A pleasant evening under the stars.
It was a perfect evening, warm, with a fragrant breeze gently blowing. The joyous peace that is Summer had settled over the land and everything in nature was bursting at the seams. The stars were pin pricks of sparkle in a violet blue sky. Pity Belenus couldnt enjoy it. The warlord was feeling anything but peaceful. His plans were being thwarted at every turn and his bad guys for hire had turned out to be a bunch of morons. The last indignity had come when he had to bail out his sleeping men from some "dung heap" of a town. Luckily his men had done nothing more than ride into town and fall asleep, not exactly a crime and the local magistrate had no reason to keep them locked up. But the whole episode had cost Belenus valuable time and now he had no idea where his prize was. A prize that he had chased across half of Greece, a prize that kept slipping out of his grasp just as he felt his hands close around her neck. Belenus was a collector and nothing frustrated him more than not getting what he wanted.
In his own tongue Belenus meant light. He once had thought about changing his name, to something more fitting, but in the end Belenus kept the name his parents had given him. He enjoyed the irony. He also enjoyed the memory of the last time he had seen his Mother and Father. His parents had no idea that Belenus had been delving into the world of magic from a young age or that their son had shown great aptitude for the dark branch of the magic arts. The day Belenus had told them that he was leaving to be apprenticed to a Druid, his parents had objected. They were good people following the new religion of the one god and didnt want their son following the old ways. Belenus had summoned forth fire creatures to strip their flesh down to the bone. The memory still made him smile.
The Druid, his first teacher, had come to a similar end. Once he had discovered the boys leanings towards the dark, he had tried to rein his apprentice in. Belenus had sucked him dry of every shred of knowledge he possessed and then sent him the same way as his parents, stripped of all flesh by fire. Over the years Belenus had obsessively pursued and acquired every piece of magical knowledge he could, as well as artifacts from across the known world letting nothing stand in his way. His Museum of Mystical Marvels was famous in certain circles. He had even managed to add the soul of King Sisyphus to his collection. After making a hell of a deal with Hades for it. If the truth be known, after the whole "pinching Ares sword" fiasco the god of the underworld had been quietly pleased to get rid of the trickster king. Frankly Sisyphus was a pain in the arse. But now Belenus was chasing something much greater than the soul of a recalcitrant king. He was after something that would award him so much power that it would beggar even the imagination of the Olympian gods.
Belenus was not truly a warlord but becoming one did offer him a way to afford the exotic items he traveled the world to find. It also offered him other useful things, the power to control men and the ability to keep track of the goings on in Greece via a network of spies. He had heard of Brides arrival in Greece through this network and since then had been obsessed with adding her to his collection. The warlord knew exactly who and what Bride was and all about the powers she possessed, they were kinsmen after all. Born and bred in the same small town in the same small part of the world. His ultimate aim was to capture her and add her to his collection. Study her and eventually pervert her, bend her to his will so he could control her powers and eventually take possession of everything. With Bride under his spell nothing could stand against him. Not even the gods, any gods.
"But how to take her, damn it?" Belenus had been standing on the balcony of his fortress for hours pondering the problem. "Every turn, she cuts me off at every turn". The warlord slammed his fist down on a table in frustration. So far his men had been sent to sleep, frozen solid, washed away when a river suddenly broke its banks, sent blind in the middle of a high speed chase on horse back, out run by a bloody donkey and caught in a snow storm in the middle of the gods be blasted summer. Finding Bride was not a problem. "Ill just summon up some help to scour the land for me", "But how to take her?" Belenus stared out into the dark not seeing or hearing a thing around him. The words "how to take her" had become a mantra; over and over they circled around his head like carrion crows. Slowly a smile started to form on his thin lips. "If normal men cant capture one single small woman, then Ill simply create some who can".
Stalking into his chambers the Warlord bellowed for his Captain. "Krane get your useless behind in here. I want you to pick out your three most dispensable men and bring them to me in the dungeon in a candle marks time. I know that will be a hard task given the vast choice of dullards you have at your disposal. Were going on the hunt." Without so much as a glance at his captain Belenus strode from the room and towards the stairs that led into the bowels of his fortress. Grabbing a torch from the wall and extinguishing all the others as he passed. For this particular piece of magic Belenus needed the cover of the dark.
Xenas mood had vastly improved since leaving the small village in which they had met Nic. Bride had turned out to be a charming traveling companion and seeing her and Gabrielles heads together chatting and laughing made the usually taciturn warrior smile. Every so often Gabrielle would turn around and glance at Xena flashing her a bright grin, making Xena glad that they had hooked up with the tiny woman and her tall dark "friend". The Bard and Bride had been walking a little in front of Xena and Nic, or at least Gabrielle was walking. Shed taken it upon herself to take over donkey leading duties so the other two women would get a "chance to know each other better". "Subtle very subtle my little trouble maker" Xena had thought as Gabrielle grabbed the reins and shoved Nic in the direction of the then surly looking Xena. Much to her own annoyance Xena had found herself thawing towards the tall woman. Nic had a friendly and easygoing nature that broke through Xenas normal reserve and soon they were talking quietly of Nics adventures with Bride as they walked along behind the other two, Xena leading Argo and Nic happily striding along next to the warrior and her horse.
As Nic told the Warrior about the mishaps theyd had since searching for Amazon territory, the back of Xenas mind started to pay some serious attention to the conversation. This was the part of Xenas brain that was battle field trained, the part that said "Hello theres an arrow, how about you lift your arm up and catch it, thank you", the part that usually knew "trouble is a coming." About half way through Nics story, Xenas inside voice started giving her a nudge. "Hey Genius, Wakey Wakey". "Nobody can possibly get into that much trouble just traveling across Greece (unless of course you happen to be Gabrielle), not if you happen to be just your average traveler that is." Think Think. "So, what if theyre not your average traveler? What if theyre your less than average travelers and theres a lot more going on here than meets the eye".
While Nic kept talking, Xena started looking out for little clues that the other woman was being evasive or just not quite telling the truth. As far as Xena could tell, Nic was as honestly surprised as anyone would be, if they had been continually ambushed by a bunch of raiders who kept coming to strange and sticky ends. So obviously Bride was the focus of whatever was going on and Xena bet the unusual looking woman knew all about it.
When introductions had finally been made earlier that day Xena had been curious to see what Bride had looked like, after all Nic had said she looked like Gabrielle. Not that Xena believed her "no one could possibly be as cute as my Bard". Up to that point, all she and Gabrielle had seen was a figure in a cloak and hood. Her curiosity only intensified when Bride pulled back her hood to properly greet the two companions.
There was something familiar about the woman, Nic had been right. Xena could see a little of her friend in the laugh lines around Brides eyes. But other than that, "no way". Where as Gabrielle was a well muscled farm girl with a solid earthy presence (that made Xena all flushed) the small woman from the island of Ierne was something else entirely. Fine boned and pale skinned, the woman looked like she belonged to the gods, like shed been carved out of the most pure block of marble. She looked deceptively fragile but the warrior in Xena could sense an inner strength that would not bow easily. Her hair was at least three shades darker than Gabrielles, a deep rich red that made Xena think of tree sap. But it was Brides eyes that really got Xenas attention. Deeper in color than her green eyed Bard and unlike Gabrielles eyes which were open and honest, Brides held hidden depths that the warrior couldnt read. There were things held in those eyes like clouds shifting and Xena was convinced this was the image that had come to her as she had stood outside the inn that morning and had the unsettling feeling that someone was seeing right into her head.
As the day wore on, the small band of women had kept walking stopping only briefly for some food at midday. It was Xenas intention to get them a good distance from the last town and just that little bit closer to Amazon territory. It was getting late though and the sun had been down for a while when she called a halt and got everyone together. "Look I think its about time we made camp had something solid to eat and get some sleep. I was thinking that we should get an early start tomorrow. If we keep traveling at this rate we can be on Amazon lands within the next two days". Gabrielle was quietly relived. Shed had a wonderful day chatting with her new friend. Brides soft lilting voice and accent had the Bard totally fascinated and the two women seemed to share the same inquiring minds. There were not too many lulls in conversation between asking and answering one thousand and one questions and Gabrielle was just a little tired. "By the Gods, my brain just needs a little time to down load and a catch up with Xena."
Gabrielle had been making many little observations as she got to know her new companion better. Bride was open, honest and happy to talk about all manner of ideas but Gabrielle did notice that she shied away from questions about her recent past. Bride tended to stick to the story Nic had told them at the inn but there was no elaboration, no real discussion about life after she was found floating in the ocean. So Gabrielle deliberately stayed away from this line of questions thinking that the other woman would open up more as she got to know her. Where the two women did connect was over their love of language and the joy of a good story. Bride had been very happy to discover that Gabrielle was a Bard. She had explained to her, "My people honored their Bards. They traveled from one clan stronghold to another telling stories and entertaining, but more importantly they passed on news and messages. The Bards were responsible for keeping the history of the people and each family supported their own bard who held the families past as part of himself. As keepers of history they were also the natural keepers of the law and adjudicated at all disputes and trials. That was their place in the order of the Druids, the order of the wise that brought order and meaning to our Celtoi way of life". Gabrielle noticed sadness in Brides voice and asked her about it.
"The Druid, the Bard is no more. Forced into hiding, or dead. Their own people turned on them as they were infected with this new religion of the Romans, this church of the one god. Missionaries they called themselves, they came to us from the land of the Briton. Their mission had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with conquest. The Romans had tried to over run our land before, but we fought them off. So while they are marching all over the Britons, they send religion to soften us up first. Control the peoples faith and you control the people". "Mind you there are things in this world more evil than the Romans. Change is inevitable, might as well try and hold the waves to the sand as they say". With that the subject had been dropped and the rest of the day was spent in the land of heroes and fables. Bride telling stories of her beloved Land and Gabrielle telling stories of her beloved Warrior. Often the little Bard would look up from a story about Xena to see Brides eyes twinkling around the edges of a mysterious smile.
Xena had found a good camp site not that far from the trail they were traveling with a small stream for water and lots of good grass for Argo. In no time at all bed rolls were laid out and a fire was crackling brightly. Not that it was needed for warmth but Gabrielle needed something to cook dinner on since no one in Greece had seen fit to invent the portable outdoor oven just yet. Bride was showing Gabrielle how to cook Rabbit the Celtoi way, covered in thick mud like clay and slow baked in the embers of the fire until the mud was rock hard. When the mud shell was split open it took the fur with it leaving you with the juicy roasted flesh. Dinner was delicious and the women spent a good deal of time afterwards sitting contentedly around the fire just enjoying the silence of the beautiful night. Xena went for her regular "perimeter check, you know to make sure everythings ok". Gabrielle knew that there was actually nothing to "check the perimeter" for but she also knew that "my warrior" liked to use this time to have a ponder and put everything that had happened during their usually busy day into place, not to mention have her evening chat with Argo. Gabrielle also had a sneaking suspicion that Xena just like the quiet of standing out in the forest alone listening to the night noises around her. "She always comes back much more relaxed. GODS did I just call her MY WARRIOR".
Bride looked up from her place on the other side of the fire to see the young Bard sitting bolt upright blushing furiously. She cleared her throat before she spoke to give the other woman a moment to get herself together. "Um, Gabrielle, I think we're going to turn in for the night please say goodnight to Xena for us". Bride noticed that when she used the warriors name Gabrielle colored up again. "So I am right". Bride was a very perceptive woman, particularly when it was matters of the heart. She had been watching the other woman closely all day as they chatted and was now convinced that Gabrielle was in love with Xena, she just hadnt worked it out yet. "Well Ill have to do something about that. After all love is the spice of life". With that final thought she took Nic's hand and allowed the big woman to help her up from her log seat. The couple wandered to their sleeping furs and snuggled down for the night. Nics big strong arms wrapped around Bride who was nestled into her chest.
Gabrielle got up and was clearing up the camp site for an easy start in the morning when she noticed how the other two were sleeping. She knew women in relationships slept together ("Queen of the Amazons and all that") but shed never seen it right in front of her eyes and for a minute she didnt know where to look. The image of the two obviously happy women cuddled together made Gabrielles mind start working overtime. "They look so content and ..and comfortable ..and something. Damn I have no words for this". Gabrielle and Xenas sleeping arrangements had become a funny thing over the past few years. They had started out sleeping on opposite sides of the fire. Then for "safetys sake" at Xenas suggestion their bed rolls were now set up next to each other, but they never shared the blankets. Each had their own set of warm sleeping furs and only on the coldest nights and in snow country did they ever combine their coverings and their body heat. Staying in Inns was a different matter. They both shared a bed and Gabrielle, who was in charge of the purse strings due to her talent for haggling a bargain, always said it was "to save dinars". But now she had to admit it was more than that. She liked sharing a bed with Xena and had to admit that she loved the feeling of Xena being only a few hairs breadths away in the dark.
"I must be going nuts. Gods even if I am a and Im not sure I am Im pretty sure Xenas not". Gabrielle was mumbling to herself as she climbed into her bed roll and pulled her furs up to her chin. "There was that thing with Hercules, umm and well Hercules again and that weird thing with that guy Ulysses and lets not even mention Ares". The God of Wars obvious connection to Xena had bugged the Bard for some time now. "That low bloody rumbled bloody voice of his, he thinks is sooooo sexy, never hear a damn thing the man is saying. Poncing around in his fancy leathers, hairy chest and all, ugg". "Anyway I cant be after all there was Perdicus and I did well kind of and there has been other boys that Ive thought were cute .mind you cute doesnt exactly stack up next to Xena Stack . Bad choice of words". Gabrielle found herself blushing under her covers as her thoughts went back to her traveling companion and best friend and her "damn does the woman have to be so well endowed? Now Im never going to get any sleep". Her mind continued to wander until she finally fell into an exhausted sleep. After all her brain had had a very busy day.
Gabrielle never heard the Warrior come back to the camp site. She never heard the scrape of Xenas sharpening stone as the warrior completed her evening ritual by sharpening her sword. The little Bard never felt her companion ease herself into her bed roll quietly, so as not to disturb the slumbering redhead, so close next to her. She never saw Xenas wistful gaze as the womans pale blue eyes searched Gabrielles face for something Xena was convinced wasnt there . She never heard the tall brunettes breathing slow down and deepen as the warrior slowly drifted into sleep. Neither of them saw the bright dancing lights, so like fire flies that descended on their camp site and with a swirl of colours lifted Xenas sleeping furs into the air with a gust of breeze and made them disappear. Neither of them heard the bubble of delighted laughter that filled the air around them as Gabrielles furs were lifted into the air, but instead of disappearing, were lowered back down to gently cover both the sleeping women. No one saw a thing that is except for Bride, who was wide awake and smiling in the dark.
Belenus paced back and forth in front of his new creations. They stood in a row, heads lolled forward and resting on their chests, still asleep until their creator woke them. The ritual had taken all night and had left him completely drained but he was happy with his work. What had once been three of Kranes useless renegades were now creatures of extreme skill and focus, each completely twisted to his will. "It was simple really" boasted the man to his new servants. "All it took was removing your souls and replacing them with something more useful from my collection".
The tall fair one whose body had been all sinew and muscle, but who had been so uncoordinated he couldnt stand up without falling over, had been given a soul that could make good use of his bodys natural strengths. A Samurai from the mysterious land of Japa. Samurai were notoriously hard souls to capture and corrupt. They were honorable men devoted to their martial arts and to one master they swore to protect for life. But after a Samurai suffered the humiliation of their master being killed despite their protection they became Ronin, wandering the land searching for death or redemption. Belenus had found this one in Rome stumbling through the countryside close to death. In his lost state of mind his soul had been easy to steal. "You My Dear will be my strong arm as you posses the fighting skills to bring down anyone who gets in my way, absolutely anyone".
Moving along the line to his next creation. Running his hand along the mans jaw like a father might caress his son. "And you my lovely. You will find when you wake that you have a most impressive list of skills and believe me not only will they come in very handy but I guarantee that you will enjoy using them". The short stocky form with the deep chest and the shock of orange hair, who had once been a farmer, Belenus, had filled with the soul of a "healer". Or at least that was what he once had called himself. If the truth be told he was a man who took his delights in the intimate understanding of pleasure and pain. How to manipulate people through them to get exactly what he wanted. Anything to do with seduction or torture were this mans obsession and Belenus was right, in his past life he had very much enjoyed the skills he possessed and had delighted in using them. This souls talents had been those of the rope, whip and shackle, the blind fold, the soft touch and the whispered word. "With you I will find my prize, no one will hide her from me. You will be my eyes and ears, my gatherer of information".
The last of the three stood sleeping soundly. Belenus had almost killed Krane when he had first presented the warlord with this one. Slight of body and slim at the hips, fine boned and with a mouth too sensitive to be a bandit Belenus had almost suggested that Krane put him in a dress and send him to the nearest brothel. That is until he noticed the mans hands. Long finely built fingers but strong. Like a layer of rope had been woven beneath the skin. "Well I might have a soul for you after all". One of the first souls Belenus had ever added to his collection was that of a man who had invented and made things. Not normal things like pots and pans or farm equipment, but weapons of war. From beautiful hand tooled swords and daggers this soul had graduated to siege machines and finally to any special commission that came his way. If there was a creative way to kill someone he would find it. Hed designed spring loaded knives that shot from assassins sleeves and nooses that were 100% reliable and he had no loyalty at all, except to whoever could afford his special services. He had even designed the war machines that had leveled his home town to the ground. He was a thinking man with a thirst for the solution to any problem. The perfect brain to out think Belenus elusive and "oh so clever" quarry.
Belenus had created these three to go on the hunt for him. Hed given them strong bodies to house the souls he had turned to his will and he had filled there brains with the knowledge they needed to understand their target. All he needed to do was wake them and send them on their way. With a click of his fingers and a bright flash Belenus brought his creations out of their slumber. Three pairs of pupil-less eyes snapped open to stare into his. "You know what to do, so go and do it. Krane my lieutenant is waiting for you with horses, weapons and supplies. Remember, when you find the woman youre searching for, contact me first before approaching." Turning his back and waving his hand over his shoulder at them as he stalked from the room his last order rang of the stone walls. "Well what are you waiting for, get moving". The three turned as one and without a word headed out of the stronghold. The hunt for Bride was on.
Continued in Chapter 5 of XENA and the Fairy Folk. And along came the Amazons.!!!!!!
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