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Disclaimer: As much as I would like to claim Xena and Gabrielle as mine they are not and never will be my property. I am just borrowing them and their little world to play around in for awhile. You know the real creative minds behind these wonderful characters and their universe are MCA, Renaissance, and Co. and to them the rights of the Xenaverse belong. :)
Warnings: Hmm, only a little bit of violence, nothing very descriptive. Unless you're really squeamish about a small bit of blood here and there, you should be able to retain your meal during all times of this tale. (Well, all I can say is that you won't get sick from any graphic illustrations of violence/gore. However, as for the plot line and writing ... ;^O)
Author's forenotes: This story was written while I was still watching some of the second season; I think the last episode I saw before finishing it was "Return of Callisto." All things within here should be somewhat accurate to that point of the series (at least I'm hoping it is.) Where in the timeline this story falls I'm not really sure ... you're guess is as good as mine! :) This story was originally began in Nov. 1996 and was wrapped up around early Jan. 1997. Thanks for reading!
Credits: First and foremost, much applause must go to my editor
and HTML encoder, Rebekah. Without her, none of this would have ever been
possible. Thank you bunches, my friend. Thanks also go out to Lunacy (esp.
for her great patience with me ;)), along with the countless others who
have encouraged me to finally put this thing somewhere permanent. See,
I told you I would get to it before the turn of the century! Also, thank
you to Beth for some last-minute editing, and to Imbri for her cheerful
support. Also, any grammar mistakes found within the piece are my fault
entirely ... I should've been paying more attention in grammar school.
This piece is lovingly dedicated to Sam Holbus (1992-1996). We're thinking about you.
The fire was warm and bright underneath the cold scattering of stars. Dancing and waving, the cheery flames seemed to have a life of their own as they jumped about on the wood beneath them. However, the real warmth of the night could be seen not in the blaze, but in the two women who sat beside it. One, dark haired and lean with the knowledge of ages past, turned a wooden spit on which a skinned rabbit was slowly cooking. The other one, smaller and obviously younger, was busy sawing away on a piece of wood. There was an air of innocence around the latter that was absent from her companion as she carefully shaved the block she was holding. Slowly, yet surely, the hunk of wood began to take shape. However, the sculptor did not seem to be happy with the way the figure was forming and finally sighed impatiently.
"I just don't think I'm going to get this right." She put the block of wood down.
"I thought it was going pretty well." Her companion smiled slightly. "I never knew you had such a skill for carving."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It was something I picked up when I was little. Although we were not exactly poor, we never did have enough dinars to spend on a lot of toys and stuff. Me an' Lila had to learn to make our own." Her eyes grew thoughtful as she passed a hand over the half-formed figure. "Lila always said that if I didn't make it as a bard, I could always try this trade."
"She was right. That's a pretty good dog that you have there," Xena remarked.
"It's supposed to be a horse. This is Argo," Gabrielle retorted, but smiled anyway. Xena rarely gave compliments, and the bard had learned to take them when she could. She was glad that her friend had found one of her passive skills worth something. An annoyed whinny told her that not everyone thought her craft was admirable.
"At least this talent of yours doesn't involve noise," Xena continued and grinned as Gabrielle shot her an annoyed glare. Actually, Gabrielle had turned to wood working as a way to vent her creative soul without annoying her friend too much. Xena had enough frustrations in her life without Gabrielle adding any more to the burden. However, she was not going to let her friend's comment pass without her own remark.
"Just because you don't enjoy my pan flute playing doesn't mean that no one else will. And what's wrong with my storytelling?"
"There's nothing wrong with your stories. I just don't like hearing about myself. But I wouldn't say the same about your pan flute. Play that and we're liable to get run out of every village."
"Hmph. Everyone's a critic!" Gabrielle turned back to regard the wood carving again. "This is just awful. The wood's not shaping the way I want it to."
"That's life for you. It rarely takes a form that we want. A turn of the blade, a twist in the wrong direction, then you have one big mess." Xena had a distant look in her eyes. "Sometimes I wonder if our whole lives are like that, pieces of wood waiting to be carved by the hands of the Fates. Yet, perhaps we are the ones who carve what we become."
Gabrielle looked up curiously. The warrior was in a rare philosophical mood. However, before she could question her friend about that train of thought, Xena shook her head and her eyes cleared.
"Anyway, dinner's ready. Do you want the haunch or the belly?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "You pick." When she had first joined up with Xena, she had quailed at the thought of eating the cute furry animals that made up their usual fare. Although with time, she had gotten used to dining on what Xena caught, Gabrielle still could not bring herself to hunt her own dinner. The thought of killing an innocent animal with her own hands made Gabrielle's stomach turn and stemmed the bard's usually voracious appetite.
Xena caught her friend's expression and hid a soft smile. "You know, you're going to have to learn how to catch your own food one of these days. I can't always be around to do this."
"Look, I already know how to set a live snare," Gabrielle replied. "I just never seem to catch anything."
Cutting the roast meat, Xena made sure the bard couldn't see the amused look on her face. The truth to the matter was that Gabrielle could be quite proficient about setting a trap if she wanted to be. Compared to the other skills that she had learned from Xena, trapping food should have been one of the easier tasks. The bard did fairly well with catching fish, and that was a pretty difficult trick in itself. However, the more fuzzy and cute the animal was, the more Gabrielle seemed to bungle her traps. The bard's heart was just too soft to be a good hunter or a good killer. Xena loved her young friend for that trait. So she was the one that caught their dinners, while Gabrielle was the one that did most of the eating. When the warrior looked up again, her face was impassive as she flipped the haunch piece to her friend.
Gabrielle caught it easily and bit down eagerly. "This is good," she managed to say between bites.
"Get as much as you can into your system," Xena replied seriously, all traces of humor gone. "Tomorrow we'll be traveling into dangerous territory and I won't be able to stop to catch anything."
Nodding her understanding, Gabrielle swallowed and glanced worriedly toward the direction they would be taking.
"Do you think we'll actually be of any help?"
Xena followed her gaze. "I don't know. All we can do is try. The people around here have been terrorized so long by Falceus that I don't know if they have the spirit to fight back."
"You'll give them the spirit, Xena. You could rally any army," Gabrielle cheerfully stated.
"I know," Xena said softly as she finished her part of the rabbit. Gabrielle gulped as she realized her mistake. "I once rallied my own village to war."
Xena quietly looked to where her sword lay, always within arm's reach. "But this is different. These people have been living under Falceus' heel for more than two decades. A human soul can only last so long before it breaks."
"Xena ..." Gabrielle began, but the warrior cut her off as she drew a quick sketch of their route in the dirt around the campfire.
"We'll be going in the back way. I know Falceus; we have a ... history. Although he's a cunning strategist and great leader, he's also very superstitious. He rarely takes his chances with the gods." Xena made some rough scratches into the dust. "The chief city is Realthan, about two to three days hard ride from here. At last report, Falceus is away from home at the moment, fighting a war against the Centaurs. He's at least a four days' march away, and the realm is now protected with a scant back guard. That should make things a bit easier." She sketched out a couple of triangles. "This is Spirit's Glade. He rarely ever takes a patrol through these woods. We should be able to pass through unnoticed, and there's a small town at the edge of the glade, called Cyanthus. We will be safe there as we take stock of the situation."
Frowning slightly, Gabrielle leaned forward to study the drawing. "I don't know Xena ... I've heard stories about Spirit's Glade. It's a favorite stomping place of the demigod Pan. He's got a bad reputation of turning people into things ... I remember one story about a guy named Midas and something happening to his ears." She gulped. "Also, it's said to be haunted. Weird things happen there ... people go in, but they don't come out, at least, not in their original state of being."
Xena snorted. "Don't tell me that you're scared of a few fairy tales."
"I'm not scared!" Gabrielle declared "At least, not much. Are you sure there isn't another way?"
"Not one that doesn't run us right into Falceus' border patrol," Xena replied. "I don't want to take chances this time. We need to see what condition the people are in before we try anything."
Gabrielle gave in reluctantly. Already, she was having a bad feeling about this. Last time they hadn't listened to her ideas for a better route, something terrible had happened. Xena must have remembered the incident, too. She looked up, eyes haunted.
"I'm certain that this is the best choice, Gabrielle. It's the only way we can get in without a confrontation that could reveal our plans to Falceus."
Giving her friend a reassuring smile, Gabrielle returned to her wood carving. "I'm sure you're right." She finished a curl for the tail of the horse and started working on the mane. Gabrielle had been working on the piece for days now, and she had hoped to finish it before they embarked on their next adventure.
"What are you going to do with that once it's completed?" Xena asked, changing the topic suddenly.
"Oh, I don't know." In her heart, Gabrielle had been hoping to give the piece to Xena as a present, but was very hesitant to do so. What would a Warrior Princess want with a wooden figure of a horse anyway? Xena did not look like the kind of girl who liked to play with dolls. "Maybe it'll fetch a few dinars in a marketplace somewhere."
"Maybe." Xena watched as Gabrielle lovingly carved another lock of hair into the wood. As with anything she did, the bard was putting one hundred percent of her soul into making the work of art. "You could sell it as an souvenir of the Trojan War."
"Very funny." Gabrielle yawned.
"You should get some sleep. We have a busy day ahead of us."
"Yes, mother." The bard smirked. "Just a little longer, huh? I'm nearly finished."
"Very well." Xena kept the disapproving look on her face, but her eyes softened as she watched the bard at work. By the gods, she was lucky to have Gabrielle for a friend. Even though to outsiders, the bard seemed to be more a burden than anything else, Xena knew that she would be lost without her. Many asked why she would keep such an annoying chatterbox around, but they just did not understand. Gabrielle was a light to Xena's dark soul; proof that even she, once a despised warlord herself, could regain some measure of self worth. She shuddered. If anything were to happen to the bard, Xena did not know what would happen to her soul.
Gabrielle, perhaps keying into her friend's moody thoughts, put down the carving and came over to hug the warrior. Startled, Xena pulled away.
"What was that for?"
"To thank you for always being there for me," the bard said simply as she returned to her place by the campfire and resumed her carving. "I'd be lost without you."
"Don't be ridiculous. You'd do just fine."
"No maybes about it," Xena said warmly, although she was still a bit shaken. Had Gabrielle become a mind reader now? Xena stole another look at the open, innocent face. No. If Gabrielle could indeed read minds, then she would have gone crazy a long time ago picking up the thoughts of the Warrior Princess. Xena grimaced. Sometimes, her thoughts were not something she was extremely proud of. She turned back to Gabrielle, a half smile playing on her face. "Of course, you might starve, but otherwise, you'd be all right."
Gabrielle smiled. "Who's to say that I would go hungry? There's more to eat in the woods than just rabbits, you know. But you're right about one thing ... you don't need to feel so responsible for me."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"You know." Gabrielle stopped when she saw that the warrior really did not have a clue as to what she meant. "You don't have to worry so much."
"Who says I worry?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and a Cyclops has two eyes. Really, Xena, I'm a big girl. I know how to take care of myself, as you said. Now stop worrying about something happening to me."
"I wasn't," Xena declared firmly.
Knowing that her friend wouldn't budge from her position, Gabrielle finished the last few strokes with her blade and put the figure down as she prepared for bed. Taking out the bed roll, Gabrielle looked at the flickering flames of the fire as they haloed the little wooden horse. Fond images of her own childhood popped into mind as she spread out her blankets.
"What was your childhood like?" Gabrielle slid into the covers of her bed.
"It was ... acceptable. I really can't remember, it was so long ago."
"I hope it was fun." The bard's voice was heavy with sleep.
Xena stared into the flames. "Yes, it was," she replied softly, but Gabrielle was already fast asleep. Taking up her own sleeping position, with Gabrielle in plain sight, Xena made sure that her weapons were in easy reach before reclining comfortably with her head propped on one arm. As usual, she knew that there would be little sleep that night. Instead, almost as if the thoughts were drawn out by the bard's sleepy words, Xena remembered her own childhood, the days of innocence and laughter, before she knew the world of the blade and sword, before Cortez and his army, and before she had taken her first life. The days when she, like Gabrielle, was free spirited and light hearted.
"Those days are gone forever," she whispered quietly, before dropping off into a light, uneasy sleep.
The wind caught her words and carried them quickly over the earth. In the distance, the large forest heard and waited.
Morning dawned much too early for Gabrielle's liking. It seemed like as soon as she put her head down, it was time to get up again. Groaning faintly, the bard tried to ignore Xena as the warrior attempted to shake her best friend into some form of consciousness.
"Get up, lazy bones. It's time to go." Sharp shaking emphasized each word.
Gabrielle just turned over to her other side, much to Xena's annoyance. "Just a couple more minutes, please?"
"Now, Gabrielle. We need to get going."
"Aww ..." Another sleepy groan emitted from the stack of blankets. "The sun's barely up."
"It's high enough to see by." Xena had given up on the shaking tactic and just glared at her friend in exasperation. She was beginning to get a little annoyed. Looking around, Xena wondered if there was any water handy. As if sensing her friend's next plan, Gabrielle pawed her way out of her blankets before the warrior had the chance to even start toward the bucket.
"I'm up." The bard blinked blearily as she stumbled her way out of bed. She quickly straightened her hair and rolled up her bedding. "Where's breakfast?"
"You'll have to eat it on foot. I plan to be out of Spirit's Glade by noon." Xena whistled to Argo, who came trotting up obediently. Gabrielle looked at the horse enviously. Argo had already grazed her fill on the sweet green grass that surrounded the campsite. It just wasn't fair, the bard thought grumpily as she munched on a hard, dry biscuit.
Her mood didn't improve once she saw Spirit's Glade. The dark forest seemed to have an ominous air, even in the bright morning daylight. Gabrielle shivered as she neared the trees. Even Argo seemed uncertain about entering the glade and kept looking at Xena for reassurance. The warrior patted her absently as she scanned the tree line, looking until she found a worn trail near the center of the forest.
"Xena, I really don't think that's a path," Gabrielle ventured when she saw where Xena intended to go. "It looks almost like a deer trail."
"That's because it is one," Xena replied.
"We can't follow a deer trail!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Who knows where we will end up?"
"I know where we're going. Are you saying that you don't trust me?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"No, it's not that," Gabrielle said quickly. "It's just that I've heard so many stories about people getting lost in places like that ..."
"You don't have to come if you don't want to," Xena replied as she urged Argo forward.
Gabrielle watched her go, torn between her apprehension and her loyalty to her best friend. The struggle lasted only a fraction of a second before she was running after Xena.
"Hey, wait up."
In the eerie green gloom, the noises in the forest sounded surreal and unnatural. Strange shapes fluttered in the underbrush, and Gabrielle swore she could see something big flitting just out of the corner of her eye. Unconsciously, she drew closer to Xena and Argo and clutched her staff even more tightly. Every sound made her jump, and every bit of movement made her whirl, ready for an attack.
"Don't be so uptight." Xena tried to calm the nervous bard down. "There's nothing here but the trees and the regular forest animals."
"Have you ever asked why they're the only ones here?" Gabrielle shivered.
"That's because most of the population is scared of this place, like you are. That includes Falceus," Xena remarked. "There's nothing to these woods, Gabrielle, only your overactive imagination."
"Are you so sure about that, mortal?" The sudden sound of a voice to their left made them both spin around. A strange being sat grinning on a rock near the side of the path. Neither centaur nor human, but a curious mixture, nonetheless, the apparition seemed to be half goat and half man. Jumping off his perch and landing neatly on his two cloven hooves, he looked at the two disdainfully. "You seem so certain, Warrior Princess."
"Pan, I presume." Xena arched an eyebrow. "I mean you no trouble or disrespect, but my friend and I must pass through here in order stop the warlord Falceus. Let us through."
"I've heard of Falceus. Nasty piece of work, isn't he? But he knows better than to trouble my woods, so I have no quarrel with him. You, on the other hand, seem to be trespassing."
"We didn't mean to," Gabrielle spoke up. "We only wanted to help some people who really need us. This was the only safe way through."
"Mortal business is not my concern. Now let me see, what would be the proper punishment for two ladies such as yourself? Would you like to be frogs, maybe?" Pan scratched his horned head. "Nah, too warty. Besides, if a prince came along, all he'd have to do is kiss you. How about worms? No, too squishy. I've got it! You ..." he pointed to Gabrielle, "... would make a nice parrot, since you do tend to talk so much. And you, Warrior Princess, what would you say to being a skunk? I think you'd look marvelous in black and white fur. Plus, you have a habit of raising up a stink wherever you go ..."
"Pan, we don't have time for your childish pranks. Now let us pass!" Xena was obviously losing her patience. The little faun chuckled in glee.
"Childish, am I? Well, Xena, let's see who's real child here!" The master of the woodlands waved an arm. Suddenly, a blinding light enveloped all of them, and for a few minutes, the woods glowed brighter than day. When the light finally subsided, Gabrielle ran over to where she had last seen Xena and Argo.
"What was that all about?" she muttered as she spotted the horse. Her heart skipped a beat when she realized Xena was not on the saddle. "Xena?!? Where are you?"
"Over here," said a small voice. Gabrielle blinked. That had not sounded like her best friend. Running around to the other side of Argo, the bard got the shock of her life. There, still dressed in her now oversized armor, was a five-year-old Warrior Princess.
After draping and belting one of her own shirts over the shivering child, Gabrielle folded Xena's armor and battle dress and tucked it into a saddlebag. She then turned to face her young friend.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," the girl said shakily. "But I wanna go home. I don't like it here."
"Well, ... Xena ... I would like to take you home, but I'm kinda lost myself." Gabrielle looked hopelessly at the trees as she tried to remember which way to go. All around her, the deer path forked out in many directions, and the trail they had left before had mysteriously vanished.
"Well, I wanna go home. Mommy and Daddy will be very mad at you if you don't take me." The girl stared icily at Gabrielle.
"Okay. Come on, get onto Argo." Gabrielle tried to plan what to do next.
"Why not?" Gabrielle looked at her in surprise. "I'll give you a boost." She walked toward Xena, but the girl reacted by stomping the bard's foot. Gabrielle yowled in surprise. "Why did you do that?"
"I'm not supposed to take rides from strangers," she replied stubbornly, not once taking her eyes off Gabrielle.
"I'm Gabrielle. I'm your friend," Gabrielle said soothingly as the startling realization sunk in. This was not Xena in a five-year-old body. This was a five-year-old Xena. And like any child her age, Xena was feeling insecure and frightened since she was in an unfamiliar location with a complete stranger. However, instead of bursting into tears like any other five-year-old would, the miniature warrior had decided to put up a fight.
"Ga-breee-yell." Xena screwed up her face. "Funny name."
"You should be the one to talk," Gabrielle snorted. Seeing Xena's angry look, she relented. "You can call me Gabby, if you want. Are we friends?"
"No. I want to go home." Xena crossed her arms and glared. Even though she was taller than Xena now, Gabrielle still felt a little unnerved by the ferocity in her friend's eyes.
"Have it your way," the bard said flippantly. "C'mon, Argo." She grabbed the horse's reins, hoping with all her might that the horse would play along. Argo must have sensed Gabrielle's growing frustration, for she followed the bard docilely. Both of them walked down the trail, as if they were going to leave the young Xena behind. Minutes later, Gabrielle let out a breath in relief as she heard the sound of little bare feet running to catch up with them.
"Decided to change your mind?" she asked. Xena looked away from her. "I promise I won't hurt you." The little girl cocked her head, then nodded.
"Okay, we'll be friends," Xena replied. Gabrielle let a warm smile break out on her face.
"Do you want a ride now that we aren't strangers?"
Xena seemed to consider that for a moment. Finally, she held up her arms. Gabrielle carefully lifted the little girl onto Argo's back. Xena seemed pitifully small in the enormous saddle, and she had to cling onto saddle horn and mane as Argo broke into a slow trot. To her credit, the trained war horse made her gait as smooth as possible, so not to jar her little passenger loose.
"Are we going home?"
"I'm afraid I don't know where we're going," Gabrielle admitted reluctantly. "Only you knew your way through the forest and now ..."
"Never mind." Gabrielle looked at her surroundings warily. "I just hope there aren't any other nasty surprises lurking around."
"If there are, I'll just bash them with a rock," Xena declared boldly. "I'm really good at that you know, and fighting with sticks. I like your stick, though."
"It's not a stick, it's an Amazon staff." Gabrielle grinned at the look of fascination that crossed Xena's face.
"I want to be an Amazon someday," she informed the bard. "How did you meet one?"
"Well, it's a long story." Gabrielle picked her way through the forest growth. "But I'll tell it to you, if you like." At Xena's eager nod, she began. "It happened when Xena and I ..."
"Um ... er ..." Gabrielle fumbled. "More like your big sister."
"I don't have one," the little girl pouted. "I have a younger brother and an older one, but no big sisters."
"Well, she's not exactly your *sister* but something close to that," Gabrielle hedged. Xena seemed to be satisfied with that answer, and the bard began her story again. While she was telling the tale, Gabrielle quietly began to mark her trail. There had to be a way out of Spirit's Glade. The only problem was to find it. After hours upon hours of fruitless searching, Gabrielle was worn out. She had already told Xena three more tales, and the little girl was beginning to look tired.
"Gabby, I'm hungry," she finally spoke up. With a start, Gabrielle realized that they had skipped lunch entirely.
"It's almost evening ... let's make camp. I don't think we'll make it out of the woods before nightfall anyway."
Scouting around, Gabrielle spotted a small clearing just ahead of them. She steered Argo toward it. Gabrielle helped Xena down from the saddle and started unloading the mare. The little girl helped the bard the best she could by carrying the items further into the clearing and depositing them down near where Gabrielle had marked their camp to be. The bard had to admire the young one's spirit. Xena had not complained once during their search, not even when informed that they probably would not make it home that night. Taking the last of the supplies from Argo's back, Gabrielle hefted them toward where Xena was sitting on a stump.
"Hey, I'm going to go look for some firewood," Gabrielle said as cheerfully as possible. "You stay here and watch over our stuff."
"You're gonna to leave me alone here?" Wide blue eyes regarded her with a tinge of fear. The bard gulped.
"You won't be alone. Argo will keep you company. Besides, I need you to dig a fire pit for me. Here, I'll show you how ..."
"I already know," Xena said disdainfully. "My daddy taught me."
"Great!" Gabrielle patted the little girl on the back. "Then I'll leave that to you. If you need me, just shout. I'll be near." Taking up her staff, the bard walked toward the woods. "Take care of her, Argo," she muttered to the horse as she passed. The palomino snorted her compliance.
Remaining within earshot of their makeshift campsite, Gabrielle quietly began to set the traps that would catch their dinner. She tried not to think about her situation or about how much she missed her best friend. What would they do now? If Pan chose not to reverse the spell, would Xena have to live her life again? On one hand that would not be too bad, Gabrielle reflected. The young girl had a sense of peace and innocence that Gabrielle had never seen before in the older woman. However, the world truly needed the Warrior Princess right now, especially the townspeople under Falceus. Gabrielle shook her head. Either way, the first thing she had to do was to get Xena out of the woods and into a more secure location. When they were both safe, then she could plan what she was going to do next. Gathering up an armful of firewood, the bard headed back into camp.
Xena had managed to dig a fairly decent firepit and had lined it with a bunch of rocks. Gabrielle eyed the youngster's creation and felt impressed. Even she, on her first night with Xena, had not done so well.
"You did a great job," she told the girl and was rewarded with a beaming smile. Putting the tinder and the wood into the pit, Gabrielle took out the pieces of flint from the saddle bags and quickly built up a fire. "That should keep us warm for the night."
"Yup," Xena agreed. "Is there any dinner? I'm hungry. Do we have any roast boar? Or honey cakes? I like honey cakes."
"Sorry, all we have are hard biscuits." Gabrielle got up and rummaged in the saddlebags. "But maybe, with some luck, we'll have some rabbit."
"Mmmm ... I hope so." Xena licked her lips eagerly. Gabrielle tossed her one of the biscuits.
"Start on that. I'm going to check my traps. Stay here," she instructed Xena, who nodded in reply. Gabrielle walked cautiously into the darkening woods. The first four snares were empty. Gabrielle tried not to show her disappointment as she headed for her fifth one. To her surprise, a rabbit was wriggling furiously in the rope harness. Moving quickly, the bard untangled the snare line and stood there for a moment, watching the rabbit as it struggled and squealed in alarm. His soft brown eyes seemed to bore into hers. Gabrielle took out her knife, the same one she had been using to carve the night before, and held it hesitantly at the creature's neck. One quick slash was all it took. Yet, she could barely move her hand. The sound of a twig snapping behind her made her spin around, wielding the knife protectively in front of her. To her relief, it was only Xena.
"I thought I told you to stay in camp," she said as she lowered the blade.
"I heard some noises," Xena explained, and Gabrielle saw that the little girl was clutching a rock. "I got scared."
"It's okay." Gabrielle hefted up the rabbit by the ears. "It was only him."
Xena looked at the struggling rabbit, then at Gabrielle, then back at the rabbit again. "What are you going to do with him?"
"Well, he's dinner." Gabrielle gestured with the knife. "As soon as I can skin him."
Xena winced. "You're gonna kill him?" she asked in a small voice. Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded.
"Oh." Deep blue eyes filled with tears and Xena turned away abruptly. Gabrielle came over and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, it's okay. We don't have to, if you don't want to. To tell you the truth, I've never done this sort of thing before and I wasn't looking forward to it either. If you don't mind a biscuit dinner, then I'll let him go."
"Really?" the little girl turned to her, eyes hopeful. "I don't mind biscuits at all."
"Me neither." Gabrielle replied and quickly slit the trap line around the animal's neck and let go. The rabbit bounded out of sight. Xena watched it go, a satisfied smile on her face. Gabrielle grinned in return and both of them headed back toward the campfire.
"My big sister Xena probably wouldn't have cried," the little girl said suddenly, almost ashamed.
Gabrielle handed her another biscuit and gently looked into the youngster's eyes. "No, she wouldn't have. But there's nothing wrong in crying, Xena. Nothing wrong at all. It just showed that you cared and caring is a good thing." The bard leaned back against a tree. "I think that your big sister would have been proud of what you did today. I know I am."
"I'm glad you're here with me, Gabby. I would be so scared if you weren't." Xena's eyes drooped.
"I'm glad that you're here, too," Gabrielle replied honestly, then smiled softly. The little girl had already fallen asleep. Spreading out a bed of blankets, she gently wiped the biscuits crumbs away from Xena's mouth before carrying the dark-haired youngster over to the blankets and tucking her in. Kissing the top of Xena's head, Gabrielle whispered good night and prayed to Morpheus for sweet dreams to visit her young friend. Then she made her own bed and prepared for the long evening ahead.
Morning came after a relatively uneventful night. Gabrielle was a bit tired, for she had been unable to sleep a wink. However, she was ready to start moving when the first rays of sunlight hit the forest canopy. She did not want to spend any more time in the woods and was eager to resume the search for a way out. Xena, on the other hand, was feeling a little cranky.
"I don't wanna have biscuits," she declared when Gabrielle presented her with another one of the tasteless lumps of dough. "They're yucky. I want some honey cakes."
"I don't have any," said the patient bard. "All I have are biscuits."
"But I want honey cakes," Xena pouted. "And some sheep's milk."
"I'm sorry, but there's only water," Gabrielle stated firmly as she lifted the girl onto Argo. "You can eat and drink as you ride."
The little girl squirmed unhappily in the saddle. "I don't wanna ride. I wanna walk."
"You can't. You don't have any shoes and that could be dangerous."
"You're walking," Xena pointed out.
"Well, I have boots, and besides, Argo can't take both of us on this type of terrain." Gabrielle decided not to mention the fact the she was scared to death of horses. "Tell you what. If you stay quiet and eat your biscuit, then I'll tell you a story."
"I don't want a story, and I don't want to ride." Xena threw her biscuit away, which landed with a loud clonk noise on the ground. Gabrielle blinked. The kid sure had an arm. "I want some honey cakes."
Patiently, the bard launched into one of her more exciting stories. As she had hoped, Xena became so intrigued by the tale that the girl forgot about their situation. However, all too soon, Gabrielle reached the end of the story, and Xena began to fidget again. Abruptly, she hopped off Argo, nearly giving Gabrielle a heart attack as she landed quite agilely on the ground. Before the startled bard could react, the girl had scampered away.
"Wait, Xena ... come back!" Gabrielle called after the wayward figure.
"I'm tired of riding. Catch me if you can!" Xena stuck her tongue out at the pursuing bard.
"I thought you wanted to get out of here." Gabrielle was slowly gaining ground as she ducked and swerved her way through the trees.
Ever the strategist, Xena saw that she would soon be caught if she remained at the pace she was going. Quickly, she changed her tactics and decided to go for an aerial assault instead. Catching the limb of a tree, the girl easily swung up the lowest branches. In minutes, Xena found herself high above the ground with an angry-looking Gabrielle below her.
"Get down from there!" the bard yelled. "You might fall, or worse!"
"Come and get me," Xena challenged. Gabrielle gulped. Heights had never been the bard's strong point.
"Please, Xena? We've got to get out of here!" pleaded Gabrielle. A hard, spiky acorn was dropped onto her head as a reply. Rubbing the spot where it hit, the bard tried to take herself out of the range of fire, but Xena was amazingly accurate with her throws.
"Hey, quit that! Look, I'm serious, Xena. We've gotta go." Gabrielle dodged another nut. "Don't make me come up there."
"I don't think you can," Xena giggled. "You're too big. The whole tree'd fall down."
Gabrielle gripped her staff in frustration as she glared at the young mischief maker. Xena was right, of course. There was no way in Hades that the bard could ever hope to reach her. Sighing, Gabrielle wondered how long it would take before Xena became hungry enough to abandon her perch. She also wondered if she had ever been so much trouble to her parents when she was younger.
"Gabby!" Xena said excitedly. "I see something ..." Waving her arms and pointing, the girl gestured to something in the distance. Unfortunately, her motions unbalanced her from her seat. Teetering wildly, the child grabbed at another branch as the one beneath her gave a loud crack.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelped, her heart in her mouth. "Hang on!" Pushing down her own fears, Gabrielle shimmied up the tree trunk, as skillful as any of her Amazon sisters. Working her way through the branches, Gabrielle watched as Xena clung to a small limb, barely holding on. Gritting her teeth, the bard pushed herself upwards, unconsciously selecting in her mind the branches that she knew could hold her weight. Finally, she was there.
"Take my hand," she said firmly.
"I can't reach." Xena looked frightened.
"Of course you can," Gabrielle said as calmly as she could. "Just put your hand out and grab."
"You're too far away."
"No, I'm not. Just give me your hand," Gabrielle coaxed as she reinforced her grip on the unsteady limb she was on. Hesitantly, Xena let go of the branch with one hand and extended it out to Gabrielle. Reaching out as far as she could, the bard felt their fingers brush, then connect.
"Now let go of the branch with your other hand," Gabrielle said soothingly. "Don't worry, I've got you."
Xena nodded, and Gabrielle felt the girl loosen her hold on the branch. Then a sudden, tearing weight jarred her whole body and the bard had to strain not to lose her grip.
"Gabrielle ... don't let go."
"I won't." Gabrielle mustered her strength and swung the child to safety. Xena expertly caught a lower branch and quickly worked her way down. The bard closed her eyes in relief as she steadied herself.
"Gabby, you can come down now," a small voice called upwards.
"Uh ... sure," Gabrielle said weakly as she struggled for a toehold. Somehow, getting down was a lot tougher than going up. Feeling her way slowly, the bard gingerly inched her way toward the ground. When she finally reached it, she collapsed in relief.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be bad," a contrite voice told her. Looking up, Gabrielle smiled softly.
"It's okay. No real damage done. Just listen to what I say in the future, all right?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena promised earnestly, but to the bard's surprise, she headed straight up the tree again.
"What did I just say to you?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Isn't almost falling out once enough of a warning?"
"I'm not going to fall again," Xena replied confidently. "Besides, I saw something." The girl seemed to gather her bearings, then scooted down from the tree again. Gabrielle followed, feeling a little mystified as Xena led her on a winding course through the trees. She tensed as she heard sounds coming from the direction they were heading and readied her staff in case there was trouble.
Suddenly, the trees parted way to show a small glade. Gabrielle caught her breath. It was beautiful. Sunlight danced and sparkled on a little laughing brook that ran its way through the middle of the grassy expanse. Butterflies fluttered in between flowers, and all around them there could be heard the buzzing of bees. However, the thing that had drawn Xena's interest was the source of an intense braying sound. Rounding an enormous rock, Gabrielle found Xena kneeling by a small white goat, who had its hind leg trapped in a crevice of stone.
"That's strange," the bard muttered to herself. "A wild goat? No, it must be one of Pan's flock that got separated from the others."
"We're going to help it, right?" Xena spoke up suddenly.
"I don't know. We've already had one encounter with Pan ... I'm not sure I want to meet him again."
"But he's just a baby, and he needs us." Xena watched as the little creature struggled to free itself. Gabrielle let her hands fall helplessly to her side when she saw the pleading look that both the goat and the little girl gave her.
"You said that a Warrior Princess helps people in trouble," Xena reminded her. The bard was already working on freeing the trapped leg.
"Yeah, that's something she does best," Gabrielle said as the hoof popped loose, sending her flying backward with twenty pounds of wiggling goat pressed down on her chest. Amid the sounds of Xena's giggles and the frantic bleating of the goat, Gabrielle got up, brushing the grass from her dress. The released goat hobbled around in a circle.
Xena stopped her laughter. "He's hurt ..." she said in a soft voice. Gabrielle caught the animal and examined him.
"I think it's just a sprain. He'll be fine in a couple of days. Still, can you find me a strong piece of straight wood? I'd like to make a splint for him."
Xena immediately ran off and brought back a suitable stick. Gabrielle ripped a small part of her dress, which was becoming even more soiled than usual, and gently wrapped the animal's foot. The goat, finding its leg feeling a lot better, bleated its thanks, and headed back into the woods. Xena looked like she wanted to follow it, but Gabrielle stopped her with a glance.
"He'll be fine. We'd better get back to Argo." Gabrielle took the little girl's hand, and they started back through the woods. Luckily, Argo was still where they had left her. The horse looked up at them as if annoyed, then whickered. Gabrielle put Xena back into the saddle, and gave Argo a fond pat.
"Sorry about that, girl," she said. Argo snorted, but started walking as soon as Gabrielle took up the reins. "I just wish we knew where we were going."
"Maybe he knows!" Xena pointed to a brown rabbit sitting patiently by the side of the road.
"A rabbit?" Gabrielle looked at the bunny. It looked awfully familiar ... The long-eared carrot eater tapped a fuzzy paw to the ground and looked at them pointedly.
"He wants us to follow him," Xena piped up confidently, as if communicating with rabbits was her specialty.
Gabrielle gave her a skeptical look, then shrugged. After all, what could it hurt? They could not possibly get any more lost. The rabbit led them through a maze of twists and turns, but in a shorter amount of time than Gabrielle thought possible, they were again under open sky. Their furry guide leaped up once, as if in salute, then left. The bard blinked. Was that a note of laughter she had just heard on the wind?
"At least we're out," she said to Xena, "Now, if I could just get you to a safe town somewhere, we might be able to fix this mess. I've had enough of trouble for one day."
"Me, too." The girl fiddled around with Argo's saddle bags as Gabrielle scanned the route ahead of them. "Hey, what's this?"
"Put that down." Gabrielle frowned. "That's a chakrum. You don't want to play around with it; it's dangerous."
"Looks kinda like a discus toy Toris has." Xena eyed the weapon curiously.
"Well, it's not a toy." Gabrielle walked back over to Argo and took the chakrum out of Xena's small hands. "You could hurt someone with it. I don't know how to use it either," she admitted.
Xena's eyes gleamed. "I bet the Warrior Princess knows."
"You could say that. Your ... uh ... big sister always had a way with that thing." Gabrielle tucked the weapon back into the saddlebags. "It was almost like an extension of her arm."
"I bet I could throw it just as good."
"Let's not try." Gabrielle looked at the girl seriously. "Like I said, it's a weapon, not a toy. You could kill somebody, especially if you don't know how to use it. Understand?"
"Yeah," Xena shrugged, although Gabrielle could tell that the girl had little idea of the damage that such a harmless looking "toy" could do. Gabrielle found herself wishing that Xena would never know. "I mean it, Xena. Don't touch."
"I won't," Xena promised, although Gabrielle had a nagging feeling that the topic would later resurface. Even as a child, Xena was not one to take orders.
"Good." Gabrielle checked the position of the sun. It was a little past noon. "Want some more biscuits for lunch, or do you want to wait till we see a village?"
"Wait. I don't wanna biscuit." Xena looked around her. "Where are we?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I don't know. I'm just glad we're out of the woods."
"I wouldn't say that just yet ..." a voice, sounding half drunk, made the bard spin around. Gabrielle saw a dirty looking man, armed with a sword, coming for her. A little down the road, she could see two more of his buddies ambling toward them.
"You're in Falceus' lands now, little girl. Dontcha know that there's road fines to be paid?" the man leered. "And guess what? Today's collection day!"
Gabrielle fought back her growing alarm as she watched the man approach her. She was sure she could take him easily, but if both of his companions decided to join in, then things could get a little sticky.
She abruptly slapped Argo on the rump. "Get her out of here!" she cried to the horse. Argo took off, with Xena clutching desperately at her mane. Gabrielle readied her staff and faced the coming soldiers.
"Why did you do that ?" the first one asked. "We could've had some fun with her. Oh well, after we rob and have our way with you, there'll be plenty of time to catch up with your little friend."
"You'll have to get through me first," Gabrielle growled, and without any further warning, she attacked. The man only had time to mutter a small grunt of surprise before Gabrielle clipped him in the temple. His two compatriots just stood there with their mouths agape as their friend slid face first into the dirt, unconscious. Gabrielle, meanwhile, had used the time to quickly close the distance between them. Before they could draw their swords, she had bopped a second in the groin and walloped the third in the stomach. For good measure, she whacked them both out.
"Well, that wasn't so bad," she grinned. But the smile quickly faded when she saw she had more company. Four more soldiers had entered the path. Seeing the state of their companions, they drew their swords and rushed at Gabrielle. She quickly took a defensive position, making sure that a tree trunk shielded her back. As she prepared herself, Gabrielle hoped that she had given Xena enough time to get away.
"Have you guys ever heard of a fair fight?" Gabrielle commented as she ducked the first sword blow. She blocked the second with her staff and managed to knock down another one of her attackers. Hit, parry, block, strike ... her staff was a blur of motion as she fought valiantly against her attackers. However, it was only a matter of time before she would be worn down, and the soldiers used this to their advantage. They were only teasing her as they waited for the easy kill. Gabrielle prepared to make her peace with Hades as all four began to move in.
"Yippee-yiyi hey!" A small voice rang through the air, distracting the men. Seeing her chance, Gabrielle knocked the closest one to her down. A stone thrown from Argo's saddle took care of the second soldier, while Argo got into the act by kicking down the third. The fourth and last one was dispatched by Gabrielle with a sharp blow to the head.
"I thought I told you two to run away," she said, glaring at Xena as she tied the soldiers up securely with a rope from the saddlebags.
"Argo didn't want to go," Xena explained. "And I wanted to help, too."
"Argo didn't, huh?" Gabrielle shook her head in exasperation, but gave the two a smile. "Although I wish you guys would listen to what I say, I'm glad you came back." The bard knotted the last of the rope around the seven soldiers. "Thanks."
Xena grinned. "Did ya like my war cry? Warrior Princesses have war cries, don't they?"
"It was a nice touch." Straightening her rumpled dress, Gabrielle looked up at the little girl fondly. "You could do something about the pitch though."
Xena gazed at the men as they lay groaning in the dirt. "Are they dead?"
"No. But they'll have awful headaches when they get up." Gabrielle gathered up Argo's reins. "Speaking of which, let's move on. I don't want to run into any more of these idiots."
"Me either." Xena looked at the trail ahead of them. "Do you know where we're going?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I'm afraid I do. Seems like our little rabbit friend led us to the wrong side of the forest. We're in Falceus' territory." She shuddered.
"A very nasty warlord. Xena and I ... that is, your older sister, wanted to come here and make him behave. Now that she's gone and you're here, I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
"I can beat him." Xena waved a fist enthusiastically. "Really, just let me at him! I'll teach him not to be bad!"
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "You'll have to wait until you're a little older. Right now, we've got to get you out of here. This is no place for a little kid, especially a little kid like you."
"I'm not little!" Xena gave another fierce punch into the air while trying to puff herself up on Argo's saddle.
"Okay, okay, you're not. But I do think some time out is necessary." Gabrielle tried to recall the map she had seen Xena, the older version, draw in the campsite. "First things first, I want to get to the village of Cyanthus. It's near the border of Spirit's Glade, so technically, there shouldn't be that many guards posted there. Of course, that was the same thing you said about this trail, and look where that got us. I just hope I'm headed in the right direction."
"Why don't you ask the people behind us for directions?" Xena asked.
Turning around, Gabrielle saw no one. "Who do you mean?"
"They're behind the hill," Xena pointed at the one they had just crossed. "I think they got scared when the soldiers attacked us. They ran and hid."
Gabrielle looked back at the trail they had left and waited. "If anyone is there, you can come out now. We won't hurt you."
Slowly, a pair of women emerged timidly from their hiding places. The bard sighed. She really had to sharpen her senses, she thought gloomily. First the soldiers and now these two had slipped past her defenses. If the other Xena was here, the warrior would have been disappointed with Gabrielle's lack of awareness. However, this was not the time to indulge in self-recrimination, the bard thought tiredly as she faced the two strangers.
"We saw you and the child take on the soldiers," one of them, a small mousy-looking brunette, began slowly, then hesitated. "Falceus will not be pleased when he learns of this. I think you better run."
"Hush, she'll do nothing of the sort!" The other motioned her companion to silence and smiled at Gabrielle. "I'm Janya, and this is Shaya, my sister. We heard that you're headed for Cyanthus. We live there, and we'd be glad to show you the way."
"But Janya ... they just attacked Falceus' troops. They'll be wanted for treason!"
Janya snorted. "Falceus is a superstitious goat. It's about time someone stood up to him."
"You shouldn't say such things, Janya." Shaya looked around warily. "What if someone should hear?"
"There's no one around." Janya turned to Gabrielle, eyes shining admiration. "You two must either be deities or warriors in disguise. I have never seen anyone with such courage!"
Gabrielle blushed modestly. "Actually, I'm just a traveling bard, and this ... is my friend. We kinda came here by mistake."
"How did you get past the border guards?" Shaya asked, astonishment plain on her face "They never let anyone through, except those who have business with Falceus."
"We came through Spirit's Glade. There weren't any troops posted there ... at least, there shouldn't have been any ..."
"You came through Spirit's Glade?" Janya was incredulous. "Then either true courage must run deep in your blood, or you must be a fool. No one has ever made it through those woods and come back to tell the tale. Not even Falceus dares to cross its borders."
"A friend of mine used to say that courage is the same thing as a fool with too big of a heart," Gabrielle replied with a smile.
"Your friend sounds wise," Janya gestured to the path. "Listen to us! Chattering as if we didn't have anything better to do. Come, the sooner we get you off the main road, the better. Shaya was right; when the rear guard discovers you've tied up the border patrol, then they'll be looking for you."
Gabrielle followed as Janya led the way. The landscape around them was lush and green, with a beauty that seemed almost out of place with the idea of a murderous warlord. As they moved closer to the village, fields began to appear, tended by teams of women. Seeing her gaze, Janya sighed.
"It's pretty, isn't it?" she said softly. Gabrielle was unsure of how to reply. Xena, however, nodded eagerly.
"Yeah." She looked up at the village. "Do you have many kids there?"
"Yes, little one." Janya smiled at the innocent happiness in the child's face. "You can play with them once we get there."
Gabrielle looked again at the women tending the fields. Strangely enough, no matter where she looked, she could find no men. They had probably been conscripted into Falceus' army, she figured.
"It's not that bad of a life really," Shaya spoke up timidly. Her sister spun around in anger.
"What do you mean, it's not a bad life? It's a horrible one! We don't have any freedom, we have to serve ..." Seeing the troubled look that crossed Xena's face, the woman relented. "Don't worry your head about it, youngster. We'll be free soon. There's a rumor going around that Xena will come and liberate us all."
"Hey, that's my name." Xena perked up.
"Really," Janya said, amused. "And have you come to set us free?" she joked.
"I would, but you're probably talking about my big sister. She's a Warrior Princess, ya' know."
Janya looked at Gabrielle and winked. "Oh is she now?"
"Yes, and she'll bust up Falceus good. Gabby told me a lot of stories about her. She's the bestest person I ever knowed, besides Gabby, of course." Excited, Xena literally bounced in her saddle.
"Shush, you shouldn't talk about her in public." Shaya looked scandalized. "If someone should hear you, we all could get into trouble. It's just a rumor you know. Why would such a important person like Xena want to have anything to do with a handful of peasants like us?"
"My big sister wouldn't care. She does it for the greater good," Xena declared, quoting from one of Gabrielle's stories.
"That's enough, Xena," Gabrielle said mildly. She could tell that Shaya was really nervous, and they were beginning to draw curious stares from the townsfolk around them. Xena quieted, deciding to go along with her, for now.
"You can stable your horse at my mother's farm," Janya said softly as they slipped along the streets. "Due to the overwhelming 'taxes' on property and farmland, Shaya and I still live with her. There's room enough for you two, if you'd care to join us. It's not far from the town."
"Thank you very much," Gabrielle nodded gratefully. "We'd be honored to stay at your place, if it would not be an inconvenience."
"It won't be at all. Mother loves visitors, and it's been so long since we had a young one in our house ..." Janya's voice trailed off as her eyes grew distant. Gabrielle kept quiet, leaving the two women to their own thoughts. There was pain there, the bard realized, as well as grief. She had a sneaking suspicion that it had a lot to do with Falceus. Gabrielle clenched her hands in anger. This was why she and Xena had come, to prevent innocents like Shaya and Janya from being hurt. However, how was she going to do anything now that Xena was gone?
"We're here," Janya broke into Gabrielle's moody thoughts. The bard looked at the sisters' dwelling place. It was simple, yet pleasant. Made out of modest mud bricks, it had a small wooden fence running around it, and a flock of chickens cackled and pecked the dirt in the outside yard. To the back of the house, a small sloping barn could be seen, typical to a Greek farm. "I'll stable your horse. You go and meet Mother."
Gabrielle helped Xena down from the saddle as they both were greeted by an ancient-looking lady in a simple cloth gown.
"Come in, come in," she hustled them through the doorway. "It's been awhile since Shaya and Janya brought me visitors. I'm Kala, by the way." She smiled warmly at the little girl. "What might your name be?"
"Like the Warrior Princess?"
"Yeah. She's my big sister." Xena hopped onto a chair next to the kitchen table. "Do you have any food? I'm hungry. Gabby only has yucky biscuits," she said, with the easy candor that comes with childhood.
"Xena ..." Gabrielle blushed. "I'm so sorry ..."
"It's okay." Kala waved a kindly hand and smiled. "A powerful name like hers must come with a big appetite, too." She put out a platter of freshly baked bread. "Eat well, little warrior, so that one day you may grow to become a princess yourself. Meanwhile, let's see what we can do about finding you some more suitable clothing."
Belatedly, Gabrielle realized that Xena was still wearing the bard's oversized pants and shirt. She could feel her face flushing even more scarlet. Kala motioned her over.
"Let's see if we can't find some of Shaya's old baby clothes," she said, leading the bard out of the room. As soon as they were out of the earshot of Xena, the woman grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders and stared deep into the bard's eyes.
Startled by the unexpected action, Gabrielle pulled away. Kala moved around her, and the bard got the sense that she was being judged.
"What's wrong?" she finally found her voice.
"I was wondering what kind of woman would bring such a young child into a place like this," Kala said calmly. "Don't you know how dangerous Falceus' lands are?"
"Yes ..." Gabrielle gulped, but Kala was not finished.
"Also, why would someone name their child after one of the most hated warlords of all time?"
"Hey, wait a minute, Xena's different now ..."
"I know of the Warrior Princess' change of heart, and frankly, I admire her greatly for it. But Xena began her road to redemption scarcely more than two years ago. Yet the child is five years of age." Kala looked piercingly at Gabrielle. "Also, I know that you would never put the child in danger intentionally. I can see the great love for her that you hold in your heart; it is something similar to a mother's feelings toward her own child. However, she is not of your flesh and blood, although you would give your life for her. So tell me, who is this child, and why do you both come here?"
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably as she realized that Kala would not be put off easily. The old woman was very sharp, the bard had to give her that.
"So, " Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Do you want to hear an interesting story?"
Kala sat quietly throughout Gabrielle's narrative, listening attentively. When Gabrielle stopped, she stood up with a determined look in her eye.
"We need to do something about this," she declared sternly.
"You don't have to get involved." Gabrielle followed the woman as she walked into another room. "If you do, Falceus may punish you and your daughters greatly. In fact, just by being here, I put you in grave danger."
Kala turned around, and Gabrielle was startled by the fire she saw in the woman's eyes. "Of course I have to do something about it. Xena was right in one aspect ... the people here have lost their spirit. We stand back and let Falceus take what he wants, knowing that he uses our labor to conquer more and more lands and enslave the many innocent souls there."
The woman gestured fiercely to the window. "All that you see belongs to Falceus. It's his bread box and his larder. From our harvest he gains enough food to feed his army, and he gains his army from harvesting all of our youth. If you went into the village square, you won't find a single male between the ages of ten and thirty. That's because they have been all "volunteered" into Falceus' ranks and have been sent away to fight battles in faraway lands. We never see many of them again. Those that do return are either crippled or are too old or infirm to hold a sword. Falceus does not want to take the chance that we may rebel against him one day, so he never leaves enough men here to start anything significant. As for our girls ... the prettier ones are taken away to "service" Falceus and his top generals. The others are left to a life of hard toil in the fields. And so the years pass, and more of our children are torn away from us, either to become soldiers or slave girls. The fields we tend yield crops that are not our own, and the houses we live in and the clothes we wear are given to us through the "grace" of Falceus. Yet some say that we have a great life and a peaceful one under Falceus. Bah! What is peace without freedom? How high a price do we have to pay each time? I'll tell you what price ... the price of our children's blood and the blood of all the innocents that Falceus has murdered over the years."
Gabrielle looked away, unsure of what to say. "I'm sorry ..." she whispered.
Kala turned to her, surprise touching her eyes. "Why should you be? It's not your fault." She patted the girl gently. "You have a kind heart, young one, ... I see why the Warrior Princess keeps you so close. To tell you the truth, you have brought hope into my life."
"How's that? All I can possibly bring is trouble, especially if Falceus finds out you're sheltering me."
"At last I have the chance to do something, to make a difference," Kala said calmly. "It is worth all the danger in the world." She pulled out a light blue dress and a pair of child's slippers. "I think these will suit your little friend nicely."
"Thank you ... for everything," Gabrielle said, gratefully fingering the fabric.
"Think nothing of it. After all, it was you who came to help us, originally. First, we've got to find a way to restore your friend to her rightful age. I think I may know how." Kala hesitated as she neared the kitchen and heard Xena's laughter bubbling through the walls. "Does she have any knowledge of who she once was?"
"No," Gabrielle replied softly.
"I thought not. She seems too ... innocent to be a true warrior. Like you are."
"Hey, I'm not innocent!" Gabrielle grumbled. "I've beat up many monsters ..."
Kala smiled. "Yes, but not with malice in your heart. It's not a bad thing, Gabrielle. A pure soul is hard to find."
Gabrielle shrugged uncomfortably. "My soul isn't *that* pure," she muttered softly as she followed Kala back into the kitchen. Xena, seeing both of them enter the room, jumped out of her seat excitedly.
"Try the chicken, Gabby, it's sooo good!" she exclaimed while eyeing the garments that Kala had brought out. "Janya said that she'd teach me how to pitch hay later. Can I go, please, Gabby?"
"Sure," the bard nodded. "But first, let's get you dressed into some better clothes. You're really starting to wear out mine."
Xena wrinkled her nose. "But I don't like wearing dresses."
"You'll look really pretty," Kala told her. Xena snorted.
"Who cares? Why do girls hafta wear dresses? They make you trip and stop you from having fun. If I hafta wear a dress, I want one like Gabby's."
"Gabrielle's skirt is inappropriate for a little girl like you." Kala caught the rebellious Xena with a practiced hand and quickly dressed her, despite the intense struggling of her victim. Xena, sensing that the end was inevitable, finally gave up and let the woman tie the ribbons on.
"Can I go now?" Xena growled. Gabrielle hid a grin.
"One last thing." She took out a comb. "We need to do something about that hair of yours. It's turning into a bird's nest!"
Before Xena could bolt, the bard had caught her, and soon, she was braiding the beautiful ebony locks into some semblance of order. Xena sat through the whole ordeal patiently, although she couldn't help wiggling some and making horrible faces. As soon as Gabrielle was finished, the girl took off. Gabrielle watched her go with a heavy feeling in her heart. How carefree her friend seemed. If only the situation did not need the old Xena so much!
Kala caught the look in the bard's eye and sighed heavily. "The responsibilities of the world aren't easy to carry, are they?"
"You bet they aren't. I wonder how Xena ever managed it." Gabrielle looked to the woman. "So, what's this way to bring her back?"
Kala replied very reluctantly. "There is a shrine to Apollo about a day's ride from here. If anyone knows how to undo Pan's curse, it'll be him. Falceus is afraid to desecrate that spot, although he does post soldiers near the temple. It'll be hard getting through, but as a bard, you can easily pass as a worshiper."
Gabrielle nodded. Kala looked at her worriedly. "Are you sure you want to do this? Your friend seems happy enough as a child, and she is in no great danger."
"But your land is, and I know the older version of Xena would agree with what I'm trying to do." Gabrielle listened sadly to the sounds of her friend at play. "I have to find out."
"You know that even if we do get the older Xena back, it might not be enough to rally my people to revolt against Falceus. You could be wasting your time."
"I bet the fire hasn't died completely, especially if there are people like you keeping the flames of hope alive." Gabrielle picked up her staff. "Besides, Apollo might not give me an answer. She may be stuck like that forever. If that's the case, I want you to know that you guys really need to do something about Falceus, Xena or no Xena. The true power's in you."
Kala gave the bard a warm smile. "And in you, too. Come on, I have some more suitable clothes for you than that Amazon outfit. As Xena pointed out, your skirt is a little too short."
"Hey, it covers what it has to."
"That may be. But the soldiers around here are looking for an Amazon warrior. I have some more appropriate clothes for you. You're about the size of my son, Tylus. How would you like to be a traveling male bard on leave from the army?"
Gabrielle gulped, but could see no other way out of it. "I guess so."
Kala pulled out a pair of dark leather pants and a white cotton shirt. Her face grew wistful. "Is Tylus in Falceus' army?" the bard asked delicately. Kala nodded.
"All three of my sons were, as was my husband. Tylus is the only one that is still among the living."
"I'm sorry ..." Gabrielle murmured.
"Don't be. Because of their deaths, Falceus granted us a 'pardon' from labor. That is, Janya and Shaya don't have to be taken away as slave girls. At least their deaths meant something more than furthering Falceus' bloody rule." Kala's eyes were hard as she helped Gabrielle braid her hair and stuff it under a cap. "If you're asked why you aren't dressed in soldier's garb, tell them you're on a leave of absence. Falceus grants his soldiers three every year ... we have to reproduce somehow," she chuckled humorlessly. "Also, tell them you're in Sylian's division. That's far enough away that you won't be asked too many questions."
Gabrielle repeated the instructions in her head, then nodded. "I'll remember." She looked toward the door worriedly. Kala understood her feelings.
"Let Xena stay here. We'll take good care of her, Gabrielle. No one will harm her, not while I'm still around and breathing."
"Thank you." Gabrielle took a deep breath and gripped her staff firmly. "I'm ready. I just have to say goodbye to Xena, then I'm off."
Handing the bard a package of bread and chicken, Kala winked. "You make a cute young man, Gabrielle, if I do say so myself," she teased, but sobered immediately. "I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you find what you're looking for. May the gods be with you in your journey."
Still thoughtful, Gabrielle headed for the stables. Argo looked up at her curiously, then snorted. The horse apparently found that the bard's new look amusing.
"Ha-ha, laugh it up, you bucket of oats," Gabrielle grumbled. "But I need your help. Please ... I know we haven't gotten along in the past, but let bygones be bygones, okay? This is not the time to fool around."
Argo seemed to consider Gabrielle's proposal, then whinnied her agreement. Truce it would be, at least until the crisis was over. Stroking the mare's mane in appreciation, Gabrielle led her into the sunlight and looked around for Xena. She found the girl tossing stones at a post with a sling, hitting her target every time.
"You have a good eye," she complimented her.
"As good as the Warrior Princess ?"
"Better, even." Gabrielle smiled. "I thought you were going to help Janya toss some hay."
"It was boring, and Shaya said that I was spilling more hay than piling it." Xena frowned. "Janya gave me this sling to play with instead. She uses it to drive away the crows. Janya's a great shot too. She said she has to be, or else the birdies will eat up all the crops. The coolest thing 'bout it is that they can even shoot in the dark! Janya said that's because all sorts of varmints come out at night! Did ya know that the village sometimes hold shooting contests with their slings? It's when Demeter's festival comes. Can we stay until then, huh? I wanna be in the festival. They let girls in, you know, cause they're the best archers, since they drive away the birdies. Ohhh ... I got a surprise! " Xena jumped up and down with excited energy. Before Gabrielle could put in a word, the child had scampered away. Gabrielle watched as she picked up something. Xena came running back after a minute.
"Lookit what I found!" she said gleefully.
Gabrielle peered into the small cupped hands and gave a startled squeal when she saw a pair of reptilian eyes looking unblinkingly at her.
"Isn't he neat? He changes colors, and he tickles when he moves! Why does he change color Gabby? Why? " Xena asked, waving the lizard around. The lizard, apparently disgusted with his situation, wriggled away. Xena chased after him for awhile as Gabrielle waited patiently for a chance to break in with her news. However, Xena did not want to stay still, and the bard found herself facing another barrage of questions.
"Also, I found these mushrooms! Look, they glow! Have you ever seen anything like that before? Why do they glow, Gabby? Why?"
"Umm .... I'm not sure ..." Gabrielle mumbled as she grinned inwardly. The look of curiosity in Xena's eyes and the wonder in her voice would be something the bard would treasure for all time. The world was still a fascinating place to the child, and Gabrielle found herself asking what if? What if Cortese had never...? Oblivious to the bard's thoughts, Xena chattered on.
"And look at this shiny stone! I found it under a log. Isn't it cool? It might be gold!" Xena grinned as she examined her treasures. "You can have it though ..." she said cheerfully.
"Uhh ... thanks. Look, I have to talk to you about something ..." Gabrielle was cut off by another excited yell from the girl. By the gods, would the five-year-old EVER slow down? All this boundless energy was beginning to make the bard dizzy.
"Do you think I would be a good farmer one day? I can already protect the fields!" Xena waved around her sling in emphasis.
Gabrielle smiled. "Well, I guess you could be a farmer. Just be careful with the sling okay? You know, I had a friend who was very good with a sling ... he even defeated a Giant with it."
"Really?" Xena looked up in anticipation of a story. Gabrielle gave a short sigh of relief. Finally, the child had stopped long enough to listen!
"Yeah, remind me to tell you that tale one day. But not now."
"Why not now?" Xena demanded as she suddenly noticed the bard's strange apparel. "Hey, why are you dressed like a boy?"
"Listen, that's what I came to tell you. Me an' Argo have to go away for a day or two, and I'm dressed like this to fool the nasty soldiers on the road."
"I bet we could beat them up again," the little girl grinned mischievously.
"That's another thing. I want you to stay here with Kala, Janya, and Shaya. They'll take care of you while I'm away."
"But I want to go with you. You might need my help." Xena kicked a rock, her eyes stubbornly challenging the bard.
"The farm needs your protection, too. A Warrior Princess always has to defend the innocent, right?"
Xena nodded reluctantly. "But what about you?"
"I'll manage." Gabrielle patted Argo. "I have Argo here to take care of me, remember? So promise me, on the word of a warrior, that you'll stay here and do what Kala tells you to until I get back. Promise?"
The little girl thought for a moment, then held out her hand, pinkie outstretched. "Promise, promise, and if I lie, kill me dead until I die," she chanted solemnly, much to Gabrielle's amusement. They hooked pinkies and swung downwards, sealing the deal.
Gabrielle smiled and pulled out an object from the saddlebag. "Here, I've got a gift for you."
Xena gasped when she saw the wooden horse. "For me?" she squeaked. Gabrielle nodded.
"I made it myself," she said, wincing slightly as she remembered the splinters she had received last night while finishing the carving. Gabrielle had managed to sand the wood until it shone, and it reflected the sunlight cheerfully.
"But I don't play with dolls ... it's too sissy ..." Xena said as she wistfully eyed the horse.
"It's not a doll, it's a warhorse. I call her Lightning," Gabrielle grinned. "She'll be your friend. If you get lonely, she'll be there for you."
Xena's eyes shone with joy. "Thank you, Gabby," she said breathlessly.
"No problem." Gabrielle mounted Argo. "Just be good, okay?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena replied dutifully as she trotted Lightning around in the dust. Gabrielle gave her one last look before spurring Argo into a fast trot. Minutes later, a whole new set of "war cries" were heard as the little Warrior Princess rode into some imaginary battle. As she left the happy scene behind her, Gabrielle hoped that she was doing the right thing.
The shrine of Apollo was a simple yet elegant place. Gabrielle found that it reminded her of Kala's house, with its air of quiet grace, and she wished that she could be there with her friends. However, the troop of soldiers posted just outside the temple gates provided a sharp reminder for her to keep her mission in focus. She had passed no soldiers last night when she had camped, and Gabrielle had been hoping that she would be able to make it through the day without a confrontation. However, luck was not on her side. Straightening her cap, she cleared her throat and prepared to give a good performance.
"Halt, who goes there?" A rough-looking man with a spear addressed her.
"I'm Homer," Gabrielle said in the deepest voice she could manage. "I'm on leave from Captain Sylian's division."
"On leave, eh?" The soldier relaxed. "Wish I were, too, instead of watching the road for that bi*** Xena. Commander Vervain's been making us pull full duty shifts ever since Falceus got wind that she may be heading here. In fact, there's a rumor that she's here already. The back watch was found tied up yesterday, apparently by a woman and some kid," the soldier sneered. "If you ask me, Corvin just got careless. Anyway, I bet things are picking up in the south though, with the Centaurs and everything. Ol' Falceus will have his hands full if the warrior woman shows up now, eh?" His eyes shifted. "Not that it wouldn't be a good thing ..." he muttered softly to himself. Gabrielle looked up in surprise, but quickly stifled it as the soldier gave her a warning look.
"Can I pass now?" she asked instead.
"Yeah, enjoy you're time off, buddy. 'Cause if Xena does show up, we'll be in for quite a ride, let me tell you. I smell war in the air. Keep your eyes peeled for some big muscled woman. If you see her, give a shout."
"I will." Gabrielle saluted the soldier and proceeded onwards. Once she reached the temple gate, she dismounted Argo, took her staff out of the saddle, and tied the horse to a tree. Mustering her courage, the bard slowly walked up the steps.
Once inside, she was greeted with the smell of incense and burning candles. A tripod filled with some unknown liquid stood upon a large altar in the center of the room.
"May I help you with something?" Someone tapped her on the shoulder. Gabrielle turned to face a silver-robed priestess.
"Yes. I've come here to find an answer," the bard said quietly.
"Perhaps you will receive it, if you ask the right question." The woman led her toward the altar. "But are you willing to pay the price?"
Gabrielle gulped but nodded resolutely. "Sure."
The woman studied her for a minute. "You are not what you seem to be. A bard, a warrior, a woman are you. But do you have enough courage to take a challenge from the gods and prove that you are worthy of the knowledge you seek?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said firmly. "If that's what it's going to take."
"So a challenge it will be." The woman gazed into the tripod. "A test of fire." She nodded. "Fitting, for one with a soul that burns as bright as yours." She took Gabrielle's hand and led her into a room off to the left of the main chamber. As the priestess opened the heavy wooden door, Gabrielle gasped and shielded her face from the intensity of the heat and the flames that emerged from within. It was as if the whole room was ablaze! The priestess turned to the bard.
"You will find what you are looking for in the center of the flames," she said, nonplused by the conflagration before her. She bowed once to the astounded bard and made her way back to the main altar room.
Gabrielle watched as the flames reached even higher toward the ceiling. Yet, curiously enough, none of the walls seemed to burn. Reaching out a hesitant hand, Gabrielle yelped as she felt the heat singe her skin. She immediately pulled it back. The flames were real enough. Sighing, she stared at the fire. How in the name of Hades was she going to pass through all that and not come out a crisped cinder? It seemed hopeless. The bard was not ready to give up without a fight, though. Watching the flames dance reminded her of the last peaceful night she had spent with the Warrior Princess, carving near a cheerful campfire. Thinking about Xena, Gabrielle wondered how her young friend was doing. The bard grinned wryly. Kala was probably having a hard time keeping up with the child, especially with all the games and tricks the young Xena liked to pull. Wait a minute, Gabrielle thought excitedly. Children's games ... that was it! Suddenly, she saw a pattern in the flames, much like one of the hop rope games that she had played when she was very young. One flame would flicker down for a moment, creating enough space to allow safe passage, before flaring up again. However, if she misjudged the timing or the rhythm, she would be in for a serious roasting. Putting her staff down and taking a deep breath, Gabrielle steeled herself as she waited for the first of the flames near her to die down.
When the moment came, she leaped over the fire, landing squarely in a small open space between the flames. To keep her rhythm, she began to recite the children's rhyme she had used so long ago.
"One, two, going through three, four, out the door five, six, past the river Styx seven, eight, round Hade's gate nine, ten, past Cerebus again."
She let the pattern of the words take her carry her along and tried not to think about what would happen if she took a single misstep. Slowly, she neared the center of the room. When she finally reached the last wall of flames, Gabrielle felt almost hot enough to faint. Matters did not improve any when she realized that the fire in the middle would not die down according to the pattern. Staring at the roaring wall, Gabrielle knew that she would have to charge through the flames if she wanted to reach the middle. Taking a deep breath, the bard started her flight. As soon as she hit the first firewall, pain began to lance though her body. Gabrielle ignored it and continued to push on. The air around her grew hotter and hotter, and she could feel herself begin to stumble in the heat. Gabrielle yelped in dismay as she felt herself trip and fall towards the hungry flames .... then abruptly, the air cooled around her, leaving her breathless with relief. Gabrielle collapsed thankfully onto a cold stone floor, which was suddenly devoid of any fire. As she sucked air into her aching lungs, Gabrielle saw a golden light appear to her left. Through tear-blurred eyes, she watched as the glow formed itself into a man, who offered out a hand to help her up. At his touch, all the pain from her burns disappeared. The bard trembled as she looked at the handsome man who stood before her. He could only be one person ...
"Apollo ..." she whispered in awe.
"The one and the same." The golden-haired man gave Gabrielle a dazzling smile. "And I must say, you came through that test with flying colors. I knew there was a reason why Artemis chose you to be a princess to her bunch of Amazons. I really need to discuss that with her ... you belong to me, too, being that you're a bard, and I'm the god of bards. It's not fair that she should get all of you!"
Gabrielle knelt at his feet. "I've come to beg for a favor from you, great and mighty Apollo, and to ask you a question."
Apollo looked at her amused. "You don't need to speak like that unless we're in public. Anyway, I know what you want to ask ... well, actually, I know everything, but before I give you the answer, think carefully. Your friend Xena is a lot happier now than she ever was before. Do you really want to bring her back?"
Gabrielle hung her head. "I just don't know! She is very happy but ... the world still needs her ... I still need her," she sighed. "I know it sounds selfish, but we really do need Xena the Warrior Princess. I wish there was another way."
"Well, that's too bad, because there isn't any. You can either have Xena the innocent, or Xena the warrior. You can't have both." Apollo shrugged. "In any case, you must decide."
"But it's not my decision!" Gabrielle twisted her hands in agony. "How can I possibly make a choice like that?"
"Is that not what you came to ask me? To undo the spell?"
"I just wanted to know if she could change back. I'm not so sure that I want her to, now. I need some time to think ...."
"She will lose her innocence one day, Gabrielle, no matter what you do."
"I know. I just wish Pan hadn't ..." Gabrielle trailed off. "Can it be done? Can the old Xena be brought back?"
"Just so that you'll know, Pan meant the transformation as a gift. He admires your friend greatly, an affliction that seems to plague many around Mt. Olympus. He was impressed that she was bold enough to challenge him and wanted to show his appreciation of her courage. Pan only hoped to make her happy. He did not consider the impact on mortal affairs ... indeed, why should he? He is a god. However, if you seek to undo what he has done, then take your wee friend to the spring of eternal truth." Apollo waved a hand in the air, and instantly a map appeared. "It's a pretty place, long unknown to mortals. You'll find a couple of my priestesses there, and they'll help you as much as they can. Anyway, if Xena bathes in the water, the spell will wear off, and she'll be restored to her true self. I'd be a little cautious if I were you; the true Xena may or may not be all that great."
"If it comes to that, I'll take my chances. I believe in her," Gabrielle said faithfully. Apollo chuckled.
"What fools these mortals be! Always so certain of themselves," the god snorted. "Anyway, please do not tell anyone where my spring is, if you can help it. Good luck to you bard, whatever you decide. You amuse me ... I'll be watching you." There was a brief flash of light, and when it faded, the god was gone.
When the dawn came to the farmhouse, Xena was already up and wide awake, ready to greet the rising sun. She never understood how people could waste a perfectly good day by sleeping all the time. Putting on her slippers, the girl quietly sneaked out of the bedroom she had been sharing with Shaya and tiptoed out the door. Once outside, she grinned at Lightning.
"I bet we can find some adventure," she said as she skipped across the farmyard, scattering the chickens as she went. Xena wished she could leave the farm to climb some of the trees she saw in the distance, but she had made a promise to Gabrielle, on a warrior's oath no less, that she would remain where she was. Thinking of the bard, the girl stroked Lightning's wooden mane fondly. Her friend was probably having a big adventure now, with lots of fun and excitement, while she was stuck here guarding a bunch of clucking fowls. Xena stomped a foot. Sometimes, life was just not fair.
However, the sudden sound of pounding hoofbeats made her pause from her game of spooking the chickens. Climbing swiftly up into the hayloft of the barn, Xena watched through slitted eyes as two soldiers galloped up towards the farm. Their uniforms bore the same colors as those of the soldiers that had attacked Gabrielle yesterday. Xena frowned. That would mean that they were on the bad guy's side. Arming herself with a couple of stones and all the eggs she could find from the frightened hens, Xena scrambled back up to her post overlooking the barnyard. She was not a minute too late. The soldiers rode up to the house and started banging on the door rudely.
Kala answered quickly. "Hello, what may I do for you gentlemen?" she asked politely. The man just brushed her aside as he stormed into the house. Xena's eyes narrowed. The other soldier grabbed Kala roughly.
"Have you seen a little blond-haired woman, traveling with a grubby-looking kid? Falceus wants to see them," he grunted. Kala twisted out of his grip.
"No, I don't know who you're talking about. I haven't seen any blond-haired women, or any grubby-looking children," Kala replied evenly.
"Corvin, the house is clean, except for these two." The other soldier shuffled Shaya and Janya outside.
"Check the barn," Corvin growled. "Now, be honest with me. People saw your daughters with the two in question."
"I really do not know what you're talking about," Kala said innocently. Shaya just sniffled, while Janya looked angry. Xena gulped as the other soldier came near her hiding place. There was no way to escape .... the hayloft had become a trap. Well, she was a warrior-in-training, right? She would not go down without a fight! Xena stuck the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she took careful aim with her ammunition. Splat! The hen's egg made a satisfying noise as it hit the soldier squarely in the face. He yelled and said some things that did not sound nice. Xena giggled as she pelted him again. But her attack soon came to an abrupt halt when a pair of strong arms grabbed her and hauled her off the hayloft.
"Hey, Corvin, I found this brat in the barn." The other soldier returned holding a squirming Xena. "Damn kid beaned me with three stones and four eggs."
"Now what did you say about not seeing any children?" Corvin sneered.
"That's just X ... Zima. She's my niece," Janya spoke up suddenly. "Oh, I know what you're talking about now! The people must have seen Aunt Gabby yesterday. We were escorting her to our house. Her husband was killed in the Cretan Campaign just last Autumn, and she wanted to drop her daughter off to live with us. I don't remember seeing anyone else on our route here. We never left Aunt Gabby's side all day, poor thing. She's never been quite right in the head after my brother's death."
"And where is your poor Aunt now?" Corvin asked, still suspicious.
"Well, she uh, ..." Janya spluttered.
"You see, it's kind of embarrassing," Kala filled in smoothly. "Since my dear son's death, she wanted to share her uhh ... gifts with the world, if you know what I mean, so she decided to visit Dionysus' temple and become one of his faithful followers."
"Hey, aren't those the women who run around buck naked?" the second soldier asked. Corvin silenced him with a glare.
"If that's so, then why was the brat hiding in the barn?"
"I wasn't hiding!" Xena exclaimed. Kala immediately clapped a hand over her mouth.
"Of course you weren't, dear. Zima likes to get up early so she can gather the hens' eggs." Kala looked apologetically at the yolk-covered officer. "Which I can see you found out first hand."
"Oh, c'mon Corvin, we're not going to find anything here," the second soldier said as he wiped off the yolk good-naturedly. "She looks too old to lie. She reminds me of my mother, for Zeus' sake!" He walked back toward his horse. "I'm NOT going to harass a bunch of women who don't have anything to do with our attackers yesterday. We're just wasting our time. Look at them! Do they actually look like they're the warrior women we're after?
"I still don't trust them." Corvin narrowed his eyes. "I'll be watching you very closely," he threatened as he followed his friend. "If you even so much as look suspicious, I'll be on you."
The group watched as the two left the yard. Letting out the breath she had been holding, Kala turned to Xena and gave her a wry smile. "Quite an adventure, eh? But next time, please don't waste the eggs on those buffoons. Go for the big, sharp rocks or the wonderful cow pies."
"Mother!" Shaya wailed. "How could you say things like that?"
"Oh, quit being such a baby," Janya said coolly.
"But if they find out ..."
"Their heads are thicker than molasses. I doubt they will," Kala said quietly. "Now, get you things ready, we're going into town."
"Why?" Shaya whined.
"Because there, we won't be so alone and vulnerable. I need to talk to some people and arrange some things." The old woman drew herself up. "Now go and get prepared." The three girls rushed to obey.
The marketplace was a feast of sounds and sights to Xena's young eyes, as vendors hawked their colorful wares, and shoppers pushed their way through the streets. Xena wiggled around in her seat, trying to take in all the spectacles at one time. The old donkey that was straining at the harness did not move fast enough for her liking, though, and Xena longed to get out and run beside the slow-moving vehicle. But Kala gave her a sharp glance, so she stayed seated. She couldn't help squirming a little more as the cart moved deeper into the settlement. Oh, how she wished she could run around! Having to sit so still made her legs itch, as if there were a thousand fire ants crawling on them. Xena sighed. She had to content herself with sightseeing. Xena loved watching the people around her and kept a sharp lookout for some potential playmates.
However, even to her inexperienced eyes, Xena could tell something was wrong. All the people outside seemed either to be very old or very young. The only in-between age people were Shaya and Janya. Also, the children of Cyanthus did not laugh or play like they did in her own village of Amphipolis. Instead, they worked silently by the old grownups. Xena gripped Lightning more tightly. As the cart slowly plodded on, Xena began to wonder if anyone in the town knew the meaning of fun. She watched as Kala parked the cart in a stall outside a tavern and tied up the tired donkey. As Janya and Shaya moved off toward the marketplace, Kala motioned for Xena to follow her into the tavern, which the girl eagerly did, glad to be finally out of the restricting cart. The bar was empty except for one old man tending the counter. He looked up in surprise as Kala entered.
"Kala, it's a pleasure to see you," he said, his wrinkled face creasing into a warm smile. "What brings you out today? I thought that you would be tending your fields."
"Fair morn to you too, Jalen," Kala replied cheerfully as she pulled up a bar stool. "I was wondering, what was the talk on the town last night?"
Jalen looked slyly at her, a knowing gleam stealing into his eyes. "The soldiers said that a certain someone was breezing through the town. Anyway, you look parched. I have something in the back you just might want to try, if you would come with me ..." He gestured to a door leading to the back room of the tavern, tucked safely away from any prying eyes or ears.
Kala nodded. "I could use a nice drink, come to think about it. X-Zima, ..."
"Who's this?" The old man leaned down over the bar counter.
"She's my granddaughter, ZIMA ... you remember her, don't you?" Kala said. Jalen looked at her slowly, before nodding.
"Of course. How could I forget? Zima, why don't you go play with Jilly? She's about the same age as you ... Jilly, come out now!" Jalen called. A child, about six years old, peered across the counter and smiled shyly when she saw Xena. She put down the glass she had been polishing and went to stand behind her grandfather's leg. Laughing, the old man pushed the child to the front. "You two go play nicely now and don't get into any trouble. Now, Kala, what about that drink?"
Xena watched as the two grownups disappeared into the back room. She turned to Jilly.
"Hi. My name's Xena, but the adults want to say it funny. Do you want to have an adventure?"
"Mmm...I don't know," Jilly replied quietly as she ducked behind a chair.
"C'mon, it'll be fun. We'll find cool stuff, and treasures even!" Xena declared, digging into her pocket. She brought out a handful of glowing fungus. "Hey, do you want to see something neat?"
Jilly came over to look at it curiously, her fear of the new stranger forgotten. "That's will-o-wisp fingers," she said softly. "My granda says it glows 'cause ..." she shivered. "It points the way to Hades."
Both the girls regarded the glowing matter with renewed reverence. Xena could tell that Jilly was beginning to get a little scared, so she stuffed the mushrooms back into her pocket, and brought out Lightening instead.
Jilly's eyes widened when she saw the figure. "Nice horse," she breathed enviously.
"She's a warhorse. Her name's Lightning. She was trained to be one of the Warrior Princesses' horses!" Xena eyes brightened. "I know, let's play warriors! I can be Xena, 'cause that's already my name, and you can be my faithful sidekicker."
"I don't know how to play warriors." Jilly sounded uncertain.
"It's lots of fun," Xena coaxed. "Even better than treasure hunting!"
Jilly squirmed as she seemed to consider. "Oh, okay. What does a sidekicker do?"
Xena thought hard for a moment. "I think they kick sideways, like this." She demonstrated, kicking a barstool powerfully. Jilly tried to do the same, but ended up falling over instead.
"No, like this." Xena showed her patiently. "You can't throw yourself, otherwise, you tip over." Jilly tried again, this time succeeding, although her landing was a bit wobbly. "That's better," Xena told her approvingly. "Now we have to look for some swords."
Jilly bit her lip. She wanted to impress her new friend so very much. "I know where we can get some sticks. Dylan has some in his store, 'cause his family makes wood stuff." Following Jilly out the door, Xena wondered if she should have told Kala where she was going and thought about her promise to Gabrielle. But Gabrielle had not said anything about not leaving the bar ... all she had said was not to leave the farm. And Kala had not said she couldn't go. Xena shrugged and followed Jilly through the winding street paths.
Dylan did have some swords, as it turned out, but he would let them use the wood only on the condition that he may join their warrior party. Xena readily agreed. Then they were off to find some shields and other basic warrior needs. After about a half hour of scrounging around, they were armed and ready to take on the world. Xena had now gathered a following of seven other children, most of whom were older than her. However, she was the unmistakable leader of the pack. The only boy who tried to contest that right got a bruised knee for his troubles. Xena was immediately sorry after she had hit him, but he had threatened to bop her and Jilly on the head. Plus, she couldn't let the bigger kids think that she wasn't in control. In consolation, though, she made him fourth in command. Brandishing her "chakrum" which was, in reality, an old tin saucer, Xena led her troops onward in search of adventure.
Their first "adventure" dealt with a cat who had gotten stuck on top of a narrow roof. Xena quickly solved the problem by climbing up herself, despite the daunting height, and hauling the spitting, ungrateful creature down. Although the cat may have been less than happy, Xena herself was thrilled. It was her first brave act as a Warrior Princess! The others in her group were properly impressed by the show of bravado and kept chanting her name over and over in a loud cheer. Xena glowed in their praise. In their eyes, there was nothing she could not do. The war band proceeded to rescue a chicken from its packing crate and liberated a plate of oppressed cookies from the baker's window. After munching on their "freed" goodies, Xena reflected that being a Warrior Princess was not a bad life to live.
"I need to go home," Dylan said suddenly, looking at the sun. "My grand daddy needs me to help make dinner soon."
Sighing, the rest of the children knew that their chores also called. Before leaving Xena, they promised to play with her again real soon. Thoroughly satisfied with her day, Xena walked back towards the bar with Jilly in tow and Dylan following behind. The older girl looked at Xena's wooden horse wistfully.
"I wish I could ride a real war horse, just once," she said dreamily.
"I have. Her name was Argo. She was great!" Xena exclaimed.
"You have not!" Dylan looked at her disbelievingly.
"Have too! I rode her here with Gabrielle. We whacked a bunch of soldiers on the roads, too," Xena declared loudly, sticking her tongue out.
"Is that so?" A booming voice made the children spin around in fright. Xena's eyes widened as she recognized Corvin.
"Run!" she screeched, but the soldier was too fast. Grabbing Jilly, he picked her up and held her in a tight hand lock.
"If you don't want me to hurt your little friend, then I suggest you stop where you are," he spat nastily. Xena stopped and glared at him, defiance sparking in her clear blue eyes. Dylan just kept running. The second soldier looked at Corvin uncertainly.
"Let the boy go. It's her we want." Corvin gestured to Xena. "Pick her up. And if any of you make a sound, I'll bite your fingers off."
"Corvin, I never wanted to hurt no kids," the second soldier said uneasily.
"Shut your trap and do as you're told," Corvin snarled as he threw Jilly over his saddle and mounted his horse. The second soldier looked at Xena apologetically before taking her into his arms. She did not struggle but the look she gave him was one of pure hatred.
Watching from a hidden alley, Dylan gulped as he watched the soldiers ride off with Xena and Jilly firmly in hand. Then he took off in the direction of Jalen's bar, as fast as his little legs could take him.
Kala had been worried about Xena when she and Jalen found that both girls had disappeared. However, she was not too concerned. How much trouble could one five-year-old get into anyway? She found out when Dylan came running into the bar, a panicked expression on his face.
"They took Xena and Jilly!" he spluttered.
"Soldiers," the boy panted, his eyes wide with fear. "Xena was talking about how she and her friend had whacked a bunch of soldiers, then two of 'em stepped out and grabbed them."
Alarmed, Kala turned to Jalen. "They must have wanted her for questioning. There isn't much time. We have to gather the town council. Something must be done immediately."
Jalen nodded. "Go home and get your mother. She should be in from the fields now," he instructed Dylan. "I'll go and inform the others."
Kala moved toward the marketplace. "I'll get Janya to go warn Gabrielle. Gods, I hope nothing happens to them. Otherwise, I'll never forgive myself."
Meanwhile, Xena and Jilly huddled together in the small iron cage that Corvin had tossed them into when they had arrived at the soldiers' camp.
"You two are in for a shock," Corvin sneered at them. Then he turned to his companion. "Guard these two. I'm going to get Commander Vervain."
"Can't we let the other girl go? She's not involved," the soldier said nervously as he gazed into the cage.
"Of course not, you fool. Now do as your told," Corvin grinned evilly. "I have a feeling that there's going to be a promotion tonight, Martis! You'll be calling me Commander soon. Now stand here and look sharp!"
A reluctant Martis turned back to the cage to find an angry five-year-old glaring at him. Instead of cowering and crying like her friend was, she fixed her icy blue eyes on him and stuck her tongue out.
"Just you wait until my big sister gets her hands on you," she said confidently. "She'll make you sorry that you're being a big stinkhead!"
"Look, kid, if I were you, I wouldn't show that much spunk when Captain Corvin and Commander Vervain get back," Martis told her. "Just tell them what they want, and they'll let you go. You don't want to get hurt, do you?"
"Why do you care?" Xena demanded. "You're just a big mean soldier!"
"Not because I want to be, but because I have to be," Martis murmured softly to himself.
"You always have a choice ... Gabrielle said so," Xena told him primly.
"You don't understand. You're just a brat." Martis turned roughly away. "Just take my advice, whelp, and don't put up that much of a fight. It'll be better for you." Xena's reply came in the form of a heavy metal plate that struck the soldier square in the helmet. Martis just shrugged and walked to a safer distance. "Kids these days."
"If that was my big sister's chakrum, it would have cut your head off," Xena growled as she bent to comfort Jilly, who had began to hiccup. Martis just ignored her.
"Don't worry," she said gently to her friend. "We'll get out of here." Xena sat down beside the wailing girl. "Gabrielle will come and rescue us. Maybe she'll bring the real Warrior Princess, too. Then they'll all be sorry," she said darkly. "While we wait, we can look for ways to escape! After all, we are warriors-in-training. Don't cry, Jilly. Warriors don't ever cry. Never ever. I bet Xena the Warrior Princess doesn't."
"But I don't wanna be a warrior no more. I just wanta go hoooome," Jilly moaned. Xena began to feel tears forming in her own eyes. Fighting them back, she put her arms around Jilly, and both girls held each other in a frightened embrace. As the sobbing of her friend rang loud in her ears, Xena felt the anger and determination in her grow. She scanned the camp with her sharp eyes and listened to what the soldiers around her were saying. Somehow, there had to be a way to escape. Xena vowed that she would find it.
When Gabrielle saw the figure running toward her and Argo, she felt a twinge of alarm. The alarm soon grew to be a full-blown panic when she saw who the runner was. Spurring Argo into a fast run (while praying to the gods that she would be able to keep her lunch down), Gabrielle raced to meet the woman.
"Janya, what's the matter?" the bard cried as she leaped from Argo's back.
"Gabrielle, I'm so glad I found you," Janya managed to say between her gasping breaths. "There's a problem. The soldiers you tied up the day before? They've been looking for you. We put them off for awhile, but now ... now they've got Xena."
Gabrielle felt her heart plunge as she stared at the woman.
"We need to move fast. The troops are still looking for you and me. There's a safe place we can stay in town ... come on, I'll fill you in as we go."
Jumping back into Argo's saddle, Gabrielle helped Janya get on, then spurred the mount forward. [The old Xena would be really proud of me ... my riding skills have never been better] the bard thought wistfully, but pushed the thought back down. Night had fallen by the time they had reached the village. Using the darkness as a cover, both women quickly stabled Argo and quietly walked along the streets towards the tavern. Soldiers were everywhere, but the two managed to pass unnoticed. Janya led Gabrielle through the back entrance of the bar, and in moments, Gabrielle found her self in a small dank cellar, lit only by a single torch. There was already a large gathering of other people there, and Gabrielle was surprised to see that many of them regarded her with expressions of dislike and hate. Kala, however, came forward to greet the bard warmly.
"Did you find what you were looking for at Apollo's temple?" she queried.
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded.
"Good. We will need it." Kala turned to the crowd. "This is the one I told you about, the companion of Xena. She has come a long way to help us, and we must help her in return."
"Send her back! If it wasn't for her and that pesky little girl, then Jilly would not be in such grave danger," a woman from the crowd shot back. "We never asked for her help ... our town was better off without the likes of them."
"Yeah! Yes!" the crowd murmured. "Give her over to the soldiers. Maybe they'll give Jilly back then!"
"Hold!" Janya stood forward. "Are you all blind? What kind of a life do we have now? Are we going to stand here and let Falceus take what he wants without fighting back?"
"But if we fight, someone's bound to get hurt or killed!" the woman raged. "Do we want to risk it all, just for a stranger and her child? No! Protect our own, that's what I say."
"We all have to die someday, Eirian," Kala said calmly. "The difference is whether we die with honor or not. This is not about strangers or our neighbors. They took a child, an innocent child, only on the basis that she fought back to protect her friend from harm. Has this village come to a point where the blood of children can be spilled so freely?"
"But if we help this bard rescue the child, then what will become of us? Falceus would never let us go without punishment. He's sure to bring down his whole army and raze the village to ashes. There are other lives we have to think about ... such as those of the other children. Why should we put all our families in danger, for the sake of just two children?"
"Just two children? When have two lives been more important?" Kala's angry voice was echoed by the rising tension in the rest of the villagers.
"Stop it, all of you." Gabrielle's voice was quiet and tired, but it had the desired effect. All the arguments ceased as every person turned to look at the bard. "At least hear what I have to say. True, you don't have a reason to help me or Xena, but we're not asking that you put your lives on the line just for our sakes. If you do anything, do it for yourself. The two that the soldiers captured may not have been your own children, but they might have been. Who knows what Falceus will decide to do next? Wars are not that easy to fund, and Falceus has paid for his with your blood. With the need he has for soldiers, I wouldn't be surprised if he keeps lowering the age limit for enlistment. Soon he will be snatching your children right out of the cradle! You may live in peace now, but someday, Falceus will begin to lose his battles, and another warlord will take his place. The cycle will begin again. Don't you see? It'll never end. You'll never be free ... unless you work for it yourselves. Xena can only show you the way to fight. It is you that must walk the path towards freedom." Gabrielle stopped and swept the room with her eyes. "So, don't do it for me or Xena. Do it for your own freedom and for the lives of your children. Do it because it's the right thing to do."
"That's easy for you to say." Eirian turned away. "You won't have to live here. After you get your precious little girl back, you'll leave. We'll be the ones facing the consequences."
"I won't abandon you. That's a promise. I will not stop fighting until you and your people are free," Gabrielle said somberly, but the woman did not listen.
"I won't turn you in, but I won't join you either." She headed for the door. To Gabrielle's dismay, the majority of the villagers followed her, although most of them cast the bard a long, regretful look before hurrying away. Soon, only Gabrielle, Kala, Janya, and Shaya were left in the room.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Kala sighed heavily. "But you can't blame them, you know. They have families to protect. They've lost so much to Falceus that they can't take any more risks."
Gabrielle gave the old woman a sad smile. "I don't blame them at all. If it were my own village, I don't know how I would react."
"I do." Kala straightened up. "You would fight back." Her face fell as she looked up the steps to where Jalen was faithfully tending the bar, so not to arouse any suspicions. "I don't know what I'm going to tell Jalen. He loves Jilly so much ..."
"Don't worry about it. I'm going to get her back." The bard gripped her staff determinedly.
"How?" Janya exclaimed. "The village has refused to help you. Oh no ... you're not going to take on hundreds of soldiers by yourself, are you?"
"Watch me." Gabrielle started for the door. "Besides, it's not hundreds of soldiers, only about fifty. A patrol camp like that tends to be rather small."
"Just one soldier would be enough! You'll be killed! It's a fool's mission!"
"Then call me a fool," Gabrielle shrugged. "I've heard worse. I just can't leave my best friend in the clutches of those soldiers. Besides, if I get killed, then your village won't have to worry about the wrath of Falceus." Seeing the hurt look on the others' faces, Gabrielle softened. "I didn't mean that. It was a rude thing to say ... I'm sorry."
"You were right to say it, though," Kala nodded grimly, then sighed. "If you insist on going on a fool's errand, then at least let the oldest fool of all time help you get ready."
Gabrielle gulped as she put on the last piece of armor. "Are you sure this is going to work?"
"Trust me. You look like any other meat-headed soldier in that getup." Janya helped her straighten the swordbelt. "The body brace helped flatten your, uh, curves, and if you tuck your hair in, no one will know the difference between you and a typical dolt of a soldier."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Gabrielle chuckled.
"This is a better way than just charging into the camp. You don't have the brute force to challenge all of them, so you'll have to use your brains," Kala told her quietly.
Gabrielle fiddled with the sword sheath. "I'm not that great with swords, you know. I much rather have my staff."
"The standard military man usually does not carry around an Amazonian war staff or use Amazonian fighting tactics. But don't worry ... you're not planning to use your sword, remember?"
Gabrielle nodded uncertainly. Kala saw her hesitation and laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"You'll do fine, Gabrielle. You just have to trust in yourself."
"The last time I tried to impersonate a warrior, it ... uh ... didn't come off too well." She shifted and the armor clinked. "And I'm also worried about your village. That woman was right. Once I help Xena and Jilly escape, then Falceus may take out his anger on you." Gabrielle turned away, eyes troubled. "I don't know if I have the right to place you in such danger. If anything happens, it'll be my fault. But I can't leave Xena there either."
Kala held the bard gently within her arms. "It is not an easy decision, but don't worry Gabrielle. What you're doing is the right thing. If anything does happen, then remember that it would have happened anyway, given time. We've spent our whole lives under Falceus' foot ... we would have been crushed sooner or later."
"But it'll be my fault ..." Gabrielle repeated softly. "Some hero I'm turning out to be, huh?"
Kala gently turned the bard around to face her. "A typical hero is one who defies the odds and does what is right, despite the consequences. However, a true hero is the one who is able to do what she thinks is right and deal with the aftermath of her actions, even if her decision turns out to be wrong. I know that you are a true hero, Gabrielle, and that you are troubled knowing that your actions could weigh heavily on our fate. However, you have to what is right. Risk is a part of life. If Falceus does decide to take revenge for this, then yes, it will be partly due to your actions. But it also has to do with the town not helping, the fact that we did not stand up for ourselves in the past, Falceus himself, and yes, even the Fates' wide wheel ... nobody's blameless in this. In fact, I think you are one of the most innocent of all." Kala's eyes were steady as she gazed into Gabrielle's face. "Now, are you ready?"
The bard raised her head. "Let's do it."
If big, hairy men could get any uglier than Commander Vervain, then Xena really did not want to meet them. Even more obese and unwashed than Captain Corvin, who already looked like he would belong better in a pigsty than an army camp, the commander smelled of ale and dried blood as he leaned over to look at the girls in the cage. Xena wrinkled her nose.
"You need a bath. You smell worse than cow doot," she told him, with a hand clamped over her face.
"You need to get some manners," he sneered as he banged the cage. Jilly wailed again in fright, but Xena refused to even flinch. "Saucy little thing, aren't you? Let's see how much spunk you'll have once you had a taste of my hand." He turned to Martis. "Unlock the cage. We'll see what this one knows."
"I bet she knows plenty. She was with the one who defeated our soldiers the other day," Captain Corvin said eagerly. "I bet she even knows where Xena is."
"I am Xena," Xena declared icily as Martis fumbled with the keys. Commander Vervain gave a contemptuous bark of laughter.
"Is that so? Well, little girl, pray that you do have some warrior spirit in you, because after I'm through with you, you'll need it."
"But sir, she's only a child," Martis said softly. "Do you think that force is necessary?"
Commander Vervain gave the soldier a blow to the shoulder that sent Martis sprawling. "Spineless coward! Afraid to get your hands wet? Fools, I'm surrounded by fools!" He glared at Corvin. "Can't even handle a small girl, or a helpless woman armed only with a stick." The captain shrunk away as Vervain pushed past him to snatch the keys out of Martis' hands.
"I'll show you how a real man handles things." He unlocked the cage and roughly hauled Xena out. Xena took stock of the situation and brought her foot down hard on the Commander's right boot. Vervain, however, did not let her go, but instead backhanded the girl viciously, sending Xena flying to the ground.
"By the gods, I'll teach you a lesson," he bellowed. Xena watched him come at her, terrified. He was just so big! But in the midst of her fear, a tiny candle of determination lit the girl's soul. Whatever happened, she wouldn't give in or cry. She just wouldn't. A warrior princess would never give up! As Vervain towered over her and pulled back his boot for a kick, Xena braced herself for the pain. It did not come. Looking up, she saw that Martis had blocked the blow. Commander Vervain looked with surprise at this unexpected interference.
"What do you think you're doing?" he bellowed.
"You'll never get an answer out of her this way." Martis was clearly frightened, but he forged bravely on. "I know five-year-olds ... I have a little sister just her age. Leave her to me ... I'll get her to tell what you need to know."
"Are you questioning my actions?" Vervain's hand flitted to his sword.
"No!" Martis yelped. "Of course not, great commander. But I know something ... this girl is the little sister of the Warrior Princess. If you harm her, then Xena will surely cut you down. If instead, you use her as bait, then we would have the Warrior Princess right where you want her. However, she needs to be healthy and intact for the plan to work!"
Commander Vervain narrowed his eyes. "Is this true?" he demanded of Xena. "Are you the sister of Xena?"
"Yes," Xena said coldly.
"How interesting," Vervain purred as he turned to Martis. "Thank you for telling me. However, you better not think of defying me again. You know the penalty for dissension. After all, we do want your little sister to grow up to be a fine, healthy woman now, don't we?"
Martis' eyes hardened, but he nodded. "I am at your command, as always."
"Good. See that it stays that way. Otherwise it will be your head." Vervain turned to Captain Corvin. "Send a messenger to the Realthan. Tell them to inform Lord Falceus of this new development. I'm sure that he'll be interested."
He smiled dangerously at Xena. "Well now, seems that you'll keep your hide after all. But I can't say the same of your little friend over there. Tell me, where is this sister of yours?"
Xena glared at him angrily. "I don't know. If you hurt me or Jilly, then my sister will come and rip your gizzard out."
"Commander, I really don't think she could tell you anything useful. After all, why would the warrior woman tell a little girl of her plans?" Martis gulped as Vervain glared at him, but the man did not reach for his sword.
"Of course not, you idiot," the commander snarled. "Chances are that Xena is already plotting to get her back. That is why *you* must see that she doesn't. If these two escape, it will mean your family's life."
"Yes, sir," Martis replied, his eyes never leaving the ground.
"I'm glad you understand me," Vervain chuckled humorlessly. "Take heart. You'll probably be the first one she kills if she comes."
The soldier gulped, but saluted the commander bravely. Vervain walked away, a wicked smile on his face.
"I'll tell Xena not to kill you," Xena told Martis as he resettled into his post. "You're not that mean."
"Thanks, little one, not that it matters any." The soldier's face had a drawn, weary look to it as his fingers wandered along the hilt of his sword.
"Why are you a soldier? You aren't like Corvin and Vervain." Xena traced the bars of the cage nervously as she looked around at the camp, including all the other soldiers in her gaze. They turned away uncomfortably. "You all aren't very mean, 'cept for Vervain and Corvin. Why are you doing this?"
"We're an army. We have to do as we're ordered," Martis muttered. "Now shush, you're going to get us in trouble!"
"You don't have to do it. What you're doing is bad," Xena insisted as her eyes swept the camp again, accusingly. The other men busied themselves with minor chores, trying to avoid the child's penetrating look.
"What do you know about wrong or right? You know nothing of warfare or pain." Martis turned away. "We're not innocent little girls like you."
"I'm not little," Xena huffed. "But I KNOW you don't want to be bad," she declared. "I can feel it. You're not awful men. Why do you want to hurt Jilly and me? We never did anything too bad. Well, not really. Okay, maybe taking the cookies was a little bad, but we were really sorry. We'll be very good now, I promise ... please let us go ..."
"Just shut up, will ya? " Martis snapped. The other soldiers shifted guiltily as unease rippled through the camp. The words of the little girl had affected them more than they wanted to admit. "If Vervain hears you talking, then he'll definitely hurt you."
"You didn't let him the first time. You look nice. Why can't you let me an' Jilly out?"
"I just can't. Don't ask me that again." Martis turned away from the cage, trying to escape those pleading blue eyes.
"If you don't like being a soldiers, quit," Xena said earnestly.
"Listen, it's not that easy!" he told her fiercely. "You're just a child. How could you understand?" His eyes looked past Xena, "Having your family in trouble, having to kill .... by the gods, I wish I did not have this life!" He slumped. "But the Fates would have me here. Pray that you never know the anguish I do, little one. Pray that your innocence holds you through the night."
The sky was still dark when Xena suddenly woke up. She had fallen asleep in the middle of her plan to try to chew her way out of the iron bars of the cage. It was still night, and Xena could tell that it was probably very late. Beside her, Jilly snuffled as she turned around in her sleep. A few feet away, Xena could barely make out the forms of a couple of dozing sentries. Martis was to her right, still trying valiantly to keep guard, although his eyelids were drooping lower and lower. The rest of the camp seemed to be asleep.
Wondering why she was now awake, the girl silently sat up. Not a single beam of moonlight filtered through from the sky, and the tendrils of smoke from the dying embers of the fire made the air seem spooky and full of ghosts and haunts. Shivering, Xena hugged Lightning tight to her chest as she scanned the camp for any trouble. A sudden movement at the left edge of her vision made her turn around. A soldier was there, carefully avoiding all the other soldiers that were sprawled in and out of their tents. Xena cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. The soldier was sure behaving strangely, but before she could ponder the incongruity, the figure was at her cage.
"Shh ... it's me, Gabrielle." The figure pulled back her helmet to reveal a single lock of strawberry blond hair. Xena nearly cried with joy but remembered herself just in time.
"You came to rescue me? Is my big sister here?" Xena whispered quietly.
"No, it's just me." Gabrielle's face darkened as she traced the bruise that Vervain had left on Xena's face. "I've got to get you outta here. Wake Jilly up quietly while I go look for the keys."
"Martis has them," Xena replied. "He's the soldier over there ... the one that doesn't look or smell as bad as the others. Don't hurt him ... he's not really that bad."
Gabrielle nodded as she stealthily made her way toward the drowsy guard. Xena, meanwhile, shook Jilly awake. The girl blinked once before emitting a startled squeak. Xena shushed her.
"Gabrielle's here. We're being rescued!" Xena told her. "But be quiet."
Jilly gulped, her eyes large. Both girls watched as the bard crept closer and closer to the keys to their freedom. Holding her breath, Gabrielle eased up to the soldier. The keys were around his belt. As gently as possible, she began to undue the buckle. As the leather fell lose, the keys jangled slightly. The bard froze, but Martis remained half asleep. Cautiously edging her hand along his waist, Gabrielle stifled her embarrassment as she grasped the keys and scooted them off the belt. Talk about getting into a man's pants! Slipping back to the cage, with keys in hand, Gabrielle let out a tiny sigh of relief as she knelt at the lock.
"I'll have you two out of here in no time," she breathed as she tried the first key. Unfortunately, it did not work. The second key produced the same result, as did the third. Gabrielle was beginning to sweat as she neared the end of the ring. The sudden prick of a sword on her back did not help matters either.
"What in the name of Hades do you think you're doing, soldier?" a furious male voice assailed her.
Gabrielle turned around slightly to find the guard she had robbed staring at her, one hand grasping his sagging pants, the other holding a very sharp sword. Catching sight of her face, the soldier gasped.
"It's you!" Gabrielle felt the sword dig in deeper. "You're the one who attacked Corvin!"
"No, Martis! " Xena cried. Already, the men around the campfire were beginning to stir. "She's my friend. Please don't kill her. You said that you didn't have a choice ... well, you do!"
Staring at the deep blue eyes that seem to pierce his soul, Martis sighed. The pretty blonde that gazed at him from his the other side of his sword did not help matters either. Sensing that the soldier was weakening, Xena pressed her advantage.
"Please, Martis. You said that you couldn't help us escape ... but she can! Otherwise, Vervain will kill Jilly and me!"
Martis turned away, letting his sword point drop as he hitched and buckled his pants. "It's the last key on the rung," he muttered. Gabrielle quickly seized it and turned the lock. Xena sprang out as soon as the door opened, but Jilly was a little more slow. Giving the soldier one last grateful look, Gabrielle swept the little girl up and started running. However, the soldiers had already been roused, and they had started to realize that something was not quite right. Shouts and yells echoed through the camp as soldiers tried to arm themselves. Gabrielle knew that she would never make it holding Jilly, but she refused to drop the girl. Just a little farther ...
"Give her to me." Suddenly, hands reached out an took the load. Looking up, Gabrielle saw that it was Martis.
"Run!" she told him frantically. "Go to the east edge of the camp. Make sure they get out of here safely. I'll hold your friends off." She whipped around and broke off a tent pole. It was a little lighter and a little shorter than what she was used to, but it would have to do. Giving an angry warcry of her own, the bard launched herself at the coming soldiers. Her staff was a whirling tornado as it threw down men. Time, she had to give Martis some time. Janya was waiting at the edge of the woods with their mounts. The woman had instructions on what to do with Xena. Their trail would lead the army away from Cyanthus for awhile. Gabrielle just hoped that they would be able to restore the warrior in time to save the village. As for herself, well, she would not go down without a fight! Besides, she owed these monsters one for what they had done to Xena. She fought skillfully, and for a short time, it looked like she might actually break free of the surrounding mob.
"GABBY!" A sudden scream sliced through the air. Gabrielle froze in horror as she turned to see a sight that would linger in her mind for the rest of her days. She dropped her staff in defeat as an overwhelming feeling of helplessness enveloped her. Somehow, Xena had been captured. And now a madman held a knife to her throat.
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