Disclaimers can be found in Part 1
If you have questions, comments, or wish to be added to an email list for updates, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org (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.
North. Where was North? Xena sighed. Even though Xena could see neither the sun nor the stars through the thick canopy overhead, she turned to her innate sense of direction to show her the way, as she had many times before. This time, however, it failed her. She felt like a drowning woman submerged in water, where blowing bubbles to indicate the surface only shortened the time she would have to find it. In this place, she couldn't be sure the directions she knew even existed, and even if she could divine them, she had know idea which way to travel.
She exhaled in frustration. Looking down, she studied her sandaled foot as she scuffed the toe against the grass. She wished she was wearing her heavy boots. Then, at least, she could stomp on something. Raising her head, she sighed. Waiting was now all she could do. From long and unfortunate experience, she knew whatever presence had brought her to this godsforsaken forest would soon make an appearance.
Xena hated waiting. She preferred to set meetings on her own terms, to control every situation. This place made her feel helpless, and the evil feeling settling over her like a pall made her skin crawl. She resisted the urge to pace.
A shiver ran down Xena's spine, and she stiffened in response. Right on cue. Apparently, her warrior instincts were not fully in-operational; she recognized the being without turning around.
“Xena,” a low grating voice said, “it's been a long time.”
Xena kept her eyes forward as Alti circled to face her, passing close enough to stir the air touching her. The warrior fought the desire to step back and put distance between them.
Xena's lips twisted into a sardonic smile. “Not long enough.”
The shamaness gave an equally humorless smile. She was dressed as she'd been when Xena had first met her, in animal skins, with a blood-soaked headdress adorning her gaunt frame.
The gravelly voice cut the air again. “You're not surprised?” She began to circle Xena, her movements
flowing,her bone necklace clacking together.
Xena turned, following her motion, her body rigid, fighting down her warrior instincts. They roared for attack, but she knew talking would be the only way to find an exit from this place. “Nothing surprises me anymore, Alti. But your soul is supposed to be trapped in that amber.”
Alti laughed, the sound terribly disquieting, like rocks scraping together. “I am trapped, Xena,” she spread her arms to indicate their surroundings, the animal hide sleeves swinging from her thin arms, “In this world between worlds.” She dropped her arms, and lifted a finger in the air, pointing upward, in a didactic gesture. “You see, Xena, that amber is like a balm to any mortal wound,” she swept her hand over her body, “you have to reapply.” She stepped forward; Xena could smell the sour odor of poorly cured animal hide, and the copper scent of dried blood. “And Xena,” she continued, as she reached out a hand, “I am your mortal wound.” Her fingertips brushed the warrior's stomach, but in a flickering motion, Xena clasped her hand and squeezed hard, until she could feel the prominent bones of skeletal fingers grinding together.
It was time to let Alti know she would not abide this lightly. “I've had enough of your games, Alti,” she hissed through clenched teeth, “Why have you brought me here?” She released the hand, but lifted her foot and kicked Alti hard in the chest, sending her sprawling backward. “I know it wasn't for the pleasure of my company.”
Alti stood, cradling her injured hand. She grasped the wrist, and flexed the fingers, wincing. “Patience was never one of your virtues.”
Xena's jaw clenched, and she spat out, “Keep stalling and you'll see how virtuous I can be.”
Alti exhaled, partly from pain, and partly in preparation for a long speech. “As you know, Xena,” she began, tilting her head slightly as she eyed the warrior, “the realms of the living and the dead are connected by the mind.” A long finger tapped her head, the tip of it scratching at congealed blood. “It was easy for me, then, to tap into the mind of your friend Akemi.” Alti smiled; she relished the revelation.
Xena remained silent, but her brow furrowed.
Alti began pacing back and forth in front of the warrior. “The gods wanted a soul to avenge the dead.” Her hands picked at her bone necklace. “But it wasn't yours they wanted. It was hers.”
Xena felt a fresh rush of anger toward Akemi. She should never have trusted her, but she had let her judgment be clouded by her past trust of the girl, and predominantly by her own guilt. She cursed herself for being so foolish. “Akemi lied,” she said in a low voice. It wasn't a question.
Alti stopped pacing and turned to face her. “She betrayed you once. It wasn't hard persuading her to repeat the performance.” She began pacing again, pausing to let her words sink in, to cause the largest sting. Her eyes traveled to Xena's guardedly tortured features, and she continued her explanation. “But she was a fool. And now, her soul, and the others, are mine.” She chuckled in triumph. “Their power allows me to appear before you, but even with them, my powers are just shadows of what I had in life.”
Xena was almost shaking with rage. She had been betrayed, and worse, she had betrayed herself, been made to look like a fool, and had left Gabrielle behind, to face whatever it was Alti had planned. Her question came from her throat in a low growl. “What do you want from me?”
Alti regarded her. “What I've always wanted, Xena.” She stepped forward in a smooth motion. “Power.” She paused, watching Xena's stony features, trying to read them. She found she could only
see anger, yet she knew more complexity lay beneath the surface. “And to get it,” she continued, gesturing with her hand, “I have to return to the living.”
Xena chuckled menacingly. “Over my dead body.”
Alti's smiled was enigmatic. She raised her hand, quickly poking a finger in Xena's direction. “Bingo.”
“This'll fit you.” Aryn held up a white tunic with gold piping. Gabrielle could barely make out her raised eyebrow through the hood of the thick cloak Aryn had snagged from a hook as they'd exited the inn. She'd promised to return it as soon as it's job concealing her face was completed.
Gabrielle took the tunic, feeling the fine fabric. She nodded. “Good guess on my size.”
Aryn shook her head. “Not a guess. I've spent some time sizing clothes for my brother. Besides,” she said as she absently regarded bracelets, “you're just a little bigger than me.” She shrugged.
She didn't see Gabrielle's sad smile. The bard gleaned more meaning from her tone than her words. The young girl had aged beyond her years with the necessity of caring for her brother. The bard in her wanted terribly to learn more, for she was sure there was a story to be told. There was something familiar about the young woman, though whether it was true remembrance or just a reflection of empathy of her own loss, she didn't know. Shaking off her thoughts, she turned to the vendor, and the task at hand. She had fewer coins left than she would like, because she had been secretly sneaking coins into the purses of the vendors Aryn nicked items from.
Aryn turned the view the market as Gabrielle haggled with the merchant. The bard had persuaded her to return the dinars after they'd entered the marketplace, and Aryn had reluctantly obliged, though she had picked up a few things for herself, free of charge. Her back now sported a small pack, which contained a few tunics, both for her and Telen, and some boots she'd picked up for him. She'd also snagged a small dagger suitable for cutting food or for defense, a frying pan, and some sleeping furs. Hopefully, this would be all she needed, at least until they returned to Greece.
The market was surprisingly busy, though the hour was late. Most of the customers were men, who goggled at the leather merchant and smithy. Many of the men carried weapons, and those who didn't looked like sailors. There were a few women, hanging on the arms of the sailors. Aryn guessed that these women were not customers, but were products themselves. Prostitution was always a big business in port towns.
Aryn tilted her head back to look at the night sky. The storm had passed more quickly than it had come, though the slick and muddy streets retained evidence of it presence. The edge of her overlarge cloak licked the street's surface. Privately she hoped it's true owner wouldn't notice the stains. She turned when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
Gabrielle stood before her, clad in the tunic she had chosen, the gold piping nicely complimenting the woven golden belt at her waist, and the dangling earrings now clearly visible beneath the bard's neatly coiffed hair. She extended her hand with exaggerated care. “Maia Octavia of Ostia, at your behest,” she intoned, her voice richer, her cadence of speaking slower and more refined. She smirked.
Aryn's eyes widened. She hardly recognized the warrior-bard. Truly, she had been afraid that the blonde would not be able to convince anyone she was anything other than was she was. Obviously, she had underestimated her companion. “And who am I?” she questioned.
Gabrielle answered, her voice remaining in character. “With those clothes?” She regarded Aryn with a critical eye. “My slave.” She laughed, and her voice returned to normal. “For once I get to be the Roman noble.”
Taking Aryn's elbow, she led her away from the market, toward a side street that led in the direction Aryn said she believed the slaves were being held.
As they walked, Aryn said, “I wasn't aware warriors did a lot of role-playing.” She tilted her head up, and looked at Gabrielle from within the folds of her hood, a smile in her eyes.
Gabrielle chuckled. “Bards do. And I am a bard.” She paused at they neared the end of the street, releasing Aryn's elbow. “Which way?” she asked. Aryn stepped ahead of her, leading her down the path on her right. As she passed, Aryn turned her head to face Gabrielle and asked, “What kind of story will this make, I wonder?”
Gabrielle lengthened her stride to take a protective position slightly in front of the young woman. “With any luck, one with a happy ending,” she said as she surveyed the empty alley. Unlike the main street which housed the market, this street was narrow, the carved stone sloping slightly upward. The dark path was poorly lit, with torches sporadically positioned along the walls, casting shadows from crates and other debris scattered along the worn walls. Aryn's breathing became heavier after they had been traveling for a few minutes, and she raised a hand to touch her still tender side.
Gabrielle's voice was concerned. “You okay?”
Aryn nodded. “Still sore.” She jerked her chin toward the end of the street, which doglegged to the left. “S'that building.” Gabrielle kept walking, and as she passed under a torch, Aryn noticed a glimmer and caught her arm. “Your chakram,” she said quietly.
Gabrielle's hand traveled to her hip where the weapon was still attached. She hesitated. Entering the building with it on her belt was out of the question; it was too recognizable, and a Roman noblewoman would not be carrying a weapon. Still, she was reluctant to hand it over. The chakram was a dangerous weapon, and more than that, it carried a kind of reverence. Not just anyone should touch it. As her green eyes held Aryn's sincere brown ones, she made her choice, though she knew there was really only one. She unhooked the chakram from her belt, and held to out for Aryn to accept. “Take care of this for me,” her voice was quiet, and by her tone she meant more than just the weapon.
Aryn grasped the edge gingerly, and took the weapon's weight as Gabrielle released her hold. “I will,” she said reverently, as she felt an unnameable understanding pass between them. With deft hands, she tucked the chakram securely in her bag, and she and the bard stepped around the corner to begin their performance. Aryn ducked her head, so the folds of the hood obscured her features completely.
The door to the guardhouse lay ahead, a nondescript wooden structured with sturdy looking metal hinges. Gabrielle whispered to Aryn, “Stay out here.” Aryn nodded, and leaned against the wall opposite the door, crossing her arms, with all the air of a bored but obedient slave.
Gabrielle squared her shoulders, let out a breath, and became someone else. She fisted her right hand, and rapped on the door. She waited a breath, then smoothly took a step back as the door swung outward to reveal a young guard. In the first moment, he appeared annoyed at the interruption, but when his eyes tracked to Gabrielle, he smiled, and leaned against the doorway. His motion revealed the scene behind him: two other guards sat at a table, with cards and coin before them, and another door lay beyond. “You take a wrong turn, miss?” the young guard said sweetly.
Gabrielle returned his smile with one of her own. “I think I've taken a right turn.”
The guard crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Oh?” Unashamedly, his eyes raked her up and down.
She gave a simpering laugh, and put her hand on his arm. “I hear you have a new shipment of slaves.”
His face fell, as he realized her intentions lay only with business. “Where did you hear that?” he asked gruffly.
She removed her hand, but did not increase the distance between them. “One hears many things, if one listens at the right doors.” Pausing, she tried another tack as she put a hand on the coin purse at her belt, where it tinkled with unspent dinars. “And puts coins in the right palms.”
The guard sighed. “I'm afraid your coins were misplaced.” He shook his head. “We have no slaves to offer.”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed, and she affected an air of displeasure, not unlike the one she actually felt. “I was lied to?”
The guard shook his head again, and uncrossed his arms, though he didn't touch her. “Not plainly. We were supposed to receive a shipment, but the female slaves escaped from their guards, and the male slaves...” he paused, almost imperceptibly, but Gabrielle noticed. “...the ship was destroyed in tonight's storm; the wreckage washed ashore just a few candlemarks ago.”
Gabrielle's breath caught, but she kept her composure. “There were no survivors?”
The guard stepped back, and opened the inner door, revealing rows of cells. “See for yourself, my lady. Our cells lie empty.”
One of the card-playing guards interrupted him. “As will your pockets-it's your turn, Gerrik!”
The guard looked apologetic. “Excuse me- if that's all?”
Gabrielle nodded, but eyed him warily. He led her to the door, and shut it behind her.
Aryn pushed off the wall, exiting the shadows, as soon as she heard the heavy door clang shut. With quick strides, she easily crossed the short distance, and met the bard near the door.
Gabrielle spoke before Aryn had a chance. She whispered, “He said the ship was destroyed- no survivors.”
If the bard had hit her with a block of wood, Aryn would have been less surprised. She felt shock, then anger rose upon its heels. This was Aphrodite's fault, for causing the storm...which she did to help Gabrielle...Aryn reeled on the bard, but her shout was silenced as the bard grabbed her and shoved her against the wall near the door, clapping a hand over her mouth. “He lied,” she whispered fiercely. She lifted her free hand to her mouth in a shushing motion, then flicked her hand from her ear to the door, signaling for Aryn to listen.
Damn, the bard was strong. Aryn was sure she would have a new bruise where the bard had grabbed her. The hood had fallen from her face, and she felt cold stone against the back of her head. Captive, she did as she was told, straining her ears to hear what was said on the other side of the thick door, hoping against hope that whatever she heard would silence the grief she felt building in her chest.
“-running out of money.” That was the voice of one of the guards who had been sitting at the table. It sounded gruff, belonging to an older man.
“I can't help it if you're worthless at cards.” That must be the voice of the third guard. A tinkling of coins.
“We'll all be worthless if this keeps on.” That was Gerrik, the young guard. “We don't get paid to guard nothin'.”
“Damned Persian bastard pirates,” the gruff voice continued, “they're gettin' bolder. More often, like.”
Aryn's eyes widened in comprehension, and Gabrielle nodded in tacit reply, removing her hand from Aryn's mouth, though she still kept hold of her with her other hand.
“No good talkin' about it. S'the Roman's problem.” The second voice spoke up again.
“Romans give no shit for slaves. Just fodder for the Gauls.” The gruff voice.
Gerrik spoke. “And who are we? Romans don't care about us, either. Long as we supply their army.”
The second voice cut in again. “Which I intend to do, and keep myself well supplied with wine!”
“You drink like a Roman,” Gerrik's voice held a mocking tone, “sure you are not one?”
“You smell like a Roman,” the second man voiced reply, “flowery, like a woman.” His words were slurred. “Sure you are not one?”
Gerrik laughed. “Then you are definitely not a Roman, because you smell like piss and shit.”
There were sounds of a scuffle, and loud laughter. Gabrielle waited a moment more, then shifted her weight, allowing Aryn to move free from the wall, holding her gaze. “I think we've heard enough.”
Aryn relaxed, feeling the pull of the tension on her already battered muscles. “Pirates took him?” Her words came out in a breath, trying to reconcile what she'd heard, and what she'd hoped.
Gabrielle nodded. “Persian pirates.” The bard's brow furrowed, as she wondered why the Persians would be taking Greek slaves, and what had emboldened them to do so. She was at a loss; Xena knew far more about politics than she did. Her knowledge was confined primarily to Greece.
Aryn bit her still swollen lip, an oddly adolescent gesture. “So... he's alive?” She asked, the question causing a roiling in her guts and a beating of her heart she found very unpleasant.
Gabrielle looked pensive, not meeting Aryn's eyes. Oh no. Aryn sucked in a breath. Her heart was beating so hard she felt lightheaded, and she felt a little bit like she was going to fall over if Gabrielle didn't answer her soon.
“I don't know,” Gabrielle answered quietly, shaking her head, her blonde hair escaping its bun and falling loosely about her face. She stopped and met Aryn's eyes, noting how her eyes closed and then opened as she absorbed the news, her face quickly masking a painful vulnerability visible just a second before. Gabrielle met her eyes as they opened and said, “But if he is, I promise, I will do everything I can to help you find him.”
Aryn felt like she was on a capsizing ship and someone had just handed her a bucket. Any chance was a chance. She felt like being sick, she was frightened, and she was at a loss as to what she would do next. At sea. She swallowed, clearing her throat, and pressing her emotions down. She needed a distraction.
Gabrielle jerked her head in the direction they had come, indicating they should head back to the inn.
As they resumed walking, Aryn asked, “What do you think about the other stuff they said?” Her voice was thick, and she stumbled over her words a little, her voice coloring with uncertainty.
Gabrielle considered the question, understanding it for what it was: a reason for Aryn not to think about her lost brother. She understood; sometimes you needed time and distance to deal with terrible news.
Truthfully, she had more questions than she had answers, but she did what she knew best and gave voice to her thoughts, sorting them out as she spoke. “It seems like Rome is moving against Gaul. They've been trying to crush them for years. Caesar started it, and almost conquered it, but the Gauls won back their land after Vercinix was freed.” She intentionally glossed over her part in that, not feeling the need to explain it. “My guess is, slaves are being taken as conscripts, and Rome is amassing an army here. The men in town are mercenaries.” She spoke with confidence, as bits of what she had heard and suspected fell into line.
Aryn interrupted her, her voice growing stronger, intrigued by the new development. “Romans using Greek conscripts? Rome doesn't have dominion over Greece.”
Gabrielle thought for a moment, tapping two fingers of her right hand against her collarbone. “Most Greek slaves are criminals-”
“Like me.” Aryn said with a grim smile.
“-like you,” Gabrielle confirmed, “where the punishment is usually exile. Towns don't want them-”
“Ouch.” Playfully, Aryn placed her hand over her heart and swayed, as if stung by an arrow. Gabrielle could tell though, that her heart wasn't in the joke.
“-and someone got greedy,” the bard continued, “Greece was selling. Rome was buying.” She sighed. “If you want to find out someone's motive, look at money.”
“I know that's always my motive,” Aryn quipped, gracefully flicking her cloak as she stepped over a pothole.
Gabrielle suspected that was not the case. After years of traveling with Xena, she had learned that people revealed more about themselves through words unspoken. As such, it was plain to her that when Aryn felt a situation was too serious, she fell to sarcasm and self-deprecating humor to shield her emotions. It was also clear to her that the young thief cared deeply for her brother, and based on the woman's purported skills, Gabrielle suspected her capture had less to do with greed or incompetence and more to do with her desire to follow her captive sibling. She said nothing, however, remembering that keeping silent was often a way to prompt others to talk, though that didn't always work with Xena. Some days, she had felt that the warrior's voice might disappear from misuse. Still, she missed her friend's reassuring presence. In this case, Xena probably would have figured out the Roman's motives, their battle plan, the pirates route, and before dinner she would have a plan to rescue Telen.
Aryn spoke up, breaking the silence. “I just realized, they brought in warhorses.”
“Hmm?” Jerking away from her thoughts, Gabrielle raised an eyebrow in surprise, her visage lit sharply as they passed under a torch. Just as quickly, they were steeped in darkness again.
“The slave boy told me. I was trying to find out if he'd seen Telen,” Aryn explained, then followed up with a question, “Why here?”
Gabrielle shook her head, and a few more blonde strands of her hair fell loose. The noblewoman was gone, and the sharp warrior had taken her place. As she once again passed under torchlight, she fairly seemed on fire as the orange glow bathed her face and hair. “I don't know. Pre-emptive attack? Maybe they intend to invade from two fronts. Xena would know. She was a general.” Gabrielle fell silent, her footsteps almost as quiet against the still damp stone.
“You are going to bring Xena back?” Aryn's voice held trepidation, and hope.
“Yes.” Gabrielle's held only conviction.
Aryn touched Gabrielle's arm, pulling her to a stop. She hadn't bothered to replace the hood, and her dark hair fell over her eyes as she reached into the pack she carried. Her hand reappeared, carefully grasping the edge of the chakram. She extended the offering to Gabrielle, the torchlight glinting off the polished metal, sending a splash of orange glow across the bard's white-clad chest. As Gabrielle reached for the weapon, Aryn met her eyes and said in a low pleading voice, “Take me with you.”
Again, Gabrielle felt an uncanny understanding as she silently accepted the weapon, and the request.
Aryn looked down at her shoes, uncertainly, then back up at Gabrielle, her brown eyes almost amber in the torchlight. “I can't take on the Persian army by myself.” She smiled. “But I hear Xena has.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Heard that one, have you?”
Aryn nodded, noting the queer look on Gabrielle's face. “It's true, isn't it?” Her voice held quiet wonder.
Gabrielle nodded, remembering. Most of it was a blur, because she had nearly died from poison. The important parts, though, were clear. She remembered waking up in the middle of the night to find Xena had stayed, not because she wanted to fight for the greater good, but because Gabrielle had asked her to. She remembered Xena's promise never to leave her, even in death. “It's true.” Her voice was enigmatic.
Aryn could see that the bard's thoughts had gone somewhere she couldn't follow, but she broke the spell. “Then I need her.”
Gabrielle regarded her with a wry grin. “That's it then? You're just out for yourself?” Her tone was joking, seeking to diffuse the tension of the moment.
Aryn moved ahead of her, walking backwards to face her. “I am the greatest thief in the known world.” She ran a hand through her hair, brushing it away from her face, and her lips twisted into a full grin, though it was still slightly distorted from her busted lip. However, it did nothing to reduce her confidence. “I see an opportunity, and I take it.”
In that moment, Gabrielle was glad the darkness hid her surprised intake of breath as the familiarity she'd felt about the girl slid home. She said nothing, however, and continued walking.
Aryn turned around again and fell into step beside her. “We leave tomorrow by ship?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle confirmed, “This place is a nest of vipers. I don't trust it.”
Aryn squeezed her shoulder. “Then I'm glad we're leaving before we are bitten.”
Back at the inn, Aryn sat on the bed and removed her boots, preparing for sleep. Gabrielle was doing the same; she removed her fancy tunic, revealing the more plain one she'd worn under it. She laid her coin purse on the table, but as she did so, she lifted it again, weighing it in her palm. It was heavier now than when they'd left the room. She shook it, the sound of tinkling coins alerting the young thief, as she paused in unlacing her boots.
Aryn glanced up at the bard, seeing the accusatory glare. Busted. She shrugged. “I know you paid all the vendors. So I pick-pocketed a mercenary as we passed through the inn.” She went back to unlacing her boots, pushing the heel of the right one with the toe of the left, and letting it thunk to the floor.
Gabrielle placed the bag on the table. It bothered her more that Aryn had acted on a whim than that she'd stolen from a mercenary. After all, from what they'd heard, it seemed clear that the men's purses were being filled by the Romans, and even Gabrielle couldn't find it in her heart to sympathize with them. In fact, a small part of her was guiltily pleased, but she couldn't let that show on her face. She knew any more thievery would draw attention to them, and with Aryn obviously already on the run, that was a risk they could not afford. However, she didn't think the thief would respond well to being ordered around, so she used her well-honed diplomatic skills, and asked as nicely as she could, “When we're traveling together, I'm going to ask you not to steal. It's risky.”
Aryn responded without looking up as her second boot hit the wooden floor. “I don't know if I can do that,” she answered honestly, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees.
“What do you mean? We'll be traveling in the forest. We won't need much money.”
Aryn shook her head and sat up, her dark hair falling around her still-bruised face. “It's not that, it's just...” she paused, looking at her hands, wondering how much she should tell. Would Gabrielle trust her? Would she judge her? It didn't seem like she would. After all, everyone had heard about Xena's past, and Gabrielle had run off with her. Why had she done that? Aryn mentally tabled the question, instead continuing to answer Gabrielle's, the best she knew how, without revealing too much of herself. “...It's what I'm good at.” She raised her head, shrugging her shoulders, apparently in defeat. “It's what I know.”
Gabrielle looked at her, trying to read her. She hadn't expected such an honest answer; she thought Aryn would argue, or make a joke, but instead, she just spoke quietly, appearing deep in thought. In the low light, she stared off to the side, her face cast half in shadow. By her expression, she looked so much older, and tired. Gabrielle felt like she was now getting a glimpse of the real Aryn; in her weary uncertainty she had let her mask slip, and Gabrielle saw a young woman with a complicated past. She had been beaten. Physically, and by whatever demons haunted her now, lurking just under the surface.
“I guess...” Aryn continued hesitantly when Gabrielle didn't reply, “I feel..like I was meant to do it.” She shook her head, trying to order her thoughts. “Like...” she spread her hands, balling one into a fist and pressing it to her lip as she fought for words. “I'm not even in control of it.” She shook her head again. “No, that's not it. I am, I just...” she looked up, finding her words, “It's all I know.” Her voice was small and beseeching, hoping Gabrielle could relate in some way.
To Aryn's surprise and relief, Gabrielle smiled a small smile. She understood more than she cared to admit. More than once, she had wondered if she was on the right path, but when she made decisions that shaped her life, they were always accompanied by a sense of destiny. The feeling Aryn was describing now.
“You really are the Queen of Thieves. You've stolen my argument.”
From experience, Gabrielle knew that destiny had a way of hunting you down, even if you fought it tooth and nail the entire way. Though she had never intended it, she now felt that in her life everything had happened exactly as it was meant to, exactly. Perhaps Aryn's brash thievery had a heterotelic value she couldn't foresee.
Aryn's lips quirked. Instantly, her melancholy fled, scampering to a far corner of her mind. “Queen of Thieves? I like that.” She straightened, pulling her shoulders back and puffing her chest out like a prize rooster, visibly pleased. “On that note, let's get to sleep. I sleep better when flattered.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, “Can you sleep and boast at the same time?” She asked, pulling the sleeping furs from her bag, spreading them on the floor. “
Aryn laid on the bed, lacing her fingers behind her head. “I've been told I sleep boast. It's a rare condition.” Rolling over, she pointed at the furs, distracted. “What are you doing? You're sleeping on the floor?” She dangled her arm over the side of the bed, her fingers brushing the floor.
Gabrielle fluffed the furs. Their scent wafted up and filled her nose; a pang of longing hit her squarely in the heart and she fought the urge to bury her face in them. “Yeah, um...” She was a little embarrassed. Her words fell quickly from her mouth as she hastily explained, “We traveled so much, always sleeping on the ground,” she swallowed, then continued, “It's more comfortable for me, now.”
Aryn had a hard time reading the bard's face, illuminated by a single candle, but she knew there was pain there. Straightening up, she leaned on her elbow, facing the edge of the bed. Gabrielle was fumbling with the furs on the floor below. The bed was not luxurious, certainly, but there was plenty of room for two people to sleep in it without touching. In truth, it had been some time since Aryn had slept alone; she usually shared space with her younger brother. After being away from him for so long, his presence reassured her, even in slumber. As children, they had always shared a bed. The only time she had slept alone was when she had been a slave; now she feared doing so would bring unwanted memories rushing back. I'm not a child, she chastised herself, I don't need someone to hold my hand. She looked at Gabrielle, her brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Those furs look too big for you.”
Gabrielle glanced up at her as she pulled the furs over her small frame. “They are.”
Aryn's face flushed as a clue flew in the window and smacked her in the head. She quickly regained her composure. “Well, I won't argue if you're giving me the bed.” Leaning over, she blew out the candle, plunging them into darkness. Now, she could see nothing, but she was aware of the bard's stolid presence, huddled barely a bodylength away. In the dark, she suddenly felt humbled, and sad, as what she had learned that day came to settle upon her along with the blankets. If only she had listened to the small voice inside her.
“Well?” her younger brother looked up at her with expectant brown eyes. She had just finished examining the wall that surrounded the magistrate's home. The main gate was guarded by two men. Even if she could get past them, the doors themselves were heavy, and creaked, so she doubted she would be able to gain entrance unnoticed. The stone wall itself was smooth; she couldn't climb it. And any trees surrounding the complex had been cut back, so she couldn't jump to the wall from one of them.
A second door lay on the west side of the wall. In antiquity, that portal allowed the entrance and exit of slaves, but the knob on the outside had rusted into an immovable metal mass, and the door swung outward; it could only be opened by pushing it from the inside. If she had tools, she could probably find a way over the wall, but she had narrowly escaped her last heist, and had been forced to leave her tools behind. In this part of Thrace, her face was somewhat well-known. Most shops that sold rope or anything more useful than meat seasoning had a scroll with her mug pasted on it. Wanted: Thief. Sometimes success really sucked.
Her only option for entering in the complex lay with a drainage gutter at the base of the stone wall. However, it was too small for her to fit through, and as such, the operation was hopeless, and risky. She related all this to Telen, and he surprised her by grinning.
“I'm small,” he said.
Damn it. Aryn reached up and rubbed her face. Damn her, for being so rash. She could never deny that stupid grin. She wondered if she would ever see it again. “I don't have anything of Telen's,” she said in a bare whisper, sadly.
Gabrielle's tired voice drifted up from the floor. “You'll get him back.”
Aryn's disembodied voice hailed from the darkness, lost at sea, searching for a safe port. “You sound so sure.”
Gabrielle could her the doubt in her voice, and sought to drive it away. “I am sure. All we have to do is find Xena, bring her back to life, send another soul in her place, find Telen, and get him from the Persians, who will probably try to kill us. Piece of cake.” She yawned; her lack of sleep was catching up to her. “Do that in my sleep.”
This struck Aryn as hilarious, and she burst into laughter, clutching her still sore ribs as mirth bubbled forth from her lips. Land ho. When her giggles faded, she sighed. “Where are we going?” she asked seriously.
Gabrielle's voice grew serious as well. “The Northern Amazons. To their land of the dead.”
This sounded scary to Aryn. “Why there?” she asked, cautiously.
“I've been there before; I know how to enter their land of the dead. Plus, I'm an Amazon Queen.”
“Oh,” Aryn said, almost soundlessly. She suspected there was more.
“And, the only being I've ever known with a penchant for stealing souls was a powerful shamaness.”
So that was it. Aryn was no coward, at least she didn't like to think she was, but this was something completely out of her depth. Gabrielle, however, spoke about it like someone sharing a recipe for tasty soup. The idea obviously wasn't foreign to her. Maybe she could do this in her sleep.
“Is it far?” Aryn asked, her voice distant, coming from the bed above.
“Yes,” Gabrielle answered honestly.
“Will we be sleeping on the ground?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle said again, this time with a hint of humor in her voice.
“Is it really more comfortable?” Gabrielle could plainly hear the amusement in the young thief's tone, and she returned it in kind.
“Not really, but it sure makes talking easier.” Her eyes searched the darkness, only able to make out the rough shapes of the bed, the walls, and the packs that were now sitting on the table. “You get used to it.”
Aryn chuckled, still feeling the echoes of the laughing fit she'd had earlier. “You know how much I like talking.”
Gabrielle chuckled wryly. Absently, she wondered if Xena had ever been kept awake by her chatter. Belatedly, she realized she probably had. “I know. And I'll have time to get used to that .”
They both laughed, sharing an uncommon accord, before night settled over them, and sleep's persistent fingers finally tugged them into unconsciousness.
This time the dream was different. She was in a same foggy copse, but something was different, and not in a good way. Gabrielle's tunic was sticking to her in the oppressive humidity, and as she looked down, she noticed this time it was not green, but white and delicate. That was strange, but couldn't account for why she felt so odd. She was breathing more heavily than normal as she wound her way through the close-set trees. Her discomfort wasn't entirely do to the heat, however. She could feel...something else. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on, which made her nervous, as if she were about to get some bad news. She continued walking as the trees grew closer together, but this time she traveled slowly, purposefully, attempting to understand the change.
Ahead, she caught sight of the setting sun, and angled toward it. She moved without haste, knowing that no matter her pace, it would always dip below the horizon just as she exited the wood. That was how it had been previously, at least. Her bare feet sunk into the wet grass, and she felt soft, damp moss as grass gave way to roots, the trees now so close together that their roots ran into one another, forming a network on the ground.
The single point of light grew in size as she approached the forest's edge. She could feel its warmth, so different from the moist heat of the forest. She turned her body to squeeze between two gnarled trees, surprised when she avoided catching her tunic on rough bark, pleased that it remained unblemished.
Usually, at this point in the dream, the thorned vines would have already begun biting her, like dozens of angry serpents. The trees she could see now had no vines hanging from them, lying in wait, and she felt no fear of them. Her toes warmed as they came into contact with roots at the forest's edge; she was now almost fully illuminated by the sun's glow.
She sighed. Perhaps what was different about the dream was that it was not a nightmare. Sunset harbored her no ill will, not now. Only a few more steps, and she would be free of the trees.
She stepped out, and her body was immediately bathed in an incendiary glow, the orange and red light painting her white tunic like a blank canvas. Her feet touched fine sand; it burrowed between her toes as she stepped onto a long beach. She had never noticed it was a beach, yet before her stretched the ocean, the water calm and smooth as glass.
This was it. Gabrielle felt light, as if the smallest breeze might catch her and carry her away to destinations unknown. She approached the water, eager to feel its coolness. She had almost reached it when a sharp, piercing pain ran through her abdomen, bringing her to her knees. Upon impact, seawater splashed up, tiny droplets landing on her face and chest. In agony, she leaned forward. In the clear water she saw herself, with a thin curved sword protruding from her abdomen. Blood blossomed around the wound, staining her tunic, drops of blood in a bowl of milk. Her hands clutched feebly at the blade, but the tip was in front of her, and she only cut her hands. Her lungs reflexively sucked in air, but the pain was too great, and as she shuddered an exhalation blood dribbled from her lips. The last thing she saw before she fell to darkness was an inscription on the blade, black letters twisting and curving in a language she had seen only once before.
Gabrielle jerked awake, going straight from unconsciousness to full alert as she had Xena do hundreds of times. When it wasn't a false alarm, it saved their lives, allowing the warrior complete alertness as she rose to fight whatever enemy had come upon them as they slept. Even if there wasn't immediate danger, Xena would get up and scout the perimeter. If she found nothing, she would remain awake, restless and wary of the noise that had roused her.
Gabrielle felt that way now. She couldn't be in immediate danger, but her gut told her this was not a false alarm. Ugh. What an awful dream. The bard ran a hand through her hair as she pushed the furs from her legs and stood up. It was still quite dark, but her eyes had adjusted and she found she could navigate the room fairly easily. She grabbed the flint and striker from where they lay on the table, and lit the candle. Holding its base, she used it to illuminate her pack as she rummaged through it with one hand, retrieving first a blank scroll then a quill and ink. She flattened the parchment on the table, using the candle to weigh down the rolled edge.
She closed her eyes, picturing the dream in her head. This was a technique she had used many times, to remember details for a story, and this was not the first occasion she had privately thanked herself for honing this skill, though using it had never seemed quite as important as it did now. She licked the edge of the quill, dipped it in ink, and began writing with bold, sure strokes. The foreign letters formed before her, almost unconsciously. She couldn't read them, didn't know what they meant, at least not literally. Figuratively, she knew their meaning, and it made her angry. Seeing the Japanese syllabary had made her think about the letter, and more importantly, what had been omitted. The gods had not told her how she was to deliver them a soul. There was no special weapon, or ritual described.
Then it hit her. They had no intention of standing by their deal. They had threatened her soul, and they would take it; now they were just using her to release Xena, and the other 40,000 lost souls. They had used Aphrodite's affection for her to trick her into delivering the message. Regardless, she would retrieve Xena, not because the gods ordered her to, but because it was what she truly wanted. Together, they would find a way to circumvent the malicious divine plan. She was angry at the gods, but she was more angry at herself, for not stopping to think, to consider all the angles, as Xena would have done. She would have seen through the ruse in a second, which only convinced Gabrielle all the more that she would need Xena for whatever future what heading their way. That frightened her a little, like she was walking down a dark hallway and turning a corner without knowing what was lurking there.
It wasn't that she felt helpless, like she couldn't function as a warrior, just that she knew she would always feel safe when Xena was around. The warrior's solid presence meant things would be all right, even if you couldn't see what was coming. She was a torch in that dark hall, and a warm hand leading Gabrielle into the light. How ironic, Gabrielle thought. She'd probably say the same thing about me. Maybe not in so many words.
Gabrielle folded the parchment, turning as she heard a small noise coming from the bed. Aryn slept fitfully; she had thrown off the blankets, and her hands clenched and unclenched into fists. Looks like I'm not the only one having nightmares, the bard thought. She wondered what they could be about. Were they as bad as hers? Worse? She couldn't imagine it could be worse. The young woman was what, 19? But Xena had been younger than that when her village was raided, and her brother killed. Gabrielle had been barely 17 when she'd followed Xena. Age was no indicator of life experience. Gabrielle did know, however, that Aryn was the type to keep things to herself, to brush off inquiry with sharp wit and a quick smile. If Gabrielle wanted to know about her dreams, she would have to wait for Aryn to trust her.
Gabrielle sighed, regarding the sleeping figure. That was all right. She could wait.
A rough hand shook her awake. Aryn turned her face, and immediately recoiled at the stench of alcohol and decay on warm breath. She opened her eyes, and saw crooked teeth set against a dirty face just inches from her own. Ugh. Callias. No matter how many times she saw him, or smelled him, she could never get used to it. Grabbing her arm, her jerked her out of bed, saying nothing, his grunting breath being the only noise breaking the silence. Aryn also remained silent, having learned that opening her mouth meant a beating, though that rarely stopped her. Here though, her clever insults would be lost on Callias; he was too stupid to understand them. She would pick her battles.
Her quarters were small, a slaves' room in the lower part of a castle. She tried to keep it clean and organized, but the walls were chipped and dingy, much like the rest of the structure. It was old, and after Ilyik the warlord had claimed them, they had fallen to disarray. It was odd that her quarters were individual, but there were few slaves and many rooms, so most of the slaves had individual sleeping areas.
Callias led her down a dimly lit hall, and she followed in silence, her bare feet making not the slightest whisper against the cold stone floor. It odd for her to be woken this time of night. In other circumstances, she would have feared Callias' intentions, but she knew he had been wounded in battle years before and so stood incapable of taking advantage of her. So what did he want?
Her tasks were not like those of the other slaves. Her skill at pickpocketing had been noticed, so she was sent to the pits every week. The pits were an underground gambling ring, held in the dungeons of the fortress. Money flew freely, drink even more so, so Ilyik sent her to liberate coin from the men's pockets. It often cost her a beating or a lashing if she were caught, though Callias was always sent along to place bets on Ilyik's behalf, and to prevent things from getting out of hand. He never tried to protect her. Sometimes he joined in, or continued the lashings after they returned to the castle. He didn't know that one of the fighting slaves, Orril, had been teaching her about fighting, though he had recently been killed, and the lessons ended. She pushed the memory of him out of her mind.
Ilyik was no lord of castles, but he liked playing at being one, which made him dangerous, in Aryn's mind. Aryn had seen him beat a slave into a coma for snickering at his mismatched robes. It frightened her, but served only to make her keep her comments to herself, or at least out of his earshot. Privately, Aryn heard other slaves calling him names, and suspecting him of insanity. Luckily, she hardly ever saw him, keeping to the shadows when she was in a room with him, and avoiding him altogether the remaining time.
Callias tromped ahead of her, pausing as they approached a staircase, with two winding columns that led to separate towers. They had already passed the kitchens, and Aryn knew that one leg of the stair led to the “lord's quarters,” rooms where any visiting warlord friends of Ilyik might stay. It had been some time, however since they had been used. Ilyik's power was waning, Aryn could see it; she wondered if he could, through all his velvet curtains.
When she had first been purchased by him, nearly five years ago, he had just recently captured the castle, and he was stocking up on slaves. He had never had the support of the surrounding town, however, and like many slaves, they had ceased being afraid of him and begun to snicker and gossip behind his back. The other slaves spoke of it, and Aryn wondered if this meant her tenure here was finally up. She would have escaped earlier, but she had been only ten when she had been captured, and at first, he kept the slaves on a tight leash, locking doors and clamping them in irons, guards always watching, the threat of a violent death for any fugitives. She stayed out of fear, and a lack of knowledge. She didn't know how to escape the locks; she wished her father had taught her, but he was dead, and now it was too late.
Now she felt differently, her fear had turned to cynicism, the once dreaded lash just a reminder of her captor's weak hold on power. She didn't know where she would go, but the winds were changing.
Callias pushed her toward the left stair. She resisted, her shins knocking against the stone. She had never been to that part of the castle before, and sensed danger.
“Up you go, girl!” he snarled, pushing her hard. She fell forward, her palms scraping stone as she caught herself. She shot him a look, but knowing arguing would get her only a split lip, continued reluctantly up the stairs. She would pick her battles.
Her nape hairs prickled as she ascended, the waning torches sending exaggerated shadows across the curving walls. What had changed? Where did this passage lead? She had a suspicion, but it made her sick to her stomach and she hoped she was wrong. She knew she probably wasn't.
She swallowed hard as she approached the single door at the top of the steps, worn, with a giant iron knocker. Squaring her shoulders, and shivering slightly as she felt a breeze, she placed her hand on the cold iron. She suddenly felt as if she wasn't wearing enough clothes, the worn brown tunic exposing her shoulders and knees. But she didn't have any choice. So she raised the ring, and knocked.
The noise echoed off the walls, bouncing around in her head, invading her senses, a single, ominous thunk.
A low rasping voice answered from inside. “Come in.”
Swallowing, she did as she was bid, apprehension seizing her. She felt her palms begin to sweat and her heart rate pick up as she entered, seeing Ilyik leaning casually against a wooden table, it's surface draped with a threadbare cloth.
Ilyik was much older than she was, though not terribly old. Of course, it was easy to be older than a 15 year old. He had red hair that was cut close to his head, a close-clipped red beard framing a strong jaw, and a thin scar on his face that ran from his right ear to his chin, disrupting his beard. He was wearing black breeches and a black overtunic, the tunic decorated with faded silver piping. Presently, he was holding two cups of wine, one of which he offered to her.
She hesitated, so he took a step forward, pressing it into her hand. She avoided looking at him, instead electing to examine the room. The stone walls were draped with tapestries, which hid most of the arrow loops. From that, and the room's small size, Aryn suspected that it had once been a guard tower. Based upon the rug, and the ornate bedding, Ilyik had decided to make it his quarters. Why? It felt more like the inside of a battle tent than a lord's room. Just more proof that he didn't belong here. He was a child, playing an expensive and deadly game of dress-up. If Aryn hadn't been terrified, she would have laughed.
“The wine is good,” Ilyik said, thankfully taking a step back, giving her some room.
She glanced at the cup in her hand. It was clay. They couldn't even afford silver. Cautiously, she took a sip. It tasted bitter, but she hid her grimace and swallowed anyway, waiting for his next move.
“Why don't you sit?” he said, putting his cup down, but remaining where he was, leaning against the table. He motioned to a chair near the table. Feeling it was best not to antagonize him, she sat, feeling the thin upholstery against the wooden frame. It put her uncomfortably close to him, and she sat rigidly, her hands tightly gripping her clay cup, knuckles white.
He shifted, facing her. “I noticed you today.” She looked up at him, seeing his gray eyes watching her. “How long have you been here, under my care?” He made “under my care” sound important, as if buying slaves was akin to taking in wayward orphans.
Aryn's throat was tight, but she managed, “5 years.” Her hands would have been shaking if she hadn't been gripping the cup so fiercely. She stared at its contents willing herself into another place. She felt like being sick, or crying.
He looked surprised, raising orange eyebrows. “5 years. I've practically raised you.”
That made her angry, and she met his eyes, a small fire kindling in her own. “My father raised me. Not you.” She hoped she hadn't made a mistake, but the words had come out before she'd had a chance to think about them.
He smiled coldly. “And where was your father when you were caught and sold in the streets? Hmm?”
She didn't respond, preferring to hold her tongue, noting the sudden change in his demeanor at her argumentative outburst. He didn't liked to be corrected. She'd screwed up.
“Exactly,” he said, leaning forward, “and now...you belong to me, little girl.” His hand moved to brush the hair out of her face, but she jerked away, his motion quickly becoming violent, and moving to grip her jaw. Her hand jumped at the sudden contact, and she felt the clay cup shatter under her touch, the jagged edges biting into her palm.
He didn't notice, and he leaned forward to kiss her, the smell of bitter wine filling her nose. Aryn tried to jerk away, but his hand held her fast, and she stilled, realizing suddenly as she went motionless, that this was a battle she would have to choose. One way, or the other. With her left hand she grabbed the back of his head, and he smiled, misinterpreting her action. Right before their lips met, she drove the cup's jagged edge into his neck, while pinning him in place with her other hand. Blood splashed against her in arterial spurts as the clay bit into his jugular. Still holding him, she stood, as he fell to his knees.
“I belong to no one, you bastard,” she snarled, as she jerked her hand to the side, ripping his throat wide open. He gurgled and slumped forward, his body making a squishing noise as it collided with the already soaked rug.
She dropped the clay fragment, stunned. The coppery scent of blood hit her nostrils, and she looked down at her stained hands, shock and fear coloring her features. She didn't know what had driven her actions, just that she had seen a way out and taken it. It bothered her that she didn't feel terrible, but now was not the time to think about it. It was done. Now, however, she had problems. She had to escape.
Glancing around the room, she noticed one of the tapestries halfway hid a larger aperture, so with effort, she moved it aside, revealing the night sky, and a rather long drop. Taking a deep breath, she lowered herself out the window, finding a foothold, and a handhold. She still had a few hours of night left, and hoped she would be long gone before anyone discovered the body.
As the dream faded, Aryn opened her eyes, wincing as her pupils constricted against the candlelight. What was Gabrielle doing up? She squinted, letting the dim image come into focus. The bard's back was facing her, the candlelight casting a long shadow on the floor. Gabrielle held the candle at an angle, dripping wax on a bit of parchment, sealing it.
“Can't sleep?” the bard's voice surprised Aryn; she had spoken without turning around.
Aryn rolled onto her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows. “You either.”
Gabrielle put the parchment in her bag, and set the candle on the table. She turned the chair so she could face Aryn. “Warriors who sleep well rarely survive,” she demurred.
Aryn cocked her head. “So you think of yourself more as a warrior than a bard?” All the stories she'd heard of Gabrielle painted her in a very different light than the one she had experienced firsthand. Gabrielle seemed tough, sharp, and not very much like the gentle, peace-loving bard she had heard so much about.
Gabrielle gave the question serious consideration. Was that really how she thought of herself? As a warrior? Xena, she knew, was definitely a warrior, straight into her bones. She enjoyed strategy, planning, and though she didn't talk about it, Gabrielle knew that Xena enjoyed battle. Some deep part of her needed to fill that role, and that was something Gabrielle saw every moment when she was with her. Her blue eyes always searching, her back tensed slightly in preparation of danger, the way her eyelids fluttered when she slept, awaiting an ambush, ready to break into action at the slightest noise.
Was that how she felt? Gabrielle had learned warrior skills from Xena, but was she a warrior? She took a long look at the young thief, Aryn's face cast half in shadow, her high cheekbones accentuated by the low light of the candle. Her chest rose and fell slowly as she breathed, calmly awaiting an answer.
Gabrielle nodded, the motion so small Aryn almost couldn't see it. “I'm different than Xena,” she said quietly, “but I am a warrior.” Her voice grew stronger, and she smiled slightly, almost sadly. She knew however, that it wasn't her skills that made her a warrior, it was her instinct to fight, not to run, but to stand up for herself, like she had the day she met Xena. Xena had mentioned that to her once. Being a warrior is more than skills, Gabrielle. Anyone can wield a sword. You have to fight for what you believe in, for the people that you love. If she closed her eyes she could almost hear that voice, in that tone Xena used that usually meant, “Write this down, it's important.” At least, it meant that to Gabrielle. But she wrote everything down.
She rested her elbow against the table, and leaned back in her chair. “I'm glad I don't have to choose, though.”
Aryn nodded in understanding. “Mmmm.” She jerked her head toward the bag in which Gabrielle had stowed the parchment. “What were you writing?”
“Hopefully, something that will save my life.” Gabrielle saw no reason to hide anything from the thief. In for a dinar...
Aryn was taken aback. “Huh? How?”
“The gods threatened to take my soul if I don't get Xena's. I think they mean to take it anyway.” Gabrielle's voice held a hint of wry cynicism, as though this wasn't very surprising news.
Aryn's mouth twisted in an expression of disgust. “That's slimy.”
“They're gods,” Gabrielle said, waving a hand, “to them, we're just...” she flexed her strong fingers, “...chess pieces.”
Aryn had never really had faith in the gods, and with this revelation she was glad she hadn't wasted her time. She was a bit confused, though. “But you consort with the gods- Aphrodite, Ares?”
Gabrielle nodded, and chuckled a little. “She wasn't always my friend. And Ares and I,” she paused, thinking, “...I'm not really sure what we are to each other.” She uncrossed her legs and tapped her knee for emphasis. “But I do know, in this, he is on our side.”
Aryn's forehead puckered as she considered the bard's words. Apparently, Gabrielle and the Greek gods had a sort of understanding between them, but she and the Japanese gods had no such connection, so they were treating her like they always treated mortals, as a pawn. What a mess. Aryn recovered, turning the conversation back to her original question. “What's in the letter?”
“I need a weapon.”
Aryn glanced at the chakram, which was lying next to the bedroll, at the twin sais in Gabrielle's boots, then her eyes flicked to the sheathed sword attached to one of the packs on the table. Her eyes widened. “You need more weapons?” she asked incredulously, peering at Gabrielle as though she expected her to grow extra hands to wield them.
Gabrielle laughed, and settled back in her chair. “I need a special weapon. One that can kill the dead.”
Aryn took the bait, sighing, realizing on a small level that she was being played with. “And why, pray tell, oh great warrior-bard, do we need to kill dead people?”
Gabrielle's mouth morphed into a cold smile, and the fire glinted off her green eyes. “Leverage.”
This was really getting old. Xena was tired of waiting. After she watched Alti disappear into a cloud of fog, she put her hands on her hips and just....fumed. Quick as a cat, she lashed out at the nearest tree, bark and debris exploding from it as her knuckles connected. Then again. Flexing her hand, she felt the sting, her heartbeat pumping stolidly against her skin.
Well. At least she could bleed.
“Hmm.” She was almost glad to feel the pain, such a normal sensation in a place that was so uncanny. If she was honest with herself, it gave her the creeps. And she wasn't going to take it another second. There must be a way out of here, and damn it, she was going to find it.
She glanced around, looking for any differences, trying to decide which direction was best.
“Tartarus is a fucking sieve,” she muttered to herself, “people coming and going. Like a revolving door on a whorehouse.”
She smiled wryly, knowing that this was probably the only time she would ever wish she was in Tartarus. Focus. Focus on the task, Xena.
Fog swirled around her, the same dense forest stretching in every direction, the same feeling of foreboding settling over her shoulders. That was what bothered her most. She relied on her instincts to sense danger, but here, danger was all she sensed. Well.
She'd have to use her other senses.
Coiling her legs, she propelled herself into the air, using her long reach to catch the nearest branch, then pressing her body up and atop it with consummate grace.
Evil Amazon Shamaness. Evil Land of the Dead. Amazon tree climbing seemed like the right method of transportation, Xena decided as she made her way up.
Now that she wasn't quite so angry, she went back to feeling stupid. She should've listened to Gabrielle, and dumped the stupid ashes into the water. She grunted as she pulled herself onto the next branch, scraping her stomach against it as she righted herself. Feeling guilty about her past was something she'd always thought she could append, as if she finally redeemed herself it would change something, somehow. But now she knew that wasn't true. Feeling shame was as much a part of her life as being a warrior was, and it was a large part of what guided her sword. The only thing her sacrifice had changed was that she was dead. And she had one more thing to feel guilty about.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Xena braced her right foot on a branch, balancing with her right hand as she leaned, placing her left foot on a slightly higher branch, then pushing off and up, reaching for the next handhold. She was glad of the exertion, because it warmed her, and it served to lessen some of the stronger emotions she was feeling as she focused on the task. She arched her back and peered up. Here the branches were thick, and she used them like a ladder as she reached the apex, standing on the tallest branch, the tree swaying slightly against her weight. She balanced, holding her center of gravity in line with the branch under her feet.
She could see clear across the forest canopy, a thin layer of whitish fog blanketing the leaves. It was less humid up here, and she took a deep breath, clearing her lungs, turning her head as her sharp eyes scanned the terrain.
Ah. She leaned forward slightly, as if the extra few inches would improve her sight, and not just disrupt her balance. She blinked. “Hmm.” Some distance away, the fog appeared to be glowing, a rippling blue that reminded her of light reflecting off water.
That looked promising. She scanned the rest of her surroundings; the strange glow was all that stood out.
With a decisive grunt, she dropped to the lower branch, beginning her descent.
Thanks for reading!
Don't forget to send feedback/questions to email@example.com !
Return to the Academy