I've Seen the Devil's Eyes
~ Part 4 ~
Heroes and Villains
It's true there are things that money can't buy,
Like love from your heart, or a tear from your eye.
But what is it worth my time spent with you,
The value of friendship that is offered to few.
I was there for you when you needed me,
My eyes tell the truth but my past you can't see.
For a friend is not just in a name,
But one who will hold you even in pain
A balance of life and death in my hand,
To let it all go was not part of my plan.
So put down your weapons and listen to me,
Open your soul and set your past free.
The guard, who had been left outside of the door leading down to Gabrielle's cell, was sound asleep. A loud voice and the banging outside on the front doors jerked him awake. Pushing his chair back, he jumped to his feet as his chair landed on its legs with a loud thump. Holding onto his spear, he crossed the room and quickly unlocked the front door.
"Oh my God, I could not stop her. You must do something." Taken back by the overexcited shop owner, the guard stumbled backwards.
"What are you talking about Kummel? I think that Egyptian sun fried your brain?"
"Gabrielle the girl in your cell." Kummel pushed the guard toward the door that led down the stone steps.
"She was talking about escaping I tried to stop her please hurry." The guard fumbled with his keys until he found the one he needed. The moment Kummel heard the bolt slide back, he pushed the heavy door open and then rushed past the guard. Leaning his spear against the wall, the guard reached up and took a torch with him, to light the way.
The guard's heavy boots echoed sadly as he descended into the unknown. The flickering flame of his torch may have pushed away the darkness but the dampness still clung to the walls.
"Hurry, I think she may have done something foolish. Gabrielle," he cried out. "Quickly please." Kummel's desperate words didn't hurry the guard at all.
Raising the torch higher, he looked from the shop owner and then into the dark recesses of Gabrielle's cell.
"Oh my God, no!" Kummel cried out as the light of the torch fell on Gabrielle's body. Her eyes were closed and her head was tilted in an awkward position. The guard's mouth dropped in horror as he saw the bard's lifeless body hanging from a linen rope tied to one of the bars of her window. He was shocked but not overly saddened.
"Why? She's already dead." The guard turned to leave but Kummel quickly jumped in front of him.
"You can not just leave her like that. Have you no compassion? We can not leave her body hanging there." Not minding his small size against the guard, Kummel defiantly blocked his path.
"Yes I can. Now move out of my way." The guard pushed him to the side.
"Then can I I mean would it be okay if I stayed with her?"
"It's your time Kummel, stay as long as you like. I'll even leave you the torch."
"I thank you." He dipped slightly in a bow and then watched the guard climb up the stairs. When the heavy door clicked closed, he turned back and faced the cell.
Gabrielle slowly peered out from behind one eyelid and looked at the shopkeeper.
"Is he gone?" she mouthed.
"Yes." Kummel nodded.
"I didn't think that would work," she said with a touch of sarcasm. Standing up straight, she slackened the rope around her neck, giving her more than enough room to pull it over her head. Stepping off her Sais that had been jammed into the stone wall, she turned around and pried them loose.
"Well that was better than being crucified," she mumbled as she rolled loose the tension in her neck. She slid her weapons into her boots and then walked over to the bars.
"So now what?"
"Now I unlock your cell with the keys," Kummel smiled innocently as he lifted up his arm, and pulled out the keys from his long billowing sleeve.
"How did you? When?" She couldn't hide the disbelief in her voice, astounded at his obvious talent of pick pocketing.
"Not all is as it appears to be." He smiled slyly as he fit the key into the lock.
"You're good, very good," Gabrielle stated with a smile as she walked out of her cell.
Kummel made no attempt to be quiet as he climbed the steps and opened the door. It was easy for Gabrielle to hide behind his long, flowing robe, but it wasn't necessary. The guard had left thinking there was no need to guard a corpse.
Making their way across the open room, Gabrielle pressed herself against the wall as Kummel poked his head outside to see if the coast was clear.
He said nothing, but motioned to Gabrielle to follow him. Though dawn was still a ways off, the bright full moon clearly showed them sneaking through the shadows as they made their way out of town.
"I think you should stay here, Kummel," Gabrielle said once they reached the edge of the mysterious forest.
"No, no. I would not think of staying here. I want to know what has been going on in my town as well."
"Alright," Gabrielle said reluctantly, "but be careful."
"I will be. I have come prepared." He held up a long thin knife for her to see. Gabrielle looked from the weapon to the shopkeeper.
"Do you know how to use that thing?"
"I will fight to protect my home and my family. I will do whatever I have to to keep what I have safe."
"Alright, but stay down, stay quiet and stay behind me." He nodded in agreement to Gabrielle's orders.
It wasn't long after Gabrielle and Kummel entered the forest that the sounds and signs of the morning coming to life. The tweet and twitter of the early birds brought them both little comfort from the stillness around them. The ever-present fog was moving steadily through the trees, like a river of white, constantly rolling in slow motion. The cool air made Gabrielle's skin damp, but she knew it wasn't the cause of her chilly uneasiness.
She and Kummel had stopped several times to get their bearings. Gabrielle had to admit he had come in handy when he had spotted what appeared to be a trail. Following it along, it was hard going, considering the thickness of the forest and the fog that seemed to wipe away all that was evident. They had kept their voices to only what was needed and then only in low whispered tones.
When they stopped for a drink next to a small clear stream, Gabrielle was relieved when the first rays of sunlight broke through the trees. Everything sparkled with a dewy newness as the sun attempted to warm the chill in the air.
Gabrielle bent down to fill her water skin when she heard a distant boom. Startled by the sound, she rose to her feet and scanned their surroundings.
"What in the name of Hades was that?"
"I I could not say."
"Well, it wasn't thunder," she said as she looked up through the trees to the blue sky above.
Gabrielle motioned the shop owner. "What ever it was came from over there. Come on."
With a direction to go in, they picked up the pace to a cautious jog. Uncertain as to what they were heading into, Gabrielle leaned down and pulled her Sais from her boot tops. This time she was ready for any secrets or surprises the forest wanted to throw at her.
It was no mistake, Xena knew without a doubt the voice she had heard was Tiberius's. She looked over at the child's expression and was surprised at her calm outward appearance.
"You knew he was alive, didn't you?" Xena whispered, "and you knew he was here."
She looked at the warrior and nodded.
"Is that why you brought me here, to show me he was not dead?" She shook her head no as she reached into her torn burlap pants to retrieve something. Xena was not surprised to see her produce a nugget of gold in the center of her little hand.
"Gold. Ti faked his death because of the gold?" It was easy to see the confusion on Xena's face when the child defiantly shook her head again.
"Then what?" She looked for an answer the child couldn't give her.
"Oh, I've had enough, I'm getting to the bottom of this." Xena rose to her full height and took several steps in the direction she had heard the voice, before she felt a small hand pull her back.
She looked down in surprise at the child's touch. "I'm sorry I don't understand what you're trying to tell me." The child tugged hard almost toppling the warrior over. Xena had but no choice to squat down next to her.
"What?" She opened her hand, pointed at the gold, and then at the wound on the side of Xena's head then turned her finger towards the voices.
"Ti hit me in the head with the gold?" The child shook her head no.
"How am I supposed to know what you're trying to say when you won't talk?"
The moment she saw the child's expression change, Xena knew she had pushed too hard in a painful direction.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. I just don't understand."
Frustration was evident on both their faces, but the child refused to give up. This time she pointed in the direction of the voices, then at Xena's head and then the gold.
"They hit me in the head with the gold because of the gold." Xena's voice slowed as another piece of the puzzle came to light.
"Is that it? They hit me in the head because of the gold?" She finally nodded her head yes. The child may have relieved some of her frustration, but she had only added to Xena's.
She tugged at the warrior's arm, and this time Xena clearly understood. "Okay, let's go, I'll follow you."
Nothing else was said as the warrior and the child took to the trees. This time they moved slowly, the child in front and Xena right behind her. The warrior's mind was a swirl of activity, as she tried to sort through what she knew, in hopes of finding the truth. Her anger was growing as she thought about how she and Gabrielle had played into their hands. Now out here with this child, Xena was no longer sure whom she could trust.
Watching her back as well as watching her guide, the two of them used extreme caution. Any movement of a branch or any unusual sounds would reveal their presence.
High off the ground now, Xena picked up the smell of fire and knew without thought that it was where they were headed. By the time she saw the fingers of smoke, she knew Tiberius was not alone. The child came to a stop, as did the cover of the thick evergreen foliage.
Xena strained to listen as she could hear at least two other voices, but the dense forest was muffling any chance she had of understanding what was being said, or who was saying it.
Realizing she would have to leave the cover of the trees if she was going to get any closer, Xena motioned to the child. She was going down. When she cleared through the thickness of the evergreen branches, she finally got good view of the lay of the land.
There were three of them, standing in a level area cleared of trees, but there was nothing for her to hide behind to get any closer. The backside of the clearing was a mountain of solid stone, its face had been chipped away leaving an opened and scarred rock face behind. Xena could see the three figures standing around a smoldering fire that had been built against it, hence the reason for the blackened stone. Ducking and dodging branches she finally made out two of three men standing there.
The size of the man standing next to the rock-face gave away his identity; without a doubt it was Tiberius, alive and well tending the fire burning next to the rock face. The second man was vaguely familiar, but she could not place him. But when the third man walked into her line of vision, her anger came to a full boil at the sight of his red hair.
She couldn't make out what he was saying because of the noise around them, but by his gestures, she could tell he was mad about something. He stomped over to Tiberius and kicked him in the butt with his boot. Admetus said something to make the giant shy away causing him to pull his shoulder in tight against his chest.
Xena could see the fear on his face and the grimace of pain as Admetus whacked his back with a stick. Tiberius pulled his arms in to protect himself, and that was when she saw the shackles around the giant's hands and ankles. He was not with them, he was being held by them! A prisoner being forced into doing whatever they needed.
Surveying the entire area, her eyes went from him, to the buckets filled with water, to the blackened rock. Most of the story was there before her; it was what she'd suspected. They were mining for gold.
She had seen enough.
Reaching down, she unclipped her chakram and was getting ready to throw it, when the morning sun reflected off the shiny metal, catching the attention of Tiberius's eyes. Xena saw his reaction when his eyes narrowed and then opened in surprise. His smile of recognition faded quickly as he looked from her to Admetus, who thankfully had his back to him. For whatever unseen reason, Tiberius turned back to shake his head no' at her.
Xena held the grip on her weapon as she questioned Ti for an answer. Discreetly as possible, he signaled her to stop and wait.
Holding still in the cover of the trees, Xena felt the tree move as the young girl came down from her higher perch.
"Stay up there," she ordered in a harsh, loud whisper. "We can't get him out of there if we get spotted."
The child's eyes left Xena's as she searched through the branches to get a look at the only person she had ever trusted. Xena could see the struggle on her face; it was a struggle she clearly understood.
The pull to help her friend was strong, but the child knew the warrior was right. Frustrated, she climbed back to her perch above. With one obstacle out of the way, Xena turned her attention back to the chained blacksmith.
When their eyes met again he quickly motioned with his hands and eyes his intentions. Following his direction Xena looked from the red-hot embers of the fire, to the blackened rock and then to several buckets of water at his feet. It took her a moment to see what the gentle giant's plan was, and she didn't like it one bit. He was going to turn the procedure of mining back on his captors.
Xena shook her head hard at him while mouthing the word, no'. It was a very dangerous plan; she knew it could get him killed and she wasn't willing to risk that. But as she watched him bend down to pick up one of the buckets of water, she knew there was no way of stopping him. It was a risk he was willing to take.
With one eye on Xena and the other on Admetus, Tiberius counted silently.
1 2 3
The Warrior Princess leapt from the last branches just as Tiberius threw a bucket of water on the hot rocks. The explosion was not loud, nor was it big, but the shattering of the rock was enough of a diversion. Xena felt the sharp hot rocks pelting down on her as she landed in the middle of the clearing. Her sword was drawn and ready, but her eyes went to the motionless body of Tiberius lying next to the steaming rock face. Before she could utter a word to him, she saw Admetus coming at her through the settling dust and debris, with his sword drawn.
"You just don't go away do you?" His face had flushed red as he spat out the angry words at her.
"No. Not when there are people like you around. And definitely not when someone tries to convict my friend for a murder that never even happened." She wheeled her sword around her wrist and then lunged at him. Surprisingly quick, he blocked and countered her with his own weapon.
"Maybe you and your girlfriend need to learn to mind your own business." Two quick strikes to the left missed her but it gave her a chance to spin and hit him hard in the back with her foot. She turned around only to face two of them now.
The familiarity of the second man clouded her expression.
"Don't recognize me Xena? Pity. I sure remember the last time I saw you."
"Can't say that I do, hope that doesn't disappoint you too much."
"Well then let me remind you, Oh my God, Tiberius is dead'." The loud response echoed in her memory of that dreadful morning in Brimstone.
"Ha, ha. We had you going didn't we?" Xena's fist flew faster than he could stop laughing. She felt her knuckles split as her fist broke most of his front teeth. Admetus took the opportunity with his sword, but she saw him coming. Lifting her left foot, she drove it into his chest as she cracked the side of the other man's head with her elbow.
"Didn't your mother ever teach you that you shouldn't lie?" Xena hit him in the back of the head with the hilt of her sword. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him drop to his knees and then onto his unconscious bloodied face.
Though still holding his sword, Admetus was coughing as he fought to replace the air she had kicked out of him.
"I don't get it. You did all this for gold? You killed how many people?"
She poked out her sword and he batted it away.
"We didn't kill anyone," Admetus heaved out his words.
"What about the dead boy at the edge of the forest?" She moved in closer. He weakly brought up his sword and she pushed it off with her hand. He seized the opportunity when he saw it and came on strong. His plan worked. Admetus had led her into a false sense of his incapable abilities. With her guard down, he struck out with his fist and caught the edge of her chin.
Her head snapped back with the power of the blow, but to his surprise, she never wavered in her attack.
"There was no dead boy! That was just a story we told everyone. Bruggen's son is alive and well living in Ree, two valleys over."
"What about Gorgon the tracker?" Xena touched her chin where he had hit her and then looked down at the bloody knuckles on her right hand.
"Oh, I'm sure he's around." Admetus ducked as she swung round with her sword in her left hand.
Their conversation died down as the two sparred back and forth. It was easy to see that Xena was more than surprised at his ability with a sword.
"What about your own daughter?" Xena felt her distaste for the man growing.
"I told her to stay home. She didn't listen she listens NOW!" He yelled out the last word and Xena's instincts saved her head. A third man had come up behind her and had swung his sword around where her head had been. She had been toying with Admetus and it had nearly cost her. Tossing her sword back and forth between her hands, she appeared to give the two men her full attention.
What she didn't want them to see was the white-haired child creeping slowly toward her fallen friend.
The Warrior Princess looked from one man to the other. Admetus took the opportunity to introduce the new swordsmen beside him.
"Xena meet Gorgon, tracker, hunter and miner of gold. Gorgon, I'm sure you know Xena."
"Excuse me if I don't offer you my hand," the Warrior Princess said with a smile as she looked over the nicks and notches on his lethal looking blade. It was obvious that he had much more experience in swordplay than the others.
"Hmmm, looks like you have been around a few battlefields, Gorgon." The tracker responded by lunging at her.
Not waiting for an answer, Xena flipped over them both with a loud war cry.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi." Now with their backs to her, she jumped into the air giving them each a shove with her foot. Admetus and Gorgon stumbled forward as they struck out at the empty air where she had just been.
Admetus landed unceremoniously on his fat face, but Gorgon stayed on his feet. Turning around, he smiled at her, "I heard you were good twenty-five years ago." He drew her attention with his sword, then brought his knee up, catching Xena hard in her unprotected stomach.
"I also heard you were dead!" he said as he came down with the backside of his blade, but she was already moving out of his reach. With a quick glance, she saw Admetus pulling himself back on his feet, but she turned her attention back on Gorgon.
"Hmmm, I believe I heard the same about you." Xena couldn't help but offer a smile with her statement.
The two seasoned warriors circled each other. "It was a good ploy, wasn't it? It got me into the woods without anyone being the wiser."
Their blades clanged loudly as they searched for an opening.
"Why didn't you just mine the gold and leave the town out of it?"
"Because, this entire coastline is one, long, and very high cliff, with two exceptions: Brimstone's wharf and the cove we ship our gold from." Gorgon spun his weapon, catching the warrior's blade and pulling her off balance. Xena felt the pain from his elbow as it crashed into her ribs. Quickly transferring her sword to her left hand, she defended his attack and then lunged at him.
"That still doesn't explain it," Xena said between clenched teeth.
"What is the best way to keep everyone away from what we were doing? Scare them out of their wits. They were so afraid, they rarely came out of their houses, never mind coming anywhere near the forest."
Back and forth they battled, until the Warrior Princess caught him with her blade. She followed quickly with a powerful kick to the chest. It gave Xena a chance to glance over at Admetus, who was now standing, watching them from a safe distance.
"Yeah, we had a good thing going here. We had everyone in Brimstone frightened of their own shadows. Our stories just got better and better. Plus, with the added fear everyone had about that little freak of nature running around out here." The words he spat out wiped the smile from her face. She couldn't stop her eyes from drifting over to the child to see if she had heard his hateful words.
Admetus and Gorgon saw it and turned to see where her eyes had gone. Both men were surprised to see the albino child struggling to turn Tiberius over.
Admetus finally saw his chance to get even with the child that had caused him so much trouble. Revenge blurred his sight, and anger darkened his soul, as he went after the silent child.
"That little freak -," Gorgon never had a chance to finish his statement as Xena's knee slammed into his stomach. Reaching to unclip her chakram with her right hand, she came up with the full force of her left elbow into his face. She felt Gorgon's nose collapse against the force of the blow. The tracker screamed out in pain as he dropped to his knees. Xena silenced him with a blow to the back of his head. With Gorgon now out of the picture, she turned her attention to the red headed man walking towards Tiberius and the child.
"Admetus!" Xena's warning echoed off the rock wall. He never even turned around, his full attention was on his intended victims. His eyes grew large as he raised his sword over their heads. The Warrior Princess released her deadly disc just as Admetus started to bring down his weapon.
The child's attention had been on Tiberius, having no idea Admetus was behind her until she heard Xena's warning. In one fluid motion, the small child turned and plunged her knife up and into his chest. His heart stopped the moment her knife split it into two. Admetus's sword fell from his lifeless fingers as he looked from the red-eyed child to her knife buried to the hilt just below his sternum.
"I shouldn't have -," he never got to finish his statement as his robust body fell lifelessly before her, his face frozen in shock.
Xena reached up and caught her returning chakram. She waited for a reaction on the child's face, but all she saw was a girl who had learned to survive on her own at a very young age. Pain and regret lived on her face for one heartbeat, then with a blink of an eye she turned her attention back to Tiberius. Xena knew at that moment, this child had seen death way too many times.
Looking to the two unconscious men sprawled out on the ground, Xena was satisfied they wouldn't bother anyone for a while. Three long strides and she stopped to kneel beside the child. Together, they rolled Tiberius over. The child's concerned face went from Xena and back to Tiberius. The warrior reached for Ti's neck and prayed for a response.
She smiled, "He's alive."
The strain on the girl's face fell away to silent tears as she laid her head on his massive chest.
Xena quickly checked him over. He had several cuts and numerous pieces of shattered rock embedded in his skin. They were serious but not life threatening. The concussion from the explosion had rocked his body, but after checking his eyes, Xena was sure he would awaken soon.
"He'll be alright. He is strong and that helps," Xena assured the young child.
Leaning back on her haunches, her eyes inadvertently drifted over to the child and the scars crisscrossing her body. Most of the marks had stretched and faded, telling Xena it had been some time since she had been abused. But that didn't change what Xena saw or how she felt. It pained her to see someone so young with some many scars. It made her wonder who could have been so cruel as to have made them. Her motherly instincts wanted to reach out and hold the young girl, but Xena was uncertain as to how the child would react, even to the most basic act of affection.
Suddenly the child sat up, her red eyes searching all around them. Something had spooked her. Whatever she heard hadn't reached Xena's ear yet, but it didn't stop the warrior from pulling out her sword as she rose to her feet. This time she put her finger to her lips, but then shook her head in a never-mind' gesture.
How do you shush someone who doesn't make a sound?' she thought as she motioned her to stay with Tiberius. She could tell by her face, the child did not intend to leave his side.
With her sword held high, Xena circled the mining site listening with all of her senses. Looking over the still unconscious men, her eyes scanned the forest for whatever was approaching.
Xena sensed her presence far before she could hear her approach. "Gabrielle?" she said as she lowered her sword.
"Xena." The answer was still off in the distance but it was Gabrielle.
"Over here," Xena hollered as she slid her sword back into its scabbard. It didn't surprise her that the bard had decided to depart her dreary dungeon.
Glancing over her shoulder at the child, Xena was startled to see she had pulled her bloody knife from Admetus's chest and was holding it, ready to defend her unconscious friend.
Realizing the reason for her fear, Xena held her hands up and motioned to the child to lower her weapon. "It's okay. It's my friend Gabrielle the blonde girl you watched in the forest. " She showed no understanding of the warrior's explanation.
"My friend Gabrielle," she said again, motioning the child to put away her knife. Though her young features still showed some confusion, she lowered her weapon and turned her attention back to Tiberius.
Watching the two of them, the reality of what she was seeing dawned on her. Gabrielle had no idea Tiberius was alive, and she didn't know Xena had made contact with the ghostly demon'. Looking over her shoulder at the direction from which Gabrielle's voice had come, she knew she needed to talk to Gabrielle before she saw the three of them.
"You will both be okay, but I need for you to stay here. Understood?" Without waiting for a response, Xena left the two on their own and headed to intercept Gabrielle.
Part way down the hillside, she spotted the bard weaving her way through the trees. She stopped short when she saw Gabrielle was not alone. Her hand went instinctively to her waist, but she relaxed when she saw it was Kummel.
"Xena, you okay?" The bard asked in a concerned tone as she saw the new battle wounds on the warrior's body.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I see the jail couldn't hold you after all?" she said lightly as she continued down to met them.
"I had help."
"I see that." Xena nodded a smile to Kummel.
"I know who is behind this," Gabrielle said as she slowed to a walk.
"It's okay, I figured it out too. Unfortunately, a little too late, Admetus is dead." Kummel stopped abruptly at the warrior's news.
"Admetus is dead, you killed him?" the shop owner asked.
"It doesn't matter now. Right now we need to get a couple of wagons up here, if we can?" Xena said as she surveyed their surroundings.
"Did he say anything?"
"You mean about gold? He didn't have to. I had a good idea what was going on and who was behind it. Kummel, do you think you could go back to town and bring us a wagon?"
"But I Sure, right way."
Xena waited until Kummel was out of earshot before she placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
The bard turned and looked at her.
"Alright, what was that all about?" Gabrielle's tone was quiet but demanding.
"Sometimes it is better to deal with things one step at a time, without the benefit of an audience."
"Why do you always have to be so cryptic?"
Xena looked up into the green canopy and the blue sky behind it, but the words she was searching for werent there. She stepped in front of Gabrielle.
Seeing the look on Xena's face, Gabrielle was uncertain what to think. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"I was just trying to find the right words, but I guess there aren't any. Gabrielle, Tiberius is alive."
If Gabrielle had been bracing herself for any news, this wasn't it. Her mouth opened in stunned surprise as her eyes dropped to look at the ground. She waited a moment and then looked up at Xena.
"But I don't how?"
"I am hoping he can answer some of that. All I really know is Admetus had Tiberius in chains up here, and he was forcing him to mine the hard rock for the gold."
"Where is he? I don't believe this! He's alive. Is he okay?" Gabrielle said as her eyes searched their surroundings.
"He'll be fine. He has a few injuries and a good bump on the head."
"He's hurt?" Gabrielle looked up the hill from where Xena had come, but before she could leave, Xena reached out and pulled her back.
"What tell me the rest later, if he's hurt we need to help him." The bard couldn't believe she was holding her back from helping their friend.
"Just hang on. I thought it might be better if I explained. Gabrielle just wait, Gabrielle will you listen to me he is not alone!" Xena finally said, bring the bard to a stand still.
"What do you mean?" Her brow pulled down in question.
"He has a friend with him. Our little ghost from the forest."
Gabrielle's gaze clouded over, "The demon ghost?"
"She's not a ghost Gabrielle, she's a child."
"A child, a child? But," the bard was at a loss for words.
"A very young and very smart child, but a child."
Xena waited for some of the information to settle in Gabrielle's mind.
"But what is a child doing out here? Are you sure she is by herself?"
"I'd say she has been by herself for awhile, learning to survive alone out here."
"It doesn't make sense Xena, who would leave -"
"Some people fear for different reasons."
The questions coming at Gabrielle's mind were leaving her little room to think about what Xena was saying, but her ears picked up what she needed to know.
"Different, how do you mean different?" She saw the change in Xena's eyes and she realized she knew the answer. "She has red eyes."
"Yes, and the snow white hair. She's what they call an albino, Gabrielle. She is no different than anyone else except in her appearance. I don't know how, but she and Ti are friends. She's the one who brought me here."
Xena dipped her head so she could look Gabrielle straight in the eye.
"Are you okay with this?" Xena watched her expression and the bard offered her a small smile.
Xena raised her eyebrows in question. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm fine," She saw Xena wasn't buying what she was trying to sell. "Alright. I'm not sure, but I think I'm okay with it. Is that better?"
"It's the truth, and that a start." Xena put an arm around her and gave her a quick squeeze.
"What's she like?" Gabrielle asked looking up the hill as if trying to see for herself.
"She is timid and fearful for obvious reasons, but she is still very much a child."
With her arm around the bard's shoulders, the two stood side-by-side looking up the hill.
"So Tiberius knows about her?"
"Yes, and it looks to me like they've been friends for awhile. Come on." The walked in silence but Xena knew Gabrielle's mind was working overtime.
"I can't get over the fact Ti is alive."
They crested the hill and the clearing came into view. The first thing the bard noticed was the fine film of dust still hanging in the air. Then her green eyes went to the two men still sprawled out in the positions Xena had dropped them.
The warrior pointed to one of them, "Gorgon, the missing and presumed dead tracker."
Gabrielle nodded in question to the other man.
"Bruggen, the town crier," Xena said in passing.
Gabrielle stepped out onto the clearing but stopped quickly at the sight of the young girl standing next to Tiberius. The fear was easy to see in her face, but so was the brave determination as she reached for the sword lying next to Admetus lifeless body.
"It's okay it's just us," Xena said with her hand open in surrender.
Gabrielle followed suit but said nothing as she got her first clear-headed view of the little girl she had seen in the haze of her nightmares. With a clear head and a clear line of vision, she realized this child looked nothing like her own.
Xena and Gabrielle waited for her hand to move away from the sword. They in turn dropped their hands, and approached Tiberius and his little protector. Xena knelt down next to Tiberius and check him over again. Gabrielle never took her eyes off the girl and the girl never took her eyes off the bard.
"He's starting to come around," Xena said, not realizing neither of them was listening.
There was an instant connection between the red and green eyes. Not a word had been spoken but the compassion they felt for each other was evident. Kneeling down to be eye to eye, the bard offered her hand in friendship.
"Hi, " she smiled, "my name is Gabrielle." She waited for a response but there wasn't one. Dropping her hand into her lap, she turned and looked at Xena for an answer.
"She doesn't talk," the warrior said quietly into the bard's ear, as she rose to retrieve one of the other buckets of water.
"Because she can't, or because she won't?" Gabrielle asked as she turned back to look at the child. Her heart broke at the sight of the pain and fear behind her red eyes.
"I don't know, but she is pretty good at communicating without words." Xena knelt down beside Tiberius and wrung out the excess water from a rag.
"Do you understand me?" Gabrielle asked as she glanced over at Xena, who was wiping Ti's face.
The child said nothing but followed the bard's eyes. "He'll be okay, won't he Xena?"
"Yeah, he seems to have a pretty thick skull." Xena smiled down at her patient. His eyes were now open, but it was easy to see the fog had yet to clear his mind.
"See, he's going to be okay," the warrior said as she turned back and smiled at the child.
"Do you have a name?" She reached forward to brush the hair out of her eyes, but the child cowered at the gesture. Gabrielle bit down on her lip to keep herself from crying out with sympathy for the broken child.
"It's okay." She pulled her hand back and turned her sorrowful expression on Xena.
"I don't know," Xena mouthed to Gabrielle's unasked question.
The bard looked over at the gentle giant and was relieved to see his eyes looking around,
All eyes turned to the gentle blacksmith as he looked over the caring and concerned smiles.
"My head hurts."
"I'm sure it does," Xena said as she rinsed out the cloth and mopped his face.
"I wouldn't want your head when you wake up tomorrow."
"I really don't want it now," Ti said in a weak voice.
"You are a very lucky man Tiberius. You could've been seriously injured pulling a stunt like that," the warrior-turned-healer said as she examined a few of his wounds more closely. "But luckily, most of your injuries are minor."
"I see you have met my friend here." He smiled at the child as she grinned back at him.
"Yes we have, I think we're all lucky to have a friend like her looking out for us," Gabrielle said as she smiled and winked at the young girl.
The child may have sat next to Tiberius, but her attention seemed to be on Gabrielle, as the bard went about tying up both Gorgon and Bruggen. Her red eyes followed the bard's every movement, but she was quick to look away if Gabrielle glanced in her direction.
Once she was finished with her knots, Gabrielle turned and looked at the rock face that had been shattered away by the mining. After a moment she reached down and picked up one of the larger rocks lying on the ground.
Xena glanced over and saw Gabrielle mutter something to the hunk of rock in her hand.
"What was that?" Xena asked.
The bard looked up but said nothing until she grew closer to them.
"Money or power. You told me once, the evil found in most people is based on either money or power, or sometimes both."
"It's true, most of the time it is," Xena said as she looked over at Gabrielle. Then her eyes fell on the scarred child who was now looking up at the bard.
"But sometimes the worst in us all is brought out by ignorance and fear of what we don't know."
Neither knew how to respond to truth of Xena's statement.
It didn't take much longer for Tiberius to regain full consciousness, but it took awhile for his world to come into focus. Slowly he recognized his surroundings and how he had gotten there. He recalled being brought up the mountain in chains by Gorgon, and being beaten and threatened by Admetus.
"He said if I didn't co-operate something bad was going to happen, something I wouldn't like."
"Like what?" Xena asked as she rinsed out the cloth and handed it to him. Tiberius said nothing as he placed it on his aching head, then looked from her stern gaze to the innocent child sitting next to him.
"Never mind, I got the idea." She looked over his head at Gabrielle; the bard nodded her understanding as well.
"I knew something was going on, but I didn't really know what. Tiberius's is not the smartest blacksmith in town, but I am the only one," he said as he pointed to himself. "I found a piece of melted gold in my fire pit at work, when I was cleaning out my ashes. You need to do that once in while, on account of the ash buildup and all. Well, in the very bottom, I found a nugget of melted gold. It wasn't my gold, so I asked Admetus what I should do. Guess I asked the wrong person."
Gabrielle and Xena couldn't help but smile at the return of the Tiberius they had come to know and think of so fondly.
"Well, I knew my little pal here paid for the things she took with gold, but there was no way she was using my fire pit, she would've told me. Then there was that story about Bruggen's son. I knew that was a lie, and lying is wrong."
The child nodded her head at Gabrielle as if to solidify his statement.
"She knows everything in this forest, but she never saw no dead bodies. But I didn't know who to tell. Everyone was getting so upset, I was afraid to tell them what I knew. I was afraid they might hurt her. They told me, they would hurt her bad, if I tried to escape. So I did what they asked me to do."
"You are alive and well. That's the most important thing." Xena said in reassurance. With a smile she looked from Tiberius to the child, but it faded when she saw the troubled look on Gabrielle's face. The bard must have felt the attention, because when she looked up, their eyes locked and her face brightened. The smile on her face appeared genuine, but the sudden change in disposition didn't fool Xena.
Looking to change the subject, the warrior turned back to the blacksmith, "When did you meet your little friend here?"
Tiberius's smile spread from cheek to cheek as he reached out and tousled the child's white hair. "A while back now. I didn't lie to either of you though. I just kept my answers to myself. I really didn't know what was going on in the beginning when some of my things started disappearing. And then I found some footprints, itty bitty footprints." He held up his hands to indicating a small measurement.
"Admetus's stories didn't scare me none, so I kept going into the forest until I saw her collecting berries one day. It took a long time for her to trust me though. She is kind of skittish."
"Yeah, we noticed," said Gabrielle as she looked at the little girl. Her smile wavered under all the attention and she wiggled in closer to Tiberius.
"Any idea where she comes from?"
"Nope," Tiberius said as he shook his head to Xena's question.
Gabrielle smiled at her, "Has she ever spoken?"
"No." He said solemnly, "I don't think she can."
Xena looked from his grim face to that of the child's. "Why not?"
"Because someone cut off the tip of her tongue."
The sound of wagons being pulled up the mountain broke the sober silence that had fallen on the foursome. The instant the child heard the clanging of the harness she was on her feet ready to flee. Try as they might they couldn't keep her from returning to the safety of her forest. She gave Tiberius a hug, then turned to look at Xena and Gabrielle. They could see her inner struggle because part of her wanted very much to hug both of them, but her fear drove her back. With a longing look at her injured friend, she waved goodbye and then disappeared into the forest.
Thankfully, Kummel had enough thought to send two wagons. The first one was used to transport Bruggen and Gorgon to the magistrate and Admetus to the undertaker. The other was used for Tiberius. When the wagons pulled into view, the drivers were shocked to see their blacksmith was alive, and their town leader dead. The smiles on their faces told the warrior and bard what they already knew. There wouldn't be a lot of tears shed for the death of the spiteful red-haired leader, but there would probably be a party for the return of their blacksmith.
Nothing was said about the gold, and all the evidence had been removed before they arrived. The three had decided the gold had caused enough problems for Brimstone already and it was better left where it was.
It took several long and bumpy hours before they saw the buildings of Brimstone. When the squeaky wagon rolled into town with the warrior and bard walking behind it, the entire town was there in shocked surprise. Kummel had told everyone Xena and Gabrielle had killed Admetus, but no one knew they would be returning their favorite son. Shouts of celebration mixed with tears of joy as the group rumbled towards Tiberius's house. An elated Sabbeen eagerly climbed aboard the wagon and hugged the bashful giant. To her it was like her own son had returned, even though she and Belus had never had children. The blacksmith's face beamed as friend after friend conveyed their relief and happiness at his return. Their thanks and gratitude overflowed to the warrior and the bard. The warm welcome easily made up for all the town's earlier hostility.
Though tired and sore, Tiberius climbed from the wagon under his own power. He stood for a moment, humbled under all the attention. Looking from his old friends to his new ones, he spoke the only words he could think of.
A round of cheerful applause turned his weary face red, but his delightful smile remained. There was nothing else he could say, so with the help of Xena and Gabrielle on either side, he turned and headed in the direction of to his home. By the time he made it to the front of his home, most of the crowd had dispersed, with the exception of Sabbeen.
"Tiberius, I can't put into words how happy I am that you are back with us." Xena could see how pale he had become, but he still had a smile for the woman who was like a mother to him.
"I'm sorry you had to worry, Mother Been. I didn't mean to make everyone so upset." The gentle giant leaned down and gathered the small woman in his arms. They silently held each other, until Sabbeen pulled away.
"You are such a sweet boy. It is not your fault, Ti. Admetus was not a very nice man. We are all just so happy that you are alive and back with us." She examined the marks on his wrists where the shackles had cut into his skin. "We should've done something about him a long time ago. He was an evil man. Look what he did to my boy." She reached up, stretching to touch the side of his face. Her experienced eyes looked over all the small cuts and bruises on the side on his face.
"He will be fine, Sabbeen. Xena is a very talented healer. All his cuts will heal with time," Gabrielle said as she looked from the elderly tavern owner to the Warrior Princess.
"I will be good as new in no time, Mother Been."
"I'm sure you will," Sabbeen said as she patted him gently on the forearm.
"But he does need his rest," Xena said politely.
Everyone said their good-byes as the warrior-turned-healer guided the blacksmith to his door.
They were unsure of how they would react to returning to where their nightmares had started. Each stood alone in their own thoughts of how they had left here. Gabrielle had left with her mind and emotions on the verge of collapse. Tiberius had left in shackles and chains, fearing for his life and that of his friends. All Xena could recall was staggering out the door covered in her own blood.
No matter how they had tried to prepare themselves, there was no way they were ready for what lay in front of them. A wave of fragrance hit them as their eyes scanned over what appeared to be hundreds of flowers, filling Tiberius's home. A fire was already going in his fireplace and there in the middle of the kitchen table was a bucket of fresh picked berries.
Tiberius stepped through and looked around, but he had yet to speak. Xena took a much-needed breath before she looked to her pale companion.
"You okay?" she asked quietly.
"I don't think I can go in there." Her green eyes never left the interior of the blacksmith's home.
"One step at a time, Gabrielle."
Xena knew she had heard the words, but she chose not to respond. The warrior watched and waited, and then finally, Gabrielle took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.
The bard stopped in front of the flowers and looked over the show of support from his fellow villagers.
"If the town didn't know we were coming back with Ti, how did they know to do this?" Gabrielle leaned down, putting her nose into the center of a wildflower.
"This isn't from the town," Ti said as sat down on his bed. "This is from the little girl. See." He lifted his hand and pointed at the woven basket.
"That's one of hers. She makes them, and then she fills them with all kinds of stuff and then leaves them for me, when I'm not here."
"You are a very special man, Tiberius," Gabrielle said as she picked up the crafted basket.
"She's a very special child."
Xena went to work doctoring and stitching Tiberius's many cuts and wounds. Gabrielle made herself busy dishing them out an early dinner from the food the villagers had brought over. Though Tiberius had remained quiet, his many looks out of the window told Xena where his mind was.
"She'll be alright."
"Oh, I don't doubt that Xena. I was just waiting for the sun to go down. She won't come back here in the daylight."
"Maybe with Admetus gone, she will?" Gabrielle said from the kitchen.
"I don't think so, people in general scare her. Not just Admetus."
"I don't blame her," Xena said as she went to the window and looked out into the distant forest. "No one deserves what the child has obviously gone through. And that is only the scars we can see, never mind the ones we can't. You are a good man Tiberius, a good man and a good friend."
"I know what it is like to be different, on account of my size and all. But no one would have dared to do to me what they have done to her." It was the first time either of them had heard any anger or animosity in his normally gentle voice.
"When Admetus threatened to hurt her, well I got mad, but I didn't know what to do."
"You did the right thing Ti. No one could've done better."
"I never wanted to hurt anyone, you know, but if I saw him hurt just one hair on her little head. Well I would've hurt him real bad. My Daddy told me violence was never the answer, but I know now, sometimes you do what you have to do."
Xena was watching Gabrielle set the table and she saw the effects Ti's words had on her face. She had paused with the plates in her hand, but she quickly recovered and resumed what she was doing. The warrior knew Gabrielle's most recent battle was over, but her inner war was not. That fight was still raging on.
They ate their meals in relative quiet, Xena and Gabrielle ate at the table, but Xena had insisted that Ti stay in his bed. The warrior kept a watchful eye on her patient and on her companion. She knew it would take him a few days to recover from his physical injuries. But as she watched Gabrielle from the corner of her eye, she knew it was going to take her a lot longer.
After dinner was finished and the dishes cleaned and put away, Gabrielle quietly excused herself, stating she was going to feed and water the horses. Neither said a word until the backdoor closed behind her.
"Is Gabrielle okay? She doesn't seem to be herself," Tiberius asked quietly.
"I've noticed that too," said Xena with pursed lips.
"Is it something I did?"
"No, it is nothing you did. It's just something that needs to be dealt with." The pain in her voice was not lost on him.
"I'll be okay, but I think you are needed somewhere else for the moment." He nodded towards the door.
"I think you may be right, Ti. Promise me you'll stay in that bed," she stated as she crossed the room.
"Promise," he said as he drew a cross over his heart.
As she stepped out the back door into the last dying light of the day, the warrior felt a cool ocean breeze against her bare shoulders. The change of the seasons was coming, and both she and Gabrielle were looking forward to the warm days of summer. Making her way down to the barn, she tried to think of what she could say to ease the bard's thoughts.
Approaching the barn, she heard Gabrielle's voice as she reached for the handle of the door. Her hand stopped in mid air when she clearly heard what the bard was saying.
"I've seen the end results, Argo. I know I can't keep doing this. I'm torn between what I want to do and what I have to do."
When Gabrielle stopped talking, Xena's ears roared with silence. The warrior struggled with her conscience as to whether she should enter the barn or not. Before she had a chance to decide, she heard the bard's words again.
"Time after time we've stood together, side by side against everything, but we're not together now, are we, girl? Not when it comes to this. We've never been farther apart. I have tried to tell her, I have tried to show her. But nothing has ever changed and I don't think it will unless I make the decision myself. It's not a decision I've taken lightly it's not even a decision. It's who I am now and I think the time has come for me to stand up to her, that I love -"
Argo's snort covered Gabrielle's words.
"and I will keep fighting to prove that until the day I stop breathing. I can't pretend anymore, Argo, things have changed, I've changed but she doesn't see it."
The rattle of Argo's halter muffled any last words Gabrielle said, but it didn't matter. Xena felt a pain in her chest but it was more than the lack of air in her lungs. It was her heart. She couldn't believe what she was hearing as she dropped her hand to her side. Had she really pushed Gabrielle that far? Part of her wanted to turn and go, to pretend she had not overheard, but she knew it was too late. The pain of her words told Xena what she already knew, their battles had marked Gabrielle's soul one too many times.
The bard had become a warrior but not by choice. She had given birth to a child, but not by choice. She had been to hell and back, but not by choice. She had been frozen in time for twenty-five years, losing most of her friends and family, and not by choice. It was the one thing she had never really given her a choice.
The Warrior Princess realized now, she had to give Gabrielle the room to make her decision based on her own judgments. She closed her eyes and hoped it was a choice she could live with.
Xena reached for the handle once again, but this time she opened the door. Gabrielle looked up at her in surprise. Neither said anything until Xena stood in front of Argo's stall.
"Hi, I didn't mean to startle you," Xena said as she watched the bard return to brushing the palomino.
"She really likes you."
"More than her mother ever did."
"Argo liked you."
"No Xena, Argo tolerated me and we both know it."
Their polite banter died out. Neither of them knew where to start with what was on their minds.
When Gabrielle finished with Argo, Xena moved to the side and opened the stall door for her. The bard walked through it and carried on to place the brush on an adjacent shelf. She turned around just as Xena finished latching the stall door. They stopped at an arm's length apart, their eyes locked, almost forcing them to study the other.
"Xena, we need to talk." "Gabrielle, this ends here." Both blurted out at the same time, causing a smile of unfamiliar embarrassment.
The Warrior Princess held out her hand in a gesture for the bard to start.
"Xena, when I first met you. I was young and naïve. But now I know what I want to do and who I want to do it with." Gabrielle looked away, and then turned to start pacing. She had to steady her mind and calm her racing heart.
"I know that Gabrielle, but you were never given a choice to see anything different."
She turned on her heels and looked at the Warrior Princess. "This isn't about choice, this is about how things are. I didn't choose this. With us it just happened."
"That's part of the problem though." She paused, needing one last breath before she could say it. "It just happens, but not anymore Gabrielle, this has to end."
"To end, that's it? Is that what you want? Just to walk away." Gabrielle felt her inside churn with the unthinkable thought.
"I didn't think so before. I mean the first time I thought about it was, when I found out I was pregnant with Eve."
"I love Eve."
"I know you do Gabrielle, but she should have had normal parents."
"You don't think we could have made good parents?"
"She needed to be raised in a real family atmosphere. We don't have that, Gabrielle."
To Gabrielle, it felt like her world was coming apart. All she had wanted to tell Xena was going out the door. She had no idea what she would do without Xena by her side.
"But I thought you really loved -" she couldn't finish the statement any more than she could finish the thought.
"I love having you beside me, Gabrielle, kicking ass and taking names. But we knew it would have to end sooner or later. There is no place where we can go and live out our lives together." Xena knew it was for the best, it would be hard in the beginning, but she knew they had to do it.
Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief. It had taken her over a year to get up enough nerve to tell Xena just how she really felt. In her heart, she had always thought of them as soul mates, but neither had ever physically acted on it. There had been many hugs, many moments and even a kiss or two, but she had always thought they would have time for the rest of it later. Now here she stood, staring at the woman who meant the world to her, listening as she told her their lives as they knew it were coming to an end.
"So this is what you want? After all we have been through, you just want to walk away from it all."
"Yes it is. But you need to ask yourself, what do you want to do, Gabrielle? Is this really what you want?" Xena waited for an answer. After everything they had been through she thought Gabrielle would have been more than happy to put away their weapons. To walk away from all the fighting and at least try to live the rest of their lives together, in one place. No more traveling, no more battles, just the two of them building a home together, and enjoying the years they had left as a couple.
"What does it matter? It sounds to me like you've already made up your mind." Her tone was angry, and that wasn't what Xena had been expecting.
"I thought it was something we both wanted. I guess I was wrong."
"You were not wrong, Xena, just very mistaken. I'm no longer young and naïve. I have learned a few things along the way, and one of those things is sometimes you have to walk away from what you love in order to survive."
"Gabrielle, all I want is for us to walk away from this all together."
The desperation of the situation was growing louder with their emotions feeding the fire.
"I didn't think you would walk away from anything, Xena."
"I am not walking away! I was thinking of starting a new life while we can!"
"You want a new life! Fine, I do too!"
"You want to keep fighting!" Xena felt her face turning red with her anger.
"Yes, if it's worth fighting for! Isn't that what you've taught me all these years?"
They stood farther apart now than they ever had, both feeling lost in their own thoughts of what they wanted, versus what they thought they could live with.
In Gabrielle's mind, she was willing to fight to stay with the woman she loved, but all the warrior saw was a bard that wanted to keep fighting until her dying breath.
"I also taught you that sometimes it is better just to walk away. Every battle I lose more and more of you, don't you see that? You are changing, Gabrielle."
"That's right, Xena, and I am no longer who I was, but you can't see past that. I know what I want, and it's going to take more than this to make me want to walk away from it." Gabrielle threw up her hands, and with a parting glare, left the barn. She couldn't believe only moments ago she was going to tell Xena that her love for her had grown beyond friendship, but now she thought they were going to have to battle just to keep their world together.
Xena couldn't believe how wrong she had been about Gabrielle's thirst for battle. Gone was the girl from Poteidaia, in her place was a bard with the skills of a warrior, who had no desire to put down her weapons.
She walked over to Argo and ran her hand over the mare's forehead.
"I'm tired Argo, I'm tired and I want to go home." The golden palomino nodded her head into the warrior's hand.
"My mother told me a long time ago, there is no such thing as an old warrior. I know now what she was trying to saying." Xena left the barn quietly with an ever-growing pain in her heart and a hard decision on her mind.
Gabrielle came back into the house a while later. Xena smiled at her, showing no indication of their earlier heated argument. The bard crossed the room, and then stopped next to the chair Xena was sitting in. She looked over at Tiberius's sleeping form then whispered into Xena's ear.
"How is he?"
The warrior pushed away the thoughts that came with the gentle breath on her ear. The desire that swarmed up inside her only reminded her more of her want.
"He should be fine once we get him to morning," Xena said, then nodded to the long white candle burning on the fireplace mantle as she crossed over to check on him. "I have to wake him up with each mark on the candle."
"Why is that?" Gabrielle asked as she looked at the wax rolling down the candle.
"If he sleeps too long he might not wake up." The medical image sent a chill down Gabrielle's spine.
Once she was sure Tiberius was fine, Xena walked back to stand in front of the fire. Both of them remained silent as they stood next to each other. The tension between them only grew as Gabrielle reached out and warmed her hands against the flames. Xena looked down and brushed a miniscule crumb off her chest, then searched the floor and walls for a topic of conversation.
"Hungry?" Xena asked without making eye contact.
"Any sign of our little girl?" Xena asked as she took a seat in the chair next to the fireplace.
"No," Gabrielle muttered as she too took a seat.
Xena's only response was to nod.
They sat down in two different chairs. Though both were in front of the fireplace, they were on opposite sides and very far apart. The bard leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, her eyes locked in a glassy stare at the flames. Neither spoke a word, but the tension in the room was making it difficult for both of them to breathe.
It had been a long time since Gabrielle had felt the need to fill their silence with endless chatter, but after all that had been said, they both seemed to be on edge. Gabrielle had decide the best way to deal with this was to just ignore the problem for now.
"It's sure is a nice town they have here."
"Yes it is." Xena answered almost too quickly.
Again the room filled with a stilled silence, the only interruption was Tiberius's rhythmic snoring. Gabrielle brought her arms in and crossed them around her waist, then started rocking back and forth.
"Xena, I about what you said," she glanced over at Xena who had turned in heartbreaking anticipation of the bard's question. "Xena I just don't understand how after all -" Gabrielle swallowed hard and turned back to the fire. "I just want to know -"
Leaning over as if being closer would help her, Xena's impatience won out. "Wanted what?"
She lost her courage. "Can you explain to me again how they got the gold out of the mountain?" Gabrielle said quickly between the pop and sizzle of the fire.
It wasn't the life changing' question she had been bracing herself for. Sitting back in her chair, Xena took a relaxing breath before she spoke.
"Well, unlike gold you find in a stream or creek, this was a vein of gold found in the hard rock of a mountain. One of the ways to get it out is to heat up the rock by building a hot fire against it. When the rock is the hottest, you throw some water on it and bang. The rock shatters into thousands of pieces."
The bard looked over at her and Xena was surprised to see real interest in her face.
"But the gold is still in the rock?"
"Yes it is. But you take those smaller pieces and you melt them in a fire pit. The rock turns into slag, which is what is left over after the gold has melted away. That is why Tiberius's fire pit was warm the other morning. Later when I looked through the ash and soot I found a few more pieces of melted gold, just like what I found in his kitchen." She motioned towards Tiberius.
"Our little forest friend showed me the pile of slag someone had been dumping. Then I followed her to where they had Ti and well, you know the rest."
Gabrielle looked out the window into the dark of the nighttime forest. "I'm surprised she hasn't shown up."
"Yeah me too. If she doesn't show up by morning, I'll go and see if I can find her." She watched the flames of the fire as it flickered on Gabrielle's hair. The orange glow highlighted the bard's features as it warmed her aching heart.
"I hope nothing has happened to her."
"I think she's fine, she moved through that forest like a fish through water."
Xena pulled her eyes away from Gabrielle's face and looked over at her patient. It was time to wake him again. She rose from her chair, exchanged a new candle for the old one, and then walked over to him.
"Tiberius," she gently shook him, "Tiberius."
It took a moment before the gentle giant muttered under his breath, and a look of relief passed over both of them.
"Yeah." He opened his eyes but pulled them into a squint against the pain. "Wow, my head hurts."
Bending over him, Xena looked into his eyes. "You gave me a scare there," she said with a smile.
"Didn't mean to."
"I know, go back to sleep, my friend." She pulled the covers over his massive chest and left him to sleep.
Walking over to the kitchen, she broke off a bunch of grapes and then made her way to the window. She couldn't make out anything in the darkness as she slowly finished off her fruit. Walking back, she threw on a couple more pieces of firewood onto the fire before she sat down in her chair.
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle; she was not surprised to see she too had fallen asleep. Searching the blacksmith's home, Xena found another blanket, which she gently laid over the bard's small frame.
"Peaceful dreams, Gabrielle," she said softly before she laid a soft kiss on the top of her head.
She went back to her chair and back to her thoughts. Though tired herself, she spent the rest of the evening with one eye on her patient and one eye on her love.
It was times like these when she fought her desires the hardest. It was easy to forget your own problems when you are busy fighting for your life and the survival of others. Too many times their own happiness had been destroyed by their need to help those in trouble. But when their day came to an end, when their fight was over, when they found those rare times to be alone with each other, that was the hardest fight she knew. The battle to keep her desire in check had been a struggle, but on a few occasions she had crossed over that line, and though the results had not negative, they hadn't been overly accepted either.
Xena sighed deeply as she looked over at Gabrielle. From the honey white color of her hair, to the crinkle of her nose when she smiled, there wasn't a thing about her Xena didn't love, with one exception. What Xena didn't like was how the years of fighting by her side had destroyed her innocence.
The warrior in her would always love Gabrielle, no matter if it were a sword, a staff or a quill that was in her hand. Xena, more than anyone, knew how hard it was to take the war out of a warrior, but now she wonder how hard it was going to be to take the battle out of the bard.
When the sun finally rose over Brimstone, the Warrior Princess had made her decision. One more fight and then it would be over.
Tiberius's appetite woke him up. When he opened his eyes and started to stretch, his moans woke up Gabrielle.
The bard sat up and looked from Xena's empty chair to the grimacing face of the blacksmith. Throwing back the blanket, which she assumed Xena had supplied her with sometime in the night, she made her way quickly to his side. Her mind was racing as to where Xena had gone, but she turned her attention to Tiberius.
"Oh I hurt," he said as he gingerly moved his body around. "I feel like I've been hit by a runaway wagon."
"Worse, you were hit by a mountain," Gabrielle said as she looked to Xena's empty chair again.
Tiberius's eyes opened wide as he searched his surrounding.
"It's okay Ti, he's dead. He won't be bothering anyone anymore."
"Xena?" he asked as he pulled himself up and leaned back against the wall.
"She's fine, I don't know where she is, but I know she is fine," Gabrielle answered as she looked around the house.
"And my little girl?"
"She is fine too, but we haven't seen her since we left the forest."
"That is not unusual."
"How about some breakfast?" Gabrielle asked as she left his side and walked into the kitchen. "There is a ton of food here to eat."
As she walked past the table, she spotted a note in Xena's handwriting.
I didn't want to wake either of you.
Thought you both could use the sleep.
Gone to see where our little friend has gone.
Keep an eye on Ti. Don't let him do too much.
Gabrielle released the breath she didn't know she was holding. She didn't want to think Xena had left without even a goodbye. She read over the note one more time before she turned back to Tiberius.
"Xena has gone to find our little friend, so I guess that leaves you and me."
"I couldn't ask for better company." His smile seemed big and genuine.
Xena was well into the forest before she called on one of the few Gods left, but more importantly, the only one she thought she could trust.
When the smoke cleared, a disheveled looking Aphrodite was quickly pulling on her pink robe.
"Like way too early to be calling on company, Xena. I was right in the middle of something."
"Sorry, but I don't have a lot of time and I've a lot to do."
"Hey, where is my favorite little buddy?" she asked once she got herself put together.
"She's looking after a sick friend. Now, I need a favor. Well, a couple actually."
"Oh, another kick-butt adventure, how exciting. You guys have way too much fun for mortals."
"This isn't an adventure, Aphrodite, and it certainly is not fun," Xena said sternly.
"Alright, alright, don't get your leathers in a bind, warrior babe. What do you need?" She looked at Xena with the most serious face she had, which for Aphrodite was not saying much.
Xena laid out part of her plan to the scantily clad Goddess of Love. She listened closely for a few minutes before she cut in.
"Wow, I don't mean to burst your bubble here sister, but this is not my cup of tea. Why don't you just ask Ares, this is more his his style."
"Because, your brother is half of the problem."
"Oh, well still. I mean like this is - " was all she could answer as she chewed nervously on her nail.
The warrior waited and watched as the Goddess of Love debated heavily with herself.
"Well?" Xena questioned with her hands on her hips.
"You are way too tense, I'm thinking well spells are not my strong suit, you should know that," she said.
"Okay, then what about the other stuff? Can you get what I need and then deliver the rest?"
"What do I look like, my wing-heeled step-brother? I mean really, I had other plans you know."
Xena crossed her arms and sternly looked at her.
"Oh don't look at me like that," she said, shaking her curly head.
"You are the Goddess of Love are you not?"
"Well like duh, that's what it says on my headboard."
"Then?" Xena lifted one of her eyebrows in question.
"But I was supposed to be judging Mr. Nude Known World and then what? I have schedules and appointments too you know." Aphrodite said as she threw her hands up in surrender. "Oh all right, I'll get what you need."
"And I will see about a spell."
"Thank you," Xena said tipping her head to the Goddess.
"Whatever. I don't know how she puts up with you. You're so " Xena lifted both eyebrows and waited for her to finish.
Xena lifted her hand in an attempt to hide her smile. Aphrodite waved her off with a backhand and a wink.
"I'll see what I can find. Later." And with a puff of smoke, she was gone.
Xena headed off deeper into the forest knowing now there was no going back if this plan was to work.
With a destination in mind, she knew the child would find her before she had a chance to find the child. As the ground below her rose higher, and the trees grew thicker, she knew she was getting close. Even though the sun was up, the dense greenery of the forest swallowed the light and kept the sun's warmth at bay.
The smell of the sea hit her first as she reached the peak of the mountain; the further downhill she traveled the lighter and warmer it became. When she broke from the forest, she stopped and marveled at the beauty of the peaceful valley below her.
Looking over to the area where she had seen the deer and the child for the first time, it all seemed so long ago, now. Making her way through the long grass, she descended the slope, crossing over the small stream and climbed up the other side. She stood under an elm tree and looked down at the breathtaking view of the ocean below her. Turning around she looked over the valley, her eyes following the stream to where a series of small waterfalls broken from the forest. If her hunch were right, it wouldn't take long.
She sat down with her back to the elm tree mulling over the argument from last night and the decision she had made since. If Aphrodite could get her what she needed, Xena hoped it might sway Gabrielle's decision.
Seeing the movement out of the corner of her eyes, the Warrior Princess turned and watched the child scamper down the waterfalls. It amazed her to see someone so small move so fast and nimbly as she jumped the final distance to the ground. Xena lifted her hand and waved a greeting, the child waved back as she made her way through the grass.
"I figured you'd find me." The child smiled broadly as she sat down crossed legged next to the warrior.
"Nice view, isn't it?" Xena waved her hand over the ocean and the child's tight curls shook as she nodded in agreement.
"I'm guessing you have a place around here?"
Tilting her head, the child only offered Xena a smile.
"Okay, fair enough. You either have no idea what I'm saying, or you have no intention of telling me any of your secrets."
Xena watched her as she attempted to communicate something, but she couldn't make out what the child was asking. Seeing the confusion on the warrior's face, she tried a different approach. Taking her slingshot from her waist, she pointed at it.
"Yes, your slingshot ... I know! Tiberius made oh you want to know how Ti's doing?"
She nodded very enthusiastically at the mention of the blacksmith's name.
"He's fine, he will be sore for a few days but that should be it." Xena held up her hand and showed the child a thumb's up. The tension instantly left the child's face.
"That's part of the reason I'm here. We all kind of expected you to show up at Ti's house last night or this morning. When you didn't I thought maybe I should come and find you."
She smiled but offered no communicate.
Realizing the futility of the situation, Xena turned her attention back on the ocean. Unhurried and unrushed, they sat side-by-side looking out at the breathtaking view below them.
As time wore on, Xena couldn't help but notice the child's attempt to copy her every move. If she moved her foot, the child's foot would follow. If she reached out and plucked a blade of grass to chew on, the child would quickly mimic her actions. It amused the Warrior Princess to see the purest form of flattery. She turned her head and looked down at the child with a smile that was immediately returned. Xena's thoughts when back to another time, when someone else was trying to copy everything she did.
The child watched for a moment, her keen eyes noticing the melancholy look on the warrior face. Cautiously she reached over and tapped Xena on the shoulder. The despondent warrior turned and watched as the child pointed at her and then at the ground.
"Me here, you want me to stay here?"
The child tilted her head in a quizzical question.
She pointed at the ground again and then she shrugged her small shoulders.
"Here? Oh, why am I here?"
"Good question from one who doesn't talk. Where do I start? How do I start? It is a rather long and complicated story and I not sure you would understand," Xena paused with a chuckle before she carried on. "I'm not even sure if you understand what I'm saying, but I guess it wouldn't hurt. I am having a problem with my friend, Gabrielle," The child tilted her head in recognition of the bard's name, but Xena had turned her attention back to the ocean.
"I'm a warrior and I know that is no excuse, but that is who I am, but it is not who Gabrielle is or should be. See me being a warrior, has rubbed off on her, and it changed her. Some for the good but some for the bad as well. What happened at Tiberius' I should have seen it coming. When you constantly feed the fire of anger and hatred inside of you that's not a good thing. In the past few months, I have seen a darkness inside of her and I've seen her do things I not thought she would do." The child watched as Xena's blue eyes started to shimmer.
"We have been so close, but we have never been so far apart I can't stand to watch it anymore. There have been so many times that we have come so close to losing each other those battles I know how to fight and I know how to win. But what happened at that morning I don't know how to fight that and I would rather lay down my weapon and go peacefully, than to fight that battle again it has made me look at things differently now. I don't want to lose her especially not like that. Her thirst for war is growing like mine was, not anymore. Thing are different, they have to be and now is time for the Warrior Princess to go away." Xena grew silent, for a moment all they could hear was the waves crashing on the cliff walls below.
"I only know one way to stop. And then maybe just maybe Gabrielle will learn to take the time to smell the flowers again. I see all the beautiful things around us. I would love to stay here and build a home on this hill, and spend my time overlooking the ocean." Xena stopped to catch her breath. After a long moment she turned to the child, who shrugged her shoulders again.
"Why not? I have tried it before a few times, and it didn't work but now I don't know. There comes a point were you have to hang on to what you have, or you might lose it."
Xena became quiet, her eyes were on the ocean. "I don't want to lose my friend." Xena's mind was swirling with thoughts as her heart ached for her bard. She felt the child moving closer and when their bodies touched, she turned and looked down at her.
"You've had a rough life haven't you little one?" The child looked up at her but only smiled. Seeing Xena return the smile, she reached for her prized possession and held it up for Xena to see.
"Yes, you do have a nice slingshot," Xena wasn't sure if the child had any idea what she was saying, but the warrior grew silent as her eyes drifted back over the distant ocean.
"I like it here, I like the area and I like the people." Xena lifted her arm and slowly brought it around to the child's shoulder. When her hand touched her scarred skin, the child tensed, but a moment later she relaxed into Xena's side.
"Do you even remember where you came from, or where your home was?" Xena motioned out towards the ocean and the child quickly copied her, lifting her hand and swept it across the ocean, the forest and then the sky.
"This is your home? A child of the world, are you? Or maybe just a final gift from the Gods." Xena said with a smile as she gave her a squeeze.
"That's okay by me, I've kind of lived that life too. But at least I have a name, though Warrior Princess is definitely better than the Destroyer of Nations."
"Do you have a name?"
The child didn't respond to her question.
"Everyone has to have a name? What did your mother call you? You did have a mother?" Xena watched the response on her young face and knew there was no answer.
"Well, what should we call you?"
She shrugged off the question.
"The person we need to talk to is Gabrielle. She is good with names and stuff like that." Xena saw an instant reaction to the bard's name.
"You like Gabrielle, don't you?"
The smile on her face said it all.
"But some people scare you, don't they? Is that why you don't like coming into town, because the people scare you." She felt the child tense as the smile slid from her face.
"It's okay. No one is going to hurt you anymore, I promise." The child shook her head as she pulled out from under the warrior's protective arm.
Drawing her knees up to her chest, the small girl turned into a tight ball before she shook her head again.
"The bad men are gone. The man that hurt Tiberius is gone."
She lifted her head and looked Xena in the eye. The warrior saw the fear that still had a strong grip on the child.
"The man that hurt us is dead."
Pointing her small shaking hand at Xena and then at her head, the warrior slowly responded. "Admetus, the man that hurt my head is dead. You killed him yesterday with your knife." A shadow of doubt crossed over Xena's heart as the child shook her head very slowly.
"It was Admetus, who hit me over the head, was it not?"
The doubt in her voice was nowhere near the fear in her heart as she watched the child's head shake no.
"So, that's what it feels like to have a mother," Tiberius said as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Gabrielle couldn't hide the smile as she watched this giant of a man pout.
"Xena said you should take it easy for a bit."
"Do you always do as Xena says?" Ti asked in a dare-me-to mood.
The comment hit an unexposed nerve and she paused before she spoke, "No, not all the time."
"Come on, we'll just go down to the tavern."
"Ti, I don't drink," she said as she stubbornly crossed her own arms. She really didn't feel like going out.
"Neither do I, but Mother Been makes the best little tarts with these red berries inside, and a cold glass of milk. It's really yummy." He saw the temptation go across her face.
"You need to stay here, quietly tucked into bed."
"Yummy tarts, cold milk come on Gabrielle. I'll buy."
She tapped her fingers on her arm, but the loud growl out of her belly gave her away.
"Alright, but only one." He clapped his hands together in delight.
"Oh come on, we won't be gone long," he said as he stood at the door.
"We really shouldn't be doing this you know, but alright. Let's go."
The friendly blacksmith was greeted warmly by one and all as he made his way through town. Gabrielle noticed how his earlier aches and pains vanished with each wave and handshake. He had always been Brimstone's son, but now he was its hero. Like a pied-piper he led the growing group down the road and right into the tavern.
There were cheers and toasts, speeches and comments, and Tiberius sat right in the middle of it all. By the look on his face, the outing was just what he needed.
But not what the healer had ordered', Gabrielle couldn't keep her mind from thinking about Xena. She had wanted to talk to her this morning, but Xena had decided to leave without waking her.
Sabbeen was sitting across the table from her and she smiled. "Are you enjoying your tarts, dear?" she said over the noise.
"Yes thank you, they're really good," the bard said loudly as she reached for another.
"Thank you, I've been told that a lot."
"I don't think we've been properly introduced," Gabrielle said as she put the tart down, wiping her hands and then offering it in a gesture of friendship. "My name is Gabrielle."
"I know that," she winked to the bard. "I don't think there's anyone left in the known world who doesn't know who you and your friend are. I have even read some of your scrolls."
Gabrielle felt her ears turning red, it wasn't the first time she had felt a little embarrassed over their growing notoriety.
"Where is that tall warrior friend of yours?"
"Oh she is out looking for the ch for a friend." Gabrielle changed the child's identity in mid-sentence. She wasn't sure of how much the town knew. Thankfully, Sabbeen didn't seem to notice the pause.
"Haha, I didn't think there was anyone else to look for. Everyone seems to be here." The bard couldn't help but chuckle at the description, until she looked around the crowded tavern and realized, it was the truth.
"This has turned out to be quite a little party."
"Ah this is nothing. Wait until Xena gets here. We have lived in fear of Admetus for so long, but we didn't know what to do. The story about the ghost frightened us, but when that bully told us about Bruggen's son. Well, you can imagine. The ruddy red faced bastard finally got what he had coming. I think I even saw a smile on Admetus's wife face when she left town with her daughter. I heard she is going to her sister's home just outside of Crete."
"I don't mean to question, but there are more than enough men here to have taken on Admetus. Why didn't you all do something about it earlier?"
"We knew he was not working alone. I knew that Bruggen was too shifty, but Gorgon was a surprise. I mean he didn't even live here. Brimstone is so secluded from the rest of the known world. Oh well, it's all over now and we have Tiberius and you to thank for it ... and Xena when she gets here."
"Which reminds me, I need to get Ti home. He really needs his rest."
"Good luck getting him out of here," the elderly lady said as she rose from the table and headed through the swinging doors into kitchen, balancing the empty tart plate on her hand.
Sabbeen was right. It took some doing before Gabrielle finally got the happy giant out of the tavern.
"Oh thank you, thank you for letting me go, Gabrielle. That was a lot of fun."
"You're welcome," she said as they headed down the empty street of Brimstone.
Aphrodite looked around the temple, her nervousness at sneaking into her brother's lair evident on her face. Seeing that she was alone for the moment, she tiptoed behind his throne of war and into a storage room.
"Ewww, yuck!" Her distaste of the dust and cobs covering the seldom-used door was obvious. The Goddess of Love shook out her hands in a weak attempt of free herself of the sticky webbing.
"This is so not fun, oh forget it!" Snapping her fingers and a puff of smoke transformed her into the room without any further need of touching the dirty door.
"Ares, my dear brother, you need to get a maid. Oh, he is so unorganized," she said out loud, as she tossed her way through his collection of odds and ends. Aphrodite stood up and smiled in naughty delight at the black leather outfit in her hand.
"Hee, I know a certain bad boy who would like to see me in -" her face turned beet red and she looked around to see if anyone had heard her. She shrugged her shoulders and laid the outfit over her arm.
"Ares will never miss it," she giggled quietly as she resumed her search. It took her several more minutes until she squealed with delight.
"Oh, I knew you would have one, my dear poor brother." She pointed to the ground and a box appeared along with a puff of smoke. Aphrodite laid the object in the box and then vanished with a snap of her fingers.
Back in her palace of pink, the Goddess went over her list.
"A slice of staff, check," she said as she ticked off something written on a section of rolled parchment. Looking over the other items in the box, she checked them off as she read them out loud.
"A drop of Amazon amber, a peck of Princess pride which looks to be in a need of adjusting. I have enough stained leather, and where did I put the oh there it is, a handful of the sands of time." Taking her quill off the parchment, the bubbly blonde tickled the end of her nose with the tip of the feather.
"I still need to find a drop of blood relations, and like I have any idea where am I supposed to find a scrap of scruples and a dram of direction. OKAY bring to a boil for more than one day, then practice the words that you'll need to say. Oh it rhymes. How cool is that?"
Leaving her box of gathered goods, Aphrodite sat down on her sofa lined with perfectly, pink pillows. With the rolled parchment still in one hand, she reached for her pink drink garnished with a lovely umbrella, before she carried on with the reading of the recipe.
"No eye of newt eww, good thing warrior babe, cause I am not touching no newts. Blahk! No eye of newt do you need for this, just a pinch of power, then make your wish! Hmmm sounds easy enough, how hard can it really be?"
Gabrielle reached for her Sais, but her fingers found nothing above her boots. It was only then that she recalled leaving them on the table, before they'd left that morning. Struggling desperately against his hold, she felt the coarse material of his sleeve rub across her throat. She had to do something fast before she passed out from his tight grip. Throwing her hip to the side, she jabbed backward with her elbow, but struck only air.
"Do that again and you will feel this go through your throat, but you won't live long enough to feel it pierce your brain." Gabrielle pulled her head back as he laid his thin knife against her cheek.
"Get going, Tiberius, follow that trail there. Don't think about trying anything or I will kill your little red-eyed freak right after I finish with Gabrielle here."
"Ti don't do it just run," the bard cried out in pain as she felt the thin knife cut into her face.
"Shut up, you little bitch," he hissed in her ear, "or would you rather I killed him first?"
The feel of her own warm blood oozing from the cut on her face was the least of her concerns. Gabrielle knew she wasn't dealing with an amateur, just by the way he held had his arm around her neck. Her toes barely touch the ground, putting all the pressure on her windpipe. She had just enough air to breath, but the fuzzy spots in front of her eyes told her she wouldn't be conscious for long. He had her at such a disadvantage, she could barely see over his arm to see where they were going. Her experience told her one wrong move and either her neck would break or the knife he was holding would be the last thing to enter her mind.
Slowly, at an awkward pace, the three followed a faint trail taking them farther and farther from town. Without a clear view of her surroundings, Gabrielle was uneasy about trying to make another run for it. With her head tilted back by force, all she could see was the tops of the trees and the occasional glimpse of the sky above. The ground below her feet started sloping downward, along with the sound of the breaking waves, only confirmed what Gabrielle already suspected. They were heading to the sea, and who knew where from there. She wasn't surprised when she heard the creaking and splashing of water on wood. They were very near a dock or a wharf and if she didn't think of something soon, they were in serious trouble.
Closing her eyes, she concentrated with all of her senses. There had to be something here that she could use to their benefit; the smell of the sea, the warmth of her own blood on her cheek, the dryness of her mouth, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore, a seagull calling out as it circled above. There were no other sounds she could pick up, and for that she was thankful. At least that meant her captor was alone. Gabrielle knew there was nothing there to help her, nothing to stop what was about to happen. She opened her eyes to the fearful face of Tiberius before her. They locked eyes and then the bard mouthed the word run'. The giant stood there too afraid to do anything. Once more she bore her green eyes into his and then yelled.
Gabrielle reached for the arm around her throat. She dug her fingers deeply into his flesh then dropped her dead weight, forcing her fingers in deeper. He let her fall, then turned his arm to grab a handful of honey blonde hair as she landed painfully on her knees. Tiberius had only gone maybe two steps when he heard Gabrielle's scream. He turned to see the knife buried into her left shoulder.
He stopped and turned in surrender, "Please stop. Tiberius won't run, please, I promise I will do what you ask." He watched with a painful grimace, as their captor pulled the knife slowly from Gabrielle's shoulder.
"I can't Gabrielle, I can't leave you to him." Tears formed in his eyes as he watched the thin stream of blood curl down her shoulder and then down her arm.
The searing pain on her face was nothing compared to the white-hot pain in her shoulder. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, concentrating on her inner power to numb the pain. Blocking out everything that wasn't needed, as she fought to focus on what was around her.
The steady lapping of the water against an echoing hull told her of a ship's presence. The harsh voice of the man who held her vibrated against her back when he told Tiberius to, "get in." The wooden dock moved and the deck of the ship groaned as the blacksmith climbed on board. Hoping his attention was on Tiberius, Gabrielle attempted one more escape.
The moment he lifted his leg to step on the ship she stepped backwards, kicking out the leg he was standing on. Turning her body in hopes of flipping him over was the last thing she recalled as the hilt of his knife cracked her in the back of the head.
Tiberius watched in horror as Gabrielle's body went limp.
"Do not be stupid, Tiberius." His snarled words stopped the giant in his tracks as he helplessly watched him drag the unconscious bard on board.
He motioned Ti backwards and then pointed to a chain lying on the deck. Looking down at it, Tiberius saw it had an anchor at one end and a shackle on the other.
"Put it on." Not realizing the danger it put him in, Tiberius did what he was told. Once the shackle was firmly attached to his wrist, he turned back to wait for his next order, but none came.
He didn't understand what the man was doing as he watched him throw a rope over the yardarm of the main sail. Bending down, he tied one end of the rope around the wrists of the already bound and gagged Gabrielle. When he stood up, he grasped the rope and started pulling hand over hand. When the rope went taunt Gabrielle's arms jerked over her head. The full brunt of her weight slowed the process, but he continued, constantly pulling hand over hand. The bard's body slowly rose higher and higher up the mast, swaying with each pull. He finally stopped when her hands were just shy of the cross-beam of the yardarm. Holding the rope with two hands, he looked over his shoulder at Tiberius.
"You liked being the hero, did you not, Tiberius? Well, I think it would be fair if I gave you a chance to do it again." He walked over and handed the rope to the blacksmith. Tiberius grabbed at the offering with both hands, rattling the heavy chain attached to his wrist. No one had to tell him, he was holding Gabrielle's life in his hands.
"Now move over there," he motioned to the railing of the ship.
"Come on all the way," he poked at Ti with his knife until the blacksmith was right up tight against the side of the ship.
"Now, raise your arm." Slowly with great apprehension, he lifted his hand over his head. He stopped when he saw Gabrielle's body lower a bit with the slack.
"PULL HER BACK UP!" He yelled at the blacksmith. Ti cringed at the barked order, but he reached up and pulled the rope until Gabrielle returned to where she was.
"Very good. Should we see just how strong your muscles are? We already know your brain is your weakness." If Ti realized his slowness was being made fun of, he showed no sign of it.
"Okay, drop your right hand."
Tiberius was confused by the request. "Let go with your right hand." Realizing what it was that he wanted. Ti dropped his right hand and held on to Gabrielle with only his left.
"Now, let's make it interesting," he said calmly as he took his sharp knife and cut off the excess rope hanging just below Ti's left hand. "That was just so you did not get the idea of letting her down slowly."
Tiberius looked up at the end of the rope in his hand, and then up, at Gabrielle. Even in his mind he understood, that if he were to pull on the rope, he would pull his friend right over the yardarm. And now with the excess cut off there was no way for him to lower her down. But the part that scared him was if he let her go he couldn't finish the thought of what would happen to the bard's already motionless body, if she crashed to the deck.
"Why are you doing this? What has she done to you?" he pleaded.
"Why Who do you think was marketing the gold for Admetus? Not him! That stupid oaf could not have pulled this off by himself. He needed my brains. I just needed his backbone. We were doing fine until she and Xena showed up. Oh we had our problems with you and that red-eyed freak of yours, but nothing we could not handle. A few scary stories and no one wanted to go into the forest. But you you had to go ahead and invite them to stay in your barn." He reached over and smacked Tiberius up the side of his head.
"That was dumb Tiberius, really dumb. But then I saw her," he pointed up at Gabrielle, "coming out of your place. I don't know what you did to her, but she was in a rage. Rambling on like a crazy woman. I saw an opportunity and I took it. Or rather, we took it. Admetus grabbed you and I went back to finish off Xena, but she had started to come around. That woman's head was thicker than yours, that hit should have killed her. But no, she comes stumbling out of your place, bleeding like a stuck pig."
He paced back and forth on the deck, reciting from memory the beginning of the end of his mining operation. His anger pushed his mind beyond human compassion as he jumped back in front of the blacksmith.
"You started this," he poked his knife into Ti's chest but the blacksmith refused to show him any sign of pain.
"You started it, you finish it!" He reached down and picked up the anchor. Hoisting the heavy weight up, he placed it on the railing.
Tiberius felt his heart heave when he followed the chain from the anchor to his wrist, and then he lifted his eyes to his other hand, following the rope up to where Gabrielle was dangling by her bond wrists, high above the ship's deck.
An evil smile spread across the man's face as he looked over the side of the ship. He looked back and chuckled, "Hey Ti, if you want to be a hero this time Hold on!" He gave the anchor a little push sending it over the side.
Tiberius braced for the force about to hit him, but nothing could've prepared him for the jolt of searing pain that came when the chain went tight.
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhgggg," His face went white, his head tilted back as he screamed with the pain tearing at his muscles and tendons. He only opened his eyes to be sure he still held the rope holding Gabrielle.
Tiberius' scream pulled the bard from her foggy dreams. She blinked several times until her surroundings came into focus. The deadly drop to the deck below swirled in her vision, but it was nothing compared to what she felt when she saw Tiberius. His arms were stretched out wide above his head. In one bleeding hand he held her rope, and in the other she could see the blood running down his forearm from where the shackle was cutting into his wrist.
There standing in front of him was a man holding a knife, but she couldn't make out who it was.
What have we gotten ourselves into?' was her first thought. And how in Tartarus are we going to get out of it?' was her second.'
The streets of Brimstone seemed quiet to her as she ran past the blacksmith's shop. Xena didn't give it a second thought as she grabbed the handle of Tiberius's front door.
"Gabrielle!" There was no one there to answer her as her eyes swept over the empty room. Though nothing seemed out of place, but she still felt a chill when she saw Gabrielle's Sais lying on the table. Her hand went to her chakram as the backdoor flung open, but it was only the child. The fear in her red eyes and the bow and arrow on her back told Xena all she needed to know.
"They're not here." The child pointed over her shoulder and shook her head. Xena spoke for her. "They're not in the barn either."
Xena turned around and left the way she had just come. It didn't surprise her to see the child had chosen not to follow her.
Standing in the doorway, she let her eyes drift easily over the empty street. With all due caution, she slowly stepped from the safety of Tiberius's home. An uneasy feeling brushed over her as she watched the sea breeze lift and flutter anything that had been left hanging. A small dust devil swirled its way past open doors and empty toppled chairs. The sound of a half dozen flies swarming around a plate of half eaten food even managed to catch her attention. It all pointed to what Xena already knew. These people had left in hurry, now the question was why.
Something stopped her. Turning in a slow circle, she reached behind her back to draw her sword.
What had she heard? Tilting her head she held her breath and waited. She heard it again. Voices, but from where? She listened carefully as the voices floated to her on the wings of the wind. They had to be coming from the other end of town.
A flash of moving white caught the warrior's eye and she turned to see the child scrambling through the trees on the edge of town.
She stopped as if sensing Xena's watchful eye. The warrior pointed to her own ear, and then watched the child. It took a moment but she pointed to the end of town as well.
There was no mistaking where the voices were coming from, as she got closer and closer to the tavern. She stopped just outside the front doors just as a roar of laughter went up. It sounded to her like they were having a party. Slightly embarrassed by her over reaction, she slid her sword back into its sheath. Turning around she looked for the white hair in the trees. Once she spotted the child she motioned to her with a thumbs up, and the child nodded her understanding.
Taking a handle in each hand, Xena pulled both doors open.
"Is this a private party?" The room fell silent, startled by the warrior's entrance.
The room instantly erupted in happy, carefree noises. People were thanking her for Tiberius return and Admetus departure. She heard people calling out her name, and thanking her for the return of their town.
Xena responded with only a smile and a nod, her mind was preoccupied with the whereabouts of Gabrielle and Tiberius. The child had told her there was someone else to be wary of, but Xena had no idea as to whom.
The tavern was not that big to begin with, and the crowd of constantly moving people was making it difficult to see. She stood on her tiptoes and looked around bobbing heads before she realized, Gabrielle and Tiberius were not here. Seeing only a few familiar faces, she decided either Sabbeen or Belus would more than likely have the answers for her. She saw Belus go through the swinging doors to the kitchen. Xena followed him, swerving through the crowd of people politely as she could.
"Excuse me, pardon me alright out of my way," she said, her voice rising in frustration, but it worked as she finally made her way to the kitchen. Belus looked up as the tall warrior woman came through the swinging doors.
"Xena, whatever you would like? It is on the house, my treat," he said as he clapped his hands together.
"Thank you, but that isn't necessary. I just wanted to know if you have seen Gabrielle or Tiberius."
"Why yes, they were here. That is what started the celebrations. This town is reborn because of what -"
"I don't want to be rude," Xena held up her hand. "I just need to find my friends."
"Oh, but of coarse. I understand. I believe my wife Sabbeen was talking to your friend Gabrielle." The small man motioned over to an elderly woman who was placing something on a large platter.
"Sabbeen," the woman showed no sign of hearing her husband. "Sabbeen!" he called louder, then turned, and smiled meekly at Xena. "Her hearing is not so good."
Xena held up her hand to stop him from yelling once more at his wife. "It's okay." She crossed the kitchen and tapped the woman on the shoulder. The elder woman turned around and smiled.
"Ah Xena. I am glad you have finally made it. Now the real celebration what is wrong, my dear?" Her motherly instincts saw the concern on Xena's face.
"Your husband said Tiberius and Gabrielle were here?"
"Yes, yes they were. Your friend had a few of my tarts here, and then she said she had to get Ti back to his place, that he needed rest." She kept her eyes on Xena's concerned face. "Is there something wrong?"
"Yes, no I'm not sure. I just came from Ti's house and there's no one there."
"Well, isn't that strange?" She wiped her hands on her flour-covered apron, and then pushed past the warrior. "Let me go and see."
As Xena stood in the kitchen a moment longer, her eyes went from Sabbeen to the open back door of the kitchen. She struggled with the idea of just leaving and searching on her own, or whether to wait and see if anyone had seen them. Her decision was made for her when she heard Sabbeen's frail voice sudden come to life with a boom.
"Hey, hey shut up you all. Listen up. Did anyone see where Gabrielle and Tiberius went?" The crowd rumbled and grumbled like a mass deciding on one vote.
When Xena came through the swinging doors slowly. She couldn't hide the surprise in her face. Just moments earlier this elderly woman looked like someone you could push over with a feather, now here she was standing on top of one of her tavern's tables, her hands on her hips as she scowled down at all her patrons. There was little doubt in Xena's mind that if Tiberius was Brimstone's son, then Sabbeen was its ruling mother.
"They left a while ago."
"I saw them goin' down the hill towards Ti's place." Nothing else need be said as the warrior went back out the doors of the tavern.
Xena stood with her back to the doors and looked down the empty street. There was no sign of Tiberius or of Gabrielle. The last anyone saw them, they were both heading for home, so what happened between the tavern, and Tiberius's house, was the question now screaming in Xena's mind.
She stepped out into the street and then knelt down to examine the ground. Though there were many footprints, but she spotted the bard's soft soles easily. After three steps, she noticed another large set of footprints walking beside Gabrielle. They had to belong to Tiberius. Confident now that she could track their progress, she started to follow them at a brisk pace. Xena barely got underway when she spotted something. There over top of Gabrielle's prints, was another set of footprints, but these ones were made by a smooth sole. Xena felt her heartbeat quicken when she thought of someone following Tiberius and Gabrielle.
The three sets of footprints continued on, until Gabrielle's footprints stopped when she had turned to face whoever was following them. Then the third person's footprints joined them as they turned again for Tiberius's house.
Who was the third person? And where had the three of them gone?' So many thoughts were plaguing her as she resumed her tracking, but it didn't take long before the she had at least one answer.
The trio had almost made it to Tiberius's front door when the clear footprints in the loose soil were almost wiped out. Something had happened but Xena couldn't tell what. She knelt down on one knee for a closer look. The footprints in the dry dirt told her, that a scuffle had broken out between Gabrielle and the third person, but for whatever reason, Tiberius hadn't gotten involved.
Xena stood up slowly, drawing her sword from its scabbard as her eyes followed the small scuffmarks Gabrielle's toes had left behind.
Whoever had taken her had been tall enough and smart enough to know that they had to literally keep the bard on her toes.
Slowly, she tracked their trail out of Brimstone. Gabrielle's footprints were getting harder and harder to follow, but there was no mistaking the print left behind by a man who stood an arm's length taller than Xena.
Tiberius's footprints were easy to make out in the dusty dirt, almost too easy. Xena stopped and questioned herself on the tracks she was following. Was she walking into a trap, or was Gabrielle and Tiberius's captor that overly confident? Scanning her surroundings, she searched for any clue that might answer either of her questions, but there was nothing there for her to see.
A little more cautious now, Xena started up again, but she only took a few steps when her eyes spotted something that sent a chill through her. Their footprints stopped and were trampled over. There, coated with a thin film of dust, were several small pools of blood. Xena experienced eyes told her there had been another scuffle, but this time someone had been hurt after which, the group had left quickly and without trouble, thereby leaving the dust to settle on the undisturbed droplets of blood.
She crouched down and touched one of the spots of blood. Rubbing it against her thumb, the coagulation told her it hadn't been there long. Looking down at her bloody fingers, Xena wondered just whose blood it was. She didn't have long to think about it when the silence around her was broken by a distant scream.
The moment the pain-filled plea hit her ears, she was off at a dead run. She didn't have far to go before she came to the crest of a hill. There at the bottom of the sloping incline, hidden in a small cove, was a small sailing ship tied to a rickety dock. Xena scrambled down the edge of the bank, keeping to the cover of the underbrush and away from the faint trail. Once she made it to the bottom of the hill, she couldn't stay concealed any longer.
From the deep tone of the pain-filled cry, Xena had known it had to be Tiberius. When she got her first good view of the blacksmith, she knew why he had screamed. He was being pulled apart. It only took a heartbeat for her to see the chain going overboard, the shackle cutting into his flesh and the rope coming from his other hand. From where she stood, she couldn't see what the rope was attached to, nor could she see any sign of Gabrielle. Her blue eyes quickly scanned the deck of the ship, and she searched for any sign of her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Much to her surprise, there only seemed to be one person on deck, a lone figure who identity was hidden from sight by a long hooded robe.
So where was the rest of the crew?' Xena wondered as she watched the lone captor walk back and forth in front of Tiberius. Though she was too far away to hear anything, she could tell he was speaking to the grimacing blacksmith. She had no idea how much weight was on the end of the chain but by the look on his face, it was enough.
Keeping out of sight, she slid her sword back into her sheath and unclipped her chakram.
The chain or the rope?' Xena debated for only a second which one to throw her deadly disk at. The rope would definitely cut easier, she decided. Rising from her cover, she flung her chakram at the rope.
Watching the warrior running through the forest only confirmed what she already knew. The leather-clad warrior liked the blonde woman even more than she did. It never crossed her mind to tell anyone the man who had hit Xena was not Admetus, but after seeing the reaction on Xena's face, she knew she had made a grave mistake. She pushed the thought out of her mind as she ran along her treetop pathway, keeping pace with Xena.
When they came to the outskirts of Brimstone, the child veered off and followed her own route to the blacksmith's home. Dropping out of the trees, she silently landed on the roof of Ti's barn. Scrambling along the edge, she grabbed onto the eave and jumped into the hayloft. The only sounds she could hear were those being made by the animals. Leaving the barn, she quickly followed the path to Ti's backdoor.
Without thinking of her own safety, she barged into Ti's house. All she saw was Xena with her hand on her chakram. The moment warrior saw it was the child, the she dropped her hand to her side.
"They're not here," Xena said. She saw that for herself, then turned and pointed over her shoulder. "They're not in the barn either." She nodded to the warrior's question.
Nothing else was said between them, so she went out the backdoor as Xena went out the front. Racing back into the cover of the trees she followed the warrior's progress through town. She wondered to herself whether her concern showed as clearly on her face as it did on Xena's.
As if hearing the child's thoughts, the Warrior Princess glanced up at her and their eyes locked in understanding.
The child had heard the voices in the tavern the moment she was high in the trees again, so she knew where Xena was heading. Resting against the rough bark of the tree she watched the leather clad woman disappear into the tavern. Perched high up in her protective trees, she thought about how sounds had a way of floating above the ground noise as if the breeze off the sea had something to say.
It did have something to say she realised, as she stood up and strained to listen. It was a scream she had heard, a cry of someone in pain. Looking back at the closed doors of the tavern, she knew she couldn't wait for Xena's return. Moving quickly through the trees she headed in the direction where she guessed the cry had come from.
The forest was not as thick close to the sea, but she still managed her way. Searching the ground around her she could see nothing and no one. There was no sign of who ever had called out. Just as she was about to give up, another scream echoed its pain through out the forest. She was closer now to hear the anguish in the voice and to know whom it belonged. There was no doubt in her mind that it was Gabrielle, and she wasn't far away.
The sounds of suffering continued to ring through the forest, but as she drew closer to the sea, the sounds were washed away with the constant lapping of the waves. This was a new area to her; the sparse growth of the forest gave her little coverage so she had kept her distance in the past. Spotting the blue of the sea, she caught her first glimpse of the hidden cove and the ship that lay in wait. Bits and pieces of a conversation made it past the noise of the sea, but she still couldn't see what was happening. She knew the only way she was going to get close enough was to come out of the trees or come along the shoreline.
Neither option appealed to her as she looked back over where she had come from in hopes of seeing Xena. There was no sign of the Warrior Princess, when she heard the rattle of chains coming from the ship.
Options were no longer available. She had to do something and she had to do it fast. Even more frightening, she had to do it alone. Descending down from her perch, she made her way quickly from boulder to tree - tree to brush and then a quick dash to the shoreline. She moved slowly through the bone chilling surf, hoping the steady ebb tide would cover her movement. The power and pull of the waves swayed her small body, but she pushed on until she made it to a small outcropping of rocks. She was as close as she could get to the ship but she had no idea what to do from there.
Peering up and over the rocks she could hear voices but couldn't see anyone, until her red eyes followed a long length of rope. Starting from somewhere on the deck, it rose higher and higher until she saw her. Gabrielle was hanging limply, her head resting on her shoulder. Her hands were bound at the wrist and tied to the rope. Gabrielle's motionless body hung there for all the world to see.
The child looked at her, unsure if the woman was still alive or not. Even from where she was, she could see a ribbon of blood rolling down her left arm, and then down the side of her body. With her hand covering her silent mouth, she felt a chilling realisation when the rope holding Gabrielle moved, causing her body to sway and jerk.
Someone was holding her up there!
Fear stole the breath right out of her mouth when she heard the voice of the man who had hit Xena on the head.
At first she couldn't understand what he was saying, but she knew it was he. She bobbed and weaved, desperately trying to see to whom he was talking.
"You started this," she heard him say, "You started it, you finish it!" Still holding her breath, she heard the wood of the deck squeak and then a thump. She looked up from the rocks and saw the man holding an anchor on the railing.
Quickly she ducked out of sight, hoping he had not seen her. By the sounds of what he was saying, she knew he hadn't.
"Hey Ti, if you want to be a hero this time -"
At the mention of the blacksmith's name, her heart fluttered and she dared a peek.
Though she couldn't see him, she recognized it was he. The black iron shackle was clamped tightly around his thick wrist.
"Hold on!" She watched in confusion as the bad man pushed the anchor over the side of the ship. The heavy weight made a big splash not far from her, but before she could think about its proximity, the sound of the splash was drowned out by Ti's scream.
The child immediately jumped to her feet, her caution and fear given to the wind. She had no idea what she was going to do, but she knew she had to do something.
Looking around her rock fortress, she saw several large stones covered with crusty sharp barnacles. They were bigger than what she was used to, but she knew they would do more damage. Opening the pouch where she kept her lead balls for her sling shot, she dropped in her new ammo but held one in her hand. Pulling her slingshot out, she readied her weapon and then emerged from her hiding spot.
The cove was a natural breaker for the larger waves of the sea, something she was grateful for as she stepped again into the cold waters of the sea. A straight line from where she was to the ship would have put her in too deep of water, so she walked until the sea covered over her knees. Then, keeping parallel to the shore, she closed the distance between them, while she loaded the barnacled stone into her weapon.
With the slingshot cocked back, ready to fire, she took aim onto the deck of the ship. Patiently, she waited for a shot at the bad man, but there was no one to be seen. The sound of Tiberius's pain scraped away the memory of her own suffering and all she wanted to do was stop it. Back and forth her eyes darted, but the man in the hooded robe was staying away from the side of the ship.
Desperation pulled at her consciousness. She so wanted to help Tiberius, to stop his pain, but there was nothing she could do until she saw the hooded man again.
Releasing the tension on her slingshot, she brought the weapon down and held it in front of her. Turning her attentions away from the ship, she looked over the hillside hoping to see Xena, but the forest was silent and the landscape was still.
Whatever she was going to do, she had to do quickly. Tiberius's scream had dulled, but the sounds of his grunts and moans told her his will was still strong.
Trying to formulate a plan in her mind, she looked up at the still form hanging from her wrists from the yardarm. Her casual glance turned to a stare when her eye told her something had changed. The child tilted her head in question as she took a few steps to her right, to get a better view of Gabrielle's motionless body. Ignoring the chill from the cold sea, she concentrated on the bard's face. The water was past her waist before she stopped moving. Now lined up squarely with the mast and yardarm, she realized what was different. Gabrielle's eyes were open, not moving, but open.
She watched and waited as the water lapped at her chest. Her mouth hung open as she tried to see if the bard was breathing. But she was too far away to tell if she had been too late. Still holding her slingshot in one hand, she walked closer to the ship and further into the sea. Her small body was being pushed and pulled with the steady moving of the waves. With her hands above the surface of the water, she couldn't steady herself enough to get a good look. It was hopeless, and she couldn't tell if Gabrielle alive or not.
Turning back to the shoreline, and shallower water, a flash of light caught her attention. She froze and ducked further down in the water until only her white hair and red eyes could be seen. Her eyes went over the sparsely treed hillside, but she saw nothing. Xena was out there, she couldn't see her, but she knew the Warrior Princess was close.
Knowing she was no longer alone, she turned back and headed for the ship. When the chilly water rose past her chest, she put her slingshot between her teeth, keeping her hands free to balance herself in the deep water. No longer able to hear what was going on topside on the deck, she kept her eyes moving, hoping to catch sight of the hooded man.
Moving slowly and quietly towards the ship, she looked up and saw a pair of green eyes watching her. She stopped and raised her hand out of the water, just enough to signal that she had seen her. Gabrielle blinked and then shifted her eyes towards Tiberius. The child nodded her head, then pointed to her right wrist and then her left wrist, then motioned with both hands, mimicking the predicament Tiberius was in. The bard shook her head slightly in agreement, not wanting to attract any unnecessary attention on herself.
Bobbing just above the surface of the water, the child's eyes picked up movement coming down the far side of the hill, behind the ship. She looked up at Gabrielle and then pointed at the hill. Unfortunately, as the fates would have it, she didn't wait around to see if the bard had seen her or understood her. Moving as quickly as she dared, she felt the bottom of the sea under her feet just as Xena came out into the open. She tried to attract her attention, but the warrior's eyes were too intent on the deck of the ship as she slid her sword back into its sheath.
The child looked from the ship to the warrior, and then back at the ship. Staring intently at Xena, she saw the warrior unclip her chakram. Her mouth opened slowly as she tried to see what the warrior was aiming at. When she followed her ice blue eyes to the rope holding Gabrielle, she felt the bottom fall out of her stomach. Turning back, she saw she was too late. Xena's hand had just released her chakram and it was spinning towards the rope. She released the stone out of her slingshot before she even realized she was holding it.
The deadly disc gave off a high-pitched whine, as it swirled towards Gabrielle's lifeline. Xena watched with growing anticipation, waiting for it to cut the rope. Then she heard the ting. She watched in shock as her chakram spun out of control, skipping along the surface of the water, before splashing quietly out of view and into the sea.
The Warrior Princess stood stock still in disbelief. Her unique weapon was gone just like that and she had no idea why.
"What the -?" Her words were cut short when she felt the pressure of air brush past her shoulder. She turned in the direction from which she was shot at and saw the child duck down beside the dock. Xena turned her frustration into a glare.
The child seemed almost oblivious to her anger as she turned and pointed to the ship.
I know, Xena mouthed silently at her, but the child turned away from her and ducked out of sight under the dock. The warrior realized she was standing out in the open, making both she and Tiberius a target if she was seen. Quickly she headed back for the cover of the underbrush. Once there, she turned her attention back to dock and to the whereabouts of the child. Xena was confused as to why -.
The white head popped out of the water at the stern of the ship. The child reached up and grabbed hold of the gunwale, then turned to face Xena. Her red eyes searched the area where the warrior had been, before she spotted her behind the underbrush. Xena's anger was coming to a rapid boil over the loss of her chakram. When their eyes met, her glare radiated her anger. She saw the remorse on the child's face, but it did nothing to calm her agitated state.
Trying to ignore Xena's angry stare, the child pointed to the top of the mail mast.
Following the outstretched finger, Xena felt her blood run cold. It was only then that she saw Gabrielle hanging from her wrists, from the very rope she had almost cut. She hadn't seen her. The bard's small body had been stretched out just enough for her to be hidden behind the thick wooden mast from where Xena had been standing. Her ice blue eyes went from the bard to the deck below. That was where she would have landed had the child not changed the direction of her chakram.
Xena desperately tried to shake off the numbing chill, but she couldn't. The close call rocked the one thing that had never failed her, her confidence in herself. Her ability to see the end result of her actions was what had kept her alive when others around her had fallen.
Reaching behind her head, she drew her sword, hoping the familiar feeling of it in her hand would steady her shaken nerves. Pulling herself back to the task at hand, she looked down the hill to the ship rocking gently in the rising tide.
The child's white hair stood out against the dark wood of the rear cabin of the ship, her limber limbs moving in fluid motion, taking her steadily up the side. Xena had no doubt in her mind as to where the child was going, so she turned her attention to the near unconscious blacksmith who was holding Gabrielle's life in his hand.
Xena made her way cautiously towards to the ship. If she got caught out in the open the element of surprise would be gone. She made it down to the dock and ducked behind one of the securing posts, peering out several times before she spotted the child getting ready to climb over the railing. Holding her hand up to stop the child, she motioned her plan and the child nodded her understanding.
Turning her attention back on the ship and the distance she had to cross, Xena wished she still had her chakram, but she didn't. Sheathing her sword, she stayed in a crouched position, making her way down the dock as quietly as she could. She could see the hooded man talking to a nearly unconscious blacksmith, but she could only make out a few words that were being said.
"- for a long time now. You just could not leave it alone." Xena heard an inaudible word, followed by a grunt.
"It's your decision, Tiberius. Her life or yours? I mean really, she is almost a stranger. Just let go of the rope."
"Oh come on. She will not feel a thing, now you on the other hand -" Tiberius closed his eyes and grimaced, but he refused to make a sound when the knife was poked at his now bare chest. The weathered, tough skin of the blacksmith was covered in sweat, blood and red welts. The white of his knuckles contrasted sharply with the dark blood running down both arms. He no longer felt his right hand, the shackle had cut into his large wrist when the weight of the anchor peeled back his skin. But Tiberius didn't care about his right hand. All of his power and strength was on his left. Everything in his being was concentrating on the rope that held his friend. With his eyes shut, he didn't feel the pain of the knife as it jabbed at his skin. He didn't notice the shaking of his fatigued muscles, nor the smell of his own sweat as it shimmered over his massive upper body. He forgot about it all as he concentrated on memories of Gabrielle's smile and the ease of her laughter. He visualized the light touch of her hand and the light that glimmered in her all-knowing eyes. Tiberius knew he wasn't the smartest man in town, but he was smart enough to know that he couldn't let go of Gabrielle's rope.
"Hey, open your eyes. I want to see your eyes." Slowly Tiberius did what he was told and then turned and glared at his captor. But the menacing stare dissolved into a bright smile. The man's anger flashed to the surface when the friendly giant smiled at him.
"What the hell are you smiling at? Are you that stupid?" He got right in close to Ti's face.
"Don't call my friend stupid." The challenge in the low sultry voice made his heart beat just a little faster. He looked Tiberius in the eye as he tightened his grip on his knife, then turned to face the Warrior Princess standing on his ship.
"Kummel!" The shop owner smiled at his name as he looked at Xena. He was within Tiberius's reach, but the moment the giant stretched out to grasp him, Kummel pointed up at Gabrielle's swaying body.
"Ah, ah, ah. You do not want to do that Tiberius. You will flip her little body over the yardarm and then she will make a big mess all over my deck." All three looked up at the bard's swaying body, the giant and the warrior were sickened by his description. Ti relaxed his flexed muscles, but held tight to the rope in his grasp.
Xena pulled her ice blue eyes down from Gabrielle and glared with loathing distaste at the shop owner. The only thing standing between them was Gabrielle's rope. Before she could take a step, he brought his thin knife up and rested it on the rope.
"Think about it Xena." He pushed the knife hard against the braided twine. "You know as well as I do, that if I cut this you lose both of them. Gabrielle will come crashing down, and the quick release of tension with send our big boy over the side." Kummel smiled at his own description, almost laughing when he saw the surprised look of Tiberius's face.
"Oh, please tell me you knew that, Tiberius? Are you really that stupid?" The blacksmith ignored him, but Xena did not. Reaching behind her back, she slowly pulled out her sword. Her eyes glared from under her lowered eyelids, as she brought her left hand up to grasp the hilt before brandishing the tip into Kummel's face.
"I said don't call my friend stupid."
"Oh, it is not just him. It was all of you. That entire town was filled with idiots, and they were so easy to fool. People say ignorance is bliss, but I think ignorance breeds stupidity. I got rich as they cowered against their imaginary fear. I got away with it until you two came along." He pushed down on the rope and Xena saw the first few strands spring back after being cut.
"I told the kid to kill you after I had you convinced she was the one killing the children."
"So that was why you told me all about the lies you had told the town."
"Pretty much, I figured the town would take care of Gabrielle. That freak would take care of you. It is amazing what one will do when then think someone they care about is in danger." Kummel couldn't help but gloat at all he had created.
"But then she couldn't do it, that demon eyed freak of his. Where is that little bitch?" Before he could say another word, even before Xena had a chance to nip him in the nose with her sword, Tiberius raised his bloodied right hand and attempted to grab Kummel. Quickly the shop owner stepped out of his reach, eyeing both Xena and Tiberius.
"So, there is a little fight left in you, isn't there Tiberius? Should we see just how much fight, Xena?" He ran his blade over the rope again, fraying a few more strands. Xena turned and looked up at Gabrielle, but Tiberius kept his eyes on Kummel. The chain on his wrist clanged loudly as he kept tugging against the weight of the anchor. The giant's demeanor was changing right before Kummel's eyes, his normally passive features were turning dark and angry.
Kummel had been worried about the warrior, but now looking at the situation he realized he had underestimated the strength and determination of Tiberius. For the first time, he actually felt fear. His plan was coming apart and he had to act fast, his eyes wide with fright as he looked from Xena to Tiberius and then back to Xena again. She wasn't backing off or backing down like he had planned. The clanging of the chains and the evil glare of the warrior sent him into a panic. Slashing out with his knife, he felt it cut flesh before he felt it slice through the rope holding Gabrielle.
~ To be concluded in ~
Rest In Peace
C.L. Hart; Sinful@telus.net
Time is the most important thing in a person's life, I cannot thank you enough for spending yours enjoying my tall tale.