In following with the tradition set forth by Xena: Warrior Princess, this story contains battles, humor, heartache, frustration, bantering, bickering, and a few bits better left to your imagination.
Although not necessary, certain parts of this story, such as the plot, will make much more sense if the short story "The Language of Poteidaia" is read first.
All who read and enjoy this story owe that wonderful XMC member Boba'sAdjutant, the Divine Master of the Computer World, a very special thank you. For without his kindness and diligence (and perhaps procrastination), this story would be residing in that parallel universe of lost computer files and missing socks.
As always, considerate comments are welcome and appreciated.
It was a warm spring day on the Macedonian coast as the two women and the golden mare walked east along a dusty road, quickly approaching an Amazon border.
"Xena, you know you don't have to come with me. I don't expect these Amazon negotiations to take long. I could meet you somewhere in a few days. Some village must need your help, somewhere."
"Gabrielle, are you trying to get rid of me," Xena looked down at her companion with a raised eyebrow.
"No! It's just that policy negotiations aren't your sort of thing, and I just wanted you to know that if you didn't want to hang around while Ephiny and I do this, it would be all right with me. I mean, I would like you to stay around, but if you want a break, or even just want to get away for a while, I'll understand. We haven't exactly had any time to relax lately."
Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder to stop the verbal assault. "I'm sure I'll find plenty of things to keep me busy while you and Ephiny are playing royal delegates. When you're done, you and I can take a break together, if you'd like. You haven't been back to Poteidaia in a while?"
Gabrielle paused to look up at Xena, "Thanks. For staying, I mean. Big negotiations like this always make me nervous. Maybe we can go to Amphipolis too. I'm sure your mother wouldn't mind seeing you every now and then."
"We can discuss that later. Right now I think we had better let the Amazon sentries above us know we are here in peace." Xena couldn't hold back the smirk as Gabrielle jumped and immediately held her hands above her head, keeping her staff in front of her for recognition.
Four Amazons fell from the trees and kneeled in front of the women. "Queen Gabrielle, we have been expecting you. Welcome to Thetis. Your proxy arrived last night and is awaiting your arrival in the village."
As Gabrielle touched the closest shoulder, she said, "Thank you. Can one of you show us the way?" Not knowing these Amazons, or their policy about adherence to class status, Gabrielle left the 'and please, call me Gabrielle' statement off her greeting.
Xena noticed this and figured Gabrielle must really be nervous to allow these Amazons to call her Queen. Xena fell a step behind and slightly to the right of Gabrielle, the proper place for a royal guard. 'This is her time, it won't hurt me to show her the proper respect as well,' Xena thought, trying to ignore the mischievous thoughts that were developing.
Gabrielle noticed Xena's gesture, and gave her a quick wink and a smile. 'This could be fun,' Gabrielle thought, finding mischievous ideas of her own developing.
Gabrielle was a bit taken aback when they entered the village proper. She had never before seen an Amazon village or settlement, other then her own, and found the similarities surprising. Other then a different style of artwork, the organization of the village was much the same. She was sure she would be able to find her way around without difficulty, even with all the people about. 'Are there really so many Amazon nations that this many women would show up?' she wondered. The knot in her stomach cinched tighter.
The guest quarters, as she had expected, were not far from the Queen's quarters. Or the kitchen, she quickly noticed. "You and your proxy will be staying here, Queen Gabrielle. Your royal guard will stay in the smaller huts behind yours."
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder to stem the developing protest. "I will come for you for evening meal, my Queen." Xena tried to hide it, but her smirk was getting the better of her.
"Ah, yes, Xena. That will be fine. Ephiny and I will be expecting you shortly." Gabrielle entered the hut as quickly as possible without appearing rude, not wanting to start laughing outright in front of their escort. "Xena is going to turn this into a game. Two can play this game!"
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle ran over to give Ephiny a strong embrace. "How are you? How is everything back home? Have you been here long? Have you met the other delegates yet? There are so many of them! Who's here with you?"
Ephiny just smiled and returned Gabrielle's hug. "Why don't you sit down, then we can talk."
"Sorry, I'm doing it again. This whole inter-tribal negotiating thing just makes me nervous."
"Well, this proposal was your idea. And we all think it was a great idea. If the Amazon nation is to stay strong, we need communication, and policy agreement. Everyone is looking forward to hearing what you have to say."
"I just hope I'm doing the right thing. I don't want to use my position in Amazon society to force my own beliefs on an entire race of people," Gabrielle said with a sigh as she sat down at the small table in the center of the room.
Ephiny stepped over to take a seat next to her queen. "You're not forcing, Gabrielle. There are many Amazons who feel the way you do. We will all get along just fine without having to raid other lands. And I am confident that you will be able to convince everyone that your proposal of peace will work. Just look at our treaty with the Centaurs. We couldn't have done that without your help."
"That one was all Xena." Gabrielle thought back to the events surrounding her 'crowning,' and the resulting path from farm girl to princess to queen. "Could I have convinced Valeska?" she asked somberly.
Ephiny looked down at the floor for a moment. "Eventually, I believe you could have. Just remember, Gabrielle, you were the one who was able to talk a Cyclops out of his lunch, and you have only gotten better since then."
Gabrielle began to say something else, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Enter!"
Xena walked in with a faint smirk on her face, followed closely by Solari, who wore a matching smirk. Xena gave the most dramatic bow of reverence she could muster. "If my queens are ready to eat, Solari and I will escort you to the dining hall."
Gabrielle rose and stated "We are, and you may." Then walked out, doing her best to look regal, and hide her laughter. Xena followed close behind.
"Did I miss something?" Ephiny asked.
Solari just laughed. "Xena thought she'd give Gabrielle a little royal treatment while they're here. Sort of show of respect and confidence in Gabrielle's ability. I think they are also trying to make the other break first."
"Got it. I'll never understand that relationship of theirs! But I'll play along and try to keep the laughter to a minimum." With that, Solari followed Ephiny out the door and over to the dining hall.
Amazons from all across the land filled the formal meeting hall that stood near the center of Thetis. Each tribe had received word that the renowned Queen Gabrielle had a bold proposal for peace to present to the Amazons and each tribe had willingly sent delegates to hear her speak.
"If all Amazons stop raiding neighboring lands, it won't make us appear weak! On the contrary, it will afford us more allies, and fewer of our sisters will be killed in senseless battles. The Amazon nation already controls substantial amounts of land, and skilled warriors are still needed to enforce our borders and protect our allies.
"I'm not asking the Amazons to change their ways, merely their reputation. No respect will be lost for our people by choosing to live peacefully, it can only be gained." Gabrielle made eye contact with as many Amazons as possible before she sat back down, trying not to appear as exhausted as she felt. The last two days of trying to orally influence the delegates was beginning to take its toll.
"The vote to amend Amazon law will be this evening, followed by a banquet. The discussions are completed, so, until the vote, all are welcome to wander the village." The host then opened the large doors to the room, announcing the end of the conference.
"Ephiny, I think I'm going to go lie down for a bit. If you see Xena, tell her I'm fine, I just need some rest."
"I will." Ephiny paused, looking into Gabrielle's eyes. "You did well, Gabrielle. You convinced many people that acquiring new lands through raiding is not necessary, and that not doing so won't make us weak. So don't worry about the vote, it will be just fine."
"Thanks, Eph. I'm not sure I share your confidence though. Some of those eastern tribes seem very warlike. They looked ready to attack when I first proposed the idea of peacefully coexistence." Gabrielle paused, seeming to contemplate a nearby tree. "Anyway, it's done, we can only hope for the best now. Wake me when it's time, will you?"
"Sure." Ephiny watched Gabrielle leave before she headed to the training field where she was sure she would find Xena. "Embarrassing some poor unsuspecting Amazon warriors, no doubt."
Several hours later it was Xena who gently shook Gabrielle's shoulder. "Come on, sleepyhead, it's time to head back to the meeting hall." This woman's ability to sleep soundly, anywhere, anytime amazed Xena.
"Ugh. I just laid down, it can't be that time already." Gabrielle hadn't bothered opening her eyes; she just spoke in Xena's general direction.
Xena unmercifully yanked the blanket off the bed. "The sooner you get the vote going, the sooner the banquet will start."
At that, Gabrielle opened her eyes to stare at the ceiling. "Food. Alright, I'm up."
Xena looked down at the bard seriously. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Yeah. Really nervous about the vote. I just hope I made my point."
"I'm sure you did. There is nothing more you can do, so don't let it worry you. They'll vote with you if they know what's good for them." Xena smiled at her reassuringly.
"Nonetheless, why don't you come in there with me and put the pinch on anyone who doesn't vote for peace!" Gabrielle emphasized her request with finger jabs in the air as she rose off the bed. "Alright, maybe not. It was just a suggestion. You can lower your eyebrow, wouldn't want it to stick up there, would you?"
Xena shook her head and smiled. "Let's go, Miss Diplomat. Wouldn't want to keep all those warmongers waiting, they might start a riot just to spite you."
"Ha ha." Gabrielle gave a deep sigh, smoothed her hair, and straightened her top. "Alright, I'm ready." The queen and her guard headed across the village.
Gabrielle sat nervously watching the host count the votes. The room was too quiet; everyone was tense with anticipation about their futures. Gabrielle couldn't tell if it was out of fear, hope, or merely respect that everyone was being so silent. Was this a good sign or bad? As a torrent of doubts and questions ran through Gabrielle's mind, movement across the room caught her eye. Two of the Amazons from one of the Ionian tribes were quietly signing to each other. As she watched them, she began to wonder, 'I didn't think warrior's had enough hand signals to carry on whole conversations.' Almost as if she had been hit by lightning, the realization that she understood what they were saying nearly knocked her off her seat. Without thinking, she jumped up and started to purposefully stride toward the two women. The sudden motion startled Ephiny; she quickly rose and caught Gabrielle by the arm, stopping her mid-stride.
"What are you doing, where are you going!" she hissed in Gabrielle's ear.
Gabrielle stopped, starring at the two Ionian Amazons. All eyes in the room had shifted to Gabrielle and Ephiny, wondering what was going on. Before Gabrielle was able to answer her, the host stood and announced the end of the vote count.
Everyone quietly stood and awaited the answer. Everyone except Gabrielle. She still stood staring at the women that had been silently communicating earlier.
"The vote was very much one sided. As of this day, Amazon common law is amended to make peaceful coexistence our highest goal!"
A roar erupted from the room, announcing to all outside the hall the result of the vote, and signaling the beginning of the feast. All the women began filing out of the room, most of them shaking hands and congratulating Gabrielle and Ephiny on their achievement. Gabrielle, however, focused her attention entirely on only two people in the room. As they neared, Gabrielle broke from Ephiny and started to head toward them, unable to hold back any longer.
"Where did you two learn to speak like that!" Gabrielle fairly whispered as she spit the words out. Her body was rigid and her eyes were on fire. The two women suddenly felt cornered and were wishing that they had their swords with them. They slowly began to back away from the seething woman in front of them, unsure of how to answer her, or what exactly it was that she was asking them. Their eyes darted around the room, searching for some sort of assistance.
Finally, most of the Amazons had left to begin the festivities, and Xena was able to make her way into the room. It only took a moment for her to find Ephiny, and notice the worried look on her face. Ephiny was heading toward the back of the room; Xena followed, catching sight of Gabrielle facing two very nervous looking Amazons in a corner.
"I asked you two a question! I expect an answer, now!" Gabrielle's voice had risen so that the few people left in the hall turned to eye the commotion at the back of the room.
"What's going on here? What are you doing, Gabrielle?" Xena had never seen Gabrielle this angry before, and she couldn't figure out what these two could have possibly done to make her so angry. It wasn't like Gabrielle at all.
"These women were about to explain to me how they learned to speak with their hands!" Gabrielle was now speaking through clenched teeth trying to keep from screaming at the women. There was nothing she wanted more at this point then to use Xena's pressure points to get these two to answer her.
Understanding suddenly dawned on Xena. "Gabrielle, let's all go over here and sit down." Xena grabbed and literally dragged Gabrielle over towards one of the chairs. Ephiny hadn't a clue what was going on, but followed Xena's lead and led the other two to some chairs nearby.
Xena looked at the other women. "I'm going to guess from Gabrielle's reaction, that the two of you were talking with your hands." Xena made this a question as much as a statement.
"Ah.... y...yes. We didn't mean any disrespect. We were just trying to pass the time while waiting for the votes to be counted." The taller, darker women had finally found her voice.
"WHERE D-" Xena's hand cut Gabrielle off before the entire village joined the conversation. The two women were a bit shocked that a guard would treat a queen this way, but they were glad for it.
"Would you mind telling us where you learned such a language?" Xena was trying to appear very diplomatic, while also keeping Gabrielle seated and quiet.
"Our village. The healer's daughter, Neith, is mute. She taught the whole village her sign language so we could communicate with her." Both women were starting to relax a bit since Xena had taken control of the situation.
Gabrielle pulled Xena's hand from her mouth. "Neith?" She seemed to have regained control, so Xena left her hand in her lap where Gabrielle had thrown it.
The other woman, quite a bit older than the first, spoke up. "Yes, that is what we call her. It's an ancient Amazonian name. It means that which is."
"That which is what?" Gabrielle asked
"Just is. She just was."
"Was just what!"
Xena could tell that Gabrielle was heating up again. "Perhaps you had better explain a bit further. Who is this woman and how did she get such a name."
The two women looked at each other for a moment. Finally, the older one spoke again, "I'm not much of a storyteller, but this is the story, as I saw it."
The woman looked over Xena's shoulder, not focusing on anything in particular, as she began to relive the past. "A good number of years ago, our territory was raided by a snake of a warlord called Cathartes. It was a short but bloody battle, and many of our sisters lost their lives." The woman paused to take a ragged breath. "When it was over, the battlefield was covered with the blood of our sisters and Cathartes' men. It looked like Hades himself had walked the ranks." Xena involuntarily shuddered as images of her past battles flashed through her mind. "Yet, there in the middle of all this death and destruction, stood a young girl, not more then nine or ten summers old. She was standing defiantly, like she belonged right where she stood, that that was her place to be and nobody could tell her differently. She was holding a bow in one hand and a quarterstaff in the other like, such weapons were common place in a young girl's hand. Nobody had seen her before, during the battle, but there she stood now. Like a vision of young Artemis, surveying the carnage, showing no fear, no malice, no revulsion whatsoever. She just was. Hadn't come from anywhere, didn't appear to be going anywhere. Just was." The woman paused again and shook her head, allowing a slight smile to crease her face. "Our healer took her in, adopted her as her own. She was the one that named her Neith, that which is. We don't know where she came from, but she was soon one of us, or we were of her, it was hard to say." The two Ionian Amazons exchanged a gentle glance. "It didn't take long to realize that the child was unable to speak with her mouth, but spoke with her hands. For ten full seasons, we taught Neith our ways and she taught us her language. She was a very bright child. She quickly picked up the bow and staff, and soon became one of our best fighters." The woman finished the story with a heavy sigh and a slight smile, still remembering places far from this meeting hall. Xena noticed Gabrielle had a tear running down her cheek. The other three soon noticed this as well.
Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet Xena's. "Sathalia. It has to be her. She's still alive," she managed to whisper.
"Yes, Gabrielle." Xena wasn't sure what else to say. Could this really be Gabrielle's sister? How had she managed to end up in an Ionian battlefield? Will Gabrielle be able to handle the truth about what happened to Sathalia? "Where is Sath... ah... Neith now?" Xena asked, anticipating Gabrielle's question.
"Nobody knows for sure. She left on her own last summer, said she needed to find the rest of herself. We didn't know what she meant, but let her go alone anyway. She was headed for the Chalcidice Peninsulas, but refused to travel by ship. She didn't seem to care for the water much." The Amazon let out a gentle chuckle, remembering the very animated argument Neith and the healer had before the girl's departure.
"Xena, she was headed home! I wonder why she hasn't made it yet? Where do you think she could be? We have to go look for her; we have to find her! She could be in trouble!"
Xena put an arm around the emotional bard. "Shh, Gabrielle. I'm sure she can take care of herself, but we can head out to start looking for her tomorrow morning. Right now, I think you need to go get something to eat and a good night's sleep. We can't do anything tonight. I want to talk to these two and Ephiny a little more." Xena glanced back toward the doors where Solari had silently been waiting. "Solari, will you take Gabrielle out and make sure she eats something. I'll join you later."
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, seeming to mull Xena's words over in her mind. "Alright, don't be too long." She stood slowly, then turned to follow Solari out of the hall.
Xena turned back to the three confused women. "Xena, mind telling me what is going on here? Who are Neith and Sathalia?" Ephiny asked.
"The same person apparently, Gabrielle's sister." Breathing seemed to come to a halt as the women contemplated the significance of what Xena had just stated.
"Gabrielle told me of her less then a month ago. Once I tell you the story, I think you'll understand." With a last glance toward the door Gabrielle had just left through, Xena began to retell the legend of the two Poteidaian sisters as best she could.
The three women that had listened to Xena's story weren't sure what to say. Ephiny never would have guessed that Gabrielle had experienced such pain, she seemed so... naïve.
"Our village will be happy to know Neith had a family, perhaps even a little surprised. The warlord must have owned her, possibly bought from the pirates. She couldn't have been a slave for very long, she was still a young girl when we found her." The older Amazon was merely voicing her train of thought, not expecting anyone to answer her. She looked over to Xena. "We would be glad to leave early to accompany you and the queen on your search, if you would like."
"That won't be necessary. We will be fine traveling alone. You two have a long trip home. Stay here and rest as long as you can. The queen will appreciate your offer though."
"So, you and Gabrielle will leave tomorrow?" Ephiny also wanted to join the two, but knew her Amazons needed her to return home.
"Just after sunrise, yes."
"I hope you find her, for Gabrielle's sake."
"Me too, Ephiny, me too."
With that, the four women rose to join the banquet outside.
"Xena, are you up yet?" Xena sat bolt upright at the sound of Gabrielle entering her hut. It took a moment for her to register that the first rays of dawn had only just begun to paint the sky.
"Gabrielle, did you sleep at all last night?" Xena asked as she rose to gather up her things.
"Yes, a little. Really. I'm just ready to head out, no point in wasting daylight, right."
Xena walked over and sat Gabrielle down in the chair by the door, crouching down in front of the bard. "Gabrielle, you realize we may not find her for a long time, she could be anywhere by now." Xena didn't bother to add that they might not be able to find Sathalia at all. Or Neith. They really were two different people. "So try not to expect too much, we could be looking for a long time."
Gabrielle looked down at her hands. "Yeah, I know. I just can't help it. I'm all jumpy and nervous, I need to get out and at least start walking."
Xena put a finger under Gabrielle's chin to lift the bard's eyes to hers. "I understand, we'll get moving right after breakfast. There is at least some good news about this search"
"You won't have to endure any boat trips, Neith doesn't seem to like them either." A slight smile crept across Gabrielle's face, making Xena feel much better. "Now come on, I want to see the look on everyone's face when Queen Sleepyhead walks into the dining hall at dawn."
"If I had known my bad moods were going to turn you into a comedienne, I'd have never let the smile fall from my face!"
"What, you don't like my jokes?" Xena tried to look hurt, but her eyes gave her away.
"They're a regular laugh riot. Now let's go, Guard, before I have to punish you for your laziness and insolence!" Gabrielle led the way as the two headed for the dining hall with smiles on their faces. Xena adored the fact that Gabrielle could never hold a bad mood for long.
"We wish you luck, Queen Gabrielle, Xena. If you find Neith, please send word, we would all like to know that she is well." The two Amazons from the day before had come to see the queen and her guard off.
'We'll do that. And thank you for all your help, I'm sorry for getting so angry at you yesterday, it just surprised me to see someone using my sister's sign language."
"Don't give it another thought, we're happy to finally meet someone who knew Neith before she came to us. We were beginning to wonder if she really did exist before that day. And she's a queen's sister! Our healer will like hearing that!"
Ephiny cut in at this point, "Gabrielle, Xena, keep in touch. Your village will want to meet the queen's Amazon sister when you find her. And good luck."
The women exchanged hugs, except Xena, who gave her usual warrior hand shake to each Amazon. With final words of encouragement, Xena and Gabrielle turned and began their journey east.
Both were thinking of the journey ahead of them and what they hoped to find. Xena realized she had never really had a goal to her wanderings since she left her army. She had just traveled aimlessly, helping those who needed it, where they needed it. This journey gave her a whole new sense of importance, direction that she never realized she was missing. It made her feel good. Gabrielle's voice brought her back to the present.
"How long before we get to the Strymon River?"
"We should be there before sunset tomorrow."
"Not stopping in Amphipolis isn't going to bother you, is it?" Gabrielle wanted to keep moving east, but would stop for a day or two if Xena asked. They didn't travel this close to Amphipolis very often.
"No, we can stop on the way back. I'm sure mother would understand."
"Thanks, Xena. This means a lot to me, but so does your understanding. I don't think I could do this alone. I'm glad you're here."
"Hey," Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, "don't ever doubt that I'd be there for you. What's important to you, is important to me." Xena held eye contact a moment longer before turning to look down the road again. "There's a good place to camp just over this rise, how 'bout we step it up to make it there before sunset." Xena raised an eyebrow for emphasis.
A large grin brightened Gabrielle's face immediately. "Sure! You know, you're actually getting pretty good at this mushy, emotionally supportive, talking sort of thing. I might have to alter a few of my stories. Have you comforting grieving widows and soothing frightened children, that sort of thing!"
"Don't you dare, it would ruin my whole intimidating warrior image. People don't quake in their boots at the approach of a mother hen. How could we right wrongs and dethrone despots, your words, then?"
Gabrielle let out a laugh. "Guess I see your point! Maybe I'll just put a kind word in your mouth here and there. That couldn't hurt too much!"
"Just keep walking, Gabrielle, or you'll have nothing to put in your mouth tonight!" Xena gave the best glare she could muster at the moment before turning to continue down the road.
"Alright, alright!" Gabrielle smiled to herself, thinking how much better Xena had gotten at the verbal sparring matches that had become common in their relationship. Not even the occasional witness could believe this was the Warrior Princess. Not that the mighty Xena usually let anyone view this side of her. Gabrielle didn't particularly mind not having to share her warrior, anyway.
They were within a league of the Stymon River the next day when Xena put a hand on Gabrielle to quiet her rambling. 'Someone is coming up the road," she whispered.
Gabrielle placed both hands on her staff and readied herself for the unexpected as best she could.
Xena had loosened her sword and stepped out in front of Argo and Gabrielle, right hand resting on her chakram. It was only a moment before two heads bobbed into view over the rise. "Well, I'll be...Didn't expect to see these two out this way."
"Who is it, Xena, I can't see them yet?"
"None other than the son of Zeus and his sidekick." Xena replied with a chuckle.
"Hercules and Iolaus? I thought they were on Lemnos!"
Hercules and Iolaus recognized the two women at that point and waved as they started to jog up the road to meet them.
"Gabrielle! Xena! How are you two doing? Do you have business out this way? We could lend you a hand! Or are you just headed down to Amphipolis?" Iolaus pulled Gabrielle in for a tight hug then shook Xena's hand. Hercules followed his friend's example, without the barrage of questions.
"No, we're bypassing Amphipolis this time. We're actually looking for someone who we think might be somewhere along the Thracian coast. Weren't you two helping the citizens of Lemnos not too long ago?" Gabrielle responded when she found her way out of Hercules' arms.
"Lemnos was a quick and easy job, just a couple of pirates without a ship, making some trouble for the local islanders. Iolaus didn't even have to lift a finger!"
"Hey, someone had to keep the women calm!"
"And I'll bet you did that well," Gabrielle giggled.
"Herc has his talents, and I have mine!" They all chuckled at that comment.
"So, who are you two looking for? Iolaus and I have seen just about everyone between here and Abdera in the last month, we may have seen them."
Xena wasn't sure how much of the story Gabrielle was willing to divulge at this point, so she said, "We're trying to find an Ionian Amazon called Neith. She is supposed to be heading west along the Thracian coast."
"Neith! We were with her in Troy just a few months ago. She doesn't like to go into towns much, but Herc and I convinced her to stay at an inn with us for a few days so she could sell some of her stories. She has a real talent for it, especially comedic verse. You can't imagine how difficult it is to read when you are laughing so hard you're crying!" Iolaus released a huge grin remembering some of the stories he had read.
"She said she was heading toward the Hellespont when we left Troy for Lemnos. She should be past there by now. She can't be far from Abdera the way she travels, never stopping in cities or villages." Hercules noticed a cloud pass over Gabrielle's face at his comments.
"People aren't very understanding of mutes, are they. And she's a mute Amazon, traveling alone. Must be hard." Gabrielle thought aloud.
"She seems to get along fine on her own. The people she meets along the road are fairly understanding. Especially after she whacks the ruffians that are attacking them! She could probably best Xena with the staff, so I wouldn't worry, Gabrielle."
Xena gave Iolaus what could only be called a questioning glare at that last comment. "I guess we will find her reasonably soon, then."
"If you two don't mind the company, Iolaus and I could help you look, since we know the area and how she travels. We don't have anywhere else we need to be for quite some time."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle, letting her know the answer was up to her. Gabrielle thought for a moment. "I guess it wouldn't hurt. But I'd like to get moving. You guys up for a story tonight? I've got a new one I bet you'd both like to hear, even though it doesn't have an end yet."
"Sounds great!" With that, Iolaus sidled up next to Gabrielle and the two resumed the trip toward the Stymon River.
"Is everything alright, Xena?' Hercules had noticed Xena's frequent worried glances at Gabrielle during the conversation.
"It soon will be. Gabrielle will explain everything tonight. I suggest we catch up with those two before trouble does. It's dangerous having them together." Xena gave Hercules an easy smile.
"Ha ha! You're right, let's go!"
The next month passed quickly. The foursome spent much of the time telling stories of their adventures since last they met. Gabrielle and Iolaus were, at any rate. Hercules and Xena, when they did get a word in, talked mostly of old friends and warlords, their whereabouts and current activities. They had made excellent time. The heat of summer, even along the coast, seemed to keep most people at home. The small band of heroes came across very few travelers or bandits along the road to Abdera.
"Did all the warlords in this area decide to take the summer off, or what! I'm getting tired of sparring with you three experts and the trees! I could use a good ambush about now, a few smelly warriors to knock senseless," Gabrielle said with an exasperated sigh as she spun her staff in an intricate pattern about her body.
"Careful what you wish for, Gabrielle. You should enjoy being able to travel without a daily ambush when you can, it doesn't happen very often."
Gabrielle stopped to eye Hercules. "But for a whole month! Xena, this must be driving you crazy!"
"Even I like to take a break from fighting, Gabrielle. And don't forget with whom we are traveling. Even the dumbest warriors think twice before they attack the son of Zeus." Xena looked over and gave Hercules a quick wink.
"It was just as deserted when we came through last month," Hercules responded, giving Xena a silly glare. "We should be in Abdera by sunset. If you promise not to beat anyone up, Gabrielle, we'll let you go into town."
"Very funny." Before Gabrielle could make a jibe of her own, Xena and Hercules tensed and looked up the road. "What is it?"
"Horses. Headed this way, fast. Gabrielle, you and Iolaus step to the side of the road, Hercules and I will handle this."
Gabrielle obeyed without protest. She didn't like fighting mounted warriors; it was too easy to get stepped on. "This is probably a gift from some God. I had to open my big mouth and ask for a fight. If I live through this battle, Xena is going to kill me!"
"I doubt that, Gabrielle. About the Gods and Xena!" Even around danger, Gabrielle could make Iolaus laugh.
Gabrielle and Iolaus slid behind some large evergreens and watched as Xena and Hercules positioned themselves on opposite sides of the road, in the open, prepared to meet the oncoming trouble. It took only a moment for the first horse and rider to appear from around the bend. The man appeared to be alone, but riding like Death was on his heels. As he approached, Xena realized who he was, and that chances were he was running from someone, or even more likely, someones.
"I think you're right. Wonder what he's been up to this time." Hercules replied, relaxing his stance a bit and looking over in Xena's direction. "Think we should give him a hand?"
"Yeah, I'd like to hear what he wasn't able to talk himself out of this time." Xena liked this man, but he did have an annoying habit of finding more trouble then even Gabrielle.
Autolycus was almost on top of the pair before he realized anyone was even standing in the road. Recognition took less then a split second as he reined in his horse. "Xena, Hercules, nice to see you two. I'd love to hang around and catch up on your latest valiant adventures, but I'm in a bit of a rush. Places to go people to avoid. You know how it is."
Xena grabbed the reins to the jumpy horse before Autolycus could start up again. "Why don't you head over there and keep Gabrielle and Iolaus company. Hercules and I will handle your friends." She punctuated her statement with her patented look as she indicated the trees that the other two were stepping out from behind.
"Ah, alright, Xena. I'll just go over here and give my best to those well-hidden sidekicks of yours. Been lacking good conversation in my travels lately, anyway." Autolycus warily sidestepped his way over to where Gabrielle and Iolaus were standing at the edge of the road. "You four into ambushing fleeing fugitives now too?"
"Just get down and get you and your horse out of sight before your fan club gets here!" Gabrielle had nothing against Xena helping out a friend, but it was getting a bit crowded on this side of the road.
The two sidekicks and the fugitive with the horse were barely out of sight when a group of three well-armed, and well-dressed, men rode into sight. They each had two large swords, one on each hip, whips hanging from their saddelhorns, and crossbows strapped behind them on their horses. The man in the lead was also carrying a noose in his left hand. They wore no armor, but were instead clothed in brightly colored robes that had gold embroidery around the collar and gold rope belts. Each was also wearing gold necklaces and several large gold rings. The front man wore a fabric hat with gold thread stitching.
"Figures Autolycus would have men like this after him. Brings a whole new meaning to the word overkill." Xena had to smile at Hercules' wry attempt at humor.
When the trio noticed the large woman and the even larger man in their path, they reined in their horses. "Out of our way! We're on the trail of a thief!" The nasally voice of the man in the lead was just as obnoxious as his outfit.
"And what kind of thief is it that warrants a lynch mob such as this?" Hercules swept his arm toward the men as he asked. He was actually becoming very curious.
"The man swiped a bag of our hard earned gold to pay off his miscreant whore!" The man's yelling was starting to annoy even Argo now, who stomped impatiently behind Xena.
Gabrielle was barely able to get a hand on Autolycus before he rose to the man's accusation. "Stay down! They can handle this!"
"I really hope Xena uses that round killing thing on them! That man just insulted my very honor, as well as a friend of mine!"
"It's a Cha... nevermind. Just keep quiet and let them take care of the men!"
Xena really wasn't in the mood for a prolonged argument, or a rout. And this man's voice was making her ears bleed, she was sure of it. "Sounds criminal. He rode by here a short time ago. Afraid he's got quite a lead on you boys, though."
"Argh! Out of our way then, woman!" With that, the men kicked their horses into a gallop and headed off in a cloud of dirt, giving Xena and Hercules barely enough time to jump out of the way. As the dust resettled itself, the five people and two horses gathered in the middle of the road.
"Mind explaining who those men were and why they think you stole their gold to pay a whore?" Autolycus really hated it when Xena gave him that eyebrow stare.
"They were the ones doing the robbing. A friend of mine sold them some comedic stories, you know, the kind they really go for in taverns, and the price they offered was basic thievery. But she was in no position to argue, so she accepted it. I just went back to get her that which even Herc would consider a fair price. Somehow they discovered it was I that relieved them of their ill gotten gains." Autolycus paused to consider the unbelievability of that situation. "Anyway, they knew I had been seen around town with the woman who sold them the stories, so they just naturally assumed the gold was for paying her for some service, the kind of service they really go for in taverns. Luckily, she made it out of town before they could find her. I, however, was seen riding out of town."
"So you took the rap for some woman who caught your eye? Autolycus, sounds so unlike you! Me, I'd do something like that, but you?" Iolaus laughed with genuine surprise and admiration.
"She happens to be a good friend of mine! Those oxen were taking advantage of her merely because she was unable to argue with them about the price. If she could have, they would have had to given her twice what they offered, and even that wouldn't have been fair market value. But, she needed money for supplies and to pay off some debt. She had this idea about freeing some slaves that were recently captured by pirates. I think she's taken one too many knocks on the ol' noggin myself, but Neith has this thing about pirates and slaves. Very touchy sub..." The end of a staff connecting with Autolycus' stomach effectively ended his ramblings.
"Did you just say Neith?!" Gabrielle was quickly loosing patience with these off hand, by the way, you'll never guess who I know remarks about a woman who in all likelihood was a sister she hadn't seen in almost fifteen years. The entire Known World seemed to know her, for Gaia's sake!
"Ah...Yes. Neith, an Amazon from the Ionian province. A cunning woman and a good friend." Autolycus had a cautious air about this admission. In his travels, he'd found that people either loved or hated Neith, there were no in-betweens.
"Autolycus," Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's staff, which Autolycus was still warily eyeing, to keep her temper from harming anyone else, "we are looking for Neith. Can you tell us where she was headed?"
Autolycus took a retreating step from the group, "Well, hard to say, exactly. You know how it is when you're on the run. Well, maybe you don't, but, she could have gone just about anywhere." At the moment, Autolycus was thinking how he would like to be just about anywhere other then here, standing in front of these four pairs of eyes. Blue, it suddenly became his least favorite color.
Hercules could see this was going nowhere, and decided on a more direct approach. "You said something about slaves and pirates. Does that have anything to do with where she may have headed?"
Autolycus tried to take another step back but found his path blocked by a rather large golden mare. He didn't want to tell the 'hero squad' what Neith was up to, just in case it wasn't completely on the level. "Yeessss. I guess she did say something about an island. Looking for a boat to take her to an island, anyway."
"A boat! She doesn't like boats! Autolycus if you are lying to us I swear I'll use this st....." Xena now stood behind the angry bard with one hand on the staff, and the other over her mouth.
Autolycus was doing his best to appear one foot tall. "Ah, yeah, I sort of got that impression when she turned green just thinking about the docks. But the pirates were reportedly from Thasos, so that was where Neith figured she would find them and the slaves. Freeing slaves seemed more important then a little sea sickness to her."
Iolaus had had about enough of this dancing around, "Thasos? I thought most people were leaving that island because all the mines had gone dry. And I thought you said you didn't know where she was going."
"Alright, look." Autolycus was ready to end this, even if it meant leaving with a severe concussion. "All I know, is that she needed the money to buy some old maps and passage to Thasos. Apparently, there's this warlord, named Darwin, or Denizen, or something, that made a recent slaving raid on Samothrace. Neith heard about it and got all worked up, ranting about getting to Thasos so she could free the slaves. And that is ALL I know; she wouldn't tell me how she was planing to do this!"
"Darvus. A retired pirate captain that owns a so called resort atop Mt. Pangaeus on Thasos." Xena added. Everyone turned to eye her. "Just because I am no longer a warlord doesn't mean I don't keep track of the scum that's still out there," she said with a shrug.
Gabrielle considered this for a moment, and then a thought hit her. "You let her go alone! What sort of friend are you?" she exclaimed, in the only voice she seemed to have this afternoon.
"Hey! Neith is a good friend of mine, but raiding an island fortress to free some slaves from a pirate, who is reportedly a few oars shy of a rowboat, is not my idea of a fun way to spend the day! It's just a bit too noble for me, besides the fact that the thought of my head leaving my body is very unappealing. And someone had to get those ostentatious charlatans off Neith's trail."
"A job which you got by default, I'm sure." Xena could tell her stare was really getting to Autolycus, and she was thoroughly enjoying that fact.
"So, you're saying Neith sailed for Thasos when? Today? Yesterday? And her plan was to free some slaves, single-handedly, from a warlord's fortress, on top of some island mountain? Alone?" Gabrielle's voice was again slipping into that all too high of an octave.
"Ahh...late yesterday, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes."
Both Xena and Hercules put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulders in anticipation of her next verbal tirade. Hercules decided a plan of action was in order. "I think we're all agreed that we can't let Neith do this alone, right Autolycus?"
Autolycus was thinking how nice a noose around his neck would feel, "Yeah, sure thing, big guy."
"Alright, finding a boat to Thasos shouldn't be too difficult," Hercules flexed his arms with the thought. "Any ideas on how to get up to and then into this fortress?"
They all considered the dilemma for a few moments. Darvus had turned the place into a sort of hedonistic resort for the villainous scum of the Known World, so security would be tight, and they weren't likely to let just anyone walk through the front gate, especially if that someone were Hercules. Somehow, the group needed to get invited into the fortress so they would all have the opportunity to check out the situation.
It didn't take long for Gabrielle, the Gabrielle with a steady hand and a voice that didn't make men's ears ring, to come up with a plan. Of sorts. "I think I've got a way to not only get us all up there, but into the fortress as well. Before you say anything about the plan, any of you, just hear me out." Everyone settled back, as Gabrielle appeared to shift into bard mode, pacing back and forth, waving her hands for emphasis. "Alright, Darvus is a pirate, he associates with evil scoundrels and such. So, if Xena were to arrive, claiming to still follow her old ways, she would be accepted without much hassle." Xena began to shift uncomfortably. The direction this plan was taking made her uneasy. "Coming up with a believable explanation for all those do-gooder stories going around about her should be fairly simple. I can just go along as her personal slave, and help out with some of the details." Gabrielle had purposefully been avoiding Xena's eyes when she began explaining her idea. Xena always seemed uncomfortable talking about plans that involved slavers and Gabrielle. Gabrielle raised her hands to quickly stem any developing protest. "Now, just let me finish before turning anything down. That ploy will get Xena and I both inside, while allowing us lots of contact with each other and the other people on the island, and the freedom to move about the grounds." Gabrielle made a dramatic pause to allow the fact that she was right settle in with everyone. "And Autolycus, the King of Thieves," Autolycus bowed at his title, "is already a known crook, so convincing them that he is there for a vacation, and to hide out for a bit, should be only slightly more difficult." Autolycus couldn't tell if he had just been insulted or not; either way, the plan seemed sound. Gabrielle turned her attention to the other two men. "However, Hercules and Iolaus, you two are going to be a challenge." Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the thought; she was really enjoying having to work out this problem. "Everyone knows your faces, and your penchant for justice. So, what I propose, is that the two of you go in under a disguise." There had been no protests yet, so Gabrielle continued to forge ahead, more quietly. "I was thinking as...women?" This remark earned her more than one skeptical look, and two smirks. There was no turning back now, so she went on, finishing her plan in a rush. "As Autolycus' women, or slaves, would be the most believable, and likely to get you the least amount of hassle, as opposed to showing up alone. It would also allow you free run of the grounds, and as servants, we could meet without raising much suspicion." She closed her eyes and braced herself for the response, which came much more slowly then she would have anticipated. She popped an eye open to make sure everyone was still there.
"Gabrielle, your devious intellect never ceases to amaze me, even if it is wasted on Xena's savior of the people complex." Autolycus winked, and really seemed impressed with the plan. That, or he just enjoyed the thought of the two 'women' by his side.
"Now wait just a second! You expect Hercules and I to not only dress up as women, but to act like we're actually in love with this sneak!"
"Hey, I resemble that remark! And no need to yell at Gabrielle, she's just trying to help. I think she has come up with an excellent plan." Oh yes, Autolycus' day may be saved after all.
"I agree. It is a good plan, Iolaus. How else could you and Hercules get into the resort, and basically have free run of the place?" Xena's eyes twinkled, 'no sense in not having a little fun while we are out saving lives,' she figured. The image of Hercules in a dress sounded very amusing, to say the least.
"You've got to be kidding! Herc, help me out here! You can't actually believe something like this would work! Look at us! We are about as unfeminine as you can get!" Iolaus' voice was getting dangerously close to the level Gabrielle's had reached earlier, making the plan seen all the more plausible.
Iolaus paused as everyone turned to Hercules for his opinion. "Under the circumstances, Iolaus, I don't think we have much of a choice. Gabrielle is right, we are too recognizable. Whatever costume we use, would have to be a good one that will allow us free run of the grounds. And I can't think of anything more free of suspicion then to go in as women."
Iolaus was unable to keep his jaw from dropping to his knees. Not only had Hercules just agreed to dress up as a woman, but as a harlot vying for the attention of a thief! "I don't believe this! You're actually agreeing to this madness! I...I guess I have no choice." Iolaus sat down in the middle of the road with a resigned thud, shaking his head.
"That's the spirit!" Gabrielle was starting to get a little heady with the reception her plan had received. "Now, if we start heading toward Abdera, I'll fill you all in on some of the finer details of my plan."
With a few smirks and an errant eyebrow following Gabrielle down the road, the gang resumed their journey. Iolaus brought up the rear, shaking his head and mumbling incoherently about his image and reputation.
As Hercules had predicted, finding a boat had been fairly simple. Since the island was actually just a floating dried up mining colony, very few other passengers had needed passage. This allowed the group to spend the two-day trip to the island working on their stories and the feminine costumes; the later task proving to be more difficult then they had anticipated. Iolaus' griping didn't help. They were all nervously relieved when they finally reached the island. The time for action had finally come.
The welcoming committee on the island included Darvus himself, as well as a fairly large contingent of his men. Word had already reached Thasos that the Warrior Princess had chartered passage on a boat to the island with the intention of taking a sort of respite at the fortress resort. Darvus wanted to make perfectly clear that this was not a place where heroes were welcome. 'Ah Xena, you do still look every bit the fierce warlord you once were,' Darvus thought as his eyes fondled the warrior woman walking toward him. 'And what confidence you must still have in your abilities to wear such a modest outfit. And with such shiny armor too.'
As Xena approached, it was more than obvious what was on Darvus' mind. Over the years, she had gotten used to the glazed look in men's eyes as they stared about a foot below her own eye level. This short, overweight, balding old man was no exception. She stopped less then a hand width in front of him, allowing her to look down at him, and he to look at the top of her bodice. "Darvus."
"Xena, what a surprise. We don't often get such world renowned guests, especially ones that have turned away from Ares." With difficulty Darvus raised his eyes and looked at her more skeptically.
Xena let out an easy laugh. "I see my ploy has even reached your tiny little ears!" Xena's eyes sparkled, revealing nothing of the nervousness she felt about Gabrielle's plan.
"Ploy?" Darvus tried to keep his thoughts straight as he stared into her icy glare, looking for any hint of deception. They stood like this for a moment before Darvus had to avert his gaze, and noticed the small woman cowering behind Xena. "An offering, Xena?"
A brief flicker of rage filled Xena's eyes before she could regain control. "Let me introduce you to my personal slave, the storyteller." Xena yanked Gabrielle out from behind her by the shirt collar, a much more modest shirt then the one she had been wearing when they entered Abdera a few days earlier. Xena's little addition to the plan. "This little girl has convinced all the Known World that I travel around helping the oppressed and saving innocent women and children. And all the while, it's my army that is doing the oppressing and stealing of innocence."
The way Xena hissed the last word caught Darvus' attention. He licked his lips and forced his attention back to Xena. "Your army? Rumor had it that you lost your army and now only travel with a little girl." Something Darvus had been very curious about.
"Simple minds," Xena mumbled just loud enough for Darvus to hear as she shook her head. She stared at him a moment longer, as if trying to decide how much to tell the man. "My little bard spreads those stories. My army still runs around ransacking villages and stealing women and children. A day or two later I just happen to walk through town. Desperate villagers, believing the heroic tales about me, throw themselves at my feet, offering everything they have if I'll save their families and exact their revenge. I agree, leaving the bard behind to further spread my good image, and head back to camp to relax for a day or two. Just as the people start to get worried, I walk into town with a group of grateful women and children who think I stole them back in the night to return them to their families. Works like a charm. Everyone is so appreciative; there is nothing they won't offer as thanks. It allows me to keep a smaller army, and I lose fewer warriors this way." If Gabrielle hadn't already been staring at her toes to play the part of the faithful slave, Darvus would have noticed the smile creeping across her face. Xena had delivered the story just like they had rehearsed.
"Hmmm. I thought the story was that you never accepted payment for your deeds."
"A girl's got to eat," Xena answered with a shrug.
Darvus pondered this a moment. It seemed like a plausible plan. Xena was just the sort of woman to pull off such a grandiose scheme. He let his eyes travel up and down the length of her body before shifting his gaze to the slave. She was just a wisp of a girl, although he couldn't see her face to guess her actual age. She definitely had the figure of a woman, noticeable even under the dirty, covering outfit. 'To hide the whipping scars, if Xena's reputation is worth anything,' Darvus thought. He also noticed that Xena's hand had never left the slave's shoulder, keeping her close. Darvus let out a hearty laugh. "Your personal storytelling slave, eh Xena!" He stepped back and gave her a wink. "Many a warlord has wondered which side you laid your sword on Xena. Nobody seemed to be really sure if you were or weren't!" Darvus gave her a crooked grin, shifting his eyes back and forth between the two women.
Xena's arm involuntarily tightened around the bard as she gave Darvus her most intimidating stare. "Were or weren't what, exactly?" she seethed.
This made Darvus laugh even harder. "A warlord! What's on your mind, Xena!" Yes, this was still the indomitable warrior woman that reasonable men feared and that could have ruled all of Greece one day, if only a bit mellower. 'Age perhaps,' he thought. "You and your storyteller are welcome to stay. Leave your weapons with the guards. Can't have you stirring up any trouble!"
Xena paused a moment before handing her sword, chakram, and whip over to the guard. She kept her breast dagger hidden; going into this situation unarmed was not an option. She watched as the guard placed her belongings in a strongbox at the edge of the dock.
"And hand over any parchment or writing tools as well," Darvus added.
Gabrielle's head shot up at this request. She and Xena exchanged confused looks before Xena asked the question. "Parchment, Darvus? Why would you not allow a quill and parchment onto your lands?"
"Words are weapons, Xena. Even mightier then the sword when wielded properly. You of all people should understand that."
Xena and Gabrielle shared one more 'This guy is either paranoid or crazy,' look before Xena pulled out Gabrielle's scrolls. Darvus almost seemed to cringe at the sight of the written words. The guard placed them in the strongbox next to Xena's weapons. Xena and Gabrielle both gave the sight thoughtful consideration. 'Almost seems, um, prophetic,' Gabrielle thought.
Darvus stepped aside to let the two women pass after the guards locked the box down tight, his eyes following them in a thoughtful stare. One of the guards opened the door to a carriage, indicating that they should enter. As the door closed them in, Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look of relief. They only hoped Autolycus and his two 'women' would make it through as easily, crazy requests and all.
As the carriage lurched and began its way up the winding road, Xena realized she was shaking just a bit. She could tell Darvus was going to be a problem, and he made her skin crawl. She looked over at Gabrielle, who was now staring out the window, and silently hoped he wouldn't give her a reason to break his neck before this was all over.
Darvus turned his attention back to the other disembarking passengers, most of who were out of work miners returning to gather up their families and belongings to move them to a more prosperous land. 'The whole island will soon be mine,' he thought with a smile. Then he saw them, two of the ugliest, if not the largest women he had ever seen. The shorter of the two had curly golden locks, but the face of a Gorgon and the build of one of those Olympiad shot-putters. The makeup she wore, apparently applied with a trowel, did little to hide her hideous features. The garish rouge, the color of the setting sun just before a storm, only seemed to accentuate the creatures angular planes and her square jaw, obviously designed to bite the entire head off of a Hydra. Thankfully, her roughly cut, pale green, ankle length dress hid most of her body, but it did nothing to slim her tree trunk waist. 'If that were my daughter, I think I would have had her dumped at sea,' Darvus thought with disgust.
He turned his attention to the monolith of a woman standing next to the Gorgon woman. This woman, although built like one on the columns holding up the Colosseum, had slightly more pleasant features, slightly. Her hair was a gently flowing mousy brown sort of mop, but her eyes were a beautiful shade of Aegean blue. Unfortunately, the rest of her face wasn't much easier to look at then her Gorgon friend's, and had the same outlandish face paint, if only in a slightly less offensive shade. Her dress, as covering as her companion's, was a pale yellow color and looked as if it had once been part of a ship's sail. 'These two women must be from those Northern Tribes you hear about, the ones that carry their horses on their backs so they don't have to pay to have them shooed.' In his scrutiny of these two creatures, Darvus hadn't noticed the tall, slender, dapper young man in green that was leading them his way.
"You, my good man, must be Darvus!" Autolycus addressed the short fat man while directing his entourage to place their bags at his side. "My servants and I have journeyed here in hopes of spending a leisurely week or two at your highly acclaimed, and well-guarded, pleasure resort." Autolycus gave him an eyebrow wiggle for good measure.
"With an outfit that bright and a tongue that smooth, you must be Autolycus, the King of Thieves."
"In the flesh!" Autolycus gave a slight bow. "Always good to meet a man who knows talent when he sees it!"
"Your 'talents' are not welcome on my island, thief."
"Yes, well, I have not come to your little island resort to showcase my talents. Rather, I merely require a place to relax, unwind if you will, without having to keep looking over my shoulder. Considering my line of work, this seemed like the best place to do just that." Autolycus wasn't the only one starting to get a little nervous. Hercules and Iolaus, besides feeling an uncomfortable draft, were starting to worry about being accepted here at all.
Darvus eyed them thoughtfully for a few moments. He just couldn't understand how a man like this could end up with... women... like that. 'Perhaps women this ugly could scare off evil spirits,' Darvus thought. "Fine. You three can stay, but under several conditions. Anyone comes looking for you, I tell them exactly where to find you. No practicing your 'craft' here or you will be leaving the island without a boat. Your playthings will help in the stables and dining hall. Accept this or leave now."
"It all sounds reasonable enough, but I tend to keep my women very busy, if you know what I mean." Autolycus gave another eyebrow wiggle for emphasis. Darvus grunted in disgust and turned to leave. "But I'm sure I can find the release I need elsewhere!"
Darvus paused, and without turning around replied, "Watch your step thief, warriors don't appreciate your cowardly tactics. Have the women report to the kitchen as soon as you arrive, we have a banquet to prepare for this evening." With that, Darvus climbed into the last carriage and headed up the road to the castle.
"Will do! I'll get right on that, you good for nothing, overweight, son of a blood-sucking Bacchae. Well girls, looks like we are walking. Careful with my bags, I wouldn't want you two to have to do the laundry tonight as well." Autolycus started heading up the road, only to be passed by Hercules and Iolaus, whose hands were full of the dresses they were holding up off the ground. "Or I can just carry our bags. Wouldn't want anyone to think I wasn't a gentleman."
As the carriage rolled through the front gate of the castle, Xena noticed security was about as tight as she had expected it to be. Atop the outer wall, sentries stood at regular intervals, affording the guards a full circle view of the surrounding landscape. Other then the two guards at the gate, there were only a few warriors to watch the goings on inside the walls. Those men, however, were armed with swords, and roaming randomly about the grounds. The castle itself was a majestic piece of workmanship. The stone walls of the vast building were the unusual pale red color of the island's rocks, and nearly smooth, scaling to a smaller size with each new level of the castle. There appeared to be three floors, not including the rooms that the five turrets held. The tallest turret, rising from the midpoint in south wall, stood more like an additional floor then a single room. It had several banners flying from its roof as well as hanging from the windows. 'Darvus' quarters, no doubt,' Xena thought, committing the location to memory. Seeing no roofs in the center of the castle, Xena assumed there must be a central courtyard or a vaulted room on the lower level. Without even entering the castle, Xena already had a detailed map of what the inside should look like.
As they exited the carriage, a servant directed Xena to follow her in, leaving Gabrielle to carry their belongings. "Fine, I'll get these, by myself. Wouldn't want to loose any muscle tone while we're here, would I." Gabrielle grunted as she hefted the bags over her shoulder. "I think maybe I should have defined my role in all this just a bit differently," she mumbled to herself as she almost tipped over from the weight of Xena's rather heavy bag of belongings. She groaned at the large flight of stairs that the servant and Xena had already climbed.
Gabrielle was breathing heavily by the time she stumbled into their room. She gave the servant an evil glare as she passed her on his way out the door. "Such a nice group of people here! It's a wonder this place isn't booked solid year round!"
"Gabrielle, you are the one that wanted to play slave, they are just treating you as such. The castle servants are probably 'upper class' slaves, and feel they deserve more respect for obtaining such positions. Being a personal slave, you are of a lower class then they." Xena had stepped over to the window and was now staring down at the central courtyard. The area appeared to have been designed as a garden, but now looked like a fighting or training arena. "I'm not liking this any better then you are."
Gabrielle collapsed on the large fluffy bed near the window. "Yeah, yeah. I know this was my idea, you don't have to remind me of that. I consider myself a very privileged slave, with belonging to the Warrior Princess and all." Gabrielle glanced over at Xena just in time to catch a hurt look cross her face. "I'm sorry, that didn't come out the way I meant. It was supposed to be a compliment." Gabrielle got up to stand next to Xena, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I really am sorry," she said, looking up at the taciturn warrior.
"I know Gabrielle. I'm just not comfortable with people thinking of you that way. Especially here."
"Well, don't worry too much about it. There aren't many people who would be dumb enough to try anything with me knowing you are involved. And I have been known to take care of myself every now and then!" She paused. The fact that Xena was worried made Gabrielle uneasy. "Anyway, there is a banquet coming up tonight, so I think I'll head down to the kitchen and try and talk to some of the slaves." Gabrielle paused for a moment longer before turning to leave.
"Just be careful, I don't trust Darvus." 'Or the way he looks at you,' Xena added to herself. "And eat before the banquet, I don't think they'll let even my personal bard join me for dinner. Just don't eat all the food, there appear to be quite a few guests here." Xena turned to give Gabrielle a quick smile.
"I think I liked you better silent and aloof! I'm leaving now; you might want to get dressed for dinner, if you can handle that all on your own. And find Autolycus, I think I'm more worried about him then myself." Gabrielle turned to leave again, shaking her head at Xena's proneness for unannounced mood swings lately.
"Yes ma'am, oh bard of mine. Your order is my wish." Xena could just make out Gabrielle's frustrated huff as the bard left the room. "Now, just what does one wear to a warlord's banquet?" Xena began to shuffle through the various closets and dressers placed about the room.
Autolycus was quickly changing his mind about Gabrielle's little plan. It wasn't that the steep walk up to the castle in the blazing sun was bothering him so much, it was the two heroes ahead of him that were giving him the pounding headache. The two just wouldn't shut up about this being uncomfortable, or that being improperly adjusted, or whether their face paint was the wrong shade.
"Herc, how are you keeping your pomegranates in place? Mine keep shifting under my armpits!"
"Are you wearing that over the shoulder pomegranate holder that Xena designed for us?"
"Yeah, maybe I'm not wearing it right. What do you think?" Iolaus pulled down the front of his dress to reveal his shifting pomegranates to Hercules.
"That's it! You two can walk behind me the rest of the way! And be sure you're out of earshot, I'm tired of hearing about 'uncomfortable drafts' and 'uneven pomegranates.' You should try dressing up as an Amazon some time, if you think you've got it tough now!" Autolycus picked up the pace to take the lead.
Hercules and Iolaus paused in their adjusting of Iolaus' pomegranate holder long enough to eye Autolycus. "Did he just admit to dressing up as an Amazon?"
Hercules let out a deep laugh. "I believe he did!"
"A laugh like that is sure to get us found out!"
"And barring your pomegranates to me won't?"
"Good point." Iolaus finished adjusting himself and pulled his dress back together. "How does that look? Am I all even now?"
"The right one is hanging a bit low, but otherwise yes." The two gathered up their dresses and hurried to catch up with Autolycus.
Darvus had warned the gate guards that the three would be coming through, but they were wholly unprepared for the sight that was now approaching.
"By the Gods! Are those women with Autolycus?"
"Your turn to search for weapons."
"Not on my mother's life!"
"Afternoon, warriors. I hope we are not too late for the banquet." Autolycus greeted the disinterested gate keepers with a cheery smile.
"Leave any weapons and parchments you have here, then you may enter."
"Sir, I am a thief, not a warrior or a bard." The unexpressive gate guard just stared at Autolycus, making no move to allow him passage. "Of course, one does need to carry personal protection around these days." Autolycus bent over to removed the dagger from his boot. "Careful with that, it's a family heirloom. Whose family, I have no idea." The guard threw the knife into a box at his feet. "Is being dead a requirement for guard duty?"
"Hold out your arms." Autolycus obliged and was roughly searched for other weapons. "If you have no other weapons or any parchment on you, go ahead and enter. Your women need to relinquish their weapons as well." The guard was having a hard time even looking at the hideous women behind Autolycus.
Autolycus eyed the man for a moment. He bent closer so that only this guard could hear him, "Do you really think these two need to carry weapons with them?"
After a thoughtful glance, the guard stepped aside to allow the group through. "Your room is on the second level, fist corridor on the right, all the way back. The women are expected in the kitchen, main floor."
"You two have been a pleasure to deal with. Come ladies, you have work to do." The three entered the fortress and headed for their room.
"Darvus would have our heads if he knew we didn't search them."
"I'm not planning on telling him." The guard stared meaningfully at his comrade.
Back on the main floor, it wasn't difficult to find the kitchen. Gabrielle had just entered and was eyeing all the working women when a large matronly slave approached her. "What are you doing?"
Gabrielle started at the harsh voice. "What?"
"Are you stupid girl! What are you doing just standing there? Get to work! There isn't much time left!" The woman gave Gabrielle a shove toward the bread ovens.
"Yup, a nice group of people," Gabrielle mumbled.
As Gabrielle found a place to work, she tried to unobtrusively observe the other slaves in the kitchen. All were female, but none of them looked like an Amazon. 'Course, I don't look much like an Amazon dressed like this either,' she thought. She scanned the room again; nobody looked even slightly familiar.
"You're the Warrior Princess' slave, aren't you." Gabrielle turned to eye the stocky woman who had just come up beside her. She was just a bit taller than Gabrielle and several years older. Her hair appeared colored by Helios, and her eyes were a deep seaweed green; Gabrielle found it difficult not to stare. "Servants and slaves in this castle talk. When a guest like that shows up, every slave knows about it even before you reach your room. My name is Myrene." The woman held her hand out to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, nice to meet you. Wait, Myrene like the sea goddess?"
The woman's face brightened. "Yes! Not many people have heard of her! My mother named me after the goddess hoping to please my father; he was a sailor. Didn't do much good though, my father died at sea and I was captured by pirates soon after. Water always seems to bring me bad luck!"
Gabrielle laughed. This woman spoke more then she did! "Since we are on an island, I hope your luck changes! How long have you been here? Where are you from?"
"I have been here too long. My village is on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. But mine isn't a very interesting story, we all want to hear about you. Where are you from? What's it like belonging to the Destroyer of Nations? It must be a hard life." Myrene's eyes took on a sad expression when she thought about what sort of life this young girl must have.
Gabrielle looked down at her feet. 'What should I tell her? Should I imply a good life or a harsh one?' Gabrielle wasn't sure what she should say. She decided ambiguity was best. She wanted to sound like a slave, but she didn't want to tarnish Xena's reputation any further either. She looked back up at Myrene. "It hasn't been too bad. My parents were farmers, I don't miss that life much." She paused for a dramatic effect. "I've only been with Xena two years. She's not as evil as many people think she is, and I get to travel all over the place and always have enough to eat. I've learned to anticipate her needs and wants; I keep her happy and she treats me fairly." It wasn't a lie, at any rate.
That comment brought a smile back to Myrene's eyes. "You have a positive outlook, that's good. Many women loose faith or the will to live with such a life." Myrene gave her another thoughtful once over with her eyes. The dirty worn rags that Gabrielle was wearing hadn't escaped her attention, nor had the various scars. Not something a farmer's daughter should have.
Gabrielle was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, so she changed the subject. "There are quite a few slaves here I notice, and they are all woman. Does Darvus deal in harems?"
Myrene went back to her bread making before answering. "No, he captured all the women here for his own personal use and as entertainment for the guests, if you know what I mean. A new boatload arrived just the other day. We figure he feels safer being surrounded by women. I hope for your sake Xena is the sort of person that doesn't like to share, Darvus goes through women fairly quickly. Just this morning two of his personal attendants were discovered missing."
The way Myrene said missing, with a glint in her eye, unnerved Gabrielle, but before she could inquire further the kitchen fell silent as the two newest slaves in the castle entered with armloads of wood. Gabrielle found it difficult to stifle the giggles that were threatening to erupt. Myrene leaned close to Gabrielle's ear, "Now there are two women that won't have to worry about Darvus' advances!"
Hercules and Iolus deposited the wood near the stoves then approached the table where Gabrielle was working. All the other women suddenly found other places to work. "Enjoy the new company Gabrielle, we'll talk later. Darvus will want his dinner clothes laid out about now. And Gabrielle, keep up the optimism, things will change." Myrene gave her a quick wink and a gentle squeeze of her shoulder before she left the kitchen.
Gabrielle stared after Myrene with a confused look. 'What did she mean by that, I wonder.'
Everyone's attention eventually turned back to their work, leaving the three at the bread table to quiet conversation. "Don't you two just look stunning!" Gabrielle couldn't hold the giggles down any longer.
"Go ahead and laugh now, Gabrielle, because when all this is over, Hercules and I have plans to use you as the ship's anchor!"
"I'm sorry Iolaus. You two just look so, um, stately!"
"I think the proper word is hideous, Gabrielle. But that's not important. Have you found any information that might be helpful?"
"Sorry Hercules." Gabrielle composed herself, with difficulty. "I haven't heard much so far. Apparently, Darvus keeps all the slaves he captures here at the castle and replenishes his supply frequently. I get the impression he and his guests are a bit rough on women." Gabrielle couldn't keep the look of disgust from her face. "Whatever we do, I think we had better do it quickly, there are innocent lives at stake. I haven't seen Neith nor have I had the chance to ask about her. Did Autolycus make it in easily?"
"Working quickly is a good idea; we need to figure out how to get all these women off the island without starting a war. Iolaus and I haven't seen Neith either, but we've only been to the woodpile and here. I don't think Autolycus is going to be of much help getting information, nobody seems to trust him."
"And that surprises you?" Iolaus asked.
The kitchen matron walked up behind the three and slapped Iolaus on the rear with a wooden spoon. "Cut the chit chat and get that bread into the ovens! You two behemoths can carry the dinnerware into the hall." To the surprise of Gabrielle and Hercules, Iolaus simply nodded and headed toward the cupboards.
"We need to come up with a plan soon, otherwise Iolaus is going to explode!" Gabrielle whispered.
As Xena entered the dinning hall, she noticed there were only twelve other guests, none of whom she had dealt with in the past two years. 'There is one possible problem averted,' she thought. However, they were all seasoned warlords with bad reputations. Glancing around the room, she noted the floor to ceiling tapestries that hung along the walls, most telling tales of sea going adventures. Despite their once vivid colors, they were now dusty and frayed at the edges. Sconces burned along the walls and chandeliers swayed from the rafters high above, giving the tapestries the appearance of fluid motion. Just below chandelier level, wooden balconies ran the length of each wall. Xena noted that these, like the tapestries, were in a severe state of disrepair. In a corner of the room, near the foot of the long table that bisected the room, a musician was playing a kithara
"Xena! Please, come join me at the head of the table." Darvus approached, trying to lead Xena toward a seat without actually touching her. This may be his resort, but he had heard about the unlucky men that had made unwelcome contact with the warrior. His eyes roamed her body, noticing the male attire she was wearing. "I apologize for not having any dresses in your room, but we don't get many female guests here, not ones that need to dress for dinner, anyway."
"The blouse and breeches will do fine." She was actually glad there had been no dresses; pants were much easier to fight in then a long skirt. Xena sat in the chair to Darvus' left. She noticed Autolycus sitting at the very foot of the table, seemingly annoyed with having to sit so close to the kithara player.
"I hope the room is to your liking. Have you had a chance to roam the grounds? If you don't find something you are looking for, just let one of the guards know. We aim to fulfill any fantasy of our guests, or provide any sort of entertainment they could desire." Darvus leaned in closer. "Any sort."
Xena turned to stare at him. Suppressing the urge to put her fist through his skull, she simply said, "I'll keep that in mind."
"Good, good. Ah, dinner is served!" Servants started entering the hall with trays full of bread, meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. At the head of the parade were the women with the pitchers of ale and port. Gabrielle was making her way toward the head of the table with two such pitchers. "Xena, you really should see about getting your slave some finer clothes. Those rags do nothing for her."
"They serve their purpose, the bard doesn't need anything more." Gabrielle leaned to fill Darvus' mug, narrowly side stepping his wandering arm. She went to fill Xena's mug next. The simple eye contact they made said more then anyone in the room would have suspected. Xena could see that Gabrielle hadn't learned anything of consequence yet, and Gabrielle noticed that Xena was strung tighter than a bow, trying not to pound Darvus right then and there.
In all, the dinner was uneventful. Hercules and Iolaus spent the evening in the kitchen; the matron claimed she didn't want any of the warlords loosing their appetites. Autolycus spent most of the meal flirting with the servants and the kithara player since the other guests were ignoring him. Xena kept her eye on Gabrielle the entire evening, ready to jump up if Gabrielle encountered anything she couldn't handle. She had to admire how Gabrielle was able to roam the room, filling mugs of port and ale, while gracefully ducking arms and sidestepping hands. Darvus had also kept an eye on the bard, purposefully emptying his mug as often as possible. By the end of the meal, Autolycus was frustrated, Darvus was drunk, Xena was jumpy, Gabrielle was about to collapse from exhaustion, and Hercules and Iolaus were left to clean up. Much to Darvus' and several other warlords' dismay, Xena grabbed the bard and headed to their room as soon as the meal ended.
"By the Gods! That was worse then a tavern full of drunks!" Gabrielle collapsed on the bed as soon as she entered the room. "You'd think those men had never seen a woman before!"
Xena sat down next to the bard. "You handled it all very gracefully."
"Yeah, well, I didn't have much of a choice." Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbow. "Did you find anything else out?"
"After you filled Darvus' mug for the tenth time he started getting talkative. It was mostly about all his great deeds, recent conquests, and you." Xena paused to give Gabrielle a worried look. "He did go on and on about hating riddles. I think that was just the ale talking, but I did get him to start talking about the slaves. The new arrivals are being held in the dungeon until they can be properly 'trained'."
"I got the chance to talk to some of the other slaves today. Everyone is nervous because two of Darvus' personal slaves are missing. Nobody wants to talk about it, but I think they believe Darvus had something to do with their disappearance. I also met a woman named Myrene, she has been around several years and I get the feeling she knows everything that goes on here. She didn't tell me much more, but I think she is up to something. I never got a chance to ask her about Neith." Gabrielle laid back down and closed her eyes. "I don't suppose you figured out a way to get me off serving duty!"
"Next time just tell them I have other things for you to do. Then you can stay up here during meals." Xena knew Gabrielle wouldn't do that, but she suggested it anyway.
"Why don't you tell that kitchen dictator for me. I think even Hercules and Iolaus are afraid to cross her. She hit Iolaus with a spoon tonight!" Gabrielle lost her train of thought for a moment. "Stay up here during the meal? That would be a perfect time to search some of the rooms."
Xena laughed at that image of Iolaus. "How are those two getting along? And you will not go searching rooms by yourself."
"I think we can discuss that later. Iolaus and Hercules are not happy, but they are being left alone. They were planning on searching the grounds tomorrow for anything suspicious." Gabrielle's voice was starting to fade and her eyelids were becoming too heavy to hold open.
"That's a good idea. If two slaves are missing, they must be somewhere near the castle, or at least someplace on the island. I think you need to stick close to your friend tomorrow, she might know something and she could keep you out of trouble. What does she do other then kitchen duty?" Xena turned to look at the bard when she didn't get a response. Gabrielle was sound asleep. Xena bent down to remove Gabrielle's boots then gently placed her under the covers. Gabrielle mumbled something about Iolaus then fell back asleep. Xena went to stand by the window. She peered up at the stars and thought about plans for the next day. She decided she needed to talk to Autolycus. After making sure Gabrielle was sound asleep and tucked in, she quietly crept out of the room.
The guys' room was at the dark and deserted north end of the castle. 'I didn't think Hercules and Iolaus were that bad!' Xena thought. She gently pushed on the only door that had any light showing underneath. She listened. Xena could just make out the sound of someone breathing behind the door. In one swift move, she slammed the door open and rolled into the room.
"Ouch!" Xena quickly recognized the voice behind the door to be Autolycus.
"Autolycus, what are you doing hiding behind the door?" Xena walked over and closed the door. She handed Autolycus a rag from the table to hold against his now bleeding nose.
"What are you doing sneaking into my room?"
"I wanted to be sure this was your room. What were you doing back there, anyway?"
"I was just setting something up so that I would know whenever anyone entered the room." Autolycus had just made it out from behind the door when it wildly swung open again. Iolaus stormed into the room, followed closely by Hercules.
"It's no wonder Ulysses found Achilles! There is no way I am going to wear this blasted dress anymore!" Iolaus started ripping the dress apart to get out of it. "We spent the evening being ordered around by that kitchen witch, forced to carry an entire forests worth of wood, did ten cupboards full of dishes, and we still have no information to show for it!" Iolaus was standing in his undershorts when he noticed the other three people in the room smiling at him.
"Iolaus, I take it your day didn't go well," Xena asked with a wry grin.
"You could say that." Iolaus put his pants on and sat down on the bed. Xena and Hercules, now back in his normal clothing as well, sat down at the small table by the door.
Autolycus was pacing the room. "This isn't going very well. Granted, I'm getting more offers here then at a Hestian temple that's been closed down, but I haven't heard anything about the new slaves, or any Amazons. Where is Gabrielle, by the way?"
"She fell asleep. She had a rough day, so I left her in the room. She has made contact with someone who might be able to tell us everything we need to know, and she believes that the slaves may have already started planning something. The newest slaves are being held in the dungeon." Xena paused briefly before her next comment. "Two of Darvus' personal slaves have been reported missing. None of the guards seem too concerned with that fact." Autolycus stopped pacing to stare at Xena.
"You and Gabrielle are good at this," Hercules laughed. "Iolaus and I didn't find out much more than Autolycus. Do you have any ideas on how to proceed tomorrow?"
"Gabrielle is going to stick with her new friend Myrene, hopefully she will be able to keep Gabrielle away from Darvus. Autolycus and I should try to find out as much as we can about the slaves, castle layout, the grounds, and the guard schedules. You and Iolaus can probably dump the dresses if you think you can sneak down to the docks without being noticed. We need to figure out how we are going to get out of here when this is over."
"You really are good at this! Iolaus and I can make it down to the docks. We should probably keep our 'costumes' around just in case we find trouble. Let's all meet back here at midday to exchange information. Sound good?"
Autolycus couldn't believe these two. "I think the two of you are getting just a little too much pleasure out of all this. But the plan sounds good enough, for the moment. There just might be a few ladies that would be willing to help me out tomorrow." Autolycus rubbed his chin as a mischievous smile appeared.
Xena rolled her eyes and stood. "Just meet me in the morning, you and I will be searching together. I'm going back to my room to get some sleep. I suggest you all do the same."
"Good night, Xena." Hercules gave her a soft glance as she left the room. He wanted to say be careful without embarrassing her by actually saying it, if for nothing more than for his own peace of mind.
"Well ladies, I'd suggest flipping for the bed, but I already learned my lesson on that one. So let's just skip decision making all together, I'll take the bed." The look Autolycus received from the two 'ladies' told him he wouldn't be getting the bed if Hades himself were on his side. "Or I can just pull up a chair. Bed looks too soft for me anyway." Autolycus sat in the chair by the bed grumbling to himself, "One of these days I'll learn not to get myself into these situations."
Xena slipped silently into the room. She could hear Gabrielle's quiet snoring coming from the bed. After removing her boots and checking to see that the knife she had slipped past the guards was still under the bedside table, she slid into bed next to Gabrielle. Sleep was long in coming; the pit of her stomach was telling her that things were not going to go as smoothly tomorrow as she was hoping.
Xena awoke without ever realizing she had fallen asleep. Glancing out the window, she saw the sun was only now beginning to creep its way over the horizon. She slowly slipped out of bed, being careful not to wake Gabrielle. As she stretched, then dressed, she silently reviewed the day's plans. She wasn't sure why she felt so uneasy; they were only information gathering today. She took a deep breath and watched Gabrielle's face for a moment before she stepped over to wake the bard.
"Come on, sleepy, we have a full day ahead of us."
Gabrielle was now awake, but she wasn't about to let Xena know that. If she played it right, she could get a few more moments of sleep out of Xena.
"Gabrielle. I know you are awake. Come on, we really do need to get moving." Xena smiled to herself; Gabrielle played this game every morning, and it seldom worked.
Gabrielle let out a long breath. "Fine, but when I open my eyes I had better be able to see the entire sun above the horizon." She started to sit up, pausing to stretch before opening her eyes.
"It's not good to look directly into the sun, Gabrielle, so you'll just have to trust me, it's time to get up. Besides, we have plans for the day I need to go over with you."
"You can be really cruel sometimes, you know that? Go ahead and tell me the plans while I get dressed, now that I'm up." Gabrielle tried to glare at Xena, but it was just so difficult to do when Xena had huge grin on her face.
"Since you are up..." Gabrielle shot off a good glare at that comment. Xena just chuckled. "Hercules and Iolaus are going to sneak down to the docks and see what the possibilities are for commandeering a ship. Autolycus and I are going to search the castle and the grounds, trying to find the best way to get everyone out and to safety. I want you to stick close to Myrene today. See if you can find out what she is up to, and what she knows about the castle and grounds. We made plans to meet back in Autolycus' room at midday."
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment, letting the information soak into her sleep-laden brain. "Sounds good. I'm supposed to meet Myrene for breakfast. I'll find out as much as I can and meet you at midday. Hercules and Iolaus are going to steal a ship?"
"Hopefully not yet. Are you sure you are awake?" Gabrielle gave her a nod. "Alright, I'm going to go meet Autolycus. Be careful today." Xena gave her a very serious look, indicating the gravity of the situation.
"You know I will. Don't worry. I'll see you in several hours." She could tell Xena was nervous about something because she had to practically push the warrior out the door.
Gabrielle, now fully dressed, started straightening things up when she heard someone enter the room. She looked up to see Darvus standing in the doorway. "Morning little storyteller. Xena still in bed?" Darvus knew she wasn't, he had seen Xena leave moments before, two of his guards following as she went.
He had a sneer in his eyes that made Gabrielle wish Xena was still in bed. "No, she left already, looking for you, I believe. If you head toward the kitchen you might catch her." Gabrielle took an involuntary step back when Darvus' eyes began to rake over her body.
"Must have just missed her. Guess I'll find her later." Darvus just stood there, one step inside the door, his eyes continuing to slide over Gabrielle's body. Gabrielle's skin started to crawl and her throat felt like it was starting to close. She had to keep her head if she was going to get out of this. Having left her staff with Argo, the knife under the bedside table was her only available weapon. She tried to unobtrusively inch her way over to the head of the bed.
Darvus stepped further into the room, closing the door behind him. "Guess it's just you and me now, how 'bout you tell me a story." He licked his lips and took another step toward Gabrielle.
Fear seized Gabrielle's heart when she realized the situation that had developed. She turned to grab for the knife but Darvus had her by the hair before she could make it to the table. He pulled her close enough that his hot rancid breath made her eyes water. She absently wondered why perverted men always had rancid breath. She tried pushing Darvus away from her, but that only made him grip her tighter. "This really isn't a good idea, Xena gets really mad if other people try to use me." Using Xena's reputation was the only way Gabrielle could see getting out of this predicament. Gabrielle gave a silent prayer to any Gods that were listening to have Xena return for some forgotten item.
Darvus put his lips on Gabrielle's ear. "Xena doesn't scare me little girl. This is my castle, and I can take what I want, when I want, from whomever I want." Darvus threw her down on the foot of the bed, grabbing her wrists and holding them above her head. He placed his lips back on her ear. "Now, before we have some fun, why don't you tell me what you know about my disappearing slaves. You and Xena are conspiring with the evil spirits, aren't you. They brought you here, didn't they." Gabrielle was unable to control the surprised expression that crossed her face. Darvus really was loosing his mind. "Yes, I know all about you two. Xena had better think again if she plans to try to take over my kingdom. I knew that story she gave at the dock was a lie, but I figured outwitting the Warrior Princess would be a fun game to play. It's been slow around here. Nothing interesting to stimulate my mind, or my..." Darvus ran his right hand down Gabrielle's arm, along her left side, coming to rest on the front of her hip. Gabrielle tried to roll to her right, towards the table and the knife, but Darvus was too heavy, and was able to hold her down tighter than she would have thought the portly old man was capable of. She tried to buck him off, but he only squeezed her wrists tighter and moved his right hand to her inner thigh. She was no longer able to hold back the fearful tears that were now streaming down her face. His right hand started to slowly pull her dress up as he spoke. "Do you struggle like this for Xena? Does it get her excited when you do? I will have to watch the two of you together next time. Maybe Xena would like to watch us. Tell me bard, what's it like belonging to the Warrior Princess? I'll bet she likes it rough." He grabbed at the front of her dress with his teeth and started to tear it open.
Gabrielle's fear was quickly turning to rage. She was not going to let this deranged slime demoralize her or insult Xena. Pushing her raging emotions aside, she forced herself to relax and shifted her legs apart, allowing Darvus to think she was giving in. He was now standing on the floor, straddling her hips, with his upper body stretched out over her. With every bit of power she had, she drove her right knee up, connecting squarely with his groin. Darvus let out an animalistic shriek and slid to the floor. Without waiting to see if he was down for good, Gabrielle pulled her dress together and ran for the door. As she yanked it open and ran into the hallway, she felt a sharp pain at the back of her head and white spots appeared before her eyes. Confusion being her last coherent thought, she collapsed to the floor.
Darvus, still partially bent over holding his crotch, shuffled his way to the open door. He looked down at the bard, kicking her in the stomach, before looking up at his guard standing over her. "Tie the wench up and put her in my room. Make sure there is no way for the little brat to squirm free. And be sure there is a guard posted, I don't want the spirits stealing this one from me." He looked back down at Gabrielle. "I'll make her pay for that little stunt tonight."
The guard bowed his head before throwing Gabrielle over his shoulder and heading down the hall Two pairs of eyes followed the retreating forms.
The sun had just reached the midpoint of its journey when Hercules and Iolaus stepped into their room, where Xena and Autolycus where already seated and waiting.
"Good to see you two back safe and sound. I'm going to guess from your attire that you weren't able to sneak back in here unnoticed?" Xena eyed the two large men in their rough-cut dresses.
"The castle is crawling with guards, did something happen while we were on the outside? There are at least twice as many roaming warriors out there." Hercules paused long enough to ask the question, but was soon following Iolaus' lead in pulling the long dress off.
"We noticed that as well. None of the slaves are talking much; but I was able to charm one of the ladies into admitting that four more slaves have disappeared. Nobody knows how they are getting out or where they are hiding, but the slaves seem much more at ease about it then the guards."
Xena just rolled her eyes at Autolycus. "With Darvus stepping up the guard we can assume the missing slaves are escaping, and Darvus doesn't have a clue how. We may have found Neith if this is really the case. I think he suspects I might have something to do with it; two of his goons have been following me around all morning. What did you two find out?"
"The docks are guarded, but not very well, most of the men seem to be up here. Iolaus and I found an abandoned mine entrance in the woods about halfway between here and the water. It should be a good place to hide the women if it becomes necessary. We were also able to sneak aboard one of the ships; it's ready to go when we are. We even managed to get your weapons and Gabrielle's scrolls aboard. Where is Gabrielle?"
Xena had already started to worry about the bard. "She hasn't arrived yet. We need to start thinking of a way to get everyone out of here without having to fight our way out. You all can start thinking about how to do that, I'm going to look for Gabrielle." Xena got up to leave, trying to decide where to look first, when Hercules put a hand on her shoulder.
"We will all look. Something is making Darvus very jumpy and I think we would all feel better if we could split up and search several places at once." Hercules could see the fear in Xena's eyes; he knew exactly what she was thinking. "Go and check your room first. If she isn't there, you and Autolycus can search the main floor while Iolaus and I search the upper floors where we can avoid being seen."
"Thank you," Xena whispered.
The group quietly headed out on their new mission.
Nothing looked out of the ordinary in the room; other then the bed covers being disheveled. "Something is wrong, it's not like Gabrielle to miss a meeting without letting me know and she usually doesn't leave our room without first making the bed."
Autolycus could hear a chilling note of concern in Xena's voice. "Xena, I'm sure she is alright. She may have just been in a hurry and forgot." Autolycus didn't believe a word he was saying either. "She has gotten pretty darn good at looking out for herself, you know." Xena's face turned to stone; it sent a chill down Autolycus' spine.
"I'm going to check the kitchen." Xena's voice made him uneasy, but not knowing what else to do, Autolycus followed her out of the room.
Gabrielle could tell she was in real trouble. The last thing she remembered was running out of her room, running away from Darvus. How she had become blindfolded, gagged, and tied to what felt like a large bed was unclear. The gag in her mouth was making it difficult to breathe, so she concentrated on calming herself down, breathing slowly and evenly through her nose, and focusing her mind on everything around her. From the way the ropes felt like they were pulling her limbs out of their sockets, she guessed her wrists and ankles must be tied to the four corners of the bed. This particular position made it impossible for her to move without excruciating pain. 'Well, the bastard knows what he is doing.' She let out a sick chuckle. She had no idea how long she had been here, or if anyone was missing her yet. 'Well Xena, I hope you are looking for me, because I've found myself in another situation I can't fix.' This line of thought was quickly causing her breathing difficulties again, so she focused her attention back on her surroundings. She could hear and smell the ocean and a cool breeze coming from her right was raising goosebumps on her bare chest. 'So, I'm near a window that overlooks the water. That doesn't help me a whole heck of a lot.' She began listening to the gulls, thinking they sounded too close for her to be anywhere on the main floor, or the second level. 'Xena said Darvus' room was the highest point of the castle, that's probably where I am. At least I'm more comfortable here then if I was in the dungeon.' Another sick chuckle. Focused on the sound of the gulls, she almost missed the slight scrape of a door opening. She tensed as she heard footsteps approach, unfamiliar footsteps. The person was now standing near her head; she could feel the body heat being radiated. Gabrielle was quickly loosing control again. She could feel herself getting lightheaded as she tried to pull enough air through the gag to fill her panicking lungs. A hand reached up and gently pulled the blindfold from her eyes. It took a moment for Gabrielle to adjust to the sudden brightness of the dim room. As the form above her solidified, she could hardly believe what she saw. Myrene was standing above her, finger over her lips, silently asking Gabrielle to keep quiet.
When Myrene saw the recognition in Gabrielle's eyes, she removed the gag. Gabrielle took several rapid deep breaths trying to refill her lungs and calm her heart. She watched silently as Myrene gently untied the ropes about her wrists and ankles. Unable to ignore the burning ache in her joints, Gabrielle curled up into a fetal position to try to relieve some of the pain. Myrene sat next to her and quietly rubbed the sore shoulders. After a few moments, Myrene bent down to Gabrielle's ear and whispered, "We need to get our of here before the guard notices or Darvus arrives. Do you think you can you walk?" Gabrielle nodded. Myrene helped her stand, supporting Gabrielle's weight when the bump on her head caused Gabrielle to sway with dizziness. Myrene wrapped a blanket around the bard's shoulders as the pair slowly made their way toward the door hidden behind a tapestry at the back of the room. As they left, Gabrielle noticed Myrene leaving a piece of parchment on the bed next to the now empty ropes. Gabrielle was curious, but figured her questions could wait until they were safe.
The hallway they stepped into was just wide enough for the two of them to walk single file and Gabrielle figured Xena would have had to duck to keep from scraping her head along the ceiling. It appeared to be constructed of the same red rock that made up the castle walls. The two shortly reached a very steep and narrow flight of stairs that spiraled downward into blackness. Gabrielle had to close her eyes to quell the dizziness that was returning. Myrene stepped down in front of her and held out a hand to help the bard down the stairs. The descended for so long Gabrielle was sure they would encounter water. Eventually, the stairs ended in a rough-cut tunnel resembling an old mine shaft. Myrene was soon leading them through a labyrinth of corridors; completely lost, Gabrielle couldn't even tell if they were still on the castle grounds. A large cavern suddenly opened before them. Gabrielle was in awe at the sheer size of this room. It was even larger than the cave the Titans occupied. The floor was the same pale red color as the castle and the stones on the island, but hanging from the roof of the grotto were stalactites of white, yellow, and a deeper red that sparkled in the firelight. The air was fresh and smelled of the sea and campfire smoke. In the distance, she could just make out the water's edge. The faint sound of the waves mixed with the distant screaming of the seagulls seemed to echo off the walls. If Myrene hadn't still been holding her, Gabrielle would have collapsed on the spot from the beauty before her. Collecting herself, Gabrielle realized there were six other women now standing around her, trying to guide her to a fire burning to one side of the cavern. On the far side of the fire, there were bags and boxes of food, and other items she couldn't make out. Several full waterskins sat by the fire. On the near side, eight bedrolls were spread out
"Wh... where are we? What is this place?" Gabrielle managed to whisper.
"Gabrielle, let me welcome you to The Furies' Sanctuary."
Gabrielle looked at Myrene, then at the other six women. "The missing slaves. You're the one taking the slaves. And you're hiding them down here! This is great!" Gabrielle's eyes shined with bardic appreciation for her current situation. "Myrene, this is wonderful! How did you find this place? When did you come up with the plan to help the other slaves? How are you planning to get everyone off the island? Did you come up with the name for this place? Is that food over there?"
Myrene had to laugh at Gabrielle's outburst. "I'm glad you are feeling better! Come sit by the fire and have something to eat. I'll make up some tea to help ease your aches. If you don't mind listening to an amateur bard, I'll tell you all I know when you've finished dinner." The women all gathered around the large fire, one of them handing Gabrielle a full plate of food and a large mug of water while Myrene started heating some water for tea and found better clothes for Gabrielle to wear.
"Wait! What time is it?" Gabrielle suddenly looked panicked, scaring the other women.
"Shortly after sunset. Why?" Myrene was puzzled.
"By the Gods! I have to tell Xena where I am!" Gabrielle rose and awkwardly stumbled toward the opening she and Myrene had emerged from.
"Gabrielle, stop! You want to let your mistress know where you are?" Myrene was now completely confused.
"Myrene, Xena is not my mistress, she is my friend. We came here with Hercules and two others to find a woman named Neith, and help her free the slaves. There is too much to explain right now, but if I don't let Xena know I am safe, she is going to go after Darvus. I'm sure she is already very worried!"
All the women stared at Gabrielle in shock. "Xena came to help? Hercules is here?" Myrene was having difficulty thinking straight.
"Myrene, I'll explain it all later, but right now you have to show me how to get back into the castle so I can let my friends know everything is fine." Gabrielle forced Myrene to look at her. She had to make the woman understand. Gabrielle was already regretting having not thought of Xena sooner.
"No, you need to relax and eat. I'll go find your friends and tell them you're safe. If Darvus sees you again, he will kill you." Myrene led Gabrielle back to the fire. "I should be back soon." She turned and ran out through a different cave opening.
'I just hope you find her soon. Xena, please stay in control,' Gabrielle silently pleaded.
Xena was the image of barely controlled fear and rage. She and Autolycus had searched the entire main floor and nobody had seen Gabrielle. They had also learned that Gabrielle's friend Myrene had been seen at lunch, but not since. When the sun began to set, Xena had given up on Gabrielle's plan and was ready to hunt down Darvus and painfully extract the information she wanted. Autolycus had almost not been able to convince Xena to find Hercules and Iolaus before she went rampaging through the castle in search of Darvus. Much to Autolycus' relief, they quickly found the other two on the third floor going through storage rooms. Hercules and Iolaus could tell immediately that Gabrielle had not yet been found.
"I have had enough. I am going to do things my way now." Xena turned to leave the little room but Hercules grabbed her by the arm. If it had been anyone else, she would have ended their life right there.
"Xena, stop for a moment. We can't go racing through the castle killing all of Darvus' men."
"I won't need to kill ALL of them. Just the ones that have Gabrielle." Even Hercules was uncomfortable under Xena's stare; the rage in her eyes burned through everything in the room.
"Just hear me out. Iolaus and I figure Darvus put more guards on duty today because something other then the slaves escaping is happening. He also seems to fear for his life; he's been storming up and down the hallways this evening, ranting about interfering spirits, with no fewer then four guards at his side. Whatever it is, there is a good chance that it is the slaves that are orchestrating it. In which case, Gabrielle is probably safe, if not involved."
Xena looked into his eyes. Almost everything he said made sense. "If Gabrielle were safe, she would have contacted me by now."
Hercules couldn't deny that fact. "She may not be able to do it in person. Have you been looking for a note?" The expression on Xena's face told Hercules she hadn't considered that possibility.
"I'll be right back." Xena turned to head toward the stairway. Before she made it out the door, she ran straight into someone else that had been standing just outside. Xena grabbed the intruder by the shoulder, ready to snap their neck.
"Wait Xena! I'm Myrene! I came to give you a message from Gabrielle!"
Hercules stepped past Xena to help the woman up, and guided both her and Xena back into the room. Their little hiding place was starting to get very cramped. Hercules had the woman sit down on the opposite side of the room from Xena. Myrene was overwhelmed by the hero's presence, she really hadn't believed that Hercules would be here. She shook her head to clear her thoughts when she heard Xena's voice.
"What's the message? Where is Gabrielle?" Xena was trying very hard to stay calm. Despite the slight quaver in her voice, she appeared to the others to be doing just that.
Myrene was also a bit startled by Xena; the warrior woman did seem genuinely concerned for the young bard, but it was still hard to believe the two were just friends. "This morning Gabrielle ran into some trouble with Darvus, and I helped her out. She is fine now, I have her hiding in a secret part of the castle. She can't be seen by any of the guards now, which is why I came with the message."
"Why can't she be seen? And why did it take all day for her to get a message to me?" Xena could tell Myrene was avoiding telling her something.
Hercules sat down next to the woman. "For the sake of clarity, and Xena's sanity, I think you had better tell us the whole story."
'Gabrielle is not going to be happy about this,' Myrene thought. She looked over at Hercules. There was no way she was going to be able to talk to Xena, not with the icy stare the woman was giving her. "I didn't see it happen, but this morning Darvus attacked Gabrielle in her room." Myrene tensed as everyone in the room flinched. She was beginning to understand why Gabrielle was so adamant about letting them know she was safe. "I guess she was able to get away from Darvus, but not before one of his guards knocked her out. Darvus had her tied up in his room, alone, when I heard about it. As soon as I could get away, I snuck into the room and took her down to the caverns below the castle. She is down there now with the other missing slaves."
Xena still appeared relatively calm, except for her tightly balled fists that forced her knuckles to turn white and the muscles in her forearms to ripple. "Darvus is a dead man." It was a simple statement, and it sent chills down the backs of everyone in the little room.
"Myrene, can you take us down there? I think it would be best if we could all talk and find out exactly what is going on. And see Gabrielle ourselves." Hercules knew that was also the only way to keep Xena calm and away from Darvus, for a little while, anyway.
Myrene thought about Hercules request. 'What could it hurt, they're here to help,' she reasoned.
"I guess that will be acceptable. Follow me and keep quiet." Myrene ignored the indignant look Xena gave her as she slipped out of the room. The group followed Myrene to a storeroom down the hall. Once inside, she pointed to the stacks of blankets, amphorae of oil, and boxes of lamps. "If you could each carry something down with you, it would really help us out." Despite the confusion, each person grabbed something to carry with them. At the back of the room, Myrene pushed aside a set of shelves, revealing a door that opened into a passageway. After everyone had entered, Myrene lit a torch and directed everyone to follow closely behind. She led the group through the labyrinth and down several sets of stairs before they arrived at the cavern. Hercules, Autolycus, and Iolaus found the spectacle before them surprising. They paused to take in the impressive scene of the immense grotto. When they stepped into the cavern, Xena could hear Gabrielle's light voice coming from the fire that was burning to one side of the cave. She headed straight for it, ignoring the sights around her.
Gabrielle stopped mid-story when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned and saw Xena striding purposefully toward her. "Xena!" Gabrielle eased herself off the floor to greet her friend with a hug.
After dropping her cargo, Xena noticed Gabrielle's stiff movements and the uncontrollable flinch as the bard raised her arms to embrace Xena. "Gabrielle, are you all right? Will you tell me what really happened today?" Xena placed her hand on the back of the bard's head to examine the bump for herself, without loosening the hug.
"I'm fine, just a few bumps and bruises. I've had worse. I'll tell you about it later, right now I want you all to come sit over here and meet some people." Gabrielle tried to walk as smoothly as possible back to her blanket, ignoring her sore joints for Xena's sake.
Gabrielle waited until all the supplies were properly stowed before greeting everyone with a smile and a hug, and beginning the introductions. "Ladies, I would like you all to meet my friends Autolycus, Iolaus, Hercules, and Xena. Everyone, these are the six slaves that were reported missing, and you've already met Myrene. Myrene, now that we are all here, can you please explain what is going on." As Gabrielle asked this, one of the other women handed her a cup of tea. Xena could tell by the aroma that it was willow bark; she raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "I'm just a little sore, is all. We'll talk later." Gabrielle tried to soothe Xena's worries by wrapping her arm around Xena's waist and laying her head on Xena's shoulder, settling in to hear the tale.
"Well, none of this is really my doing. About four days ago, I received a note saying there was a way to get all of the slaves off the island safely if I was willing to help. I didn't even have to think about it; I'm willing to risk my life if it means getting away from Darvus and off this 'Fantasy Island' of his. So that evening I met a woman I had never seen before in the storage room where we picked up the supplies. She never spoke to me; she just handed me a note, some maps, and a torch, and directed me to follow her through the door hidden in the wall. She brought me down here. She indicated on a map where we were and where we had come from. That's when I figured out her plan; the maps showed old mining tunnels all over the island and the connected passageways into the castle itself. Before I could ask her how we were going to get off the island, she disappeared into the shadows. The note she had given me with the map explained how I should get as many slaves down here as I could each night, starting with Darvus' personal favorites. She also left a stack of notes that were to be left around the castle for Darvus to find after each woman disappeared. The notes were in a language I didn't recognize, but they were all signed by Alecto, Tisiphone, or Megaera, the Furies. That's why I named this cavern The Furies' Sanctuary."
"This is better then that Solstice Eve ruse we pulled on King Silvus!" Gabrielle knew she never would have thought of such an elaborate deception. It was all very impressive. "Myrene, was that one of those notes that you left on Darvus' bed?"
"Yes, our mysterious friend saw you taken this morning, so she had me release you and leave that special note."
"Mysterious friend? You mean the woman that gave you the map and notes? What do you mean by a special note?" Gabrielle was already forming the tale in her head and she wanted to make sure she had all the details.
"Yes, the woman that started all this handed me two notes this morning, one telling me where to find you, and the other to be left for Darvus. I figure it must have been special because I hadn't seen it before and it was shorter then all the rest. After I saw what Darvus and the guard had done to you, I could tell Darvus was starting to crack. That's why I'm staying down here now, the beast has become unstable and completely unpredictable." Myrene was concentrating on the fire and didn't notice the worried looks directed at Gabrielle that her comments had produced.
Gabrielle returned the stares, trying to convince everyone she was fine with just a look. She didn't know if she should be flattered or insulted by all the concern.
"This guy is one sick bastard who is about to loose his wits. Wouldn't it be faster to just take him out and be done with it!" Iolaus was starting to fume.
"Iolaus, I think the plan here is to avoid a war, which is exactly what that would incite." Hercules thought for a moment. "Gabrielle, the Furies, they are the ancient demigoddesses of divine retribution that take revenge on those who commit crimes against their families, correct?"
"Yes and no. Most people think of them that way, but they will also pursue anyone who has broken a bond or understood law of society and escaped judgment. They never actually kill the person they are after, they just torment them or drive them insane." Gabrielle got a thoughtful look on her face, considering her own comment. "I wonder if that is what Neith is trying to do, drive Darvus insane. If that truly is the plan, it's working."
Myrene looked up. "Neith?"
"She's the woman we came here to find; I believe she is the one that is guiding this plan." Gabrielle thought for a moment more. "Driving Darvus insane is the perfect plan. It will eventually turn his own warriors against him, allowing anyone to just walk out of the castle! The notes must be the key to all this. Myrene, do you have any of them around? I'd like to see what they say." Xena had to chuckle at how Gabrielle just assumed she would be able to read them.
Myrene walked over to a box and pulled out a stack of parchment. She handed the top one to Gabrielle. Xena looked over Gabrielle's shoulder as the bard silently read the short note. Xena didn't know the language either, but in looked like a language she had seen from the distant west.
"This is brilliant!" Gabrielle suddenly exclaimed.
"What is it? What does it say?" Iolaus moved in closer, forgetting his frustration with the situation.
"It's a riddle." Gabrielle looked at the confused faces with a huge smile on her face. She finally decided to translate the puzzle for the group. "The man who made it, sold it. The man who bought it, didn't want it. And when you use it, you won't know it." Gabrielle smiled to herself. "This is an old children's riddle that Neith has made personal by adding 'you' in the last line. If Darvus figures it out, it is meant to scare him, and if he doesn't, his mind will be preoccupied with it until he does find an answer." She looked up at everyone, assuming they all figured out the answer.
It was a long moment before anyone said anything. "A coffin! The riddle is about a coffin!" Hercules suddenly exclaimed. "I knew I had heard that somewhere before. Charon likes to tell those heading for Tartarus a different version of that one!"
"A silly riddle! That is supposed to drive Darvus insane? A children's riddle!" Iolaus was beginning to lose his temper again.
Xena had special insight she felt the need to add. "Iolaus, it is possible. Have you ever been told a riddle and not been given the answer?" She gave him a thoughtful look as she recalled a day, not too long ago, when Gabrielle decided to try her riddle developing ability on Xena. The bard had given her four riddles that morning, and would not volunteer the answers until the following morning. Xena had gotten even less sleep then usual that night; for some reason, her brain would not let go of the puzzles.
"That is an excellent plan," Hercules added, "but I think having Xena and Autolycus pestering him further about the missing slaves could help matters along. This plan could take months before Darvus really loses touch." Hercules paused to consider a different matter that had been bothering him. "Myrene, you called these mining tunnels. Would they connect to the mine shaft opening in the forest near the road to the castle?"
"Good. Iolaus and I will use it to sneak out unseen and grab that ship tomorrow. Hopefully there will be a cove nearby to hide it in until we can get everyone out of the castle."
Myrene spoke up more confidently. "The grotto opening is large enough to get a ship through. If you use a map, the entrance should be easy enough to find from the outside. But, I don't think the riddles are all, um, Neith, has planned though." She went back over to the box that contained the riddles and pulled out a dark bundle. "Gabrielle, maybe you'll know what this is."
Gabrielle took the cloth and shook it out. A whip, a fillet with the head of a golden cobra attached, and a gold clasp in the shape of a scorpion, fell to the ground. The cloth appeared to be a heavy black robe with a deep cowl. Gabrielle's face lit up with instant recognition. She wrapped the robe around her shoulder, fastening it over the right shoulder with the scorpion clasp. She then placed the fillet on her head and pulled the cowl up to hide her face but allow the head of the snake to remain uncovered. She picked up the whip, letting the tip lay just in front of her toes. She stepped back to the edge of the firelight and quietly stared at the group. Only an occasional glint from her eyes and the shimmering of the gold snake and scorpion were visible. It made for a very unsettling sight. Everyone jumped when Hercules suddenly clapped his hands and started laughing.
"Gabrielle, I think you're on to something! If I didn't know better, I would have thought a Fury had descended to join our campfire!" Gabrielle began to laugh as well, as understanding finally began to dawn on the others sitting around the fire.
'Planning elaborate deceptions with a bard and the son of a god can really make a warrior fell like an idiot,' Xena thought to herself. Outwardly, she merely huffed her frustration at the fire.
"Well boys and girls, I hate to break up this exciting and intellectually stimulating party we are having, but I'm going to need some rest if I'm expected to be my wily self tomorrow. So, will someone kindly direct me back to my room?" Autolycus stood and looked expectantly at Myrene.
"I think we could all use some sleep. Myrene, you can take Autolycus and Xena back to their rooms while Iolaus and I use the map to find and escort some more guests down to the cavern." Hercules and Iolaus rose to study the map in the firelight.
Gabrielle stepped over to join Hercules and Iolaus. "I think tonight would be a good night to start using this outfit. Myrene can show me how to get in and out of the passageways when we take Autolycus and Xena back to the castle."
"You are not going anywhere tonight, Gabrielle." Xena pulled the hood down as she turned the bard around. "I don't care how fine you think you feel, you need to rest. We can discus who is going to play a Fury tomorrow."
The fact that her joints still ached told Gabrielle that Xena was right, but she put on her best pout for the warrior anyway. This only caused Xena to smirk and pull the bard in for a tight goodnight hug.
"I don't want to have to worry about you anymore tonight, alright?" Xena stepped back to look Gabrielle in the eye.
"Alright. I'll go to bed, but I want to be a Fury tomorrow." Gabrielle wasn't about to let Xena take the most exciting part of the plan away from her.
Xena just chuckled and kissed the dramatic bard on the top of the head. "We will talk about it tomorrow."
With the next phase of the plan figured out, Xena and Autolycus followed Myrene back to their rooms while Hercules and Iolaus headed out to guide more women down to the Furies' Sanctuary. As Gabrielle lay down listening to the other women preparing for bed, she silently wondered where Neith was and what she was up to at that moment.
Gabrielle replayed her favorite childhood memories in her dreams that night.
Later that night, when most of the castle occupants had fallen asleep, a woman in black made her nightly visit to Darvus' room. Once again, the guard outside the door never saw the figure enter, and was unable to find her when Darvus pulled him into the room, screaming obscenities about the cloaked specter and her cryptic parchments. Nightly guard duty had been one of the worst assignments to pull, but over the last few nights this particular duty station had become almost comedic. He wasn't the only guard that had secretly hired on with one of the visiting warlords.
It was shortly past dawn the next morning when Xena and Autolycus stormed into the dining hall. The sight of Darvus stopped both of them in their tracks immediately. The man looked as though he had not slept in days. He was standing on top of the main table wearing nothing but a chain mail hood and a pair of boots, holding a long loaf of bread as if it was a sword. He was too busy mumbling to someone who wasn't there to notice Xena and Autolycus' entrance.
"Darvus!" After excusing himself from the private conversation, the man calmly turned to stare down at the warrior woman. Xena had a hard time keeping her mind on the task at hand. She forged ahead with the predetermined plan as best she could. "What exactly is going on around here? What have you done with my storyteller?"
Autolycus quickly composed himself as well. "That's what I want to know! Both my women were missing this morning!"
Several warlords had entered the room and were watching the exchange with interest. The largest of the scruffy men stepped forward. "Whatever this stunt is that you are trying to pull won't work Darvus!" Xena grimaced at the amount of spittle flying from the man's mouth. "You grabbed my best girl last night and I expect compensation! No cryptic note is going to scare me off!"
Xena grabbed the small piece of parchment from the warlord's hand.
Your gold has been extracted,
To reside in the home of the ore.
Xena smiled. This one she understood.
"My slaves were replaced with riddles last night too! This plan of yours is not going to work, Darvus!" a second warlord added.
Darvus simply stared at the angry mob. When he finally did speak, his voice was just above a whisper, forcing everyone to lean closer to hear. "We are feared and abhorred, revered and ignored. Shifted from master to prey, you are the reason we arrive this day." The guests stared back at the naked man. Nobody had a response for that. Nobody was sure what he had just said.
Autolycus leaned over to whisper in Xena's ear. "His mind appears to have left on a permanent vacation without him."
The human fountain stepped back from Darvus and grunted, "This insanity act won't keep me from taking what is owed me!"
"No!" Darvus suddenly screamed. "No! No! No! It's the women in black. Yes. They are the ones doing this!" Darvus began pacing up and down the length of the table swinging his bread sword over his head. "They won't win though. You know why? I learned their secret! Yes! They revealed too much, and now I have the key! My mother! I must find my mother." Apparently no longer concerned with his guests, Darvus began to skip and recite a riddle as if it was a children's song. "My mother holds the elusive key, to my slowly slipping sanity."
"Slipping sanity is right! Darvus, I want my ship prepared! Before I leave this island, I expect full compensation for my loss!" The other warlords began spouting similar ultimatums.
Xena and Autolycus stared at the old man who was now mumbling something about sending a messenger with a note for his mother to Hades. A guard cautiously approached Darvus, and eventually had to jump upon the table to whisper something into his ear.
"WHAT!" The guard fell from the table at Darvus' unexpected outburst. "The specters have started stealing my ships too! I want a full contingent of guards at the docks! Have them bring the boats into the castle so they cannot be stolen! I want two contingents protecting the castle! Get everyone off the island! And make sure no one leaves! Where is my breakfast! I need food!" The guard didn't know what to do other then stare. He looked over at Xena, who just shrugged her shoulders.
The guard picked himself up and walked out of the room mumbling to himself, "Three contingents on duty. There are only two on the island. Get everyone off the island and make sure no one leaves?" The guard paused in the hall. "Bring the ships into the castle? I knew I should have listened to my mother and joined the Trojan army!"
Xena started pulling Autolycus away from the raving lunatic. "I think we had better start getting everyone out of here as soon as possible. Neith has pushed him over the edge, and our stolen ship seems to have stepped up the plans."
"This might be a good time to warn the others about the current situation," Autolycus added, inclining his head to the man who was now sparring with a chair.
"Agreed." Xena and Autolycus left the dining hall and headed toward the storage room.
The pair moved as quickly as the crowded halls allowed to another room with the hidden door. The morning's display in the dining hall was spreading throughout the castle like wildfire; there were guards running everywhere. Rantings about ghosts tormenting Darvus, or about women releasing snakes to bite and chase after any man owning a slave echoed through the halls. Xena suddenly realized that the plan was quickly approaching its final phase, whether they were ready or not.
As the two came running into the cavern, Hercules and Iolaus were running up from the water's edge. "The ship is here and once we load the supplies, it will be ready to go. Xena, your weapons and Gabrielle's scrolls are safe aboard as well," Hercules stated.
"We need to get everything loaded then, it has become complete chaos in the castle. Darvus has finally slid over the edge, the warlords are grabbing what they can and leaving, and the guards are either leaving with the warlords or running around as crazy as Darvus." Xena had begun to pack up supplies as she related this news.
"Myrene and I can retrieve the rest of the slaves while Iolaus and Autolycus load the boat. Xena, you and Hercules can give us a hand by occupying Darvus while we get everyone out."
"Gabrielle, I don't want you going back up there. Hercules and I can handle the rest of the slaves." Xena had stopped her work to square off with the bard. She could tell this was going to be an argument. So could everyone else.
"And what if something goes wrong? You and Hercules can't collect all of the slaves, watch Darvus, keep the guards and warlords off your back, and expect to make it back down here undetected." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and stared back at Xena.
Xena began to say something then stopped. No matter what people said, Gabrielle was a warrior. "Gabrielle, it isn't safe up there. You don't know the tunnels, and you don't have your staff to protect you." Xena knew she was reaching, but she wasn't ready to give up yet.
"Myrene can come with me, she knows all the tunnels, and we found a second cloak for her to wear. That should make most of the men think twice before attacking us. And just because I don't have my staff doesn't mean I can't protect myself!" Now Gabrielle was beginning to get mad.
Xena knew the limits, and she knew the bard. The warrior had lost this battle. She glanced around for any sort of assistance before she finally gave in. "Fine, you and Myrene can come along as the Furies, but you two stick close to us. Iolaus, you and Autolycus get this boat loaded and the women aboard, it shouldn't take too long to get everyone else down here." She turned on her heel and headed toward the tunnel to the castle.
Everyone stood in awe as Gabrielle grabbed a cloak and ran after Xena. Shaking his head, Hercules got Myrene's attention and helped her get moving. "Well, I guess we are loading the boat." Iolaus started grabbing bags and boxes to haul aboard.
The chaos had not relented when Xena and Hercules had stepped out of the kitchen pantry. Gabrielle and Myrene quietly hid in the shadows behind them, waiting for the signal to emerge. Myrene had been right; most of the slaves had congregated in the kitchen trying to hide from the warlords and their new armies. Xena and Hercules quickly informed them of the situation and handed them a map. They were to find as many of the other women as possible then head down to the ship. Xena turned to tell Gabrielle and Myrene to escort and assist the women, but the two make believe Furies were no longer standing behind her. "Where did they go!" The frantic pace of the situation had already worn Xena down, Gabrielle disappearing like this was only pushing Xena closer to the edge of her temper.
Hercules stepped over. "I never saw them leave. They probably went off to help find more of the women." Hercules was quickly feeling the control of the situation slip as well.
"Why doesn't she ever listen to me! She is going to get herself hurt, or worse!"
"Xena, wait. I'm sure she and Myrene are using the tunnels. I think these women can find their way form here. You and I can go look for other women, and check on Darvus at the same time. I'm sure we will run into the two of them." Hercules had to run to catch Xena as he said this.
Guards were running past them, yelling about serpents and scorpions being released in the castle and men falling over dead from looking into the faces of the Furies. Xena just rolled her eyes as she grabbed one of the passing guards. "Where is everyone going?"
"To the dining hall! Darvus has called upon the Furies to end their torment. We want to be there to plead our cases. We had nothing to do with this, it was all Darvus!" Xena threw the screaming man to the ground and looked over at Hercules.
The demigod just shrugged his shoulders. "Guess we should join the show." Having not seen any women in some time, checking on Darvus seemed like the proper thing to do.
The mass confusion of the hallway ended abruptly at the door to the dining hall. Most of the guards that had remained with Darvus, about thirty, had gathered in the room. Darvus was in much the same condition Xena and Autolycus had left him earlier. He was still wearing his chain mail hood and boots, and holding his loaf of bread. Apparently the kitchen staff had heard his plea for breakfast, for enough food for a banquet now covered the table. The room suddenly fell silent when Darvus started to yell.
"Furies! I said show yourselves! You have tormented me long enough! It is time to end it now!" Nothing happened. Darvus raised the loaf of bread over his head. "HA! You are afraid of me! I knew...."
Darvus gasped and drew everyone's attention to the balconies in front of him and to his left. Two cloaked figures stood staring at the crowd below.
"Gabrielle, what do you think you are doing!" Xena whispered.
Suddenly a third figure stepped from the shadows on the balcony behind Darvus. Everyone below took an involuntary step backwards, including Xena and Hercules. Time seemed to stand still; nobody dared breath lest they draw the Furies attention. Xena had no idea which was Gabrielle; all three women looked the same in the cloaks.
Darvus was finally able to find his voice. "I know who brought you! When I kill them, you will no longer be able to torment me! You hide in shadows and watch as the real offenders are slaughtered before your eyes!"
The attention of the room was now on Darvus. Nobody had the slightest clue about what he meant. The man had lost all ability to reason. Filled with relief that Darvus was going to ignore the false Furies, Xena didn't notice Darvus turn toward her and Hercules.
"Ah, Xena, I think we might have a problem here." Hercules nudged Xena to get her attention back on Darvus.
"Transgressors!" Darvus was screaming again and pointing his bread at the heroes who were now standing alone at the end of the table. "You called them down upon me, and you shall pay!" Darvus jumped toward them, swinging his bread sword.
Xena and Hercules knew they had nothing to fear from the baked good, but they instinctively went to arm themselves nonetheless. With no weapons in the room, they grabbed the next best thing. The two took up a defensive stance, preparing to defend themselves with their legs of lamb should the lunatic come after them with his bread swinging.
Darvus turned toward his guards. "Arm the catapults! Fire at will! We will kill them all today!" Darvus leaped from the table, doing some sort of unknown, intricate fencing dance toward Hercules. The guards looked at each other, looked at the trio armed with perishables, then looked back at each other. With a collective shrug, the all grabbed spoons and any small projectiles they could get their hands on, and quickly fashioned kitchen catapults any young child would be proud to wield.
The Furies looked on in disbelief. Hercules appeared to be in the midst of a sword fight with Darvus, whose loaf of bread was holding up surprisingly well to Hercules' leg of lamb. Xena was doing the best she could to disarm the guardsmen under the barrage of grapes and olives. She had no idea olives could be so hard.
Gabrielle looked to her right, making eye contact with Neith. She could just make out the hand movements under Neith's cloak. 'This should be fun. What would ma say?" With a wink, she leapt from the balcony, somersaulted midway, and gently landed at the head of the dining table. Gabrielle and Myrene looked at each other in amazement, then back at the floor below. At the same moment, they both decided it would be best to find an easier way down to join in the melee.
Gabrielle and Myrene meet in the hall just outside the doors to the dining room. "Myrene, make sure all the women have made it down to the ship, I'm going to try and get Xena and Hercules out of there." She paused, glancing at the mass confusion of flying food stuffs in the room before her. Still standing at the head of the table was the third cloaked figure, now launching slices of eggplant into the air. "And I'm going to bring Sathalia home."
Myrene didn't understand Gabrielle's last comment, but since it was only a whisper, she figured it wasn't for her ears anyway. "Be careful, Gabrielle. We will be waiting for you." Gabrielle turned and gave the woman a smile before jumping into the fight. Myrene shook her head and started toward the dungeons.
Gabrielle looked on in disbelief. 'I am going to love retelling this part of the adventure,' she thought mischievously. Apparently, Darvus had lost his bread in the fight with Hercules. The warlord was now pelting the poor hero with sweet pastries. Gabrielle noticed an untouched bowl of tasty looking olives and got an idea. "I did miss breakfast this morning!" She hopped up on the table, grabbed the bowl, and started eating them as fast as she could, spitting the sharp little pits at any guards that happened to be in range.
The guards that had been raining grapes and olives down on Xena soon found themselves out of ammunition. Still armed with spoons, they decided to switch to the heaping bowls of mashed potatoes. Xena decided another tactic was in order when she found herself covered in the sticky white stuff. Laying on the table next to her was a tray of fruit. Not ready to relinquish her leg of lamb yet, she grabbed the closest apple and hefted it up into the air. As it fell in front of her, she swung the leg, smacking the apple into the face of the closest guard with more force then she would have expected an apple to be able to achieve. An evil grin quickly crossed her face as the other guards saw their companion fall and began backing up, flinging the potatoes with new fervor. Xena began hitting the fruit in their direction as fast as she could, while doing her best at keeping her face potato free.
Hercules had decided to abandon his leg of lamb and was now swinging and entire roast boar around his body, sending any unsuspecting guard that bumbled into its path to the realm of Morpheus. His roast was connecting with a surprising number of men, mainly due to the fact that Neith was calmly tossing soft cheeses to strategic places on the floor. Those guards that were lucky enough to not slide into the path of Hercules' boar found themselves lying prone, staring at the ceiling.
Darvus was becoming agitated with his lack of progress in sending his foes to Hades. He had noticed that his men armed with spoons were effective in holding Xena at bay, and took that to mean it was an effective weapon. He grabbed the closest available, held it above his head, and yelled, "SPOON!" then charged at Gabrielle. She had just run out of olives when she heard Darvus and saw him racing toward her, looking as though he meant to cut her heart out with the blunt instrument. She frantically looked around and finally saw the perfect weapon. She snatched the pitcher up and poured as much port into her mouth she could without choking. She really couldn't understand how Xena could drink this stuff. Darvus had jumped up to the table top, and was still intent on impaling the slave girl. When he was a mere two arm lengths away, Gabrielle used her well-toned cheek muscles to spray the port at Darvus with an amazing amount of force. She had been aiming for his head, but in miscalculating the distance between them, Gabrielle's deep red stream hit Darvus square in the chest. The unexpected attack made Darvus stumble, then slip on a plate of oiled grape leaves that had gone unnoticed. He looked down at the red liquid running off his chest and screamed out, as if in pain. "You wench! You have impaled me! But you have not won yet! For it is merely my blood you spill!" He started laughing uncontrollably. "But I am not a man! Men bleed to death, but....." He paused to search the table around him. "Broccoli does not!" Darvus grabbed a head of broccoli and held it in front of his face. He jumped from the table and began sneaking out of the room, truly believing no one would pay attention to the walking broccoli. Gabrielle just stared at him in disbelief.
Three of the warlords had been standing just outside the doors to the dining hall, watching the madness with cool calculation. Their newly formed armies had cleared the castle of anything of value. "Sir, the ship has been loaded, we were unable to find any women, however."
"Fine. I want you and your men to burn this place down. We will get under way when we see the flames." The warlord turned and headed toward the front gate. The other warlords instructed their men to do the same and to then head down to the ships.
The men left behind used a wall sconce to light their arrows, then began firing into the room. The ancient balconies and tapestries took only seconds to catch fire. The wine on the table was soon ablaze as well. There wasn't even enough time to take a breath between the time the fighters realized a fire had erupted, and when flames engulfed the room. A few of the unlucky guards that had been standing near the tapestries were now running haphazardly about the room and out into the hall, trying to extinguish their burning uniforms. This was only serving to spread the flames more quickly.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was in a state of panic. The room was filling with smoke; she could no longer see to the opposite side of the room where the main doors were. That was the least of her worries at the moment. "Gabrielle! Where are you!"
"I'm right behind you Xena! Where are Hercules and Neith?" Despite the fact that she was now standing next to Xena, Gabrielle had to yell to get her voice above the screaming men and crackling wood.
"Xena, Gabrielle, we need to get out of here, now!" Hercules had stepped up behind them.
"How? The only door is on the far end of the room! There are too many flames between here and there!" Xena knew she and Hercules could probably make it, but not Gabrielle.
"There is another entrance to the tunnels back here. Iolaus and I found it last night." Hercules stepped over to a burning tapestry and pulled it to the ground, stamping it out with his foot. He pushed on a rock about shoulder level and a hidden door slid open.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the arm and tried to pull her toward the door. "No, Xena! I have to find Neith! I'm not going to leave her again!" Before Xena was able to react, Gabrielle had squirmed free and went running toward the flames that separated her from where she had last seen her sister. Xena and Hercules took off after her.
Gabrielle soon discovered there was no way for her to make it across the wall of flames without burning herself. She looked up towards the head of the huge table. Neith was still standing there, just visible through the smoke and flames. They stared at each other for a moment before Neith signed, 'Get out of here. I can make it to the docks, you need to get to the cave. Don't worry, nothing is going to keep us apart. Nothing ever will.' Neith dropped her arms and stared at her sister with a sad smile. 'She hasn't changed a bit,' she thought.
"You wait for me there!" Gabrielle screamed. "I'll find you! I'm not leaving without you!" They stared at each other another long moment before Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder.
"We need to get out of here now. The whole castle is going up in flames." As if to confirm her point, a burning rafter fell from the ceiling, completely cutting off Gabrielle's view of Neith.
The three were running as fast as they could through the tunnels. When they reached the water's edge they were out of breath, covered in food, and reeking of smoke. Those that had stayed in the grotto had not yet realized that the castle was in flames.
"Let me guess. You like smoked potatoes, but there were no bags left to carry them with, so you just wore them."
"Autolycus, shut up and get this boat moving! This entire island is about to go up in flames!" Xena did not have the time or the patience to describe their current state to the curious onlookers aboard the boat.
"Iolaus, take us out of here, we need to head to the docks on the far side of the island." Hercules and Xena had taken up oars to push the boat out of the cavern. The women were doing the best they could at helping Iolaus get the sails up while Autolycus took the helm.
The winds were light so it took some time for the boat to reach the far side of the island. When they finally arrived at the docks, all their hearts fell. The entire island was burning, including the docks. There didn't seem to be a single portion of the island that escaped the conflagration. The only fire free portion of the island was the castle atop Mt. Pangaeus; anything flammable in the structure had long ago been reduced to ashes.
"Xena, what now?" Gabrielle had sat down on the edge of the deck, allowing her tears of stress, fear, and failure to slide freely down her face.
Xena looked out at the horizon. Five other ships had left the docks long ago, and were little more than dots on the horizon now. Each ship had chosen a different direction to sail. She sat down next to Gabrielle and put an arm around the distraught bard's shoulders. "I'm sure she made it off the island, Gabrielle. She must be on one of the other ships." Xena realized what a bittersweet consolation that was. Neith may be off the island, but what sort of situation was she in now?
Hercules had quietly described the morning's events to the rest of the group, ending with the fact that Neith was unable to make it to the cavern, and ran for the docks to escape the flames. Realization dawned on the group, that although they had successfully freed the slaves, their original mission was a failure. They were no closer to finding Neith now then when they started.
"I failed her again. Just like before, I tried to help and failed." Gabrielle's voice was calm and steady. To her, this was simply a statement of fact.
"No, Gabrielle, don't you start thinking like that. You did all that you could. The fire wasn't your fault, nor was the lack of wind. You know positively that she is alive now, and that's all that matters."
It was a long moment before Gabrielle slowly spoke again. "You know, she looked just the same as I remembered her. I always envied her hair. I used blackberries one year to try and get my hair the same deep red color as hers." Gabrielle smiled at the thought of that situation, and her mother's reaction. It was that day that her sister had convinced Gabrielle that she had the most beautiful hair in all the land. Then she frowned again. "She said nothing could keep us apart. I think she knew we weren't going to make it."
"Perhaps she did, Gabrielle, perhaps she did." Xena softly rubbed the bard's back, wanting to some how be more comforting. The two sat in companionable silence like this for most of the voyage back to Abdera. Caught up in her thoughts and memories, Gabrielle never noticed her sea sickness that day.
Off to the east, just within visual range, a lone woman sat huddled in the crows nest of a pirate ship. Her green eyes locked on the last small ship sailing away from the burning island. Silently, because that was her way, she repeated for all the Gods to hear, 'I will find you, Gabrielle. I will find you.'
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