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Standard Disclaimer Ė The characters Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal and Renaissance pictures. This strictly non-profit endeavor is just for fun, and intends no copyright infringement.
Violence Ė Hmmm. Not much. Well, for Xena, anyway. There are two violent scenes, neither of which have much blood. I hate to say anything for fear of giving away plot, but dog lovers (like me) Ė be warned!
Subtext Ė This story is definitely about two women who are attracted to each other. There is, however, no graphic depiction of this, as neither has decided to act upon it yet. (Sorry!) If you had to put a label on it, you might say this story was "pretext".
After those two ho-hum disclaimers, this is starting to sound boring! If you still think so after reading it, email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Iíll see what I can do for the next one!
The Black Mastiff
Young hands searched eagerly through the tall grass for artifacts. Rusted knives, battered helmets, and even a sword had been found in the past. But that was almost boring now. The owner of the hands had grasped a dozen blunt and deteriorated knives, had placed a dozen more cracked and dirty helmets on his head, and had the sword taken from him, with a warning never to go hunting on the old battleground again. But such is the nature of youth, that experienced voices are overwhelmed by yearning desires.
What was now sought was something special. Something beyond bits of steel and leather. Something the combatants would have been sorry to overlook when searching through their own fallen - treasure. He didnít really expect to find any, but his strong desire buoyed him through long sessions in the mud.
When he actually did find treasure, it almost stopped his heart. A bit of gold fleck in the dirt on top of a low mound. This was curious. He dug into the soft mud to reveal a small gold leaf. He dug furiously - amazed at his discovery Ė until he came to something unpleasant. Bone. He was always unhappy finding bones, but it was a burden to bear if one was to find treasure. He dug around it as best he could. When at last he held up his find, he stared in amazement. This was unbelievable. This was beyond his dreams. He paused for a minute. Now, what in Tartarus was he going to do with it?
Nearby, but out of earshot, two men were having a heated discussion in the woods.
"You promised me I could take over the town!" The first complained.
"That was before Xena ruined our plans. Itís no good doing anything unless she is firmly out of the way." The second, much more levelheaded man explained.
"But sheís gone now. Itís been almost a moon since she was here last. Sheíll never expect us now. We can take over before she even gets wind of it!"
"You really donít understand do you? Xena would beat us just as she did before. Until I can think of a way to get rid of her for good, this conversation is useless."
The second held up a hand. "No. No buts. Iím leaving. Iíll let you know when Iíve thought of something. ĎTil then stay here and make the most of it."
He mounted his horse and road off through the trees, determined to find a way to rid the world of the likes of Xena.
"Weíll stop here for the night" stated the tall warrior, not wanting to be questioned, but resigned to it anyway. She stared down from her horse to her travelling companion, who, unfortunately, liked questioning everything. Not necessarily in a challenging way, but certainly sometimes in an annoying way. It was one small flaw that was easily overlooked in an otherwise sunny personality.
Her companion turned on her heel with a quizical look. "Um, Xena? Hello? Weíve got a while until sundown. I realize youíre the one that usually pushes us, but even I think we could probably go on Ďtil then."
Xena hopped down from her mount, her defense ready. "Well Gabrielle ... we could go on, but itíll be dawn before we reach the next watering hole. Argo is tired and thirsty, and shouldnít go without Ďtil then. If you want to take it up with her though, by all means..." It had been a hot summer day traveling through the valley, and they were both tired and a bit irritable.
Gabrielle glanced at the horse and decided that would do nothing for their already rocky relationship. "Fine." She whispered to no one in particular and crossed her arms waiting for Xena to make a move. She really wasnít interested in travelling further that day, but she always wanted to prove her strength to Xena. It wasnít easy being companion to a woman who could defy gravity at will. *How does she do that?* She thought back to their last little run in with those thugs. Xena had taken out the minions with ease before doing six ... no wait ... seven backflips and finally knocking out their leader with a single blow. *Damn sheís good!*
Xena had already started unpacking, recognizing the far off look in the bardís eye. *Looks like another tale of the Warrior Princess just got written. I wonder how many backflips I did?* She continued setting up camp Ďtil an apologetic Gabrielle finally roused herself out of her reverie.
"Oooppss. Sorry, Xena. I was just thinking..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another Xena against the world story. Right?" She glanced over at the hurt expression on her partnerís face. *Ooppss, myself.* "Um ... look ... I just ..." She crossed over to friend and gave her a squeeze on the shoulder. "Hey Ė Iím the one who should be sorry. I just get kind of self-conscious when you tell Ďem. Thatís all." She tried her best winning smile.
Gabrielle recognized the effort. *I donít get that smile everyday.* She grinned back. "Síallright. Look, if you donít need me here, Iíll just check out that watering hole. Maybe take a bath."
Xena felt a skipped heartbeat and hoped it didnít show on her face. *Damn! When did that start happening?* "Great. Oh, ah, let me get you some soap." She went back over to where sheíd been digging through saddlebags. Grabbed a handfull of soapchips and stuffed them in her partnerís hand.
Gabrielle stared down at the twenty or so chips. "Actually, one will probably do .... Unless thereís something youíre not telling me." She handed back the extras.
"Oh right! Yeah." *Good one Xena!* She accepted the soaps back with slightly sweaty palms. *What am I, a school girl?!* She put the soaps back and looked around for some way to discreetly get the slickness off her hands. She resorted to rubbing her hands together.
"Wanna come along?"
Skip. *I reeeaaallly shouldnít.* "No, no. Um ... Iíve got some hunting to do, right? Iíll take a quick dip later while you make dinner." It was becoming harder and harder to keep her mind on washing when they bathed together these days. She was afraid her partner was beginning to notice Ė last time she had rubbed herself raw before Gabrielle pointed out that her arm was probably clean now. "Oh, and take Argo with you."
Her mount looked up from the nice patch of green grass sheíd been quietly munching on to cast a baleful eye on Xena.
"Hey Ė youíre tired and thirsty, remember?" She turned to catch an equivalent gaze on Gabrielleís visage. "Well, she is!"
Gabrielle gently took the reins. "Good girl. Weíre just gonna take a little walk. I promise weíll find you another nice patch of grass." *Please let this be uneventful.* She walked in the direction of the stream she could hear softly gurgling nearby. Argo followed with a somewhat disdainful air about her.
As Xena watched the two forms make their way out of camp, she couldnít help but wonder how the girl had gotten under her skin like this. Gabrielle had gone from annoying to tolerable to a true friend in just a short time. She had proved herself to be a forthright and friendly person. The kind of person Xena would have absolutely detested five summers ago. Xena was even more incredulous to discover that now there was an inkling of something more. *Hell, itís more than an inkling. Iíve got to watch myself.* But she nevertheless continued to smile at the retreating girl. *No Ė woman. Sheís not a kid even if she seems naive sometimes.*
She decided a little drill practice before hunting might take her mind off the idea of her partnerís current activities. Going through her basic forms she could tell she was still distracted. She pushed harder Ė jump, swing, duck, roll, jump, kick, spin, repeat. Jump, swing, thwack ... Thwack? Xena looked down at her hands where tiny soap bubbles had formed, then went to retrieve her sword from the young oak tree which had decided to grow in the path of her errant weapon. She gave a few slippery tugs on the handle before giving up. She headed off towards the stream to get the soap off her hands.
Upon reaching the water, she was stopped short by a sight that caught her breath. The young bard was lazily floating face skyward in a deep and slow spinning pool. The lowering sun glinted off water and wet skin alike. Xena quietly stumbled backwards a few feet to take refuge under a large willow. Through the gently waving tendrils she stared at her companion Ė silent, peaceful, beautiful. Finally unwilling to endure this painful bliss anymore, she hastily got up and turned to leave only to smack her forehead into one of the lower branches.
Hearing the dull thud, Gabrielle turned to see her friend attempting to sneak away. "Xena? Come on in! This is great!"
"No, no. I just came down to wash my hands before going hunting."
"Wash? Before hunting?"
"Yeah, um, my hands were kind of soapy." She held up her hands as evidence.
"Soapy? Xena is that blood running down your nose? What was that sound I heard a minute ago?" She swam to the edge where her friend was quickly getting rid of the soap on her hands and washing off her forehead.
"Itís nothing, OK? Just ... look just go back to enjoying yourself. I didnít mean to interrupt your fun." Staring intently at the ground, then looking up into green eyes.
"Its OK, I was finished anyway. Iíll get the fire started and set up for dinner while you get ... rabbit? Fish? What are we eating?"
"Iíll let you know when Iíve caught it." She smiled attempting to keep her mind off her companionís lack of clothing. "Be back in a minute."
Xena headed off into the woods, mentally pounding herself for her blunder. *What is wrong with me! When did I become twelve years old again?!*
Brushing these thoughts aside she stopped and listened to the faint rustling of a rabbit nearby. She quietly crept around a tree to within striking distance of the animal. Reaching back for her sword, she suddenly realized where it was. *Damn!* She decided plan B was in order and leapt to catch the animal with bare hands just as the woodland creature attempted its final dash. Which would turn out not to be its final dash as Xena came up with only a fistful of fur and face full of dirt. *Damn!* This really wasnít her day.
*Oh, well.* She got up, dusted herself off, and confidently strode forward secure in the knowledge that she could find easier game.
"Wow! Four of them, huh?" Gabrielle stared at the string of small birds each neatly decapitated, plucked and dressed. "Theyíre called quail? I donít think Iíve ever had them before." She eyed the birds suspiciously Ė looking for the actual meat part. *What in Tartarus goes with quail? Carrots? Potatoes? Hmmm. How about whatever I can find.*
"And eggs for breakfast. I thought youíd like that. Iím going to go wash up. See you in a bit."
As her friend had done earlier, Gabrielle studied the graceful movements of the woman retreating towards the water. She turned back to Argo who was once again enthralled with her original patch of grass. "Guess youíre stuck with me again. What was going on with her this afternoon, Argo?" Argo glanced up with a knowing look, but refused to tell. Gabrielle considered Argo for a moment. *Is that a smirk?*
Gabrielle was well aware of the recent changes in Xenaís mood. She assumed, wrongly, that if Xena wanted to talk about it, she would bring it up on her own. *Why do I always have to be the one to dig? Sheís the one with the problem!* She resolutely decided not to ask about it, but secretly knew she would anyway.
The sun had finally sunk behinds the mountains to the west by the time Xena returned. She took in the sight of the camp with a satisfied feeling. The smell of roasting quail filled the cooling night air. Four sticks with a bird on the end of each leaned out over the flames and were toasting nicely.
Gabrielle had positioned herself next to the fire where she could cook and write at the same time. She had a spoon in one hand stirring a pot of ... what was that? ... Mushrooms and onions? In the other she held her trusty quill, undoubtedly scribbling down this morningís fun. Her scrolls were certainly her passion and Xena was happy, if somewhat embarassed, to give her something to write about on a daily basis.
Feeling refreshed and a little mischievous, Xena crept up to her friend and plopped down with a "Hey!" right next to her.
"Xena!" You made me misspell "love", now it looks like "lova".
"Love? What does love have to do with those idiots from this morning?"
"Huh? Ohh, um ... yeah, well you know how you love to fight evil." She quickly looked away thinking now would be a good time to change the subject. "So when are you going to tell me?"
"Tell you? Tell you what?"
"What that tree did to you." She nodded towards the sword sticking out horizontally from the young oak.
*Uh, oh. Forgot about that. Where is my head today?* "It looked at me wrong. I couldnít let my reputation down." *Hmmm. Time to change the subject.* "Whatís cooking? Onions?"
"Yup. And I found some mushrooms Ė ah!" She held up a hand. "I checked them twice - theyíre safe." She remembered that one time she had been careless and Xena and her ended up dancing around the fire with little woodland elves. Xena had said they were rabbits, but at the time neither of them was alert enough to question the other. *Hmmm. Another subject change is in order.* "So anyway, I have a question for you."
*Here it comes.*
"Have I done anything to bother you recently?"
*Plenty. But we really shouldnít talk about that.* "Um, no. Why do you ask?"
"I couldnít help but notice youíre acting kinda weird sometimes. Like today for instance..."
Xena touched a hand to Gabrielleís mouth. "I know. Iím sorry. Can I just say itís not your fault? Its something Iíve got to work out on my own."
Gabrielle grabbed the hand in front of her and clasped it in her own. "Yeah, but thatís where I can help! If somethingís bothering you..."
"Alright. Youíre a tough nut to crack Xena." She gave a small squeeze before letting her go.
Xena smiled. *Not that much. Just a green eyed blonde with a heart of gold.* She chuckled. "If you only knew... Come on. Letís eat."
"Ugh. Iím stuffed! Those birds were more substantial than I thought." Gabrielle patted her sated tummy. "Really reminded me of chicken more than anything else. I think Iím seeing a pattern..."
They were reclining on a log Xena had pulled up near the fire. They were sipping tea and letting the dying fire warm them against the cool night air. Both were relaxed and quiet. Xena was letting Argo watch out for intruders, though she herself still kept a sharp eye out for dancing bunnies.
Gabrielle sat up suddenly. "Hey wanna hear my version of your latest exploits?"
"Gabrielle" she drawled "I was there, remember? Besides, itís a little too fresh in my memory to reconcile with you version."
"Are you saying I donít report the truth? I write it exactly as I see it!"
"How many backflips did I do?"
"Altogether? Or just at the end?"
"The final whammy."
"Let me see..." she perused her scroll. "... Xena then did seven backflips before landing the final blow to the evil warlord."
"Wrong. It was six. That last one had a twist in it. Otherwise how could I have been facing him to deal the Ďfinal blowí? Besides, he wasnít an evil warlord, he was a street thug."
"Well I just donít want to lose my audience with technicalities."
Xena rolled her eyes ever so slightly. "Nothing."
"Well then, perhaps instead you can tell me why weíre heading back to Thellus. We were just there a moon ago, and thought weíd taken out every warlord in the area."
*Ah ... back to business.* "Well my sources tell me something strange is going on in Thellus. Apparently ..."
"íSourcesí? What Ďsourcesí? Xena Iím with you every moment of every day. How could you have Ďsourcesí that I donít know about? Are you receiving telepathic transmissions from these Ďsourcesí? How is it possible that I donít know about these Ďsourcesí?"
"Alright, alright. I overheard it at that tavern last night. Satisfied?" She glared.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes ever so slightly. "Warrior Princess, my foot" she muttered.
"Do you want to hear about this or not?"
"Fine. As I was saying. Apparently there is some terror roaming around the area at night. Something, or more likely, someone is killing people who are outdoors and alone at night. The bodies have been found the next morning without a mark on them."
Gabrielle gave her friend a sideways glance. "Um, did it occur to you that whoever was telling this story might be lying? And I thought I was supposed to be the gullible one."
"Gabrielle, thereís something I didnít tell you last time. Iíd been to Thellus before."
"Oh. Before. Thatís why we received such a warm welcome."
"Exactly. Did you notice the fallow field just outside of town? Thereís a reason why no one has farmed that land. Itís where my army battled Pelasusí over who should receive tribute from Thellus. It was a bloody draw and neither side occupied the town, but it was still pillaged for its food and men." Xenaís expression showed guilt harden to stone, then finally resolve to acceptance.
Gabrielle studied her companion for a moment. *Gods, what I wouldnít give to wash away the past for her. When will she ever fully atone for her sins?* She was quiet for a minute.
"But Xena, how does that affect the truth of the story. It does sound a bit fanciful."
"That may be, but I owe it to those people to look into it."
"Xena, I canít absolve you of the past. But I can tell you that youíre a good person now. Youíre helping people. Saving lives. Fighting evil. Youíre making a difference!"
Xena smiled at her best friend in the world. "Thanks. I just hope itís enough."
"It will be. When I tell my last story of the Warrior Princess, people will have forgotten that she was ever anything but a hero." She reached over and gave her companion a pat on the shoulder. Xena covered Gabrielleís hand with her own and brought it to her lips.
"With you on my side anything is possible." She turned her eyes skyward to gaze unthinking at the slow nightly procession of the stars.
Saltus had had enough for one night. With the prospect of another long day in the fields tomorrow he did not relish the thought of waking up in the morning. He grinned at the tales of a magic wolf, sent by Hades to cut short the lives of the unworthy. Thatís all anyone discussed anymore at the tavern. Five dead. Not a mark on them. Always a distinctive bark the night of the death. Several had actually heard it.
"Twas two nights ago," claimed Turk, "I was closing up the barn when I heard it. My blood ran cold. Three short, sharp barks ... then a scream ... then silence. We found Armen the next morning, pale as a ghost and twice as cold."
About the only thing Saltus would agree with was that Armen was unworthy. "Like as not he probably just ate the beef here," he said, pushing away his half-finished plate. A few nervous chuckles. *Gods these people are spooked.* "Iím off. Wish me luck getting home, eh?" He winked as he walked out.
Stumbling out of the Thellusí only tavern, he headed back to his farm, humming quietly to himself on the way. The people he passed through town were few and hurried. *Still afraid of the dark are we?* But as he passed the last few houses in town he began to rethink his attitude. There were, after all, five real bodies. And all the victims had been alone at night. Much like he was now. He stopped and searched the road for a large rock or a stick. Finding one of each, he continued on, but quickened his pace a bit.
Within sight of home now, he cringed at the anticipated greeting. Mara would surely have a few choice words about staying out Ďtil all hours of the night, drinking and carrying on. *Thereís the real terror.* He grinned. *Ah Mara, when will you ever learn this is who I am. Iíll never be aught but a simple farmer. A fish canít trade his fins for wings.* He resumed humming, his confidence regained. He tossed the stick aside but unconsciously held on to the rock.
He was just past the last stand of trees, which opened up onto his fields, when he saw it. Or rather, saw its outline. Something large and black was headed his way trampling across his barley field. He glanced at the house wondering if he could run in time. *Damn!* He looked back at the something. It clearly wasnít a man, even in the thin moonlight, Saltus could tell it didnít walk on two feet. His heart started beating faster as he hefted the rock and tried to judge distances.
Mara stared into the fire. As it was dying her own internal fires were growing hotter. *Damn that man!* She considered putting another few sticks on the embers, but she knew the minute she did Saltus would walk in and complain about her wasting wood. She really didnít want to give him anything to throw back at her when she laid into him. *Which Iím going to enjoy tonight!* She gripped the arms of her chair Ďtil her knuckles showed white.
*To Tartarus with him!* She got up, picked up a stick, and threw it on the glowing embers, and sat back down. Thinking better of it, she got back up, grabbed the stick out of the fire, banged the few embers off it and checked to make sure it wasnít lit anywhere. Her inspection was interrupted by a loud bang to her left. Her heartbeat returned to normal as she stared at the shutter on the window, which the wind had blown open. *I told him to fix that latch!* She put the original stick back on the fire and added another for good measure before crossing over to the close shutter.
She glanced up at the crescent moon high in the sky, another reminder of the lateness of the hour. Just as she was pulling the shutter closed she heard the barking. It took her only a second to recognize that this was indeed the same sound heard on the night of each previous death. Anger dissolved into fear as she subsequently heard a scream that could only belong to her husband.
"NOOO!!!!" She screamed as she ran out the door in the direction of the scream. She ran faster than she ever thought she could. Her speed was born of a passion she didnít even know existed. She heedlessly trampled over their meager garden, her only thoughts of seeing her husband safe and whole.
When she finally stumbled out into the road, her pace slowed as she saw the dark form lying face upwards. Her voice was hoarse as she kneeled down next to him. "Gods. Donít take him from me!" She laid her head upon his still warm chest, and the tears started falling.
"Get up sleepyhead!" Xenaís hand was inches away from her companionís exposed knee Ė a tickle spot, which instilled stark terror in Gabrielle. * If she doesnít open her eyes in five ... four ... three ... two ... *
Yawn. "Iím up." Gabrielle glanced down at the precarious position of her knee and quickly slid it back under the covers. "Iím up already!"
*Well, that should get her heart started.* "Why donít you make some breakfast while I go take a quick dip in the stream. And Gabrielle, if you have anymore, add some of those mushrooms from last night. They were good. Come on, Argo."
Xena started bunny hopping towards the stream Ďtil Gabrielle threw a nearby stick at her.
*Iím never ever going to live that down.*
Wide-awake now, she stood up and stretched. *Gods that felt good. Oh, but itís chilly.* The sun hadnít yet heated the cool morning air. She glanced up at a cloudless sky. *I believe its going to be a beautiful day!*
She changed into her travel wear and made ready to get breakfast started. Finding the clutch of eggs Xena had retrieved the night before, she saw Xena had been busy this morning. A pile of mushrooms and onions sat next to the eggs. Even more interesting was the small basket of blueberries, which made her mouth water. Unable to resist, she popped two into her mouth and once again thanked the Gods for Xena.
She looked around for the frying pan and was disappointed to remember she hadnít cleaned up last night like sheíd meant to. She gathered up the pan, plates, and utensils and made her way down to the stream.
When she got there she found Xena attempting to float in circles the same way she had yesterday. *That was fun, but I wouldnít want to try it now.* She could tell her friend was cold simply by looking. Then she felt a blush starting to rise. She shook her head to rid herself of those thoughts, but continued staring nonetheless.
Xena was having significant trouble just keeping her head above water while on her back. She was paddling furiously with her hands in an effort to keep afloat.
"Youíll do better with a full breath of air."
Xena whipped her head around. "I thought you were cooking breakfast." She was suddenly aware of her nakedness, which the clear spring water did nothing to hide. *Hmm. Front, back or profile?* She gave up worrying about it and simply crossed her arms over her chest while standing on her tippy-toes.
Gabrielle held up the cookware. "Didnít have time to do these last night."
"Ok, I forgot," she admitted. "Anyway, you need a full breath of air before you try laying on your back. Oh, and keep your head up Ė donít try to look at your toes. Go on - itís fun."
Xena couldnít think of a way to do this while keeping covered up, but she also couldnít think of a reasonable excuse for not trying. *Maybe I should start bathing in my clothes. Oh well.* Xena took a deep breath and lay back looking up at the sky. Sound was cut off as her ears dipped below the waterline. She could feel the current slowing spinning her around as she gazed up into the deep blue sky. Her self-consciousness was completely forgotten as she watched the overhead branches silently swaying in the slight morning breeze. This was definitely a peaceful experience. Unfortunately, her legs just didnít quite get this whole floating concept and she started slowly sinking feet first. She arched her back to hold it for as long as she could, but didnít make it through a full rotation.
For Gabrielle it was not nearly so peaceful. She stared transfixed by the sight, cookware all but forgotten in her hands. Without making the connection, Gabrielle found herself just as flustered as her companion was yesterday. She decided sheíd better concentrate on the task at hand. *What is the task at hand?* She glanced down at the cookware. *Oh yeah.*
Xena was pleased at the experience but decided it was probably time to get out. She swam over to her friend who was furiously cleaning a plate. "Hey. You were right. Thatís fun. We should stop back by this place on our way out of Thellus."
"Um. Yeah." Gabrielle continued staring at the plate she was scrubbing with abandon.
"I think thatís probably clean now."
They both paused and looked off to the side, remembering ... something.
"Um. Yeah." She put the plate down and started in on the pot with the same ferocity.
Xena pulled herself out of the water and grabbed her shift she had brought to dry off with. "Iíll go back and get the fire going again."
*No need.* "Sounds good. Be there in a second. Oh, and Xena Ė thanks!"
She finally averted her gaze back to Xena. "Blueberries. And a thousand other things."
Xena winked and headed back to the camp. *Well, that didnít go too bad.*
Gabrielle examined the sparkling pot. *Gods, that was awful.*
"Ok - we have got to strike camp."
"Thereís one left Ė you take it." Gabrielle pushed the last of their blueberries into Xena mouth.
They had been lounging around after breakfast, sipping tea and enjoying the blueberries. It was something they almost never did, and Gabrielle intended to make the most of it. But even her generous offer didnít dissuade Xenaís purpose.
"Thanks, but we still need to get going." She gave Gabrielle a look that meant she was all business, but it was completely ruined by a droplet of purple juice leaking out of the corner of her mouth.
Gabrielle unconsciously reached over and caught the droplet with her finger and brought it to her own mouth. She winked at Xena intending to drive home her failure, but got an unexpected wide-eyed response.
"What? What?" She looked behind her for the source of Xenaís reaction.
Xena shook her head. "Never mind. Just letís ... letís get going." She popped up and started repacking the saddlebags. *That was innocent enough. Why can I only see the other side? That was a fairly ... intimate ... thing to do, though.* She paused and replayed the scene in her mind, a smile reaching her lips. *No, stop it. This is stupid. Snap out of it!*
*Ok, something is really bothering her. I should ask about it.* "So, when do you think weíll reach Thellus?"
"You should be telling everyone at the tavern of our latest adventures by sundown."
"Good. That will give me time to work on it." She sighed. "I hear it needs editing."
*Oh boy.* Xena whirled round to apologize, only to find her friend beaming a smile at her.
As per prediction, they arrived at the tavern just at sundown. Xena went around back to stable the Argo while Gabrielle went inside to see if Jeral, the tavern keeper, had a room for them. She was accosted before she even got through the door.
"Great Gods alive Ďtis a sight for sore eyes! Youíve come just in the nick of it, and I could no better be pleased!" Jeral dumped his tray unceremoniously onto the nearest table and ran to greet Gabrielle.
"Hi Jeral. Its good to see you too!" She found her arm shaken vigorously while he appraised her, not quite sure of his luck.
Jeral was a hefty man in his middle years with no hair on his head but a bushy black mustache. He had that indefinable quality that seemed attributable to all tavern keepers Ė part gossip, part entertainer, and part accountant. But mostly he was friendly, and Gabrielle had quickly grown to like him during their last visit.
"I still canít believe me eyes. Gods tell me Iím not dreaminí! Have ya brought Xena? Of course ya have Ė what am I talking for? ĎTis truly grand to see ya."
Gabrielle couldnít help laughing at his exuberance. "You too!" was all she could squeak out.
"I assume yer here for all the right reasons. Thereís big trouble and make no mistake. But Iím sure Xena will soon set all to rights. Where is she now?" His face grew serious. "Sheíd best be getting indoors. Night is falliní and it donít wear well to be out of doors when itís dark."
"She just putting up Argo. Iím sure sheíll be fine. So you have had trouble then? Xena mentioned bodies found with no marks on them."
"Sad to say, Ďtis true. But weíll talk more later, youíve just come in and will be wanting something to drink. Cider? And youíll be stayiní on for a bit so youíll be wantiní that back room again I suppose? Iíll just fix it up in a moment. Just where is Xena now anyways? Iíve a mind to go out lookiní for her." He opened the door just as Xena was stepping through. "Xena!" He gave her arm the same treatment as Gabrielleís. "Zues and Heraís children, how I canít but pinch myself. Youíve no idea, Iím sure. ĎFortune smiles upon the fortunateí as they say, or some such, but I couldnít be more right now. Uh, fortunate that is." He was beaming again.
Xena took it in stride, knowing what to expect. Though she pretended to be annoyed by his extreme ... joviality, it was infectious, and she couldnít help but secretly like him.
"Iím glad to see you as well, Jeral." She replied coolly, as though she might dampen his vivacity with her own solemnity.
He would have none of it.
"I was just going on with Gabrielle about how wonderful it is to see her again, and where is Xena, and oh sheíd better be gettiní indoors afore nightfall, and what can I do for ya after such a long journey, as Iím sure youíve had. But let me show a table to ya, or the other way if ya take my meaning. Here we are. This oneís got your names on it. But Iím sorry Gabrielle, I believe you were saying?"
Gabrielle had been trying unsuccessfully to interrupt throughout his monologue and was relieved to have him give up the floor willingly. "Yes and yes."
The big man stared quizzically at Gabrielle for a minute.
"Cider and a room?"
"Ah! Of course, of course! And how Ďbout you Xena? Something for to quench a road parched throat? Weíve good cider and a decent ale. But Iím sures you remember of course, being here but a moon ago!"
"The ale will be fine. And can you send someone around to get the saddlebags from Argo?"
"Done and done! Back in two shakes of a horseís feather."
And he was off.
"íFortune smiles upon the fortunateí? And since when do horses have feathers?"
"I like him." Gabrielle watched as the tavern keeper wound his way through the tables and back to the kitchen with a deftness born of years of experience.
"I think we know why."
In all their travels together theyíd finally found someone who liked to talk more than Gabrielle. She would never admit it, but she was secretly proud of the fact that there was at least one.
"Well anyway, he confirmed part of your story. I asked about the bodies found without marks and he said it was true, but wanted to talk about it later."
"We really need to talk to Telamon. Jeral is apt to confuse fact and fantasy. Though I admit, it can make for a good story." She winked at her companion.
It took a moment for Gabrielle to take her meaning. "Now look..."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and nudged Xena gently with an elbow.
Jeral was back with their drinks. "The roomís beiní set to rights, same as last time, but Iím sure youíll be pleased for some sup about now. Weíve got chicken or beef, and I can highly recommend the beef!" He gave them a conspiratorial wink.
Their previous experience overruled any recommendation that Jeral could have provided, but being inherently good natured, he took it with a smile.
"Oh, and Jeral, I need to speak with Telamon as soon as possible."
"We need to speak." Gabrielle gently reminded.
"Sorry. We need to speak with him."
"I can sees you reasoniní, but heíll be home safe this time of night. Not many as can brave the dark hours but whats live close by, as ya can see." He pointed out the mostly empty room. "I donít mind telliní ya business is downright bad. None comes nigh Thellus since this hellhound showed up. And those that live here stay home nights. Thatís why youíve got to suss this thing out and quick, if yer a mind." Distress showed in his voice.
Xena put a reassuring hand on his arm. "Iím a mind. I mean, thatís why weíre here. But what is this about a hellhound?"
"Rumor maybe. But they say each night someoneís heard its voice on the wind, and a bodyís been found the next day. No mark to be seen and pale as a ghost. Now you sees why everyone takes to their homes!"
Xena eyes narrowed "Donít worry Jeral. Weíll look into it."
"Canít see how I could ask for more. Iíll be back with your sup in a dash."
They watched him travel back to the kitchen again, but he seemed to have lost a step.
"What are you thinking, Xena?"
"Iím not sure. Only two things I can think of that would kill a man without a mark Ė disease and poison. If itís disease then they all must have come in contact with someone or something that gave it to them. If itís poison, then these people all ticked off the wrong person."
"What about the hellhound thing?"
"Thatís the fantasy part I was telling you about." She grinned and nudged her partner.
Gabrielle looked glumly around the almost empty room. "Looks like there is not much point in me telling any stories tonight." The few patrons still left were speaking in hushed and serious tones amongst themselves, and though they looked like they could use cheering up with a good comedic story, she didnít think anyone would be interested.
Xena took another pull from her mug and sighed. "Alright. You can practice on me before bed." *That ... didnít come out quite right.* "Just not the one from yesterday, huh? How about a Hercules? He fought a hellhound once, didnít he? ... Uh, oh. Here comes trouble."
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena who motioned to the young boy carrying a tray with their dinner on it. They both smiled, but for different reasons.
"Hi Xena. Hi Gabrielle. Da told me you were here, but I couldnít believe it. Gods twice in one moon, I must be the luckiest ever." He quickly set their plates on the table and sat down with them, completely missing the chair heíd intended to occupy and ending up on his backside underneath the table next to them.
"Hi Menalus." They greeted in unison to his sheepish grin.
Jeralís son was just at that age when boys donít quite know which way their limbs are moving and decide that girls are not as bad as they seem. In fact, as far as Menalus was concerned, Gabrielle was the best of the bunch. He was fairly convinced that it was Gabrielle who had taken out the two local warlords on their last visit. The boy righted the furniture and sat down with much more caution.
"Sorry." But even through his embarrassment, he couldnít keep his eyes off Gabrielle.
"Síok. I had thirteen summers once too." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly. "Even Xena may have at one time."
"Donít even think about it." She glared.
Menalus stared wide-eyed at the graceful warrior. *Nah.* He turned back to Gabrielle, pure adoration in his eyes. "So have you guys had an adventure since you was here last? Do you know any new stories? Oh, and have you heard about the hellhound?"
"Yes, yes, and yes. I was just about to tell Xena about when Hercules saved Iolas from the Tomb of Ankarah. Wanna hear it?" Gabrielle had brightened measurably at the prospect of an audience. Or rather, an audience that she didnít live with ... and hadnít heard the story first hand ... and didnít insist that she get her facts absolutely straight.
"Gods yes..." was all he got out before she was off.
Xena watched the bard work her magic on the boy. She was more than happy to let Gabrielle be an object of desire for a change. Sheíd had enough of it. It seemed like wherever they went there was some poor slob she had to fend off. And if it werenít for Gabrielleís calming presence, some off them would have been dumped on their duffs quite hard. But, with a little help from her friend, she was learning to suffer fools gladly.
She glanced at Gabrielle who didnít seem to be suffering at all. In fact, she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. Try as she might to deny it, Xena felt a twinge of jealousy at her companionís open and friendly personality. People just trusted her. They trusted in her goodness, and it inspired them to be likewise. *You may not fight evil with a sword, my friend, but your effects are no less profound. Just look at me!* She grinned to herself. Though she might lead them through their journeys, she recognized that hers was the better guide.
She started in on her cooling meal and concentrated on a story sheíd heard what seemed a thousand times, but was happy to hear once more.
"Gods, Iím starving." Gabrielle dug into her cold chicken with abandon. Menalus had reluctantly departed only after Xena had gently but firmly insisted that her friend needed time to eat. Heíd offered to wait, but received a glare, which wordlessly spoke volumes about why that wasnít a good idea. Gabrielle noted the reaction, and reassuringly promised another story tomorrow.
"Looks like youíve got one on the line." Xena smirked.
Gabrielle looked up from her plate, still working on the drumstick in her hand. She decided not to say anything, but rolled her eyes.
"Are you two going to need a chaperone tomorrow?"
That netted her a slap on the arm. "Thtop ift. Heth a nith kid."
"Ok, ok. You know youíre going to have to let him down sooner or later."
Gabrielle swallowed. "Iím sure he understands my ... um ... situation."
"Gabrielle, I donít understand your situation. How is he supposed to?"
"Well, Iíll just have to explain it to him." *Later ... much later.* "And what do you mean you donít understand my situation?" She went back to working on her chicken with a slightly hurt air.
"The only thing I know about your situation is that youíve chosen to follow a warrior to Tartarus and back, battling warlords and gods, and with no reward other than a few thankyous here and there." She was trying to keep this light, but knew they were venturing into dangerous waters. By unspoken agreement, they almost never discussed why it was exactly that Gabrielle stayed with her. They were both scared of the answer, whatever it might be.
"Did it occur to you that I might be having fun?" She saw the flash of anger in Xenaís eyes. *Oppss. Wrong answer.*
"Fun? You think this is fun? Gabrielle, this is dangerous and dirty work. Iíve been punched, kicked, stabbed, and strangled. Youíve almost been killed more than once. I was for Heraís sake!" She saw the wash of emotion in her friend, but continued on regardless. "Iím sorry. I know that upsets you, but you have to be honest with yourself here. It could happen to me, it could happen to you - anytime, anyplace."
Gabrielle felt her own heat rising. "Damn it, Xena! Why I choose to do this is my business. If Iím killed, thereís no one to blame but myself. You didnít ask me to come along - I wanted this. It was my decision, and Iíll live with it as long as the Fateís give me!" She dropped her food, grabbed her staff, and stormed off to their room.
Xena watched her retreat to the back of the tavern. *What in Tartarus is wrong with you Xena! Are you trying to drive her away? Youíre doing a fine job!*
She took another sip from her mug and stared at the half-eaten plate of chicken. She set the mug down, picked up the plate, and went after the one person in the world she never, ever wanted mad at her.
When she arrived at their small room she found her partner face down on the bed. She put the plate on the table and pulled the lone stool up next to the bed.
"Hey." She put her hand on Gabrielleís shoulder.
Gabrielle spun around and clasped the hand in hers. Her face was wet from the tears she couldnít hold back. "Xena, Iím sorry. Please. Iím sorry."
She softened. "Hey. Itís Ok. Iím the one who should be sorry. Really." She wiped at the tears with her free hand. "Itís just ... I have trouble understanding why anyone would choose this life." An edge crept back into her voice. "Itís not something I would have chosen for myself, but, as we both know, I have ... reasons." She looked away and felt the heaviness of black marks on her soul. Warm hands gently squeezed hers and brought her back to the light. Xena stared as though seeing her partner for the first time. "But you Ė youíre free. You have your whole life ahead of you. You have so much yet to do ... and you can be whatever you want! Gabrielle ... donít you see? You donít have to pay my debts."
It was Gabrielleís turn to be serious. "Xena, I canít explain this to you any better than I understand it myself, but ... I need to be here. Itís the right thing for me to do. I feel it so deep inside me that the thought of leaving is terrifying. Please believe me. This is where I belong ... I know it. You have to trust me."
Xena gazed into those deep green eyes, uncomprehending, but not ungrateful for, the forces that kept them together. She smiled, internal conflicts momentarily quelled. "I trust you with my life." She brought a finger to her lips and then put it to Gabrielleís.
After an endless moment, she looked away to find the forgotten food. "Oh, I brought you the rest of your food, if you still want it."
"Thanks, but funny enough, Iíve lost my appetite." She smiled back. "Letís just get some sleep."
She wriggled out of her clothes and into the furs. Xena soon joined her and was forced into recalling just how small the bed was. Still, she didnít complain when her companion slept a little closer than was necessary.
As per her usual, Xena was wide-awake at sunrise, and also true to form, Gabrielle was just as soundly asleep. Something was bothering her. Something other than the gentle warmth laying next her, who she was try to block out of her mind. The warrior tried to draw that elusive thought from her depths with little success. *What is it? Thereís something Iím missing here. Why am I feeling this edginess?* She determined to wrestle with her subconscious until it revealed its secret, but was interrupted by a voice next to her.
"Xena, donít," whispered Gabrielle.
"Donít what?" She whispered back over her shoulder, wondering why it was necessary to talk in hushed tones.
"Iím serious. I donít want to have to hurt you."
"Why not?" This was getting interesting.
"Donít even think about it. NO!" Gabrielle awoke with a squeal. "Xena?"
The warrior rolled over, her face inches from her partners. "Can I help you?"
"Gods, youíll never guess. You were threatening to ..."
"Do this?" Her hand found that special place just above Gabrielleís knee.
"Hey! Stop it!" She forced her legs away from Xenaís merciless hand. When Xena showed no signs of stopping, she jumped out of the bed, deciding that the cold morning air was easier to face than warm furs crawling with tickling hands.
"Now look..." she started to scold, but Xena held up a hand.
"Hey this is odd." Xena started looking around the room, confusion showing on her face. "This is really strange."
"What?" asked Gabrielle looking for whatever had her friend so preoccupied.
"Youíre out of bed before I am."
"Aaagghhh!" Gabrielle quickly put on some clothes. "Sometimes, Xena, I swear..."
Xena lay back under the covers, enjoying the feeling. "Hey, I guess you were right."
"We do have fun sometimes."
Gabrielleís eyes became slits. "Youíre just saying that so I wonít be mad, arenít you." She jumped back into bed for what was sure to be a fruitless search of Xenaís tickle spots.
The town alderman, Telamon, showed up that morning during breakfast. Xena had taken a liking to him on their last visit. He had a no-nonsense attitude to governing the town: he wanted what was best for his people and took the simplest, most direct path to getting it. When Xena had offered her services to him previously, he knew exactly who he was dealing with Ė heíd been one of the lucky men not to get caught up in her battle here five summers ago. But he was one of the first willing to look past her history Ė maybe it was pragmatism, maybe he was more forgiving than most Ė either way, it had endeared him to her.
"Xena, Ďtis good to see you. Weíre in a pretty one, and I could use your help. Uh, both of yours." He nodded to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle mentally rolled her eyes. *I hate this sidekick thing.*
Xena smiled. "Itís why weíre here Telamon."
"I assume youíve heard the fancy version." He nodded towards Jeral, who was gesticulating wildly while explaining something complicated to another patron. It may have just been the menu, though.
"Bits and pieces. How many victims have their been?"
"Six so far. The most recent was just two nights ago."
"And they all ... the bodies all looked the same?"
"Ice cold and white as snow, and not a mark to be found on Ďem. I know - I looked."
"Did you show the bodies to the healer?"
"And what did the healer say?"
"He said they were dead."
"No, I mean about the color and the lack of marks. Did he have an idea as to what happened?"
"None. Heís as baffled as I am."
"Hmmm..." She gazed off into the distance, lost in thought.
"Xena, I need help. People are scared, and theyíre looking to me for answers. I know how to decide who can plant in what fields, and I can find out who stole the pie out of the kitchen window, but this is beyond my ken."
"Donít worry, Telamon. Weíll get this sorted out. Let us finish up here, and Iíll meet you at the village square in a bit."
"Thanks. You donít know how grateful I am, how grateful the town is." He got up and walked out of the tavern with a bit more confidence.
"Um, Xena? Whatís with this ĎIíll meet you...í stuff. Donít you mean ĎWeí?"
"And why, pray tell, not? Are we about to have another one of those tiresome ĎThis is too dangerous. No itís not. Yes it is.í fights?"
"Actually, Iím saving that for later tonight, when I go out to find whoever is killing these people. Right now I have a job for you."
"What kind of job?"
"You should like this. It involves shopping."
"What am I shopping for?"
"I want you to buy some herbs."
"Yes, herbs. And will you stop doing that?"
"Never mind. Look, Iím going to make out a list of herbs, and I want you to go to the healer and buy them. That doesnít sound too complicated does it?"
"No, but it also doesnít sound particularly interesting or helpful."
"Gabrielle, Iím the healer on this team. If I say we need some herbs, we need herbs. I donít tell you how to write your stories, do I?"
"Yes you do."
"Yeah, but thatís only because you keep exaggerating. If it wasnít for that I wouldnít. Honest."
"Anyway, do me a favor and go get your quill and some parchment. I havenít had time to finish my ..." Xena looked down at her plate. "What is this, oats? Ooh, but first ask for a little more honey will ya?"
"You should use it on your tongue." The bard glared and got up to do her Ďchoresí.
Menalus showed up with the honey a moment later. Once again he sat down at their table without invitation, but at least this time with less clatter.
"You must be the luckiest ever Xena."
"Whyís that?" She smiled inside.
"You get to travel around with Gabrielle everywhere. It must be awfully exciting."
"You have no idea."
"Do you think sheíll tell me a story later? Sheís the best at stories. Theyíre just unbelievable!"
"Exactly my point! Say, I happen to know she needs a guide over to the healerís today. I bet she might be willing to part with a story to anyone kind enough to show her the way."
"I can do that! I know where the healer lives!"
"I thought you might." She grinned at him.
"Hey Menalus. Sleep well?" Gabrielle sat back down, dumping the quill and parchment in Xenaís lap.
"Sleep? What? Oh, um, yeah."
"And Iíll need some ink."
Gabrielle took extra care placing the inkwell in front of Xena, removed the stopper, retrieved the quill out of Xenaís hand, and gently dipped the quill into the black liquid. She presented the perfectly inked quill to her partner. "Anything else?"
"Thatís great. Thanks."
"And what are you doing today, Menalus?" Gabrielle turned back to the now totally confused boy.
"Um. What am I doing today? Oh yeah! Iím showing you where the healer lives!"
Gabrielle spared a slightly raised eyebrow back to her partner, who was busy scribbling.
"Oh you are, are you?"
"Xena said youíd tell me a story on the way."
"She did, did she?"
"Please! You tell the best stories!"
"I suppose, but youíd better ask your da." She motioned to Jeral who was advancing towards them.
He grabbed Xenaís now empty plate. "Be done with that then, Xena? Youíve an appetite Iíll give ya, but tíwerent easy to tell whoís puttiní away the lionís share." He nodded at Gabrielle. "Youíve a great deep pit there girl, but moreís the luck for enjoying yer sup. Not long since, I was the same and sees what it bought me." He grinned down at his extra bulk. "Youíve naught to care for a while though girl, and since pleasures is few, we takes them wheres we finds them."
"Da - Gabrielle needs to find the healerís today. Can I show her the way? Iíll come straight back when sheís done."
"The healerís, eh? Canít say as wrong to look at ya? Though, Gods know the healer can fix aught from a cold in the eye to a split bone. Heís got the knows of all the elders here, and liked as well. Whatever the ailing, heíll find the cure."
"Actually, she just has some shopping to do." Xena handed Gabrielle the list sheíd been making. "And Iíve got to meet Telamon."
"Can I please go, Da? Please."
"Alright, alright. But you be mindiní yerself, and not makiní trouble for those as kind enough to let you go with Ďem. And I donít want to hear about yer stoppiní and dawdliní along the way. Youíve still got chores, and youíll do Ďem before the sun is down!"
Gabrielle and Menalus headed off to go find the healer, Jeral headed back his kitchen, and Xena went to meet Telamon. A moment later, a thoroughly disgusted Gabrielle came back to the table to retrieve her quill and inkwell and returned them back to the room. *Aagghh! This one I will not forget.*
Menalus waited patiently outside the tavern for Gabrielleís return. Had it been raining, he would have gotten soaked, as it would never have occurred to him to stand anywhere but where She had told him to wait. She had said, with in a somewhat imperious tone, which was totally lost on him, "Wait right here!" and he had settled into the task with the anticipation of a child on the eve of his birthday. The anticipation, of course, derived from the assumption that She was soon to return, and he would once again be in Her presence. This lone thought would have been enough to root him to the spot for days had She been inclined to test him. Such was his devotion, and he was happy.
Fortunately for Menalus, Gabrielle had no notion of her power over him, nor would she have taken advantage of it had she known. In fact, her motives did not encompass such subjugation, nor did she often see it in others. This simple fact was the cause for no end of frustration to her partner. The number of times Gabrielle had forced her into Ďgiving people the benefit of the doubtí was truly maddening, especially since the vast majority of the time Xena was absolutely right. But ironically enough, it was this dogged perseverance in the face of cynicism which endeared her to others, especially Xena.
Menalus, of course, had no cause to reflect on this whatsoever. All that concerned him was that Gabrielle was the most beautiful person he had ever met, that she had traveled the world over, that she knew Gods and heroes alike, and finally that she told the most fascinating stories he had ever heard. Additionally, he was going to be spending the better part of the day with her. He was anxious for that better part to start now, and was rewarded by her stepping back out of the tavern and into the sunlight.
"Ready to go?" she asked, not noticing that he hadnít moved a step since she went inside.
"Iím ready. Donít you need your staff?" He had assumed that that was what she had gone back for, as they were bound to run into some warlords, or Bachae, or Centaurs.
"Why? Do you think weíll need it? Youíre pretty cute, maybe Iíll have to beat off some of the other girls in the village with it."
He turned beat red and ducked his head, unable to speak.
She smiled and gave him a little pinch on the arm. "I think weíll be OK. Letís go."
He shuffled his feet in the direction of the healerís house, his Goddess following.
When he regained enough composure to finally speak again, he asked for a story.
"What did you want to hear about?"
"I donít know. Anything with you in it."
She tried to think of a recent battle where she had actually participated in the fighting. "How about the time Xena and I fought the with the Fire Lizards in the Cave of Bursilla?"
"Fire Lizards? Wow. That sounds great!" He achieved that enraptured look that Gabrielle loved in an audience. And she hadnít even started her story. *Perhaps thatís why I like him.*
"It all started when Xena found this giant ruby embedded in a cliff near Bursilla..."
Xena found Telamon in the village square with his hands full. While waiting for Xena, the locals had been asking him questions about the deaths: How many had died? What had killed them? What was this about a hellhound? And most importantly: what was he doing about it? By the time Xena got there, he had a large, impatient, and angry crowd around him such that he had to stand on a barrel to be heard.
"People, people ... please! Now Iíve told you all I know. Believe me, I want to know what is happening as much as you do, but youíll just have to trust me when I say I need more time. Iíve got the best person I know helping me out ... oh and here she is. Xena would you like to say a few words?" His face didnít show it, but his eyes were pleading with her.
The entire crowd turned to look at the warrior.
*Oh great.* She just loved these Ďcalm the restless nativesí get-togethers.
The crowd parted to allow her to reach the barrel. Telamon gratefully jumped down to help her up. She disdained his help and hopped up in a single jump. The maneuver did not go unnoticed and garnered approval from the townsfolk.
"Ok, everyone, listen up. Telamon and I are going to solve this thing, but we need your help. Now, we know the deaths have always taken place at night." There were general nods of agreement. They had all heard that too. "For that reason, I want absolutely no one to go outside their homes when the sun goes down. Does everyone understand?" Again, nods of assent and murmurs of agreement. "Secondly, since not everyone is here, I want you all to make sure that everyone else knows what we talked about here. It is vital that we spread the word so that everyone hears about it. Can I depend on everyone to help?" More nods, more agreement, an occasional ĎWill do, Xena!í She gave them a satisfied grin. "Thatís great! Then Telamon and I are off to do our job, while you do yours."
The crowd started to disperse with an air of purpose. She hopped off the barrel next to an incredulous Telamon.
Xena caught his expression and explained, placing a comforting hand of wisdom on the aldermanís shoulder. "You see Telamon, people need to feel active and involved. You need to give them something meaningful to help solve the problem."
"Active and involved? Xena, all you said was that they should stay indoors at night! How is that going to help solve the problem?"
"Well, Ok, so maybe itís not so much what you say, but how you say it. Anyway, the point is they have to feel like theyíre doing something."
Telamon furrowed his brow. "Yeah, but..."
Xena held up a hand. "Look, letís just get down to what happened. Have you interred all the victims?"
"No. We give the soul three nights to escape the body. Saltus was found yesterday, so he lies still at the house of the dead."
"Saltus. Hmmm... did I meet him last time I was here?"
"Canít see why you would. Heís got ... um, guess I should say Ďhadí a small farm our east end of the village. He and his wife, Mara, kept to themselves out there, mostly. Sheís in a sad way. Found him before he was cold, she did, and just realized she really did love him. Poor thing donít know whatís to be done."
"Did she see anything?"
"Canít say as I asked her, her being broke up and all."
"I guess thatís understandable. Iíll want to see her after you show me the body. Letís go to the house of the dead."
They made their way out of the square towards the edge of the village. The Ďhouse of the deadí turned out to be a small wooden hut with many runes scrawled above the doorway. It was so tiny, Xena wondered what they did in case of plague. They entered to find it dark and cramped, as sheíd anticipated. Saltus lay on a low cot under a multicolored ceremonial coverlet, which had also been marked with many runes.
"Iíll need to get him outside. There isnít enough light in here to examine the body properly." She nodded for him to pick up one end of the cot while she grabbed the other. "Ready? Lift."
They made their way out into the street, but Telamon continued around the hut to the back. "We canít be examining him out in the open. The dead deserve some dignity." They placed the cot next to the back wall and Telamon held up the coverlet as a shield while Xena examined the body.
The first thing she noticed was the facial expression. It was as though someone had fitted a mask of horror on his head. The eyebrows were pulled back, the eyes opened wide, and the mouth twisted in disgust and fear. Clearly, he had time to recognize his attacker and feared him. That meant no unsuspecting knife of the back, no poison dart from behind a bush, no poisoned food. It also meant that she probably wasnít dealing with some new hideous disease. This was a mixed blessing, since it meant she and Gabrielle wouldnít be exposed to it, but it also pretty much confirmed that someone was killing with intent.
"Have all the victims had this same ... um, expression?"
"You mean the look of terror? Yes. Iíve done my best to keep quiet about it. No sense adding to the gossip. The fire gets hot enough without me adding any logs."
Xena raised a questioning eyebrow, but didnít say anything. The other obvious feature of the body was its pallor. The blood seemed to have completely drained from the face and extremities, leaving a dull whitish gray sheen. "What do you think about the color?"
"Canít say as I like it. Doesnít look natural."
"I mean have you ever seen this before."
He shook his head. "Only on the others."
She went on to examine every inch of the body. Sometimes Telamon himself had to look away as she covered a rather sensitive area.
"Ok. Letís get him back inside."
Telamon gratefully replaced the coverlet and helped Xena return the cot to where it belonged.
As they stepped back out of the hut, Xena held up her hands to Telamon. "Iíd really like to get cleaned up before we meet with Mara."
"Canít say as I blame you. Thereís a small stream in the woods not thirty paces from here. Right through there." He pointed out a break in the treeline. "Ah wait a minute..." He ran back inside the hut and came out with a soap chip. "Healer cleans the body before burial."
"Thanks, Iíll be back in a minute."
When she returned he was staring at the ground lost in thought.
"Trying to figure it out?" she asked.
He glanced up. "The body? Nah - thatís what youíre here for." He gave her a wink. "Iím trying to figure out what to do about Mara. Harvest is coming in a few moons, and well ... sheís a proud woman. She wonít take to help easily, and thereís no chance of her doing all the reaping on her own. We canít have her going without this winter, itís sure to be a cold one." He shot her a smile. "Donít worry Ė Iíll think of something."
Xena smiled back and remembered why she liked Telamon. He had that rare quality of truly wanting to help people. *Kind of like Gabrielle. I wonder if sheís having any luck.*
Gabrielle was just finishing her story. Somewhere in the middle, Menalus had stopped walking and just stood there wide eyed, listening to her weave her magic.
"...and so we returned the jewel to the town, that they might continue to enjoy the happiness that the stone had brought to them for generations."
"Oh, wow! And you killed eight Fire Lizards? Thatís amazing Gabrielle!"
*Did I say eight? I should have been a fisherman... fisherwoman...fisherperson.*
"Um, yeah." She looked around. They were some ways out of town, and she could see no visible structures nearby. The field of to their left she recognized as the battlefield Xena had told her about. It made her edgy to think of all those souls lost so close to where she was now standing.
She motioned to the field. "Menalus, isnít that the ..."
He nodded. "Yeah. Scary, huh? Da donít know it, but we sometimes go in there to find stuff." He suddenly realized he was talking to a grownup. "Donít tell Ďkay?"
Gabrielle looked back at him. "Menalus, you shouldnít go there - not if Jeral doesnít want you to." She got a curious gleam in her eye. "What kind of stuff?"
"You know Ė old daggers and shields. Mostly theyíre rusted away to nothing. I found a whole sword once, I took it home and Da found it." He rubbed his rear at the memory. "I was sore for a week after. He doesnít want me coming here Ė says that battle was an evil thing, and most folks agree with him."
"Well, heís probably right. By the way, where are we? I thought we were going to the healerís."
"Oh, sorry. Weíre here. Celes lives over this way." He turned her around to face the dense woods on the other side of the road. "He says he likes living out here cause thereís no one nearby to bother him."
He led her off the road and onto a well-disguised path into the trees. The path was extremely overgrown, and they had to trample the undergrowth to make headway.
Gabrielle brushed away a low branch. "Well, he must not get many visitors."
"Nor does he like Ďem most. Heís a bit of a odd one, but I likes him alright."
They climbed up a small rise to find a clearing with a low wooden house. The thatched roof was covered in moss and a small wisp of white smoke rose from the chimney.
Menalus knocked on the rough wooden door. No answer. He knocked a bit louder. No answer.
"He must be here. I saw smoke from the chimney."
He finally banged with his fist. The door burst inwards to reveal a small, white-haired, and somewhat agitated healer.
"No need to break my door down - I was cominí! Oh, its you Menalus!" He gave the boy an appraising look over. "You didnít cut yourself on them old swords again, did ya?" But before Menalus could get a word in, he noticed the young woman standing there as well. "Oh, and youíd be that one what helped Xena clear out those two scoundrels a while back."
"Yes, Iím Gabrielle. Itís nice to meet you."
"Is it, now? Most others donít seem to think so. Well Iíd be Celes, and Iíd be busy, so what be ya wanting?"
Gabrielle was taken aback by the introduction. "Actually, Xena asked me to stop by and see if we could restock on some herbs. Sheís a healer herself, you know."
"Is she now? Wants some willow bark, then?" He asked, skeptically.
"Actually, Iíve got a list." She pulled out the parchment and handed it to him.
He glanced at it briefly. "Great Gods! There must be twenty items on here at the least. Weíll youíd better come in."
They entered the wooden structure and found it to be much more spacious than it appeared from the outside. Or rather, it would have been spacious, but for the tables, boxes, crates, and sacks that covered almost every inch of floor. The crates and boxes were stacked to the ceiling - all stuffed full of mysterious items: metal plates with runes inscribed on the edges, multicolored candles, ancient and decaying scrolls, old weapons. And on almost every inch of table was a container of some sort. There were jars of ointments, bowls full of dried leaves, clay pots of thick and dark liquids. Gabrielle would have loved to spend hours digging through these secrets, but for one thing - it all had a powerful smell. Sour and acrid, and slightly smoky. It was as though someone had taken every essence known to man, from rose petals to rotten eggs, and boiled them in a cauldron for days. The odor attacked Gabrielle, and just when she thought it was tolerable, it seemed to rise afresh and renew its assault. She glanced over at Menalus and saw him struggling to adjust to the surroundings as well. Not wanting to offend her host, the bard did her best to hide her suffering.
There was no need. Celes was oblivious to their discomfort. He led them over to a high table, which was slightly less cluttered than the rest, and pulled up two stools for them. Placing the parchment on the table, he started to scan through it.
"Ha! One of you needing cure of the drink then?" He glanced up at Gabrielle. "Doesnít look like you are." He took a pinch of something and added to a pot that was slowly boiling over the fire.
Gabrielle was confused. "Um, no. What do you mean?"
"Youíve got Quassia and Nerve Root here. Not good for much but curiní Panís disease." He continued scanning the list "Black Cohosh? One of you pregnant as well?" He added another pinch of something else to the pot and stirred.
"Not that I know of!" she insisted.
"Great Heraís tits! Fraxinella? Be ya expecting the plague?" He walked over to a far table and got a third item to toss into the pot.
Gabrielle finally got agitated enough to comment. "Actually, Iím not sure what Xena is expecting, but Iím certain she doesnít want it all thrown together in a pot."
Her statement earned her a snort from the small man. "Sheíll be gettingí naught Ďtil I see a patient. This list could kill fifty men." He handed it back to her. "And this," he grinned and gestured to the pot, "is my lunch."
Gabrielle flushed a bit. "Oh, Iím sorry, I thought you were... but anyway, I really think Xena wants these herbs."
He stopped preparing his meal and took the parchment back. "Tell ya what - Iíll stop by the inn tonight with these, and if Xena convinces me she really needs Ďem, she can have Ďem."
"Well ... I guess that will do."
"Itíll have to, wonít it! If she really knows what these are for, sheíll understand."
"But arenít you afraid to be travelling alone at night? I mean, thatís when all the ... problems have occurred."
Celes gave a chuckle. "Oh you donít be worrying yer pretty head about me, dear. I think I can take care of myself. Now off with ya, Iíve got to eat."
Menalus guided Gabrielle back through the maze of tables to the door. "Bye Celes. Weíll see you tonight!" He moved Gabrielle through the door.
Once outside, they both inhaled deeply of the sweet fresh air. After Gabrielleís senses returned to normal she turned to Menalus. "What a strange person. Is he always that ... gruff?" Gabrielle was trying to decide if she should be offended.
"I guess you have to know him. Once when I was a kid, he cured me of a deadly fever. Da was sure I was all done in. Celes stayed with me all night Ė holding my hand, giving me medicines. Da has always been grateful to him since. Heís kind of like family now."
"Well, it would take someone like your father to look past Celesí ... personality. Xenaís just gonna love him. I wonder if sheís having any luck."
"Letís go see Mara. Maybe she can tell us more than he did." Xena nodded back to the wooden hut.
"Sure. Itís not far." Telamon started down the road, Xena following at his side.
"Did any of them know each other? The victims, I mean."
"Not quite sure what you mean. Thereís not all that many that lives in Thellus. Everyone knows everyone."
"Of course, but were they friends? Or enemies? Did someone else not like any of them? Did they work together?"
"I donít think they knew each other well enough to be friends or enemies. Like I said, Saltus and Mara were out here on their own. Hephan worked in the tannery with her father. Autara was just a child. She didnít work at all. Torsus and Armen were also farmers, but not around here. About the only times they would have seen each other is on market day, but Iím sure they didnít have much cause to talk to each other. As for someone not liking them, I canít fathom it."
They were silent for a bit. Both puzzling it over, hoping to make a connection.
"What do you think it is did that?" he finally asked.
Xena shrugged her shoulders. "Itís still a mystery. At first I thought it had to be some kind of disease. Maybe they all went to the same place or talked to the same person. Or perhaps they angered someone and they were given some sort of poison. Now it doesnít look like either."
"Because it doesnít make sense. A disease might make you feel pain, might contort your face in agony, but Saltus had a look of fear. That means he probably saw whoever attacked him. But that doesnít make sense either Ė if he was attacked, why are there no marks. Even if he were just strangled, we would have seen bruises. Which leaves only poison. But if he was poisoned, why bother attacking him? Or rather, why pretend to attack? This just doesnít make sense right now."
"Perhaps it was poison, but it also made them see visions. I know that sometimes the priests of Apollo take something to let them speak to their God. Mayhap if you gave someone too much, they would die?"
"Hmmm. Itís a thought." In fact, Gabrielleís shopping expedition was purely to find out what medicaments could be had locally and how easy they were to get a hold of.
The woods that had drawn close on either side of the road now swept away to make room for sown fields. They could see Saltusí mean house set back from the road a short ways into the fields.
"Mara says she found him around here. Sad to think he died within sight of his own home."
Xena nodded, but didnít comment. She bent down and examined the road for signs of traffic. "Do many come this way?"
"Not but those as come through the mountains. We donít have many of those no more, what with thieves and robbers holed up there." He gestured off to the nearby hills breaking to tall snowcapped peaks further on.
"Thereís no other farms?"
"None. Most would say Saltus did well to produce anything at all out here. The land gets dry and rocky - difficult to farm."
"Well someone came out here today." She pointed to a single set of fresh boot marks. "Seems a lot of people came out here recently, though."
"Thatíd be me and the mourning party. We came out yesterday afternoon to retrieve the body."
"Too bad. Thereís nothing to been seen that hasnít been trampled a few times."
He started to protest, but Xena held up a hand. "Itís Ok, you couldnít have known. Letís just go see the woman."
As they made their way towards the house, Xena searched for signs of a struggle but found none. When they got to the small vegetable garden in front of the house, the warrior easily noticed the damage. *She must have run out to find him. At least that means she heard something.* She also noticed that the lone fresh boot prints led up to the house.
They arrived at the front door to the sound of heated voices inside.
"No! Itís still mine and Iíll work it Ďtil my bones donít work no more!"
"But you canít do it yerself woman! Youíll die out here. Alone. None as comes out here but thieves anyhow."
Recognizing the voices, Telamon decided to enter without knocking. Xena followed close behind.
"Whatís this about Lucius?"
The two parties turned to the unexpected sound. Mara was obviously fuming, and the man was angry as well, but also seemed slightly embarrassed.
"Ah, Telamon," he proffered, "I didnít know youíd be out here today. And you brought Xena as well."
Xena nodded to the large barrel-chested man. Lucius was the town second after Telamon. When she and Gabrielle were here last, she questioned the wisdom of the council for choosing him. After all, he had suggested that the town give in to one of the warlords battling over control of the town. His argument was that since there were two warlords, they would do well to negotiate with one of them for protection against the other. He clearly didnít understand that warlords do not negotiate, they take what they want and then decide whether or not to kill you. She was very familiar with the routine, and it didnít endear him to her that he questioned her on it.
"Telamon," Lucius explained, "I was just trying to help this poor woman understand whatís going to happen to her this winter. Sheíll never get the harvest in, sheíll have no food, and none to protect her. Much better she should find something else for herself and give up the farm to those that could use it."
Mara glared at him. "You mean your nephew and his new wife! They shanít have my farm! My husband made it what it is and itís all I have of him." She turned to Telamon, eyes pleading. "Donít take that from me."
As he had many times before, Telamon also questioned the wisdom the council. *But, they also chose me. Hmmm ... should I be happy about that?* He clearly wasnít happy about the scene in front of him. "No one is talking about the future just yet, Mara. Harvest is a ways off, and weíve got plenty of time to worry about the farm. Right now, Xena would like to ask you a few questions. And I need to talk with you Lucius - outside!" He motioned for the big man to follow him. Lucius exited sheepishly.
Xena turned to face Mara, who looked relieved to be rid of Lucius. She placed a comforting hand on the upset womanís shoulder. "Iím sure Telamon will get this sorted out. He is a good man and makes good decisions."
Mara folded her arms across her chest. "As long as he donít tell me to leave." Then she relaxed. "Youíre right. He is a good man." She crossed over to the window with its broken shutter latch and peered out side at the two men retreating towards the road. "Itís funny, I never really wanted this life. Saltus was a good man too, though, and I stayed for him. Now, I donít want to leave it." She toyed with the latch and smiled. "Heís still here in a way."
"Mara, Iím sorry about what happened, and I want to make sure it doesnít happen to anyone else. But I need your help. I need you to tell me what happened that night."
She turned away from the window and looked down at the floor, grimacing at the painful memory. "I was sitting here waiting for him to come home. He used to go to town for sup some nights. He must have stayed on drinking though, cause he usually came home not long after sundown."
"Wasnít he afraid of the ... of the problems?"
Mara glanced up. "Saltus? No. He didnít hardly believe in the Gods, much less these tales of a fairy wolf from Tartarus."
Xena felt that edginess return, but she couldnít place why. "What tales of a wolf from Tartarus?"
"Youíve not heard then? Several have heard its voice on the nights of the ... when someone was taken."
"Did you hear it?"
"Indeed. Itís what made me run to him. I recognized it straight off, just like everyone said."
"What did it sound like?"
"Three short sharp barks."
Xena felt a nauseating revulsion grip her insides, and she struggled to maintain control. *Not a wolf ... a dog!* Memories came flooding back to her with a pain that she couldnít keep off her face.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, I, uh ... thank you for talking to me Mara. I think I need to go."
"Donít you want to hear about me finding him? Still warm, he was and white as a ghost. And you should have seen the expression on his face Ė like he was scared out of his boots."
*I think I know why. Gods!* "Thank you, Mara. Please tell anything else you can remember to Telamon." She backed out the door much more hastily than she wanted to, but she had a desperate need to get away Ė from here, from herself, from her past.
She passed the two men at a near run. "Finish up here. Iíll meet you back at the tavern."
The men cast confused glances at each other. "Xena?" Telamon called out, but she was already too far down the road to hear.
Xena tried to blank her mind and concentrate on running, but memories continued to assault her. She ran faster.
"Weíll Iím getting hungry. Letís get back to the tavern and get some lunch." Gabrielle headed back down the small path, which had led them to healerís home.
"Uh, sure." Menalus followed along, trying to step in her footprints.
They walked along in silence for a bit. Menalus was fidgeting more than usual, and Gabrielle decided another story might be in order.
*Hmmm, whatís a good harmless one. Calisto? Nope. Ceasar? Nope. Centuars? Nah. Bacchea? Definitely not! Titans?* "Did I tell you about the time Xena and I saved the world from the Titans? Of course, I sort of let them out, but..."
"Can you tell me later?" Menalus interjected. He looked sheepishly at the road, praying he hadnít offended Her.
"Um, sure." *Huh? He starting to sound like Xena.* She got an idea. "I didnít mean to offend you about Celes back there."
"Celes? Oh, no itís just..." He continued looking down.
Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if Xena was right. *Maybe heís got it so bad he canít concentrate.* She smiled inside at the thought of her affecting anyone like that.
After a few more minutes of silent walking Menalus finally spoke up.
"Gabrielle?" He looked up to meet her eye, but found he couldnít hold it.
"Um, I sort of, have something. Something I want to give you. Itís just that youíre so beautiful and you do the greatest things and you tell the best stories. I just ... will you wait here?"
"Wait for what?"
"Just please? I wonít be a second!"
"Ok." She wondered where this could possibly be leading. What could he want to give her? What do boys his age think is important? *Gods I hope itís not a frog.*
He bounded off into the woods and ducked into the hollow at the base of a huge oak tree. He returned triumphant and was holding something behind his back.
"Close your eyes and hold out your hands."
Mustering all her courage she did as she was asked and felt something cool and metallic dropped into her palms. Opening her eyes she gasped. "Oh Menalus, itís beautiful!"
She dangled a small chain made of linked golden leaves. Small rubies sparkled between the leaves, and the clasp was dotted with emeralds. Gabrielle couldnít help but stare at the wonder in awe. She had never seen anything like it in her life.
"Do you like it?" he whispered.
"Menalus, itís ... itís ..." It suddenly occurred to her to ask the obvious. "Where did you get this?"
"You remember I said that I sometimes go searching in, you know, that field. I found it just afore the new moon." He looked a bit guilty, but was immensely pleased by her reaction nonetheless.
Gabrielle finally tore her eyes away from the chain. "Menalus, I canít take this. It wouldnít be right." She held it out to him.
"But you deserve it! Youíre a hero!"
"Menalus, youíre wrong. Heroes donít take gifts like this. Heroes give gifts like this to those in need. I wouldnít be much of a hero for taking this."
Menalus looked away, frustrated that his plans were spoiled. "But I canít even do anything with it! If anyone saw it, theyíd wonder where I got it, and Iíd have to tell Da, and he burn me good."
Gabrielle brought her free hand up to his face and turned him back towards her. "Well I have an idea. Howíd you like to be a hero?"
"Gabrielle, Iím going to be one when I grow up! I keep telling Da, but he wonít listen."
"How would you like to be one right now?"
"That would be, I mean, Iíd just love it!"
"Well I know there are several families who could probably benefit from the dinars this chain would sell for. How would you like to give it to them? Itís what a hero would do."
"Really? That sounds great but ... " He looked downcast again. "But I canít give it to them. Iíd still have to tell Da where I got it."
"Tell you what. Iíll give it to Telamon, and weíll pretend itís a gift from me."
He didnít brighten much. "Well that sounds good, but ... then no one will know Iím a hero."
"Are you doing this so people will know youíre a hero, or so that those families will make it through the winter? Being a hero means doing things to help others. Like Telamon, or even Celes. It does not mean making sure everyone knows youíre a hero. That is called vanity Ė not a good thing for heroes."
"I think I understand. And I want to help." He looked away again. "Itís just ... I want to live like you. I want go places, and see things, and fight evil. And I ..." He swallowed hard and words he had hoped to keep in his heart jumped out. "I want to go with you."
Gabrielle straightened a bit. *I guess later is now.* "Menalus, I ..." For once, she was at a loss for words. "I ..."
"Itís Ok. You donít have to say anything. I know youíve already got a partner." He walked away a few steps. "But if you do need a new friend ... later ... come get me, Ok?"
Gabrielle walked up to him and gave him a hug. "I always need a friend like you Menalus."
He returned the hug stiffly, uncomfortable with her now that his feelings were out. Just at that moment, Gabrielleís stomach made known it requirements for sustenance in a rather noisy manner. They broke away chuckling, Gabrielle grateful for the distraction. "I think thatís our cue to get going!"
When they got back to the tavern they found Jeral cleaning up after the last of the late lunchers. Gabrielle asked whether Xena had gotten back.
"Oh indeed, and tíwerent a pretty look on that face as ever I saw. Two eyes round and brimminí, and I always thinking all has been done and seen, but youíll never believe, thatís as all I can say. Went straight back, nary a word, and me right there for the greetiní Youíd never known her for who she is like that!"
Gabrielle digested this for a moment, then turned to Menalus. "I know I promised you lunch, but do you mind if I go see Xena? I think she needs me."
Jeral answered for him. "He donít never mind and looks to where his Da says itís Ok to be. And right now whatís saying that young man has chores to be done after now heís played his day away and all looking after you, miss."
Gabrielle gave Menalus a squeeze on the shoulder. "Iíll tell you the one about the Titans tonight, Ok?" He gave her a smile and ran off to the kitchens.
"Jeral, would you bring a couple of plates back to the room. I havenít had a thing since breakfast, and Iím starving."
"Sure as not. And I wonít be botheriní tíask what would be yer choices for some sup, I ken as well as any about likes and whatnot. Two plates of chicken it is!" He gave her a wink and was off in the same direction as Menalus.
Now alone in the main room, Gabrielle took a moment to compose herself. Sheíd had to deal with a cranky healer, a lovestruck boy, an indecipherable tavern keeper, and now a distraught friend. Even more so, a distraught Xena. *All in a days work for a hero.* She headed back to the room.
Quietly opening the door to their room, Gabrielle softly called out. "Xena?" She peered round the corner to a distressing sight. The warrior was sitting on the edge of the bed, knees up to her chin, arms hugging herself, obviously battling back tears. She rocked back and forth slowly and stared at the opposite wall. It was almost as though she had no recognition of her friend at all.
"Gods, Xena ..." Gabrielle crossed over and sat down next to her on the bed. Still nothing. She was getting scared. In their travels together, she had never seen Xena this despondent. She laid the golden chain on the low table next to the bed and turned back to her friend, concern in her eyes. "Hey." She touched an arm to the warriorís shoulder, and like breaking a magic spell, Xena unfolded and grabbed the bard in a fierce embrace.
"Oh, Gabrielle..." she husked. The tears sheíd been fighting would wait no longer. She closed her eyes to them, but it was no deterrent.
"Iím here Xena. Iím here." Gabrielle had no idea what this was about, but one of her gifts was the ability to tell when someone just needed to be held. She would stay there as long as necessary.
Xena took refuge for a while. She didnít care about the tears or the pain - she simply focused on the connection. Someone felt she was worthy of holding, and that was all that mattered. She concentrated on their breathing, synced as it was, and brought her whole world down to that.
After a short lifetime, Xena opened her eyes slowly, then wide. Gabrielle felt her stiffen.
"Where did you get that?" Xena pulled away and pointed to the object on the table.
"This?" Gabrielle picked up the chain. "Menalus gave it to me."
"Menalus gave it to you?"
"Well, actually, he wanted to give it to me - I convinced him it would be a better idea to try and help those families who are grieving."
"Let me see it."
Gabrielle handed it to her. Xena examined it briefly, a pained look of confirmation crossing her face. "He found it in the field, didnít he?"
The bard nodded, not needing to ask which field she was talking about. "Just a while ago. How did you know?"
"Because I know its history. Or some of it anyway. I was there when it was lost." Xena regained some of her composure. "Gabrielle ... I want to tell you a story. A story that Iím not proud of. Its something I hate to burden you with this, but ... youíre the only one Iíve got, and I canít keep this locked up anymore."
"Xena, you know thatís what Iím here for." She reached out a hand but before Xena could take it, there was a knock on the door. Gabrielle motioned for Xena to stay where she was. "I asked Jeral to bring some food. Sorry." She got up and opened the door slightly. "Iím sorry Jeral, but I think weíll just come and get that when weíre ready. Yes ... yes ... yes, I see ... I know it will get cold ... yes. Jeral, just take it away! Thank you." She sat down again next Xena with a small hapless grin. "Sorry. Go on."
"No." Xena looked away. "I shouldnít burden you with this. I already drag you to Tartarus and back once a moon. This isnít fair."
"No way. You donít get out of this that easy. You need to tell me this, you just said so, now come on, Iím all ears." Xena didnít appear to be complying. Gabrielle moved to kneel down directly in front of Xena. She put a hand on each side of the warriorís head and put her face inches from Xenaís. "Now look. Weíre doing more here than just saving the world. In case you havenít noticed, itís also my personal mission to save you from yourself. So give it up. Iím not going anywhere!"
Xena raised a hand up to one of Gabrielleís and gently pulled it around to her lips. "Ok," she whispered.
Gabrielle moved around to sit cross-legged next to Xena, but she pulled her partners hand with her, feeling the need for connection. Xena lifted up the chain and examined the details in it, as though it might somehow reveal an easier way to unburden herself. She found no comfort there, but forged ahead anyway.
"It was one of the darkest times of my life. My army had swept through the North like a scythe through dry grass. I reveled in the death and destruction. I was feeling truly invincible. I had it all: power, wealth, and the means to attain more. There was nothing I lacked ... I was on top of the world.
"And then I made a mistake. It was a present from Inermis, a minor king, that did it. Trying to dissuade me from invading his petty kingdom, he made a present of a hunting dog. A black mastiff. He said it was rare breed, there being no other of that color in the world. Descended from a long line of fine blood he claimed. I was incredulous. What did I need a hunting dog for? And then he showed me this." She held up the chain again with its beautiful golden leaves. "It was his collar." Gabrielle gasped. "Fit for a princess, no? But this was for a dog. It should have told me how special he was.
"Inermis placed the collar on the dog and looked into his eyes. ĎCunilus! Xena is your new master. You will obey her as you obeyed me. I release you. Now go to your master!í The dog came up to my side, turned around and sat down at my right hand. It was as though he had done it all his life, or rather like his whole life he had been waiting to join me at my side. There was a ... familiarity there that was unsettling. Even I suddenly felt that this was where Cunilus was meant to be.
"I told him I would consider his gift and sent him away. I still thought I would kill Cunilus and turn the collar into a necklace. Cunilus stayed at my side throughout the rest of the audience, and when it was over followed my to my tent. At the entrance I told him to stay, and he complied willingly, sitting down guarding the entrance as though heíd done so for years.
"I went inside to consider the requests made of me, and there were many. When at last I turned my mind to Inermis I was already angry with some of the previous requests. I made a snap decision to dispatch his dog, take the necklace and his kingdom. I retrieved a dagger, intending to do the deed myself. When I got outside there was Cunilus just as I had left him. I fingered the golden collar with avarice. I put one hand on his muzzle and brought the knife under his neck for a quick slice. It was then I made the mistake - I turned from the gold and looked into his eyes. I saw nothing but trust and loyalty. I moved as though to strike, but hesitated. He didnít flinch or try to run away Ė and I canít say he didnít know what was happening Ė I could see it in his eyes. I was his master, and if this was the destiny I chose for him, so be it.
"Cunilus saved an entire kingdom that day. Just with those eyes. Looking back on it now, I think I must have been desperate for someone or something to trust. I chose Cunilus. Surrounded by desire for power, wealth, and death, my secret heart had finally won a small battle.
"He became my constant companion and followed me everywhere. He guarded my door at night, was at my right hand while I inspected my army, and even followed me into battle - where he was just as vicious as I was. He was quite useful when giving an audience. Supplicants attempting to buy me off with gifts often found their presents lacking in comparison to the finery of my dog." She smiled at the memory.
"Cunilus was as valuable to me as any of my lieutenants ... more so, since I could trust him. But his dearness was also my secret - I could not expose my feelings towards him without giving away leverage against me. I even tried to lock those feelings away from myself, for I knew he could have been taken from me in a million different ways, treachery not the least.
"Over the summers together I would sometimes escape my army and go off bow hunting with him, just the two of us. I taught him to bark distinctively when he approached the prey - a useful skill when he had to follow a wounded animal into the woods. I would follow as best I could and listen for his call. Once caught I would skin the animal and split it in two, giving Cunilus his due and making a fire for mine. After roasting the meat and eating my fill, I would stare unthinking into the flames Ďtil they died down to embers. No thought of greed, power, jealousy, or death could invade my mind. I was totally numb. Then I would sleep while Cunilus watched over me. It was healing."
Xena smiled sadly at Gabrielle. "It was the barking that told me he was here. I had also taught him to give a challenge when someone approached him - the woman whom I spoke to today described it perfectly." She lifted up the chain again. "This is only confirmation."
Gabrielle shook her head, confused. "But Xena, how could this dog be attacking people and not making a mark. It still doesnít make sense."
"Thatís Ďcause Iím not finished telling my story." She sighed and gave Gabrielleís hand a squeeze, more for her own reassurance then the waiting bardís.
"I already told you I fought with Pelasus over control of this town. Cunilus was with me that day and joined me in the fighting, as was his usual. We got separated and I had something happen to me which had not happened before: I got knocked out. Completely unconscious. Fortunately, I was mistaken for dead and the battle rolled over me. One of my lieutenants had seen me fall and called a retreat. My army dispersed into the trees giving Pelasus the day.
"I regained my senses later that same night. It was almost pitch black with a thin sliver of moonlight. Looking over the tall grass, I could see that Pelasus had moved his camp onto the field not twenty yards from where I lay. At least I knew who was victorious. Silently cursing my army for fools, I tried to get up, but my leg was broken. I think a horse had stepped on me as well, Ďcause my insides were burning. All I could do was crawl to the trees and hope to find the remnants of my army.
"I inched my way as silently as possible through the grass, ever aware of the nearby encampment. There were bodies everywhere. No one had started to scavenge yet - I guess Pelasus was waiting Ďtil daylight. He also hadnít sent out parties looking for survivors, or I wouldíve been caught for certain.
"I was escaping so slowly and I was in so much pain, I thought Iíd never reach the trees. Only my desire to punish Pelasus kept me going. Little by little, I dragged myself through the devastation I had wrought. Then the worst happened ..." She grimaced at the thought. Gabrielle gave her a reassuring squeeze. "I was nearing a sentry outpost when I looked up and saw Cunilus. He was twenty feet away, and hadnít seen me yet. I prayed for him to pass by me, I willed him to go on, I pleaded to him silently to head for the trees and safety. He didnít. He looked in my direction and before he could bark out a greeting ... I embedded my chakram in his side."
Tears started flowing freely from the warriorís ocean blue eyes, but she continued on, heedless.
"It was too much. The defeat, the pain, and now this. I wanted to tear my heart out, gouge out my eyes, split my skull in two. I lay there in the mud and the blood and the stench of death, and I just wanted it to be over. I donít know how long I was there. I couldnít see, I couldnít think, I couldnít feel - all I could do was breathe.
"After a while, I started to hear something in the grass nearby. I thought it was the sentry and welcomed his blade. But it wasnít. I finally opened my eyes to see Cunilus struggling towards me, his back legs useless, blood running freely from the wound. I wept at the sight. I closed my eyes tightly, willing his presence away, but again, he couldnít hear my silent plea. The next thing I felt was Cunilus licking my outstretched hand, as though to comfort me. I opened my eyes and looked into his. I saw the same trust and loyalty that had been there since that first day.
"I lay there with him Ďtil he died. I stroked his soft fur gently, having no other comfort to give. When he breathed his last, I determined to give him some sort of burial. I carefully removed my chakram and dug a shallow pit as best I could with it. It was near dawn when I finally laid him to rest and covered him over. When I was done, I found I no longer felt the same despair. Somehow ... I donít know... maybe it was Cunilusí forgiveness ... but I found the strength to continue, and I made my way back."
"Gods, Xena." Gabrielle whispered. She had been crying silently for the past few minutes while listening. She pulled her partner into a deep embrace trying desperately to wash away the pain. After a while, she silently got up and forced the distraught warrior to lie down. Too emotionally exhausted to argue, Xena complied. After arranging the covers on top of Xena, Gabrielle slipped in and held her close.
"Thanks, Gabrielle," Xena husked. A squeeze was all she got in reply.
The two women lay there for several candlemarks. Xena drifted in and out of awareness, her body drained from her flight back to the tavern, her mind weary from her confession. When she finally made it back to consciousness, Gabrielle was gently stroking her hair.
"What time is it?" asked Xena.
"Heís out there. Looking for me."
"Letís not worry about it tonight, Ok? Everyone must be indoors by now. I think weíve earned the night off." She gave her companion another squeeze. "Besides, Um ... Iím hungry." Xena turned to look at her. "Weíll Iím sorry, I didnít get any lunch!"
Xena let out a little laugh, her sorrow washed away for the moment. "Ok. Letís get you something before you pass out."
Gabrielle extricated herself from her friend, stood up, and smacked her forehead. "Gods, I forgot."
"Not everyone is going to be indoors tonight Ė Celes is coming here with those herbs you asked for. He said he wanted to speak with you personally before giving them to you. He seemed to think it was a strange list."
Xena got herself out of bed. "Well, thatís reassuring."
"I gave you a list of poisons. I wanted to see how easy it would for anyone to get a hold of them, in case some madman ..." She trailed off and a serious look returned. "Of course, we know thatís not whatís happening."
"But Xena, what are we going to do about Celes? We canít let him travel alone."
"Actually, heís probably better off than we would be."
"Heís a wizard as well as a healer."
"Heís certainly got the personality for it."
"Doesnít he just. I didnít spend half a candlemark with him before I disliked him. Oh well, Jeral and Telamon seem to think the world of him, and thatís good enough for me. Actually, heís probably a good person to talk to about our ... situation. Though, I donít ever want to tell that story again. Hey that reminds me."
"What?" Gabrielle was pulled into another hug.
"Thanks. Youíre the best friend I could ever have." Xena kissed her on the forehead and meant to pull away, but the bard refused to let her go, holding on for extra moment of tenderness. Xena was almost never this intimate, and Gabrielle wanted to make the most of it. Xena didnít complain.
They went back to the main room, intending to retrieve their cold chicken, but found no one.
Xena sighed. "I guess we did the job."
"Telamon and I addressed the locals this morning and told them to stay indoors after dark. I guess I didnít think about Jeral losing his patrons temporarily. Of course, itís better than permanently. Letís check the kitchen."
Before they reached the kitchen door, a worried looking Menalus came through it. "Gabrielle! I canít find Da anywhere! Have you seen him?"
"Um, no," said Gabrielle, not used to being addressed first. "When did you see him last?"
"He sent me off to Turkís to get some more chickens for tomorrow. He told me to make sure I was back before dark, and I was - I got here just at sunset, but I canít find him nowhere."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. Xena spoke up. "Youíre sure you looked everywhere?" She looked around the main room. She was pretty sure the tavern wasnít that big Ė main room, kitchen, living quarters, and the two rooms he let for the night. "Did you check the stables?"
"Ooh. No. Iíll go see..." And he was out the door.
"I suppose one of us should go with him," said Gabrielle.
"Why donít you go, but first go get your staff. Iíll check the other guestroom while your gone."
They each went to a guestroom. Gabrielle had just picked up her staff when she heard a distressed voice from the main room call out for Xena. *Lucius?* She decided to take Xenaís sword and chakram with her as well. When she got there she found Xena in conversation with the large man she recalled from their last visit. He appeared extremely agitated, Xena was not happy either.
"Xena?" she asked. "Whatís wrong?"
Xena whirled around. "Looks like Termindes didnít get enough last time and is back for more. Lucius says heís got Telamon and Jeral tied up at the town hall." She pointed a thumb back at Lucius. "Unfortunately, this idiot also sent Menalus off to get Celes in case thereís a fight. There will be." She smiled. "But I need you to go get Menalus back. It still might be dangerous out there."
"Might be? Gods Xena, we know itís dangerous out there!"
She pulled Gabrielle aside to be sure Lucius couldnít hear. "No, Gabrielle, donít you see! Weíve been played for suckers all this time! Termindes must have heard the story and used it to lure us back here." She cocked her head to one side for a minute. "Of course, that means this is a probably a trap." She was grinning nonetheless, unable to hide her relief. "Oh, heís going pay for this, and Iím gonna enjoy it!" She was practically bubbling. "Anyway, he may still have a man out there with poisoned darts terrorizing people, and we donít want to lose Menalus."
Gabrielle handed Xena her weapons, then gave her a quick hug recognizing her companionís relief. "Iím on my way." And she was after Menalus.
Xena turned back to Lucius with an evil grin on her face. "Come on Lucius, letís go have some fun!"
When they arrived at the town hall, Xena turned to Lucius. "Does this place have a back door?"
"Uh, yeah. Why?"
"I just thought it might make our entrance a little less conspicuous."
She led him around to the back and found the door. She held up a single finger to her lips then mouthed, "Let me go first." He nodded vigorously as though he would have it no other way. She quietly opened then door and crept in to the single large room that the structure housed. Telamon and Jeral were bound and manacled, the chains having been run over the ceiling crossbeams. Termindes and one of his minions were splayed next to the front wall on either side of the front door, waiting for her to come in. She almost giggled.
She stepped into the center of the room and wiped the smile off her face. "Looking for me?"
Termindes shot a glance at her, completely surprised. "Ah, Xena," he managed, after regaining his composure. He was a well-kept, dark-haired man with a neatly trimmed moustache and a penchant for brightly colored pantaloons. The one thing he hated more than anything else was to lose his composure, so her entrance did nothing for him.
"You are such an idiot! You didnít even think to cover the back door?"
The other two things he hated more than anything else was to have someone insult him and to have them be right about it. But for his hatred of losing his composure, he would have launched himself at her right there and then. He had a better idea instead.
He fingered his moustache. "Well perhaps not such an idiot after all. You obviously didnít think Iíd have an ally." He nodded in her direction.
She jumped too late. Luciusí meaty fist slammed into the back of her head and she was out.
When she came to, she was manacled just like Telamon and Jeral. They exchanged sympathetic and wide-eyed glances with her. She looked up and tested the manacles. Termindes heard the rattling.
"Xena, glad you could rejoin us. Sorry to keep you confined, but you really tend to spoil an atmosphere when you have weapons handy."
Her head was throbbing. "Termindes, itís me you want. Let these men go. You donít need them."
"On the contrary, my dear Xena. You see, this town will now be under my control. Iím installing a new aldermen." He nodded to Lucius. "One who is a little more reasonable than your friend here. But I need to get rid of a few votes on the town council, first. The tavern keeper here, and a certain healer, that everyone is so fond of. Soon the town will see the wisdom of paying tribute to me!"
"Politics Termindes? Thatís not your style."
"Well, since you took away my other options by destroying my army ..."
"It was thirty guys! Since when does thirty guys make an army?"
Termindes coughed loudly. "As I was saying! Since you destroyed my army, Iíve had to find other means to secure the town. This will do just as well."
Lucius piped in. "I thought you said youíd back me up with your army!"
"That was before she destroyed it, you idiot!"
"You mean this guy is the army?" Lucius nodded to the lone thug guarding the door.
Termindes was clearly irritated. "Iím doing all I can! What did you expect in a single moon?!" He turned back to Xena. "For that you will pay with your life."
"Like I havenít heard that before," she mumbled.
"Nothing." She smiled sweetly. "But Termindes, first tell me, how did you think up the idea? It was Ares that put you up to this, right?"
"The whole ĎXenaís ghost dog terrorizes towní thing."
"Ah yes, Lucius mentioned something about the local fauna getting out of hand. Actually, he used the term Ďmagic wolfí Ė Iím quite sure he doesnít know what the word fauna means." He eyed Xena with skepticism. "Frankly, I could care less, since itís not my problem, itís his." He nodded at Lucius who had retreated to speak with the guard.
"Youíre saying you didnít kill those people?"
"Iím really sorry to hear you say that." Her eyes narrowed.
"And why would that be, my dear?" He smiled and came face to face with her.
"Because, now I canít enjoy this."
His smiled widened. "Oh, but I wi..." But he didnít get to finish, as a kick to the groin doubled him over and a knee in the face put him on his back.
As expected, Lucius and the guard lunged at her. She pulled herself off the floor using the manacles and planted a toe squarely under each approaching chin. She then straddled the crossbeam and bracing her legs on the ceiling, pulled on the chain with all her might. The beam split with a loud crack, sending her headfirst to the floor. She managed to duck and roll out of it only to find herself face to face with Lucius who had another meaty fist headed in her direction. She ducked again and kneed him in the stomach and used the rebound to kick the thug who was, predictably, trying to attack from behind. *Donít these guys ever learn?* She jumped up and freed half the crossbeam which she had split and brained both Lucius and the guard before they knew what hit them. She dropped the beam and knelt down by Termindes, who was holding his nose with one hand and his pantaloons with the other. She wrapped the manacle chain tight around his neck.
"Alright Termindes, tell me the truth or so help me." She gave the chain a tug for emphasis. "What did you do to those people."
"I donít know what people youíre talking about!" His face was turning a nice shade of purple.
"The ones Lucius said were killed by the Ďmagic wolfí."
"I swear Xena! I know nothing about it! I swear!"
"Damn!" She hit him on either side of the head with the manacles, sending him into temporary oblivion. She searched his body for the key, found it, and freed herself and the other two captives from the chains.
"Telamon, can you handle this?" She gestured at the three unconscious forms.
"Sure, Xena. Why, whatís up?"
"I know what killed those people. Itís real, and Gabrielle and Menalus are out there right now. Iíve got to go after them. Meet me back at the tavern." She turned to a sick looking Jeral and pointed a finger. "Donít follow me!" She picked up her weapons from a nearby table and was gone.
Telamon put a hand on Jeralís shoulder. "Donít worry. Sheíll get him back." He then picked up the manacle that had been used on him. "Well," he said, kneeling down by Lucius, "might as well put these to a better use."
Menalus was walking now. He had been running, but the last of the twilight and his tired legs had given out on him. He now had to make his way by the light of a slivered moon, not two hands above the horizon. He was desperate to rest - his sides were aching from exertion, his breath still coming in gasps - but he was more desperate to reach Celes. Lucius had told him it was a matter or life and death, and he was determined not to fail. He tried to run a few more paces, but tripped on a stone and fell to his knees. He crawled forward for a minute before managing to regain his feet. No longer having the strength to even try to run, he plodded forward as best he could.
Gabrielle was much better prepared for the journey, having walked over half of Greece. She had paced herself well, and but for the darkening night, could have gone on faster. She kept a sharp eye out for any others out on the road. Since everyone should be well aware of the danger by now. The only people likely to be out and about were her, Menalus, and whoever was darting these people.
She had decided that when she did catch up with him, they should continue on to find Celes. Since all the victims so far had been alone, she figured the chances were good that Termindesí minion wouldnít want to go up against three people together. Besides, it was never a bad thing to have a wizard on your side.
She saw a dark form ahead of her in the road. It was too small to be a man, but it was moving erratically. She recognized Menalus stumbling forward and breathing heavy. Thinking it might be the effects of poison, she picked up the pace and prayed it wasnít too late. "Menalus!"
Menalus stopped short at the sound. Hands on his knees, he could do nothing but breathe and wait.
When she finally arrived, his breathing was getting closer to normal, but still not enough to lessen her concern. "Menalus! Are you Ok? Did anyone hurt you?!"
He shook his head. "Just tired. I just ... I ran the whole way. I gotta get to Celes! Da needs him!"
"Donít worry, your Da is going to be fine. Xena is the best healer I know. She wonít let anything happen to him." She straightened him up and put his hands on his head. "Breathe deep. Youíll feel better."
He nodded, doing his best to breathe deeply.
She scanned the dark surroundings for anything unusual. The trees were thick on both sides of the road - close enough that someone could be hidden in their darkness and still easily hit them with a poison dart. She wanted to get to where the fields opened up so that they wouldnít make an easy target.
After waiting as long as she dared, she let his hands drop, grabbed him by the arm, and forced him to start walking. "Iím sorry Menalus, we canít stop. It still might be dangerous out here. We need to get to Celesí." She saw the look of exhaustion on his face. "You can rest for a minute after we reach the fields."
He nodded weakly and staggered on as best he could.
When they reached the open fields, Gabrielle breathed a silent sigh of relief. She kept Menalus going until they were more than a stones throw from the nearest tree. "Ok, Menalus. You can rest now."
He slumped back over and put his hands on his knees, ignoring Gabrielleís earlier advice. She let it pass, and started scanning around again for anyone following them. In the dim moonlight, she could just make out the high summer barley on either side, softly waving in the slight breeze. The trees appeared to be a black wall behind them, and she wondered how theyíd been able to see the road at all. She waited a moment more, until Menalusí breathing was easier. He still seemed to be in pain, and she asked him about it.
He nodded. "My side still hurts."
She straightened him up for a second time. "I know this sounds crazy, but we need to walk it off."
Since nothing crazy could pass Her lips, he nodded.
They didnít go ten paces before she saw it. A dark form was moving through the barley on their right. It was heading towards them. Gabrielle considered for a moment. It clearly wasnít a man, since it was ambling on four legs. One second more and she recognized the truth of it. Xena was wrong.
"Run Menalus!" she screamed and pushed him forward. Her voice had put fear into him, which gave him a fresh wind. Dropping her staff, she ran just behind him, checking herself from sprinting past him. She looked back and knew they had no chance. Celesí house was half a candlemark away at this pace, and theyíd never outrun this beast. The creature had angled towards the road on an intercept course and would likely overtake them before the reached the next windbreak of trees.
Gabrielle racked her brain, trying to think of something, anything to delay it ... him ... Cunilus. Her mind was a blank. She executed the only option left to her.
"Menalus donít stop for anything! Find Celes! Run!" And then she stopped, turned around, and waited for him.
He slowed as he approached, wary of anything that knew it was cornered. He stepped out of the high barley and into the road a mere hundred paces away. He stood still for a moment, assessing the situation, as any good hunter would. Then, confident in his abilities, he trotted forward at a leisurely pace.
Gabrielle had already assessed her situation and simply waited for the outcome. She then felt a hand on her arm, dragging her backwards. "Gabrielle! Come on, we have to get away!"
"Menalus! I told you to run!" She pushed him away from her.
"I canít go without you! A hero wouldnít leave you!"
"You can be a hero tomorrow!" she screamed. She looked back at the approaching figure. Tears were streaming down her face. "Just run. Please?" she softly pleaded with him. It was her last good deed, and she didnít want it wasted.
"I donít care. I want to be with you. Besides, itís too late." He nodded behind her. Gabrielle whirled around, part of her angry at Menalus for not obeying, another part thinking it was ridiculous to care at this point.
Cunilus had stopped twenty paces from them, regarding them, sizing up any threat. He challenged them: three quick barks.
"Go away, Cunilus. Xenaís not here! Go!"
He recognized his name ... and something else. This was unusual, and he started to circle around his prey, wanting to make sure they could not harm him. He started in with a low growl. He watched them warily as he slowly edged round. When he had completed a full circuit he stopped and challenged again.
"Cunilis, go!" Gabrielle pointed back the way they had come praying he would obey. She had been keeping Menalus behind her, trying to shield him from the eminent attack.
He growled louder this time, rising to an angry howl. He gathered his anger around him and crouched low for the attack.
"Hold!" But this didnít come from the bard. Suddenly, a bright light shone behind them. Gabrielle dared not take her eyes off the now confused creature.
Menalus had turned around. "Celes! Thank the Gods. This dog is attacking us!"
Celes trotted up as quickly as his old frame would allow him. He was carrying a staff similar to Gabrielleís discarded one, but his shone a piercing white light at the tip. "So I can see! What have we here young lady?" he said with all the casualness in the world.
"Xenaís hunting dog," she replied, eyes still trained on it. "Or rather, the ghost of Xenaís hunting dog. Itís a long story, and I donít think I have time to tell it."
"Ghost, eh?" He held aloft his staff and studied the beast for a moment. He was discomfited to note he was being studied back. "Yes, I can see that now. Well, if he attacks donít let him touch you - steal your soul right out of your body, he will! Thatís what took those poor devils."
Gabrielle finally took his eyes off Cunilus and turned wide-eyed back to Celes. "You mean you canít ..." She had expected ... he was a wizard after all.
Menalus piped in. "Kill it!"
Celes turned to him with a knowing look. "I believe thatís been tried before."
Gabrielle grabbed his arm. "Then canít you get rid of it or something? At least keep it at bay!"
"Only if heís afraid of old men with bright sticks. For the moment, it looks like he is."
"But youíre a wizard!"
"And thatís no flesh and blood there, either. I canít send him back to Hades with a word. Heís got to find his peace and then be off."
"What do you mean, find his peace?" She had turned back to the hound, which had resumed circling.
"Somethingís not right in this world. ĎTil itís made right, heíll be with us."
Cunilus had grown used to the light, but it was making his eyes hurt. His anger, which had abated at the surprise of an another victim, now returned with a vengeance. He growled and chuffed, giving vent to his fury. He crouched low for a second time and this time with no hesitation leapt forward into his prey.
None of them had expected Cunilus to react so quickly. Gabrielle had just got a hand on Menalusí arm, intending to push him out of the way, when they heard a war cry on their right. Before they could turn to look, Xena crashed straight into them bringing all three to the ground and out of the path of Cunilusí jump.
Cunilus knew that war cry very well, and the surprise of it caused him to stumble on his landing. He rebounded to his feet, and eyed the latest addition with great interest.
Xena was on her feet just as fast, her sword out in front of her. "Cunilus! Heel!"
The large dog hesitated. He knew that voice - he recognized that face. This was his master. He sat.
"Looks like Iím still his master," she commented dryly, but she didnít drop her sword.
Gabrielle was still disentangling herself from the others, but saw Cunilusí obeisance. "Xena, Celes says something is not right. Cunilus needs to find peace in this world. Thatís why heís still here."
Celes managed to stand and casually walked up to Xena, as though unconcerned at the danger that sat before him. He put a hand on her sword hilt. "Your blade with do naught against such a one. Youíve got to puzzle through without it. Use your tongue, not your sword!"
But she was unable to comply. Her sword was her first defense. She had honed her skills over thousands of practice sessions and countless battles, until all fighting was second nature. It was something she relied on to get her through this world. Yet here was an enemy invulnerable to her mastery. She would not answer this riddle with steel.
But then how to deal with such a foe? Trickery? She had used deception many times to defeat an enemy, but how could this work against a dog? She couldnít use his emotions, assumptions, or beliefs against him. What did he want?
"Cunilus..." she started, not sure what to say.
The waiting dog gave a single bark.
"Cunilus," she began again, "you must forgive me. You have to understand, we would have both been killed..." She trailed off. *Why am I arguing with the ghost of a dog? He doesnít understand me now anymore than when he was alive.* Xena studied him for a moment more. Then she smiled, and slowly walked up to stand just pace away from him.
"Xena, what are you doing?" Gabrielle hissed, convinced her friend had finally lost it.
But Xena was unconcerned. She knelt down in front of him and looked straight into those still trusting and loyal eyes. Then the warrior repeated words she had spoken only hours ago. "Cunilus! Hades is your new master. You will obey him as you obeyed me. I release you. Now go to your master!"
Cunilus hesitated only a moment. Then with the calmness of one whose true purpose is now revealed, he loped off to find his place in the next world.
"But, Xena, I donít understand why he chose now to come back." They were back at the tavern. Gabrielle was sitting down surrounded by Xena, Celes, and piles of food, which she had demanded upon their return.
"Could have been anything. Iím guessing it was this though." She held up the gold chain.
Celes gasped at the sight. "And where be this cominí from? None but royalty could claim this with their purse!"
Xena looked at him. "You forget, I was royalty." Her expression grew dark. "And like so many of that hold such power, I took from others by force. Many tried to avert my wrath with gifts. Cunilus was one such gift. He was given to me by a minor king and this was his collar."
"Exactly." She turned back to Gabrielle. "When did you say Menalus found this?"
Gabrielle had to hold up a hand while she finished chewing. She had been eating steadily since their return, and showed no signs of stopping. "He told me he found it just before the new moon. I guess that would put the timing right."
"Then the dog was buried in the field along with the rest of the men? Iíve told Menalus more than once not to go there. His Da would hang him on the gibbet for such, if he knew."
Gabrielle put a hand on Celesí arm and gave him a hard stare. "And weíre not going to tell Jeral, are we?"
The older man held up his hands in defense. "I said naught about it!" Then changing the subject, "By the by, Xena, what is this about you needing Hades own garden in your stock? Iíve never seen a list such as you gave me. Didnít think Iíd have cause to remember most of those."
Xena smiled. "I was trying to see how easy it would be for anyone to get their hands on poisons. When I sent Gabrielle out, I was thinking this whole thing might have been caused by an unknown poisoner. If she had come back with her arms full, I would have known that the source was probably you. Whether you were responsible or not was another matter."
"No healer as worth his salt would give those up to one unskilled in the art." He was annoyed at the suggestion that he wasnít worth his. "And are you so mighty as to know the proper uses for yer list? Eh?" He nodded toward Gabrielle. "This one tells me youíre a healer as well, but does ya know the right proper use of Black Cohosh?"
"It calms the nerves and brings up fluids with bad coughing. Itís also used to relieve pain during pregnancy."
"All right then, how about Quassia?"
"Cures the need for drinking. Also good for fever."
"Ok, this oneís not so easy. Have ye heard of Shepherdís purse?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "You must be joking. Itís one of the only things good for internal injuries. Next."
Gabrielle held up one hand and patted her stomach with the other. "I donít think I want to hear anymore of this right now guys." She picked up the gold collar. "Xena, if itís Ok with you, Iíd still like to give this to Telamon so that he can use the money for the families of the victims."
Xena nodded. "Itís not going to do us any good. Just make sure itís enough to also pay for our stay here Ė especially the food." She gestured at the many empty plates in front of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle shot a glare back at her, then went off to find Menalus and Telamon.
Xena smiled and turned back to the healer. "Ok, Iíve got one for you Ė Speedwell."
"Am I an apprentice then? Any but the most base student knows it for a throat wash. But around here we calls it Gypsy Weed. And do ya know about Coltsfoot ..."
Gabrielle shook her head, anticipating a long night of sparring between two rivals. She found Menalus bustling out of the kitchen, laden with many plates of food. Word had already spread among the townsfolk that the danger was over, and many had gathered at the tavern for an impromptu celebration. He was obviously busy, but she didnít think he should miss the presentation to come. He should feel proud for his contribution, get some glimpse of what it was like to be a hero.
Jeral was just as laden when he came out of the kitchen, but she managed to stop him for a moment. "Jeral, I need to borrow Menalus for a moment."
"None but as fools could say Ďnoí to a hero of the day. Youíve but to ask and any, like as naught, would tear down the mountains to please ya. I be knowiní your hardships betterín most, and I can spares myself if ya need. Menalus deserves a respite anyhow, what with sharing your danger and whatnot. Not that it donít turn me cold to think of!" His whole massive frame shuddered, but he managed not to spill anything.
Gabrielle took this as assent. "Thanks!" She grabbed Menalus as he was heading back into the kitchen.
"You need to come with me. Iím going to give the chain to Telamon. I know we canít tell him it was from you, but I want you to be there. Just know that Iím proud of you." She winked at him. He smiled and turned a bit red.
Telamon was the center of attention at a very large table, where he was being asked repeated questions about the mystery dog, was Lucius really under lock and key, was Termindes one of the warlords from before, how safe was the town now, were the heroes going to stay and protect the town, and on and on. He handled all of this with his usual good-naturedness, but Gabrielle could see he was beginning to get raw around the edges. The townsfolk seemed to have forgotten that just a short while ago, he had been held captive by an evil warlord. Such was the life of an alderman. Or a tavern keeper. She needed some way to deflect their attention. *Perhaps a story in a bit.*
She interrupted the persistent questioning. "Iím sorry everyone, but I have to speak with Telamon in private for a moment. Is that Ok?"
There were vigorous nods of assent. Just as Jeral had tried to indicate, no one would deny Xena and Gabrielle anything tonight.
Telamon looked exceedingly grateful and hopped out of his chair with a haste that was slightly unseemly. "Now I owe you another debt," he whispered as he approached. "And what can I do for you?" He smiled.
"Actually, I have something for you. Xena told me about the victims, and there will be some hard times for those families over the winter. We would like to give you something to help out." She held up the chain to him and winked at Menalus.
His jaw dropped. "Thatís a right kingly gift!"
He shook his head. "I can not accept that. Youíve done so much already, youíve earned our praise a thousand times over. This is too much. Besides, one link of that chain would be enough to get us all through the winter." He placed his hand on her shoulder. "I am much grateful to ya, but weíll get by another way."
"But surely this would make your lives that much easier..."
But he would have none of it. "Gabrielle, youíre as generous as you are brave. But weíve been getting by in this town for many a year. Hardships come and go and we do our best to see each other through them. I wonít see that be changed by easy money."
Gabrielle smiled back at him. "Telamon, the town is in good hands. But I do have one last thing I can do for you. Why donít you go tell your friends that Iím going to tell a story. Iíll be there in a moment."
"Now that is a gift indeed!" He laughed and made his way back to the table.
Gabrielle was slightly disappointed as she turned back to Menalus. "Well, that didnít go as expected."
"Yeah, but Telamon is a hero too!"
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. "I suppose. Why do you say that?"
"You told me yourself today. Heroes donít accept such gifts."
She smiled. "Of course. Well, I guess we will have to find someone more needy. Unless you want to keep it?"
"Nah. I couldnít do anything with it anyway. Youíll know best whatís to be done with it." He looked down at the ground, suddenly shy again. "Just come back sometime and tell me about it, Ok?"
"You bet!" She gave him a quick hug, which reddened him again.
"Uh, I need to go ask Da if I can listen to your story. Iíll be right back. Donít start without me, huh?" He ran off.
Gabrielle made her way back to Xena and Celes.
"... Soapwort? Please! You can do better than that! Boil the roots and use the stock for rashes. Try Kingís Cure ..."
Gabrielle held up a hand to interrupt the exchange. "Sorry to stop the jousting, but I just wanted to talk to Xena for just a second before I tell a story."
Celes nodded. "Iím done in anyway. Youíre right about her - sheís a right fine healer. Knows her plants like a true sage." He grinned at the intended pun, but seeing neither of them got it, continued. "Iíll just be joininí the others." He got up and moved his chair to the edge of the circle that had been formed in the anticipation of Gabrielleís storytelling.
She dropped the chain back on the table. "He wouldnít take it. Said theyíd find a way to get through."
Xena nodded. "I kind of expected that. Telamon prides himself on being able to figure out the best way out of a problem like this. Your solution is too easy. I guess weíll just have to find another use for it." She gave her friendís shoulder a squeeze. "Donít worry, Iím sure weíll think of something. Now go tell youíre story. Iíll be listening too." She smiled.
Gabrielle stood up. "Here goes." She walked over and took the seat prepared for her in the middle of the circle. She winked at Menalus, who had found a place in the front row.
Xena picked up the chain and moved her chair next to Celes, whom she had come to appreciate a bit more since their last visit. Gabrielle began her story. *Ah, the Titans - good choice.* As the story unfolded, Xena drifted off to the true events now recalled so vividly by her partnerís depiction. After a while, she caught herself and looked around. She was always a bit surprised by the effect Gabrielle could have on a room. Attentive and delighted faces were everywhere. Gabrielle caught her gaze for just a second and shot her a knowing glance. Xena smiled in return. *You have a true gift, my bard.*
Gabrielle woke late the next morning. She was also alone. This didnít please her, since she appreciated the fact that size of the bed forced a rather cozy atmosphere between the two travelling companions. Sheíd intended to make the most of the opportunity, but now it was wasted.
Before she could muster her desire to get out of bed, Xena popped in the room. She was dressed in her travel wear, which was soaked through. Her hair was matted to her forehead, and goosebumps showed on her arms.
"Where have you been! Get out of those wet things! I guess its raining, huh?" She was now seriously glum at the prospect of travelling in the rain. *Life of a hero!*
Xena stripped down to her dry shift. "Little bit nippy out there this morning." Gabrielle opened the covers invitingly. She hesitated only a second before joining her companion. Gabrielle brought her warm body to bear on the cold warrior. She winced but secretly felt it was worth it. Xena was all smiles.
"What were you doing out there, Xena? We havenít even eaten breakfast yet!"
"I wanted to check on Argo. And, um ... I needed to get you this." She guiltily handed Gabrielle a new quill and inkwell. "I left your other on the table yesterday morning, and when I went back to get it, it was gone. Iím sorry."
Gabrielle bit her lip and gave her friend a body hug.
"Also, I spoke with Jeral, and heís agreed to another nightís lodging and food if youíll tell more stories tonight."
Gabrielleís smile deepened considerably. "I think I can manage that."
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