It was a bright, crisp day along the road to Amphipolis. Bees were buzzing, birds were chirping, a slight breeze was blowing. It not for the sound of metal clanking against metal and people shouting, it would have been a perfect day.
"Grab the Jar!"
The source of all that shouting came from three men, two rather burley looking and one on the thin side. They were attempting to wrest a small porcelin jar from our hero, Gabrielle.
Weeks after Xena's selfless act, Gabrielle, along with Argo, is determined to get to Amphipolis so she can place Xena's ashes in her family tomb. She expected to have to fight her way through, but she didn't anticipate having to fight day and night. She hasn't had a full night's sleep in days.She is exhausted and has a fever from an open wound on her arm. Neither will deter her from her mission...getting her soul-mate home. The would-be theives are after the urn holding Xena's ashes to sell to the highest bidder i.e. warlords she had tamed and humiliated and are therefore after some sort of twisted revenge.
Speaking of Xena, Gabrielle isn't traveling alone, not technically at least. Xena's spirit is here standing behind and just off to the side looking royally ticked off. She feels helpless watching Gabrielle fight for her life, and Xena hates feeling helpless. Ordinairally she would be shouting encouragement and suggesting tactical moves, but this time is different. Gabrielle is on the verge of collapse and Xena is worried sick about her--if spirits could get sick that is. She tries to talk some sense into her.
"Just give them the Jar, Gabrielle". "It doesn't matter where I'm buried". "It isn't worth dying over."
Gabrielle won't have it. "It matters to me!" "Would you give up if it were me in this jar?"
Good Point. Xena doesn't answer.
"I didn't think so!" "Amphipolis is just a few days away, after I entomb your ashes, maybe they'll leave me alone!"
Xena is skeptical. "Maybe." "Duck"
The blade of a sword whooshes over her head. She kicks him in the gut and uses a sias to block the other's sword. (She does have the chakram. It's fastened tight against her hip and glistens with each maneuver).
The smallest of the three, senseing weakness in their 'victim' and emenent victory, has a burst of ego. HIs name is Meirleach. "Hey girly, talking to yourself won't make us go away". "Crazy or not, I want that urn."
Gabrielle's attention wavers just enough for Meirleach to take advantage and grab Xena's urn from her. He quickly backs away. "Finally, It's mine!" This will fetch me a fortune." I'll be rich!" "Ha, Ha, Ha!"
Gabrielle lunges at the coward but Xena stops her. "Wait, look."
What Xena sees and the others don't are three riders. Two big, chisled, broad shouldered men and a youngish woman the same size as Gabrielle. One of the men has a leather sachtel strapped across his chest. Each are riding shaggy maned Shire horses, the woman's mount is jet black with a patch of white on its chest in the shape of an attacking eagle. She stops her steed inches from the back of Meirleach's neck, its hot breath blowing his hair. "Hello, Meirleach." Her accent is a mash-up of many different cultures with Lowland Scot being the standout.
Meirleach stops laughing as the color drains form his face. He slowly turns around and finds himself nose to heaving horse chest. His mouth goes dry, but he forces a swallow and squeeks out one word. "D-D-Deerdra."
His 'friends' know better than to take up swords against these three. They hot foot it out of there smashing into each other as they run.
"Stealing from yet another widow, are we?" Deerdra Reese has little patients for those who prey upon the weak, especially a slime like Meirleach. "Tsk, tsk, what am I going to do with you, Meirleach?"
"Give me a stern warning and let me go?" HIs eyes plead for mercy.
"Ha,ha,ha, no." She turns to Gabrielle. "What we have here, dear lady, is a repeat offender." "This is, what, your third one this month?"
"Deerdra, I can-"
"Let's see...the first one was a young widow with four young children after wiping them out, you moved on to sickly older woman." "You took everything but her medicine." "Too bad she couldn't reach it."
Sweat pours down his face as he desperately tries to think of a way to convice her to let him go. Too bad his brain has gone numb with fear.
Gabrielle and Xena are standing off to the side watching the scene unfold before them. Not sure if this Deerdra is friend or foe, they stand at the ready.
Meirleach wipes his brow, still unable to think or run.
"Now here you are, stealing from yet another vulnerable woman." "I'm sensing a pattern here." "And what did I tell you would happen to you the next time I caught you stealing on my land?"
"Deerdra, I promise you, please !"
She isn't moved by his plea. "First things first." All three dismount, Deerdra being the shorter of the three, has to jump off her horse. The metal strips woven into her rust-colored suede vest glisten in the sunlight. The vest covers a cream peasent shirt tucked into tan suede pants over dark brown boots. She turns to hand the reigns to one of the men and that's when Gabrielle and Xena see them. Two swords, a Roman short sword and a flashy Katana crossed across her back. They tense up, ready for battle. Deerdra stretches her hand out toward him. "Hand it over." His eyes follow hers down to the urn. He slowly hands it to her. She in turn gives it to one of the men behind her, her gaze never leaving Meirleach's face.
Gabrielle is uneasy. She whispers to Xena. "I don't like where this is heading."
Out of habit Xena whispers back. "I don't either." "Start making your way over to Argo and get ready to fly out of here."
"Not without your urn."
Xena shoots her a 'do it or else' look so ever so slowly, Gabrielle slides past the doomed man and over to Argo's side then waits.
The urn secured, Deerdra continues. "Now where were we?" "Ah, yes, your punishment." "If your only crime was petty theft, some time behind bars would be enough." "However, since your last victim died, I think the punishment should fit the crime."
Sweat pours off of Meirleach's brow, soaking his clothes.
"You're a coward, Meirleach." "No, you're less than a coward." "You are a speck on the back of a flea." "And what do we do to fleas?"
Meirleach swallows hard. "We squash them?"
"That's right, we squash them."
Deerdra places her left hand on his right shoulder, his knees buckle but she holds him up. In the blink of an eye, she hits him square in the chest with the palm of her hand. He takes a few steps back, and stunned to still be alive, begins to laugh. An evil grin spreads across Deerdra's face as his laughter stops and panic sets in. He grabs his chest and gasps for air then falls face first into the dirt, dead.
Deerdra looks down at the former thief then over at Gabrielle. In a panic, Xena starts ot shove Gabrielle up onto the saddle. "Get on Argo, now!" The fever clouding her thinking, Gabriellle doesn't move. "What did she do to him?" Xena had forgotten how solidily built her friend is. "She stopped his heart, now move!"
Too late. Deerdra is standing in front of Argo and has a hold of the reigns, ending any chance of escape. Then, the unexpected. Deerdra holds the urn out to Gabrielle. "I believe this is yours."
Xena warns her. "Careful."
Gabrielle does and doesn't trust her. She weighs her options, then concedes. "That's okay, you can keep it."
"I don't want her ashes." She steps closer. "Take it, I won't bite."
Gabrielle is still concened but she takes the urn from this odd woman. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." "We haven't been properly introduced." "My name is Deerdra Reese and these two hansome gentlemen are brothers Laidir and Socair, my towers of intimidation."
"Pleased to meet you, and thank you for stopping those men."
Xena is in Gabrielle's ear. "I don't trust her." "It could be a trap."
Gabrielle whispers back."I know, I wasn't born yesterday."
Deerdra wonders who she is talking to. Maybe the stress has gotten to her. "No problem." "Whenever a beautiful woman is in trouble, I'll be there!"
That elicits a smile from Gabrielle and a scowl from Xena.
"Come back home with us and you can take a nice warm bath, fill your stomach with good food, and get a sound nights' sleep." "I'll even have our physician take a look at your arm."
Gabrielle isn't sure. "Thank you for the offer, but I really do need to get to Amphipolis."
Deerdra clarifies her invitation. "You don't understand, that wasn't a request." You are coming home with us." "So hop aboard Argo and let's go."
Gabrielle's heart leaps to her throat. She doesn't move. Deerdra understands her tripidation and further explains. "Listen, I'm not going to hurt you and I most definatley am not after her ashes." "I understand that you probably made a promise to her but, look at you." Your body is wracked with fever and it doesn't look like youv'e slept in days." And you can hardly fulfill your promise if your dead."
Xena doesn't buy it. "Oh brother!" "Watch your step, it's getting deep."
Gabrielle's almost sold. "If you don't want the ashes, then why do you care what happens to me?"
Deerdra blushes. "I've read your scrolls and I admire you, what you've gone through." "From farm girl to bard to warrior, not an easy transformation to make."
Gabrielle relaxes. "Xena made it possible and I owe her more than you know."
Deerdra keeps selling. "Then honor her by comming with us and getting healthy so you can compleat her--and your journey." "You look awfully weak." "You should ride with Socair."
Everything she has said makes sense, but Gabrielle still has doubts. She looks to Xena for guidence, but she only shrugs. She is as uncertain as Gabrielle. What happens next takes them both by surprise and adds to the mystery.
Deerdra scratches Argo's ear. "You want to go, don't you girl?" "Nice warm barn, fresh hay, and all the apples you can eat." Argo whinnies and gives Gabrielle a nudge with her muzzle. "She trusts me, do you?"
Gabrielle agin looks to Xena. She gives a reluctant 'go ahead' nod. "Okay, you win." "I could use a good nights' sleep--and a bath."
Deerda grins. "I wasn't going to say anything, but, yeah."
Xena whispers into Argo's ear. "We need to have a talk about this apple thing of yours."
"What about him?" Gabrielle points to Meirleach's lifeless body. "You're not going to just leave him in the middle of the road, are you?"
"Of course not." "Laidir will take care of him, won't you, Laidir?"
"Oh, don't worry." "I'll give him an appropriate burial."
Gabrielle picks up on the sarcasim, but at least the road will be cleared... and the vultures will have a meal.
Mindfull of Gabrielle's arm, Sociar gently hoists the wounded bard up onto his horse. He slides in behind her and wraps one of his beafy arms around her waist. She holds tight to Xena's urn. "Don't worry." "If you fall asleep, I'll make sure you don't drop your friend."
"Thanks, but I don't see that happening."
Xena forgoes riding Argo at the back of the pack. Instead, she walks beside Socairs' horse to keep a close eye on Gabrielle and this man holding her wounded friend so close.
Deerdra jumps up on her mount and the three (four) are off. Their distination isn't far, an hours ride or so, but the pace is slow. Enough so that, right as rain, Gabrielle nods off. Sociar holds her and the urn tight against his muscular chest knowing that if either she or the urn falls off, Deerdra will rip him a new one.
They travel side by side for a short distance before intering the forest single file. After dodgeing limbs and briars for a mile or so, they emerge out of the forest and at the edge of a grassy field. Once again side by side, they travel the rest of the way through the grasslands.
Deerdra looks over at the snoozing bard. "Too bad she's asleep." "She's missing the shortcut."
At the other side of the field, they come upon a huge green wall of thorny bushes. Xena can hear the faint roar of the ocean."Hmm, I don't know this place." Posted near a narrow entrance is a warning:
ENTER AT YOUR OWN PERIL!
OWNER ASSUMES NO RESPONSIBLITY
FOR LOSS OF LIMB OR LIFE.
As evidenced by the sign, this is no ordinary thicket. It is a ten foot high, six foot thick maze that encircles Deerdra's 'home'. More than one brave traveler has bled to death after getting lost and being slashed by the three inch long razor sharp thorns in a desperate attempt to find their way out. (As evidenced by the pools of dried blood and the flesh and clothing remnants hanging from said thorns).
Deerdra and company enter the maze single file.
Xena doesn't like the close quarters and the farther in they go, the more antsy she becomes. "When does this thing end?" She continues to walk next to Socair, passing through the thorns like a cloud. She looks up at the still sleeping Gabrielle, whose head is pressed against Socairs' chest. "You'd better hold her tight."
After many twists and turns, they emerge from the thorny maze, and what a payoff!
Socair gently wakes Gabrielle. "Wake up little one, we're here."
Gabrielle is slow to open her eyes, but when she does she automatically looks for Xena. She's there, studying the site in front of them. Gabrielle follows her intent gaze and cannot believe her eyes.
"Am I dreaming or do those stairs lead to a walled city floating among the clouds?"
Deerdra and Socair chuckle. "You're not dreaming." Deerdra dismounts and assists Socair in letting Gabrielle down. "Welcome to my humble abode."
"An illusion." "Pretty neat, huh?"
"Wow." It's like something out of a dream."
"If you think the outside is something, wait until we go inside."
Gabrielle whispers to Xena. "How..?"
"I don't know-yet."
Laidir joins them. "Ah, Laidir." "How did it go?"
"Oh, he got the burial he deserved."
"Excellent." "Socair and I are about to take Gabrielle inside." "Will you put the horses away and have someone take Gabrielle's gear to the guest room?" "Oh, and please tell the physician he has a patient."
"My pleasure." He gathers up the horses reigns. "Enjoy the tour, Gabrielle." "I hope you stay around for awhile." "It really is a great place to live."
"Thank you, but I intend to leave tomorrow."
Laidir grins. "If Deerdra lets you." He gently pulls on the horses reigns. "Come on boys and girls, time for your rubdown."
Xena perks up at his remark. "What was that crack about?"
Gabrielle echos the sentiment. "What did he mean by if you let me leave?"
Deerdra knows she needs to disarm Gabrielle, now, or she won't get her inside to see the physician. "He means I'll let you leave when you are well enough to travel." "I'm not about to turn you loose among the vultures if you're too weak to defend yourself."
That makes sense to Gabrielle, but she's been burned to many times to take anyone at their word, especially someone she's just met. "Thanks for your concern, but all I need is a good nights sleep and some medicine for my arm."
Deerdra knows better. "Uh, huh. " We'll see what the physician says." "Think you can make it up the stairs or should Ladair carry you?"
Gabrielle looks up. "How many are there?"
Deerdra chukles. "One-hundred and nintey-five."
Xena looks in the direction in which Ladir left with the horses. "Why don't we just follow him?"
Gabrielle asks aloud. "Why don't we go with Laidir and the horses?"
"The livestock entrance?" "Oh, no." "You have to go through the main entrance to get the full effect." "I promise it will be worth the trip...if you're up to it that is." More gentle prodding to get her inside.
Gabrielle pauses to access how she feels. "That nap really helped so...let's go!"
During their trek, Xena studies this new 'ally'. There was something in her tone when she handed the urn back to Gabrielle that has her uneasy. Xena wonders. "She doesn't look familliar, but she sure knows me...or maybe the old me." Her expression is hard. "And has an axe to grind."
Deerdra purposly slows her walk so as not to aggrivate Gabriellle's fever. She's still pooped by the time they arrive at Lorrania's two massive wooden doors.
"Whew, I need to rest a moment before we go inside."
Socair directs her to a carved wooden bench hidden in the ivy. "Here you go, little one."
"Oh, thank you." "I see that I'm not the first guest who needed to take a break."
Xena examines the stonework of the wall. "Ask her how long this place has been here."
"So, Deerdra, how long has this city been here?" "I've never heard of it before now."
Deerdra grins. "As long as I have." "My brother, Lor and I built it in honor of our mother, Lorraine." "We keep the location a secret to protect her citizens."
"Protect them from what?"
“Thieves, warlords--their old lives, you name it.” "Everything except the law, that is."
Xena put her hands on her hips. "That's good to hear." "So what's it made of?"
"What makes the walls appear to be floating like a cloud?"
Xena realizes the answer. "It's the dirt."
Deerdra scoops up a handful. "It's the dirt, see how it glistens in the sunlight." "When my brother and I frst ran across this place, we thought that it was snow or maybe a mirage." "Then we thought how good a disgiuse this would make for a city of outcasts." "So, after a lot of blood, sweat, and swearing...viola!" "A city in the clouds." "If you're rested, I'm eager to get your reaction to the city it's self."
"After all this build up, I'm eager to see it."
Xena nods. "So am I."
"Okay, here we go." Deerda pushes on the massive doors and as they glide open, she spreads her arms wide . "Welcome to Lorrania!"
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