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by mlocket

Neither Xena nor Gabrielle is happy. They are certainly not speaking to each other. This situation is aided and abetted by the cloth gags tied around their mouths. They ride facing each other, lying down, trussed up and grumpy, in the back of a small wagon being driven toward the walls of the House of Learning.

The wagon driver is a middle-aged woman with plain country features and a righteous glint of satisfaction in her eye. She turns her head frequently to look at the captives, sniffs, raises her nose a couple of inches, and then returns to her driving.

Behind the wagon a squadron of peasant farmers decked out in makeshift military gear straggles in half-formation. Most of them are not even twenty and act like a group of athletes coming back from a winning game of hedgehog drop, hitting each other on the arm and whooping it up.

The entourage arrives at the courtyard gates set in a wall of large stones, packed closely together. After the driver yells to the guards on the other side of the wall, the gates open. They know this woman. She has made deliveries here before.

A man waits in the courtyard of the large, low building. It too is made of large stones, and, like its surrounding wall, it is gray and bleak, with few windows. The woman eases herself out of the driver seat. She gestures toward the back of the wagon.

"Do you have room for these?"

"As always, madam." The Custodian walks to the back of the wagon and looks at its bed as the men pull Xena and Gabrielle out. "Where are their personal belongings?"

"Safe and sound at my house," the woman says, smiling proudly. "We'll use their horse while they're here for good HONEST work. And this one," she says, indicating Xena, "had a knife ON HER PERSON! My husband was shocked!" As two men bring Xena up to the Custodian, the woman pushes her face close to Xena, "If you thought we needed the help of a barbarian witch like you, you will learn better. Well after all, this is the House of Learning." She laughs an ugly gargling laugh and elbows the Custodian in the stomach. He smiles tightly.

One of the older village men steps up to the Custodian and speaks, as though confidential. "Will you need any extra help with this one?" he says pointing at Xena. "She'd be a demon running wild if she got free." The men pull Xena forward, presenting the evidence.

The Custodian's eyes narrow. "No, friend, we have sufficient means to handle our visiting guests."

"Well alright," says the man. "This goat's kid shouldn't be any problem." He pulls Gabrielle by her hair toward the Custodian. Since her feet are tied together, she falls to the ground and the men laugh as she struggles to rise.

Xena's jaw muscles tighten underneath the gag.

"We'll have no trouble with either of them." The Custodian motions to his Keepers, who drag Xena and Gabrielle away. He turns to the woman.

"Handling these difficult guests ... well ... as you know ... our expenses need to be met."

"Of course," she says. She turns and looks at the now restless men. "We will be glad to supply you with whatever you need, as long as we can be assured that they will receive your special treatment. We want them to learn their lesson well." The men reluctantly nod an agreement. Some of them can hardly afford an extra bean curd, let alone the goats and goods the Custodian gets from them. However, he does give them an important service.

The Custodian removes the Unwanted from their midst and places them in the House of Learning ... for as long as it takes ... for them to Learn.

Xena is pacing in a cell. The wall is flat solid rock. The door is thick wood and apparently bolted securely on the outside, since it didn't move a mosquito's breadth when she had lowered her shoulder into it earlier. There is a tiny window, the size of a large loaf of bread, set in the thick outside wall. It faces the back courtyard of the House of Learning and is covered with a metal screen, deeply set between stones. Through its limited view Xena can see a portion of the courtyard. People in the same drab, loose overshirts Xena is wearing move around or sit. Some of them look wild-eyed, but most just look miserable. Keepers holding sticks sharpened to painful-looking points keep watch. Xena can not see Gabrielle from her narrow vantage point and continues to pace.


A face has appeared at the window. Xena walks toward it.

"Who are you?" Xena asks warily.

"Casaway." Xena sees that it's a young man of about 20. He is smiling. "One of the Keepers says that you're Xena."

"I am."

"It is an honor to meet you. We have a couple of people here who think they are you, but in both cases, that would be quite a stretch of faith."

"What do you mean? What is this place?"

Casaway looks over his shoulder, furtively. None of the Keepers seem to be interested in his conversation with the woman in the cell. They are enjoying their daily tormenting of the guests.

"This is the House of Learning. They send people here from all over the valley who become problems for their family or the towns. They can send you here for seeing the gods every day, or trying to bash your head into the wall, or sleeping with too many men. You understand? People will gladly pay to have their problems 'disappear'."

Xena nods. "Why are you here?"

"I am a problem. I wanted to marry my only love, but her father wanted grandchildren closer to his own color of skin, I think, as well as a richer son-in-law. He has one all picked out from a wealthy landowner's family, so he took care of the one nagging hindrance---the one you're looking at. But one day, the Custodian will have me for a son-in-law, and I will laugh in his ugly face."

"The Custodian? Why does he let you wander free?"

"I plead with him every day to let me go and I grovel; he loves it. I do his bidding at every turn. He promises that he will release me and I pretend to believe him."

"How can you go on here, like you are? You don't even seem angry"

Casaway smiles. "I see her. I talk to her." He closes his eyes and points to his forehead' "She's in here." He puts both hands over his heart "and here"

Xena smiles back. She thinks of those she holds in her heart, who make her struggle worthwhile.

From around his waist, Casaway unties a rope with a small cloth bundle attached. "One of the former residents gave me this before he died. He said it would help me defeat the Custodian one day." With difficulty, the young man shoves the bundle through the screen.

"What is it?" Xena asks.

"The man said it was a gift to him from Athena, which is probably why he was here in the first place. It was supposed to protect him from any weapon of war."

Xena unwraps the bundle to find a very ratty old shirt. "This?"

"Well, that's what he said, and he told me so many stories of horrible battles he'd lived through that I started to believe him. However, I know I'm not a warrior, and you are a great warrior. Please take it; if you can ever use it to win in battle against the Custodian, I will be Athena's follower forever."

Xena looks at the shirt and begins to roll it up again. She carefully reattaches it to the rope. "I don't want this."

The boy looks hurt.

"But listen," Xena continues...

(A few minutes later)

"Goodbye, True Xena," Casaway moves from the window.

Xena looks around the yard again. She still does not see the long red hair she looks for.

Gabrielle sits on a bench chained by one hand and both feet. She is in a courtyard far from Xena's window. People mill around her. She turns to the woman sitting on the bench next to her, who is eyeing virtually every man in the courtyard in an alarmingly hungry way. Many of the men return the look.

"Do you believe it?" Gabrielle asks the uninterested woman, "we defeat Bolar's men to protect these townspeople and then they have us thrown in here! Must be their way of saying thank you." The woman gets up and walks toward a likely prospect near a tree in the corner. "Well, there, I knew you'd be stunned. And to be captured by a child!" she takes up with a man who sits in the woman's place. He's a little large and bumps Gabrielle's side of the bench up a little, but her chains are attached to the wall behind her and stay firmly in place.

"As I was saying," Gabrielle goes on " about this woman, her daughter comes up to us like an innocent little lamb and offers Xena a bouquet of daffodils. Well, Xena really doesn't go for that kind of thing (you'd have to know her) but she takes them. Then the little rapscallion takes a big deep breath and blows this yellow powder that apparently was covering this so-called symbol of gratitude, she blows this stuff right into Xena's face! Xena's eyes roll up into her head and she just keels over. Of course they had me then, because I wasn't going to put up a fight and leave Xena with the spawn of Tartarus grinning down at her ... but these people! Honestly!"

Casaway, who had been sitting on the ground at a distance, has been inching closer to Gabrielle ever since he heard her say the name of Xena. He is almost at her feet as the large man stands up to leave.

"They shouldn't have done that" Casaway tells her earnestly.

Gabrielle looks at him. He looks genuinely concerned.

"Well, I'm glad you think so. They seemed to be incredibly offended that a woman had saved their town, when their own men could not. Wanted to hush it up, I guess. Must've thought we'd go around telling everybody What's your name?"


"I'm glad to meet you, Casaway, my name is Gabrielle. Why are you here?"

"In-law problems" Casaway takes the rope and shirt and pushes it into Gabrielle's chained hand. "Xena wants you to have this."

"You've talked to Xena?" Gabrielle asks eagerly. "Where is she? Is she okay?"

The large man on the bench laughs mockingly, "Which Xena, Casaway, the one who screams from the roof of the chicken shed every morning or the one who knocks her head against the floor all night so no one can sleep."

Casaway is kneeling at Gabrielle's feet, holding the bundle in one of her hands and holding her other arm. He looks right into her eyes. "This shirt will protect you from any weapon. Athena gave it to a warrior who used to live here."

Gabrielle raises her eyebrows. "Oh, really."

"Xena said you had to have it, to protect you. Put it around you, no one will notice." Gabrielle gestures with her manacled hand. "No can do." Casaway takes the roped bundle and ties it around her waist as quickly as he can, his fingers fumbling. He looks around nervously for Keepers. Just in time, for one is walking up to them, slapping his Keeper stick repeatedly against his palm. He watches as the nervous Casaway removes his arms from around Gabrielle. The Custodian comes up behind the Keeper and surveys the scene.

"Well, we certainly don't need another troublemaker in the yard, do we, Pullus?"

Casaway stands up, head bowed in a show of deep humility, "I'm sorry sir, please, I beg you, have mercy in your power."

The Keeper raises his stick and backhands it across Gabrielle's temple.

"No!" Casaway yells, horrified.

Gabrielle shakes her head, then reaches up and grabs the Keeper's stick with her free hand. He struggles to regain control of it as she pokes the blunt end repeatedly into his stomach.

"Unnnh, unnnh, you !, ooof, unnnh!"

Another Keeper runs over and pulls Gabrielle backward, so the first Keeper can get his stick away. Pullus is out of breath and red-faced. Gabrielle looks at him calmly, breathing evenly over the restraining arm of the other man.

"I should ... I oughtta," says the red-faced Keeper.

The Custodian lowers his face and looks at Gabrielle eye to eye, inches away. "This is a Problem Guest."

The red-faced Keeper smiles as he wheezes. "That's right, she's a Problem Guest." The two attendants called another couple of Keepers and they unlock Gabrielle's chains from the wall and walk her out of the courtyard and into the House of Learning.

Casaway put his head in his hands.

"Well Casaway, I'm glad to see that your interests are turning elsewhere."

"Yes, Custodian" the boy mumbles humbly, but his knuckles are white as he clutches his hair.

(Several days have passed)

Xena is sitting on the floor of her cell, her back against the wall. She is making musical instrument noises to her self "brrrr----brrrrrr- brrrrrummmm---brrr -- brrummmm-poom-poom."

Down the hall comes the sound of the Custodian as he makes his twice daily rounds of the Locked Rooms. At every door, he raps several times and moves on. The sound fills Xena with a hatred she almost welcomes as a companion in her lonely cell.

Rap rap rap rap rap on the door across the way

Rap rap rap rap rap on the door next door

Xena cringes.

Rap rap rap rap rap on her door

Xena jumps up to begin a restless circuit of her cell for the 1000th time. She stops at the window, doesn't see what she's looking for and returns to the middle of the room. She crouches into a fighting set stance. She begins to high kick, spin kick, punch, backhand, roll and kick, and then repeats it all until her shapeless overshirt is wringing with sweat and her wet hair hangs disheveled in her face.

Breathing hard, she drops to her knees completely and puts her forehead against the cold floor.

"What have they done with you?"

She takes a deep breath, stands up, and walks to the window for the umpteenth time today and looks out. The familiar group is being watched and prodded by the Keepers, but off by a small flowering shrub a different young woman sits on the ground, drawing one finger through the dirt.

Xena's breath catches. She wants to scream at Gabrielle but she knows the Custodian's minions are watching.

She cries out in the singsong high-pitched voice of someone who is addressing those that are present only as a hallucination to the crier.




Xena hopes that what means nothing to the Keepers will capture Gabrielle's attention, but something seems to be muffling her friend's responses. Gabrielle raises her head slowly, as if from sleep, but doesn't move from where she is.

Xena steels herself. She is sorry, but she has to break through. Back to the crazy loon voice

'PER-DI-CUS? PER-DI-CUS? Are you gone?

Xena's calls have incited some of the unstable people in the yard to start their own calling, causing a welcome distraction as Gabrielle looks up and looks around. She stands up and begins shuffling toward the sound of Xena's voice which is still crying, "PER-DI-CUS, PER-DI-CUS, PER-DI-CUS?"

The increasing hubbub in the yard keeps the guards from noticing Gabrielle's singleness of direction to Xena's window. As she nears, Xena sees that her hair and face are unwashed and her overshirt is torn. Ten feet away from Xena's window, Gabrielle stops.

"Perdicus?" she asks dully.

Xena lowers her voice, "Gabrielle, come here!"

Gabrielle does what that voice bids. Instinctively and immediately she walks up to the small window.

Xena looks through the metal screen at her friend, who is an arm's length away from her ... unreachable. Her look is dull from some kind of drug and her face is slack. One eye is almost swollen shut, with other bruises showing through the dirt.

"Gabrielle, it's Xena."

"Xena," comes the emotionless reply.

Xena grabs the screen in frustration. "Gabrielle! Listen to me!"


"Don't eat or drink anything they give you! Hide it and throw it away! Do you understand? Find Casaway, he'll share his food with you. Are you listening to me? Don't eat or drink! What did I say?"

Tears have begun to come out of Gabrielle's tired eyes. She presses her face against the screen and twines her fingers through where they will fit. She strains her body as if to push it through the impossible opening.

"Xena," she says in a soft, sad, hopeless voice that makes Xena feel like her heart is tearing in half, "this is a bad place."

Xena puts her finger through the screen to wipe away one of Gabrielle's tears. Gabrielle reaches to grab as much of Xena's hand as she can get. She closes her eyes and continues to cry silently.

"Oh, Child, I'll get you out, I promise!"

"Not a child," Gabrielle mumbles reflexively.

A Keeper comes up behind Gabrielle and pokes her sharply in the back with the point of his stick.

"Unnnh" But Gabrielle keeps her grip on Xena's window.

The Keeper shoves the stick more sharply into her side. Gabrielle clings to the window, her eyes on Xena's. Xena's grips the screen, trying to rip it and the wall off her cell, then begins to quickly and forcibly loosen Gabrielle's grip on the metal, prying each finger loose.

"Xena, NO!"

"Gabrielle, no, go on, remember what I told you." The hands are free. "Go!"

The Keeper pushes Gabrielle in the face and shoves her to the ground. She lands on her back, rolls over slowly, stands up and shuffles back over to sit down by the same shrub where her random scratches still show in the ground. Her shoulders slump.

The Keeper turns to Xena. "What do you think you're doing, lunatic?"

Xena smiles at him with a smile of hatred. "Oh I don't know what I'm doing, but I know what you just did."

Her smile, even through the metal screen, is more menacing than any lunatic's he's ever seen. He shudders and moves away in a hurry.

(Three days have gone by)

It's almost dawn. Xena is curled up asleep on the straw mat in her cell. Casaway comes to her window and whispers, "Xena."

She is instantly at the window. "Casaway, have you seen Gabrielle?"

"I came to tell you, they have locked her in one of the cells near you!"


"They caught her throwing her food away."

Xena hits the wall with the side of her fist. "NO!"



"She still won't eat ... or drink."

Casaway waits for a response and gets none.

"Xena it's getting light. If the Custodian sees me with you, you will be the worse for it just like Gabrielle."

Xena's face suddenly appears at the window, her eyes glowing through the holes in the screen like blue ice.

"Casaway, you must help me. Help me out of this cell so I can get to Gabrielle. She will starve to death because I TOLD her to. You MUST!"

"Xena I ... I've been here so long," Casaway closes his eyes and pictures his beloved, standing in the doorway of the house he will build for her, smiling, welcoming him home. Such a gentle, kind smile from the daughter of a jackal. Suddenly he knows what that smiling girl is telling him; "You must help! You must help save these women from my father! They saved our lives, many people in this town, probably mine." Casaway opens his eyes.

"I will do it."

"Thank you."

"But Xena, even if I can get you out of your cell, how can you expect to escape?"

"I won't need to escape, Casaway. Our kind hosts will be begging us to leave."

Casaway walks up to the table where the two Keepers of the Cells sit playing with a cockroach tied to a string.

Casaway puts on his best shy look and addresses one. "Pullus."

"Oh look, it's the Custodian's future son-in-law." Both men laugh. Pullus holds up the cockroach hanging by the string. "Like lookin' in a meeror, eh, Casaway?"

"Listen, please, this is tough enough as it is!"

"What's tough for a little pansy like you?"

"The Custodian wants me to, you know, be with that girl in there." Casaway gestures at the cell door where he knows Gabrielle is. "He says if I have her and still want his daughter, he'll let me go, cause he'll know I really love her."

"You must be pulling our legs. The Custodian never lets us touch the guests. It's his privilege."

"I know." Casaway says, looking with anxiety at Gabrielle's door. "I wished he hadn't changed his mind. I don't think I can do it, but it's my only chance. He's bringing me back here tomorrow morning."

Pullus stands up and puts his arm around Casaway's shoulder, "Why wait till tomorrow morning? Why not get in a little practice?"

"Yeah!" the other Keeper agrees enthusiastically.

"Oh no, please. Not now. Besides," Casaway lowers his eyes, "he wants to be there ... as a witness."

"Oh, we'll be glad to watch ... er, witness." Pullus begins to rub his beard in anticipation. "Come on, besides, you'll need us here in case she gives you any trouble."

He gets the key off his belt and unlocks Gabrielle's door. She's lying facing the wall on her mat. Casaway walks slowly over to her as Pullus grabs a hall torch and brings it in. Gabrielle doesn't move.

"Please, just one of you, I mean, you understand."

Pullus leers and slams the cell door in the entering Keeper's face. "Sure, I understand."

Casaway kneels by Gabrielle.

"Pullus, I ... I ... think she's dead!"

"Oh great!" says Pullus and comes over. As he bends down to look at the still form, Casaway stands up and kicks him in the stomach with all the power derived from two years of rage and loathing. Pullus grunts and falls sideways on top of Gabrielle as Casaway grabs the torch out of his hand. Then the boy lands a kick for good measure to the back of Pullus' head. He holds the torch up to the Keeper's face and sees only white showing between the slits of his eyes. He is still breathing.

Casaway takes the keys off of Pullus' belt latch and props the torch up in a corner of the cell. He maneuvers Pullus' bulk so that it's lying next to Gabrielle. He drapes one hairy arm over her and calls out loud for the other keeper to hear. "What do you think you're doing?! Leave her alone!"

Casaway opens the door of the cell and finds the other Keeper standing with his ear to the door. "I can't," the boy says in a panicked voice, "Pullus, he ..."

The second keeper has already seen the picture in the dim light. "Alright Pullus, you're gonna get us both killed, but what a way to go, eh, whatcha got goin' there, you gorilla?" He walks toward the figures on the floor as Casaway comes up behind him with one of the chairs from the table, which he uses it as a wooden hammer to pound the evil goon to the floor.

Casaway runs over to the door of Xena's cell. He knows that it's nearly time for the Custodian to make his rounds for the night. He opens Xena's cell door and lets her out. Looking around, she quickly sees Gabrielle's open cell door. She runs in and the second Keeper soon flies out the door and across the hall. Casaway drags him into Xena's cell. Pullus come flying out next, landing on his nose and skidding a few feet. Casaway puts him in the cell with the other and closes and locks the door.

Xena has picked up the torch and walks over to kneel at Gabrielle's mat. She reaches over with trepidation to grip Gabrielle's shoulder and roll her gently over onto her back so Xena can see her face in the light. Gabrielle's eyelids blink against the brightness of the torch and her eyes waver unfocused. She looks like a sick rag doll, but Xena breathes with relief.

Xena turns to ask Casaway to bring some water but he's already standing beside her holding the guard's water bucket and dipper. He sets the bucket down beside Xena, who hands him the torch and sits down on the floor beside Gabrielle. She fills the metal dipper with water, lifts her friend's head up, and holds the water to her lips. Gabrielle's eyes begin to frantically dart back and forth. She turns her head away. "No," she moans with a dry croak. Xena moves the dipper back to Gabrielle's mouth. The bard struggles to get away from Xena.

Xena puts the dipper back in the bucket. She easily turns Gabrielle's head to face her, but for a moment she can't bring herself to speak. The storyteller's lips are swollen and cracked, her eyes are glazed over and appear to be receding into her head. Her breathing is shallow and coarse.

"Gabrielle, who am I?"


"Look at me! You know me!"


"Say my name! Say it!"


"Do you know me?"


Xena fills the dipper with water again and holds it up for Gabrielle. "Drink Gabrielle, I want you to drink."

Gabrielle drinks some water, coughs, and then drinks some more. Exhausted by this small task, she falls back. Xena lays her down and then turns quickly toward sounds coming from outside the cell.

"Who is that?" she asks Casaway.

Casaway holds the Keeper's keys up and jingles them. "Gotta go!" He gets up and runs out the open door.

"Casaway!" Xena stares at the open door for a second, surprised that he would leave them. Then she hears the sound of men's voices.

"They're not here! Pullus! Get the Custodian! Look, that door!"

Xena jumps across the room to shut the door. When it is two inches away from being closed, she feels the pressure of someone leaning against it, trying to force it open.

"Hey give me a hand!" "Just lock it." "Pullus and Drome might be in there!" "Just lock it till the Custodian gets here." "I DON'T HAVE THE KEY, DIMWIT! Now, help me!"

Xena leans against the door, holding it shut against the three keepers. They are yelling out for reinforcements. Xena hears a bell ringing, then another, and then more in the distance. Gabrielle is lying on the mat, her head moving listlessly back and forth. Xena notices the rope tied around her waist--the gift from Casaway!

Xena opens the cell door. "Come on in!"

Three Keepers stumble and flail into the room. Xena gives each of them a small greeting to the back of their heads and they immediately rest on the floor of the cell. But Xena can hear the pounding feet of reinforcements. She unties the bundle from around Gabrielle and unrolls the shirt.

"I don't know what I'm doing," she mutters to herself as she quickly unrolls the shirt. "It's dirty, it's torn, it's not even fit for a cleaning rag." Nevertheless, she hauls Gabrielle into a sitting position, dressing her in the garment. She lays the bard back down and looks down at her--an unconscious woman in a worn-out shirt. "Casaway," Xena says disgustedly. "This is supposed to be protection?" Xena hurriedly gives Gabrielle another drink of water and sees there is one remaining hook fastener left on the shirt at the throat. "Alright," Xena says resignedly and reaches to fasten it, "there you go." When the hook slips into the cloth eye, Xena is knocked backward. Gabrielle seems to have been set on fire.

Xena can hardly see Gabrielle's face through what looks like a sheen of shimmering hot light. Except it isn't really heat, it is wave after wave of lustrous brightness that tingles against Xena's skin. The glow surrounds Gabrielle's entire body like a chrysalis spun from the sun. Then the sparkling glow is gone and she can again see her friend lying before her. From the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, Gabrielle is wearing a strange looking garment of thick white weave.

Xena finds it hard to focus on the surface of the material; when she tries, it starts to look watery and surreal. She reaches out and touches it to see if it is real. It is soft and resilient. It feels like skin. Indeed, it fits Gabrielle's body like a second skin on her feet, legs, torso, arms, hands, neck, and head. Only her face is showing, with eyes that still look out at Xena, but from a far different reality than the one Xena is experiencing.

Xena realizes she has to put her wonderment aside for now as the footsteps of Keepers approach. As she jumps up and grabs two sticks from the unconscious Keepers, Casaway runs in the room.

"Come on!"

Xena doesn't ask him any questions. "Take Gabrielle out of here!"

Casaway takes one startled look at Gabrielle's new clothes, then scoops her up and carries her out of the cell. Xena follows, Keeper sticks at the ready. As they leave the cell, a battalion of Keepers pour through the archway toward them. All with their sticks as well.

Xena turns to face them. (Why were there so many?) As the Keepers move toward her, she notices out of the corner of her eye that Casaway has laid Gabrielle down out in the corner.

"Casaway! Get her out of here."

"Xena, the shirt will keep her safe! Look at it. I'll help you." He grabs a torch from the wall.

One Keeper yells and lunges at Xena--she bats his stick away easily with one stroke and it lands in the far corner, away from Gabrielle. Another tries his luck with the same result. Two sticks in the corner. Then many men rush forward at once. Xena spins like a dervish in a typhoon. Casaway is holding a few at bay with the torch. Keeper sticks fly through the air. One of the Keepers sees an easy target in Gabrielle and raises his stick high over his head, thrusting the pointed end straight down into Gabrielle's midsection. Gabrielle doesn't move. The Keeper's stick disappears into her body. When he lifts it up, the half that disappeared is still gone, seemingly swallowed up by the still figure below him. He turns back to fight Xena, an intimidating but less supernatural victim.

The ranks of the Custodian's men increase and Xena is beginning to have doubts as she fights maniacally both for her freedom and that of Gabrielle. Then she hears Casaway cry out triumphantly.

From an archway behind Xena and Casaway, the Unwanted begin to pour into the room. They swarm around Xena, ignoring the battering from the sticks and fists of the Keepers. They overpower their despised guardians, pushing them to the ground, forcing the sticks out of their hands and beating on them with hands, captured sticks, and feet. As Xena continues to fight the few Keepers not buried in the surge of vengeance, she looks toward the corner where Gabrielle is lying. Several of the Unwanted are surrounding her, fascinated by the glowing clothing. More begin to gather around the bard and Xena can barely see her.

At the bottom of a pile of Unwanted, Xena recognizes the Keeper who shoved Gabrielle to the ground in the yard. She reaches in and pinches a nerve in his side, causing him to screech with sudden pain. She releases the pinch and puts her face close to his on the floor. "I remembered you."

Those Keepers who are able to have run away. Casaway comes up beside Xena.

"We mustn't let the Custodian get away!"

Xena turns to get Gabrielle, but the corner is empty. Gabrielle is gone.

Xena follows Casaway through the corridors of the House of Learning. He has assured her in the strongest way he can that Gabrielle will be alright. Xena is not sure of this at all. As always, she wants to see to it herself, but knows that capturing the Custodian will serve the many.

Casaway motions toward a door and Xena leads the way inside. She is surprised to find the Custodian, standing in the room facing her as she walks in. His head is lowered nearly to his chest as he stares upwards at Xena. His hands are held palm upward, fingers spread like claws. Those hands are shaking with rage.

He screams at Xena in a grating, high-pitched whine. "YOU! DESTROYER!! I knew you would come, I knew you would have to come to ME!" He raises his clawed hands to his face and drags his fingernails down his cheeks, drawing lines of blood. "BUT I AM BEYOND YOUR EVIL! I fly much TOO HIGH for the likes of you to even TOUCH me!" The Custodian smears his own blood through his hair, onto his neck and arms, and then wipes it down the front of his robe.

Xena steps up in front of the raving man, draws her fist back and plants it with full forward velocity in the middle of his face. The Custodian falls straight backwards onto the floor. Xena crouches beside him and hits her knuckles on his forehead--rap, rap, rap, rap, rap. "Touched you."

Xena stands outside the House of Learning with Casaway. She is dressed in her own clothes again and holds Gabrielle's clothing in her hand. The occasional Keeper still runs out the door and through the front gate into the night. Xena is restless.

"I'm going inside."

"Wait Xena," Casaway says, putting a hand out to stop her. "They're going to bring her. They know ... Look!"

Through the lighted front door of the building, the triumphant Unwanted begin to march forth. More and more come, like cresting floodwaters.

"Where did they all come from?" Xena asks Casaway in a low voice.

"The labyrinths below the building. The Custodian knew how to use structure to his advantage."

As the tide of humans, dark under the moonless sky, begins to flow toward Xena, a glowing center to the mass becomes apparent. It is Gabrielle, being passed over their heads from outstretched hand to outstretched hand. As the leaders of the group arrives to stand in front of Xena, the lifted Gabrielle arrives as well and is set upon somewhat unsteady feet.

Gabrielle, still garbed in her all-covering body armor by Athena, wobbles unceremoniously toward Xena, who steps forward to grab her around the waist. Gabrielle rests her head against Xena's arm and leans gratefully against her friend's side for support.

The apparent spokesperson steps forward. "Thank you, great Xena! We have long heard of your horrible deeds!"

"HONORABLE deeds!" someone prompts.

"Thank you, great Xena! We have long heard of your honorable deeds! We are thankful to you and your goddess friend for freeing us from our torment! Thank you!"

A woman pushes her way to the front. She has a couple of fire pots tied around her neck. "I am Xena, also, Xena!"

Xena gives her a look. Even Gabrielle raises her eyebrow.

"Okay," the woman says excitedly, "Listen! Ahem . . . COCK-a-DOODLE-DOO!"

Xena stares at her, Gabrielle turns her head in the opposite direction.

"It's Xena's great war cry."

Xena is silent.

"Okay, well," says Casaway, "the great Xena and her goddess friend must now leave. Show's over, everyone back inside. We'll have a meeting in the morning, OUTSIDE THE GATES!"

There is a great cheer!

Xena and Gabrielle stand at the outskirts of the village with Casaway. They have Argo again, and Xena is dressed in full armor, sword on her back. Gabrielle has her staff back but is still dressed like a moon-glowing mummy. She holds an apple in one of her gloved hands and is munching earnestly away at it.

Did you punish 'Widow' Tomus?." Casaway asks.

"No," Xena says, "when she found out that the Unwanted were free, she had some explaining to do about a certain 'dead' first husband that will probably be showing up at her door about now. Gabrielle, slow down, you're going to choke."

"Nerrferrnt," and a chomp were the response.

"Casaway, what will happen to all those people. I think some of them really couldn't take care of themselves."

"I know. I plan to take care of them myself. My fiancee has always begged her father to let her help him take care of the sick ones with kindness, for kindness is the only way she knows. Together, we can do what is right."

Xena gives Casaway a hug. Gabrielle looks at them over the top of her apple.

"Thank you Casaway," Xena says, "take care." She and Gabrielle start walking down the road.

Gabrielle finishes the apple and tosses the core away. She once again resumes her search for a way to get out of her goddess armor. It is impossible to grab any part of it with her hands. It seems to be both there and not there. Xena looks on, bemused, and is suddenly struck by a thought.

"Wait, Gabrielle," She stops the girl and stands in front of her. "This is how I got it on you." She reaches down to the base of Gabrielle's neck, where the hook was; her fingers go through the weave and she can feel the hook. As she undoes it, Gabrielle is suddenly standing in a filthy, dirty, holey shirt over a drab, dirty, torn overskirt.

Xena stands back and looks at her. "Really not that much of an improvement."

Gabrielle is already taking off Athena's shirt rag when the goddess herself appears behind them.

"Thank you, Gabrielle." She takes the shirt away "I will give this to someone who needs protection much more than one who is protected by Xena." Athena disappears.

Xena raises an eyebrow.

Gabrielle shouts back to the empty road. "Fine!"

"Come on, Gabrielle."

"You know, I wouldn't need half as much protection if I wasn't around you in the first place."

"That's true ... Uh, Gabrielle, I've been wondering something."


"How did they capture us? I don't remember."

"Oh that! That sweet-faced daughter of treachery blew something in your face that made you fall asleep. I gathered it was something they give to their farm animals before they castrate them."

They keep walking.

"I'm surprised they care about their farm animals," Xena says.

"Mmm hmm," Gabrielle agrees.

They keep walking.




Xena stops.

"You're pushing it, Gabrielle."


They keep walking down the road.

The End

Disclaimer - No roosters were humiliated in the creation of this story.

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