Standard Disclaimer: All characters and other subjects related to Xena Warrior Princess belong to Renaissance Pictures, and NBC Universal.
Spoiler Alert: This fiction is of the Post Friend In Need variety, which means it contains significant spoilers of the end of the series, but also others as well. Even if you don't care about spoilers, I've assumed that you've seen the show, so if you haven't, parts of this might be confusing. In short, if you haven't seen the whole show, what are you waiting for? Go grab a copy on DVD and get to it!
Subtext Disclaimer: This fanfiction doesn't contain any more subtext than the show, though it is very subtextual, if you are paying attention.
Rating: There's some violence. It's Xena Warrior Princess, not Xena Culinary and Indoor Decorating Princess. There's also cursing, but I kept most of the harsher stuff out.
Historical Inaccuracy Disclaimer: As a Classics minor, I know just enough about ancient Greek and Roman history to be dangerous. Like the show, some place names, names of people, and events are plucked from history, though they are reformed to suit my purposes. I hope you are not offended. I did it with only the best intentions.
A note about how I'm going to be posting: As of right now, I plan to post a chapter every two weeks. I'm a few chapters ahead, but I don't want to leave anyone hanging. My posts will become more frequent as summer wears on because I will have more time to write.
If you have questions, comments, or wish to be added to an email list for updates, please contact me at email@example.com (any feedback is encouraged and much appreciated!)
Also, a bit of incentive to get you to read this: The first chapter of this story won the 2011 Battling Bards contest at the Xena Movie Campaign 2011 facebook page.
THE WAY BACK
by Samantha Paedae
"The way forward is the way back." Herakleitos
"No, nitwit, she ain't dead. She's breathin' ain't she?"
The young woman awoke groggily, aroused by the sound of several voices and an insistent poking of her shoulder.
"Well, she ain't moved," the first voice protested. It was high and flighty, like it belonged to an adolescent girl. The semi-conscious figure was prodded again.
"Quit poking her!" The second voice was that of an older woman, low, with a clear edge of authority, despite it's current hint of weary exasperation.
The assault on the hapless victim's shoulder stopped. "I wanna know who she is!" the younger voice whined. "You told me the guard said she was some kinda thief or somethin'."
The prostrate figure let the voices wash over her as she eased into painful consciousness. She became aware of a distinct throbbing originating at the base of her skull, and reverberating behind her eyes as her heart beat steadily. The faint glare of torchlight was visible through her eyelids, and she knew opening her eyes even in the dim light would likely cause her undue pain. She really wasn't in the mood to answer questions anyway, so she tried to get stock of the situation using her other senses.
She could feel slightly damp soil beneath her head and bare legs. The smell was musty and unclean, and she could detect the odor of several unwashed bodies. Pungent, thought not oppressive, so she concluded she and the others probably hadn't spent much time in what she considered most likely a cell of some kind. Given how she'd gotten the bump on her head, it wasn't an outlandish assumption.
Foggily, she cast her mind back to her last memories before she lost consciousness. She'd seen Telen in trouble, then cried out, then...
Her eyes burst open, and she shot into a sitting position, then immediately regretted it as her stiffened muscles protested.
"Whoa, she's awake!" A round faced girl of about nine who had been crouching to her right jumped backward in surprise. She landed hard on her butt in the dirt, then jerked her head rapidly back and forth, casting her hand out for a worn sleeve hanging close to her cheek. She grabbed it with one hand and tugged, while pointing at the now wincing figure in front on her. Her hands were manacled, and made a slight clanking noise as the links rubbed together.
"I see her, Lori, godssake calm down," the chesnut haired woman tugged her sleeve out of the young girl's grasp and moved closer to the older girl.
The young woman stretched out her legs with a groan, and let her head fall back against the dirty rock wall. As her head connected, it sent a jolt of pain almost through her jaw. "Ugh." She complained. "Not my night." She pulled her legs up to her chest, resting her arms on her knees. The chain from the manacles on her wrists hung down and swung slowly.
The chesnut-haired woman regarded her. The girl was young, probably not yet twenty, but her low voice and sturdy demeanor belied a maturity that her face didn't show. What she could see of her face, anyway. The girl had a split lip, and a purple bruise that made her cheek swell slightly. She'd let her head drop forward as she absently watched the chain's motion, and her shoulder length wavy brownhair fell over her brown eyes.
"Day." The older woman finally spoke.
"Huh?" the girl looked up in puzzlement.
"Day." The woman repeated. "You been here a night, and now it's day." The younger girl, Lori, crept up apprehensively and peered over the older woman's shoulder.
"I just got here," she piped up, "I'm Lori." She extended a hand.
The older girl continued looking at the older woman, as if processing the information, then she broke from her reverie and clasped the young girl's arm in a warrior's grip.
"Aryn." She introduced herself.
"As long as we're bein' formal, I'm Delyn." Aryn could feel the sturdy muscles of the other woman's forearm as she accepted her grip.
There was a short silence as Aryn examined her new surroundings. As she'd expected, she was in a small cell, with room for maybe six people, though now it was occupied by only three, Delyn, Lori, and herself. At the far end there were bars, and through them she could she her cell's duplicate, on the other side of a corridor lit by several torches further down.
The cell was windowless, and slightly damp, which made her think it was probably dug out at least partially from the ground. It was dark, and lit by a single torch, which cast eerie flickering shadows across the occupants' faces. All three of them were manacled at the wrists, and a single chained looped through their bonds bound the three of them together. It was restrictive, but not enough that they couldn't move about the cell, and long enough that Lori's startled jump earlier hadn't jostled Aryn. Thank gods for small favors. She didn't think her throbbing head would've appreciated being slammed into the ground.
She studied the younger girl. The exposed parts of her skin were dirty, and her long blond hair was matted and tangled. The rest of her body was covered by an unidentifiable dirty brown rag. The glanced at the older woman in turn. Her chestnut hair was pulled back in a tail, which kept it away from her relatively clean face. She had strong features, and a bearing that indicated an equally strong personality.
Aryn guessed she was about twice her age, but she didn't look like a farmer or an innkeeper. The scant rags did little to hide her strong shoulders and outdoor tan, and the arm she'd gripped earlier felt as if was used to holding a sword. Hmm. She could probably find the woman's origins out later, but there were more pressing matters to attend to. Aryn glanced down at herself, and unsurprisingly discovered she was dressed in similar fare. She plucked at the garment, and glanced at Delyn in silent question.
The older woman's lips twitched slightly as she interpreted the gesture. "Don't you worry lass. Them guards took yer clothes, but I wouldn't let 'em touch ya." She opened her mouth as if to continue, but then apparently thought better of it and shut it again.
"Thanks." Aryn self-consciously shifted the rags to better cover her shoulders, and considered the older woman's statement.
"Delyn," she addressed the older woman, "you were here when I got here?"
"Yeah, I sure was. Me, an' a few others. No women though. The men were in the cell over there." She pointed to the cell opposite them. "But they were loaded onto a ship a candlemark ago. We gotta get on a different ship, but they's supposed to be bringing more woman prisoners. Gonna be a real party." Unaccountably, Delyn smiled. "That trader seems ta think he can get a pretty penny for ya."
Up to this point, Aryn had been absorbing the information with studied intent. She started visibly at the last statement, and tried to keep her nerves under control. "Trader?" she queried, with forced casualness.
Delyn saw the girl's reaction, and smile disappeared. Her voice dropped, acquiring a more serious tone. "Slave trader," she clarified. She waited for the girl to process that, though she was sure it was something she had already known.
The now tacit Lori watched the exchange with interested eyes, looking from one to the other, and letting her eyes fasten on Aryn.
"Sl...Slave trader?" Aryn repeated, more an exclamation than a question. No.
She raised her hand to her mouth in surprise, then winced as she grazed her split lip. She shook her head back and forth in disbelief, ignoring the pain it caused.
"Teom's a no-slave town," she demurred, "no slaves, no slave trade."
Delyn gave her a wry look. "Aye, lass, that's what it says on paper. But how d'ya think the magistrate got that nice house you were robbin'?"
How could she have screwed up so royally? She mentally berated herself. "He's in bed with the slave traders." It wasn't a question.
Delyn nodded. "Aye, nice fella, that."
Based on Delyn's features, Aryn guessed she didn't know much more about the situation, but she asked anyway.
"I dunno anymore than that, girl. Wish I did. Just rumors I heard comin' in'ta town."
Guess I should've known, she thought self deprecatingly. Aryn debated asking Delyn how she so fortuitously ended up in the same cell as herself but instead decided to ask what was really gnawing at her. Best to get it over with, especially if you knew what was coming. Like an amputation. She screwed her face into a mask, and returned her attention to Delyn.
"Were there any more slaves brought in? Same time I was?" The words rolled off her tongue faster than she'd intended.
Delyn correctly interpreted her apprehension. "What's he look like?" she inquired, a concerned look on her face.
Aryn leaned forward, and spoke urgently. "A boy, blond hair, about like Lori's," she gestured to the watching girl, then paused, "Name's Telen."
Delyn's eyes flicked downward and she took a breath. Aryn stopped breathing herself, bracing herself for the hurt she saw in Delyn's face.
"He went out on a boat already. Shipped away with the rest o' them boys." The woman said quietly, then added sincerely, "I'm sorry." She reached out a strong hand and patted Aryn's knee.
Aryn took a long breath, and shifted her weight, rocking forward slightly, then back. "Damn." She lifted a hand, pressing it over her eye as if trying to hold in tears. Then she brought her hand down savagely, slamming the dirt with her palm as she punctuated each word. "Damn, Damn, Damn!"
Lori jumped slightly, and looked at Aryn with a mixture of unsure fear and sadness, then glanced at Delyn in deferment.
Delyn reached forward hesitantly and grabbed Aryn's hand. It was promptly jerked away as Aryn stood quickly and began pacing, all evidence of her former injuries nonexistent. "Hey, hey," Delyn said in supplication, "we're gonna get out of here." It was lamely unconvincing, she knew, but she really had no idea what to say to the young woman. She had been privately hoping that the young thief could somehow engineer a miraculous escape attempt. Now, facing the visibly upset young woman, she wasn't so sure.
Unexpectedly, Aryn replied, "Damn right we are." She moved with a determined stride to the other end of the cell, stretching the chain that linked them to it's limit. She carefully knelt and studied the rusted iron lock. "Damn right we are."
Gabrielle awoke with a start, jerking into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. She passed a shaking hand through her sweat-soaked hair, and drew a shuddering breath, battling a nausea that had nothing to do with the rocking of the ship and everything to do with the dream she now had every night.
It was always the same. It began peacefully enough. She was in a forest, winding her way through the trees. The air was slightly damp, as if it had just rained, and it made her light green tunic stick to her body. Her head moved left and right, surveying the area, and her eyes drank in the greens and browns of the ever-thickening foliage. She was looking for something, but she couldn't find it.
The heat intensified, and her path through the trees became so narrow that she had to turn sideways to get through them, scraping her back against the rough bark. Breathing heavily, she plucked at her tunic as her apprehension grew. Dark was falling, and the narrow passageways faded. She turned in a circle, still searching.
Then she saw it. A single point of light down a straight path. She let out a relieved breath, and broke into a quick jog toward her quarry. The light began to fade, and she lengthened her stride. Her strong legs ate up the path, but the light continued to diminish. She felt her breath coming fast and hard. Almost there, just a few more strides, then she would be free of the forest. The path became even narrower, and her shoulders scraped bark as the ran. Her tunic ripped, and the bark bit into her skin. Blood slicked her arms, but she pressed on.
Suddenly, whiplike vines lashed out at her, gaining holds on her ankles, and making her stumble. She ripped free, but more vines whipped at her shoulders and legs, bringing her to her knees. She struggled forward on all fours, scraping on rough roots and debris. Blood flowed freely from her hands, leaving gruesome streaks in the leaf litter.
She could see the light through the trees, and she wrenched her legs out of the vines' tenacious grip. She stumbled forward, and she was at the last line of trees. She stepped out of the forest into the light's dim glow, but a single relentless vine reached out, circling her neck and wrenching her backward. She released a strangled scream, and reached out a hand, bathing it in the relentless glow of the setting sun.
"Gods." Gabrielle rocked herself gently, and pressed her index and middle finger of her right hand into the space between the wrist tendons in her left forearm. Her nausea abated slightly, but her body still shook with remembered terror. The cabin she was staying in was near the inner hull, and the windowless darkness betrayed her sense of time.
The time of day at least. She couldn't tell if it was day or night, and she wasn't sure she cared. She wasn't sleeping, so the nights stretched on just as long as the endless days. Those, she had a very good sense of.
It had been exactly two moons since she'd lost Xena. Two moons since she'd lost her best friend. And that was precisely what she'd felt had happened; she'd lost her. As if she looked hard enough, she would find those blue eyes meeting her green ones, and that rakish grin smiling back at her.
Gabrielle stood hesitantly, reaching a hand out to brush the wall as she steadied herself against the ship's mild rocking. She had never really developed sea legs, just as she'd never developed the hardy stomach of a seafarer. Xena, on the other hand, could maintain her perennially perfect balance in a hurricane.
She paused to grab her travel bag, as the room of the cabin didn't lock, and she'd made a habit of keeping it with her regardless.
Gabrielle exited her cabin and moved into the corridor that led to the ship's upper deck. Oil lamps hanging from the ceiling illuminated her shadow, their pendulum-like swinging making it dance like a poorly directed marionette.
She mounted the small stair, and continued up. At the top, the door to the deck was shut, but the sliver of light shining through the jamb alerted her to the daylight outside. No voices drifted down, though, so she assumed dawn must have just broken.
Exiting the dark reaches of the hull, Gabrielle emerged on deck, shielding her eyes as she let them adjust to the sudden change in illumination. She could see a few sailors at various tasks, but the deck was, for the large part, deserted. The ship was rather large, with complicated riggings and two full sails, a Greek merchant ship that had traveled to Japa looking for trade, and on which she was able to barter passage.
It wouldn't take her all the way to Greece, however. This ship was making another stop in Melaca, near the entrance to the Mediterranean, and from there she would board another ship that would take her home.
Home. Gabrielle thought about that as she leaned against the railing, watching the sun rise. Here and now, she was uncertain of her destination. When she'd been traveling with Xena, that had been an everyday occurrence. They'd wake up, share breakfast, then Xena'd start walking and call over her shoulder, "C'mon Gabrielle, let's see what trouble we can get into today," knowing full well she was bringing trouble along as sure as she was bringing her horse.
But then, that uncertainty had engendered only anticipation. Now she felt a quiet sadness. Her home, she supposed, was Potadeia. But after traveling on the road for so long, that small town had really become just the place she was born. Gabrielle reflected on that somber revelation. Sometimes home isn't a place, it's a person. Isn't that what I said? Her head dropped forward as she exhaled.
She felt oddly disconnected, as if her senses couldn't quite process her surroundings. She ran a hand along the rail, feeling the sun-warmed rough texture of the wood. She let her hand drop to her hip, and was mildly surprised when it connected with something hard. Strong fingers fastened around the object, and she brought it in front of her, letting it rest in both her hands.
Xena's chakram. This weapon, which had for so long represented Xena's prowess as a warrior. More than that, it represented Xena, a union of dark and light, majestic, and though outwardly unblemished, even beautiful, stained with ancient blood, haunted. Dangerous. Gabrielle let her inner bard surface, awakening like an animal from hibernation.
It so represented she and Xena's life together, she thought. Dark, and light, at first at odds, but eventually balanced. She ran the tip of her finger along its sharp edge, making the circle until it arrived back at its starting point. Everything did that eventually, she mused. A small but not unpleasant shiver ran up Gabrielle's spine, and she drew in a quick breath.
I asked her to teach me everything she knew. She did.
And Xena had said the most important thing in her life was what Gabrielle had taught her. Here, in this moment, looking at the Chakram, she knew Xena was right.
Her chakram, now.
She felt the sun warming her face as she lifted her gaze to the horizon. She saw the sun splashed horizon, and thought about how, without the concept of time, it was exactly like the sunset. Sometimes the beginnings and the ends of things were so similar.
Her arm lifted, and she sent the Chakram spinning toward the sunrise, on an arc that seemed poised to cut the offending ball of light in two. Whirring, the weapon glinted in the light, then returned in a wide arc. She snatched it out of the air in a flickering motion, and lowered it. She could see her reflection in its smooth surface, a small smile twitching at her lips.
Click, click, click. A pause. Click, click, click. The staccato rhythm of small heels on marble echoed off the stark walls and high vaulted ceilings of Mount Olympus. Click, click, click. Another pause. The blond goddess crossed her arms over her chest and frowned, her brow furrowing in consternation.
"Ugh!" She stamped her heeled foot on the marble. With a clatter, the pink heel snapped, and went skittering across the floor. Aphrodite leaned her head back and exhaled in pure frustration. She stomped awkwardly toward the unfortunate heel, her unbalanced gait now uncannily like a penguin's. She lifted her leg and removed her shoe, then stooped to pick up her heel.
Her diaphanous pick gown billowed around her, covering her bare legs in gossamer fabric. Futilely, she tried to fit the broken heel in its former home. The useless pieces clattered to the floor as she threw them down angrily.
"This is like, so not fair!" The blond goddess rose and threw up her hands. "Let me handle it sis, let War Gods be War Gods," she spoke to the painfully clean walls. She continued pacing, muttering angrily under her breath. Her eyes seized on a nearby bust of her brother, and she lit into it passionately, shaking her finger like a mother scolding a child.
"Y'know what, bro? It might come as a surprise to you, but I'm the more diplomatic one of the two of us!" She pointed at herself in emphasis. "I make people get along for a living! I bring 'em together! I'm, like, the Queen of Compromise! The Empress of Arbitration! Wait, here, sis, I'll take care of it"
She lowered her voice and theatrically mocked Ares' lower tones as she paced, still addressing the statue. "You think, just 'cuz you love," at this she folded both hands over her heart and spun in a tight circle, "the Warrior Babe, you can just waltz right in there, and poof!" she snapped her fingers, "she's alive again! It don't work that way, buddy!"
She slapped the bust, and it thudded heavily to the floor, still intact. Taking a few breaths, she stared at it. She'd run out of steam, and felt her anger winding down. She knelt, and spoke directly to the bust, her eyes focusing on its now mildly dented visage. Her voice lowered, becoming almost gentle. "Well. I know a lot more about this love stuff than you do.
And I know it makes you do crazy crap sometimes. You don't think straight. It's not your fault, it just is." She patted a stone cheek. "But, that means, somebody's gotta do your thinkin' for you." She stood, and strolled over to a rather uncomfortable marble bench. "And that somebody's gonna be me. 'Cuz the Warrior Babe went and killed all the other gods."
She paused and sat regarding the silence surrounding her. Olympus was quiet with no one else there, and for the first time, she felt really and truly alone. As a goddess, she had hundreds of followers, but no one that loved her, and no friends. Well, maybe one friend, she corrected herself.
She remembered her blond friend, and imagined that she must be feeling a more unbearable loneliness than she herself was experiencing. It was a sobering thought. That she honestly cared about this small, insignificant mortal, and knowing her friend's righteous heart, was cared for in turn. If I had to have just one friend, I think I picked a pretty darn good one.
She'd never had that kind of unconditional acceptance with the other gods. They always wanted something. More temples, more followers, all of them using mortals like glorified game pieces. She'd been like that, once. Playing with mortals' lives, for nothing but her own amusement. But when she'd actually spent time with them, she realized something profound. They knew more about love than she did. Maybe more than she ever could.
Being immortal, she'd never known loss, never known what it meant to hold dear every moment, what it felt like to have time slip through her fingers like so much fine sand. Now she'd lost her brothers and sisters, the other gods, but in losing them she found she had never loved them. They'd merely tolerated each other, forced to by the common bond of godhood.
Ares was the only one left, and really the only one she actually got along with, perhaps because they were so different. There was no danger of a follower of War converting to follow Love. Well, most of the time. With a wan smile, she recalled her mortal friend, who seemed to balance the two quite well.
"Time to check on her," Aphrodite said to no one in particular. In truth, she hadn't done so before because she was afraid of what she'd find. But now, she figured she owed it to her small friend. Perhaps enough time had passed for the young woman's grief to diminish. She sure hoped so. Throwing caution to the wind, she waved a hand, materializing a hand mirror in a swash of gold dust. Reflected there was not her face, but another image.
Aphrodite leaned closer, trying to make out the dark features. The inside of a ship maybe. She recognized the figure in the image as it rose in sudden motion, waking from a fitful dream. The goddess watched with cautious intensity as the blond woman ran a hand through her hair, breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling rapidly, as though she was sucking in water.
Even in the small mirror, Aphrodite could see the changes the short time had cause in her friend. "Oh, sweet pea." The goddess put a hand over her mouth. Her friend's face was pale, she was sweating, and there were bags under her eyes as if she hadn't slept at all. Which she probably hasn't.
A blond head lifted, and green eyes met the goddess's blue ones, as she looked into a lens she couldn't see. Aphrodite drew in a quiet breath as she regarded the gaze. Her friend's eyes, which before had been bright, now were dull and held a sad, haunted look. A single tear ran down the goddess's cheek as she wept in genuine empathy.
Unable to watch any more, the goddess brushed the image away and set the now average mirror on the bench.
"Nuh-uh." She shook her blond head defiantly, her curls cascading over her shoulders. "Now that," she pointed and accusatory finger at the looking glass, "just ain't gonna work."
Aryn sat on the dirt floor of the cell, having finished her inspection of the lock, and determined she could not open it without some sort of pick. And then there were the locks on their manacles. And then there were the guards. Which I haven't seen. Or any other prisoners. Where the Hades is everybody?
There were also her ulterior motives. While she'd been working, Delyn had revealed that the ship they were supposed to be loaded on was headed for the same port as the one that had already left. The one that Telen was on. She aimed to spring him, and she wasn't above staying a prisoner a bit longer so she could get a free ride. She was all about free stuff, after all.
Lori, who was chained to her right, approached her cautiously. "Can ya open it?"
Aryn gave her a wry look. "Am I opening it right now?"
"Then I can't open it." She gestured with her hands, miming a twisting motion. "I need a pick. A bit of metal or something. Without that, door's not budging."
Delyn, who was on Lori's right spoke up. "Them guards checked the cell. Went through my hair, too, lookin' fer clips. I damn near went bald, the way they was pullin'."
Aryn leaned back against the stone wall. "Well," she said, "Contrary to popular belief, I can't escape a double latched Scythian lock with nothing but my hands and a ball of twine. Looks like we have to wait." She drummed her fingers in the dirt impatiently.
"Where is everyone? The guards? Other prisoners? I know I wasn't out long enough for everyone else to die."
Delyn answered her with a shrug. "Dunno. I ain't seen a guard since they brung me in, just a'fore you, then when they broughtcha, then Lori. I seen 'em take the men prisoners down that way." She gestured in the general direction of the outer corridor.
Lori lifted her dirty blond head. "I ain't seen nobody neither."
Aryn regarded her. "Lori," she leaned forward to be more on a level with the sitting girl, "Why are you here?"
Lori seemed to find something very interesting under her fingernails. "I...Um, ain't got no home, no mom or dad." She paused, hoping the answer was sufficient.
Aryn felt like she was jiggling a lock. "So where do you live?"
Lori looked at her. "In the woods." She stopped talking, having apparently run out of her former loquaciousness.
Aryn spoke to the air. "Nobody'd miss her, so they took her for a slave." She distractedly flicked a bit of dirt from her knee. "Bastards."
Now that she'd discovered immediate escape was neither possible nor desirable, she felt her injuries again. She continued fishing for information to take her mind off of them, and to learn as much about her situation as possible. She turned to Delyn, and cocked her head in question.
Delyn grunted softly, and looked self conscious. She rubbed her arm. "Got into some trouble, tha's all." She said succinctly, as if the issue was now closed.
Ugh. All this evasion was giving Aryn a headache. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and took a breath. "All right. I'll go first." She began speaking, as she thought back to how she ended up in this Hades of a situation.
Telen, her 12-year old brother, came bumbling back to the table carrying two very full cups of cider, one in his hand, the other tucked into the crook of his bony elbow.
Aryn watched him skillfully snake past the other inn patrons, until a point when he bumped into a pompous looking merchant type, spilling some of his beverage on the man's shirt.
"Watch where the Hades you're going!" bellowed the man, as he brushed past Telen, knocking into the boy's shoulder. Though the boy was still a few tables away and in a thick crowd, Aryn's sharp eyes caught his free hand as it slithered under the man's belt, tugging a bag free.
Good boy. Though she didn't approve of Telen following her into a life of crime, she loved to see assholes inconvenienced. And he'd sure as Tartarus be inconvenienced when he couldn't pay for a room and had to sleep in the stable. She chuckled quietly to herself.
Telen made it to the table, and set their drinks down, then proudly dropped the bag he'd taken in front of Aryn. It tinkled with the sound of coins clinking together. She lifted it with one hand. "Not bad, little bro." She paused. "But, you really shouldn't risk it just to get back at somebody. Let sleeping assholes lie." She took a sip of her cider. It was actually quite good, but then, Teom was a port town that seemed very prosperous, so she rather expected it to be.
Telen shook a small finger at her. "Oh, no. I saw you laughing. You can't fool me with the dutiful sister routine." He leaned forward, and lowered his voice. "Besides," he said conspiratorially, "we'll have to celebrate."
Aryn surveyed the crowd, feigning interest in the performing bard. The boy wasn't very captivating, and he seemed a bit nervous, rocking back on his heels as he spoke.
Certainly, she'd heard better stories, from more interesting people than this kid. "Celebrate what?" she asked, taking another sip of her cider.
"Our retirement." Telen said triumphantly, then frowning at her reaction. He'd expected her to smile and beg for more details, but instead she looked angry.
"We are not gonna steal any more. We came to get a new start." She said coldly.
"But-" Telen began.
"But nothing, Telen. It's too damn risky." She replied curtly.
"Not true!" Telen protested, "Teom's no slave. We can't be shipped off, and I know that's what stopping you. And it's enough to last us for a long time. We'll never have to steal again. And the guy's a major butt."
Aryn took a long sip of her cider, more to give herself room to think than because she was thirsty. He was right, she knew. He could always see right through her. If the worst that could happen was exile, no sweat, she could just move again. Besides, he'd said it'd be the last one, and...Damn. She could see him smiling at her. She just loved being a thief and he damn well knew it.
She wanted this. She swallowed a mouthful of cider. "Okay. Tell me about it, and I'll see. But you can't come."
He opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. He looked at her expressive face, knowing that on this point, he would not have such an easy time convincing her. Well, he had time. "Deal," he said.
Aryn finished her tale. "We got caught, I got hit, ended up here." She looked at Delyn. "Now, I've shown you mine. You show me yours."
"All right, lass. 'Tis only fair, I s'pose." Delyn took a breath. "I'm an Amazon." She waited for a reaction, surprised when there wasn't any. Perhaps she'd underestimated this girl after all. "I was bringin' in a woman who'd killed one of us. Mercenary-type lady. Killed a junior warrior during a village raid. Young Lanie was in town visitin' her sister, and tried to defend the villagers. Got knifed for the trouble."
"You didn't have any help bringing the woman in?" Aryn queried.
"Aye, I had someone, but once we got 'er to the guards, we figgered the harlot wasn't gonna escape, so my sister went off the get some supplies our village needed."
"And I guess things didn't go according to plan."
Delyn smiled wryly and shook her head. "No ma'am, they did not. Them guards just figgered they'd take both of us and get two fer the price of one. Too many of 'em for me to fight off, and unlike you, I didn't have a mind to get clobbered. Mercenary lady fought back and got killed, I got taken. Figgered my sisters'd come bust me out, or I'd get lucky."
Aryn considered her statement, looking at her hands. "I know you were counting on me to get you out," she said quietly. She felt bad for not trying to escape, because she wanted to get on that ship. In truth, if she'd wanted to pick the lock, she probably would've found a way to do it.
Delyn looked startled. "Now, how did you know that?"
Aryn looked up at her and smiled. "Heard you talking earlier. You thought I was still asleep."
"Oh, aren't you a sneaky thing!" Delyn laughed.
Aryn's smile broadened. "Professionally," she anwered. Delyn chuckled again.
Their rapport was broken by Lori's small voice. "Shh!" She put a finger to her lips. "Didja hear that?"
Aryn strained her ears to listen. Sure enough, she could hear echoes of male voices floating down the hall. They seemed to be arguing. The voices grew louder as they approached.
Uh-oh, Aryn thought, This can't be good. Her headache beat in time with her heart.
The three prisoners stood as the guards' shadows came into view, the wall torches casting long shadows that licked the floor in a flickering pattern .Aryn stood against the wall, as far away from door as she could manage.
She could feel painfully the tension in her arms and back, and she fought the urge to bounce on the balls of her feet in anticipation. Outwardly, she appeared nonchalant, as she buffed her dirty nails on her ragged outfit.
Delyn stood erect, with her knees slightly bent, but her posture almost militarily correct, as if she was prepared for a fight but didn't want to show it. Aryn glanced at her and nodded, letting her know that she'd back her up if it came to blows. Which she sincerely hoped it didn't. She was sore, and tired, and she really was better at mouthing off than she was at fighting.
Lori huddled behind them, and she stared at Aryn's face with a look of utter fascination. Aryn caught her looking, and gave her a wink as she blew on her nails.
The two guards stopped arguing as they appeared in front of the cell.. The one closer to the door was older, and had a scruffy grey beard and a generally unwashed appearance. The younger one had close-cropped brown hair, and looked to be very angry, because his hands were balled into tight fists. "Alright, you lot!" The nearer one barked, "Once I open this cell, you are joining the rest of those worthless dogs on that ship. So get over here!" He pulled a key from his belt, jamming it into the lock, but the other guard grabbed his wrist and stopped the motion.
"No way are we putting them on that ship!" the younger guard grabbed the older man's arm and spun him around to face him. "Ilius wants payment, I say we send him the women!" He jabbed his finger in their direction.
As the men continued arguing, Aryn turned to Delyn and whispered, "Do you know what's going on?"
Delyn listened for a few moments. "Ilius is a warlord. Known around these parts." She waggled a hand. "Small time, but army's an army, I always say."
Aryn idly wondered how often she'd had the occasion to use that phrase, but Delyn kept talking, so she left the point alone.
"Sounds like he thinks somethin's owed to him, and these two are in a bit of a snit about it. Little guy probably took a bribe, ta' bring him some new slaves. Don't think t'other guy got in on the deal." She shrugged.
Crap. If he could persuade the other guard, she wasn't getting a ride to Melaca. Worse, she might be sold as a slave to a warlord. She was not about to let that happen. Time to pull out the big crossbows, so to speak.
"Hey!" She yelled at the guards. Delyn and Lori looked at her, startled. She gave them her best go-with-it look. "Are you girls gonna keep bickering? I got things to do, y'know?" The guards had stopped arguing, and glowered at this new annoyance. She ticked off her fingers. "I got temples to defile, gods to blaspheme, stupid guards to insult, it's a tight schedule, so we better get a move on." The guards fumbled with the lock, struggling to get it open as they shoved against one another.
While they were distracted, Delyn hissed at Aryn, "What d'ya think you're doin'? They were all riled, now they madder'n Medusa's snake heads!"
"Do you wanna be sold to a warlord, even a small-time one?" Aryn hissed back. The guards finally wrenched open the door and stalked toward them. "I've got a plan."
"You think that's funny?" The younger guard said, smiling, showing a set of teeth that would've made a shark swim for cover.
"No, I think you're funny. Funny lookin'." Aryn retorted.
He moved the strike her, drawing his fisted hand back. Aryn braced herself for the blow, sincerely hoping it wouldn't break her jaw or knock her out. Again. She prayed to the gods she wouldn't have severe brain damage when all was said and done.
She didn't get a chance to find out, because the older guard grabbed her attacker's arm. "Worth less that way," he said warningly. "Ilius won't take 'em beat up." He motioned to Aryn. "She looks bad enough already."
Thankfully, Delyn got the point, and picked up the spiked game ball. "Hello, boys," she said, crossing her arms, and looking the men up and down. "I guess I can see why Amazons don't let men into the village." She sniffed the air. "They stink."
Lori huddled behind them, watching the exchange.
"Be rid o' you soon enough." The older guard took hold of her arm and started pulling her toward the door, by proxy taking Aryn and Lori as well by way of their linked hands. The younger guard grabbed Aryn and she shrugged off his grip.
"Don't touch me, you good for nothing brainless excuse for an ass on legs!" she protested, backing away a few steps. The guard lunged at her, but she sidestepped him, stretching the chain linking her and Lori, tripping him with it. His weight caused her to stumble forward, but she kept her balance. The older guard pushed Delyn away and grabbed Aryn from behind.
"You're in trouble, smart-mouth little girl." He rasped in her ear.
"You sure about that?" She said, projecting as much confidence into her voice as she could muster.
The other guard was recovering, and he turned and approached her, moving to punch her in the gut, where the warlord wouldn't see the bruises.
She lifted her feet and booted him in the chest, simultaneously knocking him back down and twisting out of her assailant's grip. Delyn came to her aid, tripping the stunned older guard, which sent him to his knees. She lifted the chain, wrapped it around his now easily accessible neck, and leaned back, using her weight and height as leverage.
Aryn didn't have time to watch him sputter and choke, because she jumped on the younger guard. He was unsteady, and her weight bore them to the ground. They rolled, and the slack in the chain wrapped around them, pinning her on top of him.
The motion caused Delyn and the choking guard to fall as well, Delyn landing first, and the guard falling heavily atop her. She tightened her grip, and Aryn heard the telltale crack of crunching bones.
The chain's position put Lori between both fights, and she huddled against the wall, whimpering softly.
Aryn fought against the guard as he struggled to free himself, snatching at her battered tunic with claw-like hands. The chain wrapped around them and her weight on his chest restricted his movement, but he managed to get in a glancing blow to her face that connected with her already split lip. She tasted blood, and felt hot anger rising up her spine.
She slugged him in the face, and his head snapped back. Droplets of warm blood decorated her face and tunic as his nose cracked under the blow, and she grabbed his shirtfront with her left hand, lifting him slightly off the ground. She drew her fist back, smacking it into his jaw with enough force to snap his head to the side. He slumped in her grip, and she released him. Disentangling herself from that obnoxious chain, she stood and noticed the others.
Delyn was also standing, and looking back at her, a triumphant smile on her face. The older guard was lying of the ground at her feet. Judging by the blue tinge of his skin and his open, sightless eyes, he was very dead. "Some plan ya had there, kid," Delyn remarked, regarding her bloodstained companion.
Aryn tucked something under the small belt holding her ragged tunic together. She shrugged. "Worked, didn't it? Stop complaining, and let's get out of here." She looked around, and noticed Lori crouching near the wall, staring at the dead man.
Aryn moved toward her, and sat next to her. "Lori?" she said softly, then with more urgency, "Lori? You okay?" Aryn put a hand on her jaw, and turned her head to face her. "It's over, kiddo. We gotta go." Lori's eyes connected with her bloodstained visage, and she shrunk away in fear. Aryn felt her own heart beating faster, and as her adrenaline faded, her aches returned, accompanied by new aches and the cousins of those aches.
"C'mon!" she said urgently, shaking Lori, "You don't wanna be sold as a slave! Trust me on this one!" Aryn figured someone would have heard the commotion, and knew they were losing time. "C'mon!" she yelled.
Delyn trotted over, and picked Lori up, cradling her in her arms like a baby. "Out'a time. I got 'er. Let's go." She led the way out of the cell with Aryn hot on her heels, the chain still linking them clinking as it swung freely.
Okay, the escape wasn't planned, but now perhaps her situation was a bit better. She could free Lori and Delyn, and stowaway on another ship heading for Melaca. She hadn't wanted to do that before because she didn't know when the next ship, besides the slave ship, would be sailing, and she wanted to get there as quickly as possible.
Melaca was not well-traveled, and was used mostly as a jumping off point for ships heading east, and coming back, so chances were, there wouldn't be another ship for quite some time. Why slaves were being sent there, she didn't know, and at the moment, she didn't care to find out.
Aryn moved ahead of Delyn as they reached a small staircase, bounding up with frantic alacrity. She pushed open the door at the top, and stopped short, almost stumbling forward as she met the faces of several armed men.
She glanced up at the face inches from her own, giving it a grim smile, her blood covered mouth and chin giving her a ghoulishly clownish expression. Crap. Really, really not my day.
Gabrielle watched the horizon approach, as she stood on the deck of the merchant ship. It was much later in the day, and the deck was alive with activity. She took a deep breath of salty air, and exhaled, feeling once again as if she could taste the sea.
The outlines of a medium-sized port town came into view, as she leaned on the rail. She felt a sense of anticipation, wanting suddenly very much to be on dry land, taste some good ale, and get a good night's sleep on a bed that didn't rock.
She was slightly surprised with herself, and she felt a little guilty for looking forward to such petty comforts. They were meaningless, really. Anything worth having couldn't be bought for all the dinars in the known world. But maybe, if she tried, she could find a way to live, to make it on her own.
The ship steadily approached the port, the gentle licking of the waves making small smacking noises against the hull. They finally docked, and a few sailors rushed past to lower the gangway, then prepared to unload cargo, giving each other orders in clipped voices.
Gabrielle shouldered her travel bag, finding it heavier than it used to be. Though she'd bartered most of her useful possessions in order to secure passage, the bag was filled with some items she wasn't used to carrying, but couldn't bear to part with. Like Xena's armor. Her custom-made sword, that was clipped to the back of the bag. Her well-worn sharpening stone, the sound of which Gabrielle missed as she went to sleep. Xena's sleeping furs, the only set left because Gabrielle had sold her own. A few notes, and scrolls. Writing materials. Though those could be purchased in any town, she had been using the same set for six years and she couldn't stand the thought of being without it, even though she hadn't written any stories since Xena's death. Now, however, she felt she had reawakened her bardic spirit. Beneath the quills and rolls of parchment, tucked away in the bottom of her bag, was the small, simple urn that held Xena's ashes.
Gabrielle didn't know what to do with it. It was an odd thing to keep on her person, but she didn't want to leave it somewhere to be forgotten about. Not that I'd forget. But she felt that somehow if she left the urn in Amphipolis, as Xena had asked, it meant she was leaving her memory of Xena there too. And she didn't think that respected the memory of her friend, or the impact she'd had on her life. She didn't want to forget.
And, she forced herself to admit as she studied her hands, she held out hope that maybe, there was some way, in someplace she'd never seen or even heard of, that could bring her friend back to life. It was stupid, she knew. But she had to think that. She just had to.
The last item in the bag was something she did not intend to keep. It was a letter, addressed to Eve, Xena's adult daughter, informing her of her mother's death. It hadn't been touched since she'd written it, and, at this point, she wasn't sure what it contained. She'd written it while she was still in Japa, when her soul was still flayed open.
The words had trickled from her shaking hands, coming to rest on the paper. Ghostkiller's son had offered to write it for her, but no matter how much it hurt, she insisted she do it herself. It wasn't right for Eve to hear the news from someone else's hand, and she felt a mother's responsibility toward the young woman, whose life had taken a path very different from her own.
So different, in fact, that she didn't know where Eve was. Last she'd heard, Eve was ministering to Eli's followers in the far reaches of India. Gabrielle would send the letter by courier as soon as they docked, but she wasn't stupid, and she knew it would take months to reach its destination.
She also knew that word of mouth would travel faster than that, but rumors and speculation would not tell Eve why her mother died. Her sacrifice. What she'd lost. Being a bard, Gabrielle had written it. And she knew Eve would want to hear it from her.
"Ma'am?" A nice-looking young sailor brought her out of her reverie. He motioned to the gangway, "You wanna get off a'fore we start unloadin'? Gonna take a while." He gave her a friendly smile that almost masked his mildly concerned look.
Gabrielle blinked at him. It took her a moment to remember where she was, and what she was doing. "Y-yes, thank you," she gave him a gracious nod, and strolled down the gangway toward the busy city streets.
The hold of the ship was not a comfortable place. Seawater dripped in steadily through cracks in the deck above, and Aryn was thoroughly drenched. It stung her wounds, and she blinked her eyes to clear them of the burning sensation. Her shoulders ached from the fight, and from remaining in the same position so long. She tried to stretch them, but her range of movement was severely restricted by her newly administered bonds.
The men who had captured them had loaded them onto the slave ship, and they'd been traveling for a few endless candlemarks already. Aryn, Delyn, Lori, and 5 other female prisoners were sitting leaning against the hull of the ship.
The bonds linking them had been removed, but their individual manacles remained, and now had a second small chain that was looped through rings bolted into the floor in front of them. The chain was so short that they couldn't stand with bending at the waist.
The room was very narrow, but ran the length of the ship. Aryn could see Delyn and Lori seated opposite her, and they were close enough that they could talk quietly, now that the guards had finally left the room, to stand sentinel outside the door.
Delyn looked up at Aryn. "Got any other plans, hotshot?" she asked sarcastically. Lori looked at her expectantly, and Aryn could see the furtive glances of the prisoners within earshot.
"This is my plan," she leaned back against the dripping hull with a confident air, "I'm just waiting for the opportune moment."
The small woman seated next to her spoke up. "Like what?" Her voice was high and flighty, and she was shivering, either from fear or the cold water.
"Like you'll know it when you see it." Aryn said succinctly.
"I don't think you really have a plan," said Delyn, "I think you're just makin' up crap."
Aryn was mildly abashed. Before, Delyn had seemed to trust her, maybe even respect her, despite her youth. Now, the Amazon's voice had a hard edge. Maybe it was the discomfort, or the lack of food. They'd been given ladles of water when they'd boarded, but most of them had been without food for at least a day.
Either way, it hit Aryn right in the pride. "I don't care what you think." Aryn's shed her cocky demeanor and turned serious, her face hardening in anger. "You don't have to come along. I don't have to free you." She crossed her arms. "You can rot in slavery." The other slaves remained prudently silent, some of them asleep, and the rest feigning disinterest.
Except for the woman next to Aryn, who looked as if she'd been struck. "You don't mean that," said the shaking woman, a question in her voice.
Aryn turned to her, ready to bark out a retort, but then she saw the woman's terrified features, and the thread of hope in her eyes.
Aryn sighed heavily. "No," she said quietly, almost to herself, "No one should have to go through that." She studied her hands.
Delyn spoke again. "Like you did." Her voice had lost its sarcasm, and she looked at Aryn in sympathy, her hazel eyes gently knowing.
Aryn glanced up in surprise, and then relaxed as she connected the pieces of the unsaid conversation. "Right. The scars." On her back and shoulders, she had an impressive collection of scourge marks, which Delyn most surely would have noticed when she'd clothed her.
"Mmm," Delyn grunted as assent, but said nothing else, as she waited for Aryn to continue.
Aryn drew her knees up, and wrapped her chained arms around them. She took a deep breath. "I was taken as a slave when I was 11. My brother was 4. My mom had died in childbirth, and my dad had been raising us alone. It wasn't bad, 'till he got killed."
She took another breath. "Telen and I- I got into trouble and got taken. He went to an orphanage." She scratched her knee. "I was kept as a slave for for 5 years." She decided not to elaborate on what had happened during that dark time, and skipped ahead to the ending. "I escaped, went to find Telen. He was living with the priestesses of Hestia." she chuckled in remembrance. "Boy, was he glad to see me again. All that chanting and gods-praising damn near drove him batty." She paused. "We been on our own ever since."
As she'd told her tale, the other prisoners gave her respectful looks, now partly understanding the young woman.
The small woman next to her spoke first. "You said you escaped. How?"
Aryn shrugged off the memories, retrieving her former confident veneer. " A thief never reveals her secrets." She smiled. "Besides, we can't escape now, anyway."
"Why not?" asked Lori.
Aryn cupped her palms and captured some of the dripping water. "We're in the middle of the sea. Don't know about you, but I'm not interested in drowning." She let the water run between her fingers and fall against the sodden deck.
"We'll get out when we reach land. They're gonna load us into another cell, while we wait to be auctioned off. That'll be the best time, 'cuz we'll be there overnight, with the auction starting the next morning. Cover of darkness and all that."
The dark-haired woman on Aryn's right spoke for the first time, "but how do you plan to get out?"
Aryn's lips twitched at the corners. "Walk out the front door." She didn't elaborate, waiting patiently for the next question.
"What, you just gonna bust it down?" the woman laughed patronizingly.
"No," Aryn's smile widened as she retrieved something from her belt and held it up. It was a thin piece of dull metal, about half the length of her thumb.
"I don't have to break it down." Her brown eyes twinkled. "I have a key."
The streets were crowded, and Gabrielle doggedly made her way to front of the inn, having transferred her letter to a courier. It left her with a sense of new loss, and she sighed heavily as she mounted the rickety steps to the overcrowded inn.
As with most inns, she had to enter through the tavern. It was completely full, and she pushed passed several men in half armor as she made her way to the counter. Port towns typically attracted an eclectic bunch, but there was something about this place that tickled her warning senses.
As she walked, she swiveled her head and studied the crowd. Sitting at a nearby table were a few scruffy looking men carrying visible weapons. It wasn't an uncommon sight, but she decided to keep up her guard just in case.
As she approached the counter, the innkeeper, and older man sporting a very full beard, glanced up at her.
"Don't see many like you in here," he said gruffly, as he used a dirty rag to wipe the counter.
She ignored the comment. "I need a room, and two-" she inhaled sharply as she realized her mistake, and felt a fresh wave a sadness. She closed her eyes briefly, and felt it wash over her, then opened her eyes again as the emotion was replaced with reluctant acceptance. She lifted her head and made eye contact, as she said quietly, "sorry, one meal."
The distracted innkeeper didn't seem to have noticed her lapse. He leaned on the counter. "That'll be ten dinars. Will you be payin' coin, or...." He looked her up and down.
She shifted the bag she had slung over her shoulder and glanced at her clothes. She was wearing a light green tunic, tied simply at the waist with a leather belt, where the chakram was attached, though he couldn't see it because her bag blocked it from his view.
It wasn't anywhere near as revealing as her usual Amazon-style garb, but based on the clientele, she guessed this wasn't a place that saw female travelers very often. Sailors would stay here while they waited to board ships, so, chances were, most of the women they saw here were prostitutes.
She leaned forward, and met his gaze squarely. "I'll pay coin," she said, as she lifted her money bag and shook out a few coins that clattered against the counter, "But you'll only get seven dinars, for making that assumption." And for overcharging, but she kept that to herself. She waited for him to argue, and leaned back, shifting her bag to a more comfortable position.
His eyes lit on what was fixed to her hip, then glanced quickly back at her. "Sorry, Miss. Don't see a lot of women travelers 'round here." He scooped the dinars she'd left into a bag, and grabbed a key from a nearby hook. "Let's get you to your room," he said, as he motioned for her to follow him.
Gabrielle bit back a smile. Miss? She hadn't been called "miss" since she'd left Potadeia. She followed his waddling gait up a flight of worn stairs, dodging other patrons as they then made their way down a small corridor to a room at the end of the hall.
The innkeeper kept glancing back at her, whether he was making sure she was following or that she wouldn't attack him from behind, she couldn't tell. He unlocked the door, then courteously held it open. She stepped past him, and set the bag on the small bed.
"Miss?" the innkeeper was still standing there. "Would you like you meal sent up to your room or..." he left the question hanging in the air again; it seemed to be a bad habit of his. He should get that checked out. Might get him into trouble someday.
She contemplated eating in the tavern, but decided she much preferred her privacy. Perhaps she could get some writing done tonight, before her ship left in the morning.
"Have it sent up here, please," she replied, with a small smile.
"Of course." He backed out of the doorway and began to shut the door, then opened it again quickly. "D'ya have a horse that needs stabling? They're full, but I'm sure we can make a place what with that storm brewin' out there."
Gabrielle shook her blond head. "No, I don't have a horse." She was glad, because she was sure the animals wouldn't be happy in the thunderstorm that was sure to strike tonight.
The man nodded, moved to close the door, then leaned in again. "And Miss, if you need anything, anything at all, just ask." He gave her a look that indicated he sincerely hoped she wouldn't need anything.
She nodded, lifting a hand to cover her mouth. He closed the door behind him as he shuffled quickly away. Gabrielle almost burst into laughter. She sat down on the edge of the bed, and removed the chakram from her hip.
Sometimes, a little intimidation is a good thing.
Aryn and the other prisoners had been led to a group of cells, where they were now waiting. Aryn, Delyn, Lori, and the rest of the women from their ship shared a cell, and another small group of women had joined them. Aryn flexed her arms in front of her, stretching out her aching muscles.
Luckily, this time the prisoners were not chained together, and even their manacles had been removed. That would make things less complicated. It was difficult enough to run in manacles,but it was damned hard to run attached to another person. That required a level of trust she didn't really think she was capable of. Except with Telen.
Hang on, little bro. I'll find you.
Lightning flashed, briefly painting the prisoners' faces in ghostly relief, then fading. Rain was pouring so heavily outside that it began to drip into the cell through a small barred window near the ceiling. Aryn looked up and studied it, unable to discern anything in the thick darkness. She took a deep breath, and spoke without preamble.
"You guys ready?" 13 pairs of eyes lit on her, glimmering in the dim torchlight.
"What's the plan?" Delyn leaned forward and whispered.
"I'm gonna pick the lock, obviously." She rolled her eyes. "I was waiting for the rain to get real heavy, 'cuz that'll wash away this stuff on our feet, not to mention make us hard to find." She motioned to their feet, which had been coated with a white substance, presumably to make them easy to track if they ran.
"There are two guards down the far corridor," she explained, remembering what she'd seen as she came in, "but there are 14 of us." She shrugged, conveying that this part of the plan was a no-brainer.
Delyn spoke up. "And we took out two guards on our own." She gave Aryn a big, genuine smile. The other prisoners gave them respectful looks, and waited patiently. "You fought pretty good back there. How'd ya learn that?"
Aryn's eyes focused on the dirt floor. "I didn't have a choice." Her voice was neutral.
Delyn's voice turned soft, and hazel eyes met soft brown. She put a hand on Aryn's shoulder. "You'd make a pretty damn good Amazon, kid."
"Hey, I'm no kid, old woman," Aryn said, but her smile took the sting out of her words. She had no desire to join the Amazon Nation, but she acknowledged the compliment for what it was. She nodded, "And thanks."
"No problem, kid," Delyn retorted, "Figgered I owed it to ya for getting us outa here. So hop to it, we ain't got all night. My old bones ain't getting' any younger."
"All right, don't get your leathers in a twist." Aryn stood, and removed her bit of metal from her belt. She knelt near the door, and began to work on the lock. Two of their fellow prisoners crouched next to her, watching in fascination.
The one the her left, a thin blonde woman, spoke first. "Hey, what is that?" she asked, jerking a finger toward Aryn's hand.
Aryn kept fiddling with the lock. "It's one of those things that holds your shirt together instead of buttons."
"Where'd ya get it?" asked the woman to her right. She had a nasty scar across her right cheek, that reached down and distorted her lip.
Aryn was really getting tired of answering questions, and it was breaking her concentration. "Stole it off the guard I beat up. You can do all kinds of things with them."
"Like what?" prodded the blonde.
Aryn's face acquired a puckish grin. "Like kill someone. Unfortunately, it kills instantly, so if I'm in the mood for torture, I like to use baked goods."
"Oh." The blonde let out a breath, and the two women backed off, leaving her to work in peace.
She jiggled the lock, and cocked her head in a listening gesture. She turned the metal, and heard a soft click.
Aryn motioned for the others to follow her, and they remained prudently silent. Except for those two, not a real chatty bunch. She gave a cursory glance to the women who had joined them in the cell, who hadn't spoken at all since they'd arrived, a few candlemarks ago. They followed hesitantly, and their skin was a much darker color, and Aryn wondered where they were from. Maybe they didn't speak Greek. Guess it's their lucky day.
They reached the end of the corridor, and the door. Based on what she'd seen when they'd arrived, there were two guards on the other side of the door, then another, larger group up the stairs. The guards were armed with light weapons, unlike the unarmed ones they had faced earlier.
It was a bit of a challenge, but, Aryn reflected, it could have been much worse. Chances were, these guards were not expecting to be attacked by a bunch of female slaves. Once again, male arrogance bites them in the ass.
Aryn glanced at the others, who nodded. They were ready. Aryn pulled out her lockpick, and was stopped by a large hand on her shoulder. One of the foreign slaves faced her. She was a big, heavyset woman, with a kindly demeanor. She shook her head, her curly black hair smacking her in the face.
She touched the hinges, then motioned for the others to step away. Aryn correctly interpreted the action and pulled her group to the side, where the other foreign slaves were already standing.
The big woman took a few steps back, them slammed her body full force against the weak door. It crumbled like kindling, and the big woman was upon the first guard before he knew what hit him. She tackled him, grabbing him by the hair, and slammed his head into the floor, knocking him unconscious.
Before the other guard could rush to aid his fallen comrade, one of the other foreign slaves rushed into the room and kneed him in the groin. He stepped back, though, and didn't take the full force of the blow. He raised a mace, and smacked it across the woman's face. She went sprawling, and two other dark-skinned women lunged at the man.
He swung his mace, but one of the women ducked the blow and delt him a punch in the stomach as his arm went past her. The second women kicked his hand, and his mace fell to the floor. The first woman picked it up, and swung it at his temple. His body dropped to the ground bonelessly as the blow split his skull.
Aryn watched in amused fascination as the big woman helped up her fallen friend. She glanced at the other Greek slaves, all of whom had awed looks on their faces.
Delyn turned to her. "Damn," she said, "you just keep getting luckier and luckier. Got anythin' else in your bag of tricks?"
Aryn smiled and shrugged. "What can I say?" she said, "the gods love me." She stepped through the doorway, her bare feet scraping against splintered wood. "Let's go girls."
They'd made it past the other guards easily. Too easily, Aryn thought. She was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The rain was drenching them as they exited the compound. Aryn took a breath and spoke to the others, "We should split up. Harder to find individuals."
"Aye," Delyn spoke quietly. "I'll take Lori with me, she's still all shook up." She extended an arm, which Aryn gladly took.
"See ya around, kid."
"Thanks, old timer."
Delyn laughed, but the sound was lost in the pouring rain. Aryn gave the others a brisk nod, and trotted off in the opposite direction.
The place they were being held was near the port, but luckily the driving rain kept watching eyes inside. At least, that's what Aryn thought, until she turned a corner, and came face to face with a group of guards, for the second time that day. They had apparently been on their way to the compound, but the persistent rain had slowed them down. But not enough.
You have got to be kidding me, she thought, as she bolted down a nearby alleyway.
Aryn skidded around a corner, her feet sliding in the streets that were now coated in mud. She suspected she was nearing the edge of the city, but she couldn't tell for the labyrinthine winding of the streets, the unforgiving rain, and the penetrating darkness. Fortunately, however, that meant she had lost her pursuers. She continued running, however, just in case.
She turned another corner, and collided with a man stumbling in the opposite direction. They both tripped, and fell to the ground, getting splattered with mud and grime. She felt a warmth on her shirt, despite the freezing rain, and glanced down at her destroyed tunic.
She placed a hand on a spot near her stomach and pulled it away, watching the rain drive off the mud, and another red substance. She belatedly realized it was blood, and she looked down in shock at the fallen man.
He was slumped against the wall, breathing heavily, blood slowly oozing from an open wound in his chest. By his pallor and the infected look of the wound , Aryn guessed he was close to death. He looked at her, and mouthed weakly. "Come..." he said.
He spoke Greek, though he had an accent, and he was a race Aryn had never seen before. She leaned in close, so she could hear his voice. He lifted a hand, and offered her a scroll case. "Take it," he said.
She put both of her hands in front of her. "Whoa, man. I don't want it if someone tried to make you into a canoe for it." She eyed the messenger's gaping wound. Guess somebody didn't get the memo.
He tapped her with it and said with more force, "I will die. It is for Gabrielle, the Battling Bard."
A shiver went down Aryn's spine. "Gabrielle?"
"Take it!" his voice held power. "Take it to her!" He smacked her again.
"All right!" With shaking hands, Aryn took the case from his hand. "Why me?" She asked, more to herself than to him.
He continued speaking, "The thunder spoke to me," he said weakly, "it knew I was dying, and led me here." He reached out a hand, and gripped her tunic, pulling her face close to his. "She is here. Find her."
Aryn eyed the dying man critically. She had always been an independent person, preferring to attend to her own and Telen's needs before considering others. But this man was in earnest, and she felt a compelling curiosity that could not be denied, accompanied by a sense that if she declined his request, she would regret it.
The rain pounded harder, washing blood down the man's body in murky rivulets. Lightning threw Aryn's face in sharp relief as she nodded; her decision, if it was hers at all, was made. "I will." The man leaned back, and as he exhaled, his body went slack.
In the distance, Aryn heard the voices of her pursuers, who had now, apparently, caught up. She tucked the scroll case under her belt, and grabbed a nearby ledge. Her range of motion was restricted because of the scar tissue, but she managed to lift herself up onto the roof. She took off running into the stormy night.
Gabrielle's quill scratched against the parchment, traveling slowly and hesitantly across the page. She paused, and chewed the end of the quill, her brow furrowed in thought.
Getting back into this was much harder than she'd anticipated. She'd decided to start small, with a poem, but she didn't know what to write about. The iron band of grief that had gripped her chest and constricted her breathing had loosened, but she still didn't want to risk writing about her erstwhile favorite subject. Which left her with limited options.
She placed the tip of the quill on the paper, then removed it, depositing a steadily spreading spot of ink. What did other poets write about? She thought about some of her favorites.
The weather? Ugh, no. She glanced outside, regarding the steadily pouring rain.
The gods? Worse, praising the gods. She liked Aphrodite, and now could even tolerate Ares, but she winced at the thought of writing a poem about any of the others.
Love? She thought for a moment. That wasn't necessarily off-limits. She could write about it in a general sense at least. As she thought about it, she felt a warm sensation traveling from the pit of her stomach up to her chest, and she leaned forward to start a new poem. She jotted down a few sentences, when her writing was interrupted by a shower of golden dust and a loud popping noise.
Startled, Gabrielle rocked back in her chair. "Gods!" she held a hand over her hammering heartbeat.
Aphrodite looked at herself, and pointed at her own chest. "Goddess." She waved a hand toward the parchment. "Y'know, that ain't half bad."
Gabrielle regained her composure. "Aphrodite, what are you doing here?"
Aphrodite looked insulted. "Is that how you greet everybody? What, can't a goddess just pop in to check on a friend?" She moved from where she had been reading over Gabrielle's shoulder, and perched on the edge of the table, facing her.
Gabrielle smiled at the term. "Of course you can. You startled me, that's all."
Aphrodite smiled back. "So. How ya doin' sweet pea?"
Gabrielle considered the question, and stood. She padded to the window, staring out at the rain. "I don't know," she said honestly, "I feel better today than I have in a long time. It was like I found something I was looking for." She turned to face the goddess. "I think it was myself."
Aphrodite got up and hugged her. She held the bard's shoulders and smiled broadly. "Look at you, waxing poetic! I knew ya had it in ya!"
Gabrielle smiled back. "Could've fooled me," she demurred, "but really, I think I'll be okay now."
The goddess hugged her again, and gave her a small kiss on the cheek. "I was so worried about you, sweet pea."
Gabrielle felt a familiar warmth spreading from where the goddess's lips had touched her. As Aphrodite pulled away, she gave her an accusing look. "Aphrodite." Her voice lowered.
Aphrodite's face adopted an innocent expression. "Yes?"
Gabrielle's voice lowered. "Are you using magic on me?"
Aphrodite's expression mimicked one uncannily like a scolded puppy. "All right! All right!" she caved, and threw up her hands, "but I just wanted you to feel better! I hate seeing you so bummed." She met Gabrielle's green eyes. "You were breaking my heart, and I'm, like, familiar with that, okay? I couldn't take it."
Gabrielle would have been angry, but Aphrodite was her friend, and she knew the goddess had only been trying to help. Still, she had to ask. She looked past the goddess as she spoke. "What I felt...when I was on the boat, was that real?" She met Aphrodite's blue eyes. "Or was it you?"
"No, no," Aphrodite shook her head so hard Gabrielle thought her hair would go spinning around the room. "That was all you, baby. I just kinda helped you get there. Numbed you a little."
The bard considered this. She did not like being manipulated, but she really did feel worlds better. Besides, arguing with the goddess would get her nowhere. "Okay," she conceded.
Aphrodite cocked her blonde head. "You're not mad?"
Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "I'm too tired to be mad. I feel like I've been sleepwalking for two months." She shrugged. "Just...waiting for something. To move on, or wake up, or something. As much as it pains me to say it," she smiled to take the insult out of her words, "I think you helped."
Aphrodite clapped her hands. "Now that that's over, let me get to the real reason I'm here."
Gabrielle cocked her blonde head. "Thought you were checking up on me."
"Well yeah, but I also got some news."
Gabrielle waited for the goddess to continue, but Aphrodite just stared at the window expectantly.
"Aphrodite? What's the news?" She waved a hand in front of the goddess's face.
The goddess slapped herself in the forehead. "Oh! Okay. So there's this whole big god thing goin' on, I don't wanna get into it, but basically, I can't tell you myself." She shrugged. "So I'm kinda waiting for the news to get here."
Gabrielle was puzzled, but accepted the statement. "When is it getting here?"
Aphrodite took a step back from the window. Suddenly, the room was filled with roaring as rain rushed in, and a heavy body crashed through the window onto the floor, leaving wood and debris from the broken shutters scattered about.
"Oh, I'd say right about now."
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