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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
Copyright © 1997 by David Lomax
Xena, leading Argo by her harness and Gabrielle walked slowly into the village through the half-dried mud of the path, a short offshoot from the main road, which ran the length of a broad valley. A number of small buildings were clustered at the end of the path. For the most part, they were run down and looked like they had been abandoned many years ago. All the typical businesses were represented Ė a smithy, a general store, a tannery. The people to run and patronize the shops were all missing, though. The only building to have been kept up was the two-story inn, and even it had an unused look to it.
The sun was setting to the left of the travelers, and long shadows were cast across their path to the right. A group of chirping sparrows flitted past, seeking their beds in the thick brush encroaching on the village from all sides. Beyond the buildings was land that looked suitable for farming, but was filled with weeds and tall grass.
The weary steps and bedraggled look of the travelers gave an indication of the hard day past.
"Thank goodness, they have an inn," said Gabrielle breathlessly. "I'm dying to clean up and sleep in a real bed."
Xena looked distastefully at the town, then the western sky. "I think we could still make another league before it's fully dark."
Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks. "I can't believe you. Would you really rather sleep on the cold, hard ground than in a nice, warm soft bed at the inn?"
"Depends on the inn," Xena replied wryly. She stopped as well, sighing. Argo nickered and nuzzled Xena's shoulder gently. "On the other hand, I guess Argo could use some rest and a good rubdown." She patted Argo gently on the neck.
"Oh, so you'll listen to the horse and not me?" Gabrielle looked incredulous.
Xena lifted her eyebrows as her only reply. She turned and moved toward the inn. As Argo plodded by, Gabrielle stuck out her tongue at the horse. She had to move quickly to sidestep Argo's swishing tail. Shaking her head, she followed along into the innís courtyard.
A clean stable for Argo and a room with two beds for the women were quickly procured. There were no other travelers in evidence, though the innkeeper - a middle-aged man of medium height, with a developing belly and stubble on his chin - seemed nice enough. He had his maid servant, a wretched looking old lady who steadfastly avoided eye contact with anyone, draw a hot bath in their room immediately upon Gabrielle's suggestion.
After shooing the old woman out, Gabrielle locked the door. Turning around, she leaned back against the door.
"Now this is luxury!" she exclaimed. "A private bath, cheap rates...and you didn't even want to stop!"
She stepped over to the battered brass basin where steam curled up from the hot water.
"I hope you don't mind if I go first."
Without waiting to hear Xena's answer, which never came anyway, Gabrielle stripped off her dirty garments and slipped into the tub.
"Ohhh, I'm in Elysium."
After a moment of silent soaking, she leaned over the far side of the tub to look through an assortment of soaps and bath oils placed there.
Xena paid no attention to her hedonistic companion. She dropped Argoís saddlebags on the floor and sat down heavily on the farther of the two beds. Without even bothering to remove her breastplate, she lay down. The bed had a simple wooden frame with a linen covered, hay-filled mattress. Her mind was on matters weightier than her personal hygiene, such as why this town gave her such an odd feeling.
She allowed herself some physical rest, if not mental. Gabrielle splashed contentedly at the edge of Xena's peripheral vision. Her friend seemed absorbed in trying out all the different bath powders, which suited her just fine.
This could just be a town on the decline, thought Xena, which is why there are so few people. There's not nearly enough traffic through here to support such a large inn. And the innkeeper, what was his name... seemed surprised to see any customers at all. Perhaps the fields in the area were no longer producing though the ones she had seen walking in looked fertile enough.
She closed her eyes. Now that she'd allowed herself to relax, her true weariness descended upon her. The battle that morning and subsequent running around, rounding up prisoners and the like affected her more than she had wanted to admit. A pleasant fog settled over her consciousness.
"Hey, Xena, take a look at this!" Gabrielle's voice cut into her mind. Her discipline extended to rest as well as action, allowing her to remain peacefully somnolent despite the noise. Gabrielle continued, ignoring the lack of response.
"If I mix this powdered plant leaf with regular soap and splash a lot, it makes a whole bunch of bubbles."
"That's lovely," Xena muttered inaudibly.
"This is really fun."
Xena fell asleep to the sound of frothing bath water.
Two loud noises drew Xena from her slumber. As an experienced warrior, her mind reacted instinctively, pulling her to full consciousness like a leopard leaping for its prey. In less than a second, she was on her feet and crouched down low, her dagger in her hand. It was only minutes since she had fallen asleep. Gabrielle, still in the tub, jumped to her feet as well, a froth of white bubbles covering her body.
Two arrows, flames flickering along their lengths, were imbedded in the wall opposite the windows, which faced toward the front of the inn. Broken glass from the two panes the arrows passed through was scattered across the floor. As the wall began to catch fire, Gabrielle stepped out of the tub looking for a small container with which to throw water on the flames.
"We need to put out that fire," she said in an urgent voice.
"Wait! I'll do that," commanded Xena. "You get dressed first, or at least put on your sandals."
Gabrielle noticed the broken glass for the first time.
"Glass windows? This must have been a really nice place, once."
While Gabrielle hurried into her clothes, Xena used the night urn to scoop bath water onto the burning wall. After the flames were extinguished she moved to the side of the window and looked out. In the gloaming she could see two archers on the far side of the road preparing another round. Faint flickers of light told her that at least two other sections of the inn had already been hit and were beginning to flame up.
The innkeeper emerged onto the road below and hurled something at the archers, which did little to deter them. In response, they lowered their aim and fired at him. Only a quick dive into the thick mud saved him from being skewered.
"I've got to get down there before someone gets killed," said Xena, glancing back to see Gabrielle making a final adjustment to her halter-top. "Try to put out the fires if you can."
"Right!" her companion replied.
Xena smashed through the remaining glass shoulder first, simultaneously yelling out her war cry: "AIAIAIAIAIAI!" As her feet touched down on the slanted first story roof below the window, she launched herself into a triple somersault landing in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, due to the lack of light and the need for fast action, she did not foresee the puddle she landed in. The entire lower half of her body was coated with dirty water by the splash her landing caused. Despite this small flaw, her entrance startled both the archers and the innkeeper enough that they were stunned into inaction.
With a sly grin, she flipped toward the archers. Planting a foot in each of their faces, she pushed off into a back flip and landed cat-like before their sprawled bodies. Reaching down, she pulled both of the stunned men back to their feet.
"You have some explaining to do," she growled at them.
Heavy footsteps squishing in the mud alerted her to the approach of the innkeeper. As he drew even with her, she smashed his face with a backfist. He dropped his carving knife and slumped to his knees at her side.
Showing her incredible strength, Xena grabbed both archers in one hand and the innkeeper in the other and began dragging them back across the road to the inn. On the roof, Gabrielle was having success putting out the fires.
"I think I've got 'em under control," she said needlessly.
"Come downstairs when you're done," Xena grunted.
Gabrielle bounced downstairs to find a dour faced Xena facing the three men, all bound and sitting on the floor.
"All done, we won't be burning down tonight. What's happening here? My goodness, what have you done to yourself?"
Startled by Gabrielleís second question, and thinking she must have somehow been injured without noticing it, Xena hurriedly looked over her body.
"Youíre a mess!"
Accustomed to harsh conditions, Xena had paid no attention to the muck dripping onto the floor from her lower half.
"Itís just a little dirt."
"More like mud and slime. Yuck. Since I just got cleaned up, I think Iíll keep my distance." She stepped back from her dirty friend, gingerly stepped around the mud-covered innkeeper, and took a seat at the innís bar.
Xena rolled her eyes and turned back to her bewildered captives. She prodded one of the archers with her toe. "You, start. What's your name and why were you attacking this inn?"
The man looked very glum, but there didn't seem to be any alternative to talking.
"Weíre here to make sure no one stays at his inn." He pointed his chin at the innkeeper.
"And you work for a rival inn, I suppose?" Xena responded.
"No! The thieving, bastard Durians..." the innkeeper interjected hotly before Xena cut him off.
"Enough! One at a time, and calmly."
"There are no other inns in this valley." The archer stopped. His face told Xena that he knew more, but he had reached the limit of what he was willing to say up front.
Xena bent down and moved forward until her face was only a few inches from his. "Do you know what it feels like to have the flow of blood to your brain cut off?"
[In an alternate universe: Gabrielle, suddenly dressed in a cheerleader outfit, does a cheer: "Pinch interrogation! Pinch interrogation! Goooo, Xena!!" She leaps and waves her pompoms.]
The archer shook his head, beginning to look fearful.
"What about you?" she turned to the second archer. He drew back from the evil look she gave him.
"W-weíre just following orders," the second archer stammered.
"I guessed that. Whose orders?"
"And I donít suppose you have any idea why he gave you these orders?" she drawled. She extended the fore and middle fingers of her right hand, then drew back her arm in preparation to jab him in the neck.
"It was the p-pen, pen- amulet!" he gasped. "The B-Broturs took it..."
"It's ours by right, and you know it!" the innkeeper butted in again.
She turned back to him. "I told you to be quiet, what was your name? I wasnít paying attention earlier."
"Camtall, remember now?" he said sullenly.
"I'm not in the mood for that kind of attitude." She poked him in the forehead with her index finger, leaving a small red mark.
She turned back to the second archer. "Now, what was it that they stole?"
"We didn't..." Camtall began.
"What they allegedly stole," Xena amended tiredly.
"It was some sort of family heirloom," the second archer continued. "Priceless, from Iíve been led to believe."
"Look," interjected the first archer, "we were hired on by Lord Durian only last week. We donít really know what happened between these two families."
Xena looked surprised. "Refreshing honesty, especially from someone willing to burn down someone elseís home and business."
The two archers lowered their eyes to the floor.
"Alright, I think thatís all I need to hear from that side." She sat down on a chair and faced Camtall. "Now itís your turn. What is really going on here, and donít leave anything out."
"Iíll gladly tell you this story, but it would proceed much easier if I wasnít bound like a criminal." He gave a nasty look at the other two.
"Very well." Xena nodded to Gabrielle, who was already situated behind the innkeeper. She deftly cut his bonds with the carving knife that had been deposited on the bar counter.
"Thatís much better." He rubbed his wrists. "Iíll start at the beginning, so you can know the full extent of my neighborís treachery."
"Our two clans have farmed this valley for many generations, back to the earliest of our records. The friendship between our families was strong at the beginning. Ownership of the land was evenly split, and we shared in all other things - fighting against common enemies and celebrating together the births of our sons and the marriages of our daughters.
"As time went on, however, our fortunes began to part. Their land continued to produce, while ours faltered. Their investments went well while ours failed. Always were they generous with assistance and advice, but there is only so far charity can go. Our land refused to produce the grain we had always grown. Instead, the only vegetation that would come up was the evil weed that even now you can see covering our land. We tried other crops. We tried all known means to eradicate the weed. We tried to raise sheep instead, but they refused to eat the vile things. The Durians even offered to allow us to work some of their fields, but we were too proud to live like serfs."
"In desperation, my grandfather, late in his life, and my father tried to find a use for the weed itself. They only found one, and it was not a very good one.
"We were reduced to managing this inn as our only source of income. The townsfolk, who had once thrived on the commerce here, gradually left to seek better prospects elsewhere. Without the town to attract visitors, traffic on this road slowed to a trickle. Now, almost no one comes this way anymore. You two are our first visitors in over a month."
"Wait." Gabrielle spoke as Camtall paused to catch his breath. "You said the weeds were good for something. What was it?"
"My grandfather found that they could be used like soap." He looked over his shoulder at the bard. "But they donít work very well. The normal tallow based soaps work much better. I heard you use the bath Ė you may have noticed some there among the other bath oils."
Gabrielle looked thoughtful.
"Did you have anything else to add?" Xena asked.
"No. I might be getting an idea, but Iím not sure yet."
"Okay. Please continue, Camtall."
"Now we get to my generation," the portly innkeeper continued. "Frymus' father, Andus Durian, had been like a second father to me ever since I was a boy. After my father passed away, when I was still a boy, Andus became my mentor. When I was grown, and we saw that the final demise of my family's holdings was inevitable, I wished to leave this land, despite the long history of my ancestors living here. Andus convinced me to stay and marry, promising that he would bestow his family's most precious heirloom upon my son on his wedding day.
"I protested vehemently, of course. Such charity could never be accepted with any honor. However, he had some crazy theory that the amulet was magical, and that it was the reason his family had prospered while alongside we had faltered. His logic was that it was only fair that the luck be passed to us when we had finally hit bottom. Such was the greatness of the man that he would risk the downfall of his own family in order to aid his friend.
"I might still have refused, except at that time I had just married and my dear wife, Sera, was five moons pregnant with my son Bemetes. I firmly believe Andus planned it that way, so that out of concern for my family I would accept his offer. A life on the road would have been hard on her, so we stayed and lived off of the dwindling remains of my familyís former wealth.
"The years passed, my son grew into a strapping lad, and he fell for a pretty lass named Lucy from the next valley over. Andus became sick just days before the wedding and passed on that very night, only candle marks after placing the pendant around Lucy's neck."
"How sad," Gabrielle commiserated.
"Yes, it was very untimely. Had he lived on, even for just a few months, things may have worked out much differently than they have.
"Frymus, his eldest son, did not approve of his gift. Iím not certain, but I think he was jealous of me, believing that his father preferred me in some way. We were raised practically side by side, and all during that time his fatherís love for him was very clear to me. But his own love was reserved for wealth and precious things. When Andus gave the pendant to Lucy, Frymus felt betrayed. He demanded its return within a candle mark of Andus' death, claiming that his father was delirious at the end and could not have meant to give away his most treasured possession. I responded that it had been promised many years earlier, and that I had sworn to accept it. To return it would be to violate my oath, which I would never do. Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to Andus' agreement with me.
"That was six months ago. During that time, he has convinced most of his people, through continued insistence, that I had stolen the necklace, preying upon a weak, confused, old man. No one denies his words, since he is the head of their family and the lord of their land.
"We, on the other hand, are now penniless. My son and daughter-in-law are not here because I sent them on a vacation. I couldnít stand to have them here when I sold our land and prepared to move. Frymus obviously isnít aware that he has no need to disrupt my business any more. He would probably be here, trying again to bargain for the pendant. Iíve already arranged the sale, to a wealthy merchant from Skyros who is willing to make a speculative investment, in case the land returns to fertility one day."
"What will you do?" asked Gabrielle softly.
"I will seek my fortune elsewhere, perhaps running an inn for a landowner. I would welcome my son if he joined me, but I suspect he may set out on his own with his bride."
A banging noise coming from the rear of the inn interrupted Camtallís story.
"What was that?" said Xena, half rising from her seat.
"That must be Bernice," replied Camtall. "Donít be alarmed. She probably just finished with her chores and is on her way back to her home." Xena slowly sat back down. Camtall looked wistful. "The poor old woman. She alone has stuck with me, despite the low wages and lack of business. I donít remember the last time she even received a tip."
"Donít worry. Weíll leave something for her," Gabrielle promised.
"Where were we?" asked Xena.
"Thatís it," replied Camtall. "The buyer said heíd be here tomorrow. My son returns tomorrow evening. That will be a difficult moment. Heís a bright lad, though. Iím sure he knew this day would come."
"Iíd like to talk with this Frymus," said Xena. "Iím concerned about his reaction when he learns of your departure."
"He should be glad. Iíve gone out of business, just like he wanted."
"That was only a means to an end. If what youíve said is true, what he really wants is the pendant. I donít think heíll like the idea of it travelling far away with your daughter in law."
"Oh!" Camtall looked surprised. "I hadnít thought about that."
"I guess weíll go over in the morning, then," said Gabrielle. She stood and walked over to Xena. "Itís full dark out now. Besides, I need to get you into the bath."
Xena gave Gabrielle a dark look. "No, I have a bad feeling about all this. Where exactly is your son?"
"At the coast. They were planning to spend a lot of time at the beach, exploring the grottos near the mouth of the Arn River."
"How romantic," said Gabrielle.
Camtall briefly described the exact location.
"Thanks," said Xena. "I might need to know where to find them, in case something happens here." She stood up. "And I donít think visiting the Durians can wait until morning."
"Okay," said Gabrielle. "Let me get my staff and we can go."
"You're staying here, Gabrielle."
"Rrrr, how many times have I heard that phrase!" growled Gabrielle.
"I need you to stay here and help Camtall watch these two and defend his property." She indicated the almost forgotten archers, who had fallen asleep. "Frymus might notice that they havenít returned and send someone else to investigate."
"Oh, fine." Gabrielle gave in, as she knew she had to. She flung herself back into one of the chairs. The chair was not very well balanced, however, and the force of her descent tipped it over backwards, taking her with it.
"Oh, sh*t!" she yelped as her head banged into the hardwood floor. Her body rolled end over end and she ended up sprawled awkwardly on her back.
Camtall half rose with a look of concern on his face. He was not sure what he should do. Glancing over at Xena, he saw her normally calm face contort as she strove to contain a smile. She couldn't quite manage it, though, and turned her head away as a small snicker escaped. Seeing Xena's amusement, he felt safe in expressing his own and smiled broadly at Gabrielle as the young woman unsteadily regained her footing while gently rubbing the back of her head.
"I guess I'll be heading out, now," said Xena. She turned, keeping her face directed away from her friend, and walked rapidly to the front door of the inn. She didn't move fast enough, however, to prevent Gabrielle from hearing several more giggles as she left.
"Pretty embarrassing, huh?" said Gabrielle good-naturedly to Camtall. "Good thing there wasn't a big crowd here."
"Yes," was all he could say in response, without allowing his grin to turn into a loud laugh.
"Right. I think I'll go stand guard outside for a bit."
Riding Argo, it took Xena only a short time to reach the Durian manor on the other side of the valley. Unlike the Broturs, the Durians lived at a distance from the villagers who worked their land. Their compound consisted of one large main building, with an attached stable, and a couple of small outbuildings. The area surrounding it was thickly wooded, a big contrast to the remainder of their land which was grassland suited to feeding their large herd of sheep. A small clearing fronted the main door to the manor.
Xena dismounted and tied Argo to a tree at the edge of the clearing. Two torches, one on either side of the door, lighted the area. There were no guards in sight.
She knocked on the door. While waiting for an answer, she scanned the building and the surrounding area. From long habit she noted how a battle would play out in this environment, mentally running through several scenarios before an aging man servant opened the door.
"What do you want at this time of night?" he asked, looking at her suspiciously.
"I need to speak with your master, Frymus Durian."
"Heís not in." He tried to shut the door, but Xena had her foot in the doorway.
"Please, itís very important," she said. Her look told the old man heíd feel her wrath if he didnít cooperate.
"Very well. Iíll see if heís come in." He stepped back and Xena moved as if to enter the manor. He held up his hand to stop her. "You stay here," he commanded brusquely.
Xena tapped her foot impatiently while she waited. After a minute she was ready to give up and go exploring on her own. Two things happened simultaneously then. First, there was a rustling in the trees to the east of the manor, near the stables. She made out the sounds of four horses speeding off toward the south. Second, a man wearing an ostentatious maroon doublet with matching hose pulled the door fully open and said, "Welcome, Xena. What can I do for you?"
Xena paused. She was desperately curious to know where those riders were going, but to stop them she would have to chase them right now. On the other hand, her reason for being here was to speak with Frymus, to find out what sort of person he was. If she just ran off, she might not get another chance with him. She might be able to get him to tell her about the horsemen, but if they were off on a nefarious task, heíd probably lie about it.
She decided to stay. Experience taught her that information was almost always more valuable than action. "Lord Durian, I presume?"
He inclined his head to her. "Well met, Warrior Princess. Iíve heard much of your exploits. Please, come in."
She entered and followed him through the cloakroom, a large pillared hall, up a flight of stairs and down a short corridor to his office. "We can speak in private in here," he explained.
"Would you excuse me for a moment?" he continued, after they had entered the plushly decorated room. "I have a small matter of some urgency to attend to. Iíll only be a second." Without waiting for an answer he left, closing the door behind him.
Xena curbed her exasperation at the delay. She had a sneaking suspicion about where the riders had been headed. She needed to confirm Frymusí intent first, though, before jumping to any conclusions. She studied his office to pass the time.
A large, oak desk dominated the room. Two straight-backed chairs of the same wood faced it on the near side. A well-worn velvet-padded chair sat behind it. A few papers lay on the desk surface. They appeared to be inventories of grain and animals. There was an iron barred window behind the desk, facing the rear of the manor compound. A thick, oval carpet covered most of the floor. A portrait of a regal woman wearing a beautiful pendant was on one wall. "That must be the object theyíre fighting over," thought Xena. She studied the picture closely.
Frymus rushed back into the room. "Thatís my mother," he said, seeing where Xena had been facing. "Sheís in the Elysian Fields, now." He stepped over to the far side of the desk and sat down. "Now, what can I do for the famous Xena? Please, sit down." He indicated one of the other chairs.
"No thanks," she demurred. "I prefer to stand. I..."
"Itís such an honor to meet you," he continued. "A few years back we used to have drills, to prepare in case your army happened to come this way. The women and children would run to the hills while the men would set up defensive positions to guard them. Thatís why they built this place of stone, I think. So that it couldnít be burnt down by warlords like yourself."
"Thatís very interesting, but..."
"And now youíve turned good, I hear," he continued, ignoring her attempts to ask her questions. "Traveling around, righting wrongs. Very noble of you. Very commendable. Which is what makes me wonder why youíve taken up with base thieves?"
He finally stopped, the intent of his oration made clear to Xena.
"So, I should consort with arsonists instead?" she asked archly.
"Touché. The, ah, Ďdisagreementí between my family and the Broturs is a very complex one. One which has extended for six months so far, and may continue for quite a long time. I donít think someone as busy as yourself has time to mediate something like this."
"Except that my solutions tend to be fast ones, and often permanent." She stressed the last word, to make sure her veiled threat was understood. She strongly disliked this fast talking man.
"Yes, I hear you have quite a relationship with Hades."
Frymus continued speaking, but Xena did not hear what he said. Her attention was drawn to movement in the courtyard outside the window. A woman covered in a large, gray woolen cloak emerged from one of the manorís rear doors. She headed into the woods, taking one glance back before disappearing. During the short time her face was visible, Xena recognized her as Bernice, Camtallís maid.
Everything clicked together in Xenaís mind. "You sent those horsemen to take the pendant from Camtallís daughter in law!" She leaned over the desk, accusing him with her eyes as well as her words.
Frymus laughed in response. "I thought you would have already guessed that. I didnít know why you were wasting time in here, talking to me."
"Iíve still got enough time to catch them."
"I rather doubt that." He laughed again.
Xena stepped to the door, then suddenly reversed course, coming back to the side of the desk. She punched him square in the face, causing him to topple over backwards. She was not in a mood to be laughed at.
Bounding down the stairs and sprinting through the ground floor, she was out the front door in a matter of seconds. Her progress was seriously impeded at that point, as four guards, clad in studded leather with swords ready, blocked her path.
Battle instinct replaced normal conscious thinking in her brain as smoothly as her well-oiled sword emerged from its scabbard. She twirled it twice in her hand before sending it in a whistling overhand blow at the nearest guard. He blocked it competently and attempted a riposte, which she easily avoided.
She stepped backwards to consider tactics. An arrow whizzed past her head. A quick glance told her that two archers were standing on a second story balcony. If she did not stay in close proximity to the men facing her, the archers would be able to fire without fear of hitting their own men.
She advanced back within range of the opposing swords. Her mind was still calm, trying to figure out her options, while her body danced among the stabbing and slicing blades. Her best bet to overcome the ground troops, or to just simply leave them behind, was to get back to Argo, but that would mean exposing her back to the archers for several critical seconds. Far too long if they were skilled men. Perhaps she could draw the battle over to where she had tied Argo.
She dove at the guard facing her from the west. Making no attempt to dispatch him, she instead wrestled him to the ground. Occasionally pummeling him in the face, and blocking his attempts to strike her, she kept in close contact with him, rolling through the short grass toward the trees bordering the clearing.
One of the other footmen lunged with his sword as she rolled to the top during one rotation. Grunting with effort, she halted their progress and heaved the guard she held into the path of the blade. Seeing his target suddenly shift, the swordsman attempted to hold up, but couldn't quite manage it, poking the blade two inches deep into his comrade's right shoulder. The man cried out and began trying to disengage from Xena.
One of the others discarded his sword, drew two daggers, and dove at her. His descent was painfully halted as her booted heel thrust out to catch him in the groin. Despite more than adequate padding, the force of her kick left him collapsed on his side, his face flushed in agony.
The fourth guard took a running leap and Xena could not avoid him. Her right arm bore the brunt of his forceful dive as she was knocked over the top of the first guard and into the legs of the lone standing swordsman, who lost his balance and toppled onto the pile of bodies.
"This is not working," thought Xena, wincing at the pain in her arm. "I can't really escape until the archers are out of commission."
She took a moment to scan the façade of the building, noting the locations of walls where her chakram would find a true bounce. She released her hold on the first guard and stood up. It's planned trajectory plotted in a split second, Xena loosed her favorite weapon from her belt and threw it with the ease and accuracy of hundreds of candle marks of practice. The round, killing blade struck a second story wall and ricocheted toward the archers. It sliced through the skin of both of the near archer's forearms, sending two streams of blood shooting up and outward, and causing him to drop his weapon. He screamed and collapsed to his knees. The second archer received the slightly deflected blade in the skull, the force of its flight knocking him unconscious. Glancing off of the hard bone, the chakram floated lazily into the night in the general direction of Argo.
Though her throw took only seconds, in a battle that can be an eternity. Two of the guards were back on their feet and attacking. As Xena turned her attention to them, the one remaining on the ground lunged and caught hold of her legs. Unable to leap away from a sword thrust, she twisted instead. The sword sliced through her leather bustier at bellybutton height, giving her the slightest of cuts on her left side.
The twist caused her to lose balance and she fell heavily to the ground, landing on her butt. This put distance between her and the two standing attackers, giving her time to transfer her sword back to her right hand. She stabbed at the hands of the prone guard, causing him to release her feet. The two others advanced, but she was finally free to make her normal combat moves. Pushing off with her hands for extra force, she kicked both men in the chest, sending them stumbling backwards. She leapt to her feet with a wicked grin on her face. As she advanced, she circled towards her left so that they would no longer be between her and Argo.
The one guard, still on the ground, reached for her feet again. She sidestepped his flailing hands and kicked him in the head, quieting his movement. One of the swordsmen then engaged her and their blades met with a spark and loud clash of steel. They fenced for a moment before the other standing guard also stepped in. Xena relished the challenge of facing two men at once, parrying their every attack and driving them backwards. She only toyed with them for a few moments before hitting the first with a full strength side kick to the breadbasket and smashing the other's head with the butt of her sword.
Xena glanced up at the roof of the building. The two archers were still where they had been a minute earlier, the one with injured arms staring dumbly down at her. Despite the vanquished state of the guards, Xena felt something was wrong. Unable to figure it out, she sheathed her sword and ran off to get Argo, rubbing her bruised upper arm with her left hand.
She arrived at the tree where her chakram was imbedded. She had planned for it to end up somewhere near Argo, but not too near, of course. There were no horses in the vicinity, however. "Damn," thought Xena, suddenly realizing. When Frymus excused himself from their meeting, he must have given orders to take her horse. She whistled for her, but there was no response.
"Curse that Frymus!" she muttered.
Xena now had a decision to make. She knew that she had to catch the men headed for the coast before they reached Bemetes and Lucy. Having Argo would be the best way to do that, and she certainly didn't want to leave the horse in Frymus' hands, but she also had no idea where they might have taken her. If she spent too long looking, the vacationers might be dead by the time she finally got there.
She looked around for clues as to the direction Argo had been taken, but the darkness made it too difficult. The moon was only half full. Knowing she would probably regret it, Xena headed back to the inn at a run. She would have to take Camtall's horse and then rescue Argo later.
Gabrielle sat on a chair, her elbows on the table and her chin firmly planted on the palms of her hands. Her eyelids drooped as she waged an internal struggle against sleep. Standing guard outside had gotten old very quickly, not to mention very cold, so she had returned inside to find Camtall had retired for the night. She had managed to entertain herself for the past candle mark and a half, but was now fading quickly into slumber land. The two archers slept soundly in a corner.
The front door suddenly banged loudly open and a very winded Xena stepped inside.
"Argo was captured, but I have to get to the Arn river grottos to save Bemetes and Lucy from Frymus' men," Xena said rapidly, between gasping breaths. "Tell Camtall I needed to borrow his horse."
Xena was gone as quickly as she had arrived, with the thumping of hooves coming from behind the inn indicating her departure.
"Wha..." said Gabrielle, stunned but now wide-awake. It took her a moment more to fully process the information.
"Nothing's happening around here," she said to herself. "I'll just have to rescue Argo myself. Won't Xena be proud of me then!"
She smiled as she gathered her staff and a woolen jacket and headed out the door.
Xena thundered down the road atop the brown gelding. The horse responded well to her commands, but was not nearly as fast as Argo. Xena could only hope that Frymus' men were not running full out so she would be able to catch them. The trip to the coastal resort was only two candle marks at a good gallop and she feared her delay would prove fatal for the newlyweds.
Cutting every corner she could, Xena passed through the branches of a number of trees overhanging the sides of the road. She ducked to protect her face, but she could not prevent her upper arms from being laced with scratches and her hair from alternately being ripped out or acquiring tangles of twigs and leaves.
Though her mount was very winded, Xena forced it to maintain a full gallop until they hit the sand of the beach. Rounding the corner of a rocky outcropping, they ran right into the group of thugs as they were dismounting near the entrance of the first cave. The horse tried to make a sudden halt, but its legs were too tired to resist the momentum of rider and mount. It tumbled over, pitching Xena, who was smart enough not to hold on, forward over the group of men. The sand softened her landing [preventing her pelvis from breaking!], but she still had to roll for two revolutions before coming to a stop. She could feel that both of her elbows had been scraped raw, with the wounds full of sand. Luckily, her leather bodice prevented injury to more sensitive portions of her body.
The thugs cursed and cried out, for while Xena had been thrown over them, Camtall's luckless horse rolled right into them. As Xena rose and turned to face them, all she could discern was a mass of horse and human flesh in the half-moon light. Eschewing her sword, as none were currently raised against her, Xena strode grimly into the fray, knocking the men senseless with her fists. After a couple of minutes heaving, jabbing and occasionally kicking, she had all the horses on their feet to one side and all the men on the ground to the other.
She paused to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Though short work this time, hand-to-hand combat always made her perspire. A cool breeze blew in off of the water, giving her a chill. She shivered as goose bumps rose all over the bare portions of her arms and legs.
"Who's there?" said a faint, feminine voice from the direction of the cave. Xena tensed and turned, then quickly relaxed.
"Shh!" said a deeper voice. "You don't know what she wants."
"I think it's okay," said the first voice, a little closer. The figure of a small woman emerged from the shadows. "She defeated the others; I think she's here to help."
She took another step out of the cave mouth. A man's arm also appeared, trying unsuccessfully to pull her back. Looking right into Xena's eyes, she said, "Is that right?"
"I presume you're Lucy, and that's Bemetes behind you?" said Xena. "If so, then yes, I am here to help."
Bemetes finally stepped forward out of the shadows and put his arms around his wife.
"We recognized Frymus' men, and were about to make a run for it," he explained. "Luckily they're such a noisy lot, or they might have caught us asleep."
"We're also lucky you came along when you did," added Lucy. "Who are you?"
"My name is Xena. While trying to help resolve the dispute between your father and Frymus, I discovered his plan to send these men here to retrieve the pendant by force. I came as quickly as I could to try and prevent any unpleasantness."
"That's putting it nicely," said Bemetes bitterly. "Those mercenaries would have butchered us, if given a chance. You're a good fighter, Xena. How did father scrape up enough money to pay you?"
"I'm not a merc," replied Xena, frowning. "I'm here because your family needs help, and for no other reason."
"I doubt there's much you can do," said Bemetes grimly. "If Frymus has given up maintaining any pretense of civility, then the best we can do is flee. His forces will always be too strong to fight against. With his familyís money, he can buy enough men so that even you couldnít fight them off. Even if we gave back the pendant, I doubt we could live in peace alongside the likes of him."
"That may be true," replied Xena evenly, "but I'd like to make one more attempt at resolving things between your families. I'm sure there's a way of convincing him that the pendant is rightfully yours."
"That's very kind of you," said Lucy, smiling shyly.
"Yes, too kind," said Bemetes, frowning. "Why are you doing this? I don't see that you have anything to gain, and quite a bit to lose. If we go back, they'll kill all of us."
"We don't have time for me to explain my motives. Let's just say I have an interest preventing this sort of oppression, wherever it may appear."
"Iíd heard that you had switched sides; I never really gave the stories any credence, though."
"Well, theyíre true. Iím not a warlord any more. I understand your village used to fear attacks by my army."
"Yes, not that any kind of resistance would have been given from our side of the valley. Not since my father was very young have we been able to field a substantial militia." He paused for a moment, and then mused, "My father used to talk of his childhood, that included. He doesnít speak of it anymore, though. He used to be best friends with Frymus. Did he tell you that? No, of course not. I get the feeling he was the more innocent of the two, though Frymus is two years younger. I think he was blinded by his affection to see the true nature of his supposed friend."
"I can see how you could acquire a distrustful nature."
"Youíre an intelligent woman, Xena." A modicum of respect entered his voice. "I have a hard time believing someone would do something simply from the charity in their heart. It used to be impossible for me to believe, but my dearest Lucy has changed that." He looked down at her and held her tighter.
"Andus Durian had a charitable heart, from what Iíve heard. You can trust that I do too, from time to time."
"Yes, we certainly do," insisted Lucy.
"Okay," Bemetes affirmed.
"Gather up your possessions; I'll prepare the horses for traveling."
The newlyweds did as she instructed. Xena selected the three strongest and freshest horses to carry them, putting the others on a string so she could bring them along. There was no need to give the unconscious ruffians the opportunity to catch up after they woke up. She left Martus, the horse she had ridden down on, off the string though. He was too tired to keep up and Bemetes assured her that the gelding would follow at his own pace, instinctively returning to his home.
Before mounting up, Bemetes had one more concern to express. "I see that you fight well, but I'm not convinced you can take on all of Frymus' men. How can you assure Lucyís safety if we come with you?"
"I can't guarantee anything," she replied truthfully. "However, I promise I will do everything in my power to see that the two of you and your father live through this encounter. I also have a friend to help, who's with your father at this moment. Two other of Frymusí men, besides these four here, have been captured and won't be fighting against us. I think we'll make it through."
Bemetes looked deeply into Xena's eyes and then nodded curtly. He could see the honesty there, even in the dim light.
"All right. Let's at least go and get my father. If your friend is as good a fighter as you are, he should still be okay."
"Well, not exactly...."
The ride back to the inn was uneventful. Xena became concerned when they entered the common room and found no one guarding the still somnolent archers. Bemetes ran to the back room to check on Camtall.
"Your friend is missing?" asked Lucy.
"Yes, she should be here," Xena replied distractedly. She looked around the room. There was no sign of a struggle. It was possible Gabrielle fell asleep and was taken before she had a chance to resist. Xena discarded that idea when Camtall emerged from the back of the inn, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. If someone had come, they would have taken him too.
"Oh, no, you silly girl," Xena muttered under her breath as the answer came to her.
"What was that?" asked Bemetes.
"She must have gone after Argo."
"Whoís that?" asked Camtall.
"Um, never mind. It doesnít matter. Weíll just have to do without her. At least the three of you are safe, for the time being."
"We should flee, while we still have the chance," urged Bemetes.
"That may be the best for the short term," Xena agreed. "But longer term, if Frymus really has the resources he appears to and continues to covet the pendant, he may come after you. Where is the pendant, anyway?"
"Here, in my bag," Lucy indicated the leather sack she held tightly to her side.
"Good, you know enough to keep it hidden. Is there a place nearby where you can hide yourselves as well?"
"The abandoned silver mine?" suggested Camtall.
"No, Frymus would think to look there," Bemetes responded. "We need someplace no one would be able to find, which means avoiding all buildings or any other Ďparticularí place." He thought for a moment. "Why donít we just take bedrolls and pick a spot out in the brush? That stuff is thick enough that no one would be able to see us from any distance and only blind luck would allow them to stumble across us."
"That sounds like a good plan," said Xena. "I need to go back and find my friend. When we get back, weíll escort you out of the area."
"Iím coming with you," said Camtall.
"No, itís too dangerous. Iíve already been there once tonight and barely made it back out."
"I insist. I think itís finally time that I confront Frymus. I havenít wanted to speak with him these past months, but now I have to. We were friends once. I need to at least try to get him to change his mind."
"Very well," Xena grudgingly acquiesced.
"In that case, Iím going with you as well," said Bemetes.
"And leave your wife alone in the brush? I donít think so." Xena refused him. "Letís get going. Weíll walk with you to your hiding place so that we can find it when we return."
The Brotur family members efficiently gathered the gear that they would need and headed out into the night led by the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle squirmed against the ropes binding her arms to her sides and her legs to each other. One guard stayed at the cave while the other began dragging her back into the trees, heading toward Frymus' manor. Unwilling to entirely pick her up, the man held her around the shoulders with one burly arm, allowing her feet to drag along in the leaves and moist dirt behind them.
Through the gag tied tightly across her mouth, she cursed herself and her luck. It would be a carnival in Tartarus by the time Xena let her live this down. Her only chance at redemption would be to free herself and at least get back to Camtall, if not bring Argo with her. She had found out where Argo was being kept and discovered some of Frymus' plans.
With a little luck, and being able to recognize the signs of a fight, she had found where Xena had left Argo. From there, following the hoof prints through the woods and up into the hills had been relatively easy....
She picked her way slowly among the trees, the half-light of the moon dimmed by the intervening branches making it difficult for her to see. She knew she needed to step silently, but the darkness and the fact that she was concentrating on following Argo's prints made it difficult for her to watch her own steps. Pine needles were everywhere and despite the damp ground, her steps often crunched louder than she would have liked. She wondered idly how it was possible for Xena to walk silently under these conditions, as she had seen the warrior do on a number of occasions.
After half a candle mark of stooped searching, she began to hear men's voices ahead of her. She stopped and straightened up. She just then noticed the stiffness that had developed in her back. She suppressed a groan as she stretched backwards, but could not suppress the loud crack as one of her vertebrae popped. She froze, afraid the sound had given her away, but the conversation being held just ahead did not pause. Sighing with relief, she turned from the path laid by Argo's hooves and began edging up the slope to her left, hoping to find a vantage point from which she could observe the situation.
Progress was slow and laborious, but she eventually made her way to the base of a medium sized pine tree overlooking a small clearing. Gazing out from the shadows into the flame lit clearing below she could see two of Frymus' guards sitting on rocks beside a small fire. Directly below and to her left was a cave mouth. A faint whicker confirmed the evidence of the tracks on the ground that Argo was inside.
Gabrielle thought hard about what she should do at this point. As usual, her mind began with 'if Xena were here, she'd...'. She mentally recounted several similar situations, from adventures she had recorded on her scrolls, where Xena had easily dispatched two unsuspecting guards. Frowning, she realized that it was usually even more than that, and that Xena rarely had any trouble with them at all. In none of the cases, however, had Xena not used abilities or strength that she, Gabrielle, did not possess.
She chewed her lip in consternation. She was an Amazon Princess, after all. Two mere men should not pose any problem for her. She decided that she trying to be too fancy, trying to think of a way to dispatch them without making any noise at all, with them hardly knowing what had happened to them. She could certainly take them one at a time. All she needed to do was distract one of them for a time.
While trying to think of a plan, she listened to the conversation of the guards.
"This Frymus has really got a stick up his butt, doesn't he?" said the first guard, poking idly at the fire with a long stick.
"I make it a rule never to judge the motivations of my employers," replied the second. "It might interfere with my getting paid."
"The moral code of the mercenary, it is then? I would hardly have expected such from the likes of you."
The second just spat into the fire in response. The glob of tobacco juice sizzled loudly as it boiled away.
"Hmph. Myself, I don't care one way or the other, if they're doing something improper or not, but I'm always curious about what it is. Learn what it is that makes these fellows tick, don't you know?" He withdrew his stick, its end on fire.
"This one, I'm thinking he's a bit loopy, so to speak," the first guard continued after a short pause. "He acts like the King of Siam, when he's really just lord of a glorified swamp. Half a swamp at that, though I guess he's aiming to get the rest of it."
"Now is about the time he comes walking up, having overheard what you were saying. No gold for Tyrkel, and Goldor has to do some fast talking just to keep half his share."
"Phht!" replied Tyrkel. "You're half baked yourself, if you think anyone is going to come out here in the middle of the night." He scratched his armpit with the unlit end of his stick.
"I'm just saying, I don't like to take chances with my pay." Goldor took out a pouch containing shredded tobacco leaves and placed a wad of them in his cheek.
"Yeah, yeah. But really, heís got us out here guarding a horse of all things! This is more proof his crown is missing a few jewels. No way Xena would risk her position just to rescue her horse. She could get a new one any time she wanted."
More juice hit the fire. "Could be true, but she's a strange one, that Xena. Ever since she left off being a warlord, she's been doing some really weird stuff."
"Like befriending a horse? Ha, ha!" It was more of a snort than a laugh. "I guess it could happen. She seems to like that blonde friend of hers plenty well enough, though I never would have guessed it beforehand."
Though a little curious, Gabrielle didn't think she'd like hearing their opinions on her relationship with Xena. She decided it was time to implement the plan she had worked out in her mind.
Feeling around in the dirt, she found a medium sized stone and lobbed it as far as she could into the forest back the way she had come. The crashing noise of its landing produced exactly the reaction she anticipated. The guards jumped to alertness and quickly decided that Goldor should investigate while Tyrkel stayed behind with the horse. Goldor left with his sword drawn and raised while Tyrkel glanced nervously around the clearing. Gabrielle waited until she felt the departed guard would have reached the point where the rock had landed and the one below her was not looking in her direction. Silently she readied her staff and leapt to the attack.
The drop to the clearing was ten feet. Despite having seen Xena leap two or three times as far many, many times, she was unprepared for the impact. Her knees buckled and she tumbled forward. Her hands were gripped so tightly on her staff that she was unable to bring them up to prevent her face from being planted into the mud. She continued to tumble, coming to rest up against Tyrkel's legs. He started at the noise and contact, but quickly recovered, placing his sword point at her throat and calling for his partner to return.
"Looks like we've got another captive," he snickered as Goldor returned.
"Is it Xena?"
"No, you fool. It's Xena's companion, what's-her-name."
"Yeah, I think that's it. Hey, maybe we can find out if they're really lovers or not."
Gabrielle's face turned red, hearing the guards' comments. The mud hid her blush, though.
"So, what of it?" asked Goldor, poking her ribs with his booted toe. He addressed the prone woman. "And what do you think you're doing here?"
"Did she jump down at you?" he continued, looking back at Tyrkel. The other guard nodded. "That was stupid. You could've broken your leg!"
They both laughed at his insincere concern for her well being. She was cursing herself so thoroughly for her bad judgement that she hardly heard their questions. When she finally realized they had asked her something, she decided it would be best to say nothing anyway. Speaking up, even to try and mislead them would probably just get her in more trouble.
"It doesn't look like she's gonna talk," said Goldor. "Let's tie her up and you can take her in to Frymus. I think he'll be glad to have her."
"Why do I have to take her? She looks kinda heavy. Been eatin' too many sweet pastries, I imagine, huh?" He directed his last comment at Gabrielle, who squirmed against Goldor's hold on her. He was in the process of binding her arms and legs. She really resented the insinuation that she was fat.
"You're taking her because I say so. If I take her in, I might let slip that you've been questioning our employer's sanity."
"What cow cookies. It's a raw deal, I say."
Despite his complaining, Tyrkel dutifully lifted her torso, grunting exaggeratedly, and dragged her back to the manor. Her calves and shins accumulated numerous small cuts and bruises as they bumped along the ground. Luckily her sturdy leather boots protected her feet.
"Ouch!" said Gabrielle through her gag as her upper body was dropped onto the stone floor of Frymus' dining hall. Her head thumped hard against the cold surface. She knew she'd get a second lump for that.
Frymus entered from the far end of the hall.
"We caught Xena's friend, uh, Gladys, trying to rescue the horse. At least, that's what we think she was trying to do."
"Her name is Gabrielle, you idiot," Frymus replied curtly. "Nevertheless, well done. Return to your post. Now that we have her friend, Xena is less likely to try and fetch her horse first, but one can never be too sure of these things."
Gabrielle heard the guardís footsteps retreat and the outer door shut behind them. Frymus snapped his fingers and the guard from the other door, the one leading into the rest of the manor, approached.
"Yes, my lord?"
"Bind her to this column. Make sure the straps are tight and secure. She may not look like much of a threat, but I think she could cause a fair amount of mischief if she got loose."
"Yes, my lord."
The guard removed Gabrielleís bonds, then hoisted her abruptly to her feet. The bumps on her head pounded painfully with the sudden change of elevation. He retied her hands together and then hooked them over an empty torch sconce on the column. She had to stand on her toes to avoid hanging from her wrists. He then tied lengths of rope around her waist and ankles.
After the guard returned to his post, Frymus stood and stared at his captive.
"You were very foolish to come without your friend. If I were a cruel man, I would just kill you. I donít need you as a hostage, or the horse. Xena would come for me either way, whether youíre dead or alive."
"I guess it depends on whether you want her in a murderous rage or not."
"You mean sheís not always in one?" he said with a grin.
"Xena would normally have mercy on a petty dictator like yourself," Gabrielle said insolently. "But if one of us is hurt, I donít think sheíd stop at just killing you. I think sheíd take her time about it, slicing off small pieces of you until thereís nothing left."
"Threats from a prisoner?" He seemed amused by her statements.
"You seem to know something about her history Ė do you know what happened to Callisto when she almost killed Argo?" There were other examples she could have used, but she wanted one where Argo was involved. Despite his earlier words, she wanted to make sure he wouldnít deem the horse expendable.
"Yes, Iím familiar with the story. She was sent back to Hades, like so many of Xenaís opponents." His face looked thoughtful for a moment. "Weíll just have to wait and see."
His face returned to its normal half-sneer. "And while weíre waiting, perhaps youíd care to tell me what Xena has been doing? I rather doubt she can make it to the coast in time, if she tried. Did she? Or is she sneaking around my land, as you were?"
"Iím not telling you anything."
"Really..." He removed a four-inch dagger from his belt. He slid it lightly across her bare midriff and then settled it on her neck, pricking the skin slightly. Gabrielle kept her head very still.
"Does this change your mind?"
Gabrielleís wit failed her for a moment. She couldnít think of an insulting refusal. Frymus took her silence as a negative anyway and removed the blade.
"Of course, heroines like yourself donít fear for their own lives. Only the lives of others. Theros!" He beckoned for the guard to approach. "Take a message to the north cave. Tell them to kill the horse. We donít need it anymore."
"Yes, my lord." The guard strode directly to the outer door. Frymus looked pointedly at Gabrielle.
When the guard opened the door and was about to step through, she relented.
"No, wait!" She called directly to the guard, who paused. "Iíll tell you whatever I can."
"Very good," Frymus smiled broadly. "Theros, you may return to your post."
"Yes, my lord." Theros apparently could say nothing else.
"Now, where is Xena?"
Gabrielle related her night to Frymus, beginning with the arrows flying into their room and ending with her being dragged through the mud to the manor.
"Iím insane, am I?" He wondered aloud. "Tyrkel will have an interesting surprise waiting for him when he returns."
To Gabrielle he said, "Thank you for your cooperation. I presumed she might have gone to protect Camtallís spawn. From the timing, though, I think she may be too late! Weíll just have to wait and see," he repeated.
He abruptly turned and left the room.
"I hope not too long," she said quietly to herself. Her wrists were already raw from chafing and she could feel a cramp developing in her left calf.
After about a candle mark Gabrielle began to nod off, despite her uncomfortable position. The stone column was nicely warmed now by her body heat and her hands were so numb she could only guess that they were still attached to her wrists. Her chin drooped down onto her chest and she must have fallen asleep since the sudden bang against the front door surprised her enough that she whipped her head upright, smashing it sharply into the column.
"Ouch!" she yelled, along with a few choice expletives.
She wanted strongly to rub the back of her head, which had been hit for the third time this night, but her bonds still held her tightly. She tried to ignore the throbbing in her head and listened to the commotion apparently going on just outside the hall. The noise grew louder, then faded, and finally approached again before the door flew open, revealing Xena in the process of finishing the back kick which had sundered the door's lock. She backed into the room, parrying the sword thrusts of three grim faced guards. They followed her closely, not allowing her to make any move other than retreating. Beyond them, Gabrielle could see two others holding on to Camtall.
The whisper of steel against leather alerted Gabrielle to the advance of Theros, who had just drawn his sword.
"Xena, look out behind you!" yelled Gabrielle.
Xena did not look, but she shifted her stance so that when the sword thrust was launched at the middle of her back, she was able to twist out of the way. Theros was surprised that his sneak attack failed and thus was unable to avoid being treated to the same kick that took out the door. Emitting a low groan, he crumpled to the floor.
The inner door opened and Frymus entered, accompanied by two more guards. "Where does he get all these guards?" Gabrielle wondered to herself. It seemed a bit excessive. She shook off the thought. Right at the moment it didn't matter where they came from, or why they were here. All that mattered was that Xena was in big trouble.
Xena was quickly backed into a corner, since even she could not face five skilled attackers at once. Making one last parry, she turned and ran up the wall, flipping over all five of them. Frymus anticipated the maneuver, though, and stepped forward to meet her as she landed. "No!" Gabrielle cried, seeing his advance, but there was nothing she or Xena could do. Frymus planted a mail clad fist into the side of Xena's head, causing her to spin, stunned, into the waiting arms of the guards.
"Bind her," said Frymus.
Xena recovered from the blow quickly, but by the time she had regained her bearings her arms and legs were both tightly tied. In addition to the ropes, two guards continued to hold her. They were not taking any chances of Xena making a miraculous escape. Camtall was roughly hauled into the hall.
Xena ignored the guards and instead stared menacingly at Frymus. Gabrielle could tell that her friend was close to becoming really angry. It scared her, because if Xena were pushed a little farther she would begin killing and might not be able to stop.
"Well, Xena," drawled Frymus, stepping up to her. "It looks like I have the chance to repay your earlier salutation." He punched her again with his mailed fist. A red mark appeared on her cheek, but she shook off this blow faster than she had the first. He continued, "I never thought I'd have the pleasure of meeting you, much less capturing and ..." He paused dramatically. "... killing you."
"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself," Xena replied dryly, her eyes glinting dangerously.
"Frymus, donít do this," said Camtall, still struggling with his captors.
"My dearest childhood friend," Frymus stepped past Xena. "Weíre not playing games anymore. I donít care what excuses youíve come up with, all this talk of oaths and your impeccable honor. It is just a simple fact that you accepted what is rightfully mine and you should have given it back."
"But..." Camtall began.
"Tut!" Frymus placed his finger against Camtallís lips. "Weíve already heard too much from you."
"Let us go, Frymus," said Xena. "I know we can work this out if we just talk reasonably."
"Reasonably?" He turned back to face Xena. "Even my guards know thatís not possible. No, the only thing we have to discuss is you telling me where the pendant is. Thanks to your friend here, I know that you went after my 'expedition' to the shore caves. I also know that you wouldn't have returned if you hadn't succeeded in foiling that mission."
"Sorry," said Gabrielle to Xena, smiling sheepishly.
"That's okay," Xena replied. "Even someone as dim as Frymus here would have figured it out sooner or later anyway."
Frymus frowned at the insult. "I'd had some thoughts of holding you alive and ransoming you, since that would give the best price, but now I'm sure I should take the safe route and sell your dead body instead."
He drew Xena's chakram from her belt and stepped several paces away from her.
"Iím sure Camtall knows where the pendant is, so I donít need you. Here's a fitting end to your somewhat less than illustrious career," he said and flung the sharpened steel disk as her neck.
"No!" shouted Gabrielle, not believing she was seeing the end of her dearest friend.
She shouldn't have worried.
Despite being bound and held, Xena still had some slight range of motion, mostly in her neck. She dropped her body and ducked her head as far as she could, which gave her the six inches she needed. As the spinning weapon sped toward her, aimed now at her head instead of her neck, she opened her mouth and then snapped it shut quickly and hard, neatly catching the chakram between her teeth.
Several of the guards and Gabrielle too, gasped at her skill. Expecting her to drop dead, or at least be severely injured, the guards holding Xena were unprepared to try and prevent her next trick. With a sharp twist and jerk of her head, she sent the chakram flying straight down. It bounced off the stone floor and on its way back up, Xena moved the ropes binding her wrists into its path. It sliced neatly through the cords, freeing her hands.
Acting quickly to prevent being held by the guards who still surrounded her, Xena lashed out with her fists, smashing three of them in their faces. The fourth she held onto and used as a lever to hoist her legs into the air. The chakram was still in motion, and after bouncing off the ceiling, whirled down to cut through the bonds holding Xena's legs. After it bounced off the floor for the second time, she grabbed her weapon from the air, now totally free.
Not pausing, she drove her knee several times into the head of the guard she still held, until he no longer resisted. The others, still reeling from her punches, quickly fell from a series of kicks to sensitive internal organs.
The two guards holding Camtall rushed her from behind, but a pair of simple, over-the-shoulder backfists felled them.
"Now," began Xena, stepping away from the pile of bodies, "what was that you were saying? Something about killing?"
Frymus, who had already begun edging away, turned and fled, racing for the far door.
Xena reacted by flicking her chakram at him, using an unusual overhand throw. Gabrielle held her breath, thinking Xena was trying to kill him, but the blade whizzed by his head, missing it by half an inch, and imbedded into the door jamb, in the thin space between the door and its frame. When Frymus reached the door and attempted to open it, he found that it was now wedged shut.
In a panic, he vainly pulled at the door handle for several seconds before spinning around, looking desperately for a way to get past the Warrior Princess. Not finding anything, he drew his sword and advanced. The tip of his sword wove randomly about due to the shaking of his hands.
Xena also drew her sword and advanced. A noble like Frymus would have had a good education in fencing, and his desperation would give him the strength and courage to make unusual moves, so she would have to be careful. The two combatants began to slowly circle clockwise, each taking the measure of the other.
In the other half of the long hall, Camtall kicked the head of a guard who was beginning to rise, sending him back into dreamland. He retrieved his cleaver and used it to cut Gabrielleís bonds.
"Gods, that's a relief. Thank you." She rubbed her raw, rope-burned wrists. After a moment, though, her face twisted into agony. "Ooh - pins and needles!" she gasped, as her blood made its tingling way back into her arms and hands.
A clash of swords brought her attention back to the battle being waged. Frymus had finally attacked, launching a flurry of blows at Xena. She parried them all calmly, slowly retreating in a circular fashion, so that her back would never be brought up against a wall. When an opening presented itself, she applied significant leverage to his weapon, freeing it from his grip. Since he was watching it clatter to the floor, he didnít see Xena smash the pommel of her sword against his temple.
"That was quick," said Gabrielle, walking up to her friend, followed by Camtall.
"I was too tired to play around. Itís been a long night."
A smallish woman with a striking resemblance to Frymus appeared at the outer door. She was wearing a loose fitting plain brown robe, with her long black hair draped down the back. She approached the trio standing over Frymusí body.
"Is he dead?" she asked, trembling slightly.
"No, just unconscious," Xena replied.
"Kyra, how have you been?" asked Camtall.
"Mostly well, I suppose. Itís difficult, when oneís brother insists on pursuing an insane obsession. Iím sorry for what youíve gone through. I wish I could have..."
"No need to apologize." He looked down at her sympathetically. "I know you couldnít have stopped him."
"What now?" asked Kyra.
"I and my children are leaving the valley," said Camtall. "I guess we can go just as soon as we find Xenaís horse, right?" He looked at the leather-clad warrior.
"What about the merchant you were going to meet?" asked Gabrielle.
"I can look him up later. I think heíll understand. Or, we might meet him on the road, if we travel in that direction."
"You donít need to leave just yet," said Xena. "Letís tie up those guards, and then Iíd like to try something to get Frymus thinking on the right track." She turned to Kyra. "Is your father interred here, on the grounds?"
"Yes, the family crypt is in the basement."
"You donít mind if we bring him out one last time, do you?"
Kyra looked shocked, but she didnít oppose Xenaís request.
The guards were bound and Camtall helped Xena drag Frymus into the cellar. Xena had a long discussion with Kyra about her brother, father, and the origin of the Durian pendant. Her plans finalized, she had Camtall hide amongst the other tombs in the crypt and sent Gabrielle and Kyra out, shutting the door behind them. Only a single torch lighted the fuliginous room.
Xena grunted as she heaved aside the lid on Andusí stone coffin. A sheen of dust had already collected on it, which got all over her hands and arms. Andusí body was in a particularly ugly stage of its decomposition. She pulled Frymus upright from off of the floor and slapped him awake.
"Wha...huh...?" he murmured, still a little stunned.
"Frymus, the dead can hear our thoughts," said Xena. "Tell your father what you think of his decision. Look!" She forced his head to turn in the correct direction.
"Aah!" He screamed in terror when he recognized what he was looking at. He violently tried to flee, but Xenaís strength kept him still.
"Your father chose to give away his most prized possession. Tell him how youíve acted to undo his choice."
Frymus squirmed, but couldnít escape. "Father, no, itís not right," he said in a wild voice.
Xena nodded her head in Camtallís direction, giving him his cue. Trying to sound as much like his pseudo-adoptive father as he could, Camtall projected his voice so that it boomed throughout the chamber. "Frymus, my son, I am disappointed in you." He also lowered his tone, to give his voice an essential beyond-the-grave quality.
Frymus looked around wildly, unable to determine where the voice was coming from. "No, it canít be!" he almost screamed.
"You have betrayed me," Camtall intoned.
"Argh," Frymus gurgled. "It was mine..." he tried to insist, but his voice trailed off, unable to supply much assurance to the assertion.
"Your duplicity has shown that you truly were not worthy to receive my heirloom," Camtall continued.
Frymus stared down at his fatherís corpse. It was apparent that he now fully believed he was speaking with Andusí spirit. "Father, Iím a total failure." He began to sob.
"Son, there is a way you can redeem yourself."
"No, I cannot. I am lost. I will kill myself and join you."
"No! You must make a new Durian pendant. Go, to the wilds of Africa, where my great-great grandfather journeyed to find his pendant. Make a new one, one worthy of him, and your transgressions will be redeemed."
Xena winced. She didnít think very many real ghosts would talk like that.
"Really?" Frymus thought about it for a few seconds. "Yes, I will do that!" His forfeit life having been returned, he rapidly grew more enthusiastic. "Thank you, father. Thank you for giving me a second chance." He spoke directly to Andusí body.
Camtall had the sense to keep quiet. Xena released Frymus and stepped back into the shadows.
"Yes," Frymus sounded very hopeful. "Iíll get started right now!"
He rushed up the stairs and pounded on the door. Kyra opened it and was very surprised to see her brother rush through with an entranced look on his face.
"I just need a few things," he said, running upstairs. The others could hear him rummaging around for a minute or so before he ran out into the early morning darkness.
Camtall and Xena emerged from the shadows. "Is he really convinced?" asked Camtall.
"I donít think youíll have any more problems concerning the ownership of the pendant, if thatís what you mean."
"I sure hope so."
They all gathered back in the main hall, where Xena freed the guards and sent them on their way. While they worked, Xena noticed Gabrielle staring at her.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" she asked, some exasperation slipping into her voice.
"Iím sorry. I thought you were dirty before, but now youíre really a mess."
The others paused to look for themselves. The mud on her legs, gotten from a number of sources, was now dried on. It was caked on from her shoes to her thighs. There were grass stains from her first struggle with the guards in front of the manor on her knees and skirt. There was still sand from her landing on the beach imbedded in her elbows, mixed in with dried blood. There were dried and drying streaks of blood in a number of other places as well. Dust from the cellar coated her forearms. Her hair was an unruly mess, with twigs tangled in it from her wild ride to the coast. Several cobwebs also clung to her dark locks, acquired when she had stepped back against the cellar wall after freeing Frymus.
All of that was on top of the grime she had carried with her from the previous dayís activities. Several layers of dried sweat were also intermixed with the rest of the grime. All in all, Gabrielle couldnít remember ever seeing Xena dirtier.
"We really need to get you into a bath tub," Gabrielle insisted.
"We can do that later." Xena was clearly irritated. She didnít like her personal hygiene being made a big issue. "There are still some loose ends to tie up. We need to pick up Argo and go back to Bemetes and Lucy and tell them they donít need to hide any longer. Oh, and Camtall, you might want to have a talk with your maidservant. I saw her here earlier tonight. I think she had been spying on you and giving the information to Frymus."
"Oh, probably selling it." Camtall responded. "I actually donít mind. I wondered why she stuck with me, despite the low wages I had to offer. She was just following the money, which is understandable."
Xena gave him an Ďif thatís the way you feel about ití look and dropped the matter.
"Camtall, what will you do now?" asked Kyra.
"Well, even with Frymus gone, I donít think we can stay. The land still isnít producing. I was planning on selling it to a speculator tomorrow, and I donít see any reason not to go through with that."
"Oh, thatís so sad," the small woman replied. "I wish there was something we could do to help you."
"Um, thanks, but no thanks. I think your family has done more than enough for us." He smiled to show he did not intend his words to be mean.
She chuckled in response, seeing the irony of her offer. "I understand."
"Wait a minute, I think I have an idea that would allow you to stay on the land," said Gabrielle excitedly. The other three looked at her expectantly. "I was just thinking about Xena in her bath." Three sets of eyebrows were raised, and her face reddened. She forged onward. "Anyway, I was thinking how you might enjoy that bubbling soap I made for myself earlier. I used some of the plant from Camtallís land to make it."
"And?" Xena prompted, not yet getting it.
"I thought this would be something that they could sell to rich matrons in Athens or other big cities. I know if I had a lot of money Iíd be willing to buy it."
The others considered it for a moment.
"The plant only grows on your property, right?" Gabrielle asked Camtall.
"Yes, it seems to have exclusively afflicted us," he replied.
"Letís at least try it," she said, trying to stem the othersí skepticism.
"I suppose it couldnít hurt," offered Camtall.
"And we have the perfect test subject!" she said brightly, looking up at her grimy friend.
"If you expect..." Xena began.
"Please?" pleaded Gabrielle.
Xena sighed. "Oh, alright. Letís take care of the other business first, though. Camtall, go get your son and his wife and bring them here."
"And bring all of your bath supplies, too!" Gabrielle added.
"Right." Camtall left at a fast trot.
"I presume you know where Argo is?" Xena asked.
"Uh, huh. There are two more guards there who probably donít know whatís been going on."
"Okay, thatís where weíre headed." Xena started for the door.
Before following, Gabrielle turned to Kyra. "Could you start a bath for us?"
"Certainly," Kyra replied. "Itíll be ready by the time you all return."
Gabrielle caught up with Xena outside and pointed out the right direction to go. Xena looked pointedly at her blonde friend. "Perhaps itís a good time for you to explain what you thought you were doing, abandoning Camtall and trying to rescue Argo on your own?"
Gabrielle winced and then went into a long explanation cum apology while they walked to the cave. The guards fled soon after they recognized that not only were they facing Xena, they were facing Xena in a bad mood. After briefly reuniting with Argo, they returned to the Durian house.
Dawn was coloring the eastern sky a light pink when Camtall and his family returned. Bemetes looked very suspicious and held tightly onto his wife. It was apparent it had taken some convincing to get him to come to this place. Xena, who had been slumped against a wall, rose to greet them and give her assurances to Bemetes and Lucy. Gabrielle ignored propriety, though, grabbing the bath supplies from Camtall and taking Xenaís arm.
"Letís go, the bath is ready." She dragged Xena away from the others and up the stairs to one of the guestrooms where a tub of steaming hot water awaited. "Take off your clothes, Xena," she ordered.
Xena complied and slowly lowered herself in. "Ohh, this does feel good," she sighed.
"I hope I can remember the right combination," said Gabrielle, examining the numerous oils and powders. "I tried all sorts of things in my bath." She finally settled on a mash of tallow, half as much crushed plant, two pinches of an unlabelled powder, plus one drop of "Athenian Woman" bath oil.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" asked Xena, still an unwilling participant, after Gabrielle handed her the glob.
"Froth it up. Here, let me show you." She took the stuff from Xena and swished it rapidly through the water. As had happened in her bath, a thick layer of bubbles soon covered the surface of the water. "Well, isnít this cool?"
"Iíll have to admit, itís better than I thought itíd be."
"Good!" Gabrielle was very pleased. "If it can impress the Warrior Princess, Iím sure itíll amaze society women." She stood up and grabbed Xenaís discarded armor. "Iíll let you enjoy your bath now. Iíll get this cleaned up and repaired while youíre in there."
After Gabrielle left, Xena made a fair attempt at cleaning all the muck off of her body. She was tired, though, and the hot water helped make her drowsy. After a short while, she leaned back and drifted off to sleep.
Xena and Gabrielle left the valley that afternoon, both well rested and squeaky-clean. Xena rode Argo at a slow walk while Gabrielle traveled at a fast walk beside them.
"That turned out pretty well," said Gabrielle.
"Yep," Xena replied. "The Durians, with their large herd of sheep, will supply the animal fat. The Broturs will mix it with their plant and the other ingredients, bottle it, and sell it at market."
"Itíll be a huge hit. I think theyíll be rich fairly soon."
"Perhaps we should have demanded a percentage of the profits, or charged a fee."
"Why? We never charge anyone else we help."
"We donít help make them rich, either. We didnít get anything in this deal."
"Thatís not true. We got to rest finally, have a good meal this afternoon, and of course enjoy those wonderful baths."
"What? Donít you like eating hard cheese, apples, and whatever I happen to catch hunting? Or going for weeks without having a chance to wash your hair?"
"Ugh. You know I hate having greasy hair." She looked up and saw Xenaís sly grin. "You donít mind the grime, though. I bet you enjoy being all messy. Is that why you didnít want to stop there in the first place?"
Xena didnít answer. Instead, she nudged Argoís flanks with her heels, yelled "Ya!" and rode off ahead.
"That had better not be the answer!" Gabrielle yelled after her.
[Authorís note: Despite any evidence to the contrary presented in "A Day in the Life", the ancients used tallow or animal fat combined with ash as soap. There is also a plant, called soap plant, which has detergent properties. Thus, the formula presented here is not all that far fetched.]