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Xena and Gabrielle had been traveling for hours and were getting close to Myleah. On the way, Xena had explained to her friend, who Antemas was and how she knew the Warlord. She told of her days back before she had met Gabrielle, when she herself was a Warlord. She had committed war crimes and still had nightmares about them occasionally. Xena regretted her actions back then. She especially regretted the fact that she'd had a chance to kill Antemas and she let him go.
Antemas was a rival warlord of an army that had clashed many times with Xena's own army. He had been a general in the Persian cavalry and was highly regarded as one of the bright stars in the Persian Army. He was intelligent, charismatic and an extremely dangerous man. Xena dreaded facing him more than if she'd had to face Callisto. At least with Callisto, you knew what you were facing. Antemas was unpredictable and this made the prospect of encountering him deadly!
She'd had the chance to kill him one night. It was only a few years ago after meeting Gabrielle. Gabrielle had gone home and Xena had stopped in a tavern once in Apollonia for the night. She walked in and the first person she met was a drunken Antemas! He could hardly stand and had a girl in each arm. They were singing old war songs and he was blind drunk! In fact, Xena wasn't sure he even recognized her. It would have been an easy thing for her to have cleaved him in two right on the spot. But...
"What stopped you?" asked her friend.
Xena looked deep into Gabrielle's eyes and said "You".
"What? Me? How" exclaimed the Bardling?
Xena looked away, as if looking back into the past. "Well" she began. "Because of you, I have tried very hard to turn away from the darkness that once controlled me. I've tried to do what was right and perhaps make up for some of the crimes I committed in the past".
She smiled. "If I hadn't met you, I would have continued down that same path. But it took a shining force to turn my life around. And that force was you".
Gabrielle blushed. "You had it in you all along".
Xena laughed. "Well...perhaps. And if it were in me, then why not someone else too? I could have killed Antemas easily, but doesn't he deserve the same chance as I"?
Gabrielle brightened. "Yes! Yes, I guess you're right! Maybe we can talk to Antemas and..."
Xena's smile faded and she cut in. "No! You won't be meeting Antemas. He's too dangerous and I won't risk it".
Gabrielle was hurt. "Xena, I'm not a child anymore. I can take care of myself now. I stood up to Callisto for crying out loud"!
Xena rolled her eyes " Yes, and you very nearly died in the process. I won't risk losing you again Gabrielle! You are going to stay in Myleah while I go on ahead".
Xena's mind raced. Antemas' men would not stay in Myleah itself. His tactics were to hit and run. He had probably ravaged the village by now and moved on anyway. Gabrielle could stay there, help the remaining villagers and stay out of trouble.
Gabrielle was still talking but Xena tuned it out. Antemas was unpredictable and deadly. Draco and Callisto were child's play to this one! And he had that power. She had seen him gaze upon an enemy and disintegrate the guy right before her eyes! Black bolts of lightning burst from Antemas' eyes and turned the helpless man to dust!
"No Gabrielle! You'll be needed in Myleah anyway".
The sheer cliffs of dark stone closed about Xena like the jaws of a trap. She didn't like the way their jagged peaks loomed against the night sky. The few faint stars glittered like the eyes of spiders down on the two as they traveled through the valley. Neither did she like the chill, uneasy breeze, which that whistled across the rocky heights and prowled around their campfire. It flickered and sent monstrous shadows writhing across the stone walls of the near side of the valley.
Something about this place, thought Xena, was wrong. It stank of fear and death and she could almost smell the acrid odor of terror on the breeze. Argo felt it too. He nickered and pawed the earth uneasily.
She looked over at her companion lying peacefully on her bedroll. Gabrielle just didn't understand. She didn't know what they were getting into. She didn't sense the sinister force that hovered about the valley.
Leaning against a tree, her cloak wrapped tightly around her to break the dank breeze from the heights, Xena thought of her foe. The guy had been so inhumane, so bloody that no one dare challenge him! The Greek army used to flee before the Persians if they knew Antemas was leading them. Even the Spartans trembled before him. And it was all because Antemas was a master of the use of psychological warfare. He knew that if the could break the will of his enemy before a battle, then his job was nearly done. He began to cut a swath across the lands of Thracia, selling his prisoners into slavery. If there were any prisoners. More likely he would simply kill them. Men, women and children. Even the animals (that could not be eaten) weren't spared. At Aenus, he had impaled the whole town for resisting his army!
Xena shuddered and pulled the cloak more tightly around her shoulders. This was going to be bad. Very bad indeed.
Dawn arrived with a warm glow in the sky. The night air had covered everything with a coat of dew and a mist arose from the valley floor. Xena awoke first and donned her armor. She looked over at her friend who was still sound asleep.
"Wake up Gabrielle. It's time to go".
Gabrielle grumbled and pulled the cover over her head. She hated this part of the job. The early morning hours were the worst part sometimes. She had always felt that it should be a law that no one should have to begin their day before mid-morning.
Xena grinned and gently kicked her friend in the rump. "Get up goofy"!
Gabrielle slowly rolled into an upright, sitting position. Her hair was down in her face and her eyes would barely open. "Oh great! Another fine day of rest and relaxation is upon us"!
Xena laughed and began making what passed for breakfast. She felt better today. The strange feeling she'd had last evening was gone with the daylight. She clattered pots and pans and rumbled through Gabrielle's bags until her friend finally had enough.
"Xena, just let me do it! We'll starve if we wait on you to make breakfast"!
Xena laughed. "Ok sleepyhead. I'll go collect more firewood and you can make breakfast today".
"Today? What do you mean today? I always have to make breakfast"! grumbled her friend.
Xena grinned and looked over her shoulder as she left camp. "What? I'll make breakfast if you like"?
Gabrielle waited until Xena had gotten out of earshot before she murmured, "Yeah, and poison us all in the process".
Gabrielle felt better after they had eaten and were on their way again. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and they had begun to climb up into the mountains. Gabrielle loved the mountains. The scenery was so beautiful and from up here, it seemed you could look out and see forever. "She reached into her bag, pulled out a shepherd's flute and began to play a merry tune. The tune was one she'd learned after sharing lunch one afternoon with some shepherd's near Epidaurus, in Corinth. It was a favorite of Xena's and usually served to lighten the mood. She'd noticed that as the climbed higher into the hills, Xena began to withdraw and grow moody.
After awhile, they had reached a spot where they could stop for lunch. Gabrielle stopped and began digging through their bags for the figs, cheese and bread that she'd packed away. That, along with a little wine might make Xena feel a bit better. She didn't drink wine herself, so she made do with a skin of water.
Xena ate in silence. They were getting pretty close and she knew she had to make some tough decisions in the coming days. She had to find a way to stop Antemas or he might well, wreak havoc throughout the whole countryside!
Gabrielle munched on some bread and mumbled. "So why haven't we seen any of Antemas' soldiers today? You'd think we would have had to sneak up here".
Xena started at Gabrielle's question. That was it! That was what had been bothering her! Where were Antemas' men? She knew that a wise commander usually had patrols reconnoitering the area around his base camp. Perhaps they weren't here after all! Perhaps they'd been sent on a wild goose chase!
"Thanks Gabrielle, you are a genius"!
The Bardling stared at Xena with surprise. "Wha...what"?
Xena explained her thoughts that maybe Antemas wasn't here after all. Maybe the man she'd interrogated simply said that to get her to leave him alone.
Gabrielle beamed. "Well, you know, I can have good ideas too"!
Xena laughed at her friend's lack of modesty. "You've been hanging around Joxer too long".
Gabrielle laughed and the two relaxed a little and continued eating.
The afternoon sun had sunk low into the surrounding hills and the sky was growing red in the fading light. Xena and Gabrielle had come to a crossroad. One way led to the mountain peak and the other to the village of Myleah.
Gabrielle indicated the road that climbed into the mountains. "Where does that road lead"?
Xena glance in the direction "Oh, that one? That just goes to rock quarry. It's where the Athenians get a lot of the stone for the monuments they build". She pointed to the other road. "Myleah is in that direction. I want to check it out just to be safe".
The two friends hurried off toward Myleah before dark set in. Perhaps they'd be able to find a hut to share this night. At least that would keep the dew off of them and they'd be warmer.
They traveled on for half an hour, Gabrielle chattering the whole way. Rounding a bend they came upon a bundle lying in the road. It was difficult to see clearly in the fading light. Xena held up her hand for silence and crept ahead. Drawing her sword, she inched her way toward the bundle. Reaching out with her sword tip, she nudged the bundle. It didn't move. Slowly, carefully, she turned the pile of rags over and saw that it was the body of a young girl! The girl had been dead for a few hours it seemed, but the wind was blowing away from them, so the odor had not alerted Xena.
Xena went back to where Gabrielle was standing. "It's a body Gabrielle. A girl. She's been dead for a few hours, but we need to be careful now. Whoever killed her might still be around".
Gabrielle stared at the body. "A girl"? She felt a weight upon her chest. "Why would they kill a little girl"?
Xena scowled. "Because Antemas isn't human. Life has no meaning for him and there's no telling what they did to that girl before death took her!
She heard a whimper escape from her friend. "We need to do something with the body Xena".
"Yeah. I know". Xena began to gather stones from the side of the road. Fortunately, there were plenty so near the quarry. They were able to cover the girl fairly quickly at the side of the road and then move on.
Xena and Gabrielle walked a little further and came upon a site that sent waves of horror and revulsion through them both. At the entrance to the little village was row upon row of poles, set upright. On the poles were the villagers themselves. They'd all been impaled! Most were dead although some had not succumbed yet. The moans of agony and the stench of death filled the air.
Tears welled in Gabrielle's eyes. "Oh Xena"! Gabrielle whispered. "Oh gods, who could do something like this"?
Xena surveyed the scene before her. Her anger welled up from within and it took great effort to keep from shaking with rage. "Antemas".
"Gabrielle, I want you to keep your eyes open and be ready! I've got some dirty work ahead and I want you to understand that I'm doing this for the victims here".
Gabrielle nodded and Xena drew her sword. Walking up to one of the impaled victims, she looked at her friend, then with one swift stroke of her blade, Xena severed the dying man's head from his shoulders. She put the others out of their agony as well before turning back to her friend.
"We've got to search out the village before we take care of these bodies".
Gabrielle swiftly whispered a prayer before following Xena into the village. The huts were burned and the whole area appeared to have been looted. True to form, Antames had killed even the dogs in the streets. It as now completely dark and Xena began to look for a place to shelter them for the night. She wanted to leave Gabrielle in a safe place before continuing to scout out the area.
A faint voice called out from the wreckage of one of the huts. "Who's there"?
"Stay back Gabrielle" Xena said as she drew steel and advanced slowly.
She began to pick through the wreckage, lifting broken beams and reed walls out of the way. It was difficult to do with only one hand, but it was necessary. She didn't want to risk having Gabrielle there to get caught in a trap. Plus, it was nice to have a friend there to watch her back.
Lifting the last beam out of the way, Xena uncovered a cellar door. She slowly opened the door and peered into the darkness. "Come out of there whoever you are"!
Slowly, a feeble old man, obviously blind, crept out of the cellar and into the open. " Don't kill me, " he said.
He was unarmed and in the last years of his life. Xena reached down and helped the man out of the cellar.
"Thank you " he said. "I surrender now".
Gabrielle came forward, tears running down both cheeks and helped the old one to a seat. "Xena, he's blind! He thinks we're the ones who destroyed his village"!
Xena looked at her and sheathed her weapon. "I know."
Gabrielle began to tend to a cut on the old man's head. "My name is Gabrielle and this is my friend Xena".
The old one said, "I am Tiresias".
He began to cough, so Gabby brought out a skin of water and gave it to the old man.
"Thank you young lady" he said after taking a drink.
"Xena, this is...." But Xena was gone. Only Argo remained near the two. Gabrielle looked around for her friend. She hated it when Xena disappeared like that. Oh well, she thought, and then turned back to administer aid to the old man.
Xena, upon finding that Gabrielle would be safe and occupied with Tiresias, decided to recon the area. Searching among all the huts and surrounding forest, she learned that a large army had razed the countryside before moving on. All of the homes in the surrounding area had been burned and the livestock had been stolen. Satisfied that no bands of warriors remained nearby, she returned to the village.
Gabrielle had built a campfire and begun cooking a meal with supplies she'd found in the remains of the old man's hut. Tiresias sat in silence, listening to the sounds Gabrielle made as she prepared the meal. He heard Xena approaching long before she returned to camp. "You make too much noise young lady".
Gabrielle smiled " I'm sorry".
The old man chuckled, "I'm referring to your friend". He indicated Xena as she returned.
"You could hear me"? Xena asked. "I'm usually pretty quiet in situations like this one".
Tiresias nodded, "Yes, I heard you stumbling about out in the dark. You're nearly as bad as the Cyclops we had to drive out of my garden last season"!
Gabrielle laughed, " Maybe you're losing your touch Xena". She teased.
Xena shot her a look and then settled down beside the old man. "Tell me what happened here".
Tiresias nodded and began to relate the day's events.
"The day had begun quite normally. The sun was shining and he'd finished breakfast before going out to his garden. He still liked to raise vegetables though his niece had taken to helping him these days, since it was difficult for him to do alone.
About midmorning a cry rang out from the villages and the sound of thunder shook the ground. It was the Warlord's Calvary units sweeping through the region. They rode into the town and smashed everything in sight, putting the huts to the torch and rounding up all the villagers. His niece had taken him down into the cellar to hide so they would be safe. Then she went to search for her mother. Later, the hut crashed down onto the door of the cellar, pinning him inside. He had been there all day, listening to the cries of pain and agony of the villagers but unable to get out of the cellar. If not for Xena and Gabrielle, he'd have died in that cellar".
Gabrielle placed a hand on his shoulder; "Did you hear anyone say who the commander of the army was"?
Tiresias nodded, "Antemas. Later that afternoon they simply rode away". He sighed, "We never knew what they wanted".
Xena looked at Gabrielle and saw the sadness on her face. She felt it too. She should have killed the bastard when she had a chance. Now, another village has been wiped out.
"Gabrielle, stay with Tiresias. He'll need your help here. I'm going after Antemas".
Gabrielle nodded, "Be careful Xena".
Xena grinned as she saddled Argo, "Aren't I always"? She then mounted and rode off toward the quarry.