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The concept of Xena: Warrior Princess and the characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of MCA/Universal; the story below is my own. Thanks to the producers, writers, etc., as well as Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor for bringing life to the characters who captivate us each week and have provided the inspiration for this story.
Now, I am not a professional writer (I don't even play one on tv!) and this is my first real attempt at creative writing in about 13 years. This was something I had to try to do for me; it was at times a labor of love and at times a pain in the ---! : ) I would welcome your comments, just please be gentle with this nervous "bard wanna-be"!
MY GREAT THANKS to Yellowjacket and Anon., two wonderful fan fiction writers who have been unwavering in their support and encouragement. They have provided truly invaluable assistance with this story. Thank you also to Atalanta for being a willing "audience" and for the helpful comments and observations!
The sun was shining brightly, the air crisp, as the two sisters walked toward the road.
"Gabrielle, I'm so glad you visited. I've missed you so much!" Lilla smiled at her sister, putting an arm around her waist and giving her a squeeze. Gabrielle grinned and returned the gesture.
"I've missed you, too. I won't let so much time pass before I visit again, I promise." she told Lilla earnestly. Lilla stopped and turned toward Gabrielle, suddenly growing serious. She took her sister's hands in hers and looked into her eyes.
"Just answer me something honestly, okay? Promise?" Gabrielle knew what was coming and nodded patiently, waiting for Lilla to continue.
"Are - are you happy? Really?" Lilla's eyes searched hers. Gabrielle sighed, getting exasperated with this type of query. *Someone* in her family, usually Lilla, asked her this every time she came home for a visit. How many times was she going to have to assure her family of her happiness before they finally believed it? However, the love clearly evident in Lilla's eyes caused her to push down her irritation and force a smile to her lips.
"Lilla...come here and sit down." Gabrielle lead her to a fallen log, sat down, and pulled her down beside her. Lilla, sensing that she had annoyed her sister, hurried to explain her position.
"Gabby, it's just that...well, you were ready to settle down not long ago." she started hesitantly, then winced a bit when she saw a flash of pain cross Gabrielle's face.
"With Perdicus - yes, I know. If he were still here, I *would* be with him, living a more "normal" life, having children..." Gabrielle's voice faded for a moment and she looked at the ground, lost in thought. Then, she shook her head, bringing herself out of her reverie, and faced Lilla resolutely.
"But he's gone, Lilla, so I've gone back to the life I've been living for over a year, now. The life that made me happy before Perdicus and I crossed paths again." Gabrielle told her, then sighed once more as she saw hurt in Lilla's eyes. She gripped her sister's shoulders.
"Lilla..." she chided gently. "I was happy here at home, too, but I needed more. I needed adventure, excitement! And the stories - Lilla, the stories I can create from the adventures Xena and I experience ... I can really make the tales come alive when I tell them because I've *lived* them!" Gabrielle's eyes sparkled as she spoke. Then, she grew serious, looking thoughtful.
"More importantly, though, Xena and I help people; people who are oppressed, mistreated and abused. It's an incredible feeling! We've stopped warlords who have terrorized villages, fought Titans, freed Prometheus...." Gabrielle stopped abruptly when she saw Lilla's raised eyebrow. She grinned a little awkwardly.
"Well, okay, I guess that one was more Xena and Hercules - but I was there!" Gabrielle chuckled, then her smile faded.
"And Xena's not the person she once was, you've got to remember that. She's a *good* person. She just "lost her way" for a while. There is so much guilt in her heart, so much remorse. She's doing everything she can to atone for what she's done in her past." Gabrielle smiled warmly, thinking of the warrior.
"I know the *real* Xena ... and she's my best friend. She's taught me so much - and she's saved my life so many times, I've lost count!" Just as quickly as she got those words out, Gabrielle snapped her mouth closed, mentally kicking herself. She glanced at Lilla quickly, realizing that last statement would not exactly inspire her sister's confidence. Sure enough, Lilla was gazing at the ground, biting her lip, looking as though she were going to cry.
"Lilla, I'm sorry - that was a stupid thing to say." Lilla wiped a tear and managed a smile, putting on a brave face for her sister.
"It's all right. Gabrielle, I really have nothing against Xena. She truly has a place in my heart for always taking care of you." she said softly. Heartened by those words, Gabrielle beamed happily.
"I *love* my life on the road, Lilla - it's where I belong. Would you really want me to give up something that makes me so happy?" she asked, searching Lilla's eyes for understanding. Lilla's smile was a bit sad as she shook her head. Her sister's enthusiasm was certainly convincing and she truly seemed in love with her life of adventure. Tears again moistened Lilla's eyes as she reached out and gently touched Gabrielle's cheek.
"No, I guess I wouldn't. But I'm sorry, I can't help worrying about you." Gabrielle smiled warmly at her, then reached out and drew her into a hug.
"I know you can't, but look at it this way, when you're not around to look after me, someone else sure is - and she *overdoes* it, most of the time!" Gabrielle laughed. Lilla tightened her arms around her sister.
"But what if Xena's not around, either...?" Lilla asked silently.
Later that day, on a winding dirt road not far from Potadeia, three soldiers were searching the woods and thick foliage on either side of the road. They were on a mission from a warloard holed up in a nearby abandoned fortress, checking the area for anyone who might stumble on to the fact that he was there. This certain warlord had something he was quite intent on hiding.
Finishing their sweep, the two soldiers satisfied themselves that there was no one in the area who posed a threat to them, their leader, the rest of their band or their _cargo'. They walked back out of the woods to the road.
"Looks clear to me. Let's head back." Diamus suggested. Bentac nodded in agreement, then peered back into the woods.
"Where's Coryus?" he asked. Diamus looked around, shrugging.
"Ah, probably asleep, somewhere. We'll probably have to find *him* and wake the lout up..." he started then let it trail off, staring down the road in surprise.
"Well, well, well...look what we have here." He whistled softly. Bentac turned and followed his gaze.
Gabrielle had rounded the corner past some bushes and stopped short upon seeing the two soldiers standing down the road, gazing at her. She regarded them carefully, noting the swords hanging at their sides. Silently she started weighing her options.
_Okay, Gabrielle...you could turn and run - but you don't know if they mean harm or not. Besides, they could probably catch me. On the other hand, though, they might be friendly....' she reasoned to herself. She still preferred to believe that most people were good at heart, although Xena had taken great pains to impress upon her to act with more caution. "Don't trust *anyone* until they *earn* it," the warrior was fond of saying. Deciding to take her chances, Gabrielle began walking confidently towards the men. _C'mon, Gabrielle, you're a *bard*! You can usually talk your way out of a jam.' she told herself resolutely. However, she tightened her grip on her staff a bit - just in case.
"Look at that wench. Pretty young thing, isn't she?" Diamus breathed. Bentac looked at him sharply.
"Don't get any ideas, Diamus. We don't want to draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves, remember? Lord Mythran --" Bentac started softly, but Diamus cut him off.
"Lord Mythran is looking for a personal slave for himself, and he doesn't like any of the slags in the bunch we have. Think how pleased he'd be with us if we brought him a wench such as that one." Diamus put what he hoped was a friendly smile on his face. Bentac looked at Gabrielle uneasily and then back at Diamus as the soldier called out to Gabrielle.
"Can we help you, miss? Shouldn't be out here traveling alone."
"I'm fine, thank you. I'm meeting a friend a short distance from here." Gabrielle answered casually, smiling.
"Well, perhaps we could escort you part of the way." Diamus offered. Bentac shot Diamus a nervous glance, and Gabrielle noticed it. Her fingers tightened around her staff a little more. She forced another smile, and shook her head.
"Thank you - that's very kind, but it's not necessary. I'm kind of in a hurry, anyway. Thank you again, though." she finished politely yet firmly, as she reached the two men and started to go around them. Diamus' smile instantly turned into a nasty leer.
"What's your hurry, wench?" He asked roughly, lunging towards Gabrielle. Gabrielle spun to face him and stepped backwards, simultaneously swinging her staff towards him, low to the ground. The startled soldier found his legs coming quickly out from under him and hit the ground hard on his back. Before he could react further, Gabrielle drove the end of her staff down into his groin with all of her might. With a strangled cry of pain, Diamus' hands flew to cover his crotch while he drew his knees up to his chest and rolled away from his small attacker.
Bentac stared at his fallen comrade in frank amazement. Neither soldier had expected the girl to know how to fight! Gabrielle quickly turned her attention to him, her mouth set in a grim line. Startled back to reality, Bentac quickly drew his sword and pointed the tip at this new threat. Gabrielle lunged towards him, swinging high this time, aiming for Bentac's head. After deflecting the blow with his sword, he began swinging at Gabrielle's midsection, stepping forward with each swing. Jumping back nimbly, Gabrielle circled around him, looking for another opening. Bentac started to advance toward her again and she prepared to strike a blow, gritting her teeth in concentration. Suddenly, Bentac stopped and lowered the tip of his sword slightly. He appeared to be looking over Gabrielle's left shoulder. Before she had time to react, pain exploded in the back of her head and darkness engulfed her.
Bentac looked down at Gabrielle, now crumpled on the ground, then back at Coryus, who apparently hadn't been napping after all.
"Do you think you hit her hard enough?" he snapped, reaching down to check that the woman was still breathing. Coryus shrugged, then nodded at Diamus, still writhing in pain on the ground.
"Well, you two seemed to need assistance handling this *little* problem." he smiled humorlessly, nudging Gabrielle's leg with his foot. He looked at Bentac blandly.
"You're not getting soft now, are you?" Bentac scowled at him.
"She'll only be good to us *alive*, fool!" Coryus shrugged again, walked over to Diamus and hauled him to his feet with a derisive laugh.
"C'mon, you old woman...."
"YOU *WHAT*?!" Mythran was very unhappy, and Diamus knew it. Suddenly, his fine idea of bringing his lordship a new wench didn't seem quite so fine. Bentac shot him a murderous look, which clearly read "I told you so". Diamus scowled back at him, then looked back at Mythran entreatingly.
"Lord Mythran, you have said that you've been wanting a personal slave, and you do not like any of the wenches in the lot we have, so I thought -" Diamus was cut off by Mythran's hand crashing into the side of his jaw. The soldier was on the floor before he knew what hit him.
"I don't *want* you to think - just do as I command! You *do* realize I am transporting several slaves through a territory noted for looking very unfavorably on that activity, do you not?" Mythran shouted at him. Diamus slowly rose to his hands and knees, shaking his head to clear it. He reached up with his left hand and placed it on the low table next to him, preparing to push himself up. Mythran reached down and grabbed his hair, yanking his head back so Diamus was looking up at him. He leaned over, his eyes glittering with rage.
"Do you know what I do with those who disobey my commands?" He whispered to Diamus. Suddenly, he pulled a knife from behind him, and drove the point solidly into Diamus' left hand, pinning it to the tabletop. Turning away from the now shrieking soldier, he focused his attention on Bentac.
"Where is Coryus? And this woman you felt was so important to jeopardize this operation with?" He asked quietly. Bentac stared at Diamus, eyes bulging, as the injured soldier tried to free his hand, howling. Mythran turned back to Diamus.
"LEAVE IT! *I* will remove it when I am ready to do so!" he snarled. Then he stepped right up to Bentac, blocking his vision, and faced him nose to nose.
"I will ask only one more time..."
"Coryus took her to where we are holding the others, sir - but he's putting her in a separate cell from the rest!" Bentac cried out, panicked. Mythran looked at him quizzically.
"Separate? Why separate?" he asked smoothly. Bentac swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bouncing erratically.
"She - she's a fighter, sir. We didn't want to take any chances. She'll be chained, too. Hands and feet...." Bentac replied quickly. Mythran regarded him cooly, raising an eyebrow. Bentac forced himself to hold the warlord's gaze, trying to block out Diamus' strangled whimpers.
"A fighter? Interesting. A warrior, perhaps?" Mythran prodded.
"I don't think so, at least not yet. She used that staff." Bentac indicated the weapon standing by the door. "She seemed quite practiced, but still showed inexperience." He finished. Mythran snorted contemptously.
"Yes, I'm sure ... and you are the expert on this, are you not?" he sneered. "Was one of you miserable louts bested by her?" His voice was low, dangerous. Bentac gulped audibly and heard Diamus fall silent. "N - no sir. We captured her almost immediately." He said quietly.
"I see. Yet you rendered her unconcious?" "Just a precaution, sir. We were trying to keep her from arousing attention." Bentac countered carefully. Mythran eyed him savagely.
"*That* could have been accomplished by simply following my orders in the first place." he hissed. He glared at the quaking soldier for a second more, then whirled and strode quickly to the table and yanked the knife out of Diamus' hand, eliciting another shriek from the man. Mythran kicked him in the chest, knocking him flat on his back, and then pressed the heel of his boot into his neck.
"I do not have time to see this new acquisition at the moment but let me assure you, if she is anything short of spectacular I will take great pleasure in killing you very slowly and very painfully. Do you understand?" He asked Diamus quietly. Diamus, his face now turning a deep shade of purple from lack of oxygen, managed a nod. Mythran removed his foot and Diamus gratefully gasped in lungfuls of air. Mythran looked back at Bentac.
"You and Coryus will join him." he whispered, then strode out of the room. Bentac gaped after him, then shuddered violently as a chill passed through him. The temperature in the room seemed to drop suddenly. Shaking his head at the affect his leader had on him - on all the men - Bentac walked over and helped Diamus up off the floor. The two men did not notice the parchment on the table rustle in the slight breeze that blew through the room. If they had, they may have wondered where the breeze came from, seeing as no windows were open at the time....
The cell was small, dark and dank. Gabrielle shivered, the stone wall damp and cold against her back. She stared into the darkness, trying to figure out some means of getting out of there. She tugged on the manacles that held her wrists fast against the wall above her, angry and anxious. Why was she separate from the rest?
"The rest" were the other people - "slaves" as the soldiers called them - whom she could hear in the cells around her. Fearful murmurs and occasional weeping reached her ears. It sounded like several people, men and women both. Earlier, when Gabrielle had first come to after being knocked out, she had heard some angry shouting, a scuffle, then a scream. A woman wailed "my husband, my husband", and the sounds of something heavy being dragged along the floor went past her cell door. Someone had fought, and lost. Had anyone else shared that poor man's fate?
Gabrielle winced as the back of her head throbbed. She had no idea where she was, or who had brought her there. Those miserable louts that had accosted her on the road were dressed as soldiers, so she assumed she was in some warlord's camp. But whose? The soldier who had brought her some water and food earlier had steadfastly remained silent under her barrage of questions. He had unchained her hands from the wall long enough for her to eat and drink, then chained her hands above her again. She gingerly rested her head back against the wall and sighed.
"Xena...where are you?" She whispered, trying to fight back feelings of hopelessness. Her confidence in Xena always being able to "save the day" was steadfast; yet this situation was a little different. Xena would have no way of knowing where she was, what happened to her, who had captured her. She thought ruefully of Xena's last words to her as she walked away, headed for home: "Stay out of trouble, now." Much to Gabrielle's chagrin, that task seemed inordinately difficult at times. Of course, traveling with Xena, trouble was never far from reach. But, Gabrielle strived to be as helpful as possible to the warrior. She practiced with her staff constantly, trying to become more skilled so she would be a good fighting partner. Most importantly, she wanted to be able to take care of *herself*, so Xena would stop feeling like she had to protect her all of the time. Yet here she was, captured and needing Xena to rescue her. Again. Gabrielle shook her head.
"All I had to do was meet her off the road to Pythius ... it was that simple - and I couldn't even accomplish *that*!" She chided herself out loud. "I'm never gonna hear the end of this." she said softly, then grimaced slightly. "If I ever get out of this alive, that is..." Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a light breeze she felt brush against her skin. She peered through the blackness, heart beating a bit faster, looking for any light which would indicate a door opening. Seeing none she relaxed a little, then shivered, noticing the air seemed sharply colder. _Gods!' she thought. _I didn't notice how cold it was getting!' Suddenly, just as quickly as it seemed to come on, the sharp coldness dissipated, leaving only a cool dampness.
"That soldier must've hit my head harder than I thought..." Gabrielle murmured.
The campfire flickered gently, the flames not seeming to have the strength to push back the pervasive darkness around them. Every now and then a log popped, sending up a bright shower of sparks, illuminating the stern, regal features of the woman sitting nearby.
Xena stared grimly into the fire. Gabrielle was long overdue, and the knot in the pit of her stomach told her it probably meant trouble. She looked up at the pitch black night sky. The moon wasn't even out to help light her surroundings - she couldn't start searching for Gabrielle until first light. That just made the situation worse. Not only was her concern for her best friend deepening, there was simply nothing she could do about it right then. If there was one thing Xena absolutely hated more than anything, it was feeling helpless. Cursing to herself she stood, throwing the stick she was using to prod the fire on the ground and started pacing restlessly. As if sensing her mistress' anxiety, Argo snorted a couple of times and pawed the ground. Xena smiled at the animal and walked over to her, reaching out to stroke her neck.
"Easy, girl. You're worried about her too, huh? I knew you had a soft spot for her, deep down." Xena chuckled softly as Argo nickered and nuzzled her arm. Then, her smile faded.
"So do I..." she added quietly. Suddenly, a shudder went through her. "Gods, it just got cold, all of a sudden. Better build that fire up." she muttered, rubbing her arms. She walked around the perimeter of her campsite, gathering some more wood. While she searched, Xena mentally ran through the names of the villages in the area, trying to plan where to look first for Gabrielle. Potadeia was half a day's travel away; if Gabrielle had left when she had planned, she should've made the campsite before dark. Even if she had gotten a later start, she certainly should've been there by now.
Xena cursed softly. _Why did I let her go alone?' she thought savagely to herself, then shook her head. _Listen to me. *Let* her go. Gabrielle's a grown woman. She can travel where she wants, when she wants. I've no business stopping her or forcing my company on her.' Through her musings, Xena tried to ignore the fact that she just didn't feel comfortable going to Potedia with Gabrielle. Her family never seemed too happy to see the warrior. Gabrielle sensed her discomfort and hastily offered to make the trip alone and meet up with Xena later.
Since Gabrielle seemed comfortable with the thought of travelling alone, Xena broached the subject of her going to Amphipolis for a short visit at the same time. She and Gabrielle would meet up at a midway point on an appointed day and time. Gabrielle had smiled widely at that, happy that Xena was finally going to make a trip back home to see her mother. Xena smiled softly to herself. _She's always thinking of me, wanting me to be happy...' Her smile vanished quickly. "Damn! If anything's happened to her..." she hissed, walking back to the fire and throwing the wood she'd collected down on the ground. She shivered again and hurriedly started piling more wood on the fire. Why had it suddenly gotten so damn *cold*?
So caught up with her thoughts, she didn't even notice the hazy, misty disturbance in the air across from her, just beyond the campfire. The "mist" swirled, organizing, starting to take human form. Just as Argo noticed it and snorted, becoming alarmed, a soft voice issued from it.
"Xena...." Xena stood up quickly, expecting to see Gabrielle walk into the light of the campfire. Her eyes widened when she saw the barely visible form in front of her. In one quick, fluid movement, she snatched her sword from her scabbard, twirled it a couple of times in her hand, and pointed it towards the barely visible being.
Facial features were now discernable on the figure, who Xena could now distinguish was a young woman. She appeared small; about Gabrielle's size only slighter, and was dressed in what appeared to be a tattered top and long skirt. The woman stood in front of Xena, holding her hands out slightly at her sides, palms outward. She seemed to be indicating that she was unarmed.
"Relax, Xena, I mean you no harm. Sheathe your sword; it would be useless against me, anyway." The figure smiled gently as Xena gaped at her.
"You see, I'm already dead..."
Argo snorted and stamped, pulling against her tether. Xena moved towards the animal while keeping one eye and her sword trained on the spectral figure. She reached out to grasp Argo's bridle.
"Shhhh, easy girl...it's all right..." she soothed. The ghostly being looked at Xena and her horse apologetically.
"I - I'm sorry. I didn't mean to alarm your horse ... or you." Xena kept her defensive posture, in no hurry to relax until she got some answers. She regarded the figure warily.
"Who are you? Or rather *what* are you?" she asked, her voice steady.
"I'll answer both. My name is Nalia, and I'm a shade - or a _ghost', if you prefer." Nalia laughed gently, and Xena noticed the sound was light; almost like wind chimes.
"I myself prefer the term _shade'. The word _ghost' usually frightens people, " her smile faded, noting that Xena's sword was still pointed directly at her. "... and I don't mean to frighten you, truly." she finished, her voice soft.
"So, why are you here?" Xena inquired flatly.
"To ask for your help and to help you in return." Nalia replied simply. Xena raised an eyebrow, considering. She bit back the impulse to ask more questions, preferring to first hear what the...shade...had to say. After a moment, she returned her sword to its scabbard and sat down.
"I'm listening..." she prodded coolly. Nalia tried to decide where to begin. She looked around, then back at Xena, a bit lost.
"Suddenly, I don't quite know where to start."
"Hades doesn't often allow the dead to visit the living - how is it that you're here in the first place?" Xena prompted, curious. Nalia smiled sadly.
"Well, I'm certain he's not happy about it..." she started slowly. "I'm not in the Underworld, Xena. I'm ... caught, so to speak. In between the world of the living and that of the dead." Nalia noticed the warrior eyeing her suspiciously.
"What are you talking about?" Xena asked warily. Nalia sighed patiently.
"Sometimes, when people are pulled from the world of the living suddenly, forcibly, they resist accepting the fact that they are dead. Especially if the moment of death is highly emotional or violent. The draw to the Underworld is resisted as the feeling of _unfinished business' is too strong." Nalia smiled wryly. "Hades is not used to the dead turning their backs on the Underworld. He feels it's an insult, regardless of the reason. Before too long, he gives up and stops pulling. We're on our own. This only applies to those bound for the Elysian Fields, however. Those bound for Tartarus have no choice to stay out. It wouldn't look too good for Hades to have evil souls wreaking havoc for the living."
"We've got the Gods for that." Xena said wryly, then she grew serious, realizing the import of what the shade was telling her. "So, you're stuck there?" she asked, a little amazed. "Forever?" Nalia shook her head.
"I could find my way. Also, I've heard that - after some grumbling, mind you - Hades relents and will allow drifters passage to the Fields once they have made peace with whatever it was that kept them out in the first place. It takes a sufficient amount of strength to make the journey to Charon's skiff, however. And the longer we wander in between, the more strength we use up. This -" Nalia looked down at her ghostly form, then back up at Xena, "being able to be seen, heard, felt, or any combination thereof - or movement from place to place - uses up strength. We can rejuvenate to a certain extent if we rest, but after too much ... it's just gone." she explained.
"Then what?" Xena prompted. Nalia shrugged.
"That's it. We're trapped here forever - no peace." she said thoughtfully and paused for a moment, looking at the ground. Xena was about ask another question when Nalia looked back up at her, her demeanor suddenly businesslike.
"Bearing that in mind, let me get to the reason I'm here. Do you know the warlord Mythran?" she asked abruptly. Xena blinked, surprised at the sudden change of subject, then her eyes narrowed, recognizing the name.
"Mythran? I thought he was long dead."
"That's precisely what he wanted people to believe - and it's a shame it's not true." Nalia said flatly, her face growing hard. "He was a fearsome, nightmarish warlord and a slaver, to boot. But he dropped out of sight for a while, after losing one too many battles. Most of his army scattered, but a handful of his lieutenants stayed with him. Too terrified to do otherwise, I'm sure." Her voice was grim.
"I have heard that Mythran's a cruel man." Xena commented. "That's putting it mildly. Mythran's pure evil, Xena, plain and simple." Nalia spat the words out. Xena's eyes widened a bit, surprised by the outburst. The shade sighed, shaking her head.
"I'm sorry. Anyway, Mythran's back in the area, and he's back to slaving again." Xena held up her hand and interrupted.
"Wait. Listen, I don't like what I'm hearing, and I am concerned about it. I'll be happy to look into the situation and see what I can do to stop Mythran, but it's going to have to wait a day or more. I have another problem that needs my attention at the moment." she said firmly. Nalia gazed at her, understanding in her eyes.
"I know. Your friend is missing and you need to find her." Xena gaped at the shade, taken back.
"How did you know that?" she asked, suddenly not sure she wanted to know the answer. Nalia took a deep breath, not looking forward to what she had to say next.
"Because Mythran's got her...." Xena rose quickly to her feet, shocked, fear coiling into a knot in her stomach.
"He's got Gabrielle?" she whispered, incredulous. Nalia nodded sadly. Xena set her jaw, her eyes glittering coldly.
"Tell me what you know ... and I mean everything." She said quietly.
Xena was sitting by the fire sharpening her sword, trying to quell her rising alarm. The repetitive action of honing the blade always seemed to calm her; help her think. Nalia moved back and forth just beyond the light of the campfire. Whether she was walking or floating, Xena couldn't tell which. It didn't really matter - her full attention was on what the shade had told her about Gabrielle. Damn! She *knew* Gabrielle's absence meant trouble! "So, you saw Gabrielle? She's all right?" Xena asked carefully. Nalia stopped and gazed at her compassionately.
"The soldier hit her on the back of the head and knocked her unconscious, but she was awake when I checked on her. They have her chained up in a cell, but have given her food and water. She's all right - for now." she replied softly. Xena swore under her breath, shaking her head. _Concentrate, Xena,' she reminded herself, _Focus...'
"Are you familiar with Jehlom?" Nalia asked. Xena didn't answer at first, lost in thought. She was trying not to think of how she would want - no, *ache* - to kill Mythran if he so much as touched....
"Xena?" Nalia tried again. Xena looked up at her quickly.
"What?" she snapped, a trifle impatiently. Nalia glanced at the ground uncomfortably. Xena grimaced, mentally kicking herself. _Gods, Xena! This woman is trying to *help* you!'
"Nalia - I'm sorry. I'm worried about Gabrielle. What did you ask?" Nodding her understanding, Nalia posed her question again.
"Do you know of Jehlom?"
"Yes...it was a small fortress, a few buildings - used to be the stronghold of the warlord Toran. He was killed and his army defeated almost a year ago. It's been abandoned ever since, as far as I know." Xena replied. Nalia shook her head.
"Not anymore. Mythran has a new band of soldiers, now - some of the old ones, then about 15 new. He and his men have taken over Jehlom temporarily. As I said before, Mythran crawled under a rock for a while, then he got mixed up with another warlord, Arionis." Xena's lips curled into a sneer when she heard the name.
"Slave trader - he's pretty notorious. He's back in business again?" she inquired distastefully.
"Well, soon he will be. He's found a market on an island - Crown Isle - quite far off the coast. Mythran and his army have captured about 20 poor souls from the village of Corastus and the day after tomorrow, shortly after dawn, he's planning on transporting them to the port village of Terefin. There, they will board a ship and head for Crown Isle. He's holed up in Jehlom now, waiting for confirmation from Arionis that the ship will indeed be ready and waiting for transport when expected." "Waiting to take those people into slavery, with little to no hope of escape." Xena muttered. Then she looked at Nalia questioningly. "It's horrible, I agree, and they need to be stopped, but - why are you so interested?" She inquired, eyebrow raised. Nalia gazed at her steadily for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was emotionless.
"I take great interest in the activities of the man who murdered me - especially when he hasn't been made to pay for it." Xena stiffened a bit, but her eyes were gentle.
"I'm sorry about that ... but I'm not a sword for hire." she said quietly. Nalia's face softened.
"I know that, Xena. I'm not asking you to be an assassin." she assured the warrior gently. "I just want the man brought to justice - not necessarily for revenge and not just for me - but for all of the people he's hurting and for your friend as well." Nalia's eyes grew sad. "Especially, though, for my family, who have gone for almost three years not knowing who was responsible for my death." Nalia looked out into the darkness, a faraway look in her eyes. "One day, almost three years ago, I was returning home from a neighboring village with the man I was to marry. We had been visiting some friends. Mythran and his band were traveling through the area and we encountered them on the road. Mythran took a fancy to me." Nalia stopped, looking at the ground. She swallowed hard, then continued.
"Merrick - my betrothed - moved to protect me and Mythran killed him in cold blood. Ran him through with his sword, laughing while he was doing it. I can still hear Merrick's scream." Nalia's voice wavered, and she cleared her throat. "I suppose I always will."
Xena looked at the tortured young woman compassionately. As nondescript as her form was, Xena could still plainly see the pain on her face. She closed her eyes and thought of Gabrielle. She would understand the pain Nalia was in all too well.
"Anyway," Nalia continued softly, "they captured me. Mythran already had about 20 captives to offer for sale, but he wanted me for his very own." Nalia managed a short laugh, but it was devoid of humor.
"I wasn't exactly what you would call a _model' slave. I resisted the guards and Mythran constantly, tried to escape a few times. And I paid dearly for those attempts. Mythran's fond of physical punishment for those who try to rebel."
Xena's chest tightened as she thought of Gabrielle in the hands of that monster. "If you touch her, Mythran, I swear by the Gods..." she thought murderously.
"One day," Nalia continued quietly, breaking into her reverie, "I pushed a bit too much. Mythran was drunk after some celebration, and wanted a bit of...affection. I don't know - something just snapped in me. I fought him, and got a couple of good punches in, but that just made him furious. He beat me to death - right then and there. Then, he had one of his soldiers take me back to my home village during the night. He left me on the ground by the well, right there in the middle of the village. A friend of my family's found me the next morning and brought me to my mother." Nalia fell silent, staring at the ground. Xena swallowed slowly.
"I'm sorry, Nalia." she said softly. Then, something occurred to her. "Wait - why haven't you just visited your mother, as you are here with me now, and told her this?" Nalia looked up, then smiled faintly.
"Shades don't appear to family members. The sight would be too painful for them. Also, I would rather my family find out who is responsible for my being taken from this world *after* he has been made to pay for it." she asserted. Xena suddenly noticed Nalia was slumped over a bit, and she couldn't see her as well as she could a few minutes before.
"Nalia --" she started, hesitantly.
"I've spoken too much tonight, Xena. I need to rest. Try to get some sleep yourself. And try not to worry about Gabrielle. I have every intention of seeing to it you get her back safe. I'll be back soon." With that the figure faded, like steam dissipating from a warm stream on a cold day.
Xena watched her go, wondering how she would ever sleep, knowing Gabrielle was in such grave danger. She shuddered, suddenly realizing this was the *third* time Gabrielle had been threatened with enslavement. The first time was outside Potadeia, when she and the young bard first met. The next was when The Fates showed her what her life would have been like if she had never taken up the sword. Gods ... Gabrielle *was* a slave, then! It had simultaneously broken Xena's heart and chilled her to the bone to see Gabrielle with that haunted, broken look in her eyes. And now.... Xena closed her eyes and concentrated, willing her thoughts to reach her friend.
"Hang on, Gabrielle, I'm coming."
Gabrielle was startled awake by a rude shove to her shoulder. She blinked, looking about, amazed that she had nodded off at all, considering the position she was in. Her eyes came to rest on the high boots covering the legs just to her right. She looked up into a pair of light gray eyes, so light they were almost eerie. She had never seen eyes quite that color. They weren't pleasant-looking, by any means. They were...strange.
"I thought I would visit my new acquisition before I turned in for the night. Sorry to have awakened you, young lady." Mythran said smoothly, his voice like oil. Gabrielle noted that he didn't sound sorry at *all*.
"Who are you? Why am I here?" she shot at him quickly, taking in his appearance. The man was tall, as tall as Xena at least, and dressed in dark brown breeches, tunic and wearing a heavy dark cape over his shoulders. His face was thin and pinched, with a sharp nose, and his beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. And those eyes....Gods, they made Gabrielle shiver just to look into them.
Mythran strode over to the stone wall across from Gabrielle and put the torch he was holding into the bracket. Then he moved to stand before her, a smile on his face that was completely absent of any warmth. He chuckled quietly.
"Well, full of questions, aren't we? You're not exactly in a position to be demanding information, little one, but I suppose it won't hurt to fill you in on your unfortunate situation. I am the warlord Mythran -" he began, his smile widening when he saw Gabrielle's eyes register recognition...and was that fear? Yes - yes, it was! He knew that look well enough by now, and it always thrilled him.
"Heard of me, have you? Perhaps you thought I was dead - many did. But, as you can see, I'm very much alive." Mythran leaned over, reached out and grasped Gabrielle's chin in his hand and turned her face to the left, then the right, examining her impassively.
"Hmmph...attractive...never been partial to redheads myself, but..." he shrugged, then reacted with surprise when Gabrielle managed to angrily pull from his grasp. He regarded her coolly for a moment, then straightened and continued.
"The individuals in the other cells are slaves to be sold. You, my dear, were brought to me by my men as a...gift, shall we say? I've been seeking a personal slave for some time. My scouts thought they would win my favor by bringing me someone special. You happened to be that someone. From what I hear, you put up quite a fight." he laughed lightly, amused. "My men locked you up separate from the rest because they thought you were a threat of some sort." Sarcasm dripped from his voice. He looked down at Gabrielle's clothing.
"That looks like Amazon garb. Are you an Amazon?" Gabrielle thought furiously. Exactly how much should she tell him? It might be beneficial for her if he thought she was somewhat helpless. Xena always said the element of surprise could make the difference between winning and losing a battle. Also, it probably wouldn't hurt if he knew about her as well. She spoke, forcing her voice to be steady and casual.
"I'm an Amazon Princess - but only by right of caste. I wasn't raised an Amazon. I learned to handle a staff somewhat, but..." she let it trail off. Then she looked him in the eyes and smiled. "Your problem won't be the Amazons, though. When my best friend finds out what you're doing...well, I wouldn't want to be you." she said smugly. Mythran cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Oh, really? And just who is this friend of yours?"
"Just Xena, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle shrugged casually. "She *really* hates slavers, and if anything happens to me..." she stopped, and now it was her turn to enjoy *his* reaction. She smiled, satisfied, as a look of shock flickered briefly across the warlord's face at the mention of her friend's name.
Mythran gazed at her for a few seconds, then turned and walked a few steps away from her. He was silent for a moment, then whirled around to face her, the look of sardonic amusement back on his face.
"Xena, Warrior Princess. Yes, I am familiar with her. Brash, arrogant, murdering bitch." Mythran said, smiling slightly at the furious look Gabrielle gave him.
"Quite a warlord at one time, from what I've heard. I've never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, but I've heard many tales of her exploits. Sadly, I hear now she's become soft, pathetic. Some sort of protector of the wretched, defender of the good...it's a pity." he said mildly. He walked back over to Gabrielle and squatted down in front of her, his gray eyes piercing into hers. "Even if you *are* a friend of that wench, it doesn't matter. Ask yourself: how could she ever know where you are right now? How could she even know where to search for you? The fact of the matter is, in less than 48 hours we will be sailing to an island far off the coast. Your friend will barely have time to *look* for you, much less be able to locate you." he stated quietly, then leaned closer. "Even if by some great luck of the fates she did, I will take enormous pleasure in ending her miserable life."
Gabrielle fought to keep the look of bravado on her face. While she didn't think for a second that Mythran could actually make good on his threat, she had to admit that it seemed unlikely Xena would be able to find her. At least, not in time....
"And when we get to our destination my sweet," Mythran continued, letting his eyes trail down her body, "we'll get better acquainted." he finished, then reached out with one finger and slowly traced down her neck towards her cleavage. Gabrielle's eyes flashed with rage and revulsion, her face growing hot.
"Get your filthy finger off me!" she hissed. Mythran's face grew dark, and Gabrielle tensed, wondering if she were going to be struck. Suddenly, the warlord's face cleared and he chuckled again, withdrawing his touch.
"Spirited. I like that - to a certain extent. But be careful, little one. I assure you, I *will* be touching you," he informed her, rising. He stood over her, the cold smile never leaving his face. "...and your attitude will determine whether you're screaming in pain when I do."
Xena was pacing again, a few hours after the shade had departed. First light was still a little over an hour away, but Xena was already preparing. She had finished sharpening her sword, checked the edge of her chakram and looked over her healing supplies. Hopefully, she would not have to use *those*. She looked around, then went over to Argo and began adjusting her bridle, needing something else to busy her hands.
Besides her deep concern about Gabrielle, something else was nagging at her. She thought about the shade, and one question kept running through her mind. She glanced around. Was the shade still there? Guiltily, figuring Nalia probably needed more rest, she quietly called out to her.
"Nalia?" Xena shook her head, feeling a little foolish. Trying to talk to someone she couldn't *see* would take a bit of getting used to! Argo nickered, and Xena glanced at her.
"You hush...believe it or not, I know what I'm doing." she chided softly. Raising her voice a little, she tried again.
"Nalia? Are you still here?" Xena waited, then her shoulders drooped disappointedly. After another pause she shrugged slightly, then turned her attention back to Argo's bridle. A shiver suddenly ran through her, raising goosebumps on her arms. The air around her seemed...heavier. A soft voice spoke, seemingly coming from the darkness itself.
"I'm here, Xena..." Xena looked around, quickly, but didn't see the shade.
"Um...where, exactly?" she asked hesitantly. A quiet, melodic chuckle reached her ears. "Well, I'm conserving energy. You'll have to settle for just hearing me, right now." Xena grimaced slightly, feeling another pang of guilt.
"I'm sorry, Nalia. I should let you rest."
"It's all right. Much of my strength has returned, but I want to use it sparingly for now. What can I do for you?" Nalia's voice seemed to come from an area to her left, so Xena turned in that direction.
"I've been meaning to ask you something. It's not that I'm not grateful for your help, but - why me? How did you know about me in the first place? And how did you know Gabrielle?"
Nalia was silent for a few moments and Xena almost started to think that she was gone, then her voice came forth again, sounding sad.
"Two months after my death, my mother decided to leave our home village. She had been hit hard by losing me, and my father had been killed two years before that. He had taken a deadly fall from a horse. Anyway, she felt she needed a fresh start." Nalia began, then she sounded uncomfortable.
"Also, she had heard that a very powerful warlord in the area was on a bit of a rampage, taking over several villages nearby, and would be coming for ours next. You see, I lived in Minoc - near Amphipolis." Nalia fell silent. Xena walked over and sat down by the fire, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was never long before she encountered yet *another* person who had been affected by her dark past. Was she going to learn the name of someone else whose blood stained her hands?
"My mother and sister packed up their belongings, took my infant brother, and headed off in what they thought was the opposite direction of your approach. They had about a day's journey to a village where Mother had some friends. She figured she'd meet up with them and they would continue traveling together out of harm's way." Nalia winced seeing the enormous look of dread and guilt on Xena's face.
"The story has a happy ending, Xena, I promise." she assured the warrior quickly. "After half a day's journey, my family surprised two soldiers on scout detail. The soldiers were rogues, apparently." Nalia swallowed, finding it still difficult to relate the tale, even after all this time. "They accosted my mother and sister, grabbed their provisions, roughed them about. My mother resisted and one of the soldiers struck her - so hard my baby brother was knocked from her hands to the ground. They - they were so scared." Nalia's voice was thick with emotion. Xena looked at the ground, knowing what day Nalia was referring to. The memories were quickly flooding back to her.
"Suddenly, four more horses thundered up. Three soldiers - and you. Gods, you were a sight, Xena! You were dressed in full battle armour, tall, proud...and fearsome. You were furious as well and your soldiers knew it. Your expression was so terrifying!" Nalia closed her eyes for a moment, remembering, then looked at the woman sitting next to her. She was still tall and proud, but so much had changed. "I still find it hard to believe you're the same person who was astride that horse that day. But then you're not really the same at all, are you?" she asked softly, then continued her story.
"With a shrill battle cry you vaulted off your horse and attacked your own men - the ones accosting my family. Within minutes both were on the ground, unconcious. You told two of the other soldiers with you to tie them up and take them back to your camp to be punished later." Nalia said slowly.
Xena closed her eyes, reliving that night. The cries for mercy from those two soldiers rang from her memory. She had personally beaten both men bloody for disobeying her direct orders. Absolutely no women and children were to be intentionally harmed. She cringed inwardly at *that* thought. As if she *hadn't* harmed them by killing their husbands and fathers!
"Then," Nalia continued, bringing her back to the present. "you went over and gently picked up my baby brother... so gently. I was amazed to see the compassion on your face when you looked at him - wistfulness, maybe? Your demeanor seemed so out of place based on what had just transpired. Although I think I know who you were thinking of when you looked down into his face." Nalia's voice was compassionate. Xena stared into the fire, willing back the tears that threatened to fill her eyes.
"After checking him for any injuries you handed him back to Mother, then turned to the third soldier and ordered him to escort my family safely to the next village before returning to you. Finally, you handed them a bag of food from your own rations, got back on your horse and rode off." Nalia finished, gazing warmly at the warrior. Xena looked in the direction she estimated Nalia was and suddenly realized she could see the shade, dimly, sitting off to her right.
"How did you know about this?" she asked softly, finding her voice. The shade smiled at her, seemingly amused at the question.
"Why, Xena - I was there. You just didn't know it." Then she sobered, looking at the warrior seriously. "When those soldiers attacked my family, I was so frightened for them...and terrified that they were going to be murdered right before my eyes. I certainly wasn't happy about who you were or what you stood for back then, but you protected my family that day. For that, Xena, I will always be grateful." Nalia's voice was full of emotion. Xena regarded her sadly, then blinked back the few tears that she had lost her battle with.
"But I was a horrible person back then." she whispered. Nalia smiled at her again.
"Not completely, Xena. Not deep down. After that day I kept track of you, so to speak. I used to hang around the tavern in the village we ended up in - Versase - and listened to the bards tell tales of your adventures. Before too long, I began hearing how you had started fighting for good and decided to seek you out and see for myself." Nalia grinned at her impishly, eyes twinkling.
"Did you ever have the feeling you were being watched?" Xena chuckled softly despite herself, shaking her head at the ghostly figure.
"I've observed you and Gabrielle traveling together. You even stopped in Versase, once. That Gabrielle, she's a brave one. She has a lot of pluck. And quite the bard - I love to hear her tell stories."
"Me, too." Xena smiled. Nalia smiled back, then the smile faded.
"I was in the tavern in Versase yesterday - it's not far from Jehlom, you know." She mentioned, and Xena acknowledged this with a quick nod. "I saw three of Mythran's lieutenants come in. I recognized them, even after all this time. It made me sick, seeing them again. They were the three that took Gabrielle." Nalia watched Xena's face grow hard.
"I followed them, saw them capture Gabrielle and watched where they took her. I saw that creature again, too. Mythran. That's when I learned of his plans. He never even knew I was there." Nalia smiled grimly. "Being a shade has it's advantages." She then stood and looked up at the sky. "It will be light soon. You know how to get to Jehlom, right?" Xena nodded, standing as well.
"I know the shortest route. It will take me half a day's travel - no more."
"Good," said Nalia, "I'm going to head there now. I want to arrive as soon as possible after first light, hopefully before any of those louts wake up." Xena's eyes widened in surprise.
"You can get there that quickly?" Nalia smiled at her again.
"As I said, being a shade has it's advantages." she winked, then looked at Xena resolutely. "You protected my family, Xena. I intend to protect yours." Then she faded into the darkness.
The dim light of early morning filtered in through the small hole in the wall that served as the cell's only window. The guard gazed suspiciously at the girl on the floor at his feet. Gabrielle smiled flirtatiously at him, though it turned her stomach to do so.
"Come on, it's just a short trip to the bushes outside. Surely you don't think you need another guard to help you? After all, it *was* you who had to come take care of me when the other two couldn't." she reminded him, hoping to get the chance to make his head hurt as much as he had made hers. Coryus sneered at the memory of the events the day before.
"They are pretty useless, those two. I'm sure I can handle a slag such as you with no trouble at all." he scoffed, his arrogance overriding his good sense. "All right, let's go, and be quick about it." Coryus leaned down and started to remove the bolt holding the chains in place above her head. Gabrielle cursed inwardly - he wasn't leaning over far enough. Steeling herself, she looked at him invitingly and drew in her breath in a little gasp.
"Gods...you are a big one, aren't you? I've always had a thing for tall, muscular men. I don't suppose you'd be in the market for a personal slave yourself?" She mentally kicked herself. _Oh, Gabrielle, that was *pathetic*!' She told herself scornfully. _Only a total buffoon wouldn't see through that transparent display!' Fortunately for her, however, Coryus' ego also far outweighed his perceptive abilities. He leered at her, holding the chains he had unfastened in his hands. There were still manacles about her wrists, but at least now her arms were free to move around. Coryus squatted down before her, grinning.
"Well now, I think I could probably arrange for us to get to know each other better." he drooled, his eyes wandering to the swells of her breasts. Gabrielle shifted forward a little, and leaned her head a bit closer to him.
"You think?" she breathed. Coryus leaned closer to her as well, suddenly thinking of nothing other than tasting her lips, her skin.
"Maybe we can -" his words were suddenly cut off by his startled yelp of pain, as Gabrielle reared back and sent the top of her forehead crashing onto the bridge of his nose. _How does Xena *do* that?' she thought wildly, blinking back the tears that instantly came to her eyes. Gods, that smarted!
Coryus dropped the chains he was holding and grabbed his nose, blood flowing freely from it. Taking advantage of this, Gabrielle balled up her fists and brought them up solidly under his chin, knocking him over backwards. The back of his head connected sharply with the floor and he laid there, motionless. Gabrielle sat there for a moment, watching Coryus and listening for sounds of any other soldiers coming, alerted by the ruckus. Hearing none, she got to her feet quickly and looked down at the unconcious soldier.
"That's payback for hitting me." she said quietly, then walked as quickly as possible out the cell door. The chains around her feet and between her wrists rattled noisily, so she tried to keep her movements as fluid as possible. _This is madness!' her mind screamed at her. She forced down those thoughts and willed herself to keep moving. _Focus, Gabrielle' she reminded herself angrily. _This time, you're going to have to rely on yourself.'
Her heart lurched painfully in her chest when she heard voices, then she realized they were the voices of the villagers in the other two cells, aroused by the noise. She shuffled across the floor over to one of the heavy doors.
"Can you hear me?" she asked softly through it. After a second, a low voice came through the door.
"Yes," it was a man's voice, hesitant. "Who are you?"
"My name's Gabrielle. I can't get you out of here myself, but I'm going to go get someone who can." she assured him. Then she heard another voice, cold as death, coming from right behind her.
"I don't think so, my sweet." Gabrielle whirled around and Mythran caught her with a savage backhand to the side of her face. She was propelled backwards into the wall by the force of the blow. As she sank to the floor, she wondered dazedly how he managed to sneak up on her like that. Mythran turned to Bentac and Diamus, running up behind him.
"String her up, facing the wall. It seems time to teach her a lesson." he said sharply. The soldiers took hold of Gabrielle and hauled her to her feet. Following them back into the cell, Mythran gazed down impassively at Coryus, who was shaking his head groggily, starting to come around.
"Hmmph ... girl gave you a bit of trouble, eh?" he asked the bleeding soldier. Clucking his tongue scornfully, he reached down and pulled the hapless man's sword from his scabbard. He held it, looking at the blade thoughtfully. Then he glanced back at Coryus, now staring up at him fearfully.
"Lieutenant, consider yourself demoted." he informed him, and drove the point of the sword downward, straight into Coryus' heart. Coryus managed no more than a strangled gurgle, then was silent, eyes staring vacantly. Diamus and Bentac looked at their dead comrade, horrified. Gabrielle closed her eyes and swallowed hard, fully realizing she was in the grasp of a madman. Mythran also looked down at the dead soldier, shaking his head.
"Such a mess he made." he commented blandly, then glanced up at Diamus. "Get him out of here. Now."
Diamus hurriedly moved to the corpse, grabbed it by the arms and started dragging it out of the cell. Mythran watched him for a moment, then spoke up.
"Oh, and Diamus...?" The soldier stopped anxiously in his tracks.
"Any more trouble from the girl and you'll be next." he smiled. Diamus made a hasty retreat. Mythran walked over to Gabrielle, who was now standing facing the wall, her arms being chained over her head. She fought to keep calm, especially after witnessing the events that had just taken place. Mythran brought his lips close to her ear, his breath tickling it.
"Don't you go anywhere, little one. I'll be right back." He assured the frightened bard, then turned and strode from the cell.
"Go get some urns of water!" he barked to Bentac. "I hate it when they faint. Now, where did I put my whip...?"
Nalia reached Jehlom as it was growing brighter outside, cursing herself that she hadn't gotten there quicker. She wasn't used to so much activity, and noted with dismay how weary she felt. Travel took more energy than she had expected. Oblivious to the events that had transpired only a short time prior to her arrival, she looked around, trying to form a plan of some sort. _I should check on Gabrielle first.' she thought to herself and started to move in the direction of the cells. A snapping sound and an agonized shriek suddenly sent a wave of shock and horror ripping through her. She remembered shrieking like that at one time, as well.
Mythran shook his head slowly, fingering his whip. "Now, I've only lashed you *twice*, my dear - shouldn't be squealing like that already." he chided the bard quietly. Bentac, standing to one side of a cell holding a tunic, looked down at the floor, feeling sick. He hated seeing anyone being whipped, especially the women. After a quick, furtive glance of compassion at Gabrielle, chained so that her feet barely touched the floor, he focused his eyes downwards again.
Gabrielle clenched her jaw, her eyes squeezed shut, and concentrated on willing away the pain. Her back felt as if it were on fire. Trying to calm her breathing, now coming in gasps, she steeled herself for the next blow, wondering how many more there would be. She jumped, startled, when Mythran spoke almost directly into her ear.
"I *did* tell you that your attitude would determine how you would be reacting when I touched you didn't I?" His voice was reproachful, as if he were reprimanding a child. Gabrielle slowly turned her face towards his.
"You can go to Hades, you bastard." she said dully. Mythran threw back his head and laughed.
"Very impressive display of bravado, my sweet! Unfortunately, I'll have to add a couple of lashes for it." He strode back to where he had been standing and poised to strike the next blow. A chill went through him suddenly and he swore softly, shivering.
Nalia had entered, and took it all in with one glance: Mythran standing there with the whip in his hand; Gabrielle, the back of her top ripped to her waist, two long reddening whip marks crossing her pale skin; the urns of water, ready to be used to arouse the victim; and Bentac, in his usual position, standing to one side and staring at the floor. White hot anger rose inside her, and she focused on the feeling. The shade had no idea of *what* she could do, but she concentrated with all of her might, trembling from the effort.
"Well now, where was I? I think I've lost count ... perhaps I'll start over from the beginning." Mythran chuckled, snapping the whip up and down. He thoroughly enjoyed how the cracking sound caused the muscles in Gabrielle's shoulders to visibly stiffen, tensing for the next strike. He threw back his arm to set the whip in motion when suddenly a _whooshing' sound behind him stayed his hand. Turning toward the direction of the sound, Mythran saw the torch on the wall flaring up, almost as if someone had poured oil on it. The flames burned higher, brighter, finally causing him to shrink back away from the heat. Then a series of loud noises assaulted his senses.
Mythran whipped his head to the left. The three water urns, lined up in a row, exploded violently, one by one, sending pottery and water all over the floor. The last one caused Bentac, standing nearby, to quickly jump back out of the way. The soldier looked up at Mythran in confusion, then suddenly glanced down towards Mythran's feet. His eyes bulged in fear and his mouth worked, trying to force out words.
"Lord -- Lord Mythran..." he rasped finally, shrinking back against the wall, "...the whip..."
Mythran's eyes followed the frightened soldier's pointing finger and he saw what had so alarmed him. The tip of the whip seemed to be moving under it's own power. It slithered across the floor towards Mythran, taking on life where none had existed before. Then, the strip of oiled leather coiled up like a snake, the tip seeming to "strike" at Mythran's boot. Gagging in fear, Mythran dropped the whip as if it burned his hand. He moved backwards quickly with a sharp cry, trying to get away from the now animated object. Through a haze of pain and fear, Gabrielle listened to the commotion behind her, wondering what in the world was going on. Whatever it was, she was happy it was distracting Mythran from inflicting the previous torture upon her, at least for the moment. However, she was curious, not to mention a little anxious, as to what could be scaring the monster so.
Upon hitting the floor, the whip seemed to revert to it's normal state and laid there, unmoving. The flame of the torch behind Mythran's head diminished until it had all but gone out. The air seemed heavy, oppressive. Mythran suddenly heard a voice, full of menace, seeming to come from *inside* his head.
"You will STOP this!" Mythran jumped backwards, looking around wildly. His eyes fell on Bentac.
"Did you hear that?" he hissed at the quaking soldier.
"Hear - hear what?" the petrified man stammered, looking at the warlord as if he thought the man had taken leave of his senses. Breathing deeply, trying to calm his jangling nerves, Mythran looked back at the whip and then at the girl chained to the stone wall. He moistened his lips. Suddenly, he started to smile, nodding. "A trick," he whispered, "it must be a trick..." he said grimly and bent to pick up the whip again. Suddenly, a shout rang out from outside.
"Lord Mythran!" A door opened and closed and a soldier ran in, breathless.
"Lord Mythran! A messenger from Arionis is here. The ship will be ready quicker than expected." he said urgently. Mythran gave the soldier his full attention, glad to have a distraction from the troubling events a few moments before.
"Really? How soon?" he asked quickly.
"Tomorrow, but by mid-morning, instead of mid-day." the soldier responded.
"Excellent. The earlier, the better. Tell the messenger to stay put. I want to speak to him myself."
"Yes, Lord Mythran." The soldier bowed slightly, then quickly left.
Gabrielle listened to this exchange, a feeling of desperation nearly overwhelming her. The chance of Xena ever finding her was slim enough already. This new development would eliminate the possibility entirely! _No, Gabrielle! You're not giving up this easily. You can't!' she told herself harshly. All the same, she blinked back tears at the thought of never seeing her family or her dearest friend again. Then, her eyes widened. Out of nowhere, she heard a soft voice, warm and soothing. She felt slight, gentle pressure on the back of her neck, like the comforting clasp of a hand.
"She's coming, Gabrielle - hang on. Xena's on her way..." Pain forgotten for the moment, Gabrielle glanced around surreptitiously looking for the source of the voice, the touch. Seeing nothing she shook her head, figuring her mind was playing tricks on her. But a part of her reached out and grasped the feeling that the strange voice and touch suddenly evoked and clung to it. Hope.
Meanwhile, Mythran turned to Bentac, and cocked a thumb at Gabrielle.
"Take her down. Get the manacles off and tie her wrists and ankles securely. Gag her as well. Then take her to my chambers and leave her there. I have something different in mind for later, if there's time." Mythran leered. "After you're done with that, dispatch scouts. Send Diamus and Ignamo to do another sweep of the area. It sounds like we'll be leaving here sooner than expected." The warlord took one last look at Gabrielle, then at the whip still lying on the floor. He walked out quickly, leaving it there. Someone else also left the cell at the same time, unnoticed.
Nalia moved as quickly as possible, knowing she hadn't much time. Just outside Jehlom she sagged. Gods, but she was tired! _No time for this, Nalia' she reminded herself sharply. She had to get to Xena with the latest news and warn her of the scouts that would be in the area. Then she had to get back to Gabrielle. She'd be damned if she was going to let that monster do anything else to her! Xena *had* to get her out of there as quickly as possible, that was all there was to it. She could go back for the slaves afterwards. Gabrielle was in the most immediate danger....
Xena rode hard, pushing Argo more than she knew was good for the horse. She felt sorry for the animal, but her rising concern for her friend kept outweighing everything else. It just didn't seem like she was moving fast enough!
Suddenly Argo slowed, breathing heavily, sweat coating her sides. Xena was about to encourage her on again, then stopped herself. _Xena - take care of your horse or she'll die right under you, and you'll never get to Gabrielle!' she told herself angrily. She allowed Argo to slow to a walk, rubbing the animal's neck soothingly.
"I'm sorry, girl. You need a rest, I know." she said quietly. She dismounted and paced with Argo, letting her cool down. Her thoughts were running rampant. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to slow her thinking a bit. _Focus, Xena, you need a plan of attack. Gabrielle's going to be fine - you'll get to her in time...' A sudden cooling to the air brought her sharply to her senses, her eyes snapping open. She was starting to get used to this _sign'.
"Nalia?" she called out, peering around for the shade. A voice, tired and thin, reached her straining ears.
"Xena...not much time." Xena whirled to her right towards the sound, alarmed at how faint it was. She couldn't see the shade, which also didn't comfort her any.
"Nalia - what is it?" she asked urgently.
"Mythran... ship will arrive sooner than expected...going to leave Jehlom later today, in - instead of tomorrow morning. W - Watch for scouts in area..." Nalia's voice faded, then came again, stronger. "Gabrielle's in grave danger. Get her out of there. Get her to safety, then go back for the slaves..." The force in Nalia's voice at that moment rose the hairs on the back of Xena's neck. Her fear turned up a few notches.
"Nalia, what's happened to Gabrielle? What's he done to her?" Xena's voice was icy cold.
"No time to explain ... got to get back. You're not far. I'll watch for you and create a distraction. Go to the largest building, next to the collapsed one." The shade's voice was fading again.
"Wait! How -" Xena started, but Nalia anticipated her question.
"You'll know, Xena. Trust - trust me..." Just as quickly as she'd arrived, the shade was gone. Xena stood silently for a few seconds, her mind racing. She looked upwards, sending a prayer out to anyone listening.
"Please, just a little longer. Keep Gabrielle safe just a little bit longer." she whispered, then set her jaw, her eyes glittering like sparks from a flame.
"I'll get there soon, Mythran, and when I do -" she muttered, letting it trail off. As if sensing the urgency of the situation, Argo was suddenly at her side, nudging her arm. Xena mounted quickly and urged the horse to a gallop.
Bentac looked at Gabrielle sadly. After Mythran had left the cell, Bentac had sat her down on the floor. He pulled the tunic he had been holding over her head, as Mythran had ripped her top almost in two. Then he laid her down and began tying her feet and hands securely, as instructed. Too frightened to resist, Gabrielle had gasped in pain when her wounded back met the hard floor. Bentac shook his head.
"You shouldn't have tried escaping. It would've been much easier for you if you had just -" he began, but Gabrielle cut him off.
"Just given in? Just allow that monster to do what he wants, without even putting up a fight?" she rasped fiercely, giving him a look that would've burned parchment. "You're a coward, just like the rest of them. Spare me your pity." she spat, then turned her face away from him. Bentac gazed at her, troubled.
"I have a lot to be afraid of, child...so do you. May the Gods help us both." he replied quietly. Avoiding her eyes, he gagged her with a cloth, tying it firmly around her head. He then picked her up in his arms and carried her out, heading for Mythran's chambers.
A short time later, in the building that served as his "headquarters", Mythran rubbed his hands together gleefully. He had finished with Arionis' messenger and sent him away. The man had certainly brought good news! The sooner they could set sail, the sooner the slaves would be safely away from prying eyes and completely under his control. No hope of escape. He licked his lips. He would then meet Arionis on Crown Isle and not long thereafter, he would be very wealthy indeed. Twenty slaves would fetch him many, many dinars. As far as splitting the wealth with Arionis...well, it would be such a shame if the poor man had an unfortunate accident, wouldn't it? Then he, Arionis' trusted, grieving partner, would take over the slave trade for the island. Snickering to himself, Mythran strode to the door and looked out. He saw Bentac walking past the building.
"Bentac! Come over here!" he ordered. Bentac paused, looking at his leader, then walked over to him.
"Yes, Lord Mythran?" he asked quietly.
"Is the wench secured? And have you dispatched the scouts?" Mythran queried. Bentac nodded.
"Both done, sir. The girl is in your chamber, bound and gagged as requested." Bentac began, a trifle hesitantly. "The men will be back as soon as they are sure the area's secured." he concluded. Mythran regarded him suspiciously.
"Is there a problem, Bentac?" Bentac looked at him nervously.
"No, Lord Mythran. None at all." he replied, keeping his voice even. Mythran gazed at him for a few seconds, then smiled.
"Good. For a moment there, I thought you might be getting soft. You've been a good soldier - it would be such a waste to kill you." As if he hadn't just threatened the life of the man in front of him, he continued casually. "How long until the scouts get back?" Bentac blinked, still reeling from the threat. When he found his voice, it was more of a grunt.
"An hour, sir, maybe two." Mythran gave him a quick nod then waved his hand at the soldier, dismissively.
"Fine. Now leave. I will send for you when I need you." He abruptly ended the conversation, retreating back into his headquarters. Feeling thankful for the dismissal, Bentac quickly removed himself from the warlord's sight. Back inside, Mythran sat down and began to once again pour over the maps of the area and the map of Crown Isle. He moved the oil lamp closer to the parchments, straining to read the fine lines.
His mind wandered back to the events that had occurred in the cell when he was whipping the girl. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he remembered the torch flaring up inexplicably, the water jars shattering, how the whip had suddenly taken on a life of it's own.... He shook himself. _A trick, Mythran, had to be some kind of trick.' he muttered. How? A trick by whom? A little voice in the back of his mind taunted him with these questions until he rose quickly, strode over to a table on the other side of the room and grabbed a jug of wine. He uncorked it and drank deeply, trying to quiet his active, warring thoughts. Finally, he pushed all else away and returned his focus to the job ahead of him, sitting back down to study his maps.
After about an hour he yawned, stretching. His thoughts wandered to the girl waiting for him in his chamber, trussed neatly, powerless. He chuckled evilly, getting up from the table. Humming softly to himself, he walked out of the room, completely missing the chill that pervaded it suddenly.
Xena knew she was getting close to Jehlom and slowed Argo to a trot, then to a walk. Finally she stopped, dismounted, and peered through the trees. She could make out some buildings in the distance. Turning to Argo she smiled, scratching behind the horse's ear.
"Okay, this is it. You stay close, now..." she whispered, giving the horse a final pat, then headed off through the dense foliage.
Gabrielle laid on her side on the bed in Mythran's chambers, trying to keep her heart from pounding out of her chest. She had no misconceptions of why she had been brought there. Mythran was simply choosing another way to try to break her spirit. She grit her teeth, steeling her resolve. _Whatever he's got planned, he's got a fight coming.' she vowed to herself. A cold finger of fear kept trailing down her spine, however, continually plucking at the courage she fervently tried to build up. She closed her eyes, valiantly attempting to push the fear back.
Xena crept into her thoughts next. _Gods, she must be going crazy' she thought sadly, knowing she would be if she were in the warrior's position. _Of course, Xena would've been far more successful at taking care of herself.' She chided herself angrily. _You horribly botched that escape - you should've been more careful! You were whipped like an animal...' Gabrielle tried to swallow the lump that suddenly formed in her throat, tears springing to her eyes. _STOP IT, Gabrielle! Don't do this!' she told herself fiercely, then her breath caught in her throat.
Footsteps sounded loudly outside the room. The door swung open and Mythran strode in. He shut the door slowly, turned and smiled lecherously at Gabrielle. He walked quickly to the bed and yanked her up off it, dragging her to stand before him. Holding her tightly by the shoulders, he eyed her hungrily, a ball of heat forming in his loins. Gabrielle forced herself to meet his eyes, defiantly.
"Now, why don't we get to know each other better, hmmm?" Mythran leered. He reached out and yanked off her gag.
"Why don't you get your filthy, stinking body away from me?" Gabrielle countered, disgust in her voice. Anger contorting his face, Mythran pushed her roughly backwards, smiling a satisfied smile as she yelped in pain upon landing on the floor. He pulled a knife from his belt, dropped quickly to one knee, and sliced the ropes that bound Gabrielle's ankles.
"Have to free up these legs of yours, don't we?" he chuckled, then hauled her back to her feet, relishing the thoughts of what he would do to her next.
Back in Mythran's headquarters the air swirled as Nalia focused all of her energies at the oil lamp sitting on the table. The lamp began to vibrate slightly, the flame flickering. Nalia stared at it, her eyes nearly boring a hole *through* it. The parchment beneath the lamp rustled, as the lamp vibrated even harder. Dancing wildly, the flame seemed to jump from the crude wick. Frustrated, Nalia clenched her teeth, shuddering from the strain.
Finally, her persistence was rewarded as the oil lamp burst, sending oil all over the top of the table. Eagerly the flames spread, lapping at the liquid on top of the parchment. Within minutes, the entire table was in flames, and they were beginning to jump to what more fuel they could find. Leaving the room with a final burst of energy, Nalia created a breeze that fanned the fire even higher.
Xena watched the fortress from the bushes near the edge for the "distraction" Nalia had promised, her patience dissolving quickly. "You'll know, Xena - trust me." the shade's words echoed back to her. She fought the urge to just go blazing in there, sword swinging, and find her friend. It would be too easy for Mythran to hold Gabrielle hostage against her, or he might just kill her outright before Xena could stop him.
The moments seemed to stretch for days, when a burning odor reached her nose. Her eyes swept the compound, searching for the origin of the smell. Just as she noticed the flames licking out of the windows of one of the buildings, she heard the cry ring out.
"FIRE!" Xena smiled broadly, as soldiers began to pour out of the other buildings, racing towards the one burning. "Beautiful, Nalia ... just beautiful." she whispered, impressed with the shade's handiwork. She crept from her hiding place and ran quickly towards the building the shade had told her was the location of Mythran's private chambers.
Inside those chambers, Mythran had Gabrielle pinned down, laughing cruelly as she struggled furiously against him. Suddenly, a commotion outside reached his ears. Cocking his head he listened, trying to make out what was going on. He swore violently when the cry of "Fire!" reached his ears. Almost immediately, he heard someone running towards his door. Enraged at the interruption he leapt off the bed, throwing the door open just as Diamus reached it. Gabrielle rolled over and buried her face in the blankets, gasping from the exertion of fighting him.
"What happened?!" Mythran yelled at the breathless soldier.
"We were coming back from scout duty, sir and saw your headquarters on fire. The men are trying to put it out."
"My headquarters! The Gods be damned! Here -" Mythran grabbed Diamus roughly by the arm and yanked him into the room.
"Stay here - keep an eye on the wench. I'll be back!" he barked, running out. Diamus shut the door and leaned against it, breathing heavily, wondering why things had gone so wrong in the past few hours. So caught up with his thoughts, he didn't even notice the first pebble that sailed in the window, hitting him squarely on the chest. The one that hit him in the forehead *did* get his attention, however.
Drawing his sword, he walked slowly over towards the window and looked out. Seeing nothing, he moved closer, peering at the bushes outside the window intently, searching for any movement. He was leaning out the window slightly trying to get a better look, when a leather clad arm reached up and he found himself being yanked head first out the window. He climbed quickly to his feet to face his attacker and a booted foot sent him crashing backwards to the ground. Stepping over the stunned soldier, Xena crawled in through the window. Within moments, she was helping the frightened bard back out the way she had come in. Xena looked down at Diamus, who was beginning to come around, and turned to Gabrielle.
"Who's this one?" Gabrielle glanced quickly down at Diamus, anger mixing with the fear stamped in her features.
"Diamus - he's the reason I'm here in the first place." She answered tightly. Xena cocked an eyebrow.
"Really?" she asked quietly, reaching down and grabbing Diamus by the hair. She quickly hauled him to his feet. Gabrielle looked around anxiously, listening to the shouts of the soldiers fighting the fire. She grasped Xena's arm nervously.
"Xena, c'mon - we've got to get out of here..." Xena held Diamus tightly, a hand clamped around his mouth.
"We will," she assured her, "can't have this one raising an alarm." She turned to Diamus, his eyes rolling fearfully in their sockets. "So, you captured my best friend for that maniacal leader of yours, eh? As a little *gift*?" She snarled, teeth bared, then savagely sent his head crashing into the stone wall. The soldier slumped to the ground, unconcious.
"Big mistake," Xena spat, "*Huge*."
Argo's hooves pounded the ground furiously, as Xena tried to put as much distance between them and Mythran and his army as possible. Behind her in the saddle, Gabrielle hung on for dear life, her arms wrapped tightly around Xena's waist. She was silent, not having said a word since they escaped Jehlom.
Xena was deeply concerned about her friend, and planned on getting to the bottom of what exactly happened during her captivity just as soon as she felt they were safely far enough away. _What did you do to her, Mythran? If those bruises are from you, I swear...' Xena clenched her teeth and shuddered inwardly. The memory of Nalia's words "Gabrielle's in grave danger" still caused chills to run up and down her spine.
When Xena found Gabrielle in Mythran's chamber, she was bound, had been gagged, and appeared panic-stricken, her eyes wild. Even more disconcerting, Gabrielle had actually wept in relief upon seeing her warrior friend enter the room. Xena herself was so relieved she just wanted to hug the bard tightly and calm her, but there wasn't time. Gabrielle did not appear to be wounded, with the exception of a bruise that seemed to be spreading across her jaw and another on the side of her face. She kept insisting she was all right, and begged Xena to get her out of there quickly.
While Xena had expected Gabrielle to be frightened - anyone would be crazy *not* to be, with that monster - she had never seen Gabrielle in quite that state before. She and Gabrielle had certainly been in some dire situations, and Xena always marvelled at the bard's courage and pluck. But this time something had affected Gabrielle deeply, and Xena had every intention of finding out what that was. The fact that Gabrielle was wearing a strange tunic did nothing to quell her fears. What happened to her own clothing?
Finally as the light of day was beginning to wane, they came upon the cave Xena had used as a "healing base" for her wounded soldiers back in her warlord days. The cave was well hidden; the entrance was extremely difficult to find if you didn't know what you were looking for. Also, as it would be getting dark soon, Xena figured that by the time Mythran discovered Gabrielle was missing, any pursuit would be put on hold until daybreak. She gave Gabrielle a hand down off Argo, then dismounted herself.
"We'll be safe here. We haven't gone a very long distance, but they won't pursue us in the dark. Besides, this cave's almost impossible to find." Xena assured her friend. Gabrielle nodded, her eyes darting around anxiously. She wrapped her arms around herself and seemed to repress a shudder.
"Yeah...it'll be fine, I'm sure..."
"The last time we were here, I seem to remember you trying to teach some rocks to sing." Xena teased with a smile, attempting to relax Gabrielle with a little humor. She was referring to Gabrielle's henbane-laced nutbread escapade, which had happened in that very cave. Completely preoccupied, Gabrielle missed the comment entirely. In fact, she didn't even seem to recognize where she was.
"How far back does this cave go?" She asked, gazing at the entrance nervously. Xena's smile faded, her concern deepening. She laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gabrielle...." she started gently. Gabrielle glanced at her quickly, then looked back at the cave. Xena grasped Gabrielle's chin and turned her face towards her.
"Look at me. You're *safe* now. They're not going to find us, believe me." she stated resolutely. Gabrielle looked at her friend for a moment, then dropped her gaze to the ground and nodded.
"Okay." she said quietly. Xena wanted to pursue the issue, but remembered she still had some work to do.
"Listen, why don't you go start a fire - go back into the cave a ways. I'm going to go erase what tracks I can." As Xena started to turn and walk away, Gabrielle fairly leapt to her side.
"I'll come with you - I'll help." She offered quickly. Xena gave her a quizzical look.
"It would be far easier to cover our tracks if there was just *one* of us doing it." she reminded her gently. Gabrielle looked back at the cave again, nervously, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Xena grew dead serious and grasped Gabrielle by the shoulders.
"What *is* it? Gabrielle, what happened - " Xena began, but Gabrielle quickly cut her off.
"Nothing! Xena - I don't want to talk about it. I'm fine. I'll go get a fire started." She said quickly, pulling away and hurriedly walking over to the cave's entrance. Xena stood there, her concern over her friend's behavior turning into alarm. Something was terribly wrong, she knew it. Why wouldn't Gabrielle talk to her about what had transpired in Mythran's captivity?
Xena glanced around, wishing Nalia was there to give her some answers, but she knew the shade had depleted many of her resources already. She was getting concerned about the ghostly figure she had befriended. Nalia would definitely need to "recharge" before she could make another appearance. Hopefully, she still had resources *left* to recharge. Xena shook her head and moved to cover their tracks, a feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach for Gabrielle and Nalia both.
Mythran threw down the bucket of water he was holding and glared at Bentac incredulously.
"What do you mean she's GONE?!" Bentac closed his eyes for a moment, making his peace with the Gods, figuring he was living his last few moments on earth.
"While I was looking for more buckets, I went past your chambers, and I - I saw Diamus on the ground outside. He was unconcious and - and the girl was gone." He whispered, not even wanting to say the words. Mythran swore viciously, then grabbed Bentac by the throat.
"And the ropes?" he hissed.
"On - on the floor. She was untied." he gasped. Mythran's eyes narrowed and he squeezed Bentac's neck in an iron grip, almost lifting him off the ground. The soldier let out a pained squeak, grasping his leader's wrists. Mythran released him and started striding towards his chambers.
"Show me." he snarled, then turned back to the rest of his men. "Get this fire *out*, by the Gods - and see what you can salvage!" he barked.
Mythran strode around the building where his chambers were located and found Diamus face down in the weeds around one side, moving weakly. The warlord gave him a savage kick.
"GET UP!" he bellowed. Diamus coughed, trying to climb to his feet, failing miserably. Mythran grabbed him by the front of his chest plate and dragged him to a standing position. He bared his teeth, now nose to nose with the soldier.
"Where - Is - My - Wench!?" he whispered, emphasizing each word. Diamus trembled, his head pounding, fear rolling in his stomach.
"She - she was taken...woman in leather, wearing ar - armour...dark - dark hair..." the soldier stammered. Mythran took an involuntary step backwards, looking at Diamus in sheer disbelief.
"What? Xena?" he rasped. Diamus shrugged helplessly.
"I - I don't know. She had a sword...she - she surprised me. I tried to fight her, sir!" Diamus said pleadingly. Mythran shook his head, baffled.
"Impossible....how could she have known?" he muttered to himself, then realized to his great annoyance that this new development made him nervous. Trying to shake those feelings off he looked back at Diamus, his anger flaring. He advanced on the soldier dangerously.
"And you simply let her go?" Diamus took a step backwards.
"Sir -" he started, looking frantically at Bentac for help. Bentac wouldn't meet his eyes. In a lightening move, Mythran whipped a dagger from his belt, grabbed Diamus with one hand and slit his throat with the other. Shoving the soldier backwards to the ground, he gazed at him disdainfully.
"Allowing two women to best you. How could I have allowed such a pathetic excuse for a soldier in my army?" he turned to Bentac. "Drag him away from my window, into the woods. Let the wolves dine on his useless carcass. Then take some men and search the area - see what you can find." Bentac immediately bent to carry out his leader's orders, then nearly jumped out of his skin when Mythran clapped a hand on his soldier.
"Bentac - you're the third. Anything else happens, you may not live to see first light."
Back at the cave, Gabrielle moved numbly, getting a fire together. She tried to resist the urge to constantly look over her shoulder. Try as she might, she didn't feel safe - not even with Xena there. She thought she had been handling her dire situation well, in light of what had happened to her, but that final assault...she wouldn't have been able to *stop* it. The self-confidence she always had seemed crushed, beaten down. She knew Xena was worried about her and was going to continue to press her to talk about Mythran, but she just couldn't. Tears of shame sprang to her eyes just thinking about the man. Bastard! And she was supposed to be an Amazon? Gabrielle berated herself. Luckily, that fire had stopped him before he completed the last indignity he was about to force upon her. Then, thank the Gods, Xena had shown up. She did it - found her somehow. Gabrielle hadn't the faintest idea how, but she didn't care. All she cared about was that she was out of there.
She winced as she piled wood on the fire, the effects of the whip still feeling raw on her back. Her stomach knotted and she felt nauseous, thinking of *that* horrible experience. Besides the agony she had felt with each lash, the deep humiliation was something she hadn't expected. Even though circumstances were beyond her control, there was something about being chained, feet almost dangling, back bared, and being subjected to that kind of abuse. It left her feeling nearly stripped of her dignity, her pride ... and she didn't know how she was going to get that back.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, squeezing back tears, trying to pull herself together. She didn't want Xena to see her like this. She had hidden the abuse from Xena back at Jehlom as she was afraid the warrior would snap and go after Mythran right then and there. Gabrielle had wanted out - period. And she didn't want to go back, not after what had happened. As much as it shamed her to admit it, she was terrified - and she had had *enough*.
Xena.... Gabrielle shook her head, wondering how the warrior was going to take all of this. That whip *had* to have left marks - marks that couldn't be hidden for long, plus they may need tending to. She had no idea how bad they were, what they looked like -- and didn't really want to know. How was Xena going to react when she saw them?
Sighing softly, she shook those thoughts away, turning her attention back to the fire. At any rate, she didn't want to tell the awful tale of what Mythran had done to her that night. She didn't trust herself to be able to relate the events without breaking down and sobbing, now that the immediate stress of the situation was over. Also, she was exhausted, though she didn't really think she could fall asleep. The tension was taking it's full effect, however, and all she wanted was to lie down. That's it - the warrior would just have to wait until morning.
Xena returned to the cave as quickly as possible, not wanting to leave Gabrielle alone for long. When she arrived, she found Gabrielle already lying down by the fire, covered by a blanket, facing in her direction. Her eyes were closed.
"Gabrielle...are you feeling all right? Don't you want something to eat?" Xena asked softly, not wanting to wake her if she were already asleep. Gabrielle opened her eyes and managed a slight smile for her friend.
"No, thanks. I'm really tired...think I'll just get some sleep." she replied, trying to reassure her. Xena gazed at her for a moment, troubled, then decided to press the issue.
"Gabrielle, I want you to tell me --" she started, but Gabrielle cut her off.
"Xena, really, I'm exhausted. I'll tell you all about it in the morning, okay?" Gabrielle looked at Xena hopefully. Xena regarded her uneasily for a moment, then acquiesed, nodding.
"Okay. Goodnight, then."
"Goodnight." Gabrielle replied, closing her eyes again. Xena took an apple from her saddle pack and sat down across the fire from Gabrielle. Chewing slowly, she gazed at the bard thoughtfully. Hopefully, a good night's sleep would improve her friend's spirits and maybe she would get some answers in the morning.
Mythran was a strong man. After he had cut the ropes binding her ankles together, he hauled Gabrielle up off the floor as if she weighed nothing. Her hands bound, she struggled against him. As he turned her to face him, she jerked her arms free, and surprised him with a backhand across the face, using her bound fists as a weapon. He snarled at her, reeling back, then recovered and gave her a savage punch to the jaw, knocking her backwards onto the bed.
"I'm going to enjoy this..." he hissed, pausing to wipe a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth. Taking advantage of the opening, Gabrielle lashed out with a kick, wondering dazedly if her jaw was broken. He deflected it with one arm, then forced her leg back down and straddled her, pinning her arms over her head with his hands.
"NO!! Don't touch me, you bastard! Get off me!!" Gabrielle screamed at him, struggling furiously at the hands that held her wrists. She tried desperately to lash out with her fists again.
"Gabrielle! Wake up!" Xena exclaimed, holding Gabrielle's wrists tightly so she wouldn't get hit. Gabrielle fought her, eyes still closed, teeth clenched.
"Wake up - it's me! Open your eyes!"
With a startled cry, Gabrielle's eyes snapped open and she sat up, her breath coming out in ragged gasps. Xena, kneeling next to her, released her wrists and grasped her shoulders.
"Take it easy - you're all right, you're safe." Xena reassured her, the scream "Don't touch me, you bastard" still ringing in her ears. Horror seized her as the realization of what might have happened to Gabrielle hit her like a slap in the face, her heart hammering in her chest. Gabrielle pulled away from her and crawled closer to the fire, trying mightily to pull herself together. Xena's mouth moved, but it took a moment for her to gasp out the question she was almost too afraid to ask.
"Gabrielle ... did - did he force you to -?" The spoken words felt like they were tearing pieces from her heart. To her utter relief, Gabrielle quickly shook her head. "He -- he was going to. He was -- holding me down..." Gabrielle's battle to hold in the tears failed, as she choked back sobs. The words came out so painfully, like they were being ripped from her very soul. "Then, s - something stopped him -- the fire..."
Xena closed her eyes and offered a silent "thank you" to Nalia. Her intervention created more than just a _distraction' allowing Xena to elude Mythran's soldiers. It had also stopped something truly horrible from happening. Before she could say anything else, the bard broke down, sobbing hoarsely. Xena moved to her and tried to hug her but quickly drew her arms back, startled, as Gabrielle gasped and stiffened as if in pain. Xena's eyes searched her friend's face.
"What? What is it...?" she whispered. Gabrielle shook her head weakly, covering her face with one trembling hand. Xena's stomach started to knot painfully as another awful possibility came to her. Her breath caught in her throat, she rose up on her knees and shifted more to Gabrielle's side, then reached out and gently grasped the back of the tunic she had on. Gabrielle stiffened again and Xena could barely hear her whimper "no".
"Gabrielle, let me see. Please." Xena pleaded quietly. She tentatively pulled the top of the tunic away from the back of Gabrielle's neck and peeked beneath it, sucking in her breath sharply upon seeing the two scarlet-colored whip marks across the bard's back. They stood out starkly against her fair skin. The bruising was already beginning, the skin turning a deep shade of purple under the marks.
Stunned, Xena sat back against her feet. White hot rage flared up inside her, and it was all she could do to resist jumping on Argo's back and going to make this monster that hurt her friend so brutally pay dearly for it. Tears burned in her eyes as the old evil tried to rise to the surface. _I'll send him to Tarturus screaming all the way,' Xena said to herself savagely. Gabrielle's muffled sobs brought her to her senses and she quickly shifted back in front of her friend, grasped one hand and carefully circled an arm about her neck. It wasn't much of an embrace, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances. Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena's shoulder, clutching her hand tightly. Breathing deeply, concentrating, Xena forced herself to control her raging emotions for the moment. Gabrielle needed her now.
"I'm so sorry ... why didn't you tell me earlier?" Xena asked quietly, tears spilling over her lashes. Gabrielle pulled back from her best friend and looked down, unable to look in Xena's eyes.
"It - it was too much ... and I was ashamed. I should've been able to do *something*, Xena! I don't know - fought better. I should've never allowed myself to be captured in the first place! I was so stupid!" she raged at herself, her voice faltering at the end.
"No! Gabrielle, don't - you listen to me..." Xena cut in quickly, taking Gabrielle's face in her hands and making their eyes meet.
"Mythran is a monster! This happened because he's an evil *bastard* - not because you failed in some way. You were up against huge odds, Gabrielle. You can't blame yourself for this!" Xena exclaimed. Then her eyes filled with sorrow. "If only I had gotten to you sooner, or if I hadn't let you go to Potedia alone..." she started, but this time Gabrielle interrupted.
"No!! Xena, this isn't *your* fault! This had nothing to do with you, or anything you've done, or didn't do." she began empatically. Xena was struck by the irony of part of that statement. _No, but my finding you sure did,' she said silently.
"The point is, you're not always going to be around to rescue me! I've got to be able to take care of myself! Don't you see?" Gabrielle beseeched through her tears. Xena stared into those gentle green eyes now filled with pain, her own eyes flashing with anger.
"He'll pay for this. First thing in the morning -" she began, her voice icy. Gabrielle reacted instantly and gripped Xena's hands tightly, her eyes wide with fright.
"Xena, I don't want to go back there! I can't -" Her voice failed again, and she stopped, ashamed at feeling the fear that was stabbing her. She shook her head weakly, and buried her face in Xena's shoulder again, tears overwhelming her.
"Okay - shhh, it's all right - it's all right..." Xena whispered, cradling Gabrielle's head and rocking her gently. Cursing Mythran silently over and over, she stroked Gabrielle's hair, trying to soothe her as best she could. Gabrielle clung to her and wept bitterly.
After a while, when Gabrielle calmed, Xena rose and retrieved her saddlebag. She took out a pouch of powder and some salve, then mixed some of the powder in a cup of water and handed it to Gabrielle.
"Here, drink this. It will ease the pain." she said softly. She then got a clean top from Gabrielle's pack and helped her off with the one she had on, swearing savagely again under her breath as the vicious lash marks on Gabrielle's back were clearly illuminated by the firelight. Gently she smoothed salve on the wounds, whispering apologies whenever Gabrielle gasped in pain, then helped the bard dress again. She re-checked Gabrielle's other bruises, satisfying herself again that there were no broken bones underneath.
Xena finally put the supplies away and turned to stoke the fire, her back to Gabrielle. She wasn't planning on getting any sleep that night. Gabrielle got out her bedroll, spread it on the ground by the fire and sat down upon it . She regarded Xena with sad eyes, remembering the tears that were flowing down her friend's cheeks a short time ago. So rarely did Xena show that kind of emotion, and Gabrielle was sorry that her misfortune was what caused it. But she also remembered what else she had seen in Xena's eyes, what she had been afraid of seeing. She saw that flicker of evil, a fire that flared from deep within. She had only seen that look in Xena's eyes a couple of times before and it always scared her. The former ruthless warlord that she used to be, the dark side of her that laid dormant in her soul for so long, wanted to come out and play.
Gabrielle remembered a night not long ago when she and Xena sat by a campfire back when Callisto had surfaced again. Xena had told her about Sirra and they had discussed Callisto's hatred; the destruction of her family that Callisto blamed for turning her into the cold-blooded killer she had become. Gabrielle remembered something in particular Xena had said about that: "If anything were to happen to Mother, or Hercules, or you....I might do just the same." That was when Gabrielle made Xena make what they now termed simply _the promise'. If anything happened to her, Xena would not lose herself to rage and become a monster. Gabrielle hoped Xena was recalling that promise now. As much as she hated Mythran, she wasn't going to lose her dearest friend's soul to that filthy warlord.
When Xena finished with the fire she picked up her sword, then came over to Gabrielle and sat down beside her on the bedroll, laying the weapon next to her within easy reach.
"Better?" she asked quietly. Gabrielle nodded, managing a small smile. They sat in silence for a few minutes, each staring into the fire. When Gabrielle spoke, she chose her words carefully.
"He'll pay the penalty for all this, you know...Mythran?" she asked quietly. Xena set her jaw, looking straight ahead.
"He certainly will." she said, her voice flat and cold - deadly cold. Gabrielle forged ahead, ignoring her friend's tone and the message behind it.
"He's done so much to those poor people...after an audience with a *tribunal*," Gabrielle emphasized, "...they may even put him to death." Xena started shaking her head, slowly.
"Gabrielle..." she started, but her friend quickly interrupted.
"Xena, I want you to remember the promise you made to me. I - I saw her in your eyes before. Don't let her out. *Please*." Gabrielle said pleadingly, as she grasped one of Xena's hands. Xena looked at Gabrielle, incredulous.
"Gabrielle, after what he did to you? You're asking for *mercy* for him?" She started to say something else then stopped and stared back into the fire. Gabrielle sighed, and after a moment, spoke quietly.
"Xena, when he was whipping me, and when he was trying to... you know, I wanted to kill him." Gabrielle said flatly, looking at the ground. Xena glanced at her quickly, momentarily shocked at the hardness in Gabrielle's voice, the coldness.
"But right now, I don't know what was worse. The torture - or feeling like that again. Desiring to kill someone in cold blood. That feeling scares me, Xena. Terrifies me. I couldn't kill Callisto even after she killed Perdicus. I don't know if I could've killed Mythran. And I *definitely* don't want to know how I would've felt afterwards." Gabrielle looked at Xena meaningfully. "But it doesn't matter how I felt, or what he's done to me. Whether he deserves to die is not for me to decide - or you. You know that." she stated quietly.
Xena set her jaw, warring within herself. Deep down, she knew Gabrielle was right, but the lust for revenge was still fighting to prevail. Gabrielle took advantage of Xena's silence and continued, gripping her hand tightly.
"He's a maniac, Xena - but we need to do the right thing. Turn him over to a tribunal made up of the people he has hurt. Compared to some others, I actually got off easy..." Gabrielle tried to make her voice light, but it wavered and fresh tears sprang back into her eyes. Xena looked at her friend compassionately. Gabrielle took a deep breath and continued.
"Killing him in cold blood certainly won't erase what he did to me. Let a tribune decide what should become of him. Revenge isn't the answer." she finished softly. Xena just gazed at her for a few moments in wonder. Gabrielle never ceased to amaze her with her resolute belief in always doing what's right, regardless of the situation; her steadfast rejection of revenge; her pure heart. Xena smiled slightly, silently thanking the gods for being blessed with such a friend. She also realized how much she was like Nalia, and vice versa. Finally she nodded, relenting.
"All right. Tomorrow Mythran will be captured and turned over to the villagers of Corastus for them to decide his fate. You're staying here. You'll be safe until I get back." She told her. Gabrielle smiled at her warmly, touched by that very familiar protectiveness, then looked back into the fire, lost in thought. Xena watched her for a few minutes, wondering what was running through her mind. Gabrielle was quiet for some time, then seemed to make up her mind about something. She looked back up at Xena and Xena saw a familiar light in her eyes. Some of that pluck was back.
"No. I'm going with you." she stated simply. Xena's jaw dropped then she recovered quickly, shaking her head vehemently.
"No! Absolutely not - not after what's happened. Besides, I'd never forgive myself if -"
"For the *hundredth* time," Gabrielle interrupted, with a little more heat than she intended, "I travel with you because I *choose* to. I know the risks and I accept them! If anything happens to me, it is NOT your fault. Gods! Do you EVER listen to me?!" she asked, exasperated. Then her face softened as she watched Xena set her jaw and look away from her. Gabrielle grasped her arm, tugging it gently.
"Xena, I'm sorry. Forgive me..." she pleaded softly. "But I *can't* hide now, you know? I admit I'm scared - Gods, I'm terrifed - but I *need* to do this! He may have won one battle, but I can't let him beat me completely." she finished passionately. Xena sighed, understanding the point Gabrielle was making - but not liking it one bit. Finally, she nodded.
"Okay, you win, BUT - I call the shots, got it? You are to stay at my side *every* second, understand?" Xena's tone left no room for debate, and Gabrielle knew it.
"Deal." she smiled, satisfied and gazed back at the fire. The two sat in companionable silence, each lost in thought. A log suddenly popped in the fire and Gabrielle jumped, startled. She glanced quickly around the campsite. Xena gave her hand a squeeze.
"Easy, easy..." she shifted off the bedroll , then patted the ground next to where she was sitting. "Here, lie down. Try to get some sleep." she suggested. Gabrielle looked at her gratefully, then shot another nervous glance around the campsite before lying on her side next to Xena.
Xena stretched out her legs, crossed her feet, and leaned back against the log behind her. She reached down and rested one hand on the hilt of her sword, the other on Gabrielle's arm. Gabrielle covered Xena's hand with one of her own and tried to relax. Xena looked around, wondering if the shade was nearby and smiled, realizing how very fortunate they were for receiving Nalia's help. It was astonishing to think something *good* had actually come from her own horrid, violent past as a warlord. After a few moments, her thoughts turned back to her friend huddled on the ground beside her. She gave Gabrielle's arm a gentle squeeze and spoke, her voice soft yet firm in the still night.
"I'm not going to let him hurt you again." Gabrielle smiled slightly, closing her eyes.
Mythran got back to his chambers earlier that evening in a *very* foul mood. His headquarters had been all but gutted by fire, his maps and other papers destroyed. They had barely gotten it out before it had a chance to spread. He picked up a water jug and hurled it against the wall. A knock at his door startled him.
"What is it?!" he yelled. The door opened and Bentac entered hesitantly. Mythran suddenly remembered the missing girl...and Xena. He swiftly turned to Bentac and fixed him with a gaze that made the soldier wish he was anyplace else at that moment.
"You've got the slag, yes?" he said softly. Bentac looked down, shifting, unsure of how to tell Mythran....
"DON'T TELL ME OTHERWISE, BENTAC!" Mythran roared. Bentac finally looked him in the eyes, his own eyes tired.
"I'm sorry, sir. We searched for hours. She's nowhere to be found. Neither her or Xena. We tried." Bentac replied quietly, nearly wishing Mythran would get it over with and *kill* him, already. He didn't fully realize until that moment how weary he was of living day to day under the strain. Mythran eyed him coldly and turned his back to him, taking a couple of steps away. When he whirled back around to face him he had a sword in his hand, the point a mere two inches from Bentac's cheek. Bentac looked at the point, moistening his lips, then locked his gaze with Mythran again.
"How long have you been with me, Bentac?" Mythran asked softly.
"Since the beginning, sir. For years."
"And why is that, Bentac? Why have you stayed?" Bentac stared at his leader for a moment. _Because you would have killed me yourself, or had me killed, if I tried to leave.' he answered silently, then he replied out loud.
"Because I had nothing else, Lord Mythran, no family. I - I liked being a soldier."
"Do you know why you're not dead yet?" Mythran inquired smoothly. Bentac shook his head, almost imperceptively.
"No sir." Mythran gazed at him for a minute that seemed to stretch for hours, then finally lowered his sword. He tossed the weapon on the table in front of him and ran a hand through his hair. He turned back to his lieutenant.
"Because you're the most intelligent man I've got, may the Gods help me. The rest of those stupid louts don't have the sense to come in out of a thunderstorm, for Zeus' sake!" Then his eyes narrowed and he smiled, amused by his next thought. "Besides," he continued, "if I kill any more of my men I'll have to do all of the work myself. Can't have that." Mythran paced for a moment, thinking.
Bentac stayed where he was, amazed that it looked as if he may live to see the next sunrise. Finally, Mythran stopped his trek back and forth.
"All right. We can still complete our mission. We leave before first light, hopefully an early moon will be out. If not, we'll use torches. We have to make Terefin by early morning, if at all possible. Too late to head out now. Damn that fire!" he cursed. "Send out five scouts before we leave. I want them to make sure the beach and ship are secured when we get there. And be alert tomorrow - I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of the warrior woman." Mythran's eyes were like flint. "When I *do* see her again, I'll personally see to it that we are the last thing she *ever* lays eyes on." he sneered.
First light had not yet dawned and still the two women were up, finishing the last of their quick meal. Terefin was a few hours' ride away and they wanted to make it there before Mythran, if at all possible. Gabrielle shook her head slowly, looking flabbergasted.
"Okay, so you're telling me that a - a *ghost* saved my life? Led you to me?" Xena shrugged, a slight smile on her face.
"Amazing, isn't it? But it's all true."
"And she knew you...before?" Gabrielle asked carefully. Xena looked down at the piece of bread she had in her hands, toying with it. She emitted a soft _hmmph'.
"Apparently, for quite a while. Me at first, when I was a warlord, then after, both of us." Gabrielle looked at Xena thoughtfully, then grinned at her.
"Guess you weren't *all* bad as a warlord, huh?" Xena managed a rueful smile.
"It was probably my one shining moment, believe me." she answered, referring to the story she had just told Gabrielle about the encounter with Nalia's family, so long ago. She stared down at her hands, remembering that day again. Gabrielle continued to smile at her friend.
"Well, I'm sure glad it happened." Xena gazed at the bard thoughtfully for a moment, then looked down, her face a turmoil of emotions.
"Me, too." Her voice was low, barely audible. Gabrielle's smile faded, and she looked at the warrior with concern.
"Xena, what? What is it?" she asked carefully. Xena was silent for a moment, then looked back at Gabrielle, sadness etched in her face.
"If it wasn't for Nalia, Gabrielle, I would never have found you. Not in time." Gabrielle sighed, got up and went to sit next to her friend.
"You would've found me as quickly as you could, Xena. I know that. You wouldn't have stopped looking until you did." Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena's arm and squeezed gently. Xena looked at the ground, thinking of what had happened to Gabrielle during the short time she *was* in the hands of that monster.
"But, not before -" She started, but Gabrielle knew what she was going to say and interrupted quickly.
"Okay, and this is all your fault *how*, exactly?" she quipped.
"Gabrielle..." Suddenly another voice broke through the stillness of the night.
"Xena...still taking the weight of the world on your shoulders, aren't you? You hate not being able to do everything yourself. And will you ever stop trying to feel responsible for everyone close to you?" the voice chided lightly. Gabrielle emitted a startled squeak and Xena shook her head slowly.
"I knew you two were alike." she muttered. Gabrielle looked around, slightly alarmed, trying to pinpoint where the voice was coming from. Xena spotted the shade almost immediately. She grasped Gabrielle's chin gently and pointed her gaze directly across the campfire from them. The form was slowly materializing, sitting on the ground.
"There...right there. See her?" she asked. Gabrielle's eyes widened and she nodded quickly, her breath feeling as if it were stuck in her throat. When Nalia had formed enough so that facial features were visible, she smiled gently at the two women.
"Gabrielle, meet Nalia." Xena said softly.
"Um...er...hi." Gabrielle stammered weakly, hardly believing her eyes. Nalia gazed at the young woman with relief.
"Gabrielle, I'm so glad you're safe," she began, then smiled at Xena, "That you're *both* safe. Thank the Gods."
"No, thank *you* Nalia - that fire worked like a charm. We were in and out before they even knew what hit them." Xena's mouth twisted into a satisfied grin, and Gabrielle looked from one to the other in astonishment.
"That fire...." her gaze finally settled back on Nalia. "You did that?"
"I have many skills." Nalia grinned widely at Xena and winked. Xena laughed out loud.
"Watch it - that's my line." Gabrielle recovered enough from her shock to chuckle at the joke between the two. Xena gazed at Nalia for a moment, her grin fading.
"The fire did more than just distract them. Mythran was attacking Gabrielle and it interrupted him, just in time. I really can't thank you enough." she finished quietly. Nalia sucked in her breath, a horrified look on her face. She looked at Gabrielle searchingly.
"Are you all right?" Her words were barely audible. Gabrielle nodded, then got up and walked over to where Nalia was sitting. Hesitantly, looking curiously at the dim figure in front of her, she knelt beside her. Nalia saw tears starting to form in the bard's eyes.
"Yes. I - you know, it just hit me. Your voice. I've heard it before." She began, a slight catch in her own voice. "You were in the cell when he was whipping me. That *was* you, wasn't it? You did something to scare him. You made him stop." Nalia swallowed hard and nodded, her heart heavy.
"I - I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm sorry I couldn't prevent it entirely. I just couldn't get there fast enough." The shade sounded as if she were going to cry. She looked over at Xena, trying to read the expression on her face.
"Xena, I didn't tell you because I -- there just wasn't much time." she faltered helplessly. Xena held up her hand and looked at the shade comfortingly.
"It's all right. It was for the best. If you had told me then, I would've hunted that pig down the moment I got there and slaughtered him where he stood." she stated flatly, then looked at Gabrielle. "But that's not how we've decided to handle him." Xena finished, the warmth returning to her voice. Gabrielle smiled softly at her, then turned back to Nalia.
"Nalia, you saved me from a situation that was going to get so much worse," Gabrielle reached out one hand, then dropped it, realizing she couldn't touch the ghostly form. "And what's more," she continued, her eyes shining bright with tears, "your message gave me back something I had almost lost -- something to hang on to. *Hope*." Xena looked from one to the other, quizzically.
"Message...?" Gabrielle turned to the warrior, beaming, a tear slipping down her cheek.
"She said you were on your way...."
Mythran and his soldiers made their way as quickly as possible through the woods, along a path almost not wide enough for Mythran's horse. He turned in the saddle and shouted to his men behind him who were on foot, prodding the slaves along mercilessly.
"Let's *go*, he snapped impatiently, then turned back to Bentac and the other soldiers up the trail a ways ahead of him, also on horseback. "Do you see the end of this blasted path yet?" he yelled to them. Suddenly, he saw them stop, staring straight ahead in their saddles. Peering intently, he could make out an opening not far up ahead. He spurred his horse forward, digging into its sides sharply with his heels.
"Do you see the pier? What in Hades are you stopping for?!" he asked fiercely, then he saw the ship through the trees.
The path and surrounding woods ended several yards away from where they were, opening up onto a small beach. Rocks led up from the water on the left side, smoothed from the salty waves that constantly lapped against them. On the right, beach grasses led up to the woods that curled around as a border. Three trees, long dead from trying to live in the harsh, sandy soil, stood by themselves, closer to the beach. A crude pier jutted out from the center of the area into the sea, with a weather-worn ship moored alongside. The ship wasn't very large, but it would do.
What had captured Mythran's attention, however, were the two soliders that were hanging limply over one of the railings like clothing laid out to dry. Urging his horse closer, he then saw what had made his men come to such an abrupt stop. His five scouts, dispatched to secure the area and the ship laid scattered on the sand, their bodies limp and still. Fury rumbled up from within Mythran when he saw the two women standing in the middle of the scene.
Xena stood confidently, twirling her sword lazily with one hand, a smirk on her face. Gabrielle was beside her gripping her staff, anger and trepidation stamped across her features. She shuddered involuntarily when she saw Mythran. Xena reached out with her free hand and quickly squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder in a calming, comforting gesture, then took a step forward, guiding the bard behind her. She favored Mythran with a withering glance.
"Mythran....only *five* scouts? They barely kept us occupied." she admonished reprovingly. Mythran's eyes snapped back to the ship and she cast a glance over her shoulder, following his gaze.
"Do you *believe* Arionis only sent *eight* men on that ship? A skeleton crew at best." she shook her head sadly. "They're not feeling too well right now, I'm afraid. They're lying down." The sarcastic smile etched across her face again. "Pity."
Mythran struggled to keep his rage under control, the vein in his forehead throbbing painfully. He turned towards Bentac and the other soldier.
"You two - take two more soldiers and move those slaves over there," he indicated the few trees standing alone. "Chain the whole lot to those. If I have to start killing them to get that piece of leather-clad *garbage* under control, then so be it." he spat, dismounting. He pointed at six of the nine remaining soldiers, then cocked his thumb towards Xena and Gabrielle.
"Go *kill* those two slags! Stab them, slice them to ribbons, decapitate them, I don't care - JUST DO IT!" he barked.
Xena watched the soldiers running towards them and shot a glance at Gabrielle.
"Here we go - stay close." she warned. Gabrielle readied herself, anger and determination overtaking her fear, her lips pressed into a thin line.
"You don't have to tell me twice."
The two turned almost back to back, preparing for the soldiers who reached them first. Gabrielle concentrated, removing herself from the emotions of the moment and set to work. Moving swiftly and efficiently with her staff, she let loose a series of blows on the head and shoulders of the first soldier that reached her, catching him off guard with her ferocity.
Xena started chuckling, sneering at the two men that were trying to best her.
"C'mon, boys, you can do better than this, can't you?" she asked, then let out a whoop and leapt up into the air, kicking both feet out to the sides. Her heels connected solidly with the chests of both of her adversaries, knocking them backwards. Before either had time to react further, she smashed the hilt of her sword into the temple of one, sending him quickly to the sand. Then, she beat the other nearly senseless with three quick blows from her fists. As he stood there for a second wobbling, she whirled around, lifted her arm and drove her elbow into his nose, finishing him off. "Xena! A little help here..." Gabrielle said urgently. With a quick snap of her head in her friend's direction to assess the situation, she let out a piercing battle cry and jumped, somersaulting through the air, and landed squarely in front of one of the two soldiers threatening to overcome Gabrielle. In a lightening move, she grabbed the surprised soldier and rammed her head into his forehead, knocking him unconcious before he hit the ground. Then she whirled around to greet her other attackers.
"Thanks." Gabrielle said over her shoulder, wondering again how Xena managed to do that move and still stay conscious herself - let alone fight! Turning her attention fully to the soldier in front of her, she feigned low with her staff, then sent it crashing into the side of his head when he tried to counter. A savage jab to the groin and he too was down.
Mythran watched the battle, curling his lip contempuously at his men failing to succeed. He looked to his remaining men.
"You two - go help distract the warrior. Try not to get yourself killed." he spat with a complete lack of any real concern. He jerked his finger at three more men standing with them. "You three - go get that other slag. Alive."
The soldiers ran out to do their leaders' bidding, all thinking they were just as safe taking their chances with the furious warrior as they were with the warlord.
Xena was setting up to disable the two soldiers she was fighting when two more came up behind them. Narrowing her eyes, she fought even more fiercely, driving them backwards. One got a little too close and she ran him through with her sword, wishing she could have avoided it. Teeth bared, she turned to the other three.
"STOP!!" Mythran commanded loudly. The soldiers in front of Xena backed away immediately, their swords still pointed at her. _Something's very wrong!' a voice screamed through Xena's mind and she whirled, her eyes searching frantically for Gabrielle. When she finally saw her, she swore silently, cursing herself for not watching out for her more closely.
Bentac had Gabrielle around the neck in a choke hold, the point of his sword pressed to her side. Six soldiers stood beside them. Gabrielle looked at Xena with tortured, apologetic eyes. She mouthed "I'm sorry" and Xena's heart lurched. _She thinks *she* blew it...' the warrior cursed herself again. _Damn you, Xena - you promised her you wouldn't let him hurt her again!' She leveled a murderous gaze at Mythran. Mythran just smiled and gestured towards the soldiers Xena had been fighting.
"Unless you'd like to continue with what you were doing? Of course if you do, you'll watch your friend's life pour out over the sand. I hear stomach wounds provide a very slow, painful death." Mythran smiled. Xena continued to stare at him icily, then lowered her sword.
"Let her go, Mythran. Take me, if it means that much to you."
"No! Xena!" Gabrielle cried, struggling. Bentac tightened his arm around her neck. He hadn't pressed the point of the sword harder against her skin, but her struggles started a trickle of blood flowing.
"Gabrielle, stop!" Xena said quickly. "Don't struggle. It'll be all right." She turned back to Mythran. "Tell you what. I'll make you a deal." Mythran threw back his head and laughed.
"*You'll* make *me* a deal? It seems I'm in control here, my dear! I have your friend, I have the slaves, I have the soldiers..." Xena looked around quizzically at the bodies lying on the ground then back at Mythran, arching an eyebrow.
"Seems to me you have a bunch of *useless* soldiers, and you've still got me in the way. I have no intention of letting you get on that ship with those slaves. And you may have Gabrielle at swordpoint, but I would *highly* suggest you do not harm her." Xena favored him with a look that would've killed a cyclops. "In fact, if *anything* happens to her, I will personally send you to see Hades if it takes my last dying breath." She thought quickly, making her _deal' up as she went along. An idea came to her and she weighed it quickly, then decided to try it.
"Now, if something were to happen to *both* of us, I assure you your slave trading will come to a very quick end. You already have the people of Corastus whipped into a frenzy over their missing friends and family members. Right now, though, they're in a rather helpless position. They don't even know where to start looking for their loved ones." Xena glared at him hatefully, then her lips twisted into a cold, sarcastic smile. "Now, I'll bet you'd *love* it if every tribune in the area found out what you're doing, not to mention where exactly those missing villagers are. *No one* in this area looks favorably on slavery. In fact, it is *hated*. You won't slip out from under them, Mythran. You will have a sizable army hunting you down - and they'll know just where to find you." Xena finished. Mythran looked at her, amused.
"Really? A sizable army? Every tribune in the area?" He sneered in disbelief. "And how will these high and mighty men find this out, pray tell?" he gestured around. "We're the only ones here." Xena cocked her head to one side.
"Really? How exactly did I find Gabrielle and take her right out from under your nose, hmmm? And how exactly did that fire start? Pretty convenient for me, wasn't it? But I didn't start it, I assure you of that. I was on the other side of the fortress at the time, waiting near your chamber. Waiting to make my move." Xena smiled, satisfied, watching Mythran's eyes flicker nervously around. Mythran gestured quickly to two of his men.
"Search the surrounding area - quickly! Kill anyone you find." Xena's eyes bored right into his with her next statement.
"Pinning your soldier's hand to a tabletop with your dagger? My, my! *I* never even did *that*! That's quite a temper you have." she looked at him reproachfully. Mythran gaped at her, thunderstruck. How in Hades did she know about *that*? He whirled towards Bentac. A traitor? But, it couldn't be! When did he have the time...? Mythran made a mental note to dispatch Bentac at his first opportunity, then looked back at Xena. There was no time for this now, but just in case....
"All right, Xena, I'll play along. What's this _deal' of yours?"
"Well, I would dearly love to fight you to the death for what you did to my friend, but -" Xena gave Gabrielle a brief smile, then glowered at Mythran distastefully. "She seems to think even a filthy pig like you deserves an audience with a tribunal. So, if I make you yield, your soldiers release us *and* the slaves, then you accept your fate from the villagers of Corastus. If you win, you can either kill me or sell *both* of us as slaves if you wish - but you aren't to hurt Gabrielle. You're not to even *touch* her. Give her the chance to be sold to someone with a bit of a heart. In return -" she looked around, speaking loudly, pointedly, "absolutely no one will hear of this. You'll be free to ply your trade on Crown Isle. That's the deal." Xena finished. Gabrielle gaped at her, thunderstruck, but Xena's eyes were reassuring.
Mythran glanced around suspiciously. _Who in Hades is she talking to?' he wondered, then left that question up to his men, searching the brush. He considered Xena's _deal' for a moment, then smiled engagingly. "Well, that certainly sounds fair, doesn't it? Fine. If you win, you and your friend will not be harmed by my soldiers. As for the slaves, well, you're on your own. If you can free them, so be it." Mythran smiled evilly "...but if *I* win, or shall I say, *when* I win -- I'll kill you. You're too much trouble to keep around. As for your friend - fine, she'll be sold in open market. Let tthat be your last dying thought." He turned and glowered at Gabrielle. "Worthless slag's caused me too much trouble already.."
Xena's lip curled and she lunged at Mythran, her sword slicing the air.
Mythran grimaced and directed all of his attention on the formidable woman attacking him. He parried her thrusts and swings of her sword effectively as he bit back the disquieting observation that this woman was *good* - better than most of the warlords he had fought in his past. Driving down the momentary fear, he launched some offensive strikes himself.
Xena began to smile from the familiar heady rush she always felt when engaged in battle. She tried to clear her mind of everything - even her fear for Gabrielle for the moment, so she could concentrate on bringing the man before her to his knees. _Disable, Xena - don't kill.' she reminded herself silently.
Mythran took a couple of steps backwards, frustrated that he hadn't even been able to touch her with his sword. By the Gods, a *woman* was not going to best *him*, that was for sure! With a cry of rage, he hurled himself towards her. Xena waited until the last moment then quickly dropped to one knee. She drove her hand up into Mythran's midsection and tossed him over her head, letting his momentum do most of the work for her. She rose quickly and faced the sputtering, furious warlord. Twirling her sword, she laughed, watching him pick himself up.
"Mythran, didn't you ever learn not to let your temper override your conciousness in battle? You should've seen that coming." Mythran sneered at her.
"Cocky, arrogant bitch! You certainly live up to what I've heard about you. It'll be your undoing - just you wait." Xena smiled sweetly at him.
"Flattery will get you nowhere, Mythran." She cooed, and began another offensive onslaught. Gabrielle watched the altercation with growing hope. Xena was going to win this battle for sure. Mythran had already made one mistake out of anger and with Xena baiting him he was certain to make more.
The crashing of the swords filled the air and sparks seemed to fly from them. Both combatants had looks of sheer determination etched across their faces. After parrying one low jab from Xena, Mythran got in a kick to her chest, knocking her backwards. Xena quickly compensated by executing a quick backwards roll, then as Mythran lunged forward to strike, somersaulted over his head with a battle cry. Back on her feet, she whirled about and kicked the warlord once in the head, then in the kidneys before he could react further.
Mythran landed on his face in the sand, gasping for breath. He had managed to hang on to his sword and grasped the hilt tightly, willing himself to shake off the effects of those blows. As he rose to his knees an idea sprang to mind.
Xena chuckled quietly, edging closer to the fallen warlord. In a lightening move, Mythran reared up and around, letting fly of something he had in his hand. Xena cried out in pain, her free hand grabbing at her eyes.
"How about a little sand, Xena? Now, *you* should've seen *that* coming!" His face constricted in anger again as he rapidly closed the gap between him and the warrior, who was frantically trying to clear her vision and keep a defensive posture at the same time.
"Xena! Xena, look out!" Gabrielle screamed just as Mythran landed two punches, then savagely rammed the hilt of his sword to the side of Xena's head. As she reeled back, he ended with a sharp kick to her stomach and sent her flying back against the rocks behind her. The back of Xena's head connected with one of those rocks and she laid motionless.
Mythran threw his head back and laughed loudly as Gabrielle screamed again, struggling furiously, mindless of the sword digging into her side.
"Shut up, you little slag!" Mythran hissed at her. "You're next!" He turned back to the fallen woman before him. Smiling grimly, murder in his heart, he advanced forward raising his sword to send yet another from the land of the living.
Something snapped in Gabrielle. The hatred she had for Mythran boiled over when she saw him advancing on her best friend. Eyes blazing, she managed to free one arm and drove her elbow into Bentac's stomach, trying to wrench free. The air whooshed out of the soldier, but instead of fighting her he simply... let go. As Gabrielle raced away, the soldier next to Bentac started after her, only to be blocked by Bentac's sword. The soldier gaped at Bentac incredulously, but was met with a deadly gaze.
"Let her go. Let this play out as it will." Bentac gasped quietly, yet firmly. The look on his face allowed no room for argument.
With a scream of sheer rage, Gabrielle tore after Mythran and leaped at him, bringing him down in a tackle that took the warlord completely by surprise. He landed hard on his side and was stunned to find himself in that position. When he recovered himself enough to realize what happened, he kicked at the girl holding him around his legs. Gabrielle struggled to hang on to him, but was knocked away by Mythran's heel connecting with her chin, causing her teeth to click painfully together. Mythran stood up, shaking with fury.
"I've had *all* that I'm going to take from you! You want to be first? Fine with me!" he raged, stepping towards her.
"Gabrielle....run....run" a weak voice came from her left. Xena was fighting madly to return to her senses. Blood ran freely from her temple and the wound on the back of her head. She rolled weakly to her side and tried to sit up, mightily attempting to will away the blackness threatening to engulf her. Her one hand fluttered to where her chakram usually hung but it wasn't there, having been knocked away when she fell. _Gods! He'll kill her! Got to get up....!' she told herself frantically.
After a quick glance to assure himself that Xena was in no state to interfere, Mythran turned his attention back to the bard. Gabrielle was pulling herself backwards across the sand, feverishly trying to think of a way to get both her and Xena out of this mess. She cast a terrified look towards Xena. She was bleeding too much and seemed so disoriented. Gabrielle fervently hoped they both would live to see another day. A strangled gasp brought her attention quickly back to Mythran and her eyes widened.
Mythran was standing there, his eyes wild, his free hand grasping his throat. His mouth worked as if he was vainly trying to say something. He took a staggering step backwards and managed a weak cough. His face was starting to turn a decidedly unhealthy deep red color.
"Lord Mythran!" One of his soldiers started towards him then stopped, his face contorting in fear. Something ... someone else was suddenly visible on that beach, between Mythran and the girl. A shimmering figure, human in form, with facial features quickly becoming visible. Those features were very unpleasant to see.
Nalia was enraged, her face a rictus of sheer hate and fury. She marvelled at the power this feeling seemed to bring her and focused all of it on the madman before her, now fighting vainly to breathe. Mythran slipped to one knee, his eyes bulging with the strain for air, leaning on his sword for support. Behind them, a few soliders had fled into the woods in terror, while the others simply stood where they were, too petrified to do anything but watch the horrible scene unfolding before them. The villagers, though some shaking with fear, were watching the warlord's plight with interest ... and hope.
"Do you remember me, Mythran? I don't suppose you do, you've murdered so many." Nalia spat in a voice as cold as the grave. Gabrielle gaped at the shade, whose back was to her. Nalia's form looked almost solid, very different than when she had appeared earlier that morning. Gabrielle felt sure she could have touched her, felt her, if she had tried. She noticed something else very different about the shade. She was *frightening* now, and Gabrielle was glad she couldn't see her face from her vantage point. The shade's voice was horrible enough.
Suddenly, Gabrielle realized the distraction that had been created. She quickly got up and ran over to her fallen friend. She carefully pulled Xena into a sitting position, her heart sinking as Xena's head rolled heavily to her shoulder. Gabrielle reached up and pressed a hand to Xena's temple, trying to staunch the flow of blood streaming down her face.
"Xena? Gods, Xena wake up! You've got to wake up!" Gabrielle pleaded. She was having a hard time holding her friend upright, so she gently lowered Xena's head to her lap, keeping pressure on the bleeding wound. Gabrielle then tore her eyes from her friend and glanced quickly at the shade, shuddering when she glimpsed Nalia's face. What she saw was pure insanity.
"LOOK at me, you bastard!!" Nalia roared and quickly reached out towards Mythran. The warlord's head snapped back as if struck and he tumbled backwards, sitting down hard on the sand. What he finally saw before him stunned him enough to momentarily forget his discomfort. He gagged in terror, trying to pull himself away. Nalia took a step forward, visibly shaking in rage. Mythran managed a strangled cry and both hands flew to his throat. He fell onto his back, writhing helplessly from lack of oxygen. Nalia smiled a terrible, cold smile. Suddenly another voice spoke, strained - yet with remarkable force.
"STOP IT, Nalia! *Right* now!" Xena managed. Gabrielle looked down at her friend quickly, relief coursing through her. Xena shook her head to clear it. Through a blur of pain and dizziness she could tell what was happening and she knew she had to stop it. She took a deep breath, pulling herself into a sitting position, leaning on Gabrielle for support.
"Don't do this Nalia! It's not worth it. *He's* not worth it!" Xena urged. The shade ignored her, staring down at the man writhing before her on the ground. She was playing with him, allowing him just enough air to live but denying him enough to torture him cruelly. Soon, though, she would cut it off entirely....
"Damn you, Nalia - you look me in the eyes!" Xena demanded through clenched teeth. Nalia snapped her head towards her, eyes blazing, her chest heaving with strain. Xena stared right back into that furious face.
"You can't kill him - you'll lose everything. You'd be bound for Tartarus and you'd never be reunited with your family again. Is that what you want? Think of your *mother*, if no one else."
"Please Nalia ... please don't do this. You've done so much good. You've helped us so much. Don't end it this way." Gabrielle pleaded. Xena wiped blood from her eye and glanced at Mythran, then back at the shade.
"Let him *go* - NOW!" she yelled, surprising herself with the force of her voice. Nalia stared down at Mythran then back at Xena. A brief second later, the warlord stopped struggling and laid still, gasping in air, his hands still clutching his throat.
Suddenly, the ferocity stamped across Nalia's face was replaced with fear and confusion. She staggered back slightly and took her head in her hands. After another halting step backwards, she threw a frightened look at Xena and Gabrielle, then dropped to her knees. The two women watched the shade with anxious eyes. Nalia was fading from sight swiftly.
"Nalia, what is it?" Xena asked sharply. Though unsteady, she moved towards her, dropping down to kneel beside her. She weakly lifted a hand towards Nalia, then dropped it helplessly, realizing she couldn't touch her, couldn't help her.
"Xena, what's happening to her?" Gabrielle joined Xena next to the shade, her voice tight with emotion. With seeming great effort, Nalia lifted her head to look at them.
"I...I can't..." Nalia started, then gasped and melted away completely. Xena and Gabrielle stared mutely at the spot on the sand where the shade was seconds before. Tears brimmed in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Is...is she dead? I - I mean..." she let it trail off. Xena's shoulders sagged.
"I don't kn -" her words were cut off by a cry that seemed to come from every direction at once.
"XENA! BEHIND YOU!" Nalia's voice pealed out, strong again.
Before Xena had time to digest the warning, she heard a strange skittering noise to her right. Looking quickly in that direction, she saw her sword lying on the beach a few yards away, having been knocked out of her grasp from Mythran's last savage assault. The hilt swung around in her direction and the sword began moving rapidly across the sand towards her. Cursing aloud at herself for letting her guard drop momentarily, she wrapped her left arm around Gabrielle and rolled onto her side, dragging her friend across her body -- away from Mythran. By sheer force of will, driven by his deranged malice, Mythran had recovered enough to make one more attempt on the lives of the warrior and the bard. He had staggered to his feet and though weaving unsteadily, was heading quickly towards them. Too quickly. Pulling Gabrielle out of harm's way with grim determination, Xena stretched her right hand out, reaching desperately for the sword making it's swift journey across the sand. With a final bump over a rock in its path, the sword landed solidly in her hand. Teeth gritted, her ice-blue eyes flashing, Xena flipped the sword around, raised up and hurled it at Mythran as if it were a spear.
Mythran stopped dead in his tracks. He looked down slowly, appearing to study the sword now protruding from just under his sternum with great interest. He took one hesitant step forwards, then stumbled back two. Xena scrambled backwards, dragging Gabrielle with her. With one final, murderous glance, Mythran tried to speak, but only a thin line of blood came out of his mouth and dribbled onto the beach. Eyes rolling back into his head he collapsed, lifeless, in a heap. Xena and Gabrielle sat frozen, watching the warlord carefully for a moment, then expelled their held breaths.
"Thank you, Nalia." they whispered in unison. They both glanced around for the shade, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Xena stood quickly, mindful of the fact that there were still some soldiers behind them. She helped Gabrielle up then reached down and retrieved her sword from Mythran's corpse. Xena turned to the soldiers, raising her sword threateningly as Bentac walked towards them.
"Who's that one?" she hissed quietly to Gabrielle, nudging her.
"Bentac." Gabrielle whispered.
"Hold it, Bentac - no further. I've had about enough for one day." Xena told him sharply. Bentac stopped and raised his hands.
"So have I, Xena. In fact, I've had enough for a lifetime. We don't want any more trouble." he said evenly.
"Bentac, what are you doing?" one of the soldiers yelled.
"Shut up!" Bentac said viciously. He turned to face the other men. "Don't you see? He's dead! We're free! Have you not noticed how many of our comrades this bastard's butchered the past few days? By his pure *whim*?" Bentac shook his head and threw up his hands. He looked down at Mythran and suddenly sent a savage kick into the back of the corpse, then spat on the fallen warlord. Xena raised her eyebrows and Gabrielle looked away, feeling a little sick.
"Too bad you didn't feel that." Bentac said softly, pain in his eyes, then he turned back to Xena and Gabrielle.
"As far as I'm concerned, you're free to go in peace."
"And the slaves?" Xena countered carefully. He nodded.
"The slaves, too." he replied and turned back to his fellow soldiers. "Set the slaves free! And you three," he indicated three soldiers standing nearby, "Get on that ship and bring out what provisions you can find. These people will need food to make the journey back to Corastus." he commanded. The soldiers stared at him, unmoving, not knowing what to make of everything.
"Move! Any one of you louts that dares defy me will lose his head to my blade! Do I make myself clear?" he bellowed. After a moment the soldiers shrugged, sheathed their swords and set to do his bidding. As the enormity of what had just transpired hit them, they all began to feel ... free. For the first time in ages. "Wait a minute. Forgive me for not feeling very trusting today," Xena began sarcastically, her sword still pointing unwaveringly at Bentac's throat, "but *why* are you doing this?" Bentac looked right into her eyes and even Xena could see the unmistakable sincerity in his face.
"I'm tired, Xena. Tired of living like a frightened, beaten, cowardly animal. It's been too long. I want a *life* back. You two and the slaves are free to go, unharmed. You have my word. We'll even escort you back to Corastus, if you'd like. It's up to you." Bentac said quietly and started to move towards the ship. Then he stopped and turned to Gabrielle. Before she could move, he reached out and touched her cheek fleetingly.
"You may not believe this, little one, but I mean it with all my heart. I'm glad you're safe." With a weathered smile he turned away, leaving Gabrielle to gape after him, stunned.
Four days later, after a hero's welcome and a brief rest in Corastus, the warrior and the bard were headed off down the road towards a new adventure. Bentac had turned out to be an enormous help to them in getting the villagers back safely. In a continuing gesture of goodwill, he was in the process of rounding up a small army to travel to Crown Isle. Bentac was on the road to redemption - and he was going to start by putting Arionis out of the slavery business. As Xena and Gabrielle bade him goodbye, Gabrielle had surprised him with a peck on the cheek.
"Not long ago I hated you ... but everyone deserves a second chance. It sounds like you'll make good use of it." she told him quietly. The soldier smiled, grasped her hand and bowed.
"That I promise you, Gabrielle, on my honor." After gripping Xena's wrist in the traditional handshake, he waved and left.
The two friends walked a distance in silence, each caught up with their own thoughts. They were headed for Versase to find Nalia's family and finally give them the answers they had been without for so long. Their hearts ached. Nalia had never appeared again since that day on the beach and both feared she was trapped forever in between worlds, her energy drained. She had given it all up to save them. Xena closed her eyes for a second and muttered something. Gabrielle looked at her curiously.
"What was that?" Xena shook her head, not answering, not meeting Gabrielle's gaze. Gabrielle stopped, placing a restraining hand on Xena's arm.
"Xena -" she started, but the warrior interrupted.
"Gabrielle, forget it - drop it, okay?" she told her quickly, but Gabrielle was undaunted.
"You're blaming yourself for all of this again, aren't you? For what happened to Nalia?" Gabrielle pressed. Xena shook off her friend's hand and began walking again, her face set in stubborn lines.
"Xena, c'mon! You can't -" Gabrielle tried again. Xena stopped and whirled to face her.
"I let my guard down on that beach, Gabrielle! *Twice*! The first time probably cost Nalia the rest of her strength, the other almost cost you your life!" she snapped. Gabrielle stared her angry friend down, then sighed. Before she could speak further, a familiar voice broke the tense silence.
"Xena, Xena, Xena ... letting your guard down once in a while doesn't make you a failure - it makes you human. Not a bad thing to be, if you think about it. Besides, my temper was what got *me* into trouble. I do have to watch that." This *third* voice sounded amused. Xena and Gabrielle spun around, stunned, then their eyes widened in surprise ... and joy.
Nalia stood before them looking radiant, her entire form glowing brightly despite the sunlight. She was dressed in flowing white garb and her smile was dazzling. She looked down at herself, holding her hands out to her sides.
"Well - what do you think? They give you pretty nice clothes in the Elysian Fields, don't they?" she grinned. Xena and Gabrielle both broke into huge smiles.
"You made it!" Gabrielle bubbled happily. Xena beamed with relief, shaking her head in amazement.
"I can't tell you how happy we are to hear that, Nalia - and it will make our next task a pleasure," she started, then looked confused. "But, how is it you're here now?" Nalia shrugged.
"Honestly, I'm as surprised as you are. I went to Hades for a favor. I asked him to please let me see you both one last time to thank you and he agreed - without much complaint, even." she cocked an eyebrow at Xena. "He seems to have a soft spot of sorts when it comes to you." Xena snorted softly, deciding not to comment. Nalia then looked at her eagerly, remembering what the warrior had said a second before.
"You're going to talk to my family?" Xena looked a little uneasy and glanced at Gabrielle.
"Well, I'll have Gabrielle go in first. I'm not sure how happy your family would be to see me. We'll see how it goes."
"Xena, after what you've done, I really don't think you have a thing to worry about." Nalia assured her, then looked at the two women gratefully. "Thank you both so much. I can't begin to properly express my gratitude for what you've done for me." Tears moistened the shade's eyes. Xena looped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and gave her a tight squeeze.
"Nor can I." she said quietly. Gabrielle looked at her quickly, surprised and touched by the warrior's display of affection. Nalia turned her attention to the bard, regarding her seriously for a moment.
"Gabrielle, how are you feeling?"
"Much better, Nalia. The bruises are healing." Gabrielle reassured her. Nalia touched a finger to her own temple.
"What about the bruises up here?" She asked softly.
"Those are healing too, honest." Gabrielle replied warmly, then looked up at Xena. "I've got a lot of help." she finished, smiling fondly at her friend. After a beat, she looked back at Nalia.
"What about you? What now?" Nalia gazed at her serenely.
"To be at peace ... to relish it. My heart's finally at rest." Then she looked at Xena a bit sternly. "Speaking of _hearts at rest', it seems to me you've got quite a bit weighing on yours. Lighten the load, warrior. You have a big heart and a good soul. I don't know how long it will be before you can forgive yourself for your past, but I hope it's soon, for your sake." Nalia's tone was firm, but warm. "May your journey to that point be a safe one. You've done so much for so many. That's something to feel good about. I wish you peace, friend." She then turned to Gabrielle, leaving Xena slightly stunned.
"Take care of yourself, Gabrielle. You're a brave woman with a true, pure heart. I don't think there's anything you can't do, or can't deal with. Just believe in yourself" Then the shade gave her a wink. "And I hope the stories filling your soul keep pouring out. I know I'll miss hearing them." Nalia smiled a little sadly. Gabrielle looked at her through eyes bright with tears.
"Well, you're supposed to be able to hear our thoughts in the Fields. I'll *think* them to you." she offered quietly. Nalia's smile widened.
"I'd really like that." The shade began drifting slowly away from them. "My time is up. Goodbye, my friends. May the Gods always watch over you. We'll see each other again someday." With a final wave, she was gone.
Gabrielle and Xena stood silently for a moment, each silently bidding her farewells to the young woman who had played such an important role in their lives. After a moment, Nalia's voice issued again, softer.
"Wow...I really *can* hear your thoughts...and you're welcome." Then they heard nothing but the birds. The two continued down the road. Suddenly, Gabrielle laughed quietly and grinned a trifle smugly at her best friend.
"Well Xena," she began brightly, "I guess more than one person has you pegged pretty well, huh?" she quipped. Xena stopped and turned slowly to Gabrielle. She tried to give her "the look", but Gabrielle could tell her heart wasn't really in it. The bard giggled and kept walking.
"You coming?" she tossed over her shoulder. Xena lost her battle against the smile tugging at her lips. She turned around, looking upwards. The smile turned into a wry grin as she concentrated on a thought, then winked.
"Did you hear *that*, Nalia?" As the warrior turned and began to follow her friend, she could swear she heard a melodious chuckle ripple through the air.
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