu orchestra emerged. They were led by Brian, rattling his maracas while whirling in a manic dance, followed by a crashing pair of cymbals. There was a xylophone and a pair of tympani on wheels, tinkling and booming respectively as the band played a lively, ancient dance tune. The band formed two sides of a triangle, its apex at the west gate. Serena passed by spinning a happy waltz, almost a polka, with Sergio. She thrust a pair of bongos into Xena's hands and the warrior stood there, uncertain of what to do with them. She knew better than to give the drums (or any musical instrument) to Gabrielle, so she set them on Blitzen's convenient back, the donkey passively ignoring the hubbub as he munched hay from a trough.

She smiled at Gabrielle, who smiled back, and the smile said what words could only approximate -"I'm glad you're safe", "you did a good thing", and "I'm sorry it had to be so rough." There was one phrase they never tired of saying to each other, and now was as good a time as any.

"Gabrielle, I love you."

"I love you too, Xena."

Xena put her arm around Gabrielle as the celebration of liberation began.

The end

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