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Copyright: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the authors. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: This work remains the © copyright of the original authors. It may not be republished without the authors' consent.
Violence: There is some violence in this story, however it is not *too* graphic. Just a bit more than would be seen in a typical episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. If this will bother you, please use the "BACK" button!
"Mush": This story's kinda mushy in places! If this will bother you, please use the "BACK" button! ; )
OUR THANKS to Anon., Lunacy and Atalanta, who provided very helpful comments and wonderful support!
Stifling. That was really the best word for it. The mid-day sun was unrelenting, the air hanging hot and dry. Even the insects seemed to buzz listlessly. Unfortunately, the heat was also having an affect on the two figures plodding along the dirt track that passed for a road, their unhappy horse trudging along beside them. It was serving to fuel their already irritable moods. The shorter of the two kicked a small rock down the path, raising a small cloud of dust in the process.
"Do you have to do that?" Xena asked, annoyed.
"No, I don't *have* to do it, I just *want* to do it." Gabrielle replied testily, sending another rock careening down the road they followed.
Xena cast a glance at her friend's ordinarily cheery face. "You're still mad at me, aren't you?"
"No, no! I'm *not* mad, *not* miffed - I'm *not* upset in the least!" the bard lied sarcastically, kicking yet another stone.
Xena frowned at the tone in the bard's voice. "You're behaving like a child."
"Well, you're treating me like one." Gabrielle shot back.
Xena pulled her horse to a halt and glared at her friend. "What's that supposed to mean?" she growled.
Gabrielle stopped beside her friend and returned the glare. "What's it supposed to mean? I *still* think I should do some performing at the tavern in Mysia tonight. We don't have any money, we're low on supplies and Argo needs to have her hooves and shoes checked by a smithy. I can earn enough in one night, two at the most, to get us stocked up and get Argo's shoes replaced, if need be."
Xena sighed, displeased to be going over the same argument they'd been over five times already. "We've discussed this enough, that place is too dangerous and I'd rather avoid trouble if we can. And I told you, don't you worry about Argo's shoes, that's *my* problem."
"I don't think there'll be any trouble, but if there is I can handle myself just fine *AND* Argo's shoes are not *your* problem, they're *our* problem. Just how many times are we going to have to discuss this? You're too over-protective, Xena. I can take care of myself!" the bard retorted hotly.
Xena stared at her friend, anger rippling across her features. "I'm really getting sick of this argument, Gabrielle." she warned, her voice low.
"Really? Then *why* do you keep causing it?" the bard snapped.
Xena opened her mouth to reply but was startled into silence by a low rumbling sound and a gust of wind blowing briskly, violently rustling the leaves in the trees above them. Xena tensed, her eyes darting around quickly, searching for the cause of the rumbling.
"What...what is that?" Gabrielle asked nervously, her anger dissolving quickly.
Xena shook her head, still glancing about, unconsciously guiding Gabrielle slightly behind her with one arm. The rumbling swiftly grew louder and louder, the wind increasing to gale force. A flash of lightning and crack of thunder added to the maelstrom. Argo pulled back, her eyes rolling wildly in fear as she tried to flee, but was held in place by Xena's firm grip on the reins.
"What's happening?" Gabrielle yelled over the now deafening din as the wind whipped her hair around her face.
Xena suddenly realized the source of the chaos. "Here we go again." She groaned, as she tried to quiet the terrified mare.
There was another crash of thunder accompanied by lightning, then a chariot pulled by a team of black horses bore down on them in the swirling dust.
"Hades." the bard and warrior said simultaneously, looks of apprehension on both of their faces.
The chariot ground to a halt 20 paces before them. The air returned to its previously stagnant state. Hades, Lord of the Underworld, stepped from his chariot and walked briskly towards the startled pair. Xena and Gabrielle coughed from the cloud of dust stirred up by Hades' arrival.
"Xena, I need your help. Yours too, Gabrielle." the god blurted out, desperation blazoned across his face.
The warrior cast a worried look at the imposing god. Attired in his black armor, cape and helmet he was a sight that terrified most mortals. The bard stood rooted where she was, stunned at just having been asked for help by a god.
"What do you want?" Xena asked apprehensively.
"My wife, Persephone, has been abducted. I need you to get her back."
"Abducted? By whom? Who could do that?" Xena asked in disbelief.
"Another god." Hades replied uneasily.
"Another god? Which one?" Xena asked in amazement.
Hades looked at her for a moment, then sighed. "Callisto."
"Callisto!" the name hissed from the bard's lips. "She's escaped the lava?"
"Yes, she's escaped. And she wants her revenge. Revenge on me for sentencing her to Tartarus. Revenge on Xena for... well, you know why."
"What about Velaska? Is she free of the lava too?" Xena asked anxiously. To her relief, Hades shook his head.
"No, Velaska is still there, but I'm sure she will eventually free herself. But right now Callisto is the problem."
"Isn't this more a problem for the gods to settle among themselves? She *is* one of you now. What can we mortals do that you can't?" Xena asked pointedly.
Hades shifted his stance uneasily, since his pride and power had never been humbled before by a mortal. However, if it had to be in order to save his wife, then at least it was by a mortal he liked and respected.
"The gods will be very displeased with me for revealing this, but I have no choice. For obvious reasons the gods have kept from mortals the fact that each of us has a vulnerability to our power, to our very immortality. This was by design of our father, Cronos, that no one god could rise to conquer the others."
The god paced nervously, almost expecting the other gods to appear at any moment to strike him down for his revelations, but he continued. "In Ares' case, as you have seen, if he is deprived of his sword he loses his power and becomes mortal. As you have also witnessed, if my sister Celesta is deprived of her candle, her eternal flame, she would lose her powers as well. Hermes would have no power without his winged cap and shoes. And, of course, I am nothing without my helmet." The god looked uncomfortably at the warrior and the bard.
"Go on." Xena encouraged, curiosity spurring her interest.
"My wife's power rests in the wreath she wears. It was given to her by her mother, Demeter, and possesses the power of the goddess of agriculture as well as her immortality. Callisto captured Persephone while she was in the mortal world, helping Demeter with the nurturing of the plants. Callisto took Persephone's wreath and now my wife is as mortal as you are until she once again wears the wreath. Callisto sent word to me that if the gods make an attempt to intervene she will kill Persephone. I am not sure that even the power of Zeus or the speed of Hermes can overcome her before she carries out her threat. We can't take that chance."
"That's - that's horrible, but Hades..." Gabrielle started hesitantly, not certain of how to phrase her next thought, "by her death she would be returned to you in the Underworld. Even if the worst happens, she'd still be back where she belongs, right? Everything would be back to normal?" she finished carefully.
Hades shook his head sadly. "If she dies a mortal's death due to the actions of another god she may never leave the Underworld again. That's the problem. The murder of one god by another, while highly uncommon, is permanent. There's no reversing it." He explained patiently. "Her mother, Demeter, would be so grief stricken at the loss of her daughter that she would never again bring forth the plants in the spring. The mortal world would starve. Also, I could no longer have Persephone as my wife. A god can not be married to a mortal, not even a dead one."
"Couldn't you bring her back to life with ambrosia?" Gabrielle inquired.
"No. Ambrosia is from the gods and the gods can not undo what another god has done. If Callisto takes her life there is no way that I can bring her back again," the god replied despondently.
"There must be more to Callisto's message. What else did she say?" Xena inquired suspiciously.
Hades fidgeted again, coming to the part that he knew was going to cause the biggest problem. "Callisto is holding my wife at an abandoned fortress two leagues north of Mysia. She wants you and Gabrielle to go to her willingly. As long as she gets her wish, she promises to release Persephone unharmed."
"You can't trust her promises, she'll kill her anyway." Gabrielle argued.
"I know." Hades replied worriedly.
"Then we'll have to find a way to make sure she keeps that promise. We'll have to free Persephone ourselves." the warrior said determinedly. "Hades, you said each god has a vulnerability. What's Callisto's?"
"Well, since Callisto was not born of the gods she does not have the blood of Cronos in her veins, her godhood does not reside in a specific object. Her immortality and power came from the ambrosia. Thus, her powers must be captured and the only way to do this is to bind her wrists with manacles forged by Hephaestus. Once she is bound and Persephone is safe the gods can deal with her."
"Sounds easy enough, we sneak up on a deranged goddess, slap some manacles on her and the job is done." Gabrielle cracked sarcastically. "That is, if she doesn't fry us first with some lightning bolts or something."
Xena was pacing slowly, looking thoughtful. She stopped before the distraught god. "I'm going to need some help. Someone Callisto doesn't know, someone smart, good in a fight, someone I can trust."
"I thought as much myself. I don't want another living mortal involved in this. I don't want anyone to pass on what they hear or see - that includes a certain bard." Hades said with a pointed look at Gabrielle.
"Oh, great." the bard mumbled. "The greatest story of my life and I can't tell anyone about it. That is, if I *live* long enough. Sometimes life isn't fair."
"I've arranged for someone from the other side to help you. I think he'll meet with your approval, Xena." Hades spoke, lifting his hand in the air and snapping his fingers. Another loud rumbling was heard and a gale of wind and crash of thunder and lightning hearkened a second black chariot from the Underworld.
Gabrielle stared in amazement as the chariot, this one driven by Celesta, stopped before them. Sharing the chariot with Celesta was a tall, handsome man about her age with curly light brown hair and piercing blue eyes. He had a lean, muscular build, and was dressed in leather boots, dark breeches and a reddish-colored shirt. His face beamed with a smile that could outshine the sun and Gabrielle felt like she'd just seen the other half of her soul.
A gasp escaped from Xena who recovered enough from her shock to utter one word. "Lyceus!"
"Xena!" the young man shouted, bolting from the chariot and running to the dumbstruck warrior. He easily picked her up and swung her around, laughing joyfully. Xena's arms flew around Lyceus' neck as she showered him with kisses and hugs, the joy of seeing and holding her beloved brother shining from her eyes.
Gabrielle watched the family reunion, reeling from the sudden turn of events. In the nearly two years she had been traveling with Xena she couldn't recall ever seeing her deliriously happy, but that's what she saw now. The bard smiled at the sight.
"Xena," Hades interrupted the reunion, "this is only a temporary arrangement. He is back for only two days. That is the length of time Callisto has given me to deliver you to her. In the end, he must go back to the Underworld. Lyceus knows this and accepts it. So must you."
A questioning look settled on the warrior's face and she looked to her brother. "Lyceus?" she prompted, hoping she had misunderstood the god.
"That's the deal, Xena. I agreed to those terms. Exactly two days from this moment, mid-day, I'll have to go back. But at least we'll have those two days together - two glorious days to say the things we never got to say, to face some things that might be difficult for us both. And we have a job to do - we have to save Persephone."
"All right, Hades, I guess I don't have a choice." the warrior reluctantly agreed.
Hades tossed a small pouch to Lyceus which he easily caught. "There's 100 dinars. You'll need to buy Lyceus weapons and get another horse." The god turned and strode to Celesta's chariot and she handed him what appeared to be chains. He walked back to Xena and handed the chains to her. Upon closer inspection, Xena saw what she held in her hands was a set of manacles; two heavy wrist manacles with a chain a little more than an arm's length long between them.
"These manacles were forged by Hephaestus. Once Callisto is bound with them she will not have use of her powers. Her immortality will be forfeit and even a mortal could kill her." Hades gazed pointedly at Xena and his point was not lost on her.
"Don't worry Hades, I won't be doing your dirty work. I have no intention of killing her. I'm glad to leave her judgment to her fellow gods." Xena said flatly. Hades stepped back, a little stunned at Xena's rebuke.
"There's not much time, you three had better get to Mysia and make preparations for facing Callisto. I'll be watching, if there's anything I can do just call, I'll be there." Hades returned to the chariot, took up the reins and looked back on the three people to whom he'd just entrusted the rescue of his beloved wife. He bowed. "Thank you." He added softly.
Xena looked pointedly at her brother, then returned her eyes to the god again. "Thank *you*." she replied in kind. Hades smiled briefly and pulled the reins to turn the team around. A quick snap on the reins and the horses took off, Celesta following behind. They disappeared in the swirling dust.
When the dust and the wind calmed down following the departure of the gods the threesome stood silently, overwhelmed by the events. Xena finally managed to pull herself together and grabbed her brother's arm. Before she could speak, Lyceus grasped her shoulders, glancing down at her attire.
"Look at all that leather and armor. I'm not used to seeing you dressed this way." He quipped lightly, then his voice softened. "Is my big sister still in there?"
Xena gazed at him for a moment, a slight, sad smile playing about her lips. "She's gone through some changes, but yes...still here." she replied quietly.
Lyceus returned the smile and pulled her into another embrace. A hundred questions ran haphazardly through his mind, competing for space. The pure joy of seeing Xena again was overshadowed somewhat by his confusion and pain over what she had become.
Xena was feeling the same tumble of emotions and wondered how she was ever going to explain to him what happened to her after his death. The terrifying thought that he wouldn't be able to forgive her for the terrible things she had done also occurred to her. 'First things first.' she thought quickly, shaking off those feelings for the moment. She gently pulled back from him. "Before anything else, I've got someone I want you to meet." she whispered, a twinkle in her eye. She dragged him over to where Gabrielle was standing. "Lyceus, this is my friend, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle stared at Lyceus wide eyed, at a loss for words as a wave of familiarity swept over her.
"Are you all right?" Lyceus asked her.
"Er.. ah... um.. yeah, I'm fine, fine. How are you?" she babbled, shaking herself from her trance.
He smiled at her obvious struggle to compose herself. He gently took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it, a soft smile touching his lips as their eyes locked. A quizzical look crossed his face. "I feel like we've met before." he whispered.
"I know what you mean." Gabrielle replied shakily, "But I'm quite sure we never did. I'm sure I would have remembered you if we had, but I remember nothing. Maybe it's just that Xena's told me so much about you." She reached a hand up and pulled his face down to hers, giving him a soft kiss on the cheek. "Well, I'm glad to meet you now."
Xena watched as the two people she cherished most finally met. She listened to their exchange and thought back to when the fates had offered her a different outcome to her life. In that alternate life she had seen the attraction between her brother and her friend, an attraction that was obviously going to repeat itself here. She smiled in satisfaction, then sobered. 'But it's for only two days.' The words tore through her mind, abruptly ending her moment of enjoyment.
"We'd better get going, we need to get to Mysia to get Argo's shoes checked and do the rest of our shopping. We'll buy our supplies and camp on the other side of the village tonight so we can get an early start in the morning." Xena said in an effort to focus on their mission.
"Yes, we'd better get going," Lyceus agreed, his eyes still locked on the bard.
"Going, uh, yeah, gotta get going," the bard stammered, unable to take her eyes off of Xena's brother.
The three started their walk towards Mysia, Lyceus euphorically sandwiched between his beloved sister and her beautiful friend.
"How is mother? Do you see her much?" Lyceus asked Xena eagerly.
"She's well." Xena replied evenly. "I don't get home often, though. The town has some mixed feelings about me. It's better if I stay away, for the most part."
"Oh, yes, I should have figured that," Lyceus said softly.
Xena turned to look at her brother, a pained expression on her face. Then she sighed, looking downwards. Might as well not put off the inevitable.... "Lyceus, how much do you know about the things I've done? Can you see the mortal world from the other side?" she asked slowly.
Lyceus gazed at his sister a long moment before he gave her the answer she had been dreading to hear.
"Well, we can't see the mortal world, but when people cross over they bring with them the stories of events in the overworld. The stories that I heard about you for a very long time were very disturbing. Many good men were entering the Elysian Fields because they died defending their village from an invading army...from *your* army, Xena." Lyceus responded sadly. He looked at his sister with deep pain in his eyes.
"What happened to you? How did you get from leading an army in defense of Amphipolis to leading an army of invaders every bit as bad as Cortese?" he asked brokenly.
Xena flinched at her brother's judgment, but was determined to honestly face his questions. "It started out as a defense force." she said softly, her eyes cast to the ground before her. "Just our poorly trained and poorly armed villagers who by their hearts and their courage had routed Cortese and his army. But I was afraid, Lyceus. Afraid that after having been humiliated by farmers Cortese would be back with a larger force to reap his revenge. So I talked the village council into increasing the size of the army, spending almost all the village's treasury on weapons." Xena sighed, shaking her head.
"But that wasn't enough. Amphipolis was too vulnerable to attack from every side. So, my army rode into the surrounding villages and took them. If there was resistance they were...dealt with." she finished uneasily.
Lyceus glanced at her sharply, his face hard. "*Dealt* with? Xena, those were free men protecting their homes! They didn't want to live under the rule of a warlord anymore than we did!"
Xena walked along, her eyes straight ahead, a stoic expression cemented on her face. "I can see that now." she struggled, then shook her head sadly again. "But back then, I was so blinded by my fears, so removed from emotion by my grief. I had no one to give me good counsel. You were dead, and those who were left had grown frightened of me, too frightened to do anything but agree with what I said. I appointed as my lieutenants men who were experienced at making war. They were not the types to suggest making peace."
Lyceus looked at his sister, disappointment etched across his face. "You're not the woman I knew." he said dully.
Xena felt like a blade had been struck through her heart. She accepted her brother's words without complaint or defense.
Gabrielle had been watching the painful exchange between the siblings with a mixture of emotions. Her heart ached to see her friend suffering even more for the mistakes she had made, but she also saw the great pain in Lyceus' eyes at the changes he saw in his sister. He didn't understand, though. He didn't know the further changes his sister had undergone. She cast a glance at Xena. She knew the warrior too well. Xena was too wracked with guilt to bring that up.
"Lyceus," Gabrielle interrupted, "I know all of this is painful and difficult for you to accept, but tell me, have you heard any *recent* stories about what Xena has been doing?"
"Gabrielle, don't. I deserve this. I'm responsible for so much pain." Xena protested softly.
"Yes, you are..." the bard replied honestly, "but Lyceus should also know the way things are now. He should know that the sister he knew was indeed lost, but she's back again." Gabrielle turned to the young man. "Well, Lyceus, did you hear anything recently?" she prodded.
"Well...it *has* been a long time since anyone has entered the Fields blaming their death on Xena. A few have crossed over and brought tales of Xena's helping people. I wasn't sure what to make of them. And though we have no direct way of knowing for sure, I had been told that many of the most vile warlords had arrived in Tartarus...and that they had been sent to their eternal damnation by Xena." Lyceus concluded, a confused look on his brow. He turned back to his sister. "Is this true?"
"Pretty much." Xena responded succinctly.
Gabrielle shot an exasperated glance at her friend. She was only too willing to tell about the terrible things she had done and accept the punishment, but always left out the parts about how she has worked to atone for her mistakes and taking credit for those efforts.
"Actually, in the last two years she's done a lot of good." the bard stated. Xena gave her a look that clearly stated "don't interfere", but Gabrielle was not one to be so easily deterred by the warrior's warning looks.
Gabrielle went on to relate several tales of Xena's *good* deeds - the warlords, titans, giants and gods all stopped from harming innocent, defenseless people. As she spoke, Lyceus was entranced by her stories. Her passionate delivery and sparkling green eyes held him mesmerized.
Xena listened, somewhat embarrassed by the presentation, but unable to really protest because all that the bard was telling was indeed the truth. The bard finally paused in her storytelling, the heat and her long oration having claimed her voice. Xena spotted a small stream trickling not far off the road.
"That looks like a good place to rest and poor Argo hasn't had a drink in hours." She led the others to the stream and let her mare drink her fill. She pulled the water skin from the saddle and handed it to Gabrielle. The bard drank greedily, then passed it on to the others.
Lyceus put his arm on Xena's, looking directly into the cool blue eyes that were a reflection of his own. The tales that Gabrielle related had a profound affect on him. Perhaps his sister wasn't lost - at least not any more.
"Those stories...that sounds more like the sister I knew and loved." he said with a faint smile.
The warrior returned the smile, then sobered. "Lyceus, I don't know what to say. I would do anything to erase the wrongs I have committed, but I can't. Nor can I make amends to the people I've hurt. But I can try to help others and fight oppression and tyranny. I've pledged the rest of my life to doing just that. And who knows? Maybe I can save myself from an eternity in Tartarus in the process."
"Well, you've got a lot to make up for, Xena, but what you're doing is a good start. I know when the time comes for your judgment all the good deeds you've done and will continue to do will far outweigh the bad." the young man said, giving her a tight hug. The three continued on toward Mysia, Argo plodding along behind them.
"Lyceus, how about telling me some stories? Maybe something about my friend here when she was young?" the bard asked mischievously.
Xena cast a "don't you dare" look to her brother and her friend but it was quite apparent the warning would go unheeded.
"Well, I'm not very good at telling stories, but I can tell you how she learned the sword." He said, an amused grin on his lips, a gleam in his eyes.
Xena groaned, resigned to bear the indignity for the amusement of her cherished brother and friend.
"Toris was 13, Xena 11, and I was 10." he began. "Mother was worried about Toris, as he always seemed to be getting picked on by the other kids. Father had left the family several years earlier, so mother asked her brother, Lubos, to teach Toris how to fight and defend himself. So Uncle Lubos fashioned a couple of wooden swords and started daily lessons with Toris. The lessons went on for about a month. Each day, Xena and I watched Uncle Lubos instruct Toris, who absolutely hated it. More often than not poor Toris ended up in tears. After the lessons Toris and Uncle Lubos would put the wooden swords away, but Xena and I would sneak in and take them and then practice with each other. Remember Xena?"
"Yeah, I remember," the warrior said, a gentle smile on her face. "You were so darned competitive."
Lyceus chuckled. "No more competitive than you, sis. Anyhow, Xena and I couldn't get enough of it. We would mock fight for hours, driving each other to get better and better. We started adding more to our practice; rolls, flips, kicks - anything to get an advantage." Lyceus paused, glancing again at his sister. The memories of what happened one particular day were vivid in his mind. "One day we were watching Uncle Lubos trying to teach Toris a simple leg sweep to knock an opponent down. Toris just didn't get it and Uncle Lubos was losing his patience. Finally, Toris burst into tears. That made Uncle Lubos really mad and he called Toris a sissy and a coward. Well, Xena had seen enough. She jumped down from the tree we were sitting in and took Toris' sword. 'That was uncalled for! Apologize or you'll have me to deal with!' she yelled at Uncle Lubos."
Gabrielle laughed at the thought of her friend at 11 years old standing defiantly with the wooden sword in her hand. Somehow, it was an easy image to call to mind.
"Uncle Lubos started laughing." Lyceus continued. "He said 'Xena, my girl, you have guts, which is more than I can say for Toris. Now, put that down and go play with your dolls.' Well, I'm sure you can imagine what effect *that* had on Xena. She charged Uncle Lubos and sent him backpedaling a step or two. He pulled his sword up and just barely deflected hers, the amusement leaving his face as he found himself in one serious fight with an 11 year-old bundle of fury. After several exchanges Uncle Lubos found himself sprawled on the ground, Xena's wooden sword at his throat. 'Apologize! ' she roared. And Uncle Lubos did just that."
"I remember the look in Toris' eyes." Xena interjected sadly. "He looked at me and said 'I don't need your help, Xena. I don't appreciate the humiliation.' Then he ran off. He never could accept that Lyceus was a much better fighter and he really avoided ever testing himself against me. If I beat him I don't think he could've handled it."
Lyceus picked up the story. "Actually, Toris did get to be quite good, his pride just always got in the way when it came to Xena and me. Uncle Lubos was quite impressed with Xena and questioned her about how she had learned so much. She explained how she and I practiced and we showed him some of our drills. He insisted that we start training along with Toris. He taught us all he knew about swords, daggers, staffs, spears and whips. He knew a lot because when he was young he had been quite a warrior himself. We practiced for nearly two months with him until one day mother came looking for us and saw me and Xena fighting each other."
Xena smiled, the long forgotten memory of that day now resurfacing. "Mother came charging down that hill like an enraged gorgon. She tore into Uncle Lubos for teaching me unladylike behavior and for teaching a ten year old boy to be a warrior. Needless to say, that was the end of our lessons with Uncle Lubos. But of course, that didn't stop Lyceus and me from practicing. Once in a while mother would catch us at it and yell a little, or one of us would get hurt and then she'd yell a lot, but she knew she wasn't going to be able to stop us."
Xena and Lyceus exchanged smiles, each warmed by the memories of the childhood they had shared. The group rounded a curve in the road and found themselves within sight of Mysia, bringing their attention back to the urgency of their mission. Xena quickly formed a plan of action.
"We'll have to split up. Lyceus and I will go to the smithy's to get Argo's shoes tended to and see if he might have a horse for sale. Gabrielle, I want you to go to the tavern. Ask around for directions to the fortress, find out if anybody knows anything about what's happening up there."
"Oh, so *now* I'm allowed to go to the tavern? I thought it was too dangerous?" Gabrielle needled. Xena cast a cool look towards her friend.
"Gabrielle..." she growled in warning.
"Okay, okay - I'm off to the tavern." the bard said quickly, a smug expression showing her pleasure at having annoyed the warrior.
Lyceus watched as the bard headed off. "She's wonderful." he said softly, his eyes never leaving her till she was lost in the crowd.
"Yes, she is." Xena agreed, noting the infatuation evident on her brother's face. 'But it's for only two days.' whispered achingly through her mind.
Lyceus glanced at her nervously. "Are you sure she'll be safe in the tavern?" he asked, hoping he might be sent to be her protector.
"She'll be fine," the warrior reassured her brother.
Finding the blacksmith at the village stable, Xena assessed the mountain of a man before her. He towered over her by several inches, his arms thick as tree limbs from wielding the hammer all day, every day. He had the grime of the forge covering him from head to toe, but Xena could see that there were rather handsome features under it all. In answer to her inquiry for horses for sale, the smithy led her and Lyceus to a corral with four somewhat suspect animals standing in the shade of a large tree, trying to escape the heat.
"The roan mare over there with the three white socks would be a bargain at 70 dinars." The smithy offered.
Xena glanced sharply at the horse then back at the smithy. She raised an eyebrow slowly, slightly shaking her head. Leaning in towards the man, she crooked a finger at him, motioning him towards her. When he moved forward she quickly grabbed him by the throat.
"Making a fast dinar is one thing, taking unfair advantage of a customer is entirely another!" She twisted his head towards the horse. "*That* animal is blind in one eye and has arthritis." She snarled. "And I wouldn't pay 70 dinars for the king's personal warhorse, so let's try this again, shall we? This time don't play me for a fool!" She released the startled man from her grip.
Lyceus' jaw dropped as he watched his sister's exchange with the smithy.
The smithy rubbed his throat, pausing for a moment to reassess his customer. "The black mare, the only decent one in the bunch, strong with an even temperament, 60 dinars." he said in a rasping voice, defensively retreating a step from the warrior. Xena's eyes narrowed, causing him to put a protective hand up to his throat. He moved yet another step backwards.
"The black mare, 50 dinars including a saddle, bridle and new shoes for my horse." Xena replied, in a tone that said she was finished dealing.
"Done." the smithy agreed in relief.
"We'll be back in an hour, have them ready by then." Xena commanded, handing the man the money.
Lyceus walked with his sister towards the tavern, chuckling at the expense of the smithy.
"You find something amusing?" Xena queried her brother, an eyebrow arched for effect.
Lyceus laughed harder. "Oh, it was just so great watching you in action again. That smithy will remember *that* negotiation for some time to come."
An easy smile spread across Xena's face as she joined her brother in his merriment. They entered the tavern and scanned for the bard.
Lyceus pointed toward a dark corner. "Over there, Xena, it looks like Gabrielle is in trouble." He said, alarm in his voice.
Xena quickly focused on the dark corner where Gabrielle stood, staff in defensive position, two unkempt figures seeming to pose a threat. Xena put a restraining hand on her brother's arm. "Watch." she whispered, pulling him with her along the edge of the room, drawing near to the stand-off but not interfering. "We'll help if needed, but I think she'll be fine."
"This is your last warning." Gabrielle stated coolly. "Leave me be in peace and you won't get hurt."
The two men laughed drunkenly. "Feisty one, ain't she?" the one leered. "Come on, sweetie, let's us three have some fun." he continued unwisely as he made the mistake of lunging for the bard. Gabrielle swung her staff up, connecting with his chin, then swung the other end low and knocked his legs out from under him. With a quick flick of her wrist the staff hit him in the groin, eliciting a howl of pain. The other man was a quick learner. Having seen what the young woman could do he made a hasty retreat.
Xena moved towards her friend. "See, I just knew there'd be trouble if I let you come to this tavern." she teased.
"Xena! Lyceus!" the bard bubbled, moving a strand of hair back into place as she stepped over the writhing man to join her companions. "I've got some information."
Lyceus stood intoxicated by the golden haired goddess before him, awed by the skill with which she had so easily dispatched the lout.
"Lyceus? Are you all right?" the goddess asked, noticing the expression on his face.
"Er.. ah... um.. yeah, I'm fine, fine. How are you?" he babbled, shaking himself from his trance. Gabrielle smiled brightly, effectively rendering the young man mute.
"I'm fine," she assured him. "Let's get out of here and find a place to talk."
Xena cast a glance at her brother, easily reading the adulation of the bard on his face. ‘But it's for only two days' whispered sorrowfully through her mind. "Let's go." she said, spurring Lyceus into motion by dragging him by his arm.
The trio exited the tavern and headed for the market, Gabrielle relating her discoveries along the way. "The fortress is about half a day's ride to the north. When the road splits in two we follow the left branch, it's just a short distance to the crossroads at a shrine to Aphrodite. At the shrine, take the road to the right. We'll soon come to a bridge over a shallow river, the fortress should be visible on a hill to the north."
"Any word on how many men might be guarding the place?" Xena asked.
"Nobody seemed to have any idea how many men Callisto has. She had sent messengers into these local villages, relaying that she wanted to hire some guards and offered a lot of dinars. Several of the village men who had military experience made the journey to the fortress, but they didn't meet with her approval." the bard's lips twisted into a grimace.
"Apparently, the recruitment standards require some murdering and pillaging experience with a strong preference for torture. Callisto personally tests the fighting skills of each recruit. They felt lucky to have gotten out of there alive. Many in the village are uneasy knowing that a mad woman with an army is so close by, but they have no idea that she has the power of a god."
Lyceus stared at the bard. "You found out all this in the short time you were in that tavern?" he asked in admiration.
"That's her gift, she could talk fish right out of the water if she tried. These simple folk don't stand a chance when she wants information." Xena responded with an affectionate glance at her friend. Gabrielle blushed at Xena's praise.
"It's really just a matter of finding someone who looks a little lonely and striking up a conversation. People really like to talk and as long as you listen attentively they'll tell you anything you want to know." the bard replied modestly.
"You did great, Gabrielle. Now we need to get finished with the rest of our purchases before the market closes. Lyceus, I noticed a weapons merchant back near the smithy's. Why don't you go there and try to find yourself a sword? We'll get some food for tonight and meet you there."
Lyceus headed for the opposite side of the market, Gabrielle's eyes following him until he was lost in the crowd.
"Gabrielle." the warrior said, trying to get her attention.
"Hmmmm?" the bard responded absently, still watching for a glimpse of Lyceus in the crowd.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called, more emphatically.
"What?" the bard asked turning abruptly to her friend.
"I want to talk to you... about Lyceus." Xena began hesitantly. A guilty look immediately crossed the bard's features.
"Oh, I know what it is. I'm sorry, Xena, I should have been more sensitive! You'd probably like some private time with your brother. Don't worry, when we set up camp I'll make myself scarce, I won't get in the way."
"Well, no - that's not what I meant and you're not in the way. I want you with us throughout this. This is Callisto we're talking about. I don't want you alone at *any* time, especially when we're this close to her lair. It's safer if we stay together." the warrior asserted.
"Well, what is it then? What about Lyceus?" Gabrielle asked, baffled. Xena sighed, wondering how to begin.
"The two of you seem so, well.. so taken with each other."
"He is remarkable - intelligent, sweet and funny. It would be hard to not be taken with him." the bard confessed.
"Gabrielle, you haven't forgotten, have you? He has to go back...this is for only two days. I don't want to see you get hurt." the warrior said softly.
"I know that, Xena, I haven't forgotten. But it's too late. I know already that it's going to hurt, but I can't stop myself from the way he makes me feel. I can't put up those emotional walls to hide behind. I know it's crazy - I barely know him...yet I almost feel like I've met my "other half", you know? I --" she broke off, blushing shyly, looking at the ground. ‘Gods, this is her *brother* I'm talking about! Why am I going on about this?' Gabrielle thought quickly, but any awkwardness she felt was put to rest when she felt her friend clasp her shoulder and squeeze gently.
"If the situation were different I would love nothing more than to see the two of you together. I'm just sorry that's not the case." Xena told her quietly.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend and smiled what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"It's okay, really. I'll take what we have and expect no more." she finished, covering her friend's hand with her own.
Xena smiled a sad smile of acceptance. "Well, I guess we'd better get those supplies."
The two friends quickly purchased bread, vegetables, oil and corn meal as well as a few other staples for their food pack. Gabrielle walked along side Xena, pleased with her bargains. They headed for the weapons mercantile, spotting Lyceus still examining the swords on display.
"See anything you like?" Xena asked.
"The one on the end seems the best of the lot," he replied.
Xena picked up the weapon. It had a simple hilt, was easy to hold and had good balance. She sighted down the blade and noted how true the edge was. "Nice workmanship," she nodded approvingly.
"Yes, I think that would be the one." Lyceus said.
"How much for this sword?" Xena asked the shopkeep.
"35 dinars." The man said smoothly. Xena glared at him, but didn't respond. She'd dicker when she had everything she wanted.
"I think you should pick up some daggers. Three, maybe." Xena said thoughtfully, perusing the display.
"Three? Why would I need three?"
"Because daggers are your best weapon. You throw them with truer aim than anyone I've seen. You need to impress Callisto and I think your skill with daggers might do it." She explained, picking up three daggers and handing them to her brother. Lyceus selected one of them. He tossed it in his hand, first holding the blade end, then tossing it and catching the hilt.
"These will do." he said approvingly.
Xena took the daggers and sword to the shopkeep. "How much for the lot?"
"50 dinars." The shopkeep said flatly, ruffled by the glare the warrior had previously given him. Xena rolled her eyes. They were not off to a very good start.
"Allow me," the bard interrupted. Xena stepped back, yielding to her friend.
"Now, friend," Gabrielle began, "We both know how outrageous that price was, and we're in a bit of a hurry, so here's what I had in mind - the sword, three daggers, and also a scabbard for the sword - 25 dinars."
The shopkeep eyed the young woman, sensing he had a worthy opponent.
"Now, my good woman, I'm an honest man, just trying to feed my wife and six children, I couldn't possibly let you have it for less than... hmmmm... 35 dinars."
Gabrielle picked up the daggers, turning them over thoughtfully in her hands as she bided her time, waiting the merchant out.
"Throw in sheaths for the three daggers and we'll say 28 dinars." she countered.
"You get the sheaths, 30 dinars for everything," he offered, a toothless grin on his face.
"Deal," the bard agreed. Lyceus and Xena watched the negotiation, a smile on both of their faces as they appreciated the bard's talent for dickering.
Xena counted out the money for the satisfied shopkeep. "I guess the wife and kids will eat well tonight." she quipped.
"Xena, he doesn't have any wife or kids, it's just part of the game," the bard laughed. Xena looked at the bard, confused, then at the shopkeep with thinly veiled anger. The shopkeep smiled his toothless grin again, looking at Gabrielle.
"How'd you know?" he asked, amused.
"I saw your cot through that doorway. You live here, behind the shop. There's not enough room for a family." Gabrielle said triumphantly.
The old man laughed. "I'll have to remember to keep that curtain drawn tight from now on."
Gabrielle helped Lyceus thread the scabbard and a knife sheath on his belt. Her hands trembled a little as she tried to push the belt through the loop on the sheath. She looked up to see his eyes locked on her face and a flush crept up her cheeks. He smiled and she felt her heart flutter.
"Could you two hurry that up? The sun is starting to drop and we have to find a campsite." Xena nudged.
"Er.. ah... um.. yeah, campsite," the bard babbled.
"Campsite?" Lyceus whispered, his eyes unable to leave the bard.
Xena rolled her eyes. Grabbing her two companions by the arms, she pushed and dragged them towards the stable. Argo was standing patiently, nickering softly when she saw Xena. Beside her stood the black mare, saddled and ready to go.
"How much did you pay for her?" Gabrielle asked, running an appraising look over the animal.
"With the saddle, bridle and Argo's new shoes, 50 dinars," the warrior responded while checking Argo's hooves.
"50 dinars! Xena, you have no idea how to negotiate a bargain!" the bard exclaimed.
Lyceus nearly burst out laughing, remembering his sister's method of negotiation. Xena cast him a sharp look to keep him quiet.
"I know it was a little high but we needed to have Argo's shoes replaced right away. I don't think it would have gotten done this quickly without the extra money." she explained.
Gabrielle sighed. "Well, what's done is done," she said patting the horse on the rump. "What's her name?"
"Her name?" Xena responded quizzically.
"Yeah, her name. You know, your horse's name is Argo and this horse's name is...?"
Xena and Lyceus looked sheepishly at each other.
"So you forgot to ask, huh?" the bard snickered.
The smithy came around the corner. Seeing the warrior, he stopped dead in his tracks.
"Nice work," Xena said, indicating Argo's hooves.
"Thanks," the man replied weakly, rubbing his throat.
"By the way, does this horse have a name?" Lyceus asked, pointing to the black mare.
The smithy thought for a moment, scratching his head. "I believe her name is Hope." he wheezed.
Xena, Gabrielle and Lyceus all exchanged looks.
"Kind of appropriate, isn't it?" Lyceus asked quietly. Xena and Gabrielle smiled at him in agreement. The smithy coughed raspily, interrupting their thoughts.
"If you've got a sore throat you should try gargling with salt water and drink tea made from eucalyptus leaves," the bard offered.
Lyceus burst into laughter. Unamused, the smithy excused himself with a wave.
Gabrielle looked confused. "Did I miss something?"
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, Lyceus can explain when he gets a hold of himself. We'd better get going." Xena stowed the provisions in Argo's saddlebags. She mounted the horse and turned to offer Gabrielle a lift up behind her only to see the bard was already mounted behind Lyceus, her arms holding tightly to his slim waist. 'They look so perfect together.' she thought warmly. But the impending goodbyes they would have to exchange sent a stab of pain through her heart.
By unspoken consensus they kept the horses to a walk, as if to hurry would somehow shorten their time together. While they slowly traveled towards the setting sun it was as though time stood still and they were safe and peaceful in each other's company.